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A Practical Guide to Winning the Olympics (Dos and Don’ts)

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I: Don’t Call It a Comeback

The arena shook with the power of cheers and applause, vibrating off-ice to where they stood in the corridor, waiting. Their team jackets were zipped up, covering the upper halves of their matching outfits. Yuuri had never heard a crowd so wild or loud.

Another burst of noise. How many people were out there? Fifteen thousand? Twenty? How many would be watching them live on TV and the Internet, on their phones and tablets?

Millions.

Viktor was nervous, standing next to him – Yuuri saw the tension in his shoulders. To the side, organisers and journalists kept a polite distance to let them wait for their turn. Determination had set in Viktor’s jaw, even as he flinched at the sound of a standing ovation – a clean skate, clearly.

Viktor never got nervous enough for it to show like this. Yuuri worried on his bottom lip, heart pounding, hands twisting.

They couldn’t do this. God, what had they been thinking, ruffling people’s feathers, causing three scandals and counting in just a single year? Were they mad?! And maybe Viktor belonged at this competition – Viktor absolutely belonged there – but Yuuri next to him, skates on, pretending to be a worthy half of this partnership, was just kidding himself, and –

“Hey,” Viktor said. He startled and met Viktor’s gaze, blue eyes somehow calm. Viktor smiled. It was a smile he’d given Yuuri a thousand times since the first day, a smile of pure trust and confidence. Even now. Even at the end of their road. Viktor even smirked.

And Yuuri nearly stumbled in reaching out to clutch Viktor’s hand as tightly as he could, even as every loud exultation sent a shiver down his spine. Viktor took his hand, warm palm pressing into his, their fingers entwining. Viktor squeezed back firmly, and he didn’t have to say anything – Yuuri got the message.

They could do this.

So he nodded. Okay. God, okay.

“Nearly time,” Viktor said.

Millions of people. Months of training. The underdogs, the past-his-prime and the not-good-enough, the sympathy entry. The two of them on the ice, giving their unexpected, at times unwelcomed, but utterly stubborn, mad and wayward bid for foolish glory.

“After we’re finished here,” Viktor said, “you wanna grab a bite to eat?”

Yuuri almost snorted, but then smiled. “Yeah. Yeah, sounds good.”

“Yeah?” Viktor teased – a front, but he still teased. Viktor tugged on his hand, a persistent, magnetic pull.

“I’ll check my schedule.”

Viktor raised a disbelieving eyebrow. “Schedule? Wow, so that’s how it is. A couple of podium spots and all of a sudden it’s ‘I’ll check my –”

“Mr. Katsuki, Mr. Nikiforov – this way, please.”

If it wasn’t for the hand in his, Yuuri wouldn’t have been able to move. If it wasn’t for Viktor now giving his hand another reassuring squeeze, Yuuri would have packed up and left on the first flight home.

But he took one step, then another, and soon they were at the curtains, which two volunteers parted for them, and the arena came into view: milling officials and photographers in the entryway, beyond them the boards and the battered ice, and then all the thousands of people, the cameras, the lights.

The stadium felt bigger than any Yuuri had ever even seen. The noise was deafening. The pair currently on the ice were coming to the end of their program, and Yuuri forced himself not to look at their superb death spiral or the flawless lasso lift, or the level four – He gulped, looked away. The applause washed over them all when the pair finished, gifts were thrown onto the ice, and the sweepers began collecting the flowers and presents as the gate was opened for them to go warm up.

No matter what happened next, Yuuri knew one thing: he would not let go of Viktor’s hand. They got onto the ice, skate guards and jackets discarded, and all he had to do was to keep holding Viktor’s hand.

Because never again would he stand in the middle of the ice without the firm and calm feel of Viktor’s grip. Never did he want to, and never did he intend to.

The lights were blinding them both. They circled the ice, had a go at some of their choreography. Yuuri tried to breathe. Viktor’s mouth was a thin line. The latest score was announced overhead – high and speaking of perfection, and Viktor always told him to ignore how other people scored, just focus on their goals. But god, he hadn’t expected that kind of a score.

The two of them really were insane.

Viktor circled an arm around his waist, keeping him to his side. Their feet, perfectly synchronised, scraped the ice.

The past ten months had been about this moment – this precise moment. And somewhere overhead, endlessly far away, the PA shouted, “Next, on the ice, representing –”

* * *

– Japan, pair skaters Yuuri Katsuki and Fumio Sano, have withdrawn from the Four Continents. That had been the first statement released to the press over a year earlier. Two days later, the real news broke – people had been speculating injuries, although their first place finish at the Japanese Nationals had shown them in their prime. So an unexpected injury, perhaps, at an inopportune time.

But then the ISU released the real reason why Katsuki-Sano had withdrawn from 4CC: they had been disqualified. Their gold at the Japanese Nationals was retracted. Katsuki-Sano ceased to exist as a partnership.

After five years of him and Fumio competing together, with some occasional success but without ever receiving too much attention from anyone, they finally made headline news. Yuuri’s phone was ringing constantly, and he sat in his apartment in Detroit, on the couch under half a dozen blankets, watching Netflix movie after Netflix movie, numb and unseeing, while his phone beeped and rang and beeped and rang.

He had no idea where Fumio was, but he clearly wasn’t taking any calls. If he had to guess, Fumio had most likely fled to Kyoto where his girlfriend lived. Celestino had advised him not to talk to anyone in the meanwhile, wait for it all to blow over.

Blow over? Something like this didn’t blow over.

He went to the rink out of habit, at a loss because he didn’t know what else to do, and stumbled straight into the devouring claws of reporters waiting outside. “Can we get a statement?” one of them requested, but Celestino had released one already, confirmed the ISU’s statement, offering an apology, saying it was regrettable and shocking and that they were sorry.

“N-No comment,” he stuttered nervously, and, “I haven’t spoken to him,” and, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.”

At this last comment, a reported shouted, “Don’t feign innocence, Katsuki! Just tell us your side of the story!”

Yuuri, however, didn’t know what his side of things really was. One day, he and Fumio had been training for the Four Continents at their practice rink in Detroit. A few weeks later, after an anonymous tip, Yuuri no longer had a skating partner. Really, he supposed, he no longer was a competitive pairs skater at all.

They had made the front pages in Japan – the first and only time they ever did so.

When Phichit came home from the Four Continents, having placed fifth, he told Yuuri that he couldn’t keep ordering pizzas and sitting on the couch to avoid the real world. Yuuri hadn’t been back to the rink after his one failed attempt and paparazzi ambush.

“You’ve done nothing wrong, remember?” Phichit asked.

Yuuri tugged on the corner of the blanket. “I doubt that’s what people are saying.”

And when Phichit flinched, Yuuri needed no other confirmation of what people were saying behind his back.

His career was over. Maybe it was about time he came to terms with that.

* * *

Celestino seemed relieved when Yuuri said he was leaving – Yuuri’s presence alone was enough to bring the rink and Celestino a bad name. Still, Celestino asked if he was coming back, maybe look for a new skating partner. But Yuuri was twenty-three, had once placed twelfth at Worlds, and although they had qualified for the Grand Prix final just months earlier, placed last, which really could only be expected, it was clear that Yuuri’s career had never really taken off.

Skating was over for him. Maybe he should have been angry with Fumio, but he felt too guilty to harvest any real anger. People interpreted this as an admission of shared culpability and shame. A new skating partner? Ha! As if anyone would take Yuuri on now. He was tarnished goods.

Yuuri’s return to Hasetsu was shrouded in shame. At the train station, when he was recognised, people muttered under their breaths. A poster of him and Fumio skating had been graffited on outside the station with Liars! He stopped in front of it, staring, numb. Liars. The graffiti wasn’t wrong, he realised, trying to swallow a lump down his throat.

He hid in his childhood bedroom for a month. He helped around the onsen, washed towels, scrubbed floors, and ate whenever he felt miserable (which was often), and only went to the rink when he was sure Yuko and Takashi weren’t there to surprise him.

“Come to the bar,” Minako insisted in late March, “and we can watch the pairs free skate together.”

Afraid of Minako’s fury if he said no, he joined her in watching his former rivals compete for the world title. Sara and Michele were there, Georgi and Anya of course, JJ and Isabella – all the greats.

“You know,” he confided after his third drink, “even if the ISU hadn’t banned Fumio, I doubt JSF really wanted to send us to Worlds. Gold at Nationals was a fluke.” And, after Georgi and Anya were celebrating their gold medal, “Pair skating just isn’t the same after Viktor and Oksana retired. There’s no – no sensuality, no intensity, no – no Viktor and no Oksana.”

Minako looked at him disbelief. “Uhh, did you just not watch what I did? How can you say Georgi and Anya are not intense?”

“It’s a show, it’s not innate the way – the way Viktor’s performance was.” He sighed, somewhat dramatically, on his fourth drink. Viktor and Oksana had retired just when Yuuri and Fumio had started getting sort of good – he still remembered seeing their winning free skate in Sofia, his heart bursting at the sheer beauty of it. “I mean, I don’t mind if my career is over, I was nothing special! But Viktor Nikiforov and Oksana Bosava won three world golds, four Grand Prix titles and silver at the Olympics! And they were robbed at the Olympics! Robbed! They should have kept going.”

Minako hummed. “Oksana was getting too old for it, I guess. Even a few years of age difference makes pair skating difficult a lot of the time. It’s a shame – they were one of the greats.”

At least they agreed on something.

Well, Yuuri thought, it was the end of an era, in all accounts. Pair skating was moving on, with or without him, or without the talent of duos like Bosava-Nikiforov.

* * *

“But I got you tickets!” Phichit protested over the phone. “What do you mean you’re not coming?”

It was April and cherry blossoms were in full bloom. Yuuri had gotten comfortable where he was: out of sight and out of mind, in quiet Hasetsu. The locals didn’t turn to look at him anymore, and he was able to skate at Ice Castle without people murmuring behind his back. He was becoming invisible, insignificant.

Good.

So no, he didn’t plan on going to Fukuoka to see the ice show Phichit and other skaters were starring in. The shows had started in Sapporo and had travelled southwards, and Yuuri had seen Phichit’s numerous selfies with the cast on Instagram. They looked like they were having a ball: a new town every night, glamorous performances for the sake of artistry, athleticism and entertainment, but no pressure of competition. Normally, Yuuri would have been thrilled to go, but now?

“People will recognise me.”

“And?”

“And they all think I betrayed the sport and am a disgrace and –”

“Fumio was a disgrace, not you!” Phichit gasped.

Yuuri ignored this. “And I’ve gained a lot of weight and look a mess and no, it’ll be embarrassing for me. No. I’ll look like a sad loser!”

“You can’t hide in Yutopia for the rest of your life, you know.” A silence on the line. Then Phichit said, sweetly, “We have special guests for the final few shows, by the way.”

Despite himself, Yuuri was intrigued. “Oh? Who?”

“Flying in today… From Russia, of all places.”

Yuuri paled and clutched the phone tightly. “You better not be kidding me. Are you serious? Phichit, are you serious?”

“Come and see.”

Yuuri was getting worked up now. “Are you lying? I’ll never forgive you if you’re lying.”

Phichit laughed. “I am not lying! They were doing shows in Russia, so they couldn’t join us sooner. Life of superstars, I guess.”

Yuuri moped, cursed himself, and said that he’d be there.

* * *

The show was sold out, as it should be: the cast was full of famous skaters, some retired, some still competing. Yuuri kept on a hat and a mask on his lower face as he hunched near the front of the rink – Phichit had gotten him a good spot. Phichit had promised to take him backstage, but Yuuri was reluctant. He’d shown up late on purpose to avoid seeing anyone before the show.

People clapped and cheered when the opening number began and the skaters came on the ice one by one. Phichit looked glorious in a red and gold military-styled uniform with tassels on his shoulders, and Yuuri clapped his appreciation. Sara and Michele Crispino of Italy were part of the cast – some months earlier, they had been rivals. The two came on to great applause, while Yuuri was a faceless viewer. Then Christophe Giacometti, the reigning world champion of men’s skating, came on, and the people around Yuuri seemed to absolutely adore him. More skaters followed.

And at the very end, amidst much fanfare, Oksana Bosava and Viktor Nikiforov skated onto the ice, hand in hand, waving and beaming. Yuuri hadn’t seen them since their retirement three years earlier, but it was as if no time had passed. Viktor was just as handsome and Oksana was just as stunning; so effortless, so flawless, such unity and precision! And Yuuri meant no disrespect to Phichit, Sara and Michele, Chris or the others, but for him Oksana and Viktor stole the show. They did two skates: a new, light-hearted skate to a Russian folk song Yuuri had never heard – the music was upbeat and entertaining, the chemistry between Oksana and Viktor was playful and tongue-in-cheek. Later in the show, they did their Olympic silver free skate, Stammi vicino, which brought tears to Yuuri’s eyes – it was as gut-wrenching, poignant and romantic as ever.

When at the end all skaters came onto the ice to bow goodnight, Yuuri was up on his feet shouting “Bravo!” – mainly at Oksana, a true goddess, and at Viktor, as masterful as he’d ever been. He’d admired them since his novice days and had dreamed of him and Fumio being able to be as good as Bosava-Nikiforov. If only.

When Phichit found him, he had a sharp pain gnawing at his guts. No, Yuuri didn’t want to go meet anyone. Phichit looked sorry for him, briefly, before putting on a smile. Phichit offered a cup of coffee somewhere near the rink instead, and they met outside and wandered the streets together until they found a café to sit down in. Yuuri asked Phichit about the show, and Phichit hesitated but he insisted.

So Phichit talked about how Viktor had taught them all the final All on Ice portion that day, having choreographed it himself, and how the cast were beside themselves that Oksana and Viktor had joined them. “Viktor’s really sweet, you know! Although intimidating too. It’s insane, the shape he’s in, considering he’s retired. Chris loves having him here – they’re good friends. I didn’t know that, did you? I think Oksana and Chris might have had a thing, actually…”

But even this ran its course. Phichit eyed him from across the table, coffee cup in his hands. Yuuri knew what his former roommate thought: he was depressed, he was lonely, he was upset. It’d been too soon, coming to see other people skate, people whose partners hadn’t been banned from the sport.

“So you haven’t heard from Fumio?” Phichit asked, and Yuuri shook his head. What more was there to say? It’d been a shouting match, in the end. Fumio had stormed out. Yuuri had been in tears. Phichit crinkled his nose. “And he never even apologised to you. What an asshole.”

Yuuri shifted in his seat. “Maybe if I’d been a better skater, Fumio wouldn’t –”

“Hey, no. None of that is on you,” Phichit said. “So are you still skating?”

He shrugged. “Some. Sort of hard without a partner, but Yuko and Takashi have humoured me at Ice Castle. Haven’t spoken to Celestino since I left, though. The onsen isn’t bad, you know, I enjoy helping around. Mari needs the help, too.”

Phichit appeared displeased. “Yuuri, you’re one of the best pair skaters in the world.”

“Debatable.”

“You were at the Grand Prix final!”

“Where we finished last, yeah.”

“You shouldn’t be running an onsen, you should be skating!” Phichit insisted, but Yuuri just shook his head. Phichit gave him a big grin. “Come on, let’s go back to the rink and take a spin, hmm? Oh come on, it’ll be fun! Like old times, let’s just goof around for a bit. Please? Pleeease? Oh, is that a smile? Lo and behold, Katsuki Yuuri smiles!”

“Shut up,” he laughed. Maybe coming to Fukuoka hadn’t been such a bad idea, after all.

The ice had been smoothed over, but the rink was deserted. The place felt quiet and serene, the loud jubilations of the evening only a memory. Yuuri waited by the rinkside while Phichit went to get them skates, returning ten minutes later with apologies that Sara had delayed him. The cast of the show still appeared to be in the dressing rooms, hanging out, with Oksana telling stories of their glory days, the room captivated, and normally Yuuri would have elbowed a child in the face to be there – figuratively. But now he couldn’t face even that.

So he and Phichit put on skates, with Yuuri trying to adjust to boots that weren’t his. The two of them had often skated together in Detroit, Yuuri staying after Fumio had already left, working on his spins and jumps, trying to memorise the choreography. Fumio was more naturally talented; Yuuri needed the extra time to keep up. So it felt natural to have a rink just to the two of them again, laughing off their tumbles and scrutinising their wobbly axes.

“You know what we could do,” Phichit then challenged with a daring eyebrow lift, and Yuuri knew what he meant.

And he should have said no, really, but it was fresh on his mind, as exciting and wonderful as the first day he’d seen it: Stammi vicino. He’d forced Phichit to learn Viktor’s part so that Yuuri could skate Oksana’s part – Fumio had refused to be Viktor, saying it was pointless to copy other people. But Phichit, who didn’t pair skate, had thought the challenge fun.

They had never been anywhere as good as Viktor and Oksana, of course, and Phichit couldn’t do the more demanding lifts and throws, so they’d eased the technical level somewhat. Still, they knew the skate, or their own version of it, nearly flawlessly, and they skated to it without the music. Yuuri even managed to land the throw triple Salchow, he was rather relieved to discover. Phichit cheered enthusiastically when they managed it.

At the end of it, they were both out of breath and panting. “That was good!” Phichit grinned in their final pose on the ice, on their knees and embracing. They broke apart, flushed.

To their utter surprise, someone started clapping. Yuuri flared bright red when he saw Christophe Giacometti at the rink side, beaming at them. “Very good!” Chris, World Gold Champion, enthused. Yuuri wanted to die.

Phichit laughed sheepishly, getting up and skating to Chris with a hello. When Yuuri, still catching his breath, hesitated, Chris called out, “Yuuri Katsuki, I’m not going to bite. C’mere!”

Yuuri skated over, and Chris hugged him over the barrier. Yuuri hadn’t known they were on hugging terms, although they had been somewhat friendly in the past. “Sneaked in, huh? Come, you must join us for drinks. Ah ah! No is not an answer I will accept. You do an uncanny Oksana, has anyone told you? She will be delighted when I show her the video.”

“T-The video?” Yuuri stammered.

Chris casually waved his phone in the air. Had they been filmed?!

“Just one drink, Yuuri,” Chris purred. Phichit looked at him expectantly. Yuuri swallowed, throat tight. Chris wasn’t treating him like dirt. Chris was being almost kind, but Yuuri couldn’t detect pity in it. He’d been convinced everyone would treat him like a leper, but Chris was being his usual self.

One drink?

Okay. Perhaps one drink wouldn’t hurt.

* * *

Eight drinks in, Yuuri was feeling rather boisterous. They were in a club in Fukuoka, and at first he’d gone out with Chris, Phichit, Sara and Michele – although Michele had only come to make sure no one got too friendly with his sister, he said, glaring at Yuuri as if he had intentions towards Sara.

And Yuuri had been nervous and quiet to begin with, but Chris had bought them all tequila shots, and they’d ended up on the dance floor somehow. The club was small and sweaty, and Yuuri’s shirt wound up hanging off him, half-taken off. Yuuri wound up dancing with a pretty hot guy, who seemed to enjoy grinding up against him, and Yuuri didn’t particularly object. Maybe he needed to fuck his way out of his slump? Maybe? Maybe! He wasn’t sure!

But right then he felt good, and not a failure, and he was having fun, and god, he should drink more often!

Somewhere in the midst of this, Viktor Nikiforov and Oksana Bosava showed up.

Yuuri staggered on the dance floor when he spotted them. They made the most handsome couple: both tall and lean, Slavic cheekbones, one with silver hair and blue eyes, the other with red hair and green eyes. Viktor in black slacks and a burgundy shirt, Oksana in a sexy black dress. Sara and Chris were at the table, talking to them, waving at him and the grinding guy on the dance floor. Yuuri wasn’t sure if what he saw was even real or if he was imagining things.

Yuuri had seen Bosava-Nikiforov in competitions, and he had shared practice ice with them too, but he’d never spoken to his skating idols, and then they’d retired anyway. Chris was showing Oksana and Viktor something on his phone, and Phichit was suddenly on the dance floor again, asking if they should go get more drinks. Yuuri said yes and untangled himself from his handsy dancing partner.

Then suddenly they were at the bar, ordering drinks. Oksana Bosava was also there. Yuuri tried to catch up. Oksana was shouting something to his ear over the music. Yuuri couldn’t hear. “What? What?” he kept repeating. Oksana laughed. Oh wow, she had a wonderful laugh. She was how old now? Thirty-two, thirty-three? She looked so much younger! Yuuri stared. Oksana Bosava was talking to him.

“You’re amazing!” he shouted. “You’re angelic!”

Oksana laughed again. She took his hand and pulled him along.

Yuuri was sat at the table. He was so drunk that sitting straight was difficult. Oksana was sat to his left. She was still there. Amazing! She was real! She knew who he was! Someone spoke on his right. His head swivelled. It was Viktor! Nikiforov! Squished in the booth to his right! He was in a Bosava-Nikiforov sandwich! Yuuri stared in disbelief. His stomach lurched. Viktor was close enough to touch. Their thighs were, in fact, touching. Yuuri felt like hyperventilating.

Viktor looked serious. “Are you okay?”

“What are you doing here?” Yuuri asked, dumbfounded. Then Viktor’s hand was on his shoulder, and Yuuri felt close to fainting. Viktor Nikiforov! “You’re real,” he said, and Oksana laughed, said something in Russian, and Viktor kept looking at him sternly.

Sober Yuuri would love/hate this. Sober Yuuri would be over the moon and ask them about their 2011 short program and those side-by-side jumps at the Rostelecom Cup that year, if sober Yuuri could muster the courage to speak, of course. But drunk Yuuri slurred his words and got stuck on Oksana and Viktor! Oksana and Viktor!! He wasn’t worthy, and Viktor looked at him like he was trash, which he was – the others had been friendly, but Viktor was right, he’d ruined their sport, he was a joke, he –

He was outside, trying not to throw up. He was walking. Phichit called him. He knew where he was, yes, yes! It was fine, he – To the train station. Yes, yes. Goodnight, they’d speak soon. No, he was okay! He loved Phichit, very much. Had Oksana been there? He’d thought so. And Viktor too? Viktor. God, Viktor Nikiforov had been right there! He nearly threw up, but managed to hold it in.

He got to the train station. There was no train to Hasetsu until the morning.

He sat on a bench outside the station, heaved, and threw up generously.

In the morning, he only remembered a third of these events, but Viktor’s stern, unimpressed gaze remained.

* * *

A week later, Yuuri was making his way back to Yutopia, having run down to the shop to buy eggs and noodles. A taxi passed him, and Yuuri wondered if a new guest had arrived. By the time he was crossing the courtyard, he was thinking of his mother’s ramen instead.

At the reception, he nearly walked into a tall man. Yuuri apologised profusely, and the man turned around. The man looked like Viktor Nikiforov, was shaped like Viktor Nikiforov, but could not possibly be Viktor Nikiforov.

Except that it was.

Yuuri dropped the egg carton. His jaw, he was sure, was touching the floor. Viktor gave him a friendly smile. “There you are!” Then, “Oh, you dropped your eggs.”

Viktor stood there with two large suitcases, a carry-on, and a laptop case. He was in Yutopia. Yuuri didn’t understand.

Viktor picked up the carton and lamented that two eggs appeared to be broken. It was making a mess of Viktor’s expensive looking coat. Horrified, Yuuri grabbed the carton back and started apologising again, but Viktor was already wiping the stain off with a silky looking handkerchief like it was no problem at all – Viktor had several coats from this spring collection, he explained, and it was already two seasons old, too!

And, somehow, Viktor was still smiling at him. “Well, here I am.”

Yuuri stared. Behind Viktor, Yuuri’s father was beaming at them both. Yuuri stared. There Viktor was? Yuuri had no context for any of this. Yuuri had barely spoken to Viktor – slurred at him once, more like. Why was Viktor there? How did Viktor know where he lived? Where was Oksana? Why was Viktor there? On holiday, perhaps? Had Yuuri invited Viktor to the springs when he’d been drunk?

It sounded like the kind of thing drunk Yuuri had done, sure. But for Viktor actually to show up?

“Aahhh…?” he voiced, uncertainly.

“I think we have a bit of a language barrier here,” Viktor then said, motioning at Yuuri’s dad. “I asked to be shown to my room. Could you lead the way, maybe? And then once I’ve settled in, we could go to that rink you told me about. It’s close by, I assume?”

“…Yes, there… is a rink… close by?”

“Perfect! Help me with my bags?” Viktor asked sweetly. Yuuri’s head was spinning. Viktor seemed to not notice. “Since you know Stammi vicino so well, we could do that for our trial skate. Take out some of the lifts, of course, seeing as we haven’t practised those together before, but we should manage the spins and an easy throw. What do you think?”

The bottom of Yuuri’s stomach dropped, nay, disappeared. Trial skate? For… for Viktor and… and. Him?

“Such an adorable onsen!” Viktor was now enthusing. “Charming! Would you mind if I soaked in the springs first? But I’ll be quick about it, I promise!”

An Olympic silver medallist was at the reception of Yutopia, ready for a trial skate with Yuuri. Yuuri had only spoken to him once, when drunk off his mind. Viktor Nikiforov had not competed in years, and for some insane reason he seemed to be suggesting that he had arrived to see if, perhaps, the two of them should skate together.

How Yuuri didn’t actually faint, he was unsure.

* * *

Viktor Nikiforov had not competed in three years, three weeks, and four days. When he and Oksana had won Olympic silver, followed by a third world gold, they knew it was the highlight of their career. Oksana had been twenty-nine, Viktor had been twenty-six. Oksana had a bad hip, Viktor had a bad ankle. Between them they had strained numerous ligaments and ankles, broken a collarbone, bruised a coccyx, broken two fingers, and Viktor forgot what else. They were bloodied and bruised and exhausted – but victorious.

“Sort of like Tina Turner,” Oksana said of her favourite artist (they had done one Tina Turner short program, and one exhibition skate, back in the day). “We want to retire when we’re at the top, not when we’re on a downhill slope.”

Besides, Oksana wanted to start a family. Viktor understood: the road had been long, and they were tired. They’d done enough. Oksana had skated competitively since she was eight, and Viktor had paired up with her when he himself had been nine.

It was time to bow out.

People had been disappointed by their retirement, of course. They probably could have reigned longer, but they had achieved all they had set out to achieve, and more. Oksana didn’t want to fade away, to let younger generations overtake her. It was a tough call, but Oksana had never regretted it.

Viktor wasn’t sure what he’d expected retirement to be like. He had choreographed for other skaters, was a sort of celebrity and was invited to talk shows with Oksana. Oksana wrote a book about their career, and it sold well and was translated to seven languages. They were invited to ice shows all around the world, and they toured the US and Canada, China and Japan, Russia and Italy. It was leisurely and comfortable.

But Oksana did not start a family. She married; Viktor was in attendance. She divorced seven months later, after she’d caught her husband in bed with one of their good friends. She remained childless, and Viktor knew her well enough to know she mourned it. Oksana didn’t say anything, however, but put on a brave face and was as cheerful as ever, booked them onto endless ice shows, but Viktor wondered if they’d given up their competitive career too soon for the wrong reasons.

But be that as it may, the years passed them by, and Viktor slowly began to realise that he had an itch. Some skaters stopped following the sport when they retired, skated twice a year, and some even said that they’d spent their teenage years thinking that figure skating was all there was to the world. Ha! How narrow-minded and naïve they had been, and so were the fools still stuck in that mind frame! Quitting the sport set you free!

Viktor was not, however, one of those skaters. He was on the ice every day. When he heard a beautiful piece of music, he instantly began converting it to a program in his head. He wasn’t sheltered – he knew there was more to the world, he had other interests (poodles and food, mainly). And he wondered, sometimes, what life would have been like if they hadn’t retired. Oksana never wanted to skate competitively again. But Viktor wondered.

The itch was made much worse one evening in a Fukuoka bar, when Chris slung an arm around his shoulders and told him to look at this! And what he saw was Phichit Chulanot and Yuuri Katsuki performing one of his favourite programs of their career, Stammi vicino. Oksana was delighted, laughed and said it wasn’t half bad. Chulanot was terrible – in the nicest of ways, he butchered Viktor’s moves. But that was to be expected as Phichit wasn’t a pair skater to begin with. Katsuki, on the other hand, was extraordinary. Phichit barely gave Yuuri enough height for the throw, and Yuuri still got enough rotations and a clean landing. Katsuki wasn’t doing an impression of Oksana. Some might have thought so, but Viktor saw beyond that. Katsuki had added movement to the routine. Katsuki added a spin where there hadn’t been one. Katsuki added a difficult exit to the throw triple Salchow that Viktor was astonished had never occurred to them. His edges were deep, his transitions seamless, his musicality and expression breath-taking.

“When was this filmed?” Viktor asked. Back in the last Olympic season, perhaps, when this had been his and Oksana’s free skate?

“A few hours ago,” Chris said dismissively, and Viktor did a double-take. “Not too bad, right? Considering Yuuri was borrowing skates from Phichit, too.”

Viktor was in disbelief. This had happened earlier today? When Yuuri wasn’t even skating in his own boots? He vaguely knew Yuuri Katsuki, the pair skater…. Why was the name ringing bells for him?

Oksana said, “Katsuki is clearly a big fan! It is very flattering. He knows how to move, that’s for sure.” Oksana nodded to the dance floor where Katsuki then was, with some handsome Japanese guy grinding up against him. Yuuri was flushed, his shirt half-undone, revealing pale chest, eyes glassy with alcohol. The man’s leg pushed between Katsuki’s thighs. Katsuki moved against him, hips a sway of seduction.

Oksana said, “Do you think it’s true, then? That he really had no idea his partner was doping?”

Ah, that was it: the doping scandal! Everyone had heard of it, of course, but Viktor was bad with names. Something Sano, banned for six years because of doping. It was coming back to him now. Fumio Sano, that was it! Whose partner was Yuuri Katsuki.

He looked at the man on the dance floor again: was it seduction still, what he saw? Or was Katsuki simply trying hard to forget?

If Sano had been doping, Katsuki must have been doing it too, had been the general sentiment. But Katsuki’s samples had been clean. Katsuki had released a statement that he hadn’t known of Sano’s activities, but even Viktor wondered how that could be true. The figure skating world had been in uproar over the incident. He and Oksana had been asked for their views on doping in their sport on a Russian morning show some months earlier, prompted by the Japanese scandal.

The man on the dance floor was hard to connect to the man everyone had been busy accusing of doping and busy theorising how Katsuki had managed to give clean samples. Katsuki must have been some kind of a doping mastermind.

The man on the dance floor was even harder to connect to the man in the video, giving new life to Stammi vicino in a way that sent a shiver down Viktor’s spine. Off-season, non-competitive, out of shape, and in someone else’s boots, Yuuri Katsuki had temporarily calmed the itch that Viktor had carried around for three years, three weeks and four days now.

Viktor didn’t know what to do.

Katsuki joined them at their table a while later, a drunken mess. Katsuki was a fan, clearly: flustered and awed in a way that Viktor found rather adorable. They must have competed together for a while, before the retirement, but Viktor didn’t remember Katsuki or Sano at all. Viktor quizzed Katsuki on Stammi vicino, with little success. But Katsuki had a moment of clarity when he beamed: “Come to Hasetsu, and we’ll do it together, Viktor!”

Katsuki’s eyes shone bright with excitement, and Viktor’s throat felt awfully tight. Katsuki’s breath had been sweet and tequila-heavy.

Katsuki had been all over the place that night: excited, intimidated, seductive, down on himself – mostly just drunk. When Oksana went to get Katsuki a much-needed glass of water, Katsuki had stumbled out of the booth, and Viktor didn’t see him again.

He thought of nothing else all night. It was a mad idea, an utterly mad idea… Besides, Katsuki wasn’t okay, that was clear. Katsuki was upset and vulnerable, in need of fixing.

But Viktor could work with that. These days, he thought, he rather needed fixing too.

* * *

The staff at Ice Castle were endearing. Yuuri explained that Yuko and Takashi had enjoyed a promising juniors career in Japanese pair skating, but when Yuko wound up pregnant with triplets at the age of eighteen, that had been the end of that. Yuko and Takashi asked for selfies and pictures with the triplets. Viktor complied.

Truthfully, he was nervous. He had Oksana’s blessing – do whatever you need to do, she had said when Viktor announced he planned on staying in Japan a little longer. They had known each other for over twenty years: she had read his mind without him having to say anything. But surely the idea of a comeback – he cringed at the word – could only end up in disaster. He was twenty-nine. What was he doing?

But Yuuri Katsuki was visibly more nervous, so Viktor pretended to have no doubts whatsoever. Yuko and Yuuri had spoken to each other in rapid Japanese that Viktor could only guess at when they’d arrived. Together they now got on skates and got onto the ice, which they thankfully had to themselves. Yuko stayed to observe and play music for them.

He’ll think I’m too old, Viktor thought, once again. Yuuri was twenty-three – young in Viktor’s books. He had googled Yuuri and watched roughly all of his skates with Fumio. Viktor considered himself rather the Katsuki expert, really: consistently inconsistent, going for big elements but rarely executing them cleanly. Sano was to blame, too: he didn’t give Yuuri enough height on throws and twists, for instance.

Even so, Yuuri was more talented than Fumio, this was clear. Fumio had solid skating skills, nice clean, deep edges, but he had nothing on Yuuri’s musicality and grace. Yuuri made music with his body. Fumio, on the other hand, was doing sloppy karaoke.

Viktor was full of tension and tried to relax as they warmed up on the ice. At least the shows had kept him in shape; otherwise this entire thing would end up in humiliation on his part. Next to him, Yuuri was bright red – star-struck, embarrassed, a bit of both? – and hadn’t looked Viktor properly in the eye since they got on the ice. This was worrying for Viktor’s plans of them pairing up to skate.

“I don’t really skate the program how you and Oksana did,” Yuuri fumbled as they circled the ice.

“That’s fine, we’ll figure it out. Just to see if we can skate together,” Viktor said. He tried to exude confidence. Fake it until you make it – hadn’t that always been Oksana’s policy? Pair skating was a nightmare: finding a person who matched your style, a person you had chemistry with… And Viktor knew he came from the Russian school and had a Russian style to his skating, while Yuuri was both Japanese-American in his style. It might be a disaster. Viktor may have made a grave mistake.

“Let’s go through it without music first, figure out which elements we feel comfortable with,” he said, and Yuuri nodded. He circled behind Yuuri and put his hands on Yuuri’s hips.

Yuuri yelped and then clasped a hand in front of his mouth. “I’m sorry!” Yuuri flared even redder.

But Viktor smiled. “If we’re to skate together, you need to let me touch you, don’t you think?” He tightened his grip on Yuuri’s hips and pressed himself to Yuuri’s back. This was pair skating: personal space did not exist.

Yuuri inhaled deep, nodding. His hair smelled nice, Viktor noticed. What was the scent – citrussy shampoo? And then Yuuri himself, a scent of musk and deodorant? Whatever it was, it was nice.

“Okay,” Yuuri swallowed, leaning into him, and brought up a hand to caress Viktor’s cheek: the starting pose for Stammi vicino. Their eyes locked; Yuuri’s were a deep brown, dark lashes against pale skin. Viktor’s chest tightened, felt painful, but he focused on the task at hand.

They ran through the program a handful of times and changed a few of the elements as they’d never done the more difficult throws or lifts together. Viktor felt like he was cheating on Oksana, if he was being honest, but Yuuri had a unique spin on the routine and Viktor was happy to adapt it.

Once they had it roughly figured out, they decided to try it with the music. Yuuri seemed less shy now and was intensely focused. The flush on his cheeks was from exertion, not embarrassment. Good.

He pulled Yuuri close to him again, hands on the other’s hips. Yuuri tilted his head, met his gaze, and caressed his cheek. Like lovers, Viktor thought: it was a routine for hopeless lovers. A murmur: stay close to me, stay close to me…

They began to skate. Viktor was concerned with the feel of it: could they tell the story and read each other? Could they see where the other one was going, read each other’s thoughts with a mere glance? Yuuri was very technically able – the video had proved that already. But was Viktor’s touch enough to guide Yuuri, and could a slight shift in Yuuri’s glide signal Viktor where they were heading?

They skated across the rink, synchronised, a unified scraping of ice as they matched each other. He pulled Yuuri close, and Yuuri spun in his arms, graceful, hand in Viktor’s as they curved the bend. They nailed their side-by-side triple flips, and Viktor managed to admire Yuuri’s extension and free leg when they landed. They had agreed not to do lifts yet, but he still spun Yuuri in his arms. But then he stopped counting the technical elements, because the way Yuuri skated made him feel the music. They were lovers, asking the other to stay. Viktor got lost in the performance.

He and Oksana had saved a triple twist to the second half, and when they attempted it, he caught Yuuri at an awkward angle. Yuuri nearly slipped from his grip to the ice, but Viktor haphazardly clutched him tight, and with an armful of Yuuri, he let himself fall backwards to break the fall instead of letting Yuuri smack onto the ice. His behind met the surface with a hard bang, and Yuuri’s right knee met a similar fate. They spun a full three hundred and sixty, piled up, probably looking utterly ridiculous, one heap of disastrous skating.

But before Viktor could even be embarrassed by such a mistake, Yuuri was up with a “Come on!” And Viktor got up with the speed of a figure skater who had fallen on their ass mid-routine: a nanosecond and he was up. Yuuri had already caught up to the music, and his hand was reaching out to Viktor, to pull him back to the program and the choreography. Viktor followed, hand finding Yuuri’s.

And that was when Viktor knew, really.

The program ended with a crocodile spin, the two of them holding on to each other as they spun. They pulled out of the spin, and glided, gently, into each other’s arms. Yuuri pressed his head to Viktor’s chest, delicately. The music finished. Yuuri smelled like sweat and was heaving against him, and in the distance Yuko was clapping and cheering. Viktor was sore and out of breath – he’d forgotten how tough a program it was.

Viktor was going to have a nasty bruise on his ass. Yuuri’s knee needed checking out, too. They’d been sloppy and unrefined, utterly unfit for competition.

But Viktor laughed, delirious: he’d been right. He’d been right! It was an informal practice session, a let’s-have-a-go skate, and Yuuri had pulled Viktor into the skate, and Viktor could have closed his eyes and still known where Yuuri was. Yuuri had refused to let the program go unfinished because of a nasty fall, even when they were only testing it out, and that was the kind of guts and determination Viktor was looking for.

And that was how Viktor knew.

Yuuri looked at him like he was unsure what had just happened.

* * *

“I’m not sure,” Yuuri muttered to Yuko as they waited for Viktor at Ice Castle reception. He was back in his hoodie and sweatpants, shower fresh. His left knee was throbbing painfully.

Yuko’s mouth was hanging open. “What do you mean you’re not sure?! You were on the ice for two hours, and it looked like you’d been skating together for years! Years! Of course there’s work to do, but you looked amazing together!”

He fidgeted. “I don’t know.”

Yuko was exasperated. “What don’t you know?! Yuuri, for goodness sake!”

But then Viktor appeared, dressed in loose grey bottoms and a hoodie, but still looking like a million bucks. His bangs had flopped over his eyes, and he threw his head back to move them, like a casual Hollywood superstar. Yuko nearly squealed.

“So, Yuuri,” Viktor said, “should we go talk things over somewhere?”

He thought about Minako’s bar, mainly because Minako would be all over Viktor and Yuuri could make a quiet exit. But instead he took Viktor back to Yutopia, where they sat in the common room and sipped on green tea. It wasn’t a busy season for them, and they were alone. Yuuri had an ice pack on his knee, and Viktor had an ice pack that he’d slipped into his boxer briefs to keep against the bruise on his butt cheek. Yuuri knew this wasn’t Viktor’s usual underwear of choice, as Viktor had loudly complained that all of his thongs were useless for keeping the ice pack in place, and Yuuri really wished that the mental image – and the knowledge – of Viktor Nikiforov in nothing but a thong wasn’t burned into his brain.

“Well,” Viktor said, “what do you think?” Viktor titled his head to the side, inquisitively, like a puppy.

Yuuri had no words. That it was the best trial run he’d ever had with anyone, even if they were sore for it? That skating Stammi vicino with Viktor had been a dream come true? That none of this felt real?

Instead he said, “You could do better.”

Viktor frowned. “Excuse me?”

“Than me.” He swallowed hard and clutched his tea cup. “You should find someone better than me. You’re a- an Olympic medallist, and I’m a disqualified Japanese pair skater who once came last at the Grand Prix Final. If people knew you wanted to compete again, you could have anyone you wanted as a partner.”

Viktor was still frowning. “That may be true, sure. I want you.”

Yuuri was in pain trying to explain it. “I’m not good enough.”

“I think you are.”

“I don’t deserve it.”

“Says who?”

“Everyone!” He motioned around vaguely. His career had ended in flames and accusations: it wouldn’t be a glorious comeback like it might be for Viktor – for Yuuri it’d be something else entirely. He’d let down their fans, their supporters. People hated him now.

“Okay,” Viktor said slowly, catching on. “Can I ask you a personal question?” He nodded. “Were you doping?”

Yuuri was shocked by the bluntness. “N-No!”

“And did you cover up Fumio’s doping?”

“Of course not,” he said, even if he halted briefly. He’d been asked these questions a hundred times, fans and reporters yelling them at him. He’d quit all social media as a result of the abuse. His answers had never changed, but the tone of the questions had always been accusatory and bitter. When Viktor asked, he might as well have been discussing the weather.

Viktor smiled. “Well then.” The two words sounded like ‘that settles it’ and ‘we’ve covered that topic for the rest of time now’. Did Viktor really think it was so simple? Yuuri’s reputation was going to reflect on Viktor, too. “Let’s summarise: I’m nearly thirty, have a bad ankle, and haven’t skated competitively in three years. You’re barely out of a doping scandal, coachless, and on the JSF’s blacklist. Come on, Yuuri – we might as well go for it, then. What on earth do we have to lose?”

When Viktor put it like that, it seemed to make an awful lot of sense.

He sipped his tea to buy some time. Viktor kept smiling at him. Yuuri liked him. Pair skating was a profession like any other, but getting along with your partner was essential. He and Fumio had been best friends, too, but that had changed at some point: Fumio found other friends in Detroit, and Yuuri mostly hung out with Phichit. He and Fumio stopped seeing each other outside the rink. And while that was fine, they didn’t need to be BFFs and you needed time away from your partner, absolutely, Yuuri knew it had negatively impacted their dynamic on the ice. Were they even friends anymore, Yuuri had already wondered a year ago. Communication had become harder and harder.

In the end, Yuuri hadn’t known Fumio at all. He’d been lied to and cheated.

Viktor was beaming at him, full of goodwill and optimism. It was a ‘would I ever lie to you?’ face. Yuuri wasn’t sure if he could trust another skating partner, only to be burned again. But this was Viktor Nikiforov. Viktor wouldn’t go doping behind his back, would he? Yuuri liked him. Yuuri liked him too much, he knew. That could be a problem further down the line.

“Don’t leave me hanging, Yuuri,” Viktor purred, teasing. Yuuri flared bright red, he was sure, for the millionth time that day. God, this was going to be a problem. “I won’t sugar-coat it: we will need a lot of work. I’d say I’ll work you harder than you’ve ever worked before and push you to your limits – but it will be worth it! So what do you say? Can we give it a go, you and me?”

This couldn’t be real, could it?

“Okay,” he said.

Viktor’s eyes were full of childlike excitement and warmth. “Okay.”

They shook hands in the quiet common room, the table between them. Viktor was grinning, but there was determination on his face. Yuuri took in a deep breath, and matched it.

* * *

Yuuri would like to take you on a tour of his new reality, if he may. Old reality: retired, shamed and shunned. Never to skate again, tainted by everyone’s assumption that he’d been doping too. Career over. Name erased.

New reality: Viktor Nikiforov had moved into the onsen. His room was next door to Yuuri’s. His dog, Makkachin, had been shipped in from Russia a few days later. Makkachin adored Yuuri and was already sneaking into Yuuri’s room for cuddles.

Yuuri wasn’t in the room often, however: Viktor had planned a strict regimen for them, where they got up at six in the morning for a five-mile jog, which was followed by balance training, core training, strength training, and endless dancing lessons, sometimes with Minako, sometimes alone. They were practising throws, twists and lifts off ice every day, Viktor picking him up, spinning him around, throwing him in the air and catching him again. They usually weren’t back at Yutopia until the evening, when they soaked in the hot springs to ease muscle pain and did stretches in Viktor’s bedroom. Even the evening stretches were a joint exercise.

Viktor hadn’t lied: it was the most exhausting and gruelling training program Yuuri had ever been subjected to. Viktor demanded absolute perfection all the time and then some, making them do a hundred push-ups and then saying they should throw in another ten on top. There was no such thing as an early night – skaters who wanted early nights didn’t place on podiums, Viktor said gravely.

Yuuri was still confused. “So who’s our coach?” he asked one evening.

Viktor, with his forehead touching his knee as he stretched, left leg pointed outwards, hummed. “Well, I mean – me, I suppose. Sort of. We’ll need help further down the line, but I think I’ve got us covered for now. Unless you don’t think so?”

“No, no, you’re doing great!” he rushed to say – and meant it, too.

Viktor was keeping them off the ice until they were both fitter and leaner. Yuuri needed to lose weight, first of all, and Viktor needed to tone up as well and get his strength back, although Yuuri saw Viktor naked in the showers and in the hot springs daily now (did he mention that before?) and Viktor looked perfect to him, in all accounts.

And the drapes did not match the carpet, by the way. The carpet was darker. God, why did Yuuri have to know these things? How had Oksana survived Viktor roaming about a locker room in nothing but a thong?

Yuuri had always hated unwelcomed touching and people being in his space, but Fumio had always been an exception. Viktor, too, was an exception: Yuuri let himself be picked up, put down, thrown on Viktor’s shoulder, spun around, all of it. He was working when Viktor was in his space, and Yuuri needed his partner there, up-close and personal, to do his job.

And so, in this new reality, which was utterly absurd, Viktor Nikiforov had moved to Hasetsu to train with Yuuri because Viktor wanted to return to competitive figure skating.

With Yuuri.

Katsuki-Nikiforov. Yuuri Katsuki and Viktor Nikiforov, pair skating team.

Yuuri did not know what awesome – in the literal, awe-inducing sense of the word – world he had slipped into, but this new reality was difficult to process. If Viktor wanted to return to skating, and Oksana didn’t want to, why had Viktor chosen him? He was nothing! He was no one! The JSF wanted to pretend he didn’t even exist!

Yet Yuuri knew they had, perhaps, the most essential ingredient of all: they had chemistry. Viktor laughed at his stupid jokes. Viktor made him smile. Viktor was acting like he’d lived in Hasetsu for years, and Yuuri was not immune to the other’s charms. Viktor was sort of a dork, Yuuri was beginning to realise: he spoke with his mouth full, spent an hour every night (!) grooming Makkachin while constantly cooing at her, had the most adorable Russian accent when he attempted to speak Japanese, and he also had Yuuri’s entire family eating out the palm of his hand. Yuuri found Viktor’s inability to duck at the one door of the onsen he was too tall for endearing, and he had somehow learned to accept that being manhandled, lifted, thrown and embraced by Viktor was regular everyday life. He no longer flinched when Viktor touched him, but bent to his touch, thoughtlessly.

Yuuri was enjoying their training sessions, even when they were hard. They matched well. They could read each other. Yuuri was beginning to find himself smiling, when he was alone, for no reason.

Viktor was talking about programs for the new season, what competitions they should enter into, and pondered aloud when would be a good time to contact the FFKK to register Yuuri with them and announce Viktor’s return to the ice. They had both agreed to skate for the Russian Federation, after Yuuri and Fumio had been disqualified. The JSF would have died to have Nikiforov skate for Japan, probably, but Yuuri felt too much bad blood was there, and they needed an enthusiastic association to help them along.

“There is more competition within Russian pairs,” Viktor mused, “and the Junior World gold medallists are turning senior, too, adding more pressure within Russia. But it’s nothing we can’t handle.”

Yuuri was less sure.

“And besides,” Viktor then said, in a somewhat subdued fashion, “doping rumours aren’t, ah. As damaging in Russia as in other places. People will forget.”

Yuuri hoped so. He had dreamt of skating with Viktor Nikiforov since he’d been able to do basic spins, and as they worked together, Yuuri saw daily reminders of Viktor’s unquestionable figure skating genius.

But he still didn’t think he was good enough. And what if, one day, Viktor realised he’d made a mistake?

* * *

Apart from Yuuri’s family, friends, and Oksana and Chris, no one knew that Viktor was returning to competitive skating. He’d spoken to Oksana a few times, when she called him to see how they were getting on. She was supportive, maybe a bit wistful. “You better not break any of our records with him,” she joked. Viktor doubted they would have the time: Viktor would be competitive for, what? Two more years, maybe three if he was lucky?

On some days, he wondered if he was doing Yuuri an injustice. Yuuri was a fantastic skater, and Viktor thought they could do great things together. But if Viktor retired in two, three years, then Yuuri would be robbed of another skating partner when Yuuri could go on skating. Yuuri deserved someone younger, who could compete with Yuuri for longer. God, he hated being nearly thirty.

But he kept this to himself. He was slowly learning who Yuuri was as a person, and he didn’t need a psychology degree to see that Yuuri’s self-confidence was wobbly at best. So Viktor focused on being so confident in their partnership that Yuuri couldn’t help but believe him.

In late May, they started working on their programs, which he was choreographing. They spent endless hours on the ice and in the dance studio working them out. Viktor was stressed, but hid it the best he could. He didn’t want Yuuri to think he was at fault – it was Viktor who was putting pressure on himself. They needed to surprise people: this wasn’t a Bosava/Nikiforov show, or a Katsuki/Sano show. They needed to feel new and different. Memorable.

And so, their short program was going to be sexy and steamy: Eros. It would be a hell of a way to enter the stage, to make a statement. Fumio and Yuuri had never done anything as daring, and Oksana’s overly jealous boyfriend (and then husband, and then ex-husband) had never liked them doing anything too fiery. Viktor may have been pushing thirty but he was still sexy. Right?

“So really,” Viktor explained to Yuuri as they strolled along the Hasetsu shoreline one Sunday morning, Makkachin bouncing in the waves and barking, “it’s a story of you seducing me. I succumb, the passion is consummated, and then at the end you abandon me.”

Yuuri snorted beside him, and Viktor raised a questioning eyebrow. Yuuri pushed his glasses up his nose and then said, “No, I mean, sounds great.”

Yuuri.” It was his ‘tell me what you really think’ Yuuri. He also had a ‘that was sloppy’ Yuuri, and a ‘Can we please have a break now?’ Yuuri. The man could be a machine.

Yuuri worried on his lower lip. His lips were always chapped and bruised, which Viktor found endlessly distracting. “I just. I just don’t find that very likely. Surely it’d be- be a lot more realistic if you seduced me.”

“Ah, but that’s what people expect!” Viktor grinned victoriously. “The element of surprise, see? But instead you’ll be drawing me in, and I’ll be helplessly at your mercy.”

“Right. And why do I dump you again?”

“Because you don’t want what you’ve already conquered. You’re a heartless man-eater,” he mused.

And again, Yuuri snorted. “Yeah, sure sounds like me.” And before Viktor could say anything, Yuuri added, “It’s a character, I know. I’m working on it. So we can make it… sexy and steamy, was it?”

Viktor beamed. “Exactly!” He scanned the shoreline and found Makkachin, then whistled loudly. Her head shot up from a pile of sand, butt wiggling, and bounced over to them. She jumped up at Yuuri, who laughed and gently pushed her down. Makkachin adored Yuuri, and Viktor smiled widely at the sight of it. “Come on, Makka, you’re getting him covered in sand.”

“I hardly mind,” Yuuri smiled, petting Makkachin before she dashed off again. Yuuri didn’t ooze a greedy Casanova, but Viktor also had not been able to forget the night they’d first met. Yuuri remembered little of it, this was clear, but Viktor still could see Yuuri on the dance floor, arms looped around some man’s s neck as Yuuri’s hips had swayed to the music and the man’s hands had travelled up Yuuri’s thighs to his ass. The sexiest thing in the entire club, really. Viktor thought about it sometimes. Too often.

Yuuri could seduce anyone, Viktor was sure of it.

He drew in a deep breath and then said, as casually as he could, “I hope you don’t have a lover somewhere who’ll get upset when we skate to Eros.”

Yuuri paled. “N-No! No lovers, nowhere!”

“A jealous ex, then?”

“Nothing of the sort,” Yuuri rushed out, too quickly, and then looked embarrassed. “I mean, ah. I haven’t really, um, done much dating. I don’t know. I’m not good with that stuff.”

Viktor couldn’t help but say, “There must have been people, though, who were interested, or people you were interested in.”

“I suppose,” Yuuri admitted, lost in thought. Viktor wondered which people Yuuri was thinking of, who these people had been. “But it never seemed to be mutual.” This sounded like a mystery to Yuuri, too.

“One thing less for us to worry about, then, making someone jealous,” Viktor decided, then added, “No jealous lovers at my end either. Not anymore, anyway. Which is great! This year is our debut, we don’t need distractions.” He bumped his shoulder to Yuuri’s. “Come on, let’s race Makkachin down the beach.”

They had the summer to work on their routines. Viktor had no doubt that their Eros would be intense and spell-binding when the time came.

* * *

Minako was indulging Yuuri with private Eros lessons behind Viktor’s back, which was hard to do when Viktor was attached to his hip nearly 24/7. Thankfully Viktor was tremendously addicted to a bad Russian soap opera that Viktor managed to stream online, and Yuuri got the chance to sneak out to Minako’s studio a few times each week.

One night, when he returned from Minako (im)patiently showing him how to be sexier, he dropped by Viktor’s room to say goodnight. Viktor was on the couch, Makkachin asleep by his feet, flipping through a photo album featuring Yuuri’s novice days. Mari apparently had given it to Viktor. Viktor was enthralled. Yuuri was downright humiliated.

“But look at your chubby cheeks!” Viktor enthused, snapping pictures of the photo album with his phone.

“Viktor, please,” he begged.

“And look at this outfit! Is it – Oh my, are you Aladdin? You are! Wait, did you skate to –”

Prince Ali, yes, and yes, there’s probably a recording of it somewhere in this house. But that’s not for tonight,” he said, snatching the album from Viktor’s hands.

Viktor pouted at him dramatically. “There’s so much I still don’t know about you! Still! We’re partners, we should know everything about each other. Like where were you just now? I know you sneaked out. And what do you think of us doing A Whole New World for an exhibition program? I’d be Jasmine, of course.”

Yuuri shifted from one foot to the other. “We still need boundaries. Some stuff should be private.” Viktor looked at him with faux innocence, as if to say he had never heard anything as unexpected as the word ‘boundary’. Why must Viktor be like this? Yuuri stayed firm. “Now goodnight.”

Viktor sighed, dramatically, and let him go. Yuuri was going to kill Mari for showing Viktor this embarrassing crap! Viktor had been in Hasetsu for weeks and weeks now, and for some miraculous reason had not left yet. Showing Viktor pictures of a chubby seven-year-old Yuuri as Aladdin was not necessarily helpful!

He stuffed the photo album into his desk drawer and changed into pyjamas. He was nearly ready for bed when a knock sounded on his door. It was Viktor, looking both sheepish and victorious, holding his laptop. The light of the screen illuminated him in the dark hallway.

“I know what we need to do!” Viktor announced in a half-whisper, because it was late and they were the only ones still awake. Yuuri stared at him. “So we can finally know each other better! I found this quiz online – see?” Viktor turned the laptop around. “It lists things everyone should know about their partner!”

Yuuri would have groaned, except that he still hadn’t quite gotten over how star-struck he was when he realised Viktor Nikiforov was living in his house and pestering him at midnight with ridiculous online quizzes.

“Can we just do this quiz? Please?” Viktor almost whined, and Yuuri wished he could say no. But instead he nodded and let Viktor in. Delighted, Viktor slid in and settled on the bottom of Yuuri’s bed, back to the wall, laptop on his crossed legs. Viktor padded the bed next to him and Yuuri moved to sit at the top of the bed. Viktor’s face was one of teasing mischief, which Yuuri didn’t particularly like. “So I have fifty-five questions here that –”

“Fifty-five?!”

Viktor gave him a look of utter seriousness. “Yes, Yuuri. Fifty-five essential questions. Don’t worry, we already know answers to some of these. Like, okay – what’s the colour of my eyes?”

Yuuri fought off a smile. “The entire world knows the answer to that.”

“Exactly! So I’ll skip the easy ones.” Viktor studied the screen. “Okay, let’s start then with… Ah, here. What is the one place you desperately want to travel to?”

Yuuri thought the question was utterly random and of little use, but then it occurred to him that he might get some insight into Viktor that wasn’t common knowledge. He settled in, trying to take the quiz seriously. Viktor was in earnest, so Yuuri tried to meet him halfway. “Uhm. Well Africa is the only continent I haven’t visited. I’d like to go to Kenya, maybe. I mean, I wouldn’t say I desperately want to –”

“Don’t overthink it!” Viktor chastised him. “Go with your gut. For me, I’d say French Polynesia, stay in one of those huts above water. Do nothing but drink cocktails and swim in the nude all day.” Viktor gave him an impossibly charming grin, and Yuuri tried not to snort. He’d always thought Viktor was intimidating – he’d been so wrong. “See, we’re learning new things about each other already!”

“I guess,” Yuuri said, even as he moved to hug his knees. Viktor then quizzed him on his voting habits, whether he preferred morning or evening showers, his favourite chocolate and what kind of food he hated. Viktor also gave him his own answers, and as Viktor tried to describe a cabbage stew that was very popular in Russia that Viktor simply couldn’t stand, he was so animated in describing its sliminess that Yuuri found himself laughing and then worried if they were waking up the entire house.

“Okay, next question!” he soon found himself saying, trying to keep his voice from getting too loud.

They ended up discussing Orthodox Christianity, as Yuuri wasn’t sure how that differed from other branches of the faith. Viktor talked of his ultra-conservative grandmother, who had been scandalised by his skin-tight skating outfits and had told him, when he’d only been fourteen, that he was tempting Satan with his long hair and firm behind. Viktor’s grandfather had been a missionary, sent to an island off the Russian east coast that Japan had conquered in the early 20th century, to lead the Orthodox community there. “The island was Russian speaking,” Viktor said, “although it belongs to Japan now. After my mother was born, they moved back to St. Petersburg.” Viktor was mainly glad that the religious zeal had faded along the generations and that he hadn’t been brought up on a small island in the Pacific Ocean without any ice rinks. Yuuri in turn talked about Shintoism, although Viktor was by then familiar with the shrines and temples around Hasetsu. Viktor tilted his head when listening, a gentle smile on his lips, eyes attentive and curious, and maybe this quiz thing hadn’t been such a bad idea after all. It started to feel less like a quiz, anyway, and more like a conversation.

Every now and then, Viktor prompted them to a new topic. “Is there a nickname you absolutely hate?”

“Debu,” he said, automatically, and then flushed when Viktor raised an enquiring eyebrow. “Fatso,” he translated. “Takashi always teased… Fumio too, sometimes.”

Viktor frowned. “Well that’s a poor attempt at a nickname. My grandmother used to call me Meatball. I kind of objected to that, have to say, but at least it was imaginative.” Although sat at opposite ends of the bed, they were now facing each other, knees nearly bumping. Viktor paused, then asked, “Did Fumio say that a lot?”

“Well no, only when he thought I was putting on too much weight,” he said, realising that such occasions had been numerous. But Fumio had been right, usually – Yuuri had needed to be stricter with his diet, so it hadn’t been unfair to point it out… Fumio needed to be able to lift him up, at the end of the day.

Viktor made a displeased sound, but then said, “Next one’s easy – do you want a cat or a dog?”

They looked at each other and in unison said, “Dog.”

Viktor laughed, and Yuuri began to worry if the warmth on his cheeks was a visible blush or not. Thank god they hadn’t turned on the lights, and only the lamp on his desk and the laptop screen brightened the room.

“What do you think of long-term commitments?” Viktor then asked. “I hope you’re in favour, considering.” Viktor motioned between them.

“I doubt it means skating partnerships.”

“Okay,” Viktor shrugged, “so what do you think of marriage?”

Yuuri, who had been chattering about his childhood and Japan and food and habits for who knew how long, shifted uncomfortably. “I, um. I’m not sure.” He had never particularly considered himself as a very marriable person. “I guess – I guess I’ve always known people who talk about wanting to get married. People say, oh you know, I want to get married one day. But I always wondered how could they possibly know that if they hadn’t met anyone they felt that way about. I don’t know. Marriage seems like a very abstract thing to want, if you don’t actually know a person you want to marry.”

“But surely you can want it just for the idea of it,” Viktor objected. “People are drawn to the promise of companionship.”

“The illusion of a life-long relationship.”

“Yuuri!” Viktor said with a tut of his tongue. “That’s far too cynical coming from someone as sweet as you. I want to get married; I would look marvellous in a white tux and I would make a superb husband.”

Yuuri grinned. “I’ve no doubt.”

“Do you like foreplay?”

Yuuri nearly choked. “Wh-What?!”

Viktor blinked at him, face utterly innocent. “It’s the next question. Do you like foreplay?”

He squirmed. “Doesn’t everyone? Jesus!”

“Not everyone,” Viktor disagreed, “but I too rather enjoy it.” Yuuri did not need to think about Viktor enjoying foreplay. “Ah, which celebrity do you find most attractive? What? Is it embarrassing?” Viktor asked when Yuuri buried his face in his hands. A few months earlier, he easily would have said that his celebrity crush was Viktor Nikiforov. Now Viktor Nikiforov was nudging his knee with his toes, asking who his crush was. Why was the universe so cruel?

“Uh, a guy called Takao from this Japanese pop group,” he lied, giving Viktor Mari’s celebrity crush instead. He then discovered that Viktor harboured a long-suffering crush on a young Leonardo DiCaprio.

“He was such a looker in my formative years,” Viktor said, rather wistfully. Right: blue-eyed, blond, Hollywood handsome. Yuuri wasn’t completely oblivious of Viktor’s dating history – all pair teams had dating rumours, and people had wondered if Viktor and Oksana had dated back in the day, too. Yuuri was aware Oksana had married a long-term boyfriend when they retired, though. Viktor, on the other hand, had dated a French swimmer for a few years: blue-eyed, blond, devastatingly handsome. A swimmer’s physique. This had been years ago, but Yuuri remembered it still.

Viktor was peering at the screen, muttering, “Well I know what you studied in college… Ah. Favourite sex position! Don’t gawk at me, Yuuri, it’s the quiz! It’s the essential fifty-five questions! I’m going to be a bit boring: missionary. It’s intimate, it’s easy to vary the speed and depth, and you can kiss and have eye contact. What about you?”

What about him was that he was burning up, and Viktor liked missionary, because it was intimate, and Viktor could kiss and have eye contact, and Yuuri was not allowed to think about the speed or depth at which Viktor gave or took, absolutely not. What perv had written this quiz?!

When he didn’t respond, Viktor said, “Okay, we’ll skip –”

“I like being on all fours and getting taken from behind, missionary is nice too, but the best sex I’ve had has been that, and we are never discussing this again.”

Viktor’s mouth was hanging open. Finally, Viktor looked flustered, heat colouring his cheeks. The quiz was stupid. This whole thing was stupid. But then he thought of Viktor’s ex-swimmer boyfriend – who Viktor had never even as much as mentioned, to be fair – and Yuuri could play this game. He wasn’t sexless; he’d gone to college! He’d been to parties! He’d had enough scraps of sex to know what he liked, at least.

Viktor stammered, “R-Right, I see, uhm. Yes, er. Ah, the next question is about sex too, uhm, maybe we’ll? We’ll just skip those? Not strictly… relevant.” Viktor was pulling on the loose collar of his sleep shirt, doing nothing but exposing collar bone for days. “The, uhhh, ah okay, favourite season! Winter, definitely. Autumn close second. Thoughts?”

“I like spring.”

“Spring! Great season! You know, uh, maybe we don’t need to finish this quiz. I think it’s been quite a learning curve as it is. Who wrote this, I really –”

Viktor was now nervously scrolling down the page, but Yuuri rarely accepted defeat, and it wasn’t often he got to see Viktor squirm. “I’ll ask next,” he demanded and took the laptop from Viktor, spinning the laptop around as it came to rest on his knees. “Okay, what’s the one thing that – that gets you off every time? Uh.”

“I did warn you,” Viktor said earnestly, but then sat up straighter. “Okay, fair question! A bit of dirty talk goes a long way with me, actually. Oh nothing too filthy, just a- you know, an appreciative comment on how good it is, my partner telling what they like and how it feels, riles me up pretty well, usually. Oh, and watching my partner come, of course. What about you, Yuuri?” Viktor asked sweetly. “What gets you off?”

“You’re the worst.”

“Am I?”

“Ungh!” he protested, glaring. What did he like? “I sort of like having my hair pulled when I’m – when, er. I am about to. Finish.”

Viktor’s eyes gleamed with interest. “Really? I never would have guessed! Well, we might skate together beautifully, but we’re not sexually compatible. I like sweet nothings in missionary, you like hair-pulling in doggy style. Very different tastes. You look so innocent, truly.”

“Shut up,” he objected, ignoring Viktor’s wide grin and going back to the screen. “What’s your dream job?”

“Dog groomer,” Viktor supplied without hesitation. “I’ve gotten rather good, with Makkachin’s fur in constant need of trimming. You?”

“A ninja,” he said, and when Viktor laughed, he said, “Hasetsu Castle was right there when I was a kid! I wanted to be a ninja.”

“I think it’s asking for your dream job now.”

“Still is,” he claimed stubbornly, and read, “Okay, do you like celebrating your birthday?”

Viktor wrinkled his nose. “No? Not really. We were usually at Nationals, competing. Oksana would always get me some kind of a present, but mostly that was it. I doubt many skaters like their birthdays: with every year, you become more irrelevant to the sport. Your joints creak, your body breaks, and the latest world champion is aged sixteen. No, I don’t like my birthdays at all.”

Yuuri knew the feeling well. “And who is currently your closest friend?”

“Ma –”

“Is a dog,” he interrupted, but kindly. “It’s Oksana, I’d imagine.”

“Ah, but she is unaware of my missionary fetish and secret desire to be a dog groomer,” Viktor smiled. Silver strands of hair swept across Viktor’s face. “So, after this amazing quiz, maybe my closest friend is you.”

Yuuri bit on his bottom lip. “Yeah. Maybe for me, too.”

They sat for a few moments in a companionable silence which Viktor then broke with, “Not just partners, then, but good friends. Maybe we can even become best friends, with time. I’d like that, anyway. Would you?”

Yuuri had a feeling that he didn’t fall, exactly: more like stumbled down headfirst into something where Viktor had, somehow, snuck even closer to the core of him than before. “I’d like that too,” he admitted.

Viktor’s eyes were full of warmth. “Great. What’s the next question?”

Yuuri pushed the lid down. “That was the last one.”

* * *

Viktor eventually decided that it was time to break his social media silence. Well, a sort of “silence” – he’d been posting pictures of Makkachin regularly, and of the amazing meals Yuuri’s mother cooked for him, and of himself at the gym or the dance studio, looking rather toned and a little beefed up, which was a great look for him, even if he said so himself. People knew he was in Japan, but no one knew where or why. He made sure the backgrounds were generic and couldn’t be placed – he knew what tricks fans used.

It had been difficult, however, not to put Ice Castle, Hasetsu, Minako, Yuuri, Yuuri’s family, and all of it on social media. In a mere two months, these now formed Viktor’s world. Viktor’s phone was full of training videos that he and Yuuri scrutinised together, hundreds of pictures of them mid-pose, doing lifts and step sequences, of Yuuri in the dance studio, going through the routines in purple leggings and pink leg warmers. Viktor’s phone was a shrine of material. He should have been given medals for self-restraint.

Once Viktor had even found Yuuri snoozing in the Ice Castle locker room, head pressed to one of the lockers, fast asleep two in the afternoon. Viktor knew he took longer in the showers, but surely falling asleep waiting for him was excessive. Yuuri’s glasses were askew, he was faintly snoring, and Viktor wanted to post it on his Instagram very badly, but managed not to.

He knew it would be a media circus that he didn’t want to waste time on. Yuuri had stayed away from social media since the doping scandal and still didn’t want to return to it.

But, Viktor liked boasting. A bad habit of his, he knew. And so, one evening, he cracked. He posted a clip of him and Yuuri doing side-by-side triple axels with a caption of How’s our synchronisation? ;) #katsukinikiforov #comingsoon

It wasn’t just an announcement, it was a gauntlet being slammed down. How many pairs teams were doing s-b-s triple axels? Maybe two, or three, in the entire world. Fumio hadn’t been able to land them; Oksana neither. But Viktor and Yuuri could. They weren’t going to be just any team: they were going straight to the top of their sport. Wait and see.

Viktor was positively giddy.

It was a Saturday night, and he’d talked Yuuri into watching a movie with him and Makkachin. Right after he’d posted the video, Yuuri knocked on his bedroom door before sliding it open. Viktor put his phone away, straightening up on the sofa. His laptop was on the coffee table, ready to play a Japanese movie Yuuri had picked out for them. They were indulging themselves with some popcorn, too.

Yuuri had changed into pyjama bottoms and a loose shirt, and looked all-around soft. Viktor knew this to be false: Yuuri was toned and muscular everywhere, now. Viktor nearly missed the softness of Yuuri’s belly when he’d first arrived.

Yuuri got cosy, sitting cross-legged, as he explained why the film had been a defining moment of Yuuri’s childhood. Between them, Makkachin snoozed on the couch. Yuuri began to pet her fondly as Viktor reached over to press play, and the opening credits rolled.

“I might fall asleep, though,” Yuuri warned as Viktor offered him some popcorn.

“I won’t wake you, then,” he said.

“No, you must! I –”

Viktor’s phone started ringing. He reached for his phone and realised it was Yakov Feltsman, of all people. His former coach didn’t call him much anymore… They were cordial, of course: Yakov was the father he had never asked for, but why was –

Oh. Oh, already?

Viktor felt like a fourteen-year-old Junior all over again, caught practising quad loops when he’d been told not to – it was a useless skill for a pair skater. He didn’t pick up, just put his phone away and told Yuuri he’d get it later. Yuuri shrugged. The movie had started. Viktor’s phone started ringing again.

This time it was Georgi, his old rink mate. Right, okay. Yuuri’s phone then started ringing, too, and Yuuri looked confused as he looked at the lit-up screen. “It’s Celestino...”

Yuuri and Fumio’s ex-coach. Yuuri hadn’t spoken to him in months, as Viktor well knew. Yuuri looked confused.

“Okay, how about we – we put our phones away,” Viktor said, gently.

Yuuri complied, but now looked wide awake. “What did you do?” Their phones started beeping with notifications.

“Silent modes?” Viktor suggested, sweetly.

Yuuri gave him the same look he had given Makkachin when she’d tried to eat food out of the trash. “Viktor, what did you do?”

Turned out, they had gone viral in a matter of minutes. Figure skating news outlets, blogs and feeds had shared their video, accompanied by shocked emojis and !!!!!s. Viktor had sort of known what he was about to launch, of course – he’d been famous for long enough – but even he was taken back by the sheer scale of it.

His phone wouldn’t stop ringing and was flooded with messages, and Yuuri’s phone wasn’t faring much better. People were shocked that he was coming back, without Oksana, and with Yuuri Katsuki out of all people. Mila messaged him with I didn’t even know you knew each other?, which a lot of people seemed to be asking themselves and each other. Yuuri turned off his phone and hid it behind the pillows of Viktor’s bed in a panic, and in Viktor’s estimation Yuuri was freaking out a bit.

They didn’t watch the movie. Yuuri paced around the bedroom, having a meltdown, as Viktor and Makkachin remained on the couch. “Fumio probably knows by now,” Yuuri was saying. “I never even told him! I should have called him, or emailed him…” Viktor let Yuuri have his freak out. “Oh, god! Oh god, oh god!” But eventually Yuuri said, “We’ll let it blow over. Right? It’ll blow over.”

“Of course it will,” Viktor promised, even as he, too, was forced to turn off his phone.

* * *

When the reporters surrounded Yutopia the next day, it was clear that it wasn’t blowing over. Not only were these the Japanese press, but also the Russian press had legged it to Hasetsu overnight. Yuuri’s parents were politely going around the courtyard, offering green tea to the reporters waiting in the warm June morning. Yuuri refused to leave his bed, but Viktor said he couldn’t go out alone: they were a team now. The two of them against the world!

Emotional blackmail!

So Yuuri got out of bed, anxious. He’d tried texting Fumio with a Hope you’re well! You might have heard I’ve found a new skating partner. But then he wasn’t sure what to say next: I’m sorry? So he hadn’t said anything, and it only made him feel worse.

Before facing the reporters, however, they had some admin to do. They sat on the bed of Yuuri’s bedroom while Viktor called the FFKK.

“I’m on hold,” Viktor said with a roll of his eyes, “he didn’t believe I was who I said I was.”

But someone believed Viktor soon enough, and Yuuri kept pulling on the loose thread of his pyjama pants as Viktor had a half hour conversation in Russian, pausing a few times to ask Yuuri his height and weight, place of birth, blood type and so on. “Ice Castle,” Viktor said, at one point, and Yuuri hurried to write down the address for Viktor.

And so Yuuri found himself, unexpectedly, as a member of the Russian Figure Skating Federation – and even more shockingly, he was registered as Viktor Nikiforov’s skating partner, just as Viktor was registered as his. It was official.

Viktor finished the call, and they looked at each other, taking this in. “So, how’s it feel to be a Katsuki-Nikiforov?” Viktor asked.

“You could carry me over the threshold, at least,” Yuuri said, and Viktor smirked.

They still had a hoard of journalists outside, so Viktor wrote a statement to give them, which Yuuri read: ‘We are happy to announce our intention to compete in the upcoming figure skating season as a pairs team, as representatives of the Russian Figure Skating Federation.’

Yuuri blinked. “This is it?”

“Sure,” Viktor said. “They’ll ask us follow-up questions, naturally.”

Yuuri put on a suit that Viktor objected to, and in the end Viktor dressed them both, in shirts that a disgruntled Mari ironed for them, while Viktor debated between black and grey trousers. Yuuri let himself be manhandled and dressed. They looked like they were heading into a semi-casual business meeting when they finally headed outside.

Cameras flashed and microphones were extended as the press surrounded them. Yuuri stepped closer to Viktor instinctively, trying to remain calm. Fumio had been their press guy as Yuuri had hated it. Thankfully, Viktor was also more equipped to deal with the press.

Viktor was smiling, but it was a smile Yuuri didn’t recog – Oh, but he did. He’d seen the smile a million times in interviews, in the kiss & cry, on the ice. It wasn’t a real smile, but Yuuri had never been able to tell the difference until then.

Viktor read out the statement: in English, then in Russian, and then Yuuri repeated it in Japanese. A dozen hands shot up in the air. The questions were as expected: what are your programs? Who choreographed them? Who is coaching you? Where will you be competing? How did the partnership come about? Why didn’t Viktor want to skate with Oksana? Why had Viktor chosen Yuuri to skate with (everyone realised, at least, that Viktor had done the choosing)?

“Will we see you at the Olympics?” someone asked, referring to the upcoming winter games, but Viktor said that they didn’t qualify as Yuuri didn’t have Russian citizenship. They didn’t have existing rankings either so they were starting from scratch: B-class competitions, heading into Russian Nationals. Neither did they qualify for the Grand Prix circuit, so they would have to get ranking points elsewhere.

A reporter asked Yuuri, in Japanese, “Is Nikiforov-kun aware of the doping allegations made against you earlier this year?”

The question was moot: there was no way Viktor could be unaware. The goal was probably to humiliate him, and it succeeded. Yuuri, who had been doing sort of okay, felt himself shrink. “Hai,” he said with a nod, eyes nailed to the ground.

“Do you think it is fair to tarnish Nikiforov-kun’s esteemed name with such a scandal?” the man added, and it was nothing Yuuri hadn’t asked himself a million times over. No, it wasn’t fair, Yuuri was being selfish, thoughtless, he –

Viktor said something in fast Russian, and one Russian reporter replied.

“Ah, I see,” Viktor said, in English. Viktor was a tall man, but suddenly stood even taller. “Let me make one thing clear: neither one of us has ever given a positive doping sample. Yuuri is a superb skater and a natural talent, and I am both honoured and humbled that he has chosen to skate with me in the upcoming season and beyond. We believe in clean sports and will undergo all tests the ISU sees fit, as do all athletes in our sport. But let me make one thing very clear: I will not stand for false accusations to be made against myself or my partner, do you understand? Never. This concludes today’s conference, thank you.”

Viktor placed an arm on Yuuri’s shoulder and led them back inside in long strides. The hubbub of the press faded when the doors closed behind them, and Yuuri took a few seconds to realise that Viktor was shaking – with anger. “Well, that’s us done with that,” Viktor said when they were safely in the reception. “You okay? You sure?” Viktor pressed when he simply nodded. He was shaken, but tried to hide it. “Did you know that reporter?”

“Yes, he –”

“Won’t be interviewing us ever again, if I have my way.” Viktor was gloomy in a way Yuuri had hardly ever seen him. “I’m pretty worn out after all this. Do you mind if I go soak in the springs – alone?”

“Yes, that’s fine.”

Viktor gave him a smile – that fake press smile. “Thank you.”

Yuuri nodded, bewildered: he was overwhelmed and upset and also shocked that Viktor had called him a superb skater. Viktor withdrew for the evening, and Yuuri went to help Mari put away some towels, hiding away until his mother came to confirm that even the last of reporters had finally left.

When he went back to his room, he found a text from Fumio: Seems like you’ve hit the jackpot. Bet you’re happy now.

He hung his head and he replied with, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you sooner. Everything happened so fast.

He wondered if Fumio was still in Kyoto with his girlfriend, if Fumio was studying, or perhaps working. In one single day, their years together had been destroyed – they would never be friends again, not after what Yuuri had done.

Have you told him? Fumio texted back, and Yuuri paled. No. No, he hadn’t told Viktor. Viktor had never probed about the past, focusing on the future instead. Yeah I thought so, Fumio added after Yuuri didn’t respond. Good luck then. He’s gonna need it.

And a final text: It’s not going to last.

Yuuri was trembling, and he deleted the messages and switched his phone off. He crawled into bed, a heap of misery, and didn’t get up until the following day.

* * *

Viktor realised that it was time for them to move to Russia. Not only was this the country they were competing for, but Viktor had looked at their schedule for the autumn months and decided that if they were competing in Italy, Finland, Estonia and so forth, St. Petersburg was a much handier base than Hasetsu. He had other reasons for the change of scenery too, but kept these to himself when he broached the topic with Yuuri.

The talk was a reminder to Viktor that, even if they had decided to be good friends, he still didn’t know Yuuri fully: he had expected Yuuri to be reluctant and doubtful. Viktor himself felt bad for suggesting it, because it was clear to him Yuuri was enjoying his time back in Hasetsu after so many years in Detroit. Now Viktor demanded to be followed across the world, selfishly.

But Yuuri said, “I’ve been thinking that, too, for some weeks now.”

Viktor was surprised. “Really?”

“The training we need we can’t get in Hasetsu. We need to be in an environment that helps us improve, with people who can guide us. St. Petersburg has seemed to me to be the best place for that.” Yuuri said this with steely determination, and Viktor wondered if there really was such a thing as knowing Yuuri Katsuki well enough never to be surprised.

But with Yuuri’s blessing, Viktor started making plans. He finally called Yakov back, who yelled at him down the line that Viktor never should have retired in the first place, and how did Viktor even think he could be competitive after such a long break – hadn’t Yakov said he’d come to regret everything! Hadn’t he! – and why hadn’t Viktor chosen another Russian to skate with, at least, Yakov had suitable partners by the dozen! And yes, Yakov expected Viktor and Yuuri at his rink by Monday next week, eight o’clock sharp. Sharp! Always such a stubborn child!

Viktor was cheerful after such a warm reception. He and Yuuri started packing.

But a day after that, they were approached by the JSF to ask if they were interested in representing Japan instead. No one had even seen them skate yet, although now that Viktor had lifted his self-imposed social media ban, he had begun to share glimpses of their practices. Viktor was as vaguely patriotic as the next guy, but he didn’t feel like he had to compete for Russia. And there was less intense competition in Japanese pairs…

But Yuuri shook his head. “If I was skating with some other skater, the federation wouldn’t be pushing this. They just like the thought of you in a Team Japan jacket.”

Viktor wiggled his eyebrows. “I like the idea of myself in a Team Japan jacket.”

“I bet you do,” Yuuri laughed, but then his smile faded. “When Fumio got caught… The way they treated us both. I don’t know. I always thought I had a good relationship with the JSF, but then –”

“One day, they’ll be sorry for how they treated you,” he said. “We’ve got flights booked to St. Petersburg, anyway.”

And Yuuri looked relieved.

Viktor was pretty sure he ate eight katsudon bowls that last week, trying to soak up all of Hasetsu while he could. If they placed well at Nationals, they would hopefully be sent to Europeans and Worlds – both were held in Europe that year. The Olympics were taking place in Osaka, though, not that they qualified, of course.

On the final night there was a big party for them, and Minako drank plenty and got a little bit too friendly with Viktor, in his opinion. “Ah, don’t worry,” Minako purred, “I’m just an old spinster flirting away. I know you’ve got your eye on someone else. And your hands. And all of this, I’m sure.” She motioned him up and down and winked. Viktor wasn’t sure who Minako was referring to, but Minako continued, “Yuuri is staying with you, I hear, in St. Petersburg. Is your bed king-sized?”

And Viktor, to his embarrassment, flared bright red. “I have a guest room.”

“I bet you do,” Minako said, and Viktor was unsure what that was insinuation of. They were skating partners, and they had become good friends quickly. Viktor knew where to draw the line: his interest was professional. “I want that boy in one piece,” Minako then said. Was that a threat? Advice? “He’s only twenty-three, don’t forget. He’s very sensitive, and you know he’s not very experienced romantically. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I have his best interest at heart,” he said. He’d been helping himself to the sake, somewhat. That wasn’t what he’d meant to say: he wanted to say that he was well aware that he was six years older than Yuuri, and that he’d had relationships in the past whereas Yuuri hadn’t. And he wanted to say that when Yuuri was ten, Viktor had been sixteen. When Yuuri was fourteen, Viktor had been twenty. He’d played the figures. When did it stop sounding like Viktor was too old and a creep?

When he was with Yuuri, he didn’t feel the age difference. What Yuuri may have lacked in experience, he made up for in self-awareness. Most people weren’t aware of themselves until their late twenties, if even then. And Viktor had taken note of Yuuri’s gentle smiles, dark lashes, the dips above his collar bones. He knew the shape of Yuuri’s ankles, the firm muscle of his thighs, the weight of Yuuri in his arms. He had noticed the music of Yuuri’s voice and the musk of Yuuri’s skin, and Viktor was not immune. He was not.

And Viktor had meant to say that Minako had it all wrong, that Viktor posed no threat whatsoever to Yuuri’s being-in-one-pieceness. Not in that way, at least: it was just a natural response to spending so much time with someone, just a misguided cluster of feelings that would evaporate soon enough.

But then Yuuri smiled at him from across the room, young, gorgeous, and Viktor ached in a way he only let himself acknowledge when he’d had a few drinks.

So instead he repeated: “I have his best interest at heart.”

He just wasn’t sure what that meant.

* * *

They arrived in St. Petersburg late in the evening, but to Yuuri’s surprise the summer was still full of light. It took an hour for them to get Makkachin from customs, and Viktor was fretting over her well-being, but Makkachin was as delighted as ever, happy to see them and excited to be out of a cage.

Viktor’s apartment block dated to when Russia still had a czar: a cream-coloured art nouveau building with five floors, close to the river. Viktor lived on the fourth floor, and Makkachin darted from the rackety lift directly to the door. They got all their boxes and bags in after three trips to the ground floor lobby, after which Viktor told Yuuri to make himself feel at home while he took Makkachin out for a quick walk.

It was midnight, and still light outside. Yuuri had never lived this north before.

Phichit happened to call him as he was examining the medal cabinet in the living room: Grand Prix golds, world golds – an Olympic silver! Oksana and Viktor had been robbed in Sochi, absolutely robbed...

“I can’t believe you’re living with Viktor Nikiforov now,” Phichit enthused.

“I’m not living living with him,” he objected, looking around the pristinely decorated department: white wooden floors, white walls, tasteful art, an off-grey throw on the smart couch. “I’ll find my own place, I just need to get my bearings first. Learning some Russian would help.”

Phichit let out a dreamy sigh. “Yeah, I can’t believe you’re living with Viktor Nikiforov!”

“You’re not helping!” he objected, but laughed. It was absurd, at the end of the day.

Viktor returned ten minutes later, kicking off his shoes and asking if Yuuri would like a camomile tea before bed. Viktor could put honey in it for him. A good host, definitely.

Yuuri unpacked in the guest room, and Viktor gave him towels and showed him how the shower worked. To Yuuri, Viktor felt happy, if that made sense: sometimes Viktor felt determined to him, or frustrated, or content. Viktor was jet-lagged, but an aura of happiness was about him. Maybe he’d missed Russia more than Yuuri had realised.

It only took Yuuri a day to realise that sharing an onsen with Viktor was rather different to sharing a flat with him. The latter was far more domestic. The latter was them making protein shakes together at six-thirty in the morning, Viktor’s hair a muss. The latter was Viktor planting a kiss on his cheek, thoughtlessly, as a thank you for his morning cup of coffee.

Yuuri steadied himself and focused on the job at hand: six weeks before their first competition. Not a time to get distracted or carried away.

Not a time to wish for things that weren’t possible. Besides, Viktor wouldn’t have acted this way if he’d known the whole story – Yuuri didn’t know if it was a story he could ever tell. No one came out looking good in it, let alone him. Fumio had been right: Yuuri was too weak, too ashamed, to tell Viktor the truth. All they needed was a real competition to show Viktor that Yuuri wasn’t necessarily as superb as he thought.

He tried not to let himself be weighed down by how little he deserved Viktor’s good moods, and he smiled when Viktor said that he was glad they had been able to build up such a solid trust so quickly.

He flinched first, but covered it up the best he could.

* * *

Viktor wanted to make Yuuri feel welcome at the rink and get off to a good start with Yakov: introduce Yuuri to all the skaters, give him the grand tour, and make him feel like a part of the team! Viktor even made sure that they arrived on time, eight o’clock sharp, jet-lagged as they were. Yakov would be mildly appeased, he was sure.

However, Viktor could only describe the situation they arrived to as a shit-storm.

They got to the rink side in their coats and shoes, intending to say hello and announce their arrival. They halted: a shouting match was going on at the other end of the rink. Yakov was there, on the ice with his skates on, and so were reigning world champions Georgi and Anya. Yuuri looked to Viktor for answers, but he had none. A few other skaters were observing the shouting match from a respectable distance. Anya was yelling something now, and then Georgi shouted, “I will never skate with her again! It is over, over!”

Georgi stormed off the ice. Anya was crying. Yakov was still shouting.

Uh…

“What’s going on?” Viktor asked the tall, dark-haired boy on the ice.

“A lovers’ quarrel,” the man supplied, with a Kazakh accent. It was Otabek, Viktor realised – when had Otabek grown up enough to acquire a deep voice? He’d been a kid with spots last Viktor had checked. “Georgi won’t skate with her anymore. Yakov is raging.”

Viktor had known Georgi and Anya for years – as juniors younger than him and Oksana, first, and later as competitors. It was common knowledge that Georgi and Anya, as well as being a pair skating team, were a couple off the ice. They were known for their overly emotive and romantic skates, the theme of which usually was how much they loved each other. It wasn’t promising for them to be fighting in the lead up to the Olympic year.

Otabek was leaning back against the boards, casually and with an aloofness like the scene amused him. Viktor scanned the rink. Where Otabek was, a blond shadow usually followed…

Yuri Plisetsky skated over to them in a flash, sixteen and furious. “So here you are,” Yuri snapped angrily, glaring at Viktor and Yuuri both.

By Viktor’s side, Yuuri appeared taken aback, so Viktor cut in with, “Yuri and Otabek, this is –”

“We’ve met,” Yuri barked, switching to English. “At the Grand Prix Final last year. You were sloppy, came in last. Otabek and I won the Junior Grand Prix, second year in a row. We are seniors now. This year, we will win.”

Plisetsky-Altin were going for their first senior year with high hopes: Otabek had received his Russian citizenship years ago, when he had only been fifteen. But while Viktor knew them to be a technically accomplished team, being able to get the kind of PCS that Georgi and Anya did was unlikely: that finesse came with time.

“Uh, hello,” Yuuri said, uncertainly. “What’s happening?”

“Anya banged a hockey player,” Yuri said. Oh. Oh fucking hell – this was worse than Viktor had thought! But Yuri only rolled his eyes and looked scornful. “Georgi is being dramatic. Skating comes first.”

Otabek said, “If they don’t skate anymore, it’ll be less competition for the Olympic team. Only benefits us.”

Yuri looked broody. “Perhaps.” Yuri was still glaring at them. “We’ve had to recalculate everything now that you’re here. I’m not convinced you even know how to skate anymore, old man.”

Otabek stood up straight, hit by lightning. “Here comes Yakov.”

“Crap,” Yuri spat and nudged Otabek along, and the two skated away.

Yakov reached them, visibly enraged. If it was true – if Georgi and Anya had broken up – disaster had struck Russian figure skating as a whole. So far this wasn’t going how Viktor had planned at all!

“Vitya,” Yakov boomed, grabbed his face and planted kisses on both of his cheeks, “you are wise to come back to me.”

“Is it true?” Viktor asked quickly, aware Yuuri was standing back nervously, not understanding their Russian. “About Anya and Georgi.”

“Don’t talk to me about them,” Yakov said with such anger that Viktor knew that Otabek and Yuri had, indeed, been right. “Such unprofessionalism! They are fools! You too are a fool! Is this your new partner? I know him, but I am not sure he is what you need.”

“Yakov has just said how delighted he is to help us get competition ready!” Viktor chirped in, helpfully, to Yuuri. “He has seen you skate and is very impressed.” Yakov’s English was perfectly good enough to know what Viktor had said.

Yuuri, who had been waiting to be acknowledged, gingerly approached. “Spasiba!” Yuuri said with the cutest accent Viktor had perhaps ever heard. “Feltsman-sensei’s talent is recognised in Japan, too.” Yuuri bowed politely.

“What is this, this bowing?” Yakov complained, still in Russian. “I do not care for it! Tell him to stop! If Georgi and Anya are over, then perhaps you two will be half-decent.” Then, to Yuuri in English, “Go warm up. On ice ten minutes!”

Yuuri nodded quickly, ready to go.

But no, it wasn’t the welcome Viktor had wanted. The skaters at the rink didn’t seem to know which was bigger news that day: Anya and Georgi, world’s number one pairs team, appearing to call it quits, or Viktor Nikiforov, former world number one, showing up with a new skating partner. Mila, who had been a junior when Viktor and Oksana retired, came to say hello, as friendly as ever. Viktor was grateful someone was being welcoming to Yuuri.

They had agreed to show Yakov their short program so that Yakov could assess their progress. Twenty, thirty odd people were watching, including Otabek, Yuri and Mila. He knew Yuuri was unsettled, still jet-lagged on day two, in a foreign country, surrounded by people speaking a language Yuuri didn’t understand – but that could be them in any competition, too. They had to suck it up.

“If I catch someone recording this,” Yakov boomed, voice loud enough to carry around the rink, “I will ban you from this rink. Ban you, you understand? Hooligans!”

In a mood like this, Yakov had hated nearly everything Viktor and Oksana used to do. Japan had been easy, Japan had been secluded… Here, Viktor had to face the reality that he and Yuuri might not be as good as he thought they were. Pair skating had moved on since him and Oksana, after all. Viktor might be too old and stiff, and he was about to make an ass of himself in front of the entire rink.

“I want to throw up,” Yuuri said quietly as they circled the ice together to the opening spot.

“Hey, don’t worry about them,” Viktor lied – he was worrying about them. They stopped, and he clutched Yuuri’s hands in his. “We’ve done this a thousand times already. Nothing’s different today. So come on, let’s give them something to talk about,” he said, pressing his forehead to Yuuri’s.

Yuuri, as always, was worrying on his bottom lip. “Okay.”

“Okay,” he agreed.

They turned to face the crowd, and Yuuri moved into the starting position: head bent aside, eyes downwards, one knee bent and hip a sinful curve, arms relaxed by his sides. And behind him Viktor, hands on Yuuri’s hips, his head curved to the expanse of Yuuri’s exposed neck. A start dynamic of Yuuri giving glimpses of seduction, and Viktor chasing him, while all the time Yuuri was luring Viktor in only to use him.

The music began to play, and they skated – marvellously, even, in the circumstances: they didn’t fall and they landed their jumps (triple Salchows, as they’d agreed for now). Their lasso lift was solid, take-off smooth, Yuuri’s touchdown steady, and Viktor got enough rotations in while supporting Yuuri high up in the air above him. The throw wasn’t bad – double-footed landing from Yuuri, but they were still working on it, and the twist was smooth enough. They weaved the story of passion and seduction in the step sequence and then, after their spins, the dramatic casting aside: Viktor on his knees on the ice, and Yuuri standing tall with his back turned. The music ended. Viktor was trying to catch his breath – god, it was a tough skate!

After a beat people started clapping, and Viktor stood as Yuuri helped him up to stand. He pulled Yuuri into a hug, still panting. “You okay?”

“My throw landing was double-footed,” Yuuri instantly said, sounding anguished. “I’m so sorry, Viktor, I –”

“Hey, don’t worry about it. Early days,” he insisted, but their days were, truthfully, numbered. He gave Yuuri another squeeze. “Okay?”

“Okay,” Yuuri nodded, but Viktor could tell Yuuri was unhappy. Skaters were perfectionists – they’d get it right when the time came, he was sure of it.

They skated to Yakov, who was glaring at them. “Well?” Viktor asked, one arm still around Yuuri’s waist, reassuring Yuuri with his touch the best he could.

“It’s not terrible,” Yakov said in his heavily accented English. “It needs work. But it’s not terrible.”

When Yuuri asked him, quietly, why Viktor was smiling, he laughed: ‘not terrible’ was Yakov speak for ‘very good’.

* * *

Their long program was behind schedule, although they had started working on it shortly after Eros. Yuuri had been unsure when Viktor played the music to him: it was by a British composer, something Viktor had heard in a concert once. The piece was sorrowful, but full of hope at the same time: delicate, sweet, romantic. A good contrast to Eros. Viktor saw the story in it, he’d explained: two lovers, unsure of their feelings, fumbling their way. From Eros to something softer and all consuming. It was not a dynamic he and Oksana could have pulled off, but Viktor felt it could suit him and Yuuri. The story felt more real, too, because they hadn’t been skating together for a decade – they could make it feel fresh.

Yuuri listened to this explanation and was worried. “Fumio and I skated to something similar some years ago…”

“Ah, yes, the short program in your last junior year,” Viktor agreed. Yuuri was taken aback: how did Viktor even know that? “This will be different, trust me. It’s a different story. And we need to edit the music a little, too. Can we give it a go, at least?”

And, as ever, Yuuri’s doubt faded. “Okay.”

Viktor had given him that bright smile of his. “Okay.”

The piece, called The Lark Ascending, had become one of Yuuri’s favourites since, and they began perfecting it with renewed energy when they got to St. Petersburg. They still had plenty of time on the ice, but now had to share it. Yuuri tried not to get distracted by Yuri and Otabek’s AC/DC medley short program (which, as ridiculous as it sounded, was excellent), or their stunningly beautiful free skate to Chopin. Little Yuri seemed determined to win Olympic gold at sixteen, and Yuuri was left in awe of the kid.

For some reason he couldn’t explain, in a matter of weeks he became friendly with Yurio, as Mari had relabelled Plisetsky when Yuuri had skyped with her. Yurio said one day, bluntly, that an old man like Viktor didn’t know anywhere cool in town and that Yurio would meet Yuuri after practice to show him a cool place. Yuuri, who hung out with Viktor 70% of the time, and with Makkachin for the remaining 30%, said why not. He and Viktor needed space, too, although Viktor was suspicious as to what Yurio really wanted.

Yurio took him to a cat café. They had them in Japan, too, and while Yuuri loved dogs, he loved cats in equal measure. Together they talked skating and the current field as Yurio sipped on a hot chocolate and petted the cat purring in his lap. “Don’t tell Potya,” Yurio said seriously. “That’s my cat. She wouldn’t understand.”

“Right.”

“She’d get jealous.”

“Sure,” Yuuri said, trying his hardest to keep a straight face.

“The real threat is JJ and Isabella from Canada,” Yurio theorised. “They’re obnoxious, don’t you think? Skating to Romeo and Juliet like the tasteless idiots they are, but judges lap it up. They’re doing side-by-side triple Salchows, too – that’s why Beka and I are going to do quads as our single jumps! No one else is doing that!”

“Viktor and I might.”

“I don’t count you as competition,” Yurio said, perfectly frankly. Yuuri wasn’t even offended. “The Crispino siblings are also doing well, but their skates are borderline incestuous. Makes me want to barf. Ji and Bin are also a danger after their silver at Worlds.”

Truthfully, Yuuri had been so focused on getting used to a new skating partner that he’d barely thought of the competition. He and Viktor might face some of these teams at the smaller non-Grand Prix competitions in the autumn, but Yuuri hadn’t even considered how they’d measure up. The thought made him anxious – he’d be compared to Oksana, of course. How could anyone be as ethereal as Oksana?!

“It’s a shame about Georgi and Anya,” Yuuri said. Anya had moved in with the hockey player now, as the entire rink knew, and it had become clear that their skating partnership was over. It left a big gap in Russian pair skating – just as he and Viktor were coming in. Yuuri wasn’t sure if that would work for them or against them.

“Idiots,” Yurio snarled, “mixing skating and romance.” Yurio glared at him across the table. “You haven’t let Viktor bed you, I hope.”

Yuuri nearly choked on his green tea. “No!”

“No? He’s all over you.”

“We’re skating partners?” They sort of had to be all over each other, physically. That didn’t mean…!

“He’s really old. Did you know that?”

“Uh?”

“And he’s always laughing at your stupid jokes – they’re not funny, your jokes, but he laughs. He doesn’t laugh when I tell jokes, and I’m actually funny. And you live together. Beka and I don’t live together.”

“It’s only temporary,” he explained, “and I just don’t know the city well yet, and my Russian is poor, and… Maybe you could help me! With my Russian.”

“If you teach me how to spin like you,” Yurio instantly countered, like this was a bargaining chip he’d had all along, and the real reason Yuuri had been invited for a coffee in the first place.

“You like my spins?”

“They’re not terrible,” Yurio said, in true Yakov speech. “You spin like Lambiel.” Well, that was certainly a compliment. So Yuuri said it sounded like a deal, and the teenager seemed pleased. Yurio’s face then lit up. “Have you ever had a pirozhki? No? First lesson then!”

Yuuri ended up cheating on his strict diet in the bakery Yurio took him to, stuffing his face and buying a second one to have later – but he ended up eating that one on the way home.

He thus returned later than he’d anticipated, walking in as Viktor was watching his Russian soap opera and grooming Makkachin, who struggled to stay still when Yuuri came in with his spare keys.

“There you are!” Viktor beamed, with an armful of excited poodle. “You took longer than I thought.”

“Oh, yeah, Yurio was actually pretty chatty.”

“Who?”

“Plitsetsky. Yurio.”

“Yurio?” Viktor repeated, sounding it out. “I like it. Yurio. How’s he then?”

“Sixteen and hormonal?” he offered, and Viktor laughed. See, Yuuri was funny – Viktor wasn’t laughing at his jokes out of sympathy! He considered saying that Yurio was worried they were planning to start sleeping together, but then kept his mouth shut. Yurio was just reading into things, in a way a kid would. It was amusing, but Yuuri didn’t repeat it. He felt it might be awkward.

“Well, there’s leftover stroganoff if you want some?”

“Oh yes please,” he said, smiling and sneaking to the guest room to put away his list of ‘Essential Russian’, as scribbled onto some paper by Yurio. When he looked at it, he saw the first sentence was rather long, written in Cyrillic, then phonetically in the Latin alphabet, and finally with an English translation: No thank you, Viktor, I wish to have a professional relationship with you.

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Yuuri mumbled, embarrassed and heat burning up his cheeks, as he hid the list in his suitcase.

* * *

Yurio, true to his word, came to the rink every few days with a new list of actually useful Russian, and Yuuri started sneaking time here and there to work on Yurio’s spins with him. Summer was somehow coming to an end, and Yuuri realised they had put two solid programs together. They were technically ambitious, pushing both of their limits.

But the atmosphere of the rink remained confused in the absence of Anya and Georgi.

“They walked away from a potential Olympic gold,” Yuuri marvelled one morning, at quarter past seven, when they were at the gym on exercise bikes. Georgi had flown to Cambodia for a two-month holiday to “get away from it all.” Yuuri felt bad for the guy – he had observed, in awe, as Georgi and Anya had secured one podium spot after another, while he and Fumio had stayed in the bottom of the top ten.

“Maybe so, but she cheated on him,” Viktor said. “Not unreasonable for him to terminate their working relationship over it.”

“Well I know that,” Yuuri said, wiping his brow, “but they were the favourites to win, weren’t they?”

But Viktor shook his head. “Nothing’s as awful as being cheated on, trust me.”

Viktor kept looking straight ahead, cycling, but Yuuri stalled. Oh had – Oh. Oh, okay. Right.

He didn’t push the issue, even as he thought it surreal: who would cheat on Viktor Nikiforov? Viktor was – well, a skating god, of course, and stunning from head to toe. But Viktor was also kind and funny and smart, and if Yuuri had such a boyfriend, he’d cherish that. Not that he was of course suggesting someone like him could date Viktor, he was just making the point, to himself, flustered. But who had hurt Viktor like that? Because Yuuri would hunt them down – he didn’t care who they were! The French swimmer, maybe? It had ended years ago, that Yuuri knew, but if Viktor wanted him to, he’d go give the guy a piece of his mind.

But, not knowing what else to say without probing, he continued, “Wonder who gets the gold now.”

Viktor, still cycling, laughed. “Suppose Yurio and Otabek might.”

Yuuri breathed out shakily, relieved that Viktor wasn’t expecting Yuuri to push the issue further. So he added, “Yurio has his sights on it.” He thought of the fierce determination on Yurio’s face every day. “And whatever Yurio decides, Otabek follows, huh?”

Viktor nodded. “Attached from the hip, those two.” They kept cycling, and then Viktor added, “It’s not just Anya cheating that’s so messed up.” Yuuri hummed in question even as his thighs were burning with the effort to keep going. “Anya also tainted something sanctimonious, in a way. It’s worse than your average cheating.”

“Meaning?”

Viktor let go of the handlebars, sitting up straighter even as he kept peddling. “When she did what she did, she knew she was destroying his career. So a double betrayal: personal and professional.” Viktor shook his head. “You need your skating partner to have your back, not stab you in it.”

Yuuri was sure he paled, a lump in his throat. Viktor seemed to notice because he stopped cycling and said, “Oh, I – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean – You’ve been there, of course, after what Fumio did.”

Fumio? Fumio, of course, and what he did.

“Right,” he said, having also stopped. He stared at his knees, trying to catch his breath.

Viktor reached out to place a warm hand on his shoulder. “Sorry,” Viktor said with a smile, giving him a squeeze, “I didn’t mean to stir up bad memories. You okay?”

He nodded, but wasn’t able to meet Viktor’s eyes. They had each other’s backs – they didn’t cheat and lie and betray each other. They were a team, no matter what, and Yuuri knew he’d been burned in the past, but Viktor had been too. Not by Oksana, and not in the same context by any means – but Yuuri didn’t want to be another person to let Viktor down.

Viktor got off his bike, hand still on his shoulder. “Hey,” he said, and Yuuri looked up. Viktor had infinite warm smiles to give him, it seemed. “You know we’re gonna be different, right? Than Anya and Georgi, or Fumio, or – Well. This is different. We trust each other all the way. I trust you all the way.”

Yuuri made an agreeing sound, but a sense of shame lingered. So, here he was: lying to Viktor Nikiforov already.

* * *

Two weeks before they were due to compete for the first time, Yuuri moved out. Yuuri had been staying with Viktor for a month, and Viktor thought that Yuuri had settled in rather nicely. But then Otabek and Yurio cornered them in the rink café, and Otabek said that a hockey player he knew, some guy called Sergei, was moving to the US as a last-minute NHL recruit, and that the guy wanted a house-sitter who could be trusted to water his orchid collection. Yuuri seemed like the right kind of nerd, Yurio argued. The rent would be reasonable because Sergei would mostly just be grateful, and the place was central and recently renovated. Was Yuuri interested?

A day later, Yuuri got the keys. Sergei was flying out that very evening, and everything was agreed all too quickly, in Viktor’s view. Yuuri packed up within an hour, too.

What could Viktor do? He helped Yuuri move.

Yuuri was happy about it – a half hour jog to the rink in the mornings, a good warm-up! And the neighbourhood was nice, and there was a supermarket close by, and Yuuri liked orchids, too. Unlike Viktor’s classic century-old building, Yuuri moved into a development that was ten years old, had a modern lift taking them to the third floor, and the apartment even had a small balcony. Viktor did not have a balcony.

The place was full of the hockey player’s stuff, but Yuuri arrived with two boxes and two suitcases. “And, see, the kitchen has all the kitchen stuff in it, so I don’t need to buy anything. This really worked out well, huh?”

Viktor stood in the living room – standard: TV, couch, ugly rug, coffee table – and nodded. The flat was only a third the size of Viktor’s, a practical one bedroom in a downtown development. The door to the bedroom was open, built-in wardrobe with glass sliding doors, a large bed with grey sheets, impersonal and bland.

“Makkachin will miss you,” Viktor said as Yuuri was trying to find a plug for his rice machine on the kitchen counter – one of the rare purchases Yuuri had made since getting to Russia. Viktor’s kitchen cupboards were full of noodles and dashi and mirin and nori and four different kinds of rice. What was he supposed to do with them without Yuuri’s help? He still didn’t understand which rice was meant for what.

It was the first day of September. Viktor had arrived in Hasetsu mid-April. They had been together every single day since – they had slept in neighbouring rooms every day since.

“I’ll come visit all the time,” Yuuri said, still fussing in the kitchen. A kitchen island separated the living room and the cooking area, two bar stools offering the only place to sit down and eat. Bleak and empty… “You’re still sort of my only friend in town.”

“Not true – Yurio takes you on cat café dates. And Mila likes you, too, and those ice dancers you go to yoga with.” Yuuri didn’t appear to be listening. Viktor looked around, helpless. “I guess I’ll… leave you to unpack. See you at the rink in the morning?”

“Okay, I’ll see you there!”

Viktor lingered, then gave up. “Goodnight, then.” He wanted a hug, but felt too needy to ask for one. He drove back home, got Makkachin, and took her to the dog park. She bounced around, full of energy. Viktor lingered in the park too.

When they got home, Makkachin searched the entire flat for Yuuri, even checking the bathroom twice. Viktor was drinking his evening chamomile tea by the kitchen table, alone, when Makkachin returned. She looked puzzled. She sat down, staring at him. “He’s moved out.” Makkachin tilted her head. “No, I don’t know why! Well, I mean – He was only staying in the guest room temporarily. It was only for a little while, see?” Makkachin stared. He sighed. “God, I’m tired. I think this comeback has been more tiring than I realised.”

He hunched over the table, head in his hands. “When did I become so co-dependent and… Oksana and I could never have lived together! We would’ve killed each other in two days flat! Yuuri was easy to live with, though. It was good, better… It was nice.” Makkachin nudged his leg and whined. He reached down to scratch her behind the ear. “We were alone before Yuuri, weren’t we? And he’ll come visit all the time. We just got a little used to him, that’s all.” Makkachin jumped up, front paws on his thighs, tongue hanging out. He kissed her forehead. “You’re right, of course you are – such a good girl. We’ll just have to invite him over a lot, that’s such a good idea. Pretty girl, smart girl.”

So he did his evening stretches – alone – and watched the news, alone. The weather reporter was wearing his polka dot tie again, but now he had no one to point it out to. Yuuri was an evening showerer; Viktor was a morning showerer. He didn’t have to wait now to go brush his teeth and floss – that was good, the wait had been annoying sometimes…

Makkachin curled up by the foot of his bed to sleep, like she usually did, but Viktor patted the bed beside him and let her sleep right in his arms. The flat was quiet, the other bedroom empty. There was no Yuuri there to greet him in the morning, with bed hair and a faded sleep shirt with a Detroit university logo on it. They wouldn’t do their rink commute together, chatting in the summer mornings and planning their day. It was fine, it was –

His phone buzzed – a text from Yuuri: I miss giving Makkachin a kiss goodnight :(

Viktor let out a sigh. How stupid! Yuuri was a fifteen-minute drive away, traffic depending. Stupid to be texting when they should be talking in person. Stupid Sergei. Stupid NHL. Stupid to be so far away when they were so close.

Makkachin was snoring next to Viktor, and Viktor kissed her on the ear. Gave her one for you.

Thanks :) See you tomorrow?

The question mark amused him – it wasn’t really optional as they trained together every day, and on a rare rest day they still were hanging out. He hoped that wasn’t going to change. He wanted to type ‘Sure, but where’s my kiss?’, fingers hovering over the screen, and then groaned and put his phone away. Maybe it was good that Yuuri had moved out. Maybe the past few months had been, ah. A bit intense. Maybe on a few mornings Viktor had taken longer in the shower after stumbling into Yuuri wearing nothing but boxer briefs, making coffee in the kitchen, and Yuuri had these power thighs, muscular and thick, that had Viktor hating himself when his hand headed south under the cascading hot water five minutes later.

He’d pushed such incidents – rare! In his defence! – out of his mind and moved on. It’d been a response to visual stimuli: he was a single man with a sex drive, at the end of the day. Pleasuring himself was like shaving, just another thing he had to do every now and then, and he did so whether he shared his place with a sexy twenty-something or not.

God, had he really wanted to type out ‘where’s my kiss’? Pathetic. Pathetic and sad! He would be thirty in a matter of months – old, ancient. Yuuri did not need some old creep sending him suggestive messages, let alone someone who was supposed to be Yuuri’s best friend. What kind of an asshole was Viktor, exactly? More importantly, was he or wasn’t he a pair skater with over twenty years of experience – didn’t he know where to draw the line between professional conduct, between acted out passion on the ice, and unprofessional ogling?

And so Viktor hated himself a little. He read out once more: See you tomorrow? As if Yuuri had to ask, just to make sure.

He wrote, Bright and early, groaned, and buried his face in Makkachin’s neck. He didn’t count the hours.

(It was eight hours.)

* * *

They had been feeling pretty confident about their programs, ready to take them to competition, and then Yakov brought in Lilya to assess them.

“This is awful!” Lilya bewailed. “Viktor, you are stiff! Yuuri, you skate like log! No, no! Is this pantomime for children?! Is this operetta?!”

And so, instead of a day off on Sunday, they had agreed to train with Lilya. Viktor took a quick selfie of them, wondered aloud what to tag it (#nosundayfunday #hardatwork won), and posted it online. Yuuri was still avoiding social media, but Viktor was posting their activities nearly daily. When Yuuri had let himself take a look at Viktor’s Instagram, he was flustered to see that since they had gone public, he was featured in nearly every other picture. It made him feel kind of warm and fuzzy, really.

“We work on abysmal Eros,” Lilya told them when they arrived at her dance studio on Sunday afternoon.

Yuuri looked at Viktor uncertainly. They had thought they were working on the free skate, which was less polished, and Viktor said so.

“No, no, I saw it, long program is fine. Very beautiful, sensual. Love story, both shy – eager and nervous, but in love. Yes, it was okay. But Eros! No passion! No conviction!”

Yuuri never would have dared to say anything, but Viktor said, “We’ve been told it’s pretty steamy.”

Lilya laughed. “Amateurs! I will show you, I will show you. You start, I will show you.”

They got five seconds in before the first bark of displeasure. “Yuuri, you must look at Viktor! This is romance! Meet lover’s gaze! Sex is easy, love is hard! Is easy! You want him, you desire him! Caress his hair! No, not like that – caress it, caress it! Pull it! Throes of passion! Start again!

“Viktor, grab him! You are consumed by lust! Convince me! Trail hand across chest! This is Eros, no? One, two, three – no, stop. Do that again. Drag him to you, Viktor! You must have him right here, on floor! Audience has to be on edges of seats, thinking you are about to make love!

“No, no, if you are teasing with kiss, I want two millimetres between lips! Two millimetres! What measurement is this in Japan, no – get closer to him! Why you hold back? Stop holding back! Now stare into eyes! Blood boils, body thrums! Feel each other! Good, good, better!”

And then, after hours of torture, “Take break. We continue in ten minutes.”

Lilya strolled out of the studio, leaving them flushed and panting. Yuuri had his hands on his hips, feeling gross and sweaty. Viktor was sat on the floor, catching his breath. “She’s tough,” Yuuri said.

Viktor nodded. “Tough as hell.”

“I thought our Eros was okay.”

“Me too,” Viktor agreed. “Apparently not.”

Well, if Lilya though Yuuri caressing Viktor and shooting him more lingering gazes helped, then he’d do it. Hopefully the judges would throw their appreciation in their PCS. “Maybe we need to work on the characters more.”

“But we have!” Viktor sounded frustrated too. Yuuri passed Viktor a bottle of water, and Viktor took a long sip. “Element of surprise: it looks like I’m seducing you, an innocent victim, but turns out you’re well aware, and once we’ve – we’ve had each other, I’m under your spell but you leave me. That’s the story. Eros: sexual love, treacherous, all consuming!”

“Well, maybe we need to sell it more,” he shrugged as Viktor stood up. “Maybe me as the seducer is a hard sell. Fumio always said –”

“Enough about Fumio!” Viktor nearly snapped, uncharacteristically. “If Fumio didn’t think you could do sexy, he was a moron. The first night I saw you, you were practically having sex with a guy you’d just met, right there on the dance floor of a club. You’d seduced him in seconds!”

“I was drunk,” he said, instantly, rather embarrassed. “I hope you’re not suggesting we start performing our short program with me intoxicated.”

“Maybe we should!” Viktor argued. Yuuri stalled – were they fighting? Was this a fight? Viktor was raising his voice, which he hardly ever did. Had Yuuri failed him? Viktor said, “It’s not just you. We’re both holding back, Lilya’s right.”

“I’ll turn it up a notch,” he promised, with rising desperation. “I’ll be – be sluttier, or whatever.”

“Eros isn’t about being slutty, it’s about raw desire!” Viktor now paced back and forth, wiping sweat from his forehead. Then he came to a still. “Can we – try again, except this time pretend I’m that guy at the club. Okay? And we’ve just met, and you want me in your bed, between your thighs, or you between mine, doesn’t matter. You want it, and I just happen to be here. You want me for one night, one mind-blowing night, and then you never want to see me again. And if I get attached, then that’s on me. How’s that?”

Well, Yuuri objected to that on several accounts, naturally: he barely remembered the guy at the club, and he wondered who could have a one-night-stand with Viktor Nikiforov and then think ‘that’s enough for me!’ But it was getting late, Lilya had been dragging them through the mud for hours, and fine, he’d try it. Fine.

He tried to steady himself. He wasn’t dancing with Viktor, or the earlier character he’d been doing the program with for months – who was still sort of Viktor.

This guy was – was nothing but meat, a six-pack, a toned ass and a generous cock, and Yuuri wanted the guy on him and in him. He hadn’t had sex since last year, and he could use some of that pent-up frustration, maybe, as inspiration. And, sadly, what Viktor had just said wasn’t far off: Yuuri didn’t know how to date, was too anxious and awkward to flirt, but he could do drunken pick-ups. On the rare nights alcohol had helped him not to think, and not to be shy and self-conscious, he had gotten laid, fucked into the mattress even on one memorable occasion. And, in the morning, he was out of there – no way was he dealing with the aftermath.

So the scenario Viktor gave him was familiar to Yuuri. He tried to think of the rush when he found someone on the same wavelength: full of lust and the determination to see it satisfied. Sweaty, sexy, unapologetic.

Okay. Okay, okay.

Starting positions, for the umpteenth time: a man standing behind him, hands on his hips. They didn’t play the music, but it was in their heads, and they were leaving place marks for elements they couldn’t recreate in the dance studio. Still, this was Eros, once more.

They started the routine and oh, Yuuri thought, as not-Viktor pulled him into his arms and dragged his mouth across his throat, wet and hot and real – not just pretend like before. Oh, oh. The program wasn’t foreplay. Yuuri had thought, all this time, it was foreplay. He spiralled away from the embrace, hand clasped in his conquest’s, them weaving in and out of each other. He was picked up – triple twist – put down, soon picked up again, lasso lift in the air, his hands dragging down not-Viktor’s chest when he came down, was spun, and then he sank down to his knees, Viktor controlling his movement. Then they were embracing again, face-to-face, lips millimetres apart, and Yuuri pulled on not-Viktor’s hair hard – this wasn’t foreplay. This was sex.

Yuuri forgot who he was performing with, willing his partner into a faceless, sexy stranger who was going to pin him against the wall and fuck him until he saw stars. He kept pulling the man back in, back in, hands everywhere – was he even in control anymore, was he –

And then, no, it was done, it was over. Cast aside and forget. He was supposed to turn away, have his lover on his knees begging for his return. So he moved to rid himself of not-Viktor’s grip, but to his surprise the grip held and wouldn’t yield. He was pulled back in, forcefully, into a full-bodied embrace, Viktor’s breath washing against his lips, Viktor’s hands slipping to his ass, Viktor’s eyes locked on his mouth, and Viktor’s crotch pressed to his, feeling fuller than before, and it was not a faceless man, it wasn’t a stranger, it’d been Viktor all this time, and Yuuri’s stomach dropped, a hot wave of desire ran through him, and he needed so badly that –

“See,” Lilya’s voice came, and Yuuri nearly jumped. He and Viktor let each other go like they’d been burned. Lilya had her arms crossed and was leaning against the door frame of the studio. “Like I say, sex is easy. Love is hard, yes, but sex – very easy. Hmm?” She strolled in with an air of triumph. “This ending is better. You use this from now on.”

“Okay,” Yuuri said.

“Yeah, okay,” Viktor agreed.

Yuuri didn’t look to Viktor so he was left unsure if it was just him avoiding eye contact, or if Viktor was avoiding it too.

* * *

Yakov was, understandably, not pleased by Georgi and Anya’s dissolvement (understatement), and everyone at the rink suffered as the summer turned to autumn. Yakov was so pissed, in fact, that he gathered everyone to sit on the bleachers one day, from the novices to the seniors, for A Talk. Well, Viktor thought, this was going to be interesting…

“We are not here to fool around!” Yakov’s speech began. “We are here to skate! And win! Win national titles, international titles – World titles, Olympic titles! Georgi and Anya are a warning to us all that –”

“What’s he saying?” Yuuri whispered to his ear, sounding confused.

Yakov noticed and switched to English. “You athletes – you date pretty girls, boys, fine, you young, you think romance – fools! Date someone else! This is work! Not here! You understand?” Yakov glared at them all, from the seven-year-old boys to the thirteen-year-old girls. “No romance here!”

Someone giggled. Yakov turned red with anger.

The meeting was adjourned.

For the next few days ‘No Romance Here’ was the unofficial slogan of the rink, said only when Yakov wasn’t present. A rumour was going around that Lilya had turned down another one of Yakov’s dinner invites – the true source of his vitriol. But Yakov had always been teased for having a soft spot for his ex-wife. No, it was Georgi and Anya that had Yakov upset: Yakov had worked with them for nearly fifteen years, placing his hopes and ambitions on them, and then Anya went off with a hockey player. Apparently, she was thinking of finding a new skating partner and returning in the new year.

Yakov was hurt, and Viktor understood. He and Oksana had failed in getting Olympic gold four years earlier, and now Anya and Georgi had failed Yakov, too. Yurio and Beka were, understandably, now being trained to fill in that gap. Yakov had insisted that Otabek take a semester off from the university, and Otabek had done so. Yurio, at sixteen, still had to go to school, and the principle wouldn’t let Yurio take a leave of absence even when Yakov called her to complain. “Do you not know what it means to skate at the Olympics?!” Yakov had – allegedly – yelled into the phone. “Glory for Mother Russia!”

‘Glory for Mother Russia’ became the new rink slogan, as ‘No Romance Here’ faded. The younger skaters were having the time of their lives.

“If only you had picked a Russian to skate with, we could send you to the Olympics,” Yakov sighed one afternoon, looking older than Viktor felt Yakov had any right to look. “But you have come back fighting, Vitya, and you chose your partner well – for that, I must respect you.”

Viktor didn’t even know what to say – it was, perhaps, the nicest thing Yakov had ever said to him. Were they all going soft in their old age, he wondered.

But.

But, but, but.

Yakov would not have praised him so if he’d known the truth: Viktor liked Yuuri. He liked Yuuri so much it felt stupid. He was almost annoyed by how much he could like someone – it was irritating, to like someone so much. He’d started driving to the rink, just to have the excuse to drive Yuuri home at the end of the day, to have ten minutes more of Yuuri’s company. And whenever he waved Yuuri goodbye, parked outside Sergei’s stupid building, he was resentful that Yuuri didn’t live with him anymore.

He was at his best when he was with Yuuri. He was his most charming, wittiest, funniest, most sincere and most truthful. He was most himself. He didn’t know how to explain it, but when Yuuri wasn’t there, Viktor felt like he was less. Other people were bland. He kept waiting for Yuuri.

And then they’d be on the ice, acting out a seduction where he pressed his lips to Yuuri’s throat in worship – but he wasn’t acting. He probably hadn’t been acting for months now. One time he had, accidentally, trailed his mouth all the way to Yuuri’s earlobe, and Yuuri’s breath had hitched in the most sinful way, like a moan was trapped in his throat. Was it a weak spot? Was it a patch of skin Viktor could suck on to drive Yuuri wild?

He liked the Yuuri who got lost in Eros with him, and he liked the Yuuri who showed up at the rink with smudgy glasses and toothpaste still in the corner of his mouth. He liked so much that his hands felt idle. If I don’t get to touch him soon, even the smallest caress, I’m going to implode.

But without fail he had Yuuri in his arms every day. He got Yuuri’s smiles and moods and laughs and idle thoughts, the scent of him, the warmth of him. Was this victory? Was this torture?

No Romance Here. Yes, it was sensible. It was a good rule.

No Romance Here.

And if he wasn’t careful, he’d ruin their entire partnership – and with that the trust they had built, Yuuri’s future career, all of it. And hadn’t their Eros become alive when Yuuri pretended he was seducing someone who wasn’t Viktor? Really, how much bigger a clue did Viktor need?

He needed to stop.

Soon. Somehow.

God, he was screwed.