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A Myriad of Possibilities

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Hasetsu – March

Yuuri has never told anyone how much it hurts to step on the ice.

Figure skaters are no strangers to pain, and Yuuri lives so constantly mired in it – the sharp throb of his abused feet, the sting of bruises when he hits the ice, and the ever constant sour tang of anxiety wrapped around his heart, squeezing like a vice – that he imagines it would feel stranger to be free of the discomfort.

Yuuri has given up trying to make sense of it; figure skating, after all, is a sport of contradictions – power tempered by grace, technical prowess elevated by artistry, the ideal skating program marked by an ethereal quality that belies just how much stress each skater puts on their bodies, sometimes to the breaking point. 

Lately, Yuuri's starting to believe he has reached his.

It hurts to step into the rink and remember how badly he's let his family, his friends, his nation down. It hurts to begin the opening choreography of his short program or the free skate and have that insidious voice in his head whisper what ifs at him – what if you hadn't tripped there, what if you hadn't compromised your speed before the take off, what if you just fucking did what you've trained more than a decade to actually do. And it hurts the most, to look down at the ice and realized that if he'd devoted as much thought to the rest of his life as he did to the ice, then maybe Vicchan wouldn't have died without having a single hug or pat or scratch from Yuuri in almost five years.

The phantom bite of the ice follows Yuuri everywhere, even when he's nowhere near a rink, but he can't clearly remember how it feels to have Vicchan's warm, wiggling weight curled up against his chest.

He'll never have the chance to recapture that feeling again.

It hurts, so, so much, but it hurts more to remain stagnant, and so Yuuri chooses the lesser of the two evils. He straps on his boots and does compulsory figures, over and over and over until he can't think straight. He skates with Phichit, because Phichit has turned distracting Yuuri from his specific worries and pushing him into other questionable situations into an art. And finally, Yuuri does what has always comforted him best:

He mimics Victor's routines.

He starts with the old favourites from Victor's junior career, the ones he and Yuuko had spent so much time pouring over. Where once he and Yuuko could only do singles or wobbly doubles in place of Victor's flawless triple jumps, Yuuri can now perform entire routines as they've been choreographed. Yuuri loves those programs dearly, but after so many years of skating them they're hardly a challenge, and so Yuuri turns to Victor's senior programs.

The risqué short program that marked the change to Victor's image, from ethereal and captivating to stunningly powerful and physical. The short program and the free skate the year Victor unveiled his signature quad flip. The world-record shattering free skate at the Olympics, the one that cemented Victor's status as a living legend in the figure skating world.

And finally, Victor's free skate this season, set to a beautifully heartfelt Italian aria. Stammi Vicino is currently Victor's most technically difficult routine, and even with the quad flip and quad lutz downgraded to triples Yuuri finds himself crashing flat out on the ice more often than not. Phichit asked him once, with the air of someone who is horribly fascinated by a car wreck but can't look away, if he felt better falling on jumps when it's Victor's program as opposed to Yuuri's own. Yuuri was panting too heavily to answer Phichit then, but the answer is yes.

Skating to Victor's routines, Yuuri doesn’t have to be Japan's ace, the JSF's current best hope at medals in the senior men's single category, or Hasetsu's pride and joy, the man who put their humble seaside town on the map – Yuuri just has to be Yuuri, fervent fan and yet another skater whose career was inspired by the living legend. He knows he'll never match Victor in skill, and so there's no pressure involved to skate Victor's programs; if Yuuri falls or stumbles or totally messes up, well, that's entirely to be expected.

So Yuuri practices Victor's Stammi Vicino choreography as he finishes up his final exams, as he packs up his suitcases, as he bids farewell to Phichit, to Celestino, the entire Detroit skating club, and when he sets foot back onto Hasetsu soil for the first time in five long years, it just makes sense to head to a rink (the rink, his original home rink) and skate it there.

He sees echoes of Vicchan everywhere as he jogs to Ice Castle Hasetsu, and the pain flares, sharper and brighter than when Yuuri had knelt in front of the small memorial in the altar room.

But Yuuri is going to hurt no matter what he does – he might as well endure it doing something he loves.

---

Yuuri’s breathing is harsh in his ears when he comes to a stop, hands wrapped protectively around himself as he strikes the final pose of the program. He’s abruptly aware of the silence shrouding the rest of the rink; Yuuri might be a sweating, panting mess, but around him the ice is tranquil.

For the first time since Yuuri stepped on the plane with all his life in Detroit packed away into a single suitcase, his mind is calm, lulled into stillness.

A single, sharp gasp breaks Yuuri’s concentration, and he glances at Yuuko, his eyes wide.

Yuuko slams her palms onto the top of the boards, uncaring of how she might hurt herself in her enthusiasm. “That was amazing!” she yells, and it’s so painfully familiar that for a moment Yuuri’s heart squeezes hard in his chest.

How often has he heard her scream the same thing at him over the phone, ever supportive and excited even an ocean and a dozen time zones away?

“A perfect copy of Victor! I knew it the moment you struck the starting pose, and—” Yuuko pumps one fist in the air, and then it’s like all her vibrant energy calms, her smile slipping into something fond and proud instead. “I thought you’d be depressed, but I’m so glad to see you’re still fighting. I was worried, you know. It’s been months since I last saw you skating.”

“I wanted to recapture my love for skating,” Yuuri says. “And to do that... I guess I had to skate.” He smiles hesitantly at her. “Yu-chan, I—”

A sudden rattling and shrill yelling interrupts him, and both Yuuri and Yuuko turn as one towards the dressing room doors.

“Papa, we want to see!”

Yuuko’s smile grows brighter. “I’m glad you’re still skating, because my girls have been dying to skate with you.”

There’s more rattling, and under the higher-pitched voices of the triplets, Yuuri can now make out Nishigori’s lower tones. Yuuko gazes fondly at the doors. “You’ll have to thank Takeshi – if he hadn’t locked the doors and held them back, there’s no way you could have gotten through that program without them filming you.” She turns to wink at Yuuri. “Like me, they’ll recognize Victor’s routine right away.”

Right then, the doors burst wide open, and Yuuri catches a glimpse of Nishigori getting shoved aside before three tiny girls in matching blue, purple and pink skating attire and tiny white skating boots swarm up to the boards.

“Yuuri! Welcome back!”

“Yuuri, you’ve really grown fat!”

“Yuuri, you’re done skating already? So you’re no longer retiring?”

“Axel, Lutz, Loop!” Yuuko yells over their voices, but the three girls just ignore her – they leap onto the ice and circle Yuuri like a pack of miniature wolves. Yuuko shakes her head. “Sorry about them. They’ve grown a lot since you’ve last seen them, haven’t they?” 

“Yeah,” Yuuri says, and he might be used to the media and the paparazzi and the ever-constant cameras, but there’s nothing quite like having an adamant and stubborn little girl snap a photo of him on her phone every few seconds while her sister films him, the camcorder unwavering, and her other sister snaps even more photos with a proper point-and-shoot camera.

He’s seen and talked to them a few times, constantly underfoot when he makes time to video call Yuuko and Nishigori, but it’s a shock to see them now in person. When Yuuri left Hasetsu for Detroit, Axel, Lutz and Loop were three tiny babies that Yuuri was almost afraid to hold, and now they were hip-height and old enough to skate circles around him, and when Axel grabbed onto Yuuri’s arm to pull him down to her height for a selfie, her every movement is natural and confident – unafraid after a childhood spent on the ice under her parents’ guidance.

Yuuri was interrupted before he got to say to Yuuko what he’d planned to confess ever since he made the decision to return to Hasetsu, and it bubbles up in him once more—

Yu-chan, I’ve always had your support, but I never thanked you for it. I’ve missed so much to focus on my skating, but copying someone else’s routine is the only thing I can show for it. I’m sorry.

“Yuuri.” Yuuko’s voice is soft, and Yuuri shouldn’t have heard her over her daughters’ happy chatter, but he does. “It’s okay. You’re back now.”

Yuuri swallows, and he wonders what expression must be on his face for her to say that. But then again, Yuuko has always read him so easily, a godsend when Yuuri was younger and less articulate and so very unsure about his place in the world.

The crisp snick of blades hitting the ice draws Yuuri back from his thoughts.

“Welcome back,” Nishigori says. The arm he wraps insistently around Yuuri’s neck and the way he scuffles Yuuri’s hair is teasing, but his voice holds a note of seriousness under the levity. “You can come here any time to skate.”

“Nishigori,” Yuuri says, half wanting to throw off the chokehold, the other half so terribly grateful for Nishigori’s kindness that he has to close his eyes for a moment to gather himself. Hasetsu is a small seaside town that is half-forgotten and left behind – all the reasons why Yuuri had once left Hasetsu for are now the same reasons why he returned. He wants the seclusion, and the quiet, and the sheer lack of expectation, but the ice is the one constant in his life, and Yuuri can’t quite give it up.

Not yet.

“We’ve got your back,” Nishigori says, and Yuuri closes his eyes – soaks in the warmth of the Nishigori family around him – and just breathes.

---

Yuuri gets back to Yu-topia in time to help his mother and Mari clear up for the day. It also strategically allows him to avoid most of Yu-topia’s loyal patrons. They’re all old friends of the family, and even though most of them don’t know much about figure skating, they’ve watched Yuuri grow up through the years. With the persistent nosiness of an extended family, Yuuri knows they’ll grill him on every detail of his life abroad.

Eventually, his mother pushes Yuuri out of the kitchen with a jug of water and instructions to get Minako to ingest some of it, and Yuuri creeps out into the much emptier and darker dining room with mixed relief and disappointment. He’s missed the controlled chaos of the kitchen, where he just has to execute, not think, but his mother and Mari are a well-oiled machine there, working easily around each other like a well-matched pair of ice dancers, and Yuuri knows right now, five years out of synch, he’s more a hindrance than a help.

He takes the water, and goes.

Minako is drowsing in front of the darken television, beer bottles littering the space around her, and Yuuri sets the water down to clear up. He’s binning the bottles for recycling when he catches sight of the sign tacked to the TV stand – don’t change the channel! – and Yuuri’s heart jumps.

The World Championships. He’s missed it.

Since his senior debut, Yuuri has always made the cut for Worlds, and this one time he isn’t there, it never even occurred to him to watch Phichit – to watch Victor – compete.

“You didn’t watch Victor skate,” Minako murmurs in an eerie echo of Yuuri’s thoughts, and Yuuri jumps, almost tripping on the tatami.

Minako sits up, pushing her hair away from her face, and snags Yuuri’s wrist, pulling him down to sit beside her. Her movements are still elegant, with the loose-limbed grace of the near-inebriated, and although her eyes are half-closed her gaze under her eyelashes is sharp.

“He won, of course. Phichit did well – top ten.” Minako lets go of Yuuri’s wrist, and leans her head against one fist. “Feel better?” 

Of course she knows – there are two places Yuuri can be easily found when the world grows too overwhelming, and he certainly wasn’t at Minako’s ballet studio.

“A little.” Yuuri reaches automatically for the jug of water, just to give his hands something to do, and pours a glass for Minako. “It was good to see Yuuko-chan and Nishigori and the triplets.”

“Good.” Minako downs half the water, and then holds the glass against her forehead. “Come by the studio sometime tomorrow. I had to change the locks a few years back, so I need to give you a new set of keys.”

This time, Yuuri has to let go of the jug, lest he accidentally shatter it from how tightly he’s gripping it. “Minako-sensei.”

Minako hums an acknowledgment at him, not glancing in his direction.

Yuuri swallows around the lump in his throat, and his voice comes out flat from the effort. “Why.”

“Homecomings can be difficult.”

“You lived in different parts of the world for almost two decades.”

“I went where the dance took me,” Minako says. “But I did come back to Hasetsu eventually.”

“You only came back when you retired,” Yuuri says, and then startles when Minako sits up completely, back straight, posture perfect, her eyes no longer looking sleepy.

She studies him for a long, pointed minute. "Is that what you came back to do? To retire?"

Yuuri wants to shrink back, because that question haunts him constantly, and although everyone skirts around it, even the Japanese media, as if afraid to suggest it to him, Yuuri knows what people are saying about him online.

It’s not pretty, to put it lightly.

Minako sets her glass decisively on the table. She tilts her head, thinking hard, and then says, “Was it your idea to come back to Hasetsu, or did someone else suggest it?”

Yuuri feels himself relax, just a little. Close-ended questions. Those he can handle.

“My idea,” he says.

"Do you want to continue skating?"

"Yes," Yuuri says without hesitation.

Minako’s eyes are shrewd. "Do you want to continue skating competitively?"

It’s like the whole room is holding its breath, waiting for Yuuri to answer. He’s been asked that question obliquely, by friends and family, and each and every single time, Yuuri has lied through his teeth or ignored the question entirely.

This time, with Minako, he speaks the truth. "I don't know."

Minako lets out a soft sigh – it's not of exasperation or disappointment, but of relief, although Yuuri can't imagine why. "That's all right, you know. Not knowing. Some people take an entire season off before they make a decision either way.”

Yuuri shakes his head. “I doubt the JSF would let me go that long without a solid answer.” He twists his fingers together. “I don’t think I can go that long without a solid answer.”

He can’t live mired in this guilt-ridden uncertainty for much longer, and more than that, he knows he’ll never catch up with Victor if he takes an entire year off. Whether it means throwing himself back on the ice and hoping he won’t shatter again, or deciding to put it all aside to focus on a life away from the competitive circuit, Yuuri has to move forward, somehow.  

This time, Minako’s the one to pour Yuuri a glass of water. “I’ve dropped that cup a number of times watching the competition,” she says wryly, tilting her head at the darken television. “I’m sure it’ll hold up against your restlessness.”

Yuuri accepts it with a murmur of thanks, and looks up at Minako, waiting. She has something important to say; Yuuri’s trained under her long enough to recognize the signs.

“What you need is time, and that’s not a luxury most athletes have, or are allowed to have.” Minako catches Yuuri’s gaze. “Just hear me out before you jump to a decision, all right?”

Yuuri nods.

“A friend of mine, Odagaki Kanako, approached me recently about choreographing a figure skating routine for one of her students.”

Yuuri blinks. Retired from performing she might be, but Minako likes to keep busy, and somehow the snack bar, her ballet studio and constantly attending Yuuri’s competitions isn’t quite enough to keep her occupied. Minako often takes choreography requests; Yuuri isn’t surprised – Minako is a Benois de la Danse ballerina, after all – but he is surprised it’s for a figure skating routine.

“I know,” Minako says. “I usually get requests for ballet sessions for skaters, thanks to your artistry on the ice.” She gives him an impish smile. “Having you known in the public eye as my former protégé does wonders for my reputation.”

“I’m not your walking advertisement board,” Yuuri says under his breath.

Minako ignores him. “There’s a good reason why Kanako asked me, however. She’s Minami Kenjirou’s coach.”

She looks at Yuuri with an air of expectation. Yuuri stares back at her blankly, and slowly Minako’s expression turns exasperated.

“Junior skater who mimics your twizzles and half-turns in his choreographic sequences? Took bronze at senior Nationals this year? Minami-kun?”

That particular name – Minami-kun – sparks a memory, and Yuuri jerks his head up. He remembers the teenager now – bright-eyed and boisterous, with bleached-dyed hair and fast footwork and solid jumps, although he’d fallen on his triple axel.

Not that the fall mattered. Minami-kun had still scored much higher than Yuuri did, and the audience had been thoroughly charmed by his performances.

Yuuri swallows hard, and pushes the memories aside. “Of course Odagaki-san would ask you. Minami-kun should be debuting at the senior level soon, right? Your choreographies are excellent.”

Minako snorts. “Well, Minami-kun certainly thinks so. Remember your Lohengrin routine? I choreographed that for you, and he loved the way you skated that program. He wants something similar for his short program next season.”

“Me?” Yuuri says incredulously. A moment later, his face goes hot. “Lohengrin was so long ago! Way back in my dark past!”

“Yes, you. Back when you were overly fond of sparkly sequins and hadn’t quite learned subtlety yet. But you skated that routine beautifully, if I do say so myself.” Minako taps her fingers against the table. “Kanako mostly coachs juniors, because she’s excellent at training and reinforcing the basics, and she’s empathetic to her students’ needs. Minami-kun is adamant about staying with her, however, and she’s game to continue coaching him at the senior level until he decides otherwise.”

Yuuri thinks about Celestino, and has to bite back another wave of guilt. “Finding a coach you trust enough to share your competitive career with is difficult. As long as Odagaki-san can continue pushing Minami-kun forward to the next level, he likely made the best decision.”

“Perhaps. Either way, it’ll be a learning experience for them both.” Minako catches Yuuri’s gaze. “They’re based in Fukuoka. I’m heading down to their rink next week to discuss the details with them. I’d like you to come with me.”

Yuuri narrows his eyes.  Slowly, with the caution of someone who is aware he’s about to step into a bear trap, he asks, “Why?”

Minako smiles at him; if there’s a sad tinge to the curve of her lips, well, Yuuri can’t quite tell in the dimness of the room. “You need time. Even if you have most of the off-season to make a decision, the JSF relies on you too much to not force an answer out of you much earlier. So, here’s my proposal.’

“I believe you’ll make a wonderful mentor to Minami-kun. If you become an assistant coach of sorts to him, you’ll still be tied to the competitive circuit in some capacity, and since you can say that you’re helping to train the next generation of Japanese senior men’s single skaters, it’ll hopefully keep the JSF off your back. Take the off-season or the next whole season off – it’ll be easier to negotiate with the JSF if they think they still have some claim to you.” 

Yuuri is so taken aback that he’s shocked speechless for a long moment. When he does find the words, he doesn’t manage to filter himself. “One, I’ve never coached anyone in my life, and two, I’m not going to use Minami-kun to get through my own problems.”

Minako murmurs something under her breath – should have known you’d think that way – and then raises her voice back to its usual level. “If anything, Minami-kun will gain so much more from this arrangement than you will. If you can help him with his step sequences, his performance points will jump tremendously. More importantly, you’ve competed internationally at the senior level for years; you can help guide him at the senior level events.” She arcs an eyebrow at him. “After all, you and I both know that there’s more to the career of a competitive figure skater than just performing well on the ice.”

“And look at how well I handle all of that,” Yuuri retorts. “The media, the pressure, socializing at the banquets. I think the sponsors are about ready to wring my neck. How am I supposed to help anyone if I can’t even—”

“Sometimes,” Minako cuts him off gently, “it’s equally important to know what to avoid. Learn from other people’s mistakes, if you want to put it that way.”

She tips her chin at the cup in Yuuri’s hand, and he takes a sip automatically. It’s cold and refreshing, and Yuuri blinks – he hadn’t even noticed how dry his mouth had gone.

“You’ve never had a major injury, have you? No broken bones or fractures that take you off the ice for more than a week?”

Yuuri shakes his head.

Minako sighs, tucking her hair behind one ear. “You’ve always worked hard. It’s how you overcome your hardships. But when you’ve broken or fractured a bone, you need to rest. You can do mild exercises or stretches to keep the rest of you in decent shape, but jumping on a fractured foot just sets you back even more – and puts you in tremendous pain.”

Her voice goes soft. “What happened this past season hurt you. It’s not physical, which makes it that much harder to deal with, but something inside you has cracked apart, and like any injury, it takes time and adjustments to your routine to heal. Just working hard isn’t helping anymore, is it?”

Yuuri swallows, and shakes his head again.

Minako smiles at him. “I think the arrangement with Kanako and Minami-kun could help. A compromise between staying on the ice and competing on it. But that’s just what I think.” She looks Yuuri straight in the eye, and underneath the warmth and kindness is a core of steel that reminds Yuuri just how many years Minako has been a dancer and teacher herself. “What do you think?”

Yuuri stares down at his hands, the way his fingers are clenched around the cup. “We’re just meeting with them in Fukuoka?”

“Yes. I’ll be assessing Minami-kun’s skill on the ice so I can choreograph a performance that suits him, but I just want you to come along. No obligations.”

The chances of any situation staying obligation-free, Yuuri knows from experience, are very low. But it’s Minako-sensei; if he can’t trust her, who else can he trust?

“Okay,” he says. “I can do that.”

❄ ❄ ❄


Cup of China, Beijing
late October  

Yuuri didn’t think it was possible, but standing rink side watching Minami move around the ice during the official practice session is even more nerve-wrecking than participating in the competition itself.

He doesn’t know if it’s his mind playing tricks on him again, taking every innocuous glance and amplifying it into something larger than it really is, but it feels like everyone they walk by is staring at Yuuri. He knows it can’t be true – seriously, Yuuri isn’t anyone special; why would anyone care about the fact that he’s not competing? Or even recognize him as Katsuki Yuuri, a Japanese figure skater, when he’s out of costume? – except Minami keeps sending Yuuri nervous looks, twitchy from all the stares, so at least one of them must be attracting the attention.

Yuuri likes to think it’s Minami, that the younger skater is garnering the kind of good publicity that eventually leads to better sponsorships and endorsements, but at one point, as they have to move past a particularly crowded warm-up room, Odagaki pulls Minami ahead so that he’s walking at her side instead of at Yuuri’s, sending an apologetic look at Yuuri as she does so.

Yuuri really doesn’t mind. Minami’s shoulders seem to go down a little once he’s away from all the stares and whispers, and Yuuri just ducks his head, keeps his eyes trained on Odagaki’s sensible shoes and Minami’s sneakers as they make their way around the venue.

It’s not Minami’s fault Yuuri is apparently infamous in skating circles now; the very last thing Yuuri wants is to drag Minami down with him.

Minami calms considerably once he’s on the ice. No one at the same practice session is overtly familiar with their team – the skaters there are all seasoned seniors while Minami is debuting, and Yuuri has always kept close to Phichit and Chris – and the lack of attention is a blessing. Still, when they’re all chased off the ice to make way for the next group of skaters, Yuuri elects not to go with Odagaki or Minami for the official ISU check-ins.

“Yuuri-kun, I really don’t mind,” Minami says, all earnestness even though he’s still catching his breath.

Yuuri shakes his head. “I might have helped out with your training, but I was never really involved on the official side of business. I’ll just be in the way.”

“Kanako-sensei.” Minami turns to Odagaki imploringly.

Odagaki laughs and ruffles Minami’s hair, uncaring that her hand comes away streaked with sweat. “Katsuki-san deserves a break, doesn’t he? It’s the first time he’s back in public internationally after last year.”

“Oh!” Minami says, and the next look he turns on Yuuri is wide-eyed, worry evident in his gaze.  

“I’m the last person you should be worrying about,” Yuuri says. “Go on – I’ll catch up with you before the interviews.”

He draws in a deep breath after they leave, finally letting himself slump now that he’s out of sight. Pulling out his phone from his pocket, Yuuri scrolls through all his alerts and messages.  The Japanese media is on a roll about Team Japan, which surprises Yuuri not at all; after the regional competitions, speculation about Minami and Yuuri himself is at an all-time high. There are a dozen messages from Phichit, and updates on the social media Yuuri lurks on from the skaters he follows as they flock into Beijing for the Cup of China. And there, nestled between the more casual news, is a headline Yuuri doesn’t expect, especially on one of the most popular skating news sites.

Former GPF finalist Katsuki Yuuri now coach for fellow countryman in this year’s Grand Prix Series.

Yuuri stares at it in askance. He understands the Japanese media’s dogged reporting on him and Minami – they both skate, or in Yuuri’s case, skated with the Japanese flag on their backs, after all. He even understands some of the murmuring from the other skaters, since Yuuri had been in the senior competitive circuit for a good half a decade. But for an international news site to pick this up, of all stories?

For all that Yuuri is only twenty-three, sometimes he feels tired and out of touch with how quickly the world changes.

His phone chimes at him, an alert from the JSF’s newsfeed – [LIVE] Interview with skater Minami Kenjirou. Yuuri bolts to his feet, shocked, and then he’s sprinting for the doors, his body falling into the familiar sprinting gait. He’d only meant to take a small breather, to regain his equilibrium, but the time has slipped out from between his fingers again, except this time Odagaki and Minami are relying on him.

Yuuri ducks around a corner, his shoes barely keeping traction on the floor, and almost careens headlong into a solid body.

Quick reflexes on his and the other person’s part spare them the collision; the other person ducks out of the way and Yuuri spins to the side, his arm taking the brunt of the impact as he hits the opposite wall. It stings like hell, but it’s nothing Yuuri hasn’t had worse while practicing, and he takes just a moment to catch his breath before looking up.

The first thing he notices is blue eyes, opened wide in shock, the pupils blown wide. There are green flecks amongst the blue, giving the irises a mercurial quality, and Yuuri stares right into them; he rarely gets this close to anyone to notice such details.

The second thing he realizes is that those eyes belong to Victor Nikiforov, and Yuuri goes so quickly from flustered to pale that he feels faint.

“Oh god,” he breathes, utterly mortified, because the last thing Yuuri needs is to accidentally injure Victor Nikiforov ahead of a competition. Especially since the last time Yuuri saw him, nearly a year ago, Yuuri had flat out ignored him and walked away. “Are you all right?”

“Me?” Victor says, looking a little dazed. He blinks once, and then his eyes seem to come into focus all at once, his stare suddenly intense on Yuuri’s skin. “I’m fine, you didn’t hit me at all.” He gives Yuuri a smile. “We move really well together, after all.”

Yuuri flushes. Victor is usually friendly with his fellow skaters, but that last line was almost flirtatious, and Yuuri’s starting to feel nauseous from his constantly fluctuating emotions. “Good, that’s good; the short program is tomorrow.”

“Yes, it is,” Victor says. He takes a step towards Yuuri; in a corridor as narrow as the one they’re standing in, it brings him impossibly close. “Are you—”

“I have to go!” Yuuri blurts out. He’s late, he had told Minami he’d be there, and even if it’s Victor in front of him, Yuuri doesn’t want to be mistaken for just another fan again. His heart has already taken one too many shocks today; Yuuri doesn’t think he could handle another disappointment.

“Wait—” Victor says, but Yuuri has already ducked away, keeping his head down. “Yuri!” he hears Victor call from behind him.

Yuuri doesn’t stop. He’s made that mistake before – why would Victor Nikiforov know who Yuuri is this year any more than he did last year? Yuri Plisetsky is debuting as a senior this year, after all, and might be attending to support his rinkmates.

It may be the sound of Yuuri’s name on Victor’s lips, but there is no way Victor is calling for him.

Yuuri pushes the thought firmly away.

He pauses outside the hall where the interviews are taking place to catch his breath and sweep his unruly hair back into place before he slips into the room, trying to move as quietly as possible. There are more reporters than usual, and to Yuuri’s surprise, a number of unfamiliar faces beyond the Japanese media – Morooka-san at the helm – and the ISU representatives.

Yuuri stares at them apprehensively, and then, chanting good publicity to himself at the back of his head, makes his way towards Odagaki, who is standing at the side of the room, out of the way of the reporters but still in Minami’s line of sight.

“Sorry I’m late,” he murmurs, keeping his voice low.

Odagaki gives him a small smile. “It’s fine. They’ve been interviewing skaters all afternoon, so it was hard to tell when Minami-kun was going up.”

“How is it going?” Yuuri says. He cranks his head – the Japanese media are leading the questioning, meaning Minami can answer directly, but there’s an interpreter hovering nearby too.

“They’re more cutthroat in the senior circuit,” Odagaki observes, a small furrow appearing between her eyes. “I’ve also heard your name mentioned more than once amongst the reporters, although they haven’t outright asked Minami-kun about you.”

Yuuri groans under his breath. “I saw the news article. Why are they focusing on me, of all people?”

“The other skaters are fixated on you, and it looks like the media have picked up the scent and are on the hunt for a news angle.” Odagaki shakes her head. “That explains the media. It doesn’t explain why people are staring at you. It’s not that uncommon for a skater to take a season off but still be involved with members of the national team in some way.”

She slants a pointed look at him. “And no, it has nothing to do with your GPF performance last year. Skaters have been falling on the ice for years before you came along, Katsuki-san.”

Minami catches sight of them, and gives a little wave in their direction. Yuuri raises a hand in acknowledgment.

“Okay,” Yuuri says to Odagaki, because this is one battle that Odagaki is determined to fight, Yuuri’s insecurities and guilt over the Sochi GPF, and Yuuri knows she’ll never let him get away with disparaging himself. “But I did notice that—”

The sound of his name draws Yuuri’s attention, and he cuts himself off, both he and Odagaki turning to face the interview session.

“Yes,” Minami confirms in Japanese. “That’s Katsuki Yuuri-kun.” He beams in Yuuri’s direction.

It seems the international media doesn’t need the interpreter to translate that; just the sound of Yuuri’s name is enough.

“Mr. Katsuki!” a reporter calls out, not even bothering to address the interpreter, and for just a second, before the panic sets in, Yuuri laments the fact that he speaks English fluently and can’t feign his way out of this. “Would you mind answering a few questions?”

“Mr. Katsuki, you’ve trained in Detroit for several years, but have left your former coach Celestino and are now residing in Japan. What is your exact relationship with Mr. Minami?”

“Mr. Katsuki, you have declined participating in the Grand Prix series and you are now attending as part of Mr. Minami’s team. Is this a direct statement on your future?”

Yuuri stares at Odagaki, his heart beating frantically in his chest. She stares grimly back – no matter how much she might want to rescue Yuuri, both of them know the media won't let go of this bone until Yuuri himself gives a statement of some kind. She tips her head discreetly to one side, her eyes flicking to Minami, and Yuuri seizes on her idea like a man hanging on for dear life.

"I am simply here as a member of Minami-kun's team, assisting Odagaki-san," Yuuri says in his firmest voice, trying to project an air of authority. "Any questions that you may have should be directed to Minami Kenjirou, who is the skater actually competing this week."

The collective reporters seem to twitch, like hound dogs picking up the scent. Yuuri has a split second to regret even speaking before they turn as one towards Minami. So many of them call out questions at the same time that it just sounds like white noise, and then a single voice rises up above them all.

"Mr. Minami, what is your opinion of Mr. Katsuki as a skater, a friend and presumably, a coach?"

Yuuri opens his mouth to protest because that's cheating, but Minami visibly brightens by several degrees, his eyes lighting up at the opportunity to talk about his favourite person.

"Good question!" he says earnestly, his English heavily accented but all the more endearing for it, and at the front of the crowd, Yuuri can see Morooka perk up.

This time, Odagaki gives up on subtlety and just reaches out to set one hand against Yuuri's shoulder. Yuuri lets her – the two of them have lost complete control of this interview session, and goodness knows he needs someone to keep him anchored right now.

The fact that Minami is so pleased by it all is the only bright spot in this whole fiasco.

---

They end up at a hotpot restaurant several streets away from their hotel that night, Yuuri and Minami, in a pre-emptive attempt to avoid any figure skating reporters and the equally distressing staring competitors. Odagaki excused herself from joining them “to give Minami-kun some space” but really so she could go hound the ISU, and Yuuri had agreed to stick close to Minami in her stead.

Yuuri slumps against the table, one hand curled in a death grip around his teacup; the warm, rich scent of bubbling broth is the only thing keeping him from just turning around, grabbing Minami and heading back to the hotel so Yuuri can curl up under the blankets.

“Was the interview that bad?” Minami asks tentatively. Yuuri raises his head at that, pushing his glasses back into place with the heel of his free hand.

“It was good,” Yuuri sighs. And it was. The reporters were enamoured by Minami’s bright cheerfulness and his effusive praise of Yuuri; the buzz around Minami is positive, from what Odagaki dug up on the media outlets, and this is before he’s even debuted on the ice. “I’m just... really not used to the reporters after so many months away from the competition circuit, that’s all. You did really great.”

“Oh,” Minami says, and then smiles. There’s still a line of tension across his shoulders – pre-competition nerves, Yuuri suspects – but he looks relaxed enough, digging into the hotpot happily. Yuuri tries to rally as to not dampen the younger skater’s mood, forcing his spine to straighten out of its slouch and his hand to pick up his chopsticks.

The food is good, and goes a long way into settling Yuuri’s stomach, and by the time Phichit shows up, Yuuri feels slightly better equipped to talk about the subject.

“Yuuri!” Phichit exclaims, and ducks into the booth to give Yuuri a hug. He holds on a moment longer than most people would, and Yuuri curls into his embrace, trying to find some sanity in the world.

Yuuri doesn’t regret leaving Detroit, but he does miss Phichit tremendously.

“I saw all the tweets from the interview; you’re making waves!” Phichit says, pulling back, and Yuuri groans.

Why are they fixated on me?”

“Because it’s early in the season,” Phichit says blithely, stealing Yuuri’s chopsticks to flick a piece of meat from the pot, “and the rumour mill hasn’t quite started spinning yet. It’s old news to speculate whether Victor Nikiforov will retire after this year or not; one of last year’s GPF finalists who is on a break and has taken up mentoring another skater, well, that’s new and fresh and interesting.” He pops the meat in his mouth, chewing and swallowing. “The media likes their sound bites, and you two make a nice pair. The ace and the rising star, I think they’re calling you.”

Yuuri groans again, and Phichit pats his arm, his attention going to Minami. “Hi,” Phichit says. “You must be Minami Kenjirou. You were perfect in your interviews, you know. I especially like the five-minute spiel on how much you admire Yuuri.”

Minami smiles back at him shyly. “Nice to meet you, Chulanont-san.”

“Oh no,” Phichit says, waving a finger at Minami. “Absolutely not, no way. We’re ranking members of the Katsuki Yuuri is amazing and we’re here to remind him of that fact squad, so you have to call me Phichit!”

Minami blinks a few times, getting lost at Phichit’s rapid-fire enthusiasm; it’s a reaction that Phichit commonly elicits from those around him, and it must be even harder for Minami, whose English skills are mostly academic and sporadically practiced only when he attends competitions abroad.

“Phichit-san?” he tries, and Phichit grins.

“Welcome to the senior ranks. It can be intimidating, but most of us have fun. I’ll introduce you to Guang Hong and Leo; they’re good friends of mine.”

“Okay,” Minami agrees.

“You’re in good hands,” Phichit says. “With Yuuri, I mean. After all, he was also my – what’s the word, Yuuri, I learned it from you, senpai? – when I first arrived in Detroit. Now we look out for each other, but it started out with him looking after me, first. You’re in good hands,” he says again.

Minami stares across the table at the both of them, and this time, there is no uncertainty in his voice. “I know.”

They grin at each other, and then turn as one to beam at Yuuri, who can’t help smiling back.

Yuuri isn’t sure he deserves either of them, but he’s grateful for them, nonetheless.

---

It’s not just the skaters who put on a performance, Yuuri quickly learns; the coaches and team members have their roles to play as well. As Minami changes into his short program costume, Yuuri puts on the new suit Yuuko and Minako bullied him into buying.

“You’re not going as a skater, Yuuri, you can’t wear the same old suit you’ve worn to every official JSF or ISU meeting,” Minako had said. “You’re presenting a new image of yourself, which means new attire.”

“I know exactly the sort of suit you should get.” Yuuko’s eyes gleamed with the fervour of someone who has spent more than a decade watching broadcasts of skaters and their coaches, and right then, Yuuri knew it was useless to protest.

When Yuuri mentioned the impromptu shopping trip as the reason why he would be coming in for one of his sessions with Minami later than expected, Odagaki had agreed with them.

“Skaters wear costumes for a reason,” she pointed out. “Your position is a unique one, and wearing a suit you bought especially for Minami-kun’s competitions will help you define who you need to be at those events.”

Which is why Yuuri is now in possession of a pitch-black, two-button single-breasted suit, perfectly fitted. Odagaki meets them in a dark trench coat, her hair done up in their customary braids but everything else about her razor sharp and neat, and with Minami in the overwhelmingly dark Team Japan national jacket, Yuuri feels like a member of the yakuza.

They stay backstage until it’s time for Minami to skate, Odagaki keeping an eye on Minami’s warm up exercises and Yuuri keeping an eye on the screens, tracking time. When they finally emerge from the back corridors into the arena itself, Yuuri feels oddly numb. He can feel the buzz of anticipation filling the air, the thin thread of tension from the skaters, but he exists completely apart from it, the electricity dancing on his skin but no longer curling under his veins.

He breathes in deeply, the cold air sharp in his lungs, and wonders if this is where he’ll be from now on, rink side, hiding in the shadows.

Minami looks completely the opposite of how Yuuri feels – the muted roar of the audience seems to startle him, although he must have faced such crowds before as a Junior. But Yuuri suspects why: any other time and Minami would probably be fine, but slap the label of “senior debut” on this particular competition and the expectations behind it can grow a life and weight of its own.

When Minami slips off his jacket, revealing the glittering costume beneath and doesn’t turn with a bright grin towards Yuuri, Yuuri knows it for sure.

Minami stares stiffly out into the audience, and Odagaki steps forward, waving her hand in front of his face. “Minami-kun, you’re nervous, aren’t you?” she says, blithely ignoring the way he keeps trying not to look at her. “Minami-kun, hey, hey, hey.”

Team Japan, Yuuri thinks with a kind of fatalistic hysteria, all around nervous wrecks who simply love to skate more than anxiety can force them down.

“Yes, that’s right,” Odagaki says, when Minami finally cracks and looks at her. There’s a smile on her face, and Minami can’t seem to help smiling back at her. “Focus on me for a minute, and then the ice is all yours.”

They duck their heads towards each other, Odagaki speaking in a low tone, and Yuuri turns his gaze towards the audience beyond them, fierce protectiveness rising suddenly in his chest. The bond between a coach and her skater is incredibly important, and pre-competition rituals can go a long way to settling a skater’s heart before they skate. Yuuri wouldn’t dream of interrupting them, and he slants a pointed stare at the clusters of skaters standing nearby, still whispering, falling into his on-ice persona, his spine straightening and his chin lifting in challenge.

They go silent almost immediately.

Yuuri stares at them a moment longer for good measure, and then lifts his head to study the central screens. The skater before Minami is waiting for his score in the kiss and cry; just a minute or so, and it’ll be Minami’s turn on the ice.

“Katsuki-san,” Odagaki calls his name quietly. When Yuuri glances over, Odagaki tilts her head in Minami’s direction, before giving Minami’s hands a squeeze and stepping away.

Yuuri feels the breath squash out of his chest. He’s not Minami’s official coach – Yuuri really doesn’t like the way the media has been ignoring Odagaki-san – and he doesn’t have any wise words or stirring advice to impart. Except Minami is staring at him, and it doesn’t matter what anyone else believes; Minami thinks of him as a mentor, and Yuuri needs to dredge the words out of himself somehow.

He steps forward, his mind racing – he hears a score being reported over the speakers – and tries to think of something useful to say. Celestino used silence with Yuuri a lot, because Yuuri didn’t need false platitudes and couldn’t internalize praises, and the solidity of Celestino’s presence went a longer way to settling Yuuri’s nerves than anything he could have said. Silence won’t work with Minami, however, and finally, Yuuri just settles for what he’s been thinking all along.

“We’re here for you,” he says softly. “When you’re skating, and afterwards too.” And just as the commentators call for Minami, Yuuri claps Minami solidly on the shoulder, a silent encouragement to fight with his all. “Go on.”

“Yes, Yuuri-kun!” Minami says, his eyes shining. “Kanako-sensei, I’m off!”

“Yup!” Odagaki calls back, a simple acknowledgment – no expectations, no pressure. Yuuri draws back to her side as Minami speeds off, a glittering comet upon the universe of the ice, twirling twice to loosen his muscles before settling at the center of the rink.

The beginning notes of Lohengrin sound over the speakers, and Minami lets one arm curve away from his side like a danseur, the rest of his body following after.

It’s… not particularly relaxing to watch someone else skate when Yuuri knows what’s at stake. Upon the ice, there is no room for such thoughts; when the first notes of the song swell over the speakers, a skater has to move or the music will leave them completely behind. Standing rink side, Yuuri can only watch and worry, and by the time Minami strikes his final pose to the roaring approval of the audience, Yuuri is sweating hard.

“How do you stay this calm?” he asks Odagaki in an undertone. She looks fit to burst with pride, but other than that she seems utterly at ease.

Odagaki spares him a glance, and smiles. “Practice,” she says, “As well as knowing that the moment he steps on the ice, the situation is beyond my control; I can only put my faith in Minami-kun.” She gazes out onto the ice, where Minami is bowing to the audience. “And like you said earlier, we’re here for him. No matter what happens out there.”

Yuuri just looks at her, but before he can respond, Minami zips up to the rink entrance, his eyes wide and flushed with adrenaline, a plushie clutched under one arm. He snaps on his skate guards, and then throws himself into Odagaki’s arms.

“Kanako-sensei, I did it!” he crows.

“You did!” she says, ruffling his hair affectionately. “You even conquered your Achilles heel, the triple axel!”

“Uh-huh!” Minami bounces back, and cranks his head in Yuuri’s direction. “Yuuri-kun, did you see it?”

Yuuri can’t help his smile in face of Minami’s enthusiasm. “I did,” he says, and then something else – an instinct, perhaps – nudges him to say more. “You did well.”

Minami’s face goes so aglow with joy that he looks like he might implode with it.

Odagaki laughs at the both of them, and then drags them towards the kiss and cry.

---

There’s an entire competition beyond Minami, and after another short round of interviews, all three of them end up back in the arena, in a section of the audience stands condoned off for the skaters and their teams. They’re back in time to watch last group of skaters perform.

Leo de la Inglesia and Ji Guang Hong do decently well, especially Leo, who powers through with a heartfelt performance and no quads. Phichit fires up the entire audience with his program from The King and the Skater, and even though Yuuri has seen it before, clips that Celestino filmed and that Phichit sent right along, it’s awe-inspiring to see Phichit skating it in person and skating it flawlessly. Chris is his usual tactile self – Yuuri resists the urge to cover Minami’s eyes for the entirety of his performance – and Georgi Popovich’s SP is... something else. There’s a personal story there, played out upon the ice, and Yuuri can’t help admiring the courage it must take to reveal something so personal like that.

And then, there’s just one last skater left to skate.

Yuuri has spent the entirety of the day hiding from Victor Nikiforov – glancing carefully away in the warm-up rooms, and ducking behind Odagaki’s shoulder if they’re walking past the Russian contingent – but he has always loved watching Victor skate, and he sits up straighter in his seat now, watching for Victor’s tell-tale silver hair. The skaters around him are subtly doing the same; the audience around them, on the other hand, are much less discreet – there’s a clear thread of anticipation in their murmurs, and when Victor appears rink side, the noise spikes.  

Surprisingly, Victor doesn’t wave at the audience, but his coach appears to be speaking to him quite seriously. Victor nods his head once, and before Feltsman can say anything further, strips off his team jacket.

There are a few whoops and distinct calls of Victor’s name when the audience reacts this time, but Yuuri isn’t paying attention. This is the first time any of them is getting a full look at Victor’s costumes and his new programs, and no matter what’s been said and done, Yuuri will always be Victor’s fan, and he lets his eyes take in the costume, although he’s sitting too far away to make out the details.  

Like so many of Victor’s costumes, this one is beautifully tailored and carries every inch of Victor’s flare for performance. The top is a crimson red with loose sleeves and a plunging neckline – or perhaps, more reminiscent of an unbuttoned shirt – and the bottom half of his costume is in black, laced tight at the waist and with red embroidery going down the sides, fitting him like a second skin.

Pasodoble, whispers a part of Yuuri that isn’t busy soaking the details in. The costume reminds Yuuri of a male pasodoble dancer, who emulates the movements of a bullfighter, his partner generally playing the role of his cape ever chasing and flowing after him. The dance is full of drama and flare and challenge, and if Victor’s short program is anything like it, then Yuuri already knows it’s going to be stunning.

The costume – and the title of the song, On Love: Eros – does nothing to prepare Yuuri for the reality of the short program itself. From the opening strums of the guitar to the soaring instruments chasing each other through the melody, Victor’s entire performance is full of sensual passion, subtler than Chris’s performance but no less erotic, and Yuuri feels all the blood rush to his face. He can see the story in Victor’s performance, a tale of a playboy seducing the most beautiful woman in town, a chase of allure and ardour – a successful conquest, before he flings her away to find his next target.

Victor performs the entire song flawlessly, confidence in every line of movement, and when he comes to an abrupt halt, head flung back, warms wrapped tightly around himself, the entire audience is stunned into silence for a full five seconds before it absolutely roars with thunderous applause and screams and wolf-whistles.

Around Yuuri, skaters are murmuring to each other – for once, not about Yuuri – and beyond the wordless screech that’s stuck at the back of Yuuri’s mind is a single thought: of course the program is perfect. It’s Victor Nikiforov, after all.

Beside Yuuri, Minami is clapping wholeheartedly, awed. “Yuuri-kun, I can see why you look up to him,” he says, although his tone, so much calmer compared to the turmoil that’s bouncing around in Yuuri’s head, seems to imply that although Minami admires Victor’s performance, it’s nothing compared to what he’s seen from Yuuri.

Yuuri just shakes his head. He has a feeling he’s going to be speechless for quite a while.

---

It comes as absolutely no surprise to anyone that Victor takes the gold at the Cup of China.

Phichit, on the other hand, surpasses everyone’s expectations to snatch silver, fending off Chris in the bronze position. Minami also did respectably well for his first international senior competition, and so everyone around Yuuri at the banquet that night is deliriously happy.

Yuuri gets dragged along because Odagaki wants to network and Minami wants him there, and he hides himself amongst his friends, content to let their chatter wash over him after the first ten obligatory selfies with Phichit.

“You might have a shot at qualifying for the GPF,” Leo tells Phichit; he might be disappointed at how he’d crashed out during his free skate, but it doesn’t stop him from being happy for his friend.

“Fourth place and silver,” Guang Hong says thoughtfully. “That’s twenty-two points. Will it be enough?”

“Yuuri-kun qualified last year with fourth place and silver,” Minami announces, and Yuuri’s head jerks up, although he bites back his instinct to disassemble at the bright grin on Phichit’s face.

“Looks like fourth and silver is the charm,” Phichit says. “But there are three more Grand Prix competitions to go, so no one’s a guarantee yet. Victor, JJ and Chris haven’t even skated in their second competition yet.”

“I hope you’ll get in,” Yuuri says loyally, and Phichit squeezes Yuuri’s shoulder. As the others begin discussing the current scores and who they think will qualify, Phichit smiles and leans into Yuuri’s side.

“You saw my free skate, right?”

“Of course. You’ve really improved, Phichit. And you finally did what you’ve always dreamed of – your sisters must be going crazy.”

“Bringing The King and the Skater to the whole world!” Phichit says with a laugh. “And wow, you watched my free skate, but not Victor’s? That is a compliment.”

Yuuri flushes and ducks his head. “I got a call from the JSF, and by the time I finished with them Victor’s scores were up.”

Phichit blinks. “What does the Japanese Skating Federation want?”

“I’m helping with the NHK Trophy,” Yuuri sighs, “since I’m still a member of the JSF but I’m not competing internationally. Since it’s in Osaka, they needed to get some details from me for logistics and whatnot.”

“Oh?” Phichit quirks a perfectly trimmed eyebrow at him. “All right, I won’t spoil anything of Victor’s free skate, then. You’ll get to see it when he’s in Japan.”

Yuuri narrows his eyes at Phichit. Phichit narrows his eyes right back, and then they both start laughing. Phichit hugs him again.

“I’ve missed you, best friend.”

“I’ve missed you too,” Yuuri says softly, finally hugging him back. “Congratulations, Phichit.”

Phichit doesn’t say a word, just squeezes Yuuri’s shoulder, and then because he knows Yuuri so very well, rejoins the conversation like a dolphin slicing cleanly through water, giving Yuuri space to gather himself.

Yuuri watches them for a little while, and then stands from their table to get a drink, giving Minami a nod before he goes. The sponsors and bigwigs have mostly left by now, and all around the banquet hall form knots of skaters and their coaches. Odagaki is chatting with some of the other coaches, and when she catches Yuuri’s eye he gives her a small wave to signal that he and Minami are all right.

She gives him a nod and a bright smile, and Yuuri turns for the drink stands.

For all that he didn’t do a single bit of skating, Yuuri feels oddly drained, and he stares at the jugs of beverages, trying to decide if he wants to bother making tea – this is Beijing, of course there’s tea – or if he should just pour himself a glass of orange juice. He’s concentrating so hard that he doesn’t notice the man sliding up beside him, although he definitely feels the hand curling firmly over the arch of his hip.

Yuuri squeaks, but the touch is familiar enough not to set off his more violent fight instinct, and he just whirls around instead.

“Chris!”

Chris grins indulgently down at him. “You’ve abandoned the rest of us to be a coach, Yuuri. It’s lonely here without you.”

“I’m not a coach, Chris.” Yuuri says, trying to get his blush under control.

“Oh?” Chris’s tone is highly suggestive. “Then what are you to that lovely new Japanese skater?”

“I’m just—” Yuuri begins, and then he catches sight of who is standing behind Chris, and his teeth click shut almost immediately.

Chris blinks down at him. “What’s made you so tongue-tied all of a sudden?” he says, before glancing behind him. “Oh, Victor. Where have you been?”

Neat hair, neat tie, neat suit – Victor looks impeccable, as always, although his expression this time is... odd. “Sponsors,” he says succinctly to Chris, who nods in understanding, and then he turns his gaze on Yuuri.

This time, Yuuri manages to detangle his tongue before Victor can say anything. “Congratulations on winning the gold,” he gets out, before his gaze slides sideways as if he can’t quite look squarely at Victor. After a moment, he glances at Chris. “Chris, you too. Congratulations on the bronze.”

Chris smiles, but it’s lopsided, rather than his usual flirtatious versions. “I’d have loved to have placed higher, but I’m a slow starter. Your friend Phichit was good.”

Resisting the urge to hunch his shoulders, Yuuri just nods. If he thought the murmuring whispers throughout the competition were weird, those have nothing on this awkward atmosphere, which had gone strange and tense the moment Victor appeared.

“Would you like a drink?” Victor finally says.

The question comes out more strained and abrupt than Yuuri expects from the ever-smooth and media-ready Victor, and Yuuri’s head flicks up in surprise. Unlike their near collision in the corridor, it’s clear this time that Victor is aware of who Yuuri is. There is no trace of casual acknowledgment or polite friendliness; his eyes are dark and focused solely on Yuuri.

Yuuri is so struck by the strength of that gaze that a long moment goes by before he realizes the question is directed at him.

“Oh!” Yuuri glances at Chris again, and notices that both of them are holding champagne glasses. “Oh no, no alcohol, I’m here with Minami, and he’s a minor, and we have to watch out for him.” He spies a pyramid of bottled water, and grabs one instead. “I’m good. It was nice to see you. Have a good rest of the night!”

“Yuuri?” Chris sounds surprised, but Yuuri ducks away, promising himself that he’ll send Chris a message later apologizing for not hanging out more. As he heads back towards the younger skaters, Yuuri wonders at Victor’s expression – for the champion of the night, Victor doesn’t seem very happy – but then Phichit calls out Yuuri’s name, and Yuuri puts the thought firmly out of his mind.

It’s not like Yuuri can do anything for Victor; if Victor has something on his mind, the best thing Yuuri can do is give him space and let Chris – Victor’s actual friend – help.

Ignoring the strange ache in his heart, Yuuri walks away.