Actions

Work Header

A Myriad of Possibilities

Chapter Text

AMyriadofPossibilities_astronahz_banner


  

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.

Chapter Text

Fukuoka – April  

Yuuri is used to monstrously early mornings, so early that it may be more accurate to call them very late nights, except Yuuri goes to sleep in between. He might hate being awake at five in the morning, but he understands the need for odd hours; all competitive skaters do.

He isn’t quite used to taking public transport to the rink, however. The skating club in Detroit was strategically located to his university campus – the partnership existed for a reason, after all – and it was part of Yuuri and Phichit’s warm up routine to jog to the rink. The same applied to Ice Castle Hasetsu, even when Yuuri was younger, mainly because the town was small enough that it wasn’t a strain for a ten-year-old to make the journey on foot, and his parents were often too busy with the inn to take him by car.

Now, however, Yuuri is unfamiliar enough with Fukuoka not to risk it on foot, especially with Minako-sensei in tow, and it’s strangely soothing to get on the subway and let the trains take them to his destination. Yuuri is moving without needing to think or physically move himself; all he needs to do is let Minako push him into the carriages.

Somewhere, at the back of his mind, a voice that sounds strangely like Phichit whispers that that’s an oddly apt metaphor for Yuuri’s current life.

The sky is only starting to lighten when they get to their destination, and Minako leads Yuuri unerringly to a side entrance. The building itself shows no sign of life from the outside, but when they get close, the side door swings open, and a woman leans out.

“Come in out of the cold,” she calls, and ushers them into the building and down some corridors until they reach an office-like space, warmly lit by a desk lamp, the stark overhead lights left off for now.

She waits for Minako and Yuuri to unwind scarves and unbutton jackets before she greets them with a warm smile. “Minako-san, thank you for coming. Katsuki-san, it’s wonderful to meet you. I’m Odagaki Kanako.”

Yuuri bobs his head at her; he’s used to the media, can answer questions at an interview with the forced ease of long exposure, but he’ll never get used to meeting people at a more personal level. “Nice to meet you, Odagaki-san.”

“Here, have some tea to warm up,” Odagaki says, and suits action to words; she pours three cups from a teapot, and the subtle fragrance of green tea fills the air.

“You’re a godsend, Kanako,” Minako says, taking up the teacup with an enthusiasm she normally reserves for beer bottles. “April, and yet it feels like it’s mid-winter out there. We had a snowstorm up in Hasetsu a few days ago, didn’t we, Yuuri?”

“Mm,” Yuuri hums in acknowledgment, curling his fingers around the warmth of the teacup. He meets Odagaki’s eyes, and there’s a spark of shared experience there – they’re both skaters and work around the ice so much that they’re used to the cold – and Yuuri feels a small smile catch at his lips.

He’s always found it easier to relate to others through the ice.

Odagaki smiles back at him, and leans back to address the both of them. “I normally hold early morning sessions for all my students so they can get some ice-time in before school, but I’ve asked them not to come in this week, since we’re into the off-season. Only Minami-kun is here today, to skate for Minako-san.” She glances at Yuuri. “Is that all right?”

Yuuri has a moment to wonder why she’s checking with him, and then Minako cuts in.

“I’ll take up your request to choreograph Minami-kun’s short program.” She tilts her head. “I can’t say I’m versed in the boogie dance style, but I can also tweak the free skate routine after you’re done with it – it’ll be something different, at least. Although, a boogie? Really?”

Odagaki laughs. “Minami-kun loves swing music, the energy of it. It’s hardly traditional, but then again, Minami-kun is hardly a traditional figure skater. He has his heart set on it for his senior debut, as well as to skate a tribute to Katsuki-san. He loves that Lohengrin routine.”

Yuuri shakes his head, and casts his eyes at the shadows lingering in the corners of the room so he doesn’t have to meet anyone’s gaze. “I know my recent senior skates are hardly worth noting, but why that one? It was my last junior short program. I hadn’t even left Hasetsu yet; I was nobody.”

He almost adds that he’s nobody now, but Minako shoots him a narrow-eyed stare, radiating the kind of wilful energy that heralds either a lecture or long sessions in the ballet studio until Yuuri is too exhausted to have such thoughts.

The silence stretches for a long, awkward moment, and when Yuuri glances back at Odagaki, there’s a furrow between her eyes. She meets Yuuri’s gaze steadily, however, and her voice is matter-of-fact when she speaks.

“I can’t speak for Minami-kun, but I can quote him. ‘Yuuri-kun’s step sequences and choreographic passes are utterly sublime. His triple axels always have a GOE of three million points for me!’” She lets her voice fall back to her usual levels of calm, and smiles. “You were skating your Lohengrin program the first time he saw you. Whatever your feelings about it, it will always be special to him.”

Minako had settled down when Odagaki started speaking, and she drains her teacup now, setting it to one side. “If I remember correctly, Yuuri won the Junior National Championships with that routine, and placed decently at Junior Worlds, too.”

“Yes,” Odagaki agrees. “Katsuki-san, Minako-san has told me about her proposal. I know nothing is set in stone, but I’m very much in support of it, if you are agreeable.” She pauses then, and Yuuri stares back at her, silent. She smiles again, and it’s subtle, the way her eyes flicker, but whatever she had wanted to say, she swallows it. “If you don’t mind, would you head over to the rink while I work out some details with Minako-san? We’ll join you later.” 

“I didn’t bring my skates,” Yuuri says automatically, although that’s not quite true. His skating boots are tucked securely in his travel bag at the hotel, because the trip to Fukuoka may be short, but his anxiety doesn’t care about that.

“I can see that,” Odagaki says gently – Yuuri doesn’t have a backpack or anything with him, after all. “Minami-kun is already on the ice. It would mean the world to him to meet you properly.”

Panic flares up in Yuuri’s chest, swift and cloying. “I—”

“I didn’t tell him about your visit, so he doesn’t expect anything. Just… watch him skate?”

Surprisingly, Minako doesn’t say a word. Yuuri darts a glance from Odagaki to her and back again, and then drops his gaze to his feet. He doesn’t have his skates, but listening to others skating, the susurrations of a blade cutting through ice, can be calming.

He takes a deep breath. “All right.”

---

Iizuka Ice Palace is familiar like a distant memory; Yuuri has been here a few times when he was younger, participating in local competitions, and he doesn’t need directions to find the rink.

When he pushes the doors open, the rink is brightly lit, and Yuuri sinks into the shadows in the stands to watch the solitary figure on the ice.

Minami Kenjirou is a rising star, there’s no doubt about that. Yuuri doesn’t really keep track of the Japanese juniors, but he’d registered some of the buzz through his own shocked haze at Nationals four months prior. Minami-kun, having won the Japanese Junior Nationals, had been invited to compete at the senior competition; he performed wonderfully under the pressure, and where Yuuri had crashed for the second time that season, Minami had soared, taking the bronze.

Minami spins now, on the ice, his revolutions a little slow but his posture quite decent, and when he kicks out into a connecting pass, his grin is bright, a perfect representation of his sunny personality.

Yuuri doesn’t remember much of the Nationals competition beyond the heavy weight in his heart and the white noise in his ears, but Minami’s movements are familiar enough that Yuuri thinks it’s his short program routine. Yuuri leans forward to check Minami’s footwork, drawn in by Minami’s performance despite himself, and when the younger skater leaps into a flying camel spin, their eyes catch, for one brief second.

Minami hits the ice with one foot – as planned – and promptly slips – definitely not planned – and goes sprawling painfully, the momentum from his leaping entry sliding him several meters across the unforgiving ice.

Yuuri gasps and jumps forward instinctively to help, and it’s only when he hits the side of the boards that he remembers he doesn’t have his skates on.

“Hey, are you okay?” he yells at Minami, his mind already whirling – if it’s bad, he’s getting on the ice, skating boots or not; if it’s really bad, like the time with Phichit, he needs to call emergency services before yelling loud enough to bring Odagaki and Minako-sensei running. “Don’t move if you feel any pain.”

Minami’s head pops up at that, his arms braced against the ice to push himself upright. He moves slowly, as if swimming through viscous fluid, and his eyes are dazed when he looks in Yuuri’s direction.

Damn it,” Yuuri murmurs under his breath, the rare English swearword slipping out before he can catch himself, and hops away from the boards to sprint towards the entrance of the rink.

“Yuuri-kun?”

Minami’s voice comes out breathless, but when Yuuri glances at him, he’s gotten to his feet. He doesn’t sound like he’s in pain, but Yuuri gestures at him to skate to the entrance, and watches carefully as Minami glides over.

“It’s really you,” Minami babbles the moment he gets close enough, and his hands are clenched together. Yuuri tunes out the chatter and quickly checks the younger skater over – Minami has frost particles dusted all over his arms, his gloved hands, the knees of his pants, and his front is damp with melted ice, from when he’d skidded across the rink. Minami’s eyes, when Yuuri checks again, aren’t dazed from a potential concussion; in fact, they look—

—star struck?

The thought is jarring, and Yuuri tunes back in just as Minami goes quiet, staring at Yuuri expectantly.

“Um.” Yuuri scrambles for something to say. “You look all right. I think.” When Minami just continues staring, he says, desperately, “You’re not hurt, right?”

Minami glances down at himself, and immediately begins dusting the frost off. “Oh no, I’m fine! I was just really startled when I saw you – I didn’t expect that at all!”

“Ah,” Yuuri says eloquently, and curls his fingers together, just to give himself something to hold onto. He lapses into another silence, but Minami doesn’t let it last for long.

“Wow. I never thought I’d see you standing in my home rink.” Minami tilts his head one way, and then the other, but his eyes never waver away from Yuuri’s face. He bounces on his skates. “Are you here to skate?”

Minami doesn’t seem to notice the awkward atmosphere they’d lapsed into now that the adrenaline-fuelled panic of a potential injury has faded away; Yuuri wonders if it’s sheer obliviousness, or maybe the whole situation just doesn’t bother him at all.

“No,” Yuuri says. “I’m accompanying Minako-sensei. Mostly.”

Minami mouths Minako-sensei to himself, his expression quizzical, before his eyes widen. He leaps forward, his hands slamming into the boards. “You mean—Okukawa-san? Does that mean—she agreed to choreograph a Lohengrin routine for me?” His eyes widen further. “Is that why you’re here? Yuuri-kun?”

Yuuri has to stop himself from taking a physical step back, Minami’s enthusiasm suddenly overwhelming. He shakes his head so hard that he can feel his bangs fluttering into disarray. “I’m not involved.”

“Oh my goodness.” It’s like Minami doesn’t even hear him, although he must, from the way he’s staring at Yuuri. The younger skater hugs his arms to himself in glee, and then spreads them wide, fingers curling in an approximation of the opening pose of Yuuri’s Lohengrin program. “I just—I’ve thought about this for a long time. I’m even thinking of getting a costume similar to yours, and—this is amazing!”

“Why do you care?” The words finally burst out of Yuuri’s throat. “I lost to you at Nationals, I totally crashed out of this season, why would you even want to have anything to do with me?”

His voice echoes in the stark emptiness of the rink, and when it finally fades away, the silence that falls rings even louder in Yuuri’s ears. Minami is staring at him, but this time his eyes are wide with shock, and it seems like Yuuri’s finally found something that can stun Minami into a silence of his own.

It doesn’t suit him, Yuuri finds himself thinking hysterically. All skaters have multiple facets to them, but it seems downright unnatural for Minami to be this subdued, all his bright enthusiasm stifled by Yuuri’s outburst.

A moment later, Yuuri almost wishes for the unnatural silence back, because Minami’s eyes fill with tears, his face going a feverish red – the flush of anger or extreme frustration.

“One stumble doesn’t negate all your past efforts! You’re an amazing skater! Don’t make fun of me for looking up to you for so long and trying to catch up to you!”

“I—” Yuuri says, at a complete loss.

“The next time you get on the ice, you’re going to skate beautifully. I won’t forgive you if you slack off!”

“—have to go,” Yuuri barely manages to finish.

He ducks his head so he doesn’t have to witness Minami’s reaction, and takes a step towards the exit, and then another, and another, until he’s almost running. He slips out the glass doors and into the corridor, and he’s so out of it that he almost slams into Odagaki when he turns a corner.

“I’m so sorry,” he says automatically, and makes the mistake of meeting Minako’s gaze.

It’s clear she guesses the gist of what’s happened – if not the details of it – and Yuuri freezes, waiting for her verdict.

Minako studies him for a long moment, and then inclines her head. “I’ll see you back at the hotel.”

Relief rushes through Yuuri’s body, and he manages a smile of gratitude in Minako’s direction and a quick bob of acknowledgment to Odagaki. Then his feet are carrying him away, out of the building and into the cold open spaces of the outdoors, where Yuuri can finally breathe again.

---

Minako brings the fresh clean scent of the cold with her when she steps through the hotel room door, a voluminous scarf wrapped artfully around her neck and the lower half of her face. Yuuri watches her set her belongings down and shrug off her winterwear from the safety of his bed, cocooned by pillows and blankets.

Minako’s movements are still impossibly elegant even years away from the stage, and when she flops down on her own bed, it’s with an artful grace that makes her seem like a swan queen swooning at the waning of the moon. She flips her hair out of her face, and tilts her chin towards the takeaway cup she’d set on the small side table between them.

“Hot chocolate. If you want it, you’ll have to leave your nest to get it.”

Yuuri’s eyebrows go up despite himself. Minako had meant it about his figure – Yuuri really isn’t in the optimal shape for a figure skater, not now – and the fact that she’s letting him have something so blatantly sugary says plenty.

He waffles on it for a long moment, and finally crawls out of the pillow-blanket cocoon to retrieve the cup. Minako has that look on her face that promises a talk or lecture of some kind, so Yuuri might as well get something warm and comforting and unhealthy out of it.

“Your room at the inn hasn’t changed much since you left five years ago,” Minako says, apropos of nothing. 

“No.” Yuuri breaks the seal on the takeaway cup, and breathes in the comforting scent of rich chocolate. “Mom cleans it every week, and she tidied up the clutter a bit, but everything’s still there.”

“All your Victor Nikiforov posters. You had at least one in your dorm room in Detroit as well.”

The advancement of technology to allow easy video calling was both a blessing and a curse. Yuuri takes a careful sip of the hot chocolate, hiding his face behind the cup.

“Yet it is because of Victor Nikiforov that I got a call from you from all the way from Sochi. Losing Vicchan was bad,” Minako’s voice goes soft, but the steel in it remains, “and so were your struggles at the Final, but Victor Nikiforov’s actions struck you quite hard.”

The sweet richness of the chocolate in Yuuri’s mouth goes ashen.

“And from the sounds of it, Victor was kind. He’s always kind to his fans – he offered to take a commemorative photo with you. But that’s not what you wanted from him.”

“No.” Yuuri’s voice comes out low. “It was not.”

Minako turns her head to face Yuuri. “So how do you think Minami-kun felt, when he’s finally met his idol, and all his idol did was to imply he’s crazy for that idolization?”  

Yuuri’s head jerks up.

“He may be making a name for himself nowadays, but Minami-kun is still young and impressionable. He’s younger than you were when you left for Detroit and he’s certainly younger than you are now, and if you felt bad when Victor didn’t take you seriously – you, Katsuki Yuuri, with an established career and reputation as Japan’s ace – then how do you think Minami-kun feels?”

That choked feeling is back in Yuuri’s throat. “But I’m not Victor.”

“You are, to him,” Minako says relentlessly. “Watching Victor is what inspired you to take competitive skating seriously. Minami-kun and so many others like him have watched you rise through the ranks nationally. You’re currently the only serious Japanese senior men’s single contender in the international arena. You’re an inspiration to them all, and Minami-kun is following the trail you blazed. There are flashes of your influence in the way he skates.”

“But—” Yuuri gets out, and his hands clench hard around the cup of hot chocolate. It’s not fair, he wants to howl. It’s not fair because Yuuri never asked for the pressure of admiration on his shoulders. All he ever wanted was to skate and skate on the same ice as Victor, to give back some of the awe and splendour and joy that Victor inspired in him – the rest of the world doesn’t factor into that.

Although that’s not entirely true, is it? Yuuri is, after all, a performer at heart, and what is a performer without an audience?

He stares down at his hot chocolate to avoid looking directly at Minako, because he’s too polite to vent his frustrations at her like he really wants to and too stubborn to vocally admit that she has a point. After a while, he lifts the cup to drink from it deeply, and the rich warmth of it is a subtle reminder of Minako’s kindness, that as much as she pushes and scolds she’s always had Yuuri’s best interests in mind. Yuuri swallows the last mouthful of chocolate, and raises his head to face her.

Minako deserves that respect, and more, from him.

She’s sitting half upright now, just watching him, and when Yuuri finally meets her gaze, she gives him a wry smile. Yuuri gets the feeling that the lecture part of this conversation is over, and when she speaks he’s quickly proven right.

“When you saw Victor after the end of the GPF at Sochi, when he offered to take a commemorative photo with you – what would you have wanted him to do instead?”

Yuuri sighs, because the memory is a mortifying one – humiliating and disappointing at the same time, the shattering of so many of his dreams. “Just...” He fidgets; Minako lets him stall. “Acknowledge me, I think. More than anything else. Just acknowledge me as a fellow skater.”

And then it clicks.

The realization must show on Yuuri’s face, because Minako’s expression softens.

“Yes, just that,” she says. She pushes herself upright, sliding gracefully to her feet, and then carefully brushes the bangs from Yuuri’s eyes. “We’re in Fukuoka for another two days. You should figure out if there’s anything you want to do before we head back home.”

And with that, Minako pads towards the attached bathroom, snagging her toiletry bag from her suitcase along the way, leaving Yuuri with a myriad thoughts and considerations in his head.

---

Even though he can’t make out the figure’s face from where he’s standing, Yuuri recognizes the skater currently performing on the ice.

It’s not just the hair, the shockingly vibrant splash of crimson amongst brown that puts Yuuri in mind of a dancing flame. Minami slips in and out of pieces of choreography, at ease, not quite pushing himself yet, and Yuuri sees it, the thing he hadn’t noticed until Minako had pointed it out.

Minami skates like Yuuri.

It’s not obvious, but the twizzles and the graceful hand gestures – characteristic of Yuuri’s performances, thanks to his ballet background – happen far too frequently for it to be a coincidence. Minami slips in and out of pieces of choreography, whichever routine that happens to catch his fancy at any given moment, and it makes something strange beat in Yuuri’s chest when he recognizes bits of his own programs in there too.

Mimicry is the best form of flattery, some say. Yuuri should know – the program he skates most frequently to these days is Victor’s.

It’s too early in the morning once more, early enough that Minami is once again the only person on the ice, although that’s going to change in a few minutes. This time, Yuuri’s skating boots are laced to his feet, and he feels strange standing in the shadows of the audience stands, like he’s existing in a limbo of some sort, straddling the line between watcher and performer.

Yuuri spent the night before thinking long and hard about himself, his skating, Victor and Minami and his own feelings about it all. Sending the message to Odagaki-san and then speaking to her over the phone was difficult – standing here in this building is difficult – but Yuuri has forced himself to go through a number of painful and difficult decisions these past few months, and like a form of muscle memory, his mind takes the anxiety and the hurt and just—

—deals with it, somehow.

It might not be healthy, but it gets Yuuri through the day. He unsnaps the skate guards from his boots, tucks his glasses into the pocket of the jacket he leaves on a chair, and steps onto the ice.

He times it so Minami is on the other side of the rink when he enters, and he doesn’t pause to take the opening pose of the program, just flows right into the starting choreography. It’s been a long while since Yuuri’s skated this particular program – over five years and a lifetime ago – but it comes back to him like the ability to ride a bicycle, a little shaky at first, but becoming more poised the longer he keeps at it.

Lohengrin is romantic opera, but Yuuri experienced it first in a balletic interpretation, and that influence is obvious throughout the entire choreography. Minako had played to Yuuri’s strengths when she choreographed the program – dramatic spins and sweeping steps, royal and gallant – and although Yuuri’s routines nowadays tend to be subtler, there’s something freeing about the drama of it all; he remembers why he went for that over-the-top costume, sequins sparkling in his wake, utterly unignorable.

Now, five years later in a plain tracksuit with just the memory of the music in his head for accompaniment, Yuuri still feels an echo of the wonder he experienced when he first performed it. He comes to the end of the program, and with years of experience under his belt, strikes a slightly different ending pose instead, arms pulled close to his body, fingers curled near his heart, something that feels more organic to who he is today.

Out of the corner of Yuuri’s eye, he can see Minami, standing stock still by the boards. Unlike Yuuko – the last person Yuuri had skated for – he doesn’t react beyond that, apparently shocked into stillness.

Yuuri bends over for a moment to catch his breath, and when he straightens, he looks over at Minami. Now that Yuuri’s paying attention, he realizes that Minami isn’t completely still – he’s quaking, making quiet little shocked noises in his throat, eyes wide. Yuuri eyes him as he skates closer; Minami seems stuck in a loop, and Yuuri slaps a hand into his shoulder bracingly, so Minami has to flail to catch himself.

It snaps Minami out of his shocked reaction, however.

Yuuri smirks at him, and then the grin fades away. He runs his hands through his hair, pushing his sweat-soaked bangs out of the way.

“I think I understand now why you liked my Lohengrin program so much,” Yuuri says. It’s an admission and a concession all at once, and Minami’s eyes go wide once again. Yuuri busies himself with tucking his gloves more firmly onto his hands. “I don’t often perform my old routines, so I forgot what it was like.”

The smile that spreads across Minami’s face suits him so much more than the frustrated flush of the day before. But after a moment, he ducks his head.

“Kanako-sensei explained things to me, a little. I get carried away sometimes, so I miss things.” Minami rubs his hands together sheepishly. “I thought you were making fun of me, to say such things about yourself. But you weren’t. Those are things you really believe.”

Minami doesn’t phrase it as a question, but the lilt in his voice and the way he stares hopefully up at Yuuri says plenty about how much he wants Yuuri to tell him otherwise.

Yuuri shakes his head slowly. “I’m truly not anything special, you know. I just work hard and practice a lot.”

“You are,” Minami says insistently, but after a moment, his entire demeanour seems to deflate. “Kanako-sensei also said that I can’t force you to change your mind, that no one can change your mind but yourself. But—” he flicks a gaze up determinedly, “you’re special to me. Your skating really inspires me. That won’t change.”

Yuuri wants to say something – seriously, Yuuri’s not worth it – but his voice is stuck in his throat.

His expression must be something terrible, because Minami’s eyes go stricken.

“Is that okay?” Minami says, and it’s in the smallest voice Yuuri has heard out of him so far.

The obstruction in his throat doesn’t seem to want to go away, so Yuuri settles for a nod. Minami’s expression brightens by several degrees, and he skates forward, closing the gap between them.

Taking the cue, Yuuri begins skating again, just casual loops around the rink, a few simple passes here and there. Minami shadows him, and it’s a familiar feeling, like a lingering touch of déjà vu. Yuuri had had plenty of shadows at the Detroit rink as well, young and bright-eyed. Phichit was just the only one to break through enough of Yuuri’s reserves to become a close friend.

On their third loop around the rink, when Yuuri’s blood has settled in his veins and his breath has evened out, the cold air invigorating in his lungs, Yuuri says, “Do you want a mentor? For your senior debut?”

When Yuuri had called Odagaki the night before to get permission to enter the Ice Palace and crash Minami’s morning practice, she informed him that she had told Minami about the potential arrangement. She was calm and professional, not the slightest hint of self-consciousness in her voice – Minami-kun asked me why you were here, and I told him the truth, she’d said evenly – and despite the fluttering anxiousness at being cornered, of being exposed, Yuuri admires her for it.

Minami is Odagaki’s priority, and that’s exactly the way it should be. And if Yuuri goes through with this – well, Minami will be his priority as well.

From the sharp inhale behind him, the answer is a resounding yes, but when Yuuri glances over his shoulder, Minami’s face is conflicted.

“I want to face you in the Grand Prix series someday,” he says.

Yuuri glances across the wide expanse of the rink, beyond the boards into the shadowed audience stands. “I’m not quitting yet. But I need some time, to think. I wouldn’t mind skating with you in the meantime.”

They skate a half loop around the rink, and when Minami still doesn’t say a word, Yuuri chances another look back at him.

He’s clearly trying to rein in his joy, his face scrunched up even though his eyes are shining, and Yuuri can’t help it – his mouth twitches in a smile.

“Your answer?”

“Yes!” Minami shouts, and then he slaps a hand over his mouth. His entire face is bright red now.

“Okay then,” Yuuri says, amused. Somehow, he’s gone through such a rollercoaster of emotions over the past two days that he’s somehow ended up back to feeling grounded, and he puts in a burst of speed, turning a few times before taking off in a perfect triple axel, his favourite jump.

The impact when he lands feels like it’s jarring everything back into proper alignment, and for the first time in a long while, Yuuri feels calm.

It’s not where he thought he would be, but he’s found a way to keep moving forward, to keep skating on his own. It’s a beginning, an opportunity – hope for something to change in the right way.

Minami is watching him, having come to a halt when Yuuri took off, and Yuuri skates back to him now. His face is scrunched up again, but this time it doesn’t take long for Minami to crack.

“Can I have your autograph?”

Yuuri’s first reaction is surprise, but after a moment, he lets the feeling melt away. He never really understood why his fans flock to him – why does Yuuri even have fans? – but it doesn’t matter, in the end. This isn’t about him. This is about Minami, and something Yuuri can easily fulfill that would make him happy.

Of all the things Yuuri’s had face of late, signing an autograph is hardly a hardship.

The smile that makes it onto Yuuri’s face feels more natural this time. “Sure,” he says.

 

❄ ❄ ❄

 

NHK Trophy, Osaka – early November

There are definite benefits to Yuuri’s experience of living abroad, especially since it was for a significant number of years. For one, Yuuri is extremely adaptable. He might not like change and certainly hates the stress of it, but after uprooting his life twice over and jumping over linguistic hurdles and immigration logistics and cultural potholes, he thinks quickly on his feet and has a tendency to be quite open-minded about a lot of things.

The downside of this is that the JSF notes Yuuri’s adaptability and his conveniently fluent English skills, and very swiftly makes Yuuri the face of the welcoming committee for the NHK Trophy. When Yuuri finds out, the first hour he’s on the ground at the arena and a day away from practice sessions, he tries to protest, only to be guilt-tripped into accepting the position when it’s sweetly pointed out that Yuuri is on break from skating internationally, and is there anything else skater Katsuki would like to help the JSF with this year?

Yuuri cuts his loses and beats a swift retreat.

Helping out at an event on home ground is a strange experience. All the staff on-site know of him, and although they are too polite to ask him outright or even be too obvious about their whispering, Yuuri still feels their speculative gazes on his skin. The Japanese skaters invited to participate at the NHK Trophy are courteous to Yuuri to a fault, and Yuuri finds himself almost more comfortable interacting with the participating competitors; he isn’t particularly close to any of them, and they’re all too busy concentrating on their preparations to bother with Yuuri.

Or at least, Yuuri would feel more comfortable if Victor Nikiforov isn’t among their number.

Victor, surprisingly, is here without any of his team, not even his coach, and Yuuri scours the fansites until he gets an answer: a number of Feltsman’s students appear to require more help than is usual at this time, and since Victor is so experienced, Feltsman will only fly in for the short program and the free skate, and will leave to return to the rest of the Russian team without staying for the exhibition gala or the banquet.

Yuuri finds himself frowning when he reads that – he tries to picture leaving Minami at a competition on his own and he’s already shaking his head at himself before he gets past the imagined day of practice before the short program begins. When Yuuri was in Detroit, Celestino did his best to work through schedule clashes between his students as well, even sending one of the other coaches with them if he had to.

“I volunteered, you know.”

Yuuri jumps about three feet into the air. He whirls around, clutching his phone protectively to his chest.

Victor ignores his wide-eyed expression, and grabs his water bottle from the top of the boards.

There’s a moment where Yuuri is tempted to yell at him, but than reality reasserts itself and reminds him that this is Victor Nikiforov, and so he finally just asks, “Volunteered?”

“To come to Japan on my own. Georgi is taking his breakup quite badly, and Yuri and Mila are competing in Moscow – Yakov needs to keep an eye on them. He doesn’t need to keep an eye on me.”

Victor’s smile is gilded, and Yuuri stares at him, uncertain. It’s been like this the past two days – Victor constantly sneaking up and talking to him like he knows Yuuri somehow, and this time Yuuri can’t even duck away because it’s his job to help direct the foreign skaters around the Osaka Municipal Central Gymnasium. Right now, he’s required to stay rinkside until the men’s single practice session is over, and then he is to corral the skaters to a quick briefing about the short programs the next day.

“You don’t seem to agree,” Victor says, a sharper note in his voice, and Yuuri’s head jerks up, his eyes flicking automatically towards him, surprised. “Do you have some special insight, now that you’re a coach?”

“I’m not a coach,” Yuuri says for about the fifth time now. “I’m just assis—you know what, never mind. Mr. Feltsman has been a top-level coach for decades, and I don’t presume to know better than him about his students.” Yuuri shrugs, and forces himself to meet Victor’s gaze. “I just think it’s a little lonely, that’s all. For you.”

He bites his tongue immediately after the words come out, because Victor isn’t Yuuri, to be so easily bothered by not having one of his trusted people around him when competitions swing around. But Victor’s eyes go wide at Yuuri’s words; he stares at Yuuri, and Yuuri stares back, wondering if he should apologize.

The moment drags out between them, as tense as a bowstring.  

“Katsuki,” a voice says from behind them, and this time, both Victor and Yuuri jump.

“Um, yes?” Yuuri says, recovering and peering over at the skater who spoke. Dark hair, serious dark eyes, the skater from Kazakhstan – Otabek Altin.

If Yuuri remembers correctly, Altin is several years younger than him, although his demeanour makes him seem so much older than his years. “I’m heading back to my hotel,” Altin says. “Where is briefing later going to take place?”

“Ah, let me give you the directions. It can be difficult to find the right hall if you’re coming from the main entrance rather than from the rink.” Yuuri shoves his phone into his jacket, and gives Victor a questioning look. “Do you need directions as well?”

Victor’s expression has gone back to normal, his lips curving in a resting smile, although there’s still something distant in his eyes. “No.”

He doesn’t elaborate, and Yuuri finds himself pausing before moving to join Altin. “Okay, if you’re sure.”

Victor stays silent – he just nods at Altin, slips off his skate guards, and slides back onto the ice. Yuuri watches him for a long moment, before duty finally calls his attention back to Altin.

---

Victor’s odd mood doesn’t distract him from his preoccupation with Yuuri; when practice ends, he plasters himself by Yuuri’s side once more, smiling cheerfully at everyone around him and making more than one of the younger skaters go bright red when they catch his gaze.

Yuuri tries to ignore him, concentrating on attempting to corral everyone from the ice to head to the briefing. He’s ignored by about half the people present, and Yuuri’s starting to wonder if he needs to channel Mari-nee-chan and just yell at the top of his lungs when Victor falls automatically into place behind him, pulling on his jacket and sweeping one hand artfully through his hair.

“Is it time to go, Yuuri?” Victor says, his voice never rising above conversational but each word somehow coming out crisp and clear, and suddenly, Yuuri has the attention of everyone standing around the rink.

“Um, yes,” Yuuri says. Victor stares at him expectantly, and Yuuri takes a few experimental steps away. Victor strolls along in his wake, and like ducklings, the normally contrary and fickle crowd of skaters fall easily into line, seemingly content to follow wherever Victor goes, whether out of admiration or from a desire not to let their greatest competition out of sight.

It’s surprisingly discomfiting to discover just how much power Yuuri wields just by having Victor standing at his side.

When they arrive at the hall, propriety makes Yuuri reach out to snag the very edge of Victor’s jacket sleeve with his fingertips, careful so he doesn’t graze skin. Victor glances at him, startled, but obligingly stays at Yuuri’s side as the other skaters move past them towards the rows of chairs at the front of the hall.

The moment they’re as alone as they’re ever going to get in the crowded hall, Yuuri lets go of Victor’s jacket. “I have go to over there in a moment,” Yuuri says awkwardly, pointing at a cluster of JSF staff standing apart from the competitors, “but I just wanted to say thanks.” 

Victor’s gaze feels like a spotlight concentrated on Yuuri’s skin – almost uncomfortably warm and obvious. “I suppose I’m useful to have around,” he says lightly.

Something about those words rubs at Yuuri wrongly, and Yuuri bites his lower lip. He sidesteps that comment for the moment, however, and concentrates on the thing he wants to say. “Good luck with the competition tomorrow,” Yuuri finally gets out, and looks up at the last moment to catch Victor’s eyes.

They’re a calm, calm sea-blue today, as vast and unfathomable as the ocean, and Yuuri fights against all his instincts to drop his gaze. No matter how weirdly Victor’s been acting and no matter how much Yuuri still flinches at the words commemorative photograph, Yuuri has admired and loved Victor’s skating too long and too dearly to not wish the best for the man himself.

As Minako-sensei reminded Yuuri, Victor’s intentions towards the people around him – his fans, his fellow competitors – have always been kind.

“Not that you need it,” Yuuri adds after several beats goes by, starting to feel awkward all over again, but this time, Victor shakes his head.

“I want it,” Victor says, so softly that Yuuri wonders if he imagined it, as well as the wistful look that seems to cross his face. It’s gone the next second. “But why are you wishing me now instead of tomorrow? You’re not watching the competitions?”

“I’m scheduled to help in the morning, so I’ll be busy with the ice dancers’ short dance and the ladies’ singles short program.” Victor looks uncharacteristically solemn, so Yuuri scrambles to add, “But I’ll try really hard to catch your free skate. I haven’t seen it yet.”

Something shifts behind Victor’s eyes. “Have you seen my short program?”

An image of Victor in his pasodoble costume flashes through Yuuri’s mind. He can feel his cheeks heat up. “I have.”

“What do you think about it?”

A near inaudible strangled sound escapes Yuuri, and he scrambles for something coherent to say. “It was – really full of eros!” Desperate, Yuuri casts his eyes towards the ISU representatives at the front of the room, and waves his hands at Victor. “I think they’re about to start. You should join the other skaters.”

Victor stares at him for a moment longer, before he seems to shake himself out of it. But instead of moving away, he leans forward, his voice dropping low and secretive. “You’ll do your best to watch?”

Yuuri swallows. “I will.”

Victor gives him a sharp nod, and finally turns away. It’s like the pressure of the room reasserts itself; Yuuri gulps in a breath of air, his head spinning, and then he rushes to join the other JSF staff milling about the corners of the room.

“I didn’t know you were friends with Nikiforov-san,” Naoko-san says when Yuuri slides beside her. She’s a ladies’ singles skater and Yuuri’s fellow welcoming committee member, and like Yuuri, she’s been asked to help at JSF events, although unlike Yuuri, it’s because she’s recovering from a dislocated shoulder and can’t compete for a while.

Yuuri slumps gratefully against the wall, glad that they’re hidden from most of the room behind a pillar. “I don’t think we are. We’ve never really spoken before this event.”

Naoko tilts her head. “You might not think so,” she says slowly, “But Nikiforov-san certainly knows you. I’ve only seen him look at his rinkmates and maybe Giacometti-san that way.”

“What way?” Yuuri says, warning bells going off in his head.

At the front of the room, the ISU representatives are calling the meeting to order, and Naoko shakes her head.

Pay attention, she mouths at him, before turning firmly forward to listen.

Yuuri has a feeling she isn’t referring to the briefing at all.

As predicted, Yuuri is kept busy the whole first day of competition, and when Victor doesn’t appear – Yuuri doubts anything as trivial as a busy schedule could deter Victor, who is as stubborn and headstrong as a champion needs to be – Yuuri knows that Feltsman has finally arrived at the venue. The world-renowned Russian coach is one of the rare individuals who is able to rein Victor in, and no matter how much Victor thinks he doesn’t need anyone to keep an eye on him, Feltsman is still his coach.

Yuuri feels unjustifiably bereft, and he tells himself that he’s tired and missing the calming influence of the ice; with so many skaters practicing and competing, Yuuri has zero chance of sneaking in some personal ice time.

He trades favours with Naoko-san – she wants to watch the ladies’ singles free skate, and he wants to watch the men’s, and they end up covering each other’s shifts so they can take a break at the right time – and finally ends up standing at the very back of the audience stands as the free skate reaches its climax.

Victor, surprisingly, is second in the SP rankings, although his points are close enough to Altin’s – the top ranker – that he could still easily take the gold. The free skate is where it matters, after all, and with Victor’s jump repertoire, it’s difficult for anyone to match him when it comes to his technical score.

And Victor certainly has the gravitas and artistry to match that in performance points, making him nigh untouchable.

Yuuri reaches up and rubs discreetly at his chest – there’s an ache there, that inexorable need to skate on the same ice as Victor again – and he doesn’t join the enthusiastic applause when Victor steps on the ice.

Unlike the drama and flare of his short program costume, Victor’s free skate costume appears deceptively simple – clean, stark lines and a monochrome palette, with no obvious embellishments or accessories. It’s only when he starts moving that it becomes visible, the glimmer of a thousand miniscule crystals rippling over his silhouette like the flash of scales, a fish slipping easily through water, or perhaps a dragon moving through shadows.

Victor tosses his head as he takes his starting pose at the center of the rink, the silver of his hair flicking away from his forehead defiantly – he doesn’t smile, and when he tilts his head back, the elegant line of his exposed throat seems terribly vulnerable, somehow.

The music, when it finally pours over the speakers, is melancholic, the staccato of the piano underneath a stringed instrument, so much lower in tone than the piping violins Yuuri is used to. The piano and cello wind around each other, sounding lost and lonely, and then it suddenly builds into a crescendo, the cello soaring far beyond the piano, the notes held out until Yuuri feels it thrumming in his chest like a heartache.

On the ice, Victor glides and spins and jumps, an unearthly, otherworldly creature – not of air and light and energy, but something much heavier. Storm clouds, Yuuri thinks, his heart in his throat, storm clouds and ozone and thunder, a portent of calamities to come.

But as awe-inspiring as the routine is, there’s something off about Victor’s performance. This time, Victor’s finely honed sense of timing is subtly off, and although his movements are still graceful, there’s a sense of franticness to them, as if Victor is constantly chasing after time, rather than moving deeply with the music.

The soulful thrum of the cello holds for a long moment before fading away, and there’s a barest pause in the music before piano notes plitter over the speakers, light and quick. The tone of the song switches, brighter and more upbeat, the constant drumming of percussions joining the dancing piano and the singing cello. The second half of the composition seems a better match for Victor’s restless twists and turns and hand flicks, and Yuuri feels something in him relax, his eyes never leaving Victor’s ever-moving form.

Until Victor slides across the rink, spinning once to set up for the jump, the flick of his toe pick, the launch through the air, the four incredibly quick revolutions—

The landing, the boot touching down, and the golden blade sweeps out, Victor hitting the ice hard. He’s on his feet almost immediately, slipping back into the choreography, but a ripple goes through the entire audience – a moment of complete silence before everyone reacts, involuntary gasps and exclamations erupting across the stands, followed by a scattering of applause in support.

It takes Yuuri a moment to realize he’s pressed one hand to his mouth in shock, because it’s the quad flip, Victor’s signature move, the one he’s never failed to land cleanly in competition before—

Except he just has.

The music continues on, uplifting and inspiring, the quick interplay of piano and cello and percussions a call to arms, to fight – and to Victor’s credit, he does fight. His final jumps – a set of triples and a combination jump – are all exemplary, and the arch of Victor’s spine when he leans back in an ina bauer is so perfect that Yuuri is quite sure that coaches around the world would use clips of those five seconds to instruct their students with. But the frenetic energy is back in Victor’s movements, edging towards manic, and when he comes to a halt, his hand flicking out as the song ends with the lightest chime of a bell, Yuuri feels like all the air’s been punched out of his lungs.

The audience gives Victor a resounding ovation, of course. Victor’s face is as blank as it was before he started skating even though he’s visibly gasping for air, but he sweeps into a deep bow, giving his thanks for their support. His posture, when he skates towards Feltsman, is perfectly straight, and although Feltsman is clearly speaking rather heatedly to him, Victor ignores him; just snaps on his skate guards and pulls on his jacket, although this time he waves to the spectators sitting close by as he makes his way to the kiss and cry.

When his score is announced, it’s notably lower than his season’s best, although this being Victor, it’s still high enough that he sits at the top of the scoreboard. Whatever thoughts are going through Victor’s head, it’s clear he has a firm rein on them now – he smiles at the cameras, ever charismatic, and walks away from the kiss and cry as if he’s still untouchable.

But there’s still Altin left to skate – Altin, the dark horse who took bronze at the World Championships last season, who already has a silver from this year’s Skate America, whose free skate program, if he skates cleanly and well, is capable of matching and surpassing Victor’s current FS score.

And he has a few points to spare, from his higher SP score from the day before.

Yuuri draws in a deep breath, lacing his fingers firmly together so he doesn’t worry the sleeves of his suit jacket to pieces. He would never wish for another skater’s mistakes or falls to pull their scores down so others can rise in their place – Yuuri believes that figure skating, at its very heart, is a challenge against oneself, to surpass their previous efforts – but he can’t help offering up a fervent prayer to the void that whatever happens, Victor will be all right.

---

Otabek Altin’s free skate is solemn, solid and regal, and he takes the gold. It’s by a slim margin, bare decimal points, but against Victor Nikiforov, that elusive gold seems all the more momentous.

Victor is gracious, greeting Altin warmly and holding up his silver for the photographers. With a gold and silver each and twenty-eight points apiece, he and Altin have both qualified for the Grand Prix Final, and when the reporters aren’t extolling Altin’s incredible gold medal, they focus tenaciously on that fact – that Victor and Altin are both winners that night.

Yuuri slips away soon after, his throat aching in sympathetic frustration. No matter how gracious and kind he might appear, skaters are prideful by necessity, and Victor is no exception. No matter how much he smiles, it must hurt to come second after so long at the top, especially when it happens because of Victor’s own mistakes upon the ice.

Yuuri still can’t figure out what went wrong with that quad flip, not even after watching the replays on the screens. Victor’s form was correct, the take off steady; he’d had enough speed to complete all four revolutions and set up for the landing, and he’d landed seemingly well, firmly on the edge of his blade, but somehow, he couldn’t hold that landing.

Figure skating is, in many ways, a combination of sciences – physics and biology constantly challenging each other. But some phenomena in life can’t be explained, and sometimes, things just go wrong, like the natural entropy of the universe, order falling inexorably towards chaos.

Yuuri knows that those happenings are the most frustrating of all.

He’s exhausted by the time the night draws to an end. Yuuri had spent too much time at the men’s single event, staying to watch the medals ceremony and some of the interviews, and there’s still so much to do even with the competitions over – administrative duties and reports and logistics and setting up everything for the exhibition gala the next day. Yuuri has stamina abound, but after an entire day on his feet and the weight of his emotions on his shoulders, he feels worn thin and distracted.

It’s likely why he doesn’t notice Victor right away when he walks into the warm up room.

Even more shockingly, Victor doesn’t notice him. His face is blank, and he stares ahead of him, eerily still. With competitions over, the warm up room is deserted, most of the lights turned down, and Victor is seated on one of the fold-out chairs. He’s still in costume, his Russian team jacket – the Olympic one Yuuri secretly adores – nowhere in sight. His skating boots have been pulled off, scattered haphazardly around his feet, the golden blades gleaming in the scant light.

Out of all the details that scream that something’s deeply wrong, that’s what hits Yuuri the most – that Victor’s skates are just lying there, when no sane professional skater would risk letting their blade edges dull by walking on them without the guards on.

Yuuri backs away, trying to slip out without alerting Victor, but in his haste he bumps into the door and it slams shut with a loud, unmistakable thump. Yuuri cringes, and when he dares to lift his head, Victor is staring in his direction, his expression still blank.

His eyes are another matter altogether.

“I’ll go find Mr. Feltsman,” Yuuri blurts out. He doesn’t ever look at himself whenever he cries, devastated and so, so lost, but Yuuri doesn’t need to be familiar with that expression to know that the well of emotions in Victor’s eyes now mirrors the storm that had raged in Yuuri’s heart when he’d lost Vicchan.

He scrambles at the door knob, desperately out of his depth, until a sharp voice stops him right in his tracks.

“Katsuki Yuuri.”

Yuuri stares wide-eyed at the gradient of the door – smooth wood, with straight grains – and turns slowly around. With his surname included, there’s absolutely no mistake that Victor is speaking to Yuuri, specifically.

“You saw it, didn’t you? My free skate.” Victor’s voice is as flat as his expression, and the sense of unease worms its way even further down Yuuri’s spine.

“Yes.”

Yuuri can’t say anything further. He won’t critique Victor’s performance to his face, not like this – not ever – but he can’t echo the words of congratulations everyone else has given Victor either. It’s not that Victor doesn’t deserve it – silver medalist or not, his performance was still breathtaking, and he’d qualified for the GPF, which is no small accolade, but—

Yuuri knows, when the wounds are freshest, that anything he says will just sound like pitying platitudes at best, and condescending barbs at worst.

Victor doesn’t react, just looks at him with those dark eyes.

“I really think I should get Mr. Feltsman,” Yuuri tries, when a minute goes by.  

Emotion finally blooms across Victor’s face, but it’s brittle and sharp, like thorns guarding the fragile bud of a rose.

“I suppose a silver medalist is so much less appealing than the champion that I was last year.”

“What?” Yuuri gasps, and in the next moment, Victor has leaped to his feet. He’s quick even off the ice, and Yuuri finds himself pressed back against the door, Victor’s fingers clenching deep into Yuuri’s jacket, one hand grabbing his shoulder, the other wrapping around Yuuri’s wrist.

 Victor&Yuuri_Astronahz_chap2

Yuuri almost shoves him away – he’s never fully comfortable with people in his personal space, especially when they surprise him – but the moment of blind instinct passes, and when Yuuri gets a moment of clarity to think, he realizes Victor isn’t pushing forward. He hovers before Yuuri, head lowered, and his grip on Yuuri isn’t violent or entitled.

It’s desperate, like Victor’s holding onto a lifeline. 

It shakes Yuuri, that realization, and he reaches out automatically, touching Victor’s shoulders lightly. The costume is slippery smooth under his fingers, subtly textured by the tiny crystals, and Yuuri just keeps his hand there, not daring to hold on tighter for fear of damaging the costume. His thumb hovers close to Victor’s throat, and faintly, Yuuri can feel the frantic thrum of Victor’s heartbeat.

Their breathing rasps in the thin space between them.

“What am I, Yuuri?”

Yuuri tips his head towards Victor. Their proximity would make Yuuri much more self-conscious, except Victor’s head is still ducked, his bangs hiding his eyes from sight.

“What do you mean?”

“The Living Legend, they call me. Russia’s pride, the king of the ice – a champion athlete, an idol and a celebrity. But…”

Victor trails off uncharacteristically, and he goes silent.

Yuuri stares at the fall of his bangs, the spot near the center of Victor’s head where his hair parts.

“You’re Victor,” he says at last. “And whoever ‘Victor’ is, you should stay him.”

His answer comes out nonsensical – Yuuri doesn’t know how else to explain just how much he looks up to Victor, and always has since he first saw Victor skating, all of sixteen and a joyous junior on the ice. The titles and epithets don’t hold a candle to what Victor himself and his skating mean to Yuuri. But it seems to work; Victor shifts, one of his eyes coming back into view, and he stares at Yuuri as if he can pry the thoughts right out of Yuuri’s mind.

Yuuri doesn’t know what else to do, so he just stares back.

Victor’s chin finally dips down in a tiny nod, and he lets go of Yuuri. Yuuri follows his cue and lets his hands fall away. Victor’s skin throws off heat, obvious even through the thin costume, and Yuuri’s fingers now feel cold. He curls them into themselves.

Victor raises one hand to swipe at his face, the tiny crystals lining his sleeves glimmering in the light. “I’m tired.”

Yuuri sighs. “I can imagine. I’m pretty exhausted myself, and I didn’t even skate at all.” He looks up at Victor. “Will you be okay?”

Victor looks at him wordlessly. It’s clear he’s caught the way Yuuri has phrased the question. There’s no point asking if Victor is all right – he obviously isn’t.

“Maybe,” Victor says, and then he moves away, back to the chair with his skating boots still lying forlornly on the floor. He grabs at a shadow as he goes – his skating bag, Yuuri can see now – and pulls out the soakers – soft blade protectors – to store his boots properly. His movements are brisk and efficient again, and Yuuri breathes out a soft sigh of relief.

“You still have the exhibition gala tomorrow,” Yuuri notes, just to fill the air with sound.

“Yes.” Victor packs his skates and rises to his feet, a jacket in his arms. It’s a plain black training one, not the Olympic or the official Russian team jacket, and when Victor pulls it over his costume he looks so different from the public image he exudes that Yuuri blinks. “Will you still be around?”

“Sort of,” Yuuri says. “I had a full day today, so I’m not required to help with the gala tomorrow, but the JSF wants to grill me about some things—” he hides a grimace “—so I’ll be staying in the city for another day or two.”

“I’ve never really explored Osaka before,” Victor says cryptically. He pads up to Yuuri, and – where exactly are his shoes? He’s not quite barefoot – he still has his socks on – but Yuuri stares at Victor’s feet, bewildered.

Victor wiggles his toes, and Yuuri’s eyes shoot back to Victor’s face, his cheeks flushing at getting caught staring.

There’s a considering look on Victor’s face now; his eyes are still dark, but there’s an intensity in them now, a spark that had been missing earlier. “Will you show me around the city?”

“Huh?” Yuuri says eloquently. “But you have the gala!”

“Afterwards,” Victor says. He shoulders his skating bag. “The day after. Your meetings with the JSF shouldn’t take the whole day, right?”

“No… but what about your coach? And your flight tickets?”

“Yakov’s flying back to St. Petersburg first thing tomorrow morning,” Victor says airily. “And I can easily change my ticket.” He gives Yuuri a smile – it’s not his usual gilded ones, nor is it the strange brittle one of before, but something in between. “I’ve already qualified for the GPF. I can afford to take a break from training.”

Something rings at the back of Yuuri’s mind, a new awareness that has been nurtured by months of watching over Minami. Pay attention, Yuuri remembers Naoko mouthing at him, and he looks at Victor, paying attention now.

Yuuri has been running away from Victor since the Cup of China because he didn’t want Victor to see his shortcomings. But Victor hadn’t let him keep that distance, and right now, he’s actively reaching out.

Yuuri wonders if it’s finally his turn to reach a hand out towards Victor.

“The JSF meetings can sometimes run long,” he finds himself saying. “But I can meet you after lunch, and we can explore around.”

Victor’s eyes widen, as if he’s surprised that Yuuri would agree. Then, a smile – a more genuine one – coalesces over his lips. It transforms him, and Yuuri’s heart jolts, because—

—Victor looks just like he did at sixteen, childlike delight lighting up his face.

“But you need to wear shoes,” Yuuri says, just so he doesn’t blurt out any of the other thoughts in his head.

Victor looks down speculatively at his feet. “Yakov has them. He’s probably piping mad now, since I grabbed my bag and abandoned him with my shoes.”

Yuuri opens the door, holds it open for Victor to walk through.

“I left Celestino with my suitcase at the Fukuoka airport once.” It’s a bittersweet memory, because Mari had texted him then, and Yuuri had dropped everything and sprinted all the way past customs to the arrival hall, because she’d made the journey out and brought Vicchan with her. “I got a lengthy lecture after that, because I forgot to actually tell him – I just let go of the suitcase, and my costumes and my skating boots were in there.”

Victor laughs; it’s soft, a little worn from emotion, but Yuuri thinks he likes it better than Victor’s media-perfected grins.

“I guess we have a few things in common,” he says, and this time, Yuuri doesn’t disagree.

---

Yuuri might not need to help with the exhibition gala, but he still has his committee credentials, and it isn’t hard to sneak into the arena, although he has to stand right at the very back of the audience stands.

It’d been a very close call, Yuuri half distracted throughout that entire meeting with the JSF, and he has a feeling they’re less pleased with him than ever before, but he gets back to the arena in time to catch the last handful of exhibition performances. Yuuri has memorized the performance list since the JSF published it the night before, and he’s waiting, when they announce Victor Nikiforov of Russia, men’s single silver medalist.

Victor’s exhibition costume is even more striped down than his free skate version – a plain long-sleeved shirt and trousers, gunmetal grey and slate, not a single piece of sequin or crystal or embellishment in sight.

The music follows the same theme – just the resonant voice of a male singer with a simple piano accompaniment, singing of love and uncertainty.

How will I know if you really love me? I say a prayer with every heartbeat. 

The voice doesn’t need much to stand on its own, a heartrending outpouring of feelings, and Victor’s performance is similar; his movements are wistful and heartfelt and deceptively simple. There are no impressive jumps, no dramatic hydroblades or cantilevers; just Victor, skating and spinning, almost fading into the ice with his grey-on-grey costume.

And yet no one can take their eyes off of Victor. No one makes a sound, the audience barely seems to take a breath, and Yuuri watches with them, feeling like someone’s scoped up his heart with a spoon, leaving him raw and hollow.

How will I know? the voice questions hauntingly, and Yuuri wonders, just who Victor is skating this performance to.

He has a feeling that no one – save the person in question – will ever really know.

Falling in love is so bittersweet; this love is strong, why do I feel weak?

Chapter Text

Hasetsu and Fukuoka – late April to June  

Yuuri has an arrangement of sorts with Minami and the Iizuka Ice Palace.

Phichit’s eyebrows shoot straight up when Yuuri tells him so, obvious even through the tiny screen of Yuuri’s phone, and Yuuri eyes him suspiciously as he describes Minami. It isn’t until Phichit cracks ten minutes later with a screech – Yuuri’s gone wild after he left Detroit! He’s in his bad boy phase! – that Yuuri realizes what “an arrangement” could be a euphemism for.

Yuuri makes sure he describes the situation exactly when he tells Yuuko and Nishigori, although from the way Yuuko tilts her head, he isn’t much clearer about it.

“Tell us again what your exact role is?” she tries.

“We haven’t really decided yet,” Yuuri says. The three of them are clustered at the center of the Ice Castle’s rink, a safeguard against the triplet’s eavesdropping ways (“This way,” Nishigori says under his breath, “we can hear them coming.”). “I’m not familiar enough of Odagaki-san’s coaching style to know how I’ll fit in yet, so for now, I’ll assist out with anything I can. The triple axel is Minami-kun’s Achilles jump but my strongest, so I’ll help him master it. Minako-sensei also expects me to demonstrate her choreographies, once she’s finished with them. Other than that… I’ll just be there?”

The grin that spreads across Nishigori’s face is smug. “So it’s finally little Yuuri’s turn to gain a kouhai,” he crows. “Wow, I can’t wait for you to experience all the quirks Yuuko and I had to deal with with you.”

Yuuko punches her husband right in the shoulder; Nishigori tries very hard not to wince, but Yuuri catches the flinch in his expression anyway.

“I think you’ll do really well,” Yuuko says. “You helped your rinkmates quite a bit back in Detroit, right?”

“I also shoved one of them away when she tried to hug me,” Yuuri points out.

Yuuko puffs up her cheeks in affront. “Well, she shouldn’t hug you without asking or making sure you’re okay with it! And Phichit-kun was hurt, of course you were pricklier than usual. She didn’t respect your emotional state or your personal space.” She glares at both Yuuri and Nishigori, a reminder that not only is she Ice Castle Hasetsu’s Madonna, she is also its protector. “Yuuri, make sure you watch over Minami-kun. It’s cutthroat competing at the senior level.”

In face of Yuuko’s protective fury, there’s only one thing Yuuri can say. “Okay.”

Nishigori slings an arm casually over Yuuri’s shoulders. “I take it back. If you have to do all that and more, you’re not just a senpai. You’re more like an assistant coach.”

“I guess? That’s what Minako-sensei says. But I have zero experience, so it seems—pretentious.” Yuuri grimaces. “Well, we’ll see how it goes.”

“So,” the sudden tentativeness in Yuuko’s voice draws Yuuri’s attention immediately. “Does this mean you’re not competing in the next season? Or is this just for the off-season?”

Yuuri sighs, and Nishigori ruffles his hair apologetically, but doesn’t let go off Yuuri’s shoulders, keeping Yuuri trapped there so he can’t run away from Yuuko’s question. “I haven’t really decided. But I like the idea of helping Minami-kun. I’ll still be skating, but I won’t be thinking about me all the time.”

Yuuko’s expression softens. “Okay, Yuuri. Bring Minami-kun here some time, okay? Japan’s ace and Japan’s rising star, under one roof; I’d love to see that.” She pauses, considering. “But remember. You might be helping out at the Iizuka Ice Palace now, but you’re the face of Ice Castle Hasetsu first!”

Yuuri never considered otherwise. He might have spent five years avoiding his hometown, but now that he’s back in Japan, there’s nowhere else he ever thought of returning to. Ice Castle Hasetsu will always be his home rink in Japan.

“Of course,” he says.

---

One of the main reasons why Yuuri decided to return to his hometown was to let himself sink into the obscurity and calm of Hasetsu, to hide and lick his wounds in a place where no one had expectations of him. He’s usually incredibly busy during the off-season summer months – he took summer classes to lighten his courseload during the competitive season, and he performed in ice shows and other activities with the Detroit skate club to off-set his schooling and competition costs – but now that he’s gotten his degree and has zero idea what to do about his skating career, Yuuri had expected the days to stretch out in front of him, nebulous and uncertain.

Now, suddenly, Yuuri’s schedule becomes increasingly synched with Minami’s, and his time becomes filled with consultations with Odagaki, sessions with Minako, traveling, so much traveling, and a surprising amount of off-ice training with Minami, trying to find his place amongst the tightknit bond that the younger skater already has with Odagaki.

It’s hard. There’s seldom any correct answer when it comes to coaching, Yuuri finds, and he finds himself feeling his way murkily, acting and reacting by trial and error, guided along by Odagaki’s subtle nudging and assurance. Minami is a terrible barometer – he thinks the world of Yuuri, and in his eyes Yuuri can do no wrong – and it is actually terrifying, the weight of that expectation, except Minami doesn’t give Yuuri a chance to dwell on it: he’s enthusiastic and buoyant and hardworking, and Yuuri finds himself getting swept along for the ride.

The first shift comes when Yuuri learns the new Lohengrin program from Minako, so he can demonstrate and teach it to Minami. It’s similar enough to his own version to be comforting, different – playing to Minami’s strengths – enough to be interesting, and as Yuuri tests out a bit of footwork with Minako barking instructions at him from rinkside, he finds himself – wondering.

The second shift comes when he’s walking Minami through Lohengrin and the segment of footwork preceeding the big triple-triple combo jump that worked so beautifully for Yuuri just seems to tangle Minami up. They both struggle with the segment for a bit before Yuuri gets a spark of inspiration and switches some of the steps around, compensates Minami’s shorter stature by adding some connecting passes.

The modified sequence works better for Minami, and they practice it a few times before Yuuri films Minami performing the segment, to pass the footage back to Minako for her assessment. The next time Yuuri gets on the ice, late at night at the Ice Castle when the world is still and quiet and drowsy, he doesn’t fall automatically into the opening pose of one of Victor’s programs. His feet ache to move in a different way, restless, no longer content to perform the routines that have become as familiar to Yuuri as his own hands, and Yuuri stands at the center of the rink for long minutes, considering.

When Yuuri finally moves, it’s to the beginning of an older routine, one of Yuuri’s own, a short program from three years ago. He lets himself change the choreography as he goes, whatever feels natural and comfortable – something that isn’t entirely new, but not entirely old either. He’s not quite ready to make the leap yet, but at the back of his mind is something Yuuri hasn’t considered in a long time, something that’s entirely for himself.

It’s strange, to be inspired when Yuuri is no longer competing. But Yuuri is used to irony, used to the contradictions of the sport he devoted his life to; he puts it out of his mind to ponder on and overthink and consider late at night when he can’t fall asleep, and lets himself sink into the movements of his body and the scrape of blades against ice now.

---

The Iizuka Ice Palace is not Ice Castle Hasetsu and it is not Yuuri’s former home rink in Detroit, but the ice is the same no matter where in the world he is. Dragging himself from the warmth of his bed at ungodly hours of the morning is horrible, but once Yuuri is actually awake he thinks he can get used to it. There’s something about the pre-dawn hours where the city is still languid with slumber that feels utterly sublime – the cold, the darkness and the solitude should feel lonely, but instead it just puts Yuuri at ease.

No one ever expects anything from him, not like this.

Yuuri stands in the center of the rink, headphones on, listening to the rhythmic beat of the song, a grounding accompaniment to the soaring vocals. It puts Yuuri in mind of late nights and shared secrets and defiance, and he lets his body move to the music.

It’s not Yuuri’s usual choice for music, a soulful R&B song with rap thrown into it, but like the unfamiliar rink, he finds himself liking it. The song doesn’t lend itself easily to jumps; instead, the song flows like an unending river, the vocals building upon itself but never quite breaking into a crescendo, staying long and sustained and entrancing instead, and it’s perfect for Yuuri right now. He’s slowly getting back to base fitness, but after crashing a dozen times on jumps during competitions, he’s still wary of performing them when he doesn’t need to.

So he lets the music carry him and inspire the best of his favourite moves – fast, fast footwork, so precise he could carve perfect parallel lines in the ice, twizzles and half-turns and hand gestures placed just so, and spins that pick up so much speed that the world blurs entirely away. He isn’t dizzy when he whirls out of the spin and cuts his momentum to come to an abrupt halt together with the music, but it does take him a moment to come out of his in-performance trance.

When Yuuri looks up, a dozen eyes stare back at him.

He jerks instinctively back, his heartrate spiking even higher than when he was skating. The movement accidentally yanks his headphones away, and his breathing is very harsh in the sudden silence singing in his ears.

The people staring at him must be students training at the rink – they range from pre-teens to older teenagers who must be on the brink of graduating high school. All of them are wearing training gear, and from the way they’re looking at him, wide-eyed and awed, they all know exactly who he is.

Why are they here? Yuuri searches for the large overhead clock at the end of rink; it proclaims, in bright undeniable digits, that it’s 6:50 a.m. – past the beginning of the morning training session.

Yuuri stares at it in consternation; he’d been so absorbed with skating that he’d lost all track of time.

“Katsuki-san.”

Yuuri jerks around at the sound of his name.

Odagaki is standing near the entrance to the rink, one hand on Minami’s shoulder. There are other people there – one of the other coaches, Yuuri thinks – but Yuuri feels frantic enough that his eyes latch onto Odagaki’s familiar face and refuse to move away.

Odagaki gives him a gentle smile. “Could I talk to you in the office? I’d like you to pass a message to Minako-san.”

Yuuri nods jerkily, and skates towards her, shoving his headphones in his pocket. As he moves, he can feel all the eyes following him, tracking his every move; the shiver that shudders down his spine has nothing to do with the way the cold air is pulling goosebumps from his sweat-tacky skin.

Odagaki gives Minami a little push towards his rinkmates before holding out Yuuri’s skate guards. Surprisingly, Minami doesn’t protest; he moves away instead, corralling his rinkmates, speaking extra fast and enthusiastically, and Yuuri is so grateful to the both of them that he feels lightheaded as he snaps the skate guards to his blades.

He’ll normally remove his skating boots entirely if he’s leaving the rink for an extended period of time, but Yuuri doesn’t want to spend a minute longer making a spectacle of himself. He strides towards the office space Odagaki and the other coaches frequent before the Ice Palace staff come in for work later in the day, and moments later Odagaki enters after him, his jacket and a towel in her hands.

Yuuri takes both from her, scrubs the sweat from his skin and his hair with the towel before putting on his glasses with a soft sigh. Odagaki leans her hip against a desk, flipping through a few papers.

“Thank you,” Yuuri says after a few moments of quiet goes by.

Odagaki glances at him, and then straightens. “Please forgive our students,” she says. “You are very private about your life, and we only ever see you through the lens of the media or through Chulanont-san’s many videos and selfies. But many of us here in Japan have watched your progress on the ice over the years. We’ve watched the way you’ve grown, the way your performances have matured and become more refined, and there’s a sense of ownership involved in watching someone for so long. We think we know you, and for the students to see you now, skating in person – it takes time for them to realize that their idol is a person with feelings, not just a figure to be admired.”

Yuuri lets out a quiet breath, feeling his heart finally slow from its frantic pounding. “I’ve gotten used to Minami-kun’s enthusiasm and large crowds never really bothered me, but small groups like that, especially when all their attention is on me alone, make me really jittery. All I can think of is how trapped I feel, while the rest of my mind searches frantically for ways to get away.” He gives Odagaki a weak smile. “How do you always know what your students are thinking?”

“I coach young children and teenagers. It’s my job to help them grow, to give them a stable foundation that they can rely on, and the best way to do that is to understand their needs and the way they think. Especially when so much of what they want is subconscious, at their age.” Odagaki flashes him a conspiratory smile. “I’m not surprised that you don’t realize what their motivations are. Skaters, after all, are necessarily self-centered.”

Yuuri winces.

“It’s not a criticism. For singles skaters, figure skating is a solo sport, and your biggest challenge is surpassing your past self. Your other competitors matter, of course, but when you’re on the ice, the only one you can count on, that you have control of, is yourself.” Odagaki gestures at herself. “Coaches, on the other hand, focus entirely on our skaters.”

She pauses, and then says, voice matter of fact, “You skated beautifully, just now.”

The protest is automatic on Yuuri’s tongue. “It wasn’t anything – it’s not even a proper program. I was just messing around on the ice.”

“Katsuki-san, I’m a coach,” Odagaki reminds him. “I have to be critical about what I see. Your performance scores during competitions are well deserved, and the way you skated just now proves it. Everyone was so captivated that no one could bring themselves to stop you, even though it was past time for training to begin.”

She pauses, and the stare she pins him with makes Yuuri squirm. “You were also intentionally avoiding performing jumps.”

Yuuri shifts restlessly. “You know how I skated my old Lohengrin program when I went to clear things out with Minami-kun back when all this begun?”

“Of course,” Odagaki says with a laugh. “Minami-kun only mentions it every time I get him to practice his version of Lohengrin.”

“He’s always so enthusiastic about my junior and early senior programs. I thought I’d take a leaf from his book and work through my routines, to try to recapture my old feelings towards the ice. I mean, I skated the programs of the skaters I admire—” Odagaki mercifully doesn’t call out Yuuri’s obsession with Victor “—but I figured, I should focus on me, right?”

“Right,” Odagaki agrees.

“I was doing all right until I got to my current—well, I guess it’s last season’s programs. And it was—” Yuuri flinches at the memory. It’s not just psychological; he has a pretty big bruise on his shoulder from the last time he crashed into the boards “—a mess.”

Odagaki smiles sympathetically at him, but she doesn’t say a word, intuitive enough to know Yuuri has a point to make, and that he needs a little more time to get to it.

Yuuri scrubs a hand through his hair, and then forces himself to just say it, like ripping off a bandaid. “I told the JSF not to assign me to the Grand Prix series.”

Odagaki’s surprise is palpable; she presses a hand swiftly to her mouth to mask her expression, but there’s no hiding the shock in her eyes. Yuuri doesn’t blame her – his decision is an overt sign that Yuuri’s leaning towards sitting out the season, or retiring entirely.

“It’s already June, and Grand Prix assignments come out at the end of this month. It doesn’t seem fair to hog any potential spots I get when I have no intentions to compete.” Yuuri rubs at the cuffs of his jacket sleeve; it’s an old training jacket, picked up last year when he was in Tokyo for the NHK Trophy, and it’s starting to fray at the edges. “But… I’ve been thinking of new programs, lately, since my old routines aren’t working for me anymore. I’ve never picked my own music and choreography before, so it’s… different.”

He darts a look at Odagaki, and he can almost pinpoint the moment she puts the clues together, when her eyes go from shocked to something closer to fierce pride. After all, new programs usually mean new competitions, and the Grand Prix series only makes up the first half of the competitive season.

Yuuri doesn’t correct her misunderstanding. If Odagaki, who is intuitive and currently knows more of Yuuri’s skating than anyone else except maybe Minami, comes to the wrong conclusion, chances are the rest of the world will assume the same.

“Was that your new music?” Odagaki nods towards Yuuri’s phone. “You already have the bones of the choreography; you’ll just need to incorporate jumps to make it competition eligible.”

Smiling despite himself, Yuuri shakes his head. “It’s a good song, but no. Phichit likes throwing music at me. One of his friends sent him the music and that friend is already considering it for his exhibition program. I haven’t found the right song for myself yet.” He pokes at his phone. “I was never very good at picking music, so Celestino always chose for me.”

“Have you revisited any of your previous choices? They might work better now that you have more experience, or you might have better insight into making the music work for you.” Odagaki taps one finger consideringly against her cheek. “There’s usually a significance of some kind if you’ve considered a song before. You could take a deeper look at your choices and work from there.”

The memory of a piano composition comes immediately to mind. It’s the only piece of music Yuuri has ever commissioned, from a conservatory music student Phichit introduced him to. The song was supposed to represent Yuuri’s competitive career as a figure skater, and even though Celestino had vetoed it, the song had spoken to a part of Yuuri.

Perhaps they could rework it, the way Yuuri is trying to reinvent himself.

“That’s good advice,” Yuuri says softly. “I can work with that.”

“I’m glad I could help.” Odagaki smiles at him, and then boosts herself up to sit on the desk. “One day, Minami-kun will outgrow my tutelage. I’m grateful that you’re friends with him now, that you can help him get through it, if he needs someone to listen.”

“Yeah.” It’s only been a few weeks, but Minami has grown on Yuuri, and Yuuri doubts he’ll ever fall out of touch with the younger skater, since, like Phichit, Minami will probably never stop poking and prodding him into responding.

It really says something about Yuuri that his closest friends are the ones who hang stubbornly onto him and refuse to let Yuuri retreat into himself.

Odagaki leans on one arm, her hand braced on top of the desk. “I’m not like your former coach. I don’t coach potential world champions or Olympic medalists. I work with juniors; I take the beginners and the intermediates who need to strengthen their basics and I guide them until their wings are strong enough to fly them to more fruitful shores, with coaches that can push them to the next level.”

Yuuri nods – it’s what Minako and the handful of coaches hired by Ice Castle Hasetsu did with him, after all, until Yuuri caught Celestino’s attention.

“What you’re going through right now is something you have to overcome yourself, and no coach, no matter how top-notched they are, can do that for you. You are mature and experienced enough that you can practice on your own, if your goal is to find yourself. But if you want a coach to oversee your progress, I would be happy to watch over you.”

It’s Yuuri’s turn to gape at Odagaki in shock; the noise he makes is a strangled combination of “what?” and “why?.

“I told you earlier, coaches are selfless in face of their skaters, but the skaters themselves need to be self-centered.” Odagaki gives Yuuri a bright grin, but there’s a tinge of seriousness to it. “You’re good with Minami-kun; I can see that you really try. But as a skater, you need to focus on yourself, and you’ll miss things. I’ll keep you on track.”

Yuuri manages to wrestle his surprise into control. “Like what?”

“Making sure you actually practice your jumps, for example – falling so many times during the GPF and Nationals last year really affected you.” Odagaki counts off the points on her fingers. “You train with Minami when you’re here, but we should make sure that the training regime you’re on suits the eventual competitive level you’re aiming for. I’ll remind you of JSF deadlines, should you choose to compete later in the season. And ensure that you get proper rest and downtime instead of running yourself ragged on the ice – I know your type.”

She arches a knowing look in Yuuri’s direction, and he ducks his head – he really does have a bad habit of overtraining. The constant movement helps calm his mind, but it does a hard number on his muscles and bones.

“Like I said, I’m good at enforcing the basics.” Odagaki’s strict look morphs back into a smile. “You know, this isn’t much different from your arrangement with Minami-kun. Mostly, I’ll just be here if you ever need advice or someone to bounce ideas off.”

That... doesn’t sound too bad, actually. Yuuri bites back his natural inclination to demur; if Minako-sensei was here, she’d berate Yuuri to seize the opportunity.

“I think,” he says cautiously, “I can work with that?”

Odagaki laughs, her voice sounding like chiming bells. She straightens and slides off the desk, landing nimbly on her feet. “We can work at whatever pace you feel comfortable with, Katsuki-san.”

She glances at her watch, and then opens the office door.

“I need to get back to the rink. Take a few minutes to catch your equilibrium, but—” she throws a mischievous grin over her shoulder, “I’d advise you to come back and meet the kids rather than to slip out of the building. There’ve been rumours about you, but you’ve always avoided meeting the crowds before this. Now that they’ve actually seen you, they’ll probably stalk you until you face them. Better to let them get their excitement out of their system now.”

Oh god.” Yuuri murmurs the words under his breath and in English to boot.

Odagaki’s grin grows larger at that, but Yuuri doesn’t get a chance to find out whether she understands him or simply deduces Yuuri’s feelings from his tone of voice. She calls out, cheerful but vaguely ominous, “Half an hour until practice ends!” and sweeps out of the room.

Yuuri collapses back against his seat, groaning internally. He’s not going to escape this time, however, unless he makes Minami go up to Hasetsu all the time instead of Yuuri coming down to Fukuoka, so he struggles to his feet, pulling on his jacket.

His face is reflected in the polished glass of the office door, and Yuuri stares at himself – bespectacled, hair down and curling at the tips from drying sweat, his cheeks still a little flushed from exertion. It’s a far cry from Katsuki Yuuri, Japan’s ace upon the ice, costumed and confident; this is just Yuuri, yet another dime a dozen skater who has to practice damn hard to get anywhere, and that’s exactly who the kids are going to get.

He attempts a smile; his reflection smiles back at him.

Good enough, Yuuri thinks, and heads back to the rink.

❄ ❄ ❄

Osaka – mid-November

Yuuri and Victor spend the first half hour of their exploration of Osaka wedged in a corner of Asashiobashi Station, pouring over Yuuri’s phone and trying to figure out what they’re doing and where they’re going.

“I thought you’d know where to go,” Victor says.

“I’ve been living in the United States for the past five years, and I only came back to Japan for competitions.” Yuuri squints at his phone – there’s just so much more information available in Japanese, but he’s doing this for Victor, which means English websites, and he’s starting to get lost between them all. “And my hometown is in Saga prefecture, which is like something like seven hundred kilometers away. Other than getting from the airport to the two main venues the JSF likes to use for events, I don’t know much about Osaka.”

“Oh,” Victor says, and then smiles. “So this will be an adventure for us both.”

Yuuri slants a sideways look at Victor. They’re both leaning against a wall, out of the way of the constant stream of commuters. There’s barely a trace of the lost, mercurial figure Yuuri had encountered the night of the free skate; now, the day after the exhibition gala, Victor is clad in a long coat thrown over shirt and jeans, a scarf wrapped around his neck, and he looks so at ease at Yuuri’s side that Yuuri feels his heart thumping strangely in his chest.  

He angles his hand holding his phone away and turns his head to look at Victor fully. “Well, Osaka is a big city. Where do you want to go? The waterfront? The city center?”

“Anywhere,” is Victor’s extremely unhelpful response.

Yuuri tries again. “Is there anything in particular you want to do, then?”

“Anything!” comes the reply, and if it isn’t for the earnest look on Victor’s face, Yuuri would think he’s being teased. “I’ll trust your judgment, Yuuri.”

Yuuri blows out a breath. No pressure.

He thinks for a long moment, and then pushes away from the wall. “Okay. Let’s go.”

For simple expediency, Yuuri buys them each a sight-seeing day pass, and goes to the very first destination recommended by the brochure that comes with it.

Osaka Castle is a surprising hit with Victor, who eyes the towering architecture – the giant rock fortifications, the iconic sloping green roofs and their golden eaves, and the wide moat surrounding it all – like he’s never seen anything quite like it. His excitement is palpable as they explore the grounds, and as they walk through the attached gardens, cherry trees lying bare and forlorn until spring returns, Yuuri finds himself wishing it was the flowering season – he can imagine Victor going to absolute raptures with his phone and the cherry blossoms, with Osaka Castle rising regally in the background.

For a change of scenes, Yuuri takes Victor to Minami district next, and laughs when Victor asks if there’s any relation between the place and Minami-kun. He almost loses Victor to the shopping lanes and the abundance of food found there; unlike some skaters who have trouble adjusting to local cuisine when traveling, Victor is game to try anything, and he tucks happily into okonomiyaki with their writhing bonito flakes and takoyaki with distinct tentacle chunks in the batter like he’s never eaten better. It might have been nicer to experience Minami district at night, especially Dotonbori with its hundreds of neon lights and giant signs, but the smaller afternoon crowd is a good pay off. Victor attracts attention wherever he goes, whether people recognize him as the figure skating world’s living legend or not, and Yuuri feels oddly protective of him.

Victor tells Yuuri to pick somewhere he wants to go next, and mindful of Victor’s health – they’ve been walking for hours now, and Victor’s just come off two hectic competition days and an exhibition – Yuuri chooses the aquarium. It's as much for Yuuri as it is for Victor. It’s not that Yuuri likes fish very much – he much rather prefers the cuddly warmth of a dog – but there’s something very soothing about wandering between giant tanks of water, watching the manta rays and sharks prowl by and little shellfish hiding amongst the corral.

A measure of internal peace might be what Victor needs as well – he’d happily and enthusiastically taken photos of everything, and posted a number of them to his Instagram, but Yuuri catches him gazing at a tank with luminescent jellyfish gently drifting in the currents, his expression looking very distant, his thoughts turned inwards, his hands tucked firmly in his jacket pocket and his phone nowhere in sight.

Victor’s mercurial side might be gone for now, but it seems that it is never really far away.

Yuuri stays nearby, looking at a pair of feathery seahorses clinging tenaciously onto some seaweed with their tails, making sure that he’s always in Victor’s line of sight, until Victor appears back at his side, exclaiming in delight over the exotic seahorses.

Since they’re already in the bay area, they end up on a sightseeing ship, and instead of staying safe and warm below deck, Victor drags Yuuri onto the deck so they can watch the sun setting over the harbour. The sky is fading from a wintry steel grey to a deeper azure, lights winking to life across the waterfront, and Yuuri huddles deeper into Victor’s side, very glad that he has his glasses to shield his eyes from the blistering wind.  

Victor just flings a hand out, his scarf whipping out behind him, and laughs into the wind.

It’s on that ship that they finally get waylaid by a trio of figure skating fans, who recognize Victor immediately. Yuuri’s only slightly surprised they haven’t been approached much earlier than this – the NHK Trophy is well publicized, and any fan following Victor’s social media accounts knows he’s out and about in the city.

He’s much more surprised when one of the girls turns shyly away from Victor and her eyes catches on Yuuri. A beat goes by, and then she blurts out, “Oh! Katsuki-san!” like she can’t quite help herself, and Yuuri, who has been busy trying to disappear into the background without drawing too much attention to himself, just freezes.

Mercifully, she merely bobs her head in his direction and turns back to Victor, who is glancing in Yuuri’s direction with a speculative look on his face, even as he accepts a phone from one of the other girls to take a selfie with her.

After the girls have taken their leave with numerous bows and a polite but heartfelt murmured spasibo!, Victor hops back to Yuuri’s side. “You know, they’d probably like a picture of you too.”

Yuuri shakes his head, and paws self-consciously at his bangs. “Hardly anyone recognizes me when I’m out of costume and wearing my glasses.” He gives Victor a hesitant smile. “And I don’t really like the attention.”

Victor gives him a sideways glance, a furrow appearing between his eyes. His mouth opens as if to speak, but he pauses that way, on the brink of a word, before he shakes his head once. When Victor finally does speak, Yuuri has a feeling he’s filtered out what he first wanted to say.

“You’ve skated in front of thousands of people, at events that are covered on international broadcasts.”

Yuuri gives a one-shouldered shrug, and turns his face to stare out across the water. “It’s different, on the ice. I speak to the audience through my skating, but no one can touch me there. I can be whoever I want, even myself entirely, and no one will ever know for sure.” He stretches out his arm, lets his hand curl into a pose; attempts to catch the air streaming through his fingers that way. “I can just be.”

Victor is quiet; the ship moves under the Minato bridge, and instinctively, the both of them tip their heads skywards to watch the massive steel structure pass overhead.

When the ship crosses the bridge’s shadow and emerges on the other side, Yuuri tucks his chin deeper into the warmth of his jacket collar, and gives Victor a smile.

“This has been nice. If we had more time, we could have gone over to Kyoto, too.”

Twilight had fallen further in the few minutes it took for the ship to cross under the bridge, and long shadows cover the deck. With the sun’s setting, the temperature has fallen further, and Victor looks at Yuuri, his eyes shrouded by the growing dark.

“You’re heading home tomorrow?”

Yuuri nods. “Yes. Minami-kun trains formally under Odagaki-san, but there’s less than two weeks until the Rostelecom Cup, and I promised to help him strengthen his triple axel. He’s coming to my hometown this weekend.”

“Not earlier?” Victor asks.

“He’s still in high school, and he misses enough classes attending competitions.” Yuuri tucks his hands snugly into his jacket. His teeth are starting to chatter, just a little – he’s never going to underestimate the windchill standing on a moving ship generates – but there’s something about this moment, private and intimate, that he wants to hold onto. “University was more flexible for me, but juggling classes and assignments and exams with figure skating was pretty stressful.”

“That’s right, you graduated earlier this year,” Victor says softly. His voice is a mix of satisfaction, as if he’s proud of Yuuri, and an odd, out of place melancholy.

Yuuri remembers from a feature article that Victor didn’t finish his schooling in favor of skating, dropping out the moment he was legally allowed to do so, although he’d completed a number of online classes in his early-twenties, an eclectic mix of core business courses and everything else from mythology to art history to sociology. Victor had claimed in an interview that it filled up time during his off-seasons and exposed him to a broad range of topics to invigorate his programs, and the world had been treated to a few seasons of wildly creative performances.

Yuuri, who was newly relocated to Detroit at that time, had been delighted by how different and surprising the programs were. Now, a handful of years wiser, Yuuri adds together business courses and Victor’s numerous sponsorships, and realizes that at twenty-seven, Victor is likely set for life, monetary-wise. With his reputation and titles and dozens of world records, and adoring fans from all around the world, Victor truly is a legend.

With so much to be glad of, the melancholy in Victor’s voice, like the flash of golden blades lying exposed to the air and light, seems so much more incongruous.

Trying to lighten the mood, Yuuri slides sideways into another topic. “Any thoughts about dinner? You know, I thought about taking you for katsudon, but nothing ever compares to my mother’s version, and it’s not like I can bring you to our inn so you can have it.”

Victor stirs, and then his head tilts to the side in curiosity. “Katsudon?”

“A pork cutlet bowl, with egg and rice. It’s pretty calorie-laden, so I only got to eat it as a reward for something.” Yuuri darts a look at Victor, and then looks very quickly away, because even though memories of Victor’s free skate make Yuuri’s heart ache – he hopes he gets a chance to watch Victor skate it with a calmer heart – it’s nothing compared to the memory of the Eros program. He’s incredibly grateful to the darkness for hiding the blush that must be rising on his cheeks. “You’re doing really well this season, and you’re competing at the Grand Prix Finals.”

Several beats go by with just the wind shrilling around them, and then Victor says, almost too casually, “Can we?”

“What,” Yuuri says, “have katsudon, you mean? It’s a popular meal, I guess we can find somewhere with good reviews to try it.”

“Mmm,” Victor hums noncommittally. He’s looking at Yuuri, and Yuuri’s heartbeat is starting to spike, because even through it’s dark and Yuuri can’t quite make out Victor’s expression, Yuuri is getting that feeling of anticipation that precedes Victor doing something world-record shattering on the ice. “We could do that, but I meant – lets go to your family’s inn and try your mother’s version.” He smiles. “It must be the best version around, after all.”

Yuuri just stares. “My mother is in Hasetsu.”

“And so we’ll make a detour!”

“A seven-hundred-kilometer detour. Victor, you have the GPF, you can’t just run off, and—and—” Yuuri runs out of words.

“I think I deserve a reward for qualifying for the GPF,” Victor says cheerfully. “I really enjoyed exploring Osaka, and I’d love to see more of Japan. When you leave tomorrow, I can just follow you! What Yakov doesn’t know won’t hurt him, and Yuri’s got the Rostelecom Cup too, and I think he’ll practice better without me taking up ice time.”

Yuuri must be going crazy, because he’s actually considering this. “But – your GPF preparations. You can’t just take a week or whatever off the ice.”

“It’s your hometown, so I know there must be a rink there. And if you’re worried I’ll interrupt your sessions with Minami, I know how to share the ice.” The light from a nearby building flits across Victor’s face, and the intensity in his eyes is reminiscent of his pre-competition face. “Or, if both you and he would like, I can help give him pointers too.”

Yuuri’s jaw drops, just slightly, because to have Victor’s advice and tutelage would only be a boon, and even though Yuuri’s not the one getting it, he can’t help the thrill of excitement that goes down his spine.

Victor, in Hasetsu. Even though the idea of popular, superstar Victor in slow, sleepy Hasetsu seems very odd, the image of Victor skating at Yuuri’s first and most beloved home rink, the place where Yuuri first fell in love with Victor’s skating, feels absolutely perfect.

VictuuriShip_Astronahz_chap3

Yuuri raises his eyes to meet Victor’s expectant gaze.

“If you’re sure—”

“I am,” Victor assures him.

“—and if you’re sure it won’t cause any trouble—”

“It probably will,” Victor says, “but it’s nothing I can’t handle, and no one could possibly blame you, Yuuri, since Yakov always says I’m capable of dragging even the sanest person down the rabbit hole with me.”

Yuuri’s mouth twitches, and he bites the inside of his cheek to keep from grinning, “—then okay. Come visit Hasetsu with me.”

Victor laughs out loud, utterly delighted, and does a stationary spin in celebration. It’s lucky that they’re the only ones who are willing to brave the cold to stay above deck, not because Yuuri is worried they’ll disturb other passengers—

—but because it means that this moment is his alone to keep.

---

The key, Yuuri has learned, to being an anxious wreck but to still survive the incredibly stressful life of a competitive athlete is just this: he keeps himself so very, very busy until he has no room to think and hence overthink.

So he packs his bags and meets Victor at the airport, takes the short flight to Fukuoka, gets on the train to Hasetsu, and although there’s the ever-constant nagging awareness that what he’s doing is so out of the ordinary that they’re just a step away from the situation blowing up in their faces, Yuuri doesn’t let himself really feel it until they arrive at Hasetsu Station, and he’s faced with a wall of posters of himself.  

“Oh god,” Yuuri manages to get out before Victor zips past him, pausing a foot away from the wall, staring up at the posters with wide eyes.

“Yuuri! It’s you!” he crows, and whips out his phone.

“Oh god,” Yuuri says, in Japanese this time, and grabs Victor’s suitcase and heads towards that very unfortunate wall before they draw more attention.

Victor is staring at the posters when Yuuri stops at his side. “They’re very flattering,” he says, and smiles. “Can I have one?”

Yuuri’s world threatens to tilt sideways, and thank goodness for the two suitcases he’s forced to drag along in his wake, because the solid handles in his hands are the only things anchoring him to reality right now. “…these posters belong to the municipal council – Mari-nee-chan says they put them up a year or two ago? Anyway, they’ve got to be out of print now.”

I hope, Yuuri doesn’t add out loud.

“That’s a shame.” Victor steps back, and pulls the suitcases gently from Yuuri’s hand. “Move two steps to the right, please?” 

Mystified, Yuuri does so, and Victor raises his phone. Yuuri twitches, but there’s no click nor flash of the camera – just Victor looking at Yuuri expectantly over the phone.

“May I?” Victor asks, and Yuuri automatically says yes, years of ingrained politeness and an almost intrinsic need to respond well to Victor overriding his natural shyness.

He stands there numbly after the click goes off, not quite realizing what has happened, and then Victor skips back to his side, holding the phone up for Yuuri to see: plain, normal bespectacled Yuuri, his expression looking bewildered, standing in front of the stylized versions of skater Katsuki Yuuri, skates on and posed balletically, a rain of cherry blossoms falling around him.

The contrast between who Yuuri appeared to be and who he really is has never been more obvious, but Victor smiles down at the photograph.

“I love Hasetsu already,” he says, and grabs a hold of his suitcase, heading for the station’s entrance.

Yuuri stares after him for a moment, and then scrambles to catch up.

They reached Hasetsu during the weekday afternoon lull, and Yu-topia’s main foyer is blessedly free of guests. Instead of their father, Mari is seated at the reception counter, tallying their books, and her head goes up immediately when Yuuri steps through the doors.

Her eyes are narrowed, and she’s on the brink of slinging a dozen questions at him when her gaze jerks abruptly to the side and her eyes go wide.

Victor, coming up from behind Yuuri, must have freed his telltale hair from its hat and scarf, and clearly, Mari recognizes him.

“You could never do things in halves, can you?” Mari says without blinking. “I know I’ve been saying you needed to get out more, but I never expected you to bring Victor Nikiforov of all people back home to meet our parents.”

Mari,” Yuuri says, for once forgoing the “nee-chan”. She smiles, and leans over the counter to get a better look at Victor.

“This is for texting me that you’ll be bringing a guest over and not telling me anything else. Be glad I’m speaking in Japanese, little brother,” she says airily, and before Yuuri can freeze – he didn’t even think about that – switches to English to address Victor. “Welcome to Yu-topia. I’m Yuuri’s sister, Mari.” Her grin widens. “Victor Nikiforov, right? Let’s talk.”

Yuuri darts a look at Victor, who looks caught off-guard, and speaks up immediately. “Mari-nee-chan, we’ve had a pretty long journey—”

“And so I’m going to show Victor his room.” Mari closes her books – they slam shut with a resolute sound – and ducks out of the small reception room, reappearing moments later in the foyer. Her smile could match Victor’s public gilded one, except hers seems to contain so much more teeth. “You’re staying here, right?”

Victor blinks, and then he recovers himself. “We haven’t really discussed it – I’ll be here for a few days, so you might not be able to accommodate me—”

“You’re staying,” Mari says decisively, and hefts Victor’s suitcase before anyone else can react. “Come on, I’ll show you around. Yuuri has to go do something, so he’ll meet us in the dining area when he’s done.”

“I do?” Yuuri says.

Switching seamlessly to Japanese, Mari doesn’t even bother lowering her voice, “Your posters, Yuuri. Your room full of posters with his face on it.”

Yuuri goes pale almost instantly.

“Right,” he says in a strangled voice, but glances over at Victor. “Are you okay going with Mari-nee-chan?”

“I’ll be fine,” Victor assures him. “We can communicate with each other, which is already an improvement on the time my flight got rerouted to a small city in China because of the weather and I had to find a hotel for the night.” He hesitates. “Are you all right, Yuuri?”

“He’s fine,” Mari calls from near the stairs. “It’s just siblings stuff. I have five years to make up. Are you coming?”

Yuuri sighs, but nods at Victor. “She’s right. I’ll come down as soon as possible, okay? Don’t let Mari-nee-chan needle you too much.”

“She can’t be worse than the reporters,” Victor says, and gives Yuuri a small wave before trailing after Mari.

Yuuri is glad he manages to keep his expression neutral, because reporters and the paparazzi might be wild and irreverent and overwhelming, but at least Yuuri could hide from them. Mari knows enough of Yuuri’s secrets and childhood and history that she could blackmail him if she really wanted to, and she’s headstrong enough to do it if circumstances call for it.

Still, she’s always been on Yuuri’s side, and Yuuri goes up to dump his luggage and deal with the poster situation before Victor – who has a way of showing up when he’s least expected and wheedling people into getting his way – comes upon Yuuri’s bedroom and figures out just big a fanboy Yuuri really is.

When he gets down a while later, he finds Mari and Victor not in the larger dining area where guests and Hasetsu’s general population usually partakes of Yuuri’s mother’s excellent cooking, but in the smaller private room where Yuuri’s family can eat and rest away from the inn’s public spaces. Victor is ensconced at the low table, his cheeks flushed with the room’s warmth, and he’s loudly – and more importantly – very sincerely praising Hiroko’s cooking in between bites of pork cutlet and eggy rice.

Mari doesn’t even bother translating; Victor’s enthusiasm and charm transcend language barriers, and Yuuri’s mother is practically glowing with the praise, her smile wide and approving.

“Oh, Yuuri,” she says when she catches sight of Yuuri hovering at the door. “Mari told me that Vic-chan was just in a competition, so I made him our special extra large katsudon. He seems to really like it!” She gathers up her serving tray. “I’ll go get your dinner. Vic-chan looks tired, so make sure you take him for a long soak in the hot springs later, all right?”

“Okay,” Yuuri says, and Hiroko gives him a soft, knowing smile before leaving. When the sliding shoji doors swish shut behind her, Yuuri mouths Vic-chan? at Mari.

Mari just shrugs, watching Victor devour his bowl of katsudon with keen interest.

“Yuuri, you were absolutely right,” Victor says as Yuuri takes a seat at the table. “This is the food of the gods!”

Yuuri can’t help laughing. “I’m so glad you’re enjoying it.”

Victor flicks up small grains of rice with the tips of his chopstick to utterly clear the bowl, and when he lifts his head to face Yuuri their gazes meet. Victor sets down his bowl and chopsticks, and although he isn’t quite smiling, there’s a sense of contentment in the curve of his lips. “Thank you for inviting me here.”

“You invited yourself first,” Yuuri can’t help saying, but smiles to take the sting out of it. He ducks his head, suddenly feeling self-conscious. “I’m glad you’re here, though.”

He can feel the weight of Victor’s gaze on his skin, and despite his best intentions, tenses up – not from nerves, per say, but in anticipation of what Victor would say next. It’s different when they were out and about in Osaka. Time had felt fleeting then, their interactions dear to Yuuri but ultimately transient because they both had to go their separate ways soon enough. But now, here in Hasetsu, there is a sense of solidity to every word and action they make – that even though Victor would eventually leave, he’d be here long enough to leave a permanent mark in Yuuri’s life.

“Okay,” Mari says, and her voice is like a thunderclap shattering right through the tension. There’s a rattle as Yuuri’s knee hits the low table; Victor’s eyes are wider than usual, his hair mussed from how he’d jerked around in surprise. “Since he isn’t a normal guest, Yuuri, you’re in charge of him.” She clambers to her feet, smoothing out her uniform and twitching her bandanna back into space. “And you, Nikiforov, remember what I said. Have fun, the two of you!”

She sweeps out of the room before Yuuri can decide how to react, and he’s left staring at the paper and bamboo sliding doors.

“What did Mari say to you?” Yuuri says, because out of all the things he wants to say, that question seems the most important.

“I’m not sure,” Victor says, sounding bemused. “She showed me around the inn, and before we came in here, she stared at me for about a minute, said something in Japanese, and then told me to go to a place called Ice Castle Hasetsu. I guess she means to skate?” He picks up his teacup. “Are siblings always like that?”

Yuuri laughs helplessly, half from spent nerves, and half from the ridiculousness of their situation. “I’ll bring you to the Ice Castle tomorrow. And Mari’s my only sister, but I have plenty of stories to share.”

Victor leans his head in the palm of his hand.

“Tell me,” he says, and Yuuri does.

---

Yuuko has always championed Yuuri, taking care of him when they were younger and cheering him on and always, always believing in him, and even though there's absolutely no way Yuuri can take credit for Victor's presence, it still feels immensely satisfying to walk through Ice Castle Hasetsu's glass doors with Victor at his heels, and see Yuuko's eyes go wide.

She claps a hand over her mouth, seemingly shocked into silence, but the triplets have no such qualms; they scramble on top of the registration counter with abandon, and then Axel speaks what must be on all their minds.

"Mom, it's really Victor Nikiforov!"

Beside Yuuri, Victor breaks into a grin at the sound of his name, and then the triplets leap down to surround Victor, speaking in bite-sized English and piping Japanese. Victor kneels down in their midst, exclaiming at their adorable skating uniforms and their miniature white skates and how they must be angels on the ice, while Nishigori splutters in the background, trying to herd his children away before they can swarm right over Victor.

"Yuuri," he hears in an awed voice, and then Yuuko is sliding up beside him, staring at the spectacle of her family around Victor with an air of incredulity around her.

Yuuri smiles. "I suppose all my years in the competitive circuit is finally good for something."

"You're wonderful on the ice, and I'll always want to watch you skating, competitively or not." Yuuko's punch on Yuuri's arm feels almost reflexive; sure enough, her hand slides into the crook of his elbow a moment later. "We saw the pictures, but I never expected that Victor would show up here."

"Pictures?" Yuuri says, curious enough that he turns his full attention to Yuuko. He has alerts on all of Victor's social media platforms, and the only people in the images Victor posted from their day in Osaka are of Victor himself, the anonymous crowd around him. If Yuuri is in the background of any photos, Victor kept them private.

"A fan upload a selfie she took with Victor on a sightseeing cruise, when he was in Osaka. You were standing in the background." Yuuko rubs Yuuri's arm gently. "It's not terribly obvious, but your fans tend to be quite eagle-eyed, and someone identified you in the comments. Most people just dismiss it as a rumour, though."

Yuuri just shakes his head – as long as no one follows them to Hasetsu, he doesn't really care. Victor hadn't explained why he'd wrapped himself up in coat and hat and scarf when they arrived at the airport and before they got on the train to Hasetsu, but between the attempt at incognito and the way Victor casually ignores his phone when it rings on and on, Yuuri can read the obvious hint.

He's never interacted with Yakov Feltsman before, not even in passing, but he imagines the grizzled old coach wouldn't be above sending someone to drag his wayward champion back to Russia.

"Speaking of which," Yuuko says, before she raises her voice. "Axel, Lutz, Loop, stop circling the poor man and get back here."

Victor rises gracefully to his feet as the triplets let out quiet whines. His mouth is curved in a softer version of his media smile. “You must be the Nishigoris. Yuuri doesn't talk much about his personal life, so when he mentions all of you multiple times, I know you must be important to him. I'm Victor Nikiforov."

"We know." Nishigori sighs, but he tosses a grin towards Victor a moment later. "Welcome to Ice Castle Hasetsu. We get Yuuri fans in here sometimes, but now you've really set the bar."

"I could be a Yuuri fan too," Victor says, and before Yuuri can splutter out a protest, smiles brightly at Yuuko, still standing patiently at Yuuri's side. "Is it all right if I skate at your rink while I'm in Hasetsu? I'll pay the fees, of course."

"Oh!" Yuuko waves her free hand as if to wave away Victor's offer. "We let Yuuri skate in the mornings and in the evenings when the rink is closed to the public, so of course you can do the same. And girls," she says sternly in Japanese, so there’s no way the triplets can claim to misunderstand, "this means Victor gets the same treatment as Yuuri and Minami-kun."

"What?" Victor asks, his eyes darting automatically to Yuuri as his trusted translator.

"The 'media blackout' treatment," Nishigori says in Yuuri’s place, long suffering. "Nothing hits the internet – no photos, no videos, no sound clips, no inside scoops. All you have to do in return," he gives Victor an arched look, "is to let them watch you. They'll still take photos and videos – no power on earth can stop them – but at least it'll stay on their phones and camcorders."

Victor laughs, and gives the triplets small high fives. "I don’t usually mind, but I do want to keep any changes I make for the GPF secret. And I’m happy to take selfies with you, so you can post those afterwards, okay?” 

The triplets’ excitement and Victor’s charisma is more than enough to win the Nishigoris over, but Victor keeps the charm up, lacing up his golden-bladed skates and taking to the ice to perform his short and free skate programs to an audience of six. Despite the lack of music and costume, On Love: Eros is no less sensual – the girls are just thrilled to watch Victor skating in person, but Yuuko practically faints when Victor flicks his head and smirks at her. Yuuri doesn’t blame her – they’re both life-long Victor fans, but there’s absolutely nothing that can prepare anyone for the sheer physicality of Victor’s presence upon the ice.

Yuuri’s blush quickly fades when Victor takes the opening pose for his free skate, and he feels Yuuko slip her hand between his. She must have watched the performances at the NHK Trophy – would have, like half the world, seen the way Victor tumbled on his quad flip – and they hold onto each other now, united in their wish for Victor to do well.

And he does. This time, without the low, thrumming cello and the rhythmic beat of the piano, all Yuuri can concentrate on is on Victor himself, and his movements seems so much more grounded this way, full of power and grace and lacking the manic energy that had marred his NHK Trophy performance. When Victor spins once to set up for the quad flip, Yuuri draws in a deep breath in anticipation—

A flash silver hair, four whirls, the crisp snick of blade hitting ice—

—and Yuuko gasps beside him, her hand squeezing tightly around Yuuri’s in awe, because that was a beautiful jump, utterly flawless, and Yuuri feels his heart thump, all his breath rushing out of him in nervous relief.

It’s not a perfect performance – Victor takes it easier, so soon off a major competition, and there are minute changes to the program that Yuuri notices, experimental and not quite polished. It leaves Yuuri hanging, longing for more, but he claps along with the Nishigoris when Victor comes to the end of the program, the flick of his hand playful this time as he strikes his final pose.

The triplets shriek in enthusiasm, held back from jumping into the rink by their father, but even Nishigori himself is nodding approvingly even as he wrangles his children back so Victor can skate up to the boards, panting, and drink some water in peace. Nishigori’s eyes find Yuuri’s, and he quirks an eyebrow as if to say, Well, he’s good, but you’ve got something in the works too. You going to show him?

Yuuri makes a face back at Nishigori, because having seen Victor in his element, who in their right minds would skate an unfinished program after that?

“That was incredible,” Yuuko says softly, but it’s difficult to miss the sincerity in her voice, and it’s clear that Victor hears her when a brilliant smile blooms over his face. Curiously, his gaze slides over to Yuuri before it flicks back to Yuuko, and then Victor laughs, holding his hands together in a heart sign for Loop to snap a photo of.

Despite their protests, Yuuko and Nishigori take the triplets home soon after. Yuuri has keys to the back entrance and he’s allowed to come and go whenever he likes, but normally Yuuko or Nishigori will stay around unless the hour grows too late, finishing up administrative work or checking over the rental skates. For both of them to leave at the same time – Yuuko giving Yuuri’s hands a final squeeze before she follows her girls out – it almost feels like they’re deliberately giving Yuuri and Victor space.

Yuuri stares after them for a long while, until Victor clears his throat. When Yuuri turns around, Victor is leaning over the boards, arms braced casually atop them.

“You brought your skates. Won’t you join me in the rink?”

“Huh?” Yuuri says eloquently, because yes, he brought his skates – it’s almost an automatic action, to pack his skates when he heads to the Ice Castle – and yes, he hasn’t been on the ice for almost a week, and there’s a restless itch under his skin now, but— “oh no, it’s fine. I don’t want to disrupt your practice.”

“I know how to share the ice, I promise. You’ve been watching me skate all this time; I’d like to see you skate too.”

From just the past two days alone, Yuuri knows just how terrible he is at saying no to Victor. “I need to warm up first,” he says, to starve off the inevitable, and Victor nods, his smile very soft, appeased.

That smile lingers in Yuuri’s thoughts as he laces up his skates and sets aside his bag and glasses. It’s not that the smiles and bright grins Victor had charmed the Nishigoris with are any less sincere; Yuuri knows what Victor’s affected media expressions are like now – for one, his eyes don’t quite look the same as when he’s genuinely delighted – and those were not the kinds of smiles he gave the Nishigoris.

It’s that he’s never seen Victor give the kind of soft smiles he offers up so freely to Yuuri to anyone else, and that, together with the realization that Yuuri can identify the nuances of Victor’s mood now, makes Yuuri pull back, trying to figure out when the change had happened.

The first step on the ice soothes Yuuri immediately; he has an almost Pavlovian reaction to skating privately in his own time, associating those sessions with calm and quiet and space, and Victor is respectful of Yuuri’s pensiveness as Yuuri joins him. They skate simple circuits around the rink, Victor mostly conserving his energy and performing basic moves and Yuuri occasionally peeling off to perform a jump – the reminder of Odagaki’s admonishments ringing in his head – although he sticks to triples. It’s very peaceful like this, just the wind in their ears and the sharp, clean sounds of blade slicing through ice, although the subtle way the hairs at the back of Yuuri’s neck are raised – and not from the cold – tells Yuuri that Victor is paying more attention to him than to his own movements.

When Victor finally breaks the silence, Yuuri isn’t surprised at all.

“What do you really think about my programs this year?”

Yuuri checks his speed to fall back to Victor’s side, although he doesn’t look over. “You’ve asked me that question before.”

“I have,” Victor concurs. “But I think you were answering as a spectator, and I’d like your genuine opinion, Assistant Coach.”

This time, Yuuri does glance over, because despite the way it could come out, the words don’t sound teasing. Victor means the question in earnest then, and when Yuuri meets his eyes, there’s a hint of a challenge in those blue-green eyes.

Yuuri turns away, concentrates on the placement of his feet as they approach a corner. It should go against every instinct Yuuri has to critique Victor – living legend Victor Nikiforov, of all people – but there’s a firm watchful part of Yuuri that’s already scouring every instance he’s seen Victor skating this season, the critical part that’s been nurtured from months of watching after Minami-kun, and honed to a finer point under Odagaki-sensei’s tutelage.

“I don’t know if I can comment much on your technique,” Yuuri says slowly, “and I’m sure your coach has that all covered. Your short program—” he pushes away a shiver of heat “—it’s very dramatic. Your costume suits it to a tee, because at its heart, On Love: Eros is a performance. It’s a story, flamboyant and explosive, and you act it out perfectly. It’s a perfect showcase of your skills.’

“Your free skate, on the other hand...” Yuuri lets his voice trail off, trying to solidify his thoughts into words. “Like Eros, you had the music commissioned, I think.”

“I did,” Victor says, his voice giving away even less than his smooth, graceful movements on the ice do. “It’s called Vincere. In Latin, it means ‘to win, or to conquer.’” He pauses, as if weighing his words. “It also means ‘to overcome.’”

Yuuri chances a look at Victor, because – Victor is standing at the top of the figure skating world right now, so what exactly is he trying to overcome, that he would commission a song and choreograph an entire routine about it?

“So you commissioned both songs, but Vincere feels very different from Eros. It feels like it reflects you more – your actual feelings, not the character of a story’s. It feels like a journey, a search, and it feels—” Yuuri searches for a word, “—defiant? Which suits the theme winning and overcoming hardship.”

“But,” Victor says.

Yuuri falters, but muscle memory carries him through when will alone doesn’t, and he keeps pace with Victor even though part of him wants to shrink back. Still, in for a penny, in for a pound.

“But your free skate feels unfinished. No,” Yuuri corrects himself instantly, “Not unfinished, but… unbalanced? It’s like you’re trying to figure out how you feel, and all of it is coming out in the choreography instead of crystalizing into something decisive and committed.”

He ducks his head immediately after, because if he lets himself speak Yuuri’s tongue will add, I understand how that feels, and then Yuuri will have to explain the free skate program he’s been trying to choreograph. And he doesn’t want to shift the conversation away from Victor to Yuuri himself.

Victor is quiet for a long, long while, and Yuuri leaves him to it, trying not to second guess himself. Victor had asked for his genuine opinion, after all.

“I don’t think you’re wrong,” Victor says at last. “Which means I’m the only one holding my free skate back.” He goes silent again, thinking hard, and Yuuri leaves him to it. He’s never liked people badgering him about his skating, and no matter how effusive Victor usually is about his programs, it must be different when he feels there’s something lacking about them.

Yuuri’s not going to bother him – but he’s not going to leave Victor alone, either.

They make another few loops when Yuuri feels the lightest of touches brush against his shoulder. When he turns, Victor looks calm but contemplative, the distant look back in his eyes, and Yuuri wants so badly to ground Victor back here that when Victor says, “Will you skate a routine for me?” this time Yuuri says yes.

The reality of his answer hits him moments later, Yuuri stopping abruptly in the middle of the rink.

Victor loops gracefully back the moment he notices he’s lost Yuuri. “Yuuri?”

Yuuri bites his lip, because he’s already promised, but there’s no way Yuuri will skate his last season’s programs for Victor – the embarrassment he feels over the Sochi GPF is enough to last a lifetime, thanks – and the other programs Yuuri has been practicing day and night are Victor’s own, and there’s less than a snowball’s chance in hell that he’s skating any of those.

Which just leaves—

“It’s all right if you don’t want to,” Victor offers, an odd note in his voice but his eyes utterly accepting, and Yuuri shakes his head immediately.

In for a penny—

“No, I was just thinking.” He scrubs a hand through his bangs, and then lifts his gaze to meet Victor’s. “Let me get my phone, my music is on there.”

He doesn’t wait to see Victor’s reaction, just heads straight to the rink entrance to grab his phone, not bothering with his skate guards for the scant few steps he needs to reach it. The song in his playlist is nameless for now, just a placeholder title with a number after it for Ketty to keep track of her compositions and their numerous revisions – but in his heart, Yuuri has been calling it Yuri on Ice.

“Here.” Yuuri shoves the phone in Victor’s direction when he skates up to the entrance, Victor taking it carefully with both hands like Yuuri’s handing him a puppy. “I’ll signal you when to start the music.”

Victor hesitates. “We can link it to the sound system.”

“No, I know this song really well, so I don’t need it, but—” Yuuri scrambles back on the ice before he can lose his nerve. “Your Vincere might feel a bit unbalanced, but this program – it’s definitely fits the definition of ‘unfinished.’ Minako-sensei and Odagaki-san are helping me with it, but I’m the main one trying to choreograph it, and—” Yuuri cuts himself off forcibly before he can continue rambling. “The music will help guide you through the unfinished parts, okay?”

“Okay,” Victor says, so simple and free of expectations or pressure that Yuuri glances at him involuntarily. He has to look away almost immediately, or else he’ll do something stupid like wrapping his arms around Victor and begging him to keep his eyes on Yuuri, no matter how badly Yuuri does.

“Okay,” Yuuri echoes, and skates to the center of the rink before he can think about it. He presses a hand to his chest, trying to calm his thumping heart, and then closes his eyes, letting the memory of piano and violin wash over him.

He nods sharply in Victor’s direction and bows his head, waiting for the distant tinty sound of music to pour out of his phone speakers.

And then he moves.

This song was always supposed to be about Yuuri’s career on the ice, but somewhere along the way it has become what Yuuri wants his life to be. Ketty is no longer a conservatory music student, and with the wisdom and experience of a few extra years under her belt, she’s done something transformative to the song by adding a violin into the mix, turning it into a duet rather than a piano solo. Instead of having to support the entire song alone, the piano now has the violin to bolster it, and the two instruments wind around each other, each taking turns to give ground and soar high until they marry into a beautiful, evocative composition.

Yuuri wants so very much to do the song justice, to give it the performance it deserves.

He isn’t there yet – far from it. It takes a few moments for Yuuri to ignore how self-conscious he feels and his days off the ice shows in how stiff he feels at times. The jumps are a mess, and Yuuri sticks to the most basic variation he’s considered: triples and combos, and just the one lone quad toe. But the transitions and spins, the choreographic and step sequences; those Yuuri has dreamed about and practiced for months upon months, and now he lets it all flow out of him, a raw baring of his soul the only way Yuuri knows how to express it.

The final jump is a triple flip – it doesn’t quite feel right, but it’s the best Yuuri can do right now – but that last spin is like letting out a breath after holding it in anxiously, and Yuuri ends his performance the way he started, his head bowed, but with his arms pulled to his chest, his hands curling into his heart. 

He’s breathing hard, his mind still blank from his performance calm, and the rink is cool and vast around him.

When Yuuri finally lets his arms fall away and looks up, Victor is staring right at him, utterly still.

He’s too far away for Yuuri to make out his expression clearly, especially without his glasses, and they stay there like that for a long while. It’s only when Yuuri realizes that Victor isn’t going to do anything other than stare that he finally moves, a nervous energy singing under his skin, completely different from the adrenaline rush of performing.

He lets his eyes skim along the surface of the ice as he approaches the boards, and finally, in a sudden surge of courage, lifts his head to look Victor straight in the face.

There is no smile – gilded or soft – and no sign of a frown either. Victor’s mouth is almost firmly neutral, but his eyes—

His eyes are utterly aglow, filed with myriad emotions Yuuri couldn’t possibly identify, and his gaze is so intense that Yuuri feels his breath catch.

“Yuuri.” Victor’s voice is low, and terribly honest like this. “Thank you.”

There are so many ways Yuuri could respond. But looking at Victor looking back at him like this makes Yuuri feel brave, and for once he takes the unspoken compliment; tucks it under his heart like a treasured memory.

---

Something shifts between them, after that.

It’s subtle, so subtle that it takes Minami’s arrival for Yuuri to really realize it, but despite the ways they should clash, he and Victor fall into an easy rhythm. Yuuri is a night owl, Victor a morning bird. Victor has a perfectionist streak that isn’t obvious at first glance because he’s normally so good at everything he does, but which surfaces with a vengeance when he hits a snag; Yuuri keeps his nerves at bay by steadily and methodically practicing and practicing and practicing until he sometimes forgets the rest of the world. Victor keeps his appearance under wraps as much as possible outdoors but is exuberant with Yuuri’s family and the Nishigoris; Yuuri is content to stay quiet in the background until he’s forced to intervene on Victor’s behalf.

They – plural, grouped together – somehow work despite their differences because there’s something within them that’s fundamentally the same. It’s there in the way they both move upon the ice, and it’s there in the ways they reach out to each other, and every time the other accepts, that moment of connection brings them just that much closer.

Yuuri and Victor have taken to practicing Yuri on Ice and Vincere at opposite sides of the rink, and it’s only when Minami arrives that Yuuri realizes that Victor has seen more of Yuri on Ice than anyone else, even Minami, who Yuuri’s been skating along-side with for months.

It shouldn’t work. Yuuri and Minami have developed a rhythm together, and Yuuri has certainly build something with Victor; a third forced into either of those partnerships should throw the balance off completely. But Minami is his usual open, accepting self, and Victor very knowledgeable and willing to share it, and instead of helping Minami on his own, Yuuri finds Victor with them more often than not.

“I have a lot of younger rinkmates in St. Petersburg,” Victor says, when Minami asks, open and curious, if they’re taking away from Victor’s GPF preparations. “And helping them gives me a break, and occasionally inspires me for my own routines. Plus, I really like your boogie! It’s so refreshing to see a different style, something the audience wouldn’t expect at all.”

“Thank you! What about my Lohengrin short program?” Minami says.

Surprisingly, Victor glances at Yuuri, and then smiles. “It seems familiar, and you perform it well.”

Minami beams back.

Of course, it’s not all smiles and praises with Victor; he doesn’t apply his perfectionistic streak to himself alone. Yuuri practices the triple axel with Minami, and then Victor guides them both on the quad toe – a new jump for Minami, one he’s struggling to get the knack of, the additional rotation just out of his reach – and for Yuuri, the quad salchow.

“You can land it, I know you can,” Victor says, and it’s not an encouragement but fact, a surety backed up by evidence. “You have the skills, so why can’t you make it happen?”

Yuuri picks himself up, grimacing at the bruises he knows are going to form from how he hit the ice. “It’s probably because I’m not confident I can make it, and then it—” he sighs “—just comes true. Minami-kun has the same problem with the triple axel.”

“How are you working it through with him?”

Yuuri smiles. “The same way I do everything. We practice it over and over until the successes override the failures, and he feels confident instead of nervous when he goes into the jump. Since I’m really good with the triple axel, I can help correct his technique too.”

Victor nods. “Right, once you have that feeling of certainty, that confidence will stay with you whether it’s during practice or competitions. And I can help you find that, for the quad salchow. Plus,” Victor adds, “you really have ridiculous stamina. You’ve been jumping the triple axel with Minami all morning, and now you’re on the quad sal with me, and you barely look winded.”

“Once Yuuri-kun gets started, he sometimes forgets to stop,” Minami chimes in.

“I need the practice,” Yuuri says. “I fall on jumps all the time. Your jumps are really incredible,” he can’t help adding to Victor.

“Yes,” Victor says, utterly unabashed. “But I can’t do thirteen jumps in one go.”

“Victor-san’s jumps are amazing,” Minami says, “but Yuuri-kun’s spins are better!”

“Minami-kun!” Yuuri exclaims, scandalized.

But Victor is nodding thoughtfully, one finger pressed to his lips. “I agree,” he says to Minami. “His camel spins are perfectly level, and not everyone is flexible enough to do layback spins the way he does. And your speed.” Victor turns back to Yuuri. “I think you’re up there with Stephane, in terms of spins.”

Yuuri flushes, because Victor is an all-rounder with notable prowess especially in jumps, but Stephane Lambiel is still, despite his retirement, the master of spins in the figure skating world.

Minami hops up and down on the ice. “Yuuri-kun, show us your illusion spin.”

Victor brightens.

“I’m jumping quad salchows,” Yuuri tries even though it’s futile, because if it’s difficult to say no to Victor alone, then it’s downright impossible when he and Minami have banded together.

Minami knows him too well now; instead of trying to convince Yuuri with words, he just pushes off to get enough clear space and then sweeps into a basic camel spin. He comes out of it grinning.

“Victor-san, you next! Yuuri-kun really hates to lose.”

Throwing a speculative look in Yuuri’s direction, Victor takes off across the rink and leaps into a flying sit spin, low and beautiful. He pulls out of it with a flair that reminds Yuuri of Stammi Vicino’s choreography, and Yuuri flushes, because even though Victor’s current programs are wonderful and different, Yuuri has practiced Stammi Vicino so much that it feels like it’s part of him.

He scrubs a hand through his hair to buy himself time, and then sighs, glaring at Minami and Victor from under his eyelashes. They both just stand there, waiting, and Yuuri gives in, skating away from them to gather speed, and then leans into the spin, tilting his body and free leg up and down, matching his rotations with his speed perfectly. Air rushes past his ears, the world around him blurring away, but beyond that, he can hear the sound of laughter, Minami’s cheerful and encouraging, Victor’s utterly delighted.

Yuuri grins when he comes out of the illusion spin – after all, he really does hate to lose.

---

As natural as it has become to see Victor skating at the same rink as him, Yuuri knows it can’t last. When Minami heads home to Fukuoka at the end of the weekend, it signals the end of their interlude – Yuuri will follow Minami in a few days, to work together with Odagaki on Minami’s final preparations before they fly to Moscow for the Rostelecom Cup, and from the way Victor’s been eyeing his phone, it’s far past time for him to finally face his coach as well.

They end up at the beach the afternoon before Victor leaves. As much as Yuuri cherishes every hour they spend on the ice together, Victor didn’t have a proper chance to explore Hasetsu, and if Victor can’t visit the more touristy areas to avoid being recognized, then at least Yuuri can show him some of Hasetsu’s wild ruggedness.

It’s surprising, that Victor would opt to keep such a low profile after how exuberant he had been in Osaka. He knows Yu-topia and its hot springs well, and Ice Castle Hasetsu is practically a second home for both of them, but other than that, he’d only visited a few small shops and Minako-sensei’s snack bar.

In fact, the only reason why Victor had met Minako-sensei was because she barged right in and dragged him off, silencing Yuuri’s automatic move to intervene with a single arched eyebrow. From the sounds of it, they’d hit off well, bonding over the experience of being world-class stars in their respective professions and a love of expensive Japanese whisky, although Yuuri knows nothing more than that; Victor was thoughtful when he came back to Yu-topia, and when Yuuri had next seen Minako, she’d only said that Victor wasn’t quite what she expected – but not in a bad way.

After the bustle of saying farewells to Minako and the Nishigoris, the isolation of the beach seems to match Victor’s pensive mood. At the end of November, the wind blustering along the shoreline bites hard, and the ocean is a deep steel grey under a lighter winter sky, weak sunlight barely lighting up the barren beach.

Victor looks completely at home amongst the wind and the wild, however. Unlike Yuuri, who is curled deep into his scarf, his head is lifted to the touch of the cold, and he looks so ethereal that Yuuri has to resist reaching out to poke him, just to make sure that he’s real.

“With the weather and the seagulls, I feel quite at home.” Victor’s eyes follow the flight of the black-tailed gulls. “I wake up to the call of the gulls every morning in St. Petersburg, but it’s funny, I never really noticed them until I came here, and was reminded of them.”

Yuuri tucks his hands deeper into his jacket pockets, chasing warmth. “I’ve never been to St. Petersburg. The two times I was assigned to the Rostelecom Cup, it was held in Moscow.”

Today, there are silver flecks in the blue-green of Victor’s eyes – a play of light from the ocean and the winter sky, turning them even more striking. “I hope you get a chance to visit my home city, one day.”

Yuuri hums – he’d always wanted to visit St. Petersburg, since it’s Victor’s home and the city where Minako-sensei was once named prima ballerina of the famed Mariinsky ballet – but it seems so much less urgent now, that longing.

They stroll along the beach, leaving two sets of footprints behind them. Yuuri breathes in deeply, the salt of the ocean sharp in his nose.

“Will you listen to a suggestion I have about your free skate program?” Victor says, breaking the peaceful silence between them.

Yuuri blinks at him, and lifts a hand to adjust his glasses. Victor had mostly watched Yuuri work on Yuri on Ice in silence, only offering a few observations when Yuuri himself brings up something he’s struggling with. Yuuri had absorbed them eagerly; Victor is known for choreographing the majority of his own programs, and even the smallest suggestions seem to open up possibilities in Yuuri’s mind.

“Yes, of course.”

“Your quad toe is very solid, and you have more stamina than most skaters. If you want to give your program more impact, how about making the last jump a quad toe loop?”

Yuuri startles – having a difficult jump at the end of a routine meant putting a tremendous amount of strain on the body. “The last jump?”

“If it’s you, you can do it.”

It’d definitely surprise the audience – and the judges, if Yuuri ever skates it in competition.

“Yes,” Yuuri says slowly, reconfiguring the jump sequences in his mind. “I’ll give it a try.”

Victor’s smile flickers like quicksilver, going from pleased to melancholic to something indefinable. “It will be a program to remember, once you complete it.”

“It feels like it’s finally getting there,” Yuuri says - between Minako-sensei and text messages to Odagaki-san and Yuuri’s own efforts over the past week and a half, Yuri on Ice no longer feels unfinished, and with Victor’s suggestion, Yuuri can start building the program components up to where he wants it to be, to do the music justice.

He turns to look at Victor squarely – the surprising man who has somehow left an even greater mark on Yuuri over the past week than Victor’s skating had on Yuuri these many long years.

“I’ll show it to you, when it’s ready. It might take a while, but I’ll make it up to you with my skating.”

Surprise flashes through Victor’s eyes, and there’s a moment where he looks incredibly young before he schools his expression. “All right,” he says in that low voice, intimate. “I’ll hold you to that.”

They don’t shake on it, but Yuuri gives him a small smile in return, and it’s sealed, a promise between them.

Chapter Text

Hasetsu – October

There are all sorts of practical reasons for why Yuuri has staked out the main table in front of the television at Yu-topia’s main dining room to watch the Japanese broadcast of Skate Canada, taking over the spot Minako-sensei usually roosts at with bottles of beer and a cheerful disposition. For one, it’s just so much nicer to watch the broadcast in high definition and sound rather than to hunch over his phone.

For another, Minami-kun is visiting, and so Yuuri has vested interest in the Grand Prix series even if he isn’t competing himself. It makes sense to scout out the competition, to see what new talent has emerged this year and to assess the judging, and since Minami is debuting at the senior level, Yuuri tries his best to highlight any surprises or challenges he himself faced when he debuted.

And lastly – Yuuri would be lying if he said he isn’t waiting to watch the performances of a certain Russian skater.

Just, not the Russian skater everyone expects him to be waiting for.

Skate Canada might be Yuri Plisetsky’s first international senior event, but there is no doubt the media is treating him as a rising star, heralding the next wave of Russian champions. The commentators certainly have plenty to say ahead of Plisetsky’s showing on the ice, coupled with short footages of the young Russian in practice and in competition.

Mari, who has been trailing in and out of the dining room without comment, actually leans over Yuuri when Plisetsky’s picture comes up again, one hand braced on his shoulder. “No way, who is that? He looks just like my idol, the blond Takao!”

“His name is Yuri Plisetsky!” Minami pipes up. “We used to skate in juniors together, but like me, he’s skating in the senior circuit this year. He has the same first name as Yuuri-kun!”

“That’s got to be confusing,” Mari says. “He seems so much fiercer and angrier than our plain Yuuri.”

“Hey,” Yuuri complains, for both the implied slight and for Mari’s weight.

“He really is pretty scary,” Minami admits. “He doesn’t care about propriety or social norms, but his talent is undeniable. Some people call him a monster, with how quickly he evolves on the ice.”

Mari ruffles her hand through Yuuri’s hair; he knows better than to protest too much, lest she put him in a proper headlock. “Okay, not just a Yuri then, and more like blond Takao than I imagined. So, let’s call him Yurio!”

She gives Yuuri’s hair one last scrub, and then pushes away, dropping into a seat at Yuuri’s free side.

“Mari-nee-chan, I thought you weren’t interested in figure skating,” Yuuri says. She attended his national competitions and accompanied him on a few official outings when he was younger and underaged and their parents were busy, but it was more for Yuuri himself than for a real passion in the sport.

“Silly, I’m interested when you’re skating, and I’ll watch the competitions with Minako-sensei when Minami-kun is skating—” she gives Minami a sisterly wink, and Minami beams back “—and now I’m watching because of Yurio-kun. Anyway, I saw the way you perked up when Yurio-kun’s profile came up – I thought you were only interested in Nikiforov, not all Russian skaters.”

“I’m scouting the competition,” Yuuri murmurs, because between Mari’s sudden enthusiasm for Plisetsky and Minami’s incredible defensiveness of Yuuri, it seems unwise to talk about how the Russian yankee had once kicked down the toilet door behind which Yuuri was hiding, and proceeded to yell at him to stop disgracing their shared first name and to just retire.

Well, Yuuri thinks as the commentators at Skate Canada call up Plisetsky’s name, and the young Russian throws off his national team jacket to reveal a glittering white costume underneath, he got his wish. He’s the only Yuri in the senior circuit, now.

“—On Love: Agape, choreographed by Victor Nikiforov,” Yuuri hears the commentators say, and tunes back in immediately. “The two are rinkmates at the Yubileyny Sports Palace, training under veteran Russian coach Yakov Feltsman.”

“Victor choreographed Yuri Plisetsky’s short program?” Yuuri says, shocked.

Minami tilts his head. “Doesn’t he choreograph his own performances all the time?”

Yuuri bites at his lip. “Yes, but I’ve never heard of him doing it for someone else.”

Plisetsky steps on the ice and immediately pushes away, barely listening to his coach, and as the cameras focus on him, Yuuri realizes with a start that he recognizes that costume.

It’s a glittery outfit, small sequins and crystal pieces sewn over see-through mesh, angelically light and tundra wild at the same time, and the sight of it hits Yuuri in the same tender place as the time when Victor called out the name “Yuri,” and Yuuri realized that Plisetsky, the skater Yuuri’s owns sister nicknamed Yurio, was the only Yuri that is able to stand close to Victor.

It’s not envy that Yuuri feels. He has no right, after all – he is not a rinkmate or a beloved pseudo-sibling, as Yuri Plisetsky must be for Victor to choreograph routines for and loan out costumes to.

Yuuri is just Yuuri, and it is far past time he comes to terms with that.

Yuri Plisetsky lifts his head to the sound of a haunting voice coming over the speakers, and glides into powerful, graceful motion.

His monstrous reputation is well deserved – the choreography is immensely difficult, and Yuuri can tell at once that Plisetsky had given himself no quarter for his age or his experience, pushing himself to skate as close to Victor’s level as possible. There are two quads, a frightful amount of twists and turns and techniques that characterize a Nikiforov routine, and Plisetsky executes each and every single one of them to perfection.

His expression, when he slows down long enough for the camera to capture it, is as still and grim as the ice he is skating on.

All of three of them – Mari, Yuuri and Minami – remain deathly quiet as Plisetsky finishes the program, the last twirls of the combination spin and the final pose, Plisetsky’s hands held high above his head and his back arched into a perfect curve. They’re silent as Plisetsky breaks the pose, bracing his arms on his knees and breathing hard, and finally, Mari lets out her breath.

“I don’t know much about skating,” she says uncertainly, “but that looked—”

“Two quads.” The words burst out of Minami like he can no longer hold them back. He looks stunned. “And both in the second half of the routine, and he landed them. Plisetsky-kun – Yurio-kun – didn’t do quads when we were in juniors.”

Yuuri just shakes his head when Minami turns appealing eyes on him, as if asking for an explanation. “He must have been practicing them all along, even if he never performed them in competition. Are you okay, Minami-kun?”

“Me?” Minami nods his head firmly. “Yes – Kanako-sensei says I need to master all my basics first, and I’m proud of my routines, even if I can’t land a quad in competition yet. You said I’ve progressed well too, Yuuri-kun.”

“You have,” Yuuri affirms – Minami might not be a skating prodigy like Plisetsky, but Yuuri is proud of how passionate and genuinely happy Minami always is to be on the ice.

“Yurio-kun’s going to get top marks for that program, though,” Minami says, and they all glance back at the television as the scores go up. High nineties, almost breaking the treasured hundred-mark barrier – and Plisetsky is just on his first outing as a senior.

Agape,” Mari murmurs, fiddling with her phone. “A-gah-peh. Ah, it’s ancient Greek. It means unconditional love.”

Her eyes meet Yuuri’s over Minami’s head, and Yuuri can read the thoughts clearly in her furrowed brow, her puzzled gaze. There’s strength and technique and ferocity in that skating, but very little love – much less unconditional love.

“Yeah,” Yuuri breathes out, watching Plisetsky’s small smirk at the kiss and cry, although there’s something hard in his eyes as he sits beside his coach. Mari may not be a skating connoisseur, but it doesn’t take an expert to experience the heart and soul of a routine. If she didn’t feel much love from that program, it would be because that love was overshadowed by other things – that Plisetsky, who has probably always skated in Victor’s shadow, had driven himself to meet Victor’s technical prowess at the expanse of artistry. 

Suddenly, Yuuri doesn’t feel so envious of Plisetsky anymore.

“I hope Yurio-kun does well with his next skate,” Mari says softly.

“I hope so too,” Yuuri says, and means it.

❄ ❄ ❄

Rostelecom Cup, Moscow – end of November

All competitions are battlegrounds, but if the Cup of China was a skirmish, the testing clash between forces to gain the first advantage, then the Rostelecom Cup – the very last of the Grand Prix series, and hence the last chance for anyone still in the running to qualify for the GPF – is a battle of annihilation. No even the lower ranking skaters are free from the tension; there’s a chill in the air that has nothing to do with Russia’s frigid winters or the cool calm of the rink, and the undercurrent of discontent that bubbles under everyone’s public faces just makes the atmosphere all the more uncomfortable.

Yuuri and Odagaki meet each other’s gazes in a moment of unspoken understanding, and immediately move to flank Minami, to hold as much of the tense mood at bay as possible. Minami is cheerful enough, restless but excited to skate his routines after a few weeks of improvement, and they want to keep it that way.

So Yuuri keeps his guard up throughout public practice, sessions in the training room and ISU briefings, and is caught entirely by surprise when he and Minami are accosted in the washroom.

“You have some nerve showing your face around here, dead last.”

The washroom, Yuuri laments as he turns slowly around. Why is it always the washroom?

Yuri Plisetsky might be a head shorter than Yuuri, but that more than anything else makes the Russian’s belligerent glare even more intimidating. Yuuri can’t shake the feeling that he should protect his throat, because Plisetsky’s height puts him at the perfect angle to reach up and throttle Yuuri.

“Ah,” Yuuri says. “It’s you.”

“You always do this, don’t you?” Plisetsky says conversationally. His eyes glitter under the fall of his bangs, the hood pulled over his head like it can keep him isolated from the rest of the troublesome world. “You couldn’t get here on your own merit, so you had to ride on the coat tails of another skater to even show your face at a competition. And when Victor was in Japan, you just couldn’t help stealing him away, could you? And not even with your skating.”

The last words are spat out like acid, and Yuuri’s jaw drops, just slightly. There’s real vitriol behind those words, not just the tantrum of a moody teenager.

No matter how much he wants to protest otherwise, Yuuri ignores the first part of Plisetsky’s accusations. “I didn’t steal anyone. Victor is more than capable of making his own decisions.”

Plisetsky pulls his hands from his jacket pockets, and Yuuri takes an involuntary step back.

“You have no idea what you did. He’s Russia’s pride, but fuck if he even deserves that title after the shit he pulled this season. I debuted as soon as I reached age eligibility, and this is what I have to deal with? Dead lasts who don’t even have the spine to skate on their own boots and a legend who is so fucking lost he ran all the way to Japan and went radio silent for two weeks. But I can deal with that. I thought I’d have to rip the title from his hands, but if he’s going to just fucking drop it I’m not going to let it shatter on the ground.”

Unlike their last encounter, Plisetsky’s voice never rises above conversational, but the intensity of it is like a physical blow to Yuuri’s chest. He can’t make sense of half of what’s Plisetsky is saying, but there are undercurrents under Plisetsky’s incensed gaze, and his fingernails must be digging into his palms, his hands are clenched so tightly into fists.

Yuuri doesn’t need to understand to know that something is deeply wrong.

“Hey,” he says cautiously. “I don’t really understand what’s going on, but you seem pretty angry with me and Victor too, and—”

“I don’t need him,” Plisetsky says with a low snarl. “He might have choreographed it, but that program is mine. I figured it out, and if he’s going to be distracted or broken, then the Russian team doesn’t need him either.” His chin goes up, teeth bared. “I’ll carry Russia’s pride on my own.”

The sudden clatter of a lock disengaging startles Yuuri out of the heated exchange, and he darts a look to the side.

“Yuuri-kun,” Minami says, subdued, his eyes wide with worry. He glances at Plisetsky. “Ah, Yurio-kun? What’s going on?”

It’s like Minami is the spark that is thrown into a keg of dangerous but previously stable gunpowder – Plisetsky’s eyes flash, and his weight shifts onto his toes, his entire body poised to attack.

“Who the fuck is Yurio?”

“Ah, sorry! Um, Plisetsky-san? I just—”

Plisetsky’s gaze cuts away, the dismissal so obvious that Minami shuts his mouth is surprise, his teeth clicking together. Yuuri draws in a sharp breath.

“Should have known that dead lasts would stick with dead lasts. Of course you’d pick an idiot to coach.”

The last word is snarled, which doesn’t make any sense to Yuuri, but it doesn’t matter.

“Hey,” he says sharply. “You can say whatever you want about me, but you should treat your fellow competitor with respect.”

“You should treat Yuuri-kun with respect too,” Minami cuts in, his voice very quiet. He’s gone pale but for the two bright spots of colour high on his cheeks.

“Whatever.” Plisetsky tips his head to stare derisively down at Minami; he might be young but it’s clear he has the typical Russian stature, and even at fifteen he’s already taller than Minami. “So the dead last’s been coaching you all these months, huh?” His lips suddenly curl into a cruel smile. “Since he already quit, I’ll just have to settle for crushing you.”

He turns on his heels with the crispness of a twizzle and stalks away, his spine very straight and his chin held high. Before he disappears through the door, Yuuri catches a glimpse of Plisetsky’s face, and although his lips pulled back in a sneer, there’s something taunt and deeply unhappy about his expression.

The door slams shut, leaving a resounding silence behind it.

---

It may not be the day of the short program yet, but they’re still in the midst of a competition. There’s no time to process, but that doesn’t mean Yuuri isn’t trying.

“Are you all right?” he whispers to Minami as they head down the corridor, dodging other athletes along the way; there are still practice sessions going on, and the entire arena is filled with figure skaters and their teams and the officials.

“I’m fine,” Minami says in what has to be the worst lie possible. “Yuuri-kun, you’re the one he was yelling at most of the time.”

“I’m pretty used to it,” Yuuri says truthfully. When Minami doesn’t react, Yuuri slants him a worried look. “Don’t let Yurio’s comments get to you, okay? We have history, kind of, and I think he went after you mostly because of me.”

Instead of righteous indignation, Minami’s eyes are dark, and he’s oddly silent. Minami is usually vocal in both happiness and anger, and this silence worries Yuuri more than any outburst does.  Uncaring of the impression they’re giving off, Yuuri sets one hand on Minami’s shoulder and pulls him into a side corridor.

“Hey,” Yuuri says, trying to catch Minami’s eye. When the other skater resolutely stares down at his feet, Yuuri employs one of Odagaki’s techniques, and waves his hand in front of Minami’s face until his eyes finally shoot up in mild irritation. “Hey,” he says again, quieter now that he has Minami’s attention. “Don’t let Yurio provoke you. He’s angry at me and he’s taking it out on you, and I don’t want you to take his words to heart, okay? He can try to ‘crush’ you, but he’ll never crush your spirit as long as you skate for yourself.”

A spark appears back in Minami’s eyes, although he shakes his head slowly. “It’s not that. But don’t worry, Yuuri-kun. I’ll make you and Kanako-sensei proud, okay?”

Yuuri stares at him helplessly, not sure what else to do. Finally, he settles for ruffling Minami’s bangs. “I know. You always do.”

Minami smiles, and although it’s a faint shadow of his usual bright grins, it’s a start. “Kanako-sensei must be wondering where we are. Let’s go, Yuuri-kun.”

When they reach the rink, Minami throws himself impulsively into Odagaki’s arms. Odagaki reacts accordingly, gamely hugging him back and patting his shoulder, but her eyes immediately dart towards Yuuri, the question clear in her eyes.

Yuuri shakes his head – later.

Later turns out to be much sooner than any of them expects; Minami disentangles himself second later and snaps off his skate guards, stepping onto the ice immediately after. He’s off like a shot, weaving methodically around the other skaters, and both Odagaki and Yuuri stare after him. When he rounds the corner and doesn’t wave enthusiastically at them, his thoughts clearly turned inwards, Odagaki lets out a breath.

“What happened?”

Yuuri tells her as much of the truth as he can, glossing over the reasons why Plisetsky would confront Yuuri of all people in a public washroom and focusing mostly on his challenge to Minami. When he’s done, Odagaki is quiet for a long moment.

“They’ve competed together for years ever since Plisetsky became a junior.” Odagaki never takes her eyes off Minami moving on the ice, but she tilts her head so her words are directed to Yuuri and Yuuri alone. “Plisetsky never paid particular attention to anyone – not even his own junior rinkmates – but you know what Minami-kun is like. He was fascinated by this young and brilliant skater, and as he does with all his fellow skaters, wants Plisetsky to do well.” She sighs. “I think this is the first time Minami-kun's truly wanted to beat someone, to answer that challenge head on.”

Yuuri blows out a heavy breath. “Technique-wise, Plisetsky is beyond Minami.” He hates to say it, but it’s the truth. Yuuri can easily admit that Yurio could beat him too, but it seems disloyal to say that the Russian can effortlessly do the same to Minami. “On pure technical scoring, Minami-kun isn’t going to win. He can’t get caught up in this.”

Odagaki gives a nod, and finally, turns to meet Yuuri’s gaze. “I know that,” her smile is wry and bittersweet, because as much as she might want to shield Minami as his coach, she can’t shield him from this. “And you know that too. But he won’t know that until he goes through it at least once.”

Yuuri feels his lips go thin, his heart sinking in his chest. He’s learned his lessons well, and he knows all skaters have to go through the metaphorical fire at least once – to crash and burn and learn to rise from the ashes. Yuuri might still be struggling through his greatest trial, one that is potentially career-ending, but he survived all the others – dealing with his jealousy of other’s skills and other’s of his own, or handling the immense weight that his nation’s expectations of him – and came back stronger.

“Look,” Odagaki says, “and tell me what you see.”

Yuuri casts his eyes towards the ice, finding Minami’s vibrant hair easily. The younger skater is in full concentration, practicing his jumps – but oddly, the triple toe more than the others.

Yuuri’s breath catches.

“He’s going to try the quad toe in his short program.”

Odagaki gives him a quick smile. “It seems that way.”

“He only learned the knack of landing them a week ago!”

“Yes,” Odagaki agrees. “And at his current rate of success in practice, I wouldn’t recommend he perform one in competition right now.”

Yuuri blinks. There’s something about her choice of words— "What are you going to do?”

“Watch over him. If he’s dead set on performing a quad toe, I can’t stop him, not once he’s stepped on the ice. So I’ll watch him, and try to give him the best chance of success. If he looks like he’s putting himself in danger, then I will talk him out of it, but right now—” Odagaki tips her head towards the ice. “He’s fighting. So I will help him fight.”

There’s a sting in Yuuri’s lower lip, and he jerks; he’d unconsciously bitten down so hard that he’d almost cut himself.

A gentle weight settles over Yuuri’s wrist – Odagaki doesn’t grasp at him, just lets her presence be known, her hand warm even through Yuuri’s jacket.

“Minami-kun is resilient. If he succeeds, he will know that he can push himself to the next level. If he doesn’t – it will be a valuable lesson, and we’ll be there for him.” She pats Yuuri’s arm once, and then lets go. “You look tired, Katsuki-san. It can’t be pleasant to be yelled at by anyone, much less an angry and volatile teenager. Take a break.”

Yuuri’s eyes dart towards the ice, where Minami is resolutely skating, building speed and searching for a clear space amongst the other skaters to practice yet another jump. He wants badly to stay, but he was also the reason why Plisetsky took his temper out on Minami, and it might be better for everyone involved if they all had some space for a while.

“Please call me when Minami-kun is done with practice.” It’s not quite a plead, but there’s a definite note of entreaty in there. Yuuri mentally cringes.

“Of course,” Odagaki says. “You’re not getting out of team dinner, you know.”

Yuuri can’t help his smile, and gives her a short bow before stepping away. He stops near the exit, half sheltered by the sloping structure of the arena, watching the skaters on the ice, until a faint buzzing from his jacket pocket rouses him.

He pulls out his phone and stares at the incoming notification notice.

From Victor Nikiforov.

Yuuri’s heart jolts. Even though they’ve exchanged at least a dozen messages since Victor returned to Russia, Yuuri can’t help feeling the surge of excitement that grips him every time he receives a new message – a small indicator that Hasetsu wasn’t just a fleeting amusement for Victor.

Look up, says the latest message, and Yuuri frowns down at it in puzzlement.

Then, with a start, Yuuri’s head jerks up, and he scans the audience stands. Surely not—

—but Victor is back in Russia, and Moscow is in Russia, and stranger things have happened—

—and Yuuri’s eyes catch on a familiar grey scarf, wrapped artfully around a graceful neck.

Victor waves at him from under a hoodie jacket, pulled over his distinctive silver hair and the scarf itself – well, someone’s been taking lessons from his younger rinkmate – and then looks down at his hands. A moment later, Yuuri’s phone buzzes again. 

 

Come up. I’ll wait for you.


Yuuri glances once more towards the ice. Well, he’ll have a better view from the audience stands, won’t he?

It takes Yuuri a few twists and turns, but he finally makes it out to the public spaces of the arena, and then to the correct side of the audience stands. These particular practice sessions are not public, but there are a few individuals milling about the place, and Yuuri makes his way carefully to Victor, trying not to call attention to him.

“What are you doing here?” he says when he finally makes it to Victor’s side.

Victor tips his head to the side, and one lock of silver hair falls into his eyes. “You’re not happy to see me, Yuuri?”

Yuuri flushes. “No, I am! But you aren’t in this competition, so it’s a surprise to see you here.”

Victor laughs, but quietly, like bells chiming. “So it turns out my coach minds terribly when I disappeared for almost two weeks, and refuses to let me out of sight lest I get myself into trouble again. Yuri is competing, which means Yakov is here, which means I have to be here too.”

“Ah.” Yuuri goes quiet at the reminder of Plisetsky. He looks at Victor, and it suddenly occurs to him that although Victor calls both he and Plisetsky Yuri, Yuuri can tell the difference now. There’s a slight inflection when he’s referring to Plisetsky, a lower, more rolling tone when he’s speaking to Yuuri, and—

That’s momentous.

“Is everything all right?”

Yuuri shakes himself out of his thoughts. “Yes, mostly.” He looks involuntarily at the ice, his eyes seeking out Minami instinctively. Odagaki is harder to identify, her brown hair and black jacket fading into the other dark-haired and dark-clothed coaches, but he spots her a few moments later. When he looks back at Victor, Victor is watching him. Yuuri sighs. “Although, not really. Maybe not really? It could go either way.”

The corner of Victor’s mouth twitches like he wants to laugh, but he mimics Yuuri, glances down at the ice.

They watch in silence for a while, and then Victor says, “Quad toe.”

Of course Victor would be able to tell.

“Yes,” Yuuri says, not wanting to give away anything else. Even though Minami likes Victor, even though Victor himself had helped Minami with the quad toe, Yuuri can’t ever forget that Victor and Plisetsky are rinkmates, and just how angry Plisetsky had sounded when he spoke of Victor.

This situation has enough complications, thank you very much.

Victor hums, but doesn’t say anything further. It’s peaceful like this, to stand at Victor’s side, arms braced on the stands to look down at the skaters below, and Yuuri feels calm gradually seep into him, his body relaxing.

When Victor’s phone begins ringing, Yuuri doesn’t startle; he just gives Victor a small smile, feeling strangely but agreeably settled.

“I have to go,” Victor murmurs. “But will we see each other later?”

“Not during the competition,” Yuuri says immediately – Minami is his first priority, after all. He smiles to take the sting out of it. “But you’re always glued to your phone, and so will I, most of the time. And maybe we can catch a meal after? Minami would like to see you too.”

Victor’s smile is small but bright. “Okay, Yuuri. Tell Minami good luck from me.”

Yuuri nods as Victor finally picks up the call, his voice falling seamlessly into a string of musical Russian. Yuuri shivers, and then gives Victor a wave when the man turns to give him a nod of goodbye.

We’ll be okay, Yuuri thinks as he glances back at the ice. Minami has either exhausted himself on jumps, or Odagaki has pulled authority on him; he’s now back to practicing pieces of his choreography.

When Minami twists himself into a spin, Yuuri can’t help the involuntary, I hope.

---

Russia, Yuuri thinks grimly, is like cursed ground for Japanese figure skaters. He had thought Minami might avoid the dreaded curse of debuting on home ground since he hadn't been assigned to the NHK Trophy, but as Minami steps off the ice, his eyes shell-shocked, Yuuri suspects that, at least at this stage of his competitive life, the Rostelecom Cup here in Moscow would be Minami's equivalent of Yuuri's Sochi GPF.

It hadn't even been a bad skate. The strength of Lohengrin is its focus on the emotive performance, and in that respect Minami had performed beautifully. But he'd fallen on the triple axel - a move both Yuuri and Minami both thought he had finally perfected - and it led to him rushing through the subsequent passes to catch up, resulting in a touch down on the quad toe.

Minami recovered well. They’d intentionally choreographed the triple axel early in the program so he could complete one of the hardest jumps when he felt freshest, and Minami had substituted in the quad toe right after, so he had the entire short program to recover from the mistakes. But there was a slight hesitance before Minami took his other jumps, and although there is nothing overt that could further count against him, Yuuri knows that those hesitations mar the flow of the program.

He’ll still score decently, Yuuri thinks, watching Minami clutch at Odagaki’s arms. Just not high enough to beat his personal best score, and not nearly high enough to satisfy Minami’s spirit of challenge.

They pick up Minami’s scores, Minami for once looking grim and shuttered away, and Yuuri and Odagaki glance at each other over his head before steadfastly bundling Minami away from the cameras and into the slightly more private training rooms. The short ISU interview session is unavoidable, but Odagaki lets the ISU have their two-sentence statement from Minami before yanking her skater away, smoothing any potential ruffled feathers with a serene smile and an air of oh us? We’re Japanese, and English is so terribly hard to communicate in, letting her Japanese accent permeate each English apology she murmurs as she guides Minami firmly away from the masses. Yuuri buys them time by giving a statement in crisp English, utterly impassive in face of the media’s many questions, and he’s never been gladder for the elegantly cut suit and form-fitting coat that is his “coach’s” outfit.

Appearances really do make the persona real.

His phone buzzes as he makes his escape, and Yuuri pulls his phone from his pocket, glancing around the busy corridors for any sign of Odagaki or Minami. Not catching anything, he looks down at his phone – a message from Victor.

 

Is Minami okay? He looked
upset.

Working on it.

Okay. Good luck.  

He tucks his phone back into his suit jacket, rounds a corner, and finally spots Odagaki, standing outside the dressing room. Her gaze cuts up sharply at the sound of his footsteps, and then softens when she identifies Yuuri.

“He wanted a moment alone,” Odagaki says.

“Oh.” Yuuri glances at the firmly closed door, and considers the way Odagaki is standing near it like a placid but immovable guardian statue. He blows out a breath and goes to stand on the other side of the door, mirroring Odagaki’s posture.

“Has this happened before?” he asks before he can filter himself, because yes, Yuuri’s hidden himself away plenty of times after bad competitions, but now, looking at it from the other side, his hands are clenching into themselves, helpless, nervous energy coursing through him.

“Not with Minami-kun,” Odagaki says. “He’s normally very open with his frustrations or fears.” She sighs, and there’s the smallest note of worry in that soft exhalation. “He’s growing up, I think. And starting to learn that there are some battles only he can win on his own, no matter how much he wants my help. Hence the isolation.” She quirks a grin a moment later, though. “But he’s going to find that I’m always going to be around. You said it well, you know, at the Cup of China. No matter what happens, we’ll be here for him. And in twenty minutes, I’m going to knock on this door, and if he doesn’t answer, I’m sending you in to pull him out.”

“Why twenty minutes?” Yuuri asks.

“Because Yuri Plisetsky will be skating in about half an hour, and I know Minami-kun will want to watch his performance.” The smile flashes across Odagaki’s face again. “Minami-kun is stubborn like that.”

Yuuri stares at her, and then turns away to face the rest of the corridor. He can’t help but feel slightly awed by how calm and intuitive she is, just how well she works with Minami, always in acting in his best interest not just as a skater, but as an individual.

Yuuri’s never given coaching any serious thought before – whatever he’s doing now with Minami might be helpful, but Odagaki-san clearly bears the blunt of the responsibility – but if anyone would accept him as a coach and mentor, it would be quite a noble calling indeed.

Maybe one day, if Yuuri is able to excise the adrenaline rush of competitive skating from his soul. Yuri on Ice is ever lurking at the back of his mind, after all.

Time flows by, too quickly and infinitely long at the same time. Yuuri and Odagaki remain silent, a bubble of stillness surrounding them, and the back of Yuuri’s calves starts to ache from the inactivity. When the end of twenty minutes arrives, Odagaki raps smartly on the door, and they both hold their breath as they wait for a response.

A moment goes by, then another, and then the door unlatches.

Minami looks subdued. More than anything else, Yuuri notices that – the dampening of the vibrant spirit that made Minami so attention-grabbing upon the ice. His glittering Lohengrin costume is fully covered by the dark Team Japan jacket, the zip pulled all the way up to his throat, and a long beat goes by before he finally dredges up a smile.

It’s strained, but oh, how he tries.

“Hey.” Odagaki reaches out and brushes the bangs from Minami’s eyes, the strength of his hair gel finally fading from sweat and exertion. “Ready to go?”

“Yeah,” Minami says, and meets Yuuri’s eyes briefly before stepping out between them. He’s still wearing his boots, skate guards and all, still fully clad as a skater, and Yuuri’s heart aches for him.

They manage to claim prime position in front of one of the screens showing footage from the competition, and Yuuri can see how tightly wound Minami is, standing between him and Odagaki. They watch as the skaters flit in and out of the ice, skating and collecting their scores; as the crowd noticeably perks up, a distinct increase of Russian phrases peppering the murmuring of the audience; and as Plisetsky emerges from behind the curtains guarding the privacy of the back rooms, his jacket already off, the white and see-through mesh costume already sparkling under the spotlights.

They watch as Plisetsky steps onto the ice to the roaring approval of the crowd, Russia’s youngest prodigy skating in the heart of Russia, his face fierce with challenge. They watch as he takes his place at the center of the rink, his expression smoothing out, going serene and still and accepting.

And then the music begins.

Plisetsky was right. Whatever changes he made to his short program routine, it very clearly works. It’s all there in his performance, the boundless grace of unconditional love, the inexplicable beauty of it.  Yuuri feels his breath catch in his throat, and anyone watching this performance must feel the same. The routine is breathtaking this way, and Plisetsky’s never had a problem with the technical; his jumps – the combo, the quad toe and the quad salchow – are flawless.

He’s breathing hard when he finishes the routine, but his eyes are lit up with triumph as he breaks from the final pose and pumps his fist in the air – a fire that burns from within, complete confidence in himself.

Minami makes a quiet noise, and Yuuri tears his eyes away from the image of Plisetsky.

“That was beautiful,” Minami whispers. “He’s improved so much since Skate Canada. Whoever he skated that routine for would be proud of him.”

“Yes, they would,” Odagaki says, and holds her arm out to one side. Minami takes the silent invitation and molds himself to her side, his head bowed like a youngling taking shelter under the wing of her arm, too exhausted to do anything else.

Yuuri glances away, and turns to stare at the room behind them, just daring anyone to chase them out of the way or say anything.

Not nearly enough time goes by when Yuuri hears the sharp but flowing cadence of Russian, and he jerks around. Yuri Plisetsky is heading down the corridor with his coach and another woman in tow. The grin on his face is self-satisfied, but there’s an air of childlike delight in his eyes as well, and Yuuri is abruptly reminded that for all his prowess and ferocity, Plisetsky is still only fifteen.

Their eyes meet, even from so far away, and there’s a minute pause before Plisetsky’s lip pulls back, the grin becoming an outright smirk. He glances at the back of Minami’s head and then back to Yuuri once more. 

Yuuri wants to step forward, wants to shield Minami, wants to do anything but let this play out the way it has to, but he remains frozen, not daring to break the silent tableau that is Minami and Odagaki at his side. Plisetsky is well within his rights to gloat – he’d broken the hundred-point barrier with his short program performance, and Yuuri knows that if the Internet hadn’t known about him yet, they will soon be forced to acknowledge Plisetsky, because the fierce Russian skater won’t ever allow himself to remain under anyone else’s shadow.

His short program may be choreographed by Victor Nikiforov, but there’s absolutely no doubt that the program belongs to Plisetsky now.

Yuuri stares at this brilliant young skater, burning like a comet across the night sky, and even as he gives Plisetsky a nod of acknowledgment, Yuuri prays that whatever Plisetsky says next will not shatter Minami’s confidence irrevocably.

Plisetsky’s head tilts, his eyes narrowing, and then he rears back, just slightly.

Neither Feltsman or the unknown woman notice Plisetsky’s reaction, speaking to each other as they are, but Yuuri does. The last hints of triumph wipes away from Plisetsky’s eyes, and his mouth settles in a small frown – the closest as neutral ever gets on Plisetsky’s face, Yuuri suspects. Plisetsky darts his gaze towards Minami, and when he looks back at Yuuri once more his eyes are considering, and far more mature than Yuuri ever expects.

The Russian contingent’s route crosses Team Japan where Minami, Odagaki and Yuuri are clustered around the TV screen, and when Plisetsky gets close enough he leans in and hisses, “I fucking told you,” complete with an arrogant toss of his blond head. But his words never rise beyond a whisper, quiet enough that only Yuuri hears it, and Plisetsky sweeps past Minami without a backward glance.

Yuuri’s eyes go wide. He throws a quick look at Minami – undisturbed, entirely unaware of the rest of the world – and then stares at Plisetsky’s retreating back.

---

Yuuri doesn’t say a word about that encounter to either Minami or Odagaki.

Dinner is a quiet affair, and Odagaki doesn’t force Minami to speak – just issues instructions in a crisp voice, herding their small team through a number of official duties before she bundles all of them back to their hotel. Yuuri follows her lead – he’s noticed that Minami can’t quite meet his gaze, and instead of sticking close to Yuuri, Minami puts a subtle but distinct distance between them even as he follows after Odagaki, his gaze fixed on the back of her shoulder.

That worries Yuuri. That worries Yuuri a lot.

He ends up in the hotel café nursing a cup of tea in an effort to give Minami space – since the younger skater has all but clammed up, Yuuri hopes that maybe without him there he’ll open up to Odagaki. Yuuri picks a window-side seat, the porcelain of the cup blistering warm against his chilled fingers, and reflects.

He’s never really had a rival, not even a one-sided one. In Japan, Yuuri had been preoccupied pushing himself to master the basics, to rank high enough nationally that the JSF would consider sending him out to represent their country in the international arena. When Yuuri got to America, it was to struggles of balancing culture shock and skating and school and a festering homesickness, and then the Sochi GPF happened, and then it was the long battle to combat the downward spiral of depression and feelings of unworthiness.

In short, Yuuri had been too busy dealing with himself to have a rival. Instead, there was only ever Victor, and everyone knew: Victor was a goal, a dream to chase after. Maybe better skaters could rival Victor, but Yuuri knows he’s not one of them; besides, that’s not what he wants from Victor.

Yuuri tries to put himself in Minami’s shoes, to imagine the feeling of losing so thoroughly to a younger rival – and knows immediately that he can’t understand the full picture.

He digs out his phone, just to give his hands something to do. When he swipes in, it opens up onto the last thing he’d been doing, and Victor’s name stares up at him.

Yuuri stares down at the trail of messages, and then slowly types out a new one.

 

I hope things are quiet
and peaceful at your side.

He feels utterly stupid the moment he presses send, however. The majority of their message conversations are initiated by Victor; when Yuuri does write something, it’s usually about skating or Hasetsu, just small observations or statements that is there for Victor to read and answer if he so chooses. Plus, the Russian contingent must be in high spirits, with how well Plisetsky did in the short program.

Yuuri focuses on his cup of tea; the small sips he takes are lukewarm when his phone finally buzzes.

 


Sorry it took me so long to
respond. Actually, things are
a little chaotic – and I’m not
even the cause of it this time.

Yuuri hadn’t expected an answer right away – most of the time, they’re located in different timezones, and now that they’re not, they’re both busy people with full lives and commitments. He frowns at the message.

 

Is everything okay?  

It’s a day for rinkmates in
distress, it seems.

Yuuri stares at his phone. Rinkmate – Plisetsky? Before he can figure out if he wants to ask, his phone buzzes again.

 

How’s Minami?

We’re still working on it. He’s
with his coach now. I share a
room with him, so I’ll see him
later too.

How’s your rinkmate?


Not so good. It’s a family thing.

Sorry, Yuuri, I have to go. I
don’t know what Yakov thinks
I can do but I’ve been yelled
at in no uncertain terms to
put away my phone and “do
something useful.”

Message you tomorrow?

I understand. Go.

I hope your rinkmate feels
better soon.

Me too. He’s a little terror,
but he’s our little terror.

 
Yuuri doesn’t know what to say to that, and he doesn’t get any more messages from Victor. He sighs into his tea, and stares out the café windows into the winter night beyond.

Yuuri isn’t sure how much time goes by when Odagaki appears in the café, sliding carefully into the chair next to Yuuri. Her hair is falling loose from their customary braids, and she’s changed into a comfortable hoodie – more the image of a coach to a bunch of precocious Japanese teenagers rather than the coach of an internationally ranked skater, although she’s both.  

“How is he?” Yuuri asks.

“I think you should talk to him,” Odagaki simply says.

Yuuri trails his fingers across his barely touched cup of tea. “He’s barely spoken two words to me since the short program.”

“Yes,” Odagaki agrees. “But you were there when Plisetsky challenged him. Also, he apologized to me; I think he needs to apologize to you too.”

Yuuri’s eyes go wide. “Me? Why? He hasn’t done anything to me.”

“I didn’t think so – but whether the apology is justified or not, there’s something that’s clearly bothering him, and if the apology is what it takes to get him to start speaking, then I’m all for it.” Odagaki reaches over and presses one hand to Yuuri’s shoulder. “You’re important to him. Will you talk to him?”

“Of course.”

Odagaki gives him a tired smile. “I’ll see you both for practice tomorrow morning, all right? Make sure Minami-kun actually goes to sleep after your talk; he needs the rest.”

Yuuri nods.

When he gets back to their shared hotel room, Minami is sitting at the end of his single bed, methodically checking over his skating boots. The detritus of a medical kit are strewn around him. Yuuri takes in the scene silently. It’s a familiar one, a routine all serious figure skaters go through after a hard day of practice – the checking over of their equipment, and the care of any wounds they pick up while skating.

Yuuri dumps his jacket on his own bed, and then leans over to tidy up the medical kit, packing away the tubes of salve and antibiotic and rolling up the bandages and cotton swaps. He can feel the weight of Minami’s stare at the back of his skull, but Yuuri remembers how much he hates it when people try to make him speak, and keeps quiet.

Minami, who at the core of it isn’t like Yuuri at all, eventually cracks.

“Yuuri-kun. I’m sorry.”

Yuuri’s hands goes still over the medical kit, and then he snaps it shut, setting it on the low table between their beds. Sitting up, he stares across the no man’s land between them at Minami, who is looking at him with liquid eyes.

“Hey,” Yuuri says, trying to frame this properly without making his words sound accusatory or uncaring. “I don’t think you’ve done anything that you need to apologize for.”

Minami fiddles with the soft cloth he’d been using to rub down the blades of his boots. “I apologized to Kanako-sensei too, about the quad toe. She told me before that I wasn’t ready, but—” he heaves a long sigh. “I just wanted to make you proud, Yuuri-kun. And I totally failed.”

“Hey, no,” Yuuri says immediately. “I am proud of you. You might not have done as well as you wanted today, but you gave it your all – and we skaters take risks all the time. You won’t know if you can land that quad toe until you try it, after all.”

“But it was supposed to be perfect!” Minami clenches at the cloth in his hands. “I knew I wasn’t going to beat Yurio-kun, but I just wanted to show him, that you’re a good coach and mentor.”

“What?” The exclamation slips out before Yuuri can catch it. “Wait, no, Minami-kun, you’re going to have to explain this.”

Minami looks utterly miserable. “Yurio-kun was insulting you, about how you aren’t in the Grand Prix series this season, and that you’re not a good coach, and I just wanted to prove all his words wrong. I wanted to show him – show everyone – how much I’ve improved, training with you—and Lohengrin was always meant to be a tribute to you, Yuuri-kun, and I messed it up. And the free skate is tomorrow, and Kanako-sensei says I just have to skate it like I always do, but Yuuri-kun, that’s not enough, is it?”

There’s an odd sensation that occurs when falling, when one has lost their balance but before the impact: the momentary weightlessness, synapses firing, muscles moving, adrenaline pumping – all coalescing into a single, indescribable moment of limbo. Yuuri is seated quite firmly on top of the mattress, but he’s experiencing that sensation right now.

And like the body’s automatic reaction to correct its balance, the words escape Yuuri without his conscious thought or control.

“It’s enough. You’re enough, Minami-kun.”

Minami stares at him, his eyes very round and very bright.

Yuuri pushes ahead. “I didn’t really understand, previously, but I understand better now.” He takes a deep breath. “You tried your best today, didn’t you?”

“I did.” Minami’s voice cracks on the two words.

“I’m proud of you for that. I always will be, no matter how you actually score.”

“But—”

“You fell on the triple axel. And touched down on the quad toe.” Yuuri leans forward. “Sure, those were mistakes, but let me tell you what I saw. I saw a skater who took a challenge and pushed themselves to their limits – not because of their own pride and ego, but in defense of someone they admire. You took calculated risks, and although they didn’t quite pull through this time, that flexibility and drive is important. But most importantly,” Yuuri takes a deep breath, “you had heart, skating like you did today. I could see how determined and driven you were. And other than the mistakes on the jumps – you skated beautifully. You gave Lohengrin the performance it deserves.”

Minami is sniffling now, his eyes teary and bloodshot, but there’s a feeling of overwhelming relief under his show of emotion, a releasing of the strain and tension he’d bottled up inside since the short program competition.

“I really wanted to nail the triple axel,” he whispers.

“I fall on jumps all the time too. It happens.” Yuuri gives Minami a wry smile; maybe he’ll be kinder to himself the next time he trips on the quad salchow. “We’ll work on it more, for next time.”

“Okay.”

Minami ducks his head, concentrating hard on packing away his skating boots, and Yuuri gives him that space, to wrestle control of his emotions. When Minami finally sits up, pulling his legs up to sit crosslegged on his bed, looking a little lost, Yuuri looks up at him again.

“I have a suggestion about the free skate tomorrow.”

Minami bites his lip. “Okay.”

“Forget about Yurio-kun. Just concentrate on your free skate – on performing it like we’ve always practiced, and on skating it clean. Like what Odagaki-san says.”

A hint of stubborn mutiny flickers over Minami’s face.

“I think—” Yuuri sighs. “My problem, when I skated competitively, is that I think too much. I got caught up in the expectations, and the pressure, and the panic, and in the end I was so overwhelmed by everything else that there was no room for my own skating. And then I just failed miserably.”

“Yuuri-kun…”

“I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but for your free skate – don’t think about Yurio-kun, or Odagaki-san, or me. Your performance today was frustrating for you – I can tell you that I’m proud of you, and that you did well, but those feelings won’t go away that easily. So for tomorrow, if you can, just skate for yourself. Skate in a way that makes you feel proud.”

Minami wears his heart on his sleeves; Yuuri watches emotions chase themselves across Minami’s face, before his expression finally goes still, smoothing out. He looks up at Yuuri, and gives a resolute nod, the usual look of determination back in his eyes.

“Okay, Yuuri-kun. I’ll try.”

“Good,” Yuuri says softly. He smiles at Minami. “It’s been a long day. Let’s sleep on it, okay? Odagaki-san will have our skins tomorrow if we don’t get a solid eight hours in.”

“Kanako-sensei wouldn’t,” Minami says, with all the guilelessness of a well-beloved student. “She’ll just cut my practice time so I don’t overexert myself.”

“We’ll see,” Yuuri says, half to himself, and reaches over to shut off the lights.

---

Skaters tend to be superstitious creatures, and although Yuuri isn’t as particular as some, he’s never pretended that he doesn’t believe in them either. Debuting on home ground may be unlucky, and Russia may be cursed ground for Japanese skaters, but sometimes the stars align as well, and everything goes right.

Minami is still more solemn than is usual for him the next day, but his smile is genuine, and his movements when he practices on the ice are calm. There are hints of nerves, of course, but as the day goes by and the start of the free skate competition draws close, Minami appears at peace with himself.

When he heads down the corridor and does an impromptu air guitar, Yuuri knows he’s going to be all right.

“You’re excited today,” Odagaki says, laughing.

“I’m a bit tired, but I don’t know,” Minami says. “Normally I get nervous, but today I just feel happy. I love swing music!”

He skips towards the cluster of skaters waiting to take their six-minute warm up on the ice.

Odagaki watches him, her eyes very warm, and then she flashes Yuuri a bright grin that wouldn’t be out of place on Minami’s face. “You did that, you know.”

“Huh?” Yuuri replies, half-preoccupied.

“I can rally his spirits, make him focus on the competition and push him forward. You, on the other hand – you’ve changed his mood completely from yesterday.” Odagaki claps Yuuri on the shoulder. “Let’s go, assistant coach.”

Yuuri stumbles along in her wake, her last two words echoing like a bell in his ears.

Minami performs well. His free skate is a breath of fresh air amongst the usual classical pieces and soaring ballads, and although he’s slightly more cautious than usual he soon loses himself to the swing of it. He takes each element as they come, landing each jump neatly, but more importantly, Minami is happy; his enthusiasm is infectious – the moment the audience starts clapping along with the music, Yuuri knows that he has captured their hearts.

Minami’s scores reflect that – with a clean skate and high points of execution for his spins and performance, he shoots surprisingly up the rankings and posts a new personal best. Odagaki is radiant with pride, constantly ruffling Minami’s hair, and Minami is flushed pink with praise and happiness, even though his eyes are wide with surprise at his scores.

Yuuri just stares at the cameras and grins, and for once takes the lead, gently guiding Odagaki and Minami out of the kiss and cry.

It’s a markedly different group compared to the day before that spills into the section of the audience stands reserved for competing skaters and their teams. Yuuri is proud of Minami – of course he is – but more than that, he’s just so relieved that Minami’s pulled himself free from his near collapse the day before.

They’re so distracted that all of them – even Yuuri – make it past the hooded and scarfed figure entirely before a voice stops them in their tracks.

“That was superb, Minami.”

Yuuri snaps around – he knows that voice – but before he can say a word, Minami blurts out, “Oh! Victor-san!” and then immediately claps his hands over his mouth, chagrined.

Around them, heads whip around, and there’s a moment when Yuuri almost panics, because the hoodie, and the scarf, and Victor’s tucked in the very first row of the stands, his back to everyone else around him, and did they just expose his identity?

Victor chuckles, and – blithely ignoring all the stares around him – reaches over and pulls on Yuuri’s suit jacket sleeve until he stumbles into the seat beside Victor.

Minami, still wide-eyed and his hands covering his mouth, sits neatly on Yuuri’s other side, and Odagaki—

Odagaki just gives Victor a long, considering look, completely unaffected by Victor’s charming smile.

Victor’s smile doesn’t waver, but this close – Victor’s fingers are still gripping Yuuri’s sleeve, phantom warmth seeping through at the near contact – Yuuri can feel the way he shifts.

Odagaki is short enough that on the staggered stands she doesn’t block anyone’s view but Victor’s, and she takes that time to study him. Finally, her head tilts, and then she says, in soft and accented English, “Thank you for helping Minami-kun on his quad toe.”

Victor blinks, clearly taken back, and he finally lets go of Yuuri. “You’re welcome?”

“He may have touched down on it yesterday, but his form for the quad toe is much improved.” Finally, a grin flashes across her face, as bright as Minami’s but infinitely more mischievous. “You’re good for both my students. It better stay that way.”

Her tone is as calm and pleasant as it always is, but that last bit sounds almost like a threat, and Yuuri isn’t a hundred percent sure that it’s a mistranslation, the nuance of something in Japanese going missing once it’s spoken in Odagaki’s less familiar English.

From the mild bewilderment in Victor’s voice, he isn’t sure either. “Ah – both your students?”

“Minami-kun wants to watch Yuri Plisetsky’s free skate,” Odagaki announces, and takes the three necessary steps to slip into the seat beside Minami, her trench coat tucked neatly around her.

Victor stares after her, leaning forward slightly to look across Yuuri and Minami. “What a coincidence,” he mutters. “So do I. Minami, I mean it. Your free skate was really fun.”

Minami drops his hands to grin at Victor, and this time he keeps his words to a whisper. “Thanks!” He gives Yuuri an equally bright grin, and then turns to watch the ice.

Yuuri clears his throat, and reaches up to adjust his glasses. “Hey,” he murmurs at Victor. “I didn’t expect you here.”

Shrugging, Victor settles back in his seat. “I’m not technically part of Yuri’s team, and he didn’t want me around anyway – I’m too distracting, apparently – but this is a Russian skating rink. Who’s going to stop me from sitting with the other athletes?”

It’s a little shocking that sometimes Yuuri forgets he’s speaking to Victor Nikiforov, but after living with the man for almost two weeks, it’s become so much easier to see him as just Victor – a man whose smiles can be as mercurial as his mood and has an adventurous palate and adores exploring new places, and who just happens to be a world-renowned figure skater.

“Right,” Yuuri says. He glances at the ice, where the final group of skaters is getting ready, Plisetsky’s braided and ponytailed blond hair obvious under the spotlights. “Is everything okay with your rinkmate? From yesterday,” he clarifies.

“Yuri?” Victor says, and that’s Yuuri’s suspicions confirmed. “Well – he’s fuming mad at both Yakov and Lilia and he’s always angry with me, so no.”

“What happened?”

Victor’s eyes flick towards Yuuri, considering, and then away. After a moment, however, he speaks, keeping his voice low. “Yuri’s grandfather was supposed to attend this competition, to watch him skate. But he fell ill – nothing serious – and he couldn’t come. Yakov and Lilia didn’t tell Yuri until after he finished the short program. They were worried it would affect him, and that routine in particular.”

Yuuri isn’t sure how he made the connection, but he thinks of agape – unconditional love – and how beautifully and serenely Plisetsky skated his short program, believing all along that his grandfather was watching, and comes up with just why Plisetsky is so furious.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Yuuri says softly. “Did – ah – Yuri get a chance to see his grandfather?”

Victor is looking at the ice, an echo of his previous mercurial mood marring his expression, his eyes dark. “No. The free skate is today, after all. And Yuri insisted he skate it. He said his grandfather gave up a lot for him to train and skate competitively, so that’s what he’s going to do. He’s going to skate.”

There’s a very strange feeling coalescing in Yuuri’s chest, a sudden reconfiguration of facts at the back of his mind. He glances back at Plisetsky – a kid Yuuri’s big sister once dubbed Yurio-kun, a fierce and furious fifteen-year-old who has sold his soul to the ice and fights every day upon it for the sake of his family, and it’s a tremendous weight for such slim shoulders, no matter how much Plisetsky looks like he could tear someone apart with his glare alone.

There is absolutely no way Plisetsky would appreciate the sudden surge of protectiveness Yuuri feels, but Yuuri feels his heart go out to the teenager anyway, along with an incredible amount of respect.

Some may call Yuri Plisetsky a monster on the ice, but Yuuri thinks that the term marvel suits him so much better.

“Is he going to be okay for the free?” Yuuri whispers – he doesn’t know why, but it seems important to keep quiet, as if he’s afraid to jinx things. “I know how—” he makes an idle gesture towards his head “—can affect one’s skating.”

Victor flicks a look at him, and that feeling is back, that silent and serious and solemn shadow that lurks at the back of Victor’s blue-green eyes. “We’ll see,” is all he says, and Yuuri turns back to the ice, feeling anxiety spiking in his chest.

Yurio looks focused enough when he steps on the ice, a fierce look of concentration on his face that completely matches the incredible speed and pluckiness of the piano concerto that is his free skate music. Yuuri leans forward when he recognizes balletic lines in his poise, in his gestures, a forced grace that shows Yurio is quite new to the rigors of ballet, but that will come more naturally if he keeps up with practice. He whirls, flashes of contrasting black and magenta flickering, and his performance is such a force of nature that Yuuri only realizes he’s holding his breath when he starts feeling light-headed.

It’s a difficult routine. On Love: Agape was its own kind of difficulty, but Allegro Appasionato in B Minor is speed and power and technique and performance all rolled in one, and Victor catches the moment Yurio loses control of it – he jerks forward, his gloved hands catching on the edge of the railings before them, and Yuuri almost turns towards him reactively except immediately after that Yurio takes a hard fall on his quad toe-triple-toe, and the murmur of shared frustration bursts through the audience like a shockwave.

Yurio recovers well enough, especially against the speed of the music, but the strain is obvious now, and when the music comes to an end he barely holds his pose before collapsing on his knees, panting hard, his chest heaving.

Instead of joining the thunderous applause – as much as Yurio deserves it – Yuuri leans forward too, sets his hands on the railing next to Victor.

“He’s going to be angry he fell on the quad toe combo,” Victor murmurs. “And his performance points are going to take a hit – his heart wasn’t fully in it.”

Yuuri glances at the screens, which have now switched to the kiss and cry, where Yurio is collapsing on the bench, edging as far as possible away from Feltsman until the woman – Lilia? There’s a grace and poise to her that reminds Yuuri of the best ballerinas – touches Yurio’s shoulder – not pushing, but insistent – and he grudgingly moves so she can sit beside him.

“It’s still going to be a good score,” Yuuri says, because he has eyes.

“Yes,” Victor agrees. “I’m pretty sure we have another confirmed Grand Prix finalist.” But he’s staring at the kiss and cry – the actual location of it, not at the screens.

The score comes up, and while it’s not as high as Yurio’s scores at Skate Canada, it’s more than enough to put him right at the top of the rankings. With just JJ Leroy left to skate, Yurio is guaranteed a gold or a silver, and Yuuri pulls up a mental table in his head, does the point calculation, and Victor is right. Yurio will qualify for the GPF.

It’s deeply ironic then, that Yurio looks the opposite of ecstatic at that fact.

Then Yuuri registers the rest of the rankings table – the fact that Minami’s total score had remained respectably high – high enough, in fact, that it’s sitting there just under Yurio’s, in current silver position.

“Minami-kun,” he gasps, and it’s clear Odagaki and Minami already know this: Odagaki has Minami’s hand trapped between both of hers, squeezing hard, and Minami looks so shocked he’s practically vibrating with it.

Victor leans over at that, almost over Yuuri’s shoulder – Yuuri feels a warm breath feather over his ear, and tries to suppress a shiver – and grins at Minami. “I told you. Your free skate was superb. And the free is where the points really matters.”

Minami gapes at him, and then Odagaki slips to her feet, hauling Minami along with her. “The officials have been trying to get ahold of us for a while,” she says, her smile absolutely untouchable. “But we weren’t going anywhere without watching Plisetsky-san’s free skate in person.” She begins walking, her hand pressed proudly against Minami’s shoulder to guide him along, before JJ’s final skate begins. “Come on!”

Yuuri scrambles after her, and surprisingly, so does Victor. Yuuri slants him a look, but Victor said it best: he’s Victor Nikiforov and this is Russia, so no one in their right mind is going to stop him from watching the medal ceremonies from rinkside if he so pleases.

The next forty-five minutes are sheer chaos, the very best kind. Odagaki is an absolutely oasis of calm amidst it, easily guiding Minami along, and Yuuri just tries to keep up, Victor shadowing him. The official rankings go up soon enough – JJ for gold, Yurio for silver, and Minami for bronze – and Victor stares at the results for long enough that Yuuri actually loses him, and has to double back.

“Wow, Yuri’s going to be even angrier about that.”

Yuuri’s eyebrows furrow. “What, that Minami-kun got bronze?”

Victor shakes his head, and then, because he’s tall enough to look over the tall, tall, tall Russian crowd of officials and ISU personnel, points and says, “Oh, there’s Minami!”

It’s an utter riot, and eventually Victor just pushes Yuuri forward, the weight of his hand the quickest pressure against Yuuri’s shoulder, and inclines his head towards Minami when Yuuri looks back. Unbidden, Yuuri glances at Yurio; the Russian contingent is clearly there, and Victor can easily join them – but he doesn’t.

Yuuri shakes his head, and puts the nagging mystery of it out of his mind. This is Minami’s moment, and Yuuri’s going to do everything he can to make it perfect.

He’s there with Odagaki and Minami until the medal ceremony, where JJ is effusive and the JJ Girls in the crowd are clearly euphoric and Minami looking mostly shell-shocked but incredibly happy. Yurio has a deep scowl over his face, and when he ducks his head for his medal the Yuri’s Angels in the audience drown out the JJ Girls entirely.

Yuuri just takes videos and photo after photo, because while he’s normally not the one behind the camera, he knows Minami’s family and rinkmates are going to want to experience every moment of this.

And then, sometime between receiving his medal and before the interviews, Yurio disappears.

Minami has interviews too – with the ISU, with various skating websites and newspapers and magazines, and of course, the Japanese media. Yuuri claps Minami’s shoulder hard and concedes for a three-person selfie on Minami’s phone – rushed, blurry, Minami in the center with Odagaki and Yuuri squished over his shoulders, each pointing at Minami’s bronze medal – which goes immediately on Twitter, and then Odagaki’s herding Minami off to the interview sessions. Yuuri doesn’t follow; he and the Japanese media have a complicated relationship, no matter how firmly on Yuuri’s side Morooka-san is, and he doesn’t want to draw any attention away from Minami.

He looks around instead, his body utterly abuzz with adrenaline, as if he’s the one to win the medal, and then trudges into the warm-up rooms to catch a breath. No one follows him – the skaters are with their teams, and all the staff are out handling the logistics of the competition or with the medalists – and yet somehow, Yuuri isn’t entirely surprised to find Victor hiding in there.

He’s more surprised that Victor actually managed to get away, since he could hear the excited shouts of Victor’s name when someone identified him even when Yuuri was preoccupied with Minami.

“Hey,” Yuuri says, as though this – everything about this – is normal.

Victor’s eyes come up, and he gives Yuuri a quick, flickering smile before turning back to his phone, a worried line etching itself across his forehead.

Yuuri immediately steps close, an instinct to give comfort. “What’s wrong?”

It’s gratifying that Victor immediately answers, no prevarications, but the pleasure quickly fades at Victor’s words.

“We can’t find Yuri. Yakov’s stalling the interviews, and Lilia’s asked me to search for him.” He sends a quick message, and then shuts down his phone. “I’ve been searching for fifteen minutes now, and I haven’t the faintest idea where else to look.”

He sounds frustrated with himself, and Yuuri scans the empty warm-up room. He’s sure the Russian team would have already checked the most obvious places, but the arena is huge, and Yurio could be anywhere. 

A thought whispers at the back of his mind.

“I’ve got an idea,” Yuuri says slowly, but Victor’s eyes snap to him like he’s a ray of light in a dim room, and Yuuri can’t back down, after that.

He skips the locker room washrooms. Instead, Yuuri takes a long look at a fire-escape map of the arena and then heads off towards the first of the four closest ones – far away enough from the mob to be safe, but near enough for a lone athlete to make it there without getting caught. Victor pulls his hood over further over his distinctive hair; it doesn’t work as well when he’s moving, when people can see his face or recognize the gait and figure of a professional athlete, but they’re moving at a measured clip that discourages anyone from bothering them. 

The first washroom comes up empty. The second one yields up a very startled pre-teen in RSF colours – a novice skater that must have been pulled in to help with the event, sweeping the rinks for thrown presents after each performance – who stares at Victor wide-eyed and then flees without a single word. Victor just pinches the bridge of his nose and gives Yuuri a rueful smile, and mentions that Yuri better turn up soon, before rumours start spreading about their search.

The third one contains three empty stalls and one occupied one, and although they can’t hear a sound beyond the ventilation, Yuuri has a feeling about this one. Victor is giving the closed stall a narrow-eyed look and then turns an expectant stare on Yuuri, and Yuuri gulps, because – okay, he’s the one who came up with this idea, so if anyone’s going to awkwardly call out to a stranger in the toilet it better be him.

He clears his throat, and knocks very softly on the stall door.

The stall is silent.

“Hey,” Yuuri tries, and then immediately decides not to use names, just in case it isn’t Yurio in there. He’s going to get kicked in the face if he lets some random person think that Yurio’s the kind of person who hides in a washroom stall for any reason.

The stall is pointedly silent. Nothing is that silent unless it’s deliberate.

“Look, I can’t kick the door down the way you almost did last time—” Russian punk, Yuuri remembers thinking “—but I guess I could give it a go—”

The door slams open without any notice, and Yuuri recoils back.

Yurio presses immediately into Yuuri’s space, his eyes gleaming with a feverish light, entirely clear. “I’m not you,” he hisses, and Yuuri stares back calm and steady, because no, Yurio really isn’t. There are no tears for this marvelous force of nature.

“I know you’re not,” Yuuri says, and that seems to take the wind out of Yurio’s anger, because he stands straighter, head tipped upwards to stare Yuuri straight in the eyes.

Victor makes a quiet noise at the back of his throat, curious and quite involuntary, and Yurio immediately whips around, his eyes narrowing.

“What do you want, old man? Yakov send you after me?”

“You disappeared when he would be looking for you, instead of afterwards when he’s distracted and gone on to bother someone else,” Victor replies, and Yurio tosses his head haughtily, his ponytail swinging aggressively behind him.

“Yeah, well, I just wanted five minutes to myself, not to run all the way to my—” he barks a phrase in Russian, his tongue sharp around the syllables.

Victor goes charmingly pink across the bridge of his nose, but his eyes gleam with the calm ruthlessness he shows when it comes to mastering a new technique on the ice, and Yuuri hurriedly cuts in before this gets out of hand.

“Okay, well, we were looking for you. And now we found you.”

Yurio’s glare cuts back, and he stabs his finger in Victor’s direction “I get him. What are you doing here?”

“I’m—” Yuuri scrambles for something “—congratulating you on qualifying for the GPF?” 

Tch.” Yuuri isn’t sure if that’s a Russian word or just a sound of pure derision, but Yurio’s expression probably says it all. “Learn to lie better, why don’t you. I messed up today. And I fucking lost to JJ. Again.”

He spits the last word, but despite the fire in his eyes, Yurio is pale, and it’s not because of the glare of the washroom lights. He’s tired, and Yuuri suspects that it’s more than just the exertion of the free skate.

Victor shakes his head, but his eyes are very steady on Yurio’s face. “With six quads over his short and free, JJ’s programs beat yours on technical points alone, Yura.”

“You have six quads too and normally JJ wouldn’t be anywhere near your scores, except you’re being stupid lately,” Yurio shoots back, bitterness tinging his tone. “I gave my all in there, and it still wasn’t enough.”

Yuuri darts a look at Victor but doesn’t dare let his stare linger. There are undercurrents here, and Yuuri has known it since Victor’s odd breakdown at the NHK Trophy, but whatever’s going on, Yurio’s tangled up in it too. He fidgets, his fingers itching for the cuffs of his jacket sleeve, because really – three of them are standing here, and it appears that three of them aren’t particularly happy with their skating lives, and Yuuri hates that anyone who skates as beautifully and soulfully as Victor and Yurio do should feel that way about themselves.  

“But you’ve improved so much,” Yuuri says, and the two Russians go quiet. Unnerved, Yuuri’s tongue trips over itself, and instead of shutting up he ends up spilling out all the thoughts in his head. “I mean, JJ’s good, but his score today isn’t much different from what he had at Skate Canada. But Agape yesterday was absolutely beautiful, Yurio. You scored so much higher because you transformed that program. And despite your fall today, your free skate overall looked much cleaner than what you did at Skate Canada.”

“You watched me at Skate Canada.” Yurio’s tone is flat with disbelief, and before Yuuri can quite get out his inane reply of yes, but only on television, he rolls right along. “Maybe that just means JJ’s maxed out his program scores and there’s very little room for improvement.”

“There’s always room for improvement,” Yuuri says, and wonders if he could ever speak with such conviction if he hadn’t agreed to help mentor Minami. “And if JJ performed to his program’s full potential, he’d be capable of breaking Victor’s world records, and so far he’s not quite near them. I mean, even Victor’s programs need work this year.”

They both stare at Yuuri, and Yuuri stares back, blinking behind his glasses.

“Yuuri,” Victor says, and there’s that lilt in his pronunciation that makes it undeniably Yuuri’s name. “What do you think of Yuri’s free skate?”

“Huh?”

“Do what you did with my free skate. Give us your genuine opinion on it.”

“Hey, I didn’t ask anyone to critique my skating!” Yurio protests, but Victor’s eyes are very steady, a particular shade of sea-green today, and Yuuri finds himself responding to the expectation in that gaze.

“It’s a difficult program. The technical elements, but especially at that speed. It’s like the choreographer intentionally set its difficulty just beyond his current reach in order to push him further. But—”

“But?” Yurio says sharply. Now that he’s listening, it seems that he’s incensed that there’s a caveat to what Yuuri’s saying.

“But I think you’ll grow into it. And the balletic moves are elegant, but you don’t strike me as the type to be a prima ballerina.” Yuuri checks his words. “Or I suppose danseur would be more accurate. It’s not really your style.”

There’s a very odd look on Victor’s face, halfway between pride and chagrin. “I agree. Lilia’s worked miracles with you, Yura, but I think the two of you nearly drew blood during the process.”

Before Yurio can hurl back a retort to that, the washroom door clicks open, and all three of them startle, suddenly aware that the enclosed space they’re standing in is open to the public. Minami pokes his head in, still dressed in his free skate costume.

“Yuuri-kun! We’ve been looking for you.” Minami slips in, the doors falling shut behind him.

“You’re done with interviews already?” Yuuri says, surprised.

“Kanako-sensei intervened a bit so I could find you. JSF wants to talk to all of us!” Minami tips his head to the side, and then shyly switches to English. “Hi, Victor-san. Yurio-kun, congratulations! I didn’t get to say it earlier.”

“Yeah, because JJ’s too loud.” Yurio’s eyes narrow. “Why are you still calling me that name?”

“Oh! Sorry… Yuuri-kun is Yuuri-kun, and it’s confusing for you to be Yuri-kun too, so we call you Yurio. But um, maybe Plisetsky-san?”

“Don’t butcher my last name,” Yurio growls, and then his eyes flick down to the medal still hanging around Minami’s neck. His own silver medal is nowhere in sight. “Yeah, fine, congratulations, whatever.”

It’s the most grudging compliment Yuuri has ever heard, but Minami’s expression lights up. “Thank you! But you don’t look so happy.” He studies Yurio, who looks like he’s two seconds from getting reflexively angry again. “I’m tired too. If we were in Japan, we could eat Hiroko-san’s katsudon and that always makes me feel better.” His cheeks dimple. “And this time, I have the best reason to eat it!”

“Katsu-what?” Yurio says, glancing at Yuuri, but his question is drowned out by Victor, who makes an excited exclamation.

“That’s a great idea. We should all go out for katsudon! It’s a night to celebrate, and you eat katsudon to celebrate an occasion!”

“What the hell is katsudon,” Yurio says impatiently, and as Minami tries to explain, Victor turns excitedly towards Yuuri.  

“We’ve all got something to celebrate! Yura qualified for the Grand Prix Final, and so did I, and Minami received his very first senior bracket medal!”

“And I didn’t do anything,” Yuuri points out.

Victor stills, but his eyes remain bright and his voice is full of conviction when he says, “You’ve more than proven yourself as a coach, Yuuri,” and Yuuri finds that there’s absolutely nothing he can say against that.

“But Japanese food outside of Japan never tastes right,” Minami is commenting to Yurio, who still doesn’t look like he quite understands what katsudon is, and Victor’s eyes verily light up. Yuuri feels the bottom drop out of his stomach, a funny feeling of anticipation, because it was dark on the sightseeing cruise ship back in Osaka, but Yuuri is one hundred percent sure this is the same expression Victor had when he asked Yuuri if he could come to Hasetsu.

“Yuuri knows how to cook katsudon,” Victor says, and Yuuri presses his hand against his forehead. He knew it. “I keep an apartment here in Moscow and the kitchen is lovely, and if Yuuri agrees to cook for us tonight we could all have authentic katsudon!”

“Victor,” Yuuri cuts in before they descend further into insanity. “Yurio and Minami are exhausted. We don’t have any of the ingredients.”

Victor puts a brotherly arm over Yurio’s shoulder, tucks him close. “Look at him, Yuuri, don’t you think he deserves the food of champions?”

While Yurio is busy trying to stomp on Victor’s foot, Yuuri raises his voice to be heard over the cacophony. “And we came looking for Yurio because of your coach and the interviewers. Remember?”

The washroom is suddenly very quiet.

And then, very earnestly, Victor says, “How about tomorrow? Minami will be performing at the exhibition gala, after all, so you can’t be leaving until the day after at the earliest. You can come over after the gala.”

Yuuri glances at Minami, because yes, he’d forgotten about that.

Minami grins back, his eyes sparkling with mirth. “I think it sounds fun.” He switches to Japanese for the next part. “And Yuuri-kun, I think you’d rather spend tomorrow with Victor-san, right? Kanako-sensei and I will be fine at the exhibition gala.”

Yuuri sighs, hemmed in at all corners, and Yurio gives him a vaguely pitying look. “Okay. Fine. Yes, I can cook for all of you. But if you don’t get back out there, your coach is going to murder the both of you, and there’ll be no meet up tomorrow.”

Victor laughs, bubbly and happy. “I’ll message you to figure things out. I’ll help you shop for ingredients and everything.” He tugs at the end of Yurio’s ponytail. “I bet Yakov’s having kittens. Come on. I’ll cover for you.”

“Like hell, Yakov’s already pissed at you,” Yurio retorts.

“Yes, but the media will turn for me. I’ll just say I dragged you away, that I wanted to congratulate my dearest young rinkmate before I let your adoring public get at you.” Victor smiles, and he pulls his hoodie back, finger-combs his hair until the bangs fall artfully over his eyes. “My fame should be good for something.”

But Yurio doesn’t rise to the bait; inexplicably, he turns and stares at Yuuri, who is so surprised that there’s none of the heat of a glare behind it that he fidgets nervously.

Yurio’s eyes narrow, and he doesn’t stop staring at Yuuri even though his tone makes it clear he’s speaking to Victor. “Your fame’s only good if you fix your skating.” His eyes narrow further. “I haven’t seen you practicing your routines at all since you got back.”

Victor’s smile goes as bright as a brand new penny. “I was leaving the rink for you, ferociously little skater that you are. And you know how I like my secrets. You’ll see what I’ve done to my programs at the GPF, Yu-ri-o.”

“That’s not my name!” Yurio immediately barks, but the colour is back in his face, and not because he’s flushed with irritation. He stalks ahead of Victor, and Victor waves a goodbye before the washroom door swings shut.

The space sudden feels very big and empty without them.

Minami stretches his arms out in front of him. “We should go,” he reminds Yuuri. “Kanako-sensei wants the media to acknowledge your role on my team, too.”

Yuuri suddenly smiles, and he reaches forward to ruffle Minami’s hair. Minami ducks his head, but his laugh sounds pleased.

Yuuri’s smile widens, because after all, he has a lot to smile about.

Chapter Text

Hasetsu – July

Yuuri may have been back in Hasetsu for four months now, but it’s only the third or so time he’s doing this, and his fingers feel awkward as he strikes the lighter and holds the flame steady to light the stick of incense. The ritual feels like a long-forgotten memory, nostalgic and only half-familiar, and as Yuuri settles onto the cushion, folding automatically into seiza, he hopes that Vicchan won’t mind if he doesn’t get everything quite right.

He stares at the picture of a much-younger him, playing with Vicchan as a puppy, and the pain that wells up is deep and vast, as silent as the ocean. There’s a reason why Yuuri doesn’t come to the little household altar very often; it’s much easier to pretend he’s busy with obligations, and that Vicchan is just safely tucked away asleep somewhere or out running with Mari.

But it’s important, this time, and Yuuri takes a deep breath and begins speaking.

“Hi, Vicchan,” he says, whisper soft, reminiscent of all the times he’d hide under his covers with Vicchan cuddled to his chest, murmuring secrets into Vicchan’s fur. “I know it’s been a while, but I’ve been really busy.”

The words choke a little in his throat, because how often has Yuuri used that as an excuse? But now Yuuri swallows the lump down and tells Vicchan all about Minami and Odagaki and the Ilzuka Ice Palace. He says nothing about how foreign Hasetsu feels to him at times, like he and the town are constantly three steps out of synch, or how difficult it is to see old friends of the family and have them comment that ‘it’s about time you came back, sonny, your parents have missed you,’ like his going away is merely a detour in the placid seaside town life Yuuri should have led all along.

Hasetsu is Vicchan’s beloved home, after all, and now that he’s no longer here, Yuuri only wants to pass along fond and happy anecdotes.

Finally, Yuuri’s rambling comes to a stop, and he stares at the smoke wreathing from the stick of incense, defusing into the air in strange and inexplicable shapes, the scent of sandalwood heavy in his nose. His hands have subconsciously tightened into fists atop his knees, and Yuuri forces himself to relax, for his hands to unclench.

“The JSF announced the Grand Prix series assignments last week,” he says softly. “Minami-kun is going to the Cup of China and the Rostelecom Cup. There was quite a reaction from the Japanese media when my name wasn’t on the list at all.”

Yuuri had mostly avoided the hounding questions by the simple expediency of staying in his hometown for the two weeks after the announcement; half of Hasetsu adores him and the other half considers him the town’s prodigal son, but either way he’s theirs, and no reporter is going to get away with harassing Yuuri at the Ice Castle or at Yu-topia without having most of Hasetsu’s citizens run them out of town. Only Morooka-san knows Yuuri well enough to have his personal email, and a single email is easy enough to ignore.

“I’m not quite off the hook, however. The JSF agreed to go with my decision not to join the Grand Prix series this year, but they’re adamant I still compete at the local level.”

Yuuri lets out a sigh. The room is half washed in blinding light, the late evening sun blazing through the windows; in contrast the other half of the room is dark with shadows.

“I don’t know how I feel,” Yuuri says in a low voice. “I don’t want to compete at the Japanese Nationals. Not after last year. Not when it’s so close—”

To the day you died, is what Yuuri means, but the words don’t make it out. Saying it out loud means acknowledging certain things, but it’s so much easier to stick to the illusion, that Vicchan is just a little far away right now, an ocean and several timezones between them.

“Anyway,” Yuuri says a moment later. “I’ve been trying out a new free skate program. Ketty – have I told you about Ketty? She composed a beautiful piano and violin composition, and it sounds wonderful. Trying to choreograph for it is really frustrating, because everything I come up with feels so wooden and amateurish and weird, but—” Yuuri feels his mouth curl up in a smile, and surprises himself with it “—it’s also kind of exhilarating, to have that freedom. A complete blank slate, and everything I put in that program is a direct reflection of me.”

The smile fades away, after a while. Outside, Yuuri can hear the muffled bustle of the inn, the distant honk of a truck making a delivery, but inside, the room is utterly still but for the wisps of smoke, silently difusing into the air.

“I guess there’s still a part of me that still wants to perform,” Yuuri says in a low voice. “It’s pretty selfish of me, isn’t it? That even now, I can’t quite let go.” He looks back up at the picture and the metal tags lying next to the frame. “I’m sorry, Vicchan.”

When he finally gets up, he does so carefully. The stick of incense has burned down by now, but the fragrant scent of it lingers, and Yuuri quietly slides the shoji doors open.

He nearly has a heart attack when he sees Mari leaning against the opposite wall.

Mari’s gaze flicks up, and she studies Yuuri with half-lidded eyes. As the shock passes, Yuuri notices that she has earbuds in her ears, and when she tugs one loose, he can hear the tinty sounds of rock music, the drums loud and obvious, and the relief that floods through Yuuri makes him feel faint.

She hadn’t overheard him speaking to Vicchan, had taken steps specifically so she could wait for him without inadvertently listening in.

“Nee-chan,” he whispers, and Mari arches an eyebrow at him.

“I’m not that scary,” she says, and tugs the other earbud away, turning off the music on her phone. “Let’s take a walk. You look pale as hell.”

She strides down the corridor without waiting for Yuuri’s response. He stares after her, feeling lost, and then follows after her, because that’s what Yuuri does – he follows his big sister, into ballet classes, into pet shops, into places he doesn’t dare to go on his own.

“Don’t we have to help with the dinner time rush?” Yuuri asks, clearing his throat to get the words out smoothly, when he catches up with Mari.  

“Mom has things under control.” Mari flings Yuuri’s shoes in his direction, and leans over to tug on her own. “Anyway, you’ve been squirreled up in your room for the past two weeks and it’s getting creepy, so I’m dragging you outdoors for some sunlight.” 

“I’ve been to the Ice Castle and Minako-sensei’s studio,” Yuuri protests. 

“Wow, the exact two places you always disappear to, and that are directly related to your work.” Mari pushes the inn’s back door open, and turns to smirk at him. “That’s not exactly convincing me that you’re not a recluse, little brother.”

Yuuri glares at her, the melancholy that always follows him after speaking to Vicchan all but chased away. “I go out.”

“But you don’t exactly interact much with the town, do you?” Mari says, leading the way down the driveway and out onto the sidewalk of the main road. “You were always pretty shy when you were younger, but the way you act now, I sometimes think you’re scared of Hasetsu.”

Yuuri keeps his head down, half to let his bangs shade his eyes from the blazing evening sun, half to avoid Mari’s gaze. Many people forget that behind Mari’s brash personality that she’s incredibly perceptive, especially when it comes to her little brother, and she’s right. It’s not that Yuuri is scared of Hasetsu itself, but the town has moved on, changed and evolved while Yuuri was gone, and for all that it looks the same at a distance the town feels foreign when Yuuri has to interact with it, and Yuuri can’t help staying to the few places that still feels familiar and comforting – Yu-topia, the Ice Castle, Minako’s ballet studio.

Plus, there’s the fact that he’d avoided returning until he proved himself, and to fail so completely and still come back after that – well, Yuuri still has his pride, tattered and torn though it is. Sometimes just standing in Hasetsu feels like he’s rubbing salt into his own wounds.

His body suddenly itches for the smooth glide of the ice, and Yuuri forces his feet to take steps instead, to follow after Mari.

Mari takes mercy on him and doesn’t force him to follow her through the town center; instead she keeps to the longer roads with less traffic, the ones she used to take Vicchan on walks on, and finally stops by a corner vending machine to buy a pack of cigarettes.

“So what happened two weeks ago that sent you back hiding in your room?” Mari asks, flicking her lighter open and lighting up a cigarette, taking a drag. In deference to Yuuri’s lungs, she settles downwind from him, holding her cigarette easily between two fingers.

Yuuri sighs, shading his eyes with his hands. They’re on a low rise, and the ocean is barely visible over the rooftops, but as the wind gusts it brings the salty brine of the sea with it. “It’s a thing with the JSF, it’s pretty complicated.”

Mari rolls her eyes, takes a puff of her cigarette. “No, really, I never would have guessed.” She slants him a sideways look. “I know I don’t know much about figure skating, Yuuri. So you know, maybe you could explain.”

Yuuri glances at her, startled. But then again, Mari’s never one to mince words, always has been the more straightforward of the Katsuki siblings, and Yuuri glances back at the swath of ocean, the sun gleaming golden on the horizon. He has nothing to lose, sharing some of his frustrations with Mari.

So he explains, and although he has to fill her in on the technicalities of assignments, competition eligibility and just why the JSF is so anxious to get their ace skater back on the ice, it’s strangely nice to be able to talk to someone who isn’t too close to the situation. Mari hums an acknowledgment at the right times, asks questions more to prompt Yuuri to continue speaking, and otherwise just listens until Yuuri winds down.

“So,” she finally says, tapping a finger idly on the cigarette box, “the way I see it – you and your employer have a difference of opinion on your future roadmap, and although they can’t order you to do it their way, you have to compromise because they’ve got contacts all over the industry, and at least for now, you still want to stay in the industry. And everyone else in the building from the cafeteria servers to the lofty managers like to come over and give you their twenty cents on the issue, no matter how unwelcomed they are.”

It takes Yuuri a few moments to parse that long analogy, but then he has to smile. “Well, the media and the reporters are more like the employees from the company the next building over who can’t resist watching the drama from the windows and who insist on coming over and gossiping loudly about the situation, but basically, yes.” He sighs a moment later. “Plus, there are a lot of comments online.”

“Someone’s always going to disapprove,” Mari says. “But I get why you’ve gone back into hiding for a while. To have everyone hound you when you just want time to figure things out for yourself – that sucks.”

She takes a final drag on her cigarette before carefully putting it out and disposing of it. Yuuri waits, but as Mari tucks the cigarette box and lighter back into her pocket, it becomes clear that that’s truly all she has to say on the matter.

His silence must radiate incredulity somehow, because Mari glances at him, and then laughs.

“Oh, little brother, did you think I’d have some amazing advice for you?” She grins at him fondly. “I guess I should be gratified that even after you grew up and went out to conquer the world that you still look to me as your big sister, someone who always has the answers.”

She joins Yuuri in staring towards the ocean, the wind tugging at their hair, the crushing heat of the summer day finally fading as the sun sinks lower into the ocean.  

“I never had the answers, you know,” Mari says. “I just got really good at faking it, because my little brother depended on me, and I was going to lie through my teeth and make it stick as long as it made him feel better.” She kicks one foot against the sidewalk. “But you’ve grown up, and you don’t need the excuses or the platitudes anymore. So, the truth is that it’s just life. It’s unpredictable, and sometimes it sucks, but we’re stuck with it. You can choose to accept it, annoying media and overbearing JSF and all, or – you change it. But you already know that.”

Yuuri sighs. “I do.” It’s only the thing he’s been struggling with since he returned to Hasetsu.

They linger there in silence for a few moments. The sun finally sinks under the horizon, and the sky is a glorious riot of lingering gold and amber, streaked through with the blues and purples of the deepening evening.

“I will say one thing, though.” Mari’s voice remains light, but the look she turns on Yuuri gives gravity to her words. “You and I, we’re true disciples of Minako-sensei. I know what people say about me. I’m thirty and single and I don’t particularly care about either of it. Minako-sensei came home to Hasetsu after retiring, but she has her snack bar and the studio and she’ll fly off at a moment’s notice if it means getting to watch you in competition. And you – you flew halfway around the world to chase what some may consider an impossible dream.”

Mari grins at Yuuri, but a moment later, it softens into something wistful and knowing. “Minako-sensei and I, we’re happy here in Hasetsu. We’re not settling for second best by staying here. You once wanted to get away, but people’s priorities change; you could be happy here too. But Yuuri—” Mari’s eyes gleam with conviction; Yuuri can’t look away, “—your dream wasn’t impossible. I don’t know much about figure skating, but I do know that much. Whatever you choose to do, don’t settle. Do what you would regret less.”

Yuuri stares at her, and is surprised to find a lump in the back of his throat. It takes a few swallows for him to speak.

“You might not think so, but you do give pretty good advice, Mari-nee-chan.”

She laughs, the earrings in her lobes and along the shell of her ear gleaming in the dying sunlight. “And you, brother mine, have become a much better smooth talker after your years abroad.” She stretches her arms above her head, tipping her face towards the sky, and then settles back with a satisfied sigh. “I’ve missed this.”

Yuuri hums questioningly at her; they weren’t exactly prone to such talks before Yuuri went to Detroit.

“Taking walks, I mean. With Vicchan. We’d go out almost every day, unless there’s a major snowstorm or thunderstorm. I’ve forgotten how relaxing it is, until now.” Mari stares wistfully down the small street, and Yuuri nudges her gently with an elbow, because other than Yuuri, Mari would miss Vicchan the most.

“I’m happy to walk with you whenever you want,” he offers.

Mari throws him a fond look. “I’d like that.” She straightens, and nudges him back. “Let’s go home.”

Yuuri nods, and as always, follows her.

 

❄ ❄ ❄


Moscow – end of November

No matter how enthusiastic Victor is about it, Yuuri has his doubts that he’ll be able to cook authentic katsudon on a dime’s notice, certainly not on par with his mother’s version. But Yuuri is used to working without having access to an Asian market for the dashi and mirin the original recipe calls for – he and Phichit lived on a university student’s budget and haphazard schedule to go shop anywhere further than their local grocery store, after all – and he sets out with two shopping lists: the one with the most authentic ingredients, and the more casual version with common substitutes thrown in that Phichit swore up and down tasted absolutely amazing.

Victor, who meets Yuuri outside his hotel, looks charmingly clueless when Yuuri presents him the lists.

“This feels like déjà vu,” Yuuri comments. “I thought you were going to help me shop for ingredients.”

“I don’t normally live in Moscow, Yuuri!” Victor says, a hint of a whine in his voice. He’s swiping through result after result on his phone. “And when I’m here, I usually eat out, or make something very simple.”

Yuuri vetoes two incredible expensive and high-end specialty markets; he’d taken a quick look at the conversion rates between the yen and ruble that morning, and some of the prices listed on the websites had made him redo his mental math three times to make sure he wasn’t mistaken. He’s not exactly rolling in money, isn’t the type to idly spend even if he were, and even though Victor insisted on paying for everything – “You’re already cooking, Yuuri, and I’m trying to be a gracious host. You wouldn’t take that from me, would you?” – something in Yuuri completely balks at spending ridiculous amounts of money on a dish that’s supposed to be homey and delicious and comforting. 

He manages not to give in to Victor’s pout – that face, Yuuri thinks, is dangerous – by suggesting they stop for a late lunch, and Victor visibly brightens, spins away in a whirlwind of energy, calling for Yuuri to keep up.

Moscow is a gorgeous city, a stunning mix of sleek contemporary lines and beautifully artistic detailing. It is a city of dualities the way figure skating and ballet are sport and art form both, but Yuuri finds his eyes constantly drawn to Victor instead of the stained-glass murals in the metro or the architecture of the walking streets. Victor looks at home here, comfortable, and when he pulls Yuuri into a warmly lit little café instead of some upscale and intimidating restaurant, Yuuri feels sparks tingling at his fingertips that have nothing to do with the soothing heat of the radiators soaking back into his skin after the brisk winter air outside.

They speak softly over a small table in the back corner of the café, tucking into pelmeni and cabbage rolls and sweet and sour solyanka, the soup chasing the last of the winter chill from Yuuri. The flavours are vastly different from what Yuuri is used to, both in Japan and in America, but they’re delicious in their own way, and Yuuri only manages to stop himself from considering dessert because he needs to be awake to cook their dinner that night, not comatose in a food coma.

He glances up as he pushes his plate away, and Victor’s eyes are warm, and although his lips are barely curved in what can be recognized as a smile, there’s no doubt that he’s in a tremendously good mood. 

Yuuri reaches for his water glass, self-conscious. “What?”

Victor’s lips curve a little deeper, and the smile makes an appearance after all. “I’m just glad you enjoy our food.”

“It’s different, but tasty,” Yuuri says. A clock strikes the hour somewhere further in the café, the low gongs reverberating through the air. “The gala should be drawing to an end. Yurio and Minami are coming over to your apartment together, right?”

“Yes, they’ll leave from the hotel together, but not until dinner time, I think. Yuri is visiting his grandfather after the gala.”

Yuuri blinks, and then sits up straighter, setting down his glass. “Does he want to spend the evening with his grandfather instead?”

Victor shakes his head. “As much as they would both like to, Yuri’s grandfather has to travel tonight, if he wants to make it back for work tomorrow. It was difficult enough finding a slot in both their schedules to meet today.”

The smile flashes across Yuuri’s face, unbidden. “But you managed it.”

Victor’s head tilts, and he sits back. “Lilia did most of the work, really.”

“But you helped.” Yuuri isn’t sure why he’s so insistent about this point, but for all the apparent antagonism between Russia’s most famous champion and its youngest rising star, it’s becoming clear just how much they care for each other.

Victor pins Yuuri with a look, and then whisks away with the bill in retaliation before Yuuri can protest.

The shopping, after that, goes by much more successfully. Yuuri takes a note of what Victor has in his Moscow apartment – “non-perishables, obviously. Seasonings and condiments. Vodka and whisky, which were gifts. And lots of tea.” – and makes his purchases accordingly. He buys a small bag of rice and an airtight container to store the remnants in, four portions of pork loin and a carton of eggs. He buys small onions and breadcrumbs, and chicken stock and soy sauce to make up for the dashi, and dry sherry in place of the mirin.

By the time they make it out of the grocery store, Victor is laden down with most of the bags, since Yuuri’s the one doing all the other work, and stares at Yuuri like there’s something miraculous about him.

“I grew up in an inn my entire childhood,” Yuuri says, feeling both self-conscious and proud about it. “And when I was at university, it was cheaper and healthier to make my own food. I know how to shop.”

“I know how to shop too,” Victor says, sounding dazed, “but that’s more for things like clothes and stocks and property.”

Yuuri rolls his eyes – it’s a good thing he’s come to terms with Victor’s estimated net worth – and nudges Victor in the side. “Speaking of property, I do think it’s time I got to see this apartment and its fabled kitchen that I’m supposed to be using tonight.” He glances at his watch. “I know it’s a little early, but I want to get the rice done first, since I doubt you have a rice cooker.”

“I don’t,” Victor confirms, and hefts the bags of groceries before striding down the street.

Victor’s Moscow apartment is conveniently located two metro stations from the arena, a fact that surprises Yuuri not at all. The building is sleek and modern but not terribly so, and Yuuri doesn’t feel as out of place as he imagined he might have been. The building is heated, a pleasant contrast from the fridgid outdoors, and by the time they come out of the lift Yuuri has loosened his scarf and unbuttoned his jacket.

Victor sets the bags of groceries beside the door to fish out his apartment keys, and Yuuri glances down the corridor, hugging the plastic container with the bag of rice stashed in it to his chest. Just four doors, including Victor’s. Yuuri’s lived in dorms with more housings per floor than Victor’s building probably has all together.

The door swings open, and Victor tips his head towards it as he bends to collect the shopping bags. “Go ahead,” he calls, and Yuuri steps forward, nudging the door further open with his shoulder.

The short entry way opens up into an expansive space, open-plan kitchen and living, from the looks of it. Yuuri shifts the rice container to one hip to toe off his shoes, glancing around curiously.

There's a low, booming woof, and Yuuri doesn't get a chance to react before something hits his chest hard and he goes down under the weight of it, the container jerking out of his grip. Instincts honed from a lifetime of falling on the ice prevents him from hitting his head, but the impact sends Yuuri flat onto his back and knocks the air clean out of his lungs, and he stares up at the ceiling, dazed.

It takes a few moments for Yuuri to come back to himself, to register the warm, living weight pressed over him and a tongue licking at his face. He blinks several times – where are his glasses? They must have gotten knocked off at the impact – and tips his head to stare at the creature sitting on his torso.

Makkachin. How did Yuuri forget about Victor's Makkachin?

The sight of the standard poodle hits Yuuri hard; the flare of pain that shoots through his chest is so intense that for a moment Yuuri thinks he did hurt himself in the fall, and he freezes, all of his limbs locking up.

There isn't a day that goes by that Yuuri doesn't think about Vicchan, but the hurt fades into the background, ever present but muted. After all, Yuuri had spent five years pushing his loneliness away; he's quite used to managing the pain of missing his beloved miniature poodle.

But this time, there's no ignoring it. Yuuri's senses are overwhelmed - Makkachin's fur is soft and her nose warm when she noses curiously at Yuuri's face, barking inquiringly; for all that she's several times larger than Vicchan the musky animal scent of her is familiar, and Yuuri covers his eyes with his hands, searing heat behind his eyelids, his breath catching in his throat.

From somewhere far away, Yuuri hears Victor speaking.

"Yuuri, are you hurt?" Victor is saying frantically. When Yuuri doesn't - can't - answer, he switches focus. "Makkachin, come here!"

Yuuri shakes his head immediately, and reaches out with one hand to catch a handful of Makkachin's fur before she can heed Victor's command. His grip is loose enough that she could slip away unharmed if she wants to, but the poodle goes still, and then her weight settles carefully back over Yuuri.

"Yuuri?" The panic is more evident in Victor's voice now.

"Stay." Yuuri's throat is so constricted that it feels like he's speaking around a giant stone. "Please?"

The resultant silence feels like it lasts an eternity, but it's probably only a few seconds before Victor replies. "Of course Makkachin can stay."

The relief that sweeps through Yuuri at Victor's words loosens the tight band constricting his chest, just a little. He lifts heavy arms, wraps them around Vicchan's eponym, burying his face into soft fur, and sobs out all his hurt and pain over his lost best friend.

It hurts. It hurts with every gasp of air. His fingernails dig into his own palms so he doesn't risk injuring Makkachin, eight sharp bites of bright pain. The tears smearing all over his face are scorching hot. Shrill whines are all that makes it past his choked throat; Makkachin whines softly in sympathetic distress.

Long minutes go by before he finally cries himself out. Everything hurts - the fingernail indents in his palm throb, his throat is sore and his temples pound, his whole head feeling stuffed full of steel wool. But it's a gentler hurt, somehow, more the deep ache of a bad bruise than the sharp pain of a broken bone; Yuuri pulls back from Makkachin, letting his body sink back onto the floor, and the next breath he takes is a calming one, a natural impulse, rather than one he has to force himself to take.

He presses the heels of his palms into his eyes, and then scrubs at them to clear the worse of the tears. Makkachin turns her head and licks tentatively at his cheek. Yuuri smiles shakily at her, and lifts a hand to rub at her ears.

She wiggles happily at the attention, and then she raises her head and gives a bark as if to say, look! Yuuri follows her gaze, shifting his head against the floor to glance beside him.

Victor sits beside him, knees tucked to his chest. For a man so tall, with such an impressive presence on the ice, he looks very small curled up like that. One of his hands is wrapped around his legs; the other is pressed flat on the floor near Yuuri's shoulder, as if he'd reached out and just never completed the move.

"Yuuri," Victor says, not a question, not a demand, just an acknowledgment that Yuuri's back with them. His voice is very soft.

Yuuri has to clear his throat a few times. "Sorry."

"No," Victor says more forcibly this time, and then his eyes go wide, startled at himself. "I mean--I just sat there doing nothing. I never know how to react when someone cries. I'm the one who should be apologizing to you."  

Yuuri sets one hand against Makkachin's chest, pushing lightly until she gets the hint and climbs off his chest. He pushes himself upright, his vision spinning as the blood rushes away from his head, and he has to squeeze his eyes shut until the nauseous feeling passes.

Makkachin plastering herself against his side, her head tucked into Yuuri’s lap, helps tremendously.

When he opens his eyes once more, Victor has uncurled, staring at him worriedly.

“Don’t apologize,” Yuuri says softly. He clears his throat again. “Um... could I have some water?”

Victor nods, his bangs flying in his face. “Of course!”

He scrambles to his feet, looking almost relieved to have something to do. “Stay with Yuuri, Makka,” he says, pausing just long enough to ruffle Makkachin’s ears as he goes by, and then he’s gone. There’s a brief clatter of cupboards opening and closing, and then the sound of running water.

Yuuri drags the hem of his shirt upwards to wipe at his face, and then tucks the folds of his jacket closed, as if forcibly pulling himself together. Makkachin begins wagging her tail, and the rhythmic thump of her tail against the floor is soothing, as are the domestic sounds of Victor moving around the kitchen. Yuuri focuses on those details, grounds himself in it, the signs that he is not alone.

There’s the sound of footsteps, and then Victor is folding himself down to sit next to Yuuri, uncaring that they’re both sitting on the floor in the middle of his foyer. He hands Yuuri the glass of water.  

This is normally when Yuuri gets self-conscious, the atmosphere growing awkward and uncomfortable. But he had spent all of his hurt and fears and frustration with that crying jag, and what is left in place of that chaos is a deep calm, as if all the turbulent waves caused by the storm of his emotions have been wiped clean. He slips on his glasses and sips at his water, the liquid cool and soothing on his throat, and watches Victor from under his eyelashes.

Victor isn’t quite looking at him, staring down at the hardwood floor, although his eyes occasionally flick back to Yuuri, as if he can’t stop himself from checking that Yuuri’s okay. He takes a breath, his lips parting as if to speak, but no words actually make it out of his mouth, although Yuuri knows he must want to ask what happened.

“I’ve had Makkachin for a long time,” is what Victor finally says, “and she’s very friendly, but I’ve never seen her knock someone down like that. She must really like you.”

The breath catches in Yuuri’s throat, because he loves Makkachin already, and Victor’s kindness, subtle and unvoiced, hits Yuuri hard in his already fragile heart.

The words come out of him almost without conscious thought.

“I used to have a dog. A miniature poodle, but he looked just like Makkachin, except smaller.” Yuuri rubs at Makkachin’s belly, grounds himself in the living weight of her. “He ran out in front of a car. He made it to the vet, but I was flying to a really important competition and couldn’t change my plans, and the next thing I knew, a few hours before the short program, my sister was calling me to tell me the news.” It’s ridiculous that Yuuri’s throat is tightening again; hasn’t he just cried about this? “He passed away, and I never got to say goodbye to him.”

“I’m so sorry, Yuuri.” Victor’s voice is low with emotion. “You must miss him terribly.”

“I do. I did,” Yuuri says.

He goes quiet for a long while, but what’s the point of keeping this to himself? Refusing to say the words doesn’t absolve Yuuri from the guilt.

“I left him in Hasetsu when I went to Detroit to further my training. Five long years, and I never once went home to see him. I spoke to him whenever my family called me, and sometimes they came to the national competitions and brought Vicchan with them, but I—” stupid, stupid emotions; Yuuri is done with them “—kept thinking I had to prove myself first, before I could go back home. I chose to leave, after all. So I trained and trained and trained, and he waited and waited and waited, until it was too late.” The laughter that comes out of his throat is jagged. “I’m a horrible person, aren’t I?”

A hand lands on Yuuri’s knee, and his head snaps up. Victor is startlingly close, leaning into Yuuri’s space without crowding him, and his eyes are blazing with conviction.

“You are not a horrible person,” Victor says firmly. “And I’m very sure that no one else thinks that either, including Vicchan, if he were still here.”

Yuuri stares at him, and it’s surprising how desperately he wants to believe Victor’s words.

“He loves you, I’m sure he did. And if he’s anything like Makkachin, then he understands. Skating is important to you. It’s a dream you were willing to leave home and go abroad for, and if it is important to you, it would be important to him.”

Victor reaches out with his free hand to pat Makkachin. The poodle had moved until she’s draped firmly across Yuuri’s lap; she lifts her head to lick Victor’s hand, and then paws lightly at Yuuri’s thigh as if to remind him that she’s there.

“Makkachin gets sad when I’m upset or distressed, and she does everything in her power to make me feel better. Even if it’s just sitting still and letting me hug her for hours.” Victor squeezes Yuuri’s knee. “I think if Vicchan was here, he’d want you to just be okay, and he’d comfort you in any way he could.”

Yuuri finds himself smiling, although the smile feels tremulous. “He was really good at that. He’d walk with me to the rink, and curl up with me when I was exhausted from practice, and bark at anyone who tried to bully me. When I was sick with nerves before competitions, I’d sometimes call Mari-nee-chan and ask her to put Vicchan on the phone.”

“He sounds like a really good boy,” Victor says. He hesitates. “You said he passed away before a competition last year. Was it the Grand Prix Final?”

Yuuri winces reflexively, his eyes falling shut in resignation. After that tell-tale reaction, he can’t do anything but nod.

Victor’s fingers squeeze tight around Yuuri’s knee, and then go loose all at once, as if he’s remembered that he could hurt Yuuri. His fingers begin stroking instead, once, twice, and Yuuri finds himself so caught in the motion of it that he forgets to brace himself for what Victor might say in response to Yuuri’s admission.

But Victor doesn’t say anything, at least not about the Sochi GPF and Yuuri’s disgraceful showing at it. He just watches Yuuri, fingers stroking, and finally says, “Do you want to take a shower? I—” his voice wavers, and then steadies out. “It’s cold outside, and when I feel miserable, a hot, hot shower always makes me feel better. And you can change out of your shirt, too.”

Yuuri’s shirt is currently damp and tear-stained, covered in dog-hairs; he doesn’t care about the dog hairs, but the rest of it is a mess. A shower does sound heavenly, and now that the idea’s in his head, Yuuri finds himself craving the soothing heat and the rush of water in his ears.

Not to mention, it gives him time and privacy to get his emotions further under control.

“Yeah.” Yuuri clears his throat, tries to inject a sense of normalcy back in his voice. “That would be nice.”

Victor nods, and hands Yuuri his discarded glasses. Yuuri cradles them carefully in his hands – no point putting them on again, when he’ll just take them off in a few minutes, and then looks around, suddenly aware of his surroundings beyond his immediate self. The container with the bag of rice in it has rolled away, coming to a halt near the far wall, and Yuuri winces again.

“Oh, our groceries.” Yuuri peers anxiously towards the front door – the cluster of shopping bags still sits there, only one spilled over. He hopes the meat and the eggs and the glass bottles of sauces and sherry are okay.

“We didn’t buy anything that won’t keep. I’ll deal with it,” Victor says. He sways gracefully to his feet, cupping Makkachin’s face in his hands and pressing a light kiss to her head. “Makka, take Yuuri to the bedroom.” He glances at Yuuri. “You can use the attached bathroom. There are spare towels in the cupboards beside the sink. Take all the time you need. Okay?”

Yuuri nods, and then blinks at the hand Victor holds out to him. He follows the line of Victor’s arm up to meet Victor’s gaze, and then clasps Victor’s hand, fingers curling into each other, and lets Victor pull him to his feet, warm and steady and present.

---

The pressure of the hot water beating against Yuuri’s hair and skin is a godsend; he ducks his head and loses himself in it for a while – the rush of water in his ears, the liquid warmth of it sliding over his skin, a thin barrier against the realities of the world. When he finally brings himself to shut off the water, the entire bathroom is fogged with steam, and Yuuri takes a deep breath, feels his lungs clear with the humidity in the air.

He changes back into his clothes, leaving the shirt off and tugging the towel over his shoulders instead, half to catch the last beads of water still dripping from his damp hair, half as a shield. He wipes a swath of the mirror clean with a corner of the towel, and there he is, staring back – his eyes still a little red, his cheeks flushed from the shower but the skin under his eyes looking semi-bruised and fragile.

In short, Yuuri looks exactly like how he feels – not exactly terrible, but definitely not completely well either.

He finally forces himself to leave the bathroom, shivering when the cooler air from the bedroom rushes in and steam from the bathroom rushes out. He blinks, and there Makkachin is, rising to her feet from where she’d been patiently waiting by the door, fitting her head expertly under Yuuri’s hand and butting upwards until Yuuri automatically rubs at her ears, her fur soft and silky under his pruny fingertips.

He strokes her head until goosebumps rise on his skin, the cooler air finally overcoming the warmth of the shower, and Yuuri raises cautious eyes to study the bedroom.

It’s a simple space, all sleek lines and little in way of decoration – the bed, a dresser, closet space and a bedside table with a lamp, currently lit and casting a warm pool of light across the sheets. It feels like a hotel room, little more than a place to sleep; although Victor owns the apartment, it’s clear he spends little time here.

Yuuri had left his jacket on the dresser and his socks in a crumpled little bundle at the foot of it; his socks are still there, but his jacket is gone, replaced by a sweater in a lovely shade of grey, pristinely folded. Yuuri touches it – it’s crazy to wear something of such quality when he’s going to be bustling around a kitchen and frying up pork cutlets, but the sweater feels luxuriously soft in his hands, and something in Yuuri longs for it, for the comfort and care it represents.

When he folds it over his head, it slides down his skin and curls around his form like a gentle hug. The sleeves are too long on him, but Yuuri lets them slide over his fingers, and reminds himself sternly not to wear the edges down to shreds, no matter how wonderful the material feels against the pads of his fingers.

A sudden weight presses against his thigh, and Yuuri looks down at Makkachin, whose tail is wagging slowly behind her.

“You approve?” Yuuri murmurs softly, and Makkachin gives a quiet bark of assent.

“Okay then,” Yuuri says.

He scrubs his hair dry and finger combs it down to casual instead of unruly, perches on the very edge of the bed to put on his socks, and slides on his glasses. Then, he follows Makkachin out of the bedroom, turning off the bedside lamp as he goes.

The rest of the apartment feels so much brighter compared to the comforting dimness of the bedroom, and Yuuri blinks as he follows Makkachin’s lead. The living space is open-plan, the kitchen delineated by what looks like a breakfast bar, a row of tall chairs on one side. Victor is seated there, seemingly staring into space; at his elbow is a teapot and a pair of teacups.  

Makkachin pads right up to Victor and slides her head under Victor’s arm and into his lap; Victor’s hand drops onto her head automatically. After a moment, his eyes slide to the side, meeting Yuuri’s.

Yuuri fidgets, fingering the sweater sleeves until he remembers he shouldn’t.

Victor doesn’t move, his hand still on Makkachin’s ruff. He’s studying Yuuri intently, and Yuuri’s just standing there stupidly, and Yuuri isn’t sure how to break the odd stillness of the moment until Makkachin gives an enquiring whine.

Victor starts like he’s been shocked, and his eyes flick away. “Oh, Yuuri,” he says nonsensically, and Yuuri’s restlessness must have transferred right to him; he fumbles for a moment, before he seems to remember the teapot in front of him. “Tea?”

“Yes, please,” Yuuri says, eternally grateful for the script of social niceties and slides onto the chair beside Victor. Victor pours for the both of them, and instead of the typical Russian black tea, the liquid is much paler, with a subtle fragrance that reminds Yuuri of sencha. When he takes a sip, Yuuri knows his guess is right.

“Like it?” Victor asks softly, fingering his own teacup but not drinking yet.

“Yes. It’s… comforting.” Yuuri glances sideways at Victor. “Thank you.”

Victor makes an odd movement with his head, half a nod and half a shake, as if he’s agreeing with Yuuri’s assessment of the tea and gesturing away the need for Yuuri’s gratitude in the same breath.

The silence falls peacefully between them. Victor doesn’t push, doesn’t ask him how he’s feeling, and more than anything else, Yuuri is grateful for that. There’s a comfort, an assurance, to just having Victor there, where Yuuri doesn’t have to say a word about how he’s feeling but knows that he could if he wanted to, and he feels his heart swell with emotion, but with something much lighter than the heavy sorrow of before.

He finishes his cup of tea before Victor does, but when Yuuri reaches for the teapot, he doesn’t refill his own; just waits patiently for Victor to finish, and then he fills the teacup. He gives Victor a soft smile, and then slides to his feet, padding around the breakfast bar to the kitchen proper, and begins searching through the overhead cabinets for what he needs.

Yuuri prepares the rice systematically, rinsing, draining, and then leaving it aside to soak in the pot. He prepares the crockery and utensils he’ll need to cook the pork cutlets and the onions and the eggs, doublechecks that all their ingredients are accounted for, and then sets the pot of soaking rice on the stove, turning the heat right up before covering the pot.

“What I said earlier,” Yuuri says to the pot, “about Vicchan.”

There’s a long pause, and Yuuri’s shoulders keep wanting to hunch self-consciously.

“Your dog,” Victor says at last.

“I don’t want you to think I’m using him as an excuse for why I performed so horribly at Sochi.” Yuuri flicks his fingers – he’d neatly folded the sleeves of Victor’s sweater above his elbows so they don’t get wet or stained, and that leaves him with nothing else to fidget with.

There’s an even longer silence.

“I didn’t think that,” Victor says, his voice incredibly even. “But no one could blame you for being affected by Vicchan’s passing. We’re figure skaters, not robots. The emotions – that’s what makes our sport so different.”

“But if I’d been a better skater, a stronger one—”

“Perhaps you could have skated through it. Muscle memory would spring in, your willpower might overpower your feelings for those four minutes, and you’d perform well. Or sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes you just fall, and you have no idea why. Sometimes you fall, and it’s because you can’t hold up the weight of your burdens any longer.” Victor’s voice goes soft. “What happened to Vicchan is a tragedy; that it was right before the GPF was terribly bad luck. I’m sorry, Yuuri, that it all happened at the same time.”

Yuuri can’t help it; he turns, and all the emotions that Victor keeps from his voice is right there on his face. He looks – sympathetic but not pitying, sad and regretful and worried, but also determined and steadfast and intense.

“After I crashed at Nationals, I didn’t know if skating competitively was worth it anymore.” The words just fall out of Yuuri’s mouth. “Everything hurt so much, and I love figure skating, I love it so much, but—”

The pot of rice begins to boil behind him, the lid rattling against the pot, and Yuuri whirls around to turn the heat down, to let the rice simmer. There’s an itch at the back of his throat that he’s steadfastly ignoring; surely one crying fest is enough for the day.

The kitchen is very quiet. Yuuri can’t hear a sound from Victor, or Makkachin, who must still be seated at Victor’s feet.

And then Victor speaks, slowly, carefully, as if afraid of shattering the silence.

“I got Makkachin when I was just a teenager. I’m twenty-seven now – twenty-eight, very soon – and she’s—” there’s the slightest hitch in Victor’s voice “—she acts like she’s a puppy, she’s healthy and active and wonderful, but I know. I know she doesn’t have too much longer.”

There is no power on earth that can stop Yuuri from turning around and meeting Victor’s gaze, to give him this support – because it is devastating for one’s best friend to die suddenly from an accident, but it’s utterly heartwrecking to know the alternative is a slow but inevitable decline, and that there’s absolutely nothing anyone can do about it.

“I’ve been thinking for a while now whether I should take time off and spend more time with her. She’s with me all the time in St. Petersburg, and she’s here in Moscow because it’s a short trip and I have my own apartment to accommodate her, but you know what it’s like. Training takes long hours, and during the season, I’m constantly traveling for competitions, and—” Victor cuts himself off with a heavy sigh. “When people ask me what my plans are for the future, I think about my career, and then I think about Makkachin.”

He ducks his head, but Yuuri waits for him; when he lifts his head once more, Yuuri is there, to meet his eyes and receive his words.

“If anything happened to Makkachin, I don’t know what I would do, but it would not be rational, or pretty, or—anything. I would do more than just perform dismally. I think—I would retire immediately. I don’t think I could be myself, not without her, not if Makkachin died.” Victor’s voice breaks on the last word.

It is pure human instinct; Yuuri strides forward, reaches across the breakfast bar, and grasps Victor’s hand. Their fingers curl and interlace immediately, Victor’s grip going tight and painful with aching desperation. Yuuri doesn’t flinch; he just holds on.

It’s a silent promise, one Yuuri makes in his heart, whether Victor knows it or not. If – when – the inevitable happens, Victor will not be alone. If Yuuri has to fly halfway across the world to be with Victor, he will.

Yuuri squeezes Victor’s hand – Victor’s heartbeat, frantic, throbs between their tangled fingers – and then calls, in a firm, clear voice, “Makkachin.”

Makkachin gives a bark, muffled; it’s clear she’s plastered quite firmly against Victor, and that Victor’s other hand must be gripped quite urgently in her fur. Yuuri smiles, because she’s still here, she’s still perfectly healthy and happy.

“We’re okay,” Yuuri says. It’d hurt so much to lose Vicchan, but Yuuri wouldn’t give up a single moment he had with his beloved dog; it hurts to skate, but he has motivation once more, a beautiful piano and violin composition to live up to, and promises – including the one he made to Victor about Yuri on Ice – to fulfill.

And Victor – whatever he’s going through this year, Yuuri hopes with all his heart that he will soon find his equilibrium too.

Victor lifts his head. “We’re okay,” he says very softly.

Makkachin barks twice as if to say she’s okay too, and her tail thumps rhythmically against the hardwood floor, like a metronome counting time. 

---

By the time Yurio and Minami are expected to arrive, Victor’s apartment is a transformed place. The kitchen is filled with delicious smells, the pot of sencha has been refreshed, and Victor has put music on, a series of cello concertos piped through his excellent sound system, and Yuuri beats eggs and sautes onions feeling as though he’s seated in a concert hall, music reverberating around him. The sweet dancing of the cellos is punctuated by Makkachin’s barking and Victor’s soft laughter; Yuuri had chased them both away from the kitchen and Victor’s now watching videos on his phone, murmuring a commentary to Makkachin. Yuuri isn’t sure what they’re watching – the sound of the video all but drowned out by the music – but whatever it is, they both sound happy.

It’s hard to imagine that just an hour or two ago Yuuri had cried all over Makkachin and Victor’s floor, and then they’d had yet another conversation that was no less emotionally fraught for the lack of tears.

When Victor’s apartment door slams open, Yuuri jumps and then cranks his head to peer out of the kitchen.

“Victor!” Yurio yells, as if they haven’t all heard the front door bouncing off the wall.

Makkachin gives an enthusiastic bark of welcome, and then Yurio stomps into view with Minami stepping in cautiously in his wake. Victor’s head pops up above his sofa, and he gives Yurio a bright smile. “Yurio, Minami, you’re right in time for dinner!”

Yurio gives him a disgusted look. “That’s not my name. Not even Mila gets to call me by diminutives. What makes you think I’m going to accept that nickname?”

There’s a devious curve to Victor’s smile. “Your grandpa calls you Yurochka, but since we’re not blood family, Yurio will have to do.”

Yurio makes an inarticulate sound, somewhere between outrage and grudging concession, but at the mention of his grandfather he quite visibly deflates. For a split second, he looks exactly like the fifteen-year-old that he is, young and mollified, until he remembers himself, his chin coming up. “Whatever. When’s dinner, I’m starving.”

Yuuri hides his smile; Yurio’s visit with his grandfather must have gone well. He puts a deep pan on the stove to heat the oil, and then wipes his hands down, stepping out from the kitchen to smile at Minami.

“How was the exhibition gala?”

Minami, who’d been staring wide-eyed around the apartment, turns his attention immediately to Yuuri, beaming. “It was good! I managed—”

But Yuuri doesn’t get to hear what happened, because at that moment Yurio flings out his arm, his finger pointed right at Yuuri, and says, in an eerily calm voice, “What is that?”

Yuuri tilts his head, bewildered. “Uh… did you forget that I was supposed to be here?”

Yurio flaps a dismissive hand at Yuuri, and rounds on Victor, snapping out a question in Russian. Whatever he said must have been shocking, because Victor’s eyes widen and he actually blushes, pink flushing along his cheekbones, and his response is in Russian instead of the English he usually defaults to when Yuuri is around.

It goes back and forth until Makkachin eventually pads up to Yuuri, tired of being caught in the middle of a Russian argument. Yuuri scratches her ears, giving Minami a who even knows? shrug, and asks him about the exhibition gala again.

He gets to hear – in between checking on the pan of oil – that Minami nailed his exhibition performance, a fun little skate based on Japanese enka, that the group number at the end was chaotic but fun, that Yurio had been brusque but at least talking to him; he’d had enough time for a nap and Kanako-sensei had gone off on a well-deserved shopping spree—

And then Yurio, evidently done with his interrogation of Victor, appears behind Minami and snaps, “Jacket!”

Minami hurriedly surrenders his jacket and scarf, and Yurio grabs an armful of outerwear and stomps off to hang them away.

“What is going on?” Minami says plaintively.

“I have no idea,” Yuuri says, and tips his head towards the kitchen. “I started on the onions and sauce when you texted me, so all I have to do is fry the cutlets and prepare the eggs. Help me with the rice.”

Victor pops up just as Yuuri’s adding setting the breaded cutlets into the oil.

“You kicked me out of the kitchen, but you’ll let Minami help?” he says plaintively, hugging Makkachin’s head against his hip.

Yuuri doesn’t take his eyes off the pan – hot oil, frying food and inattentiveness is a terrible combination – and flips the cutlets with a pair of tongs.

“Minami doesn’t get distracted in the middle of cooking,” Yuuri retorts, taking the first two cutlets out to drain, before checking whether the oil’s still hot enough for the next batch.

“Can I do anything to help?”

“Yes – stop distracting me.”

Beside him, Minami giggles, fluffing up the warm rice with a fork and serving them into deep bowls.

Finally, they get the bowls of katsudon on the breakfast bar without anyone losing a limb or their sanity, and Victor pours out cups of sencha, and then, somehow all of them are seated next to each other, elbows jostling, Makkachin prowling underfoot: four figure skaters from two countries, rivals, friends and mentors.

Yuuri glances around, momentarily lost for words. How did he get here? It should feel surreal, and it strikes Yuuri as stranger that it doesn’t.

“This smells wonderful,” Victor says, his phone out and already snapping away. Beside him, Yurio looks at his meal, unwillingly intrigued, his hand twitching towards his spoon.

Ittadakimasu,” Minami says, and although Yurio shoots him a puzzled look, it seems they all take that as the cue to start eating.

“Shit,” Yurio murmurs after his third bite. He slants Yuuri a look, and then abandons pride altogether, really digging into the bowl instead of picking at it delicately. There’s a grain of rice lingering at the side of his mouth, and Yuuri bites back the urge to point it out, because this is nice – he can’t think of a better word for it – and Yuuri’s learned a lot about how Yurio operates lately. The little things set him off explosively; it’s only when it comes to the urgent, important matters that he goes quiet and vicious, like frost spreading its killing bite.

“This is a hybrid recipe,” is all Yuuri ends up saying, to hide the smile that threatens at the edge of his mouth. “I hope one day you’ll get to try the real version in my hometown.”

Beside him, Minami adds his concurrence enthusiastically, and over his head, Victor gives Yuuri a soft look, as if he’d loved nothing more than to visit Hasetsu once again.

When they’re all mostly done and lingering over cups of warm green tea, Yurio stands abruptly, pushing his chair back with a sharp screech of metal. Yuuri winces – goodness, Victor’s hardwood floors – and then jumps when Yurio begins gathering their empty bowls and cutlery.

“Oh no.” Yuuri straightens automatically, his protests ingrained from years of helping his parents at their inn.

“Sit the fuck down,” Yurio barks, and Yuuri sits down on his chair before he can consciously think about it. “Minami’s going to wash up, and I’m going to make up a proper cup of tea, and you’re going to sit there.

“What about me?” Victor asks, like he isn’t pinned to his seat with Makkachin half draped across his lap.

“You’ll just get in the way, old man,” Yurio says, and carts their bowls and cups away with a haughty flick of his head. Minami slips to his feet with a quick thanks to Yuuri for their meal, and goes to collect the crockery from Yurio before he can dump them with shattering force inside the sink.

“Kids these days grow up so fast,” Victor murmurs, sounding incredibly blithe at the way Yurio is slamming through his cabinets.

“He’s going to murder you one day,” Yuuri says, only half-joking.

They trade nonsensical, teasing remarks until the sound of metal tinkling against china distracts them, and Yuuri turns away from the conversation as Yurio sets down a tray, a full Russian tea service resplendent on it this time. There are four tea cups, of course, but a pot of concentrated tea and another of hot water, and little containers full of condiments – sugar and honey, but also jam and lemon slices.

Yurio makes up his cup efficiently, jam and sugar both, and then pushes the tray away. “You all can make your own tea.”

Yuuri is used to black American coffee and fragrant Japanese tea, but he’s in Russia, having dinner with a pair of Russians, and this gesture of Yurio, as brusque as it is, appears to be welcoming.

“Thanks, Yurio,” he says, before abruptly remembering how much Yurio disliked the nickname. “I mean—ah, Yuri?”

Yurio looks at him darkly over his tea cup. “This old man and Minami can’t stop calling me that. You might as well join them, Katsudon.”

Yuuri stares at him, becauseis that a nickname of his own?

Victor starts laughing, and Yurio turns his glare in his direction. Minami, done with the dishes and wiping down the stove and countertop, cuts off the impeding argument with a well-timed comment about the strangeness of jam in tea, and Yuuri lets the conversation wash over him.

He closes his eyes, feeling warm and full and content. A warm weight settles itself against Yuuri’s thigh and across his knee, and he smiles without opening his eyes, letting his fingers card through Makkachin’s fur, soft and silken against his fingertips.

---

Minami might have had time for a nap that afternoon, but Yurio had gone straight from the exhibition gala to visiting his grandfather and then back to the hotel to meet with Minami only to come straight over to Victor’s apartment, and although Yurio looks wide awake, it’s with the hyperawareness and snappishness – more than usual, that is – that tells Yuuri that the only thing keeping Yurio up is sheer stubbornness and adrenaline.

As an anxiety-driven insomniac, Yuuri is more than familiar with the feeling.

The sky outside is pitch black, and although Yuuri is loathed to leave the warmth and comfort of the apartment, he gives Makkachin one last cuddle and shoos her off his lap, nudging her towards Victor. She doesn’t take much coaxing, wiggling easily under Victor’s arm, and Victor pats her automatically before his eyes flick up.

“Time to go?” he says, setting his phone down.

“We’d better, before the public transport shuts down. We have a mid-morning flight, which means we really should get most of our packing done tonight.” 

“It’s late. I’ll call you three a taxi.”

“Seriously?” Yurio mumbles, sitting up and blinking hard, before his eyes sharpen further. “It’s like two stations.”

“But you’ve got quite a walk from the station to your hotel,” Victor points out.

Normally, Yuuri would agree with Yurio’s sentiments, but it is late, and very cold outside, and both Minami and Yurio have had a tiring weekend of competitions. He’ll swallow the expense, this once.

“A taxi would be nice, Victor.” Yuuri stretches his arms above his head, holding the tension, and then lets his body collapse into itself. He slouches there on the couch for another few beats, and then forces himself to his feet. He stares down at the sweater, the sleeves sliding over his wrists, and rubs the edges between his fingers. “I should go change out of this. Where did my shirt go, anyway?”

“Keep it.”

When Yuuri glances over, Victor isn’t looking at him, his phone pressed against his ear, waiting. Yuuri narrows his eyes. “Victor—”

“Ah,” Victor says, and begins speaking fluid Russian into his phone, pacing away, Makkachin dogging his footsteps.

Yuuri tugs at the sweater sleeves in exasperation, and then turns to look for the other two. Minami is rearranging the cushions back on the couch; Yurio just gives Yuuri an arched look.

“Hopeless,” he says, and strides off, pulling open a door Yuuri hadn’t quite noticed and pulling out his jacket. Yuuri peers curiously into the space – a built-in front closet – and there, at least, is his own coat, hung neatly on a hanger, although Minami’s is thrown haphazardly on a hook.

They get dressed – jackets, scarves, gloves – and Yurio leans impatiently against the door jam as Yuuri and Minami tug on their shoes. Minami is starting to look tired too, worn at the edges, although it does nothing to shadow the glow of happiness in his eyes.

“Everything okay?” Yuuri asks in Japanese.

Minami tips him a smile, and answers in kind. “Yes. It’s been a crazy weekend, and I’ve never really hung out with other skaters like this – I mean, other than our fellow JSF skaters – but I had a lot of fun.”

Yuuri can’t resist reaching out and ruffling Minami’s bangs. “I’m glad to hear that.”

There’s a snort from near the front door, but when Yuuri glances over, Yurio is staring pointedly past them. He already has his hood pulled firmly over his head, but if Yuuri thought he could get away with it without losing his hand, he’d ruffle Yurio’s hair too.

There’s a clatter of nails against hardwood, and Makkachin comes padding out past the breakfast bar, a shopping bag dangling from her teeth. She presents it proudly to Yuuri, and Yuuri takes the bag from her. He pushes the twine handles aside and peers in, and there’s his long-sleeved shirt, neatly folded.

Yuuri shakes his head, because he could have easily changed back; it’s late, and his jacket will cover how messy and wrinkled the shirt is. And now – he has Victor’s sweater, a little too large but luxuriously soft, and when exactly is he going to have a chance to return it?

Still, that’s not Makkachin’s problem, and he smiles down at her.

“Thanks, Makkachin,” he says, scratching her ears, and lifts his head to stare at her owner.

Victor is still holding his phone between his hands, fingers tapping against the cover absentmindedly. “I’ve called the taxi,” he says, and then just stops there. He stares at Yuuri, his eyes flicking over Yuuri’s features.

Yuuri stares back, because it’s only just hit him that this is it. Tomorrow, Yuuri will fly back to Japan with Minami and Odagaki, and all he’ll have of Victor is the occasional text message, filtered through technology and so distant.

The feeling spreading through Yuuri’s chest is so similar to his anxiety that suddenly Yuuri feels sick, except this is worse. This feeling, Yuuri thinks, will fester and sink its way into Yuuri’s bones the more time passes, until it becomes part of him, an ache that will manifest every time the weather rains or turns cold.

“For fuck’s sake,” Yurio says, and Yuuri jumps, his heart rabbiting to a sprint. There’s an audible thunk as Victor’s phone hits the floors, and they both stare at it, until Victor dips down to snatch it up, shoving it quickly into his pocket.

“You two are seriously hopeless,” Yurio continues. “Come on.” he snags Minami’s arm with the grip of a constrictor, and pushes the front door open, dragging Minami towards the elevators. “Katsudon,” he hollers over his shoulder. “If you’re not down in ten minutes, we’re getting into the taxi and leaving you here.”

“Yuuri-kun, make sure you come down on time!” Minami manages to get out before Yurio drags him out of sight.

Yuuri stares after them with his mouth slightly ajar, before the front door swings shut. He turns back to Victor, who gives him a wry smile.

“Don’t worry, Russian taxis are notorious for having terrible timing. If you need to call for another one, Yura has numbers for a bunch of taxi companies.”

The switch to the diminutive instead of the teasing Yurio makes Yuuri smile, because it betrays just how fond Victor is of his prickly, volatile young rinkmate. He glances down at his feet, suddenly shy, and lets his fingers curl into the overly long sleeves of the sweater.

“Thanks,” he says softly.

“Hey,” Victor says, and Yuuri glances up at him. “I should be the one saying thanks. It was a good day.”

Yuuri has to laugh, because it sounds ridiculous – what with the crying fest, and talks of dead and dying animal best friends – but the warm, content feeling now pooling under his heart says otherwise. He feels heady with the emotion, and impulsively, he takes a step forward, going up on his toes, and throws his arms around Victor’s shoulders, letting his hands curl around Victor’s neck, the shopping bag crunching between them with a rustle of paper.  

Victor starts, obviously surprised, but instead of letting go Yuuri just holds on tighter, and after a moment Victor relaxes, and warm arms wrap around Yuuri’s waist, hands settling lightly on the small of Yuuri’s back.

“Yuuri,” Victor murmurs into his ear, low and tremulous, a secret caught between them, and like someone who has been given that gift, the trust of a secret, doesn’t say anything further.

After a moment, Yuuri pulls back, settling firmly on his feet, and Victor’s arms slide reluctantly away, fingers lingering like smoke, a suggestion. They keep close, however, barely any space between them, and Yuuri looks up into Victor’s eyes in the low light and does his best not to blink.

“I can’t believe it’s almost the GPF again,” Yuuri says. He laughs, and he knows it comes out a little self-deprecating, but he doesn’t look away. “And somehow, I’m friends with two-thirds of the skaters who qualified this year; last year, I was completely alone.”

“You weren’t,” Victor murmurs.

“No,” Yuuri agrees, because he couldn’t appreciate it then, but he’d had Celestino, and even though they weren’t physically there, he’d had Minako-sensei and Phichit and Yuuko and all his family too. “But it felt like it. At the banquet, I didn’t talk to anyone, I was so upset.” Somehow, he’s gotten ahold of Victor’s hand, and the warm living skin feels so much better than the soft cashmere of the sweater sleeve. “You, of course, were there, but I didn’t dare to talk to you at all.”

With Victor’s hand in his, Yuuri feels it when Victor goes incredibly, heart-stoppingly still. “Victor?”

After a moment, Victor’s hand curls urgently around Yuuri’s, catching and holding. “You’re talking about the Sochi GPF. The banquet last year.”

“Yes.”

“You… don’t remember?”

“Remember what?” Yuuri tilts his head quizzically. “I wasn’t all there, that night, not with Vicchan—and then the results, and—” he swallows back the memory of Victor not recognizing him at all, the sting of the commemorative photo comment. “—and I was feeling terrible, I just kept drinking champagne. I woke up the next morning with the worst hangover of my life, which is why I try not to drink, now.”

Victor is looking at him with an air of stunned silence, his eyes very wide, and Yuuri ducks his head, studies Victor’s fingers curled between his instead.

“I know. Terrible behavior for a professional athlete. I don’t know why you bothered talking to me this year, at the Cup of China, but I’m glad. I’m glad we have this.”

“I—” Victor swallows audibly, and then he wrestles control of himself, his grip loosening. “That’s all you, Yuuri. You’re an amazing person, so why wouldn’t I talk to you?”

Yuuri smiles. “Flatterer.”

His phone goes off in his jacket pocket, a reminder that Yurio and Minami are waiting for him, and carefully, Yuuri untangles his hand from Victor’s. Victor had been reluctant to let Yuuri out of the hug before, but it’s nothing compared to the way Victor’s grip seems to cling on, fingertips dragging against Yuuri’s skin. Yuuri goes down to one knee and throws his arms around Makkachin instead, lets silky fur chase the phantom feel of Victor’s touch away.

“Makkachin, be happy and healthy,” he murmurs into her neck. “And take care of Victor, okay?”

Makkachin gives a low whine, licking at Yuuri’s face, and Yuuri gives her a gentle squeeze before letting go. Now his coat is covered in dog hairs as well, but Yuuri really doesn’t give a damn. He climbs back on his feet, rearranging the crumpled shopping bag hanging from his elbow.

“Good night, Victor.”

There’s something unfathomable in the way Victor is looking at him, something that makes Yuuri’s heart jolt in his chest, a sudden awareness that this is a moment of significance. But after a moment, Victor just nods, a single decisive dip of his head.

“Good night, Yuuri,” he says, voice low, and Yuuri walks away with the feel of eyes on his back, heavy and unwavering.

---

 

 

Victor Nikiforov
Online
---

Did you get home okay?

Yeah. It was a long flight,
but we’re all in good spirits,
so it went by quickly.

Thanks for checking up on
me.

Glad to hear that.

What are your plans now that
the Minami’s done with the
Grand Prix series?

Our next competition is the
Japanese Nationals next month,
so we’re training for that.

Right. That makes sense.

Are you watching the GPF?

Of course I am. Phichit and you
and Yurio are in it. Chris, too.

Would you consider coming to
Barcelona to see it in person?

If Minami can spare you.

I haven’t really thought about it.

Anyway, aren’t tickets for the
GPF totally sold out by now?

You’re friends with four of the
six finalists. I’m pretty sure one
of us can scrunch up tickets
from somewhere.

I’ve never been to Barcelona
before.

It’s a beautiful city. 

Phichit will drag me to the
Sagrada Familia for sure.

And… I know you’ve made
changes to your programs.

I’d love to see them in person.

I have a good feeling about them
now. I’d love for you to see them
in person too.

Wait.

Does that mean you’ll come?

Find me tickets to the competition
first. And I mean normal audience
tickets, Victor.

I’ll just count this trip as a birthday
present to myself.

Birthday?!?!

Er. Yes.

Victor?

Are you looking up when my
birthday was?

Yuuri! It was your birthday
and you didn’t tell us? I made
you cook on your own birthday!

Well, I was happy to.

Why didn’t Minami say anything?

I asked him not to. I had a
birthday breakfast with him
and Odagaki-san before he
went to the arena for the
exhibition gala.

I spent the whole afternoon with
you and you didn’t tell me! I
didn’t even get you a present.

Getting to spend time with
you and Yurio and Minami
is present enough.

I’ll get something for you
in Barcelona.

Oh no. Don’t you dare, Victor.

Not even something round and
gold?

Maybe I want Phichit or Yurio
 to win the GPF. Or Chris,
you’ve always held him off
previously.

Yuuri!

I want all of you to do well,
you know.

I don’t need presents, Victor.
I’ll be happy just to see you.

Come to Barcelona, and you
can see all of us.  

I will.

Chapter Text

Detroit – March

They’d always known that change was on the horizon, he and Phichit. It may have taken Yuuri an additional year to complete his degree, but he’d confirmed with the university counselors early in the first semester of his final year that he would met all the criteria to graduate as long as he passed his remaining courses, and so come March, Yuuri would be out of the university dormitories for good.

They’d talked about plans, a few times. At the time, there was no reason why Yuuri would change coaches, and so he assumed he would remain in Detroit and the skate club. He and Phichit could rent a place off-campus, maybe drag in a couple of other figure skaters to get a place together. Or, if Phichit’s parents insisted, he’d stay on-campus and Yuuri would rent a room on his own, since they’d probably spend most of their time at the rink anyway.

Fast forward past the Sochi GPFs and the Japanese Nationals and the months of January and February, and suddenly Yuuri is standing in the midst of his dorm room, his suitcase strewn open and all his belongings sorted into piles – to pack, to donate, to throw away – while Phichit stares at him mournfully from the sanctuary that is Yuuri’s bed, sorting through Yuuri’s warmer clothing.

“I know you said you weren’t going to stay for the graduation ceremony,” Phichit says, “but it didn’t hit me that that would mean you’d leave the moment classes ended.”

Yuuri stares at the large poster of Victor that had adorned the prime wall space opposite Yuuri’s bed for all these years. Carefully, he peels the poster free and rolls it up neatly, sliding it into the protective tube case that goes straight into Yuuri’s suitcase. With space as a premium and most of it already filled with his skating boots and important documents, Yuuri knows he’s going to have to leave many things behind, but his Victor collection is not an option.

The wide blank space that is left behind makes the room look exponentially bare, like Yuuri is slowly striping it of its life and individuality. It’s then that it really hits Yuuri that he’s leaving, that this is an chapter of his life that he’s firmly closing, and he takes a step back, and then another, and sits heavily on the mattress beside Phichit, his head bowed.

Phichit carefully nudges him in the hip with one foot, and Yuuri sighs, grabs a sweater from the pile Phichit had been methodically working on.

“You and Celestino will be leaving for the World Championship soon, and since I didn’t qualify, there really isn’t any reason why I should stay here in Detroit.” Yuuri bundles the sweater into a tight roll for easy storage, keeping his eyes down. “My flight for Fukuoka is around the same date as yours to Tokyo, so you know – it’ll just feel like we’re both heading to separate competitions or something. No need for a big send off.”

Yuuri buries himself in warm wool and folding, so it takes a while for him to register the loud silence coming from Phichit, made all the more conspicuous because Phichit is normally so vocal and active. When Yuuri glances over, Phichit is staring at him, his eyes suspiciously bright, his slight smile wry and rueful at the same time.

“You deserve a big send off, you know. But because you’re Yuuri, I know why you don’t want one.” He sets the pile of folded clothing to one side and slides his feet off the bed so they’re sitting side by side, elbows brushing. “I guess this is the best time to tell you. I’m thinking of—I mean—”

Phichit trails off uncharacteristically, and then he takes a deep breath. “I’m going back to Bangkok. After Worlds. Celestino agreed to follow me over.”

Yuuri looks up from his folding. Phichit stares at him unflinchingly, and slowly, Yuuri smiles, because he can fill in the blanks.

“I’m glad my leaving is good for something,” he says softly, because when Yuuri was around, Celestino had obligations to both his students; now that Yuuri is leaving, Phichit doesn’t have to stay at the Detroit skate club to keep Celestino as his coach.

Phichit lets out a little growl. “Yuuri, I’m not benefiting from you leaving.”

“I really don’t mind,” Yuuri says honestly. “I want things to work out for you.”

“I want things to work out for you too,” Phichit retorts, and reaches over to pull the latest long-sleeved shirt from Yuuri’s hands. “If I had my way, you and I would train under Celestino for years to come and we’d lead the Asian wave of top figure skaters. I came to Detroit to train with Celestino, but I’ve learned so much skating with you, and living this expatriate life with someone who gets it. I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything else. But you’re leaving, Yuuri, and—Detroit doesn’t have the same appeal for me now.”

Yuuri slowly blinks, because he hadn’t thought that his decisions could impact Phichit’s so greatly. He sighs, and leans his shoulder into Phichit’s. “I’m sorry,” he offers.

“There’s nothing to apologize for,” Phichit says almost by rote, and leans back. “I get why you’re going back to Japan. I wish things would work out differently, but you have to do what’s best for you, and I’ve seen you, Yuuri, these past three months. It’s not working for you here. So you have to do something about it.” He gives Yuuri a lopsided smile. “You’re leaving in pursuit of your own happiness. America’s not the only place to do that, after all.”

Yuuri lifts his head and stares out his dorm window. The days are starting to lengthen, winter finally edging into spring, but Yuuri feels perpetually cold, as though his limbs will never warm up despite how much effort he puts into his skating.

Will a change of scenery make a difference? Yuuri has no idea, but he just knows he can’t stay in Detroit anymore.

“And you’re pursuing your happiness back in Thailand,” Yuuri says softly. “What do you have planned?”

“I’m going for it, next season,” Phichit says. “Base both my programs on The King and the Skater. I have a Thai coach back in Bangkok who will help me with the choreography, she’s already linked up with Celestino about it.”

Yuuri smiles, because they haven’t even gotten through this season’s World Championships yet, and here’s Phichit already planning for his next season, and willing to enact major changes to achieve his dreams. As much as it hurts to hear that Phichit is also leaving – it’d been comforting, to imagine that everything would stay the same even when Yuuri leaves, that the Detroit skate club and Phichit and Celestino would continue as they are, like a treasured dream preserved for all time – Yuuri could never begrudge Phichit for taking that leap.

“You’re going to be amazing,” Yuuri says, his throat suddenly tight, and impulsively, he turns and hugs Phichit around the shoulders. “I’m really going to miss you, Phichit.”

“Don’t be silly,” Phichit says, his hands light on Yuuri’s arms but his voice sounding just as choked up. “What else is modern technology for? We still have messages and video calls and everything.” He hooks his chin over Yuuri’s shoulder. “Just promise me, because I won’t be there to bug you all the time. Remember to pursue your own happiness, okay? It’s hard, but promise me you’ll try?”

Part of Yuuri wants to protest, because he hasn’t felt happy since Vicchan—since the Sochi GPF. The closest he gets is a numbed calm where his thoughts no longer yell at him, but Phichit worded his request perfectly. He asked Yuuri to try, and if it’s one thing Yuuri is good at, it’s trying and trying until he’s bruised and bleeding and exhausted.

“Okay, Phichit,” Yuuri whispers, all that he’s able to get out through the huge lump in his throat. “I’ll try.”

❄ ❄ ❄


Grand Prix Final, Barcelona – mid-December

Yuuri isn’t sure where Phichit gets his boundless energy. Thailand might be closer to Spain than Japan is, but there’s still a substantial five-hour time difference. While Yuuri is still groggy from the effects of jetlag, Phichit is bright-eyed and camera-ready, his trusted selfie stick ever ready in hand, as if he hadn’t just flown in two days ago and has been on the ice constantly practicing.

Phichit darts back to Yuuri’s side and holds the selfie stick aloft. Yuuri rallies for him, giving the phone a shy smile. The Sagrada Familia rises majestically behind them, beautifully lit against the inky backdrop of the night sky, and it takes just a few lightning quick taps for Phichit to upload the photo, captioning it with Best friends reunited once more! #AsiaRepresent #GPFBarcelona.

“I thought you’d say something about the Sagrada Familia’s architecture,” Yuuri teases – over the past two weeks, the moment Phichit was confirmed as a Grand Prix finalist, Yuuri had received dozens of messages about the wonders of Barcelona’s many historical monuments.

“The Sagrada Familia will always be here, but our moments together are fleeting and must be cherished,” Phichit says solemnly, and then tucks his selfie stick away, collapsing happily against Yuuri’s side. “Thanks for indulging me. I wanted to see the church before skating tomorrow; it feels like good luck!”

“Anything for my best friend,” Yuuri says honestly, although to be frank, Phichit’s doing more for Yuuri than the other way around. He’s crashing in Phichit’s hotel room for the trip – they’ve roomed together often enough when they were rinkmates – and Yuuri had worried that he might be distracting Phichit from his GPF preparations. Instead, Celestino had waved them off, looking relaxed at the hotel bar and pleased that someone would be there to rein Phichit’s inevitable enthusiasm in.

“Oh?” There’s a wealth of implication in the way Phichit says that single syllable. “But I know you didn’t fly all the way to Barcelona for me.”

Yuuri’s cheeks go red; he can feel the warmth of it against the chill of the night. “Phichit…”

“Come on, Yuuri, you’ve had Victor posters on your dorm room wall for as long as I’ve known you. If Mongkut from The King and the Skater invited me to say, a film premiere or something, I’d fly right over, no questions asked.”

Yuuri has to laugh – Phichit is obsessed with all things related to The King and the Skater, and its leading actor is no exception. “It could happen. You’re making history for Thailand right now, and you’re doing it with two iconic songs from the movie. I bet someone from the movie’s going to tweet at you after this weekend.”

“You think so?” Phichit says, practically vibrating with glee.

“You have a huge following on Twitter and Instagram. Your fans have probably started a campaign.”

“Maybe.”

Phichit ducks out of the way of another wave of tourists, and they both begin making their way back to the metro station, face masks pulled firmly over their faces. Yuuri isn’t sure why he tucked his own on – he’s not skating in this competition, no one’s going to be looking for him – but Phichit is going for incognito, so Yuuri figures he’d do the same.

“So,” Phichit says once they get on the subway, and their voices are muffled by both their face masks and the white noise of the crowd around them. “You and Victor. I had hopes for you after he visited Hasetsu, but considering how little time you two actually spend in the same country since, I’m pretty amazed how close you’ve become.”

If Yuuri blushes – continues blushing – then at least no one can see it under his face mask. “I don’t know. With him, it’s—”

Easy, Yuuri wants to say at first, but it wasn’t, if he wants to be honest. It’d been awkward and nerve-wrecking and worrying until they’d met up to explore Osaka, a mutual rendezvous on neutral ground, and from then on the difficulties had been worth it.

“—surprising,” is what Yuuri ends up saying. He won’t ever breath a word about Victor in that warm up room after the free skate of the NHK Trophy nor their weightier conversations in Victor’s Moscow apartment, but he can share generalities. “He’s more solemn than I expected – but he’s also silly and endearing, at times. There are incredible depths to him beyond what we see from his skating, and I should have expected that, but I guess it’s easy to get pulled in by how the media portrays him.”

“That’s what the public relations departments are paid for,” Phichit says easily. He leans closer. “But you like what you know of him now.”

Yuuri thinks of Victor as he’s come to know him over the past two months, the sides the public doesn’t get to see. The endearing smiles and chiming laughter over simple pleasures like a good bowl of food or a piece of cultural architecture, the irritated huff of breath and puffed out cheeks when he can’t realize on the ice what he’s envisioned in his mind, followed by the hard look of determination as he repeats the move all over again. The mercurial quality of his eyes, the surprising vulnerability he betrays through the tiniest of gestures—

“—Yes.” It comes out with the heavy finality of a gavel striking its base. Yuuri clears his throat, and tries to lighten his voice. “I still do.”

“Good.” Yuuri can’t see much of Phichit’s expression, but there’s a familiar gleam in Phichit’s eyes. “I really miss seeing you on the ice, you know,” he says, and because it’s Phichit, who knows Yuuri so very well, he moves right on as to not put Yuuri on the spot, “but this thing with Victor – it sounds good. I’m happy for you.”

“We’re not really anything.”

“That’s not true – you’re definitely friends. And going by how quickly that friendship progressed, well, I have hopes for the near future.” Phichit winks at him. “But I’m always going to be your best friend.”

“Yes, Phichit,” Yuuri agrees, because he’s not touching the rest of Phichit’s statement with a ten-foot pole. Hoping for too much is surely the fastest way to jinx it, and Yuuri isn’t going to risk anything. “That prime spot of being my best friend will always be yours.”

“Good! The world thinks so too – our photo has already garnered a thousand likes in the past fifteen minutes, you know.”

Yuuri laughs, and lets Phichit talk to him about the statistics of social media for the rest of the journey back to the hotel.

---

As typical of Phichit, he catches sight of an Instagramable display right outside of the hotel and shoves his keycard in Yuuri’s hand with a hurried, “Ciao Ciao’s meeting us for dinner. Stall him for me, Yuuri!” before dashing right off. Yuuri stares after him in bemusement; it isn’t the first time he’s had to cover for Phichit.

The hotel lobby is wondrously warm compared to the night air outside, and Yuuri unhooks his face mask, glancing around the lobby for Celestino. The spike of nervousness that shoots through him should feel irrational, but even though Yuuri has talked to Celestino a few times since he left Detroit, he’s never done so without Phichit around. He’d probably find Celestino still at the hotel bar, nursing a single glass of red wine, but discretion is the better part of valor; maybe Phichit will be back before Celestino comes looking for them.

Yuuri edges towards a cluster of overstuffed arm chairs, and to his surprise comes across Yurio leaing against a pillar, half hidden by the chairs, a motorcycle helmet tucked under his arm.

“Yurio?” Yuuri says, and Yurio instinctively startles to attention before he registers that it’s Yuuri.

“Oh, it’s you,” Yurio says, slouching back against the pillar. He sweeps a look across the lobby, and then, apparently satisfied, turns to glare at Yuuri. “You know, you’re turning up in a lot of places you don’t need to be.”

Yuuri’s starting to get used to Yurio’s belligerence – the mild accusation in his words barely bothers him. “I know Victor told you that I’ll be coming to watch the GPF. I’m allowed to watch my friends compete in one of the season’s biggest competitions, you know.”

“You’re a distraction,” Yurio says abruptly, sounding like he can’t quite decide to be angry or apathetic about it, and landing somewhere in the middle instead. “You always end up distracting him, and I’m prepared to rip the title from his hands, but it only counts if he’s actually in form.”

Yuuri blinks, because – this sounds familiar. He’s heard Yurio express such sentiments before, except the first time it happened, it was in a public washroom under tinty lights, and Yurio was snarling at him with real vitriol in his voice.

The venom is missing this time, but there’s a film of distrust in the way Yurio is staring at him, and Yuuri’s not sure where that’s coming from.

“I know my presence here could be disruptive,” Yuuri finally says. “There’s only a few people Victor trusts to be silly and impulsive around, and I’m one of them, aren’t I?”

Yurio’s mouth goes thin and grim, and yes, that’s confirmation enough.

“But Victor’s told me multiple times that he wants me to be here, and if I know anything about Victor, it’s that if I’m not here, he’ll be even more distracted. So, I’m here, and I’m going to be here the whole weekend, but I know how to keep my distance.” Yuuri smiles, and holds out his phone. “Anyway, he messages me often enough, and he knows that if he doesn’t take his preparations seriously, I’m just going to stop answering him. I really want to see how he’s changed his free skate, after all.”

The storm on Yurio’s face clears, and although he doesn’t smile, the considering look that settles over his expression is too much like the one he’d worn after tasting katsudon for the first time for Yuuri to mind. “So what the hell have you been doing these few days, then?”

“I flew in just last night, actually. And I’m staying with Phichit – we were rinkmates in Detroit, so we’re used to each other. I’m just waiting for him to get back from Instagramming the Barcelona skyline, actually.”

“Hmph,” Yurio snorts. “Another first-time finalist, huh.”

“Yes,” Yuuri says. “I’m really looking forward to watching all of you skate.”

Yurio shoots him an incredulous look. “There can only be one winner.”

“I know, but—”

“Yuri,” a deep voice breaks in, and Yurio springs away from the pillar, coming gracefully to his feet with a surprising grin on his face.

Yuuri turns to look for the mysterious miracle worker, and – there’s a reason why that deep voice sounded so familiar.

“Katsuki.” Otabek Altin gives Yuuri a nod, stoic as ever, but when he turns to Yurio, his eyes go lighter. “Yuri, ready to go?”

“Yeah,” Yurio says, and Yuuri glances from one skater to the other, noting the comfortable way Yurio stands at Altin’s side, the way Altin’s mouth seems to curve, just the slightest bit, the matching motorcycle helmets.

Altin has to be the one driving, which begs so many questions because this is Spain, not Kazakhstan, and when did he and Yurio have time to grow so close? Yurio is notorious for being aloof; he only interacts with people he respects, which before this year had pretty much consisted of Victor and some of his other rinkmates. 

“Huh,” Yuuri says. “Who’s getting distracted, now?”

Yurio goes red even as his eyes sharpen, and he pulls on the helmet, strapping it in place with a few tugs. It’s not the first time he’s worn it. “Shut it, Katsudon. We’re just grabbing dinner.”

“Okay,” Yuuri says, because as deadly curious as he is, it’s nice to see Yurio acting like a teenager, grumpy but pleased to hang out with a friend. “Well, you better get going before your coach catches you. I’m pretty sure Victor messaged me complaining about a team dinner.”

“Good idea,” Altin says, and looks at Yurio, the shadow of the smile deepening. “You don’t need to wear your helmet until you get on the motorcycle, you know.”

“Tell that to the Yuri’s Angels,” Yurio grumbles under his breath, and stalks away, heading to the basement carpark lifts. “Don’t tell anyone about this, Katsudon.”

“I won’t,” Yuuri promises, even though he’d just been wondering if Victor knows about Yurio’s friendship with Altin. “Oh, Yurio!”

Yurio stabs the elevator button, and glares back over his shoulder. “Did you not hear what I said about my fans? Are you trying to get me killed?”

“I just wanted to say, davai! You too, Altin, good luck for the competition this weekend.”

Yurio looks startled, but Altin just nods seriously. “Thanks.”

The elevator dings its arrival, and Yurio ducks in. As Altin follows him, Yurio turns, staring right at Yuuri. “You better wish your friend and the old man good luck as well, because I’m not holding back!” he hollers, and then leans back as the elevator doors seal shut.

Teenagers, Yuuri thinks fondly. They always need to have the last word.

“You’re pretty good with them,” yet another familiar voice says from behind Yuuri, and this time, Yuuri whirls around, thoroughly startled.

Celestino gives him a quiet smile. “I suppose Phichit’s still struck by Barcelona’s beauty.”

Yuuri nods numbly, glad for the familiar topic. “I lost him right outside the hotel, so he should be back pretty soon.”

Celestino nods as well, and glances at the basement elevators. “You weren’t close to Plisetsky or Altin when you were in Detroit. You’ve made friends quite quickly.”

Still caught off-guard, Yuuri answers, “Well, it wasn’t easy with Yurio, he’s pretty terrifying,” and Celestino laughs, a familiar booming sound.

“Well, you succeeded nonetheless. It’s a relief to see you doing well, Yuuri. I can see your influence on Minami Kenjirou’s programs, and they’re good improvements.”

“You know Minami-kun?”

Celestino gives him an arched look. “I accompanied you to most of your competitions, Yuuri, including the Japanese Nationals. I keep an eye on all upcoming Japanese skaters, especially when they come blazing up from the junior ranks to beat my champion’s score.”

“Oh,” Yuuri says, a soft, lost sound.

“As much as I want you to come back to the ice, I think this break is just what you needed. Minami has always been a solid skater, but you’ve done him a world of good. And I think he’s helped you, as well.”

Yuuri stares at Celestino, wide-eyed, and then drops his gaze to his shoes, his heart thumping in his chest. “I—” he says, and Celestino waits patiently, more than used to Yuuri’s struggle for words. “I—think so too.” He forces himself to meet Celestino’s eyes. “How do you know it’s just a break?”

“Now that the world’s seen your influence on Minami, you could retire and still have a career associated with the ice. You’re young for a full-time coach, but you’ve proven that you can expand into other roles. But I don’t think you’re quite done with being on the ice.”

Yuuri stares at him, feeling small and lost, and wonders if all coaches have that incredible intuition, or whether it’s Odagaki and Celestino’s years of experience coming to the forefront.

“No,” Yuuri admits, and curls his fingers against the muscle memory of Yuri on Ice’s ending pose. “I’m still competing at the domestic level, a compromise I made with the JSF. But—” he lifts his head “—I’m not just doing it for them, not anymore. I’m skating for me, to do the music and my programs justice.”

Celestino smiles then. “Good. That’s exactly what I want to hear.”

Relief pours right through Yuuri, and he takes a stuttery breath, his shoulders going loose. There’s a part of Yuuri that will always consider Celestino his coach, that will always look to the man for approval, and to have it now, after everything—

What an incredible weight off Yuuri’s shoulders.

Celestino shoots him a knowing look, and then claps his hands, easily switching the subject to give Yuuri time to recover. “Well then, we should head to dinner ourselves. Where in the world is Phichit now?”

---

Yuuri sees Phichit off early the next morning, giving him the same prep talk that Yuuri got last year when he was the one getting ready for his first ever Grand Prix Final. It’s a memory Yuuri cherishes, the call all the way from Detroit and Phichit cheering him on and then letting the rest of the skating club yell their support, and although Yuuri had felt queasy with nerves and worry he’d felt bolstered by their support.

That was mere hours before he picked up Mari’s call, about Vicchan; Yuuri hadn’t noticed it then, but now, with the power of hindsight, having his confidence boosted so high had made the plunge into rage and guilt and grief feel so much worse.

There are no such incidences blighting Phichit’s morning, however; Yuuri sees him safely into Celestino’s clutches before taking his time with breakfast. Over churros and thick hot chocolate, Yuuri sends the good luck messages. There’s a private message over Instagram to Chris, and a direct message to Yurio’s phone number, in which Yuuri adds please tell Kazakhstan’s hero I said good luck again!, because Yuuri might be a lurker but he at least lurks across multiple social media platforms, and he’d have to be blind to miss all the posts about the Hero of Kazakhstan kidnapping Russia’s Fairy.

Yurio very succinctly responds with shut up, Katsudon, so Yuuri knows that Feltsman hasn’t confiscated the Russian team’s phones yet, and spends ten minutes editing his message to Victor.

 

I once said that you don’t need
good luck, and you told that you
still want it. And you have it. You’ll
always have my best wishes, Victor.

I’ll be watching from the audience.


Yuuri feels terribly self-conscious the moment he sends the message, but what’s done is done; he wraps himself in warm layers and pulls his face mask over his face, and makes his way to the arena.

It’s strange to attend a competition and simply be a member of the audience, with no special access or privileges and especially without anyone at his side. But it doesn’t mean that Yuuri is alone; after he settles into his seat – a very good one, with a clear view of the rink – Yuuri goes into the Hasetsu group chat; Minami and Odagaki are up in Hasetsu for the occasion, a mini-vacation of sorts for Odagaki and a reward for Minami for his bronze medal, and Yuuri’s parents have obligingly given them, Mari, Minako and the Nishigoris free rein of the private dining room to watch the GPF together.

He’s trying to keep up with the flurry of messages – courtesy of the triplets – when he receives one from Victor. Yuuri glances towards the far side of the rink where the skaters will be entering shortly, but the space is still deserted; Yuuri opens the message then, and there’s just a single image, no text – a close-up shot of Victor, from the neck down to about his waist, the deep crimson of the pasodoble costume, the detailing of the collar, the sheer fabric of the sleeves.

It’s a candid shot, taken by Victor himself with his arm held before him, not posed at all, and from someone who takes great pains to control his public image it’s such an intimate gesture that Yuuri feels his breath catch.

Instinctively, Yuuri draws his phone closer to his chest, hunching slightly it to block the image from his neighbours’ view, and then he studies the photo again.

He doesn’t know what it means, but whatever Victor is trying to say, it’s clear he’s ready to skate.

Yuuri’s heart starts thumping in his chest, and just like that, he’s caught in the fervor of the audience, the energy and excitement reverberating through each person until the arena is amplified with it. He watches the six competitors enter the rink and the audience’s enthusiasm hits a crescendo—

This is it. This is the Grand Prix Final.

Yuuri experiences the short program like it’s a fevered dream; he loses track of time, the music and announcements and scores blurring together with selected segments standing out bright and clear like snapshots in his mind.

Phichit is first on the ice, and Shall We Skate fires up the audience like nothing else. Yuuri can hear voices singing along, and Phichit’s skating is so unapologetically his – Thai influences abound – that Yuuri feels his heart brim over with pride.

Yurio is next, and the thumbs up he and Altin exchange as Yurio steps on the ice is incredibly endearing. Yurio performs just as beautifully as he did at the Rostelecom Cup, pushing up the difficulty of the program with tano jumps, one hand in the air. It’s never more obvious that the program is completely his now, and his score is just a few points shy of breaking Victor’s short program world record.

Marvelous, Yuuri thinks, clapping until his hands go numb.

Chris’s short program is sex incarnate on the ice, a shock after the ethereal grace of Yurio’s Agape, and a good two-thirds of the audience goes wild with it. Otabek’s performance brings them right back down to earth, grounds them with the sheer power and regality of his skating; this is the short program that once beat Victor’s, after all, and it is no less stunning now.  

And then, there’s Victor.

There are no major technical differences in Victor’s short program; On Love: Eros has always been a well-choreographed and performed routine. But there’s a playfulness amongst the passion now – Victor winks at the audience at the beginning instead of the typical smirk – and rather than the playboy insistently chasing his target down to the young beauty’s ultimate loss, it becomes an intermingling of two equals, the playboy and the beauty circling one another, tempting the other to give in. In the end, the playboy doesn’t skip town for a new conquest; he might have won for now, Victor’s mischievious smile and ardent movements say, but he’s looking forward to the beauty retaliating in the next round.

Yuuri is on his feet before he realizes it, but that’s all right – most of the audience is on theirs as well.

JJ’s performance is the real surprise of the night. Yuuri doesn’t remember him well – he’d spent a few short months under Celestino before switching out – but he does remember the stubborn pride and ego, traits that have only grown if JJ’s actions at the Rostelecom Cup are any indication, but the man skating on the ice now is a completely different person. He misses his opening cue, pops his quads, and by the end of the performance the entire audience is completely silent with shock.

Yuuri feels the shock as well, but more than anything his entire heart wells with empathy. Something has shattered JJ’s previously unsurmountable confidence, and even though he doesn’t give up, it’s clear he’s lost all control of the program. JJ is in the exact same situation as Yuuri was last year, and Yuuri knows just how much the failure will hurt when the shock and numbness wears off.

It takes a single alto voice shouting JJ’s name in a tear-choked chant to shatter the quiet of the crowd. All eyes flit to – JJ’s fiancé? Yuuri remembers seeing the photo announcement on JJ’s account – and when JJ rallies to perform his signature JJ pose, the entire audience cries out their support, his parents – his coaches – closing in to physically bolster him.

Yuuri clutches his jacket, right above where his heart stings with sympathetic pain. But somehow, he’s smiling.

JJ isn’t alone. He isn’t fine now, but with his fiancé, his parents, his support network – he will be.

---

Other than Phichit, Yuuri doesn’t get a chance to see any of the competitors that night. There are interviews and press conferences and a million other official duties they need to finish, not to mention to rest up and rally for the all important free skate the next day. The score board is a mess – JJ at the bottom where everyone thought he’d be duking it out for the top spot with Victor and Otabek, and the score differences between the top three - Victor, Yurio and Otabek – are so close they’re almost negligible, with Chris close behind. Phichit breaks his own personal best, and since he has only the quad toe under his belt, his score is astounding.

Instead, Yuuri spends an hour in video calls with the Hasetsu crew, even though it must be terribly late in Japan, and by the time Phichit trips back into his hotel room, Yuuri has gone through and liked pretty much every praising post regarding the GPF.

It doesn’t stop Yuuri from giving Phichit a huge hug and for the two of them to tuck their heads together and go over the entire short program competition all over again. Even Celestino’s warning text message to Yuuri saying for god’s sake, turn off Phichit’s phone and make sure he actually sleeps doesn’t quite work – as usual, Yuuri steals Phichit’s phone and shoves it under his pillow, but it doesn’t mean Phichit is actually calm enough to drop off right away.

Finally, Yuuri pulls up a playlist of instrumental covers of The King and the Skater’s soundtrack, soft and delicate, and turns out the lights. They listen to three tracks, and then Yuuri says, “It was an amazing experience, wasn’t it?”

“It was,” Phichit says, dreamy and half asleep, and Yuuri smiles, and reaches over to turn off the music.

---

Yuuri spends the hours before the free skate jittery, a variation on his more familiar pre-competition nerves. Everyone he knows well enough to hang out or exchange messages with are either on the ice practicing or with their teams, and Barcelona itself holds little appeal with Yuuri is on his own – he’d come to the city for the people skating in the GPF, not the sights.

There’s something about the GPF that feels like a crossroad. Yuuri can’t tell if it’s a lingering spectre from Sochi – last year’s GPF had left a heavy scar on his life and his career, a clear delineation of eras: a time when Vicchan was alive and after which he’d passed away, and a time when Yuuri could honestly call himself a competitive figure skater and the period afterwards when he can’t.

Yuuri is starting to make his peace about Vicchan, and he’s feeling his way towards a decisive decision about his future, and intellectually he knows this GPF here in Barcelona won’t be a milestone for him.

But it just might be, for one or more of the six finalists battling it out for that coveted gold medal.

This time, Yuuri doesn’t keep his phone in hand, no matter how much the triplets had tried to wheedle him into joining their chat group again. This time, Yuuri fixes his eyes on the rink and gives himself entirely to the performances on the ice, no interruptions, no distractions.

And the performances on the ice are miraculous. Perhaps the people seated around Yuuri don’t realize that, but Yuuri has the insight of an athlete from within the competitive circuit as well as a familiarity with all the skaters – some more personally than others – and he knows how much they each give to make it here.

JJ misses his opening cue but rises defiantly from the ashes of his short program, ending his free skate with a shaky but complete quad loop. Phichit is well aware that his program with its lone quad toe could never compete with the more technically difficult programs of the other skaters and so he sets out to thoroughly charm the audience instead; his performance raises the roof even more than his short program did. Chris must be gunning for the gold this year – he shifts his combination jumps to the second half of his performance and rouses a standing ovation from the audience.

Otabek’s free skate is similar to his short program, but there’s something freeing about his performance, a soaring fluidity that heralds the imminent fulfillment of dreams, a deep-seated belief in himself to shines clear through his skating. While Otabek’s performance is confidence grounded on an unbreakable foundation, Yurio’s is confidence shimmering with the force of racing comet, unchained and unstoppable. He’s switched some of the entries to his jumps, capitalizing on his explosive speed, and although he’s distanced himself from the image of a prima ballerina, his skating is feral and beautiful, something much more suited to Yurio himself.

All of them have taken their programs to the next level, and as the final skater of the night, Victor is no exception. Yuuri doesn’t have words for what Victor has done to his free skate, because for all that it is the same routine, it has undergone a complete transformation. The cello and the piano of the music twine soulfully around each other, and on the ice, Victor moves as if he’s one with the instruments, a slow, inevitable build-up to the crescendo, the tiny crystals on his costume winking like fireflies in the night. And when the music switches, going bright and staccato quick, Victor’s demeanour shifts with it, his jumps and spins gaining a lightness to them, like he’s now dancing amongst the stars.

His program is utterly flawless, but it’s more than that. No matter how skilled he is in the ice, there is often a calculating look in Victor’s eyes – visible in the camera close-ups – when he goes into his most difficult elements, even if he rarely falls out of character. But for this rendition of Vincere, even that is gone, as though Victor doesn’t care at all about the score, and there’s a loose confidence in letting go of that pressure and expectation that makes the entire performance sensual and breathtaking.

When Victor flicks his hand out with the last chime of the bell, his eyes are closed, but his mouth is curled in a crooked, secretive little smile. As the arena reverberates with claps and shouts and whistles, his eyes slide open and they are luminous with satisfaction under the sweep of his eyelashes. 

All around Yuuri the spectators are on their feet, but Yuuri can’t bring himself to visibly react. He sits in the audience stands surrounded by a crush of people, excitement palpable in the air, and he can barely catch his breath. The ice before him is scratched up and marked with the efforts of the six finalists, and the need to skate, to perform, to join his peers on that ice is almost a physical hook in Yuuri’s chest.  

I’ve felt like this before, Yuuri acknowledges dimly, and it’s both true and false at the same time. He has always wanted to skate on the same ice as Victor, the battle call of competition singing in his veins, but that feeling had always been tinged with a sense of urgency, to catch up, and later, with desperation. If Yuuri is honest with himself, he has only felt this way once before, the longing pure and untainted: the very first time he saw Victor skating, sixteen and beautiful and alive on the ice.

Yuuri looks up at Victor’s face on the screen, sitting in the kiss and cry looking utterly delighted with himself, genuinely joyful without a hint of nervousness about his scores, and falls in love all over again.

---

After the drama and tension of the competition, the exhibition gala is practically a party, everyone letting loose and just throwing themselves out there without a care about scores, propriety or even what their coaches think. Making last minute changes seem to be the theme for the day, if Yurio’s new exhibition program and Otabek’s role in it is any indication; Victor’s exhibition gains a number of added elements, jumps interspersed with the spins and footwork now, as if he has found an answer to the question the song asks – how will I know if you really love me – and can finally break free from the uncertainty of it.

The gala is a chance to let go before they all have to be back into their formal wear and best behavior for the sponsors at the banquet, and Yuuri doesn’t blame them for it.

Not being a competitor or a member of a coaching team means Yuuri can’t attend the banquet either, but this time, he’s glad for the respite. His heart feels full to the brimming with emotion, excitement and happiness and pride for all his friends, and an inspired spark in his heart, once carefully banked and nursed throughout the long months of his break from competition, now roused to a cautious flame. Even the next day, Yuuri feels off-kilter, and he’s thankful to get a few more hours to wrestle himself under control without all his friends there to tease or distract him.

Even as Phichit gets changed into his suit, Yuuri curls himself into a comfortable cacoon on his bed, and there he mostly stays the entire evening, only crawling out once to take his dinner, courtesy of room service. It’s a night for rare indulgence, of slothiness and relaxation, and Yuuri goes contently through his social media feed – all abuzzed about the GPF of course – with constant and welcomed messages from Phichit, reporting live from the banquet.

Other than a handful of near incoherent messages after the free skate, there is a distinct silence from Victor. Since Yurio is just as unreachable, Yuuri suspects that Feltsman must have yanked his skaters away from their phones to go curry favor with the sponsors and ISU and the media at large; Russia scoping gold and silver is a boon to their skating federation and to their club.

Still, Yuuri isn’t sure if he appreciates the radio silence or not. On the one hand, Victor is the main reason for the maelstrom of feelings Yuuri is trying to make sense of, so of all people, that’s who Yuuri needs to avoid until he settles things in his head.

On the other hand, it’s Victor. Yuuri will always want to speak to him, to be there with him.

He’s curled up back in bed when Chris messages him.

 

[DIRECT]
christophe-gc
to katsukiyuuri

christophe-gc  How is my favourite Japanese skater tonight?

christophe-gc  I appreciated your well wishes yesterday. As aggravating as it is to be edged out by two Russians now, a medal is a medal

katsukiyuuri  Congrats again on the bronze!

katsukiyuuri  I guess Europeans is going to be interesting this year

katsukiyuuri  I’m okay… just lounging around. How’s the banquet?

christophe-gc  Four Continents will be no less interesting with Altin now on the scene

christophe-gc  All these young skaters are so energetic

christophe-gc  And despite their youthful exuberance, this banquet isn’t the same without you

christophe-gc  Why don’t we get a drink or two tonight? Meet me at the crossroad nearest your hotel in fifteen minutes

katsukiyuuri  Chris, you’re at the banquet. We all know how punctual people are after events, so it must have barely started

katsukiyuuri  Also, it’s freezing outside and it’s very cozy here indoors

christophe-gc  Ah, but you said you owed me after disappearing so quickly at the Cup of China banquet. We never did get a chance to catch up after that

christophe-gc  I’m cashing in on that favour

katsukiyuuri  Seriously? You’re a medalist, you can’t skip out now

christophe-gc  Crossroad, fifteen minutes

christophe-gc  See you in a bit, mon ami~

katsukiyuuri  Chris!


But Chris doesn’t respond after that, and Yuuri groans. Chris has a way of compelling people to do all sorts of things they normally wouldn’t do and he has absolutely zero shame; Yuuri doesn’t doubt that if he doesn’t show up, Chris will find a way to find his hotel room and drag him out anyway. Yuuri casts a mournful look at his cozy blanket nest, and then goes to the bathroom to wash his face and change. Fifteen minutes isn’t very long at all.

When he steps out of the hotel, the buffet of cold hits him like a blast. Shivering, Yuuri curls his hands further into his jacket pocket. From a distance, he can already see a blond figure standing under the street lamp of the nearest crossroad, and Yuuri hurries over, his breath condescending in the night air.

As he gets closer, however, it becomes clearer that the hair under the golden blaze of the street lamp isn’t blond at all—

“Victor?” Yuuri gasps, caught off-guard, and Victor whirls around, his bangs falling over his eyes, a dazzling smile spreading over his lips.

“Yuuri!” he says, and darts forward, the tails of his scarf whipping behind him. He holds out a hand towards Yuuri, and Yuuri reaches out instinctively.

“Victor,” Yuuri says again, even as their fingers tangle together, leather against skin. “For goodness sake, you’re the GPF champion. Your coach is going to kill you.”

“I know.” Victor gives Yuuri’s hand a gentle tug towards the street. “That’s why we’re not going to let him catch me. Let’s go!”

They slip away from the pool of light into the shadows, Victor pulling Yuuri along, and they run as if there are hounds snapping at their heels. The wind snatches at Yuuri’s exposed skin, but his bare fingers are wrapped firmly in Victor’s gloved ones, and he can feel laughter bubbling in his chest. Victor glances back to check on him once, and the dancing amusement in his eyes tells Yuuri he feels the same.

They run until they’re several blocks away and Yuuri is entirely lost, and then Victor slows, finally letting go of Yuuri’s hand under a small archway. He leans out, checking furtively for any followers before glancing back at Yuuri, and Yuuri finally lets the laughter break free, completely uncaring that he has no idea where in Barcelona he is.

“Victor, seriously. This is another ‘let’s go to Hasetsu even though it’s seven hundred kilometers away!’ thing, isn’t it?” Yuuri has to pause to catch his breath, and then he’s smiling up at Victor.

Victor is smiling back at him. His coat is half buttoned, and under the wraps of his scarf Yuuri can see he’s still in the suit he must have worn for the banquet.

“Kind of,” he admits. “It’s your birthday present. You forbade me from spending money on you, so I thought the second-best thing would be… my company?”

“You’re impossible,” Yuuri breathes, his heart suddenly pounding from feeling rather than exertion. “As if you could be second best to anything in the world.”

Victor’s smile goes lopsided, soft and a little stunned. He ducks his head, and when he finally looks at Yuuri again it’s with a rare shyness, even though his tone of voice is coy. “Well, you didn’t want something round and gold, even though I went ahead and got that for you.”

“Oh, so winning the GPF was for me, was it?” Yuuri teases back. He had thought the next time he saw Victor that he would be more self-conscious about it, but something about their wild flight across Barcelona’s streets, running with abandon like children at play, has knocked all Yuuri’s preconceptions and worries to the floor, and now he’s just – here, in the present, with Victor.

He steps into Victor’s space and looks up at Victor, smiling. “You were amazing yesterday. That free skate was absolutely phenomenal.”

“I—thank you.”

It’s rare to catch Victor so off-guard like this, and Yuuri gives him a break. “Since this is my birthday present, I assume we’re not going to a bar for drinks.”

Victor shakes his head. “That’s more Chris’s idea of a good time,” he admits. “I was thinking… the Christmas markets? You mentioned that you haven’t seen much of Barcelona other than the Sagrada Familia, and they’re quite beautiful to wander around in at night. We could get snacks and gifts and things.”

“But not birthday presents,” Yuuri says.

Victor pouts. “If you insist, but I think the triplets would love a few Spanish trinkets.”

“They would!” Yuuri laughs. He gazes up at Victor fondly. “Sounds perfect.”

Victor’s smile breaks into a wide grin. Instead of holding his hand out again, he offers his arm to Yuuri, and Yuuri slides his hand into the crook of Victor’s elbow. Pressed against warm wool, half-sheltered by Victor himself, Yuuri feels very warm.

The Christmas market they end up in is delightful, hundreds of stalls lit up with fairy lights, the sound of laughter and music and the warm press of bodies keeping the chill of the winter night at bay. They snack as they walk along – small warm pastries and hot chocolate – and together, they pick out three beautifully handcrafted bracelets for the triplets, and the entire time, Victor keeps Yuuri close, tucked close to his side, the two of them buffered against the world. It makes eating a little hard with just one free hand to each of them, but it’s a hardship Yuuri is willing to bear.

As they reach the far ends of the market, the stalls start petering out. They eventually emerge into a small square away from the bustle of the crowd; at the end of the square sits a small church, warmly lit against the night even though its doors are closed, and a small choir is singing softly nearby, their voices ethereal in the near quiet. There are other people around, seeking a tranquil space or enjoying the activity of the market from a distance, but no one gives Yuuri or Victor a second glance.

Yuuri hasn’t really stopped smiling since they strolled into the market, and although it’d been easy to ignore the buzz of his phone amongst the crowd, he figures it’s about time to give Phichit some sign that he’s alive.

“As much as I’d like to ignore the rest of the world,” he says, “I should send Phichit a message before he reports me missing.”

Victor pauses on the edge of the square, out of the way of any passersby. “Okay,” he says, although he doesn’t drop his arm. “You’re very close to Phichit.”

“He’s my best friend,” Yuuri says easily, because there are certain immutable facts that he can count on, and one of them is that Phichit will always his friend. “And in Detroit, the fact that we were different from most people meant that we had more in common with each other. Sure, there were other international students at university, but no one else understood the vigours of being a professional athlete on top of that. And the other skaters – we weren’t the only non-Americans at the club, but Phichit knows how to push without pushing too hard. We watch out for one another.”

“Then I’m glad you have each other.” Victor touches his free hand to Yuuri’s wrist, squeezing once, and then lets go, gently untangling his arm from Yuuri’s grip. “When I left the banquet, he was quite busy taking photos.”

“He’s probably sent dozens of them to me by now,” Yuuri laughs. His now freed hand feels cold, and he distracts himself with his phone.

There are indeed a bunch of messages from Phichit, and Yuuri scrolls through them in amusement. They’re mostly the normal comments and photos about the banquet, followed by Yuuri, did you fall asleep when Yuuri’s failed to answer for a while, then a bunch of questioning messages, followed by, OMG Victor’s disappeared from the banquet, apparently missing for half an hour now, and Yakov Feltsman is on a witchhunt followed by a long thread on the warpath Victor’s coach was on, and then, Yuuri, is Victor with you????? Is that why you’re not answering???

Yuuri lets out a nervous giggle, both a little dizzy and mildly worried.

Phichit’s final message just says Chris is grinning like butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. Say no more. Enjoy yourself!

Yuuri glances over at Victor because there’s no way he can answer Phichit at that moment without breaking down in a fit of hysteric laughter. “Victor, should I be worried that your coach is on a warpath about your disappearance? Is this your last night as a free man?” 

“Possibly,” Victor says. “You’d notice that I’m not checking my phone. Yakov’s probably going to ground me in St. Petersburg until the European Championship, but it’s worth it.”

Yuuri laughs out loud. “This is why Yurio thinks I’m such a bad influence on you, you know.”

“I’ve always been impulsive,” Victor says. “And Yurio is wrong. You have made an influence on my life, yes, but it is only ever for the better.”

It’s Yuuri’s turn to get caught off-guard, and Yuuri ducks his head. He gives Victor a tiny nod, and then busies himself typing out a message to Phichit.

I’m at a Christmas market, and I’ve been eating pastries and drinking hot chocolate. Victor may or may not be with me. I’ll see you back at the hotel. Don’t let Chris drag you into too many of his antics.

He’s probably going to get grilled without an inch of his life when he gets back to Phichit’s room later that night, but Yuuri signs off and tucks his phone back in his pocket.

“I’m done,” he says, chafing his hands together for warmth.

“Mm,” Victor hums. He’d been staring across the square at the church and the singers clustered determinedly on its steps, but now he turns back to Yuuri, and his eyes are bright with anticipation and the barest hint of nerves. “May I have this dance?”

“What?” Yuuri laughs, but then Victor holds out a hand to him, palm up and fingers curled, bowing slightly at the waist. “Victor…”

“There’s music, and here’s an empty square, and if we were both at the banquet, I’d ask you to dance. So—” Victor curls his fingers a little further, a silent imploration for Yuuri to accept.

And Yuuri does, because in face of such an earnest request, how could anyone say no? He sets his hand in the center of Victor’s palm, and there’s a moment where neither of them know quite what to do, but after some awkward shuffling it’s like the choral music finally registers and they fall into a ballroom hold, Victor’s hand settling against Yuuri’s waist, Yuuri’s against Victor’s shoulder, their joined hands lifted to the side, and then they’re moving fluidly together in a basic waltz.

It’s clear that Victor has had dance lessons – his posture and movements are perfect enough that Minako would be pleased – but as they dance Yuuri realizes that it’s more than the ease of two people who know what they’re doing. They step and turn and whirl, never missing a step, and it feels familiar, like muscle memory.

In a moment of impulsivity, Yuuri tilts his weight and Victor takes the cue and spins him out, only their clasped hands keeping them together. But instead of letting Victor tug him back, Yuuri pulls, and despite the surprise flashing through Victor’s eyes, he gamely follows. Yuuri grins at him and lets go, raising his arms in a classic flamenco posture, curved and languid rather than the more rigid lines of the ballroom dance, and Victor’s eyes flare.

They are in Spain, after all, so it only makes sense that they’d fall into a Spanish dance form.

The delicate, poignant atmosphere pretty much collapses from there. Yuuri skips across the cobblestone and whirls around a sign post, alternately giving chase and falling back, dancing now to a music of their own. He and Victor orbit around each other, touching only fleetingly but their gaze never breaking, and it’s exhilarating, Yuuri’s heart pounding in his chest, his glasses knocked half askew.

Victor shifts, his spine straightening, and Yuuri recognizes the pose from On Love: Eros. The pasodoble is a Spanish dance, after all, and Yuuri falls back to watch Victor in his element, quick and dramatic. But it’s evident that Victor doesn’t want to dance alone; after a few passes, he darts towards Yuuri like the metaphorical matador of the dance and catches Yuuri in an embrace, laughing, his breath ruffling Yuuri’s hair.

Yuuri hugs him back automatically and they end up swaying in place. Now that they’ve calmed, Yuuri hears the choir once more, their voices lifting high as they sing, melodious. It’s possible they’ve annoyed a lot of people with their frantic dancing of before, but Yuuri doesn’t care – this moment is theirs, their hearts beating together, and Yuuri presses his forehead into Victor’s shoulder and breathes in deeply.

He doesn’t celebrate Christmas, has never had a significant appreciation of the holiday other than that classes are over and he doesn’t have to worry about it interfering with his skating or his competitions. But it’s difficult to get away from the magic of the holiday season: a time for friends and family, to celebrate what they’ve accomplished that year and to give thanks for everything good in their lives.

And despite the upheaval and turmoil at the beginning of the year, Yuuri has so much to be thankful for.

“I don’t know how we ended up here, but I’m terribly grateful for it,” he murmurs into Victor’s collar. “So many things could have changed. If you didn’t approach me at the Cup of China, or talk to me at the NHK Trophy. If I didn’t agree to show you around Osaka. I wonder where each of us would be now.”

Victor’s arms tighten around Yuuri for one long moment. He feels more than hears Victor draw a stuttery breath, and then there is the phantom press of lips against the top of his head.

“There are so many ways things could have gone differently, other roads our lives could have taken,” Victor says before Yuuri can react. He pulls back enough that their eyes can meet. “I could have retired this season, or maybe, like you, I might have chosen to give coaching a try. You might be at the banquet after a second GPF qualification, and both of us would be dancing in a proper ballroom while our friends tease us.” Victor shifts one hand to brush Yuuri’s bangs out of his eyes. Somewhere along the line he’s removed his glove, and his fingers are warm, a heartbreakingly gentle caress that ghosts against Yuuri’s skin. “But I like to think that no matter how things could have gone, that out of a myriad of possibilities I would still end up here in Barcelona, together with you.”

It’s not the first time that Yuuri can’t find his words. When he’s tired, or scared, or anxious, he often bottles everything up inside until words lose meaning and coherence in his head. It’s not the first time that Yuuri is speechless because if he takes a breath to speak he’ll end up crying instead, but it’s certainly the first time that he has to swallow back his words because his heart is overflowing with emotion, and any tears that might come would be those of happiness.

In the end, Yuuri just nods, and shifts forward to bury his face in Victor’s neck again, uncaring that his glasses are pressed uncomfortably against his face.

Victor cradles the back of Yuuri’s head, his fingers tangling into Yuuri’s hair. “I do wonder what’s going to happen next, though,” he whispers. “I don’t want to wait until Worlds to see you again.”

As it turns out, Yuuri can find his words when he needs them for someone else.

“We both have responsibilities.” Yuuri’s voice is hoarse, but the more he speaks, the clearer he gets. “We have phone calls and messages, and although that’s not the same as seeing each other in person, you’ve given me a wonderful birthday present. So I’ll have to plan something for yours.”

“My birthday’s in the middle of both the Russian and Japanese Nationals,” Victor murmurs. 

“I know.” Even if Yuuri received Odagaki and Minami’s blessings to skip out on them to watch the Russian Nationals live and in person, he can’t. There’s just too much overlap between the two competitions. “And I did promise that I’ll show you Yuri on Ice, and you will definitely see that before the World Championships.”

Yuri on Ice?

“Ah – my free skate program.” Yuuri draws back, smiling sheepishly, keeping one of Victor’s hands in his. “I’ve been thinking about what to name the music for a long time. It’s supposed to represent my career on the ice, and my hopes for where it will go. So, Yuri on Ice. Even though it’s simple, I like it.”

Victor squeezes his hand. “Yes, it’s perfect. I’d love to see it.”

Yuuri squeezes back. “You will.”

---

It’s quite late when Yuuri finally gets back to Phichit’s hotel room, and very much later by the time Phichit gives up grilling Yuuri about his “date” and finishes telling him all about the happenings at the banquet. The biggest scope of the night is Victor’s disappearance – Victor is no doubt in an absolute world of trouble with his coach – but the rest of the Russian contingent – Yurio, and his rinkmate Mila, the ladies’ singles silver medalist – had ignored it entirely, and by the time the banquet was half over the rest of the skaters were busy with their own shenanigans to pay much attention. 

Finally, Phichit falls asleep right in the middle of updating his Instagram, collapsed in the middle of his bed with his phone slumped on his chest. Yuuri manages to extract the phone from Phichit’s grip from long practice – even in sleep, he’s protective of his phone – and drapes the blanket mostly over his friend, and then retires to the bathroom, shutting the door carefully behind him.

It’s past midnight in Spain, which means it’s around dawn in Japan. Odagaki and Minami are in Hasetsu, but Yuuri knows that Odagaki keeps an early schedule, and even though she’s given Minami the weekend off she’s likely already awake.

Yuuri probably could have had this conversation with her when he arrives back in Hasetsu in a couple of days, but he doesn’t want to wait.

He picks up his phone, and dials.

Chapter Text

Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu Championship – September

Yuuri doesn’t want to be here. He doesn’t have words to express just how much he doesn’t want to be here, but his expression must speak volumes, because Odagaki sends Minami ahead to register himself, and sets herself next to the door – not blocking Yuuri’s escape route, but close enough that she can attempt to talk him out of his flight instinct – as Yuuri actually puts his head between his knees in an attempt to control his nausea.

It helps, and he breathes and breathes and breathes until he feels his head clear, the tight band around his chest relaxing just a little.

The silence is comforting. Odagaki doesn’t say a word, doesn’t even really look in Yuuri’s direction, although Yuuri’s seen her with Minami and her other students enough to know she’s always paying attention. Slowly, Yuuri sits up, and lets out a sigh. He can’t scrub his face because of his makeup, and he can’t clench at his hair because of the gel, and—

He sighs again.

Odagaki must take Yuuri’s sighs as a sign that he’s ready to engage with the world again, and turns to face him.

“You know,” she says gently, “If I thought you really didn’t want to be here, I’d pull you out of this competition myself, and the JSF can deal with it.”

Yuuri stifles yet another sigh. “There were a lot of protests when I said I wanted to sit out the Grand Prix series. I’m not even injured, and I know it affects Japan’s international standings for me not to compete. I think they think pushing me to skate at the local levels will, I don’t know, make me hunger to compete internationally?”

“It might work,” Odagaki says. “But only if the skater himself is ready.”

“I’m not even skating any new programs this round. And this isn’t too bad, really.” Yuuri plucks at his Team Japan jacket. It feels strange to be in it and even stranger to be in last year’s costume, and he tries very hard not to think of the fact that the last time he’d worn both, he’d crashed spectacularly out of the Japanese Nationals. “A smaller regional competition, minimal people in the crowd, and hopefully the media will be less rabid. It’s just—I can’t believe I drew first place again!” he finally bursts out. “It’s just like Nationals last year! What if that’s an omen?” 

“It might be,” Odagaki says, as straightforward as ever. “Or maybe it’s a sign.”

“Aren’t they the same thing?”

“The connotations are different.” Odagaki pushes away from the wall, and gives Yuuri a smile. “While last time you performed poorly because you were grieving, this time, you’ll have the chance to truly showcase your skills, to perform at your true potential without external circumstances intervening.” Her voice gentles. “It’s why you chose last year’s short program and free skate.”

“My new free skate isn’t anywhere near done,” Yuuri automatically protests, and then trails off. He looks into Odagaki’s expectant gaze, and finally, gives a slow nod. “They’re good programs – I qualified for the GPF with them, after all – but it feels like I’ve jinxed them, after Sochi and Nationals last year. Maybe this way I can break the unlucky streak. Third time’s the charm, perhaps.”

“I know,” Odagaki tells him. There’s a very gentle smile on her face.

Yuuri clambers to his feet, his skate guards thudding against the floor. He fingercombs his hair, tucking stray strands of hair back. Fortunately, his hair is much easier to tame than Minami’s, who requires—

Minami. Yuuri’s forgotten about Minami.

“I forgot about Minami,” Yuuri says, stunned. “And you’re here with me, so who’s helping Minami with his warm-up preparations? It’s the first time he’s skating his new programs, and I’m—”

“It’s not Minami-kun’s first time at this competition, and he can handle himself for half an hour,” Odagaki cuts in firmly. “You’re not an assistant coach today, Katsuki-san. You are competing just like Minami-kun is. Skaters are necessarily self-centered, remember? I’ll be counting on you to help me and Minami-kun when we’re at the Cup of China, but today,” she leans forward, and even though in his skating boots Yuuri is nearly half a foot taller than her, Odagaki has never looked more regal and authoritative, “I want you to count on me.”

Yuuri draws in a deep breath. His heart is thumping frantically in his chest, but there’s a quiet shiver of anticipation under the lingering nausea, and whatever happens today, Yuuri wants to at least be able to say that he’s grown a little, as a person. His family and the Nishigoris and Minako have always been there for him, and now, he and Minami and Odagaki are a team. He trusts them on any normal day – so today, a competition day, he needs to trust them too.

“Okay,” Yuuri says softly.

Odagaki watches him for a moment longer, and then a smile breaks over her face. She tips her head towards the entrance. “Let’s go, Katsuki Yuuri-senshu.”

Yuuri closes his eyes, takes a moment to center himself. Then he straightens his shoulders, and goes.

---

For all the suspense and the interminable waiting involved with any official competition, the skating itself goes by in a blaze. With so few senior men’s single skaters competing, they wrap the entire thing up in one day, and although Yuuri isn’t entirely sure how he made it through, he finds himself with the first place certificate, a slightly bruised knee and a lingering sense of melancholy at the end of the night.

He did it. Somehow he did it.

His short program had gone well, although the quad salchow in his free skate had once again gotten the best of him. But as the only one skater with quads in his programs, it isn’t surprising that Yuuri would top the rankings at this regional competition. No, what strikes Yuuri most is that he’s actually content with the way he skated.

It’s not the way Yuuri would have wanted to skate those two programs last year. No, at Sochi, he had wanted to fire up the audience, to stamp his mark and prove once and for all that he’s capable of skating on the same ice as Victor. Now, nine months later, Yuuri had only wanted to skate his programs well, and for the most part, other than a fall on the quad salchow, he did.

There’s a solemn gravity to the way he skates those old programs, Yuuri knows, more than the music properly calls for. He’ll never be able to divorce Vicchan’s death from the Sochi GPF, the event in which the programs should have triumphed, and now those choreographies will forever be tinged with Yuuri’s feelings of grief and futility. But he has skated them and skated them well, and perhaps now Yuuri might finally be able to put their ghosts to rest.

He manages to scrape by the interviews only slightly worse for wear. There is no escaping the relentless media, who have been itching for a chance at Yuuri – what is Yuuri’s association with Odagaki and Minami, why doesn’t Yuuri have any Grand Prix assignments, what are his plans for the future – and Yuuri has spent long hours with Minako and Odagaki on what questions to respond to and what answers to give.

The sum of it more or less boils down to this: No, Yuuri doesn’t have any injuries. No, he has not been assigned to the Grand Prix series, at his own request. Yes, he is competing locally, and will attend the Japanese Nationals now that he has requalified. Yes, he is mentoring Minami-kun who is training under Odagaki-san, and he gives the younger skater his full backing. Please support Minami-kun at the Cup of China.

Yuuri directs the five points right at Morooka-san, who has always championed Yuuri in media matters, and gets away from the pack of reporters as soon as he can. It helps that Minami and Odagaki are running full interference, and once Yuuri gets out to the public part of the arena Nishigori and Minako appear in the nick of time to whisk Yuuri away.

Minako folds Yuuri into a quick but heartfelt hug the moment they get enough privacy to do so, and then holds him out at arm’s length to study him. Whatever she sees in Yuuri’s expression must satisfy her, because she squeezes his shoulders, and then lets go.

“Well done,” she says. “How is the new free skate going?”

Yuuri blinks, caught off-guard. “It’s not quite there yet. Choreography is really hard.”

Minako’s smile is small but untouchable. “You’ll get there.”

Then Nishigori catches Yuuri by the shoulders and utterly wrecks his hair, and when Yuuri finally catches his balance, Nishigori hands him his phone so Yuuko and the triplets can chorus their congratulations at him.

Twenty minutes later, Minami pokes his head into the room. After another round of congratulations from Minako and Nishigori, Minami bounds over to Yuuri.

“Yuuri-kun, that was amazing!” he crows. “And a score of 271.12 – that would have put you comfortably in fourth place at last year’s GPF. And if you didn’t fall on the quad salchow, you’d have scored much higher!”

Yuuri freezes at the mention of the Sochi GPF; over Minami’s shoulder, he catches a glimpse of Nishigori’s horrified face. But after a moment, Yuuri lets the tension drain from his shoulders. Minami seems more excited about Yuuri’s performance than his own, and in face of such enthusiasm, it’s hard for Yuuri to stay defensive.

“Yeah,” Yuuri says, awkwardly rubbing his hands together. “If only I actually skated this way last year, right?”

Minami shakes his head. “The past is the past, that’s what Kanako-sensei says. What matter is what you do now, and you were really great today. I’m so glad I got a chance to skate against you competitively.” He looks as though he wants to add more, but visibly clamps down on his next words.

Yuuri gives him a quiet smile. Minami hasn’t mentioned it since their second meeting at the Iizuka Ice Palace, but Yuuri knows Minami still wishes to face Yuuri in the Grand Prix series one day.

“There’s Nationals,” Yuuri offers. “And I’m sorry I didn’t get to watch your free skate fully, but your Lohengrin this morning was solid.”

“I still need to work on the triple axel,” Minami sighs; he’d wobbled badly on the landing, although he’d kept his feet. But then he visibly brightens. “But one of the reporters remembered your junior program and asked if it was inspiration. I’m glad they noticed.”

Yuuri would bet that it’s Morooka-san who made the connection. “I’ll work with you on the triple axel,” he promises. “With just weeks to go to the Cup of China, we’ve got a lot of preparation to do.”

“Yeah, Kanako-sensei said she’ll talk to you about the schedule. But for this weekend, we’re to enjoy our successes.” Minami throws himself on the seat beside Yuuri – the four of them will wait for Odagaki before leaving the venue. “I’m looking forward to the Grand Prix series, but I can’t wait for Nationals, too. I really like the music for your new free skate.”

Yuuri stares down at his fingers for a long while. Contrary to what the JSF probably wants, Yuuri doesn’t feel the rush of adrenaline or the hunger for international competition after today. He skates on the ice every day, and although he’s clearly much more skilled than the other Japanese skaters he encountered today, there’s something comforting about competing at the local level, where everyone is trying their best and it’s less about the scores and more about improving their forms on the ice.

The only thing that is going the JSF’s way is that Yuuri has put his past programs behind him, and now the urge to do his new free skate music justice has pushed its way to the forefront. He has received the finalized version of the song, with Ketty’s blessings, and although it’s an unfinished mess of jumps and step sequences at the moment, the glimpses of potential Yuuri sees in the new program are tantalizing.

But with the Cup of China coming up, Yuuri will need to put himself on the back burner and concentrate on Minami. As Odagaki once said – coaches have to focus entirely on their students, after all.

“I like it too,” Yuuri says softly, and then shakes his head. “But let’s get through the Grand Prix series first. You’ll meet a lot of top skaters at Beijing.”

“Okay, Yuuri-kun,” Minami says, and Yuuri lets the memory of violin and piano notes fade into the background.

❄ ❄ ❄


Japanese Nationals – end of December

There’s something about the air in Sapporo that feels different. For one, it’s much colder compared to Hasetsu or Fukuoka; this far up north, Sapporo’s weather feels closer to what Yuuri imagines it feels like in Russia.

For another, it’s the way the crowd of fans waiting them at the New Chitose airport's arrival hall reacts to Yuuri’s presence.

The All-Japan Figure Skating Championships is well publicized and attended, and with Minami’s incredible showing at the Rostelecom Cup, it’s a given that many of his fans will be there to greet him upon his arrival in Sapporo. On Yuuri’s part, he’s only expecting the usual brevy of reporters – it’s no secret that Yuuri is competing at Nationals, and it’s a good time as any for them to hound him about his future – but although the Minami fan contingent is enthusiastic and vocal, there’s a sizeable group there calling out Yuuri’s name as well.

Yuuri blinks into the crowd, caught off-guard. He gives a hesitant wave, and it seems to appease his fans – his fans? He still has fans? – and although there are the flashes of camera phones going off, what Yuuri receives the most is many wishes of luck for the competition ahead.

It’s like that the rest of the days leading up to the short program. Everywhere they go, Minami gets plenty of congratulations and requests for photographs and plenty of praise for his performances. Yuuri gets smiles and wishes of good luck and stares, so many stares, except this time they’re not speculative or calculating or uncomfortable.

No, it feels like his fans are intentionally coming out to give their support while somehow still keeping their distance.

“It’s the way you’re carrying yourself,” Odagaki says the morning of the short program. They’re all early for breakfast, Odagaki because she’s punctual to a fault, Yuuri because he’s hyped up on nerves, Minami because he wants to be wherever Yuuri and his coach are.

Yuuri glances down at himself, and then back up at Odagaki. “I don’t feel different,” he admits.

“Of course not. But for anyone watching from the outside in, you’re quite different from when you were at the Grand Prix competitions with Minami-kun and me, or even when you were competing during the regional competition.” Odagaki glances across the room to where Minami is standing, chattering a dime to a dozen with a few of the other Japanese skaters. “When you’re with Minami in particular, you often trail behind him; you step back into the supportive role. Even when you’re standing or walking side by side, your body language tells everyone that Minami’s the one they’re supposed to pay attention to.’

“Now, however—”

She gives Yuuri a studying look, but there’s something fond and proud and mischievous all at once in the curve of her mouth.

Yuuri is almost afraid to ask, but it’s probably better that he knows. “And now…?”

“Ever since you returned from Barcelona, you’ve been different. When you walk, your strides are more purposeful. When you’re at rest, you stand a little straighter, your shoulders pushed back, your head up. It’s a subtle change, but it makes a world of difference to anyone who is looking. And when you skate—” Odagaki’s smile blooms into a genuine one. “At regionals, you held pieces of yourself back. You were cautious – understandably so – and you were skittish. Most decent people respected your feelings.”

“Tell that to the reporters,” Yuuri murmurs under his breath.

“Ah, but see, that’s another difference. You no longer care about the reporters or the media outlets.” Odagaki taps her phone. “Now, when you skate, there is none of that hesitation. There is something you’re burning to prove on the ice, and once again, people react to that passion. Your most devoted fans are really quite delightful. They know how you are about your privacy and so keep their distance accordingly, but this time, they can’t help but react to your confidence, and that’s why they’re all out here, giving you their support.”

Yuuri stays quiet for a long while, processing Odagaki’s words. She takes the silence in stride, sipping peaceably at her cup of tea, keeping an eye on Minami and on the time.

“This is important,” Yuuri says at last. He scrubs one hand through his hair. “Part of me just wants to get the entire competition over with so I can—” he cuts himself off, glancing around self-consciously. Most skaters and their teams are clustered in their own corners, but the hotel dining area is packed, and there’s no guarantee that any part of their conversation can remain entirely private. “But before I can get there, I need to do well with my short program and the free skate, and Yuri on Ice is important to me. I want to do this right.”

It’s not time for the short program yet – that will be later in the afternoon – and so none of them are in uniform or costume. Odagaki is in a casual track jacket, her hair tucked in a quick braid, practical to the bone, but as she tilts her head, her eyes sharp and all-seeing and so very kind despite it all, Yuuri knows she’s no less worthy of the respect and deference the most famous coaches command.

“There are no guarantees in competition,” Odagaki says serenely. “But I think I can say with certainty, Katsuki-kun, that you will do wonderfully.”

---

The short program goes by in a flash. Most of his focus and energy had been spent on his new free skate, so for the short program Yuuri had chosen an old routine and restructured it to match his current skill level. The core of it stays the same, but with the quad salchow switched in together with the quad toe, Yuuri’s score easily surpasses the season’s best he had once garnered with the program three years previous.

The furore over Yuuri rises in pitch and magnitude the moment it’s confirmed that Yuuri sits at the top of the short program rankings, with a completely different program from the one he performed at the Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu Championship. He’s blessedly insulated from the impact of it, however. Odagaki hustles Minami and Yuuri through the official duties with grace and unflinching firmness, cutting off the more insistent reporters so crisp and politely that Yuuri wonders if he can get papercuts from her tone of voice.

When they leave the restricted areas of the arena, Yuuko and Minako are there to provide a buffer. Yuuko is in charge of Yuuri’s phone throughout the competition period, fielding call from their friends and family in Hasetsu and giving Yuuri a very filtered selection of what the official press and social media are reporting about the competition. Minami sticks close to Yuuri, his eyes constantly bright with excitement – his presence gives Yuuri something to focus on, and in turn, Minami feels calmer and more settled with Yuuri.

The fervor at the free skate competition hits a fever pitch, obvious enough that Yuuri feels it even hidden away as he is. The audience is audible even in the training rooms, located though they are in the depths of the arena – Yuuri can’t imagine what it’s like on social media – and although it makes Yuuri’s heart jump frantically in his chest, he forces himself to concentrate instead on other issues.

“I told you before to count on me as your coach, Katsuki-kun,” Odagaki says patiently. Yuuri suspects that she knows he’s half-pursuing this to distract himself, and so indulges him in the argument. “Which means I can handle my responsibilities to the both of you.”

“I can’t just turn my head off; I have responsibilities to Minami-kun too,” Yuuri protests. As amazing as it is for he and Minami to rank first and second in the short program, it means that they’ll be performing their free skates back-to-back; as Minami picks up his scores at the kiss and cry, Yuuri would be in the rink preparing for his performance, and Odagaki can’t be in two places at once. “This isn’t the regionals – our performances and scores here directly affect our placements at competitions for the rest of the season. It’s incredibly important for Minami-kun, so you should stay with him.”  

“Coaches often have multiple students. It won’t be the first time Minami-kun has to go to the kiss and cry without me.” Odagaki throws Minami a fond look – the younger skater is staring at the screen broadcasting the competitors currently skating on the ice, transfixed by the performances and cheering along. “He’s been enjoying my full attention this year as my only senior-level student, but I assure you, when he was competing in the junior circuit, he’s used to sharing me with his rinkmates. And yes, Katsuki-kun, you count as his teammate.” 

“Kiss and cry sessions are nerve-wrecking,” Yuuri says with a shudder.

“And so is that moment before you skate,” Odagaki calmly points out. “And you haven’t had nearly as much practice at competitions this year as Minami-kun.”

“But—”

“Kazehaya-sensei from our rink will accompany me to the kiss and cry,” Minami breaks in, utterly oblivious to Yuuri and Odagaki’s rhythmic back and forth, and doesn’t seem to notice when Yuuri startles. He gives Yuuri a bright grin. “He and Kanako-sensei always do that for each other’s students if there are schedule conflicts. Don’t worry about me, Yuuri-kun!”

Odagaki’s smile gains a slightly knowing edge. “It’s as Minami-kun says. He’s in good and familiar hands, so I’ll be sticking with you for your free skate.”

Yuuri glances from her smile to Minami’s grin, and gives in with a nod. They only have a few more minutes until they and the other final four skaters are on the ice for their warm-up, anyway.

Odagaki more or less orders Yuuri to go backstage and to stay away from the screens when she accompanies Minami out to the rink to wait for his turn, and for the most part, Yuuri listens to her. He keeps his headphones on and runs through gentle stretches, keeping his muscles limber, but when it’s Minami’s turn to go up, Yuuri leans through the doors, cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “Minami-kun, good luck!” He’s too far from the rink to properly make out Minami’s expression, but Minami turns in his direction before settling into his opening pose, and Yuuri feels a burst of satisfaction and pride as he ducks back inside.

When Odagaki comes to collect him a few minutes later, she gives him an arched look, but the clap on his shoulder tells Yuuri that she approves. A moment later, her expression smooths out, and when she reaches out to take Yuuri’s Team Japan jacket, it finally hits Yuuri that this is it.

He follows Odagaki out into the arena, follows her silent cues – skate guards off, stepping onto the ice, and settling in for the wait. Part of Yuuri thought that at this moment, he’d try to listen to Minami’s scores, that if he and Odagaki can’t be at Minami’s side, waiting with bated breath for the verdict, that he’ll at least tune in, add his support symbolically. But now that Yuuri is standing on the opposite side of the boards, the ice a silent stage ever waiting for its performer, Yuuri can only focus on the beating of his heart and the anchoring grasp of Odagaki’s fingers around Yuuri’s own.

When Yuuri looks up at her, Odagaki looks right back, her attention entirely focused on him, not distracted by the replays of Minami’s free skate on the screen. Her gaze doesn’t waver even when the announcement of Minami’s score comes over the speakers and the audience reacts, cheers and whoops and thunderous clapping.

Skaters are self-centred, Yuuri remembers Odagaki telling him once, and coaches focus entirely on their skaters, and he can’t help giving her a shaky smile.

Odagaki smiles back.

“You have a point to make, something you’re defying your anxiety and fear to prove,” she says as the announcers call for Yuuri over the speakers, her words for Yuuri alone. She squeezes his fingers once before letting go and sets her hands firmly on top of the boards. “So go out there, and prove it to everyone.”

Yuuri shuts his eyes for one long, breathless moment. Then he opens them, and pushes away from the boards, lets the ice and the cold capture him, draw him into their embrace. The audience is loud, white noise in his ears, a blurry shadow shrouding the fringes of the rink, but upon the ice, Yuuri is untouchable, and here on the ice, he’ll make his stand.

He stops in the middle of the rink, setting his feet just so, bows his head in the familiar opening pose.

The dancing pitter-patter of piano notes fills the arena. Yuuri’s body moves instinctively, drawing his hands up towards his heart, his throat, a silent entreaty or benediction, and then he opens his eyes, and moves.

This is his song, and so Yuuri starts slow. It’s his song, so the performance takes time to build, his skating cautious and winding until the very first jump, quad toe-triple toe combo, the very first leap of faith. It’s his song, so Yuuri falls back into the rhythm of the piano, and barely holds onto the quad salchow, but then the violins sweep in as he takes his next jump, soaring high and taking Yuuri with it, and he lands the triple flip crisply.

This is his song, and so there are ups and downs, the gorgeous harmony of violin and piano and then the abrupt collapse, the piano lingering on its own, because there are some battles one must fight on their own.

But not alone. As Yuuri sweeps into the choreographic sequence, flashes of memories flood over him – Vicchan’s wiggling weight, his family’s enthusiasm despite their unfamiliarity with figure skating, the Nishigori’s encouragement and their generosity, Minako’s constant pushes, Phichit’s steadfast friendship and Yurio’s blazing brilliance, Odagaki and Minami’s care and faith, the beautiful flare of emotion in Victor’s eyes – all of it signaling warmth, acceptance, support, love. The violin sweeps back in, and Yuuri—

Yuuri dances upon the ice, grants the world a glimpse of his heart behind his many protective walls, and lets the final quad toe – flawlessly executed, defying the drag and burn of exhausted muscles – underscore his conviction, his determination.

This is Yuuri’s song, and his performance reflects that: shaky but stubborn, filled with little mistakes and missed opportunities, but also with quiet, poignant interludes and heart-achingly beautiful moments. This is just Yuuri’s first time performing in Yuri on Ice in public; like Yuuri, the program is full of potential, and like Yuuri, it has plenty of room to grow.

Yuuri comes out of his spin and settles into his final pose – similar to his opening move, arms pulled close to his body, hands curled near his heart, but with his head lifted instead of bowed – and he opens his eyes with just one thought singing through his entire body.

Yuuri belongs on the ice, and it is a privilege to share his love with all the people here who love the ice in their own way.

The thunder of applause takes Yuuri by surprise. He’s breathing hard, exhaustion weighing down his entire body, but his heart feels light and bubbly like heady champagne, and he stares at the audience wide-eyed for a long moment before muscle memory kicks in and he dips into deep bows, one for each cardinal direction, thanking the audience for their support.  

When Yuuri finally skates towards the entrance of the rink amidst a rain of flowers and soft toys, Odagaki is waiting for him, and although Yuuri isn’t normally demonstrative in public, he skates right off the ice and grabs her hand, squeezing tight. She folds her other hand around his, squeezing right back, her eyes bright with pride, and then a sudden weight crashes into Yuuri’s side and he instinctively grabs onto Odagaki to avoid falling right over.

“Yuuri-kun, that was the most beautiful program I’ve ever seen,” Minami sobs, completely ignoring the fact that he’s seen Yuuri practice this routine almost non-stop over the last three weeks, and in pieces over the last few months. He has one arm clenched tight in Odagaki’s jacket, the other around Yuuri’s waist in an aborted effort not to damage the sparkling sequins sewn into Yuuri’s costume. It should be the most uncomfortable hug Yuuri’s ever been in, a three-way embrace that’s more tangled limbs than anything else, but that in reality feels absolutely wonderful.

When Yuuri laughs, it’s with the release of all lingering tension, and he slumps, feels Odagaki set one hand firmly under Yuuri’s elbow.

“Minami-kun, we have to go to the kiss and cry,” she says, laughter in her voice. When Minami shakes his head, not in protest but in a refusal to let go, she pats one hand over his head, near the nape of his neck where she’s less likely to mess up his styled hair. “At least let Katsuki-kun get his skate guards on, how about it?”

That gets Minami to let go, and Odagaki holds on just long enough to make sure Yuuri has his balance before reaching over to grab his skate guards. There are JSF staff around and there’s Kazehaya-san, waiting patiently for Minami, but Yuuri doesn’t care; he snaps on his skate guards and then follows Odagaki into the kiss and cry, dragging Minami along.

“How was your free skate?” Yuuri asks.

“Good,” Minami says thickly, his eyes still liquid with tears. “But you’re going to surpass my score, Yuuri-kun, and you totally deserve it.”

“Minami-kun posted a season’s best,” Odagaki calls over her shoulder, evidently well ahead of Yuuri; he isn’t sure when she’d had a chance to look at Minami’s scores, but then again, she’s been a coach for a long while. Her grin widens when she catches sight of Yuuri pulling Minami into the kiss and cry, and she slides further down the bench, blithely ignoring the JSF staff’s murmurs of protest. “How do you feel about your free skate, Katsuki-kun?”

It’s such a familiar feeling to sit at a kiss and cry with Minami and Odagaki, except that this time, Yuuri’s in the middle. He glances at the brevy of cameras, at the rink and the officials deliberating over his scores beyond it, while above and around him echo the clamor of the crowd, still hyped up by Yuuri’s performance. In a few minutes, Yuuri will receive his scores, but surprisingly, he doesn’t feel very anxious about it. After all, he has already accomplished what he set out to do.

“It felt wonderful,” Yuuri says, and means it.

---

Transcript: From the interview session of the All-Japan Figure Skating Championships podium winnersgold medalist Katsuki Yuuri.

Please tell us your feelings on your comeback, and on winning gold this year after your hardships from last season.

Does this count as a comeback? [interjection from silver medalist Minami Kenjirou – “yes, Yuuri-kun, it does!”] I’m sorry, that was flippant. I may have worried many people when I chose not to compete internationally this year. As mentioned, I did not perform well last season, at the Grand Prix Final or at Nationals, and to sit here now after winning Nationals this year is miraculous. I’m very happy. And I’m also very relieved.

 

After this decisive win, please tell us about your future plans. Will you return to international competitions?

As you all know, I have spent much of this year as part of Minami-kun’s team, assisting Odagaki Kanako-san. Minami-kun has since debuted wonderfully in the senior division at the Cup of China, and also earned his first podium finish at the Rostelecom Cup. And here he is, Japan’s silver medalist. I have learned so much and grown so much from being part of his team, and I will continue to be his senior and mentor for as long as he wishes it.

[interjection from Minami-senshu – “I always will. And I’ve learned so much and grown so much thanks to you too!”]

As for myself, the Japanese Skating Federation will be making an official statement on my status in a few days. So I would ask you to wait for the JSF’s announcement.

 

At the Chugoku, Shikoku and Kyushu Championship in September, you performed Ballade No. 1 and Turandot, your programs from last season. Although you scored well, many wondered if your performance at the regional competition would be your swan song. Why did you choose to perform those programs?

Yes, there were many articles saying that – that I wanted one last chance to properly skate the programs that I crashed and burned on at Sochi. I know what it looked like, to have no new programs for a season, to intentionally sit out the Grand Prix series when I had no injuries.

I can’t say that they were entirely wrong. I did want to skate that short program and free skate properly. Those were the programs I qualified for the GPF with, but in Sochi, I wasn’t able to give the performance the choreography – and the audience – deserved. I wanted to redeem myself, and I wanted to banish the dark memories I’d come to associate with Ballade No 1. and Turandot. I tried to do that at Nationals last year, but I just ended up creating more bad memories. It was really unfortunate, because I love those programs. Third time was the charm, however. It may have taken me nine additional months, but I’m glad I can skate those programs with a calm heart now.

 

You’ve shown us two programs here in Sapporo – a reimagined version of an old program for your short program, and a brand new free skate. Please tell us more about them.

I first skated to Photograph three years ago – it was a popular song, and Celestino Cialdini, who was my coach at the time, wanted me to try something different. I have a background in ballet and I was always more comfortable skating to classical music, but I really enjoyed Photograph’s choreography. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do about my skating this season, so for my short program, I decided to go back to an old favourite, something familiar and comforting, and reinvent it the way I’m trying to reinvent myself after my failures last year.

Yuri on Ice – I don’t think I can express what it really means to me. The music was composed to represent my career on the ice, but the more I skated to the music, it has also become what I would like my life to be in the future. It’s a beautiful composition, and I have to acknowledge Ketty Abelashvili, who composed and recorded it for me. But back to the program, it represents a lot of firsts for me. The first song I chose to commission, that I took full creative direction on; the first song I tried to choreograph, although I had a lot of help from Odagaki-san and Minako-sensei, and input from close friends. More than any other program I’ve ever skated, Yuri on Ice represents me and my dreams most honestly.

 

So can we say that the theme for your programs this year is “past and future”?

I suppose you could, but that’s just one layer of it. If I want to be very accurate, I would say that the theme is “hope.” I made a lot of changes to my life since last year’s GPF and Nationals. Photograph shows me that I don’t have to completely let go of my past, that I carry all the good parts and lessons with me. And Yuri on Ice shows me that I can take a leap and try something different and out of my depth, that I can challenge myself and trust that the wind will catch under my wings when I start to fall.

I’ve been helped by many people in my competitive skating career so far, but although I was blessed with support, I couldn’t take full advantage of it. I always felt like I was fighting alone. But this year, I’ve seen something totally different. Although I was supposed to help Minami-kun with his senior debut, he and Odagaki-san have given me so much more than I ever expected. My friends, my family, my hometown – from old acquaintances to new friends – no one ever gave up on me. They gave me hope, and now, in turn, I want to pass that hope to the people watching my skating. There are many hardships and hurdles in life, but there are also many things that make them worth it. There is hope. Hope for the future, and hope for love.


As the champion this year, you will of course be performing at the Medalists on Ice gala. Are you showing us a new exhibition program, and will it also follow the theme of “hope”?

It’s a program you have never seen me skate. And yes. I have a lot of hopes for this exhibition program.

---

Victor Nikiforov
Online
---

I wish so much that I could have
seen you performing in person

Yuri on Ice is beautiful

Thank you for sharing your skating
with the world, Yuuri

You managed to catch the
performances?

I… thank you. It’s changed quite
 a bit since you saw it in Hasetsu,
hasn’t it?

I’ve still got a lot of things to work
 on, but I’m so glad you liked it.

“like” doesn’t come anywhere close
to how I feel

Ah, hi! You’re online! 

Sorry I didn’t reply earlier, I’m
still at the arena and there’s so
much going on

Yuuko was taking care of
my phone for me

Of course they’re keeping you busy.
You’re the Japanese champion.

And yes, I caught the performances
live. Thankfully someone streamed
a Japanese broadcast of the whole
competition

Wow, you must have been watching
for a couple of hours now!

Wait, isn’t it afternoon in Russia?

Aren’t you supposed to be on the
ice for the short program?

Yes

Oh my god, Victor.

It’s the Russian Nationals. Your
scores there determine where the
RSF is assigning you for the rest
of the season!

Some things are more important

Also, there are three skaters until I
have to be on the ice. I was worried
about the timing, but I got to see
your FS and the medal ceremony
and the interviews too

Although I missed a bit because of
the six-minute warm up

How hasn’t your coach confiscated
your phone away?

I’m -very- stubborn

 Also, all the interviews are in
Japanese…

I didn’t understand a word, but
it was lovely to hear you speaking
in your native language

If you put away your phone now
and go prepare for your short
program, I’ll speak to you in
Japanese whenever you like

Tempting, Yuuri. But now I have
you on the phone talking to me

I want to watch you skate too

Go get ready so that when I find
 a working stream of the Russian
Nationals I can actually see you
on the ice and not disqualified for
not showing up

You don’t have other JSF
obligations to fulfill today?

They can spare me for a while.

Like you said, some things are
more important

Your timing is impeccable,
because Yakov’s just shown up

Looks like Yura did really well

Victor, GO

And as always, although you
don’t need it, good luck!! 

Going!

Thank you <3

---

 

[video attached: Yuri Plisetsky, in a Russian national team jacket, glides across the ice and kicks off into a perfect quad salchow, one arm held over his head for the four revolutions, landing lightly on the edge of his boot. He loops quickly back to face the camera, and smirks]

26,875 views

yuri-plisetsky Dead last pork cutlets need to learn how to jump properly. This is how you perform a perfect quad salchow. #NationalChampionships

load more comments

v-nikiforov Yurio, you are adorable. Didn’t you say you absolutely refuse to watch?

mila-babi Considering how he scared everyone else off the ice and dragged me out of practice to film this for him, I would say he is undeniably invested )))

YuriAngelsNo1 Yurachka, you are amazing!!!!!!!! Flawless jump!!

toraroar Lovely! Looking forward to seeing you in the free skate tomorrow ❤

IceIceBaby Your short program was wonderful! Beautiful quad salchow in that program. But, pork cutlets?

LiliaBaranovskaya Yuri Plisetsky, is this what you disappeared to do instead of showing up in the studio for practice? Get back here right now.

---

Yuuri catches the flicker of movement in the reflection of the mirror, but he doesn’t drop out of his rhythmic sequence of the main ballet positions. As much as Yuuri cherishes his privacy when he’s practicing and hates any disruption, Yuuko is one of the few exceptions; she often stays in the Ice Castle when Yuuri is skating after hours, a quiet, soothing presence lingering at the back of Yuuri’s awareness.

Yuuko is quiet as she lowers herself to sit on the floor of the dance studio. It’s a small room – a miracle that a Japanese hotel would devote space for it, actually – but there’s a barre attached to the floor-length mirrors covering one entire wall, and the floor is smooth wood, glossy underneath the spotlights. Yuuko is in yoga pants and an oversized hoodie that must belong to Nishigori; her hair tumbles loose over her shoulders, a little wild from sleep, and she settles in to watch Yuuri, her legs tucked to her chest, arms resting idly on her knees.

It seems as natural as air for Yuuri to change his focus; with Yuuko here, he begins practicing the choreography for his exhibition program instead, letting his hands curl through the shadows and light. Yuuko begins humming, and Yuuri goes through the entire song with her, he dancing, she quietly humming along, both of them absorbed in their own thoughts.

When Yuuri finishes, he stares at his reflection in the mirror for a long while before his gaze dips to Yuuko. She’s watching him, a small smile gracing her lips, and he lets his arms drop, turning around to meet her eyes for real.

“It’s beautiful,” she says sincerely. She gestures at the floor beside her.

Yuuri wipes the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, and drops down to sit next to her. “It’s barely dawn. What are you doing up?”

“Minako-san had a hunch. You were mostly fine the mornings of your short program and free skate; she thought the nerves would eventually kick in. And not a single rink would be open at this time.”

Yuuri lets out a quiet sigh – they really know him too well – and reaches for his toes, stretching, too restless to keep entirely still.

“Did the organizers accept the music?” Yuuko says.

“Yes, but it took some convincing. The tech person responsible for receiving the music files gave me such a wide-eyed look, I thought his eyes would fall out of his head. And then I had to convince him not to announce the program ahead of time.” Yuuri presses his head to his knees, and his voice comes out muffled. “He agreed, but he’s worried about copyright. I told him that if anyone filed a complaint, I would take full responsibility for it.”

Yuuko’s hands settle on Yuuri’s shoulders with gentle pressure, helping him with the stretch. “That won’t happen, right?”

“I really, really, really hope not.”

“It won’t,” Yuuko says decisively, and eases off so Yuuri can sit back up. “It’s all going to go perfectly. I talked to Takeshi last night. He and the girls are ready. Mari-chan says to tell you you’re totally out of your mind, but that she completely approves.”

Yuuri rolls his eyes. “Of course she does.”

Yuuko smiles. “And everyone says congratulations on the gold.”

“Thanks.” Yuuri stares at his toes, and sticks his hands in his jacket pockets to stop fidgeting. “Yu-chan, do you think this is too much? I mean, the news sites are all buzzing about my so-called ‘comeback’, and the JSF will announce my assignments in a few days, and now I’m going to do this—”

“Yuuri-kun,” Yuuko says with an air of authority in her voice, and Yuuri stops. “This exhibition skate. Do you mean it?”

There is no hesitation. “Yes.”

“Then it’s not too much.” Yuuko shifts, pushing her hair behind one shoulder. “Do you want me to keep your phone again? You’ve been getting better at not minding what they say about you online, but it might be good to stay away from it all until after the gala.”

“Yeah. Please.”

Yuuri passes her his phone, and Yuuko slides it into the pocket of her hoodie. Looking at her in Nishigori’s oversized hoodie reminds Yuuri of Victor’s sweater and the way the sleeves had slid over his fingers, a little too long, and he fidgets now, fingering at the cuffs of his jacket, restless.

Yuuko reaches over and nimbly pries his fingers loose from the fabric, and slides her hand into his. Yuuri clings on immediately, and Yuuko lets him – she’s always been strong, even when they were both just children and dreaming of competitions and mimicking their favourite idol on the ice.

“It’ll be fine,” she says, and from the doorway, Minako says, “Of course it will be.”

Yuuri lifts his head. Minako shuts the studio door behind her; unlike Yuuko, she’s dressed for the outdoors, and she holds a take-out cup carrier one hand, a brown paper bag in the other.

“It is freezing out there,” Minako grumbles. She hands the cup carrier to Yuuko, who takes it awkwardly with her free hand, and tosses the paper bag in Yuuri’s lap. “Eat something,” she orders Yuuri.

“You actually encouraging me to eat in a studio?” Yuuri asks.

“I’m sure you’ll keep the dance floor spotlessly clean. I bet you came down here without eating a single thing, and it’s going to send entirely the wrong message if you end up fainting on the ice.” Minako eyes him. “Or maybe it’ll be the right message. Katsuki Yuuri, literally falling in—”

“Minako-sensei!”

Yuuko laughs, and pries a takeaway cup out of the carrier, setting it in front of Yuuri. She doesn’t let go of his hand, and Yuuri doesn’t take his away. Minako drops onto the floor to join them, unceasingly graceful, and grabs the paper bag from Yuuri to tear the top of it open; the scent of freshly baked bread wafts up, warm and heavenly.

“Kanako and Minami-kun will make your excuses for why you’re not at the gala practice today.” Minako holds out the paper bag in Yuuri’s direction. “You can stay here until you have to get ready for the gala. So eat something, and I’ll run you through some gentler ballet practices so you don’t go crazy repeating the choreography of your exhibition program.”

Yuuri glances at Yuuko, who’s sipping peaceably at her own cup of tea. She winks at him. “We’ll protect you.”

Minako rustles the paper bag, a silent concurrence and a reminder for Yuuri to just eat something already.

Yuuri ducks his head. “Thanks,” he says softly, and reaches for a red bean bun.

---

It is a near universal sentiment for competitive skaters – exhibitions are always more enjoyable than competition programs. There’s less pressure and more freedom, and the atmosphere at a gala is one of celebration, not rivalry. The lights are turned down so the arena is only dimly lit, the audience fading into the shadows and the rink glowing like an iridescent pearl, and spotlights follow each skater as they move around the ice, wreathing them in ethereal light.

Yuuri loves exhibition performances, and as he stands in the middle of the rink with his head bowed, eyes closed, his heart is frantically beating with exhilaration as much as it is from anxiousness.

A ripple goes immediately through the darkened audience at the opening three notes of the music; they become increasingly noisy when the tenor voice begins singing. But Yuuri has already tuned them out: he lifts his face, throwing his head back in a slow but graceful spin, his hands following the arch of his body. When he opens his eyes, Yuuri no longer see the rink, falling into a world of his own.

Stammi Vicino is an aria of love and longing, but it is also a competitive program, and it is difficult. Yuuri substitutes in a quad toe and a triple-triple combo in place of the quad lutz and the quad flip, but other than that, he sticks as close to Victor’s choreography as possible. There is no room for conscious thought; Yuuri lets his body move, the choreography as familiar to him now over a whole year of constant practice as one of his own programs.

Even so, Yuuri knows his performance is different from Victor’s. He’ll never be as impressive and regal as Victor soaring on a glorious quad flip, and so he pours himself into the spins and footwork, lets his emotions permeate the step and choreographic sequences, wistful and yearning and yet full of hope, hope, hope—

Stay close to me, please, because I want to stay close to you too

—and as Yuuri whirls out of the final combination spin at the crescendo of the music, he makes a single, significant change to Victor’s choreography: instead of ending the program with his head tipped towards the sky, his arms lifted but wrapped protectively around themselves, Yuuri sweeps his arms in a crossing motion over his chest and lets his left arm extend out, reaching, fingers curled as if to take an invisible hand, his right hand pressed over his heart. 

As the music fades away, the entire arena is perfectly silent for a single heartbeat, and then it’s as if everyone breaks out of their trance at the same time. There is an absolute roar of noise, clapping and yelling and screaming; Yuuri gasps in surprise, a sound that goes unnoticed; the rest of the world is suddenly very obvious and very present, and he lets his body drop out of the pose, gulping for air, his heart thrumming in his ears and the thunderous applause a physical vibration in Yuuri’s chest.

He sketches four quick bows in four directions and is off skating for the entrance of the rink like a shot, the spotlights following after him unerringly. Minami is waiting for him, crying once again, but with a giant grin on his face. Behind him, the other medalists and gala invitees are staring at him with wide, wide eyes; Naoko, who has recovered from her dislocated shoulder well enough to compete and clinch silver in the ladies’ single event, yells, “Yeah right you and Nikiforov-san aren’t friends!” her eyes dancing with glee.

Minami leaps forward to give Yuuri a crushing hug, and then leans back, scrubbing at his face. “Yuuri-kun, we’ll take it from here!” he says, pushing Yuuri towards the doors to the back room even as he snaps off his skate guards. “Hey everyone, let’s get on the ice! We still have the finale to get through!”

Naoko, who must be as sharp as a pin, quickly catches on, and she snaps off her own skate guards and flings them in the direction of a staff member. Around Yuuri, skaters start moving, following Minami and Naoko’s lead, distracting the staff members and the official media crew and the cameras, allowing Yuuri to escape.

Before Yuuri ducks through the doors, however, he hears his name in a very familiar voice, cutting through the din of the audience.

He twists, searching, and catches sight of Yuuko a few meters away, standing at the edge of the audience stands above him, half hanging over the railings. Behind her, Minako is somehow fending off an entire group of audience members; Yuuri ducks around a pair of ice dancers and closes the distance, until he’s standing under Yuuko.

Her hair is in disarray and she has her phone pressed to her ear, but her face is utterly aglow.

“I got your entire performance on video. Takeshi and the girls are ready to post it. We just need your word.”

Yuuri grins up at her, feeling reckless and utterly invincible. “Do it.”

“Go!” Yuuko yells into her phone, and even over the line, from a distance, through the crowd, Yuuri hears the triplet’s shrieks of enthusiasm. “Yuuri! Yuuri, catch!”

Yuuri raises his arms automatically, and Yuuko carefully drops Yuuri’s phone into his hands. It’s vibrating nonstop, indication of an incoming call.

Victor Nikiforov

“The whole world is going to see your rendition of Stammi Vicino,” Yuuko calls, joyous laughter in every word. “But I think the most important person has already seen it.”

Yuuri very nearly picks up the call right then and there, but then a shadow steals up beside him and throws a jacket over his shoulders, pulling the hood up over his head.

“I don’t think you want to have that conversation in public, do you?” Odagaki says. She glances over her shoulders – half the skaters are on the ice, the distracting milling of bodies around them thinning, and there are about a dozen JSF staff and media crew with video cameras bearing down on them from a distance. "Let’s go.”

She pulls him through the doors into the back area and sets unerringly down corridors and around corners like she has a blueprint of the arena memorized in her head. Yuuri stumbles after her, his skate guards thumping against the floor, one hand clenched in the collar of the jacket to keep it on his shoulders, the phone still buzzing in his other hand. If Victor is watching a broadcast of the gala, Yuuri thinks, dazed, then he must have also seen Yuuko drop him the phone. For once, the ubiquitous cameras work in their favour. Victor won’t hang up until Yuuri picks up.

Odagaki drags him around a corner and pushes open a door, tilting her head to usher Yuuri through. It’s a small dressing room, empty – far away enough from the rink that the JSF hasn’t purposed it for anything.

“You don’t have very long,” Odagaki says, one hand on the door knob. “Minami-kun will take your place in the finale number, but you need to to be on the ice with the rest of the medalists to give thanks to the audience. And give them a chance to yell their praise at you,” she adds, a sparkle in her eyes. She tips her head at Yuuri’s phone. “I’ll guard the door, buy you some time to finish your conversation when they catch up to us. Now put that poor man out of his misery.”

Yuuri grins at her, and she grins back before shutting the door carefully behind her. Then he picks up the call.

There’s a long moment of silence when the line connects – he must have caught Victor off-guard – and then there’s a sharp inhale. “Yuuri?” Victor says, his voice sounding choked up. “Yuuri! Yuuri—”

“Hi,” Yuuri says into his phone, breathless, smiling until his cheeks hurt. “Are you mad at me?”

“I—why would I be mad—Yuuri—”

Yuuri laughs. “I stole the music you commissioned and own the rights to without paying for copyright and if you press charges the JSF staff who agreed to play Stammi Vicino for my exhibition program will absolutely and totally throw me under the bus. I told him to do so.”

“That was—” Victor sounds like he’s still in shock, his words coming out disjointed. “That was perfect. When did you—you’re amazing.”

“I didn’t learn your routine in three weeks, if that’s what you’re saying,” Yuuri says. “Your choreography is so intricate and learning to pace myself for all the jumps – even without the two most difficult ones – it took me forever to even begin to do the program justice.” He pauses, and then his voice goes soft. “It’s been about a year, actually. I began trying to skate Stammi Vicino after I crashed out of Nationals last year.”

Victor’s breath audibly catches over the line.

“So you know, it’s not like I specially learned to perform it after getting to know you better,” Yuuri says sheepishly, because he’s basically admitted to Victor beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is a fan, and a pretty obsessive one at that. “But um, I did plan to do this after Barcelona. Perform Stammi Vicino as my exhibition program for you, that is. Happy Birthday, Victor.”

It takes a long moment for Yuuri to realize, but the sniffling, the stuttery breathing – Victor is crying.

“Victor?” Yuuri says. Victor makes a quiet noise, but it’s hardly coherent. “Uh… is that good or bad crying, because—”

“It’s good,” Victor gets out. His voice is rough with tears, but he takes a deep breath. “You said in your interview – when the press asked – you said that your programs all follow the theme of hope.”

“You understood the interviews?”

“I went looking for translations last night. Your fans were very quick.” Victor’s voice is steadying now. “You skated Stammi Vicino beautifully, but you changed the end pose. Why?”

There’s a faint, breathless lilt in the way Victor says the last part that tells Yuuri exactly what Victor hopes Yuuri means by that change. He bows his head, cradling the phone close to his ear, as if getting that millimeter closer to Victor’s voice means they’ll be physically closer as well.

“Remember our night in Barcelona?” Yuuri murmurs into his phone, their shared memory, intimate and cherished. “You were worried about what was going to happen next, with us so far away from each other and the World Championships so far away. You didn’t want to wait to see me, and—I feel the same way. I wanted you to know that even if we’re physically apart, we’re not going to lose each other. You’re the first person I’ve ever wanted to hold onto, and I’m not letting go.” 

Victor is crying in earnest now, soft, like he’s used to hiding it, and Yuuri shuts his eyes; he wants so badly to be where Victor is, to hold him and be held in turn, that it hurts.

But figure skaters are no strangers to pain, and this is the good kind, the kind that reminds Yuuri just what he’s fighting for, why it’s all worth it.

“I’m coming back to the ice,” he says.

Victor makes a questioning sound.

“In a few days, the JSF will announce that they’ve assigned me to Four Continents and the World Championships. Minami-kun will be at those competitions too, and Odagaki-san has agreed to act as my coach for the next half of the season; the three of us will still be a team. I know this doesn’t really help us – in fact, since I’ll back in the competitive circuit, it ensures we’ll both be busy with training and competitions, but—” Now Yuuri’s throat is starting to tighten as well, and he clutches at his phone, swallows hard to get the words out “—I want to skate on the same ice as you. I want to skate with you, because we both love the ice, and I love watching you perform, and it seems, you love watching me as well—”

“Of course I do!” Victor breaks in. “do you know what happens to me every time I look at—you’re inspiration and life all in one, I—”

“—so we’ll figure out something once the season’s done, okay? And I changed the end pose for my version of Stammi Vicino, because—” Yuuri touches his hand to his heart in an echo of that pose, and says, “hanarezu ni soba ni ite.”

“God, I love hearing you speak Japanese.” Victor goes silent for a beat, as if savouring the sound of it. “But what does that mean?”

Yuuri smiles. “‘Stay by my side, and don’t leave.’ But you know, my version of it.”    

“Perfect,” Victor breathes. And then suddenly he’s laughing, a little hysterical, but joyous and beautiful and free. “I’m not sure how you expect me to perform in the free skate after this.”

“You’re going to perform well, because I want to see you at Europeans and at Worlds,” Yuuri says. “Although I’m sorry if all of this will distract you. I should have told Yuuko to post it later.”

“Post what?” Victor asks, and as if waiting for the cue, Yuuri’s phone begins vibrating – not from an incoming call this time, but notification alerts.

“Uh—” Yuuri says, holding his phone a short distance away from his ear so he can’t feel the buzzing. “Yuuko filmed my exhibition performance. She and Nishigori and the triplets are really good at it, clean, well shot files, quick about uploading files and everything; I gave Yuuko permission to post the video when she dropped me my phone. Nothing out of the ordinary; I know someone’s going to grab the official broadcast clip and upload it eventually. But the triplets are social media goddesses – I think they’ve got an account on every major platform, so, um, the news gets out really quickly. With your name attached and with their efforts, it’ll probably go viral. My phone’s blowing up with notifications now. You’re going to get a lot of questions too.”

“The world is going to see you skating my world-record breaking free skate,” Victor says, and even though it’s not a question, Yuuri finds himself nodding in answer. “Perfect! The whole world should see it. Everyone should know what an amazing skater you are. And if they don’t know your name, they’re going to find out very soon,” Victor’s voice goes liquid smooth, with the faintest steel beneath it – a promise sealed with words this time, “because I want to stay close to you too, and I’m not letting go either.”

---

[Katsuki Yuuri] Japanese Nationals EX – Victor Nikiforov’s “Stammi Vicino”

1,552,098 views

sukeota3sisters
Published on December 25, 20XX

Katsuki Yuuri performs Victor Nikiforov’s free skate program, “Stammi Vicino,” as his exhibition program for the Medalist on Ice gala after winning gold at the Japan Figure Skating Championships.

SHOW MORE

---

[image attached: Yuuri stands in front of a wall, dressed warmly in a coat for travel. There’s a slight smile on his face, tentative and somewhat bewildered, but his eyes are warm behind his glasses, if a little wide, as if he’d been taken by surprise by the photographer.

Behind him, taking up the top half of the wall, are three massive posters, all the same: Yuuri in a Japan national team jacket and skates on, leaping with one hand outstretched, Hasetsu Castle and a rain of cherry blossoms falling around him. Above them, in bold kanji, is a sign that says “Hasetsu Station”]

86,293 likes

v-nikiforov Dear #Hasetsu municipal council, if you happen to have a spare copy of the excellent poster in the background, I would be very happy to take it off your hands. Name your price. Dear #KatsukiYuuri fans, Yuuri has given me permission to upload a photo of him from my album. I’m delighted to be amongst your ranks. Dear figure skating community, keep your eyes on this man. He’s going to stun the world.

load more comments

yuri-plisetsky I’m fucking blocking you  

mila-babi I think it’s sweet! Vitya, tell Japanese Yuuri the rest of the Russian team welcomes him back on the international arena 

minamiboogie Victor-san, I have an extra copy of the poster! You can have it when I next see you. Come visit us in Japan again!

skateashley omfg Victor. @phichit+chu, looks like you have a rival!!

VisforVictory This has to be the icing on the Stammi Vicino cake after the main course that is Victor’s SP and FS performances at Russian Nationals, holy smokes. If this isn’t a clear indication Victor 100% approves of the Stammi exhibition, I don’t know what is. I mean, what a power move by Katsuki

talesoasp Sure, the posters look great, but oh man, look at Yuuri. That’s the Yuuri we all love and cherish. When did Victor Nikiforov get such a great candid of him? When did Victor go to Hasetsu? WHAT IS GOING ON

KatsuKatsu VICTOR NIKIFOROV IS A YUURI KATSUKI FAN YOU GUYS!!!!!!!!!! Our ace’s time is here! ❤❤❤