The nurse is the first to notice, spotting the delicate black lines on the baby’s forearm as she wipes him clean in the moments after birth. They’re too small yet to read, but they lack the complexity of kanji. A foreigner is complicated, she knows, but she doesn’t want to say anything to upset his exhausted mother.
“Congratulations, Hiroko-san!” she says, placing the quiet child in his mother’s arms. “Little Yuuri is perfectly healthy, and he’s already been blessed with a soulmark!”
* * *
Yuuri’s three before his mark is large enough to be read clearly, and even then, Mari needs a magnifying glass to make out the words. Neither of them can read what it says, but Mari copies down the symbols as precisely as she can manage. Tomorrow, she’ll bring them to school with her, in hopes that one of her teachers can translate them.
“It’s English, Yuuri! It says ‘a souvenir photo? Okay!’”
* * *
The first day of school is nerve-wracking for any child, and a soulmark only adds to the pressure. So many soulmates come together in those first few days of classes that teachers have grown accustomed to the sight of shining little faces bouncing up from their seats and shouting with delight that they’ve found their one.
Yuuri doesn’t need to worry about that. No one’s going to speak English to him on the first day of kindergarten.
He shakes with fear anyway as his big sister leads him into the schoolyard, hands clenched tight.
* * *
Minako takes him to Ice Castle Hasetsu when he’s six. Silly as it is, he desperately hopes that the pretty girl who’s already skating quick circles across the ice will speak to him in English.
She doesn’t. Yuuko and Takeshi have already spoken one another’s words. For all their childish squabbles, he can see the way they compliment each other, the way they smooth out each other's rough spots. His jealousy is a sharp, ugly thing that he keeps hidden away as best he can. How long will he have to wait to hear the strange, foreign words upon his skin?
* * *
They’re not really supposed to talk about their soulmarks, so everyone does, of course. Yuuri is eight now, big enough that his mark can be read with the naked eye, although only if you get really close.
“What does it say?” his classmates wonder, poking at the strange letters on his skin.
There’s only one other girl in his school with a foreign mark. Hers is stiff and formal, the way that business people speak to one another, and everyone assumes she’s fated to move to a big city for work and meet her soulmate that way. While Yuuri is frustrated at having to wait, she seems excited about the adventure ahead.
“Ah, it’s a question? Asking about a souvenir photo?”
“Wow! Maybe your soulmate is a celebrity.”
Another classmate, one of the bigger boys who teases Yuuri about taking ballet, laughs cruelly. “You think some famous person is going to match with this chubster? Ha!”
Yuuri balls his hands into fists, pushing his sleeve back down over his mark.
“Maybe they’re a tourist?” suggests someone else.
“Maybe,” Yuuri says.
“I think it’s weird,” the bigger boy interjects. “You’re not meant to match with people who don’t even speak your language. I bet you’ll probably never even meet them.”
Yuuri doesn’t want to admit it, but he thinks the same thing too.
* * *
Hasetsu doesn’t get many overseas visitors. Their tourism is largely local, Japanese families seeking a small-town getaway with a few sights and some relaxing onsen. When foreigners do show up, Yuuri is so nervous around them that he can’t speak at all.
It doesn’t matter. None of them ever ask him for a photo.
* * *
Yuuri is fourteen when he starts to qualify for international skating competitions. The crowds make him anxious. The unfamiliar settings make him anxious. The airports and the cabs and the media make him anxious. The judges and the other skaters make him anxious.
That all of this happens in English, the language he bears on his skin? That fact makes him the most anxious of all.
* * *
Yuuri studies English almost as much as he skates. He’s not very good at it initially, but he’s stubborn. This is the native language of his soulmate, and he's determined to meet them where they are.
He learns the difference between ‘souvenir’ and ‘commemorative’.
Late at night, lying on his bed with aching muscles and eyes sore from study, he stares up at his posters of Victor and imagines his idol saying his words. He wonders what words he’d say back, tries to picture his voice marked someone where on that smooth, pale skin.
He starts to worry about his own words, wherever they are. He feels pretty sure they’re stupid, because he’s always saying awkward things. Maybe his soulmate already hates him, for making them live out their whole life with his dumb words on their skin.
On the nights when he thinks about it, he doesn’t get much sleep.
* * *
At 18, Yuuri takes silver in the Junior Worlds Competition and accepts a training offer from Celestino Cialdini, based out of Detroit. He’s not famous enough that people recognize him in the street – well, aside from Hasetsu – but around the rinks, during competition time, he gets asked for his autograph on a pretty regular basis.
The press comments on how nervous he looks when interacting with his fans, and compliment his efforts to diligently engage with them anyway. He gains a reputation as a gracious performer, one who always makes the time to meet every fan, even when he’s clearly wrung out with exhaustion after a skate.
The truth is, he can’t risk missing a single person. No one has yet to ask for a photo in quite the right way, but he’s always listening.
* * *
America is the land of English, where the words of the world outside match the words on his skin. Phichit is fascinated by his mark, spends endless hours in speculation while Yuuri half-listens and plods through his anatomy assignments. They commiserate over the weirdness of bearing words in a strange language. Phichit’s are French, a soft script reading Tu es trop adorable, petit lapin!. As a boy, those words had inspired him to keep a pet rabbit, but he’s moved on to hamsters and admits, bashfully, that he prefers them to bunnies. He hopes his soulmate won’t mind.
Yuuri keeps skating and he keeps listening. As one year becomes three becomes five, he starts to believe that he’ll never find success with either.
* * *
The Grand Prix Final is officially the worst day of Yuuri’s entire life. A constellation of fresh bruises is blooming along his skin, tactile reminders of his colossal disaster of a free skate program. The entire world has seen what a failure he is. Worse, none of his pain or humiliation about his skating can even come close to the grief that sparks through him when he remembers Vicchan. Wrapped in a cocoon of sorrow and shame, he almost doesn’t hear the words, even though he’s looking right at the person who says them.
“A commemorative photo? Sure!”
Yuuri stares at his idol and panics. If this is true, if those really are his words, then whatever Yuuri says next will be the mark Victor has carried his entire life, the phrase that Victor must have studied and pondered and listened for in the way that Yuuri has done all these years. The words that come out his mouth need to be worthy of Victor Nikiforov, words charming and powerful enough to belong to a champion. Words special enough to explain how someone like Victor could possibly be a match for someone like Yuuri.
His brain flatlines. He can’t think of a single thing to say, not in English or Japanese or even the smattering of Thai and French that Phichit has taught him.
He doesn’t have words worthy of Victor.
Silent, he walks away.
* * *
Celestino insists that Yuuri attend the banquet, even though no one is going to want to talk to the sixth-place loser. Which is good, in a way, because Yuuri absolutely has to get through this event without talking to Victor Nikiforov. Achieving his goal shouldn’t be too difficult. There’s no way the five-time champion has anything to say to some dime-a-dozen failure.
Nothing except his words, that is.
Yuuri tries not to think about it. Probably he’s wrong about this whole thing. The phrasing isn’t that unusual. Maybe in another few months, the person he’s really meant to be with will say his words and he can forget about this whole mix-up. Or maybe he’s one of those rare few with unreturned words. That makes more sense. Yuuri’s words aren’t good enough to be worn by anyone.
Avoiding Victor is harder than he expects. The silver-haired man seems to be everywhere, although fortunately, his many sponsors and the ISU officials keep him wrapped up in conversation. Still, the champion seems to be looking at Yuuri every time Yuuri looks at him, which is unsettling.
He has a glass of champagne, which loosens up his nerves a little, so he has another. And another.
Eventually, he’s loose enough that he forgets he’s supposed to be hanging back and not talking. He challenges that obnoxious Russian kid to a dance battle and wipes the floor with him. He acquires a whole bottle of champagne. He forgets how English works, so he starts answering everyone in Japanese instead. They keep laughing at his jokes, so he supposes it doesn’t really matter.
This banquet is a magical place where nothing matters, he decides, which is why he stretches out his hand the next time he spots a fall of silver hair in the crowd.
“Dance with me, Victor!”
Victor beams, a heart-shaped smile that’s so dazzlingly different from the ones on the posters that line Yuuri’s walls. He smiles like he’s been waiting to hear those words his entire life.
He’s such a good dancer, like he’s anticipating every one of Yuuri’s moves. Their conversation flows so smoothly, too. Yuuri’s never good with new people, but within ten minutes of meeting Victor, they’re chattering away like they’ve known each other for years.
Christophe is the one who breaks the spell, approaching them both with a question Yuuri can’t quite understand. Victor replies to him smoothly, before catching Yuuri’s confused frown and explaining.
“Christophe’s surprised I know your native tongue so well.”
Yuuri stares at him, confused. “You speak Japanese?”
Victor appears baffled. “Yuuri, we’re speaking Japanese right now.”
Yuuri had forgotten that he’d forgotten English. He’d just assumed they were speaking it, since that's the default language for international events. The clarification raises another question for him, though.
“Why would you learn Japanese?”
Victor gives him a conspiratorial look, then loosens his tie and undoes the top three buttons of his dress shirt. There, on Victor’s pale clavicle, are the words that are photoshopped out in every ad and modelling spread he's ever done: the kanji for Dance with me Victor!. The letters are beautiful on his skin, and Yuuri fights back the urge to lean over and kiss them. He already knows that if he starts kissing Victor, he may never stop.
“I had to be able to answer when I heard your words, didn’t I?”
There's nothing Yuuri wants to do for the rest of his life besides kiss Victor, so he might as well start now.