The first thing that surprised Yakov was that Yuuri Katsuki didn't bother trying to kiss his ass. He was quiet, deferential, but he didn't try to curry favor the way Vitya would have if he were the one begging a strange coach for favors. He was clearly nervous about the FS, but he kept most of that to himself.
"You know what you need to do with the step sequence," Yakov said. "There's nothing I can tell you about that."
"I know," he said.
He was like an impenetrable wall. Yakov was used to yelling and temper tantrums and crying fits. Not this quiet, solid, determined young man.
It must have been a different world to Vitya, too, working with someone who kept so much of what he cared about held deep inside. He wondered what the early days between them had been like, if Victor had tried to coach quiet, impossibly reserved Yuuri Katsuki the way Yakov had always dealt with his dramatic, expressive skaters.
He bottles things up, Vitya had sent in an anxious text, but trying to get him to talk doesn't really help. Mostly what I do is try to be confident. But not too confident. Maybe about half a medal less than what he can do, but more than what he thinks he can do. Unless you insult him? Sometimes he likes a challenge.
I'm sorry. I know this isn't very helpful.
I'll let you know when I know about Makkachin, please tell Yuuri if he's on the ice?
The second thing that surprised Yakov was the way Yuuri worked. Yakov had assumed it had been an up-and-down work ethic that had resulted in such uneven performances, but Victor's notes ('notes' was a bit of an insult to the word, 'random scribbles' summed it up more accurately) described a skater who worked his own coach to exhaustion.
He was the first one on the ice at practice, his jaw set, his eyes looking at something Yakov couldn't even begin to visualize.
"Is that all right?"
"Your landing was sloppy," Yakov said, and Yuuri skated out to center ice and ran the jump through three more times without prompting.
Yakov wanted to laugh. If he'd ever had a skater that worked this hard, he could have taken over the world.
If Yuuri got past himself, the greatest obstacle of all. Celestino had heard, somehow--Vitya, likely--and had sent a few notes of his own, more organized, but less useful, by Celestino's own admission. He doesn't respond well to traditional coaching, and I can't exactly tell you to do whatever Victor's been doing. If Victor himself even knows what's been working.
Celestino didn't say, and Yakov certainly wasn't going to either, but 'whatever Victor's been doing' likely smashed any ideas of professional distance between coach and student anyway. That was a line Yakov wouldn't cross even if Yuuri had wanted him to.
And Yuuri certainly didn't want him to. Yakov caught him looking over to the spot Victor usually occupied at rinkside more than once, as if he had to remind himself that Victor was already gone, that Yuuri would compete alone and travel back to Japan by himself.
That was the third surprise; that Yuuri didn't collapse, that he was pulling on some inner reserve of strength that seemed to even surprise himself.
How does he look? Vitya asked, just once.
I can't promise anything.
He looks all right. Better than at last year's Final, certainly.
"At least he works hard," Nathalie Leroy said, leaning next to Yakov as Yuri warmed up across the rink.
I hope it's worth it to Vitya," Yakov said. "He could still have competed this season, and--"
"Did it ever occur to you that maybe that's why? This way he retires on top. A legend, gone before his body started breaking down. Before the falls and the missed points started adding up. A protégé, giving him credit? You could go out on a lot worse note than that."
"He's never been like that."
"He's never done anything like this, either," she said, which was true enough, unless this fell under the near-limitless category of Vitya doing whatever the hell he wanted to.
Yakov just sighed. Had Vitya really drifted so far away from him?
But he had. Of course he had. Ten years ago, Yakov would have seen it--whatever it was--coming. But this had come out of nowhere. He hadn't been paying enough attention, or maybe Victor had just gotten better at hiding.
It had been easy to tell himself that Vitya was having an early mid-life crisis, that he was terrified of his body failing, that he'd just wanted to distract himself with a Japanese booty call, when he was still in St. Petersburg and Vitya was half the world away, putting silly pictures with terrible hashtags on his Insta. But that wasn't what Yakov saw in Yuuri Katsuki now. Yuuri Katsuki worked like a dog and skated like a prince, and the sloppy drunk from Sochi was nowhere to be seen.
But Vitya still must have been more lonely and frustrated than Yakov could possibly have realized.
"I do like him," Nathalie said. "Not everyone understands my JJ either. It's...not always easy, when you are not so charming and easy with people as Victor Nikiforov."
Yakov had never been as charming and easy with people as Victor was, either. It had been easier when the Soviet skating machine had just wanted him to skate beautifully and there were no worries about sponsors. It had been difficult in its own way, but at least there had been only had one set of masters to answer to. "Did he ever train with you?"
"He and JJ were with Celestino for a season, before JJ came back to work with us." She shook her head. "Celestino takes on the difficult cases, yes? I think he was good for JJ, but--not quite right. It is hard, finding the best person to bring out who you are."
"I think you're right," he said. That had been simpler in the Soviet days too. Yakov didn't miss that part at all.
Whatever they’d created together must have started to work, because when Yuuri stepped off the ice, Yakov didn't hesitate to tell him exactly what hadn't worked in the FS, the places that were easy fixes, the things he was still struggling with.
Yuuri had accepted it, without tears or complaints (there were tears, later, when the text came through about Makkachin, and for all the times in his life Yakov had said it's just a dog, he had to admit to himself that he felt relief as well). Yuuri said 'thank you,' just a few times, with the polite bow that Yakov was already finding familiar, and thanked Yakov again when he'd insisted on driving him to the airport, as he'd driven Victor to the airport in St. Petersburg not that long ago.
"Tell Vitya--tell him you did well."
The last good thing about Yuuri Katsuki was that he didn't say stupid things like he's seen the tape or does that mean you approve, because Victor has been worried. He just nodded, his eyes bright and focused behind his glasses. "Yes, Mr. Feltsman. I will."
Yakov clapped him on the shoulder, and Katsuki went toward the security gate. The rest is up to you, he sent to Vitya.
I'll never be able to thank you enough.
He worked hard. It was fine.
Yakov's first thought was not so easy on the other side, eh? He thought better of it. You're welcome. Just don’t let him embarrass you both at the Final.
Yakov smiled. You could take a lot of things away from Victor Nikiforov, but it took a lot to shake his confidence. For once, he was grateful for it. We'll see you in Barcelona.
I'm looking forward to it.