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It’s July in Hasetsu. The days are hot and humid, which means that Victor can still smell the sunscreen he slathered on post-practice to keep from burning to a crisp.

Yuuri walks beside him.

It’s too hot and humid to bike these days, and making Yuuri run in the height of summer seems cruel, even for Victor, who enjoys being cruel when it yields results.

More selfishly, now that things between them are going a little more smoothly, Victor likes these moments when he has Yuuri all to himself, without figure skating or family to intervene. Even if they don’t talk on their walks home, spending time together feels like a form of communication all on its own—a way to learn the quality of each other’s silences.

Usually he likes these moments.

Today… Well, today has been a little rougher. Victor glances to his left.

He’s made a study of Yuuri. He knows Yuuri in all his aspects, from not quite awake to delightfully sultry. 

Which means Victor knows precisely what it means when Yuuri’s hair looks like this. The strands stick together. Sweat from hours of practice followed by cross-training in the gym gives it a precise texture and body that cannot be replicated by any hair care regimen. Victor can further tell that Yuuri is frustrated with his performance today by the precise way that it falls in untidy waves—Yuuri has been raking his hands through it. He’s angry that his quad toeloop (of all things, when they’d just got the success rate on the Salchow under control last week) has been acting up.

Yuuri practically glowers with a frustration that says I shouldn’t have to deal with these stupid setbacks. He’d said as much to Victor, when Victor tried to reassure him that everyone occasionally suffers from weeks where their bodies seems to forget all prior muscle memory.

Yuuri had turned away in annoyance. “You never did.”

“I did!” Victor had snapped, and that had turned into an argument about that Terrible Season when he was 21, which Yuuri insists was actually Very Good and he was just underscored.

Victor had given up on reason and banned Yuuri from the ice.

In retaliation, Yuuri hasn’t said a word the entire way home.

Victor is trying to be a good coach.

Yes, he’s also trying to get in Yuuri’s pants, something he’s wanted ever since that night at the banquet. He’d never experienced anything like that before—that tension, the way they’d circled each other, playing together as if they were birds circling in the sky, as if they were speaking a secret language that said mine and yes and okay, let’s get on with it.

But Yuuri doesn’t speak the language of the sky. He didn’t mean what Victor heard, and Victor’s willing to wait until Yuuri says those things out loud, in whatever language he deems appropriate.

Until then, he knows what he needs to do—beat his stupid instincts over the head.  Stop remembering their dance at the banquet as if it were a courting dance between prospective mates. Stop getting all flushed and pleased when Yuuri brings him food he thinks he’ll like at festivals. Victor knows that humans don’t court with food like that. It’s not Yuuri’s fault that his actions mean something entirely different to Victor’s stupid heart, and Victor has no way of explaining to him.

In my culture, feeding someone like this is very intimate. The only way to make it more intimate would be if you predigest it for me. Yep. That would go over very well.

None of Yuuri’s casual gestures mean what Victor wants them to mean.

And until Yuuri does want what Victor yearns for, there’s nothing to do but be a coach—the best one he can be.

He doesn’t know how to be a good coach to Yuuri when he’s like this—so hard on himself that there’s no room for Victor next to his self-flagellation.

“So,” Victor tries, “what do you want to have for dinner?”

Yuuri’s jaw sets. “To go back and land a quad toe loop.”

Ah. Yuuri is still pissed that Victor made him stop pointlessly hurling himself across the ice. But jumps are things that need to be finessed—if you’re angry, you’re not letting it flow—and Yuuri was just going to hurt himself.

Victor waits for a quarter of a kilometer, watching the clouds overhead, before he tries again. “Want to go out after dinner? It’s bright late in the evening. We could go for a walk on the beach.”

Yuuri looks away. “You said I was supposed to be resting. I better not.”

It’s been months since they sat on the beach that day together, and Victor thought they had started to break down their barriers, that they were getting along better.

And they are. They really are. They hang out on rest days. Yuuri shows him funny dog videos. They go to the beach; Victor tried to surf once. Yuuri laughed when he lost his board and went under, and it was worth it to see him smile.

Victor’s beginning to understand Yuuri—a perfectionist who can never seen when he’s perfect—and he thinks Yuuri is beginning to understand him back. Sometimes, he thinks he sees Yuuri looking at him with a look that is almost…more. Sometimes, he thinks Yuuri sees the way he’s looking at him, and blushes and looks away.

But sometimes, it feels like that damned quad toe—something that should be easy falls apart for no reason. 

Victor sighs and keeps walking. The sunlight is hazy through wispy strands of cirrus clouds, casting warm, golden light along the sand of the beach. The leaves of the nearby trees are lush and green, rusting in the breeze. Overhead, seagulls flock.

Black tailed gulls, Yuuri had corrected him, when he’d remarked on them. Very different from common gulls. 

I know, Victor hadn’t said. The birds swoop and dive over the ocean, light catching their wings, and he looks over and catches Yuuri watching them, faintly envious.

He can’t decipher the look on Yuuri’s face.

“Do you ever wonder what it’s like to fly?” Yuuri asks, and Victor knows that this change of subject is Yuuri’s version of an apology for snapping at him a few minutes back.

No, Victor does not say. No, he doesn’t need to wonder.

“I have dreams about it,” Victor says instead, which is the truth. He dreams about flying the way he dreams about skating—as a thing that he knows with in-depth familiarity.

Yuuri ducks his head. “I don’t.”

“You don’t have dreams? Or you don’t wonder?”

Yuuri just looks at him. They’re almost to the onsen by now, the familiar gate to the property just down the road. “Neither,” he says. And then he says nothing else—there’s nothing but the call of the gulls overhead.

So much like the sound of gulls in St. Petersburg to human ears. Victor can hear the difference. The calls of these gulls are pitched higher, coming more frequently. They use more calls—Victor hasn’t deciphered the meaning of them all. And he’s thinking about communicating with seagulls because he’s hit another conversational dead end with Yuuri.

Victor sighs and keeps walking, trying to think of what to say. “You know,” he says, as they enter the onsen, “they say that birds are the descendants of the dinosaurs.”

“Yeah?” Yuuri looks at him as they climb the stairs. “And what do you think?”

Victor laughs. “They totally are. Is there anything pushier than a hungry seagull?”

For some reason, though, this just makes Yuuri stiffen. “God.” He stops just outside his door. “Not all seagulls are pushy, Victor.”

“I didn’t say they were?”

“Yes, you did, you—” Yuuri bites off the rest of his sentence and shoves his door open. “Never mind, it’s not important.”

“For something that’s not important, you’re taking this really seriously,” Victor replies in confusion.

In response, Yuuri retreats into his room and shuts the door.

Victor squeezes his eyes shut. What the hell just happened? What an idiot he had been, thinking that he could be a good coach just because he knew how to land jumps and teach a few edge work exercises.

Victor considers himself the world’s foremost Yuuri expert. He could write a dissertation on Yuuri. But his mother is a college professor and when he was a child he would sometimes go to her office after skating lessons and listen to her browbeat her students about their dissertations: everyone who does not have a doctoral degree thinks it is proof that you have all the answers, but the reality is that it mostly just means you know how to ask questions.

Being a Yuuri expert means that Victor has questions. He has loads of questions.

Seriously. Of all things? If anyone is going to get mad about dissing seagulls, it should be Victor. Why would Yuuri care?

He retreats to his room. He gets out a change of clothing, but instead of showering and changing from his workout gear, he opens his window and deliberates.

He hasn’t shifted much since he came to Hasetsu—just a couple of times early on, before he and Yuuri really started clicking. It used to be a part of his routine. It was useful cross-training; when he’s a seagull, he’s more aware of his center of gravity. But he’s had better things to do with his spare time—watching old skating routines with Yuuri, hanging out in the onsen, helping Yuuri with his stretches, overthinking what it means when Yuuri hands him takoyaki and watches him eat it…

He hasn’t shifted because he doesn’t want to lie to Yuuri.

Where were you this afternoon? is a hard question to answer when the truth is I changed into a gull and flew over the bay.

If he ever tells another human being about himself, it will sound odd and mystical and unnatural. How does that happen, Yuuri will ask, but from Victor’s point of view, the nonshifters, eternally stuck in the same flesh 24-7, are the weird ones. The fact that he happens to be able to shift into a seagull is an ordinary part of him—no stranger than puberty or gall bladders or hippopotami or the fact that he can launch the 180 cm tall version of himself into the air and turn four times before landing.

Right now, though, he’s stuck in his own head and Yuuri doesn’t want to talk. Now’s the only chance he’ll get to go for a while. 

Victor opens his window, shifts, and launches into the sky. 

The ground peels away from under him; the sea, glinting in the sunlight, beckons. The air smells of salt and water and fish, and it’s the perfect time to vent his frustrations in the flap of wings. He finds a draft and rides it high, then higher, until the fisherman on the bridge dwindles to a tiny dot.

A flock of gulls is up ahead, and Victor tilts warily, unsure of approaching. He’s not the same subspecies. As Yuuri had so helpfully pointed out that day on the beach, these are black-tailed gulls, and he’s a common seagull. He’s very outnumbered. 

Seagulls don’t seem scary when you’re a human, but right now Victor weighs about five hundred grams. Most of the birds in the flock ahead outweigh him by a good twenty percent.

And he doesn’t know these birds, doesn’t know their calls. He’s avoided interacting with other birds the entire time he’s here.

Are they territorial? Tribal? Will they drive him off with a few warning calls if he’s unwelcome, or will they mob him as if he were a predator? He just doesn’t know what the local colonies are like.

It’s not all dire. Aside from calls, though, seagull language is simple. Most of the more subtle thoughts are expressed in body language. Still, Victor is aware that he is very demonstrably a foreigner in this crowd. He wheels out to sea, watching the other birds, considering.

But as he’s thinking, one of the black-tailed gulls turns toward him. It doesn’t call out a predator warning. It just glides in his direction with a beautiful economy of motion.

Ka-oo, it says in approach, in what Victor hopes is a simple greeting.

Yark, Victor tries back.

It joins him in making lazy circles, dipping a wing and dropping for just a tiny second. Gull language beyond calls is simple—body language that mimics the physical world—and this is the simplest language of all.

Hi there, let’s catch some fish.

Friendly enough. The other bird has a black stripe on his bill and a handsome red spot. He’s bigger than Victor, with dark black primaries that catch the light, and slate-gray secondaries that have a delicate, beautiful sheen. He’s male, with a wingspan almost half again the size of Victor’s, but the bird doesn’t seem to want anything except to hang out.

Victor’s thoughts are a mess. Gulls are simple; there’s no lying, no hiding, no feeding Victor and holding his hand when drunk and then withdrawing the next morning and looking away guiltily every time their eyes meet.

Sometimes, simple works best. He circles the other bird a few times and then swoops closer to the waves, close enough for him to feel the spray of the salt. 

Another reason Victor hasn’t shifted into gull-form much: He doesn’t know much about the local fish, except that they’re different from St. Petersburg. He watches as the black-tailed gull skims the waves, wings flapping, before plunge-diving into the ocean, surfacing with a small black fish in his beak. Victor has to try—and fail—twice, before he manages the same, but his new friend (?) (he hopes?) sticks with him. 

After he succeeds, his friend takes him to a black rock in the bay, and they eat their catch, before launching into the sky.

Victor doesn’t know the meaning of all the other gull’s calls, but he doesn’t need to understand everything to understand flying for the joy of flying. The two of them throw themselves into the last light of the sun as it sinks low, aiming high then diving down and landing on the waves, splashing each other and then shaking off the droplets. 

The other gull is heavier, and can splash Victor harder; Victor makes up for it by batting water off his wing in the other’s direction. The black-tailed gull startles when he does this, but swiftly figures out the move, batting water back at him.

They play; the other gull shows him little mollusk-like things on the rocks that are surprisingly tasty, once you get the shell out of the way, and they play some more. They drink sea water to quench their thirst (the second best part of being a gull) and Victor feels his head clearing with every passing minute.

Sometimes, he realizes, Yuuri is just going to be in a bad mood. Maybe Victor doesn’t have to do anything about it. It’s not his job as coach to solve everything wrong in Yuuri’s life, and Yuuri hates it when he tries to do it. Maybe it’s okay to just give him space?

By the time the sun sets, Victor finds himself on a craggy outcropping overlooking the ocean, his new friend next to him. Victor stretches his wings out, preening, and straightening his secondary feathers, and maybe boasting just a little bit because he thinks their color is very becoming.

The big fellow next to him does the same, at first.

Before Victor came to Hasetsu, he’d take long flights and wonder what would happen if he just…stayed as a gull. Forever. He doesn’t think that today. The sunlight dances gold and red across the water, and he thinks of Yuuri. He thinks of them running together on the beach with sparklers. He thinks of them skating on the ice together, messing around, Yuuri skating circles around him when he begins to tire.

He can’t imagine not going back to him. No matter what argument they’re having.

But his new friend interrupts his reverie by turning to him and offering his head for grooming, and Victor feels his heart freeze. 

Grooming in this way is a gesture of trust. Of friendship. But it’s often the beginning of something more.

Victor is very, very gay, no matter what flesh he wears, and this other gull is male. Seagull species inter-mate pretty regularly. And the other gull hasn’t quite gone down the full pair-bonding courtship dance, not yet—but this is a start. 

If Victor were a gull, just a gull, he would take it. He likes the other bird. Gulls don’t usually ask for more.

But Victor is also a human.

Seagulls mate for life. They’ll live for a decade, sometimes two. It would be the height of cruelty for him to lead this gull on and then change back into human form, carrying about from day to day, leaving someone behind to pine for him when he has no way to explain. And Victor yearns for Yuuri. Even now. Even here.

Victor pulls away, fluttering his wings, and tossing his head.

He doesn’t think he’s imagining the hurt in the other gull’s expression, the way it turns from him and stretches out its own feathers into a glorious wingspan that dwarfs Victor’s own.

Victor has spent too long out here; the sun is disappearing over the horizon. He pushes off into the air and sets off for the onsen in the growing twilight. After a moment, he realizes his new friend is following along. 

Well. There is no word in seagull for fuck off already, and Victor is grateful to the fellow for his friendship. He arrives back at the onsen and hops onto the open windowsill of his room.

The other bird lands beside him.

There’s only one thing to do. Victor shifts back into human form as he slips inside. The other bird tries to enter the room with him, but he bars its path with his hands and shuts the window as swiftly as he can.

“Sorry,” he whispers, watching the bird wheel outside in frustration. “You can’t come in. But thank you. I needed that.”

The black tailed gull turns back and then forth in front of the window in agitation, letting out a call that Victor can’t quite decipher, flapping its wings, before giving its head an almost shake and disappearing around the corner.

Victor sighs, and feels all his human worries returning to his shoulders. He and Yuuri still need to talk, and—

And.

And it occurs to him that what just happened was actually…really odd behavior for a gull, even a gull that might be mildly enamored of him. Almost as odd as Yuuri getting pissed at him, again, for saying that gulls are pushy…

Victor swallows, a thought coming to him. It’s so ridiculous, so impossible, that…

…that it might be true?

He opens his door and dashes down the hall. He doesn’t bother to knock at Yuuri’s door; he darts in, just in time to see his black-tailed friend fly in the window, and in one smooth, perfect, practiced motion, transform into Yuuri.

Yuuri is still dressed in his skating clothes; his hair is impossibly ruffled in a way Victor has never seen. He adds it to his catalogue of Yuuri: this is what he looks like when he has been flying.

Because Yuuri flies. He is also a seagull.

There are a thousand things Victor could say.

Things like, wow, you’re a gull shifter.

Or: what the fuck?

But he’s waited all this time to try and tell someone what his ordinary looked like. He doesn’t want to make it weird.

What he says instead is, “That was a nice sunset, wasn’t it?”

Yuuri blushes. “One of the best I’ve seen in a while.” He blushes a little harder, then, and looks over at Victor. “See?” he says, his tone trending a little more aggressive. “Seagulls aren’t all pushy.”

Victor laughs. It’s funny, now that he knows the truth. How could he not have known before now? They’ve spent half their time speaking in the physical language of gull without Victor even realizing it. The times on the ice when they’re just messing around, and they circle each other without having to say a word. When they danced at the Grand Prix Final banquet, and he felt that zing of a connection, knowing when Yuuri would move this way, when he would move that way—understanding without speaking. When Yuuri brought him that takoyaki and watched him eat it, his gaze fixed on his lips.

Mine, was what they had been saying. Mine. Victor swallows.

“When did you figure it out?” he asks.

Yuuri shrugs. “When I saw a seagull fly out of your window the first week you were here.”

“And you didn’t say anything?”

“I did say something. I brought up seagulls a lot.” Yuuri looks at him. “I thought maybe you knew about me, too. You mentioned them…more than a few times. I thought, maybe that one day on the beach, you were telling me you had a mate in St. Petersburg.”

“What?” Victor startles. “How did you get that from… You mean the day I asked if you wanted to be my boyfriend?! No!”

“No?” Yuuri blushes. “Okay. That’s…good to know, I think.”

“Huh.” Victor looks over at Yuuri. He always imagined that someday he would tell someone the truth. Someday, once he’d decided to take the plunge and actually mate for life. He always imagined there would be questions and disbelief. Maybe that’s why he’s always held other people at arm’s length.

And here they are—this is the new normal. This is the world where he can take Yuuri out into the sky for center-of-gravity cross-training exercises. Where they can play in the waves and laugh with each other and sit on outcroppings that would never support a human and watch the sun sink low.

He can’t help the smile that crosses his face. “What are the chances, anyway? Two professional figure skaters, and we’re both seagull shifters?”

Yuuri locks eyes with him, and a faint blush paints his cheeks before he looks away.

Seagulls mate for life.

Seagull shifters…are human enough that they are as potentially stupid and fickle as the worst of the lot. There are no guarantees, not with shifters.

But in his heart, Victor has always thought of himself as mostly seagull. Enough that he remembers their flight earlier, that he remembers Yuuri bending his neck, offering to let Victor groom him. And he remembers rejecting Yuuri, not knowing it was him, because he wasn’t Yuuri.

Shit.

Grooming isn’t mating, but it’s one of those steps along the way. One of those things that may mean too much, if you aren’t careful, and…

He reaches out and tilts Yuuri’s chin up. It’s just one finger, just one tiny point of contact, but it feels like an awful lot more.

“Yuuri,” he says.

“Yes?” The word whispers from Yuuri’s lips.

“Your hair’s a mess. Want me to comb it?”

For a second, Yuuri just looks in his eyes, his lips parted, his breath quickening. Then he smiles. “I would love that.”