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I Dream At Night (I Can Only See Your Face)

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The visions started when he was 17. 

 

He stood in front of the mirror in his room, absent-mindedly brushing out his long hair. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught the glint of gold. Setting down the brush, he turned to pick up the medal, letting the long, heavy ribbon hang down as he stared down at it, unseeing. In his mind, the roar of the crowd still echoed, the announcer’s voice barely registering…

 

“Only 17 years old, Victor Nikiforov has just secured a World Record as well as Olympic Gold here in Paris! What an incredible future this young man has ahead of him! All of Russia, and indeed the world, have their eyes on him after today!”

 

He dropped the medal back onto the dresser, then turned to check his appearance one last time before heading out to meet his coach for yet another interview for yet another news station he didn’t recognize. Or maybe it was a photo shoot? He kept getting it all jumbled in the swirling media chaos that had enveloped him in the wake of his surprise win at yesterday’s free skate. 

 

In the mirror, something moved at the far edge of his vision. His reflection seemed to twist, eyes and hair suddenly dark as the room tilted.

 

“I’ll take it all away from you, someday.”

 

Victor gasped as the words echoed in his head. He blinked, hard, the disturbing image shifting back to his own features as quickly as it had appeared. Shaken, he snagged the medal and stumbled out of the room, anxious to seek the comfort of his coach’s presence. 

 

 

***

 

Yakov, as it turned out, was less than comforting.

 

“Vitya, there is no ghost in your mirror.”

 

“Yakov, I didn’t say ghost! Maybe…maybe it’s a demon! Or…I don’t know, maybe it’s some sort of warning?”

 

The Russian coach heaved a deep sigh, the wrinkles in his forehead suddenly deeper, more prominent as he gripped Victor’s shoulder. “It’s just stress, Vitya. You’re tired, you’re overly excitable right now with everything that has happened…”

 

“But Yakov…”

 

“Enough. Do you wish for the media to catch wind of this… hallucination of yours? They have claws, boy. They’ll use any excuse they can find to tear you apart!”

 

Victor flinched at the unexpectedly harsh tone, hunching in on himself. “I…I didn’t think…I…”

 

Another sigh, then Yakov’s expression softened. “Right now, you are the golden child, but they will turn in an instant if they think they have a better story. Remember that.”

 

Victor straightened his shoulders, flipping his long, silvery hair out of his face as he flashed a shaky, heart-shaped smile. “Of course, Yakov!” he chirped. “I wouldn’t want to disappoint my fans, now would I?”

 

Yakov glared at him, suspicious of the skater’s sudden capitulation. “Yes, well then. Good,” he harrumphed. “Perhaps after this interview, we should postpone appearances for a day or two. You clearly need to rest.”

 

Victor nodded, struggling to maintain his affable façade. After all, if his coach didn’t believe him, he knew someone who would.

 

***

 

“So, you’re saying it spoke to you?” 

 

Victor valiantly restrained himself from rolling his eyes. “Yes, Gosha. I said that. Three times. Now what was it?”

 

It had been three days since closing ceremonies, but this was the first day Yakov had allowed him back at the rink. ("Take a break, Vitya. You don’t want to burn yourself out. Worlds is soon, you need to be well rested to perform at your best…”) He’d cornered Georgi as soon as Yakov let them off the ice, dragging the other teen to an abandoned corner of the locker room. The other Russian skater was a trifle melodramatic, but he was Victor’s oldest friend. (Your only friend, whispered a voice that sounded far too familiar.) Plus, Georgi came with the added benefit of a passion for the supernatural that was rivaled only by his obsession with romance.

 

“Well,” Georgi said slowly, dragging the word out as he thought. “It doesn’t sound like any sort of classic Russian demon.”

 

“Well, duh, Gosha. I was in France,” Victor replied, rolling his eyes. The sarcasm was lost on his friend.

 

“Right. It could be some sort of fae being, but honestly, I’m banking on a haunted room.”

 

Victor sighed, disappointed. “It was in the Olympic Village. The room was brand new. Nobody could possibly have died in it already.” To his mild horror, Georgi didn’t look convinced by that logic. Before the other teen could start positing morbid ways in which someone could have died in the previously unused room, he hastened to continue. “Besides, that’s not the only time,” he admitted nervously.

 

Georgi looked at him sharply, his blue eyes suddenly concerned. “You mean you’d seen it before?” he asked.

 

Victor shook his head. “No, no, that was the first time but…when I got home from the airport…

 

He’d been tired, but thankfully not jetlagged thanks to the miniscule time change. Stepping out of the hot shower in his cramped, but blissfully private dorm room, he’d hesitated by the vanity. He had dumped the contents of his carry-on over the surface of the little table before his shower, searching for the little bottles of fancy moisturizer he’d indulged in at the Duty-Free shop. Now, laying in a jumble with the rest of his things, the Olympic gold beckoned. He picked it up, feeling that swooping sense of pride in his chest again and then…

 

Like before, the shift in the mirror happened almost too quickly to catch, his long, pale silvery hair shifting to something dark and short, a hint of red where sea-blue eyes should be.

 

And the voice in his head again…

 

“Even gold loses its shine…” Victor finished, his brow furrowed as he remembered the strange vision. Across the bench, Georgi looked as if he wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or frightened.

 

“I don’t know, Vitya,” the dark-haired boy began, “it sounds almost…personal.”

 

For a moment, Victor was worried that his friend was about to launch into a Yakov-esque speech about stress and mental health and…

 

“Until we know what it wants, you should probably avoid mirrors,” Georgi finished solemnly. “Maybe cover the ones in your room. I’d suggest silk since it’s less likely to hold negative energy, but a sheet should work for now, and we can definitely look into a sage smudging, there’s a shop not far from here that sells that sort of thing and…”

 

Victor tried to pay attention as his friend rambled, but he was too busy feeling an odd sense of relief. Someone believed him.

 

***

 

Time passed.

 

He avoided mirrors when he could, tried not to let the visions and the taunts get to him when he couldn’t.

 

Tried.

 

He won more gold. A lot more gold.

 

Soon, it didn’t really matter that he rarely saw his own reflection; his image shone up at him from television screens and magazines, from cardboard cutouts and the covers of programs. He began to worry about receding hairlines, about the tiny crow’s feet and laugh lines that had started to show up in paparazzi shots, though not in the carefully retouched professional images. When he eventually traded in his long, silky ponytail for a more traditional, more masculine, cut, he learned to style it practically in his sleep.

 

He learned, too, how to respond to every iteration of the same set of questions asked in every interview he gave. He learned the right angle to tilt his head in photos with fans, how to avert his eyes behind dark shades so he didn’t have to look at the phone screens in selfies, how to throw a wink and a smile that stole hearts.

 

He learned, in short, how to be perfect.

 

It didn’t stop the visions.

 

Or the voice.

 

***

 

Contrary to popular belief, Christophe Giacometti was not a vain man.

 

Well, not an overly vain man, anyway. He was aware of his own devastatingly good looks, obviously. However, he was also aware that there were at least two members of the men’s figure skating community that had him beat in that department. Luckily, one might as well be a cryptid and the other…

 

Well, he imagined it was rather lonely being the #LivingLegend.

 

And speak of the handsome, yet untouchable, devil...

 

“Victor,” Chris purred as he leaned against the wall beside the Russian skater. “You know, if I had just won my fourth World Championship, I’d be out mingling with my hordes of admirers, not hiding in the corner of the banquet hall.”

 

Victor flashed him a tight smile, the expression not quite reaching his icy blue eyes. “You’re welcome to my share of attention,” he said breezily, then shifted his gaze to the flute of champagne in his hand.

 

Chris pouted slightly. After years of friendship, he was used to Victor’s moods, but he was determined to pull him out of his head tonight. “Is that sage I smell? A new cologne, perhaps?” He leaned forward, daring to invade Victor’s personal space to sniff teasingly at the other man’s neck.

 

Victor pulled back, blinking in wide-eyed surprise. Chris couldn’t help preening slightly at pulling a real reaction out of the notoriously unflappable skater.

 

“I…n-no. Just…aromatherapy. To…ah…relax after the...um...competition,” Victor stammered, chugging his champagne to cover the panic in his voice.

 

Chris narrowed his eyes, suspicious at the strange reaction to his innocuous question. “Right…” he murmured, watching his friend closely. “Victor, listen, if you need to talk…”

 

“I’m fine, Christophe,” Victor interrupted curtly.

 

Chris barely kept himself from snapping back. “Right. Of course you are. I was merely going to suggest going elsewhere for a finer selection in beverages, but if you aren’t interested…”

 

The tension in Victor’s shoulders eased somewhat. “Sorry, Chris, I’m…I’m didn’t mean…” He slumped slightly. “I’m just tired, I think,” the skater admitted, running a hand through his silver-blond hair.

 

“Too tired for that drink?” Chris asked, raising a well-groomed brow.

 

Victor flashed him a small but genuine smile. “No. That sounds perfect, honestly.”

 

Between their combined star-power it took longer than Chris would have liked to exit the stuffy banquet hall but, after extricating themselves from yet another ISU official, the pair made their escape. Victor kept his eyes on the ground as they entered the mirror-walled elevator, a tic that Chris had long since grown used to. 

 

“You know, for an international heartthrob, you don’t seem terribly fond of your own reflection,” he teased lightly, startled when, once again, his words drew a stronger reaction than he’d anticipated. 

 

“I’m aware of what I look like, Chris,” Victor snapped, his tone grim. The doors bounced open and the Russian strode out of the lift, not waiting to see if the Swiss skater would follow.

 

Of course, there were few people in the world that wouldn’t follow where Victor Nikiforov led. In that, Chris supposed, he was no different than the rest of his friend’s fans. He caught up to the other man just past the revolving doors, nearly barreling into Victor when the Russian halted in the middle of the sidewalk. 

 

Merde! Warn a fellow, mon ami!”

 

Victor grimaced, shaking his head ruefully. “Gods, I’m sorry Chris. I’m…I’m being an ass and you don’t deserve that…”

 

Chris allowed his lips to twist into a smirk before waggling his eyebrows in an outrageously suggestive manner. “Lucky for you, I’m rather fond of asses,” he purred. To his delight, Victor let out a hysterical bark of laughter. “Ah, there you are, love. I’ll admit, I was a bit concerned. You don’t seem yourself tonight, Vitya…”

 

Victor slung an amiable arm around Chris’s waist, steering them towards the nearby cluster of bars and restaurants. Chris settled his own around his friend’s shoulders, allowing the comfortable silence to stretch between them for a long moment. Finally, Victor let out a deep breath. “Is it worth it, Chris? All of…” he flapped his unoccupied arm in a vague gesture, “this?”

 

Chris hesitated, unwilling to break the easy comradery that had finally been reestablished. “Darling,” he began delicately, “I’m afraid I don’t know. You’re, very literally, the only person in the world who’s ever won four World Championship figure skating titles… not to mention three Olympic golds…”

 

Victor snorted indelicately. “Four.” 

 

“Ah, yes. I’d forgotten about the Team Skate.”

 

“Most people do,” Victor muttered. “Do you know, in the last month they’ve never once invited Georgi to join me for interviews? Despite the fact that he’s an Olympic gold medalist now, too?”

 

Chris winced. “Ooof. That must be rather frustrating for him. He’s a damned fine skater.”

 

Victor nodded. “Yes. He is. As are the rest of the skaters that fought for that medal.” 

 

The men paused, having reached the cluster of brightly lit store fronts. Chris jutted his chin towards one of the smaller ones and the pair continued on, entering a surprisingly quiet bar. In accord, they made their way towards a corner booth, conversation on standby as they perused the menu offered by the server. 

 

When they had made their selections, Chris shifted his gaze to his friend. “Listen, Vitya, I’ll be blunt. As charming as your concern for your friend is, I somehow doubt your mood is entirely to do with Georgi Popovich.”

 

Victor flinched at the blunt statement. Bingo, Chris thought to himself. Out loud, he continued, “So why don’t you tell me why, precisely, figure skating’s Golden Boy isn’t sure if success is, ah, how did you phrase it? ‘Worth it?’” 

 

They paused as their server arrived, rather full martini glasses held carefully between his practiced fingers. The men accepted the drinks, smiling their thanks in the server’s direction before toasting each other. Victor took a rather lengthy sip, clearly gathering his thoughts while Chris settled his glass on the table, waiting patiently. Finally, Victor set his own drink down, though his fingers continued to play idly with the rim.

 

“Georgi hasn’t talked to me since Sochi,” he murmured, not meeting Chris’s eyes.

 

“So, this is about Popovich?”

 

Victor shrugged. “Yes. No. I…You know Anya Stepanova? The ice dancer?”

 

Chris nodded. “Bronze in Sochi, but the pair pulled out of Worlds. I’m familiar. Why?”

 

“Gosha is convinced she’s the love of his life. They’ve been together a little over a year.”

 

Chris hummed thoughtfully, encouraging Victor to continue.

 

“She’s cheating on him,” Victor said brusquely, taking another long sip of his drink. “I saw her with one of the Russian hockey players, in Sochi.”

 

“Ah. I don’t know Popovich well, but he doesn’t deserve that,” Chris replied. “Have you told him?”

 

Victor shrugged, looking suddenly very young and very helpless. “I told him he should break up with her. But…I didn’t tell him why . I didn’t…I didn’t want to hurt him.”

 

Chris sighed. “You must have given him some reason?”

 

“I…It was after the free skate. He didn’t do as well as he wanted and…I…I told him that Anya was a distraction. That if he wanted to do better, he needed to decide whether he wanted to focus on romance or on his career.”

 

Chris winced. “Tactful, darling.”

 

Victor looked frustrated. “I was trying to be tactful!” He drained the rest of his glass in one long gulp, then looked around for the server to obtain another.

 

A fresh round ordered, the Swiss skater returned to the issue at hand. “I’m guessing your intervention didn’t go over so well?”

 

“You could say that,” the other man muttered before tipping his head back against the booth, blinking up at the bar’s tin tile ceiling. “He said…he said that there was more to life than winning medals. Said I wouldn’t know love if it, ah, ‘bit me in the ass’. There was more, but you get the gist. He hasn’t talked to me since. Hasn’t broken up with Anya, either.” Victor pulled his eyes away from the ceiling, dropping them instead to the drinks that had been delivered. “Maybe I should have just been honest with him,” he concluded.

 

Chris pondered for a moment, nursing a long sip of his whiskey. “I’m…not sure it would have changed things, Vitya. Romance is tricky enough when it’s going well, but when there’s trouble in paradise…” he trailed off for a moment.

 

Love will destroy everything you thought you wanted…” Victor muttered, almost as if to himself.

 

That is rather morbid, darling. Wherever did you hear such a thing?”

 

To his surprise, a light flush appeared on Victor’s face, highlighting the bridge of his nose and his high, porcelain cheekbones. “Ah. It’s nothing. Just…just something I heard once I guess. Say, have I told you about the junior skater Yakov’s been working with? He’s only thirteen, but just the other day I had to help Yakov convince him to stop throwing quads into his routines…”

 

Chris narrowed his eyes, but allowed the change in subject. As he listened to his friend chatter on, he vowed to keep a closer eye on the Living Legend. Despite Victor’s breezy attitude, he had a feeling that something was simmering under the surface, something that was bound to come to a head sooner or later.

 

***

 

“What’s up with the depressing music? This shit is boring.”

 

Victor sighed. “Good morning to you, too, Yura.”

 

Da, da, whatever. Tell me that’s not your new free skate.”

 

Rolling his eyes, Victor skated to the edge of the rink and pressed pause on the iPod he’d left sitting on the edge of the wall. “It’s not my new free skate,” he parroted teasingly.

 

Yuri Plisetsky, actual teenaged embodiment of angst and melodrama, collapsed against the side wall. “Ugh. Whyyyyyy? I’m going to have to listen to this bullshit a million times this season! And since when do you do play the emo card? You always skate to happy crap, I thought you were supposed to be, like, the living avatar of sunshine or some shit.”

 

Victor chuckled, risking his fingers far too near the boy’s mouth in order to ruffle the golden floss, still growing out of the youthful bowl cut he’d sported the previous season. “I thought I’d mix it up. You know me, I do…”

 

“Love surprises. Yeah. I know. I’ve only heard you say it every day, ever.”

 

Victor pursed his lips. He wasn’t sure he liked being so predictable. “Yes, well. Why are you here so early? Yakov usually doesn’t bring the juniors in until later.”

 

Yuri scowled down at the ice. “Tch. I can’t do any cool shit around the rest of the juniors. I want to move up to seniors after this season, I should get used to skating during senior hours.”

 

Victor narrowed his eyes, hearing the words left unspoken. Yuri was brash and abrasive, but it was his grace and staggering talent that left him alone in a crowd of his so-called peers. Victor understood. He’d been lucky, meeting Georgi and then Chris. They’d helped him in his teenage years, had given him someone other than coaches and trainers to talk to. Something twisted in his gut as he realized that his already shallow pool of friends had been cut in half ever since his faux pas at the Sochi Olympics. He couldn’t stomach the thought of Yuri walking the same path.

 

“Yura…you know, you can always talk to me if there’s anything on your mind…”

 

Yuri shot him a half-hearted sneer. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, old man. I just wanted a chance at some fresh ice for once, that’s all.” Victor felt a smile stretching his lips as the boy shoved past him to head towards the center of the rink. “Oi! Mudak! Are you gonna skate or just laze around all day?”

 

The smile stretched a little further. “Da, da, Yura. I was just going to work on combination spins. You don’t have to do them with me if it’s too boring…”

 

Maybe Plisetsky wasn’t quite a friend, but he treated Victor like a person. A barely tolerated, annoying person, perhaps, but it was better than being placed on a pedestal or, worse, feared.

 

***

 

“Victor! Will you tell us who you’re skating for with Stammi Vicino?

 

“Victor! Is there a special someone in the audience tonight?”

 

“Mr. Nikiforov! Three of the six men’s Finalists are first time qualifiers! Can you give us your thoughts on your competition this weekend? Any words of wisdom for those here for the first time?”

 

Victor grimaced at the banality of the first two questions but smiled gratefully at the third. Turning, he flashed his teeth in the reporter’s direction. “Ah, Morooka-san,” he said politely. “I’m always excited to see fresh faces at the Final! All it takes is one good day for a skater to surprise the world by climbing the podium!”

 

“Do you think one of those fresh faces can pull off an upset this week?” a lanky blond reporter called out, and he turned to her with a barely concealed grimace.

 

“It’s always possible, of course,” he allowed. “We’re all aiming for the same prize, after all.” Smiling magnanimously, he pushed his way through the crowd, finally reaching the relative safety of the hotel lobby. The reporters’ questions echoed in his mind as he made his way to his room. Could one of these newer, younger skaters finally topple him from his place on the podium? He pulled up the ISU page once he reached the elevator, thumbing his way to the listing of the skaters competing against him. Chris and Cao Bin had been around nearly as long as he had, he knew their abilities nearly as well as his own. The Crispino kid and the Canadian skater were rank tyros in the senior circuit, but the Japanese name gave him pause.

 

Yuuri Katsuki. Known in the competitive world as a bit of a wild card. Good edges, tight spins, wildly inconsistent jumps. At 23, this was his first appearance at a senior level Final, though he’d landed on the podium at Four Continents a couple of times. Japan’s Ace.

 

“Bit of a late bloomer,” Victor murmured to himself as he finally reached his room. Still, the guy had some impressive perseverance to have stuck it out this long despite so few major titles under his belt. What, he wondered, would it be like to lose to someone like Yuuri Katsuki? Still preoccupied with his perusal of the Japanese skater’s profile, he managed to stumble into something. Startled, he glanced up, realizing too late that in his distraction, he’d managed to bump into the side of the bulky full-length mirror. The length of silk he’d draped over it slithered to the ground at his feet and for a moment he saw his own reflection: blue eyes blown wide in shock, silver hair still so much shorter than he remembered…

 

Then the image shifted as he watched, frozen in horror. Wide, reddish brown eyes. Black hair. Sharp grin.

 

“Once you give up your throne, your world will never be the same,”  the voice whispered in the back of his mind. 

 

He clenched his eyes shut, squatting down awkwardly to grope for the cloth. Once the mirror was again safely covered, he let out a shuddering sob of a breath.

 

Dermo,” he choked out, collapsing on the bed. He’d managed to do so well, to go for so long without seeing…him

 

Out of habit, he reached for his phone, pulling up Georgi’s number before he thought better of it. His erstwhile friend didn’t need Victor bothering him right now, especially having just missed the cutoff for the Final. 

 

Victor couldn’t imagine how Georgi must be feeling.

 

Literally.

 

He hadn’t missed the cutoff for the Grand Prix Final since his first year in the senior division. Hadn’t missed the podium in seven consecutive years. Gold for the last four. He couldn’t let this…vision (haunting/premonition/whatever!) derail him.

 

If he missed the podium, his life was over. That’s what it had said…right?

 

He’d long since given up wondering if the whispers were premonitions or threats. This one though…it hit close to home. How many times recently had he thought about his age, about the fact that, other than his dog, there was literally nobody who would be there for him without skating? He’d already lost Georgi. Once he was no longer relevant, Yakov and Chris and even little Yuri would move on, too. As for his family…

 

They were relieved when Yakov took you off their hands…

 

Trembling, he scrambled down from the bed and towards the little fridge in the corner of the room. He’d catch hell from Yakov, but the tiny bottles of vodka were a godsend right now. He twisted the first one open, determined to drown the voice out. A few burning gulps later, he was ready to pull out his phone again. Georgi might be lost to him, but he hadn’t chased Chris away yet. Surely, his Swiss friend would be up for at least one drink…

 

***

 

Yakov was, predictably, not particularly impressed by Victor’s excuses at morning practice the following day.

 

“You reek of alcohol, Vitya. What were you thinking?” the coach snarled after Victor did his official run through, his voice pitched low enough not to carry across the cavernous rink.

 

“Just thought it’d be nice to relax for a bit,” Victor muttered, tossing back another dose of ibuprofen. Yakov stared at him flatly.

 

Relax. The night before the start of the Grand Prix Final. Relax to the point that you have to mark half your jumps?”

 

Victor shrugged, feigning nonchalance. “I’m here, da? I have six hours until the competition starts, I’ll be fine.”

 

The older Russian man continued to glower at him for a long moment. Finally, he sighed. “Vitya, get off the ice.”

 

Victor’s head snapped up so quickly he heard his neck pop. “What?”

 

Yakov crossed his arms. “You heard me. Your head is not in the right place right now and I do not want you injuring yourself because of your own idiocy. Go back to the hotel. An hour on the treadmill, hydrate, eat, and then nap. In the meantime, I will have a talk with Karpisek.”

 

“About what?” Victor asked, suspicious.

 

“About his skater’s influence on your behavior,” Yakov answered gruffly.

 

Victor clutched at his coach’s arm. He couldn’t let Chris take the blame for this; he’d lose the only friend he had left… “No, this wasn’t Chris’s doing. I invited him out. He just…kept me company. Look at him, you can tell he wasn’t drinking!” He pointed out on the ice where, sure enough, Christophe was in top form. As they watched, the Swiss skater sped up before launching himself into the air in a textbook triple axel. Yakov’s frown deepened.

 

“If that’s true, then Giacometti is cleverer than I realized. You realize you may have just handed him the key to gold with this stunt? I’m sure he didn’t try to stop you from making an idiot of yourself,” Yakov said, sounding suspicious and somewhat disgusted as he continued to watch Chris out on the ice.

 

Victor shook his head frantically. He’d made a mess of this entire situation, all because he hadn’t wanted to be alone last night, all because he couldn’t keep the panic at bay... “He tried to stop me,” he muttered.

 

Yakov whipped his head around, narrowing his eyes.

 

Victor hunched his shoulders, feeling like a scolded child. “I wanted to go out. He told me I was an idiot for drinking so much the night before a competition, but he didn’t want to leave me alone. He just…he just kept me company, then walked me back to the hotel. Th-this isn’t his fault.”

 

The Russian coach glanced around, clearly taking note of the cameras. The audience and the media had obviously noticed that the ‘Living Legend’ hadn’t moved away from the rink wall after his run through, even though the other finalists were still out on the ice, taking advantage of the chance to get used to the rink before the competition began. Yakov’s face reddened, but he held back from the tirade he clearly wanted to unleash on his skater. “Get off the ice, Vitya. We will discuss this after you’ve rested,” he muttered tiredly.

 

Victor nodded, not trusting himself to speak. As he stepped off the ice, he glanced back over his shoulder. Most of the other men were still skating, but he thought he saw one, the Japanese skater, pause to watch him leave. Dark hair, wide brown eyes in a pale face…

 

…you can never go back to the life you have…

 

He closed his eyes and shook his aching head, trying to clear the sudden flash of memory. When he opened them again, Katsuki had turned away.

Chapter Text

He ran. He ate. He slept.

 

And he managed to mostly sidestep Yakov’s lecture by winning the short program by nearly 20 points.

 

It didn’t stop his coach from ordering him to spend the evening with Yuri Plisetsky, who had blown the junior short program scores out of the water the previous day. He suspected Yakov had done it as both punishment and as a preventative measure. If he was with a 14-year-old, he really couldn’t drink.

 

Not that he’d been planning on it. Not really.

 

***

 

“Ugh. Why do you always smell like that weird incense shop near the rink?” Yuri asked as he shut the door of the cab.

 

“Aromatherapy,” Victor replied, his automatic defensive response, honed by far too many versions of the same question over the years. The upside to a semi-local competition was that nobody looked too closely at his little anti-haunting kit. The dried sage bundles, the long swaths of hand-dyed silk, the little protective charms he’d collected over the years… Every skater had their own set of rituals and superstitions, so he could pass most of it off as tokens for good luck, but the little sage bundles had gotten him into trouble at customs exactly one time in his late teens before Yakov banned them. Georgi helped him research local shops that carried the dried herb near each competition venue, or at least he had up until recently. This time though, Victor had been able to bring his own supply. Of course, based on the way Yuri’s nose was wrinkling, he may have gone a bit overboard with the smudging.

 

“Whatever. You’re weird,” the junior skater grunted dismissively, slumping against the side of the cab and thumbing through his phone until they arrived at the restaurant. Yuri pulled up his hood before stepping out of the car, though Victor didn’t miss the way his eyes darted around as they made their way toward the entrance. The boy only seemed to relax once they were seated in an out-of-the-way corner booth.

 

“Yura,” he began hesitantly.

 

“Yeah?” the blond teen replied through a mouthful of complimentary bread.

 

Victor valiantly restrained himself from pointing out the crumbs spilling down the younger skater’s front. “Is everything all right? You were skulking a bit more than usual out there…” he said, aiming for breezy nonchalance.

 

Yuri froze. “Did Yakov put you up to this?” he snarled in suspicion. “Because I told him I’m fine. Just because I don’t kiss ass with my fans like you do…” he stopped himself mid-sentence, smiling angelically up at the waitress who had approached the table. Victor blinked in surprise at the transformation, then had to hold back a smile of his own. Yuri might not want to, ah, kiss ass with his fans, but apparently he wasn’t so different from other teenage boys when it came to anyone who might provide him with food. Unfortunately, Yuri didn’t miss his barely suppressed smirk, aiming a little kick at him from under the table as they ordered.

 

Besides,” Yuri grated out when the waitress was gone, “I’m not the one being weird as fuck this weekend. What the hell was up with you this morning? You looked like shit at practice, you weren’t even there for half of it, then you show up last minute for the short program, get way overscored, then act too good to even talk to the media about the whole thing. You’re an idiot and an asshole, but you aren’t usually arrogant.

 

Victor flinched slightly. Arrogant. Is that how he had come off? He was tired, he’d been trying to stay focused and he hadn’t had the patience for the typical round of post-competition questions but… arrogant?

 

…They’ll only love you as long as you’re perfect…

 

Yuri was staring at him, eyes narrowed as if trying to solve some sort of puzzle as he waited for Victor to reply.

 

“…You think I was overscored?”

 

Shit. He sounded pathetic.

 

Yuri, to his surprise, looked slightly abashed. “Look, geezer, it’s not some big thing, but da. If you watch it, you’ll see what you mean. You’re the local hero and your PCS was higher than it should have been. And Kats… other skaters were underscored. That’s figure skating.”

 

Victor winced. Yuri wasn’t wrong, but the boy was young to have already learned that lesson.

 

“I’m sorry for disappointing you,” he offered.

 

Tch, I’m not one of your stupid fans, Vitya,” Yuri snapped. “But I’m going to be real competition for you next year, so you’d better step up your game!”

 

Victor leaned back, smiling as their food arrived. “Of course, Yura.”

 

***

 

“That could have gone better,” Yakov muttered.

 

Victor blinked at him in surprise, Yuri Plisetsky a suddenly silent presence at his side. “Yakov, I literally just won the Grand Prix Final by more than 30 points. I know you expect great things from me, but I’m not sure what else I could have done,” he quipped half-heartedly, genuinely confused.

 

“He’s referring to the fact that you just blew off Japan’s Ace,” Yuri snarled. “I know you don’t care about your competition, but Jesus fuck , do you have to be so obvious about it?”

 

“I…what?” Victor glanced at the retreating form of the fan he’d half-noticed, only then taking in the equipment bag and tracksuit. Another look revealed Hisashi Morooka and Celestino Cialdini, who were glowering at him as if he’d just kicked their puppy.

 

Which, apparently, he kind of had. Shit.

 

“That…was that Katsuki? ” he asked, voice hushed. “I didn’t…the glasses and…and his hair…I didn’t…Yakov, I swear I didn’t recognize him! I didn’t mean to upset him! He must already feel awful after coming in last, I would never purposely make things worse!” Somewhat to his confusion, Yuri glanced away at this comment, toeing at the ground.

 

Yakov merely sighed that bone-weary sigh that had become all too common after his divorce. “Of course you didn’t, Vitya.” 

 

***

 

Years later, Victor would still be able to pinpoint the exact moment the Sochi Grand Prix Final banquet changed his life.

 

***

“Oh my god,” Mila Babicheva gasped. “Is that…”

 

“Yuuri Katsuki. I know. I told you!”

 

Victor shuffled in place, eager to escape from the overly chatty Aeroflot exec so that he could figure out why his rinkmate and her Italian friend were cooing in delight over the Japanese skater. Flashing his teeth, he extricated himself from the older man and snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter before allowing his curiosity to guide his feet towards the girls. Before he reached them, he found himself stuttering to a stop at the most bewildering sight he’d ever seen.

 

A circle had formed around the edge of the dance floor, the excited crowd glued to sight of what appeared to be a dance off between an unlikely pair of skaters. Yuri Plisetsky’s slightly outgrown blond bob was instantly recognizable, the boy’s face contorted in a fierce grimace of concentration as he attempted to emulate the long, lean lines and sharp motions of…

 

Of Yuuri Katsuki.

 

The Japanese skater moved with a grace and assurance that had been completely missing from his disastrous free skate, a challenging smirk fixed firmly on his rather handsome features as he egged Yuri on to wilder and wilder feats. How had Victor not noticed how attractive Katsuki was? He felt the stirrings of something warm and more than a little rusty deep in his gut.

 

“See something you like?” asked a teasing voice. Mila Babicheva was grinning up at him when he glanced down, her sky-blue eyes twinkling. On Mila’s other side, the Italian girl… Sala? Maybe?... was chronicling the entire showdown on her phone. A distant part of his mind made a note to ask, ah… Sara! ...for the images at a later date.

 

“Yura seems to have found a friend,” he hedged. “I didn’t know Katsuki could dance like that.”

 

Sara let loose with a tinkling giggle. “I don’t think anyone did. Maybe Phichit,” she mused, though Victor wasn’t sure if he was supposed to recognize the name or not. She glanced speculatively at Mila for a long minute, the girls communicating something complicated that Victor couldn’t hope to follow. Seeming to come to some sort of decision, Sara stepped over to Victor, reaching up on her tiptoes to tuck something into his breast pocket. “I’ll leave these in your capable hands, hmmm?” She snagged Mila’s hand. “Come, cara mio, Mickey looks like he’s about to spontaneously combust and I’d rather be out of range when it happens.”

 

With that bewildering comment, the girls slipped away, just in time for Victor to be hit by a wrecking ball of long limbs and dark hair. Peering down into the soft chocolate eyes of the man who had octopused himself to Victor’s waist, he was very aware of the slight glaze that told him that Yuuri Katsuki was very very drunk.

 

“You,” the Japanese Ace muttered, “are too pretty to be real. And they all think you’re sooo good out there on the ice. But. But I…I know a secret!” the man continued earnestly.

 

Victor felt torn: amusement, concern and arousal fighting for dominance within him. “Oh? Did you want to share this secret?”

 

Yuuri nodded seriously, then straightened up enough to lean close to Victor’s face, champagne strong on his breath as he whispered, “You’re even better than they realize.”

 

With that, the other skater unknotted himself from Victor’s waist, leaving the Russian dazed. Yuuri glanced coyly back over his shoulder as he sauntered back onto the dance floor, invitation clear in his heavy gaze. “Fuck, I am so fucked,” he half-whispered under his breath.

 

“Not yet, cher, but I have a feeling that if you play your cards right…”

 

Christophe. Because of course Christophe had caught him in the middle of his very gay crisis.

 

He turned to glare at his friend. “He’s drunk.”

 

“He won’t always be drunk. And he looked like he wanted to climb you like a tree, my dear. And now it looks as if he’s waiting for you,” the Swiss skater pointed out. Victor followed Chris’s gaze out to where Katsuki was swaying out on the dance floor and, sure enough, those dark eyes were staring back, a tiny smirk hovering on the other man’s lips as he noticed Victor’s attention. “Vitya, love. Go. Take a risk for once in your tragically regimented life.”

 

Victor barely heard his friend, his gaze still locked on the dance floor. A gentle shove in the center of his back propelled him forward, his feet suddenly moving on automatic pilot. Katsuki met him somewhere in the middle of his stumbling path, latching onto his hands with a sly grin.

 

“You’re smooth on the ice, Nikiforov,” the Japanese skater said, a strange gleam in his eyes. “But can you keep up on the dance floor?”

 

Victor felt as if the temperature in the room had skyrocketed. He spared a moment to regret not following Katsuki’s example and shedding his jacket. It was too late now, the shorter man leading him into a series of dance moves that had little to do with the music pouring from the overhead speakers. It didn’t matter. Yuuri Katsuki seemed to make his own music—the shine of his eyes, the flex of his muscular arms, the strong, sure motion of his feet all combining to wrap Victor in an indescribably enticing siren song. He leaned into each touch, following his partner willingly, wherever he led.

 

It struck him suddenly. Despite the crowds of fans, the competitors, the coaches. Despite the occasional nights spent in the company of people whose faces he’d barely remembered the next morning.

 

Despite Chris. Despite Georgi. Despite Yuri.

 

He had been lonely. Starved for a touch he hadn’t known he was missing.

 

Suddenly, he was being dipped and he blinked up at his partner, stunned by both the move and the realization. Yuuri Katsuki was looking down at him, something warm and fond shining in those liquid brown eyes. Victor barely dared to breathe; he was too afraid to break the spell he was under. “Where did you come from?” he managed to whisper, daring to reach his hand up to brush dark, sweaty bangs away from Yuuri’s forehead.

 

To Victor’s immense surprise, the confident smirk slid off of Katsuki’s face for a moment. “I’ve been here. I’ve been watching you,” the other skater replied seriously. “You just never noticed me looking.” He pulled Victor out of the dip, letting go as they straightened. Bereft of the circle of those strong arms as Yuuri stepped away, Victor felt almost cold despite the heat of the crowded dance floor. 

 

“I see you now ,” Victor said simply. “Listen, Yuuri…” he began, intending to find a way to talk away from the crowded banquet hall. Maybe coffee so the Japanese skater could sober up…maybe they could exchange numbers…

 

“Darling, I’ll be absolutely heartbroken if you don’t give me a dance too, you know.” Christophe was practically purring as he draped himself over Yuuri’s shoulder, one hand snaking low over the other man’s hip.

 

Jealousy burned hot in Victor’s chest. “If he can outdance me on the floor, what makes you think you have any chance of keeping up, Giacometti?” he asked, aiming for nonchalance.

 

Chris looked up at him, eyebrow cocked in a speculative manner. “Innnnteresting,” the Swiss skater crooned. “But who said anything about the floor?” Hazel eyes flashing merrily, Chris leaned over to whisper something in Yuuri’s ear, causing the younger skater to nod with slowly increasing enthusiasm. Both men peeked at Victor several times, causing his nerves to ratchet higher and higher. After a moment, Chris pushed Yuuri in Victor’s direction with a grin. “I’ll get everything set up, love, you just explain our game, hmmm?”

 

Once again, Victor found himself with an armful of squirming skater, dark hair ruffling his chin as the Japanese Ace started, inexplicably, stripping.

 

“Oh, oh, no, no, Yuuri, let’s…those pants should stay…that’s…Look! Sara gave me your glasses! Here! Let’s…let’s just put those back on and then we can put this tie back where it…” Victor finally gave up trying to stop Yuuri in his determined pursuit of public nudity and instead began glancing around frantically for assistance. Katsuki had a coach, surely Cialdini was still at the banquet to keep an eye out for his inebriated skater? Instead of anybody useful, he was surrounded by curious onlookers and a horrified Yuri Plisetsky, his clothing still rumpled from his earlier dancing.

 

By this point Yuuri was practically writhing against him, completely adorable despite the tie around his head and his general state of dishevelment. The dark-haired skater was rambling in a mix of Japanese and English, but Victor managed to get the gist.

 

A dance-off between him and Christophe. With Victor as the prize. Though…

 

Was ‘coaching’ a euphemism or…?

 

“Come, cheri, you cannot win your prize if we do not dance, hmm?”

 

Yuuri abandoned his grip around Victor’s waist, beaming as he turned to greet the Swiss skater.

 

“Chris, please explain to me why you are mostly naked in the middle of an ISU banquet?” Victor felt like the world had tilted, leaving him the only sane person standing.

 

“Oh, Vitya, darling, I believe you’ll be thanking me for this shortly,” Chris replied, flashing him a grin as he walked away, Yuuri trailing behind him like a half-naked duckling.

 

Half-plucked duckling? Oh god, what was even happening to his brain?

 

Victor pinched the bridge of his nose in exasperation before snagging a flute of champagne from a passing server. He was far too sober for the debacle this evening had turned into. Resigned, he followed the crowd back to the dance floor where…

 

“Where do you think Chris managed to get a stripper pole?” Mila asked, her eyes bright with amusement as she popped up beside him.

 

“Where do you think Yuuri learned to move like that?” Sara Crispino added from Mila’s side.

 

Victor just watched, mouth open, champagne flute dangling half-forgotten from his fingers. Mila noticed and giggled. “Aaaaand there goes his shirt. Should we get little Yura out of here? This is getting way past PG!” She fanned herself to drive home the point. Victor merely snagged another glass of champagne, unsure of how he had gotten himself into this situation but strangely determined to see it through to the conclusion.

 

“Shut up, baba, I’m nearly 15,” Yuri snarled from Victor’s other side. “That idiot’s drunk. Some one has to make sure nothing happens to h…to anyone.” The boy paused for a long moment. “Besides, I don’t trust Giacometti. He’s gross.”

 

Victor trusted Christophe. He really did. But right now, with Yuuri Katsuki’s strong arms holding Christophe close, he felt the stirrings of jealousy clawing their way down his throat. The dancers broke their pose, pausing only to drink the glasses of champagne passed to them by a crowd of eager hands. Soon enough, Yuuri was climbing the pole again, thigh muscles gleaming with sweat as they rippled enticingly.

 

So, okay.

 

It might have been more than jealousy.

 

As if he could read Victor’s mind, Yuuri suddenly stared straight at him from where he’d perched on top of Chris’s extended form. His dark hair was slicked back with sweat and his pale, bare skin shone in the dimly lit banquet room. The lighting shifted and the Japanese skater’s eyes glinted with a hint of red. Victor’s mouth went dry as recognition shot through him. It wasn’t just jealousy and lust stirring in his gut anymore.

 

Now there was fear, too.

Chapter Text

“You didn’t ask him for his number? Vitya, the boy was giving you every signal known to man. I thought you were interested! If you weren’t going to pick up what he was, ah, putting down , you could have told me! I showed such restraint, too!”

 

Victor rolled his eyes, putting the phone on speaker mode as he lay back on his bed. With a rumbled ‘borf!’ Makkachin joined him, huffing as she settled herself against his side. “Chris, you were literally dancing with him. Mostly naked. On a pole .”

 

“Like I said, restraint. Stop deflecting, Nikiforov. You were interested. That beautiful boy was interested. What the hell?”

 

Victor winced. He’d all but fled the banquet hall after making sure Yuuri had made his way back into Cialdini’s custody. “I told him to get ahold of me if he was still interested in the coaching thing when he woke up…”

 

A strangled cough came through the speaker. “ Merde . That is the first time I’ve heard that particular euphemism. Kinky, Vitya. I approve.”

 

He sighed, feeling the faint twinge of an incipient headache. “Right. Well, he hasn’t gotten ahold of me, so I suppose he’s not interested in pursuing anything. Euphemistically or otherwise.”

 

“Vitya…”

 

“Listen, Chris, I need to go. Makka’s overdue for her walk. We’ll talk later.” Hearing her name, his poodle perked up, her mouth lolling open in a doggy grin as Victor sat up enough to end the call. He patted his chest, smiling softly when Makkachin wriggled her way up the bed before flopping close enough for him to snuggle against her warm curls as he hugged her.

 

The truth was, he wasn’t sure whether to be disappointed or relieved that Yuuri Katsuki hadn’t reached out to him. He was certain the other skater knew how to reach him; neither his location nor his social media handles were any sort of secret. And Celestino Cialdini almost certainly had Yakov’s information…

 

No. If Japan’s Ace wanted to find him, he was within reach. Which meant Yuuri hadn’t bothered. He tried in vain to suppress the twinge of disappointment that flooded him, again , at that thought. He wasn’t even sure, really, why it bothered him so much except that…

 

Yuuri had looked at him with wonder in his honey-brown eyes. Had looked at him as if he was something precious and lovely, for himself, not for any gold medal or performance. In Yuuri’s arms, Victor had felt alive. Had felt more than a twinge of passing interest and desire.

 

To be fair, Yuuri was also the spitting image of his living nightmare, so…he wasn’t entirely sure what that said about his romantic inclinations.

 

He frowned, pulling Makka closer. What did it all mean? He was certain that the Sochi Grand Prix Final was his first encounter with Katsuki, but he’d seen the man on news clips and on ISU pages before, right? Had he somehow subconsciously summoned some spectral version of the skater? He unlocked his phone, double checking Yuuri’s JSF profile. As he’d thought, Yuuri was four years younger. The first time he’d seen the vision had been in Paris. Katsuki would have been all of 13, and Victor was certain that the mirror vision had never looked that young. In fact, the brief glimpses he’d been unable to avoid over the years had never changed. Not that he ever looked closely enough to make out fine details but…from what he could tell, the vision looked like the Yuuri Katsuki of the present. It was a conundrum he couldn’t solve on his own. Closing out of the browser, he hesitated for a long moment over the contact screen before dialing a long unused number.

 

***

 

“It’s all grass under the bridge,” Georgi said, tilting his head in what he obviously believed to be a benevolent gesture.

 

Victor blinked, trying to parse out his friend’s phrasing. “Um, Gosha, I don’t think that’s how…”

 

“Now, now. If we want to solve whatever problem you’re dealing with, we can’t keep rehashing old ones, hmmm?”

 

Victor wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. He’d called Georgi in the hopes that the other man would be willing to put their recent estrangement aside, and thankfully his oldest friend had pulled through. Still…

 

“Listen, Gosha, about what I said back in Sochi…”

 

“Say no more. It’s in the past. Besides, a little birdie tells me you may have tip-toed into a bit of romance finally? So perhaps you understand that there’s more to life than skating after all.” Georgi grinned, arching a dark brow in Victor’s direction. 

 

“Chris,” Victor grated out, rolling his eyes. To his surprise, Georgi shook his head.

 

“Actually, no. It was our Kitten. Although I had to filter the story out of his charmingly prolific usage of foul language.”

 

“Huh,” he replied, nonplussed. “Sounds like our Yura.”

 

Georgi stood up from the kitchen table, crossing the room to rummage through Victor’s liquor cabinet with the ease of long familiarity. Pulling out a bottle, he tilted the vodka in Victor’s direction inquiringly. 

 

“Gods, yes, we’ll probably need it,” Victor sighed. Georgi pulled out the glasses and poured for them both before sitting back down. The men toasted each other in silence, then drank. Georgi busied himself with pouring another round, not looking up at Victor for a long moment.

 

“So, are you going to tell me why you’ve come crawling to my door, or should I try to figure it out myself?” 

 

Victor bit his lip to keep from pointing out that they were sitting in the middle of his own kitchen. With a deep breath, he launched into the sequence of events from the Final, from his minor breakdown before the short program and through the whirlwind of emotions that the banquet had created. Georgi listened, brow furrowed in thought, the level in the bottle slowly dropping. Finally, he finished his tale, head in his hands as he waited.

 

Georgi’s hand settled on his shoulder and he looked up, meeting his friend’s worried gaze. “Victor, you know I have always believed you. Whatever it is you are seeing, it’s real. I believe that, I really do.”

 

“Why do I sense a ‘but’?”

 

Georgi sighed. “ But …”

 

“There it is,” he muttered. Georgi ignored him.

 

But I think that this…this vision? It feeds on keeping you isolated. Everything you’ve told me over the years…it’s like it’s reflecting and magnifying all of your own doubts and worries.”

 

“So you do think it’s all in my head,” Victor said flatly.

 

Georgi calmly poured another round. “Don’t put words in my mouth, Vitya. I think you’re very lonely. I think whatever this vision is, it wants to keep you that way. Whatever this is, it knows you. Knows what you like, knows how you think. Always has.”

 

“What are you trying to say?” Victor asked, the alcohol buzzing through him, making it difficult to make sense of Georgi’s earnest words.

 

“I just wonder…does Katsuki look like your mirror vision, or does your mirror vision look like Yuuri?

 

“I…I don’t…is there a difference?” Gods, his head was really starting to hurt.

 

Georgi nodded thoughtfully. “I think perhaps there is. I think…Vitya…when you met Katsuki, were you afraid of him? Before you noticed the resemblance, I mean?”

 

Victor gripped his glass, not looking up as he answered. “No. I…”

 

‘Be my coach, Victor!’

 

He swallowed at the memory. “I liked him. I still like him, I’m just…”

 

“Scared,” Georgi finished, his expression understanding. “Vitya, fear is a part of life. Part of love, too.”

 

“I’m not in love with…”

 

“No,” Georgi interrupted. “You’re not. But don’t you want to know if you could be? Because I think that whatever this vision is, it’s keeping you from actually enjoying the rewards of all your successes. Maybe it’s time for you to stop letting it control your life…”

 

***

He isn’t sure he understands Georgi’s words, but he remembers them.

He remembers them as Yuuri seems to disappear from the face of the planet following a disastrous showing at All-Japan.

He remembers them as he wins first the Russian Nationals, then Euros, then Worlds, each rendition of Stammi Vicino growing more desperate as he strives desperately to find something…some one to break through the ice that he never realized had grown to grip his heart so tightly.

And he remembers them as he sits huddled on his couch, pressing play yet again, the tiny form of Yuuri Katsuki beckoning to him through the screen of his phone, finally, finally responding to his pleas.

***

 

The research he’d done on Hasetsu (and on Hasetsu’s most famous son) led him to the wooden entrance of Yutopia Katsuki, whose barely translatable website hinted at good food and deliciously hot baths hiding behind its modest façade. As the taxi lights faded in the snowy distance, the exhaustion hit him. Between the 15-hour hell that Aeroflot had inflicted, a two-hour train trip and the short cab ride, it’d been nearly a full day since he’d last seen a bed. Or a bath. Still, he plastered his trademark smile in place, flicked his bangs out of his eyes and rolled his shoulders back as he strode resolutely through the doors.

 

A kind and strangely familiar looking middle-aged man called out a soft greeting in Japanese as Victor entered, Makkachin trailing behind him. Victor did his best to stammer out the response he’d practiced, managing not to wince when he caught the moment the man’s eyes widened in recognition. There’d been posters of Yuuri plastered all over the train station, and more were scattered on the walls even in this tiny inn; he probably shouldn’t have been surprised that the town folk would recognize another skater.

 

The older man bounced forward and Victor readied himself for a handshake, surprised when the innkeeper dropped to his knees in front of Makkachin instead. He didn’t recognize much beyond the repeated word Vicchan , but he was glad to see Makkachin being treated with such affection. Not all hotels were pleased when his oversized lapdog checked in alongside him. He hesitated for a long moment before clearing his throat diffidently.

 

Immediately, the man shot to his feet, half-bowing in apology, a string of unintelligible Japanese dripping from his lips. Victor’s tired brain cycled through his mental library of languages. “Ah, English?” he finally settled on. The man beamed up at him, hurrying back towards a curtained alcove and calling out to someone. A long moment passed before a woman near his own age pushed back the curtain. Her eyes widened in the same recognition as the man’s, the similarity enough to identify her as a relative of the innkeeper. The familiar features and the inn’s name finally clicked in Victor’s jetlagged mind. This, then, must be Yuuri’s family.

 

He beamed. “Hello! I’m Victor Nikiforov!”

 

The woman raised a brow, her expression unimpressed. “Yes, I know. What are you doing here?” she asked bluntly.

 

He deflated a touch. “I’m…here for…” he hesitated over what to say.

 

I’m here to coach Yuuri.

 

I’m here because Yuuri seduced me and then never called.

 

I’m here because I think Yuuri might be a mirror demon that’s been haunting me since I was 17.

 

“…a room?” he finished lamely, struggling to maintain his smile.

 

The woman snorted, then turned to say something to the older man. The man, surely Yuuri’s father, grinned in Victor’s direction, gesturing at him as he replied. The woman turned back to him with a sigh. “Does my brother know you’re here?” she asked, confirming his suspicions.

 

“Yuuri invited me! Though I didn’t tell him when I was coming…” he answered, suddenly uncertain of his welcome.

 

“Of course he did,” the woman muttered, striding towards him, her father trailing in her wake. “Look, you’re probably hungry and I’m sure you could use a bath. We’ll store your things for now, then Yuuri can sort this out when he wakes up. My dad can take Makkachin for you, if you’d like.”

 

Victor smiled his first genuine smile of the day. “You know Makkachin?” he asked in delight.

 

Mari snorted a dry little laugh. “Yeah. I’m aware of Makkachin. C’mon, Nikiforov, let’s get you fed and cleaned up.” 

 

***

 

The universe, Victor decided, was definitely out to get him.

 

He hadn’t known what he’d find here in Hasetsu, but it certainly wasn’t this blushing, befuddled, shy Yuuri Katsuki. So yes, maybe greeting the other skater completely naked and dripping wet had been a bit too much. Still, he hadn’t been expecting the shocked screech of bewilderment that had met his coaching offer.

 

And true, he’d seen the extra weight in the video, but he hadn’t been prepared to see it in person. That little bit of extra padding around Yuuri’s hips and thighs… It did terribly, wonderfully dangerous things to Victor’s newly awakened libido.

 

He wasn’t used to feeling so wrong-footed and lost, which at least partially explained the cheerfully awful things that kept spilling from his mouth. And as Yuuri fled that night, slamming his bedroom door in Victor’s face, he couldn’t help replaying the evening in his head. What had possessed him to rub Yuuri’s lack of recent success in his face? Why did it matter if Yuuri wanted to enjoy his parents’ cooking? Victor had certainly enjoyed it…

 

And yet, Yuuri had acted as if that night in Sochi had meant nothing to him. As if Victor meant nothing to him. It made no sense. It had fed something bitter and hurt inside his heart, and he’d lashed out. No wonder Yuuri had fled. Now, standing in the dimly lit hallway, Yuuri’s door still there, still closed…he felt lost. He’d come here to solve a mystery. To figure out if Yuuri was a dream or a nightmare.

 

So far, he’d found no answers.

 

Makka whined at his side, bringing him back to his senses.

 

“Looks like it’s still just you and me, girl,” he murmured. He turned, traversing the scant handful of steps back toward the box-filled banquet room. Pausing, he eyed the bathroom. From what he could tell, it was a family one, shared only by Yuuri’s,Mari’s and the room he now occupied. He’d have preferred a truly private one; there was no way he could drape his silks across the mirror without fielding some awkward questions from the Katsuki siblings. He steeled himself then stepped inside, flicking the light on and facing his reflection.

 

For a moment, he dared to hope the visions had been left behind in St. Petersburg, along with his career.

 

“The things you’ve forgotten haven’t forgotten you.”

 

Right. No such luck.

 

He squeezed his eyes shut against the image. Slicked back hair, crimson eyes, pale skin...

 

“It’s not Yuuri,” he told himself. He’d seen Yuuri today; this couldn’t be him. The vision was as gaunt as ever, no extra weight in those sallow cheeks, no endearingly pudgy middle. Blindly, he did what he needed to do, then stumbled back into the hall and into the room the Katsukis had so graciously provided him.

 

Sleep evaded him, but he wrapped himself around Makka anyway, trying to convince himself that he wasn’t miserable. He didn’t cry himself to sleep that night.

 

Victor Nikiforov didn’t cry.

 

 

***

 

Things had been going…not well , he admitted, but they’d been going. Yuuri had thrown himself into training at Victor’s insistence. Victor had thrown himself into choreography with Yuuri as inspiration. Yuuri was apparently not dating anyone. It was progress, of a sort.

 

And then Yuri Plisetsky had arrived to throw everything into chaos.

 

The Nishigori triplets were a welcome trio of distractions, Minako Okukawa a more keen-eyed one. He let the quartet run gleefully ramshod over the entire Onsen on Ice situation, trusting in their familiarity to keep Yuuri from running, screaming, for the hills.

 

It was a nightmare, though. He tried to channel Yakov, only for both Yu(u)ris to snarl in response. He tried to use their surroundings for inspiration, only for Mari to scold him about the inappropriateness of sending a 15-year-old to wallow in icy cold waterfalls. It was enough to drive him to drink.

 

So he did.

 

***

 

“You know, I’m used to having one little brother who disappears in the middle of the night. I hadn’t planned on inheriting a second one at my age.”

 

Victor didn’t look up from where he’d cupped his hands around the little sake glass. Mari sighed beside him, then reached over to gently extract the cup from his grip. He finally glanced up, watching as she sipped and refilled the cup. He accepted it silently when she handed it back to him, downing it in one go and holding it out for a refill with his best puppy-dog eyes. She snorted, then poured, beckoning the bartender for another glass.

 

“Why are you here?” she asked abruptly, her serious brown eyes watching him carefully.

 

Victor opened his mouth, ready to throw out a glib response, but something in her gaze stopped him. “Here as in, here at this bar, or…here in Hasetsu?” he finally replied, answering her question with one of his own to buy some time.

 

“Either,” Mari murmured with a little half-shrug. “Both.” She dragged a finger through the condensation on the bar, tracing idle figures as she waited for Victor to talk.

 

“I came to Hasetsu for Yuuri,” he finally answered, surprised at the simple honesty in his own words.

 

Mari nodded. “Not just to coach him,” she murmured, a statement and not a question.

 

“That was part of it. He should have been at Worlds. He should have done better at the Finals and All-Japan. He’s so talented. I don’t know what happened with Cialdini, but Yuuri deserves someone who can help him thrive.”

 

“And you think that’s you?”

 

He shrugged. “I think that I believe in Yuuri. I think he needs that. We’ll figure the rest out.”

 

“If you stay, you mean,” Mari said dryly.

 

Victor blinked. “Sorry?”

 

“You told Yurio you’d go back to Russia if he wins.”

 

He winced. “Ah. Well. I don’t plan on returning to St. Petersburg.” He could feel Mari’s gaze burning into his side as he stared down at the bartop.

 

“Yuuri will never accept you if he thinks you threw the contest. He hates losing, but he hates being treated with kid gloves. If Yurio outskates him and you stay anyway, he’ll never forgive you or himself.”

 

Victor glanced at Mari in surprise, her honesty unexpected. “But I don’t want to leave…” He trailed off, uncertain if he meant Hasetsu or Yuuri.

 

Either. Both.

 

Mari poured another round of drinks. “You said you believe in him,” she pointed out. “You aren’t the only one. You won’t have to leave.”

 

Victor smiled at her confidence, reminded that for all her prickly exterior, Mari Katsuki was a woman who loved her little brother.

 

“So. I think I know why you’re in Hasetsu. But…”

 

“But why am I drinking alone in the middle of the night right before an event?”

 

“Mmm,” Mari hummed noncommittally.

 

He twirled his cup, considering his response. “I…I don’t know what I’m doing,” he finally admitted. Mari waited, silent as she drank at his side, allowing him to process his thoughts. “I don’t know the last time I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen in my life. Everything’s been...planned. Scheduled.” He grimaced. “ Routine .”

 

“You wanted a change.”

 

He nodded. “I did. But now…I keep making mistakes. I forgot about Yurio’s program. I keep pushing Yuuri too hard. Yakov’s angry with me. I’m terrified that I’m going to screw up tomorrow and everyone will know that… that…” His throat felt tight and his eyes burned. “…that I don’t know what I’m doing ,” he repeated, his voice sounding small even in the quiet of the nearly empty bar.

 

To his surprise, Mari chuckled and made a little gesture to the bartender before passing over a handful of cash. She stood and turned toward the exit, before looking back over her shoulder. “Congratulations, Victor Nikiforov. You’re human. Now let’s go home, eh?” He stood and followed her out of the bar, feeling inexplicably as if a weight had somehow lifted from his shoulders.

 

***

 

Yuuri won. Victor could stay.

 

And…for the first time in ten years, it was his own face that stared back at him when he looked in the mirror.