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Emulous eyes skulk from the kiss and cry area; a temporary recess before the unrelenting result doesn’t appear on the score board. The spirit of rivalry dallied between the tramping of sore feet and the blether of hapless competitors and their coaches. Victor Nikiforov’s performance, by striking contrast, was quite satisfactory and left even the grumpiest faces replete with pride.


Quadruple flip.


He’s won numerous accolades and yet, a strain of vacillation prevailed over his usual chutzpah gracefulness. Despite earning his laurels with fluency and work, there was something tonight that’s made it all harder—lousy technique and forgetfulness, Yakov would assume, but he’s so abnormally tense that even the rest of the participants began speculating about.


Forward scratch spin.


The rink is entirely succumbed to such a distinctive show; but Yakov knew that if it wasn’t for the punishment his prodigy will endure, may he fail, he wouldn’t have skated with sheer passion. Talent does wonders, but Yakov’s deadly ultimatums were even scarier—motivators of dark premises. Victor then skated back, accepted the flowers while fully adequate and even abetting his admirers while taking pictures. Tonight, he’ll have a soak in a bath hotter than those headed to the spa and it will be a complete bloodshed.


‘They’re so susceptible to cheap approbation nowadays, aren’t they?’ some skater of Yakov’s team commented. ‘It’s a pity that the general public have no chance of seeing him skate, ever. Proper celebration is due this weekend so empty your schedule, Victor. You might not skate competitively anymore, but that doesn’t put a ban on how much you can go on a binge!’


‘He won’t be able to,’ Yakov asserted firmly while Victor anchored himself over his coach’s shoulder, jostling rickety on blades. ‘Lecturing the novice skaters only saves you some time in Japan so you shouldn’t worry about me sending you back immediately. Go wool-gathering in resorts and check-in the best of hotels, but always have the forged ID and driving license, we can’t let the public know you’ve returned from heaven. I’ve assigned a target for you and Yura tonight and you’d better not miss, unless you want to buy both of you a ticket to the gravesite.’


‘Prickly old geezer like you will have a drive in the hearse way before me,’ Yura sneered as he marched to the pair.


‘Only a child would cope with a stream of invective, poor Yura. You aren’t even remotely intimidating to a top-tier man as our coach.’


Retaliating immediately to any sort of refusal was the quickest way Victor dealt with younger members. Yura, just like him, was pronounced dead few years back and only a dozen of competitors knew he was alive. Needless to say, Yuri’s determination deflated to reluctance and sat on one of the benches teed off in utter defeat. Victor, being the eldest, and despite being happy with Yuri’s character, had zero qualms to entertain the thought of going against the hand that fed them.


The audience has always been desirous by Yakov’s team—they’ve never disappointed throughout the years. The Russian group of skaters invoked wistfulness and wretchedness, each had individuality that’s proven to be influential and compliment each of the competitors’ dynamic. However, Yakov’s stars didn’t only outshine the rink, but had their hands in businesses that no sane human would engage in. Drugs. Yakov’s family controlled the distribution of athletes held to ransom, trained them as assaulters and sportsmen as well. The hierarchy’s roots traced deeper than that; excellence was androgynous and came in many harrowing undertakings.


Nobody ever doubted the national team would trade doping during their excursions—and no one ever will.


‘Who are you questioning?’ Victor said to Yakov once the room was empty.


‘I’m not questioning anything beyond her record—the name is Minako Okukawa.’


‘Ha-ha, you aren’t interested in wielding your ballet out of a sudden, are you?’ Victor’s laughter rumbled, though the elder’s surly frigidness verified the severity of the matter. Victor is his best sniper, so calling him out on this task meant that Yakov didn’t want this woman to train a bunch of newbies. He wanted her dead.


‘With Yura, teaching him to be a flanker was incautious, he’s a no good sentry observer and we both know it. He’s still jerking the rifle. You know how to handle it, I suppose?’


Victor’s lips thinned and he gave the record a glance. ‘Why is this person selected to fall under your malignancy? What is she precisely responsible for?’


‘Because she’s training the best of Japan’s team and a strife will send our community back to Russia only. Talk about expanding my great grandfather’s resources then. Everyone would suffer greatly, Victor. I prefer getting such hitches out in time.’


In a few moments, Victor closed it and devotedly nodded. ‘Understood.’

 


 

Baseborn trades weren’t uncommonness in Hasetsu and the last remaining hot spring resort was in the summits of trading locations. Bronzed tourists convened by the historical sites had little alacrity to leave if hooked. Yuuri Katsuki and his family ran the resort, but for Yuuri’s stable job as a legal analyst and lawyer some of their debts would’ve stayed unpaid. He’s twenty-four of age, recent graduate and recently faithful to ties of kindred. He and his sister, Mari, made a great duo after she’s had her security licence and actively practiced as a watchperson for the events of the season.


The daily toiling in peppers obliterated that venturous personality Yuuri Katsuki had—clinging to predictability and having tediousness eat into his psyche, he’s a skater far less recognized than someone like Victor. Giving autographs was a foreign chore for the young law enthusiast and provoking enticement wasn’t in his to-do list. Celestino, Yuuri’s ex-coach, had something in mind for the younger’s career; but no sooner had he suggested that Yuuri should compete than his hopes catnapped. Celestino put forward intrinsic to his maturing advances though the younger adamantly objected to even put out the box with his skates; and even today he’s himself trying to dissect what, who, put off that talented man from doing what he loved.


Prior to this afternoon Mari resolutely forewarned her brother to show up in her office at eight as a momentous errand had to be negotiated. In spite of all the risible cases Yuuri had under his beat, such as pottery vessels being stolen during daytime or divorces requiring a lawyer in the middle of a vacation, he’s never thought that he’d have to face his ballet teacher and long-time supporter.


Minako was lodged in his sister’s dearest armchair—the office doesn’t differ much from the time when Mari was a housekeeper. Nowadays, she’s been told to establish more representative appearance and maintain it as such. The policy of her company forbid any tattoos or piercings available; so Yuuri was quite flabbergasted upon sliding the shoji and seeing his sister looking neat, pensive mood drawn on her face.


‘Minako! What an unforeseen guest!’ he stammered; but only unsmiling utterances were exchanged.


‘A client,’ said Mari, spitting contemptuously.


‘I see. What’s brought you here tonight? How could my services be utilized?’


The latter is hemming and hawing without giving straight answers which stirred Mari’s restlessness forbye. Judiciously, in a soft manner and unvocal sufferance, Yuuri put down his folders and sat by the teapoy. His sister went for the kettle of Britannia metal and offered to make some coffee—anything goes as long as their soundless clientele decides to open up.


‘I’ve been aimed by someone,’ she finally spoke, making the siblings’ faces pale. ‘Wherever I go there are eyes on me and you know better I’m no daredevil—nothing can make me change my route, leak personal information or attract untoward attention. Yet, I feel followed and I can’t convince anyone to believe me.’


‘If it’s a delusional sense of—’


‘I’m acutely aware of what is happening!’ tears welled up and she looked downward—embarrassment cradling her high-pitched demurrers, something cushioning her heart with dejection. ‘My last resort is literally your assistance. I’ve noticed people asking about my personal data more often, I know something is skewed, you’d know if I lied!’ she convinced, taking Yuuri’s hand.


‘There is a vast difference between the services for protection and derangement,’ Mari said.


‘Enough,’ Yuuri stopped his sister as their visitor began crying. ‘The incivility is getting out of hand. We don’t have anything better to do aside from helping someone we are closely related to, do we?’ his sister nodded and her tone flattened.


‘Right,’ Mari opened a sachet of sugar and instant cocoa. ‘I’ll be a few moments.’


‘You’d better come around earlier. Could you remember something specific that’s made you believe that someone is after you?’


‘I only base this on a sequence of events, not on a notion. People whom I have had the opportunity to tutor interrogate me about personal stuff, they’ve had a perturbed demeanour recently—some miss appointments and others call in to cancel them. As if someone is blackmailing me behind my back and I know nothing about my own reputation in Hasetsu.’


Astonishingly to her narrative, Yuuri seemed barely affected. Swiftly, he reached for his suitcase and pulled flayers out of it; it’s out of question how inappropriate it was to read the promotions whereas your client is waiting for you. After a while he took off his glasses and turned to Mari.


‘Let’s impart your price to her, shall we?’ he announced firmly.


‘You wish that she’d hire me as her personal bodyguard?’ Mari fumed, nonplussed.


‘Should you take care of her, no resentful prowler would dare bob up. Whether it’s a real threat or not, I’ll be on the lookout for good lawyers and chime in given I find something tenable. Does this sound reasonable to you?’ Minako let her grimace relent and wiped her tears away. ‘Mari is as tough as a nail, very combative and trained to diminish dangerous outcomes, I put much credence in her preparedness.’


‘As soon as you are to sign the contract we must send it to the counterparty before each case,’ the soon-to-be bodyguard corroborated and pulled a box of e-cigs. ‘I’ll be hired as your private escort, but only on the condition that we won’t leave the city and I’ll be paid hourly.’


‘You are the one to set the price,’ Minako said, ‘I’m ready on everything at this point. Could we sign it right now?’


The rapid suggestion kindled some surprise in the siblings—they’ve attempted to repudiate her concerns and mutually agree on something different. Nonetheless, she as persistent as fretful and there was probably nothing that could put her off this decision. ‘Well,’ Mari trailed off and rolled her sleeves, ‘I’m afraid I don’t have any in my office currently. I could call my boss and arrange him to get some copies. Yuuri can give us a lift, no?’


Yuuri isn’t buying it—along with two desks, there is this old-fashioned barrister bookcase with piles of documents in it, a figure of Themis, the goddess of foresight, and a few portraits. There is no way that his sister didn’t have something as simple as written contract documents in the piles, even he might pull out some if he sought in his pockets. Regardless, he reckoned on her irrefutably sound and sensible tactic. Mayhap if there is somebody stalking Minako, they’ll appear once we go outside, for this person must know very well she’s sitting with them.


They couldn’t be more accurate in their calculation.
Right across Mari’s office there were Yakov’s best sniper accompanied by his second most favourite ragdoll. Victor specifically asked Yura to pick a beneficial position for both of them; and they were now lying down to a hipped dormer, wind undulated blandly with stinging coolness. The bipod was already set and hid professionally in the darkest space, the muzzle brake stood out a tad bit but otherwise they were all covered.


Victor has been motionless for a while. Disclosing the street’s puniest secrets as if they were an aim-point, the elder had lethal patience when handling situations where attention could be easily drawn to them. He’s stabilized the weapon to his cheek and yet, he isn’t moving at all. Pulling the trigger is a mentally gruelling task and he doubted Yura could bear it. Once he saw him raising his voice to Yakov and even then he closed his eyes—in the prime of his youth, he shouldn’t deal with violence, let alone epitomize it.


‘The night vision riflescope is by my side,’ Yura said lowly, as if respected by Victor’s poise. ‘This stinky gaffer rightfully wanted me schooled by you so spice things a bit and let’s do something!’


‘The house is well-maintained and the glass beneath us isn’t broken. If someone is to spot us, you’ll have to witness my execution by electrocution or an injection, you’ll have to guess how many people lights went out under Yakov’s cruelty and never have yourself cradled to sleep by me,’ he reprimanded, as still and calm.


Yura bit his lip. ‘Fine, I’d rather strangle him myself than get us in trouble.’


Some more time passed when Victor recoiled from the weapons and signalled to the younger to take his spot. Yura tied his hair and studied the firearm and then Victor’s reliance in his fledging skills.


‘Beware and wind. The range is long and I’ve loaded only one bullet.’


‘As if I’ll miss,’ Yuri taunted. ‘I see them coming!’


Victor fixed his sight on the trio coming out of the building. The first person was their target, followed by a woman who stood in their way and a man who left the exit last.


‘I can go for a headshot,’ Yuri growled, feeling mighty on the central position. ‘The man and the woman should be unscratched, right? Victor?’


Victor’s gut feeling was blurred in delightful dizziness, a comfortable knowledge and reminiscence that completely diminished the mission. As if holding a seashell above his ear, a melodious reminder of warmth stroke the back his neck; a splash of familiarity washed his spine in chills and an idea so sanguine swept him off his feet. It wasn’t the man’s appearance that he recognized but the glint of his ring under the streetlamp. How’d he mistake it? He had identical one on his slimmed fourth finger. The man he met three years ago.


Yuuri.


He’s grown his hair, surely, and it fit him so well. The glasses’ frame isn’t as immature and round—the blazer is something new but not the comical baby blue tie. The woman had a smoke at the exit so he could observe the other’s laughter closely, relish it, taste it on the tip of his weapon and hold it right under his racing heart.


Then he activated the safety catch mechanism, a moment ahead, so Yuri wouldn’t pull the trigger.


‘I was so close!’


‘I don’t want to shoot her, the case has turned out to be quite extraordinary, Yura.’


Yuri pauses, swallows nervously, still taken aback by Victor’s cautious smile. ‘Do it yourself if I’m lowbrow.’


‘Not at all, dear,’ he reassured and handed him a phone. ‘This is how we proceed. I want you to dislocate or twist my wrist until it’s broken, that will be our excuse as to why we couldn’t shoot the target. Now, call Giacometti and send him our location. Tell him to have a thug give our target a good scare and then eliminate him. This way, when they go to submit a complaint tomorrow, I’ll be there to personally meet them,’ Yura’s jaw dropped in laconic rambling, ‘it’ll stay between me, Giacometti and you. We need someone to spook them and not let him live afterwards but we also need to pardon ourselves in front of Yakov, don’t we?’


Yuri knew it wasn’t up for a debate and he had to do as told. Victor accepted him wrapping around his body and using his bodyweight to snap his arm—but beforehand, he had one last thing in mind, ‘Did this fat jab catch your eye?’


Victor smiled watching his matching ring walk away. ‘Something may catch yours if you don’t make haste.’

 


 

‘Yes, upon falling off the ladder I heard my wrist snap; but the adrenaline rush might have dulled the strain,’ falsehood seared his throat—Suntory whisky washing the mordant lies and sowing trepidation. ‘No, you needn’t lose sleep ovet it, I can handle it! I’ll have the day off tomorrow, one knows that I may see along the seaside. I’ll transfer our arrangement to someone attested, trust my judgement. Yes, right. Сладких снов, father.’


The phone was hanged but not the intention—Victor is struggling to find feasible reasons behind the extension of their visit in Japan. If only would his godfather share the deal with this ballet tutor, it’d be a cinch to think of something. Of course, he didn’t exclude the help of his brothers. Most wouldn’t hesitate though it’s crucial to pair the best out of the best and to have an efficient plan which would both save him and this woman time.


Looking back to his nightstand, the ring flickered and had all of his attention. Heady from the liquor, sapped and lackadaisical, the skater sprawled in the hotel’s crisp bedding and took the ring to his bathrobe, giving it a somnolent squeeze.


‘You’ve been hiding from me here all along? Clever little thing, who’d have guessed?’ he said, a wave of pleasure and readiness surging through his casted and badly bruised wrist. ‘Not much has changed, not even a bit. For once I met an ordinary man in crucial times.’


He laughed to himself.


‘Even your kiss that night, Yuuri,’ he hummed. ‘You’ve always been paramount.’