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solo and pair

Chapter Text

By the time Yuuri is eight, he has only seen four soul marks up close.

The first soul mark he sees is his mother's. It is a purple and red spot on her left forearm, high on the soft flesh towards her inner elbow, and an exact replica of his father's. Like many matches, his parents do not mind if their mark is exposed; they do not flaunt it, because they are not the kind of people to do so, but neither do they flinch when they absently roll up the maroon sleeves of their yukata.

"It doesn't hurt?" Yuuri asks when he is young, long before puberty hits and his mark manifests. He does not like the look of his mother's unique mark; it looks like a day old bruise, if bruises were permanent and perfectly circular.

"No," Hiroko laughs, her eyes crinkled in the corners. "At least, not in the way you think it does."

Yuuri is skeptical. Like all children, he is too young to understand the hidden meaning behind his mother's reply; unlike most children, however, the mystery clings to him and fills him with anxiety.

"Are you sure it doesn't hurt?" he asks, thin and cautious, when his older sister Mari begins to manifest at twelve.

"It doesn't feel like anything," Mari says with a shrug as she idly scratches at the darkening mark, a brown spot on her shoulder that—if Yuuri squints—looks like a gingko leaf. "It just is."

Marks are private things and, often, the only people who know about them are immediate family members and close friends. There are exceptions, of course. Mark baring varies across cultures and, in some cases, bloom in places that are difficult to cover: across the cheek or chin, on a finger or the back of a hand, in the corner of an eye or in the cradle of a palm. Yuuri's ballet teacher, Minako, is one such person.

"Tiny, isn't it?" Minako whispers one day after dance class, as Yuuri waits for his sister to finish her club activities and pick him up from the studio. "My mark."

Yuuri blushes. He knows it's rude to stare at a stranger's mark even if it's intentionally bared, so he quickly averts his gaze and pretends not to know that—up close—the small, dark thing under Minako's left eye looks like a rosebud waiting to unfurl.

"S-sorry!" he stammers. His fists tighten and he braces himself for a scolding. "I didn't mean to—!"

Yuuri is interrupted by a loud guffaw. He jumps in his seat, startled by the noise, and looks back up instinctively; he is surprised to see a mirthful grin on his instructor's face, wide and full of teeth.

"Don't apologize, Katsuki-kun," Minako assures him. "It's okay to be curious."

Yet despite Minako's declaration, it takes Yuuri months to look at her directly. He does not know why the sight of another person's mark unsettles him; he only knows that it does, and he tries his hardest to avoid the subject.

For a time—for a little over three years—it works. Then Yuuko, who is halfway through fourteen, turns to Yuuri and says, "Can I show you something?"

Yuuko's mark is petal pink and amorphous, a faint, cherry-sized splash of color near her belly button. It is so pale it is nearly invisible against the ivory of her skin. Yuuri feels his face heat when she shows him. It is not unusual for close friends to share their marks, but something about the one-sided exchange makes Yuuri feel strange, as though he stepped off the wrong foot into a jump.

"Did it hurt?" Yuuri asks, his tongue thick in his mouth.

"No." Yuuko shakes her head as she pulls her shirt back down. Yuuri does not think she is conscious of the way she presses her fingers down on her mark. "I just got into the shower a couple weeks ago and… it was just there, you know?"

Yuuri does not know. He just turned twelve, and most boys manifest between the ages of thirteen and seventeen.

"Why do you ask?" Yuuko says. "Are you worried?"

"No," Yuuri answers honestly. "I just…"

Yuuri does not know how to describe the anxious flutter he feels beneath his breastbone whenever he sees a soul mark. He wants to say it feels too intimate—like he has seen the heart of secret he was not meant to understand—but he cannot name such nervousness without also talking about the faint underscore of his anticipation. His emotions feel like they're being balanced on an uneven rocker; if he doesn't want to fall, he cannot lean either way.

"It's okay," murmurs Yuuko as the silence stretches between them. "I understand."

The quiet words don't feel like platitudes and, briefly, Yuuri hopes that his mark will bloom identical to Yuuko's. He has always admired her skating and is grateful for her kindness. It would be nice, he thinks, to be her match.

.

Yuuri's vague hopes are dashed less than a month later when Yuuko has an accident during practice. It is a nasty fall, the kind that makes Yuuri gasp and Nishigori swear.

"Yuu-chan!" Yuuri calls as he quickly skates over. Nishigori is not far behind; he immediately kneels when he reaches her, his hands hovering in a strange show of uncertainty. "Yuu-chan, are you okay?"

"I think so," Yuuko groans in response. "Just let me—" She winces as she unfurls from fetal position, as she rolls from her side onto her back. Her sweater rides up and exposes her belly. "Yeah."

Nishigori goes still. Yuuri glances at him—Nishigori can get a little strange about Yuuko, especially during the competitive season—but the wide-eyed, slack-jawed expression on his face is not one Yuuri expects. Normally, Nishigori falls in some degree between stoic and annoyed, so his surprise is… surprising.

"Nishigori?" says Yuuri hesitantly at the very same time Yuuko shrieks, "Takeshi!"

Yuuri looks down and immediately wishes he hadn't because Nishigori's hand—his bare, blunt hand—is splayed possessively over Yuuko's soul mark. Every muscle in Yuuri's body tenses. Touching someone else's mark without permission is a violation; seeing it makes a bubble of wrongness rise in Yuuri's throat.

Then Nishigori whispers, "That's mine."

Yuuko's gloved hands—closed over Nishigori's forearm like vice—loosen. Her eyes get bigger and her lashes, already damp from the hurt of her fall, flutter against her flushed cheeks as she blinks. Then, small and soft, she whispers, "What?"

Nishigori shifts all his weight to his knees and then uses his free hand to lift the hem of his shirt over the powerful line of his stomach. Helplessly, Yuuri watches as Nishigori exposes his own soul mark. Hidden behind a sparse veil of hair, Nishigori's mark is petal pink and amorphous, a faint, cherry-sized splash of color near his belly button. There can be no denial:

Yuuko and Nishigori match.

Upon this realization, the visceral not-quite-nausea feeling in Yuuri's throat is immediately replaced by a sharp stab of mortification. Mark baring is supposed to be a private, intimate act—many people regard it as one of the most important moments in their lives—and here Yuuri is, crouched on the ice, sitting beside Yuuko and Nishigori as they stare at each other in unconcealed wonder. He knows that the situation is unusual, but that knowledge does not stop him from feeling like an intruder.

"I'm g-gonna—!" Yuuri stammers as he stands, his legs wobbling uncharacteristically beneath him. He cannot find his balance. "I—I should—!"

Neither Yuuko nor Nishigori pay attention to Yuuri's attempts—they are too absorbed by the sight of their mark to pay attention to anything else—and Yuuri turns and flees before an excuse can pass his lips. His blades cut sloppy and hard into the ice. Consumed by embarrassment, he does not focus as he steps off the rink and stumbles towards the bench. He keeps his head relentlessly down as he fumbles with his laces; he does not want to trespass on Yuuko and Nishigori's baring more than he already has.

It takes Yuuri an eternity to remove his gear, throw it in his gym bag, and leave. The frigid air nips at his burning cheeks and ears as he runs out of the arena. Winter is nearing its deepest, most bitter days and even Yuuri, who spends long hours on the ice, thinks it's cold. His lungs sting when he inhales. This sharpness, however, is not enough to distract him from the memory of Nishigori's hand as it closed over Yuuko's mark; it plays over and over again in his brain, a terrible and unending loop. The harder he tries to ignore it, the clearer and more stark the images become.

Overwhelmed and distracted by the incident, Yuuri relies solely on his muscle memory to find his way home. He immediately drops his bag when he arrives, wiggling out of his boots and shrugging off his coat. He will be scolded later for leaving a mess in the public entryway, but at that moment, he does not care; all he can think about is the warmth of his bed and the safe cocoon of his blankets. Heedlessly, Yuuri sprints up down the long hall and up the stairs. The quiet solitude of his bedroom is a relief, the shock of adrenaline dying as soon as he bundles himself in his sheets and sinks into the mattress.

It is in this draining aftermath that Yuuri—spread thin and unsure—falls asleep.

.

"Are you okay?" Mari asks that evening as Yuuri pokes idly at his dinner. "You're acting weird."

"Yeah," Yuuri murmurs distractedly, elbow on the table, cheek smushed into the heel of his palm. He is groggy from his late nap and—though his earlier panic has subsided and turned into careful, avoidant apathy—he still feels a numb buzz beneath his skin.

"Wanna talk about it?" she says.

Yuuri looks up from his picked-at meal, alarm sparking in the back of his brain. He knows that his sister means well; however, he also knows that if he tells the truth of what happened, she will laugh at his discomfort and tease him. It will not be done out of maliciousness nor meanness, but misunderstanding, as Mari has always been more comfortable about soul marks than Yuuri.

"No." Yuuri shakes his head. "I just had a bad day at practice."

"Anything specific?" Mari pries.

"No," lies Yuuri.

"Ah," Mari exclaims, devoid of any emotion. Yuuri has never been able to tell if she believes his falsehoods or if she merely lets him get away with telling them. "Well, you know that sometimes those things just happen, right? Bad days? Sometimes for no reason. The best you can do is just—" Mari pauses momentarily, her shoulders rising in an exaggerated shrug. "Accept it, I guess, and keep going."

"Yeah," Yuuri says. "I can—yeah."

Mari nods and, thankfully, drops the conversation. The rest of their meal is spent in comfortable silence, interrupted only by the distant murmur of the television in the main room and the quiet clatter and scrape of their chopsticks against their plates. It is peaceful; not so much so that Yuuri can forget his anxiety, but enough for him to softly thank his sister when they finish. She smiles at him, ruffles his hair, and says,

"Anytime, kiddo. Anytime."

.

Chapter Text

Unable to face Yuuko and Nishigori, Yuuri pretends to be sick the next day and the day after that. He tries again the third day but is unsuccessful.

"Mom knew you were faking it," Mari tells him as they walk to school, bundled up against the snow in thick coats, heavy boots, and knotted scarves. Her tone is petulant. "I can't believe she let you stay home for two days. She never let me stay at home even when I was actually sick. You're so spoiled, god."

Yuuri does not feel spoiled. He feels… jumpy and agitated, on edge and off balance.

"I can't believe she let you miss practice, too," Mari continues to lament. "Both ice skating and ballet? I mean, I know you're a better kid than I was, but mom could least try to hide the favoritism."

Yuuri buries his face deeper into the folds of his heavy scarf and keeps his eyes firmly downcast. It is not Mari's complaints that cause him distress—Yuuri is used to the way she can be harsh in her honesty—but the mention of his skipped practices. Normally, Yuuri skates or dances for several hours every day; not going to the ice rink or the studio has left him with an excess amount of energy to burn.

"—going tonight, aren't you?" Mari asks.

Yuuri blinks up from the icy sidewalk and says, "Huh?"

Mari huffs. "Practice," she reiterates. "Are you going? Or do you want to meet me here?" She gestures vaguely to the school entrance behind her, the iron gates tall and open.

"Oh." Yuuri's teeth dig into his bottom lip, a brief sting to order his thoughts. "No, I—I'm going. To the ice rink. Tonight."

One of Mari's eyebrows touches her hairline.

"To practice," Yuuri blurts.

"You are so weird," Mari says. "Whatever. I'll see you at home, okay?"

"Okay," says Yuuri.

Mari ruffles his hair before she heads into the courtyard. Yuuri watches her until she disappears, swallowed by the massive throng of other darkly-clad high school students. With her and her distracting chatter gone, it is harder for Yuuri to continue; he clutches the straps of his backpack in his mitten-clad hands and forces himself forward. His primary school is only five blocks westward—a small journey—but every step is a struggle.

It is not school Yuuri dreads; it is his skate practice that comes inevitably after.

Yuuri knows that his apprehension is silly. The baring had been an accident and Yuuri's involvement had been an unintentional. No fault rests with him. As soon as he realized what happened, he'd left. Besides, Yuuko had shared her mark with him prior to her fall, and it had been Nishigori's decision to bare his mark in a public space. Yuuri knows, intellectually, that he is blameless; emotionally, however, Yuuri feels otherwise.

As his school day progresses, Yuuri tries not to dwell on it. The harder he tries, however, the harder it is to ignore. He is restless from a lack of exercise and stressed by an abundance of anxiety. All day his brain does nothing but create a thousand different scenarios about how Yuuko and Nishigori will behave in response to his accidental voyeurism. Each imagining is more terrifying than the last and, by the time the final bell sounds, Yuuri is a bundle of nerves.

Nothing bad is going to happen, Yuuri tells himself as he takes the bus to Hasetsu Ice Castle. Nothing bad is going to happen, nothing bad is going to happen, nothing bad is going to happen…

Yuuri feels nauseous as he stumbles past the main entrance and into the empty locker rooms to change. His nervousness is a physical thing inside him; it takes up too much space and makes his movements feel awkward and unsure. He leans on the wall for support as he walks out to the rink, trying and failing to be silent as his hard guards smack against the floor.

His caution does not matter as neither Yuuko nor Nishigori immediately notice his presence. They are on the rink, too far away to hear or see him behind the benches; they are skating in tandem, their bodies building speed for a jump.

No, Yuuri thinks as the strains of a soft, blooming piano piece filter from Yuuko's portable boombox. They're skating together.

As one, Yuuko and Nishigori enter a three-turn, plant their left toe pick into the ice, and vault into the air. Neither of them rotate their upper bodies too early and—after two full counterclockwise rotations in the air—they both land perfectly on the back outside edge of their right foot. For a blissful moment, Yuuri forgets his anxiety; it is the first time he has seen either of them land a double toe loop jump.

Then Yuuko turns to Nishigori, smiles so brightly Yuuri can see it halfway across the rink, and throws herself into his open, waiting arms. Nishigori laughs and picks Yuuko up completely, spinning gently on the ice.

Yuuri averts his eyes and swallows around a lump in his throat. While he once again feels like an intruder, a small part of him is jealous. It would have been nice—would have been easy—to be Yuuko's match. She has always been patient with him, gentle and supportive and kind; there is no guarantee that Yuuri's match will be anything of those things.

"Did you see that?" Yuuko calls, her voice carrying over the low, electrical hum of the rink. "Yuuri! Did you see?"

There's the familiar sound of blades scraping against the ice and, when Yuuri looks up, Yuuko is hanging over the low partition. Her grin is so wide that all her teeth are exposed; behind her, Nishigori's normally impassive face is touched by elation.

"Y-yeah," Yuuri stammers. He has to clear his throat to speak. "It was—I mean, g-good job."

Yuuko's smile dims and turns into concern. She tilts her head to the side and squints at him. Then she asks, "Are you sure you're feeling better?"

Yuuri blinks at the sudden question and sputters, "Wh-what?"

"Minako-sensei said you were sick," Yuuko continues. She juts her narrow chin forward. "You missed both her class and practice, and you never miss practice. Are you sure you're well enough to skate?"

"I'm not—"

Yuuko cuts his protest off, saying, "Don't lie to me, Yuuri, I know when you're lying. I've known you since you were four."

Yuuri's gaze twitches away from Yuuko's serious stare and meets Nishigori's. It has always been difficult for Yuuri to interpret the older boy's emotions, but there is no mistaking his small shrug. What do you want me to do?, the action says. You know how she is.

"I'm not sick," Yuuri murmurs. "I just… my stomach hurt."

Because he is staring at the bright red tips of his plastic hard guards, Yuuri does not see the way Yuuko's worried expression becomes empathetic. His feelings about soul marks—about getting one, about seeing one, about matching one—are sensitive, complex, and inexplicable. Calling him out would be an unnecessary cruelty, so Yuuko ignores the truth and falls back from the partition.

"Okay," she says instead. "But you're only doing warm-ups, turns, and steps today. No spins! Or jumps! Got it?"

"Got it," Yuuri replies.

.

Days become weeks become months, and as time passes, the harshness of winter bleeds slowly into the sweetness of spring.

"Yuuri!" Yuuko calls out one afternoon after practice, her voice echoing across the rink. Yuuri feels his shoulder tense; it has been over three months since the mark baring accident, but he still half-expects either her or Nishigori to finally bring it up. "Come on, it's about to start!"

"O-Okay!" Yuuri shouts back. "Be there in a second!"

Yuuri completes a few more laps to cool down, skating in lazy turns around the rink. Once his heart rate is back to normal and the chilly air against his sweat-damp neck starts to actually feel cold, he steps off the ice, snaps his hard guards over his blades, and trudges to the employee lounge Yuuko's parents let them use. The television is on—predictably tuned to the Junior Worlds finals—and Yuuko is sitting on a bench with Nishigori. She is leaned comfortably against his side and he has one burly arm wrapped naturally around her tiny waist.

Since they discovered they were soulmates, Yuuko and Nishigori have grown steadily closer and begun to date. Their relationship is quiet and hesitant, in the way young teenagers often are, and it subjects Yuuri to a new level of intimacy: prolonged hand-holding, shy hugs, and timid kisses. It is deeply embarrassing for him to witness. Perhaps it would not be so embarrassing if Yuuri had not also witnessed their baring, but there is nothing he can do about that.

Quickly averting his eyes, Yuuri sits a little further down on the bench and turns his attention to the figure skater on the television screen. It is a young French man, barely older than Yuuri himself, launching into a triple Salchow; he wobbles a little when he lands, but Yuuri, who always falls on his face when he attempts any kind of triple jump, frowns.

"He's good, but I'm more excited for Victor Nikiforov's performance," Yuuko says. Out of the three of them, she's the one who keeps track of competitions and championships, of skaters and coaches, of awards, accolades, and achievements. "He's such a good skater. I think I cried the first time I saw him. His routine is also the hardest compared to the other skaters—if he nails it, he's going to win."

Yuuri watches the French skater sit with his coach in the kiss and cry, and receive a score that puts him in fourth. The skater bows his head at the results while the coach gently takes him by the shoulders, gets him to his feet, and walks him away from the cameras. Yuuri cannot imagine that kind of devastation. He hates to lose when he competes in his small, local events; he does not know what he would do if he lost on an international level.

"Here he comes, here he comes!" Yuuko chirps excitedly after the announcer's briefly dissect the previous performer. "Victor Nikiforov!"

Victor is—in a word—stunning. His long hair is the same color as an overcast winter day, and his eyes are as bright and as deep as the clean ice of a glacier. Such paleness contrasts the darkness of his costume and it makes him look both delicate and strong. When he skates, he is simultaneously fluid and immovable; the half skirt at his hip flutters gently and reveals a bright red underside.

"Huh," Yuuko mutters as Victor takes position in the center of the ice. Both his hands are splayed oddly over his sternum. "Why does he have—?"

The music starts. Victor tilts his head towards the unseen sky and pulls his hands away from his chest. For a moment, the camera captures the enormity of the gesture—mouth gently parted, eyes full of longing, palms upward in supplication—before it zooms in and—

Yuuri inhales sharply because—

"That's," Nishigori chokes because—

"Wow," Yuuko gasps because—

Victor Nikiforov's mark is bared for the entire world to see.

It is shocking. Yuuri knows that while some cultures consider baring taboo, most cultures merely consider marks private. Often, marks that cannot be hidden by clothing are hidden by customized bands or special foundation. Very few cultures display their marks for everyone to see—marks, after all, are the manifestation of a single soul split into multiple bodies—and Yuuri knows that Russian culture is not one of these.

Social mores aside, it is hard to deny the impact of Victor's enormous mark. It starts in the middle of his chest and radiates out like a star; tendrils venture down to his diaphragm, out onto his pectorals, and up over his collarbones. The mark is shockingly white, paler even than Victor's ivory skin, and slightly raised, like an old scar. Framed perfectly by the low, black velvet neckline and glittering gems of his costume, Victor's mark is… beautiful.

Victor stands on the ice with his arms spread for several seconds. He lets the shock of his baring ripple through the crowd; when this shock crescendos, just before the astonishment can dissolve into confusion, Victor begins to skate. His steps are slow and measured, easy even—then, with no warning save for the twist of his hips, he pivots into a flawless triple-triple, and the crowd bursts into applause.

The entire performance is done without mistake or hesitation. The music is amazing, the choreography is unexpected and stunning, and Victor's skill is beyond compare. The whole thing makes Yuuri feel as though he were reaching for something just beyond his grasp, something that he wants but cannot have; he is filled with anticipation, a sensation that continues to build even when Victor stops.

"Oh my god," Yuuko half-screams as Victor quietly pulls his hands back to their original position over his soul mark, his palms cradled gently over his heart. "Oh my god. Did you—oh my god—did everyone see—?"

Yuuko has stood up and is gesturing wildly to the television screen, where Victor is stepping off into the kiss and cry. His coach—a balding Russian man in a red and white track suit—pulls him into an enormous hug. Yuuri notices, for the first time, that his body is straining so far forward that he is in danger of falling off the bench. He scoots back a little and tucks his gloved hands underneath his thighs.

"That was amazing!" Yuuko gushes, gesturing frantically with her hands. "It was—I thought—who does that?"

"Victor Nikiforov, apparently," Nishigori deadpans.

"Oh my god, Takeshi," whines Yuuko at her soulmate's teasing. "Were you even watching the same thing I was? That was—"

As Yuuko devolves further, Yuuri watches the judges' scores appear in a neat line on the bottom of the television screen. It is a new world record; it beats the old record by an impossible and clean seven points. Yuuri's heart flutters high in his throat as the camera zooms in on Victor for his reaction.

"That is insane," Yuuko exclaims as Victor closes his eyes; as he presses his fingers against his lips; as he kisses them; as he touches the kiss to the center of his soul mark. His mouth moves. The microphones surrounding him do not pick up what he says, but they do not need to; a thank you is universal. "That was…"

Victor, Yuuri thinks. It was all... Victor.

.

A year later, when Victor gets silver for his division at the ISU World Figure Skating Championship, Yuuri enters puberty. His voice begins to break, his joints ache with the stretch of growth, and—when the last snow melts and the cherry blossoms unfold—Yuuri's mark blooms painless and white above his heart.

.

Chapter Text


Yuuri's mark takes a week to bloom.

It starts innocuously. Yuuri has just stepped out of the shower and is brushing his teeth when he catches an oddity in his reflection. Confused, he grabs the hand towel and wipes the lingering condensation off the mirror, the water droplets clumping and streaking beneath the swipe of rough cotton.

Then Yuuri squints.

And squints.

And squints some more.

What? he thinks as he peers curiously at his chest. There is a small, uneven patch of raised skin above his sternum; it isn't hematic like a bruise nor is it the inflamed red of a rash. Did I hurt myself?

Carefully, Yuuri presses his fingertips against it. When it does not ache or sting at this initial touch, he pushes down harder.

Nothing.

"Huh," Yuuri mumbles around his toothbrush. "Weird."

Yuuri does not stare at his chest for much longer. The steamy air in the bathroom is beginning to lose heat, and the curl of his damp hair against his neck is giving him goosebumps. So he mentally shrugs, spits into the sink, and continues on with his morning routine. By the time he is in school—sitting in his desk and copying his teacher's notes off the whiteboard—Yuuri has forgotten about it.

Days pass, and the peculiar thing on Yuuri's chest does not disappear. It grows, spreading outward onto his pectorals, downward towards his stomach, and upward to his throat. It has also turned white, bleached of melanin and fibrous in the same way old scars are.

What is this? Yuuri wonders as he peers at himself in the mirror. It kinda looks like… a spider's web? The center of it is roughly circular and directly above his heart; it does not itch, but Yuuri still grinds the heel of his palm against it. No. It's more like… an explosion. Or a star.

A star.

Realization hits Yuuri like his body hits the ice after a bad jump, and he yanks his hand away violently from his mark. A wave of déjà-vu sweeps through him. The act of pulling his hand away from his chest makes him think of the way Victor Nikiforov had exposed his soul mark to the world at the beginning of his Junior Worlds free skate.

His mark was white, too, thinks Yuuri.

Victor's mark had also been distinctive. Undeniable. Enormous. It may be too early to tell—marks can take anywhere between a few days and a few weeks to bloom—but maybe once Yuuri's mark has manifested, he can—

"No," Yuuri protests aloud, casting the thought aside as abruptly as it had appeared. He squeezes his eyes shut. His hands tighten into fists against the cool sink countertop. "No. I'm not—I can't be—"

Victor's soulmate.

The idea is ridiculous. Victor is an internationally-known, record-breaking figure skater and Yuuri is a relative nobody who can't even land a triple toe. Yuuri is projecting. He admires Victor immensely and hopes to compete against him one day, but it would be the height of narcissism to think that his incomplete mark and Victor's will match. That he and Victor are…

"No," Yuuri whispers, stubbornly refusing to even think about the possibility a second time. "I'm not. I'm not."

Marks can be similar without being matches. Yuuri knows this. It's an theme used often enough in popular media: in movies and television shows, in songs and books. Sometimes, there are even stories on the news about previous matches being disproved or faked, and the concept of being accused of either makes Yuuri's stomach churn.

Not that it matters, Yuuri realizes. If he never sees—if no one sees—it won't matter. I mean, it's not like he's my s—my anything. Anything. Anything. I don't. I'm not. It doesn't matter. I just can't—no one can see it. No one, not even Mari or Yuuko or Nishigori or—they can't.

Yuuri glances at his reflection in the bathroom mirror. He already knows that a majority of his mark will be hidden by his normal clothing; it is the highest point of his mark that worries him, a jagged tendril that creeps over his left clavicle and brushes the base of the tendons in his neck. It is possible that he may need foundation or a special band—

"Yuu—ri!" Mari shouts suddenly, banging on the unlocked door. Yuuri yelps in surprise, his hands instinctively rising to cover his mark. It is not unlike Mari walk into the bathroom while Yuuri is using it, and the possibility of that happening terrifies Yuuri. His adrenaline-filled heart pounds against the flat plate of his sternum. "Hurry up!"

"O-okay!" Yuuri shouts back.

"You have five minutes!" Mari warns him. "Or you're walking to school on your own."

"I'll—" Yuuri scrambles to grab the top half of his school uniform. "I'll be out in a sec!"

Mari scoffs but does not say anything else as she walks away. Shocked by her interruption and scared of the possibility of her return, Yuuri quickly shoves his arms into his long-sleeved shirt, buttons it all the way to his throat, and hastily knots his striped tie. Then—before he dons his socks and his pants—Yuuri pauses, and checks the left side of his throat to make sure the topmost part of his mark is hidden.

It is.

Good, Yuuri thinks.

.

Unfortunately, no matter how hard he tries, Yuuri cannot keep the knowledge of his manifestation a secret for long.

"Congratulations," Minako says one day after class, when Yuuri stays late to work on his posture. He has not landed a triple edge jump since his coach decided that he should start, and his frustration is escalating from mild to severe.

"For what?" Yuuri asks distractedly.

"For your mark," Minako clarifies.

The muscles in Yuuri's shoulders and back stiffen. One of his hands flies to his chest to cover his already hidden mark. He turns—wild-eyed—to Minako, and sputters, "What?"

Minako tilts her head, her fine hair slipping against her cheek. She raises an eyebrow.

"I mean—" Yuuri chokes and his fingers dig into the elastic material of his unitard. "How did you—did you see—?"

"No," Minako says. The relief Yuuri feels at that single word is overwhelming; he lets out a shaky breath and loosens his grip. "I only figured it out a couple days ago."

"How?" Yuuri queries.

"I guess I just knew." Minako shrugs, but does not elaborate. Perhaps she cannot; intuition is a strange and ineffable thing. "Don't worry about it, Yuuri. Everyone gets their mark sometime." She levels him with a knowing look. "Now, focus on your posture. You need to align your hips…"

Despite Minako's nonchalant attitude about his mark, Yuuri cannot help but overthink it. He stops showering at the rink after practice. He begins to wear multiple layers—high-collared jackets over high-necked crew t-shirts over athletic tank-tops—even though the heat of summer begins to swell. He even stops using the onsen; it is considered polite to ignore marks, but most people don't have manifestations that cover the entire upper half of their torso.

After Minako, Mari is the next to find out. She is shocked when Yuuri denies her request to see it; Mari, after all, had proudly shown off her mark the moment it began to bloom.

"What?" she squawks. "You're actually not going to show me?"

Unable to find the right words, Yuuri merely shakes his head and presses a palm to his chest. The gesture is as silly as it is unconscious, because even if Yuuri were not fully clothed, his hand would not be large enough to hide the entire blaze of his soul mark.

"Why not?" Mari prods. "Is it ugly?"

"No!" Yuuri blurts despite himself. Mari's grin turns smug at his reaction, and he feels his blush darken to crimson. "It's just—" Yuuri squirms in discomfort. "It's—embarrassing."

The confession makes Mari soften.

"It's just a mark," she murmurs, unknowingly repeating what Minako had told Yuuri several days before. "Don't worry about it, okay?"

Mari's reassurances do not last long because, less than a day later, Nishigori turns to old habits when Yuuri refuses to show him his mark.

"No?" Nishigori scoffs, fists on his hips. There is an intimidating edge to his tone; Yuuri has not heard it in months, not since before Nishigori and Yuuko matched. "What, are you waiting?"

Waiting is the idea that the first time a mark is bared, it is to its match. It is an antiquated notion, the stuff of fairy tales and fate. Waiting is for novels, for movies, for daydreams. It is not for reality.

"I'm not waiting," Yuuri mumbles petulantly. His fingers twist in the hem of his jacket. "I just—"

"You've seen Yuuko's, and mine," Nishigori interrupts as he inches forward on his skates and crowds into Yuuri's space. It is the first time Nishigori has acknowledged Yuuri's involvement in his and Yuuko's mark baring accident. "Don't be selfish, Katsuki. It's only fair—"

Yuuko barrels into Nishigori's side. It knocks Nishigori off-balance and sends him sprawling across the ice.

"T-the hell, Yuuko!" Nishigori sputters. He sounds more shocked than angry; if it had been someone else who pushed him, Yuuri knows that the anger would quickly overtake him. "Why did you—?"

"You know why!" Yuuko snaps, hands on her hips in an unintentional mimicry of Nishigori's previous pose. "Stop teasing Yuuri! If he wants to wait, let him wait. If he doesn't want to show you his mark, he doesn't have to just because he's already seen yours. Marks aren't an obligation, Takeshi. You know that, so stop being an idiot."

Nishigori scowls. It is well-known in the community that Yuuko's parents are not soulmates; her father is platonically matched to his twin brother, and her mother's match died in an accident when she was in high school. Unmatched pairs are not common—generally, soulmates are in close proximity to each other in both age and physical location—but they are not as rare as it sometimes seems.

"Fine," Nishigori snarls as he picks himself up. He is more hurt by Yuuko's reprimand than his fall. "Didn't want to see it that bad anyway."

Nishigori keeps his sullen gaze on the scratched up ice as he skates down to the other end of the rink. Once he is out of earshot—or at least, too busy aggressively practicing his upright spins to overhear—Yuuko heaves a sigh.

"Sorry about him," she apologizes. She scrubs a mittened hand against her cheek. "He's been acting really weird lately."

"S'okay," Yuuri says softly.

"No," Yuuko murmurs as she watches Nishigori lose his balance. "It's not."

Briefly—wildly—Yuuri considers showing Yuuko his soul mark. Yuuko has always supported him; she is the one who holds out a hand when he falls on the ice, the one who gives him encouragement when he has difficulty with his jumps, the one who believes in him and cheers for him when he competes. If Yuuri shows her his mark, he knows that she will not share the secret of it with anyone—but Yuuri also knows that, once she sees the size and the shape of his mark, she will tell him exactly what it looks like.

The offer dies on Yuuri's tongue. He swallows. His throat is dry; he swallows again. Then, quietly, he ignores the lingering guilt Nishigori inspired in him, and asks if Yuuko will watch him attempt yet another triple edge jump.

.

At the height of summer, when the heat of the season swells unbearably and the cicadas cry late into the humid night, Yuuri's parents acknowledge his manifestation.

"You should have told us sooner," his mother, Hiroko, scolds gently as she hands him a small package over dinner. It is wrapped crisply in red paper and tied with a pre-made golden bow. "I know you're not as showy as Mari—"

"Hey!" Mari interjects.

"—but it is something to celebrate."

Yuuri does not want to tell his mother about the trepidation he feels every time he accidentally catches a glimpse of his mark. Like all the other people in Yuuri's life, she does not share Yuuri's misgivings; it had been simple for her and his father, Toshiya. They had grown up together in Hasetsu, married young, and made a comfortable life together. There were no mistaken matches or dramatic revelations. There was only a normal-sized mark on her left forearm, and inevitability.

"Well?" Toshiya inquires good-naturedly as Yuuri stares down at his present. "Aren't you going to open it?"

Inside the square package is ten thousand yen—the same amount of money Yuuri gets on his birthday and New Year's—as well as a small enmusubi purchased from the local shrine. The love charm is wrapped in plain blue silk and embroidered in silver thread; the colors make Yuuri think stupidly of Victor Nikiforov's long hair and striking eyes. His cheeks burn.

"Th-thank you," Yuuri stammers as he quickly puts the lid back on the box.

"You're welcome," his parents say.

After dinner is done and he can escape to his bedroom, Yuuri takes the money and the love charm out of the box. The former goes into his wallet, to be spent on new clothing, while the latter goes into the bottom drawer of his computer desk.

Yet just before Yuuri hides the love charm, he pauses. For a moment—a minute—an hour—he stares at the blue and silver keepsake, and allows himself to hope. He does not dare to think of anything or anyone specific; instead, he thinks of warmth and kindness, of love and support. The want he feels is so strong he can feel it ache.

"One day," Yuuri murmurs as he presses his palm to his sternum. "One day."

Then—with a shake of his head to dispel his amorphous thoughts—Yuuri closes the drawer.

.

Chapter Text

Yuuri begins his second year of junior high school around the same time his mark manifests. Academically, it is not challenging—Yuuri possesses a blessedly sharp memory and a mind for mathematics—but he still works hard to maintain his good grades. Good grades mean a good college and a good college means more opportunities. He does not know what he wants to do with the rest of his life; he only knows that, when the time comes to decide, he wants options outside his family's onsen.

Yet despite Yuuri's diligence, school is not his main priority. His coursework is a placeholder, a task he must complete before he can get on the bus, ride to Hasetsu Ice Castle, and skate.

And skate Yuuri does.

"Did you see that?" Yuuri exclaims when he lands his first triple flip. He wobbles when he lands, his form uncertain from lack of experience, but he completes the right amount of rotations and stays on his feet. "Yuu-chan, did you see?"

Every spare moment Yuuri has is dedicated to the rink and to Minako's ballet studio. He enters more exhibitions and competitions than ever before, traveling to other cities in the province to perform on unfamiliar ice in front of unfamiliar crowds. His coach—a middle-aged man who is employed part-time by Yuuko's parents to teach more advanced classes—often does not travel with him. Yuuri is not his only student nor is he the most gifted; even if Yuuri was, there would be coaching fees which Yuuri's parents could not afford. Instead, Yuuri is accompanied by Yuuko or Minako or Mari, or some combination of the three.

"You don't have to come," Yuuri tells them one day when they all go with him to an event in the capital city of Saga. The train ride is a little over an hour and cuts through the tree-studded center of the prefecture; it is an oddly quiet and uncrowded trip. "I can do this on my own."

Mari clicks her tongue against the back of her teeth—making an annoyed tch sound—and gently knocks Yuuri upside the head at his words. Yuuko hides a laugh behind her hand as Yuuri frowns at Mari and rubs the back of his skull.

"Don't be stubborn," Mari scolds. "Just because you can do it alone doesn't mean you have to."

Yuuri is grateful for their steady support. He can get stuck inside his own head sometimes, and he knows that sharing his victories with them makes it easier for him to carry the burden of his losses. It does not dispel his unease completely, however, because even as Yuuri's accomplishments grow, so too do his fears.

What if I never make it past this? Yuuri thinks every time he falls, or over-rotates, or steps out. Jumps are hard for him—save, ironically, for axels—and the thought of not being able to improve fills him with dread and makes him clutch at the permanent anchor of his mark. What if I never…?

Then Yuuri will win another medal, or kill his free skate routine, or nail a jump he struggles with, and the nagging doubt will quiet long enough for his hopes to build back up. Over and over again, he thinks, Regionals, nationals, Grand Prix series; regionals, nationals, Grand Prix series, until it becomes a mantra beating in time with his heart. He wants to compete on an international level so badly that the want leaves him shaky—jittery—tense. The only cures he's found to soothe the symptoms are either to practice or to eat, and since the latter is counter-productive to his athletic lifestyle, he tries to avoid it.

(Yuuri is not always successful. The food his parents make is meant for comfort, not for slim waistlines.)

Luckily for Yuuri, however, the rink and the studio are fifteen minutes from Yu-topia by foot—ten, if he's jogging—and he is welcome in both at any time. Yuuko's mother will let him in after hours when she does the books and makes him a cup of instant hot chocolate when it's time to leave, while Minako lives in the rental above her studio and always lets Yuuri in the rear entrance. He knows they do not have to open up their businesses for him—he is not the only talented figure skater in Hasetsu—so he takes care to quietly thank them every time they do.

"Hold out your hand," Minako says one such night. The sun has set and the floor-to-ceiling glass windows are dark enough to reflect their bodies as much as the mirrors on the adjacent wall. "I have something for you."

Yuuri finishes his stretch—his fingers looped easily around the arch of his foot and his nose bumping the flat of his knee—and sits up, obediently extending his hand. Minako drops a key into his upturned palm. The teeth are still sharp from being cut and the metal is untarnished. It is attached to a split ring and a tiny plastic maneki-neko.

"What is it?" Yuuri asks.

"For the back door," Minako replies.

Yuuri is shocked. He knows how protective Minako is of her dance studio; Yuuri, after all, was one of her first students when she returned to Japan. The fact that she trusts him enough to let him into her studio without her being present is more than intimidating.

"I can't—"

"You can," Minako interrupts, closing her hand over his. "You have talent, Yuuri. Ambition. And you back both those things up by working hard." She tightens her grip. "You're gonna go far—I can just feel it. Besides, you need a safe space to practice. What better place than here?"

The faith Minako has in him makes Yuuri blush, an ugly blotch of red spreading across his cheeks and down his neck. He feels stuck between bewilderment and disquiet, a strange sensation that is tempered by flattery. It would be easiest for Yuuri to give the key back, but the key is as much of a gift as it is an expectation; pushing it back into Minako's hand would be extremely rude.

"Thank you," Yuuri murmurs as he closes his fingers around the key. He chooses to accept the gesture for what it is rather than what it might mean, especially considering how straight-forward Minako is.

"You're welcome," Minako says. Then she claps her hands together, a sharp and sudden noise that makes Yuuri jump. "Well, since that's out of the way—how do you feel about doing some barre exercises?"

.

As summer fades into autumn, the enormous tree outside Yuuri's bedroom window turns gold. It is a bright riot of color against an endlessly overcast sky, but sadly, it does not last long; there is an early frost that upsets the tree's yearly cycle and forces the leaves to turn brown. They quickly fall to the ground in mass abscission, and their delicate, desiccated skeletons litter the yard and pathway.

"Come on, Yuuri," Mari prompts after she finishes her cigarette. She drops it on the concrete and snubs the smoldering end beneath the heel of her sneaker. "I want to get back before it gets dark out."

It is Yuuri's fourteenth birthday. School let out less than half an hour ago but instead of heading to the rink like he normally would, Yuuri came confusedly home. His mother and father had requested it; when he asked for details, they shook their heads and said it was a surprise. His confusion only grows when Mari greets him at the main entrance, dressed in jeans and a soft sweater.

"Do you know what it is?" Yuuri asks after he changes out of his school uniform and into a pair of gray compression pants and a black thermal jacket. Yuuri loves the jacket; it is soft and warm, and the collar covers half his throat when it is zipped up all the way.

"Yep," Mari replies, popping the p.

"And?" Yuuri queries.

"And nothing," says Mari. "You'll just have to wait until we get there."

Yuuri does not try to wheedle any more information out of Mari as they get into the family car. She has always been more stubborn than he was and delighted in making him squirm. He is not too worried, however; Mari's teases have mellowed since they were children, and Yuuri is certain that his surprise is more from his parents than from her.

The trip takes about forty-five minutes. Mari has put an unfamiliar address into her phone's GPS, and the directions lead them out of Hasetsu, past the sprawling suburbs, and onto a one lane road that winds into the forest. Like the tree outside Yuuri's window, the trees that fly by are nothing but bare branches and veneered frost, all white and gray and brown. It is beautiful in a still and desolate way, and before Yuuri knows it, Mari is parking in front of a medium-sized home at the end of a lane in the middle of nowhere.

"We're here!" Mari announces as she unbuckles her seatbelt. "Come on—Matsuko-san is expecting us."

Matsuko is a tall, willowy woman in her mid-fifties who greets Mari with an informal bow and Yuuri with a wide smile. The corners of her eyes are soft with wrinkles. Yuuri—who often feels uncomfortable around strangers—likes her immediately.

"You must be Katsuki-kun!" she says as she invites them in. Yuuri steps out of his shoes and line them up by several pairs of scuffed boots. "I hear it's your birthday today. Fourteen, right?"

"Yes," Yuuri says.

"A good year," Matsuko confirms as she leads them out of the entryway and further into her house. It's a nice house, with an open floor plan and an enormous kitchen. Yuuri tries not to openly stare but it's difficult not to; normal homes—homes that are homes, not homes inside inns—fascinate him. Matsuko must misinterpret his wandering gaze because she laughs sheepishly and says, "Sorry about the clutter."

There is a small stack of dishes in the sink, some mail on the table, and a heavy coat draped over the back of a table. Yuuri flushes and sputters, "I-it's not messy! It's just…" He knuckles his sternum as he searches for the right word. "Just different."

Mari clicks her tongue at Yuuri's strangeness while Matsuko merely laughs.

"I suppose it would be," she agrees as they round the corner and step into the living area. A huge, comfy couch dominates the room while a real wood fireplace lies dormant on the far wall. There's a coffee table with a book half-full mug of tea on it and several remotes. Yuuri barely notices any of this, however, because his attention is immediately grabbed by a cacophony of small, attention-seeking yips.

"Taa-daa!" Matsuko announces at the same time Mari says, "Happy birthday, Yuuri."

In front of Yuuri is a small pen of excited miniature poodles. They're tiny balls of curly fluff scrambling over one another to get Yuuri's attention; their mother, in the corner of the pen, lifts her head and watches carefully as Yuuri kneels and sticks his hand against the pen wall for the puppies to sniff.

"You can choose whichever one you want," Matsuko tells him. "None of them have been spoken for yet. Normally I keep the dogs for three months instead of the usual two before I let them go to new homes, but your mother was quite insistent."

Matsuko lets him sit in the cage and play with the puppies while she and Mari go back into the kitchen and chat quietly. Yuuri is ecstatic. He has always loved dogs and has spent years quietly hoping for one, but any time it came up in conversation, his parents always refused on the grounds that they were simply too busy.

"You make a decision?" Mari asks when she and Matsuko return half an hour later.

"Yeah," Yuuri responds. He had made his choice almost immediately; only one of the puppies was all brown, and he had licked Yuuri's fingers instead of nibbling at them. He doesn't cry like the other puppies when Yuuri picks him up and puts him in the cradle of his arm, either. "I want this one."

"Yeah, of course you do," Mari says with a roll of her eyes. "It's just like that skater's dog, isn't it?"

"His is a standard," Yuuri mumbles even as he feels himself turn pink. His interest in Victor Nikiforov is so complete that it is impossible for those around him not to know about it; he just didn't know it was bad enough that his parents knew exactly what kind of dog he would want. "Not the same."

Mari raises a skeptical eyebrow.

"Shut up," says Yuuri.

They leave not long after Yuuri makes his choice. Matsuko encourages Yuuri to call her if he has any questions, then wishes his a happy birthday one last time after he tips back into his shoes. She waves at them as they pull out of gravel driveway.

"So, what are you gonna name him?" Mari asks as they head back to Hasetsu. The puppy had whined softly during the first few minutes of the trip back, scared by the movement of the car. Yuuri had tightened the small blanket Matsuko gave him around the puppy's trembling body and held him to his chest, just above the bloom of his covered mark. Eventually, the pathetic noises and shivering stopped, and Yuuri's heart unclenched. "I think he looks like a Momo or a Maron."

"No," Yuuri shakes his head at the common pet names. "Not those."

"What then?" Mari asks. "Kouri?"

Yuuri shakes his head again. Truthfully, it had not taken him long to think of a name—Victor had entered his brain the moment he ran his hand over the short curls of the puppy's back—but something about it sits oddly in Yuuri's stomach.

"I wanna say Victor," Yuuri murmurs honestly as he gently scratches his puppy behind one of his floppy ears. "Is that… weird?"

"Not really?" Mari shrugs, never talking her eyes off the road or her hands off the steering wheel. "Plenty of people name their pets after celebrities they like."

Yuuri contemplates it, but he no matter how he approaches it, he still feels a little weird about calling his dog the exact same name as his idol. Victor doesn't have any nicknames that he can use—Victor Nikiforov is Victor Nikiforov, a man so full of talent and surprise that he needs no moniker. Once, Yuuri heard his coach call him Vitya in the kiss and cry, but Yuuri never believed the Russian diminutive suited the sharpness in Victor's eyes. The Japanese diminutive suits Victor even less when Yuuri thinks it; Vicchan is too cute, too… small.

The thought is a revelation.

"Vicchan," Yuuri finally says, looking down at his dog with a smile. "His name is Vicchan."

.

Chapter Text

Vicchan quickly becomes one of the few things in Yuuri's life that can tempt him away from practice. He turns out to be smart, affectionate, and incredibly well-mannered. He's house-broken within a couple months and obeys simple commands such as 'sit' and 'stay' not long after that. When they go outside for walks and runs, Vicchan trots obediently by Yuuri's heel. He rarely barks and never strays, which is a small miracle considering how many other people—how many other dogs—they usually encounter.

Yet for all these good qualities, the best thing about Vicchan is his unwavering loyalty. Yuuri has always had trouble making friends—unable to connect with his peers due to his acute self consciousness—but with Vicchan, Yuuri has no such shyness. It helps that Vicchan greets him with the same unabashed enthusiasm every night Yuuri comes home from practice, smelling mostly of sweat and faintly of the chemicals that keep help the rink frozen.

"Hey boy," Yuuri murmurs as he kneels and digs his fingers into the soft curls of Vicchan's floppy ears. The strap of Yuuri's gym bag falls off his shoulder and cuts into bicep, but he cannot adjust it when Vicchan demands all of his attention. "Miss me?"

Vicchan yips in reply. Yuuri smiles and takes it as a yes. He rewards Vicchan with several uninterrupted minutes of scratches; Vicchan squirms happily beneath his hands.

Yuuri's day ends in unvaried routine. After he has stepped out of his shoes and dropped his gym bag, he feeds Vicchan a scoop of dry food, then heads to the bathroom to take a shower. He used to wash off in the locker rooms before his mark manifested; now, in order to keep said mark hidden, he waits until he is home to peel off his sweat-stiff clothing. Then he turns on water and carefully avoids the reflection of his mark in the mirror.

Once Yuuri is clean and dressed, he heads downstairs to have dinner. His parents are typically in the main room at this time of night, making food for and serving alcohol to overnight guests. If it is busy, Mari helps and Yuuri eats alone; if it is slow, Mari sits at the table with him and talks about the annoyances of her day. Sometimes, she will prompt Yuuri to talk about his day. Often, Yuuri's answers are simple progress reports on whatever short and free skate program he is currently working on.

"Keep it up, little bro," she encourages when he tells her about the jumps he lands and the spins he's mastered. "You're gonna go far."

After dinner, at roughly half past nine, Yuuri takes Vicchan out for a final walk. Then it's an hour or two of homework—then a mindless break on the internet—then bed. Yuuri is tucked beneath his comforter by midnight, lying curled on his side with Vicchan balled up against his stomach. Yuuri is always physically exhausted by the end of the day, but sometimes, Yuuri's mental stress is so great is outweighs the need to sleep.

These are bad nights.

The nights Yuuri doesn't place in a competition.

The nights Yuuri fears his progress has hit a plateau.

The nights when his fears and doubts overshadow his hopes and dreams.

The nights he pulls Vicchan into his arms, buries his nose into the fur between his shoulder blades, and breathes in the natural and deeply comforting smell of his dog in an attempt to ignore the vastness of his future.

"He's so far ahead of me," Yuuri murmurs softly, brokenly, his eyes shut against the fathomless shadows of his room. The inn is quiet save for the tired moaning of old wood. "I don't know if I'll ever be able to catch up. It just—he's already done so much and I haven't even made it to regionals." Tears prick Yuuri's eyes and clog his throat. "God, I'm just—just so stupid—!"

Sensing distress, Vicchan wriggles in Yuuri's arms until he's turned around. He sniffs the salt on Yuuri's cheeks, cold and damp nose dragging against Yuuri's skin, before he scoots underneath Yuuri's chin and lets out a heavy sigh. His legs are tucked against Yuuri's mark, uncaring; the innocence of it makes Yuuri smile despite his sadness. Yuuri sniffs the rest of his tears down, and runs a hand over Vicchan's small skull.

Vicchan doesn't care if Yuuri had an abysmal score for his last free skate; doesn't care if Yuuri cannot move past certain jumps; doesn't care about the size or shape of Yuuri's soul mark, or it's similarity to a certain Russian figure skater's. He loves Yuuri, simply and unconditionally. Somehow, this knowledge allows Yuuri's problems shrink from insurmountable to manageable.

"Good boy," Yuuri whispers.

.

Fourteen—fifteen—sixteen—every year that passes brings Yuuri a step closer to his ultimate goal. Every year also makes him painfully and acutely aware of his position in the figure skating world.

Yuuri knows that he needs to get better. He can only learn so much underneath the part-time dedication of Hasetsu Ice Castle's coach and from the scrutinization of grainy internet videos. He needs someone who can watch him and tell him exactly what his weaknesses are, so he can work on those instead of practicing his steps, spins, and spirals for the hundredth—thousandth—millionth time.

Yet despite this awareness, Yuuri does not know what to do. Personal coaches are not cheap—especially on the level Yuuri competes at—and the closest club, where multiple skaters train under one coach, is three hours east. He had looked at attending high school in that area, but dismissed the idea; there were no scholarships and his parents' could not afford to pay for both skating and living expenses.

So Yuuri stays in Hasetsu.

Staying may not be the ideal choice, but it is not a terrible one, either. Yuuri is unafraid of hard work and the advice from the people around him—as semi-professional and scattered as it might be—helps him perfect his technical skills and routines. Then, three months before he turns seventeen, Yuuri qualifies for the tri-regional championship of Chuugoku, Shikoku, and Kyuushu.

"Repeat after me: I can do this," Minako tells him before his short program, her hands squeezing his tense shoulders. She was the only person who was able to accompany him to the two day event. Everyone else was too busy: with the inn, with school, with life. Yuuri knows Minako had to close her studio so he would not have to skate alone, and he is grateful beyond words. "Say it."

"I can do this," Yuuri says.

"I've worked hard for this."

"I've worked hard for this."

"My routine is the best routine because my ballet teacher helped me with the choreography, and not only is she the greatest choreographer in all of Japan, but she is also beautiful and kind and—"

"Minako-sensei," Yuuri interrupts. "If you want me to repeat all that, you'll have to say it slower."

Minako laughs, loud and bright, and Yuuri grins despite his nerves.

"You can tell me later, okay?" Minako smoothes her gloved hand over his slicked back hair; Yuuri leans into the gentle touch. Then she whispers, "Remember to keep your shoulders loose and follow the line of your body. Good luck."

Yuuri carries Minako's comfort onto the ice. His routine is not perfect—he falls on one jump and over-rotates on a combination—but he manages to push himself into a shocking second place, closer in points to the forerunner than last place is to him. Minako screeches in delight when his score is announced, throws her arms around his shoulders, and—hours later—treats him to a carb rich dinner at a nice restaurant.

As the night progresses, however, Yuuri's elation wanes into uncertainty. All he can think about is the weight of his score. If he does well enough in his free skate—if he wins the competition—he will qualify for the ISU Grand Prix series and compete on an international level. He could even potentially meet Victor Nikiforov: his idol, his inspiration, his reason for reaching beyond the borders of his prefecture.

An ache blooms beneath Yuuri's mark.

What would I even say? Yuuri thinks as he absently knuckles his sternum. Thank you? Can I have your autograph? I've been dreaming about this since I saw your Junior Worlds performance in oh-six, yeah, the one where you publicly bared your mark—which, uh, looks a lot like—

Yuuri stubbornly shakes the daydream out of his head. Hoping to qualify for the Grand Prix series is one thing; hoping that Victor Nikiforov is more than a stranger, however, is something else entirely, and he refuses to contemplate it. Instead, he thinks of his free skate—and every single disastrous thing that could go wrong.

.

"Oh no," Minako says when she sees Yuuri the next morning at half past nine; the rink opens for warm-ups at ten, and the second half of the competition begins at eleven. "Yuuri—you're a mess. Did you even sleep?"

"A little," Yuuri answers. In truth, he slept in fits and starts, small gaps of unconsciousness between his tosses and turns and the waning minutes on the clock.

"Did you eat?" asks Minako.

Yuuri pauses. He has been nauseous since he got out of bed; he even vomited after he stumbled out of his morning shower, overheated and unbalanced, and the sour taste of bile still clings to his tongue. Afterwards, he had tried to eat some oatmeal, but had only been successful in choking down a few bites before his stomach roiled.

"A little," Yuuri says again.

Minako's eyebrows pinch together in concern and her mouth—painted a flattering shade of red—tightens into a moue. Gently, she touches the heavily gelled strands at Yuuri's temples.

"Do you want to talk about it?" she whispers.

Yuuri is quiet, and still.

"Can you talk about it?" she rephrases.

Yuuri shakes his head, a tentative but truthful no. His emotions are a mess inside him; his excitement clashes chaotically with his inadequacy, and it scrapes out a fluttering hollow below his diaphragm. And even if he could find the right words, Yuuri does not believe his tongue would physically cooperate.

"It's okay, Yuuri," Minako soothes. "It's okay. We'll just—let's wash out some of this gel, okay? We have time."

Minako guides Yuuri back to his hotel room, into the white and impersonal bathroom, and sits him down on the porcelain lip of the tub. She grabs one of the spare cotton washcloths from the rack on the wall and runs the sink until the water turns hot; then, after she soaks the washcloth, she lightly wrings it out. The heat feels good against Yuuri's aching temples.

"I used to get stage fright, you know," Minako tells him as she runs the damp cloth over Yuuri's skull in long, slow strokes. "It didn't matter if I had performed the dance a thousand times. Didn't matter if I was familiar with the theatre. Didn't matter if I was on my own or in a trope. As soon as I stepped out onto the stage—bam."

Minako steps away to re-run the sink and re-heat the washcloth.

"What did you do?" Yuuri murmurs as she crouches back down in front in of him.

"Well, I tried a lot of things," Minako says with a shrug. With the initial layer of gel gone, she begins to rub apart the clumped together strands. "I tried meditating. I tried smoking. I even tried to imagine the audience in their underwear." She sighs. "Nothing really worked."

A drop of water trickles down from Yuuri's scalp and over the swell of his cheek. "Nothing?"

"Nothing," Minako confirms. "But once I realized that I would never be able to get rid of it—once I realized that my stage fright was a part of me—I also realized that it wasn't that bad. Sure, my brain turned off and I wanted to run back behind the curtain, but really? My nerves were only bad for the first minute on stage. After I worked through it, I was fine."

Yuuri watches as Minako wrings the cloth out on last time and flips it over the towel bar to dry. He tries to imagine what she would be like if she were flustered, but he has a difficult time doing to. Even when she's drunk too much and is slurring old stories at one of the low tables in the main room, Minako has always been calm, self-possessed, and graceful.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that I understand what you're going through. Sure, your stress may build a little differently than mine did, but I've been where you are. I know it sucks. I know it's all you can think about. I know it's driving you crazy." Minako stops to smile, brief and bright. "But do you wanna know what else I know?"

Yuuri blinks. His vision is blurry.

"I know you're going to win."

Yuuri inhales sharply—a quivering half-sob—and throws his arms around Minako's waist. The smell of her lavender perfume is familiar and comforting, as is the way she hugs him back. He squeezes his eyes shut and focuses on the reassurance her smell and her touch.

"Thank you, Minako-sensei," Yuuri murmurs into her sweater.

"Anytime, Yuuri," Minako whispers back. "Anytime."

.

Chapter Text


Yuuri's free skate does not go well.

The first half of the program is fine, especially considering his physical and mental exhaustion. Then, as the music crescendos and he positions himself on the back outside edge of his right foot, something goes wrong. He thinks it may be the way he digs the pick of his left skate into the ice—or the way his tired thighs protest the power he needs—or the way his tense shoulders don't follow the fluid turn of his hips. Whatever it is, the result is this:

Yuuri's quad toe loop becomes an overshot triple. He does not land in the correct position and his blade scrapes against the ice. Snow flies messily from the pressure as Yuuri tries in vain to stay upright; then he falls, landing so hard on his palms that pain shoots up hotly from wrist to elbow. He hisses, and thinks, I'm not gonna win.

And just like that, the tenuous grasp Yuuri had on his nerves is gone.

After the fall, the second half of Yuuri's free skate is two minutes of torture. While his step sequence is impeccable and he has no problems with the spins and spirals, it is the jumps that kill him. With his confidence shaken, he overthinks, and while he thinks, everything from the entry to the execution goes wrong. It is no surprise that Yuuri's preoccupation makes him fall again: on the second quad, on the combination, on both his triples.

Yuuri is bruised, sore, and frustrated to the point of tears by the time his routine ends. He skates off the ice with his shoulders hunched inward; he does not need to see his abysmal score to know that he will be coming in last.

"You did your best," Minako whispers into his ear when he steps off the rink, wrapping her slender arms around him in a tight hug. There is no kiss and cry here, no division between Yuuri and the small crowd that witnessed his failure, so he buries his face into Minako's coat to hide. "I'm so proud of you."

Proud of what? Yuuri thinks, a little meanly. How many times I fell?

Yuuri stays enveloped in Minako's embrace until the other competitor, a twenty-year-old professional skater, takes to the ice and performs his free skate. He lands two of his three quads and all of his combinations. Yuuri's throat tightens. It was narcissistic of him to believe that he might win regionals.

"Let's go," Yuuri tells Minako softly as the music fades out and the other skater moves into his final position. "I don't want to…"

Yuuri does not need to finish his sentiment for Minako to pick up on it. She nods in understanding and quietly takes his elbow, walking beside him as they navigate past the crowd and towards the locker rooms. All Yuuri wants is to exchange his skates for sneakers, go back to the hotel, and take a hot shower; his defeat has drained him of all the maniac, nervous energy that built in him the night before and left him feeling hollow.

This is, of course, when someone calls out, "Katsuki Yuuri? Please stop! We talk?"

The masculine voice is obviously foreign, his Japanese choppy and oddly lilting. When Yuuri stops and looks up from the red tips of his hard guards, the middle-aged man who approaches them is as unfamiliar as his tone. He has swarthy complex, thick hair pulled back into a low ponytail, and angular facial features: a sharp jaw, a square chin, and an impressive set of eyebrows. Yuuri blinks, thrown out of his darkening thoughts by the other man's sudden appearance.

"Yes…?" Yuuri replies cautiously as he glances at Minako. She is assessing the stranger in front of them with a light frown on her face. "How may I help you?"

"I am Celestino Cialdini," the man says. He holds out his wide, gloved hand, which Yuuri tentatively shakes. "From America. I coach at…" He pauses, obviously searching for the correct word. "At school? Big school?"

"University," Yuuri supplies. Then, after a beat, he says in English, "College?"

"You speak English?" Celestino says.

Yuuri nods. Like most of his school subjects, English came easily. It helped that Minako—who had spent her late adolescence and early adulthood abroad in France—understood the need for Yuuri to speak English, and taught him the language alongside dance. Once he had become semi-proficient, she established an English-only rule at her studio. The extra practice had been difficult but invaluable.

"Oh thank god," Celestino murmurs with a sigh. "My Japanese is limited at best and my Chinese…" He gestures, an uncertain teeter of his hand. "Well, I admit, outside of English and Italian, the most I can do is ask where the airport is. But what can you do? Translators are not cheap, and the university only gives me so much for travel expenses."

"A dilemma we are all familiar with," Minako interjects smoothly. She takes a subtle step closer to Celestino, putting herself partly between Yuuri and the other man. It is such a natural movement that Yuuri wonders if anyone else could tell it was intentional. "Forgive me, but what university did you say you were from?"

"I work with Wayne State in Detroit," he clarifies. "And I apologize—Celestino Cialdini."

He holds out his hand again. Minako more familiar with the western gesture and is less hesitant than Yuuri was in returning it.

"Okukawa Minako," she replies.

"Charmed." Celestino's grin turns flirtatious—Yuuri often forgets just how beautiful Minako is—and his eyes wander across Minako's features. His gaze snags briefly on her soul mark. If he is shocked by its exposure, however, he politely does not show it. "Are you Yuuri's coach?"

"No," Minako with a shake of her head. "I'm his ballet teacher and a family friend."

"Where are they, then?" Celestino surveys the crowd behind them, as though expecting to see another person. "This isn't something I should talk about without them…"

"You misunderstand, Mr. Cialdini," says Minako. Once of her hands curls supportively atop Yuuri's shoulder. "There is no one else because Yuuri does not have a coach."

This statement surprises Celestino. His green eyes widen, his smile slackens, and his expressive eyebrows jump up and touch his widow's peak. His mouth opens and closes—a shocked and soundless gape—before he finally manages to sputter, "N-no coach?"

Yuuri's lack of a dedicated coach is a sore spot for him and the direct mention of it makes Yuuri flush. Figure skating is an expensive sport. There are rink memberships and dance lessons—though Yuuri is lucky enough to have a reduced rate and unlimited access to both Hasetsu Ice Castle and Minako's ballet studio—as well as travel expenses and costumes, equipment and equipment maintenance. Yuuri pays for roughly half of everything with his winnings while the other half comes from his parents. He knows that his parents would dig deep and pay for a coach if he asked; he also knows that they would use their savings to do so, cut into the thin cushion they need in case there is a bad season at the inn, and he doesn't want to be a financial burden.

"No," Yuuri reiterates. "No coach."

"Che cavolo," Celestino curses in disbelief. His tone is not scornful like Yuuri expects; instead, it is tinged with awe. "That is… unbelievable."

Yuuri frowns in confusion. Next to him, Minako laughs and exclaims, "That's our Yuuri! Pride and joy of Hasetsu."

As always, Yuuri blushes at the praise. Minako, Yuuko, and Mari all have the bad habit of exaggerating his abilities. He knows that his step sequences are good—his spins and spirals polished to perfection by the long hours he spends on the ice—but his jumps aren't exceptional for his age bracket, and he has yet to land a quad in competition.

"I can see why," Celestino mumbles to himself. "Christ—okay. Okay." He takes a moment to collect himself; he clears his throat and runs his leather-clad hand over the smooth line of his pulled back hair. Then, unexpectedly, he asks, "How old are you? Still in high school?"

"Sixteen," Yuuri says immediately, the answer startled out of him. "I'm a second year."

"A year and half left. Perfect." Celestino snaps his fingers as though to emphasis his unnamed point. "Do you want to go to college?"

The question is as blunt as the previous one, and Yuuri blurts an affirmative without thinking about it. Though no one in his family has gone to university before—all of them opted to work at Yu-topia instead—it has always seemed like the next logical step for Yuuri to take.

"And you want to skate?" demands Celestino.

"Y-yes!"

"Good." Celestino grins as he pulls a small silver case from the inner pocket of his fashionable wool coat and snaps it open. There are business cards inside the case; he takes one out and hands it to Yuuri. It reads, Celestino Cialdini, Figure Skating Coach in plain black font on plain white heavyweight paper. The only ornamentation is a stylized DSC in the upper right hand corner; the D rests atop a skating blade like a boot, while the S and C fall beneath. Detroit Skating Club.

"Bloomfield Hills, Michigan?" Yuuri reads the address aloud.

"It's a suburb," Celestino explains. "About half an hour from Midtown, which is where the Wayne State is. That's the college that partners with us—with the DSC—and offers a full scholarship to an incoming student every year. You have good grades?"

"He's in the 95th percentile," Minako brags. Yuuri's embarrassment rises and, somehow, he manages to resist the urge to hide his face in his hands. Minako has always acted more an aunt than a teacher, and there are times he wishes she and his mother wouldn't gossip so much. "He's even higher in math."

"Bene, bene!" Celestino's grin grows. "Well, you won't qualify for the program until next year since Wayne State only accepts incoming freshman, but if it's something that you're interested in, I can guarantee a spot for you. There's more details on our website, and if you have any questions," Celestino taps the business card still pinched between Yuuri's fingers, "you can e-mail me any time."

Yuuri stares at the card and the cleanly printed ccialdini@dscclub.com. Beside him, Minako asks Celestino several more questions; Yuuri, however, cannot decipher the buzz of her words through the static in his brain. He is too overwhelmed. He just skated one of his worst programs ever and now here he is, being talked to by a professional coach from America. His frustration at his loss wars with his elation at being approached, and the opposing emotions churn together like nausea in his stomach.

"Yuuri," Celestino says once Minako's curiosity has been temporarily abated. Yuuri's eyes flutter open; he does not know when he closed them. "I know you didn't do your best today. The timing was off on most your jumps, especially in the second half."

The sick feeling in Yuuri's stomach sharpens. He opens his mouth—to protest or to agree, he does not know—but Celestino holds up a staying hand.

"Don't misunderstand me," continues Celestino. "Timing is important, of course, but it is a small and manageable problem. You have to know that it is incredible how far you've gotten without a dedicated coach, and I am excited to see how much farther you can go with one. I won't push for an answer—not right now—but I do think the DSC would be a good fit for you. Do you promise to think about it?"

Yuuri nods. He will not—cannot—process the reality of what is happening to him so quickly, but there is no way he will not obsessively think about the offer once his brain has settled.

"Excellent!" Celestino beams. "Very few skaters have the kind of potential you do, Yuuri. You should be proud of that." He holds out his hand for a final goodbye; Yuuri takes it again, then Minako. "It was a pleasure meeting you. I hope to see you both next year."

Celestino flashes one last grin before he leaves as abruptly as he arrived. Yuuri watches him go; watches him become blurry as he steps beyond the threshold of Yuuri's unaided vision; watches him be swallowed by the chattering crowd; watches him disappear. Only once Celestino is gone can Yuuri look down at the small card in his hand and think, a little helplessly,

Did I just get scouted?

.

After Yuuri gives Minako Celestino's card for safe-keeping, he goes into the locker rooms and pulls his gym bag out of his temporarily assigned cubby. He does not shower, despite feeling tacky and gross; ever since he manifested, he is extremely wary of others seeing his mark—of making assumptions—so he takes every precaution to keep it hidden. Instead, Yuuri swaps his skates for sneakers and pulls a loose pair of track pants and an athletic zip-up over his heavily sequined costume. His actions are swift and perfunctory, as he has no room in his crowded brain for the monotony of dressing.

"Got everything?" Minako asks when he emerges, taking the small, pull-along suitcase he stores his skates from him. Yuuri hums wordlessly and re-adjusts the strap of his gym bag. "Okay then, let's go."

It is startlingly bright outside. The late September sun has just passed its midday peak and shines white on the turning leaves; the air outside is just as chilly as the air inside the rink, but it smells sharper, cleaner. Yuuri takes a deep breath through his nose as Minako expertly hails a cab.

During the short, five-minute ride back to the hotel, Minako does not talk to Yuuri about Celestino. It is unlike her to be silent in light of Yuuri's success, which the conversation with Celestino definitely was; however, it is not unlike her to be keenly aware of what Yuuri needs—and what he needs right now is a quiet chunk of time to sort through the chaotic jumble of his thoughts and feelings, from the high of Celestino's offer to the low of his awful performance.

"Wanna order room service after you're done with your shower?" Minako asks as they take the elevator up to their rooms. "My treat."

The nausea Yuuri experienced before his long program is gone and has been replaced by a ravenous hunger. Yuuri nods his agreement. Room service sounds infinitely better than going to a restaurant, like they had the previous night; he does not think he could handle the stress of interaction right now, even if it is just telling a server his order.

"Knock on the door when you're finished," Minako tells him as they part ways. "Okay?"

"Okay," Yuuri murmurs back.

Once Yuuri is safe and alone in his hotel room, he toes out of his shoes and hurries into the bathroom to turn the water on. There is a slowly expanding bubble of dread in his solar plexus that he has been aware of since he left the rink; it is impossible to ignore completely, but he manages it by occupying his hands and stripping out his clothes. His plain socks, track pants, and jacket are all tossed haphazardly to the tiled floor; his costume, however, is treated with care, cautiously unzipped and immediately placed on the thick, padded hanger left on the hook of the bathroom door. His jockstrap is the last to join the small pile and, finally naked, Yuuri steps beneath into the hot shower.

"Ahh!" he gasps as the spray hits his skin. For a moment, the heat is unbearable; then his body adjusts to the temperature, and the warmth sinks into Yuuri's sore muscles and aching bones. He sighs gently, closes his eyes, and immerses himself fully beneath the artificial cascade. The sensation of water falling on him feels unbelievably good, and the sound of it running into the drain is a dense and comforting blanket of white noise. He work on controlling his breathing to help him relax, inhaling for five seconds, holding for two, and exhaling for five.

Yuuri does not know how much time passes as he stands there before he feels steady enough to reach for the shampoo. It could have been a minute, it could have been ten. He lathers his hair twice: first for the worst of the hair product and sweat, and again for the stubborn traces. When he washes his body, he does not bother with a washcloth; he merely grabs the hotel's complimentary soap and runs it over every inch of his pinked skin.

As he washes, Yuuri also catalogs his bruises. The biggest ones are on either side of his hips while smaller ones bloom on the thin skin beneath of his kneecaps. They are all tender and newly red, but Yuuri—who has spent years recovering from falls—knows that they will soon turn purple-blue and yellow-green. They linger for a week before they disappear and, after they are gone, the only souvenir Yuuri will have from this competition is his failure.

Well, what did you expect? Yuuri thinks bitterly as he turns off the shower. Did you really think that you'd make it to the Grand Prix series? Meet the Victor Nikiforov? Impress him with your skating? Talk to him? Yuuri scoffs self-deprecatingly at himself even as frustrated tears prick the corners of his eyes. Yeah—as if.

In secret truth, Yuuri had hoped that he would rank high enough to make it to the first international preliminary. In even sillier truth, he had hoped that he might have the chance to finally meet Victor, and daydreamed up a thousand different scenarios for how it might happen.

Maybe they would run into each other in the locker rooms.

Maybe he would catch Victor's gaze on the ice.

Maybe Victor would see something special in Yuuri's skating and seek him out.

Or maybe Victor would simply see him and stop, and Victor—talented, beautiful, wonderful Victor—would smile at him and know

Yuuri jerks his hand from his chest and rips his absent gaze from his blurry reflection in the fogged up mirror. He had been gently knuckling the center of his soul mark as he thought of Victor, and the implications of that make guilt join the shame and frustration already churning in Yuuri's gut. It's one thing to imagine what it would be like to meet his idol, but it is another thing entirely to imagine that they might be… more.

"Can't even land a stupid quad," Yuuri berates himself. He thinks darkly of his flubbed free skate and mutters, "Or any jump, for that matter."

Embarrassed and angry, both for his poor skate and his useless imaginings, Yuuri aggressively dries himself off with a couple of stiff hotel towels and exits the steamy bathroom. He yanks a pair of sweatpants and a turtleneck out of his suitcase; the sweatpants are new and the fleece lining is still soft, while the long-sleeved turtleneck is worn thin and frayed at the cuffs. Like his shower, being covered from head to toe helps calm Yuuri's tumultuous feelings. He does not feel completely stable since it can take Yuuri weeks to shake off losses, but his coping mechanisms are not ineffective.

Besides, thinks Yuuri. This isn't the first time I've lost, and it certainly won't be the last.

And with that strange and self-defeating assurance, Yuuri walks over to the door separating his and Minako's rooms, and knocks.

.

Chapter Text

After Yuuri fails to qualify for the Grand Prix series, life returns to the same monotonous rhythm: morning runs, school, evening practice, school work, and sleep. Occasionally, a minor competition or exhibition will shake up the monotony. Yuuri wins a majority of them with the same routines he performed at tri-regionals, though at the gentle behest of his part-time coach, he minimizes the two quads in his free skate to triples.

"You don't have the right number of rotations," his instructor says. "We can continue to practice of course, but for now I think we should increase your number of combinations and focus on your presentation. That should buff up your points."

Yuuri acquiesces, and only the plethora of prizes—the ribbons and trophies, the monetary consolations and the small prestige—help soothe the sting of disappoint. He needs to start landing quads if he wants to further his career, but it seems that not matter how hard he tries, he cannot pass the point he has reached.

"You're plateauing," Nishigori says one day as they sit on the benches outside the rink, boots laced and hard guards on as they patiently wait for open skate to begin. Yuuko, already graduated from high school and working full time at Hasetsu Ice Castle, is helping a small semi-circle of children take their first tentative steps on the ice. "It happens."

Yuuri huffs, irritated. He knows that all athletes plateau, and he knows that they often do so multiple times over the course of their careers, but knowing it and experiencing it are two entirely different things.

"I've plateaued before," Yuuri bites out. He sounds whiny and petulant even to himself, but he cannot care. He is tired of his lack of progress.

"Then why are you letting it bother you?" Nishigori slaps his broad palm down on Yuuri's bouncing knee. It does not hurt but it does startle, and Yuuri jumps in his seat. "You have to let your body catch up to your ambition. Take a break." Nishigori grins. "You do know what a break is, right?"

Yuuri frowns at Nishigori's teasing. Though it is good-natured and friendly, it still strikes a nerve. Yuuri knows that his body—freshly seventeen and nearing the rough end of adolescence—is adjusting to the physical and mental rigors of semi-professional figure skating, but it has been months, and he hasn't completed a quad of any sort. Even the easiest jump—the pick assisted toe loop—evades him. He feels stuck. Stagnant. In his darker moments, Yuuri wonders if this new plateau is actually his summit.

"I know what a break is," Yuuri mutters as he pushes Nishigori's hand off his thigh. "Don't be a jerk."

"Hey now!" Nishigori's self-satisfied grin grows. "I'm just being honest!"

"Oh," Yuuri drawls. "And here I thought you were just being rude."

A year ago, Yuuri's smart comment would have prompted Nishigori to scowl and punch Yuuri just a little too forcefully in the arm. Now, Nishigori merely laughs and knocks his shoulder companionably against Yuuri's. He has become more agreeable in the past year; he is kinder and easier to talk to. Yuuko says it's because Nishigori has finally grown up, but Yuuri—who has seen the soft way Nishigori presses his fingers to the middle of Yuuko's stomach—is not sure age is the only contributing factor.

"Seriously though," Nishigori continues once the mood mellows. "Taking care of yourself isn't just about training and eating right. It's also about taking time for yourself. Focusing on what's important." Nishigori's eyes follow Yuuko as she glides slowly backwards over the ice, a train of inexperienced kids trailing after her. "Besides, the longer you practice, the more likely you are to make a mistake and hurt yourself. Can you imagine what a disaster that would be?"

"No," Yuuri replies instantly. Though bruises, cuts, and chapped lips are a fact of figure skating, Yuuri has never experienced anything worse than a grade II ankle sprain. The ten days he had to stay off the ice had been the longest ten days of his life. "No, I can't."

"Then take it easy," Nishigori says.

"I'll think about it," says Yuuri.

.

March in Hasetsu is a nebulous time. Snow clings stubbornly to the curbs while patches of grass brighten along walkways. Birds return to roost in blossoming trees, yet the sun remains a distant and heatless white disk. The thawing air being to smell of clean earth and sharp ocean salt. The chilly wind nips. The last of winter tangles with the first of spring and Yuuri—who spends half his life on artificial ice—puts on a coat but not his gloves before he leaves for school.

"Are you going to be home tonight?" Mari asks, taking a drag of her cigarette. They are sitting side by side in the private entryway as Yuuri ties his shoes and Vicchan's wagging tail thumps against the floor.

"Same as usual," Yuuri replies. "The rink closes at nine."

Mari exhales, smoke dissipating upwards. She taps the ashes from the end into a small ceramic dish she carries in the folds of her work robes and says, "You're not going to celebrate with friends?"

Yuuri is confused for a moment, thinking of Yuuko and Nishigori. He is about to say, "But I always meet them at the rink?" when he remembers that it is the last day of his second year of high school.

"Oh," Yuuri murmurs. He tightens the knots of his laces. "I don't—they're my classmates."

Mari scoffs, "What, so they can't be your friends?"

Yuuri frowns at his sister. There are classmates he talks to before the first bell, classmates he sits with during lunch, and classmates he exchanges good-byes with when the day ends, but he's never spent time with any of them outside of school. Few of his peers understand his dedication to his sport and those who do spend their time with their own passions. It's a little ironic; his parents had originally enrolled Yuuri in figure skating to help him make friends, but it ended up being one of the things that prevented him from deepening acquaintanceships.

"I didn't say that. It's just…" Yuuri shrugs. "No one's really interested in skating."

"Or," Mari drawls, "Victor Nikiforov."

Despite the faint flush that scores his cheeks, Yuuri is more annoyed than embarrassed at Mari's pointed remark. He turns away from her, pushes the heel of his palm against his sternum to ease the ache he always feels when Victor Nikiforov's name comes up, and huffs wordlessly.

"Okay, kiddo, okay. I'll stop teasing you about your crush." Mari laughs, a low rasp, and snubs her cigarette out in the dish by her knee. "Have fun at school."

Before he leaves, Yuuri scratches Vicchan behind the ears one final time and begrudgingly says goodbye to Mari. He is sure that the last day of school will be sedate and uneventful, and he is right; exams were completed the previous week, and the busy work his teachers assign is simple. Some teachers don't even bother with the pretense and announce a free period. Predictably, Yuuri's classmates break off into their usual cliques and talk about their plans for the three week long break ahead of them. Yuuri—who is not as anti-social as Mari accuses of being—joins such a group instead of staying at his desk and re-watching the previous Four Continents free skates on his phone.

"I'm going to my grandfather's in Hokkaido," one of the three other boys in Yuuri's circle says with a grimace. "There's still a ton of snow up there and he always puts me to work. I'm in the prime of my youth! I should be somewhere warm, playing video games and meeting cute girls at the café."

"You'd need a girl to actually agree to a date first," a second boy interjects. Yuuri and the other boys snort at the slight.

"Hey!"

"Maybe getting it will be easier in Hokkaido?" the second boy continues with a smirk. "At least those girls don't know what a meathead you are. Who knows? You might even meet your soulmate! I bet she's gonna be a country girl with a huuuuuge pair of—oof!"

The first boy punches the second in the arm, harder than is considered friendly, and they begin to slap and pinch one another over the desk separating them. It is not an uncommon thing; they push each other's buttons in the way close, lifelong friends often do, and no one in the room pays any attention to it.

"Man, I wish I got to leave town," the third member of their group bemoans to Yuuri. "I tried to get my parents to let me go to Osaka with my cousin, but they want me to attend cram school the whole time. They keep bringing up early entrance exams, too." He sighs and rests his cheek in the palm of his hand. "What about your parents? Have they been riding you too?"

"No." Yuuri shakes his head. "I mean, my older sister started working at the onsen right after she finished high school, and I don't think my parents ever said anything to her, either."

"Lu-uh-cky," says the other boy, drawing out and doubling up on the first syllable. "I wish I had a family business. I could just skip university altogether and get to it."

Yuuri says nothing. He does not mind the inevitability of working at Yu-topia—the onsen has been in his family for many years, and he likes the traditional, sedate atmosphere of the inn—but he knows that he cannot do so immediately after he graduates high school. First, he must find out how far his skating will take him; if he does not, he knows he will regret it for the rest of his life.

"What about you?" The question startles Yuuri from his thoughts. "What are you doing over break?"

"I'm—uhh—I'm going to practice my quad toe loop," replies Yuuri, truthfully if not a little cautiously. Mari's earlier sentiment rears its ugly head and makes Yuuri wonder if he's boring. He isn't interested in the same things as his peers—isn't interested in destination vacations, or studying for exams, or fooling around—and he is acutely aware of this fact. "I want to be able to land a quad by the time the season starts."

Yuuri will also be watching the ISU World Championships with Yuuko in a couple weeks, but he doesn't voice this plan. If he does, he knows he'll inevitably wax poetic about Victor Nikiforov and his stunningly bittersweet programs. After Mari's inaccurate assumption that morning, Yuuri knows he isn't ready to be teased a second time about his…. idolization.

"You know, I always forget that you figure skate," the other boy murmurs. "Aren't you nationally ranked?"

"Yeah," Yuuri says. He competed in the All-Japan Figure Skating Championships in late December and finished twentieth with an total score of 152.08. Yuuri is keenly aware that, if it weren't for his presentation scores, he wouldn't have ranked at all. "I didn't do very well."

Yet before Yuuri and the other boy's small side conversation can go into further, more difficult detail, the first half of their group stops rough-housing and pushes the topic back to their break. Yuuri is thankful for the change of subject. It has always been strangely hard for him to talk about his skating to people who aren't Yuuko, Minako, or his part-time coach; he puts too much of himself into the sport to express himself properly to people who aren't a part of the figure skating world.

The rest of the school day passes and ends uneventfully, and less than half an hour after break begins, Yuuri is in the locker room of Hasetsu Ice Castle. Nishigori is already there; he goes to a different high school than Yuuri, and he often beats Yuuri to the rink by several minutes.

"Hey," Nishigori greets as Yuuri sets his gym bag down on the concrete floor. Their assigned lockers are next to one another, as they have been for several years. "Not celebrating with friends tonight?"

"No," Yuuri says. "Are you?"

"No." Nishigori shrugs nonchalantly. "My graduation ceremony is next week, anyway. You're still coming?"

"Wouldn't miss it," says Yuuri. He knows that school has always been hard for Nishigori; Nishigori wasn't book smart, and he struggled through most of his classes. His diploma will have been hard earned. "I'll even wear a tie."

Nishigori snorts but does not say anything while Yuuri perfunctorily changes out of his school clothes and into the athletic gear he wears while on ice. Over the past year, Yuuri has grown several inches and lost the last of his baby-fat; his jawline is sharper, his stomach is flat, and his hips are narrow and trim. He knows he will never be as tall or as muscular as Nishigori, but those things matter less to him now than they once did, and Yuuri no longer hesitates when he unbuttons his navy slacks and strips out of his sweater.

Yuuri's lack of self-consciousness while undressing is also due to his customized soul mark cover. Minako had bought the first one online for his last birthday; in the four months since then, Yuuri has amassed a dozen of the same mark covers in various shades of black, blue, and gray. The cover is a sleeveless top that cuts beneath his ribcage, rises high on his neck, and hides every wild tendril of his mark. The fabric is tightly-woven, light-weight, and moisture-wicking, which is perfect considering that he wears one at all times: when he goes to school and when he works out, when he skates and when he dances, when he's at home and when he goes to bed. The only time Yuuri does not wear his cover is when he showers.

Once Yuuri is done changing, he sits down on the bench next to Nishigori and pulls on his skates. He hunches over to reach his laces, his sternum pressed to his knee.

"Yuuri," Nishigori says. "I… I want to ask you something."

"Yeah?" Yuuri—who is focused on properly lacing his boots over his high arches—does not quite catch Nishigori's subdued tone.

"I need a favor."

"Sure," Yuuri says as he moves onto his second skate. "What is it?"

Nishigori does not answer. Instead, there is a rustling noise as though Nishigori were shifting the clothes around inside his gym bag, then silence. It is not until Yuuri finishes his task that he looks up—

—and sees the small, unopened black ring box cradled in the broad palm of Nishigori's hand.

.

Chapter Text

At Hasetsu Ice Castle, open skate—which is the time when any member of the public can access the rink—ranges from two to six on weekdays and one to seven on weekends. Mornings are reserved for beginner's classes for both children and adults, while the last two hours of the evening are set aside for advanced practitioners.

Like most days, Yuuri spends the last half of open skate gliding around small children and hand-holding couples. If the rink is crowded, he practices his turns and steps; if the rink is sparse, he practices his spins and spirals. Yuuri does not mind either. He gets a good work-out either way, and the long familiar motions help calm his mind before he has to practice his jumps.

That day, however, Yuuri's thoughts refuse to settle. He wants to focus on his pancake spin, but every time he bends his waist and presses his forehead to his ankle, Nishigori's impending proposal surges to the forefront of his mind. He loses his balance and lands hard on his hip three times before he gives it up.

"You okay?" one of his rink mates asks when he switches over to twizzle turns. "That looked—painful."

"I'm fine," Yuuri answers even though he knows that the a small ache on his side that will become a bruise. "I guess I just have a lot on my mind."

Luckily, his rink mate doesn't ask any more questions; she merely nods, dusts the thin layer of snow off her cotton gloves, and returns to the middle of the rink to practice her own spins. She is extraordinarily focused for a middle-schooler, and Yuuri watches her bend into a layback. Her form is superb.

The last half hour of open skate drags. Yuuri spends most of it weaving between the thin crowd, idly stroking forwards and backwards. Nishigori is not on the ice, waiting in the locker rooms until free skate ends, but Yuuko is, helping a couple of younger students work on their crossovers. Like Mari, Yuuko had opted to work at her family business—at Hasetsu Ice Castle—when she graduated high school instead of going to college. While she's primarily an instructor for children's classes, she also mans the front desk and helps her parents with the books.

Yuuri wonders if Yuuko wants more for herself than what she has. She has never given any indication of dissatisfaction in all the years that Yuuri has known her, but he knows—better than most—that the important things aren't always spoken aloud.

"Free skate is now over," a familiar voice says over the PA system and effectively knocks Yuuri from his contemplation. "Please exit the rink. Thank you."

Yuuri glances at Yuuko, who is speaking gently with her students, and then over to an entrance, where Nishigori is finally stepping onto the ice. Once Nishigori has gone up to Yuuko and pulled her into a quiet conversation, Yuuri exits the rink and slaps on his hard guards. Finally, he grabs the portable boombox from underneath the bench, sets it on the ledge of the rink-boards, and waits for Nishigori's signal.

It does not take long for Nishigori to turn to Yuuri and give him a thumbs-up. Yuuri gives a thumbs-up back, skips to the fourth track on the cd, and watches as Yuuko's vague confusion melts into delight. Nishigori offers one of his hands to her and she takes it with an enormous smile on her face.

Maybe this is why she never talked about her future, Yuuri thinks as he watches Yuuko and Nishigori glide across the ice. Their movements are simple yet eerily in tandem. Maybe all she wants—all she wanted—is already here.

The hardest thing about Yuuko and Nishigori's pair skate is a waist lift, though it is not too difficult, given Yuuko's petiteness and the enormity of Nishigori's biceps. Nishigori presses a kiss against Yuuko's stomach mid-lift and Yuuko laughs brightly. An emotion between embarrassment and envy pricks at Yuuri. He has long since discarded his boyhood crush on Yuuko, but he still sometimes wishes that his mark was smaller and more discrete. He wants an easy match like Yuuko and Nishigori's, like his mother and father's, not the dramatic match his enormous mark promises. It is a widely held but erroneous belief that the bigger the soul mark is, the more passionate the relationship will be.

Not that the size really means anything, Yuuri reminds himself as he looks away from his friends. He grinds the heel of his palm over his sternum. Or the color, or the location, or the shape.

The song—a slow and beautiful piece performed by a string quartet—dwindles. Yuuko moves into an ending scratch spin that Nishigori would typically copy; instead, Nishigori kneels on the ice, pulls the ring box from his pocket, and waits for her to finish.

Years ago, Yuuri would have been unable to watch an act as emotionally intimate as the proposal the unfolds before him. He would have been mortified to see Yuuko stop and gasp in surprise; to see the way she covers her mouth with both hands; to see her face pinch and her shoulders tremble; to see her cry as Nishigori offers her the pretty, three-stone diamond ring. But Yuuri at seventeen isn't the same person he was at twelve, and now, he can watch Yuuko fling her arms around Nishigori's neck without flinching in embarrassment.

Mostly.

"Do you think they're ever going to get off the ice?" Yuuri's part-time instructor says mirthfully beside him, making Yuuri jump. He hadn't noticed the older man.

"Ahh," Yuuri says. "Probably not."

"Thought so." His instructor shrugs. "Whaddya say we give them some privacy and go watch old routines on your phone until they've got it out of their system?" He pauses and glances at the far end of the rink. "Or maybe until the zamboni driver kicks them off. So like, ten minutes?"

"Sure," Yuuri says. "I need to refill my water bottle, anyway."

Then with one final glance at Yuuko and Nishigori—both of them kneeling on the ice, wrapped up tightly and swaying gently together—Yuuri follows his instructor out of the rink and into the common area to wait.

.

Yu-topia is quiet when Yuuri returns from practice. He can hear the low murmur of sound from the television in the main room and the familiar cadences of his mother's voice lilting down the hallway. Vicchan—who had been sleeping on the tile floor of the genkan—greets Yuuri with a small yip and an overexcited butt wiggle. Yuuri drops his gym bag to scratch the dog behind his ears. Once Vicchan has calmed down, Yuuri steps out of his shoes, exits the genkan, and walks to the kitchen.

"I'm home," Yuuri announces when he enters. Mari is slumped on a stool next to one of the counters, idly scrolling through her Twitter feed on her phone. Without looking up, she raises an idle hand in greeting and mumbles, "Welcome back," around the unlit cigarette between her teeth.

Yuuri doesn't mind Mari's half-hearted return. She's been up and working since before dawn broke.

"There's some leftover red tuna in the fridge," Mari says as Yuuri takes out Vicchan's food and a small, clean bowl. "We also have about ten thousand pounds of leeks. Does hot pot sound good to you?"

"Sounds great," Yuuri replies, setting Vicchan's dinner on the floor. The miniature poodle immediately begins to eat; unlike some poodles, who ignore their dry kibble in favor of begging for scraps, Vicchan devours everything in his path.

"I'll get started on that." Mari turns off her phone, steps off the stool, and stretches, lifting her arms into the air and rolling onto the balls of her feet. "It'll be done when you've finished washing up."

Yuuri hums in general acknowledgement and rubs the short curls atop Vicchan's tiny head; Vicchan, who is absorbed in his meal, does nothing. Then Yuuri stands, goes back to the genkan, picks up his gym bag, and heads upstairs to their family rooms. There's a discrete, narrow staircase by the back entrance that was initially used by staff when Yu-topia was built in the early twentieth century. Now, it is only utilized by Yuuri, Mari, and their parents.

The second floor of the inn is silent, still, and dark. The noises from the main area below are completely muffled, and the only sound is the soft rasp of Yuuri's sock-covered feet against the wood of the hallway and the traditional tatami in his room. Quickly, he sorts through the contents of his gym bag quickly. He hangs his uniform blazer up on the back of his door; tosses the button-up and slacks into the hamper; and then strips, adding his skating gear to the growing pile. All that he wears when he heads to the bathroom are his boxer-briefs and his mark cover.

Yuuri does not look at himself in the mirror after his cover is removed. He avoids his reflection as much as possible, even when his glasses are neatly folded on the sink counter and the definition in his vision blurs.

The shower Yuuri takes is quick and perfunctory. Sometimes, he tends to linger beneath the spray, swaying gently as the near-scalding water beats down on his head, neck, and upper back, but tonight he is washed, dressed, and downstairs within twenty minutes. He sits in the small, personal area his family uses for everything from eating meals to watching television, and absently rubs at the damp strands of his hair with the small towel he slung over his shoulders.

"Penny for your thoughts?" Mari asks after she has brought in two steaming bowls of negima-nabe. "You look… pensive."

Yuuri does not immediately reply. It is a testament to how well Mari understands him that she does not push for an answer. Instead, she lets Yuuri eat, slowly gather his scattered thoughts, and eventually say,

"Nishigori proposed to Yuuko today."

"Wow." Mari arches her eyebrow, but the action is not done out of surprise. "He wasted no time, did he?"

It is a rhetorical question. Romantic soulmates who find each other early tend to marry early. Yuuri's parents were the same as Nishigori and Yuuko; they married within a month of Hiroko's graduation and settled with Mari less than a year later.

"You're not jealous, are you?" Mari asks after a stretch of silence. When Yuuri frowns at her, she clarifies, "You had that crush on Yuuko when you were younger. I though you pretty much transferred all those feelings to that Russian skater—"

"I don't have a crush on Victor Nikiforov!" Yuuri hisses in protest.

"—but you've always played your cards pretty close to your chest." Mari shrugs. "You acted super weird after Nishigori and Yuuko matched."

Yuuri blinks in surprise, unaware how Mari knows this. Sure, she had complained when he faked being sick to avoid Yuuko and Nishigori, but back then she hadn't known why. The small pinprick of curiosity he feels is quickly and easily smothered by the fact that he probably doesn't want to know how she knows.

"They matched in front of me," Yuuri says instead, poking at a chunk of red tuna floating in his broth-filled bowl. "It was an accident."

Mari hums wordlessly. Years ago, she might have commented on Yuuri's attitude towards soul marks; now, she simply takes a few bites of her own dinner before saying, "So if you're not jealous, what's got you all twisted up?"

Again, Yuuri needs time to articulate his thoughts and, again, Mari waits quietly and patiently for his to do so.

"It's not that I'm jealous," Yuuri begins hesitantly. Speaking honestly about his feelings has always been difficult for him, and it takes more courage to talk than it does to step onto the ice for a performance. "It's just… today. Everyone talked about their future or—or did something that will effect them for the rest of their lives. A couple of my classmates are going on vacations that are far away. Another said he had to study for college entrance exams. And then Nishigori proposed to Yuuko." Yuuri digs his teeth into his bottom lip and focuses on the tabletop, the lacquer scratched from years of use. "It's like everyone is moving forward. Getting on with their lives. And I just—I'm here, doing the same thing I do every day, and it feels—it feels like…"

"Like you're being left behind?"

Yuuri nods once. Mari sighs gently, and sets her wide spoon down in her bowl. The ceramic utensil meets the ceramic dish with a quiet clink.

"I know our situations are dissimilar," begins Mari," but I felt the same when I was in my last year of high school. Everyone was either leaving Hasetsu to go to college or chase a life-long dream, and I was still here, living in the town—living in the same house—that I had been in my entire life. I was insanely jealous of other people's opportunities even though I knew that I didn't actually want to go to university. School wasn't easy for me. And as for passions? I mean, I like music, but that's just a hobby. It wasn't—it isn't—enough for me to turn into a career."

Yuuri glances up at his older sister. She wears the same, nonchalant expression that he has come to expect to see, and there is no trace of regret or resentment. Still, he tentatively asks, "So you're not… mad?"

"No," Mari answers. "Besides, most of the people who left Hasetsu after graduation came back, and we're pretty much all doing the same thing. Working during the day. Relaxing at night. Sometimes, we meet up for drinks. So… I know that it feels like everyone is surpassing you, but that's not really it. Your paths have just been the same for so long that—now that those paths are diverging—it looks like they're ahead of you. But they're not. They're just… further away."

The words make sense, but while Yuuri understands them intellectually, understanding them emotionally is another story.

"You can't focus on other people, Yuuri," Mari tells him. "You need to focus on what you want to do. Figure skating—going to college—working at the inn—whatever. We'll support you no matter what you decide."

Mari's small speech stays with Yuuri for days. He knows that he wants to continue skating, to rise to the international stage, to compete against Victor Nikiforov; yet Yuuri also knows that he cannot grow if he stays in Hasetsu. Now more than ever he needs a dedicated coach—

But to get a dedicated coach he needs money—

But to get money he needs to have a job—

But to have a job means he would have to sacrifice practice hours—

But to sacrifice practice hours would mean his skating would suffer—

And Yuuri, a mediocre skater who can't even land a quad, cannot suffer more than he already does.

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Chapter Text

The first half of Yuuri's last spring break passes in a blur. He spends his days following the same routine he would during school; the only significant difference is that he sets the alarm on his phone for nine instead of six. The exhausted, purple-blue bags beneath his eyes fade incrementally as he catches up on much needed sleep.

Yuuri tries not to think about his future. He can feel the stress creeping in on the edge of his awareness—an unrelenting pressure—but he ignores it. Instead, he extends his morning runs by another few miles; tries an unfamiliar dance style in Minako's studio; skates until the redness on his feet deepen to bruises.

It is during such a practice that Yuuko calls out to him from the concrete side of the rink wall.

"Here," Yuuko says bluntly when Yuuri skates over. She holds her phone out; her hand shakes. "I just—I'm so sorry, Yuuri, but I thought you'd want to know."

Yuuri feels a flare of panic in his chest at Yuuko's expression. He takes the phone but doesn't immediately look down; instead, he asks, "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine," she assures even as she pushes at Yuuri's hand. "Yuuri—"

Yuuri glances down. Yuuko's phone is open to an article off one of the many ice skating websites she follows and, even without his glasses, Yuuri can clearly see the title:

The Death of Victor Nikiforov?

Dread floods Yuuri's chest like a deluge and makes it hard for him to breathe. "What?" Yuuri croaks. "Yuu-chan—is Victor—?"

"No," Yuuko interjects before Yuuri's reactionary hysteria can build. "He's not—he fell, Yuuri, and it was—it was bad."

Yuuri skips over the first paragraph as quickly as he can. His spoken English is strong but it still takes him time to decipher the latin alphabet. He struggles to pick up the name of Victor's home rink in St. Petersburg and the list of his accomplishments—his eight gold medals and his Olympic aspirations—before the chilling phrase 'was carried off the ice' crops up.

The paragraph goes past the bottom of the screen. Yuuri tries to scroll down to read more but the phone won't read his touch through the thin cotton of his gloves. He makes an inarticulate sound of frustration before using his teeth to pull the cuff over and off his hand; it drops to the ground, forgotten.

Yesterday afternoon during routine practice, Victor Nikiforov was reported to have landed incorrectly when he attempted a quadruple lutz.

"It was horrible," rink mate and fellow mens single figure skater, Georgi Popovich, reported. "Victor's always been good at the technical aspects of the sport. To see him fall—maybe he didn't have enough speed or enough height or—I don't know. I don't know."

Another witness, Oksana Kuznetsov, said, "I didn't see his take-off, so I can't say what was wrong. I saw him land, though. Jumps are quick—a second or less—and you never get the specifics. You only know if it was good or if it was bad. And this was very bad."

Popovich and Kuznestov's disconcertion with Nikiforov's accident echoes throughout the training facility. Nikiforov, who has already experienced an illustrious career despite having recently turned twenty-one, was hoping to win his second consecutive gold medal at Worlds in Los Angeles, California on March 23-29. It would also be his third of the 2008-09 season, following his wins at the Grand Prix Final in Goyang, South Korea, and Europeans in Tallinn, Estonia.

Nikiforov could not be reached for comment. His coach, Yakov Feltsman, released a press statement this morning.

"Victor's injury is currently being assessed," said Feltsman. "We regret that such an incident occurred so soon before competition, but our focus now is making sure that Victor makes a full comeback. Russia will make sure that he has the advice and support of the best doctors and physical therapists available."

Though the severity of Nikiforov's injury is still unknown, Feltsman promised to keep the public informed about Nikiforov's health. We here at Golden Skate, along with the rest of the figure skating community, wish Nikiforov a speedy recovery.

Yuuri is not aware that he is shaking until Yuuko closes her hand around his wrist and gently takes her phone back. Her fingers are surprisingly warm against his exposed skin.

"Do—Do you think he's alright?" Yuuri whispers, his gaze glued to the spot where the ice meets the rink wall. He knows that professional athletes experience injury frequently; most of them are minor, some are bad, and the unfortunate few are career-ending. It is a consequence of pushing one's body to the brink; one day, the body will push back. That it happened to Victor Nikiforov—to the legendary, to the untouchable—is incredibly jarring. "Do you think it's that bad?"

Yuuko is quiet for a minute. When she answers, her voice is as small as his was.

"I don't know," she says.

It is a hard truth to swallow.

.

Over the course of the few weeks, Yuuri spends as much time hunched over his phone as he does on the ice. He obsessively refreshes various figure skating news outlets even though there is no new information after Yakov's statement. There are only articles after rehashed articles and forums filled with wild speculation. Every link Yuuri opens makes the sick knot in his stomach wind tighter. He knows that he cannot correlate Victor's health to a lack of news, but logic doesn't prevent his imagination—and his nervousness—from running rampant.

The first mention of Victor after the accident occurs two days before Worlds, in an article Yuuri sees on icenetwork.com. Yuuri doesn't even read the title of the piece; he merely sees Victor's name and pushes down the laptop's touchpad viciously.

Pavel Egorikhin to replace Victor Nikiforov at Worlds

Early this morning, thousands were disappointed when the International Skating Union quietly announced that Victor Nikiforov's spot at Worlds will be given to Pavel Egorikhin.

Egorikhin, 25, announced his retirement earlier in the season after failing to top Nikiforov's qualification score for Europeans. He represented Russia in the 2002 Winter Olympics and earned several medals in the ISU Championships over the course of his eleven year career. Currently, Egorikhin and his family reside in Moscow.

"I am grateful for the opportunity," Egorikhin said. "Skating at such a high level of competition is not something that I thought I would ever do again. I am saddened that it had to come at a price."

The news of the replacement is not a surprise. Six days ago, Nikiforov was escorted off the ice of his home rink in St. Petersburg. His injury was initially treated by the rink's on-site nurse before he was transferred to Medem International. Though the extent of his injury is still unknown, there have been unconfirmed rumors that Nikiforov required surgery.

Yakov Feltsman—Nikiforov's senior coach—could not be reached for comment.

"We will inform the public of Victor's health as soon as we are able," the skating club Nikiforov belongs to stated yesterday. "We are grateful for all the support and well-wishes that we have received."

Since his senior debut in the 2004-05 season, Nikiforov has secured a spot on the podium. The only competition he did not receive a medal at was during the 2006 Winter Olympics, a stellar performance is still widely contested. Despite being in the senior division for only four and a half seasons, Nikiforov is one of figure skating's most decorated athletes.

So what, exactly, does this injury mean for Nikiforov's career?

"Victor is young," said Egorikhin. "This is his first major injury. I do not know the details, but I have seen other skaters return to the ice after terrible accidents. And none of those skaters were as talented or as tenacious as Victor."

Egorikhin's reassurances do little to ease the worry caused by Nikiforov's silence. While it is unlikely that Nikiforov's career would end, there is concern that he would not be able to return to his former glory…

Yuuri stops reading and exits the web browser. It is not a surprise that Victor was replaced—if Victor wasn't well enough to make a public statement, then he wouldn't be well enough to skate—yet Yuuri is still unprepared for the reality of the situation. He feels… unsteady.

I wonder if he's doing okay, Yuuri thinks as he stares at the poster hanging above his desk. It's several years old, a limited edition print of Victor in a plain white jacket and long gray scarf. His arm are wrapped around his poodle—Makkachin—and there is a small but happy smile on his face. Yuuri rubs his aching sternum. He's probably really frustrated.

The thought of Victor lying curled up in a hospital bed makes Yuuri's eyes burn with sudden, unshed tears. When Yuuri sprained his ankle attempting a triple lutz, he hadn't been able to skate for almost two weeks. He cannot imagine what it must be like for a professional skater like Victor.

"Get well soon," Yuuri tells Victor's poster. "Please."

And in the forgiving darkness of his room, Yuuri can pretends that Victor hears him.

.

Worlds comes and goes. Neither Egorikhin nor the other Russian skater make it to the men's podium, and none of the programs have the same magic as Victor's did. There are good compositions, good choreographies, and good techniques, yet it seems to Yuuri that only Victor has the talent to bring all three together flawlessly.

"I liked Cao Bin's performance," Yuuko comments when as they watch the grainy live stream on Yuuko's laptop. Cao Bin is the last skater in the men's division. "He fumbled that last jump, but not everyone can put a quad that late in their program."

The Chinese skater takes gold despite his less than captivating performance. His total score is a full twenty points below what Victor's was the previous year, a fact that makes Yuuri's heart flutter with strange pride. Yet instead of stating this fact aloud, Yuuri says, "He had a good step sequence."

Yuuko bumps her shoulder against Yuuri's. "Not as good as yours," she says.

Yuuri rolls his eyes at her teasing. He knows that his footwork is strong, having originally trained as a dancer underneath Minako, but his skill certainly doesn't outshine a top-tier competitor in the ISU's World Championships. Yuuri does not point this out. Instead, he mumbles, "At least Cao Bin landed a quad."

Yuuko bumps her shoulder into Yuuri's again, this time a little more forcefully. Yuuri nearly falls off the bench they're sitting on.

"Hey!" Yuuri exclaims as he catches himself. "What are you—?"

"Seeing if I can knock some sense into you, Mr. Twentieth in All of Japan," she interrupts. "Or have you forgotten that?"

Yuuri doesn't argue with Yuuko. There's no point. She tends to focus on how far Yuuri has come rather than how far he has left to go; Yuuri may only be seventeen, but in figure skating, nearly half of the best skaters have already been introduced to the international stage.

"No," Yuuri replies. "I haven't."

.

The day after Worlds ends, when Yuuri steps on the ice, he does not practice his developing short program or the beginning pieces of his free skate. Instead, he thinks of Victor's wins at Goyang and Tallinn, and moves.

Yuuri cannot skate Victor's long program perfectly. He has to downgrade all three of Victor's quads to triples and he cannot start the lone triple axel from the spread eagle, yet it is these concessions that allow Yuuri to perform the entire program without hesitation. No mistakes are made as he glides across the ice. He is disappointed that Victor was unable to perform at Worlds, and this sad bitterness beneath his breastbone translates well into Victor's theme of regret.

Yuuri is gasping for breath by the time he finishes. Victor may make his programs look effortless, but in truth, they are usually the most demanding.

"Wow," Nishigori comments faintly when Yuuri skates over to the rink wall to grab his water bottle. "That was… really good."

Yuuri shrugs, too painfully aware that he needs to work on the technical aspects of figure skating to take the compliment. "It was okay," he murmurs. "Could've been better."

Nishigori's thick eyebrows furrow and his mouth turns into a sharp frown. Yuuri recognizes the expression easily; it's the face Nishigori makes when he thinks he's right about something and is prepared to argue. Mentally, Yuuri sighs. He doesn't want to fight with Nishigori, especially not when he feels so weirdly drained by Victor's absence.

Thankfully, Nishigori's oncoming diatribe is interrupted by petite bundle of pink crashing into his side. Nishigori grunts and Yuuko—who ran directly into her fiancé's side—all but screeches, "Yuuri! You have to see this!"

Both Nishigori and Yuuri blink at Yuuko's proffered phone. There's a video loaded onto it, the screen dark and ready to play.

"Seriously, Yuuri," Yuuko says. Her tone brooks no argument. "Take it!"

Yuuri takes the phone warily. He remembers what happened last time Yuuko all but shoved her phone into his hands, and he is reluctant to be blind-sided again. So he asks, "This isn't more bad news, is it?"

In lieu of reply, Yuuko releases a wordless shrill and jabs the play button with an impatient finger. An unfamiliar jingle crashes out of Yuuko's phone, accompanied by a logo that Yuuri has not seen before. It is written in Cyrillic and dominates the tiny screen. It lasts for about five second before the image switches to a well-dressed reporter.

"No subtitles?" Nishigori asks as the reporter begins speaking in indecipherable Russian.

"It just came out thirty minutes ago," Yuuko says. "Now hush."

A minute after the reporter's monologue began, the room they are in explodes into motion and sound. The camera shakes as it tries to focus on a pair of figures entering through a door on the left. Blurry and unfocused, Yuuri does not realize what he is looking at until—

"Victor," Yuuri breathes.

Victor is dressed in plain, comfortable clothing—a pair of gray sweatpants, a soft lavender sweater, and unadorned sneakers—and his long hair is piled into a messy bun atop his head. He should look sloppy and unkempt; instead he looks artfully rumpled. Indeed, the only thing that detracts from his image are the crutches keeping him upright.

"That's not good," Nishigori comments.

Unused to the crutches, Victor sitting down at the table that has been set up. Yakov—who has been a step behind Victor the entire time—has to help him sit down. There's a strange tension in the air that is palpable even to Yuuri; then Victor leans forward into the mic, smiles charmingly, and says something that makes everyone laugh.

The knot of worry Yuuri has carried since Victor's accident loosens. If Victor is able to make a joke, then his injury might not be so terrible.

"He looks so tired," Yuuko says quietly as the video progresses. Victor had spoken briefly at the beginning, then opened the interview to questions. Though Victor answers each one he receives with his trademark optimism and light-heartedness, Yuuri quietly agrees with Yuuko.

"Well, he probably had surgery since they transferred him to the hospital," interjects Nishigori. "And he missed a major competition that he was predicted to win. I know I wouldn't be able to sleep if that happened to me."

Yuuri watches closely Victor as he responds. The skin around his eyes and mouth are tight and his movements are unusually subdued. Halfway through the questions, he even begins to gently rub the highest point of his soul mark, a pale tendril that creeps over the collar of his sweater and up the left tendon of his throat. It is such an obvious sign of anxiety that Yuuri wonders how Victor can maintain his calm facade.

Thankfully, Yakov eventually intervenes on Victor's behalf. The noise in the room rises in a sudden cacophony, the reporters shouting over one another; Victor begins to talk into the mic, an action that is cut off by Yakov, who puts a staying hand on Victor's shoulder and murmurs something into his ear. Victor nods and—with more assistance from Yakov—stands up. Then he tucks the crutches under his armpits, flashes one last hollow smile at the crowd, and hobbles away.

.

Victor Nikiforov announces ACL tear

Less than forty-eight hours after Russia failed to medal in the 2008-09 Worlds competition, Victor Nikiforov held a small press conference at his home rink in St. Petersburg. Nikiforov, who suffered an injury on March 15, has been silent about his condition since his admission to Medem International.

"You can stop worrying," Nikiforov said to his audience as he sat down. "As you can see, I am still alive."

Nikiforov's charm was present from the start. He apologized for the quickly called press conference and then proceeded to calmly inform the reporters in attendance of his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction.

"We couldn't perform the surgery immediately," said Nikiforov with a smile. "That was the worst part, I think. The waiting. I was okay with the tests and the scans because it meant we were doing something, but once the decision was made to actually have surgery, I had to wait awhile for the swelling to go down. I ended up watching a lot of public television."

One of the most common injuries among athletes, ACL tears vary in severity. Some merely require physical therapy and a knee brace while others—like Nikiforov's—require invasive surgery. Nikiforov received an autograft from his hamstring tendon; this procedure is preferred by many since the borrowed tissue is unlikely to be rejected.

"The bruise makes it look a lot worse than it feels," joked Nikiforov.

The minimal recovery time for ACL reconstruction is six months, which would put Nikiforov's return at the beginning of October. Since the 2009-10 season begins on July 1, many were curious about Nikiforov's plans. Nikiforov said that he has no plans to retire; he stated that he will focus on his recovery and return to the ice as quickly as possible.

"Do you think this injury will impact your future performances?" asked Alexei Mikheyev, a sports journalist for Kommersant magazine.

"No," Nikiforov replied without hesitation. "I am confident that I will make a full recovery."

This may be true since reconstructed ACLs have high success rates. The key here is patience; if proper rehabilitation procedures are not followed, the ligament will become less mobile and cause the bones to rub together. Another problem Nikiforov may face is fear. Traumatic impacts can cause the ACL to re-tear and—as we all have seen—one bad fall is all it takes. Take previous 1998 Olympic bronze medalist, Mathis Durand, for example…

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