CCS Arts & Crafts Cafe
It’s just after winter break, and Phichit’s been back in Detroit less than a week when he’s saddled with what looks to be the most confusing homework of his academic career. He’s calling it with a reasonable amount of confidence, what with nearly three years of college under his belt and three-quarters of coursework completed toward a BFA in Photography, Major in Portraiture—no other assignment he’s ever been given has poked at the inside of his head quite this much, following him out of his mentor’s office, into and out of classrooms, all the way to this corner table at the campus coffee shop.
“Tell me what Chris said again,” Mila says, her head lifting up and away from the open sketchbook in front of her to show him she’s listening. Pencil in one hand, winter sun through the window lighting up her hair. He doesn’t even have to cue her to smile; it’s enough for her to look up and find herself face to face with the lens. “I missed you too, Chailai.”
“You know she loves you.” Phichit grins, frames her in the viewfinder and releases the shutter. “Anyway, he likes my portraits, but he says I haven’t been taking risks lately, whatever that means. And that I need to be in my shots more.”
Her eyebrows draw together. “You mean from behind the camera?”
“I guess? Can you tuck your hair behind your ear?” He clicks at the shutter again. “I wonder what he meant.”
There was more, of course, but he remembers all of it being painfully abstract. Just artist-talk of the kind Phichit hasn’t fully gotten his head around yet. Just Chris stretched out across the divan pushed up against one wall of his boudoir—Phichit’s never heard him use the word office—Phichit’s portfolio open in his hands, looking up from the pages with searching, long-lashed eyes.
The thing with you, my dear, is, and here Chris had given him a look so pointed he felt it like a knife in the gut, your portraits are passionate and lively because your models are passionate and lively. But there’s a look they have—look at this girl here. Pointing, gesturing, at the open page, the three black-and-white headshots of Rachel from Portfolio class. She’s looking at the camera—trying to melt it, rather, see the fire in those beautiful eyes?—but I don’t get the sense that she’s looking at you. That tells me all you’re trying to do is show that passion from the outside. You’re not reaching out and touching it.
Phichit remembers—still feels, residually—the headache that had given him. That hadn’t sounded like something you could study, something you could adjust as easily as shutter speed or aperture. He remembers asking, So, what do you think I should change?
See? There you are, taking yourself out of the picture again. Chris doesn’t scold. He teases, purrs, makes his voice silk and velvet, insists you call him by his first name—but he’d recognized it as a dressing-down all the same. Peachy, sweetheart, you need a strong presence even from behind the camera. They need to be looking at you, not the lens. Tell me, what’s something you think you do better than anybody else?
Of course Phichit hadn’t had an answer, so Chris had sent him off with a kiss on each cheek and a promise to come back when he had some idea of what it was that made him special. He wonders briefly if this is what a creative crisis feels like, and why he couldn’t have had one sooner rather than later. It’s paralyzing enough to have the specter of one last big pre-thesis requirement hanging over him, the words on the first page of Chris’ syllabus for Advanced Photo Fine Arts Concepts floating before his mind’s eye:
By the end of the semester, you will have:
Recalled important principles, concepts, and techniques of your chosen genre of photography.
Appraised key personal influences within (and also beyond, when applicable) your genre.
Conceptualized and curated a personal exhibition of your work that is informed by the principles, concepts, and techniques of your genre, and that also seeks to articulate and contextualize the desired direction of your individual photographic practice as you currently understand it.
Colorful professional and academic reputation notwithstanding, Chris certainly isn’t the type to do things by halves.
“Maybe he wants you to start shooting nudes for this exhibit. What else could he have meant by taking risks?” Mila laughs, bright and brassy; Phichit nearly misses his next shot because you can’t not laugh along, when it’s her. “I have a couple of girls asking if it’s true you don’t already do them, since you’re a Chris baby.”
“I hope you told them yes.” Phichit wrinkles his nose. “This is just my second class with him.”
“That’s one more than most of us can hope to live through.” She’s gone back to her sketchbook again, applying herself to a doodle of their coffee cups. He shifts his lens down toward the page to capture the arc of her hand across the paper, the penciled-out rosettes in milk foam. “But you know what, if you want to try something different, you could come to the rink with me. The management’s been poking me to find them a club photographer.”
He forgets, sometimes, about the one thing Mila says she loves more than illustration. He’s used to her disappearing in the afternoons after class, but they’ve always joked about training being code for cute hockey player. “The... ice-skating rink?”
“Sure. The guys love photo ops.” She grins, tosses her head back. “And it’ll get you out of that headspace.”
“Maybe on Monday,” he says. By now he’s lowered Chailai; his eyes are on the display, cycling through the last few shots until he hits on one that stands out. That’s when he passes the camera across the table to let Mila see herself. “Look at your eyes here. They’re so pretty.”
There aren’t any pictures of Mila in his class portfolios—they’re different from the stuff he has to do for work, nothing fancy or special, really just for fun—but she’s always been one of his favorite faces to shoot. It’s a rare gift, how easy her smiles come, how they open out her whole face like a window to the sun. And they’ve agreed it feels nice to be able to talk between shots like this.
“I think you’re picture-perfect, Peachy.” The particular smile she has on when she’s holding his camera and looking at herself through his eyes is probably one of the best, even if he doesn’t have any photos of it. “Risks or no risks.”
It’s not the answer to any of his questions, but it lights him up a little inside all the same. “So, I should send you all of them?”
She winks. “You know it.”
Detroit Skating Club
Phichit’s walked Mila as far as the door, but he’s never been inside the skating rink before. The first thing he notices is, typically of a cameraman, how much white there is—whitewashed walls, fluorescent lights. His mind jumps automatically to the necessary adjustments he’d have to make on Chailai, setting the optimum white balance, slowing down the shutter.
He’s so focused on the mental schematic of his camera that he almost misses the name of the guy at the front desk, a pale guy with glasses and a mop of disheveled black hair who Mila insists is the most important person in the whole place. Yuuri Katsuki, the floor manager. Kind enough to have agreed to be Phichit’s nursemaid on the days that he comes in.
To Phichit’s credit, Glasses—Yuuri—is as deep in his head as he is. If Phichit nearly misses Mila singlehandedly exchanging their names for them, the whole thing flies completely over his head. He’s got the rink’s logbook open on the desk in front of him and a pair of earphones in his ears, and Mila needs to tap him on the shoulder before he notices they’re even standing there. It’s a cute face he makes when he does notice, though, forehead wrinkling, eyes opening wide when the realization finally dawns. He pulls his earphones out so fast Phichit worries the wires will snap, but all Mila does is laugh and repeat the name-exchange as she signs the book, and order them brightly to shake hands.
She leaves them soon after, breezing past and into the women’s locker room with a last “Be good, Peachy!” Phichit sees Yuuri’s eyebrows lift as he watches her go.
“I know. White people, right?” He grins. He’s already got this Yuuri Katsuki marked out for funny faces—the way his mouth twists at the joke is absolutely golden, at once scandalized and fighting not to laugh. “Everyone calls me that, though. You can too, if it’s easier.”
“I don’t mind calling you by your name.” He has a nice smile too, Yuuri Katsuki does. A hesitating, gentle, earnest curve to the mouth, brightening up his tired eyes. I bet he’s camera shy, Phichit thinks as Yuuri pulls open the counter door to let him come in behind. “It’ll be a bit before you can shoot, I hope you don’t mind. The others usually get here around four.”
That’s only a half hour away. Phichit tells him it’s okay, he doesn’t mind, does he have anything that needs doing in the meantime? The answer he gets is another funny face—one of surprise this time, Yuuri Katsuki seems easily surprised in general—and a small sheaf of papers in a folder labeled Learn-to-Skate. Yuuri asks, gesturing to the left, if he can please encode these application forms on the computer over there? That should be okay for now.
The encoding work keeps him busy until four, at which point the automatic doors whir open and let in a few more people whom Phichit can only surmise must be the others. Two boys—a cheery one with a headset around his neck, a younger one trailing shyly behind him, clutching the back of his jacket in one hand. Following after them a tall man, middle-aged, with long hair and a strong jaw. Yuuri facilitates the introductions this time, albeit with considerably less pizzazz than Mila. Headset’s real name is Leo, apparently, and Shy is Guanghong. Rapunzel Hair is head coach and skating director Celestino Cialdini—and Phichit’s watching everyone’s faces carefully enough here to notice the subtle clench in Yuuri’s jaw as they speak quietly to one side, his smile gone tight and glassy. Yes, Coach. I’ll be working on the accounting this afternoon. Okay, Coach. Yes. I’ll let you know.
He doesn’t have time to puzzle over what it means; soon the three are headed into the locker rooms, and Yuuri’s tilting his head toward their retreating backs, waiting for Phichit to follow. “The rink is through there too. I guess you want to go watch?”
“Will you be okay out here by yourself?” It’s an earnest question, even if he’s not sure—not completely—what he means by it. Yuuri balks at it too, but just a bit—soon his face slackens, and his eyes crinkle up again.
“Of course, somebody’s got to mind the desk.” He swings open the counter door, twitching at the earphones slung around his neck with his free hand. “Go on. Thanks, though.”
Detroit Skating Club
Phichit had never realized his regular jogging route on weekend mornings took him past the skating rink until he started having reasons to go there during the week. He hadn’t known they were open on weekends until he paused only two-thirds of the way through said jog and drew closer to the entrance, shading his eyes with one hand and squinting to make sure the sign on the door said what he thought it said.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time to go inside, even if he hadn’t known—not yet—what he would find. He’d let his instincts lead him as always, following that constant quiet need of his to look, to see, to be somewhere new. So it had been easy to walk past the guard with a jaunty wave, and further on past the front desk, empty but for a sign that read Please wait to be served – Appointments only.
“I don’t want to! I’m going to die, and so is Sara!”
“Mickey, please. It’s going to be okay. No one’s going to die. Look, she’s waiting for you.”
He hears them before he sees them. Everything comes clear when he emerges at rinkside and finds Yuuri down on one knee in front of a crying little boy, an anxious-looking girl around the same age watching them from the ice and holding on to the wall railing with one hand to keep steady. It’s a scene he knows, one that’s almost overwhelmingly familiar even if its parts aren’t familiar at all—this place, these people. He’s seen analogues of it before, many times; maybe that’s why it makes sense to step in.
“I didn’t know this was your sideline. Need a hand, Coach?”
Yuuri gives him a look that can only be described as pleading, too distressed even to register surprise at seeing him outside of the agreed Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule. “I don’t know what to say, he just won’t—” His voice cracks a little on the last word. There’s sweat beading on his forehead, too, in spite of how close he is to the ice.
He just won’t listen. Yeah, I know. Phichit’s hand goes to Yuuri’s shoulder, his eyes to the little girl clinging to the entry door. “How about you go on and take Sara through some warmups, and we’ll catch up with you in a bit?” The situation calls for no less than the friendliest face he can muster. The sunny, beaming, opened-up face. The trust-me face. “I’ll take care of things here, don’t worry.”
He waits for Yuuri to find his feet and enter the rink before he redirects his attention to the boy, sitting down on the bench next to him, careful not to stare. “You okay, buddy?”
The tears have made Mickey snippy and petulant, so Phichit gets the full story from him piece by piece, punctuated here and there by a hiccup, a sob. Something about his mom signing him up. Something about Emil from school telling him he was going to fall and hit his head on the ice and all his brains were going to come spilling out. Something Sara something something. Phichit thinks he gets the idea. Sara needs to be protected. Emil from school is kind of evil, but no more so than most boys tend to be in first or second grade.
There’s a box of Kleenex on the far side of the bench—left by Yuuri, most likely, in a particularly inspired move. Phichit reaches for it and slides it into Mickey’s lap. “Hey, do you wanna learn to fly?”
Best to lead with something surprising. It’s enough to make Mickey pause and regard Phichit warily out of the corner of one eye, the edge of his suspicion worn down by the fact that he’s started to sniffle into a tissue, dabbing at the snot-trails snaking down the lower half of his face.
“My friend Yuuri over there is teaching Sara how to fly, but she won’t be able to concentrate if she’s worried about you crying here.”
Even as he talks he’s going back through his imagination, reviewing what he knows. He’s seventeen in the garden behind his house. The twins are seven. He’s watching Isra claw her way up the jacaranda tree, Chati clinging to his hand and bawling that if she falls they’ll lose their only sister. He’s fifteen and they’re five and they’re all kneeling on the living room floor; he’s doing his best to referee a fight over building blocks. Chati crying again, arguing that the roof of the house they’re building should be red because their house’s roof is red. Isra huffing and knocking the whole thing down with hands like small typhoons. The trick is to give them something to do other than cry, and to make it a choice.
“If you want to learn to fly, you can go on the ice. Or if you don’t, you can watch from here with me.” He nods his head toward the rink. “It’ll feel better after you pick one, I promise.”
Mickey turns to look outward, brow wrinkling. “But what if I—”
“Yuuri’s really good. He won’t let you fall.” He pauses to correct himself. You don’t make promises you can’t keep. “I mean, he’ll teach you how to fall the right way so you don’t get hurt. When you know how to do that, flying won’t be so scary, right?”
He’s never seen Yuuri skate before, but somehow it seems like the right thing to say. He’s not doing anything complicated, nothing like the jumps and spins Phichit’s practiced shooting over the last couple of days, with Guanghong to teach him how to tell a Salchow from a Lutz from a flip jump. But there’s a rhythm to the way he carves his way around even without music, a relaxed, easy grace that draws the eye by itself, all the protective shells falling away the moment his blades touch the ice. He’s facing Sara now with his hands out toward her, guiding without holding, easing her through her first steps. Phichit can read his lips from here: Slowly, slowly. Yes, that’s beautiful.
It doesn’t take long, after that, for Mickey to rise from the bench.
Sacred Grounds, Riverside Park
Phichit’s out having coffee with himself, having stepped out of the world for the afternoon in order to watch it through Chailai’s viewfinder, when the door to his favorite cafe in the entire city opens and Yuuri walks providentially into the frame.
He refocuses, clicks just as Yuuri turns his head to one side and sees him—sees his camera, rather, which is much the same thing. Yuuri must think at this point that Phichit’s face is half-machine. Thankfully it doesn’t seem as though it’s a complete turn-off; it doesn’t stop him from walking up to say hello, at least, even if there’s still something timid about the way he holds himself. Folded a little inward with his hands in his pockets and his earphones in, nose red from the wind outside.
“It’s nice seeing you off the beat,” Phichit says, smiling up at Yuuri with his chin propped up on his palm. “Don’t tell me you got kicked out of the rink early.”
“I’m usually last out. I guess they’re trying to fix that.” His hand goes sheepishly to the back of his neck. “Are you here by yourself?”
Not anymore. “Yeah, I was. I’m here most Fridays.” A quick glance first to the left and then to the right confirms it. There’s not a free seat left in the house, pretty much—except, conveniently, for the second chair here at this table. “Do you want to sit down?”
“Are you sure?” Yuuri’s thinking hard again, worrying his lower lip between his teeth. He tilts his head toward Phichit, the gesture itself another question. “I don’t want to bug you if you’re studying.”
Trust me, you could never. Phichit shrugs—it’d be prudent, probably, to try and play it cool. “All I’m studying right now is the light and people’s faces.” For emphasis, he nudges at the empty chair across him with one foot, opening up the space to let Yuuri in. Please sit down. “There’s lots of other things too, but those are my favorite parts.”
Yuuri’s thanks come in a small, hesitant crescent of a smile and his backpack dropping gently down onto the seat of the chair before he heads over to the counter to place an order. Phichit watches him go out of the corner of one eye, focus narrowing to trace the gentle slump of his shoulders and the slow, measured way he walks. Yuuri takes short steps, almost as if he’s testing the ground, feeling it out beneath his feet. By the time he comes back from the counter with some green tea and a cherry Danish Phichit’s faced the window and taken Chailai up again, pretending to shoot the people walking their dogs by the river outside.
“I’ll tell you a story,” he says, without looking back.
It’s a trick he learned from Chris, who for as long as he’s known him has liked to rhapsodize about how people are always telling stories with their bodies. If you watch people as closely as you can—anyone, even strangers—you’ll soon uncover so many different kinds of smile, so many different kinds of shrug, all the ways a seemingly insignificant quirk in the way the face or the limbs move can change a whole expression. And then you connect the dots. You don’t have to be right, you just have to be able to explain, spin it out so it makes sense.
Case in point: there’s a group of boys studying together at the long table near the counter. Five of them, debating history in loud voices and poking each other with their pens, but there are two in particular that look closer than the rest—a gangly blond kid with messy hair, the loudest and the most aggressive of the pen-pokers, and next to him a quieter boy, bespectacled, who sits with his textbook angled up towards his face and hasn’t spoken up. Like the sun and the moon, only somehow harmonious. Blond never pokes Glasses with his pen. When he turns to ask him a question, his voice goes low, sinking below the ambient hum of other people’s conversations and the soft instrumental jazz playing in the background. They sit with their elbows touching.
“They’ve got to be best friends, at the very least,” Phichit says, and winks at Yuuri. “Now you try.”
Yuuri looks uncertain for all of two seconds before he smiles. “Okay, I’ll play.” His gaze casts its net outward, through the window and toward the river, settling on the dog-walkers. Two middle-aged ladies idling on a bench facing the water, one with a sweet-faced cocker spaniel, the other with a golden retriever nearly waist-high. The spaniel he says is a new dog, the retriever an old dog of at least five years, possibly reared in the family from puppyhood.
“I’ve never had a dog.” Phichit zooms in, amused. “How can you tell?”
“His owner keeps touching him. Playing with his paws and ears, and laughing.” Yuuri’s nibbling at his Danish as he talks, poking at the island of cherry preserve in the center with his fork. There’s a stray crumb at the corner of his mouth that he hasn’t noticed yet. Phichit takes a few more pictures of the dogs to stop himself from reaching out and thumbing it away. “Like she wants to make sure he’s there all the time. With the other lady and the golden, though, there’s no need. They’re just sitting together. Although it’s cute how he’s leaning a little on her leg; do you see it?”
So he likes dogs. “They’re best friends too, I guess?”
“Must be.” Yuuri nods. He’s looking out into the distance now—past the women and their dogs, past the water, wistful, almost sad. It’s a difficult expression to describe, even harder to capture; Phichit studies it for a few beats before calling him back.
“That girl there, the one on Facetime.” He points with Chailai’s lens at a pretty girl by the window across, sitting with her legs crossed and half-watching the late afternoon sun spill in through the glass onto her table as she talks. “Who’s she talking to, you think?”
Yuuri tracks the path of Phichit’s camera with his eyes. Frowning a little, thinking. “Dunno. Mom?”
“Hmm, maybe not.”
“Friend?” His forehead wrinkles up even more when Phichit shakes his head—but it’s supposed to be an encouraging headshake, a keep-going headshake. “Best friend?”
“I’d say closer to boyfriend. Or girlfriend, I guess.” He doesn’t need to be close to the girl to know you don’t smile that way for just anyone. It’s the kind of smile that pulls at your whole body, makes your shoulders go loose and your eyes crinkle up and the blood rush to your head. And he’s counted three times in as many minutes that she’s reached up to touch her hair, fiddling restlessly with the long locks. “Someone she’s in love with, definitely.”
“How can you tell?” Yuuri asks, voice low; he sounds more wondering than skeptical, like he’s only just stopping to look at something he’s never seen before. His hands are restless as they warm themselves around his mug, fingers curling and tapping.
“Body language. You can see it in her face, too.” Phichit glances sidelong at Yuuri from behind the camera. “Haven’t you ever wanted to be looked at the way she’s looking at her phone right now?”
Yuuri doesn’t answer the question. His face is pink all the way from the high points of his cheeks to his ears, even if it must be an hour since he came in out of the cold. “You must have some crazy eyes. How do you see so much?”
His first instinct is to reply that he’s nothing special. It’s something all photographers learn to do, to try and make a picture worth the proverbial thousand words. It would be strange to say something like that to Yuuri, he thinks, tantamount to admitting that some days he thinks he’s still the kid with an instant camera in the living room of his parents’ house in Bangkok, commanding everyone who comes through the front door to smile. Smile, smile! Look how pretty you are when you smile. Except both the process and the tech have complexified so much over the years; now it’s become a game he’s not sure he knows all the rules for, for all that he’s been studying it all his life.
“My mom always says that if you look where no one else looks, you get the chance to see what no one else sees,” he says, too cocksure by half to compensate for all the things that still contrive to make him feel small. He’s tempted to wink again for effect, but it would probably be too much, so he doesn’t. “She’s mostly a landscape photographer, so I guess you could say the eyes are genetic.”
CCS Digital Photography Lab 1
Chris delivers the day’s lecture perched on the table in the center of the room, one leg crossed over the other, rotating his foot in slow circles as he speaks. He’s posed like a pinup girl but the words he uses are almost unnervingly coherent, precise as they only ever are when he’s in the classroom, putting on a show for the kids who make up what he fondly calls his captive audience.
“Portrait photography is about building trust, and you’ll soon find that cultivating rapport with your clients is a skill unto itself. Consider the popular belief that romance enters its full flowering not in the bedroom but at the dining table.” One key trick for making the most out of his lectures is to remember that to Chris everything is a potential romance metaphor. You’ve got to be ready to follow this thought train to the end if you want to get any insight out of it. “You’ll want to place a similar premium on conversation when you’re doing portraiture. Most people naturally close up when they’re being photographed, but talking makes your subject comfortable; it places you in front of the camera, rather than behind it. Anyone who sits for your portraits is human, and humans are naturally conditioned to respond well to meaningful interaction.” Here Chris pauses to wiggle his eyebrows meaningfully at the rest of the room, drawing more than a few giggles and a sharp aghast inhale or two. “As soon as you and your sitter are relaxed and comfortable with one another, it’s only logical to expect that better photographs will emerge.
“Peachy, darling, help me out here.” Phichit looks up, taking care to smile sweetly, sliding his elbow over the hamster he’s been doodling in the corner of his notebook. “Have you been on a lot of dates in your short lifetime?”
He knows he’s a favorite of Chris’ for difficult questions—he’d like to think it’s because he’s not afraid to meet him on the same ground. Well, mostly. The candid approach works best, nine times out of ten. “I’ve been on a few.”
“And from those modest few,” Chris arches an eyebrow at him more eloquently than any lecture, “I wonder if you’ve mastered one of the most basic strategies for connecting with another human being.”
Phichit laughs and arches an eyebrow right back. “I don’t think I can claim any mastery, but I like asking questions? It’s how I let them know I’m there. And interested, I guess.”
“Beautiful, darling. I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect lead-in to our exercise for today.”
What follows is a paired activity that in Phichit’s mind probably doubles as a low-key matchmaking exercise. Chris asks his students to partner up with whoever’s next to them and start up—his word here—a roleplay. One asker, one responder, with the former fielding the latter a series of getting-to-know-you questions of their choice “like a first date, flirting optional.” Except the responder functions also as model, and thus at any point in the conversation the asker can pick up his camera and begin shooting. After thirty minutes, the partners switch places.
One of the few things Phichit knows about the guy who ends up sitting first as his responder is his name—Seunggil Lee. He’s a first-time classmate, which is unusual given that they share a major. Quickly he combs through his memories of the past few months, sifting around for what else he knows. He’s Korean. He never smiles. He doesn’t speak much—instead he observes an almost superhuman economy of words, often paring his answers to any question down to no more than a single sentence. It’s not exactly an exciting profile, but it does present a challenge. Phichit thinks he can appreciate that, at least, for what it is.
“Hey, Seunggil.” He tries a smile as he unzips his camera bag and settles Chailai on the table. Something about this setup, and the frosty look his partner’s giving him across the table, makes the action feel vaguely like pulling a gun from its holster. “We haven’t talked much.”
“Why would we?” It’s not mean per se. It’s not anything, really. Seunggil’s face and voice are about as lively as stone slabs. Phichit concludes, then and there, that he’s never met anyone so resolutely pokerfaced.
Needless to say, they get off to a rocky start. Phichit moves quickly through what he thinks is a standard set of getting-to-know-you questions with limited success—where are you from (Incheon), what are you tracking in (Photojournalism), how are you liking it (it’s okay), why’d you choose it (my father chose it for me). It doesn’t seem prudent to keep following this particular track—something tells Phichit he’d armor up irreversibly and forever if asked out of nowhere about his father—so he slows down, casts about with his eyes for some clue that will humanize this guy, open him up, make him a person.
In the end, he goes for the long shot. Possibly the longest shot, because you don’t get good results from doing things by halves.
“Seunggil, do you like dogs?”
Something, some spark, flickers in Seunggil’s eyes. His frown deepens—something Phichit would never have thought possible, but he takes it as proof that you can catch anyone off their guard with enough persistence and the right questions. “I’m sorry?”
Phichit’s thinking fast; he gestures at Seunggil’s black backpack on the floor, the little palm-sized plush Siberian husky swinging from one of the zippers. It had been a detail that stood out, even when he came in at the start of class and dropped noncommittally into the chair he now sits in, but now Phichit knows why. Or, at least, enough to take a risk on an intelligent guess. “You don’t have a dog, do you?”
“I do.” He says it with some reluctance, as if Phichit’s wrung the information from him in spite of his determination to fight the process. For a moment it looks doubtful that he’s going to say anything more—until he adds a second sentence out of nowhere, completely of his own accord. “Her name is Jinju.”
Okay, Phichit thinks. Now show him you’re listening.
“Jinju,” he says. Echoing. One of the oldest active listening tricks in the book. Then he asks, “Do you have any pictures of her?” and even as he says it he tells himself he can already feel a door opening, the road toward a wider repertoire of facial expressions stretching out golden and promising under their feet.
The day Leo turns nineteen he drags the rest of the rink out for some celebratory drinks after practice lets out in the evening, enlisting Mila’s help to catch even Yuuri in his net on the way out. She takes him by the arm, manhandling him gently but firmly in next to Phichit in the backseat of Leo’s bulky soccer mom SUV; after Yuuri it’s the cake Celestino put out for them earlier this evening, the tall white box passing through the door into Yuuri’s hands before it ends up balanced precariously on Phichit’s lap, and then Mila herself squeezing in and shutting the door with a bang.
They make a beeline for a bar Leo says he knows at midtown, a small place with a karaoke machine and a fairly relaxed policy on alcohol service to minors. Phichit spends most of the ride fighting to keep the cake steady and grinning an apology sideways at Yuuri for how hard their shoulders dig into each other at every turn. Up in front they can see how Guanghong has the sides of the seat cushion in a death grip, knuckles gone white as the ice. Phichit practically has to peel him off the seat after they’ve settled into the parking lot with everything intact, cake included.
They commandeer a table near the front of the house and Mila wastes no time pointing out the birthday boy to the people at the bar, which raises a loud cheer from the other patrons and gets them their first round of drinks free. Leo himself doesn’t even seem to need any alcohol in his system to start on his first song—Phichit swears all he did was fiddle with Chailai’s ISO settings for two seconds to mitigate the low light, but when he next looks up there’s a mic in Leo’s hands and the machine’s already started playing the opening bars to “Like a Prayer.”
He wonders if it’s a function of being the oldest that over the next couple of hours Yuuri slides wordlessly into the role of Designated Chaperone, nursing just the one beer through the second round, finishing it off only at the end of the third. He’s moved into a seat across the table from Phichit, lining their empty bottles all up in a row before he gathers them up and carries them back to the bar. He comes back a few minutes later with water for everyone.
“Hi, Mom.” Phichit looks up at him through the viewfinder. He’s slouched down kind of low in his seat, and the resulting image is strangely angled—Yuuri standing over him with four full glasses balanced between his fingers, suddenly ten feet tall and washed in the yellow-orangey mood light from the bar—but good for a laugh. Or maybe that’s the atmosphere and the three bottles of Stella. “You look like you have your hands full.”
“I figured someone had to step up.” There’s no picture of the little wry smile that comes after, because Phichit finds the camera gently pried from his hands and replaced with one of the four glasses. It’s cold in the curve of his palm, slick with condensation. “Drink up, come on. Your throat must hurt after ‘Total Eclipse.’”
“Turn around, bright eyes.” Over Yuuri’s shoulder Phichit can see Leo grinning, dragging a protesting Guanghong upstage by the wrist, both of them staggering, red in the face. He shifts his gaze back toward Yuuri’s face, grinning. “You don’t sing?”
Yuuri falls into the empty chair next to him—Mila’s, but she’s since disappeared into the wormhole that is the ladies’ room. He needs to lean his head close to talk when the music starts up again. “Never got over my stage-fright.”
“Sorry to give you more stuff to worry about.” Phichit drains the glass of water, eyes drawn down as if by gravity to the shape of Yuuri’s hands around his bottle. Fair, pretty hands, the skin smooth, the fingers graceful and tapering. It’s the most natural thing in the world to watch those hands. Gravity.
“No, it’s fun. I was just thinking that we don’t have too many places like this where I come from.” He picks up on Phichit’s unspoken question before he can open his mouth to ask. “Hasetsu? I’m not sure you’d know it. It’s a small town.”
Yuuri’s been in Detroit five years, Phichit three, but there’s still plenty to be homesick for. They’ve been talking about this a bit lately, at the front desk in the lean hours of the afternoon. It’s idle, hi-how-are-you, where-are-you-from kind of talk. Skimming surfaces.
“Near the sea, right?” Phichit thinks about the streets of Bangkok at night, the lights, the thrumming in the air like the heartbeat of the city itself. He remembers the feeling of stepping out into an entirely different kind of sea, getting lost for hours with friends, a girl from school, a boy from school—always hand in hand so as not to lose each other in the crowds. “You’d hate my hometown, then, probably.”
The mental image of Yuuri in Bangkok would have been funny if it didn’t come at him from out of complete nowhere. Yuuri standing cocooned in his own little pocket of quiet, in the center of a square or at a neon-lit crossing, the ebb and flow of human traffic breaking around him, completely still. So vivid in his mind’s eye he can’t believe it’s never happened in real life.
They’re not in Bangkok. The Yuuri in the here and now looks up and into Phichit’s eyes. His lips move; he looks about to smile again, but really he’s just talking. All they’re doing is talking. “Maybe I wouldn’t, though.”
“Maybe you wouldn’t,” Phichit repeats, and laughs. He remembers being sixteen or seventeen and laughing like this, the sound rising up out of him all reckless and bubbly and crystalline to hide the fact that he suddenly can’t breathe. “Maybe if I showed you.”
Maybe. That very second Mila comes back onto the scene and half-crashes into their laps with her lipstick freshly retouched and her phone out for a selfie or three, or three hundred, and that alone keeps them so busy Yuuri never gets to answer yes or no.
Unit 1403, Cathedral Tower
Mila lives on the eighteenth floor, but she comes down to Phichit’s apartment on the fourteenth so often he’s joked more than once about putting her boyfriend out of a job. Sometimes it’s to study or draw; more often than not it’s just to be around each other. They do better in company, generally, than they do alone—as far as distractions go Phichit finds Mila’s worth the couple of hours she always adds to his post-processing time, sorting idly through Chailai’s camera roll and badgering him to make her Thai tea. He’s gotten used to speaking his thoughts aloud with her in the room.
She’s prone to getting weird ideas out of nowhere, though. And subsequently putting him on the spot.
“Well, hell-o there.” He can already guess from the look on her face which photos she’s looking at, even before she turns the monitor toward him and he sees the shot from a few weeks ago—Yuuri halfway through the doorway at Sacred Grounds, head to one side, recognition only just dawning on his face at the click of the shutter. It’s an image Phichit’s gone back over more times than he’s willing to admit; even at a distance he can envision the angle of the door, the flustered half-smile. “What’s this?”
“We bumped into each other.” He turns his head away from where she sits cross-legged on his bed, back toward his computer and the comparatively innocent-looking pictures of Leo in mid-jump that he’d been working on just a bit ago. “It wasn’t anything like that.”
“Is it going to be?” Mila’s voice spears him straight through, arch and completely unconvinced. He sits on his hands to keep from tossing a pen or something in her general direction.
“I don’t know. I don’t know much about him.” Still mostly true. Phichit chews at the inside of his cheek and plays back the imaginary recording of Yuuri in his head: How do you see so much? It’s easy, too easy, to remember his face as he’d said it. The wistful look in his eyes, how he’d flushed all the way to the tips of his ears in the warm coffee-shop light. To say nothing of his hands around the beer bottle, the night of Leo’s birthday. “Just that it’s hard to get him to smile.”
“Yuuri Katsuki. Twenty-three. Teaches the Children’s Learn-to-Skate courses on weekends. Pulls too much overtime.” She knows he knows all those things already. When he lifts a skeptical eyebrow at her all she does is spread her hands, as if to say What more do you want? “Smiles a lot when he’s talking to you.”
“Does he?” He feels his own mouth stretch, damningly, even as he says it. Mila snorts and snaps a picture of him.
“Just look at your face! Yes, he does. I don’t know how you don’t see it.” She looks about to throw the camera at his head; it’s maybe a testament to their friendship that she doesn’t, choosing to settle it down gently on the mattress instead. At least she has the good sense to direct her frustration exclusively at him, and spare his tech. “You need to make a move, Peachy. You’ll regret it if you don’t.”
He nods, scuffing socked feet against the floor, frowning down at the bare boards. “I’ll think about it, I promise.”
He doesn’t know much about Yuuri. Yuuri is twenty-three, teaches the Learn-to-Skate courses for children on weekends, pulls too much overtime. He chews at his lip or the inside of his cheek when he’s thinking too hard about something. He talks quietly, and mostly with his hands, which are never still—he’s always opening and closing them, tapping them against the table, twisting his fingers together. He’s blind as a family of bats without his glasses, and the brown eyes you’ll see behind them are most often downcast and sad.
Except when there’s a cup of unsweetened green tea in front of him, and a cherry Danish. Except when he’s on the ice with the kids, or watching people walk their dogs, or talking about home. Then those eyes open up, just the slightest bit, like someone’s put a match to a candle somewhere inside. Then his mouth makes a tiny crescent moon, and you find getting him to smile was worth all the work.
Phichit doesn’t know where Yuuri’s hometown—Hasetsu—is on a map, or what Yuuri sounds like when he laughs. He doesn’t know why his eye goes to Yuuri the moment he walks into a room, when it only makes sense that someone so soft and shy and retiring would melt away into any crowd, disappear in an instant. He doesn’t know if Yuuri is his friend—could be, wants to be.
He doesn’t know how to go about learning any of these things, and the hundred-something other things he hasn’t admitted he wonders about yet.
“He really does look different since you started coming around, you know,” Mila tells him as she stands to head back upstairs, reaching around to poke at his cheek with a fingertip. “You look different too.”
Detroit Skating Club
After Learn-to-Skate wraps up one Saturday, Phichit finds himself lingering in the back room, leaning back against the lockers and contemplating the shelves on shelves of boots for rent. Yuuri comes back from seeing off the Crispino twins with his glasses perched on top of his head and a water bottle in one hand, free hand wagging gently in front of Phichit’s face to summon him back from inside his head.
“You’re so good out there,” he says, before Yuuri can ask. “It’s kind of unfair.”
“Huh? It’s nothing fancy, like you see the other guys doing.” He slides his glasses back down, peering through them at Phichit as at a particularly confusing math problem. Phichit briefly contemplates reaching out and flicking his forehead: Stop doing that, you’ll get wrinkles. “All I do is teach the kids.”
“That’s plenty, though.” Phichit looks up at him. “I think you could teach anyone.”
An imaginary lightbulb flickers on, and Yuuri smiles. Thoughtful, a little crooked; he’s getting his head around a new idea. It’s a look Phichit’s only ever seen on him when he’s in the rink, or just gotten out of it—that’s where all his ideas are born, it seems. “Even you?”
“Is that a challenge, Coach Katsuki?” Phichit pushes off the lockers, grinning; Yuuri steps back with a chuckle to keep them from crashing into each other’s faces. “I have good balance, you know.”
“No, it’s—” He shrugs, waving away the hanging ends of that last sentence with his hands. “I feel bad dragging you out every Saturday to just watch from rinkside. And it might give you a better idea of how we move when we’re out there?”
Phichit likes that he says we. Not the other guys. He holds that we in his head as Yuuri steps away from him, setting his bottle down on one of the shelves and already beginning to rummage around for a pair of boots in the right size. “You don’t mind more overtime?”
“I could always use more teaching practice.” Phichit comes face to face then with a pair of size sevens, beyond them the upper half of Yuuri’s face—skin around his eyes crinkling, eyebrows up in expectation. “It’ll be fun, trust me.”
Phichit laughs, dropping down onto a bench to suit up. His shoes go into an open locker, along with his cap and camera bag, and Yuuri’s half-empty water bottle. “I do trust you,” he says as he shuts the door and hands Yuuri the key. He doesn’t miss how the tips of Yuuri’s ears go pink as he turns and leads the way back out to the ice. “So, how do I not-die?”
“Okay.” Yuuri meets him at the entry door and guides one of his hands onto the wall. “Try walking around the edges first. Relax. Bend your knees. Bend.” Phichit takes a few tentative steps, chuckling under his breath, as Yuuri glides alongside him. He feels a warm spot between his shoulderblades when Yuuri’s palm presses down on his back to make him tilt his upper body forward. “You want to hold your arms out to the sides as you push off. Shoulder level, maybe a little lower.”
Phichit snorts. He spreads his arms anyway, the perfect picture of earnest obedience. “‘I’m flying, Jack?’”
“Not yet, you aren’t.” Yuuri breaks from the wall, skating toward the center of the rink, stopping after he’s put a few feet between them. “Let go of the wall and come here to where I am. Keep your knees down if it’s too hard to straighten up.”
It’s not scary, not really, to release the wall and begin to move forward, pushing gently from one foot to the other. It’s not much like flying either, not yet—there’s too much awkward wobbling, too much starting and stopping—but Phichit feels a little like he’s won something when he comes in close and sees Yuuri put out his hands to catch him. “It’s not cool to keep making people chase you so much, you know.”
“We’re actually not supposed to do this. It could get kind of ugly if we both fall.” Yuuri huffs, but he’s laughing as they rock back and forth on the balls of their feet, trying to come to balance without letting go. “You sure you’ve never skated before?”
“Maybe in another life,” Phichit says, grinning. His tone softens when he notices the way their hands have slid down each other’s arms and anchored together, how Yuuri pulls him in a little and holds them both steady, easy as walking on solid ground. “Are you sure all you do is teach kids?”
Yuuri’s eyes drop downward, following the angles of the blades they’re standing on. “It’s all I do now. I used to compete, like the other guys, but I…” He swallows once, hard. “I tanked so badly last season. I don’t know if Leo or Mila or someone ever told you.” He swings their linked hands, thoughtlessly, too lost in his own head to be weirded out by the prolonged contact. “It’s just been hard, I guess, since.”
His face flickers oddly as he says it. It’s a split-second change of expression, but Phichit’s eyes are faster; they don’t miss that lost look, that deep helpless sadness that lingers around his eyes and the corners of his lips even after he’s caught himself and tried to school them into a weak smile. Watching Yuuri sometimes feels like trying to shoot the sky on a windy day, everything bright about him fractured and shifty and dancing, falling so quickly in and out of shadow, never still. Blink and you’ll miss it. You could chase it forever.
Why didn’t you go back? Phichit wants to ask. It could be that this is the real form of the question he’s been turning over and over in his head for more than a month: Who were you before we met?
But he sees Yuuri’s face, and decides the answer is less important than getting the light back, at least for today.
“We don’t have to talk about it right now. Or, well, ever, if you don’t want to.” Standing close like this is an inconvenient reminder of that tiny-but-still-annoyingly-significant difference in their heights; Phichit has to tip his head up to look at him, rising to the challenge of maintaining both eye contact and footing at the same time.
“It’s okay; it’s not hard to talk to you.” Yuuri smiles and releases his hands, disengaging with care and—Phichit wonders if he might be imagining this—with some reluctance. He’s already started to drift backward slowly, out of Phichit’s reach. “But I did promise you this would be fun. Ready to practice falling?”
CCS Photography Department, C. Giacometti Boudoir
It’s not very often that students go to see Chris in his office. Which is to say that as far as Phichit knows most people avoid it if at all possible, preferring to bring their concerns to him after class in the photography labs, or in the safe, sane-looking common area of the department. By all counts they feel they’re protected by the sensible black leatherette of the armchairs in the waiting area, the carpet’s shades of unobtrusive grey.
Unless, of course—and this happens way more often than anyone from off-campus would think possible—one Dr. Georgi Popovich makes it his agenda for the day to spread himself out across said carpet and spend the next few hours regarding the ceiling with a heartbroken expression. Or suspend himself upside down from one of the armchairs, one leg making an arrow toward the ceiling, the other bent in a perfectly triangular passé. Neither leg, it’s said, ever makes contact with the chair back. Student gossip says he can hold that position indefinitely.
That’s how Phichit finds him, the day he walks in for a rare in-office consultation with Chris on the matter of the most important academic requirement of his life.
“Afternoon, Dr. Popovich,” he says, brightly; he’s seen (and Instagrammed, with permission) the passé enough times not to be fazed by it when he comes through the door. “I’m here for Chris.”
“Oh, Peachy. You’ll find him in his boudoir as usual.” He has a deep-chested, tremulous way of speaking that makes him sound always just on the verge of tears. Phichit shrugs it off as partly due to the physical strain—it’s no mean feat to hold position like that, to point the knee out at such a sharply jutting angle and keep the standing leg straight all the way to the toes. “You’re the only one who ever goes to see him there, you know. What I wouldn’t give for that kind of devotion.”
It’s not devotion, exactly, but Phichit knows to take the statement as (mostly) rhetorical. “I’m sure that if you show enough of it she’ll come back to you eventually, sir.” Without waiting for an answer he moves past the chairs and the standing sign that reads No students beyond this point, knocking twice on the third door he comes to before letting himself in.
In stark contrast to the office space outside, Chris’ boudoir is carpeted in red, the walls papered in pale gold fleurs-de-lis. Most of the wall-space though serves as provisional exhibit space for his masterwork—a series of seven self-portraits capitalizing on the interplay of shadow and light. He’d said something once about the project being an attempt to dichotomize the Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Heavenly Virtues—light for sin, shadow for virtue, because what is real virtue? and is sin really sinful if it is common?—but to this day Phichit’s certain he’s the only one who’s ever sat through the full explanation. Anyone in their right mind would have found it overwhelming enough to be faced with seven Chris-es in various states of undress, looking down on them and their homework right alongside the real one.
Chris is lounged out on the divan again, under the Chastity-Lust portrait; it’s Phichit who sits at the desk on these visits, Kindness-Envy mounted on the wall above him, never the other way around. As soon as he hears the door open he flings out one long, satin-draped arm. “Let’s see what you have for me today.”
“I don’t think it’s what you were expecting, but you did tell us to think about next year.” The form he extracts from between the pages of his binder and places in Chris’ waiting hand reads Thesis Advisor Appointment Form in big bold letters across the top. “And I figured you’d appreciate a grand gesture.”
“Why, Peachy. It’s been a while since I was last proposed to like this.” This said with the form in one hand, the other brought in toward his chest in a sweeping gesture. Over the edge of the paper, though, the eyes that fix on Phichit’s face are steely. “Are you sure, though? I’ll drive you hard.”
Phichit shrugs. It’s been three years, and he’s been called both courageous and crazy more times than he can count. Honestly, if he had a dollar for every time an upperclassman friend looked at his class schedule and made the sign of the cross, or told him it wasn’t too late to switch from Portraiture to Landscapes—
“I know, but you’ve never steered me wrong before.”
For the briefest moment Chris looks surprised, even a little disarmed. But he rallies so fast Phichit tells himself he must have imagined it, pulling a pen from—somewhere in the bottomless depths of his impossibly ruffly shirt, and signing across the line at the bottom with a flourish.
“We could be a pretty good match, you and I.” He hands back the form with a wink. “I’m looking forward to your answer to my question, you know. To say nothing of that lovely show you’re going to put on for me.”
As he settles the form back into its folder Phichit wonders if he looks any closer to an answer than he did a month or two ago. The only semblance of an answer he has now is that he feels closer to something, unquestionably. Now, if only he could name it. See it for what it is.
“So am I,” he says. “Let’s hope I’m on to something.”
The industry word for it, perhaps, is rapport, though he knows Chris prefers bolder words. Heart-words, like intimacy.
On Friday, just after class lets out, Phichit decides to forego his usual table at Sacred Grounds in favor of sitting out by the riverside for a long think. Which means a lot of shooting the water aimlessly, a lot of thumbing through his portfolio—all told it’s the closest to Deep Artistic Contemplation he knows he’ll ever get. He laughs at himself all the time for never being quite broody enough to fit the Photographer-with-a-Capital-P bill, but it doesn’t stop him from trying to give the river his best Heartbroken Expression, if only to underscore the silliness of it all for himself. He’s in the middle of screwing up his face when Yuuri finds him, appearing over his shoulder so unexpectedly it’s almost as if he’s just walked out of thin air.
“Hey, you! What are you doing out here?” He notices the label on the coffee cup in Yuuri’s hand. “Were you looking for me at Sacred Grounds?”
“Just observing the common photography undergrad in his natural habitat.” Yuuri smiles and makes an imaginary telescope with his free hand. “You weren’t hard to find.”
It’s a joke he can’t imagine the Yuuri he met back in January making, and he can’t help but wonder at how the past couple of months have thawed him out. Relaxed him, set him at ease little by little. If there’s anything at all these eyes are good for, he thinks, it’s taking note of these changes and cataloguing them away in his head for safekeeping. All of it could, of course, be just his imagination. It could also just as easily be Something—Something he’d never in a hundred years presume to have had a hand in, but is still such a joy to see, regardless.
“I’m from the tropics, Yuuri.” His arms feel sausage-like and ungainly when he spreads them out to illustrate how thoroughly he’s cocooned himself in his fleecy winter coat, plus hat-scarf-gloves. And all this considering the weather’s already supposed to be warming. “No way this is my natural habitat.”
“That’s true. And you’re anything but common.” Yuuri sits down on the empty other side of the bench, an arm’s length away from Phichit, without even having to be invited. This is a wonder, too, another thing he never would have imagined of January’s Yuuri. “Is that your portfolio?”
“One of them.” One that he’s never let anyone else go through before. Phichit reaches out and pushes the black binder gently across the space between them without letting himself think. If he starts to think, he’ll lose his nerve. “I have a separate one for school and work and stuff. This one’s…” He tells himself he hasn’t just cut open his chest and pulled out his raw, naked, beating heart to place in Yuuri’s hands. It’s nothing that big. Don’t think. “This one’s just for me. So I don’t forget.”
Yuuri doesn’t ask Forget what? But he lifts Phichit’s portfolio from the bench as carefully as if it were a living thing. Phichit doesn’t watch him turn the pages, slowly, one by one—instead he faces the water and stares out as far as his eyes can go—but he doesn’t even need to, to see what Yuuri sees. He’s holding the photos in his mind. Mila laughing, head thrown back, elbows on the table at the Arts and Crafts Cafe. The house he grew up in, with the red roof. His father reading at the dining table. His mother with a camera at her eye, poised for a photo—a second shot right below of her tilting her head out from behind it and beaming. Isra and Chati lighting candles by the river in Chiang Mai, kneeling by the bank, floating their krathongs away into the water.
“I told you my mom shoots landscapes, right?” he says. He’s holding Chailai in his lap, tracing all around the outer casing with restless fingertips. “When I was little, she used to say she was a treasure hunter. That’s why she was always running off places, disappearing for days, weeks at a time. And of course what was in my head was literal treasure—gold and jewels and elephants and magic books, that kind of stuff—so imagine how weirded out I was every time she came home with nothing. No elephants, just her and her gear, the same as when she left. But whenever my dad asked her if she’d found what she was looking for, she always, always said yes.” He chuckles, low in his throat, as Yuuri turns the last page. “I was nine before I finally got what she meant.”
Yuuri doesn’t hand the portfolio back right away. Instead he brings it close to his chest and folds his arms over it, resting his chin against the top. “How’d you figure it out?”
“It was my birthday. She let me into her studio, told me I was finally old enough to have a look. She’d mounted all her favorite photos on the walls, from all the places she’d been. It looked like the whole world with little sticky notes under each place.” He still remembers those sticky notes, covered in his mother’s large, loose handwriting. He remembers the names both familiar and not. Chiang Mai, Phuket, Ko Samui. Da Lat, Banlung, Camiguin, Paju. Hasetsu. “People too, on the street, in parks or marketplaces. She was always catching them laughing.”
Phichit brings his eyes back from the water. Looks down at his hands, then across at Yuuri. “That day she gave me my first camera—this little mint green Instax and two boxes of polaroid film—and told me I could find treasure anywhere in the world if I knew how to look, because the treasure of any place was its people, even if they didn’t know it yet.” It’s hard to keep talking when Yuuri smiles at him, but he pushes on anyway, because he remembers everything about this. He’s held all of it close for more than ten years. “Mom always used to say that people don’t know they’re precious, because they don’t know what they look like sometimes, or they forget. But there’s something golden that comes through when they smile, always, and pictures are proof. So after that I was obsessed with getting people to smile for me. My mom and dad, my friends, my cousins. My brother and sister, after they were born.”
“Why did you leave home?” Yuuri asks him, voice such a faint breath of sound in the wind that Phichit nearly loses it.
“Mom was a free bird. I guess she raised one too.” She’d said as much, the day he left. He remembers those exact words. “Before I flew out I told her I was going to study how to collect people’s smiles. How best to show them proof that they’re precious, to never let them forget it.” He breathes in deep and tries to smile; he knows just from the way his face feels that it’s come out crooked as it sometimes does when he’s trying not to make himself small. “It sounds silly, doesn’t it? Not exactly high-concept stuff. All of that seems far away now.”
“It’s not silly. It’s who you are. I think someone has to make sure you don’t forget,” Yuuri says, and finally releases Phichit’s portfolio, brushing the backs of Phichit’s hands with his fingertips by accident as he passes it back. “Listen, Phichit, I was thinking about last Saturday, and I have things to tell you too. About me. About stuff I forgot. Why I stopped skating.”
It’s a struggle not to shoot across the bench toward Yuuri when he says this. Phichit forces himself to slow down, concentrate on sliding the portfolio back into his backpack, before he answers.
“You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.” It’s not a lie. It’s the truth, even if he’s been wondering about this for what feels like his entire life. “I’ve been wondering for a while if this is okay with you, actually.” He doesn’t stop to qualify what this is.
“It’s okay. Here, I guess I should begin at the beginning.” Yuuri hands Phichit his phone, open to a video clip he’s clearly seen so many times he only needs a second to find it. On the screen, a tall man with a shock of silvery hair, gliding so smoothly across the ice his outspread arms look for just a moment like wings. “Victor Nikiforov. Five straight World Championships, five Grand Prix Finals, more European championships than I can count. Number one in the whole world since he was sixteen years old.”
It’s hard, he thinks, watching Victor Nikiforov launch himself up off the ice and through the air, not to feel small when you’re given the chance to be so close to the beautiful. Yuuri would probably understand, from the way he falls utterly silent when the music swells, wide-eyed and reverent as they watch together. Phichit finds he’s split in two, half his mind focused on the dance unfolding in front of him and the other half on the look of wonder starting to bloom on Yuuri’s face. Behind them, he can see the sky softening as the sun comes down and thinks it must be nearly golden hour now. That pocket of time so beloved by photographers for producing some of the most gorgeous light. The closest thing to magic there is in this world.
Phichit nods his head as the performance comes to an end and Yuuri locks his phone again, lets slip an appreciative whistle before he can stop himself. “He was your first love, I guess.”
“No. Maybe.” Yuuri must notice the way he’s started fiddling with Chailai, testing the light on the river, on the silhouette of Ambassador Bridge further out, but he’s careful not to say anything about it right off. “Something like that. He’s what got me started. I’ve looked up to him since I was a kid, since the first Juniors program of his I ever watched. He was skating to the Moonlight Sonata, I remember he had flowers in his hair.” He pauses. “Phichit?”
It’s easy to undervalue, or to forget entirely, the amount of trust that goes into the taking of portraits. It’s easy not to see it as you and your subject entrusting yourselves to one another—but it’s all but impossible to get truthful images otherwise.
“Do you trust me?”
“Huh? Of course I do.”
“Then don’t mind me; just keep talking.” He brings the viewfinder back to his eye, but he doesn’t end the conversation. Maybe this is what it means to place yourself—figuratively—in front of the camera for your subject, rather than behind it. “Is that your favorite program?”
“Oh no, not by a mile. It changed every season. My mom always used to laugh at me, because every new program he’d come up with would be my favorite.” Yuuri relaxes and forgets the camera; he’s already lost in his gallery of mental video footage. “He was just so good at throwing everyone for a loop. Surprising people. Like you’d think you had him all figured out, but then he went and did something no one had ever tried before. Break the world records he’d set himself several times over, that kind of thing.”
“I know someone like that,” Phichit says. It’s lucky his face is out of view. “Minus the world records. So which one’s your favorite right now?”
“It’d have to be the one I just showed you—‘Stay Close to Me,’ from last year. More than the technicals, it’s…” There. He only has a few seconds to catch it—the sun low in the sky behind Yuuri, the faint rim of rose-gold around his head and shoulders. And the light comes from inside too, filling his face and opening up his eyes like a dream, drawing out of him the kind of smile that only comes to someone when they’re talking about something they love. “No one’s better at entering into a song. I don’t know how else to explain it. Celestino used to say how well you connected with your music could make or break a program, and he just has this way of matching everything up so well. The way he moves, the way the song moves. That part in the middle where he reaches out toward the audience.” But then he comes back to himself, and the light dims, uncertain. “Don’t laugh.”
Phichit already knows he’ll stop breathing entirely when he goes over those shots later. “You know I won’t. Keep going? You’ve followed him his whole career, pretty much?”
“Pretty much. I used to watch him all the time. Every performance, every season, everything in real time even if it meant getting up in the middle of the night. I’d take notes, too, run over them with my best friend at the local rink the next day after school. We’d get on the ice and copy what we could copy.” He stops to think, like he’s not sure he should say this next thing, but in the end he goes through with it, if a little self-consciously still. “This is going to sound pretty pathetic, but I got a poodle because he had one. I named it after him too, can you believe?”
Phichit hasn’t forgotten Sacred Grounds. Outside, the golden retriever and the cocker spaniel, and two women; maybe on this very bench. The tender, wistful way Yuuri had looked out at them through the glass. The little hitch in his voice when he spoke.
“And then I just never stopped, I guess. I wasn’t special or talented or anything; I just had more time than anybody to practice because I was usually alone.” Yuuri shrugs, looks back up through the camera lens and into Phichit’s eyes. “All those years the only thing I wanted was to meet Victor at the Grand Prix Final. To tell him this kid from nowhere, with nothing, had watched him and thought maybe—just maybe—if he worked hard enough he could surprise somebody. Growing up I never thought, not for a moment, that I’d want to be the best at anything one day, but he made me…” The words peter out, and he bites his lip. For a bit, the light goes out. “Sorry.”
“It’s okay, I’m listening.” Phichit lowers the camera momentarily to look at him eye to eye. “Were you at the Grand Prix Final last year?”
It’s clearly a touchy subject—his voice is starting to shake a little. His hands too, tangling together in his lap. “Yeah, I remember everything about it. It was my first time in the final, and I was so scared I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t even be proud I’d made it that far, that’s how bad it was. And—and we’d just gotten off the plane to Sochi when my mom called to tell me our dog died.”
“You’re kidding,” Phichit says. The noise Yuuri makes sounds like a strange, broken cross between a laugh and a sob.
“It’s dumb, I know. But Vicchan—that was his name, don’t laugh—by then I had barely seen him for five years. I’d been home maybe twice in five years. And each human year is worth, what, seven dog years? I couldn’t stop thinking about it.” He’s going back there in his mind now; Phichit can see it from the way he lifts his hands, drags them slowly down his face. “It’s almost funny. I remember seeing my scores, my name dead last on the board. People were wondering if I was injured or something, and that’s what made it worse—there’s this thing my head does when I’m sad or scared or stressed out, it’s like suddenly I can’t…”
I get it, Phichit wants to say. When you feel small it’s hard to see your way out.
“Maybe I should have gone to talk to him anyway. Gotten a photo, or something. Told him, I don’t know, that I wouldn’t have made it there without him.” As he speaks Yuuri shifts his body slowly, so he’s facing Phichit straight on across the bench. It looks a little bit like it hurts him to move, but he doesn’t stop until the camera has his full face. “I just wanted so much for him to look at me, you know? Really look at me, like a person. Only after it was all over I didn’t think I had anything to show him. I didn’t feel like a person then. I didn’t feel like much of anything.” Shakily, glass shards in his voice, “I don’t think he even knew my name.”
“Yuuri.” Phichit’s laughing a little now too, shaking his head, the way he does when he’s dismantled and doesn’t want anyone to see. “You’re—” He doesn’t know what’s supposed to come after that. Whatever it is, he means it. He wants Yuuri to hear it. He wants Yuuri to see himself; he’d pluck his eyes out and stick them in Yuuri’s head if he could, if that would make everything finally come clear.
“I just couldn’t come back from December, no matter how hard I tried. Celestino was too good to me there at the end; I told him I wanted out, and all he said was okay. Helped me get that job at the rink, even, because he knew I wouldn’t be able to stay away, even if I couldn’t skate anymore. You already know the rest, I think.”
He does know the rest. “You’ve been out looking for yourself ever since?”
“I like how you put it,” Yuuri says. “It doesn’t sound so pointless.” He’s quiet a while before he adds, almost in a whisper, “I’ve never actually talked about this with anyone before.”
That’s Phichit’s cue to run back over the last couple of months in his mind, watch the images in his head fly backwards until everything falls together in a single picture, a big one, more or less complete. Except he doesn’t want to think they already know how the story ends. There is a story here, and what Yuuri may not see just now is that it’s still being written. And that suddenly, inexplicably, Phichit’s here. Part of it, without knowing how or why.
“Can I ask you one last question?” Another short silence—Yuuri waiting, Phichit choosing his words, deciding in the end to go with the ones he’s already used. “Do you trust me?”
“You already asked me that one,” Yuuri says. “You already know I do.”
It’s all the answer he needs before he presses the button that will send Chailai into Playback mode, scrolling all the way back to the first photo of the day before he passes her over to Yuuri screen-first. “Then here, look. Look at yourself.”
Yuuri is like—like if golden hour were a person. Soft and warm and just a little different each day. Hard to reach, but brilliant, so brilliant when the little sun inside of him breaks through. Phichit’s convinced it’s not just how he sees him. It’s just how he is. But maybe he needs someone, too, to make sure he can see what’s already there. Maybe, he wonders, holding his breath, not sure if he can even think this, maybe I could—
“What was I talking about in this one?” Yuuri’s turned the screen back toward Phichit to show him, but he already knows which photo.
“‘Stay Close to Me.’” He doesn’t need to tell Yuuri that’s what love looks like. Instead, “See? Beautiful.”
Yuuri’s face flushes again in that surprising, utterly wonderful way—from the tip of his chin to his hairline, from his nose to the shells of his ears. “Is that the word for it?”
What other word is there? Phichit opens his mouth to tell him again—in no uncertain terms, this time—when he’s interrupted. Too quickly, at too convenient a moment, almost like something out of a movie—his phone rings, two, three, four tinny electrical notes announcing he has a new text message. They’re frozen for a few beats as the alert sounds a second time, just looking at each other.
“That’s Mila, I think.” Phichit shakes himself and pulls his phone out of his pocket to double-check the name, makes a mental note to let her have it later even if the lost Moment isn’t technically her fault. “I promised her dinner.”
“Yeah, I guess I should go too. Have to catch the bakery near my place before it closes.” Together they stand, making ready to leave, but out of nowhere Yuuri reaches out to stop Phichit, one hand on his sleeve holding him there. “But, Phichit. Tomorrow, after Learn-to-Skate—can you stay? Just for a while?”
Phichit blinks at him, thrown completely by the sudden warm patch on his sleeve. “Did you want to give me another free lesson?”
“Oh, no. Or well, I could if you want.” He releases Phichit’s arm, reaching up to scratch sheepishly at his cheek with one finger. “But mostly there’s something I want you to see, if that’s okay.”
“Of course I’ll stay.” It’s harder than it should be to turn his back, unreasonable how far away tomorrow feels from where they are right now. “Tomorrow, then.”
Over his shoulder he thinks he can hear Yuuri say “Tomorrow,” but the wind picks it up too soon and blows it away before he can be sure. Phichit spends the rest of the walk out of the park fighting the temptation to turn back and see if he’s still standing there.
Detroit Skating Club
On Saturday night Phichit watches Yuuri take the ice alone for the first time, to skate Victor Nikiforov’s “Stay Close to Me.”
It’s a performance he’s seen a grand total of one time in the last twenty-four hours, so he’s thanking every god he can think of for the gift of a well-honed visual memory to help him through this game of spot-the-difference. Yuuri is yearning where Victor had been assertive, earnest where he’d come across as cerebral, almost calculating in the sharp, studied precision of his movements. Yuuri breathes in deep and hard before each jump. He clenches his fists going into the spins. Entreating, not demanding. Stay close to me. It’s a different dance, for all that the steps are the same, just as easy to get lost in as the one that came before.
Coming to the end of it feels like the long, slow process of waking from a dream. After the music dies it’s a hundred years before Yuuri drops his performance pose and comes back to rinkside, another hundred that they spend facing each other across the partition without speaking. All quiet around them, everything magnified—Yuuri’s breath, rising and falling, Phichit’s heart in his ears.
“You lied,” Phichit says at last into the silence. “You said you couldn’t come back from December.”
“I didn’t say I hadn’t been trying. I wanted to remember, so badly.” Yuuri’s plainly flustered—pink cheeks, hands tight on the rail—but he’s smiling again. He’s tired, but he looks alive. “It’s not one of mine, so I wasn’t going to let anybody else see it, but I wanted to show you something. To say thank you, I guess, for lending me your eyes.”
“What are you going to do now?” By which he means, Please tell me you’ll come back.
It’s yet another hundred years before he answers. Phichit looks at him and tells himself this cannot, cannot, cannot be where the story ends. And then:
“I need to find a song,” Yuuri tells him. “Celestino told me not to come see him unless I could bring him a song I wanted to skate to—unless I chose one for myself.”
“A song?” Now all the small things fall together, all the little cues he’s noticed. Yuuri with his earphones in when he’s alone. Yuuri humming so softly he doesn’t even seem to notice himself. Yuuri waxing poetic about the wonders of Spotify Premium. Phichit smiles. “You didn’t use to choose your own?”
“I could never do it before; I was always too scared.” He hums a little again now, the edge of his lower lip caught in his teeth. Thinking again. “But maybe if you help me—”
He pauses uncertainly midsentence and Phichit can almost see his train of thought playing out on his face. Would it be too much to ask this? Is this something you can say aloud? He wants to reach across and grab Yuuri by the shoulders, shake him, yell in his face that he’s crazy for thinking that Phichit can help him. No one he’s ever met has made him feel so necessary before. Him, and not just anyone. Not anybody else.
“You’ve had my eyes this whole time,” he says. The words come out of him electric, reckless; he says them half to prove to himself that he can. “I guess you can have my ears too.”
Detroit Skating Club
A cause—or perhaps an effect—of the facility for opening people up that Phichit was never quite aware he possessed before he started hanging out with a bunch of random figure skaters is a sudden glancing knowledge of a wide variety of things. More to the point, a wide variety of things that seem only indirectly related to the sport itself, picked up while shooting casually in the locker room or on the bleachers after practice, filed away mentally as research:
Leo cuts his music himself, and choreographs his own programs—has been doing so, in fact, since he started competing in the senior division. What seems to be an additional layer of work and subsequently additional stress is for him one of the surest sources of joy there is to be found from the sport. He relishes the freedom, the creative control. Phichit thinks, in the middle of posing Leo slightly to one side and asking him to draw up a definitive ranking of the best Queen songs for his dream free skate medley with Mila while the latter stands out-of-frame, that he can understand that. (Leo proceeds to argue passionately for “Dancer,” and for the merits of Hot Space in general as more than just the easily dismissed, random disco album, but Mila’s firm about “Under Pressure” as the irrevocable Number One. When asked for his opinion Phichit offers, tongue-in-cheek, “Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy.”)
In an ideal world, Guanghong insists, everyone on earth would make a ritual of marathoning the Godfather movies at least once a year. Ideally everyone in a particular country would put it on at the same time, and he’d make it his personal mission to tweet trivia in real time. In the time it takes Phichit to shoot twenty or thirty frames, he has ample time to practice. Vito Corleone’s cat from the iconic opening scene, for example, was not part of the original script, but simply a stray that had wandered on-set and taken such a liking to Marlon Brando that it stayed in his lap the entire day. Most interesting, Guanghong tells him, eyes to the camera, is the motif of oranges in the world of The Godfather as representations of mortal danger. Consider, he says, the oranges that roll across the street as Don Corleone gets shot, the ones in producer Jack Woltz’s dining room, the ones at the meeting of the dons and those in Don Corleone’s garden. (Phichit “hmm”s and “ah”s in all the right places, and shelves the thought that oranges might simply be a pleasing visual bright spot, meant to draw the eye in the midst of an otherwise dark or dreary scene.)
When Celestino sits for him it soon becomes an impromptu lecture on the importance of music to any figure skating routine, competitive or artistic or recreational. Consider, he says, how dancing off-ice tends to lean on rhythm, on following definite sets of underlying beats—by contrast, single or paired figure skaters tend to skate more to phrasing and melody. Yuuri Katsuki at his best, he says, had such an instinctive, organic musicality in both face and body. It’s that ballet background of his. A good ear, too, and he probably spent more time just sitting and listening to his songs than anyone else, even if he never felt good about choosing his own. But you wish he would, you always wish he would, for the truth of that emotion; no song that makes you feel something can possibly be a bad choice. (What happened, back in December? Thinking too much, Celestino says. He got lost inside his head. That’s the danger, that’s his particular danger.)
Unit 1403, Cathedral Tower
A week later, just as Phichit enters the thick of the post-processing stage, Yuuri comes over with a shortlist of songs for a final vetting session. Last night he had floated out the need for a second opinion, and the invitation—if you could call it that—had sprung completely unbidden from the tips of Phichit’s fingers and into their LINE thread before his mind could catch up. I live in Cathedral, we could meet there? You can use my good speakers. He’d had no doubt then that the minutes between Yuuri seeing the message and beginning to type his reply had been the longest of his life, even if the reason for the delay had been surprisingly innocuous: Sorry, brushing my teeth.
Yeah, that’d be great if you’ll have me. What unit?
In the less-than-twenty-four-hours following that delay had been outstripped by the minutes between his arrival home after class at four PM and their agreed-upon meeting time at five, which crawl by slower than he would have rightly believed possible. Slower than molasses in winter—was that the idiom in English? While waiting he’d picked some books up off the floor and lined them up in their places on a shelf. Afterward he folded the week’s laundry. Neither task did much to organize him in the end; ultimately he figures he was just glad to be in the middle of something by the time the doorbell rang at two minutes to five, some chore that would physically prevent him from answering the door on the first ring.
Then Yuuri had come through the door, carefully stepping out of his shoes in the entranceway and setting them to one side, and he found he’d forgotten entirely what his cause for worry had been. Not that he’d been all that worried, of course.
It only makes sense for Yuuri to be a dream as a houseguest, first-visit nerves and quintessential Yuuri-nerves notwithstanding. Now his iPod is on Phichit’s desk, plugged into the Good Speakers, filling the apartment with soft floaty piano. He himself is making tea in the kitchen; he’d insisted upon it, to keep Phichit in his editing chair. (“Just tell me where everything is and I’ll be fine,” he said. “You can trust me to heat water on my own, at least,” he said.)
He seems like he’d be a pretty good roommate. It occurs to Phichit that he’s never thought to ask if Yuuri has roommates. But that’s an odd uncalled-for thought, so he lets it go, brings his attention back to the work Yuuri had insisted he concentrate on.
Phichit’s in the middle of working on a picture of Guanghong on the bleachers at the rink when Yuuri comes back into his room with two mugs in hand. There’s something measured about his steps that Phichit’s watching out of the corner of one eye, an attentiveness to the music that shows he’s holding it in his head even in the midst of doing someone else’s household chores. Even his pauses—sliding one of the mugs onto the desk, glancing at Phichit’s laptop screen—seem to follow the melody, sync up with the beat.
“I like this one,” he says, peering over Phichit’s shoulder to get a better look at the screen. “You look like you’re talking about something intense.”
“We’re talking about how much he loves the Godfather movies. His big secret is that one day he wants to skate to ‘Speak Softly, Love.’” It’s a shot he’s particularly proud of, for sure. Guanghong’s face is youthful and rounded and schooled almost perpetually in a sweet expression, but that’s subverted here by the harsh straight-on angle, the burning eye contact. Like looking down the barrel of a gun. “No one’s better at opening people up than me.”
“I always knew that about you. I thought you knew it too.” It had been half a joke, but Yuuri takes it in earnest. When he pushes up his glasses and smiles Phichit finds himself—for lack of a better word—thoroughly disarmed. “Guess even you have your blind spots, Crazy Eyes.”
It might be nice, he thinks out of nowhere, to be able to come home to this. Hot tea on the table, a friend to play music for. Quiet easy nothing-talk, the most natural thing in the world.
The song shifts; he can hear the new one calling out to him, taking him out of his head—and not too soon, because what a weird place it is lately. He listens, trying to trace the notes in his memory. “What’s this one?”
“Oh.” Yuuri looks over at the iPod screen, biting his lip, suddenly shy. “You know what, I met you in this song.”
It takes a while to get what he means. But Phichit remembers Yuuri at the front desk at the rink on the day they met, humming so softly under his breath Phichit could only just hear, fingertips tapping a beat out on the counter. He remembers how Yuuri’s eyes had come to rest on him and not moved as he pulled the earphones from his ears, just in time to hear Mila say his name again. This is my friend Phichit. He’s the one I told you about.
“You want me with you when you dance that badly?”
This, too, is half a joke; on cue, they both laugh, but there’s a way they look at each other afterward that seems to ask, Do you really want to know the answer?
Saturday rolls around, and Yuuri’s more skittish than a bride on her wedding day. Phichit can see all the tells even from where he sits up in the bleachers, watching him on the ice—the tired eyes, the shoulders hiked up defensively high, the tight lines around the mouth that don’t go away even when he smiles. But Yuuri’s brave about it all throughout the afternoon, turning his attention toward the kids, doing his best to worry more about banged knees and turned ankles than about going to meet his coach for the first time in months.
They wrap up around five and turn the last of the little girls over to their mothers before they lock up the rink and catch the bus to Lafayette Park. There are a couple of lucky seats vacant near the front so they squeeze in, Phichit next to the aisle, Yuuri next to the window so he can rest his head against the glass.
“Don’t forget your song,” Phichit says as they pull away from the stop, fishing a set of earphones out of his jacket pocket and holding one out toward him. Yuuri takes it with a shaky smile, popping it into his ear.
He probably hasn’t slept much, if those dark circles are any indication. Phichit checks his fingers too—the nails, as he’d half-expected, are bitten down to the quick. But oh well. If they’re going to try and drown out that noise in his head, music will be better than radio adverts. “I have it on my phone too, in case you forgot to put it on yours. But knowing you, you rechecked it twenty times.”
That wrings a chuckle from Yuuri, at the very least, even if it’s faint and easy to miss. “Just ten. And then another five times this morning.”
The bus turns a corner, continues uptown. Phichit looks out the window and sees the sky’s colors changing, the sun starting to hang a little low. It must be nearly golden hour now—they’ll get off the bus under the day’s best light.
Two more songs pass before Yuuri reaches for his hand. “You didn’t bring Chailai,” he says.
“I figured she could use a day off.” Phichit’s smiling, but inside something quickens, the pulse beginning to thrum in his head until he can feel the blood beating all the way down to the tips of his fingers. There’s no way Yuuri doesn’t feel it too. “I’m focusing on you today.”
Celestino lives in the Windsor Tower. They hop off the bus a couple of blocks down and continue briskly up the street toward it, matched step for step, and for a minute Phichit almost thinks they’ve finally managed to outpace Yuuri’s nerves. But then Yuuri stops, breath suddenly short—he’s got that brittle look in his eyes again—so Phichit lets him take him by the wrist and lead him off-course, into a narrow alley between a bookseller and an empty barbershop. He knows the nerves have caught up.
“Sorry,” Yuuri tells him. “Give me a bit. I—I can’t do this.”
“You can, and you will.” They’re so close, but Yuuri keeps shaking his head, shifting his gaze this way and that like a scared bird. Without thinking Phichit reaches up to cup Yuuri’s cheeks between his palms and hold him there until he goes still. “What are you thinking right now?”
“I’m sorry, I— God.” Yuuri sucks in a breath. Phichit can hear it rattling around the inside of his chest. “When will I ever stop being scared?”
“It’s okay. Scared is okay. Scared means it matters.” The words bring Yuuri’s eyes back to Phichit’s face. Phichit puts on a smile to hold them there, to steady his own hands—Eyes over here. Hey. Eyes on me. “But you can do it. Say it for me, c’mon.”
Yuuri stares. He swallows hard. “No, yeah. I’m sorry. I know I can.” His voice changes when Phichit strokes a thumb across his cheekbone, goes all faint and whispery, like that one involuntary gesture has taken all the breath out of his body. When he says “I don’t think I would have made it here without you,” Phichit hears an invisible wall between them crumbling. He thinks he should take his hands away, but he doesn’t.
Still he opens his mouth to try and deny it: “No. No, it’s all you, you’re—” Except he’s lost the end of that sentence. All he has is the image, a freeze-frame—Yuuri’s face between his hands, eyes wide behind his glasses, and no words for the way he’s looking at Phichit but soft, soft as that wonderful, elusive late afternoon sunlight that turns everything it touches to gold.
When you’re willing to look where no one else looks, you get to see things no one else sees. For all that he thought he knew about faces, it’s a look he’s never seen before. And—this is the part he can’t believe—it’s for him, just for him.
“You’re—” he tries again, but the words still don’t come and anyway Yuuri doesn’t let him finish, body jerking forward into Phichit and sending his back crashing into the wall. bumping foreheads and noses and teeth before their lips finally come together, clumsy and bruising. His eyes are shut tight and his hands are shaking as they search out whatever they can reach, sliding over Phichit’s sides and his arms and his neck, slowing down when they come up to cradle his head against the concrete. Phichit unravels, gives—his fingers go to the front of Yuuri’s shirt, hook in the fabric and pull him close. It’s never been this hard to kiss someone before, but then again he doesn’t remember ever smiling quite this much when it happened, ever finding someone else so warm in his hands.
Yuuri bends his head down when he can’t breathe anymore, face burrowing into Phichit’s shoulder so he won’t have to look at him. “Oh no.”
Phichit squeezes him around the waist, lips close to Yuuri’s ear as he laughs. It’s an image for the books—two boys in an alley, twisted around each other in some kind of bizarre human pretzel, catching their breath together. He can’t stop laughing. “You surprised me there.”
“Oh no,” Yuuri repeats, but it sounds like wonder. He raises his head to bring their foreheads together more gently this time. “I can’t believe I did that.”
“Neither can I, but now I’m convinced you can do anything.” Phichit kisses him again, for emphasis, eyes open now to take in the lopsided angle of Yuuri’s glasses and the rush of blood to his face. Easily his favorite face now, no question. “You need to go, though.”
“Yeah. Yeah, I should.” Yuuri pulls back, still a bit unsteady on his feet, held upright by Phichit’s hands on his hips. “I’ll call you later.”
“Sure,” Phichit says. He’s smiling, but the word is heavy as a promise. His lips feel slick as they move to say it, tingly from the spearmint lip balm Yuuri always keeps in his pocket. “Later, then.”
Yuuri breaks away for real then, takes one last deep reaching breath and turns. He takes the front steps of Windsor at a run, breezing past a lady with a bag of groceries and an amused security guard, as Phichit stands on the curb watching. He doesn’t move until the automatic doors have slid shut; that’s the only time he turns and starts to jog back down the street, so light on his feet it’s almost as if they barely touch the sidewalk, one hand to his lips and the last of the golden hour sun in his eyes.
CCS Photography Department
Phichit’s walking to a Very Important Meeting, pointedly thinking less about that than about the trees in the quad below the Fine Arts building and how they’ll look when the leaves begin to turn, when his phone rings. He stops by a window and pulls it out of his pocket, puts it to his ear without bothering to check the name.
“Hi.” Silly how he’s already begun to smile when he hasn’t even heard the voice on the other end.
“Hey, is this a bad time?”
“Never.” Phichit checks his watch and does some quick math. Quarter to ten AM Detroit time means it’s almost midnight in Hasetsu. “Are you okay, though? It’s pretty late.”
“I think so. I’m happy to be home, it’s just—” Yuuri’s breaths are snagging a little, as they tend to when he’s on the edge of thinking too hard about something. “It’s just been a while. Celestino says not to worry since it’s only the prelims, but you never stop being...”
“Scared. I know.” The trick, now, is to make him talk about something else. “What’d you have for dinner?”
“Eh?” Phichit almost snickers at how clearly he can imagine that face—Yuuri’s Eh? face, head to one side, brow wrinkling. But then his voice perks up, which means the knots in his chest must be unraveling, even just a little bit. Maybe he’s smiling again. “Oh, tempura udon. Mom says the catch has been good lately, so she’s been buying lots of prawns. They’re big, too—like the size of my hand.” After a pause, he adds, “I did tell you what tempura was, right?”
They’ve had enough conversations over the past few months about the understated flavors of traditional Japanese cuisine. Or maybe arguments is the better word for it, since four times out of five Phichit’s insisted, despite Yuuri’s best efforts, that all Yuuri’s feeding him is unseasoned rice. Yuuri meanwhile had nearly cried the first time Phichit took him and Leo downtown for tom yum over the summer, windmilling his arms and calling him a liar for telling them that the fiery orange broth went down as easily as formula for Thai babies, so they’ve since declared this particular square-off a draw.
“I know what tempura is. No katsudon for you, though?”
“Mom offered, but I said...” He sounds pained. “I said no katsudon until after I win.”
What a heroic sacrifice, Phichit thinks. It must genuinely be killing him.
“Well, that’s something worth fighting for. You’ve got to bring home the gold for your golden bowl.” It’s a bit of a stupid line, but it’s worth the embarrassment when he hears Yuuri start to laugh. Something warm stirs, then, in the hollow of his chest. Yuuri can probably hear it in his voice, too, when he adds, “You’re so brave, you know that?”
Yuuri’s still laughing, maybe shaking his head. “Not brave, just trying to kick a bad stress eating habit.” And more softly: “But thanks. I missed your voice.”
Phichit wants to say he’s sorry that’s all he is right now—a voice on the other end of a phone line, half the world away—but maybe there’s no need to be so sentimental. They’ve talked about this before, too, lots of times.
“Well, the rest of me is right here waiting. Just give me a few more months and then you can drag me anywhere in the world you need to go, yeah? I’ll shoot you at half-price, even.”
“That sounds like bad business practice, Phichit Chulanont.”
“You can call it love, Yuuri Katsuki.” He spares his watch another glance. “Listen, I have to earn my degree, and you have the first of a ton of medals to win in the morning. Ready to call it a night?”
As if on cue, Yuuri stifles a yawn, makes a small squeaky noise in the back of his throat that Phichit quietly files away in his mind as the world’s most adorable sound. “Yeah, I think I’ll be okay. Good night, Phichit. Or, er, good morning.”
“Good night, sweetheart. Give Ciao Ciao a kiss for me.”
The noise that comes after—part yelp, part whine, part yell of consternation—would be a close contender for second most adorable sound, if it didn’t bubble over so quickly into more laughter. There’s a lot of laughing when they talk these days, both in person and over the phone. It makes it hard to hang up even after they’ve already said “okay, bye” four times each, and Phichit’s sure they must look sillier and sillier with each repetition, but he doesn’t mind. It’s the start of a pattern that makes all the other patterns worth it—the increasing frequency of Skype dates in reverse proportion to real dates, the sudden spikes in activity on the Instagram account Yuuri used to insist he’d never use. Anything to shrink a couple of oceans, make the world feel just that little bit smaller, until they run into each other again.
(“Take pictures,” Phichit remembers telling him, on the bus to the airport. “I want to see what you see.” And Yuuri had chuckled and said, “Okay, but they’re not going to be as good as yours”—then he’d leaned over with his phone in hand and snapped a couple of shots of Celestino’s sleeping face, as if to demonstrate.)
He doesn’t notice the office door opening, or hear the click of the shutter; it’s only when he looks up from his phone that he sees how Chris has arranged himself in lounging position against the doorframe.
“Such a beautiful face belongs in front of the camera, rather than behind it.” Chris winks and turns his camera, offering it to Phichit with that dangerous, telltale twinkle in his eye. “You sure you don’t want to sit for me sometime, Peachy? I’d make it more fun for you than that pesky thesis.”
It’s never not going to be weird, seeing his own face shining up at him from out of someone else’s LCD screen. It doesn’t make sense that someone could find the act of looking at themselves so unsettling, but Phichit figures he’ll never quite be able to shake the feeling that it must be some other person, captured and held there just for a moment by Chris’ expert eye. The boy standing in the empty corridor, leaning slightly against the window with his phone to one ear and a smile that says it must be love on the other end of the line—that’s a self he’s only just met. That’s him surprising himself.
“It’s all right, sir.” He laughs and hands the camera back. “I think I know where I belong now.”