Even now, even after all this time, how far he’s come, Viktor still divides his life into chapters: pre-Yuuri and post-Yuuri. He is quite sure that’s not what is supposed to happen. He’s never telling Yuuri this. Yuuri worries enough.
It starts at — eighteen, he thinks, around the point when he’s winning everything there is to win and there are enough clues to tell him what he’s meant to be. He’s sitting on the floor of the locker room after practice, half-heartedly doing stretches to cool down, and little Yuri is braiding his hair. (‘What’s your name, sweetheart?’ ‘Yuri Plisetsky. You’ve asked me three times.’) In the background there is faint music from one of the older skaters’ phones. They’re standing in a tight, comfortable little group next to the wall of lockers, and their conversation stings. Viktor turns to look and is rewarded by Yuri jerking the end of the braid in irritation. Viktor has never been good at talking to the others at his home rink. He’s just barely eighteen and nobody likes competing to be Yakov’s second favourite. He thinks — no, he doesn’t think about it too hard. There’s no use obsessing over such things. He’s learned to keep his temper in check.
Instead, he asks over his shoulder: ‘Are you done?’
‘Almost,’ says Yuri, tongue dark in concentration. He fumbles for the ribbon Viktor’s holding out and ties off the braid with a flourish. ‘Here. Give me your phone and I’ll show you.’
Viktor risks another backward glance as he hands over his phone so that Yuri can snap a picture. One of the huddled older boys — Alexei? — smiles at him. Viktor turns away. The braid’s clumsy and not particularly pretty but Viktor would rather die than undo it. He heaves himself to his feet, tentatively nosing out his balance; nearby, Yuri crouches to retie his shoelaces. The music’s changed to something slicker, more slippery, an infectious rhythm that thrums up Viktor’s spine. He bends down to reach for his bag and doesn’t think.
Behind him, somebody laughs.
‘This is my favourite song.’
Viktor looks down (just in time to catch Yuri’s scowl in his peripheral vision) and one of the girls in the novice division smiles up at him. Her jacket’s zipped up only halfway, and the tips of her ears are reddening in the chill of the rink. She hands Yuri his forgotten water bottle and pushes her hair back. Blinks at Viktor, tranquil. Repeats herself: ‘This one. I like it — it’s for dancing, don’t you think?’
They must be waiting for their parents, the children. Viktor takes the metro home whenever he can manage it. He slings his bag over one shoulder, his head perfectly blank. ‘Mila, if you stand on my feet I’ll dance with you.’
‘Okay.’ She reaches up to take his hands.
Nearby, Yuri hoists himself up onto the bench with difficulty and braces himself on the heels of his hands. His feet dangle well above the ground. ‘Don’t look at me. I’m not touching you.’
Viktor likes taking the metro because sometimes people recognise him and ask for photos. It happens again today — his hair’s distinctive enough in the evening stream of commuters. Leaning against the wall of the cabin, the scarf warm around his neck, he watches two boys and an older lady watching him from the opposite end of the train. The boys look like they could be junior skaters; they have the physique for it. He tucks one or two strands of hair behind his ear, like he’s seen Mila do. Shifts the dull weight of his bag on the floor where he’s set it between his feet; adjusts his jacket. Waits for them to approach him at last, in the press of bodies as the train slides to an opening at the station, the inevitable whisper of are you Viktor Nikiforov? He flashes his best smile at the woman’s phone camera. He feels like a fuse about to blow.
Hasetsu at sunset, and there’s a nice ring to it: the taste of the words in his mouth. Viktor rode his bicycle over a nail yesterday so he’s walking home with them, Yuuri and Yurio, his footsteps echoing faintly on the pavestones of the bridge. The sky’s harshly coloured above them, a flush of clouds that’s wild and different and a world away from his apartment in St. Petersburg. He looks up — to follow the flutter of seagulls. Black-tailed gulls, Yuuri says every time.
Eros. Agape. It’s hard to explain them to someone who doesn’t already know what they are. Viktor has always followed his instincts. He’s not cut out for teaching.
‘You’re so weak,’ he can hear Yurio scoffing behind him. ‘Cold? What cold? In Moscow, I would wear a T-shirt and shorts in this weather.’
Viktor stops walking. Yuuri seems to cringe inwardly whenever Yurio opens his mouth; he doesn’t realise this is just Yurio’s way of making conversation. Viktor turns. He’s warm and alive and this is the first time in a long time that he’s walked home without that friendly burn spreading through his muscles, the wearing down of his bones after hot hours of self-imposed practice — and it’s a little strange, a little empty, but he wouldn’t give it away for the world. He wonders if this is what Yakov feels like. Yuuri and Yurio catch up to him and Yuuri opens his mouth to protest but Viktor’s already pulling the scarf from his own neck, arranging it over Yuuri’s shoulders with careful fingertips.
Yuuri’s breath hitches. His cheeks are pink. Viktor wants, badly, to reach out and touch. ‘Won’t you be cold?’
Viktor allows himself to look at Yurio, who is rolling his eyes so hard that Viktor thinks it must be physically painful. ‘I’m Russian.’
‘Right,’ says Yuuri, mouth curling in that wry fashion Viktor rarely sees and wholeheartedly loves. ‘How could I forget?’
Yurio falls into step beside Viktor, now. The roar of the ocean beneath them is fading into rich dusk, and the street-lamps flicker on one by one, somehow, like a magic trick. There’s salt in the air and on the tip of his tongue. Viktor hopes his scarf smells nice. Yuuri’s got his hands tucked deep into the pockets of his soft, well-worn, well-loved hoodie, and his eyelashes are dark and very low on his cheek.
Yurio veers abruptly sideways and bumps his shoulder against Viktor’s, very deliberate. Viktor steps on Yurio’s foot. ‘Oops,’ he says, completely unrepentant.
Yurio flicks a murderous glance between him and Yuuri and mutters something in Russian that Viktor pretends not to understand.
‘You’re making me feel left out, guys,’ Yuuri calls behind them. He’s getting bolder by the day; there’s a hint of shaky amusement in his tone, and Viktor wants to keep it. Yurio has known Viktor long enough to see Viktor ruin his relationships with his first two boyfriends. He’s too young to remember. At least, Viktor hopes so.
‘You deserve it.’
Viktor coughs into his fist. ‘How rude!’
They take a shortcut through the park to get back to Yu-topia. The shade of the trees turns Yuuri’s skin inky — Viktor feels like he’s been watching Yuuri forever, burning the image onto the insides of his eyelids. He can feel it arcing up his throat. He doesn’t want to lose this. He doesn’t want to go back to Russia. He thinks: this is dangerous, and too fast, too heavy, and is unsurprised to learn that he couldn’t possibly care less. At his side, slowing his stride to keep pace with Viktor, Yurio’s gaze is watchful and intent. Yuuri’s slightly ahead of them now and Viktor can hear Yuuri’s stomach impatiently growling. He doesn’t blame Yuuri. Viktor hasn’t eaten so well in years.
When Viktor pauses beside a park bench for the tenth time, Yuuri’s sigh is hardly audible. ‘Viktor — sorry, but could you walk faster?’
‘Hmm?’ replies Viktor, tired and delirious. ‘Are we in a rush, Yuuri?’
‘Well, you are Russian,’ Yuuri says. There’s a beat of precise silence; then only Yurio laughs. Viktor stares at them both for a long moment.
‘I’m revoking your rink privileges.’
‘No, don’t! I take it back!’
He gets better at covering up. At hiding what he’s thinking. It’s easy, anyway — there’s so much to sort through that it’s a whole lot less exhausting to push down the muted, incomprehensible thunder of whatever he’s feeling at the time, the blinding flood on the inside of his head. At this point, Viktor can’t be bothered any more. He is good at charming the press, after all. He is very, very good. It’s almost a source of pride for him now. Viktor takes pleasure in learning the full names of those reporters who harass him most often, because he’s a little bit spiteful.
Yakov is perhaps the only person Viktor does not care about. He decided this very early in his career; there’s no point faking it around Yakov. It isn’t worth the effort. Viktor has tried out the feel of the podiums in every country he can think of and his bones are tired. He has tea in Yakov and Lilia’s living room one night after Lilia catches him in a rare crying fit in the locker room. It is — something of a relief, come to think of it. It’s horribly embarrassing. Viktor doesn’t think about it, is what he’s getting at. He’ll be better when he’s older.
‘Concentrate on the music,’ Lilia tells him in the half-darkness of the quiet apartment, her mouth tight. Viktor suspects that she doesn’t like him all that much. He can tell that it drives Yakov mad, how well-behaved Viktor is around Lilia, which is exactly why Viktor does it. ‘The strength of your body means nothing, nothing, if you don’t use it well — what is the point of all those jumps? If you do not bring out the beauty in your skating you might as well not skate at all.’
‘Yes, Lilia Vasilyevna,’ says Viktor, abashed. He takes another sip of his tea. It tastes awful. Lilia put in far too much jam. He notices she isn’t wearing her wedding ring. He doesn’t ask.
At the Russian Nationals, he watches himself deliver two technically flawless programs like he’s doing it in his sleep. Lilia, if she were here, would be coldly unimpressed. Yakov’s lips are a thin line. Viktor, who has by this time managed to get his moods under impeccable and iron-fisted control, spends about half his free skate thinking what happened, what’s wrong with me today. He still wins.
Yurio curses and smacks the bed in frustration. ‘Let’s go down to the restaurant. The wifi’s better there.’ He scoops up Yuuri’s borrowed laptop and stalks out of Viktor’s bedroom without waiting to see if Viktor will follow.
Viktor does follow, at any rate — pads down the stairs after Yurio in contentment, the wooden floorboards cool beneath his feet. Yuuri’s already asleep, which is a pity. He’s noticed that Yurio is nicer to Yuuri when Viktor isn’t around. He settles himself on the floor, crossing his legs comfortably, beside the table where they had dinner barely an hour ago. The bowls and plates have been cleared away and the surface of the table wiped clean. He traces with his fingertip a dark ring-shaped stain which can’t quite be removed.
‘Finally,’ says Yurio when he manages to reconnect the Skype call. ‘Yeah, so I bought this — hello? Mila? Can you hear me? For fuck’s sake.’
Viktor waves at the screen. ‘Hi, Mila!’
‘Hello!’ Mila’s curled up in a broad chair, knees hugged to her chest. It’s mid-afternoon in Moscow, and Viktor recognises the room where he’s watched his rinkmates’ events on television sometimes. Mila’s dark-haired friend is moving about, somewhere in the background. Viktor doesn’t know her name. Mila looks at Yurio instead and asks, ‘How’s Viten’ka?’
‘He’s losing his shit over Katsuki Yuuri,’ Yurio snorts. ‘What an ass.’
‘You’re being ruder than usual,’ Viktor observes. ‘Do you have a crush on Yuuri? I mean, it’s understandable, he’s wonderful. Everyone should be in love with Yuuri —’
‘Viktor Alexandrovich,’ Yurio says, head in his hands. ‘Stop talking. Pack your bags and get on a plane back to Russia with me. Come on.’
The problem, should Viktor care to take the time to think about it, is that he’s no longer competing to win. He’s defending his title. It is a very different experience. It burns a hole in his palm, sometimes, on the mornings he lets himself sleep in.
He doesn’t take breaks very often; he’s competing and then he’s training, he’s staying in shape, choosing his music for the next season and choreographing new routines. To say that Yakov works him too hard would be a grave slight on Yakov, and Viktor wouldn’t stand for it. The truth is that he doesn’t know what he’d do with himself if he took the season off. The idea scares him. He’d rather be bored than lost.
Viktor knows quite well that he’s fairly intimidating. He plays up that side of himself for the public, when he needs to, since it’s sort of entertaining. He allows himself to believe that’s what maintains a reverent distance between himself and his fellow competitors. Sure, Viktor’s been in this game since he was seven — but so has Chris. So have most of them. It’s not much of an excuse. He’ll take what he can get. He’s friendly with the other skaters — of course he is — but, he thinks, not friends. Not — intimate. Not risky enough to let them see the unloveable parts of him, his selfishness, his lightning impulses, his temper.
Chris would probably disagree. Chris is one of the most good-natured people Viktor’s ever met.
‘You’re messing up too many jumps today,’ Viktor says. He sets one hand on his hip. ‘What are you thinking about?’
Yuuri’s back is to Viktor but Viktor can tell from the tips of his ears that he’s flushing. Yuuri’s embarrassment is a fragile, futile thing; it trails after him everywhere, clinging to his heels. ‘Nothing!’
Yuuri turns his head to look fully at Viktor, and he is so soft and lovely and round that Viktor skates an excited little circle in place. It delights him to know that Yuuri isn’t perfect. It makes him love harder, like a well-kept secret. He waits for Yuuri to answer, heartbeat throbbing slow and patient.
‘I’m,’ says Yuuri. He glances at Viktor again, sidelong, the brown of his eyes dark and clear without his glasses. He’s as raw and exposed as he was in that video. It almost hurts to look at him. ‘I’m glad you stayed.’
Viktor knows Yuuri well enough to read between the lines to the anxiety festering there. It takes him by surprise, every time, how deeply Yuuri fears that Viktor will leave him. Unreasonable, surely. Blind. Surely it should be the other way around.
Yuri Plisetsky enters the junior division on a high, managing to break the world record set by Katsuki Yuuri on only his second try. Viktor takes a vague interest in Yuri’s career, and in younger skaters in general; it’s nice to follow them over the years. See what path they’ll take. It’s been a long time since he competed in junior men’s singles, and he can barely remember the details, but he tries — scrutinises Yuri’s step sequences, gives him pointers because anyone can tell that Yuri’s the best of the lot.
‘Shut up,’ says Yuri when Viktor ventures to voice this. He grits his teeth and soars into another quadruple toe loop, mimicking Viktor’s motions perfectly. Viktor allows Yuri to practise quads when Yakov isn’t looking. ‘You set the standard and now we’re all fucked.’
‘Language, Yurochka,’ Viktor says mildly, just to see Yuri bristle. He snaps his fingers. ‘Again. The step sequence.’
‘Because you’re not putting enough emotion into it. I don’t care so much about your jumps. You should stop worrying so much about getting everything right.’
‘Just because you make it look easy,’ Yuri mutters. He catches the beginnings of Viktor’s grin and cuts Viktor off at once. ‘Not that I look up to you! Would I ever? Look at yourself, tying your jacket around your waist like a loser —’
‘Just because I look good doing that, Yura —’ says Viktor peacefully.
Yuri sniffs. There’s little heat in it, but it prickles at the back of Viktor’s throat. ‘Idiot.’ He throws out his arms to begin the familiar choreography, the lines of his slight body aggressive. ‘I wouldn’t trust you to raise a child.’
‘Yes,’ Viktor agrees. He’s not going to get angry at an eleven-year-old. He skates backwards swiftly and lands two quad flips in quick succession, and the muscles of his thighs scream at him as he jumps and the movements send sharp, raw pain into the soles of his feet, which are already stinging and tender from the day’s punishing practice. But it’s calming.
You: Happy birthday Mila!
Mila: omg i’m so touched that you remembered thank you!!!
Mila: i haven’t seen you in a while :O
Mila: how are you?
You: Well it’s the end of the season and I’ve only thought about killing myself twice so that’s pretty good compared to last year!
Mila: should i come over
You: Wh at
You: Oh no no no
You: Don’t listen to me I was just being dramatic
You: Oh my god
You: This is terrible I’m so sorry
Mila: what can i do???
You: Shhh you’re like 14 you’re a BABY
Mila: i’m telling yakov
‘Did you block Mila’s fucking number?’ Yuri demands. He waits for the crowd’s applause to subside after Georgi lands another jump combination, and then continues kicking the back of Viktor’s seat. ‘Hey! Turn around and look at me, idiot. Are you a grown-ass adult or not?’
Viktor massages the bridge of his nose. Georgi might still make the podium as long as he doesn’t mess up the second half of his free skate. Yuri, Viktor thinks, is well on his way to someday surpassing Viktor. He doesn’t mind. He doesn’t particularly care.
‘I know, I know. Is she angry?’
‘Like hell she’s angry. What’s wrong with you?’ Yuri sighs; the sound is shockingly harsh for such a young voice. ‘Listen, I’ll keep Yakov off your back, just… don’t do anything dumber than usual, all right?’
Viktor discovers the shelves of trophies one evening while Yuuri’s out for his run. Their presence is no surprise to him, of course — he’s known Yuuri is brilliant since he first heard the name. Vaguely, just a fog of an impression in the back of his mind: Katsuki Yuuri, the pride of Japan. They match. The three of them, Viktor and Yuuri and Yurio, they match.
He has a quiet, glorious hour or so to explore the names and dates, to run his fingers over the surfaces of the medals and framed pictures. The dark gold of trophies and medals, more medals, gleams from the soft shadows. Viktor swipes a fingertip over the fading wood. The shelf is dusty — Toshiya’s too busy to clean the house very often — but Yuuri’s prizes remain lovingly polished.
Viktor bought a book on conversational Japanese at the airport after last year’s banquet, in a snap decision, and spent the long aching flight home teaching himself beginner’s phrases. He didn’t have the time to practise those until he met Hiroko and Toshiya and Mari. Now he’s picking up new words and improving his pronunciation faster than he thought he ever could. He was so very nearly convinced that he was too old to learn anything new. The embossed inscriptions are in English, though. He slides the photograph out of its frame and turns it over: Katsuki Yuuri, junior GPF gold medallist. Viktor was there. He was on his first or second gold medal in the senior division. He’s pretty sure of it.
Yuuri slips through the door and leaves his keys on the bookshelf next to Viktor’s. He takes one look at Viktor, seated in the dining area with Makkachin in his lap, and blinks twice.
‘Yuuri,’ Viktor says in a scolding tone, lengthening the syllables, ‘you have won the Grand Prix Final. Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘I-it’s not the same!’
Yelling at Yakov, when Yakov bursts into his apartment to talk him out of leaving, is cathartic. He’s not going to lie. He doesn’t — he doesn’t think about it too hard, because the things he says to Yakov are hurtful and awful and he’d rather not remember them. But it feels. It feels good, in a way that isn’t much of a feeling at all. To switch off the high-alert mode he’s been operating in, the brittle focus of his smiles, the drain on his energy. Twenty years. And — after that — Yakov still follows him to the airport for one last try, which is almost like forgiveness. The closest thing to love you can get.
He’s had similar unmentionable moments over the pounding years. He cuts off his hair himself, in a fit of pique — goes to the hairdresser the next morning to get it tidied up. The change makes him look handsome, though in a different way. A different person. A new set of selves to refine.
‘Vitya, what the fuck,’ Georgi says when Viktor drags himself to the rink for that day’s practice.
‘Looks good, yes?’ Viktor asks pleasantly. He doesn’t give Georgi a chance to respond. He straps on his skates and lets his mind go blank.
2015. The banquet. Viktor stares down at Katsuki Yuuri. His arms around Viktor’s waist, his face warm and alive and very close. Yuri, sweating and glowering, just out of the corner of Viktor’s eye. Yuuri is strong enough to dip Viktor. Viktor could probably lift Yuuri if they skated together. He hasn’t felt this present in a long while.
He looks into Katsuki Yuuri’s eyes. Swallows. Tastes the champagne hot and wild and swooping low in his throat. Thinks: oh, and then oh no, and don’t, and do not fixate on this boy.
Obviously, it doesn’t work.