"Let's go skating!" said Victor.
Red Square spread out before them – the unearthly clustered onion domes of St Basil's and the floodlit walls of the Kremlin. The weather was cold and very clear, a halo of ice crystals visible around a nearly full moon. Even in the midst of Moscow, the stars had a hard glitter to them.
Yuuri was grateful for the scarf around his neck, and for the cup of hot chocolate that he held in his gloved hands. There was whipped cream on top. After double-checking the calorie count on the Starbucks menu, Victor had graciously allowed him this indulgence in exchange for his podium finish at the Cup of China. And then ordered the same himself.
"Skating?" echoed Yuuri, who could still feel his blisters and bruised ankles throbbing underneath his wool socks and snow boots. "Now?"
Oddly enough, let's go skating was a sentence that he had never heard from Victor's mouth before. We ought to be at the rink, all the time, or let's work on your Ina Bauer. But never with this tone, as if going skating were the moral equivalent of drinks and a movie.
"Not for practice." There was a laugh in Victor's voice. "Just for fun. I've never been on this rink before. There was nothing like this here when I was a boy."
In Red Square there was a massive, open-air, public rink, obviously set up for the season, strung overhead with lights echoing the illuminated facade of the GUM department store behind. It was so full of skaters, all wrapped up against the cold, that it was practically impossible to see the ice.
"My skates are back at the hotel," said Yuuri, heart sinking at the thought of another long taxi ride in Moscow traffic or a long walk in the snow. He hated to sound as if he were trying to be difficult; he hated to say no to Victor, mostly because he seemed to do it so often.
"Didn't I say this wasn't training? We'll rent them. I won't ask so much as a waltz jump from you, I swear."
And Victor was as good as his word. After lacing up the execrable rental skates – Victor bent down to fumble at Yuuri's frayed laces with fingers clumsy from cold – they skated slowly round and round the rink together, arm in arm, still sipping at their slowly cooling cups of hot chocolate.
Yuuri hadn't skated like this in years – no pressure, no technical elements, no goal apart from the pleasure of being together on the ice. The only challenge, if you could call it that, was negotiating the crowds on the rink while skating two abreast. Victor held tenaciously to Yuuri, unwilling to yield even when it might have been easier. They took an inside line, cutting the corners to avoid the clustered, slow moving groups near the wall. Even taking slow, easy strokes, they were moving faster than almost anyone on the rink.
"Wasn't this worth it?" asked Victor, his body warm against Yuuri's side.
Yuuri nodded. All of the anxiety of the Rostelecom Cup seemed to be melting away, the constant tightness in his chest releasing itself little by little. His mental image of the smooth, forbidding ice of the Luzhniki Small Sports Arena, awaiting his upcoming short program, was replaced with this gritty, bumpy surface, rutted with countless awkward turns and carelessly applied toe picks.
He had, he thought, never seen a better rink. But he would never say this to Yuuko, because even he knew what it really meant: that he had never before skated with Victor by his side. Side by side, yes, endlessly practicing sequences until even Victor was dripping with sweat and gasping for air. But this was different. No one could mistake this for a coaching session.
Yuuri smiled to himself, a small, private smile, before pulling his scarf up a little further.
On any rink in the world, however small, there would be someone who recognised Victor. Here, in the heart of Moscow, everyone recognised Victor. In the car from the airport alone, Yuuri had seen Victor's face smiling down from two billboards, splashed across with unfamiliar Cyrillic. The third billboard, an underwear advert for Dolce and Gabbana, had placed him in the midst of the entire Russian national hockey team, showing a good deal more than his face. Yuuri, despite having had months to acclimate himself to the sight of Victor in the flesh, had blushed and hoped that the driver didn't make the connection between the advertisement and the man in the back seat.
I had forgotten about that photoshoot, Victor had said offhandedly. It was fun. I hope I got paid for it.
Now Yuuri found himself wondering how many billboards it took to pay for a full set of Louis Vuitton luggage. Quite a few, he imagined. Yet even if each advertisement and celebrity endorsement took a small piece of your soul, it would make no difference. Victor's soul was big enough to embrace the world. And, in return, the world embraced him.
Since their arrival at Sheremetevo, Victor had been inseperable from his Gucci sunglasses, wearing them even at the hotel buffet breakfast. But even Victor was not so stubborn as to attempt to wear sunglasses in the depths of a Moscow winter night. They remained folded in an inside pocket of his jacket, and Victor remained without any disguise – open to view, impossible to miss.
At first Yuuri caught only quick, disbelieving glances, blurred faces turning towards them as they skated quickly by. But the longer they stayed on the ice, the more attention Victor drew. There was a slow shift in the density of the crowd: ice seemed to open up before them, onlookers parting respectfully as they approached and then following alongside.
There were muffled exclamations. People skated off to tell their friends. Probably someone was ringing the press photographers that very moment. Here was Victor Nikiforov, Russia's hero – gold medal at Torino and silver at Sochi (and that was an outrage) – right here on the rink in Red Square.
Flashes were going off. A teenage girl fell over while trying to take a selfie at high speed. Victor nodded to the left and to the right with gracious smiles, acknowledging his admirers as instinctively as he glided on the ice.
Things, thought Yuuri, were getting out of hand. But then having grown up in Hasetsu, he had never been terribly comfortable in crowds.
A staff member skated up to Victor and said something emphatic in Russian. Yuuri blushed, wondering whether they were about to be thrown off the ice for causing a public disturbance. Victor launched into an animated response, his hands sketching out a narrative whose plot Yuuri could not discern. Yuuri shook his head, lost.
The woman skated away again; Victor looked towards Yuuri and shrugged one eloquent shoulder.
"What's happening?" asked Yuuri.
"Just a little exhibition."
With remarkable speed the staff began to clear the rink. Automatically Yuuri started to follow the crowds to a door, but Victor stopped him, grasping the sleeve of his coat. So he stood where he was, feeling more than a little conspicuous and (now that he has stopped skating) more than a little cold.
"Here," said Victor, handing Yuuri his mostly empty cup of hot chocolate. "Take this. I won't be very long."
He quickly stripped off his coat and draped it over Yuuri's arm. It made Yuuri shiver just to look at him, with his shirt open at the collar and only a light jumper with an excessively low v-neck. But that was Victor; he claimed not to feel the cold. Perhaps it was the onlookers who gave him warmth.
Apart from the two of them, the rink was empty now, the ice glowing whitely under the moon. Victor pushed himself easily backwards away from Yuuri, then opened up the throttle. Although Yuuri had now seen Victor on the ice at Hasetsu more times than he could count, there was something striking about watching him like this. Perhaps it was the contrast with the ordinary mortals around them. Had he actually come so easily to take Victor's skating for granted?
Victor was flying across the ice, cornering hard with big backwards crossovers, his arms outstretched to the fingertip. His pale hair blew in the breeze of his own motion. Already there was a steady strobe of camera flashes.
Yuuri wondered what Victor had planned – or whether Victor were so serenely confident in his own inspiration that he felt no need for such things as plans. Perhaps he wanted to take himself by surprise as well.
To start off he did a simple toe loop. No, a combination. Two, three... Victor carried on stringing them together, a long run of singles that took him halfway across the ice. Yuuri lost track at five. When Victor came to the end of the sequence he ran his hand through his hair, pushing it out of his eyes. It made the whole thing look like a casual gesture; Yuuri knew now that it was masking relief.
From there, Victor seamlessly transitioned into a step sequence from that routine of his... what was it, three years ago now?
He wasn't skating any one routine, just stringing together one element after another. It was like watching Victor thinking out loud, the first sketches of something that might one day become a program in its own right. Yuuri wondered whether Victor would ever skate it, or whether, with Victor's usual careless generosity, it would be bequeathed to Yurio when the time came.
Yuuri blinked, refocusing himself onto the present. Victor had entered a long run-up, looking over his shoulder and letting his momentum take him backwards across the rink. Just as he was starting to run out of room, when it seemed that he had thought better of whatever he was planning, Victor gathered himself and threw his body into a toe loop – a quad. Tilted in the air, it was not his best, but he held the landing with force of will. Not even a finger brushed the ice.
The cheers could not have been louder if he had just won the Grand Prix Final. Victor threw both hands in the air to wave to his fans, then bowed deeply from the waist with a commitment that would have pleased even the most punctilious Japanese observer.
Then he skated back to Yuuri's side. A light sheen of sweat beaded his high forehead, catching the colours of the Christmas lights. He accepted his coat back from Yuuri, pulled it on quickly.
"Was it all right?"
"It was wonderful," said Yuuri.
"That quad was disgraceful. I was afraid of hitting the lights overhead. I didn't know how much power I could hold back and still get the rotations. But I had to try."
It was a testament to Victor's artistry, thought Yuuri, that this terrifying possibility had never even occurred to him as a spectator. He looked again at the lights, which could not have been hung more than ten feet above the rink, and suddenly understood why Victor had opened with the combination singles. He shivered, trying hard not to envision Victor falling to the ice amidst a hail of shattering glass bulbs. It was too late. He could see it only too clearly.
"Did you?" he asked, gripped with retrospective anxiety. "Have to try, I mean."
"I couldn't send them away without a quad. People would say I was losing my touch. That would have been the unpleasant sort of surprise."
With the exhibition skate over, people were already crowding back onto the rink. But no one was skating. Instead they were gathering expectantly, lovingly, around Victor.
A familiar smile spread across Victor's face, the same smile that he was currently delivering on dozens of billboards across Moscow. He said something in Russian that Yuuri was almost certain could be translated as: A commemorative photo? Of course.
Then he turned aside to Yuuri and said, in English: "Get me a cup of coffee? I won't be very long."
Perhaps it wasn't very long, as Victor reckoned autograph-and-selfie sessions, but Yuuri had time to return his rented skates, walk to Starbucks, stand in line, walk back, pick up another pair of skates, and then (before stepping onto the ice again) guiltily finish eating the double chocolate brownie that he'd bought along with the coffees. The crowd didn't even seem to have diminished.
"Thank you," said Victor, accepting the cup of coffee. "You have crumbs – there." Rather than bothering to describe the location, he reached out and brushed matter-of-factly at Yuuri's lips with his thumb. "You should have given me that brownie rather than eating it yourself. I'm starving, and you didn't need it."
Yuuri stood by Victor's side, drinking his coffee and feeling a rather useless appendage while Victor greeted and made gracious conversation with an endless string of admirers. He had never before considered exactly how much work it must be, being the hero of Russia. For Yuuri, one Kenjirou Minami was overwhelming; for Victor, there was a nation of Minamis to please. Viewed en masse, the interactions had a rigorous impersonality to them, but each individual seemed to go away happy.
He must have been shocked, thought Yuuri, when I turned him down after the Grand Prix Final.
But this was such an odd thought that he did not dwell upon it.
A handful of Victor's fans also recognised the shy Japanese man standing silently by. A few asked for pictures with both of them; Victor obliged, throwing his arm around Yuuri's shoulders with a smile that was broad and suddenly unfeigned. A few more made comments in Russian that, Yuuri assumed, were best left untranslated.
One Japanese couple, who said that they had planned their holiday to coincide with the Rostelecom Cup, requested a picture with Yuuri alone. At this Victor beamed even more widely and insisted upon taking the pictures himself, handing the phone back only after lengthy experimentation with filters and flash.
"We would be honoured to see you skate as well," said the man, tucking his phone back in his pocket.
Yuuri blinked for a moment before realising that he was speaking in Japanese, and thus addressing Yuuri himself. He meant tonight, on the public rink, just as Victor had done.
"I couldn't," he said, horrified at the very thought. "I have to compete tomorrow. And – and..."
And I would never dare.
He bowed, repeatedly, in profuse apology for his many failings. As if in echo, his fan returned his bows, equally embarrassed at having been forward enough to ask.
Victor laughed. "Clearly this is awkward," he said, not having understood the exchange. "Is it time that we left, Yuuri?"
"Maybe it is," said Yuuri, grasping at the excuse.
He bowed his way back off the ice and sat down on a bench, allowing Victor to unlace his skates. The press photographers captured that one.
"I hope it's on the front page tomorrow," said Victor softly, getting to his feet with a slight wince. "I don't like the idea that you're the only one who gets to demonstrate the power of love to all of Russia."
Yuuri hardly knew what to say to this. He made a noise which was intended to express agreement; it came out as a sort of stifled gulp. But Victor did not seem to mind. He put his arm comfortably around Yuuri's waist and led him back towards the Star Hotel.
For a long time they walked in silence through the snowy Moscow streets, Yuuri casting sidelong glances at the fineness of Victor's profile. It had begun to snow, flurries sifting their way down from the now-veiled sky.
"What was that man saying to you?" asked Victor finally. "The one with whom you were having the bowing competition."
"Oh. Only that he – he thought I should have skated too. Like you did..."
It felt like the rankest sort of hubris to breathe the suggestion that he could ever skate in the way that Victor did. But Victor did not seem to feel this way.
"As your coach I would have forbidden it, naturally. Not the night before a competition. Didn't I say, not so much as a waltz jump?"
"Yes," said Yuuri, his mind now returning, as it had not all evening, to thoughts of failure and humiliation.
"But once the competition is over, certainly, we should come back. You would have landed that quad better than I did. I ought to have made up my mind sooner and not left it until I was already tired. Getting old, there's no doubt... but they seemed happy enough with the show. Do you think I surprised them?"
"You surprised me," said Yuuri. "You always do."
"Good," said Victor simply.
And, having arrived at the steps of the Star Hotel, they busied themselves with knocking the snow off their boots.
That night, in their hotel room, Yuuri finally had Victor's undivided attention for as long as he wanted it.
And yet afterwards he lay awake, unable to calm the pounding of his heart. Victor lay in bed beside him, snoring gently. He was bare chested, having thrown off the sheet; the room was overheated. His arm was stretched out across the bed, fingers pointed gracefully as if he were skating even in his sleep. It was lovely but left little space for Yuuri, who sat up, put on his glasses, and blinked at Victor's sleeping form.
It was as if he had been blessed, suddenly, with the gift of triple vision – to see Victor Nikiforov as the idol, the coach and the man, all together in one. Perhaps they could be reconciled only in sleep. Victor jerked his chin, murmured something in Russian, and lapsed back into his dreams.
Yuuri picked up his phone from the bedside table and took it with him into the bathroom. Blinking in the fluorescent glare, he sat down on the toilet seat and opened up Instagram. The #ВикторНикифоров tag was full of an endless string of selfies, Victor's smile identical and perfect in each.
After a great deal of scrolling, Yuuri finally came to the videos. Grainy, out of focus, jittery, with the backs of heads intermittently blocking the view, they were compelling nonetheless. He watched them with careful attention, taking in each new perspective on Victor's awkward, low quad. It was clear that he had missed the strings of lights by mere inches. Yuuri watched each video until the end, listening to the tinny applause echoing from the speaker on his phone.
Victor, he thought, feeling the pride and admiration blooming in his chest. Victor.
He had been watching Victor Nikiforov skate for over a decade – watched him on television landing quadruple lutzes with the elegant control of competition, watched him at the Hasetsu Ice Palace at six in the morning, performing Eros for an audience of one. But the swell of emotion that he felt now, watching the grainy, unsteady video, was like nothing that he had felt before. It brought tears to his eyes. And he knew why.
My Victor, thought Yuuri. Mine.