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The Long Fall

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Yuuri's anxiety is not about feeling like a failure, it's about biology. Intellectually Yuuri knows this. He reminds himself several times a day. It's about how Yuuri's fight or flight response has a hair trigger. About how a person's mind can be conditioned through negative experiences to respond a certain way. About how this is an unpredictable world, full of big disasters and small catastrophes, and nobody gets to choose which ones hit home.

A body learns the thing it learns as life goes on, and some bodies learn to come apart.

It's nobody's fault.

Yuuri does know this. But he often finds it hard to remember.

Because what it feels like is not being brave enough.

Victor has seen Yuuri in moments of cowardice. He's seen Yuuri scrabbling, clutching the edge by the tips of his fingers and kicking and screaming. He's seen Yuuri hauling himself up over the cusp to lay gasping and sweating and trembling in the rink. Victor has seen Yuuri barely hold on. He's seen Yuuri cry. Seen him slam into the ice.

He's never seen Yuuri fall.

Not the real fall. The long one that drops into a dark with no bottom, where you have no control and all you can do is plummet and cry and wait until you wash out into the light again.

Victor thinks that Yuuri is a little fragile in the self-esteem department, and that he tends to panic when he thinks too much. Victor calls it "anxiety" with a lower case "a" and classifies it as a personality quirk.

In reality, Yuuri's panic is an enormous, monstrous thing. It's not a part of his personality at all. It's a malformed abscess that bends the rest of Yuuri's personality out of shape to accommodate its mass. Make's him snippy when he would be mild. Angry when he would be calm.

Petrified when he would be brave.

Victor's right about at least one thing: Yuuri isn't weak. Even when he feels weak, he's just tired.

He's a man in an ugly war with himself.

Well, maybe that's a little dramatic. But it is true that he can't win every battle, every time.

***

There are bees beneath Yuuri's skin. He's lying on the ice, bones still humming with the force of his fall.

Yuuri feels wonderful. The crowd is still on their feet, screaming. Victor is a quiet, heavy weight above him, smiling like soft morning light. Looking at Yuuri like Yuuri is something precious and new.

Warm excitement curls in Yuuri's stomach and chest. Make's him feel light and giddy. He tamps it down, smiles calmly, bites back the manic giggle trying to wrest its way free of his throat. He doesn't want Victor to see the little cracks. He swallows his imperfections. Feeds them to the bees.

The bees themselves are just incidental. Adrenaline is surging through him in breaks and waves and it's always manifested as a persistent buzz in Yuuri's flesh. He accepts them as a part of the moment and doesn't worry about it for now.

Though, they're a warning sign. And somewhere in the back of his mind, Yuuri knows he'll be paying dearly for this little high before the end of the night.

He doesn't care right now. He feels strong. Feels like if he grabs onto this memory hard enough, he can change. Be normal and confident like Phichit and Victor, like Celestino always wanted him to be.

Victor helps him back up and guides him off the ice. His arm comes over Yuuri's shoulders as they walk to the kiss and cry.

"Thank you," says Yuuri, for once not worried about overthinking what he says. He smiles when Victor, slightly puzzled but happy, looks at him.

"For what?" Victor asks. "You did that on your own, Yuuri. Despite my unfortunate attempt at being a coach, which I think we can both agree was not my best effort."

Yuuri shakes his head. "Don't worry about that." He leans into Victor a little to comfort him, to let him know that all is forgiven. "I mean thank you for staying by me. I know I disappoint you sometimes, that's its hard for you to understand why I freak out at the worst possible moments." Yuuri laughs at himself. The bees laugh with him. "But you stayed anyway. You stood there and watched me skate even though you thought I was going to self-destruct again. It means a lot to me."

He smiles at Victor again, feeling bright and lit from within.

Victor's little grin has vanished. He looks troubled and uncertain. Like a man who unexpectedly finds himself in very deep water. His hand on Yuuri's shoulder tightens.

"Yuuri," he says softly, but then they're in front of the cameras, and whatever Victor was going to say, he isn't willing to say it in front of the world.

Yuuri is shocked when his scores come in. Is still shocked when he finds himself wearing a silver medal, looking down at the little white, frozen sea and the flashes of the press.

And maybe it's the success where he'd expected only a compromise of lesser failure. Or maybe it's the lack of sleep. Or his low blood sugar. Maybe it's just the way he is.

The bees move into Yuuri's lungs. Into his stomach. They begin to chew away the walls to make their hive.

***

In the cab on the way to the hotel, Yuuri starts to shake. He hides the shivers by slipping his hands under his arms and slumping against the far door, tucking into himself.

Victor, who might not be the most emotionally astute person in the world, but who at least understands the basic mechanics of exhaustion, had hurried along their interviews and excused them from all their social obligations so that he could get Yuuri to a bed. He's still soft and pleased where he sits next to Yuuri, gazing intermittently out the window and at his slumped protégé. But there's a kind of an unsettled disturbance in the serenity of his blue stare. A shadow darting through the depths beneath placid ice.

Yuuri is afraid of it. He's worried he showed his hand back at the kiss and cry, and the little darkness is a reflection of himself.

He closes his eyes. Hopes Victor will manage to read his body language for once and won't ask him questions. Whatever Victor saw, whatever Yuuri accidentally telegraphed after his free skate, Yuuri doesn't have the energy to talk about it.

"Yuuri," says Victor.

Not much hope of avoiding it. Yuuri hums to show he's listening.

"Do you really think I believed you would self-destruct?" He tries to make it sound casual, but Yuuri can tell he's been thinking about it for the last hour.

Yuuri sighs. His mood has turned. From noonday sun to midnight hurricane. He wants to be back at the hotel. He just needs to keep himself together until then. When they arrive, he can lock himself in the bathroom and lose it safely under the cover of the shower.

It's coming. He can't stop it. That's how it is sometimes.

He's feeling the bruises from last season. Blooming like night lilies on his hips and his knees. He feels all the places where he still hasn't managed to glue himself back together properly. And he tries to remind himself that it's all in his head. Tries to dredge up the mantra his therapist in Detroit gave him, but he can't remember how it went.

Something about how you can feel like something is true even when it isn't.

"It's not important, Victor." He manages to mumble.

He's going to fail again eventually.

Please, shut up, Victor. For once in your life, just shut up.

"It is important," Victor says impatiently. He must think that Yuuri is brushing him off. "I didn't think you were going to fail. I know you're stronger than that."

A crackle of anger gives Yuuri enough momentum to pull his head off the window and snap:

"Then you're delusional."

Victor's face pales with hurt and surprise. Yuuri barely sees it. His chest feels heavy and his tongue is tingling. His hands are beginning to sweat.

I'm sick of people pretending I'm better than I am. I'm sick of being told I can improve if I only try hard enough.

He has been trying. He cannot try any harder. He's bruised and bloody from hanging on so he can try. He's going to disappoint the people who care about him, and all the pep talks just set up him to fail worse.

He puts his face in his hands, physically pushing the panic back. The only thing keeping him in one piece is his anger.

It's almost better when he fails, at least then he gets to relax and stop worrying about which friends he might lose. What his family will say about him while he's not at home to hear.

"Why can't you ever believe in yourself?" Now Victor is mad. "You placed second! You skated brilliantly. At some point, all this self doubt stops being cute and starts being insulting to the people who work hard to support you."

"Then leave," Yuuri snarls, twisting in his seat. He can't believe he managed to avoid a panic attack in the parking garage just so he could have one now, after the happy ending. "If it's such a chore putting up with me, leave. You don't need to wait for a reason. You don't need an excuse for the media. They're all waiting for it, anyway. Playboy Victor Nikiforov could never be really satisfied with pathetic Yuuri Katsuki. They'll just assume I was a disappointing fuck."

Victor jerks back like he's been hit.

The cab pulls to a stop. Yuuri grabs his bag and slams out of the car, walking so fast he's almost running into the hotel. He leaves Victor to deal with the driver.

He's trembling all over. His chest is heaving, splitting. The corners of his eyes sting and his limbs feel hollow. He crashes through the elevator doors and hangs, shivering, onto the little rail while it carries him up to the room.

He needs to get inside. Get the shower running before Victor catches up to him.

He stumbles through the door, throwing his bag into the corner.

And then he hears the words he just spat at his coach. The man who moved from Russia to Japan just to teach Yuuri. The person who got Yuuri out of bed on his worst days long before they ever met.

The man who is kind to strangers, and doting to Yuuri's family. Who spoils his dog and almost never loses his temper.

Oh God.

Yuuri grabs the edge of the little desk against the wall.

Oh God, what did I…?

Victor must have actually run through the lobby and down the hall because he's already bursting into the room.

"Yuuri, what the hell is going—" Victor stops. The door swings shut with a sharp thunk behind him.

Yuuri is bent over, trying to catch his breath, clutching at his chest. His throat is closing.

"I'm sorry," he gasps. "I didn't mean…" He drags a breath rattling into his burning lungs. "I know you're not…"

Then he can't breathe at all. His vision tunnels and darkens and drops him numbly to his knees. A rushing sound fills his ears, like the roaring of the crowd, or the tumble of ocean surf.

He knows that he's not really dying. But his body doesn't believe it. At least when he does die, at some unknown point in the future, he'll be well prepared for the feeling.

Hands fall on his shoulders.

"Yuuri! What's wrong? Oh God," It's Victor. One of his hands move to Yuuri's struggling chest. He must be able to feel the horrible pounding of Yuuri's heart. "Shit. Shit. Try to take a breath, любимый. God, you can't breathe, I'm calling for help," Victor starts to scramble to his feet.

Yuuri yanks him back down. He can't breathe and he can't think, but he has just enough presence of mind to know he doesn't want the fuss of a hospital visit just to be told what he already knows. That there's nothing physically wrong with him.

"Just a…panic attack," he gasps desperately.

It hurts to say in more way than one. He wanted to have this under better control by the time Victor found out. He wanted it to be just another part of a challenge he'd already overcome.

"A panic attack," Victor parrots. "Shit. Okay. I'm such a fucking idiot, come here." He sits down cross-legged and molds his hands around Yuuri's jaw. "Look at me if you can." Yuuri looks up, sees the blurry landscape of Victor's face through the tears in his eyes. "Good. Don't fight it, okay? It will pass. Let it happen, it will pass."

Yuuri nods. He shudders and tips forward, tangling his hands in Victor's coat. And he waits. Riding the crest and break of the thunder. Letting the waves crash over his head. Gradually they grow gentler. More manageable. He stubbornly tears each breath out of the air until he fills his lungs. The pain in his chest begins to fade.

Victor is talking the whole time.

"Your coach is such an incompetent ass, Yuuri. I'm so very sorry. I should have," something furious sounding in Russian, but said in a calm accent. "Try to control your breathing if you can. In through your nose and out through your mouth. I really am a fucking," more Russian, Yuuri recognizes one of the words as something Yurio used to say under his breath when he thought Victor wasn't listening. "Ah, my poor Yuuri, how you put up with me I don't know. Very good. You're doing so good. Keep breathing, любимый."

His hand is in Yuuri's hair, stroking. Yuuri doesn't usually like to be touched during these moments, but with Victor it's different somehow. He's not telling Yuuri to relax or calm down. He's not trying to rush Yuuri through it. He's just sitting with Yuuri, waiting with him. Helping him focus.

"I'm alright," Yuuri croaks eventually. He's still crying, but they're normal, steady tears instead of the stormy tumble of drowning on dry land. His face is in Victor's shoulder, and he's half in Victor's lap, still on his knees. "I'm alright now, thank you." He pulls away, wiping his nose on his sleeve. His arm trembles with relief instead of fear.

He meets a watery, wobbly smile on Victor's face.

"Good," says Victor hoarsely. His eyes shine.

"I'm sorry for what I said," Yuuri tells him. "I didn't mean it. You're not like that at all."

Victor shakes his head. Pushes some of the damp hair away from Yuuri's forehead with shaking fingers.

"No need for that now. Go take a long, hot shower, hm? We can talk when you're done. I think we both need a minute."

Yuuri nods. Victor's right, he feels raw and unsteady. And Victor looks more blown apart than Yuuri has ever seen him.

They lurch to their feet. Victor pulls Yuuri into a last hard, quick hug.

"I've never been so scared," he mutters. "I thought…I don't know what I thought. You looked like you were dying."

"I'm sorry," Yuuri whispers.

"No, no." Victor lets him go. Pushes him towards the bathroom. "Shower."

Yuuri goes.

***

Yuuri finds Victor sitting on the bed, knees drawn to his chest, when he emerges from the bathroom steam warmed and a little more centered. Victor has dressed for bed. He's wearing a loose t-shirt and thin sweat pants. He tips his head back and smiles at Yuuri. He's taken the pillows from the other bed and propped them against the headboard next to him. He pats the empty space.

The mattress dips under Yuuri's weight. He crawls over and settles next to Victor, their shoulders brushing.

Victor tangles their fingers together and sighs.

"I didn't mean what I said either," he says. "You're not a burden, Yuuri. You're anxiety is not insulting, and I'm an asshole for even suggesting it."

"You're not an asshole, Victor." Yuuri allows himself the small pleasure of resting his head on Victor's shoulder. He feels a kiss fall into his hair.

"Then at the very least I'm a dismal coach." But there's no real sting in Victor's self-depreciation. Yuuri lets it go. He can still feel Victor's mouth against the crown of his head. He thinks about earlier, on the ice. The kiss was over so fast he never really got the chance to feel it.

"Do you know why your routines are so moving? Why the crowd is always on their feet, even when you miss your jumps?" Victor asks.

Yuuri had honestly never thought about it before.

"Maybe I'm a better dancer than I am a skater," he says. "Minako is an amazing teacher, and she always said my technique was good."

"It's because you have so much more courage than your competitors," says Victor.

Yuuri lifts his head. He has no idea how to respond to that, except that he's pretty sure it's not true. If he was courageous he wouldn't fall down so much. He would have the confidence to skate in competition as well as he does in practice.

"When you skate, you're terrified," says Victor. "You feel vulnerable. And maybe compared to the fear of falling, the fear of revealing yourself to the audience is nothing. Your spins, your step sequences, even the jumps you don't make, reveal everything about who you are. Christophe, Yurio, the others—me too, by the way—we're always holding something back. We've built personalities for the ice—a sex symbol, a punk, a playboy—so that we don't have to let strangers see who we are. You don't do that. You've never done that. You're so brave, Yuuri, and it amazes me, every time."

Victor's hand is squeezing Yuuri's almost to the point of pain. Yuuri is having trouble breathing again, but it's not because he's afraid.

"And I know you don't like to talk about last years Grand Prix," Victor went on, "but even then, you were so beautiful. You were heartbroken. Afraid. And you still went onto the ice. I watched you, you know. Every time you fell we all felt the bruises. That's how you skate. That's who you are. And when you fly, we fly too."

Yuuri thinks he should probably be crying, but he's all out of tears so he smiles instead. He feels happy and tired and peaceful and warm.

Victor means what he's saying, Yuuri can tell. And if he's honest with himself, he's heard something like it before from other people. From Phichit and Minako. But he always forgets. Somehow, the falls always feel bigger than the dance as a whole. But maybe he's the only one who feels that way.

Yuuri takes an objective assessment of the situation. Of Victor's soft eyes and their hands folded together. Of their bodies pressed side to side.

"Are you attracted to me?" Yuuri hears himself ask. He can't stop the blush that washes over his face but he refuses to break eye contact.

Victor laugh is low and husky.

"'Attracted to you' barely scratches the surface of what I feel for you, Yuuri."

Yuuri doesn't quite know what to say.

"Will you kiss me?" Victor asks in a whisper.

And there's only one possible way Yuuri can answer that. He twists, shuffling up onto his knees so he's looking down into Victor's face. He pulls his hand free so he can push his fingers into Victor's hair, pulling the bangs back from his eyes.

Then he bends down, brings their mouths gently together. Victor inhales, his hands coming to Yuuri's hips, sliding up to his back.

Yuuri has been worrying about this particular performance for months. He's been wondering if it would ever happen at all, if he would screw it up when it did.

But now that the moment is here, he doesn't feel anything but joy and wanting. Victor's mouth is soft, and his hands on Yuuri's back are unsteady, clenching and unclenching, like he's teetering on the brink of something painful. Like he's afraid of doing something rash.

He's worried about pushing me further than I want to go, Yuuri realizes.

Yuuri deepens the kiss, sweeps his tongue through Victor's mouth and then pulls away a little. Enough so he can speak.

"You don't have to hold back," he breathes. "I want it too."

"Yuuri," Victor's voice cracks on his name. Then he surges upward, his arms pull Yuuri close and he sinks into Yuuri's mouth like a parched man into clear water.

Yuuri moans, wraps his legs around Victor's waist, and rolls them down into the sheets.

***

Yuuri jerks awake in the middle of the night to find Victor shaking him, eyes half wild and determined.

"What is it?" Yuuri croaks, alarmed. One of Victor's arms is still trapped beneath Yuuri's head and his leg is tucked up over Yuuri's thigh.

Victor says, seriously, "Just to be clear. The playboy thing is a persona. He's not real. I love you. I'm not going anywhere. And none of this," he gestures around them, everywhere, so that Yuuri's not even sure what "this" is, "none of this is just about sex."

Yuuri reaches up and pulls Victor back down, kissing him on the nose and then pressing his face into the crook of Victor's neck.

"I know," Yuuri says. "I really am sorry I said that to you. I love you too."

Victor settles. "Oh…good." His exhale brushes through Yuuri's hair. "Good. Mm."

He buries his cold nose in Yuuri's ear and starts to snore.