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The Strangest Days

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I. Hasetsu

 

It's a row of books on a shelf, the spines cracked and the covers tattered, out of place in an otherwise orderly apartment. Dog hair on the hems of his trousers and the slanting midwinter light that glows through the high windows of the training rink. Perfect ice, pristine from cleaning. Bitter black tea, and watching Yurio sneak sugar into it when he thinks nobody's looking. It's the gulls, the gulls, the gulls—

But it's not in Saint Petersburg that Viktor counts these things.

The gulls cry in Hasetsu too, and the feeling that uncurls in Viktor at the sound of them is an aching one, but its identity is unclear: is he homesick, or is the familiarity a reassurance that he's where he's meant to be?

It's June, and the air is heavy and humid, more humid even than Saint Petersburg's. It's warm, a dull pressing heat that spreads over him. Rain that's hardly more than mist. Inside the climate-controlled air of the ice rink, sinking deep into music, there's a specificity of place but not in away that says Japan—it could just as well be a previously unknown Russian rink. Outside, the streets are narrower and the houses lower. He arrived in late winter to snow still falling on quiet streets, and with that blanket laid over everything the difference didn't seem so big. A place is only a place—

Isn't it?

In this place, he's in love. What's he meant to do with that?

Yuuri runs with a focused expression and Makkachin bounding at his heels, over the bridge towards him—and there's that ache again, not quite one thing or the other, caught somewhere between, in the space where he struggles to make two or three versions of Yuuri meet. Where he expected, hoped, to find something that's still hiding from him.

Where he's found something, still, in the flow of Yuuri's skating. Watch only me. Don't take your eyes off me. I'll dance beautifully enough to seduce anyone at all, with his eyes on Viktor as he says it. Stammering embarrassment over it off the ice, but lapsing more and more often into laughing too. Into informality. What do you mean by all of it together, asshole? What're you doing with all those bits of intensity?

Who are you?

Closer now, and Yuuri is grinning—that's a good look on him, directed at Viktor more now than it used to be. Some tiny victory. "Hey, hey, you have to keep working hard too," he calls. "Come on!"

"What, in these clothes? No, no, I'm enjoying the view."

"Oh! Oh! Sorry!" Yuuri says, apparently thrown back into his uncertain self, although Viktor is quite sure his tone was playful—but then he grins again, catching up. "It's nothing special. We'll go out on a boat a better day."

"Not a squid boat," Viktor says with mock distaste, and sees in the uncertain shift of Yuuri's eyebrows that the humour didn't translate. Squid everywhere here, in tanks outside restaurants or hung in rows above market stalls. The fishing boats are distinctive, not least because of the smell—but of course Yuuri would think Viktor is really worried it'd be one of those.

"No," Yuuri says, like half a question.

"Hey, relax," Viktor says, laughing. "Finish your run, and we'll go back to the rink later. Makkachin, come on, stay with me. Silly animal."

Makkachin wavers, looking back and forth between them. Ah, yes: Viktor is beloved but Yuuri is the one running. Besides, let a dog know you like a person and watch them adopt the same attitude.

He did this to himself.

He wonders if Yuuri has noticed.

"I'm surrounded by traitors," Viktor says, quietly, in Russian. "Thrown aside again, Makkachin?"

Makkachin barks, and trots to Viktor's side after all, but his reluctance is obvious.

"We went for a run this morning," Viktor tells him, in English this time, because otherwise Yuuri will probably just ask for a translation anyway. "We always go for a run. Aren't you meant to be tired?"

It wins a laugh from Yuuri, something bright that flares in his eyes, although he flushes afterwards. Viktor's heart beats heavily. He feels it in his throat.

"Er," Yuuri says. "I'll be going."

Makkachin stares after him, and whines low in his throat.

"No," Viktor says. "Not in these clothes."

They walk sedately back to the inn, tucked away above the city proper, gated and walled, its own private world. To tatami rooms and sliding screen doors, a lively family. Yuuri has been a skater here, trained as intensively as anyone, but he's also been a child—really a child. Taken wobbling steps onto the rink of Hasetsu Ice Castle, which is sometimes just a fraction softer than would be ideal—fought with his sister—

Viktor is beginning to develop a headache thinking about it. Not an uncommon occurrence.

His childhood was colder. It feels sterile, now, in retrospect, placed in contrast to this busy world—to his adulthood in general, too—to the brilliance he's been allowed as a star. Skating was hard work before it was joy, but the joy was overwhelming when it came. Not a place to live in, but a feeling.

But here: this is a home. Not his, possibly. But a home.

Makkachin thinks it's his home. He's shameless about it.

Viktor snaps a quick photo of the ridiculous animal rolling happily on the tidy grass. Of himself leaning against the gate. A quick check that his hair is in place, that his smile is right. Good. That's good.

A little piece of control. He tosses it out onto Twitter, for people who are unambiguously interested in only this aspect of him.

Ahh, Vitya is so handsome!

Yes, thank you.

Does Yuuri think so too? Does he mean it when he looks like he does, face flushed and lips parted? The uncertainty of it is exciting, isn't it—?

 

 

 

II. Anywhere

 

There's a familiarity to a hotel room in any city. In Beijing Viktor curls on his low bed, clothes still scattered across the foot of it, ignored. This is a sort of home, from the right angle: the competitive skater's home, place to place, room to room. A suitcase filled with costumes and another filled with clothes, skates and reserve skates packed carefully in their own bags. Only one book, and a pillow that doesn't smell of anything except detergent. A television playing news in some language or other. White towels folded in the bathroom.

A person stripped back to the essentials.

It was exciting when he was a child. Training camps and junior competitions, bouncing on a mattress that was softer than his own.

He stopped seeing them at some point. No more surprise to them than sitting in your own kitchen. Rinks have more surprise to them. How will the ice be today? What's the quality of the music—how are the speakers, how does the sound reverberate? What sort of crowd will there be? Rinks aren't home unless they're at home.

He stands most often these days on Hasetsu's rink. Better ice now, another firm employed to manage it, the project suddenly worthwhile again.

A hotel room is a hotel room, however the fittings vary. He sleeps well in them. They're nothing. They're home.

Your kitchen is your kitchen. Why would you think about it?

But even in the most familiar place, the light can suddenly catch on a reflective surface in an unexpected way, and the entire thing can become strange and new. Dawn shimmering in Makkachin's water bowl one morning in Saint Petersburg, a pink-orange oval against black and white tiles, Yuuri dancing Viktor's own routine on the screen of Viktor's phone.

In another hotel room just like this one, only a thin wall away, Yuuri is sleeping. They fly home—no, no, they fly to Hasetsu—tomorrow. An early flight, but not so early that the hour will be uncomfortable, if he can just sleep himself.

The pillow smells of nothing but detergent.

This afternoon he kissed Yuuri, and Yuuri's lips parted under his in a startled gasp, and when he kissed back it was savage. Another Yuuri to the one who cried in the parking lot, or maybe the flipside of the same one: the Yuuri who hates, hates, hates to lose. Shakes with it or burns with it. The Yuuri who has seen through him, and taken his uncertainty in his role as a coach, and—done what with it?

Something breathtaking. Something alchemical.

Viktor is nowhere. He is anywhere. He is held in the in-between nothingness of the hotel bedroom, suddenly visible to him. He is caught in Yuuri's brilliant ambition. He is transformed by it.

Sometimes he's slept against Yuuri. Not so unusual, that. Yurio used to sleep against Viktor's arm on the plane all the time and it was nothing, a fond big-brother feeling, but a few days ago Viktor slept against Yuuri's arm on the plane and woke disoriented and fragile and didn't know who he was until Yuuri's tired smile told him. Once or twice he's crawled into Yuuri's bed beside him to talk and passed out far too quickly. This morning—this morning—in that other hotel room, on the other side of the wall—he curled around Yuuri and tried and tried to be something that would soothe away Yuuri's anxiety altogether.

So much for that.

But this afternoon he kissed Yuuri.

He kissed Yuuri.

He kissed Yuuri.

He wishes, now, that he was in Yuuri's bed. Curled around him again.

Doing it better this time.

A hotel room isn't really a home, after all. Not when you can see it. But it could be something closer to it if—

If—

If.

 

 

 

III. Russia

 

The language on the streets sinks into Viktor: a visceral relief, a loosening of the tension that is keeping hold of all the nuance of the second language, following disjointed fragments of the third. It's snowing, clean and cold, not like Hasetsu's wet snow that fell and melted and froze and fell again, even that unusual enough that everyone talked about it constantly. What a cold winter! Is it like this in Saint Petersburg? Does it make you feel more at home?

Laughter.

A particularly cold November in Moscow bites at the skin. Scarves pulled across mouths and coats buttoned all the way up. Yuuri wraps his arms tight around himself and shivers. Viktor lets his own shoulders fall in relief. The grit on the pavement keeps their feet steady, the fresh snow trying to cover it creaking quietly at every step. Cars rush past, and the shops are full of people, but the city is still muffled.

"This is what it feels like for you in Hasetsu," Yuuri says. "Not understanding anyone while I do."

"Ah, we should be in Saint Petersburg," Viktor says, nudging his arm against Yuuri's shoulder, stepping in closer so that they walk with their bodies pressed together. "I could show you the good parts." A drawl to the tone and a wink, and Yuuri's laughter stutters in the air between them.

The icebreakers are trawling slowly along the middle of the river, the crunch and groan of the ice together with the thrum of the boat engines a sound that's drifted through his sleep so many nights in Saint Petersburg, filtered to dullness through the triple glazed windows.

This time they share a hotel room, and once they make it back there to find their bags waiting for them Yuuri lies on his stomach on one of the twin beds and watches some terrible soap opera—in Russian, of course. What's the point of that?

"I didn't kill your lover," Viktor says in his best dramatic voice. "I am your lover!"

He swoons across Yuuri's back, and Yuuri jumps, yelps something questioning in Japanese, which is fair, because Viktor's dramatic rendition was in Russian.

And then Yuuri is worming beneath him, rolling onto his back with an arm thrown around Viktor to keep him from pulling away, and they're chest to chest, Yuuri's arm sliding up, Yuuri's hand on the back of his neck—

"This is a home competition for you," Yuuri says, with a note of curiosity, his eyes bright in the hotel room's atmosphere lighting. "Don't you wish you were skating?"

"Of course not," Viktor says. "How would you win gold then?"

"Ah," Yuuri says, and presses his fingers into Viktor's warm skin, and his lips are right there.

It's a clumsy kiss. Theirs tend to be. Moments of magnetic pull, inelegant and spiked with heat all the same. They need to work on that. They need to talk about that. About if they're doing anything else. Where they're going.

He doesn't want to, because the answer might not be the one he's hoping for. They've got something here.

"Viktor," Yuuri murmurs, against his lips. "I really, really want to win gold."

Quiet wonder.

"You always wanted to, right?" Viktor asks.

"Yeah—yeah. I guess I don't usually say it."

This second kiss is deeper and slower, and Viktor's entire body leans into it.

They do sleep curled around each other, mostly naked but only touching in a quiet sort of way, and Viktor wakes caught between the familiar and the unfamiliar again. He's home, and he's lost, and he's revealed.

Bitter black tea at breakfast, and Yurio pretending not to notice them as he adds sugar to his, although Viktor gives him a little wave. Yuuri takes coffee that's about half milk, takes pancakes and fruit, and doesn't hesitate about eating. Waves happily to a friend and does his own turn at pretending not to notice people when a group of girls from Viktor's fan club show up in the lobby. Funny how people looking at him with disdain seems to give him energy—sets a bounce in his step. Viktor hasn't seen his fan club in a while either, now that he thinks about it, and there's a nice familiarity to it, another sort of ah, I'm home, although maybe it doesn't have much to do with Russia—not exactly.

Don't you wish you were skating? No—no, he's happy. But he could skate well, he thinks, and means interestingly. There's surprise in him now, and so there can be surprise in the audience.

But he's giving it to Yuuri, letting Yuuri show Russia what they are, and that's the most surprising thing he could have done, isn't it?

Ah, so many questions, still, even now that the puzzle of Yuuri has started to resolve itself.

What a good feeling to come home to. How like himself.

And of course, all it takes is one phone call, a day later, to make home something distant instead, the perspective twisted around so sharply that his blood rushes in his ears—home underlined as something which bounds through mild humid air and narrow streets, insinuated into a family whose language isn't his—

 

 

 

IV. Yuuri

 

It's a ring on his finger.

Viktor raises it to the light. Turns his hand to watch the gold turn liquid and bright, reflected lamps sliding across its surface. Saint Petersburg is turning mild now, the unfurling green of the trees tentative and pale. The curtains shift slightly in the breeze from the open window, the cool air balancing out the stifling air from the heaters that refuse to stay turned down.

Yuuri is still in Hasetsu, but Makkachin has arrived—leans heavily against his legs as he checks his email, a solid grounding point that reminds him he exists, even alone.

The apartment is—the same. There are cleaning staff, and they're very careful—of course it would be the same.

It's utterly alien.

But some sort of home is in here anyway. Mirrored gold. A staticky voice on a dubious Skype connection.

Here, they connect: a line drawn between them half way around the world. Morning to afternoon.

"You said you'd show me good things," Yuuri says. The internet connection turns his movements stilted, frames dropping. But his smile is his smile. "In Saint Petersburg."

In the background, packing boxes are stacked, and the sight eases the tightness in Viktor's stomach.

"Mm," Viktor says. "Maybe I was just making things up again, right? Such a terrible flirt—"

They had sex in Barcelona. The first time. The slide of their cocks against each other. Yuuri pressed Viktor's shoulders heavily to the bed with both hands and bit a bruise into the base of his throat, right between the collarbones, and Viktor nearly sobbed at the feeling, the relief, body arching helplessly up into Yuuri's. He imagined Yuuri marking every part of him. Felt that Yuuri already had. Knew that one day he was going to stand on the ice with his face to the judges and the crowd standing to applaud him and that he would probably have a bruise on his hip in the shape of Yuuri's mouth when it happened.

That was after, of course—after Viktor cried, because damn it, of course he did. After Yuuri had seemed so surprised—so surprised! That Viktor could be so openly hurt—after the competition and Yurio's furiously bitter victory—

After they'd decided, Yuuri's exhibition piece becoming something achingly hopeful instead of just aching.

"Oh," Yuuri says. "I thought I was the flirt." A finger pointed to his face, like the thing needed emphasis. Learning bad habits from Phichit.

Maybe from Viktor too.

They'll have him posting selfies sooner or later, instead of letting himself get squashed into other people's.

"You're all distant," Yuuri says. "Hey, I'll be home soon. Tomorrow."

You've never been here before. What do you mean, home?

But he knows.

Oh, he knows.