“Name?” He asks this every day.
“Katsuki, got it.” He’s so handsome. “Here’s your pair, happy skating!”
“Thanks. You too.” Oh. “I mean, not ‘you too’.”
“It’s okay! Have a nice day!”
“Now you too.”
Shoulder pads and thick helmets don’t suit someone like Yuuri. They look good on Phichit, giving him a cool and manly appearance, and they look good on Chris because he’s a natural-born lady killer. They look good on JJ because everything looks good on JJ. But on Yuuri, the uniform seems too sporty, too bulky.
“You’re the weakest player on the team,” Celestino doesn’t say it to be rude, but as a fact. Yuuri isn’t terrible at ice hockey—in fact, he’s very good—but he lacks confidence and that shows in the way he holds a stick. “And if you don’t shape up, I’ll have to sit you out for the championship game. Otabek’s ready to jump in at any time.” There’s a sort of sadness in Celestino’s eyes, a sort of ‘I don’t want to do this, but I have to.’
They’re in The Box, a small gated-off rectangle next to the rink that they use as a makeshift office space outside of games. Phichit has been in here once when he damaged his ankle, and he came out crying. Georgi was here, too, when he was told to get over his ex or get off the team. And now it’s Yuuri’s turn, and he’s always been worse about crying that Phichit.
He loves skating. Loves the satisfaction of slicing through new ice, loves the adrenaline high after a game. But he’s not aggressive enough for hockey, and might never be, but he tries so hard. Yuuri calms the tears in his throat and looks Celestino in the eye.
“Okay, coach. I’ll work harder.”
He picks up his skates every day at the rental desk, where the handsome employee smiles at him and retrieves his skates from behind the counter. Their routine dialogue typically involves Yuuri making a fool of himself. Thankfully, today is different.
It’s different in the way the handsome man eyes Yuuri, in the way he leans against the counter and says in a smooth Russian accent, “I hear you’re looking to improve your playing.”
And Yuuri doesn’t know what to do, not when the rental desk clerk winks at him like that. So Yuuri nods and tries to swallow his nerves down, stemming both from potentially embarrassing social interaction and because this man is very attractive. “Meet me in the kiddie rink after your practice if you want help,” he says, almost like it’s a secret.
Yuuri hasn’t taken a lesson for anything since he was in his early teens. Now he’s twenty-two, and plays on a college-level hockey team, and hasn’t fallen on the ice in three years. Apparently, that’s not good enough.
And at the end of the day, Yuuri always does what it takes to win.
The man’s name is Viktor Nikiforov, and Yuuri can immediately tell there’s something odd about him. Maybe it’s the confident and graceful way he carries himself, maybe it’s his bright and alluring voice. But Yuuri is sure that Viktor Nikiforov is unlike anyone he’s ever met.
Viktor used to train for the Russian National team when he lived in St. Petersburg, and when he’s not loaning out skates he’s teaching the younger kids how to whack a puck and not fall over. Yuuri wonders how he ended up at a university-owned ice rink in Detroit. Yet here he is, staring Yuuri down with a smile that twists something inside of him. “I hear you’re a good player,” Viktor says.
“I mean—I guess,” When Yuuri looks at this man, he feels small and unimportant. Viktor is intimidating, a breathing marble statue with pale hair and skin like fresh ice. And for some incomprehensible reason, Yuuri thinks that Viktor Nikiforov could change his life.
Viktor’s grin spreads wider as he tosses Yuuri a stick and slides the puck toward him. “Then show me.”
“Is it true?” Phichit doesn’t even say hello; he just busts through the door demanding information. “The guy at the rental desk is privately coaching you? Please tell me it’s true.”
Yuuri is sprawled out on his bed, muscles more sore than they have been in a long time. “It’s true,” he groans.
Practicing with Viktor is taxing in every way. Viktor drills him on the most basic of techniques like a military sergeant. Yuuri’s never done so many consecutive lunges—not even in high school—and he lost count of the number of passing drills Viktor called for. “I mostly teach little kids,” Viktor’s voice bounces around in Yuuri’s brain, a low and musical sound, “And I always tell them, ‘if you don’t know the basics, you can’t contribute to the ecosystem.’” Yuuri doesn’t understand what he’s talking about half the time, but everything that comes out of his mouth sounds like fact.
Phichit thinks it’s funny, of course he does. “He’s a really eccentric guy from what I hear,” Pichit says, “Honestly, I didn’t think he was your type.”
“He’s not.” Phichit gets like this a lot, obsessed with finding Yuuri a prospective relationship that won’t ever happen. “He’s just like a tutor. For hockey.” It’s even more embarrassing because Viktor is definitely his type.
He tries not to get tangled up in loud personalities, but as soon as he saw Viktor do an effortless lap around the kiddie rink and trail a stick along the ice, Yuuri was completely entranced. He’s been a goner from the start and it’s pathetic.
Phichit dismisses him with a, ‘Whatever,’. They’ve been rooming together for two years and he still doesn’t trust his room-mate. “It’s cool that you’re getting instruction, though. You’re super good anyway; you could probably rival Chris’s center.”
Yuuri’s a right-wing but he doesn’t feel like a right-wing. His aim is faultier than Phichit’s, so there’s an imbalance between left- and right-wing that Yuuri wants to fix.
He’s never thought it possible. In Yuuri’s mind, every player on that team is better than him: JJ is the best goaltender around, Georgi and Leo make amazing defensemen. And Otabek, who can do Yuuri’s job with much more confidence. It’s only natural for Yuuri to doubt his place on the team.
But Viktor—Viktor think differently. He thinks Yuuri has something, sees something in Yuuri that no one else sees.
Maybe he’s right.
They have a game that Friday and Yuuri’s nervous. He’s a little shakier on his skates than usual, because if he doesn’t do an amazing job in this game then his chances of playing in the championship are next to none.
The other team is composed of fighters, each one of them relying on strength rather than strategy. Chris butts heads with a burly guy who tries to trip him over his own stick. And they get penalized twice for icing, not even trying to aim for the goal.
Despite nothing going in Yuuri’s favor, though, he feels more solid as the game goes on. Feels like he’ll never have any worries about passing again because of how many times he’s passed to Viktor in the past few days. Feels like he can counter a block better, like he can weave between opponents easier.
It’s a long game, one that leaves them breathless afterward. Yuuri tries to catch Celestino’s eye every time they break, between bursts of action, just to ask, ‘Is this good enough? Am I good enough?’
Sometime after the first intermission, Yuuri catches a glimpse of silvery hair at the sidelines. It’s Viktor, leaning against the back wall, and as they lock eyes he gives Yuuri a smile and a thumbs-up. For some reason, it’s that little bit of motivation that pushes Yuuri to be better, to give everything he has to his team.
After the game, Yuuri can’t say if he was good enough or not.
But they won.
“Yuuri Katsuki, are you a betting man?” They’re floating lazily around the kiddie rink, volleying a puck between them.
He’s not. Yuuri plays things safe, takes the clear path. And he doesn’t know Viktor well at all, but there’s a mischievous spark always tucked in the corner of Viktor’s eye—a reminder that he and Viktor are very different.
“You played well the other night,” Yuuri doesn’t respond to him besides a quiet, ‘Thank you,’ but lets the words soak into his skin and heat his cheeks. “Well, I’m in a wagering mood,” Viktor’s stick falls on the ice as he skates over to Yuuri, grabs both his hands, pushes their feet into wide spins. He does little things like that—clingy, bold moves that Yuuri will never get used to.
Yuuri must look like a wreck, all dark circles and sore arms and half-brushed hair. And then there’s Viktor, who could walk the runway at any moment. Even if their hands are joined, Yuuri feels far away from him.
“If you score the most points in a match,” Viktor’s finger extends and taps him light on the nose, “then I’ll give you a kiss.”
Yuuri’s insides turn fuzzy and he’s not sure how he manages to squeak out, “Don’t joke like that.”
It must be a Russian thing. There’s no other explanation, because Viktor is very foreign and a huge tease and he never thinks before he speaks.
His laugh is open and genuine and Yuuri gets caught up in it for half a second too long. “Adorable,” Viktor says it like it’s nothing, like it doesn’t tie Yuuri’s stomach in knots. “You’ve worked hard today. Let’s get some hot chocolate.”
Viktor throws a smile over his shoulder and soon they both have their skates off, standing in the snack line because Yuuri just follows him with an innocent kind of recklessness. He puts just the right number of marshmallows in Yuuri’s drink and Yuuri wonders what he did to be treated so nice.
His second visit to The Box comes as a mild wrench in Yuuri’s plans. Because while he’d normally be a nervous mess, he was supposed to meet Viktor five minutes ago and he’s itching for Celestino to get on with it.
“I just have to say, Yuuri, that you’ve improved amazingly these past weeks.”
“Thank you,” Yuuri’s entire body wants to leave. He has to get to Viktor.
Celestino smiles. “If you keep up like this, you could really lead our team to victory.”
“Thank you, sir.”
He keeps going with the compliments but they bounce right off of Yuuri. Even if Celestino doesn’t give praise easily, even when Yuuri should feel honored, his mind is on other things.
Yuuri catches back up to the conversation when Celestino says, “When I talked to Viktor and he said you have a special talent, I found it hard to believe. But you’ve certainly proven yourself.”
“Viktor said that?” Suddenly he can’t control himself. Yuuri’s mouth goes dry, his tongue pleads to ask, ‘What else did Viktor say? Tell me what Viktor thinks of me.’ Because Celestino’s comments hold hardly any weight. But Viktor’s—Yuuri wants to know every thought in that man’s head. Only Viktor can tell Yuuri exactly what he wants to hear. Only Viktor can motivate Yuuri just with his words, or make him go crazy over every reaction to something Yuuri did. It’s scary.
“He did. He’s very pleased with your playing.”
When did Yuuri become like this? When did he start believing he exists just to make Viktor happy? When did he start wanting more?
That night at practice, Viktor treats him to hot chocolate and says, “I love watching you play, Yuuri. You’re a true winner.”
They fall into an odd and simple rhythm of practicing, doing bizarre exercises, drinking hot chocolate. And Viktor’s an absolute enigma.
He can shoot a puck from any angle and miraculously score a goal, he’s quick to give compliments to Yuuri but never on Yuuri’s playing, and as soon as he gets Yuuri’s number he texts in 75% emojis. Yuuri can’t figure Viktor Nikiforov out and it drives him insane in the most beautiful way.
“Your form was a bit weak when you shot,” he says it disapprovingly, like reprimanding one of his child students. “Gonna have to work on that for the championship.”
And there he is, right behind Yuuri, positioning Yuuri’s body however he deems correct. Celestino once said there’s no science to ice hockey, but Viktor is so sure. Every finger of Yuuri’s that he rotates just-so, every minuscule detail makes Yuuri believe he’s never played hockey right before. Whatever Viktor says are the only words Yuuri trusts.
Viktor’s thumb finds the inside of his wrist, turns it so slight. His hand falls on Yuuri’s waist in a comfortable way. “Relax,” he says, but how can Yuuri relax when this man’s clouded breath brushes his cheek, when he seems to be pulling Yuuri in and pulling and pulling? “Does this feel more natural?” And it does; Yuuri wants to know the warmth behind him and feel this heartbeat the cold can’t catch up to. He nods. “Good. That’s what I’m here for, Yuuri. For you.”
He learned long ago that Viktor is delusional, but maybe they both are. If there’s one thing Celestino’s always praised Yuuri for, it’s his form. The one thing he doesn’t need to work on, the one constant in Yuuri’s entire hockey career.
Yuuri knows this. And when Viktor holds him still, the hand on his pulse just staying there, he thinks Viktor knows this, too.
Friday arrives and there’s another game, the one deciding if they’ll be in the championship at all. And to his shock, Yuuri is not nervous. He’s calm, handling the puck with ease.
It’s an away game, at a college in Flint with old bleachers and a scoreboard that almost doesn’t work. But that doesn’t mean the other team can’t play; they can, very well, and for half a second Yuuri thinks they might lose.
At the end of the second intermission, Yuuri’s eye latches onto a stock of silvery hair, high up in the old stands. And Viktor looks up, and waves at Yuuri, and Yuuri doesn’t know why this man drove an hour away just to watch some non-NHL hockey game.
But he’s glad.
Because it’s that enthusiastic wave, that shine in those blue eyes that puts Yuuri at ease again. Enough to score a goal in the third period. Enough to score another in overtime.
Enough to win.
Viktor has a smile like a loaded gun, each pearly tooth a bullet; whenever he makes a suggestion with a careless grin at this mouth, Yuuri is held at gunpoint until he gives in. Today it’s, “Skate with me,” spoken so casually that Yuuri doesn’t know what to say back.
“We already are,” It’s half-true—they’re both in the rink, Viktor making lazy loops around the perimeter while Yuuri practices shooting.
But that’s not what Viktor means, and Yuuri knows this. Viktor skates over, takes the stick from Yuuri’s hands. And carefully, he locks his gloved fingers into Yuuri’s own, and Yuuri can feel the warmth of Viktor’s palm through the knit fabric. “Skate with me, come on.”
Yuuri has only skated with one other person before, his friend Yuuko when they were children and had to chain together as not to fall down. But with Viktor, everything is steady and light. He’s marathoned those movies with Phichit—the ones where the couple goes on a date to a skating rink and they hold hands and drink hot chocolate after. Why is this like that?
“You’ve been doing well, by the way,” Viktor’s voice is quiet but still holds all the confidence in the world.
Yuuri never knows what to say to him. “Thanks.”
“I should be thanking you. Best student I’ve ever had.” Yuuri doesn’t argue that Viktor’s students are typically under the age of nine. He continues, “Loved watching your game on Friday. You were so good, Yuuri. Congrats on making the championship, by the way.”
The comment makes his face heat until the ice rink feels more like a sauna. “Thank you. Uh, again.” He doesn’t know why they’re doing this—skating aimlessly around the edge of the ice, holding hands just because Viktor wants them to.
Viktor gives his hand a squeeze. “But! Not good enough until you score more points than Chris.” It doesn’t seem like a big deal until Viktor says, “I was serious, you know,” He detaches from Yuuri, skates around him in loose loops before drawing back in like he always does. “I’ll kiss you if you score the most points.”
“What if I don’t want you to?” The question pops out before Yuuri can think it over. Then Viktor laughs and gets so close and lets his fingers brush just barely under the curve of Yuuri’s chin. And Yuuri’s not sure what he wants.
“I know you can do it, Yuuri,” Viktor says, “Don’t keep me waiting.”
Yuuri’s eyes flicker to the man’s lips, so close, and he can’t stop the thoughts of, ‘I can have that. I can.’
The next moment there’s a stick being pushed into Yuuri’s arms and that smooth voice chiming, “Now, let’s get back to work!”
Nerves and adrenaline, Yuuri discovers, are two very different concepts. He’s always listened to JJ rambling about adrenaline highs, and Yuuri never knew that it would take the stupid incentive of a kiss to make him experience one.
Here he is, on the ice that somehow looks so different in a championship game, head thrumming and focused. Yuuri plays this game without thinking. He’s memorized the anatomy of a pass at any angle, the way to block any type of opponent. And he learned all this from Viktor, whose eyes follow Yuuri from just outside the rink and never leave.
The other team is good. Of course they are; this is the championship. But Yuuri is more prepared than he ever has been. For the first time, he feels deeply connected to his team-mates. Like they’re one unit. And in the back of Yuuri’s mind is an awareness for Viktor’s sharp eyes picking him apart. Yuuri loves it.
When he scores a goal and Viktor cheers with everyone else, it’s not like everyone else because it’s Viktor. This is who Yuuri plays for.
By the second period, they’re down two and all of them are sweating. JJ is a fantastic goalie, but he can’t block everything. Not with opposition like that. Phichit gives him this look, during a break in the action, that reads, ‘We might be screwed.’
This is Yuuri’s final year on the team. He’ll be too old after this, after graduating. And a new player will fill his place, and Yuuri might not play hockey again. So he knows this could be his last game. It’s a bittersweet revelation that comes when Celestino gives them a speech starting with, ‘No matter what happens.’
No matter what happens, Yuuri became the best player he could be. No matter what happens, Viktor was there for all of it.
The third period begins with the same buzzer Yuuri’s heard a thousand times. That sound is maybe what causes Yuuri to stop thinking. He vaguely registers scoring, but the scoreboard is that last thing on Yuuri’s mind. He just plays.
Twenty minutes pass in thirty seconds. And then there’s the buzzer again, and cheering, and Phichit slings an arm around his shoulder. Yuuri just wants to keep playing. “What happened?”
His friend smiles. “We lost.”
Yuuri stops by the home bench five minutes later, duffel bag at his right side and Phichit at his left. “You did great, Yuuri. We all did.”
Together they walk toward the locker rooms, feet sore, a sense of loss over their heads. Yuuri’s mind is hazy, and the whole world looks different. It’s less stable.
Yuuri sees Viktor standing outside the locker room, leaning against the wall like he’d been waiting for Yuuri for a while. Maybe he has. “I’ll catch up with you later.” Phichit claps a hand on Yuuri’s shoulder and heads into the room, and then it’s just Yuuri and Viktor.
“Hey.” Yuuri tries to calm his breathing. Calm the leftover adrenaline.
“Hi,” Viktor grins at him, “I’m proud of you.” He makes those words sound like nothing, but to Yuuri they’re everything he’s ever wanted to hear. It feels like he never lost.
“You are?” Say it again, Viktor. How proud do I make you?
The man hums in confirmation with a smile at his heart-shaped lips. “Do you know how many points you scored, Yuuri?”
He shakes his head. In the moment, Yuuri forgot to count—he forgot everything but how to play hockey.
So Viktor answers for him: “Three.” He brings Yuuri in by the shoulder pads and draws his arms close to Yuuri’s body. So close. With anyone else, it would’ve been uncomfortable; with Viktor, nothing is. “And do you know how many Chris scored?”
Again, Yuuri doesn’t know. All he knows now is the heavy beat of his own heart and Viktor’s voice humming low at his ear.
There’s an overwhelming relief that comes with those words, and Yuuri can’t pinpoint why. But then he adds something, or subtracts something, and eventually concludes that three is greater than two. And for the first time, Yuuri has scored the most points in a match.
“But—” he protests, trying to fabricate any excuse as to why this isn’t true, because it seems like it can’t be true, “But we didn’t win.”
Viktor leans down a bit, locks eyes directly with Yuuri. “You still scored the most points.”
It’s like permission. Do something, Yuuri. You’re allowed to. And Yuuri does—his arms wind loose around Viktor’s waist. He says a quick thank-you to whatever made him take his mouth guard out ahead of time before shifting up, lips hitting Viktor’s in a moment of sloppy bliss. Then the pressure’s gone, and Viktor’s ever-charming face is right in front of Yuuri’s own, expression unreadable.
Viktor smiles, “You never fail to surprise me.”
The heat rises to Yuuri’s cheeks immediately. “But you—you told me that if I got the most point in a match that you’d, you know. Kiss me.”
And Viktor leans back in for a kiss that’s far more romantic: softer, lingering. “That was me kissing you. I believe you kissed me before, did you not?”
Well if that was Viktor kissing him, then Yuuri never wants to know anything else. He’s a bit dazed when he admits, “Both were nice, though.”
There’s a second where Viktor’s whole body relaxes, and he tugs Yuuri into his side like they’re old friends (but Yuuri knows they’re not).
And something in Viktor’s grin tells Yuuri he can’t stop smiling if he tries.
That’s okay. Yuuri can’t either.
“Hello!” He doesn’t have to wink like that.
“You know my name.”
His laugh is so nice. “Alright, Yuuri, here are your skates.”
“Hey, I’ll see you tonight. 7 P.M. Don’t forget!” Handsome.
“I won’t.” How could I?
“Perfect. Have fun skating!”
“Bye, Viktor! You too.”
Some things don’t change.