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No Less Unthinkable

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I am who I am.
A coincidence no less unthinkable
than any other.

— Among the Multitudes, Wislawa Szymborska


Yuuri's first kiss is at the afterparty following his first Junior Grand Prix.

He's weak with relief the competition is over and an hour ago someone said, "Cheer up, Katsuki!" and handed him a drink.

Now, it's an hour and four drinks later, and Yuuri feels the easy lassitude of vodka Red Bull's in his bloodstream, and it just makes sense to start kissing Matsumoto Keiichi, who Yuuri gets clumsy and babbling around. It's messy and too earnest and he has no idea what he's doing, but Keiichi grins and licks into Yuuri's mouth.

Twenty minutes after Yuuri's first kiss, his underpants are around his ankle, and Keiichi's pinning Yuuri's knees up around his ears. Yuuri's hitching out hungry little screams every time Keiichi's balls slap against his ass.

"I never thought you'd have it in you, Katsuki," Keiichi says afterward, lighting a cigarette and rubbing a worn-soft t-shirt in between Yuuri's legs, where he's all soft and sticky and swollen, still throbbing with intermittent little shivery aftershocks. Yuuri feels like he's just skated the perfect free program, shaking head to toe, and he's so embarrassed but he feels so good he can't bring himself to care.

"That was my first kiss," he tells the ceiling, and then Keiichi's blurry face when it appears over him in the hotel bed. Yuuri grins. "And the first time I've ever been drunk."

Keiichi kisses him again. "You're a fun drunk, Katsuki," and Yuuri laughs and wraps his arms around Keiichi to drag him closer.

The next morning Keiichi gives him a long, open mouthed goodbye kiss, and Yuuri's a grinning mess all the way home. He's sore all over, from competition and the way Keiichi made Yuuri ride him for an hour, awkward for ages until he got the rhythm in his thighs.

"Well, you look happy," his mother says, when she picks him up at the rail station.

Yuuri blushes and looks at the toes of his sneakers. "I didn't win."

"But you look happy," his mother insists, sweet, and gives him a squeeze. "How was it? Did you have fun? How was the party?"

Yuuri hugs her back, and he mutters into her hair, because he can't ever tell her the truth, "I think I inherited Dad's drinking genes."

His mother laughs at him all the way home.

That night, Yuuri presses his face into his pillows, face flaming, and swears, Never again.

It happens again.

Yuuri makes a respectable showing at Junior Nationals, and huddles in a corner at the post-competition banquet. Keiichi broke his ankle a month after the Prix and Yuuri's coach is nowhere to be found, so he spends the event mutely accepting every passing drink to try and drown his nerves.

He's lost count of how many little servings of fizzy, peach-flavored sake he finds himself in the bathroom trying to stick his head under a faucet.

"Katsuki, right?" he hears someone say.

"Gah," Yuuri says, and bangs his head on the faucet head, the sink, and gets water absolutely everywhere.

Yuuri's new bathroom friend is Ito Akihito, an 18-year-old who ranked 4th at Nationals and skates like he moves only in geometric lines, so his technicals are near-flawless and his component scores always as shitty as Yuuri's. They sneak off to Family Mart for first aid supplies and a half-dozen more of those fizzy peach drinks and end up on Akihito's hotel balcony, staring into the Hitachinaka night.

"You know I've never even been kissed?" Ito says, sounding almost as depressed as Yuuri is drunk, which is a shame because Yuuri is bombed.

"What?" Yuuri cries, too loud and too shocked. "No! But you're so cute!"

Akihito is cute: he's got a crooked grin and dimples, and Yuuri thinks his all-black short program costume is totally hot, so obviously it's important Yuuri tells him all of this out loud with his mouth as soon as possible.

"You think so?" Ito says, marveling.

Yuuri puts down his beer, such is the seriousness of this situation. "Yes," he says, and because he feels the wonderful fizz from the peach liquor still just buzzing under his skin and the city's so beautiful, shimmering just beyond the hotel balcony, he grins and says, "Lemme show you," his voice a half-octave lower.

The next morning Yuuri's jaw hurts and his voice is a wreck. They're giggly and a little bashful, but honestly, it was pretty fun, and it turns out Akihito has the kind of dick that just slides right into your throat if you're motivated and feeling exploratory.

"Thank you, Yuuri-kun," Akhito says into Yuuri's ear, when they hug at the hotel lobby waiting for the bus to the station.

Yuuri hugs him back, blushing, and promises he'll text next time he's in Tokyo.

He spends the JR ride home doing some soul searching. He's 17, which the internet and American movies assure him is the sort of age teenagers are having or trying to have almost mind-boggling quantities of sex. Apparently, at three drinks in Yuuri's default setting is gregarious and permissive, which is mortifying considering how shy Yuuri knows he is the rest of the time, stone cold sober and socially awkward. He thinks back on Keiichi and now Akihito and all he feels is a little zing at the memory of them, a little heat on his cheeks and a twinge in his dick, feels his ass twitch, wanting.

Yuuri ends up with his face pressed into his hands curled up like a pillbug on his seat trying to conceal the depths of his depravity.

Year-end's safe: he spends it back in Hasetsu at Yutopia and in the safe surroundings of the Ice Castle, with Yuu-chan and Nishigori. Yuu-chan's about a 40 months pregnant and still puttering around on skates, doing big loops on the ice while Nishigori tails her, big hands reached out just in case. He eats Christmas cake and Minako-sensei makes him watch Love Actually for the hundredth time, and Yuuri disgraces himself crying at Love Actually for the hundredth time.

"Ugh, Yuuri, you're so pure," Minako-sensei complains, dabbing the tears from his face and giving him a cuddle. "What are we going to do with you?"

"I'm fine," Yuuri lies. On screen, Colin Firth jumps into a lake, and Yuuri feels himself go red all over.

Minako-sensei curls an arm around his shoulders, protective. "It just worries me, the idea of you out there in college, all alone."

I'm too broke to drink at college, don't worry, Yuuri doesn't say to her. Instead, he puts his cheek on her shoulder and enjoys how easy it is with Minako-sensei, how happy she makes him, even though she's terrifying.

"Don't worry," he tells her. "I'm being good."

He's good until he moves to Detroit.

Yuuri's used to cold, but he's not used to the huge strangeness of the city, how far away his family are, the new rink that's not Ice Castle. The benches are an inch off from just the right height, and Yuuri's achingly lonely, overwhelmed. His English isn't great, and classes are horrible. He tapes all his lectures and listens to them while he's doing his training; every essay is like pulling teeth. Celestino is good coach, tough and patient when Yuuri goes into one of his quiet moods, closes all his shutters and doors and hunches his shoulders. But Yuuri's a small town boy, at heart, and everybody everywhere is a stranger in Detroit. He's so homesick he's on the verge of tears for the first three months he's there — banking it up in his throat when he Skypes his family so they won't know what a mess he is.

There are some Japanese students at school, but Yuuri's not just a foreign transfer, he's a tourist in an ordinary student's life. Since he was six he's been skating for hours and hours each day; he doesn't know how to make friends, really, much less friends who don't even skate. But he's here to focus on skating, anyway, so that's fine, that's okay, he's making a lot of progress, until Celestino yells at him about turning into a shut in and forces him to go to a party.

Yuuri's tagging along with one of the other skaters at the rink, a 19-year-old kid named Harry from Washington State who clearly doesn't want to shepherd Yuuri to the party any more than Yuuri wants to be shepherded.

The party's at a frat house, spilling out of the front doors onto the green grass under a deep blue sky, the windows all lit orange. It's something Yuuri only knows from movies, and it's worse in reality. There's hundreds of people, Yuuri thinks, moving into and out of the house, on and off the porch, and it takes Harry grabbing him by the elbow and more or less dragging him up the steps to get him into the heart of the matter, where space compresses into nothing and Yuuri's banked in by bodies on all sides.

"You need a drink," Harry decides, and gets him one, something in a red plastic cup that's white on the inside, filled three-quarters of the way up with something orange that smells like it could strip paint.

Yuuri finds out later that it's something called Jungle Juice, but by then he doesn't care anymore because he's had three more of them and realizes that the party is amazing.

The music is amazing; the other kids are amazing; the kiddie pools they've filled up out back, overflowing with gorgeous, half-naked American girls are amazing. They call him cute and say his accent is adorable and Yuuri gets dragged into the paddle pool and dragged out of his shirt and it's great — he feels great.

"Your chest is amazing," one of the girls tells him, and Yuuri says, "Um, oh, I skate," and that somehow turns into him showing them how he can bend himself into almost a perfect circle because Minako-sensei is a maniac and flexibility is key for competition.

Yuuri's not sure how shirtless in the pool with all those girls turned into shirtless upstairs in a room with navy walls sucking a guy's dick but he's thrilled about this progression of events.

He's had another two cups of Jungle Juice, and he feels lightheaded and happy. He's warm for the first time he landed in Detroit. There's a big hand in his hair, cupping the back of his head, hard fingertips digging into the base of his skull, and Yuuri loves it, moans into that, closes his eyes and sucks slow and hungry around the cock in his mouth — heavy on his tongue. It's bigger than Akihito's was, it doesn't go down his throat as easy, but he loves the way the thick flare of the head bumps against his throat, thrilling, and the strange soft vulnerability of the foreskin. He pulls off when he starts getting dizzy, getting breathless, and he wants to kiss the guy's balls so he does, licking down the thick vein on the underside until he can suck one and then the other into his mouth, mumbling at the salt-clean taste of skin, gasping in hot breaths of sweat.

The boy in his mouth's talking, but Yuuri's not really catching much of it beyond the tone: elated and tender and coaxing, and he likes that, likes the easy tug of hands in his hair and pressing down the back of his neck. There's someone else rubbing his chest, thumbing his nipples, and when Yuuri takes the guy's dick back into his mouth, sucks it greedily down as deep as he can get it, someone closes their palm around his throat — like they can feel the shape of the cock there through the skin and sinew, and Yuuri whines, high and desperate at the thought.

The guy he's sucking off says, "I'm gonna — fuck, shit," and pulls out, ignoring the way Yuuri complains about it. When he comes, it's in stripes over Yuuri's swollen mouth, down his chin.

Yuuri tastes it, curious, and thinks this guy doesn't taste like Akihito either: sharper, more sour, with a deep bitterness. He doesn't get to do much more analysis, because the hand that had been in his hair is cupping his cheek now, and Yuuri hears, "Hey, what's your name, sweetheart?" and says, "Yuuri," shy. He gets kissed, slow and easy and good. Yuuri can feel big shoulders under his hands, thick muscles nothing like his own, and he remembers a strong jaw and pretty blue eyes from earlier. He's so happy right now, to feel — finally — some connection, happy to gasp at the way he feels a nip at his lower lip, two more hands stroking down his back.

"Yuuri, this okay?" Blue Eyes asks, and Yuuri nods.

Everything's okay, as long as he doesn't go back to his horrible little room in the horrible little house he's staying in with Celestino, the shitty Skype connection that's his only thread home. This party is wonderful and so is everyone in this room right now, all the hands carrying him to the disheveled bed with its navy sheets, pulling off his jeans and his briefs, stroking up the inside of his thighs.

Blue Eyes lies down next to him, mouths kisses at Yuuri's collarbones, rubs his hand over his belly, and Yuuri sighs into it, melting, until he feels another mouth at the back of his neck, more teeth than lips. That sting's good, too, and Yuuri lets out a little ah, rocking back into the hurt — when he does, he feels another body behind him, a little softer than Blue Eyes, but taller, and then a hand wraps around his cock and he's too distracted to do much more comparing.

When Blue Eyes moves away, Yuuri doesn't have time to miss him, a guy with dark hair is kneeling up on the bed, shucking his pants down over his hips and gripping his dick by the base. He doesn't get any closer to Yuuri, though, hesitating, and when Yuuri looks up, the guy is red-faced, biting his lip, as shy as Yuuri feels all the time.

"It's okay," Yuuri tells him, grinning, and reaches over, hooks a finger in the guy's beltloop and drags him in — in, until he can rub the head of his cock over the seam of his mouth, friendly, and when he hears a shaky, "Ah — Christ," Yuuri grins and purses his lips, sucks him in slowly.

Dark Hair is thicker, shorter than Blue Eyes, and he fucks Yuuri's mouth hard and a little mean, locks his hand on the back of Yuuri's neck. It's consuming, it makes Yuuri's eyes water and his throat hurt, and it blurs out the rest of the room and the world until he feels cold, slick fingers pressing into his ass, rubbing him open.

Yuuri hears someone ask him, "Baby, can I fuck you? Please, just a little," and he's delirious, now, because it's never the same, riding his own fingers — he can't get deep enough — and now, oh, oh, it's so good he could cry.

Yuuri sobs, "Please, please," and hears the sound of foil tearing, the snap of a bottle cap, and finally, finally the aching, unyielding press of a dick stretching him open, filling him up. Yuuri rolls his hips back, greedy, and it hurts, it's been ages since he's had anything thicker than three fingers, but it's so good his mouth lolls open, and it's all he can do to lick slowly at the dick pressing at his lower lip, to throb around the weight of the cock in his ass.

When Yuuri comes, it's after Dark Hair's jerked out his load across Yuuri's tongue, and it's with Blue Eyes pressed back up against his chest, pinching one of his nipples and whipping a hand over Yuuri's dick even as Yuuri's trembling from how hard he's getting fucked — balanced just on the razor edge between hurt and something agonizingly good. But then Blue Eyes kisses him, and Yuuri's glad, so glad, and Yuuri wails into his mouth, cock jerking, ass throbbing, and it all melts away into the dizzy, overstimulated bliss of finally, finally getting out of his own head.

Yuuri wakes up when Blue Eyes brings him a giant coffee, a bag of donuts, and a clean t-shirt. It's full daylight outside the windows and there's a girl asleep on the other bed in the room. The blankets Yuuri's curled in are disgusting, but Blue Eyes just grins and sits down on the edge of the mattress anyway.

"Um," Yuuri says, fuzzy awareness giving way to mortification.

"I'm Ben," Blue Eyes — Ben says.

Ben feeds him coffee and introduces Yuuri to the wonders of the Boston Creme Donut, which almost makes up for the way Yuuri has to sit on a bunch of paper towels because he's still dripping lube.

"I'm not, um, like this," Yuuri says, struggling to find the right words in his limited vocabulary to explain that when he gets drunk he gets ridiculous and he doesn't know how to turn it off and he's so sorry for everything last night.

"That's a shame, it was fun," Ben teases, but leaves him alone after Yuuri goes bright red and sticks to the donuts and coffee.

Ben gives him a ride home so Yuuri doesn't have to do the walk of shame. When they pull up, Celestino's got his face pressed against the living room window like a psychopath, and Yuuri's wearing someone else's t-shirt, so Yuuri's not sure the drive's really eliminated the walk of shame so much as dragged someone else into it, but he gets Ben's phone number and makes a new friend.

After the Unspeakable Frat Party Incident, Yuuri takes a vow of sobriety.

He ignores Celestino's protests and empties the house of alcohol. He spends an afternoon sitting in the last pew in the boxy church at the edge of campus, having an awkward one-sided conversation with a God he doesn't actually believe in or know that much about. It's mostly intermittent, half-horny, half-horrified flashbacks to the Unspeakable Frat Party Incident. Later that night, he cries snotty, self-recriminating tears over the way he's completely redefined the concept of whiskey dick and how he's a terrible, slutty drunk, and eats an entire box of Oreos.

That summer, after Ben flies off back to Colorado, Yuuri thinks it's going to be a quiet, lonely few months — except he shows up at the rink one morning for practice and meets Phichit.

Phichit is pure effervescence, distilled sunshine, relentless with his social media campaign. He declares that it's dumb to rent a separate apartment and moves into the house with Yuuri and Celestino, and it's the happiest Yuuri's been since he left Japan. Yuuri knows maybe fifteen words of Thai and Phichit knows maybe fourteen words of Japanese, but they practice their English with each other and create a secret language, the kind that laces a friendship into a Gordian Knot: only breakable if cleaved apart.

Yuuri's never been an older brother before, but he feels an awful tenderness for Phichit, who's only three years younger; fifteen seems impossibly little sometimes, for a boy to be all alone in Detroit. So Yuuri helps Phichit with his homework and they train together in the mornings, lets Phichit fuss at him in rapid-fire Thai when Yuuri doesn't properly tend to the sores and bruises on his feet and ankles. Phichit makes Yuuri teach him ballet, and they use the boards in the rink as their barre — practice maintaining perfect extension and effortless balance, every muscle tensed to near-exhaustion, the curve of a wrist, the sharp and beautiful arch of a pointed foot.

Yuuri makes his senior debut at Skate Canada in Kingston.

The city is on the mouth of the Cataraqui and St. Lawrence rivers, and is known for its limestone buildings and monuments to a bunch of people Yuuri has never heard of because it's Canada, according to Phichit, who tags along for some town bronze. Kingston's caught up in an unseasonable heat wave, and the whole city is crawling with skaters, skate enthusiasts, television crews and coaches — they're still in the airport waiting for their luggage when Yuuri first starts feeling like the walls are closing in.

They're booked into the Holiday Inn Kingston Waterfront, a 4 minute walk from the K-Rock Center, and thus the epicenter of every fashion and form of figure skating chicanery and drama. In the lobby there's a Romanian ice dancer Yuuri vaguely recognizes sharpening a stick with a knife, and they share an elevator up to their floor with JJ Leroy, who is wearing massive Beats headphones while also singing a song about himself, eyes screwed shut with the intensity of his feelings.

"This is amazing," Phichit gasps, in ecstasies, and whips out his phone.

JJ throws a fist in the air. "I never give up — even if the night should fall — "

"Oh, no, Phichit, don't," Yuuri starts.

" — Always do my best — I look in the mirror — "

Phichit whispers near the phone's mic, "Reporting live, from Skate Canada."

Yuuri puts his face in his hands.

"The king looks back at me," JJ roars, the mechanical 'ding' of the elevator cutting through, and Yuuri mutters, "Finally," before grabbing his bag and Phichit by the collar to haul them off the lift.

Celestino's forbidden him from last minute practice, but gets him a two-day pass to a local gym and folds Yuuri up like a pretzel for hours. There's nobody in one of the classrooms, so Yuuri sinks into the physical memory of his short program choreography: the strength in his legs and the clench of his fists, how strange it is to touch a barre and hold his wrist so stiffly, when there's strength in perfectly controlled grace.

Celestino chose the music to bolster him, to let Yuuri borrow the triumphal brass and hugeness of "Gloria all'Egitto, ad Iside" to buoy himself from doubt. But Yuuri only ever feels like he's playacting at Ramades glory — he feels more like Aida, terrified and hiding her true nature, a prisoner and a stranger in Egypt, already mourning her love.

Yuuri gets steamed chicken cutlets and vegetables for dinner and doesn't eat much of it. His stomach doesn't hurt, exactly, but it feels like some rotting framework has fallen away at the bottom of his diaphragm and revealed a bottomless void. He feels cold from the inside out, a nauseating, continuous roiling in his gut. He doesn't want to be alone, but trying to talk to Phichit is exhausting, too; he has to sleep and he can't, because if he does he'll wake up and it will be tomorrow, and it will be time for his short program.

Celestino only lets Phichit stay in Yuuri's room after extracting a blood oath that Yuuri gets plenty of sleep, and in the end it's only because of Phichit Yuuri sleeps at all.

"Oh, how about this?" Phichit says, and he plugs in Yuuri's phone and props it up on the beside table, so Yuuri can see the little screen and realize he's staring at YouTube playlist of dozens of Viktor Nikiforov's greatest programs and lets out a little huff of laughter.

"See, your embarrassing crush is good for something," Phichit tells him, petting Yuuri's hair, which is at least as embarrassing as Yuuri's crush.

Yuuri presses his face into the hotel pillows, his cheek hot against the percale. "It's not a crush," he says.

"Okay, sure," Phichit allows, and Yuuri falls asleep somewhere between Viktor's first World's gold performance and an exhibition he did in Seoul last year. It was a good one: stubborn and unerringly frigid, to a thundering beat.

In the liminal space between the soft haze of just-sleep and the undertow of REM, Yuuri thinks about Aida, enslaved and held hostage in Egypt, her doomed love with Ramades. He thinks about how she must have felt, to see her father march on Egypt, to see her lover condemned. He knows she must have been frightened, so much more frightened than he is right now, when she'd hidden herself away among the cobwebs and ka of the crypt to await Ramades, to share in his fate as she must have wanted them to share in all things. What glory is there in war, when this is its conclusion, Yuuri thinks, woozy with his anxiousness and the insistence of sleep, finally come to him, with the sound of Viktor's blades cutting across the ice.

The men's short program competition starts at 6:15, so Yuuri sleeps in, spends most of the mid-morning in the hotel gym, emptied of its other skaters. He does a circuit of all the machines, and walks around until Celestino corrals him in and forces him to choke down lunch: small salad, water, a hard boiled egg, a piece of ham. Yuuri doesn't think he could eat anything else. By 3 p.m. he and Phichit are in the K-Rock, and by 3:01 p.m. Phichit's abandoned him to go take as many selfies with figure skating luminaries as humanly possible. Yuuri picks a corner and curls up in front of it to start flipping through his phone for pictures of Vicchan.

But he's not really thinking about Vicchan, and the horrible haircut his mom got Vicchan, and the more he listens to his music, the angrier he gets — for Aida, for Ramades. That they had only ever tried to do the best they could, and instead they had died in each other's arms in the dark, everything lost.

It's that burn that moves Yuuri when Celestino comes to rouse him at 5 to warm up, that carries him when Patrick Chan heads for the kiss and cry and he heads for the ice.

Viktor Nikiforov said, once, in an interview that when he skates, his head is perfectly clear — the steady tone of a note held for flawless long minutes. When Yuuri skates, his head is a mess, teeming and terrified, that scene with Indiana Jones running from the bolder, being chased by his own failings across the rink.

He has a pretty tooth-rattling fall from a triple lutz in the first part of the program, but he lands his quad perfectly, his head filled with white noise and Verdi, the turbine noise of heaving breaths.

Celestino more or less plucks him off the ice as soon as Yuuri's within arm's length, and Phichit's waiting for him at kiss and cry. He's still mostly numb when his short program result comes out at 78.34 — and he mostly processes that it's good because Phichit starts screaming and Celestino bowls him over with a bear hug more than anything else.

That night Yuuri eats like a bird again, the baffled, ambivalent lack of anguish after the short program melting away into sucking worry by 8 p.m. He chokes down some poached chicken breast and half an avocado, some carrot sticks, and eventually just gives up and lets Phichit tuck him into bed with another YouTube playlist of Viktor Nikiforov's programs to lull him to sleep.

Yuuri doesn't remember what he dreams, but he wakes up reaching for something across the length of his bed — his fingers startling at the cold of the other pillows.

He manages a protein bar for breakfast, which he regrets for the rest of the day while he vacillates between cold numbness and overwhelming nausea. He stretches; he looks at Yutopia's website, its clunky interface and gawky text, a relic he'd created for a project in high school and that his family had made a great to-do over. His sister still updates it dutifully, and Yuuri swipes through photos of the entryway, the guest tatami rooms, the banquet hall, the bath area, scrubbed to sparkling, and the onsen: steaming gently with a single radiant red maple leaf in the water.

"Dtaai laew — Yuuri! Are you crying?" Phichit wails at him.

Yuuri scrubs at his face and cries, "No."

Celestino tells him to go do a lap around the K-Rock, which he probably means kindly but mostly feels like a punishment, especially since when Yuuri gets out there it's fucking boiling outside and JJ is also doing laps — still singing to himself.

"Oh, hells to the no," Phichit says, because he'd come with Yuuri out of loyalty. 'Hells to the no' was the first thing Ben ever taught Phichit to say, and the primary reason Phichit believes Yuuri when he argues Ben is a nice person.

They end up in a shop called Tim Hortons, eating maple syrup flavored everything, which can't be good for competition except that Yuuri knows his blood sugar is rock bottom. If he faints and eats ice face first during his FP there's not going to be an ocean trench deep enough for Yuuri to drown himself in.

Yuuri's free skate is to Rossini, "The Thieving Magpie" overture, and Celestino had choreographed it to maximize Yuuri's aptitude for footwork, to pick out the the tiny trills of the music across the ice. His hardest quad is in the first half, his other jumps are all in the second, and Yuuri loves the program, skates it for fun and to feel the thrill of how hard it is, skates it with a grin. The idea of skating it for judges makes him want to revisit all his maple syrup donuts.

At 5:15 Celestino sends out a series of threatening text messages, first in English and then in Italian and then in obviously Google-translated Thai and Japanese, so Yuuri resigns himself to being herded back to the K-Rock to face his doom.

He meets it okay, to the tune of 154.78 for a cumulative of 233.12 — decimals above fourth place to take the bronze.

Afterward, he Skypes his family.

His mother — bleary from staying up all night to watch him compete and red-eyed from crying — shows him the wild hodge podge sleepover of the usual suspects: his father, Minako-sensei, some regulars from the Yutopia onsen, and Nishigori and Yuuko-chan, only recently un-pregnant. There's a giant banner reading YUURI GANNBATTE!!! and on the table there's the biggest katsudon Yuuri's ever seen, a dozen pieces of katsu scattered across a banquet platter. There's cracked-open and already-emptied beers absolutely everywhere. Vicchan has absolutely no idea why everybody's so excited, but he's excited, too, and he's barking like crazy, contributing to a tsumani of shouting and well-wishes and congratulations so loud it distorts the phone's audio, and Yuuri laughs and waves and waves at all of them, flushed and snotty from crying, too.

This — this moment right now — this is the happiest he's been all competition.

After Skate Canada Yuuri's assaulted by a flurry of Japanese media requests. They all seem to want to talk to a version of Yuuri who doesn't exist: someone confident and comfortable — two words Yuuri would never associate with his skating. Back home in Hasetsu, Mari-nee-chan is keeping a running tally of every stupid thing he says in this carpet bomb of media coverage, which is both to be expected and infuriating.

The only question Yuuri's good at answering is, "who is your skating inspiration?" though that's not without its own resultant problems.

Starting a separate tally for your embarrassing public declarations of love for Viktor, Mari-nee-chan texts him.

Yuuri, who's sitting on a verdant lawn at the Law Quadrangle, flops backward onto the grass, groaning. The clear heat of the sun is wonderful through his shirt, through the denim of his jeans, and he squints into the brightness of the day until he brings his cell phone up to block out the sun and type back, it's not a crush.

Mari-nee-chan's response is a blurry picture of a Japanese skating magazine, and Yuuri's sweaty, awkward smile next to a pull quote:

"Viktor Nikiforov has truly been the source of my passion. I want to be able to skate on his level, and I promise to do my best to reach this goal. Please believe it."

Go away, Yuuri writes back, for lack of a compelling response.

Mari-nee-chan sends him a picture of Vicchan looking skeptical, which Yuuri guesses he deserves.

The truth is Yuuri doesn't have a crush on Viktor. The whole idea is ridiculous. Yuuri's read every interview, every news article, watched every performance and each of his televised sit-downs — but Viktor's so far from the actionable reality of Yuuri's life the little bruise of longing hurt and shy pleasure Yuuri feels at the sight of Viktor's face is the same secret tenderness he harbors for characters in books, heroes in movies. Viktor isn't any more within Yuuri's reach than Everest or the moon.

Yuuri's only a part time student at UMich Ann Arbor, running back and forth between the campus and his rink in the suburbs 20 minutes outside of Detroit. Yuuri feels constantly late and excessively overextended, like in his effort to do everything he's doing all of it poorly — but his family is so good to him, so patient with him, and the only thing his parents asked was for him to go to and finish college. It seems like the very, very least he can do in the face of a lifetime of rink fees, coaching costs, expensive costumes and equipment and physical therapy and Yuuri's categorical absence — for Mari-nee-chan being the one who has to shoulder the family business.

He misses Hasetsu. He misses Mari-nee-chan and Minako-sensei. He misses his mother and father, the easy rhythm and kindness of life at Yutopia. He misses Yu-chan and Nishigori. He misses Vicchan. Yuuri misses home so much it's become a war wound, a longing that simmers underneath so steadily he doesn't even register the hurt any longer.

Or maybe that's just the way scars form, slow and imperfect but miraculous, and Yuuri gets distracted from the line of thought by Phichit, clutching two Starbucks cups topped with mounds of whipped cream, grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

"You've got that look on your face," Phichit accuses. "Stop it immediately."

Yuuri takes his cup. "I don't have a look."

"It's the last warm day we're having until next May," Phichit informs him. "You better be cheerful for it, Yuuri."

"Okay, okay," Yuuri laughs, and he puts his headphones back to turn back to his homework. Trophee Eric Bompard is in just a month — he has enough to worry about without borrowing trouble.

The Palais Omnisports de Paris-Bercy is massive, half-subterranean, with blue scaffolding at the top and grass growing around the outside, an echo of the Louvre's glass pyramid at one of its points. This time, its just Yuuri and Celestino for the Trophee Eric Bompard, since Phichit takes the opportunity to escape Michigan winter and visit his family back home in Thailand. Everything in Paris is very French, and everyone in Paris is extremely French, which means everything is extremely terrifying.

The arena is in the 12th Arrondissement, nearest to the Bercy Metro stop and a 2 minute walk from the Novotel where Yuuri and Celestino are staying. They share a room this time, which means Yuuri's pre-competition moments are just horror movie flashcuts of trying to sleep, trying to eat, trying to work out. Celestino confiscates his cell phone at night because he claims blue light keeps you awake, so Yuuri stares at the ceiling of the hotel room and lets Celestino's snoring serve as the background track to his silent, hours-long nuclear meltdown instead.

He's groggy and not at his best during any of the competition, but wonder of wonders, he ends up placing 4th overall for men's singles, and Celestino calls it a success and drags him off to celebrate.

"Oh, Coach, you know how I get when — " Yuuri starts, blushing already.

Celestino roars laughing, still ebullient, and claps Yuuri on the back.

"You're a young, vigorous man, Yuuri, it's only to be expected," he says with the blissful assurance of a man who doesn't know the full nature of the Unspeakable Frat Party Incident. "Come on — you deserve a drink!"

"Oh, God," Yuuri manages, and gets hauled off to the hotel bar.

Yuuri doesn't exactly have a sweet tooth, but he likes sweet drinks, the fluorescent tropical ones, and Celestino indulges this by getting him a Mai Tai. Yuuri decides he's going to drink it with quiet reserve and in small, moderate sips in a corner and go to bed early, maybe do some sightseeing tomorrow in Paris before their flight later that night. He'll visit a museum, see the Champs-Elysees, maybe he'll even have time for Versailles.

Then Christophe Giacometti shows up double fisting champagne and grinning.

"Katsuki, right?" he asks.

Yuuri chokes, which Giacometti apparently interprets as "yes," and hands Yuuri one of the champagne flutes. Whatever Giacometti's saying is barely audible with the music in the bar, the crowd of drunk skaters yelling at each other, Yuuri's still imperfect grasp of English and Giacometti's accent. Yuuri does catch "stunning," whatever that means; it's not like his program was a surprise.

"Thank you," Yuuri says, because it's polite, and drinks the champagne, because it's also polite, and by the time he finishes that one, he's starting to feel that good lassitude that visits with good drinks: all his muscles unwinding, the stress melting out of his spine.

Chris — he insists Yuuri call him Chris — is intimidatingly handsome, even if his eyebrows are too dark for his nest of butter blond curls, and Yuuri's stumbling over whatever Chris is trying to teach him to say in French when a dark-haired man in a suit shows up clutching a trio of drinks.

"There you are," the new arrival says, and Chris cheers, "Nils! Finally! Meet Yuuri."

Chris had won bronze with Christina Aguilera's "Dirrty," so Yuuri feels tremendous sympathy for Nils, who is evidently Chris's long-suffering manager and also long-suffering boyfriend. Chris is as — as — you know off the ice as he is on the ice, and Yuuri watches Chris grope no fewer than a dozen people while Nils sits there, stoic, having a completely benign conversation with Yuuri about new composite materials for skate blades.

"Um — doesn't that…?" Yuuri starts.

Chris had gone to get them all water, which means that now Chris is at the bar touching the bartender's chest and licking his lips.

Nils grimly finishes his scotch and soda. "We have an agreement."

"Uh," Yuuri says, and it's just as well that Chris zooms back up to them and says, "The night is young and we are young and we are in Paris — let's go."

Le Marais is gorgeous, all old buildings in orange lamplight and paved streets, and Yuuri is wide-eyed and flushed at all of it, and all of the people: the streets spilling over with music and light even in the cold and dark. He gets a lot of curious looks, in his jeans and beat up tennis shoes and old, dark coat, and Yuuri feels himself go pink at the way Chris is a magnet for attention, dragging Yuuri and Nils down the winding streets caroling out flirty answers to all the flirty things people are yelling at them.

They wind past all the charming little restaurants and bars, until they duck into a club with a bouncer at the door and all its windows blacked out.

The club is — terrifying.

At the door, Yuuri knows enough French and hand signals to understand that there's some kind of cover charge, but it evidently gets waived when one of the bartenders spots Chris and reacts to him the way you do a longed-for child. From the doorway, all Yuuri sees is an ocean of intimidatingly gorgeous men in skintight clothes grinding to ear-bleeding techno, and he can't imagine the face he's making.

"Don't worry," Yuuri hears, and glances left to see Nils smiling at him. "No one's going to do anything to you you don't want, okay?"

Then Chris slinks back over, flushed and grinning, and loops an arm around Yuuri's neck, saying, "The bartender says if we give you to him, I get free drinks for life."

Nils makes sure Chris doesn't sell Yuri to the French, but installs him in a safe, relatively unmolested corner of the bar instead.

"You feel okay here?" Nils asks, and he's surprisingly quiet in the huge noise of the club, with a surprisingly earnest smile on his face. "I'm happy to take you back to the hotel if you want."

Yuuri looks over Nils's shoulder, to where Chris is already in the fray of dancing bodies — shirt off and arms over his head — his torso undulating and his eyes closed, lashes dark on his cheekbones and a flush on his face. There's already a cluster of gleaming-eyed men gathered near him, and Yuuri has a feeling this is going to turn into a riot or an orgy by the end of the night.

"Don't worry about Chris," Nils laughs. "He can take care of himself — but what about you? How are you feeling?"

Yuuri feels — bewildered, a little nervous in a new place, astonished to be where he is, but not bad, and not scared, really. Actually, now that he's sitting here and the bartender Chris tried to sell him to has given him a dark and sharp-tasting drink, it feels good to lean against the bar and just look, to think about absolutely everything except for himself and his skating. Yuuri admits that in spite of everything, he's a little sheltered, and he's never seen anything like this place, filled to overflowing with people who are and aren't like him at all.

"I'm okay, really," Yuuri promises, still shy about Nils, who isn't as tongue-twistingly beautiful as Chris, but who is very handsome and very nice on his own. "I just want to sit here and decompress for a while — you should go dance. With Chris."

Because by now there are at least two different guys with their hands down Chris's leather pants. Which is impressive since they're tight enough Yuuri could tell on the way to the club Chris hadn't bothered to put on any underwear.

Nils grins, and plucks at the top buttons of his white shirt. "Come find me, okay? If you want to leave or if you don't feel good — don't worry about it, just come find me," he says, and with a wink, vanishes into the press of bodies, gone until he reappears, closing his hands around Chris's hips and sinking his teeth into his shoulder.

Yuuri turns so red so fast he thinks he hears it, and he whirls away from the crush on the dance floor to look at the other people at the bar. Everybody at the bar's a bit older or a bit quieter, Yuuri thinks, sipping his drink through his straw and resting his chin on the heels of his hands. They're still interesting, though: in suits and ties, or torn up t-shirts, clean-shaven or scruffy, chatting like friends or glancing at each other from underneath fluttering lashes. Yuuri thinks about the lifetime of teasing he endured in Hasetsu, about his constant lack of girlfriends, from Nishigori over his abortive and misdirected crush on Yu-chan — what would anybody back home think of him now, Yuuri wonders, grinning a little.

He feels the light touch of fingers on his arm, and Yuuri turns a little, biting down on the straw from his drink and feels it pressing into his bottom lip.

The man at his shoulder is tall, older, with a handsome, angular face and a little salt-and-pepper scruff, neatly trimmed hair. He's wearing a button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up in deference to the heat of the closed-in club, and he has shockingly blue eyes: even in the haze of red light and cigarette smoke, they are very clear.

"Puis-je me permettre de vous accompagner pour un verre?" the man says.

Yuuri blinks, rapid-fire, and shakes his head, nerves ratcheting up as he says, "Um, sorry — I don't — "

"Ah, English is okay?" the man corrects, and asks, "May I sit? Share a glass a wine?" while indicating the empty stool to Yuuri's left.

"Yes, of course," Yuuri tells him, his brain desperately code-switching from the reflexive fluidity of Japanese into the textbook and hard-knock English he'd accrued over the years: from classrooms, from competitions, from friends. He waves at the stool, stuttering, "Please, sit."

He does, and extends his hand as he does. "Marc," he says,

"Yuuri," Yuuri murmurs.

The handshake turns out not really to be a handshake — nothing so polite, so much as Marc pressing their palms together to lay Yuuri's flat, so that he can ghost his mouth over the back of Yuuri's fingers, press his thumb, sharp, into the skin and soft sinew of Yuuri's hand. It makes Yuuri gasp: in surprise, in unexpected pleasure.

Marc looks up at him, smiling, but it's a nice smile, nothing predatory in it at all. Yuuri is a self-admitted coward and keenly attuned to these things, but all he sees in Marc's eyes is an uncomplicated interest, and that's why he doesn't pull his hand away, why he manages a shaky, bashful little smile.

"Um, it's very nice to meet you," he says, each word getting quieter.

Yurri can't help but to feel a little pang of regret when Marc releases his fingers, so he doesn't pull away from the touch, lets his fingertips linger. In the dark, blue-red light of the club, with the music still booming, Yuuri feels very different and distinct from himself. He's in Paris and he's a stranger even to himself right now. It feels like anything could happen — that anything might.

"Am I correct in assuming this is your first time here?" Marc asks, scrupulously polite.

Yuuri laughs. "Yes — first time in Paris, too."

"First time!" Marc cries. "Traveling? A holiday?"

"Skating," Yuuri says.

The next 10 minutes are a mix of broken English, French interjection, drawings on damp bar napkins, and Yuuri bursting into laughter as Marc gets progressively more ridiculous with his praise. Because Yuuri lacks the vocabulary to explain an axel in any English Marc has the vocabulary to understand, he ends up pushing off the stool and doing the jump, feeling absurd but reasonlessly happy — he finished fourth! At the Trophee Eric Bompart! And now he's here, in this bar talking about skating to someone interesting — to someone interested.

"You're fantastic. Champagne, we must have champagne to celebrate," Marc declares, and Yuuri just giggles, his nervous excitement fizzing through him like an uncorked magnum, rushing upward, as he wriggles back onto the barstool.

They have champagne, and Marc toasts to his axels and to Yuuri's first time in Paris.

"May the city enchant you, as you have enchanted me," Marc says to him.

Yuuri ducks his head to hide how red his face is, and makes himself take another sip of the champagne so he can't say anything dumb.

Marc's surprisingly insightful view into the mechanics of figure skating jumps is explained when he explains he works as an engineer, with a background in physics. Over the evening and several more flutes of champagne, Marc's drafting hand joins Yuuri's chibi-style napkin drawings of sit-spins and spread-eagles. It's Marc's architect's lettering that indicates the angles and forces that keep Yuuri suspended mid-air, or bring him crashing brutally down to the ice. It's wonderful, and Yuuri can't help but to stare and stare at it, helplessly charmed.

"Can I keep this?" Yuuri asks, finally unable to resist. He's already touching fingertips to the edge of the napkin, he wants it so badly.

Marc's expression is complicated, something hot and tender all at once, and instead of saying "yes," or "no," he closes his massive hand around Yuuri's wrist and says, "Come home with me — I'll draw you something better."

They're on the way out the door — Marc's helping Yuuri with his coat — when Chris is suddenly there and in Yuuri's face, flushed and absolutely covered in glitter, his mouth swollen from…something, smiling with pure affection.

"Yuuri," Chris says, putting a hand around Yuuri's elbow in a move that looks friendly but feels steadying, unyielding. "Nils and I are going to a different club, want to come?"

"Oh, no, that's fine, Chris," Yuuri chokes out, and looks over his shoulder to where Marc's got an indulgent look on his face. "I'm — um."

Then Chris is planting a sloppy kiss on Yuuri's face, all drunk happiness, and he clutches Yuuri close in a hug to whisper, "Of course — have fun. Call if you need, okay? I'll make Nils come get you," and stuffs — stuffs some extremely suspicious packages into Yuuri's coat pocket oh my God.

"Goodbye, Chris," Yuuri yells, fleeing into the night, Marc trailing and gasping with laughter.

Yuuri goes through a hundred and one emotions in the trip from the bar to Marc's apartment, hidden inside a gated townhouse with a little paved courtyard.

The cold keeps him insulated from his thoughts before the cab, and then in the car, Marc takes his hand and presses a kiss to Yuuri's opened palm, and the realization of what he's doing presses down on Yuuri like an avalanche — immobilizing with shock. But then there's a flash of something outside the window that seizes Yuuri's flickering attention, and he turns to see Paris in all of her splendor, the city yawning into Christmas as November fades: candle-colored in the swallowing black of night, as the taxi races down a bridge to the other side of the Seine. Yuuri thinks of being 7 years old, of Hasetsu and Yutopia being his whole world, and marvels at how the universe is ever-expanding, unrelenting, feels tumbled through and outward, breathless.

Marc's flat is massive, with cavernous ceilings and gold gilded moulding on the walls, parquet floors that gleam. The windows open inward, 12 feet tall, and outside is the Quai de la Tournelle and the Seine, glittering from the lights of Notre Dame — magnificent and unmoving in its perch on the island.

Yuuri kicks off his shoes in the entryway, because it's disgusting and wrong to wear shoes inside, but Marc reads in it something else entirely. He helps Yuuri out of his coat, pins him slowly against one of those beautifully decorated walls, and takes so long to kiss Yuuri that the slow press of their bodies together and Marc's breath warm against his mouth feels like asking for permission.

Because it's Paris and he's apparently crazy now, Yuuri says, "Please," and winds his arms around Marc's neck, closing the last millimeters between them.

It's ridiculous for Yuuri to feel as shy as he does, as new as he does, but maybe that's just because of the way Marc kisses him: thorough and unhurried, deeply, reaching one of his large hands up to cup Yuuri's face, fingers hot and solid on the side of Yuuri's neck. Marc nips at Yuuri's lower lip, and presses his tongue in when Yuuri gasps at it, his whole body shivering. Yuuri's been kissed before, but not like this, and Yuuri's been touched before, but not like this, either: with easy confidence, guiding him out of the hallway and through the flat, toward the shadowed door of the bedroom and then to the bed, where the orange lights of the outside slant across the bed.

Yuuri feels like he's swimming in honey, champagne in his veins and zinging through the chambers of his heart instead of blood. There's a coal burning in his stomach even though his skin's pricking with the coolness of the room, and he's scared and excited, letting Marc press him into the the duvet and kiss him on the side of his neck, wailing when he gets teeth and a bruising suck as a reward.

He's always rushed through these bits before — from that first time with Keiichi to the Unspeakable Frat Party Incident, always too impatient and wanting and desperate, too, in case his partners realized and thought better of who they were with. But Yuuri feels too good to be worried about that right now, not with Marc whispering his name into his skin, through open-mouthed kisses to Yuuri's wrist, his collarbones, the top of his foot, bruised to hell from competition, still. He feels like they have all the time in the world, that night in Paris must last forever.

They get undressed in stages, taking ages, because every time Marc finds a bruise or the surprising shadow of muscle on Yuuri's body, he murmurs in wonder at it and Yuuri is all embarrassed pleasure, gone boneless under Marc's mouth and his hands, stroking down his arms and down his back, peeling away his t-shirt, thumbing over the zip of his jeans. Yuuri doesn't think much about his body beyond the mechanics of it or the way it betrays him, retaining katsudon and cake, and he knows it's absurd to be shy but he is, and thrillingly pleased to see Marc is so pleased, running his hands down the faint line of tight muscles in Yuuri's core and growling something hot and unknowable in French.

Marc is all new, too, not like the slim skater's builds of Keiichi or Akihito, or the bones and tightly wound bulk of Ben and his friends in the frat house. He's solid, older, with a substantive weight that makes Yuuri kind of lightheaded when it presses him down to the bed, when Marc wraps Yuuri's wrists up in one of his hands and pins them over his head. He's got wiry gray hair, rough, on his chest and down the line of his belly, and it deepens to black around the thick root of his cock, uncut and red, longer and fatter than any of the other ones Yuuri has seen and touched.

Marc bites at his chest, sucks on his nipples, rubs his naked cock over Yuuri's — he laughs at the way Yuuri's body shakes, at the noises Yuuri's making, and he lets go of Yuuri's wrists so he can palm Yuuri's ass instead, squeezing, rubbing his middle finger — teasing — over the tight furl of Yuuri's hole.

"May I?" Marc asks, voice hoarse, and Yuuri says 'yes' without really knowing what he's agreeing to.

When Marc folds him over so that his weight's balanced on his shoulders and presses the flat of his tongue against him, Yuuri gasps, high and needy and shocked.

Yuuri closes his hands over his mouth, squeezes his eyes shut, feels himself go from hard to aching, his nipples tightening and his heart beating wildly out of control. And Marc just tightens his grip on Yuuri's hips to bruising and uses his thumbs to hold him open to searing-hot open-mouthed kisses, the hard press of his tongue, the graze of teeth. Yuuri's wet-eyed and moaning into his hands, rolling his hips desperate to get more, to get deeper, to feel finally full. It feels at once exposing and shockingly intimate, and when Marc slicks a finger inside of him alongside his tongue, Yuuri gives up and lets himself wail, dick drooling and his ass throbbing.

Marc tries to put another finger in him, but it's too much too quickly, and Yuuri pushes him away until Marc falls obligingly to his back, looking curious. His mouth red and wet and it's so filthy Yuuri could immolate, but that would be rude after all of the nice things Marc's done tonight. So he kisses Marc's chin instead, kisses his shoulder and his neck, down the heavy line of his body until he can close his hand around Marc's dick and suck the head into his mouth, lavish, tease under the foreskin with his tongue until Marc's swearing is filling up the room. It's in French, so Yuuri can't understand it, but the sentiment's pretty clear and extremely flattering, so Yuuri hums — pleased — and swallows him all the way down, as deep as he can go.

Marc fists a hand in Yuuri's hair and fucks his mouth for a while, leisurely, and Yuuri feels the hazy zen of skating old routines: body-familiar, just works his tongue and his jaw and lets his eyes drift half-closed. It's easy and it's good; it lets his heartbeat slow down a little, his body relax, overstimulation simmering down again into the itch of uncomplicated pleasure. Marc tastes like sweat and the faint sweetness of skin, and Yuuri gasps when he pulls off the man's dick and presses his face into the joint of his thigh so he can lap at the heavy weight of his balls, lick at the criss-cross of dark and angry-looking veins at the root of his cock.

Yuuri's not tracking time very well, but some of it must pass before Marc's murmuring soft words at him — in English or in French, at this point, Yuuri's not parsing well. He finds himself rolled onto his belly, Marc pressing lingering kisses to the soft skin where his asscheeks meet his thighs, thumb rubbing lazy and just barely inside him.

"Okay?" Marc asks, and Yuuri decides to answer by grabbing at one of the two dozen massive pillows on the bed and tucking it under his hips, shimmying as he goes, and it makes Marc laugh and kiss him wetly in the small of his back.

Yuuri doesn't know if it's just been a while, or if Marc is really so much thicker and longer than anyone else he's been with. The slow press of his cock inside feels like it's pushing all the air out of Yuuri's lungs, squeezing out all of his thoughts, until he feels the heavy weight of hips and thighs against his own and Marc's lacing their fingers together against the linens, murmuring into the shell of Yuuri's ear, "You are all right?"

Yuuri's lashes are damp, clumped together, and all his words are gone. He doesn't know if he hurts or if he feels too much, but he likes it, the way sharp, whining little noises tumble out of him when Marc starts rocking into him in short, shallow thrusts. It's not that he's stroking over that soft spot that makes Yuuri go liquid, but his cock's big enough that the head scrapes over every inch of him — the good and the strange and the surreal, and when Marc starts fucking him more deeply it feels like his guts are churning, that his body's splitting open for something new.

Yuuri comes twice as he's turning 20 years old in Paris, in bed with a someone twice his age: first with a cock pressed urgently against his prostate while Marc jerks him off with rough, thick fingers, and then again when he's already fucked out and weak with it, legs flung over Marc's shoulders as he sobs and sobs and gets eaten out again, his whole body tensing in nearly painful exhilaration.

He forgives himself for completely passing out, and for not waking until Marc shakes him up the next day.

"What? Who?" Yuuri says, in Japanese.

Marc is wearing a t-shirt and sweatpants and a patina of smugness. He looks completely awake and is holding Yuuri's mobile phone — still ringing.

"Good morning," he says. "I think your friends are worried."

"Shit," Yuuri says, also in Japanese, and then swaps into English to say, "Um, good morning," and awkwardly go on to say, "How are you?" like a moron.

Marc doesn't seem to think Yuuri's a moron, or at least he must think Yuuri's a cute moron, because he leans in to kiss him, slow and exceedingly indulging.

Yuuri's still a little dizzy with it by the time he finally turns back to his phone. He has one missed call and a follow-up text, both from a number he doesn't know, and he unlocks it to read, Just checking in. Let me know where you are so Chris and I can pick you up. -Nils.

It's just past 11 a.m., and Yuuri rolls onto his side — he's got a twinge in his back that could be from the competition or from last night, but the hollow ache in his ass…yeah — and texts back, Thank you for checking in, Nils. I am fine. I will text you the address in a little bit. Thank you very much. I hope you and Chris had a nice night.

He gets a response less than a minute later:

Chris got three marriage proposals and we were banned from a bar. Let me know when you're ready to go. -Nils

Marc feeds him croissants, fresh from the boulangerie down the street, and tiny cups of espresso for breakfast. He kisses Yuuri open-mouthed and unashamed on the street in front of his building until Nils pulls up in a carbon-black Audi wearing sunglasses and the grim-faced resignation of someone in a relationship with Chris. Who is in the backseat, asleep, in a pair of pants that were not the pants Yuuri last saw him in.

"Did you have fun?" Nils asks, over the sound of Chris snoring as they wind their way back toward the 12th, paused at an intersection in the sluggish mid-morning traffic.

Yuuri blushes and squirms in his seat, which Nils interprets on his own.

"Good," Nils says, and cracks a smile as the light goes green.

They beat Phichit back to Detroit, so Yuuri's quietly trying to do his homework when the house is filled suddenly with laughing and loud noises again. There's a thunder of feet up the stairs, and Phichit bursts into Yuuri's bedroom holding a giant bag of gifts — tossing them aside so he can tackle Yuuri into a full-bodied hug. Yuuri hugs him right back. Just seeing Phichit on Facebook isn't the same at all.

"I heard! I read! Congratulations!" Phichit cries, shoving random things from Thailand into Yuuri's arms. "How was Paris? Was it fun? Did you like it?"

"Thank you," Yuuri laughs, flushed with happiness, and because he means it, he says, "Paris was amazing — I loved it."

Yuuri doesn't qualify for the Grand Prix Final in Beijing, so he and Phichit watch it at home, plotting out Phichit's senior debut. They get a little LED Christmas tree from Walgreens and start wearing two pairs of socks inside their weatherproof boots to slog to and from the car to the rink to class and home again. Phichit reads all the Harry Potter books as part of his language study and when Celestino gets back from a week in Italy visiting family he finds Yuuri and Phichit bombed on alcoholic butterbeer, and makes them do 50 laps in the snow the next morning when they're still hung over.

On December 22, Celestino chivvies Yuuri onto a flight for Japanese Nationals, and when they stagger off of the shinkansen in Nagano, it's to a welcome-wagon of Yuuri's family. The Nishigoris lead the charge, with Nishigori and Yu-chan each wearing a baby on their chest and the third triplet in a carriage. Minako-sensei and Mari-nee-chan are both there, brandishing a WELCOME HOME, KATSUKI YUURI sign, and his mother and father are next to them, holding a bento and a bouquet of flowers respectively, Vicchan pulling desperately on his lead and going bananas barking at Yuuri in idiot joy.

Yuuri forgives himself for completely dissolving into tears because Celestino starts crying, too, and the whole crew of them are an embarrassment to everybody else in the train terminal.

That night, they take over the banquet room of a ryokan and Yuuri eats his mom's katsudon and listens to his dad and Nishigori talking over each other describing the utter pandemonium of Yutopia's common room during Yuuri's performances at Skate Canada and Trophee Eric Bompart. Vicchan exhausts himself with ecstatic happiness, and curls up in Yuuri's lap. Yuuri meets Axel and Lutz and Loop, who drool, cry and bully him, respectively — proving they're Nishigoris through and through.

Minako-sensei asks him if he's got a girlfriend. When Yuuri turns ghost white, she arches her eyebrows like she knows and punches him in the shoulder.

"You tell me when you — meet someone," she threatens him. "Or else."

Yuuri flinches in instinctive terror. "Um."

Mari-nee-chan hooks an arm around his shoulders and pokes Yuuri in the cheek. "This one?" she hoots. "Don't be ridiculous Minako-sensei — I bet he's never even had a conversation with a crush."

Yuuri nods solemnly until Minako-sensei narrows her all-seeing gaze at him and he stills like a prey animal that's been spotted by an apex predator.

The Nishigoris have family in Nagano, and they head out early to tuck the babies away to bed. Yuuri's mother and father are renting a room from the ryokan owner, but Mari-nee-chan and Minako-sensei have a room in Yuuri's hotel.

"Don't stay up too late, and don't disturb Yuuri's rest!" their mom says.

"Of course," Mari-nee-chan says, saccharine-sweet.

Minako-sensei, pretending to be a real adult, laughs politely. "Don't worry, Hiroko-san, I've got these two well in hand," she says, in a way that might be more convincing if she didn't volunteer to distract the hotel security while Mari-nee-chan and Yuuri sneak Vicchan up into his room.

They push the beds together and sleep in a pile. Vicchan gets both pillows and Mari-nee-chan snores in Yuuri's ear, the television in the room is showing unending reruns of Cardcaptor Sakura, the sound turned low. At half-past midnight, Minako-sensei comes in looking a little tipsy and a lot kissed and shoves at Yuuri until he makes room for her under the covers.

"Hey, punk," she whispers at him, not all that quiet. Good thing Mari-nee-chan sleeps like a log. "What the hell was that? Do you actually have a girlfriend?"

Yuuri tries to hide himself under the dog, which lasts all of 10 seconds until Minako-sensei starts pinching him wherever she can reach.

"Don't make me lay you out for stretches, Katsuki," she hisses. "Spill."

"I — don't have a girlfriend," Yuuri mutters. Oh, God, his face is 100 degrees. If his brain boils in his skull and he can't compete in the SP tomorrow Celestino is going to kill him.

She pinches him again. "Boyfriend?" she asks, with the same impatience.

"Argh," Yuuri says, trying to duck away from her evil pinching hands. "No."

Minako-sensei's quiet for a moment, and much more softly, she asks, "Is it bad?"

It plunges Yuuri into the memory of been 6 and hiding in her dance studio from the other kids in town — not because they were mean to him, but because he didn't understand them, and they were overwhelming to him. Minkao-sensei's not exactly nice, but that's always been the least important thing she is to him: safety, comfort, someone who's happy to be quiet with him, who doesn't laugh at him and never lets him off the hook. Yuuri squeezes his eyes closed and doesn't know how to explain to her all the things that have happened — everything he's done.

"Hey, Yuuri," she whispers, and now she's running her hand through his hair, soothing him like he's a little boy again. "You know there's nothing you can do that would make me think less of you. You don't need to tell me everything — I just want to know: are you happy? Do I need to beat anybody up?"

Yuuri shakes his head. "I'm happy," he says to her, but he can hear himself crying a little again, he's such a baby. "You don't need to beat anybody up."

Minako-sensei pulls him in until she can wrap her arms around him, run her hands up and down his back the way she would when he was much younger, after a bad day.

"Good," she tells him. "Go to sleep — I'll go to practice with you in the morning."

Yuuri's crammed in between two starfishing women and a restless dog. It's too hot and he's going to have the Cardcaptors theme song stuck in his head for the rest of his life. It's the best he's slept in months.

The next day, Minako-sensei watches him run through his routine with Celestino a few times before she steps in. Minako-sensei is pretty hopeless when it comes to skating, but she transformed Yuuri's childhood bumbling into something balletic, and she puts him through his paces with the music and just the shape and poise of his body. She adjusts the curve of his arm two degrees, the slight tilt of his head, reminds him he should ignore or apply as needed depending on balance issues on the ice. Yuuri can feel himself being polished — the barely-there rough edges of the routine being milled away to the effortless, perfect gloss of a prima ballerina, floating weightless through her choreography.

His entire wonderful, terrible family is in the audience for the short and free programs, in matching outfits with an obnoxiously large banner. He gets hugs from Axel, Lutz, and Loop before he goes on the ice, and skates into the spotlight feeling blessed, touched through with possibility.

When they bring Yuuri up on the podium to receive his silver medal for the Japan Championships, he can hear Minako-sensei's panther scream over the entire roar of the crowd.

Yuuri's back in Detroit in time to spend New Year's Eve at a party with Ben, which goes pretty much the way Yuuri thought it would go.

The night starts with Jell-O shots and ends with Yuuri bent over a pool table listening to the eight ball clack in the pocket while he gets worked over, pushing back on Ben's dick and clawing at his thigh. They miss midnight entirely.

Celestino dispatches Yuuri to the Asia Winter Games in Kazakhstan, and he meets a cluster of adorable baby skaters and their chaperones, all at the event to observe. There're about a half-dozen boys being called 'Beka,' but only one of them is too solemn-faced for his age and gives Yuuri a thumbs up after he comes off the ice. Yuuri racks up another bronze, and it's a good event — even if the horrifying event mascot is going to follow him into the depths of his nightmares.

The last events of the season are largely geographically restricted or junior-level competitions, but Celestino's bulldog personality packs Yuuri off for the Gardena Spring Trophy in Italy for their inaugural senior competition. Val Gardena turns out to be a valley in Northern Italy, cold and mountainous, and Yuuri finds a lot of weird wood carvings for sale which are amazing. He finds and acquires all the worst ones greedily. It's only the first year of senior rounds for the competition, so Yuuri credits a spartan field for why he gets gold. He packs his woodcut presents in with the medal and mails it all back home.

Yuuri's not sure if it's his grades or the way he gets back to Detroit and cries while watching "The Cutting Edge" that makes up Celestino's mind to let him off the hook for the last dredges of the season, but it works. The Ann Arbor campus shrug off the frost and snow of winter as Yuuri claws through his coursework; he tries not to think about the terrifying conversations Celestino keeps having on the phone with choreographers.

Celestino lays out Yuuri's new programs mid-March. It would feel like an extravagant luxury to have five months before he premiers it at the Japan Open in October, but five months is nothing, really, to perfect three quads, learn ankle-busting footwork, and to somehow not fall on his ass doing it to Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue.

Phichit, that traitor, tapes Yuuri in early run-throughs and sends the video to Minako-sensei.

"But why," Yuuri cries.

Shameless, Phichit scrolls through seemingly infinite photos to find one that really highlights how great Yuuri looks faceplanting into the boards. "Because I wanted her to give me some tips for polishing my component score and she said she'd do it if I creep taped you so she could make you cry."

Yuuri waits three days on pins and needles to get the call. When it comes, it's pretty spectacular — a Skype session that starts with her getting him on his knees in front of his laptop webcam, confessing all manner of sins about letting his dancing lapse, and ends with her forcing him to take the computer with him to the rink. He gets a lot of weird looks, and the little kids in the intro class in the corner learn a lot of Japanese profanity. Yuuri hears a little redheaded girl yelling, "Kisama!" when she slips and lands on her ass wearing leggings covered in Disney Princess faces, so that happens.

Celestino helps him tweak the choreography, shifting all three of his quads into the second half to leverage his stamina and offset the relative lack of difficulty in his program. That leaves all the footwork in the first half, which is at once good and bad.

He spends a lot of time on the ice, long hours in early morning and late at night, when the rink's pretty deserted and he can work through his program with just his headphones and on his own recognizance. He knows it's dumb not to want to look graceless in front of his coach, but Yuuri likes learning things on his own, in his own time. He listens to the concerto so much it stops sounding like real music, but the Gershwin's the real problem.

"That piece has sex appeal, Yuuri," Minako-sensei had yelled at him, tinny through the computer speakers and completely ignoring the way Yuuri had motioned for her to stop saying "sex" so loudly while Disney Princess Leggings was so eagerly listening. "It's a good program, but you're skating it like a dateless wonder!"

Yuuri's choreography cuts in between frictionless spins and soft arms for the woodwinds and picking across the ice in lightning fast footwork for the piano — when Gershwin's brass and percussion sweep in, he jumps. It's reactive and beautiful, and when he can make it all the way through, it'll be a fantastic routine. Right now, it's responsible for all of the bruising down the right side of his body and the way Minako-sensei keeps sending him YouTube videos of couples twined around each other dancing — their bodies in perfect resonance, everything too intimate. His protests that he's performing in singles, not pair, fall on deaf ears — according to Minako-sensei, that just means he's got to work even harder to snare the audience all by his lonesome. Even when Yuuri nails the technical, his SP feels absolutely bloodless, disconnected.

His FP is equally if not more difficult, but Mozart's clean and beautiful and mannered, and precision makes for a beautiful skate. The Rhapsody is messy and achingly human, two things Yuuri's aware he exemplifies, but has no way to communicate on the ice beyond taking spectacular spills and bursting into tears on the podium.

"Yuuri, I'm going to spare you the indignity of asking which shitty teenaged boy you gave it up to outside of my immediate supervision," Minako-sensei lectures him one night.

The summer sweetness of May is creeping into the green of Yuuri's neighborhood, so of course Yuuri is sitting on the back deck of the little house he shares with Phichit and Celestino listening to his ballet teacher yell at him from Japan on FaceTime.

"Minako-sensei," Yuuri gasps.

She holds up a hand to stop him. It's holding a tumbler of whiskey. "Don't," she warns him. "Anyway — the point is, you are a beautiful, charming boy, stop acting like you're the ugly duckling and show off a little on the ice, you little shit."

In ordinary life, Yuuri walks into things because he spends most of his days looking down at his feet. He gets too shy to talk to strangers; he always has to give his Starbucks order twice because he's too quiet the first time. Yuuri is always biting back something he almost says out loud, hesitating at the last minute. Mari-nee-chan's teased him about it his whole life, but that doesn't make it less true: Yuuri knows he's a little soft, kind of a crybaby, that he needs to get a thicker skin. It's so strange to know that he can handle falling a hundred times, a bone-shaking impact with the ice, but that he can be entirely dismantled by an uncharitable look.

Yuuri twists his hands together in his lap. "I just — it's not really me, is it?"

"What's you?" Minako-sensei demands. "And what's not you? Aren't you the only person who gets to decide that? Before Yuuri learned to dance, there was no Yuuri who danced, and before you learned to skate, that wasn't you, either. You're whoever you decide to be — decide to be wanted."

Yuuri stares at Minako-sensei's scowling, wonderful face. "Minako-sensei."

She jams her finger into the video frame again, threatening. "I want an update in two weeks, Katsuki. You better seduce the shit out of me," she says, and hangs up.

Yuuri knows exactly no one he can ask about how to become seductive. He literally can't think of anything more horrible than asking Celestino, and Phichit spent yesterday buying gold, silver and bronze hamsters, so he's right out. Desperation has him asking Ben, who texts lol and r u kidding me ur a drunken sex bandit u got this, dude.

He spends a lot of time at the rink; he watches a lot of YouTube videos. He ignores a lot of Ben's text messages, because even if he can't really deny that comment as open slander, he doesn't have to like it. Two days later, though, he gets, yuuri come on you know your hot as fuck when you stop being weird about yourself don't be mad and it follows him all the way through the day, through his class and lunch with Phichit and his warm up routines and onto the ice.

Yuuri doesn't think he's weird about himself — he's just realistic. He's one of the dime a dozen JSF skaters, and reaching beyond that is always going to be more grind than glory. He's average looking, average height, ordinary in every way, compared to other senior level skaters on the circuit. He probably cries more than he should.

"It's good, Yuuri!" Celestino cheers him, at the close of his music, looking earnest and excited about it. "Clean — steady."

Yuuri draws a circle in the ice with his toe pick. "Minako-sensei says I should — um — " and he knows he mumbles the rest of it in an impossibly small voice " — be seductive."

Celestino looks thoughtful, skating big looping circles around the rink.

"Maybe," he says finally, his voice booming in the mostly-empty space. "But if you're not comfortable being seductive, that's just going to make it harder for you."

Yuuri fists both his hands in fervent agreement. "Right?" he yells.

"What about comfortable?" Celestino laughs, pulling up to a stop in front of him, eyes twinkling. "How about you aim for being completely comfortable on the ice — with yourself, with your program?"

Yuuri doesn't even know what that means, and he admits as much.

"You know when you practice, you ignore everything around you?" Celestino asks him. "Phichit tells me you spent two hours once doing your footwork on the front porch with your headphones in, and half the neighborhood stopped to stare at you and you had absolutely no idea."

Yuuri remembers doing footwork on the porch; he doesn't remember an audience. It had been raining that day, a little in the morning, and he kept skidding on the grass in the yard, so he'd limited himself to the porch and had gone through the routine until it was muscle memory, so he could work on the technique and execution, next, instead of just desperately trying to remember his choreography.

"Competing's not practicing, though," Yuuri protests in a little voice. "I — I've looked at my tape before. I make faces."

"People like your faces," Celestino tells him, but it comes out kindly. He claps a giant paw on Yuuri's shoulder and says, "Think about it — try it out. I'm sure nobody actually watches the Japan Open anyway, right?"

"Coach," Yuuri wails.

Phichit's senior debut is in Germany at the Nebelhorn Trophy, right at the beginning of Yuuri's fall semester classes. He can't get away, but he's glued to his phone, to Twitter, to Phichit's Instagram and to the live feed of the competitions. He likes every single picture and retweets every single post to his 302 Twitter followers. Phichit seems to see a lot more of Oberstdorf and the nightlife than Yuuri usually gets around to when he's traveling for competition — but then Phichit doesn't appear to get drunk and have sex with strangers.

Phichit's FP is set to "Defying Gravity" from Wicked, and Yuuri gasps out loud when Phichit touches down on his quad in the first half, but cheers himself hoarse when Phichit lands each of his triples clean and confidently and closes with an absolutely perfect sit-spin. Technical blocks him from the podium by less than a full point, but when Yuuri sees Phichit in the milling background of international skaters, he looks ebullient, and all of his Instagram posts are bubbling over with an explosion of joyful emojis, so Yuuri trusts the little voice in his heart that says it's okay to be unreservedly happy and proud.

Yuuri knows he's being ridiculous, but he makes Ben drive him to the airport the day Phichit and Celestino come back from Germany. He meets them in the arrivals terminal with a giant bouquet of yellow roses, a ton of CONGRATULATIONS balloons, and a tackling hug for Phichit as soon as he spots him through the barriers.

Ben drives a Hummer — of course he does — so there's plenty of room for Celestino, the flowers, the balloons, Phichit, and Yuuri to pile in for the drive home, even if Celestino and Yuuri are crammed together all the way in the back next to Phichit's luggage.

"Is this the guy gave you the drive of shame home a while back?" Celestino asks.

Yuuri barely manages not to scream. "What! No!"

In the front seat, Phichit and Ben are both singing passionately along with the greatest hits of the Wicked soundtrack, which at least covers the profound horribleness of the conversation happening in the backseat.

Celestino ignores him and asks, "Are you guys dating?"

Ben once asked Yuuri to bring him ninja stars from Japan.

"N-no way," Yuuri says. "I've never even had a boyfriend!"

The look he gets in response from Celestino is, frankly, a little insulting, but it kills the conversation, for which Yuuri is incandescent with gratitude.

That summer feels like a blissful little pocket out of time. They train; they go to late night movies; they sigh over the tape from Viktor Nikiforov's latest sure-to-be-record-breaking program. The rink gets closed for 48 hours for repairs, and he and Phichit take the opportunity to develop a routine to Dancing Queen in the house kitchen; Phichit only promises not to post video of it if Yuuri helps him work on his quad toe.

"Are you excited about the Japan Open?" Phichit asks, hands on his hips, shaking his moneymaker while the windows rattle with ABBA.

Yuuri throws his hands up in the air and twirls. "Absolutely not."

The Japan Open doesn't work like most competitions — no short program, just the free, and this year it's in Saitama. It's autumn, when the foliage is the most beautiful and tourists into Hasetsu are the most plentiful, so none of his family or the Nishigoris can get away. Yuuri had meant it when he told them it was fine, but when he gets to the airport and there's no one he knows there, he doesn't mean it at all.

Yuuri hooks into his music and heads straight for the practice rink, both because it's the best and only thing he can do right now. There's a pretty heavy representation of people there working out the last-minute kinks in their routine, and there's not a ton of open ice to work through his full program — Yuuri figures he'll blame that for the way he gets distracted by the fact that Matsumoto Keiichi and Ito Akihito are chatting with each other and skates into the boards.

"Yuuri!" Keiichi says, scrambling over. "Holy shit. Are you okay?"

Akihito's digging a handkerchief out of his pocket which — oh, okay, because Yuuri's nose is bleeding. Great. "Here, here — take this."

"I'm fine," Yuuri says. It comes out like Imb fibe, and when he feels around on the ice, he finds his glasses, luckily still intact. "How's your ankle, Keiichi-kun?"

"Better than your nose," Keiichi mutters, and pulls Akihito's handkerchief away to inspect the damage. "Damn, Yuuri — should we get the medic for you?"

This is embarrassing enough without getting medical professionals involved, and Yuuri's pretty sure his nose isn't broken, so he just shakes his head and lets them help him to his feet. It's not until he's back upright that he realizes that, actually, worse than the bloody nose is the fact that Matsumoto Keiichi and Ito Akihito are both staring at him.

"Ha — ha ha ha ha," Yuuri says.

Keiichi and Akihito exchange a Look.

When Yuuri hears Celestino start yelling, it's the first time he's ever been happy to be on the receiving end of it, and Keiichi and Akihito make themselves scarce. Yuuri ends up getting dragged to the medic anyway, which is probably for the best, and a better option than trying to navigate a conversational minefield with two people he — well, you know.

The medic pronounces him unharmed but dumb, and sends him off with a plastic cold pack and a strong warning not to skate, rapid-fire, into any more unmoving surfaces.

"I would make you do 50 suicides as punishment but it would be counterproductive for your skate tomorrow," Celestino growls, punching the cold pack so it starts activating and then pressing it not-so-tenderly to Yuuri's face.

"Ow — sorry — ow," Yuuri whimpers.

"Don't worry, I'm adding that 50 to your running tally when we get back to Detroit," Celestino promises. "What's wrong with you? Is your head in the right place?"

Yuuri would take a hundred headers into the boards over explaining what happened, so he just makes apologetic noises until Celestino gives up and tells Yuuri to hit the ice and work on his jumps.

Yuuri can't say, but I turned into a drunken sex bandit with two separate people out there, so he just says, "Yes, Coach," and goes to work on his jumps, scrupulously ignoring both Keiichi and Akihito.

Celestino makes him call Minako-sensei later that night because Yuuri's nose is now an extremely attractive purple color, and "that's not the look we're going for, Katsuki."

"How how how do you do this shit to yourself?" Minako-sensei wails, her voice warping in horror over FaceTime. "I knew I should have canceled my class and come up."

"It's fine! Really!" Yuuri protests. "But Coach said you might know how to cover it up."

Minako-sensei guides him on a journey of discovery into the cosmetics aisle of the drug store. Yuuri's wearing a hoodie pulled up to hide his face, but he's pretty sure the high school girls hanging around the makeup aisle are judging the crap out of him.

He ends up on a three-way video call with Minako-sensei and Mari-nee-chan in his hotel room, for no reason Yuuri can see other than so that they can both make fun of him while he tries to use concealer.

"Ugh — your poor face," Mari-nee-chan says. "I'll have to warn Mom and Dad."

"While you're at it, let's cover that zit on your chin, too," is Minako-sensei's contribution.

Later, after Minako-sensei's confirmed Yuuri knows how to hide his hideous bruising, she rings off and it's just Yuuri and his sister on the call, Vicchan sleeping noisily at Mari-nee-chan's side in the video feed, his chest rising and falling.

"How are Mom and Dad? And Yutopia?" Yuuri asks, because it feels so dumb to be so close to home and still so far away that he can't go to visit — that his parents can't come to his competition. It's always been like this, the tough knocks of owning a business; there were never any weekends or lazy evenings, always work work work at the onsen, something falling apart or new guests arriving, a problem with a booking or the landscaping needing work. Yuuri knows he hasn't been a very good son to his parents, that he's always been at the rink or at his classes, and it eats at him a lot. The last good thing he did for his family was making that Yutopia website.

"Hmmm — they're the same as ever," Mari-nee-chan tells him, and rolling onto her stomach, she levels him that thousand-yard stare. She's done it since they were little; Yuuri's no good at lying to her. "Stop feeling guilty."

Yuuri winces. "Sorry," he says, because he doesn't know what else to say.

"Everybody is responsible for their own future, you know," Mari-nee-chan tells him, with that same flat, unaffected tone she's cultivated since she was in high school, when her voice rasped into its lower register and lost its little-girl high notes. "Otosan wanted to inherit the onsen, Mama married him knowing she'd end up running it with him. I know it doesn't make sense to you, because you're not meant for this, but they're happy."

She knocks on the laptop monitor and it makes Yuuri startle.

"I'm happy here," she says, grinning once she knows she has his attention. "Okay?"

Yuuri nods, and can feel his eyes getting hot. It's what he's been scared about for years, that his parents spent so much money on his lessons, that everybody was so patient with him, spent so much time over him. And he was no use to the business at all, left Mari-nee-chan stuck with all the work. Yuuri's been too afraid to ask, afraid if he broaches the topic she'll say, "Yuuri, we need you at home," only now she's smiling at him, her face familiar and wonderful and genuinely happy, and Yuuri feels a sense of relief so huge it makes him feel a little dizzy.

"You know I have big plans for this place," she goes on, looking here and there in her room, the one she'd decorated with posters for boy bands and photographs of their onsen. "When Mama and Otosan retire, you'd better believe things are gonna be different around here."

Yuuri laughs, and rubs away at his tears with the heel of his hand. "Oh yeah?"

"I mean first things first, we've gotta get an online reservation system," Mari-nee-chan tells him, and they talk for another hour about redesigning the main floor, refurbishing the banquet rooms, installing wifi throughout the onsen, offering pick-up service from the nearest train station. It sounds wonderful — it sounds like Mari-nee-chan has a lot of plans, that she has a whole fantastic life that Yuuri feels a little sad to be missing, but grateful to be able to see from a distance.

"Oh — shit, it's late," she says finally, when her voice is going hoarse from talking. "Sorry, Yuuri, I should let you get to sleep — "

"No!" he says, and off her look, he blushes and asks, "Um, would it be okay if we just left the video chat up? And go to sleep — I know it's weird."

She shrugs, moving the laptop over to the pillow next to her and pulling up the covers.

"Whatever, you're weird so it works," she mutters, and mumbly with sleep, she says, "Night, Yuuri — do a good job tomorrow, okay? We'll be watching."

Yuuri watches her fall asleep and watches Vicchan sleeping next to her for along time, eyes getting heavier in the darkness of his hotel room.

"I promise," he says to his computer, and drifts away.

The next day, Yuuri lands every jump, perfect, and his step routine flows out of him effortlessly. He blubbers all over the ice when they give him his silver medal, and in the post-competition press conference, Morooka Hisashi asks, "Katsuki-san, how does it feel to be one of Japan's top male figure skaters?"

"Unbelievable," Phichit laughs at him when Yuuri gets back to Detroit. "I can't believe you just stared at him like a moron — Yuuri you're too much."

Yuuri groans and hides his face in a pillow.

Skate America's less than a month after the Open, marking the first time Yuuri and Phichit are competing in the same event. They spend October training, and it injects into Yuuri a strange tension to hear Celestino saying, "Phichit, you should study how Yuuri does this — there's a reason his component scores are so high," when Yuuri is only ever desperately trying not to embarrass himself.

Yuuri has a test scheduled just hours before their flight to California, and goes from handing in his blue book directly to the airport where Phichit is meticulously Snapchatting tiny, involved narratives in the Hudson News.

"Hello hello, everybody!" Phichit's telling his phone, Snapchat, the universe. "Here with the amazing Yuuri Katsuki — "

"Oh, God," Yuuri mutters, trying to buy a Twix.

" — and we are getting ready to kick ass at Skate America," Phichit goes on, swinging the phone around so Yuuri can see himself in frame, too: disheveled, pale and just the right angle to show off his double chin and bewildered expression. "Yuuri: your thoughts?"

"My thought is Coach is going to kill us when he realizes we're buying candy," Yuuri says, to Phichit and the phone camera.

Phichit, who has the metabolism of a nuclear fusion reaction, just laughs and shamelessly throws two bags of Peanut M&Ms on the counter to check out. "Okay, Snapchat — it'll be our secret from Ciao Ciao, then!"

Ciao Ciao finds out because Ciao Ciao, like everyone else in the figure skating universe, follows Phichit on Snapchat, and confiscates their candy as soon as they get to their gate. Because it takes a certain amount of sadism to successfully navigate a career in sports coaching and iron will to crush young dreams, Celestino sits next to them on the flight and gorges himself on the candy while doing last checks on their paperwork, ignoring the way Phichit whines all the way until they land in California.

Skate America feels crazier than the other competitions Yuuri's experienced.

The crowds are bigger and the number of press in attendance is absolutely insane. The great luminaries of figure skating are all present, and Yuuri spends their registration period starry eyed and overwhelmed, watching emigrating nations of competitors from around the States and fly-ins from around the world congregating to fight with event organizers about anything and everything. Different countries have different levels of baseline intensity when it comes to figure skating, but the U.S. skating community is huge, populous, ultra-competitive and highly regionally segmented — Skate America is their yearly Hunger Games. Yuuri hears at least four people making jokes (probably) about pulling a Tonya Harding. Celestino looks like he's in heaven.

The men's competitions are on days one and two, and Yuuri marvels that no matter how often he does this, in how many different semi-anonymous rinks and with however many heaving anonymous crowds watching, it never gets easier. Phichit's draw is all the way toward the end of the day, while Yuuri's is first thing in the morning — better that way, Yuuri thinks, letting Celestino give him one last hug, and pushes out onto the ice.

Yuuri doesn't think he'll ever be able to hit Minako-sensei's mark for seduction, but he reaches and reaches for Celestino and the way he had said "comfortable" back in the safety of Detroit. Yuuri imagines he's on the porch of their little house, that the only person watching is Phichit studiously taking notes about Yuuri's ankles. He doesn't let himself think about winning; he tells himself his best is all he can do.

And when that first, fluttering clarinet soars into something sweet and sharp, Yuuri exhales and gives himself into the music.

He forgets about whatever faces he's making; he lets go of his probably fruitless grasp for technical perfection. He lets his arms and his hips and his shoulders do the talking, dances through his step routine, coquettish, and starts building up steam when the French Horns sweep in. Yuuri skates into his first jump as the percussion builds, and lands his quad-toe combo to the thunder of cymbals. It hits him like a shock of adrenaline to the system — the way a sugar cube melts on your tongue, and the rest of his short program is the bliss of moving so desperately you forget to think.

Celestino is shouting in overexcited Italian, grabbing Yuuri up in a bear hug and bouncing him up and down before Yuuri even has a chance to cover his skate blades. The crowd noise is — mind-boggling, a wall of sound that distorts itself into an inhuman noise: a physical press of voices versus individual words.

"Was that okay?" Yuuri yells, over the other yelling.

"Was that okay!" Celestino yells back, and instead of answering, he picks Yuuri up and twirls him around some more.

The judges mark a 71.02 for Yuuri's SP, and Celestino erupts off of the bench like a lunatic and starts punching the air. Yuuri just smiles, dazed, because a flock of sweet-faced little boys and girls working the event bring him some flowers someone tossed and giant, squishy stuffed piece of salmon sushi. He waves his flowers. He waves his sushi. He gives the camera and everyone in the audience a deep, bewildered bow, and lets Celestino hustle him off for his cool down.

He ends up giving Phichit the salmon sushi for good luck, and he stands with Celestino in agonies as Phichit's called to the ice, later that night.

Phichit's skating is joyful, as wonderful and funny and happy as he is. He makes up for a relatively weak technical slate with explosive energy; he mouths the lyrics along with the music. The crowd adores him, and doesn't care that he touches down on his triple lutz; they cheer his beautiful camel spin, and — because he's ridiculous — his twizzle.

He won't make the top, but he's won the undying love of everybody in the stadium, Yuuri thinks, laughing and running down to kiss and cry. Phichit is incandescent, and honestly, his middling score is an afterthought to the carnival of shenanigans he gets up to hamming it up for the camera.

Celestino buys them something called double doubles from In-N-Out for dinner.

"What do you think, Yuuri?" he asks, eager. "Amazing, right?"

"It's very nice," Yuuri says, because he's too polite to tell Celestino he'd rather have katsudon instead.

The second day doesn't go as well as the first.

Phichit and Yuuri draw near enough together they all head over to the rink as a team, but whatever mojo Phichit had day one has waned a bit for his free skate. He downgrades his only quad to a triple toe after he falls on a triple flip earlier in the program; he's a little off cue with his music, but he finishes clean, and Yuuri cheers his heart out.

When it's his turn, Yuuri nearly wipes out on his last jump, the same one that's been plaguing him all season, but the rest of the program is solid: as delicate and meticulous as Mozart always is, and he feels happy when he skates off the ice — at least until his scores come up.

His technicals are — fine; it's the component score that sinks him. Yuuri stares at the number with a sickening inevitability. He knew. He always knew. It's why he's so careful. It's why he can't take Minako-sensei's advice, it's why Celestino had said "comfortable" instead. He twists his hands around the flowers in his lap so hard a stray thorn bites into his palm. The ice isn't the dance studio; it isn't even the sunny little kitchen in the suburbs of Detroit. Yuuri has always been exactly who he is, no more or less, but it's so much to remember when he's trying to focus on his program, too much: little, accidental truths leak through. They drag him down.

Yuuri looks down at his lap, eyes hot, throat hurting. He comes in fifth, behind JJ, who fell during his free skate. He's almost glad he doesn't make the podium, that he can just gather up his things and go back to the hotel.

Celestino puts a good face on it, but Yuuri hears him later that night, complaining to someone at the bar about the "fucking fascist judging." But really, fifth place at Skate America is fine, it's where Yuuri probably belongs, really, and he spends the rest of the day reading all the commentary and coverage around the competition — he accidentally reads a little of the speculation on why he got his low component score:

While Katsuki's background in dance shines in his choreography and performance, it's the rawness of his expression and movement that leave him vulnerable to the judges in the component scoring, one article wrote. They use the words overly emotional.

He feels like he's exploding out of his skin, and decides not to read any more.

Ontario's only about 35 miles outside of L.A. This turns out to be the perfect combination of factors for a bunch of pressure-crazed figure skaters to go completely nuts. When one of them asks if Yuuri wants to come along into the city, he goes.

Clubbing in Los Angeles is a wholly different experience than Paris, where there had always been Chris and Nils just at hand. Yuuri doesn't know any of the people he went out with, plus he realizes about half an hour in that he's apparently devastated by his FP score, so Yuuri says, "Fuck it," and decides to get quietly, comprehensively obliterated.

He starts with vodka, because figure skating is a heavily Russian sport and it was the mother's milk of his drinking career. He moves onto gin, because it's the preferred ruin of Celestino and cheaper than the vodka. After that, Yuuri loses track of what he's drinking and how he's acquiring it, but who cares, anyway, because it's so hot in this club and when someone starts plucking at his button-up shirt it becomes the greatest idea in human history just to whip it off.

At some point in the night a boy with pink hair appears in Yuuri's field of vision smirking and holding a test tube rack of multicolored shots.

"For me?" Yuuri gushes. Everyone in this club is so nice.

"Only if you show us your moves, hot stuff," Pink Hair teases.

Yuuri grabs the first test tube he can reach — filled to the brim with something red.

"Oh, I'm very good," he says, and tosses it back. "Just watch."

After the red one Yuuri drinks the blue one, which tastes like perfume, so obviously he drinks the gray one to chase it away. He doesn't get around to the green one before someone grabs him by the beltloops of his jeans and drags him onto the dance floor.

It's not music so much as just a baseline beat, with birdlike electronic tones woven throughout. The light's flickering in and out so quickly Yuuri feels like he's blinking slowly, the whole world going light and dark, and in the anonymous, overheated press of bodies on the floor, Yuuri doesn't have to keep his wrist soft — but not too soft — his hip cocked — but not too cocked — his leg extended — but not like that. He can do whatever; that last gray one unlocked some hidden door. The music revs, and Yuuri leans into the hands stroking up his t-shirt, damp through with sweat, throws his arms around someone, anyone, to anchor himself, and he melts away into the beat.

There's a certain friction to this kind of thing, an itch that turns into a burn, and Yuuri knows he's six drinks past making anything approaching a good decision, but it still feels good when someone cups his face and kisses him.

It feels good to be touched, to be wanted for however excessively himself he is. Yuuri feels like he's starving, whines into the kiss, twines himself tight with some stranger and lets himself get steered closer and closer to the edge of the dance floor. He's not a complete idiot, he knows where this — and he — is going, but he's past embarrassment and wild with wanting, something that coils tightly with both lust and loneliness, and instead of feeling sick when he gets shoved into a bathroom stall, he just feels glad that this, at least, can be easy.

"I'm Jack," the guy says, as Yuuri's dropping to his knees — it hurts, not just from the cold, probably filthy floor, but from his programs, the training, the one hundred thousand falls he's taken since he started skating.

"Yuuri," he says, and goes for his belt.

Yuuri has to text Phichit to get the hotel to send him a cab. The ride back is silent, with a slowly deepening sense of hurt that settles into Yuuri's belly. His jaw hurts. He can still taste salt and skin and the sharp tang of bitterness in his mouth, and he has no idea if that's Jack or his losses. Both possibilities turn his stomach.

Phichit meets him at the hotel room with a sympathetic smile and a bottle of water.

"Drank too much?" he asks.

"Yeah," Yuuri croaks.

Phichit pets his hair later that night, sweet. "Don't listen to those people, Yuuri," he whispers. "You were wonderful — you always are. Nobody skates like you do."

Yuuri just swallows around the bruise in his throat, squeezes his eyes shut tightly and nods. He can't explain it to Phichit; he doesn't want to explain it to Phichit.

"It's okay," Yuuri manages, and when he says, "It's just — I'll try harder next time," he means it — he'll try harder. He'll be different.

"Of course!" Phichit agrees, all good-hearted happiness, blissfully unaware.

Yuuri's only remaining 2011-2012 events are the NRW Trophy and Nationals in Japan. He takes the month after Skate America to rework his routine; he ducks a lot of questions from Minako-sensei and quietly takes Celestino's awkwardly provided advice. He skates with his spine straighter, shoulders squared.

"It's still nice," Phichit says. "But um — not the same."

"That's okay," Yuuri tells him, and doesn't say, that's the point.

Yuuri spends another birthday on the road, turns 21 alone in a hotel room in Germany. Celestino promises that they'll do something special once they're done with the competition, and Yuuri makes agreeable noises, but the idea of a grocery store sheet cake with his skating coach and none of his friends is more lonely than comforting, but it's a rude thing to think and a ruder thing to say.

He takes the gold at NRW, and he sends it to his mother.

"Oh, Yuuri, you should keep one," his mother says, when he calls her that night after sneaking out of the banquet. He's skipping the afterparty entirely — just the thump of music through a closed door is enough to give him an instant, wincing memory of Los Angeles. Somewhere in his backlog of hastily opened mail in Detroit is a clean STD test, for which he's grateful, since it proves that regret's the only thing he carried home from that debacle, at least.

"What would I do with it?" Yuuri laughs. "No, keep it. Use it to level a table."

"Yuuri," his mother scolds, but her mouth is twitching as she does it.

That year's Japan Nationals are in Osaka, just a two-hour flight from Saga, which means Mari-nee-chan and Minako-sensei are waiting for him at the airport — with a 10-foot banner reading GO GO GO KATSUKI YUURI PRIDE OF HASETSU, with a screen printing of himself running through sakura petals.

They both have absolutely horrible smiles on their faces.

"Where did you even get that picture?" Yuuri gasps, mortified, and then even more mortified when he remembers he's in Japan and doesn't even have the veil of a foreign language to shield him from the eavesdropping and laughter of passers-by.

"The local chamber of commerce built a creepy image gallery of you online," Minako-sensei says, shameless. "You attract a lot of weird fans, Katsuki."

Mari-nee-chan smirks. "She means perverts."

Nationals are spread out over three days starting December 22, but Yuuri had purposefully flown in a week early — to acclimate to the time difference, get some practice in, and because Minako-sensei said if he didn't she'd come to Detroit and make him do Fouettes until he throws up.

Yuuri's first night turns out to be his delayed birthday party, attended long-distance by the Nishigori family, his parents, and Vicchan via the magic of video conferencing. Mari-nee-chan produces a tiny cake, decorated with piped skates, and Minako-sensei gives him a scarf she says she made herself. Yuuri believes her, because it's profoundly hideous and thoroughly misshapen. He wears it nonstop the next day, gone exploring with Minako-sense and Mari-nee-chan. They walk around eating everything in sight: crackling hot kushikatsu, takoyaki, okonomiyaki for lunch. Yuuri makes starry, lovelorn eyes at the idea of horumon for dinner, and they pile into a ramshackle little restaurant,

"Enjoy this while you can," his sister says later that night, when they're all sacked out together on futons in the ryokan room they'd rented. "Minako-senpai says she found a studio space for tomorrow and she's getting you back for ducking her calls so much."

Yuuri hears himself whimper in response.

But training with Minako-sensei has always been the kind of hard Yuuri likes, the kind he understands, that feels safe. She helps him with stretches, checks his flexibility. Yuuri volunteers to go buy them drinks and snacks so that she can watch the video of his performance at NRW, at Skate America. He was there, he knows how they went, but he doesn't want to be in the room for it. It's easy to dance for Minako-sensei — it's hard to know already what she'll say when she sees how he performed.

Only when he comes back with onigiri and peach sodas, Minako-sensei just waves him over and cups his face in her hands, the way she's done since he was just a little boy and used to run crying to her studio for comfort.

"It's been really hard for you, huh, Yuuri?" she asks him. There's no pity in her voice, just a humbling tenderness — a lifetime of her love and care.

Yuuri can't look at her face; it'll just make him cry, and she makes fun of him for it enough already. He whispers, "It's not that bad."

She's quiet for a long time before she sighs, just a little exhalation, and she says, "Come here," and he goes, lets himself press his face into her shoulder and hold on tight. He's too needy, right now, to be embarrassed, and he's been embarrassing himself in front of Minako-sensei since he was a little kid, anyway.

"Yuuri is wonderful, exactly the way Yuuri is," she says, into his hair and pressing a kiss to his temple. "But tell me who you want to be, and I'll help you be him, okay?"

He nods, and she lets him hold on a little longer.

It feels strangely like unfolding an origami crane — trying to press away the wings and tail and its neck, to unmake a mark. He doesn't have Phichit's sunshine-sweet happiness, JJ's masculine dynamism, he's no Viktor Nikiforov — so gifted he defies categorization. Yuuri will always be Yuuri on ice.

Yuuri wins gold by a half-point margin at the Nationals, and for a minute, standing on the podium and being blinded by an ocean of flashbulbs and cell phone cameras, he almost forgets how awful it was to get here.

Yuuri just misses the cutoff for the Four Continents Championship, which Celestino takes with the grim pragmatism of someone who's been stuck working with Yuuri for years already. They map out his 2012-2013 season, which looks more challenging than ever now that Yuuri's earned a little competition currency, and for the first time, Celestino asks if Yuuri has any thoughts about his program music.

Yuuri doesn't mind his coaches picking his competition music; when he was little, just beginning to put together programs and compete, his mother and sister and father volunteered ideas. Yuuri's skated to SMAP hits and Utada Hikaru and sato kagura. Yuuri finds lyrics in competition music distracting — even if they're in another language, he's so used to trying to pick out the words he understands that it's distracting. He likes music that's a little sad, that takes him on a journey. He hates Mahler.

"You know my friend Emily writes music," Ben tells him. "Maybe she could write something for you to use — something that fits you better?"

They're at the rink waiting for Phichit to wrap up practice before they head out for dinner; Ben's sister and mom are in town, and Yuuri's already been warned they're charmingly obsessed with figure skating.

"Would that be okay?" Yuuri asks. "That — I don't think I could pay her much."

Ben laughs, loops an arm around Yuuri's shoulders. "Why don't I just email her and ask? Can't hurt, right?"

They end up at the Cheesecake Factory in Novi — according to Ben's sister Karen it's an unspoken suburban mom rule — in a massive booth, eating Thai lettuce wraps and entrees there's no possible way to finish in a single sitting. Phichit is absurd and completely charming the way he always is, and because he's good with people and not an awkward disaster like Yuuri, he brought Ben's mom and Karen fun pieces of figure skating swag. It's nothing fancy, just extra lanyards from Skate America, a program from a regional competition, a COMPETITOR pass from something or another. They're in raptures, and they spend most of dinner asking Yuuri and Phichit questions with the fervent interest of true believers.

"Sorry about my family," Ben mutters, when Phichit takes them off to go pick out their cheesecake slices. "They're — intense."

Yuuri thinks about Mari-nee-chan and Minako-sensei and the Nishigoris.

"They're nice. It's nice of them to invite us," Yuuri assures him.

Ben gives him a funny look, shy and happy at once, and at least one of those passing emotions looks really strange on his face. "Well, hanging around with a top figure skater is like Mom and fuckin' Karen's dream come true so."

"So ignore whatever awful stuff he's saying about us and tell us more about you," Ben's mother follows up easily, swatting her son on the back of the head and squeezing back into the booth, pink-cheeked and starry. "How'd you two meet? Where do you train?"

Yuuri would gnaw off his legs before telling Ben's mother how they met, so he says, "Oh, um, at the library," and ignores the way Karen is smirking at them like she knows that Yuuri doesn't even know where the undergraduate library is.

"Yuuri's only a part time student because he trains so much," Ben fills in.

His mother makes a cooing noise. "Gosh, that's got to be so hard — and in English! Ben said you grew up in Japan?"

This turns into a conversation about Hasetsu, about Kyushu and how long it's been since Yuuri's been home. He hates this conversation — not because of Hasetsu or Kyushu or because he doesn't miss home, but because he can't stand the pity. People hear that he left home at 18, that he hasn't seen his family's onsen except through photographs and computer and telephone screens since then, that he sees his family — if he's lucky — once a year for a few days. He doesn't need anybody's reminder that it's sad; he knows it's sad. He's sad about it.

"Yuuri's a top pick for the Grand Prix Finals next year," Ben says, when Yuuri knows his voice is getting that scratchy quality, that faint something that telegraphs distress.

Karen shoves at Ben. "We know, asshole — we've been skating fans longer than you."

"Karen, language," Ben's mother says, and adds, "But that's amazing, all the same — what about you, Phichit? We saw you at Skate America!"

Phichit laughs and elbows Yuuri, teasing. "Oh, I'm not bad, but I'm not Yuuri."

"Phichit," Yuuri hisses.

Because Ben's family is relentlessly American, at the very end of dinner, Karen and his mother both give Yuuri a hug and get a photo with him, as if Yuuri is some kind of celebrity. Then Phichit gets in on it and the whole thing deteriorates into a full scale photoshoot in the Cheesecake Factory parking lot.

Ben drops his family off, and when he pulls up to the house, he waits until Phichit's out of the car before he grabs Yuuri's hand — unbuckling his seatbelt.

"Do you have practice tomorrow?" he asks quietly. "Can — is it okay if I stay over?"

Yuuri stares, at Ben's blue eyes and familiar face, the nervous jagged line of his mouth. Ben's graduating with his business degree this year, headed directly into a three-year analyst program in New York; he'd told Yuuri which bank, but Yuuri couldn't, for the life of him, remember its name right now. In all the time Yuuri's known him, that they've made time for each other, Ben has been Yuuri's friend at college who doesn't laugh when Yuuri cries at movies, who's surprisingly sweet but knows nothing about Japan, who's safe to be with when Yuuri feels hot and wanting and gets a little tipsy and greedy.

He doesn't have practice, but that's not the reason Ben can't stay over. Yuuri stares too long, he must hesitate too long, trying to think of something polite to say, and he feels more than sees it when Ben sinks into quiet realization: the fingers on Yuuri's hands go slack, they pull away.

"You know what, um. Never mind, just — forget I said anything," Ben says.

Yuuri wants to say something kind here, or something so mean that Ben will leave angry instead of hurt, but he's never been able to find the right words for the right moment. He does the only thing he can do right now, and gets out of Ben's car.

"Good night," he whispers. "Drive safe."

"Yup," Ben says, and hits the gas.

The next time Yuuri sees him it's at a random Starbucks on campus: Ben's wearing a PROPERTY OF UNIVERSITY OF MICHIGAN hoodie and Vans, dark circles under his eyes. His iPod headphones are in, he's hanging around the end of the counter waiting for his drink, looking distracted and tired.

"Oh — did you want to go say hi?" Phichit asks.

Yuuri swallows around the stone in his throat. "No, lets — he looks busy. Let's not bother him."

On a flight, later that night, en route to Shanghai for the Cup of China, Yuuri stares out the window and feels the clawing, horrible realization that he's not the only one who can be hurt — that he has his own jagged edges, too.

The Cup of China and the Rostelecom Cup blur together into a terrible three weeks of brutal practices and unrelenting travel. Yuuri feels sick, distracted — on edge the whole time. It's not the normal pre-competition nerves, it feels like something cosmic, like this entire season is cursed.

Maybe it is. At the practices before the Cup of China, two of the competitors have a tooth-rattling collision that leads to a concussion and a withdrawal. One of the women skaters slices her hand open in competition when she tries to switch feet doing a Biellmann, and the day before Rostelecom, one of the Canadian pairs has a gruesome accident when the man's Achilles gets sliced by his partner's blade as she's coming down from a lift.

Yuuri skates his programs, set to classical music that Celestino chose for him, and he lands all his jumps — clean if not confident. He goes politely to the post-competition banquets, he makes small talk in three languages about the horrible injuries this season, so frightening, so horrible for the skaters. He runs into Chris and Nils at Rostelecom, and hides with them while having his alcohol consumption carefully monitored by Nils, who cuts him off after three glasses of wine.

"Go to bed, Yuuri," Nils says to him kindly. "Go celebrate your medal and get some rest — you look like you need it."

He mails his bronze home to Hasetsu, where it is arranged in pride of place in some kind of figure skating shrine his parents have set up in the tatami room. Mari-nee-chan sends him a picture of Vicchan wearing it, which winds up as the background of Yuuri's phone for months and months after. Yuuri asks a guy who knows a guy who knows a girl to ask her friend at the Oberlin Conservatory to compose some music for him, and then he has to apologize to her — at length — when he ends up not using it.

Yuuri defends his gold at the Nationals in Sapporo and cries again.

It comes as a genuine shock; Yuuri feels like he's sleepwalked this entire year, but when he closes his FP and listens to to the pandemonium of applause, he stares into the rafters and knows and that breaks something wide open in his chest.

"Every year you tell JSF your goal is not to cry and every year," Minako-sensei shouts at him, but she's bawling, too, her KATSUKI YUURI FIGHTING banner crumbled from her excitement and dotted with tears.

Yuuri answers the same half-dozen questions awkwardly the way he does every time a reporter asks him anything. He gets to talk about how grateful he is for the opportunity to represent Hasetsu — he's sure the local chamber loves that, and will add that quote to the terrifying gallery — and how he's happy for his win, but still has room to grow. He bows deeply to the audience, thanks them for their belief in him.

"You said before Viktor Nikiforov is your goal, is that still the case, Katsuki-san?" Morooka Hisashi asks.

"O-of course!" Yuuri says, probably too eagerly from the gentle roll of laughter in the press room. "Vikitor Nikiforov is still the greatest skater competing today — we should all look up to him and strive to reach his level of excellence."

Just two months later, Yuuri's back in Japan for the Four Continents Championships, held in Osaka this year. It's not much of a homecoming, though: Minako-sensei can't make the competition, and the onsen has a minor plumbing disaster that keeps the rest of his family away, too.  The triplets are more mobile than ever, and Nishigori and Yu-chan have been promoted to general managers of the Ice Palace. Everybody calls and texts and emails, but in the crowd, in the practices and the snatched empty hours in between, it's just Yuuri and Celestino and all of Yuuri's barely concealed doubt.

In the end, he's more or less happy with his fourth-place finish. It's enough to keep Celestino satisfied and Yuuri off the hook for the press scrum afterward.

The end of spring and the hot stretch of summer are times that Yuuri associates inextricably with Phichit. They're both done with competition for the season, and Celestino takes a month to go back to Italy, so they're almost all alone in the little soap bubble of their absurd lives. Their schedules relax from 5 a.m. wake ups and 6 a.m. rink times to the shocking luxury of sleeping until 8:30 and going to classes, which don't include burly Italian men in HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH t-shirts screaming at you when you break your ass on ice and trying to balance on knives for 10 hours a day.

Usually Yuuri loves this interval, like the shuddery exhale after so many desperate breaths: he can sleep and he can eat and he can skate, for nothing but the love of it — except this summer feels different, pensive, almost oppressive with heat. He doesn't sleep, he eats too much, he skates like something's chasing him. The people at his rink keep asking if he got dumped.

Yuuri's always put in long hours — he knows he's not gifted, that his skating is 90 percent skill and 10 percent luck, that every hour he puts in will grind out just that fraction better performance, shave away a rough edge from the landing of a jump. Yuuri's not afraid to be hurt; his body's been a map of bruises for as long as he can remember, something that holds him back, holds him in, a tool he's not afraid to push to its limit.

He feels — it must be frustration, it must be the sharp teeth of hubris, wanting more than he should think is his right. Yuuri's discipline training is more than just practice, it's knowing how much he can want before not having it will hurt him where it won't leave a mark. Yuuri's had broken bones and sprained ankles, grade two concussions and sliced his hand open with his skate before. He's lost as a little kid and then in the junior circuit, lost at the senior competition level. He'll keep hurting and losing as long as he competes. All of these things are true, but all of these are calculated suffering, these are all within Yuuri's capacity to bear.

But he's so close, so close that it must be some lizard brain instinct to push, to give that last burst of adrenaline and effort, clawing through Yuuri's decade of careful restriction, the high walls he built around his own misguided yearning.

"You're working hard," Phichit says to him one night. His voice is careful; when you speak across languages, sometimes tone is all you have to soften a hard question. "But you don't seem happy about it."

Yuuri stares down at his the Ace bandage he's winding around his ankle. He thinks about lying, about changing the subject.

"I — want to win," he says instead, he admits it out loud. It's worse than any of Yuuri's other confessions, it's hard to say, even here and even just to Phichit.

Who crawls up on the bed with Yuuri. "That's normal, Yuuri. We all want to win."

Yuuri looks away from his foot to the walls of his room, plastered with posters and articles about Viktor Nikiforov. His room back in Hasetsu looks pretty much the same, with older posters, suspended in time until he can go back home and debate if it's worth it to hide the evidence of the obvious.

"I've never…really let myself want to win before," Yuuri says finally. "I mean, gold. I've always told myself, 'work hard, do a good job, you can't control the rest.'"

Phichit puts his head on Yuuri's shoulder, tucked in close, and Yuuri thinks he'd do anything for Phichit — even talk about this out loud.

"That only takes you so far," Phichit says quietly.

Yuuri nods, his throat tight. "But it makes everything harder."

"Trying to ignore it is hard, too, Yuuri," Phichit murmurs.

That night, Phichit makes him Kai Jiew Moo Saap, a deep-fried omelet with fish sauce and pork and a little soy. Phichit's mother makes it with chives, so Phichit makes it with chives, too. He lets Yuuri pile on sauce prik and they eat it in front of the television, watching The Mighty Ducks because Yuuri takes comfort in how accessibly cute Charlie Conway is.

"It's not gonna be okay to win fourth or fifth anymore, Yuuri," Phichit says, after dinner and when the movie is bleeding into its sequel. "Everyone can see you're too good for that now — you should be on the podium every time."

Yuuri curls himself up like a pillbug, puts his head in his knees. "I'm just a regular skater," he tells his jeans, he tells Phichit, he tells himself.

"Yuuri," Phichit says apologetically, "you're the two-time Japanese national champion."

"Oh look," Yuuri says loudly, pointing at the TV. "It's Team Iceland."

Phichit is probably Yuuri's best friend, and also as sweet as the palm sugar he sneaks into the country after every visit home, so he lets it go. Part of Celestino's job as a coach is to tell the parents of promising young skaters that their kid's not so special, and to stop wasting money on lessons that won't ever lead to the professional circuit.

"Kid, I think you know how this conversation is going to go," Celestino says, a day after he'd dragged back into Detroit with an entire suitcase filled with his mother's homemade dried pasta, none which Yuuri is allowed to eat during training.

He's trapped Yuuri in the benches at his practice rink. Outside, the sky's going pink, blushing as she lays down for the night, and the cluster of shrieking little kids on children's skates is making their way off the ice and headed homeward with their families. Somewhere on the other side of the world, the sun's just rising over Kyushu and his mother and father and sister are getting out of bed to get breakfast started at the onsen, Vicchan curled up in the kitchen near the radiant coolness of the drink fridge.

The whole world hushed in waiting, Yuuri thinks suddenly, the words emerging fully formed into his head.

"I don't know what you want me to say," Yuuri admits, finally, he stops looping his laces around his ankles and looks at Celestino's knees. They're bad knees, doomed him to retirement a few years earlier than he would have liked, after an admirable career raising the profile of figure skating in Italy and for Italy on the global stage. Yuuri thinks that if his body failed him, that if he had to stop skating and remake himself, start from scratch, he'd collapse inward like a dying star — even if he doesn't have the courage to say it, he's invested everything, it threads through his whole life, every choice he's made since he was 10 years old, too young to know what he was getting himself into.

"I want you to show some spine, Katsuki," Celestino barks at him. "You have talent, and you work harder than any student I've ever had — I just can't tell if you have the drive."

Yuuri squeezes his eyes shut. "I don't know why it matters. I skate, I practice."

"Lots of people skate and a lot of people practice," Celestino retorts. "Those little kids who spend most of their time doing circles and trying not to fall on their asses skate and they practice — I'm asking if you have the will to push yourself higher, or if you're comfortable here, like this."

There's no good answer to this, everything Yuuri could say is too complicated. He's comfortable in his body, but he's not comfortable with himself, with what he wants or doesn't want. Everything is always a question that he never seems to fully answer, that can be revisited all the time. It's exhausting. It's why he likes getting pushed out of his own head, why the dizzy blur of alcohol and being too full with someone else to have any room for himself feels so, so good.

"I don't want to stop," Yuuri says, and confessing, he says, "And I don't want to lose."

It's silly that it's a big thing, that anything could be a big thing in the so-commonplace trappings of the daily grind of his practice routine. Outside it's high summer, the cloak of thick heat pressed close to the asphalt and cars, everything saturated with the tired slowness of July. But this feels like a small revelation, the spark that might start a fire.

"Good," Celestino says to him, something like approval in his tone, and presses a hand to Yuuri's shoulder, squeezing. "Finish lacing up — I'll see you on the ice."

When Yuuri looks up, Celestino is smiling.

Celestino chooses absolutely sadistic choreography for Yuuri's programs this year. The footwork is cataclysmic. The pace is a disaster. Just looking at the jumps makes Yuuri's hip feel dislocated from repeated falls.

He takes the year off from classes. His advisor agrees given the tenor and tempo of his competition calendar this year — Celestino had been similarly sadistic in this respect — that trying to balance the two would be detrimental to both.

"You're really ramping it up this year, huh?" Mrs. Clarendon says, checking over his paperwork and sneaking a crooked grin up to him. "We're all rooting for you, Yuuri."

He gapes a little. "Y-you guys watch?"

"Maybe some of us keep the live streams up in the advisory office," Mrs. Clarendon laughs. "We know you'll do us proud."

Yuuri is doing exactly nobody proud with his new programs, every single day he spends at the rink is a messy catastrophe, disconnected elements he's trying to master and no flow at all. Celestino makes encouraging noises and says encouraging things, but Yuuri spends a lot of time icing his shoulder, his knees, his ass, and watching his own tape, which is the most uncomfortable of all. Without the music to cover, he hears every scrape and shriek of his skate and the ice, like ballet without its scoring.

"These things are always ugly when they start," Celestino says, booming with laughter and goodwill that he would not be feeling if he, like Yuuri, was adding bruises on top of bruises. Ben used to say Yuuri made him look like a domestic abuser; Ben hasn't said anything in response to any of the five tentative text messages Yuuri's sent him over the past couple of months. "Like newborns: hideous, awkward. You'll grow!"

Yuuri takes another Advil and curls up on his less-injured side on the couch.

Celestino says their aim is a showing at the Grand Prix Final next year, which means 2013-2014 is a season to build his reputation, his skills, and his wins to be seeded for next year. It's tough work, targeted, and it sets Yuuri on a training regimen that has Phichit leaving him pitying offerings of stolen-away Ferrero Roche, Tiger Balm and sugar-free popsicles. There's a shabby little homestyle Japanese restaurant, not too far from the practice rink, and Yuuri finds himself looking at it with the longing of a sailor for the sea every time he's hauled to and from practice on a diet of steamed broccoli and turkey breast and painkillers.

"When you win at the Finlandia Trophy, I'll let you eat whatever you want," Celestino says.

"Really?" Yuuri asks, from where he's folded over the boards, trying to catch his breath. He knows why he needs three quad combos in his free program but he hates that he needs three quad combos in his free program. He's never managed to land his quad toe in full run-through; he can just about nail it with 90 percent regularity if he's practicing it in isolation.

Celestino skates past him and swats him on the ass. "I mean it depends on if you get gold or not," he temporizes.

Yuuri's been forced to give younger skaters advice before — a profoundly terrible idea that Yuuri cannot fathom — and he's explained progress in skating like the slow ache of developing a scar. You remember the sharp pain of the cut, but the rest of it is invisible, sore, maddeningly slow. Yuuri remembers the first few major wipeouts, the categorical failure, but in the following weeks and months, he must improve by increments, until it's only weeks until the Finlandia and he's mastered his footwork, memorized his choreography — until Celestino's yelling shifts from telling him to stop falling down to telling him he's not forceful enough going into the bridge of his music.

"Your jumps are still a little wobbly, especially the two in the second half," Celestino says. "That's unavoidable, I guess, but that, and artistry, should be your focus for the next two weeks — we'll stop practice for a few days before we fly out."

Yuuri falls twice at Finlandia, but his technical and component scores are still high enough he wins the silver, and after the banquet, one of the Canadian skaters — not JJ asks if he wants to go to a room party to celebrate.


"Um, okay," Yuuri says, because he's not on deck again until the Cup of China, and that's  an entire month away.

The room party's pretty much exactly what post-competition room parties always are: a suite with zones for varying levels of depravity. There's a corner of out-of-place sweetness in the front by the television, where some faces Yuuri doesn't know very well are gathered eating grapes and talking about skating. There's the clutch of people blasting techno dancing by the balcony. There's the heavy petting on the sofas, which makes Yuuri blush, and then there's the shadowy bedroom from which noises are emerging that require no further explanation.

Yuuri starts out with the new kids, a few of whom just made their senior debut, including a familiar-looking boy with dark hair who introduces himself as Otabek. Yuuri only remembers a little of his short program, but what he remembers is impressive.

"You're very good," Yuuri says to him, earnest.

Otabek's face twitches, which Yuuri realizes is his version of a blush. "Ah."

"Oh my God, Otabek's going to have an emotion," one of the Russian girls says, and hands Yuuri a drink. "Here, here, you're too sober for this room."

It's a murky and hazardous smelling, but Yuuri didn't get this far in professional figure skating by being a wimp about his drinking: it goes down like an actively burning oil rig, and the Russian girl screams laughing while Yuuri coughs.

But it also flames out his residual shyness, and when the Russian poisoner gets up and says, "Yuuri, let's dance — your moves are always the best," he just goes with it, lets her drag him into the fray of bodies by the picture window and falling into the baseline. This is always fun, it's skating without the pressure or the risk of falling, just twirling and chasing the beat, and it gets better when he feels hands drop to his hips so Yuuri has someone to rub up against — to get a little friction going.

Yuuri feels someone's mouth at his ear, fingers tugging at his button-down, tucked into his trousers.

"Yuu-ri," he hears, and finally places the hands, the voice: Santiago Garcia, world-ranked, famous for his bullfighter program, retiring next year — today's gold medalist. "You were amazing today."

Yuuri laughs, because the horrible drink Russian Girl had forced on him is kicking in, and twists around in Santiago's hands to grin up at him. "You're only saying that because you won gold after all."

Santiago's gorgeous the way all Spanish men are gorgeous: dark-haired and olive skinned and he always looks like he's just about to take you dancing. It's a good look.

"Next year, it'll be yours," Santiago laughs, and leans in closer, pulls Yuuri a little more tightly against him. "I didn't think I'd see you here."

"It's my first time doing Finlandia," Yuuri says stupidly, and it takes a second to realize that's probably not what Santiago meant at all.

Yuuri feels a hand slide down the back seam of his trousers, Santiago's thumb hot and heavy through the fabric — until he's pressed into the cleft of Yuuri's ass, teasing.

"How do you feel about other types of new experiences?" Santiago asks.

They skip the petting couch entirely.

It's a nice hotel, and the bedroom is lavishly oversized, with a king-sized bed and crisp white sheets that look ghostly in the ambient light of the city, the moon huge white disc in the sky. Yuuri's just woozy enough from his drinks to think all of it's beautiful, that it's so nice to press his cheek into the sheets, to let Santiago kiss his way down Yuuri's spine — careful around the purple-brown of his bruises — and to lick his way inside.

It's intense, this is always intense, and Yuuri can only ever handle a little of it: it's too close, it's too intimate, and Yuuri's scared of what he'll say or do if he lets it go on too long. It's always easiest and best to move it along, and he drags Santiago up by his hair, saying, "Now — now," and it's relief when Santiago rolls on a condom and presses into him, a little too rough and a lot too greedy.

Yuuri lets out hurt, wanting little noises, palms his dick and braces himself on one forearm, curls his fingers into the sheets. He can still hear the music blasting outside, the sound of voices, it all turns into white noise — an underline to Yuuri's own gasping breaths, the slap of skin on skin, Santiago growling into his ear. It's more a flood of sensation than pleasure: Santiago's too beautiful not to be selfish, and Yuuri doesn't mind enough to correct him; that'll have to be somebody else's job somewhere down the line. Right now, he just wants to forget that he has another competition in a month, that the sharp burn in his ass is the least of his physical discomfort.

He doesn't realize he's going to come until he does: his body clutching tight and a gasp punched out of him, shock and the shivery overstimulation of Santiago still fucking him in shallow little jerks, the bedsprings silent underneath them.

In the morning, Celestino takes one look at Yuuri's face and sighs.

"Please tell me you're using protection," he says.

Yuuri makes a bunch of noises, none of which are words, but must get the point across.

Celestino spends the next month making sure Yuuri's too exhausted and sore from practice to do anything else that might lead to similar results. He also says if Yuuri gets on the podium for Cup of China, he'll buy Yuuri a katsudon himself.

"You said that about Finlandia," Yuuri says bitterly.

Celestino makes an innocent face. "I was going to take you after the banquet, but, well."

Phichit laughs himself absolutely sick.

Beijing is a horrible city: gluttonously enormous, PRC Communist chic and an environmental apocalypse. The day they land, classes had been canceled in the city due to unsafe air conditions, and Yuuri's flimsy little cotton face mask does exactly nothing up against the sickening haze that's settled over the city like a dust cloud. They travel by cab directly to their hotel, and Celestino grounds him until he rustles up some higher quality filter masks. It leaves Yuuri bored and anxious, scrolling through his email and text message history, Phichit's Instagram. There's a note from his parents talking about some improvements to the onsen they've undertaken and a note that they're having a viewing party for his Cup of China performance; there's a text from Minako-sensei telling him good luck; there's a photograph of Phichit back in Detroit, looking sad in the kitchen of their house, captioned, "ABBA dance parties just aren't the same without Yuuri Katsuki! Good luck, Yuuri!!!!!!!!!!!! #gogoyuuri #goforgold #cupofchina #figureskating #glideordie"

Yuuri doesn't actually manage to get out to the rink until late in the day, at which point the ice is unsettled by an earlier accident: another collision — this one much worse than the last, with stitches, concussions and openly bleeding wounds all discussed and dissected at length. Leo de la Iglesia has the whole thing on tape, which is gruesome but also completely irresistible — a pretty good summary of Leo in general, who is making his senior debut far from home.

"It's not that bad, two of my best friends are here! I — would it be okay if I introduced them?" Leo asks, looking so hopeful there's no way Yuuri can say 'no' or wonder why on earth Leo's friends would want to meet him. "They'd kill me if I didn't at least ask you."

Which is how Yuuri ends up meeting Ji Guanghong.

"Katsuki Yuuri!" Guanghong says, when they're introduced; he's short, slim, and almost consumed by the amount of red and yellow that comprises the China team jackets. "From Phichit's Instagram!"

Someone smacks the kid upside the back of the head and mutters, "And also, two-time Japanese National Champion," which is how Yuuri meets Lee Seung-gil.

Seung-gil and Guanghong have been dispatched by their coaches to the event to get a feel for the level of competition and to get a little polish. Yuuri asks if they have any videos of their skating; they do, and they're charmingly mortified to show him, offering up their mobile phones and making all kinds of pre-emptive excuses about how they're still working out the kinks of their program or had a bad ankle at the time of taping. They're both talented skaters, and Yuuri watches them run through their programs with hops standing in for their jumps. Seung-gil's style is cold perfectionism, but he's skating to Rachmaninoff so Yuuri has no clue if that's to match the music or vice versa. Guanghong, on the other hand, sheds his shyness in competition, and if he doesn't have Phichit's bottomless joy, then he's refreshingly bold. They both make Yuuri feel old, watching them; only in figure skating: Yuuri's just 22.

"You're so calm, Katsuki," Guanghong mourns, later when they're gathered in a restaurant eating…Yuuri has no idea what they're eating, but Guanghong promised it wouldn't make anybody sick and isn't bull penis, Seung-gil's only two specifications. Leo had looked sad that bull penis was off the table.

It's such a ridiculous statement Yuuri doesn't even react to it beyond staring.

"You are!" Guanghong insists. His English has the British ex-pat polish of the child of rich Chinese parents: sent away for school as soon as he could walk — or skate, in this case. "Before competitions, I'm so nervous I could throw up the whole time."

Yuuri remembers his senior debut, the way he'd shut down in nerves, sat staring at walls and flicking through the Yutopia website all those years ago. He's still nervous, it's still there, just under the skin, but all the things that had made all of his anxiety worse have dulled their edges over the years. The flying doesn't phase him anymore, he doesn't mind hotels. The strange anonymity of living on the road for half a year is as familiar as Michigan is to him, now, as every day as the Ann Arbor campus or how Hasetsu had been as a child.

"I…guess you get used to it," Yuuri says, after thinking a long time. "Everything that's so scary now you get used to."

Leo pokes Guanghong in the side, grinning. "Just think: after your senior debut, you're gonna be competing with people like Yuuri."

Guanghong looks sick. "Leo."

"I'm sure you'll put me in my place," Yuuri laughs, and somehow the conversation turns onto the topic of dogs, and he spends the next two hours either showing pictures of Vicchan to Seung-gil or looking at pictures of Seung-gil's husky, Yong-sama.

"Yong-sama, as in…?" Yuuri asks delicately.

"My mother loves 'Winter Sonata,'" Seung-gil grinds out, pained.

"Mine, too," Yuuri commiserates, and then they have to explain kdramas to Leo.

Leo doesn't medal at the Cup of China, but he wasn't expected to — he manages a respectable score and ranked 4th among all the male singles skaters for his SP. At the banquet, he's lightheaded with relief that everything's over, and Yuuri laughs and brings him glass after glass of champagne.

"You're just — ugh, too nice, Yuuri," Leo mumbles, somewhere between the third and fourth glass. "You don't have to babysit me, you can go mingle."

"I'd rather babysit you," Yuuri says honestly, because he's spent most of his night disentangling himself from conversations that are going nowhere, about nothing, with nobody he knows or wants to talk to.

Leo huffs. "You can't blame them for wanting to talk to the bronze medalist."

"Watch me," Yuuri mutters, and tries to hide behind a plant.

It's only a blink of days between the Cup of China and Trophee Eric Bompard, and as they're touching down at CDG, Celestino warns him, "And don't get any ideas. I already texted Nils and swore I would gut him and Giacometti if they kidnap you again."

There's no such thing as privacy in a community as small and incestuous as figure skating, but it's still traumatizing and awful to realize your coach knows who to call to keep you from getting laid in France.

"Our passions have been thwarted cruelly, Yuuri," Chris mourns when they run into each other in the hotel lobby.

He's wearing jeans that are more provocative tears than denim and a fishnet shirt, perfect for showing off the chain that goes between his pierced nipples and gleaming naval ring. Nils is trailing him with that same grim expression of forbearance on his face, and Yuuri would fall for it except he'd been in that club. He's seen just underneath, so he smiles at Nils, too, and waves hello.

"Good luck, Chris," he says peaceably. "Hi, Nils."

"Hi, Yuuri. Good luck," Nils says, grabs Chris by his jacket collar and drags him down the hall.

Yuuri's always been serious about skating, even when he struggled to articulate it, when he let the current of everyone's care and his own accidental success carry him forward. He can't say it, the way people seem to need him to say it, but Yuuri means it, he feels it; he echoes it in everything he does. Yuuri's never understood why someone needs his words when he wakes up at 5 a.m. to go to the rink, when spends two hours a day at the gym for strength and flexibility training, when he's lived so far away from home for so long in the comet's tail of his dreams.

He doesn't know how to explain that this isn't fun, that there are rewards, but that skating isn't rewarding. From a distance, it's captivating: it looks frictionless. Inside, in the trenches, Yuuri sees more clearly and knows its suffering more intimately. On his best days, when he feels untethered from gravity, it's dizzying euphoria, so good it's impossible to live inside the moment, and Yuuri will spend weeks and months afterward trying to chase that ecstatic high, to touch it just once more.

Yuuri knows people who do things because they've always done things, their bodies and their brains programmed like automatons after decades have grooved into them a clockwork movement. He doesn't think he's like them; skating to him isn't a reflex, something that comes easily. He chooses it, every day, rolls out of his bed after too little sleep and with too-aching muscles and gets on the ice.

Yuuri's ankle twinges, ominous, just before he goes on to skate his FP at the Trophee Eric Bompart, and it fails him on his last jump, a triple-toe, double-axel combo that has him hitting the ice hard enough to knock the wind out of him. He gets back up, and manages to finish pushed by pure adrenaline, but he's walking wounded coming off the rink, and they skip the kiss and cry and go straight for the medics.

He limps up to the podium for his silver, later, feeling sheepish about the way Chris has to squire him up the steps like the gentleman he absolutely isn't. And because Chris is ridiculous and embarrassing, he sweeps Yuuri up princess style to help him off the podium — to the deafening screams of every human in the stadium.


omg yuuri, Leo texts him.

你太厉害了, Guanghong sends, which Yuuri can't read and doesn't want to get translated.

Minako-sensei just sends him an SMS with 140 exclamation points.

That he just misses the qualification for the GPF turns out to be an unwanted but acceptable reality. It's a bad sprain and not a break, but all the same he needs rest and rehab, and Yuuri ends up pulling out of the Nationals.

"I'm really sorry," Yuuri says to his cell phone.

His mother's set up their creaky old family laptop on a similarly creaky window ledge in the onsen's kitchen. He can see the steam off of the industrial rice cooker in the corner, the deep frier hissing and spitting off to the side. One of the kitchen helpers is scrupulously trying not to look like he's eavesdropping, and his mother's picking through string beans in the sink with Vicchan winding around her ankles crazily at the sound of Yuuri's voice.

"Don't be ridiculous, of course your health is more important," she lectures. "And this will be good for you — it's been so long since you've had a proper break."

A ramped-down training schedule and an hour of physical therapy twice a week isn't much of a break, but it keeps Yuuri out of airports and off of airplanes for months. He spends a lot of time at the rink with Phichit, helping him work through some new and increasingly difficult elements in his programs, and Celestino makes a number of extremely scary phone calls to choreographers for Yuuri's upcoming season.

"I heard the words 'quadruple axel' during that phone call," Yuuri accuses.

Celestino grunts. "Eh."

"No one's ever landed a quad axel in competition," Yuuri reminds him. "I can barely land a quad toe in competition."

"You get any more confident your head's not gonna fit through any doors, you know that, Katsuki?" Celestino grumbles, and gives him a shove back toward the locker rooms of the rink. "Stop dragging ass. Your physio called me to say you have her sign-off for regular training again.

What's strange about the choreography isn't that it's impossibly hard, or that Celestino seems to be deriving a sadistic amount of pleasure from inflicting it on Yuuri, or that it contains a quad salchow triple loop combo — it's how Yuuri doesn't flinch from it.

He knows it's hard, that a younger version of himself would be hitting that so-familiar anxiety spiral that used to take him out of commission for weeks. But from here, with the benefit of years, mostly what he sees is a program that could get him to the Grand Prix Final — to the Worlds.

For the first time in a long time, Yuuri spends his birthday in Detroit on home turf. Phichit makes him katsudon and Celestino buys him a cake; his parents send him a video of Vicchan going bananas at the onsen wearing a party hat and a little bowtie in his honor. Mari-nee-chan and Minako-sensei mail him a care package: a rainbow of Pocky flavors, Japan formulation medicine, a Yutopia Onsen t-shirt and a skating magazine that had interviewed Yuuri seemingly ages ago, with a Post-It stuck to the front and a note in Minako-sensei's handwriting:

This finally came out!! It's sold out everywhere in Hasetsu, and we are all very proud of you. Mari-chan said we had to send you the Pocky, but if you eat all of them I will see you at your Prix assignments and I will know. You are very cute in this interview; please use it to finally get a boyfriend. - Minako.

Yuuri only eats most of the Pocky. He surrenders all the green tea ones to Phichit, who takes a photo of the two of them surrounded by empty food wrappers and prosecco bottles and posts it to Instagram.

"Did you wish for anything when you blew out your candles?" Phichit asks, putting a tiara on Yuuri that has a 23 poking out of the top festooned in glitter and bobbing stars.

"I wished you would stop buying me dumb hats and posting pictures of me wearing them on Instagram," Yuuri says.

Shameless, Phichit says, "That's cool, we'll just do a Snap story."

Yuuri reads the Skate Quarterly article later that night when he's in an epsom salt bath trying to soak out the black-purple bruising that the quad salchow is trying to tattoo onto his ass. He only remembers a little of the interview at all, the tiny Japanese woman who'd arranged the meeting through the JSF just before the Cup of China, set it for after the event in a Hakka style tea cafe in the city's inner loop while Yuuri was still bleary from the post-competition come down.

Katsuki has, over the years, developed a ferociously loyal following based on the artistry of his skating and his unfailingly humble personality. Unlike a lot of flamboyant personalities in the figure skating world, Katsuki's social media accounts are mostly abandoned, and during our interview he admits he hasn't checked his Twitter mentions in at least four months.

"I get so nervous about this kind of thing," Katsuki laughs. He still has a baby face, though he's turning 23 this year — making him among the older segment of skaters on the world stage. "I'm not very good at communicating, so I always just try to make myself understood through my skating, though I'm not always successful."

Katsuki admits he's not dating, and that he's taken the year off of school in order to train and focus on his skating.

"My coach and I talked about it, how at a certain point you have to commit all of your attention to trying to achieve something," Katsuki says. "I hope to live up to his faith in me — I hope you can all have faith in me, too."

Yuuri gets assigned Skate America (he hates Skate America) and the NHK Trophy for the 2014-2015 season.

"At least Skate America's in Chicago this year?" Phichit consoles him, because Phichit doesn't have to do Skate America. "And the NHK! Maybe your family can come to that!"

"Ugh," Yuuri says, and pulls the covers over his head.

It's a strange season for Yuuri, long before any competitive skating begins. Celestino sends him off to do a couple of exhibitions to see the programs in closer-to-competition conditions and to mercilessly nitpick Yuuri's every move afterward. There're people in the stands who have posters with his face on them, awkward handwriting spelling out his name in English and in Japanese. When he gets off the ice, there are reporters waiting for him and people wanting autographs. He sees a lot of pictures of himself blushing and looking bewildered on the internet — mostly because Minako-sensei and Mari-nee-chan send them to him with notes begging him to stop looking like a moron.

It also feels — anticipatory, that snap in the air just before autumn descends, and Yuuri wakes up in the mornings feeling like everything's going to happen, that something's about to change. It fizzes through his chest and into the tips of his fingers and toes, and when he looks before he leaps, now, it's in anticipation.

"The whole family is coming for the NHK for sure," his mother tells him, a month before Skate America. "Your father already arranged it with some people from the other shops in town to have them look after the onsen, and our tickets are booked!"

Yuuri can't imagine it, the idea of his mother and father and sister all there — he knows there are skaters whose families travel with them all the time, from little kids who still need their parents to JJ, who is evidently just a taller version of a little kid who needs his parents always. But Yuuri's always known, since it was very young, that his parents loved him but didn't necessarily have the time for him — he hates being alone but is good at pretending to be good at it because there was never any other choice.

"A-are you sure?" Yuuri asks, hushed, feeling something start to squeeze in his chest; his face feels hot, and he's so happy and sad at once, that his family is coming — that this is the first time in a long time his family's all come.

"Absolutely," his mother promises. "We're only sorry we couldn't come to more."

It makes all of his practice going into Skate America feel more urgent. His parents have seen him skate, of course, from when he was six years old wobbling across the ice to Nationals of year's past, but this feels bigger. He puts in a lot of hours at the rink and gets to know the night manager really well — mostly because Eric hates Yuuri for keeping him there so late.

"If you don't win Skate America I'm going to kill you," Eric tells him, when Yuuri wakes him up on night to tell him he's done and it's okay to lock up.

Yuuri flushes up to his hair. "I-I'll do my best."

Eric scrubs a hand over his face and mutters, "Jesus Christ."

The 2014 Skate America competition is held at the Sears Center, technically in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. It's a five hour drive on I-94W, and Yuuri spends most of it rammed up in the backseat with Phichit scrolling through Viktor Nikiforov's Instagram account in mute anxiety. He's back almost 40 weeks before Phichit takes his phone away lest he favorite a picture and shame Phichit by-proxy.

"I wouldn't, you already explained why it's bad," Yuuri says. In the front seat, Celestino is having elaborate road rage in Italian at every other driver on the highway.

Phichit sniffs. "Yuuri, you are not one of Viktor Nikiforov's 6 million fans, okay — "

"But I am," Yuuri mumbles.

" — you are his peer and a competitor and you are going to see him at the Grand Prix Final this year," Phichit plows on. "And what are you going to do when you see him at the banquet and he recognizes you as the creepy weirdo liking his pictures from a million years ago."

The idea of meeting Viktor Nikiforov in person is — frankly — panic-inducing, so Yuuri doesn't entertain it for very long. The idea of being his peer and a competitor just feels surreal, too absurd to fit within Yuuri's world. He knows it's silly, but Yuuri will always feel like that little boy sitting in the back at Ice Castle Hasetsu, watching Viktor win the Junior Grand Prix.

"Viktor would never — " Yuuri starts and doesn't know where to go with that sentence. Remember me? Notice me at the banquet? Care? All of those sit funny on his tongue and at the bottom of his stomach.

In the front seat, Celestino bellows, "Vaffanculo a chi t'è morto!" at a passing Subaru.

"Oh, wait wait, here we go," Phichit says, and flicks his camera to "video."

Phichit posts the video of Celestino shrieking, "Ti metto un remo in culo e ti sventolo per l'aria!" — among other greatest hits — at 2:04 p.m. By 2:15, it already has 632 likes and thousands of views, and Celestino threatens to leave Phichit at a truckstop.

The only nice thing about Skate America is that Leo is there.

"Is this Phichit?" Leo gushes, and he and Phichit fall upon each other like long lost friends, with an easy intimacy that makes Yuuri at once warm and jealous. "You're amazing! I must have watched your 'Defying Gravity' program a hundred times — and your Snap stories are banging."

Phichit nods solemnly, taking the praise as his due. "Want to be in one?"

Leo's clearly on home turf, more relaxed that Yuuri saw him at the Cup of China and familiar with everybody. Everywhere they walk, people wave and yell, "Leo!" and a baffling number of times, follow it up with, "Oh my God! That's Yuuri Katsuki!"

Yuuri has absolutely no idea what Phichit and Leo's Snap story is about, but by the time Celestino is done registering them and they head off to their hotel, everybody's yelling, "Dattebayo!" or "Hey it's dat boi!" at Yuuri as he walks by. When Yuuri finally has a chance to check his phone in the privacy of his room, Phichit and Leo's Snap story has already gone viral, which would be fine except it's mostly them beatboxing to shaky close-up video of Yuuri's ass bouncing around as he jogs to catch up with Celestino.

"Great," Yuuri tells the ceiling of his hotel room, changes into even more revealing pants, and forces himself to get up and go practice, where Leo is extra American and completely shameless about what he's helped Phichit do.

"You think it's funny now, wait until he's videotaping your butt," Yuuri complains.

"I would feel honored if Phichit decided to Snapchat my ass," Leo says, with alarming sincerity that makes Yuuri sigh and push off from the boards to go through his footwork.

Skate America always feels more and louder than any other Grand Prix events Yuuri's competed in, and this year is no different. The crowds are big, the volume is enormous, the crush of cameras and attendees is mind-boggling. Yuuri puts in his headphones and tries to focus, hides from everybody holding a microphone, threatens to brick Phichit's phone if he posts that picture of Yuuri doing downward dog in the hallway.

Yuuri's short program flows out of him to Echorus by Philip Glass, as delicate and yearning as the strings — it's a personal best, and Celestino meets him at the kiss and cry ready with both. Phichit's entire Twitter is just a series of context-free pictures of Yuuri and Celestino staring at the scoreboard, Yuuri and Celestino clutching each other as the numbers start coming in, and finally Yuuri's red, tear-soaked face.

"If your free program is anything like your short, we're toast," Leo teases, bringing Yuuri a fistful of tissues clearly stolen from some other competitor.

His free program isn't anything like the short, with its flowing lines long extensions — it's set to Danse macabre in G Minor by Camille Saint-Saens: an urgent, quick-stepping piece that includes so many spins Yuuri's always dizzy by the time he closes it out. He lets himself lie on the ice for a second, until his head clears a little. Sitting in kiss and cry with Celestino, he's actually completely numb as he watches his numbers come in: a personal best that puts him at No. 1 for the FP.

Yuuri mostly doesn't cry when they give him his gold medal, no matter what Leo says from his perch on the bronze step.

Yuuri falls asleep in the car on the way back to Detroit, and when he gets up the next day he doesn't bother to make plans to go to the post office. The NHK Trophy is a little over a month away, and he puts the medal in a little velvet pouch and tucks it into his massive traveling suitcase, already half-packed for his flight to Japan. Yuuri can't remember the last time he could give one of these to his parents in person, feels a zing of foolish happiness at it.

Nobody in Hasetsu answers their phones on the day of the NHK Trophy.

Yuuri can't find them in the audience, at the hotel they booked. The train ride is less than three hours, and even if his parents are bad about keeping their mobile phones on or the ringer loud enough so they can hear over the noise, Mari-nee-chan isn't. Yuuri keeps trying to main line at the onsen, but it's always either busy or rings out to the voice mail; Yuuri leaves a half-dozen messages before Celestino puts a hand on his shoulder and says, kind but firm, "Yuuri — it's time."

"You'll tell me, as soon as you hear something?" Yuuri asks.

"As soon as I hear something," Celestino promises, and takes his phone. "You know it's probably nothing — maybe they're stuck in traffic or something."

Yuuri's short program is tighter, less dreamy than his best performances. He counts out his beats and his elements, and if he doesn't have room in his head for other concerns while he's skating, his body remembers all of his worry. His score still puts him in first place, and all Yuuri feels is a sickening hurt that his family aren't there to see it. He keeps scanning the audience, keeps looking around the milling crowds of people with guest and visitors passes for his mother or father, for Mari-nee-chan.

Yuuri manages to hide from every reporter that tries to trap him on the way out of the venue other than Morooka, who jams a microphone in his face.

"Katsuki-kun — you're a top prospect for the Grand Prix Finals this year — how do you feel after that short program?" he demands.

"I — just want to focus on the free program tomorrow," he manages, bows deeply, and mumbles, "Sorry, right now isn't…" before he flees for his hotel.

His phone starts ringing in the hotel lobby, and Yuuri drops it he's in such a rush to answer.

Mari-nee-chan used to say the only reason she didn't hate how Yuuri was spoiled was because he never seemed to want or ask for anything.

He was so quiet as a child, and such a coward — her little brother who cried every time she walked him to his elementary school classroom and tried to leave him there without her for a month. Even his dancing, his skating, all of that came because their parents were so desperate to find something Yuuri liked, when mostly Yuuri seemed to like his family. They'd all gone to see Minako-sensei's class perform at the local matsuri night, and Yuuri had looked starry-eyed in his little jinbei, clutching his mother's hand and squeezing. It was the first time he'd wanted anything, and his sister had volunteered to walk him to dance classes after school, eventually to his skating classes after that.

Vicchan was the first time he'd ever asked for anything other than another bowl of katsudon, and when he and Mari-nee-chan got home from school one day to see a squirming, barking mass of sweet brown curls, Yuuri had screamed in joy.

"He's at the veterinary hospital right now," his sister tells him. "It — it was some guy delivering beer to the ramen shop down on the main street, but he was driving too fast."

Yuuri can't feel his legs. His hands and feet are very cold.

"Is he going to be okay?" he asks.

"The doctor is doing everything she can, and Mama and Otosan are there with him," Mari-nee-chan says. There's the tell-tale pause of her taking a drag off her cigarette, but that could mean anything: she smokes when she's upset, when she's happy, when she's bored. Her tone is scrupulously neutral right now. "Yuuri — we're so sorry we missed you today."

Yuuri feels a hand on his back, and when he looks up, it's to see Chris standing there with a frown on his face. He mouths, 'okay?' and Yuuri just turns to look back at his feet, at the hideous carpet of the hotel.

"I — is his leg broken?" Yuuri asks stupidly.

Vicchan is so little, even fully grown. He's a toy poodle, and too smart for everybody in the house, likes to get into everybody's business. If his leg's broken he'll be unbearable, whining nonstop, and it'll be like that time he cut his paw and had to wear the cone and made Yuuri feel like a monster because he didn't want Vicchan chewing on his stitches.

He hears Mari-nee-chan huff; he can imagine her snuffing out her cigarette under the toe of her sneaker. "Don't — Yuuri, we're with him, okay? You just focus on your free program tomorrow."

"But — "

"I know," she cuts him off. "I gotta go, okay, Yuuri? I'm going to go drive our parents home and then go back to the hospital to sit with Vicchan okay?"

Yuuri nods into the phone, and even though she can't see him, she must know him enough to know it.

"We're really proud of you, okay?" she says, softer than before. "You were wonderful today, and you'll be wonderful tomorrow, and then you can come right home."

He listens to the dead air of a disconnected call for a long beat before Chris's hand on his back turns into a hand stroking down his arm, pulling the phone out of his fingers.

Chris calls Nils, who finds Celestino, and they deliver Yuuri upstairs to his hotel room. He takes a shower and crawls directly into bed in a t-shirt and his briefs, and smothers himself in a pillow. He thinks aggressively about nothing, and when that fails him, he pulls up that stupid Viktor Nikiforov YouTube playlist and sets it on the pillow next to his head and listens to the sound of Viktor's skates scraping across the ice for hours, until the night bleeds into the day.

"Did you sleep at all, Yuuri?" Celestino asks, bringing him a bottle of water and an an Advil the next morning.

"It's fine," Yuuri lies, and stares at his phone. His mother texted him an update at just past 7 a.m., a picture of Vicchan's sleeping face with a note appended: he's resting peacefully but cheering you on! mama

Yuuri decides to let himself have one short, frantic meltdown before his free program. He locks himself in an out-of-the-way bathroom stall in the Namihaya Dome and waits for the crying to start, but all he feels is a tight ache in his throat and a burn in his eyes. Mostly he keeps realizing he's holding his breath, that his heart's having palpitations in his chest, but that it's all trapped inside, that he can't shake it loose. He looks at his phone, at the picture of Vicchan with bandages around his tiny front paw, the big white sheet covering his body — even so Yuuri can tell they've shaved so much of his curly brown hair. It hurts to see, it hurts, and it just builds and builds and has nowhere to go but deeper into the pit in Yuuri's belly.

He skates his free program feeling like Hans Christen Andersen's little mermaid, that every step is agony. It's the longest 6 minutes of his life, and he finishes with such weight on him he slips out of pose down onto his hands and knees on the ice while the noise in the dome becomes so cosmic and huge his hearing retreats to just the thud of own heartbeat, the quiet gasps inside his head.

Later, Yuuri will see video of himself on the podium at the NHK Trophy, hear Morooka-san speculate that for someone who just won his second gold medal of the year on his 23rd birthday, going into the Grand Prix Final, Yuuri doesn't look happy. The Yuuri in the video is wane, colorless, and he smiles and waves and doesn't mean any of it. He gets off the steps as quickly possible, goes directly to Celestino, who's big enough that when he wraps his arm around Yuuri, Yuuri vanishes into his coach's big brown coat.

His father calls him about an hour after the award ceremony.

"They made him as comfortable as he could be," Otosan says, with a gruffness Yuuri never hears from his father, hasn't heard since his grandmother died when he was still very young. "We all sat with him, and we wrapped him in one of your old sweatshirts so he would be comfortable. The doctor said it was the best we could do for him."

He ignores Mari-nee-chan when she asks if he wants to come home for a while before the GPF. He lets all of Minako-sensei's calls go to voicemail. He cries all the way home to Detroit, curled up in the window seat with his face in his knees.

Yuuri doesn't want to talk about it. To his family, to Celestino, to Phichit. When Nils texts him, he just writes back, "Tell Chris good luck from me." He puts all of his social media apps on the fourth screen of his iPhone so he doesn't have to look at their accusing red numbers when he's trying to figure out the day's temperature or his schedule for the afternoon. Minako-sensei keeps calling him, and when he does answer, it sticks to one-word replies; he honestly doesn't know what to say to her.

He spends daybreak to sunset at the rink or at the gym, running laps on campus if they're closed or Phichit and Celestino are at home waiting to have an intervention. It's not just Vicchan, but Vicchan feels like all of it underlined: everything Yuuri neglected and everything he stands to lose. The least he can do — the very very least he can do — is to be practicing, if he didn't go home for five years, if he wasn't looking after Vicchan, if he couldn't even be there, if his shitty old sweatshirt was the best he could do.

Yuuri knows he's overdoing it, that this burn in his muscles and this persistent hurt in his body isn't good for him, but when he slows down all of it starts crowding into his head, and he has to go, get out of here.

Three days before they fly out for Sochi and the Grand Prix, Celestino takes his skates away.

Everybody at his practice rink is a lot more frightened of Celestino than they are of Yuuri, which he guesses is fair, but that means he has dozens of hours each day and nothing to do with them beyond trying to fight off the specter of an impending crash. Yuuri has been trapped inside the anxious mess of his own head and his own body for his entire life — he knows what's going to happen, sooner or later.

At night, when he can't sleep, Phichit sits up with him and watches dumb movies and YouTube videos. In the daytime, Yuuri sleepwalks through the hours; Celestino won't give him back his skates, and Phichit hid all of his shoes, so Yuuri wanders around the house eating out boredom. He sits on the back porch and stares into the woods like a creep. He prints their boarding passes for the flight, and he packs his bags.

On the internet, there's a lot of speculation about what happened with Yuuri at the end of the NHK Trophy, how he dropped out of the gala exhibition so last minute. It must have been some kind of emergency, Yuuri isn't exactly a diva, someone writes.  Someone else adds, I hope whatever it is he's okay for the GPF! My friends and I are having a live viewing party.

"I took away your skates, I'll take away your phone, too," Celestino says.

Yuuri climbs back into bed, sans phone, no skates. Twenty-four hours until Russia.

Sochi feels like the stale air after the Olympics — all the massive pavilions and dorms emptied out, and the city still crawling with feral dogs who run up to all the visitors, spoiled from being spoiled during the winter games. One with a curly little tail and charcoal-tipped ears comes up to him just outside their hotel, and Yuuri feels a lurch of nausea so bad he bolts for his room, drops off his things, and goes straight to the rink with his headphones on.

Yuuri knows this isn't sustainable, that he's living in smaller and smaller pieces of himself. He's exhausted even though he feels like all he's done in the last few days is sleep, and his body feels heavy, sluggish. His shoulder keeps slamming into door frames and passers-by; Yuuri's apologized to more strangers in the past hour than he has in the past month. He feels like something stretched nearly to the breaking point, but if he can just maintain that tension, if he can just keep it together through Saturday, then he'll be okay — it'll be okay.

His parents send him a photograph of the little shrine they've set up in the tatami room for Vicchan, and a note for him to try his hardest, that they'll be watching. He guesses they're trying to help, but it makes him feel even further away, and he wakes up Wednesday morning bleary-eyed and sore and he wants not to be here: in Sochi, at the Grand Prix Final, skating. He wants to be anywhere else.

It shows in his practice skate. It shows in how his neck hurts from sleeping on it wrong and from the way he's been staring at his feet since he landed in Russia.

"Yuuri, I know this isn't fair, but you need to get yourself together," Celestino tells him late on Wednesday night.

Yuuri feels his shoulder getting tighter, his body trying to fold in on itself.

"I know," he whispers.

Celestino doesn't talk for a long time, and when he finally does, it's to say, "You've worked so hard for this for so long, Yuuri. Don't waste it."

He knows, he knows. It's sickening to know, too, that every moment and lost hour and bruise and sacrifice he's made — that his family has made — since he was a little kid was in a very real way leading toward this opportunity, 9 minutes of skate time over two consecutive days. It feels like learning to land a jump, the freewheeling fear of the leap and the desperate pitch for balance when he comes down.

Hold on, Yuuri tells himself, just hold on.

If his short program's a mess, it's his free skate that really redefines catastrophe. His timing's off from the opening of the music, and he never manages to synch back up to it — he ends up simplifying his footwork to try and hit his jumps at the right bar, and touches down on his triple axel and downgrades the quad he doesn't wipe out on. He collapses into Celestino's arms at kiss and cry, presses his face into his coach's shoulder and squeezes his eyes shut; he doesn't need the official scoring to know he's in last place.

"Yuuri, don't look at the news — let's just go back," Celestino says.

Inside the venue, the announcer is congratulating Viktor Nikiforov for his fifth Grand Prix Final win. In the hallway, where Yuuri's sitting, he's scrolling through a hundred articles on the internet about his wholesale collapse already — like they'd had them pre-written and ready to go.

"'Katsuki Fell to Last Place; Is This Season His Last?'" Yuuri reads out loud, mostly to himself, barely audible over the noise in the hall, all the other crying and celebrating skaters, the coaches and assistants and photographers.

"Yuuri," Celestino pleads, and Yuuri says, "Okay, okay."

He goes to the bathroom, because it's too loud in the hall, and calls home on autopilot. He doesn't actually realize he's dialed out until his mother answers, sounding scratchy and tired, saying, "Yuuri?"

Yuuri closes a fist over his knee, squeezing. His bad ankle is hurting again. "Ah — Mom, were you sleeping? Sorry."

"Nn," his mother disagrees. "We were just cleaning up here — we stayed up."

His stomach hurts, too. "Oh, you were watching on TV?"

"Yuuri!" his mother scolds. "It was the Grand Prix Final! We had a public viewing, of course."

"A public viewing," Yuuri chokes, and the nervous laughter comes out instinctively, from a lifetime of trying to smile through how much he'd rather cry, and he says, "Please, I'm so embarrassed," and tries not to feel how much he means it.

"Oh, Yuuri, don't be. We're all so proud of you," his mother says.

That's it, that does it, everything barely holding him upright falling suddenly, crushingly away. Yuuri feels with a rushing immediacy everything he's held at bay. The way mute loneliness can calcify into something that almost feels like acceptance. The unrelenting grind of pressure in the midst of the privilege of skating. The way his friends have grown up and gone away from him while Yuuri lives half lives out of suitcases and on the road, in anonymous cities and too often in the anonymous beds of people he'll never call again. He tries not to think about Vicchan, about his poor little body and broken leg and how he'd probably been scared and hurt, how Yuuri hadn't even been able to keep him company at the very end — after all the years Vicchan was his most loyal friend. Yuuri thinks how if it was worth it to win, to surprise himself each time he pushed out onto the ice, then how dismantling it is to fail, to hide himself away in a bathroom in Sochi and listen to his mother say she's proud, because there's nothing else she can say, because she has to be — no matter how little he deserves it.

"Sorry," he whispers. "I messed up."

"Yuuri," he hears, tinny from the phone.

He should make sure he's ended the call, Yuuri guesses; his mother hates it when he cries, and Yuuri hates it when he cries in front of her because of how upset she gets. It's all he can do to press his hands into his mouth, to muffle the worst of the noises he's making. His glasses are fogging up, his chest feels like a sucking wound, and Yuuri doesn't know if he's crying or if it's just something being purged out of him — gutting.

And then Yuri Plisetski kicks the bathroom door and tears him a new asshole.

There's not a lot about the next few months that Yuuri would ever revisit.

It starts with the post-GPF banquet, which Celestino forces him to attend despite Yuuri's bitter protests and increasingly pathetic pleading. He hid in a corner, as far away from the gilded circle of winners as possible. Of course the first time Yuuri is in the same geographic region as Viktor Nikiforov, it would be like this: Yuuri, on his sixth glass of champagne already reaching for his seventh; Viktor, laughing charmingly at everyone's jokes, basking in the flow of his gold, and flanked by Yuri Plisetski, who'd threatened Yuuri's life in the men's restroom not six hours ago. Fantastic.

Yuuri had started the morning directly after that one with a block of unrecoverable memories and his head in the toilet, making the pilgrimage from vomiting food solids (?) to mostly champagne (?) to bile. It's the worst hangover he's ever had, and Yuuri feels sorry for himself for a long time lying with his cheek pressed against the cool tile of the bathroom floor. Then he remembers it's the worst hangover he's ever had because mostly he stops drinking after four or five in favor of having sex with agreeable semi-strangers, which makes his mood significantly worse.

Celestino had poured a liter of water into him and handed him a bag of convenience store Russian pastry.

"If you throw up on me during the flight, I'm taking it out of you in suicides," he told Yuuri with something approaching affection, which was nice until Yuuri had get the cab to pull over so he could gag messily all over the side of the highway.

In the cold light of a three-day hangover, Yuuri's life in Detroit looks even shittier and bleaker than it had going into the Grand Prix Final. He does his laundry and watches his clothes in the drier, because when he'd gone online every news alert was about his disastrous performance at the GPF, which had started off with reasonable reporting and devolved into wild conspiracy theories on the figure skating message boards. People send a lot of care packages to his practice rink — beautiful cards and intensely personal letters — and Yuuri doesn't know if it makes him feel better or worse; it makes him feel a little less alone, but also more keenly aware of how many people he's disappointed.

"Yuuri, you're the most negative human I've ever met," Phichit accuses.

"You met Yakov Feltsman last year," Yuuri accuses.

"And yet," Phichit retorts — but quietly, because they're hiding in the pantry eating some of Yuuri's care package cookies that Celestino had taken away from them.

The figure skating season doesn't leave a lot of room for catastrophic meltdowns or painful personal issues, and Yuuri's committed for the Japanese Nationals at the end of December. And anyway, Yuuri feels better when he's skating, even if it's garbage time. Yuuri doesn't actually need to look at Celestino's face to know he's not coming back from Russia, that he left something in Sochi and his skating now is paying the price.

Yuuri remembers being very young, too young to know his age, really, and going to Ice Castle Hasetsu for the first time. This was before his grandfather had passed away, and his parents had more time then, before they'd officially inherited the daily operations of the onsen. It was a Saturday, and while Mari-nee-chan was skating beautiful loops around the ice, Yuuri remembers being able to skate but not being able to stop, to turn, to change directions. He feels this all over again — that he's skating but that he can't pull himself out of this, whatever it is.

He spends the week before Nationals telling his family not to go to Nagano for the competition, and he's right to do it because it's a grindingly shitty performance. He touches down on his quad-toe and tumbles in his free skate; his short program has lost its flowing lines.

He comes in 11th, the whole crowd murmuring in shock, and hears a voice in his head say, Okay, that's it.

At the end of it, Yuuri mostly feels tired, hollowed out.

He did all his crying after the Grand Prix Final, in a a jag that combined guilt with grief, and his disgrace at Nationals only feels like an underline to an already-awful season. It's surprisingly easy to lie in bed at night, to stare at the dark corners of his room and admit that he has no idea what he's doing or where he's going, that for the first time in a lifetime he's directionless. He doesn't have a ballet class to go to or a rink appointment. He can lie here all day long, all week long, because he didn't make the Four Continents or the Worlds.

It's still hard to tell Phichit, who looks halfway between angry and sad and who just wraps Yuuri up in a hug and whispers, "You'll be back soon. I know it."

Yuuri keeps thinking he's doing the worst part, but everything feels like the worst part. It's terrible contacting the JSF to say he's stepping back "for a while." It's terrible having to write back to Morooka-san's emails saying that he's taking some time to reevaluate and rest. It's terrible to sit down with Celestino, who's been with Yuuri since he was 17, and say that it's not working.

"You've really thought this through?" Celestino asks him.

Yuuri nods. "Yeah — I'm — " he keeps talking in stops and starts, because he doesn't know how to say everything he feels, and doesn't know if he should say any of it at all.

Celestino is Christmas morning polenta breakfasts and fantastically foul Italian swearing at football matches he watches at absurd hours on satellite TV. His collection of hair care products in the bathroom numbers the stars, and when Yuuri was particularly good in practice, Celestino would make his grandmother's pasta al a norma. He gives amazing hugs and is the second-best yeller among the international professional skating circuit, and Yuuri loves him, adores him — knows Celestino and Phichit will be great.

"I'm going to be rooting for you and Phichit," he says finally, and when he smiles at that, he can at least mean that honestly. "I have high hopes."

Celestino says, "God damn it, Yuuri," and drags him in for a hug — lingering, and says, gruff and shot through with something like tenderness, "You stay here while you finish up classes, okay? I promised I'd look after you."

"Okay," Yuuri says and hides his face in Celestino's shoulder. "Yes."

It's hard to train himself out of waking up at 5 a.m. for rink time, and harder still to watch Phichit and Celestino pile into his SUV from the upstairs window. The rest of his time he works on his last three credit hours for his sports management degree: an independent study his advisor arranged for him about the economics of developing sporting franchises. Honestly he wishes he knew some of this stuff about sponsorships while they were still relevant in his day to day life.

Yuuri still skates, but he does it in secret.

He doesn't want to disrupt or distract from Phichit's rink time, so he goes to a different skating center, a little shabbier with less accommodating hours, but it's within jogging distance of the house and nobody there seems to recognize him. Yuuri goes during the early afternoon, when the crowds are at their thinnest.

At first, he skates his own programs, but they mostly leave a bad taste in his mouth: he either screws up and they remind him of the Grand Prix, or he skates them to perfection and he beats himself up over why now, why here, why not in Sochi.

He picks Viktor's free skate because it's beautiful and looks impossible. Yuuri's seen it hundreds of times now, from five different angles via five different YouTube uploads. Viktor's performance is flawless, every jump is perfection, there's not a single moment where he's not in complete control. It's a profoundly intimidating thing to see, and some small, foolish part of Yuuri's brain clutches at that challenge and says yes.

Graduating doesn't feel like much of an accomplishment; it's quiet, mostly paperwork, the whimper after the bang.

"I'm just going to stop by Kii University to make sure everything transferred properly, and then I'm headed home," Yuuri tells his mom.

"Are you sure you don't want me to come?" she asks. Her voice sounds strange and staticky on the speakerphone, set away on a high shelf as Yuuri packs up his room, marvels at how he managed to accumulate all this stuff.

"It's fine, there won't be a ceremony," Yuuri says, trying to decide if he still needs all these dictionaries and phrasebooks. He has them in French, German, Russian and Chinese. "Is it okay? The dates for coming back?"

His mother makes a tsking sound. "Yuuri — this is your home. You can come back anytime you like. Don't be ridiculous."

Yuuri thinks back to his old bedroom and his tiny single bed, his walls covered in Viktor Nikiforov posters, and he can't help but crack a smile. He'd finally nailed the quad-toe loop this morning; his ass still hurts from the the uphill climb there.

"Okay, okay," Yuuri tells her. "Want me to bring anything from Detroit?"

"Just you," she says, tender and entirely earnest.

It's so strange, the idea of distance. Yuuri's lived away from his family for so long he's used to it, that he looks at their absence like a given, an unchangeable hurt. But it surges back to him, as new and immediate as his first nights of awful homesickness. Yuuri is ashamed that this is how and why he's going home, but tangled in there is also a desperate gratitude, that there's a place left he can just go away to when he's what he's trying to get away from.

Yuuri scrubs at his face. "All right," he says, and scrapes out, "Thank you," because he means it, and he can't help himself — no matter how he can hear his mother's expression, run through with worry, through the cell phone line.

Despite Yuuris' best arguments about car services, taxis, Uber, Lyft, hitchhiking, Celestino and Phichit insist on driving him to the airport at the crack of dawn. It's just past 4:30 a.m. when they pile into Celestino's SUV, and the trip to Detroit International is quiet. Yuuri and Phichit squeeze together in the backseat, arms linked.

"You're the best roommate I've ever had," Phichit tells him at curbside drop off, when March is roaring around them like a lion, and Celestino's stone-faced and dragging Yuuri's massive suitcase out of the back of the car.

Yuuri hugs him and mutters, "I'm the only roommate you've ever had," into his ear.

"It's still true," Phichit says, a little pitchy now, and squeezes Yuuri a little too tight, and it makes something go wild in Yuuri's chest. This is Phichit, who thinks everybody is going to be his best friend on Instagram and never looks both ways before he crosses the street — how can Yuuri just leave him? Phichit doesn't even know how to buy winter weight clothes. "Don't disappear on me, okay? You have to come back."

"I won't disappear on you," Yuuri promises, because he doesn't know what to say about the rest of it, and lets Celestino cut in, folds himself into his coach's huge arms in their huge puffy coat.

Celestino doesn't say anything. He's done this so long he must have seen students come and go in better and much worse circumstances than this, and he has the solemn wisdom of someone older, whose kindness is certain and unshakeable, and Yuuri is — not for the first time — immeasurably grateful he'd been delivered into Celestino's care.

"Thank you," Yuuri manages, finally, trying to smile. "For everything."

"It was pleasure," Celestino tells him, and as Yuuri turns to go, he feels the familiar shape of Celestino's hand on his arm and turns. "Yuuri?"

He blinks, so surprised it knocks him out of his sadness. "Ah — yes?"

Celestino grins. "We'll see you again soon," he says, every word weighty, and gives Yuuri a playful shove toward the revolving door. "Now go — you'll miss your flight."

In the 50 minutes it takes Yuuri to drop off his luggage, acquire his boarding pass, travel through security, and stop in the men's restroom before checking his mobile phone, Phichit has posted a 25-part Snap story festooned with sobbing emojis to mark Yuuri's departure. Yuuri's reluctantly impressed, both by the variety of things with which Phichit has decided to use to convey the depth of his abandonment (a close-up shot of Yuuri's ass as he walks into the terminal; a picture of the coffee cup Yuuri had left in Celestino's SUV from their quick stop at Starbucks on the way to the airport) and the fact that Phichit's somehow scammed Celestino into letting him blast 'My Heart Will Go On' in the car on their way back to the house.

Yuuri takes two Benedryl and sleeps like the dead during the Chicago to Narita leg of his flight. He wakes up and mechanically eats everything the flight attendants give him: gross overheated meals, peanuts, a potato-salad sandwich, a cup of ramen. At some point he staggers to the bathroom — woozy, his feet are swollen, his hair is greasy — and stares at his own crazy-eyed face for 45 seconds before he snaps out of it enough to go back to his seat.

He lands in Tokyo and staggers off toward the Shinkansen and the JR toward Wakayama. It's profoundly poor planning to go from 16 hours of flying to a 6 hour train but Yuuri decided to dance on knife shoes for a living before he started shaving so he sees no reason not to go as he means to continue.

Yuuri shuts down like a robot with dead batteries about two feet outside the Wakayama JR station, and ends up in a hotel for the night. He's keenly aware he looks and smells homeless, and thus has no business being in the lobby of the Hotel Granvia Wakayama, which is sleek and beautiful and hosting a wedding right now, but he's about to lose consciousness while standing upright so needs must.

He crashes out again as soon as he gets into his hotel room, curling up in the bed in his t-shirt and briefs, all his worldly belongings scattered around him. Because he's traveled forward in time from the U.S. to Japan, he wakes up in the middle of the night, suddenly 100 percent alert. The inside of his mouth is disgusting, and he brushes his teeth twice: once in the shower, once after, just for good measure.

Hotels feel like liminal spaces, out of time and place. Yuuri understands why rock stars trash guest rooms, because he sits on his pristine bed and feels like there can be no possible consequences, here, that this room and this hall in this building must be little pockets outside of the stream of reality. He pulls open the curtains and looks out at Wakayama City, glittering in the night, and when his eyes start to blur, Yuuri lies down and tries to sleep some more. He's not sure if he accomplishes it — drifts in and out of different half-states of consciousness — but he rolls over at some point toward the window and realizes pink is starting to leach into the sky.

Yuuri eats breakfast at the hotel and wanders around until the Kii University registrar's office opens. He spends the day doing paperwork, and at the end of it, he gets a couple of photocopied documents and a polite "congratulations" from the registrar staff; his diploma will be in the mail.

The trip from Wakayama to Hasetsu is also 6 hours, but it coincides — mercifully — with Yuuri's brutal mid-afternoon jetlag crash. He almost misses his transfer onto the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen, but manages to flail his way off of the train with his suitcase just in time. It's a masterwork of grace and control, completely fitting for someone whose professional career balanced on artistry.

The countryside is at once immediately familiar and alien outside the windows, and Yuuri's not sure how much of it is long absence and how much is the fact his brain thinks it's yesterday. He blindly eats a train bento and plays Bejeweled until his eyes start to cross and he has to shift around in the train seat as his ass starts going numb. They cross into Kyushu as Yuuri is thinking about how strange it is that most of his bruises have gone, that when he showered this morning he saw milky, unmarked skin, and only old scars. Billions of people must live like this every day, but Yuuri barely remembers the landscape of his body without his figure skating written all over it.

It feels strange this doesn't feel stranger, or maybe Yuuri's still numbly unaccepting of his circumstances, which is silly on its own: he's been off the circuit since Nationals, he doesn't have a coach, he has six messages from the JSF on his phone he hasn't listened to because he's 100 percent sure they will make him cry.

Yuuri's father — when Yuuri was being his most pathetic and least deserving of comfort — used to sweep him into a cuddle and say, "All you can ever do is the best you can do." In Yuuri's worst moments, it's what he holds fast. It's what he has to believe.

Ever since the Grand Prix Final, Yuuri has lived with a veil between himself and everyone and everything else. It's given him room to breath and space to maneuver, but it's cold here, too, and very alone. To press beyond that is to open the door to all of his unhappiness, everything that drove him here, but Yuuri knows that it's unavoidable, that sooner or later, the choice will be taken out of his hands.

Yuuri blinks, sudden, and sees the looming outline of Hasetsu Castle in the distance, familiar and immediate, the town's highest peak.

"Oh," Yuuri says, and it takes him a beat to realize it's out loud.

Because then the familiar sights come fast and furious: the roofline there, the street he can just see below, the office block, the chamber of commerce building, the clutter of little shops and restaurants on the main street. For all that Yuuri presses his face to the window and seems to know all of it, there are surprises, too: an old playground has vanished, Ice Castle Hasetsu has a different-colored roof, the train has an elevated station, now, to pull into.

He's just enjoying the idea that Hasetsu has a rail escalator when he looks up and has a full on heart attack: the walls — every flat surface in this fucking station — is covered in that poster of Yuuri running through flower petals.

He's still recovering from that when he hears Minako-sensei shouting his name.

It's amazing what the human mind can file away as unnecessary, Yuuri thinks with beatific calm, later, getting stripped out of his clothes in the entryway of Yutopia. How could he have forgotten for even a moment the elemental chaos that is Minako-sensei on a mission? Of course Hasetsu Station was wallpapered in posters of himself, of course she's pinching his spare tire in front of his mother and father, less than 2 minutes after delivering him home. It's only fitting, and it was either blind stupidity or hubris to imagine that any situation that included Minako-sensei's participation wouldn't automatically lead to some sort of embarrassment on Yuuri's part. Had she not been so vital in other such moments in his life? Such as telling him, "All boys get boners, Yuuri, stop worrying about it," during dance class, and remarking, "Honestly, sometimes I can't tell if your crush is on Yu-chan or Nishigori." Classic.

He thinks all of these thoughts kneeling in front of Vicchan's little alter in their private tatami room, because Vicchan was always the keeper of his secrets and heartbreaks. Vicchan knows better than almost anybody Yuuri's complicated love and fear of Minako-sensei, and Yuuri prays that Vicchan is happy wherever he is, and that there are humans who make fun of other humans for his amusement there, too.

Sorry I couldn't see you one last time, Vicchan, Yuuri thinks. He can't tell if the hurt is more loss or regret, and Yuuri guesses it doesn't really matter anyway — the dead must be beyond caring.

Behind him, he hears the soft sound of the door opening, and his sister is standing there in the onsen uniform when he turns.

"Yuuri — welcome back," she says, smiling a little. Her roots are growing in and she's got more earrings than ever, and Yuuri thinks she looks beautiful.

"Mari-nee-chan — it's been a while," he says, not hesitating, but formal, a little quiet. They were never thick as thieves, as children, but they were close, and he feels the inscrutable guilt of having wronged her, having been silent so long and now so suddenly here. "Sorry to visit when things are busy."

She nods a little, and reaching for a her ever-present packet of cigarettes and saying, "Hey, how long are you staying in Hasetsu?"

Yuuri blinks.

"Will you help out with the onsen?" Mari-nee-chan goes on, her voice flatly uninflected.

He flinches, thinks back of that midnight conversation long ago, when they'd left the video on and Yuuri had pretended they were little again, sharing a futon at their grandparents' home. "Um — where's this coming from?" he manages.

She slants a look at him, meaningful and unknowable.

"You went to college, even though you had to study for an extra year. What will you do now?" she asks, oh-so-reasonably, lighting her cigarette and taking a drag. And it's with a practiced lightness she says, "If you're going to keep skating, I'll support you," before letting it trail off into the silence of Yuuri's indecision.

Mari-nee-chan and Minako had probably collaborated over this, met for (too many) drinks and plotted out their individual and shared plans of attack. It's unfair. Yuuri's never been good at this kind of thing, too simple and too soft to outmaneuver them even when he's managed to outthink them.

"I think…I need more time to think it over," he says, finally, because it's true and the only thing he can say.

Yuuri can't imagine a life without skating, but right now he can't imagine how to go back, either. It's hard to explain to people outside of the carefully cultivated ecosystem of professional figure skating, and hard — still — for Yuuri to allow himself to acknowledge, but last season was catastrophic implosion, complete immolation. Everyone said in their messages that it wasn't so bad, that he'd be back next year, but Yuuri's lost all his standing in the international rankings, would have to claw his way back up at 23 against people like Yuri Plisetsky — against people like Viktor Nikiforov.

"Hmm, okay," she allows, and calling over her shoulder, she says, "Well, go soak in the hot spring and relax."

The onsen is a familiar, immediate comfort with the detached appreciation of five years. Yuuri remembers the cloudy water, the stones that that circle the pool, but he thinks about how he knows this place mostly from memories of knowing this place: the comfort he used to take as a child, retreating here, is also like a photographic negative. Yuuri's spent so long treating all the things he's missed as a talisman, only now he's here and there's no magic — there's only him, like always, trapped inside the framework of his body and history.

Suddenly the water and the steam and the high wooden fence around the onsen are oppressive, and it chases him out of Yutopia and down the familiar length of Hasetsu's street and byways, over the bridge and toward Ice Castle Hastesu where it perches on the hill.

Before Phichit moved to Detroit, Yuuri had a rinkmate who had a bad, bad fall, one that left him motionless on the ice and Yuuri rocked with full-body shock. He'd called 911 — fumbling, terrified, dialing 119 by accident, first — and one of the American girls who shared rink time with them had driven him after the ambulance. Yuuri had called Celestino, because he didn't trust himself to call anybody's parents; his English was still so new to him, and in a panic his words have always melted away as quickly as his calm. And then he'd sat, frozen in anxiety, in the hospital hallway waiting for news until Sarah had hugged him, and he'd shoved her away in shock. Yuuri remembers thinking that Yu-chan never did this, needle and push and grab him.

When he shores up at the rink, she's still as beautiful as she's always been, as kind and immediately familiar as the town and the onsen. But like Hasetsu, there are details that betray the passage of time: she wears her hair up, there are tired bruises under her eyes, a bandaged cut on her hand. Her face is rounder, her eyes are softer.

"It's been a while, Yuko-san," he tries.

It must sound as wrong to her as it does in his mouth because she scolds, "Yuri-kun? Oh, come on — " she rushes to the counter, and smiling like this, she looks just like she did when they were little " — call me Yu-chan!"

Yuuri thinks he gasps an apology, automatic, but it's not important compared to how Yu-chan is telling him if he wants to skate, he can go ahead.

"I can?" he asks.

"You just want to skate alone for now, right?" she asks, still grinning, and when she adds, "I'll protect you," the warmth that suffuses him from head to toe is the same as when they were little. It's deeper and better than the onsen: it lingers, it's real.

He puts on his skates, puts his things away in the locker area, and he stands in the entryway to the rink for nearly a minute, blank with indecision before turning back to the front, where he can hear the sound of Yu-chan's pen scraping at paperwork at the desk. She's hunched over in the bad overhead lighting, and she's posted the familiar "CLOSED" sign at the door, all the exterior lights off for the day so they're suspended here in a little bubble of illumination: a secret, somewhere no one can see — safe.

"Um — are you busy?" Yuuri asks stupidly. "Right now?"

Yu-chan looks up, eyebrows raised.

The rink has its own hum, from the machines keeping the ice solid and the high ceilings that trap all the building noises, echo in the window blustering against its roofline and walls. Yuuri makes Yu-chan stand near the gate, hands her his glasses so that the details of the world blur away. Maybe that's another reason Yuuri's always liked skating: on the ice, he can't see any of the sharp edges.

"I wanted to show this to you, so I've been practicing it since the competitions ended," he says, his shyness returning. He's practiced this for months in monastic solitude, plugged into the music and alone with himself. It seems right that Yu-chan would be the first person he'd show — she's seen him from the beginning. "Please watch."

She smiles, she nods at him, and it helps him push out to the center of the rink. He lets himself close his eyes on the image of her — waiting patiently the way Yu-chan's always been patient with him — and skates.

Yuuri tells Yu-chan the truth, that he was depressed, that he got bored of feeling depressed, that he wanted to remember how simple and happy it was when he was younger, first learning how to fly across the ice. But it's not the whole of it, it has nuances he doesn't think he can say: that Yuuri thinks his anxiety feeds into his sadness, that the truth that's always been too big to admit is that he loves skating enough that it can dismantle him, that he's scared it will — that is has — and that he'd still want to go back to it, over and over again.

He's on the cusp of admitting it when Axel, Lutz and Loop make their appearance, and then the rink is overfull of screaming children and Nishigri's unnecessary bulk and the delicate shared loneliness of five minutes ago is gone, vanished, as impossible now to imagine as it had been real just moments before.

"How long are you back in town for?" Nishigori asks later, giving Yuuri a ride back home in a bright yellow minivan — three car seats lined up in the back. Yuuri can't believe this is the same guy who once peed YUURI IS A BABY into the first snowfall of the year.

Yuuri sighs. "I — don't know," he admits. "I didn't really plan any of this."

"Shit can come at you fast," Nishigori agrees. "But you're tough. You'll handle it."

Yuuri slants him a look. "You used to make me cry once a week."

"That never stopped you from showing up at the rink and staring at Yu-chan like an idiot sheep, did it?" Nishigori laughs. "You have this dumb idea you have to be tough some big macho way — you've always been such a stubborn pain in the ass, Yuuri."

"Thank you, I guess," Yuuri mutters, flushing.

He can't believe he's having revelatory conversations with Nishigori, who'd once made Yuuri help him go shopping for Yu-chan's birthday present because, "Yuuri, you're pretty girly — what would Yu-chan want?"

"Look at it this way," Nishigori counsels, pulling up to the onsen, orange lit against the night. "You shit the bed at some skating competitions, that sucks. When Yu-chan and I fucked up, she ended up pregnant with triplets and we had to get married at 18."

Yuuri laughs. That had been — a week.

"But that turned out all right," he teases. The only time he's ever seen Nishigori cry was the month Yu-chan refused to speak with him in high school.

Nishigori grins back. "And so will you," he says, giving Yuuri a shove with his massive paw. "Now get outta my car — I gotta go back and wrangle all my happy accidents."

Nishigori's as useless at wrangling his happy accidents as he was with contraceptives in high school, Yuuri thinks with calcifying horror a few days later, watching a YouTube video titled "[Katsuki Yuuri] Tried to Skate Viktor's FS Program [Stay Close to Me]."

"Oh my God," Yuuri whispers to himself, and then whispers it a few more times for good measure when he doesn't wake up with cold sweats from a night terror. He's still here, sitting on the floor of his room with walls plastered in Viktor Nikiforov posters, watching a video of himself skating to a Viktor Nikiforov FS, his shirt flipping up on the jumps so everybody can see how ghost-white and jiggly he is. He can sort of hear Nishigori apologizing in the far distance, but mostly what he hears is a cosmic scream of mortification. "Oh my God."

Phichit had taught Yuuri exactly two lessons regarding social media:

  1. Do not read YouTube comments
  2. Do not upload any nudes to iCloud

So Yuuri decides to take a leaf from No. 1, turns off his phone, and crawls into bed to sleep, and hopefully to die in his sleep, so he never has to venture into civilization and face the epic humiliation of this latest episode in the farce of his life again.

Sadly, Yuuri wakes up the next day — late in the afternoon, his body still sluggish and off-kilter from traveling through time.

There's a moment of pure disconnected calm, when his brain is only half-online and he's staring at his ceiling. Inside that instance, everything is quiet and all he really hears is the sound wind outside his window, feels the good weight of his blankets, the sleepy slowness of his body. It only lasts a beat, but it's sustaining, it's clarifying, and then the world comes back into focus: the cold air in his room, his mother's voice outside his bedroom door, telling him to go shovel snow.

He debates turning on his phone to check how the day's weather is going to play out, but thinks, "ah, no," and leaves it in the tangle of his sheets as a problem for later. Most of Yuuri's life, frankly, is a problem for later right now. He'll make the bed later. He'll make some decisions later.

Yuuri puts on pants and socks and sneakers and throws a coat, unearths a snow shovel from the lean-to off the back of the kitchen, filled with the sweet smell of rice, and his mother shoos him away saying, "After you shovel!"

Years later, someone writing a book will ask Yuuri what he was thinking that morning, with all of Hasetsu blanketed in snow and his entire world balanced on a knife edge. Did he feel it in the cold crack of the air? Did he wake up knowing something was about to happen? Did he have a sense — could he have ever anticipated — was there a sign?

The truth is, when Yuuri opens the door clutching a snow shovel and woozy from sleep, listening to barking coming from outside, the only thing he's thinking is, Why did my parents let some asshole bring their dog to the onsen?