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Falling (Victor's Story)

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Yakov,

Greetings from Hasetsu! The building on the front of this postcard is a NINJA CASTLE. Isn’t that amazing?? I’ve met the nicest people here. So many fans, too!

When are you coming to visit? I think I’m getting the hang of this coaching thing, but I do have some questions for you. Is your phone number still the same? I tried calling a few times but no answer.

Running out of space to write! Talk to you soon!

Victor

 


 

Every morning at precisely 6 o’clock, Makkachin woke Victor up with a polite woof and waited for his master to dress, grab a leash, and take him outside for their daily walk. Those quiet moments, spent standing at the top of a hill with his best puppy friend—leash in hand and a cool ocean breeze blowing his hair back from his face—made Victor fall deeper in love with the country of Japan than he already was.

This was his favorite part about living here. The morning sky. Overhead, it transitioned from a sleepy, muted purple to a radiant blue that would soon overtake the rest. Hasetsu was always beautiful, no matter the hour, but in the morning, the view stole his breath away.

“Ohayō gozaimasu!” Victor called to the man fishing on the bridge.

“Ohayō!” the fisherman responded in kind, then laughed and waved a hand of appreciation. Makkachin’s barking had inspired a trio of seagulls to take flight and abandon their plot of stealing the fisherman’s morning catch.

Victor had been living at Yu-topia with the Katsuki family for more than a month now. Since this wasn’t his first visit to the country, having traveled here several times for competitions in past years, he had already known he loved its beautiful landscape, quiet traditions, delicious food, and friendly people. But what Victor didn’t anticipate was how the place would creep into his bones and slow his footsteps. Perhaps it was the ever-present sound of the gentle ocean surf or the quiet descent of springtime cherry blossoms to the earth, but there was something about Hasetsu that made Victor want to stop and savor every moment. It made him realize how often he’d neglected to do so for many years now.

When Victor returned to Yu-topia, Makkachin’s leash slipped from his fingers. The dog had spotted Hiroko, who was unloading crates of fresh produce from the back of a truck, and bounded over to wish her an enthusiastic good morning.

“Vicchan, ohayō!” Hiroko called as Makkachin nosed at her fingers. Yuuri’s mother did not speak much English, but that had never stopped her from doing everything in her power to make Victor feel at home.

He helped her carry a few crates into the kitchen before sitting down at her insistence to enjoy a hot breakfast. Every morning, she made green tea special for him, today infused with a hint of a floral aroma that Victor couldn’t place. Then came the delicious food—miso soup, along with a bowl of steaming-hot white rice and natto served with an egg on top.

Victor was immediately transported to heaven, just from the smell alone. But the feeling of warmth he got in his belly from having this beautiful, kind mother serve him breakfast . . . that was the best thing of all.

“Itadakimasu,” Victor sang and took his time savoring the meal.

It was then, holding that warm bowl in his hand, that he decided he was wrong about the morning sky being his favorite thing about Hasetsu. No, it was this. This simple homemade meal. Victor had dined at Michelin-starred restaurants across the world, but nothing could compare to the love and years of slowly-refined talent he could taste in every bite.

It seemed a shame that someone was still upstairs in his bed, missing this.

When Victor was done eating, Mari came in with a tired but friendly smile to take his dishes. “Good morning,” she said in accented English. Her foreign language skills were more developed than her mother’s, but Mari was still only able to have the most basic conversations with Victor. “Yuuri still sleeping?”

Victor returned her smile and nodded. It was a running joke between them. The whole family had been awake and working since dawn, but Yuuri would remain in his room until the sun was high in the sky. He probably hadn’t even gone to bed until just a few hours ago. Perhaps his internal clock had never readjusted after living in Detroit, but sometimes Victor couldn’t help but wonder if Yuuri might be avoiding him.

After breakfast, with his heart and belly filled to the brim with the joy of the morning, Victor went to Yuuri’s bedroom door. His heartbeat skipped ahead of itself as he knocked.

After all this time, he still got nervous. . .

“Yuuri,” Victor said. “It’s a gorgeous day outside. Wake up, and come enjoy it with me!”

But even with Makkachin’s help, which came in the form of an imploring bark and a snuffle at the crack of the door, Yuuri did not respond to Victor’s invitation. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. It wasn’t the first time he’d knocked at this door with the offer of friendship on his lips, only to walk away disappointed soon thereafter.

“I guess I’ll see you later at practice, then?” Victor said eventually, his heart sinking as his fingertips slid down the door. “Yuuko put us down on the Ice Castle schedule for 10:00 AM sharp.”

“Okay.” Yuuri’s groggy voice came from inside the room. It sounded like he was face down in his pillow. “See you then.”

And therein lay the one concern Victor had about his new life in Hasetsu. It was the only thing that made him feel at all unsettled.

He wasn’t sure if Yuuri wanted him here.

 


 

It was a silly thought to have, really.

Deep down, Victor knew it wasn’t true.

At the Onsen on Ice exhibition, Yuuri had fought hard to win the opportunity to call Victor his coach for the season. That battle had cleared up any lingering doubt that Yuuri did indeed want Victor there in Hasetsu, and he continued to prove that every day by pushing himself harder than the last. He also showed his dedication by practicing off-hours, being diligent with his cardio and strength-training routines, and minding his diet so that he would be in top physical condition when competitions started later this year.

However, Victor still felt something vital was missing in their relationship. He wanted to understand Yuuri. How could he call himself a true coach if he didn’t? How could he help Yuuri find his way to success when he didn’t know where to start?

Victor wanted to be Yuuri’s friend—or at least, be his something—but so far, all he felt was confused about his place in Yuuri’s life.

“Mind your posture,” Victor said. His voice echoed across the Ice Castle rink, where Yuuri was practicing a spread-eagle entry into a triple axel. While it was a difficult entry into a difficult jump, Yuuri should have mastered the maneuver weeks ago, but he was still struggling to polish it to perfection. “Think more ‘princely’ and less ‘little piggy.’”

But even with that helpful analogy (which Victor was rather proud of), Yuuri’s posture got even worse after the feedback was given. On his next attempt of the jump, he almost didn’t get the extra half rotation in and barely caught himself before he fell.

And it puzzled Victor, to be honest.

Yuuri had performed this very same spread-eagle into a triple axel at the Onsen on Ice exhibition. It was the opening jump of his Eros routine, and while it was true that it had been less than perfect at the exhibition, Yuuri was not improving. If anything, it was getting worse, and Victor didn’t understand why.

“Sorry,” Yuuri said, his eyes aimed downward.

“Where’s your focus today? Try again.”

“Hai.”

When Yuuri skated back to the opening position, it was obvious he was trying to be mindful of his posture, but the end result was still lacking. His heart was simply not in it today.

It was difficult for Victor to feel cross with Yuuri, even after he had shown up 27 minutes late for practice and kept him waiting. Yuuri was penitent and apologetic when he messed up. His problem wasn’t a lack of caring or respect for his coach’s time. Victor wasn’t even convinced anymore that this was just a confidence issue. Something deeper was going on with Yuuri that Victor couldn’t put his finger on, and that was what sometimes frustrated him—that he wasn’t allowed to get close enough to understand the situation in order to better help Yuuri overcome it.

Though they’d lived under the same roof for weeks now, Yuuri was still a mystery to him. A beautiful dark-eyed enigma. He was also a walking contradiction, being surprisingly stubborn for someone who claimed to have no confidence.

Stop, stop.” Victor said the words a full three seconds before Yuuri tried the triple axel again. Even before he left the ice, it had been obvious from the positioning of his feet that he wouldn’t land the jump. Victor wasn’t surprised when Yuuri fell a moment later and slid to a graceless halt dangerously close to the barrier. “Are you all right?”

The question came out a little harsher than he intended.

He wasn’t angry that Yuuri had messed up the jump. It had become clear that he was just having a bad day—and who didn’t from time to time? But Yuuri hadn’t listened when Victor had said Stop, and a three-second warning was plenty of time to prevent a bad fall. Yuuri had made a conscious decision to attempt the jump anyway and could have potentially hurt himself in the process.

It was the lack of trust between them. Trust and communication.

That was what bothered Victor.

Thankfully, Yuuri didn’t appear to be injured from the fall. He got to his knees and clapped his gloved hands together to knock off the wet ice. It seemed he hadn’t heard Victor’s question. “Sorry,” Yuuri said again, sounding even more discouraged than before. He looked terribly embarrassed as he got to his feet. “I’ll do it right this time.”

“No, let’s move on to something else,” Victor suggested, tapping a finger to his lips. “Something you’re more comfortable with.”

It’s what Yakov would have said.

Whenever Victor felt like he was failing over and over again at something, Yakov would always tell him to work on something else he was good at to give him a boost of confidence. It never failed that when Victor went back to whatever jump or move that had brought him so much frustration before, he had a much easier time mastering it. The mind was a powerful thing.

But the problem was Victor didn’t understand Yuuri’s mind. It didn’t work like his own, and it puzzled him even more than he already was when Yuuri seemed hurt by his suggestion. He came to an abrupt stop with his shoulders visibly tensed. He looked like Victor had just told him to give up skating entirely.

“But I can do it,” Yuuri said, his hands balled into fists. His expression was stricken, but his frustration wasn’t aimed at Victor. It was turned inward at himself. “Just let me try one more—”

“We’ll come back to it later,” Victor assured him. “Let’s move on to your step sequence for now.”

Again . . . it’s what Yakov would have said. Yuuri’s step sequences were among his chief strengths. What better way to rebuild his confidence than to direct his path toward something he’d succeed at?

But it didn’t work out that way. Not even a little.

Yuuri’s remaining confidence leaked out of him like his skin was made of mesh, and he never did recover it that day. Victor watched helplessly as Yuuri struggled through the rest of the practice, looking more and more frustrated by the second. Had Victor chosen his words poorly? Had he not explained his reasoning well enough? Was it a problem with the language barrier? But no matter what he said to try to make it better—even kind, encouraging words meant to offer the reassurance that everyone had a bad day sometimes—Yuuri had slipped somewhere beyond his reach.

Eventually, Victor made the decision to end practice early, and he didn’t see it as a bad thing. Maybe they could do something fun and get Yuuri’s mind in a better place.

“Let’s go get some lunch together,” Victor suggested with a bright smile. “My treat. And maybe afterward, take Makkachin into town? It’s such a nice day today.”

It was the kind of distraction Yakov would have encouraged.

So why wasn’t it working with Yuuri?

Yuuri’s answering smile was equal parts sweetness and evasiveness. “Thanks for the invitation, but I have some things to do this afternoon.”

Even then, knowing Yuuri was upset with himself, Victor didn’t fully grasp how much he was truly struggling inside. How could he, when Yuuri was so good at smiling when his heart was covered in bruises? No, that realization happened later.

Victor had already packed up his things and left the rink by himself, since Yuuri had declined his invitation to walk him to his next destination. But then Victor had remembered something he wanted to tell Yuuri and doubled back to the Ice Castle. However, when Victor pushed open the double glass doors leading out to the rink, he stopped dead in his tracks.

Yuuri had vanished. Two minutes ago, he had been at the barrier, sliding the guards onto his skates and smiling while he told Victor for the third time not to wait up. Two minutes ago, Victor had thought everything was fine, and that Yuuri understood why they’d scrapped today’s practice—that it wasn’t because Victor was disappointed in him or because he thought Yuuri was wasting his time. No, they had called it a day because Yuuri needed to take a deep breath and stop beating himself up. He could do that stupid jump with his eyes closed. He just needed to come back to it tomorrow. But it seemed that message had gotten lost somewhere.

Still standing in the doorway, Victor couldn’t see Yuuri anywhere . . . but he could hear the crying.

It was a soft sobbing—the kind people do when they don’t want anyone to hear. Little more than sharp, descending breaths muffled by the spread of fingers. Yuuri was probably hiding somewhere behind the barrier, sitting on the ground with his back to the rink and his face in his hands, and just the sound of it and the mental images it evoked absolutely broke Victor’s heart.

He had no idea what to do. He’d never been good at dealing with this kind of thing, but this was even worse than his normal ineptitude. Yuuri was hiding from him. What if Victor made it even worse? It’s not like anything he’d tried so far had worked.

Was giving Yuuri privacy the right choice here—or was it wrong to walk away and leave him?

In the end, it was Yuuko who helped him make the decision. She came up behind Victor and put a hand on his arm to stop him from going inside. When he looked at her with questioning eyes, she shook her head and whispered, “I’ll go check on him in a few minutes. Don’t worry. Sometimes he just gets too much noise in his head and has to let it out.”

“Noise?” Victor whispered back, not understanding.

But at the same time, Yuuko’s words did make a certain amount of sense. Sometimes it felt like Yuuri couldn’t hear him. Were his thoughts so loud at times that they deafened him to everything else?

Yuuko encouraged Victor to go home and promised she would look after Yuuri. So that’s what he did. But Yuuri didn’t return to Yu-topia at lunchtime, nor did he appear at dinner that night. Victor ate alone and bathed by himself in the onsen, and when he retired to his bedroom, he was painfully aware of Yuuri’s empty room just a short distance from his own.

Where was he?

Yuuko had texted him a few hours ago and said Yuuri was still at the Ice Castle. Victor had the worst feeling he was still practicing that damn jump, even after his coach had told him he needed to take a step back. Victor wished he could talk to Yakov and get his advice.

He bit his lower lip and stared down at his cell phone screen, which had his call history displayed. He’d called Yakov four times today, and every attempt had gone unanswered. There were other calls listed there as well, stretching back weeks—all of them outbound and not a single inbound call from Yakov to Victor.

That was odd.

As Victor turned the screen of his phone off, a powerful loneliness rose up inside of him. It made him feel strangely small. Younger than he actually was. Like a little boy who had let go of an adult’s hand, run away, and gotten himself lost in a strange place.

The people of Hasetsu had been wonderful to him. He knew he wasn’t alone here, and there were others he could talk to or rely on if he needed them. Even the ever-evasive Yuuri normally spent a good amount of each day at Victor’s side—at minimum, sharing meals and practice time on the ice with him. But ever since leaving Saint Petersburg, Victor felt a lack of foundation beneath him. He had no deep, lasting ties to Yuuri or his family. There was no blood relation between them or years of friendship in their history.

Here, Victor was just a visiting coach. A temporary guest passing by.

This bothered him because he had a very different kind of relationship with his own coach. Yakov was Victor’s family. He knew everything about him—the good and the bad and all the ridiculous things in between—and maybe that was why Victor was struggling so much to understand why Yuuri wouldn’t let him in. Victor wanted to be his coach.

Did Yuuri have any idea what being a coach meant to Victor? It meant being Yuuri’s family.

In Sochi, when Yuuri had said those three magical words—“Be My Coach”—Victor had been unspeakably flattered because he thought it was an offer to engage in a very lasting and personal relationship with Yuuri. He had thought Yuuri was telling him he wanted Victor as a confidant, ally, and friend. He’d thought Yuuri was inviting him into his family—that he held Victor in such high esteem that he wanted him to be his “Yakov.”

Except younger and with better hair and far superior taste in clothing and much, much more pleasant to look at. And talk to. And be around in general.

Anyway, the analogy had made sense at the time.

Victor did a lot of thinking that night, sitting on the bed with his legs crossed beneath him and Makkachin draped across his lap. He combed his fingers through thick curls of fur and tried to think of a reason why Yakov might not be answering his calls.

He had asked Yuri Plisetsky if Yakov had perhaps changed his phone number and forgotten to share it, to which Yuri responded: no he just doesnt want to talk to you so stop calling him already. it puts him in a bad mood and i get yelled at enough.

But that couldn’t be right. Yakov must have accidentally blocked Victor’s number or something like that. Maybe he should try reaching out to him through e-mail instead. He had so many questions about what to do with Yuuri. They just kept piling up.

Victor was already in bed with the lights out by the time Yuuri came home. He wasn’t asleep though, and heard the quiet tiptoeing on the tatami mats in the hall, as well as the soft opening and closing of Yuuri’s bedroom door. Victor almost got out of bed and went to him, but he ultimately stayed where he was because he didn’t know what to say.

“Shhh,” he whispered to Makkachin, coaxing him back down beside him in the bed. The dog had perked up when he’d heard Yuuri’s footfalls. “Let him get some sleep. Everything seems more complicated than it actually is when it’s dark outside. Morning has a way of simplifying things.”

Yakov used to say that, too.

 


 

As it turned out, he was right.

The next day, Victor woke up feeling much more optimistic. He had a bright smile on his face as he dressed and wished Yuuri’s father, Toshiya, a very good morning when they encountered each other downstairs. Victor’s mind was full of possibilities when he took Makkachin on his morning walk.

During practice today, he and Yuuri were going to conquer that jump. They were going to break it down into pieces and figure out where exactly Yuuri felt less than confident. From there, they could put together a set of repetitive drills to work through that weakness and make it strong.

When Victor returned to Yu-topia after the walk, he was so excited that he rushed right up to Yuuri’s room to share this plan with him. Only Yuuri wasn’t there. His bedroom door was slightly ajar, and it was as quiet as a photograph inside. A scene frozen in time.

Victor pushed the door further open and peered in. Though he’d seen the inside of Yuuri’s bedroom before, he’d never been invited past the threshold. It was even smaller than Victor’s room and could honestly do with a bit of decoration to make the space seem more welcoming. (Perhaps some artwork or posters on the empty walls?)

All the same, there were little touches of Yuuri’s presence here and there that made Victor miss him. A piece of paper with his careful handwriting, left slightly askew on the desk, and the rumbled pillow on the hastily-made bed. Yuuri’s scent, in particular, tickled Victor’s senses and made his legs go a bit wobbly. It took him a few moments to remember what he was doing there and realize Yuuri must have risen and left the house while Victor was still on his morning walk with Makkachin.

Since when did Yuuri get out of bed at this hour?

They weren’t booked to practice at the Ice Castle until later that day, but Victor had an inkling that was exactly where he would find his missing protégé. After eating a quick breakfast, he grabbed his things and hurried to the ice skating rink.

“Is he here?” Victor said to Yuuko when he walked through the front door.

She was filling out paperwork at the desk and greeted him with a smile, her dark brown eyes warming as she nodded. “Go see for yourself. He worked hard last night.”

Worked hard at what?

Even though he’d been so optimistic that morning, Victor wasn’t smiling when he pushed open the doors to the rink and looked inside. He wasn’t sure what he was going to find. Would Yuuri still be upset? Did he know Victor heard him crying yesterday?

What on earth was he supposed to say to Yuuri after all that?

As expected, Yuuri was out on the ice, and judging from the color staining his cheeks, he’d already gone through his warm up routine and had moved on to more complicated maneuvers. He didn’t seem to notice Victor at first—and perhaps that’s why Yuuri looked more confident than he had since drinking two bottles of champagne in Sochi last December. Either way, his gaze was full of steel and determination as he performed a spread-eagle into a triple axel—and absolutely nailed it.

It was perfect.

His posture, the takeoff, the sure-footed landing. All of it.

And best of all was the satisfying slap of Yuuri’s skates on the ice, which meant the landing was solid. There wasn’t a competitive skater on the planet that didn’t love that sound.

Victor’s eyes widened, and he stepped into the room, letting the double glass doors close behind him. He marched straight for the opening in the barrier, dropped his bag, and stepped out on the ice without putting his skates on first. It made approaching Yuuri a little challenging, but Victor didn’t care. He just kept walking and eventually Yuuri took notice of him. He stopped in place and looked somewhat alarmed when he saw his coach’s attention honing in on him.

As soon as he was close enough, Victor gathered Yuuri up into his arms and hugged him tight, chest to chest.

Yuuri let out a gasp and went rigid with surprise. Eventually, he managed to sputter, “V-Victor?”

“That was perfect,” Victor said softly, his eyes squeezed shut. “Yuuri, you’re amazing.”

It’s what Yakov wouldn’t have said.

But maybe that was okay. Yakov wasn’t here to give his advice, but Victor was and this was what was in his heart to tell Yuuri. Surely he couldn’t go wrong if he spoke from his heart, right?

A shiver went through Yuuri’s small, warm body, and that just made Victor want to hug him tighter. How many hours had Yuuri spent practicing that move last night? Yuuri must have dried yesterday’s tears and gotten right back on his feet. He had turned his frustration into determination, and even though Victor would have chosen a different path (one that was much kinder, in his eyes), Yuuri had gotten the job done on his own.

Victor might not understand Yuuri, but at that moment, it dawned on him that Yuuri understood himself just fine. And to be honest, it scared him a little.

Because he already knew what to do. What to work on. How to accomplish it. And he had proven that he could do it without Victor. That meant his role here in Yuuri’s life was even more diminished than what he first feared. It meant Victor wasn’t even his coach. Not really. He was just his choreographer and onsen buddy—and also the weird Russian guy that sometimes gave him awkward hugs that lasted too long.

And that . . . that lack of something . . .

Purpose. Significance. Meaning to another living, breathing being other than his dog.

. . . that was terrifying.

But maybe Victor could give him this—an embrace and a “well done”—and hope Yuuri would be okay with him staying here anyway.

 


 

From: v-nikiforov@mail.ru
To: yakov.feltsman@mail.ru

Hi, how are you?? It’s been so long since we’ve talked that I’ve lost count of the days. Did you get the postcard I sent a few weeks ago? The one with the ninja castle. I hope it didn’t get lost. Yuuri’s sister, Mari, suggested the Hasetsu Castle ninjas might have stolen it, but I think she’s just messing with me.

(She’s just messing with me, right?)

(Do ninjas steal mail to keep their location a secret? Is that a thing? Yuuri won’t tell me.)

Anyway, I mentioned on the postcard that I have some coaching questions for you. Yuuri’s doing great. He really is the best student and gives it his all, but sometimes I don’t know what to say when he’s feeling discouraged. He’s different from me, so the things you used to say to encourage me don’t often work on him. He struggles with confidence, and there’s something else on top of it. A lack of trust between us, maybe? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.

I guess I just don’t understand what he wants me to be to him. Does that make sense, or is that a stupid question for a coach to ask? Like we show up to practice every day, but there’s nothing else except skating. I do think he wants me to be his coach, but it’s like we have different ideas about what that means.

What should I do? If you could give me a call sometime, I’d love to talk to you about it.

How is everyone in Saint Petersburg doing? Georgi, and Mila, and Yuri?  Everyone here calls Yuri “Yurio” because it got too confusing with the other Yuuri. He hates it. Isn’t that hilarious?

Hey, did you know you can make a ninja with text art???

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Or maybe that’s a hockey player or Tiger Woods, I don’t know.

Can’t wait to hear from you! Better yet, come visit me in Hasetsu!

Victor

 


 

In a quiet room at Yu-topia was a shrine built to a beloved pet.

It was the family shrine, actually—a butsudan, Hiroko called it with a reverent smile—but Victor came to associate it with Yuuri’s dog, perhaps because of the pair of tags from his collar displayed on the shelf next to a framed picture of him with Yuuri.

Victor went there sometimes in search of Makkachin, who was often drawn to the room for unknown reasons. It was a peaceful place with sunlight angling through the window and painting a broad rectangle of light on the floor. Victor would sometimes sit there quietly with Makkachin at his side and look up at the picture of Yuuri as a child, hugging his own dog.

Victor knew that as a boy, Yuuri had named his dog after his figure skating idol. Oh, he had thought when he saw his own name on those dog tags on the shelf—and left it at that.

The whole family referred to the pet as Vicchan, but that was also what Hiroko called Victor from the very first moment she’d recognized him. It was as if that nickname had belonged to him first before it was gifted to another in his honor.

And it was probably stupid. . .

No, it was definitely stupid.

But sometimes Victor felt like the other Vicchan had brought him here. Not just to this quiet room with the incense smoke curling like ribbons in the air. But to Japan.

To Yuuri.

Like maybe after he passed away during the Grand Prix Final last December, little Vicchan had known how much his death would hurt his master. Maybe he had watched Yuuri crash and burn afterward. Maybe he had been the one to put the thought into Victor’s head: Take care of him. He still needs a Vicchan.

Or maybe Victor just wanted to be needed.

That was probably more likely.

But he liked to imagine that it was Vicchan the puppy that drew Makkachin to this room day after day, where Victor would find him staring up at that picture as attentively as he might if it was speaking to him. After leaving this room, Makkachin often went in search of Yuuri and licked his face until he got him laughing and smiling.

Yes, it was a stupid thought. Perhaps the most ridiculous he’d ever had.

But it made Victor wonder sometimes.

 


 

His friendship with Yuuri developed slowly, like little droplets of water falling one by one into a bucket, eventually filling it up until it could no longer be blown over by a gust of wind.

First came the familiarity of routine, as Yuuri grew used to having Victor as a constant in his everyday life—in his home, at the family dinner table, next to him in the onsen. Along with that awkward phase came small talk—simple inquiries about the other person’s day or perhaps a funny anecdote leading into a recollection of the past. They got to know each other in this way, like passing strangers at a coffee shop who knew each other’s names and enough information to ask about family members and jobs.

Slowly, those shallow conversations added up into a general understanding of the other person. Victor could more or less read between the lines now when Yuuri talked to him. He knew just how hard to push to make Yuuri blush. (And God help him, he loved making Yuuri blush.) He now better understood what made Yuuri hurry off to his room and slam the door. (Victor didn’t like that as much.)

He’d also figured out how to make Yuuri smile.

“I love Japan,” Victor might say. “I’m so glad I came.”

Without fail, it worked. Yuuri’s face would light up, and he would smile so beautifully that Victor would at once start plotting to make it happen again.

While Yuuri enjoyed receiving compliments, they also made him self-conscious enough that he might run away altogether. But that was not the case when Victor complimented Yu-topia or Hiroko’s cooking or Japan in general. Yuuri always smiled then, and Victor liked to imagine it was because Yuuri wanted him to enjoy his stay here. Because as long as Victor loved Japan and everything in it, that meant he would be happy to remain there with Yuuri.

Little by little, their shallow conversations began to slip into the deeper end of the pool.

They often chatted while bathing in the onsen, with the stars overhead blurred by steam rising like ghosts of the past off the water. There was something about shedding their clothes and getting chin-deep in the hot springs that loosened their tongues and got them talking.

Yuuri would tell Victor stories about growing up in Hasetsu, and even without his glasses on, he would stare up at the sky. He often got nostalgic during these conversations, like seeing the same constellations he gazed at as a child had brought him right back to those days.

He would talk about crowded holiday weekends at Yu-topia and how he used to wish they had a normal family home without a hot springs resort attached to it. He told Victor funny stories about onsen guests, particularly the foreign ones who couldn’t read the signs, and how a few got lost in the house with nothing but soggy towels clutched to their waists. And then there was the time when a two-year-old Yuuri had accidentally toddled through the entrance of the women’s baths.

“I didn’t see anything,” Yuuri said, “but Mari told me they found me happily stomping around in a puddle with a bunch of naked ladies in towels just a few feet away. Apparently, they were all mothers and grandmothers and thought I was adorable.”

“Imagine that,” Victor said, a smile playing at his lips as he gazed across the water at Yuuri.

Over the passing weeks, Victor listened to hours and hours of similar stories. Like the one about the special bento boxes Yuuri’s mother would send him to school with as a boy, and how Nishigori used to tease him mercilessly about the panda faces on his onigiri rice balls. That is, until Yuuko started making him bento boxes of his own, and then Nishigori decided onigiri with cute animal faces were not only acceptable, but an indication of superior social status. And because Yuuri’s panda face onigiri came from his mother and Nishigori’s came from his girlfriend, that made Nishigori’s less childish and therefore better.

When that got old, he just teased Yuuri about his weight. And when Nishigori’s stomach grew much rounder than Yuuri’s, he then moved on to teasing Yuuri about his glasses.

“Why didn’t you tease him back about his weight?” Victor said.

“Too easy,” Yuuri said with a laugh. “I prefer to get my revenge through success.”

Savage. Victor loved it.

The stories didn’t stop there. Yuuri talked about dance recitals at Minako-sensei’s studio, sharing his first beer with his father at a soccer game, Mari’s heated teenage battles with their parents over her many ear piercings, and their mother’s top secret love for Japanese soap operas, which she would sneak off to watch even though everyone had figured out what she was doing years ago. Yuuri talked about the smell of thunderstorms in the summer, about the earthquake and tsunami scares they’d had when he was growing up, and about the volcano that fed warmth into the hot springs.

He told Victor how nostalgic he had felt the moment he’d returned home after five years. Even the scent of the train station had taken him back immediately.

“I think living in Detroit made me appreciate Hasetsu more,” Yuuri said. “Everything felt different when I came back. Not that I didn’t like America. I loved living abroad and want to do it again someday, but I don’t think I appreciated where I came from until I left Japan. My roots are here, and I never understood the importance of that until I moved somewhere people couldn’t even spell my name. I’m sure you know what that feels like. You came all this way from Russia. You know what it’s like to miss your roots.”

“Oh, of course,” Victor lied.

Not that he wanted to be dishonest with Yuuri. It was more of a white lie—something well-meant instead of a statement designed to deceive.

It would have been rude to tell Yuuri he was wrong—that Victor’s roots had been dug up and starved of nutrients many years ago—and he also didn’t want Yuuri to stop talking about his own family history. Victor found it fascinating. It was like seeing Hasetsu and the people that lived there through a different set of eyes. Yuuri was letting Victor walk around in his memories for a little while, and that was nice.

“What about you?” Yuuri asked. “What was it like growing up in Russia?”

It was an easy enough question to answer without getting too deep.

He talked about the good parts. The shining moments painted in his memory like a lens-flare in a photograph. Victor had been a happy child who had loved to make believe. His daydreams were bright, whimsical things that inspired him to run and laugh and play.

“When I was young, I wanted to be a veterinarian and take care of animals,” Victor told Yuuri. “And let’s see, what else? I wanted to be a cosmonaut, a famous chef in Paris with one of those funny mustaches, a ballet dancer, a shoemaker, a prince, an officer in the . . . army.” He faltered for a second when he said that last one but then regained his composure. “I wanted to be everything. That’s what I think of when I remember my childhood. Dreaming about the endless possibilities.”

He told Yuuri about the great palaces and cathedrals of Russia, and how Victor used to look through picture books of them as a child like he was scanning a real estate magazine. He liked to pretend he could pick one out, pack his bags, and go live there. “I always wonder what would have happened if I’d been brave enough to stroll up to the doors of the Winter Palace with my pillow and asked to be shown to my room. Part of me still wants to try one day.”

This made Yuuri laugh . . . and the sound of it made Victor falter again.

Yuuri had a beautiful laugh. Warm and genuine and far too rare. It heated the air in Victor’s lungs and made him want to hold it there.

There were other questions that followed—innocent inquiries that Yuuri likely didn’t realize were difficult to answer—but Victor was good at this dance.

After all, dancing was in his roots.

When asked what his favorite food was as a child, he said, “The bakery down the street from where I lived would make the most beautiful desserts. All kinds of cakes and sweets, but the ones that made my mouth water most were the poncziki. They’re similar to doughnuts, but these had orange zest in the dough and lots of powdered sugar on top. They would display them in the window, and the smell would wake you up in the morning and make you so hungry, you couldn’t think straight.”

When asked what kind of school he went to, he said, “Oh, I didn’t go to college. I was already so focused on skating that it didn’t leave much room for anything else. I went from winning gold medals in the Junior division to having to climb back up the ranks with the Seniors, and I was determined to make my mark.”

When asked who introduced him to skating, he said, “Did you know there’s a Russian hockey player named Viktor Nikiforov? He won a gold medal at the Olympics in the 1950s, and when I read about him as a child, I thought about being a hockey player, too. For about five minutes. But I liked dancing and I didn’t want to cut my hair, so I decided to go after a gold medal in figure skating instead. Now there are two of us with the same name who have won gold Olympic medals for Russia.”

Either Yuuri didn’t notice that Victor never once gave him a direct answer to these questions, or he was too polite to make mention of it. Probably the latter—because while Yuuri listened to Victor’s stories with an attentive smile, there was a larger question forming in his eyes. Victor could see it there, getting clearer and clearer every day.

Why had Victor chosen to talk about the smell of desserts in a bakery window instead of describing what they tasted like? Why had he given Yuuri his reasons for skipping college when they both knew very well that he’d been asking about Victor’s experiences at school as a younger child? Why had he told him about a hockey player from the 50s instead of naming the person who first asked him if he wanted to take ice skating lessons?

The more Victor talked, the more it became apparent what he didn’t talk about. He danced around the void and filled the air with sparkles to distract from the vacancy beyond.

And it wasn’t that he was trying to hide anything from Yuuri. It’s just that from a very young age, Victor had been taught that to please others and be a desirable companion, he had to be pleasant and fun to be around. Uncomfortable topics were better avoided. People simply liked you better when you made them happy, and Victor wanted Yuuri to like him.

Somewhere around this time, after sharing all these stories and memories with each other, Victor and Yuuri hit a wall in their relationship. A big one.

It was like going straight back to square one. Declined invitations, doors shut in his face, one-word answers given to his questions. Yuuri started avoiding Victor again, just when he thought he was making some real progress.

They were on the brink of something, caught somewhere between an acquaintance and a true friendship, and they had gone as far as they could without truly taking the plunge.

Victor wanted more than anything to take that plunge. His insecurity about his place in Yuuri’s life had become more of a whisper of doubt instead of a fear that kept him up at night, but the same question still burned in his mind every day. What do you want me to be to you?

A friend? A mentor?

A lover?

If only he could get Yuuri to stop running away long enough to ask.

 


 

Victor finally got his chance late that spring, when the weather was still chilly enough to demand a sweatshirt but hints of summer were making themselves known. The days were growing longer as quickly as the shadow beneath his feet shortened.

That particular afternoon—the day Yuuri stopped running away from Victor—was full of shadows, as well as uncertainty. Overhead, unsettled clouds moved in different directions. It was like witnessing the clash of seasons, like summer was trying to hurry spring along when it wasn’t ready to go. There was probably a metaphor to be discovered somewhere in those clouds, but Victor was too nervous to ponder it.

They walked to the beach together, with Yuuri barely saying a word, Victor trying his best to mask his frustration with cheerfulness, and Makkachin blissfully unaware of any tension. He barked at the seagulls that were taking a break on the beach and charged at them until they took flight.

Together, the three of them sat on the sand amongst the driftwood and talked about a girl from Yuuri’s past.

He told Victor that he’d shoved her away—literally pushed her body off of his—just for giving him an ill-timed hug when he was feeling vulnerable. Apparently Yuuri didn’t like it when someone intruded upon his feelings, and he couldn’t always control his reaction when it happened.

He hated it, he said. He hated being seen as weak.

And okay. That made a certain amount of sense, especially when taking Yuuri’s past behavior with Victor into consideration. The way he responded to what he perceived as failure. The way he hid from others when he cried. The way he stopped talking and went blank whenever Victor asked about his dating history. Yuuri didn’t like when Victor saw what he thought were “shortcomings.”

The realization made Victor want to laugh. Did Yuuri have any idea how much he envied him? He was so blessed with love and support. His life and everything in it was like a beautiful story playing out. Victor could almost see it in his mind, choreographed in a dance on the ice. But that was beside the point.

The important thing here was that Yuuri had finally given Victor a hint about what he was thinking, which then allowed Victor to correct that misperception. No, Yuuri wasn’t weak, and no one else thought that either. Certainly not Victor.

He blurted out the question not long after that, no longer able to keep it inside himself. “What do you want me to be to you?”

But Yuuri’s answer was not at all what Victor expected.

It was, however, the kind of answer he liked. It sparkled in his mind and puzzled him enough to keep him awake that night, pondering the irony while he was sitting alone in his bedroom with the smell of ocean salt and driftwood still clinging to his hair.

“I want you to be yourself,” Yuuri had said in reply.

And wasn’t that just the funniest thing?

This whole time, Victor had been trying to figure out which mask to wear to make Yuuri happy, when all he wanted was for Victor to take it off and show him the real person beneath.

Yuuri took a big step there that day on the beach. He’d been the first to remove his mask, toss it into the wind, and introduce Victor to the real Yuuri. Now it was up to him to do the same.

They shook on it.

 


 

Hey Yakov!

Just wanted to text and say hi.

Well, actually there is something else.

Do you remember that time you told me I was getting burned out because I cared too much what people thought?

You said I wasn’t being true to myself anymore.

I guess I just wanted to say thanks.

You were right.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

 


 

The summertime sunshine suited Yuuri. It tanned his beautiful brown skin, put a sparkle in his eyes, and made his ink black hair shine with health.

Gone were the baggy sweatshirts he’d hidden himself under during the spring. Yuuri looked more confident now, dressing in v-necks that showed off the muscles of his chest and shoulders, as well as his trimmer waistline. His stomach was still a bit soft, but Victor rather liked it that way. Whenever they hugged, he would put his hands on Yuuri’s middle on purpose, just to feel that bit of give in his flesh.

That was one of the major things that changed in their relationship that summer. Yuuri let Victor touch him more often. While he still had a moment of panic now and then, particularly when Victor caught him off guard with a hug, Yuuri no longer seemed to mind when they sat so close that their shoulders bumped together or when Victor took Yuuri’s hands into his own and lifted them into the air to demonstrate what he was looking for in his skating.

The tension that had defined their relationship that spring was gone—they were truly friends now—but a new kind of tension had taken its place. It was, however, a far more pleasant thing to endure.

When their hands brushed together while they walked, they didn’t talk about it. When Yuuri caught Victor staring at him at dinner, they didn’t talk about that either. And they definitely didn’t talk about Yuuri slowly gaining the confidence to stare back.

What they did talk about was skating. Their big project that summer was producing Yuuri’s Free Skate program and Victor couldn’t have been prouder of Yuuri for taking charge. He not only picked out the music, but he’d had it commissioned. He decided what his theme would be, helped with the choreography, and every time Victor challenged him to include a difficult element, Yuuri declared without hesitation that he would do it.

Watching him rediscover his love for skating was a beautiful thing to witness.

Watching Yuuri in general . . . that was beautiful, too.

“What does the end of this music mean to you?” Victor said one day at practice. “What do you see when you hear it?”

They were at the Ice Castle, hovering around the CD player on a break. Victor had a pad of paper in one hand and a pencil in the other. Something about the jump composition they’d decided on still didn’t feel quite right, particularly the last part.

“What do I see?” Yuuri said.

“For yourself,” Victor clarified. “For the end of your story.”

“Sorry. I’m still not following.”

Victor tapped the final jump listed on his notepad. The one that felt out of place. “This doesn’t go anywhere. The finale is anticlimactic because it lacks substance. It feels like you’re just sailing off into a metaphorical sunset instead of achieving a satisfying ending to your story.”

“But what if I like metaphorical sunsets?” Yuuri offered him a sheepish smile. “That sounds kind of nice, actually.”

“A sunset isn’t an ending. Let me explain it this way. You’ve said the beginning of Yuri on Ice represents when you felt like you were fighting alone, and then the tempo picks up and the violin joins the piano, which is me showing up here as your coach. Then the break in the music is where you soar on your new understanding of the love that surrounds you. But what happens after that?”

Yuuri shrugged and looked down at the notepad. “Hopefully I win a gold medal.”

Victor shook his head. “That’s a goal. It’s important to have those, but a win at the Grand Prix Final is not a real end to your story. I’m talking emotion, Yuuri. When you look back at everything that’s happened in your life—all the fighting and struggling—what do you want as your reward?”

Yuuri met Victor’s eyes.

And it made the bottom drop out of his stomach, the way he looked at him. Victor heard it clear as day, even though Yuuri hadn’t said a word.

I want you.

“I guess what I want most at the end of all this,” Yuuri said, “is for the people I care about to understand how much I appreciate them. I want to take the love they’ve given me all these years and aim it right back at them. I want this Free Skate to pay homage to the people who got me here.”

He swallowed then and his face turned bright red, like he was afraid he’d just said something stupid.

Victor threw both hands up, sending the notepad and pencil flying, and said, “YES!! Yes, yes, yes! Oh, you are so good at this. Yuuri, I love it!”

Yuuri really was the best student.

A much better student than Victor had ever been.

 


 

It wasn’t that he didn’t listen to Yakov.

He did.

Selectively. . .

Victor approached Yakov’s skating tips and general advice about life like he had been presented with a lovely pinot noir at a wine tasting. He gave it a swirl and a speculative sniff before tipping the glass back for a sip. Then he swished it around in his mouth, considered the notes and flavor, and spared a moment to ponder the origins. Somewhere in there, he made a determination of its value and formed an overall opinion on his likeliness to buy.

And regardless of that opinion, be it positive or negative, Victor would then spit Yakov’s advice right back out again into a bucket on the floor.

But that didn’t mean Victor didn’t like or have an appreciation for his coach’s advice. What person at a wine tasting didn’t like wine? But sometimes it was better to taste than to drink. Sometimes too much wine made his head spin.

Yakov was a damn good coach. The absolute best in the business, and there was value in his opinions. Victor knew that. But he also knew he was a damn good skater and had good instincts of his own. Yakov worried too much, and he didn’t put as much trust in Victor’s instincts as he did.

While he’d done a lot of listening throughout the years, Victor had not done much hearing. He didn’t absorb Yakov’s teachings, particularly in the past few years when Victor was already a pro at winning over the judges.

But his coach’s words were still somewhere in his brain, and sometimes they surfaced in his memory.

Vitya, look at me. I’m an old man, and I lost my wife because I decided I’d rather be married to my career instead of her. You are at the top of the world right now, but what happens afterward? Where does your story end?

A gold medal is not an ending. A career is not a complete life.

You’re burned out because you haven’t started living yet. You’ve crafted this persona for your audience instead of taking the time to discover who you really are. You’re out of ideas because you haven’t refreshed your creativity.

Are you listening, Vitya? You never listen.

You think you know it all already. What advice could an old man with four decades of brat-coaching experience possibly pass onto you before he dies? I’m not always going to be around, you know. I’m seventy years old. One day, you’re going to want to pick up the phone and talk to me, but all you’re going to have is silence and a mountain of gold medals to keep you company.

Have those gold medals made you happy, Vitya? Do you even remember how much you used to love skating?

But then again, I’m just a grumpy old man.

What do I know?

 


 

Victor Nikiforov was the most decorated male figure skater in history.

But no. He wasn’t a very good student.

 


 

Left without a means to communicate directly with Yakov, Victor decided to make things up to him the only way he could: by taking some of his advice to heart now.

While Yuuri was on a journey of self-discovery and learning how to give and receive love from others, Victor was on a journey of his own. In the last few years especially, he had put far too much focus on his career, much of his time spent worrying about how to keep his audience pleased.

Yakov had encouraged him to have more of a work/life balance and that would, in turn, take his skating to the next level. Victor hadn’t listened to him, of course. (More wine he’d spat right into the bucket.) But now he was starting to see the sense in it.

Victor made it a point to disrupt his normal routine, seek out ways to get more enjoyment out of his life, and connect with the world around him. He extended his morning walks with Makkachin to a full hour, going as slow as his aging puppy friend asked him to. They stopped to look at strange flowers that didn’t grow back home in Russia and made sure to talk to that fisherman on the bridge instead of just wishing him good morning.

(His name was Asahi, and he brought three fish home every day. One for himself, another for his wife, and the third for their three cats.)

These walks opened Victor’s eyes to how beautiful the world was. He’d always known that. After all, he’d been going on these walks for months now, but he hadn’t taken the beauty inside himself. He hadn’t become a part of it. Now, he loved to breathe deep and soak in the sunshine and let it all renew his mind.

Both he and Makkachin were happier for it, and Victor soon found himself no longer having to fake smiles. There was no need to wear a mask anymore when the joy rose up from him naturally.

It reminded Victor of how he’d felt as a little boy. Those first seven years of his life were filled with wonder and curiosity over the smallest thing, even when he didn’t have many toys or playmates at his disposal. Little Victor’s imagination had solved that problem.

The world around him had served as his best friend. The clouds would paint funny pictures for him in the sky to make him laugh. Flowers grew between the cracks in the sidewalk for him to pick and put in his hair. He would copy the dance of the snowflakes that fell from above in winter, and when summer came, he would mimic the dance of the dust motes that were set aglow by the sunshine streaming through the window outside his mother’s closed bedroom door. His mind had been a happy place, and it had never occurred to him until later that some parts were a bit unusual.

Victor had a lot of time to think about those first seven years during those walks with Makkachin. Sometimes he would stop and pluck a flower free from a crack in the sidewalk, then smile fondly at it before sliding the stem behind his ear.

Yakov’s advice hadn’t stopped there, so neither did Victor’s efforts to listen to him. His coach used to call Victor “selfish” more often than he called him by his name, so he sought out ways to be less self-involved. He started asking what he could do to help at Yu-topia and soon became more immersed in the family business. Toshiya asked for assistance with promotion, while Hiroko liked having someone tall around who could reach items from high shelves without her having to get a ladder. Mari just told him it would be nice if he could bring his own dishes to the kitchen for once.

And Victor kind of liked that. Family members brought their own dishes to the sink and rinsed them. Guests had dishes taken away for them.

Victor also poured his time and energy into Yuuri, who still had a stubborn streak on the ice and chose his own path more often than not, but Victor would be hypocritical indeed if he faulted him for that. It was the same kind of stubbornness he’d displayed with Yakov throughout the years.

Maybe Victor was Yuuri’s “Yakov” after all.

Except prettier. And with fresher breath.

Their coach/student relationship was an odd one. They weren’t that far apart in age, and some days it felt more like they were partners instead of mentor and protégé. Victor’s skill level might be more advanced, but he knew from his time with Yakov that being a coach wasn’t about skill. It was about knowing how to guide and encourage and correct. It was about being a rock-solid foundation beneath someone who was desperately straining their fingers toward the sky.

Victor and Yuuri were still figuring that balance out. It wasn’t perfect. Yuuri still had days where he looked so defeated that Victor felt a little defeated himself. He’d grown protective of Yuuri and hated seeing him hurt or uncomfortable. Sometimes Victor’s advice fell flat, and sometimes Yuuri took things too much to heart when Victor had only been joking. There was miscommunication all over the place, but one general understanding could be heard over it all.

You’re not fighting alone anymore.

We’re in this together.

Finally. That purpose Victor had been searching for.

He saw a bit of himself in Yuuri, not just in his stubborn streak but also in his propensity to put too much focus on the color gold. Yuuri was a hard worker and would think nothing of practicing for hours by himself, late into the night when he couldn’t sleep. His focus on winning the Grand Prix Final bordered on unhealthy at times, and Victor knew well that while a gold medal did bring a sense of pride and happiness, that feeling faded as soon as the next season began.

As Yuuri’s coach, Victor wanted to impart lessons about what was truly important in life. That way, even if Yuuri didn’t win in Barcelona, he would still be left with treasure in his heart. It’s what Yakov had tried to teach Victor, and his failure to listen had resulted in a depression that he hadn’t even realized he was neck-deep in until he started to pull out of it.

Now wiser for it, Victor wanted to protect Yuuri from what he’d experienced. He wanted to give him that balance he’d never had himself. So that summer, Victor made it a point to remind Yuuri that not all practice happened on the ice. Having fun was just as important as hard work.

It’s what Yakov would have said. No, it’s what he did say. Over and over until he sounded like a broken record.

One July morning dawned particularly bright. The sky was endless blue. Radiant and sparkling and so saturated with color that it had a gravity all its own. Victor took one look at that sky through a window, marched straight to Yuuri’s bedroom, and threw open the door.

“Okay, look,” Victor said. “I know we made plans to work on revising your jump composition today, but it is way too nice outside to be trapped indoors at the Ice Castle. I don’t want to skate today. We always skate. I’m tired of skating. I want to be outside enjoying this, and you’re coming with me whether you like it or not.”

Still half-asleep, Yuuri sat up on his knees in the bed and rubbed his right eye with a fist. He stifled a yawn and felt around for his glasses. “What about going to the beach?” he suggested as he slid them on.

Victor’s face lit up.

And that was how one of the best days of his life got started.

 


 

It was the kind of day he didn’t want to let go of, one that defied the passage of time and seemed to stretch on without end. More of a feeling than an actual event. Later he would look back on that day in July like a series of snapshots in his memory. He would smile as he remembered Yuuri chasing Makkachin down the beach, laughing and kicking up sand in his wake.

As it turned out, the summer Hasetsu sky wasn’t the most beautiful thing Victor laid eyes on that day. Not even close.

They danced on the sand and played together in the ocean, splashing each other without mercy and ducking beneath cresting waves. Afterward, they inspected tidepools and watched a quartet of baby crabs tiptoe across the wet sand in search of the water’s frothy edge. When they got hungry, they sat shoulder to shoulder to feast on the bento boxes Hiroko had packed for them and searched for shapes in the billowy white clouds overhead.

And they didn’t—not even a single time—talk about ice skating.

It was amazing.

Afterward, when the sun was just beginning to strain toward the west, they went to rinse the saltwater off their bodies and the sand from their feet in the outdoor showers near the sidewalk. The day was deliciously warm, and the water from the showers cooled down their sun-kissed skin.

Rainbows sparkled in the water vapor, and the ocean breeze stirred the leaves of nearby trees. Just when they both had washed the final traces of sand away, Makkachin came bounding over and shook his fur out just a few steps from where they were standing. It got them all dirty with sand again and had them flinching away and holding up their hands to shield themselves while they laughed.

Victor took advantage of Yuuri’s distraction and ruffled his wet hair. As water rained down on them from the double shower heads above, Victor held Yuuri’s head beneath the stream until he was sputtering for mercy. However, this turned out to just be an act because the moment Victor let up, Yuuri reached out to hold his head beneath the water in revenge. Then they were both sputtering and trying desperately to push their hair out of their eyes and wipe the streaming water from their faces at the same time.

And it almost happened.

Right there, standing on the wet concrete in the bright sunlight.

Yuuri looked up, smiling breathlessly with water dripping from his bitten-red lips. Victor almost stepped forward, put his hands on Yuuri’s face, and wiped the beads of liquid away from those lips with the pad of his thumb.

Would Yuuri let it happen? Would he stand there while Victor leaned in close enough to breathe the same air?

“I think you’re a little sunburned,” Yuuri said. He pressed a finger to Victor’s shoulder, which turned stark white before shifting back to red.

Yuuri wasn’t sunburned. His body was tanned and glittering with water droplets like diamonds. As those droplets collected and slid down the valleys of his body, Victor felt a pulse of attraction in his lower belly.

“My mother has an aloe vera plant at home,” Yuuri said. “I think you’re going to need it tonight.”

Victor quirked an eyebrow. “Are you volunteering to do the application?”

 


 

Volunteer or not, Victor made Yuuri do it anyway. It was the least he could do for not reminding Victor to reapply his sunblock in a timely manner.

They avoided the onsen that night because Hiroko warned Victor that it would make his sunburn hurt worse. He and Yuuri sat together on the couch in Victor’s bedroom instead with a plate of sliced aloe vera leaves in Yuuri’s lap. The room was filled with a fresh, green scent and the warmth of the sun still rising off their skin, even though it was now dark outside.

“You know, I’m pretty sure you’re capable of doing this by yourself,” Yuuri said while he dapped a bit of the gooey aloe vera gel on Victor’s shoulder. “Your sunburn isn’t even that bad.”

Victor was dressed in one of the green onsen robes with the front tie undone and the top pulled low enough that his shoulders were exposed. “Can you put some on my cheeks? They feel so hot.”

Yuuri rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and said, “You are definitely capable of putting this on your own cheeks.”

But he did it anyway, and Victor cooed with happiness while Yuuri gave his cheeks, forehead, and nose a nice coating with the gel. “Your mother really grows this here at your house? Yuuri, I hope you realize she’s a goddess sent from heaven. Cherish that woman. Not everyone is so blessed.”

There was a funny kind of silence that fell between them for a few seconds too long.

One side of Yuuri’s mouth pulled into a smile, but the other side resisted. “Yeah. She really is the best.”

It was obvious there was more he wanted to say, so Victor waited until it came.

“Can . . . can I ask you something?” Yuuri said a few moments later. He placed the aloe vera leaf back on the plate and rubbed his hands together to coat them in what was left behind. “And if you don’t want to answer, that’s perfectly fine. You won’t hurt my feelings if you change the subject.”

He looked at Victor like he already regretted opening his mouth.

“Yuuri,” Victor said. “Spit it out.”

But even with permission, Yuuri had difficulty putting the words in the right order, and when it finally came out, it wasn’t a question at all. Instead, he said, “It’s just . . . we talk about my family a lot, but we never talk about yours.”

Oh.

“I mean, not that we have to or anything,” Yuuri said, backtracking as fast as he could. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry. We can talk about something else.”

Victor laughed off the awkward moment, even as he felt himself tense up. “It’s fine, Yuuri. What do you want to know?”

It wasn’t fine. But God, he was tired of dancing around this.

Yuuri took a deep breath, as if needing a bit of courage to continue. “Your mother was a dancer, right? And your father was an officer in the army?”

He had probably pulled those facts straight from Victor’s Wikipedia page. They were common knowledge to his fans or anyone else who cared to look.

“Well . . . that’s what I was told, at least,” Victor said. “My father was never really in the picture, but my mother would tell me stories about him when I was young. From what I gathered, she caught his attention after sneaking into a fancy party, and I made my scandalous grand debut approximately nine months later. She never told me what his name was. I think she must have known.” Victor blinked several times, staring off into nothing. “I hope she knew. It must have been frightening for her if she didn’t.”

Even though Victor trailed off there, Yuuri remained quiet, waiting for the rest.

“She was so beautiful, Yuuri,” Victor said in a faraway voice.

Long, silvery hair that stretched past her waist and glittered in the moonlight. Eyes the color of a winter sky and delicate, elven features that would have looked more at place in another world.

“Maybe she still is,” Victor said. “I haven’t seen her in years.”

Twenty, to be exact.

“You don’t . . . know where she is?” Yuuri said.

Victor pressed his lips together and fiddled with the tie of his robe.

Yuuri sighed and sat up straighter. “Listen, I’m really sorry. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. But . . . I’m here if you need someone to listen. Okay?”

You see? You made Yuuri uncomfortable.

That’s what happens when you stop smiling.

Other people stop smiling, too.

It was tempting to listen to these unpleasant thoughts, which were just symptoms of a far greater insecurity inside of Victor. But though Yuuri did look uncomfortable and neither of them were smiling the way they had earlier that day at the beach, there was a part of Victor that wanted to give Yuuri a glimpse of that vacancy in his heart. It wasn’t his responsibility to fill it, but it would be a relief not to have to hide it anymore.

“Those people. . .” Victor said. “My parents . . . I guess I don’t talk about them because they aren’t my family. I mean, they are blood relations, but . . .”

Yuuri nodded to show he understood without Victor having to explain further. “Yakov is your family.”

It made Victor smile . . . that Yuuri had figured that out without being told.

“It’s the way you talk about him,” Yuuri explained. “He was always the person you mentioned at important events in your life—like birthday parties and holidays. He still hasn’t answered any of your emails or calls, has he?”

Victor hung his head. His throat was suddenly tight, and it hurt to swallow. “I don’t understand why. I think he must be really angry with me, Yuuri.”

“Well, that’s the thing about family. You get angry with each other sometimes because it’s safe to be at odds with people who will still love you the next day. I ran away from my family for five years because I was ashamed that I hadn’t done anything to make them proud, but they still took me back in when I had run out of places to hide. I don’t know Yakov very well, but he’s probably hoping the silent treatment will guilt you into returning to Russia. It doesn’t mean he hates you.”

“I don’t know why he can’t just be happy for me,” Victor said. “What am I doing that’s so wrong?”

Yuuri didn’t know the answer, but that was okay. It was nice to just have him there to listen.

Victor dropped his head onto Yuuri’s shoulder and closed his eyes.

 


 

"Hi, Yakov. It’s Victor calling again.

Listen, I know it’s a little late to be talking to your voicemail. Well . . . actually, I guess it’s not as late there in Saint Petersburg as it is here. What is it, about seven o’clock your time? I guess you’re probably having dinner right now. It’s, um . . . it’s after midnight here. I haven’t been able to sleep.

I just . . . do you think you could call me sometime?

If you’re not too busy, I mean.

There’s a lot I want to tell you. Yuuri and I, we’re . . .

I wanted to let you know that I didn’t make a mistake coming to Japan. I know you think I did, but I didn’t. Everything you’ve tried to teach me about living my life and being less selfish and thinking about others . . . don’t you understand? That’s why I’m here, Yakov.

It’s why I’m here.

And I wish . . . I just want to talk to you. And okay. Maybe I took you for granted when you were always there for me. That’s fair. I can admit that, and I’m sorry.

But I think if I could sit you down now and explain, you would understand, and you would be happy for me. I know you think Yuuri took me away from the ice, but I wish I could make you understand what he’s given me in return.

I don’t have to pretend around him, Yakov. It’s the strangest thing. I don’t even know how to explain it. I just show up . . . and I’m the real Victor and he’s the real Yuuri, and somehow it all works out okay even though it’s not always pretty or acceptable or what the audience wants to see.

. . . Anyway . . .

I’m probably not making much sense. It’s really late here. After midnight.

Did I already say that?

I guess I’ll let you go. I hope you had something good for dinner. I heard Lilia is back living with you again. That’s really good to hear. Say hi to her for me.

Take care, Yakov.

I understand if you don’t call me back, but I hope it’s still okay if I keep leaving messages on your voicemail from time to time. I know it’s stupid, but it feels like talking to you, even though it’s just a machine.

So . . . I guess this is me saying ‘bye,’ then.

Bye.

. . .

Sorry.

Sorry, I’m really hanging up this time.”

 

 

 

 

Click.

 


 

About half an hour later—after Victor had already plugged his cell phone into its charger, turned out the lights in his bedroom, and was trying his best to sleep despite his sunburn—a cheerful ringtone filled the air.

Victor sat up ramrod-straight in bed and blinked at his phone, which was lit up, buzzing, and playing a familiar song. It was a ringtone he hadn’t heard in months—one he had set up to play only when a specific person called him. The song was Lady Gaga’s Telephone.

Stop telephonin’ me. . .
I’m busy.

Victor had picked that ringtone as a joke because this particular individual use to call him day and night . . . only it didn’t seem as laughable now. He’d forgotten how often he used to let Yakov’s phone calls go straight to voicemail.

Snatching his phone off the nightstand, Victor unplugged it and answered the call. “Алло?”

“Vitya.” Yakov’s tone was as gruff as ever but had an unusual urgency to it, like something bad had happened. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

“Yakov,” Victor said, his voice soft with amazement. “Is that really you?”

“You left me a message on my phone. Should I be worried?”

“I’ve . . . left you lots of messages.”

“Answer the damn question.”

“Question? Sorry, I didn’t h—”

SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT YOU OR NOT?”

Yakov yelled loud enough that Victor had to hold the phone away from his ear until a safer volume was established. Then, a little bewildered, he said, “No . . . no, not at all. That’s why I called you—to let you know how well I’m doing here. I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.”

There was a long pause.

Long enough that Victor felt compelled to ask, “Are you still there?”

“Call me when you’re ready to beg for your place back,” Yakov said.

Then he hung up.

Victor blinked a few more times and then pulled the phone away from his ear to stare down at the screen, which confirmed the call had been terminated. Beside him on the bed, Makkachin rolled over with a yawn and licked the back of Victor’s hand.

“That was Yakov,” Victor said to Makkachin, reaching out to pet him. “He actually called me back. Oh, I’m so relieved! I was worried he was angry with me. I can’t wait to tell Yuuri that everything’s fixed now!”

 


 

To be continued in Part 2.