When Victor wakes up, the space beside him is empty.
He blinks at it with bleary eyes, pausing to process the significance before dragging a hand across the mattress. The sheets are cool to the touch, uncrumpled, like they haven’t been slept in. It’s not far from the truth; he can hardly classify collapsing into bed and staring at the adjacent wall until he passes out as a good night’s sleep. It’s simply another thing for him to do, something to pass the time in an attempt to make it go by faster. Though he’s not sure what end goal he’s racing towards, if there's any at all.
It doesn’t matter. There’s no use in prolonging the charade of sleep for any longer anyway.
As he pushes himself into a semi-upright position, bracing himself for the new day, his eyes remain locked on the spot next to him. He doesn’t know why, but it’s like...it’s like if he looks hard enough, really hard, until the point he nearly goes cross-eyed, he expects something to materialize there. A shock of jet black hair, silky and perfect for running fingers through. A spanse of sun-kissed skin, marred only by a traceable smattering of thin silvery scars circling around delicate curves. A pair of eyes fluttering open, the hazy brown irises sparkling with flecks of gold. A warm, drowsy voice mumbling out a soft “Ohay—”
Wait. That’s not right.
For one thing, Victor never has anyone over at his apartment. Not fellow rinkmates, not friends, not even Yakov. As for romantic liaisons, he prefers to restrict those to the anonymity of hotels who are paid enough under the table to look the other direction. It’s less messy in the long run and prevents any chance of information about his personal residence being leaked to the public. A necessary precaution he’s learned about the hard way.
For another, while he knows he’s picked up a bit of a reputation as a playboy, he’s actually pretty particular about who he chooses to invest his time in. He recalls every person he’s ever been intimate with, what their name was or what their face looked like, or the rarer, needier, drunker occasions, at least what language they spoke.
So he doesn’t know why his subconscious would conjure up such a detailed fantasy involving a complete and utter stranger.
Or why his heart gives a painful lurch at the thought.
Something is missing.
At first, Victor thought it was just an odd sense of melancholy. An annoying thorn of doubt lodged into the tip of his tongue. It refuses to leave, no matter how much he bites at it until iron dances across his taste buds.
But there’s also evidence left around his apartment everywhere he turns. There’s a row of empty hangers, bare and white as bleached bones, occupying the right half of the closet. There’s an indent in the bottom shelf of the kitchen cupboard, barely noticeable against the walnut grain, suggesting another mug used to reside by his own. There are dusty shadows where picture frames, now absent, must’ve been hanging on the walls at one time. He runs a hand across the hastily spackled holes, the chalky dust crumbling off onto his probing fingers.
Most telling is Makkachin moping in her dog bed. Every now and then she’ll raise her head towards the front door and whine. As if she’s waiting for something—or someone—to come through at any second.
Something is missing.
Victor has no recollection of what it could be.
Everything begins to close in on him, swift and sharp, pummeling the air out his lungs. On the off days like these, he prefers to crawl back to the safety of blankets, aided by the tiny green pill that sticks to the back of his throat no matter how much water he drinks with it. But the mere premise of staying in the empty apartment for a second longer twists like a serrated knife to his gut. He needs to get out to clean, fresh air and hope it clears away the weird choking fog that’s somehow enveloped around his head.
“...Makka,” he tries to say, but it comes out as more of a breathless gasp. He clears his throat and tries again. “Makkachin, wanna go for a walk?”
Instead of perking her ears and dashing for her leash, after a weighted moment Makkachin shifts to her feet with a weak, unsteady wag of her tail. It’s a stark reminder Victor’s faithful canine companion isn’t the spry puppy she once was before. He swallows down the looming realization and forces a wide, bright smile.
“Just a short walk around the building, I promise,” he assures her. He clips the leash to her collar and then ruffles her curls. “After that, we’ll get some breakfast! How’s that sound, hmm? What do you want to eat today?”
“I want to eat katsudon with you, Victor.”
Blinding hot pain bursts in his temples. He stumbles forward and then sinks to his hands and knees, the leash slipping from his slackened grip. Dimly, he’s aware of Makkachin whimpering and pacing nearby, her nails clicking in frantic succession against the floor. But the majority of his focus is on the throbbing in his skull, stealing away any semblance of coherent thought.
After what seems like eons, it finally, finally ebbs to a background buzz, granting him the ability to wonder what the hell just happened. Never mind the physical effects; he’s accustomed to random aches and pains, part and parcel of being a professional athlete for nearly his entire life. It was the voice: not his own or of anyone he knows, yet so familiar to him all the same. It’s one his brain doesn’t recognize, but his heart does, given how rapidly it rattles the bars of his rib cage.
Makkachin snuffles her cold wet nose against his face, and when he goes to gently push her away, his hand brushes against his dampened cheeks. With a start, he realizes he’s been crying, almost to the edge of sobbing.
And honestly, he’s not even sure why.
Later, after he’s recovered and popped two doses of extra strength ibuprofen just to be safe, Victor searches the web for “katsudon.” Somehow he manages to spell the word perfectly the first time, despite the fact he can’t recall speaking a lick of Japanese a day in his life. He doesn’t know how looking it up will be helpful but he’s desperate for some sort of answers.
The top results are various recipes on how to prepare the meal, explaining in detail how to batter and fry the pork. While he’s proficient enough in the kitchen when he needs to be—though cooking solitary dinners has long since lost its appeal—he doesn’t trust himself with a dish of this culinary caliber. It feels wrong, almost profane, like he’s encroaching on someone else’s personal domain.
Instead, he locates a local Asian fusion restaurant that serves it and is willing to deliver after Victor promises he’ll pay handsomely for their efforts. When it arrives less than twenty minutes later, he throws way more rubles at the delivery boy than necessary and doesn’t bother waiting for any change.
The moment the smell of the steaming food wafts up to his nose, Victor is smacked with an overwhelming sense of unexplainable homesickness. One minute he’s standing in the kitchen of his apartment in St. Petersburg, the next he’s transported to a sleepy seaside town across the broad blue ocean. Everything is foreign to him, confusing, yet no translation is needed for good company and joyous laughter. For a relaxing soak with friends or a stroll on the sandy beach. For a hearty pat on the back when sharing a round of drinks or a soft beaming smile being served along with a lovingly crafted meal. For someone leaning comfortably against your shoulder on quiet summer nights, listening to the lazy droning of cicadas in the nearby shaded trees.
For the sensation that, against all odds, you feel at home thousands of miles away from everything you’ve ever known.
The image of Victor’s food on the table in front of him begins to blur and he has to blink repeatedly to clear his vision. Whatever he’s lost, it’s more important than anything of monetary nature, impossible to replace. Yet he’s still forgotten it, somehow.
With slightly trembling hands, he lifts off the lid to his order. One look at it can confirm it’s not on his restricted diet plan in the slightest, but at this point he doesn’t even care. The sight of the crispy golden pork instantly has his mouth watering, and he reaches for the included chopsticks on instinct rather than grab a fork. He selects a decent sized slice and raises it to his lips.
The very moment it lands on his tongue, he’s dashing to the bathroom. He barely arrives in time for him to evacuate the meager contents of his stomach into the toilet and then some. As the remaining bile-tinged spittle flies into the swirling porcelain bowl, he swears there’s something small yet firm pressing between his shoulder blades.
“Sorry,” the voice from earlier murmurs, sounding so real it reverberates in Victor’s eardrums. “That’s why I don’t eat that kind of food before a competition. Do you want me to get you a glass of water?”
Victor shakes his head against the plastic seat before he remembers nobody's really there.
When Victor arrives at the rink, the ice is there to greet him like an old friend.
Unfortunately, so is Russia’s very own Ice Tiger.
“What in the actual fuck,” Yuri Plisetsky says the instant he comes into the locker area and spots Victor lacing up his skates.
“Ah ah, language,” Victor chides with a playful click of his tongue. “Madame Lilia will have your ear if she catches you talking like that.”
“Cut the bullshit, Victor,” Yuri hisses. He jabs Victor right in the sternum. “What are you doing here?”
Victor glances down at his equipment bag, his Russian team track jacket and sweatpants, the golden bladed skates on his feet, and then raises an eyebrow. “It’s pretty obvious, don’t you think? Just because you want to win gold at Worlds doesn’t mean I’m going to make it easy for you.”
That earns him a shove so hard he nearly topples off the bench. “Listen up asshole,” Yuri snaps, using their positioning as a chance to tower over Victor. “You can’t disappear for weeks without letting anyone know where you are and then show up acting like nothing’s wrong.”
Weeks? Victor frowns. He knows it’s been a while; he can feel it in his joints, stiff and creaky from non-use. Yet he has the distinct mental image of a recent practice session where he shouted instructions about landing a jump to—
“Everyone else might be giving your sorry ass personal space to grieve or whatever,” Yuri continues, his fingers gripping into the meat of Victor’s shoulders with surprising strength, “but not me.”
Suddenly, he lets go and angles his face away. “He was…” he says, his voice losing its coarse edges by the second. “He was my friend too, you know.”
His confession comes as bit of a shock. Victor knows Yuri secretly idolizes him, but more of as a goal to overpass rather than as a competitor or as a rinkmate. Or hell, as another human being. So this is the first time the two of them have really discussed anything outside of skating. “What do you mean?”
“Will you quit it already?!” Yuri rolls his eyes, his anger from earlier boiling back to the surface. “You know I mean Katsudon!”
Oh. Well. This is awkward. “Ah, sorry Yuri!” Victor chuckles his apology and rubs the back of his neck. “I don’t remember us making plans to get dinner together, but you know how forgetful I can be sometimes!”
Yuri doesn’t laugh. He doesn’t screech or snarl either, or even call Victor some crude variation of “a stupid old geezer” like he usually does.
Instead, all color drains from his face. He takes a step back, his hands balled into shaking fists at his sides.
“...What the hell is wrong with you?” he whispers, the full weight of his young age bleeding into his wavering words. “How can you—”
Both of them jump and find Yakov looming in the doorway. “You were supposed to be out on the ice five minutes ago,” he says. “Go do ten sets of compulsory figures.” He gestures to the rink behind him and then towards Victor. “Vitya. In my office. Now.”
Yuri shoots Victor one last look before he storms off without another word.
It doesn’t make sense. Yuri hates compulsory figures as much as everyone else. Just the mention of it is enough for his face to scrunch up like he’s taken a large swig of spoiled milk.
But just now, his widened eyes had been brimming with pure unadulterated grief.
Yakov Feltsman’s office is an over-glorified storage room, packed from floor to ceiling with memorabilia from his long and industrious career. Victor, of course, is the subject for most of the awards, publicity photos, and newspaper clippings tacked to the wood-paneled walls. But there are some pieces from Georgi and Mila as well, and Yuri himself has begun to carve out space for all his achievements. Victor even spies a black and white photograph from Yakov’s own brief stint in ice dancing with Lilia, the dusty framed picture tucked away on a hidden pocket shelf.
Before Yakov has a chance to fully sit down at his desk, Victor is already prepared for a lecture. “Yakov, if this is about practice—”
“Vitya,” Yakov cuts him off mid-sentence, and oh, Viktor knows that tone. It isn’t the one where Yakov rants and raves about how ungrateful a student Victor is and how he can’t get afford to get cocky when his step sequences are still on the sloppy side. It’s the same one he has whenever he sees straight through the façade Victor has built around himself. Well, at least better than anyone else can—
“I want you to stay who you are, Victor!”
Victor screws his eyes shut as the brunt of it radiates from the crown of his head downwards, pulsing through his veins to the increased beating of his heart. After a few seconds, he manages to crack his eyes back open just in time to catch the solemn concern etched in the lines of Yakov’s face.
“Sorry,” Victor says, the strained muscles in his cheeks twitching from the force of his smile. “Were you saying something?”
When Yakov doesn’t respond right away, the pinned corners of Victor’s smile begin to falter. “Yakov? What’s going on around here? First Yuri starts acting weird, now you—”
“You selfish idiot,” Yakov barks out, his voice thick and gruff, his eyes glossed over with a suspiciously wet sheen. The last time Victor has seen Yakov like this, it was after the divorce with Lilia had been finalized and there had been over half a bottle of top-shelf vodka in him. “What have you done now?”
The farce drops from Victor’s face altogether. “I—” He swallows, the action harder to complete than to be expected, and shrugs. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Yakov sighs before he tugs his hat off to scrub a hand across his forehead. “When you called me the other night, frantically begging me to ship Katsuki’s things back to his family in Japan for you,” he says, “I was afraid you were planning something drastic.” He stops and stares at Victor. “I never expected to come into the rink today and see you, especially acting like this.”
His words tumble over and over inside Victor’s mind. Individually, they make sense. But strung together, they’re a broken key jammed into a rusted lock. They fail to click into place.
Victor doesn’t know a Katsuki. He doesn’t know a Katsudon. He doesn’t know a Yu—
The clack of plastic being dropped on the wooden desk steals Victor away from his turbulent thoughts. When he jerks his eyes up, he sees Yakov sliding a familiar rectangular shaped object in his direction. “You left this here so no one could even get a hold of you,” Yakov explains. “I was this close to calling the authorities if I didn’t hear anything from you soon.”
Right. Victor’s phone. He’s surprised he hasn’t been wondering where it was before.
When he flips it over, the lock screen automatically lights up, and he freezes. He had been expecting a picture of Makkachin, randomized from the many options in his photo roll. Instead, there’s a photo of two hands, clasped tightly together, sunlight catching on their identical gold rings.
One of them he recognizes as his own.
But there’s nothing on his right ring finger now. Nothing but a pale, faded circle of skin, suddenly burning like it’s been branded with a red-hot iron.
“I know I’m the last person you’d expect to say something like this,” Yakov says, “but go home. You’re no good to me right now.”
“Vitya, please.” Victor didn’t even know the word was a part of Yakov’s vocabulary. Yet, here they are. “If you refuse to listen to anything else I say, at least listen to me on this.”
Yakov places a heavy hand on Victor’s shoulder and squeezes. His silent comfort is somewhat grounding, when all Victor really wants is the permission to fall apart.
The apartment is dark and quiet, just as Victor left it.
He doesn’t know why he’s expected any different. Why he’s hoped any different.
His phone is a ten-ton weight in his pocket that grows heavier by the second. He hasn’t looked at it any further since he’s left the rink, a part of him slightly afraid of what he might discover when he does.
But while curiosity might’ve killed the cat, Victor staunchly prefers dogs anyway. It’s why Makkachin’s birthdate is his phone’s passcode after all.
Or at least it was. Except he’s keyed it in twice now, only for the words “Try Again” to flash at him each time. He stares at the screen, dumbfounded. The image of the joined hands remains, to both taunt and tantalize him.
Blind instinct seizes abrupt control of his fingers. He types 29, then 11, and is rewarded when the phone unlocks.
“Really?” The voice that has been popping up with increased frequency teases fondly, a purr of approval underneath. “That’s so cheesy, Vitya.”
“Think of it this way”—Victor hears himself laugh, from another time, another place—“neither of us can ever forget it now.”
Turns out he was right. It’s the one thing he can remember, though because of inherent muscle memory than anything else.
His home screen isn’t another photo, but an artist’s rendition of his Stammi Vicino outfit with a few minor modifications. One side is his signature magenta and gold, while the other half is sky blue and silver. He traces a finger along the design, moving apps and folders out of the way to get a better view. It’s stunning, equally so to his own, a perfect complementary piece.
But it doesn’t belong to him.
The glaring red notification bubbles from people trying to get a hold of him catch his eye. He clicks on the message folder first and scrolls through the long list of received texts. There’s one from Yakov, probably sent before he realized Victor didn’t have his phone. Then there’s Yuri asking where he is, plus Mila and Georgi who ask the same thing but in a much nicer tone with less colorful language.
Others have sent messages too, like Christophe and that one skater from Thailand—when had he and Victor exchanged numbers?
The others though, those he has no idea who they’re from. “Mama Hiroko and Papa Toshiya” reads one contact name, “Mari-neechan” another. They're all so foreign-sounding to him, yet when he goes to remove them, he can’t get his finger to press the Delete button.
None of the messages have been answered. They’ve been left unopened, ignored.
With the exception of one.
It’s listed as “золотце” with an excessive amount of heart and star emojis surrounding it. The last exchange is from weeks ago; almost a full month has passed since then.
золотце: Hey I know you’re in the middle of practice…
золотце: Well you should be in practice. You better not be reading this right now. ಠ_ಠ
золотце: Vitya you know Yakov is going to take your phone away if he catches you on it one more time!
золотце: Anyway wanted to let you know I’m headed to the store to pick up something up for dinner. Meet you at home, okay?
золотце: Love you.
Victor exits out before he backreads anymore. It feels too personal, like he’s encroaching on someone’s private thoughts, even though the texts were clearly meant for him, once.
He locates золотце in his phone book and calls the number. Immediately it goes to voicemail; the phone must be turned off.
What he doesn’t expect is to hear a recording of his own voice playing back at him: “Hi! You’ve reached the voicemail of the most beautiful, talented, powerful skater in the whole wide world, Katsuki Yuur—”
In the background, he hears a voice—the voice—interrupt with, “Vitya? What are you doing with my phone—”
The recording abruptly cuts off as the phone beeps, and Victor scrambles to hang up before he leaves a message.
This means the voice must be real. It belongs to an actual person and isn’t a figment conjured by his lonely imagination. And he doesn’t know if that’s better or worse.
While he’s admittedly forgetful, is it really possible for someone’s entire existence to be wiped from his mind? How could he forget Yuu—
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but right now all Victor needs is just one. A name. A clue. Anything.
When he opens his camera roll, the most recent photo is at the rink, snapped around the same time as the message from золотце. Zooming in for a better look, he focuses on the blurred figure in the center of the frame who’s been caught mid-spin. While it’s a static still, Victor swears he hears blades slicing across the ice the longer he stares, unable to tear his gaze away.
“Don’t ever take your eyes off me.”
Frantic for answers, he flips further back through the photos. There’s a tuft of black hair sticking out from underneath his comforter with a sleeping Makkachin curled up on the nearby pillow. A silhouette gazing out his bedroom window, holding onto a steaming mug, barely illuminated by the city lights outside. Someone laughing while covering their flushed face out of view of the camera, the glint of a now familiar gold ring on their right hand.
Everything becomes a smudge of colors as Victor’s thumb continuously swipes right, not even pausing to fully comprehend an image before he moves onto the next one. Until, finally, he lands on a selfie. In it, he’s not even facing the camera; instead, he’s angled sideways, his lips planted against the cheek of—
The phone clatters to the ground as he clamps a hand over his mouth. His knees follow soon afterward and give out underneath him, cracking loudly against the wooden floor. Even screwing his eyes shut isn’t enough to dam back the barrage of vibrant memories flooding his mind.
“Be my coach, Victor!”
“You don't have to say anything. Just stay by my side!”
Oh god no.
“Thank you for everything up to now. I... I couldn't think of something better. But, um... I'll try my best from tomorrow on, so... Tell me something for good luck.”
What has he done?
The “Лета” medical psychotherapy building is a foreboding behemoth leftover from the USSR days, forged from cold steel and weathered concrete. Stepping through its doors is like passing through the gates of Hades; there’s no turning back.
Dr. Ivanov—an aging relic from the time of secret Soviet experimentation himself—sighs when he opens the door to the examination room, as if he’s not surprised to find Victor sitting there. “Mr. Nikiforov,” he says in gruff greeting. “I was afraid we’d see you again, but not this soon.” He skims over the clipboard in his hands. “This is about Mr. Katsuki, correct?”
“Yuuri,” Victor corrects on autopilot. “His name is Yuuri.”
It hadn’t been anyone’s fault.
Everyone seemed to tell him that afterward. Somehow it was meant to be comforting, as if those simple words could soften the blow.
It hadn’t been anyone’s fault Yuuri went a different way home than usual in an attempt to get a head-start on dinner. It hadn’t been anyone’s fault a driver lost control of their car after skidding on a patch of black ice. It hadn’t been anyone’s fault the news didn’t reach the rink until after it was already too late.
It hadn’t been anyone’s fault.
Yet Victor shoulders the blame anyway.
In the morning, once again Victor is alone, but the bed is far from empty. Warmth lingers in the sheets beside him, and when he buries his nose in the pillows he can smell traces of Yuuri’s cologne. It’s the brand Yuuri insists Victor splurged way too much on, but he wears it anyway because he knows how much Victor enjoys it.
Victor stumbles into the kitchen and there’s the man in question himself. He’s standing at the stove, his back towards Victor, humming a tune under his breath while he cooks. He’s wearing an old sweater of Victor’s that has been stretched out to hell and hangs lopsided around his shoulders. Every time he shifts, the tantalizing underswell of his bare butt is exposed.
“Ohayou, Vitya,” Yuuri says without turning around, a small huff of embarrassed laughter in his voice. “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but I swear this is still on our diet…”
He trails off when Victor rushes forward to cling to him like a drowning man thrown a life preserver. Automatically Yuuri reaches his hand up to cradle Victor’s face jutting into the crook between his neck and shoulder. “Vitya? What’s wrong?”
Victor weakly shakes his head. He doesn’t trust himself to say anything, not yet. Saying it out loud seems too real, too raw, when all he wants to think about is the warm, alive body in his arms.
There’s a click as Yuuri turns off the stove to prevent their food from burning. “Whatever it is, you can tell me.”
“You died,” Victor chokes out. Even the words themselves make his heart clench like there’s a fist inside his chest. “And then, I think I did something to try and forget you, but it didn’t work. Yuuri, I’m sorry, I’m so sorry—”
“Shh, it’s okay.” Yuuri’s fingers run through Victor’s hair, neatly trimmed nails scraping against scalp. Victor leans into it until the sensation becomes borderline painful.
“If I was in your shoes, I’d probably do the same thing myself, but…” Yuuri pauses and ducks his head slightly. “While I can’t imagine what kind of pain I’ve put you through, it makes me really happy you still remember me.”
Victor doesn’t respond. Instead, he tightens his grip and buries his face further into the side of Yuuri’s neck. There, he kisses at skin still warm from sleep and traces scar tissue with his lips—
Wait. That’s not right.
Through extensive use of his eyes, hands, and mouth, he’s mapped every inch of Yuuri from head to toe. Victor’s laid claim to the crossroads where Yuuri’s jawline and neck meet multiple times, sucking new marks there whenever his previous ones have faded. His fingers have followed the silvery ley lines along Yuuri’s hips and stomach, soothing Yuuri’s nagging self-doubt by assuring him even his stretch marks are something to treasure. Victor’s traveled from the ticklish arches of Yuuri’s feet up the individual knobs of his spine, taking the time to pour love and attention to each and every spot more than once. As much as needed, both for his and Yuuri’s sakes.
So Victor knows for a fact there should be nothing marring the nape of Yuuri’s neck. It was pristine up until—
“Oh,” Yuuri breathes out. His voice is wavering, brittle and paper thin, like the last autumn leaf before it, too, snaps off the branch. “You must be waking up already,” he whispers. “You always did get up earlier than I did.”
The full bitter weight of his words claws its way to the surface of Victor’s subconscious.
No no no.
This can’t be—
“I guess it’s my turn to apologize,” Yuuri says, confirming Victor’s deepest fears. “I’m sorry I didn't have the chance to win the five medals I promised us.” The laugh he lets out rings hollow, more like a hoarse bark. “At least I never retired.”
Victor reels back like he’s been struck, the air knocked out of his lungs. Yuuri flinches as well and hunches his shoulders forward. “Sorry, that was mean,” he admits quietly. “But, do you remember what you told me at Rostelecom, when you had to return for Makkachin?”
“…Something about even if I’m not with you, I’ll always be with you in spirit,” Victor murmurs. “Yuuri, you…”
“That’s right.” After some hesitation, Yuuri turns to face Victor then. The minor lacerations from the accident have been washed clean; he looks like the last time Victor saw him, at his cremation, just as beautiful as ever. “Remember that, Vitya,” he pleads, his eyes sparkling bright. “Remember me. Remember the good times and the bad. Remember being happy.”
He leans forward to kiss both of Victor’s glistening wet cheeks. “Dasvidaniya, Vitenka. Remember that I love you, and I always will.”
When Victor wakes up, the space beside him is empty.