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At a Time Like This

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            “I don’t love you any less,” Victor said, turning carefully to face his partner across the expanse of his bed. Between them, on his laptop, Yuuri was frozen, his head lifting as he rose out of a spin, his arms rising like – if Victor let the video run – he would take flight. Victor was supposed to be noting places for improvements. He’d watched this transition four times in a row. “I just…Yuuri is new. Everything about him is new. He knows so much about me and I am trying to learn as much as I can about him, and every single thing I learn… It makes me… I am not sure how to describe it. He takes my breath away, every day. I have never felt anything like it. And maybe you and I won’t be together as much…”

            Victor faced the screen, but his gaze was somewhere else, in the past and the future simultaneously.

            “That’s not true. I will be with you more.” Saying it aloud startled him even though he knew it to be true. “I will be with you more. And this does not have to do with Yuuri. I don’t want to be parted from you anymore. But I don’t want to be away from him either. You understand, don’t you?”

            He turned his head to gauge his companion’s reaction.

            Makkachin raised her paw then slapped it down on his notebook, again.

            “I need to finish my notes, Makka.”

            She rolled onto her back, ears flopping back, paws dangling adorably.

            “You are very distracting. Yuuri will wake up soon. I want my notes to be waiting for him. I can’t be there with him, which is awful.” He gestured toward his hated crutches, leaned against the wall beside the bed. “All I can do is send pointers and encouragement.”

            Makka sneezed.

            “Are you even listening to me?”

            The poodle rolled over and sprang to the floor. Her nails clicked across the hardwood, then she boofed softly as a key jangled in the lock.

            “Oy, Victor! Damn it, dog!”

            Victor was certain he had never given Yuri Plisetsky a key to his apartment, and yet Yuri had one. He did not come over very often but, when he did, he never called first. He just walked in. Or stomped in, like he was doing now.

            Yuri’s blond head poked around the corner of Victor’s bedroom door. His expression was customarily sour, but his hand was light on Makkachin’s head.

            “You dead or what?”

            “I’m not dead. Why are you here?”

            “I need my earbuds. Oy, dog!”

            Makka jumped up, pushing him with her paws.

            “Will you take her out for a quick walk? It’s been awhile.”

            “I’m not your butler, old man!”

            “Please?”

            “Fine, but only if you put a shirt on. Have some dignity!”

            “I am always dignified.” Victor waited until Yuri had snapped on Makka’s leash and the door had closed behind them. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and pushed himself up. The surgery had been relatively minor. Arthroscopic, requiring minimal debriding, which was apparently a good thing. His doctors had talked about his phenomenal physique and reminded him of how quickly he had recovered last time. He might not even need a hip replacement in the future.

            He pulled a comfortable Henley on, hid his wince when he positioned the crutches – no amount of maneuvering made them comfortable to use – and took himself into the kitchen to start some tea.

            The door opened a second time to a jangle of keys, a kick, a grunt, and Makka bouncing delightedly across the floor, tracking mud and dragging her leash. Yuri dropped a large cardboard box on the kitchen island, tipping over a precarious stack of boxes, padded envelopes and letters.

            “What’s this?” Victor asked, glancing at the various bags and containers. It smelled delicious.

            “Lilia sent it. Food for an invalid who doesn’t know how to cook, she said. You’re welcome for carrying it all the way up here while managing your furry maniac. Why is your lift broken?”

            Victor shrugged. “It happens.” It had been plaguing him since he’d returned from the hospital. The doorman had stopped answering calls from his apartment after Victor asked him to take Makka two or three or seven times. “Why didn’t you bring it up when you first got here?”

            “It would have been a waste of effort if you’d been dead. Or gone again,” he said with a sniff. He started rooting through the pockets of Victor’s jackets, hanging on the rack.

            “What is it you’re looking for again, Yurio?”

            “My earbuds.”

            “Which earbuds?”

            “The black and white leopard print Bluetooth earbuds you admired so much, Victor.”

            He had no memory of such a thing. “Have you checked your backpack?”

            “Have you checked whether you’re an idiot?”

            “Or that pigsty you call a room?

            “Like yours wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t have a housekeeper.”

            “Hmm.”

            A fine layer of dust coated the apartment. It had been there when he had returned from Japan. It would remain for awhile as he had cancelled his housekeeper until he was recovered. It wouldn’t do for someone to see him like this. Someone who hadn’t snuck a copy of his key, that was.

            Victor made tea and settled gingerly onto a stool, to the soundtrack of Yuri’s angry scavenging. With Lilia’s food arranged around him, Yuri’s occasional shouted question, and Makka’s face on his knee so he could pet her without leaning, the apartment almost felt like a home.

            Victor smiled. Not a home like Hasetsu had felt. The Katsuki family had buzzed delightfully around each other, a hive of warmth and noise. Their few guests, who almost never seemed to leave, had been treated like extended family. Toshiya, Yuuri’s father, told stories and jokes, and occasionally broke out in song. Yuuri’s mother Hiroko smiled and chatted, refilling glasses and disappearing into the kitchen for an hour at a time, only to emerge with a new, delicious meal. Victor couldn’t believe how well she cooked, the pictures of pudgy young Yuuri around family space testament to her skill. Mari sauntered about, moving slowly but never quite resting as she tended to the changing rooms and hot springs, worked the cash register and phone, and oversaw deliveries and pick-ups. Toshiya and Hiroko checked on Victor constantly. Did he need something to drink? Surely he must try another dish. Had he heard the latest gossip? And even though he did not actually know the people of Hasetsu, hearing about their small trials and triumphs was not an imposition. He did not have to put on a face to listen, or prepare a response for his audience. The Katsukis told him in order to share a moment of laughter or commiseration with him. And everywhere, pestered by Mari to help with the men’s changing room, or helping Hiroko in the kitchen, or worrying over his notes and skating footage at the small desk in his bedroom, was Yuuri. With Victor. At home.

            “What are you doing?” Yuri asked warily.

            Victor blinked. He held his mug below his mouth. He’d been holding it there for a few minutes as he reminisced. He set it down and pushed a second mug across the counter.

            “Have some tea.”

            Yuri reached for it, hesitating before picking it up. He inhaled the aroma, his green eyes half-lidding, then set it back on the counter.

            “Already hit your caffeine quota for the day?” Victor asked.

            “Caffeine quote. Calorie quota. Reps. Rest days.” Yuri’s scowl was fierce as he cut himself off. “Not that any of this matters to you anymore.”

            Victor shrugged. “To be honest, I did not pay much attention to it when I should have.”

            “Because you didn’t have to? Because you won even when you didn’t show up for practice, when you didn’t watch your diet, when you ignored your trainers? Guess what, Victor? I don’t want to hear about it. Did you throw them away?”

            “Throw what away?”

            Yuri’s slender jaw clenched and he ground out through closed teeth, “My earbuds.”

            Victor spread his hands. “I honestly don’t think they are here.”

            “You took them from me on the plane flying to Helsinki. You’d forgotten yours. Did you lose them, leave them in Japan maybe?” Yuri was looking everywhere but at him, his teeth grinding.

            “Ah.” Victor levered himself up and maneuvered his crutches around Makkachin. Yuri stared at them like they were venomous snakes. Or reminders of the hazards of skating, the single second it could take to sideline an athlete. Ah well, he was young. If he got hurt, he had years to continue skating.

            Victor made his way to the bathroom and unzipped the small side pocket of his shaving kit. The earbuds rolled out into his hand. Carefully, he gripped them around the handle of the crutch and made his way back to the kitchen.

            “Here.” He held them out across the island. “I put them in my shaving kit to make sure I didn’t lose them, so I could return them to you. But then I forgot. Sorry.”

            Yuri reached for them, and reflexively Victor closed his hand again.

            “Damn it, Victor.”

            “I’m sorry I didn’t give them back to you in Helsinki. I’m sorry, too, for what I left you with there. When I made my announcement. It must have been very confusing, or upsetting…”

            “Or bullshit.” Yuri snatched the buds, practically scraping them out of Victor’s palm. “It was selfish of you but that’s nothing new. It was wrong. You aren’t supposed to bow out gracefully. And you aren’t supposed to throw a fit over your boyfriend and storm off. You’re supposed to skate against me and lose.”

            Victor blinked. He’d thought Yuri would be upset that he’d had to deal with the expectations of the Federation, or with the press.

            “You’re not mad that-”

            “Oh no, I’m mad about all of it, Victor.” Color lit high on his cheekbones. “ALL of it. You dropped your mic and left all of us to pick up the pieces. You skipped Russian Nationals, where you should have at least made heroic, injured appearance to pretend to support your rinkmates, but you didn’t. Instead you had the fucking balls to show up at Japanese Nationals? Which is RIDICULOUS, you know. Katsuki can’t handle you or your over-the-top bullshit, the press following you around. It’ll crush him. You burned your bridge behind you, and you’re going to ruin him, too. Or maybe you won’t even wait for that. He’s, what? A distraction while you’re hurt? Has to be, right? Katsuki’s not shiny enough for the great Victor Nikiforov.”

            “Yura.”

            “Save it, Victor. Save your stupid smile and your fake sympathy. Save pretending you’re older or wiser. You don’t know anything. You’ve never followed the rules, but this time I’m making a rule for you. You don’t get to bow out without facing me for real. You’re going to return to skating, and I’m going to beat you.”

            “I’m sorry.”

            Yuri glared.

            “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you when I got hurt. I’m sorry I didn’t stay to handle the Federation and…all of them. I’m sorry I did not come back to watch you skate in Nationals. You skated beautifully, powerfully.”

            Yuri rolled his eyes.

            “Don’t pretend you watched.”

            “Yuuri streamed it. He said he always watches Russian Nationals.”

            He scoffed. “Sure, when you’re skating.”

            “He had recordings of you from your final year in juniors. In Nagano. You wore that powder blue suit. He said every kid in Japan had the same bowl haircut when they were little. We watched it while we waited for the livestream to buffer.”

            “Don’t pretend-”

            “You didn’t sleep well the night before your short. You were too stiff on your axel and over-rotated your triple flip. But you corrected. Your spins were flawless, despite how tired you were. The judges scored you too high in your free skate.”

            Yuri stared at him.

            “You skated beautifully, powerfully.” Victor raised his hands again. He offered a tired smile. “I am sorry I did not return your earbuds. I am sorry I left but I felt like the pressure and distractions would be less if I wasn’t around you, drawing attention.”

            Yuri was silent for a moment then he said, his voice low and rough, “Okay.”

            “If you want to beat me, you will have to increase the difficulty of your programs.”

            “I don’t take suggestions from men who cannot walk on their own.” The words were harsh but the anger had subsided. It was a start.

            “Do you want to stay for dinner? I cannot possibly eat all this food you so helpfully carried up.”

            “Fine.” Yuri busied himself with straightening the packages that had slid along the island. “What is all this? Did you do a bunch of online shopping while on pain meds?”

            “Stuff from sponsors, I guess.” Victor maneuvered around the kitchen, gathering spoons and bowls.

            “You have Japanese sponsors now?” Yuri huffed.

            “What?”

            “Or wait.” Yuri was squinting at the package. “Why would Katsudon mail something to you? Weren’t you with him?”

            Victor threw his crutches to the side. “Give me that box!”