After retreating to the public restroom beneath the stands of the Barcelona arena, Yuuri was relieved to find it was empty. He turned on the hot water at the sink and extended his hands with the intention of washing them.
But then he stopped himself . . . and stared down at his empty palms instead.
He was wearing his black Short Program costume, with its fingerless gloves that were attached to the long sleeves. He’d have to remove half his costume if he wanted to wash his hands. Stupid. Where was his head at?
Robbed of that distraction, he pressed his lips together and tried his best to stay calm. His hands hadn’t been dirty to begin with. That wasn’t the real reason why he had come here following his Short Program. He’d stayed by the rink just long enough to watch Phichit perform, and in doing so, he was able to see one of his closest friends achieve a life-long dream. But after that, Yuuri hadn’t waited to hear the score. He’d needed to get out of there so that he could collect himself.
What he really wanted to do was turn around, march straight into one of the stalls, and break down into tears.
But he didn’t. Instead, he shut the water faucet off and turned his eyes up to glare at his reflection.
To say he was disappointed in himself was an understatement. He couldn’t believe his performance was already over. The whole thing had been a blur. Though he’d felt focused when he began, his score was low enough to reveal putting his hand on the ice during his quadruple flip wasn’t the only problem. Yuuri must have lost PCS points, and now that he thought about it, it made sense why. He hadn’t been thinking about Eros at all while he’d skated. He was thinking about his score, and the judges had not been impressed.
Not once in the entire Grand Prix Series had Yuuri’s Short Program score fallen into the double digits the way it did tonight. Unless everyone who was to skate after him made mistakes in their programs as well, he was not going to place high in the rankings.
Yuuri decided then that no, he didn’t want to hide in a bathroom stall and cry. What he actually wanted to do was throw up. He felt like he’d been punched in the stomach so hard that he was still mentally on his knees.
But there was nothing to be done about it now. He’d made the decision to take a risk and had to live with the consequences. He could either let this crater him like last year, or he could hold his head high and keep fighting until the end. Even though it felt like he’d been knocked down before he’d barely begun, the Grand Prix Final wasn’t over. The other scores hadn’t come in yet. Yuuri still had a chance to win.
He managed to soften his expression into something that might resemble a smile to someone who didn’t know him very well. “I’ll go for gold with my Free Skate,” he told his reflection—a practice speech for the reporters.
It was almost convincing. Not bad at all.
Outside in the main hall of the arena, there was a swell of applause from the audience, loud enough to let Yuuri know exactly who was taking the ice. He turned on his heels and left the restroom at once. He’d meant to wish Yurio good luck before he started his Short Program but hadn’t made it in time.
Reporters cornered Yuuri almost immediately and delayed him even longer, but at least he was prepared with a statement. His smile was firmly in place as he told them exactly what he’d recited to the mirror. However, his composure slipped when he realized Victor was nowhere in sight. He’d said he would wait for Yuuri while he went to the restroom, but yet again, Victor had disappeared without a word.
It made Yuuri feel anxious, and even though he couldn’t put his finger on the exact reason why, his insecurity was happy to volunteer a few unhelpful ideas.
Why would Victor want to wait for you when you just let him down? He probably regrets becoming your coach. All those wasted months he could have devoted to winning the Grand Prix Final himself. If you fail here, you’ll embarrass him just as much as you’ve embarrassed yourself.
Lies. All of it. Yuuri knew Victor loved and supported him no matter what, but not even that could keep the unwelcome thoughts at bay. He was just going to have to make the decision not to let them affect him.
Yuuri could hear the Agape music ending, so he excused himself from the crowd of reporters and rushed toward the stairwell that led up to the stands. He pulled his glasses from the pocket of his jacket and slipped them on so that he would be able to see what was happening down on the ice.
But as he jogged up the stairs, he spotted a familiar figure at the top. It was Victor—standing tall and alone at the summit. The sight of him there made Yuuri feel so much better. Victor hadn’t gone that far after all, and it was understandable that he would be tempted to come here and watch Yurio perform.
Yuuri smiled as he called out to him . . . but it faded a breath later.
For the last eight months, he had spent nearly every single day in the company of Victor Nikiforov. Yuuri knew his many moods and expressions and could tell the difference between the countless variations of his smiles. He was able to interpret Victor’s laughter, not just by the sound, but also through observing the body language that accompanied it. Yuuri knew when Victor wasn’t as happy as he wanted other people to think and that he often concealed what was actually going on in his mind. The cheerful smile he presented to the world wasn’t always a mask, but when it was, Yuuri had learned to pay attention.
He might not always be successful at interpreting his fiancé’s moods—playful one moment and contemplative the next—but he knew Victor well enough to notice when there was a shift.
Not once had Yuuri ever seen Victor like this. It was like looking at a stranger.
Victor was utterly still as the arena around him screamed the name of Russia’s new rising star. The applause was deafening. Until that moment, Yuuri had never noticed how often Victor was in motion. Always smiling or laughing or finding ways to join in whatever was happening around him, even if it was just with his eyes. There was an alertness to his body language. An engagement of his mind in the present.
Yuuri wasn’t certain what he was seeing now. Victor looked strangely . . . passive. Absent. Like he’d stopped walking in the middle of a crowd, but the crowd hadn’t stopped for him.
Though Yuuri couldn’t see his fiancé’s face, it was obvious something was wrong. He was about to say his name again, but then the announcement came over the speakers that Yurio had just shattered Victor’s world record.
And that was . . . unexpected.
A fifteen-year-old breaking a record in his senior debut? Victor’s record? Yuuri reeled from this new blow, not only because of how thoroughly he’d been knocked out of first place, but because of the implications for Victor. Yuuri climbed a few more steps so that he was closer to where his fiancé was standing, but he couldn’t bring himself to reach out and touch him.
What was Victor thinking about right now? Was he proud of Yurio?
Was he disappointed in Yuuri?
By that point, he couldn’t even hear the arena’s thunderous applause anymore. It had been drowned out by his own hateful insecurity.
Of course, he’s disappointed in you. You’re a waste of Victor’s time and talent. If he had taken on Yurio as a student instead of you, he would be celebrated as a coach right now. Instead, he’s been shamed by you. He can’t even defend his world record here at the Grand Prix Final because of you.
The thought was enough to make Yuuri want to turn around and go straight back to the public restroom. And maybe this time, he really was going to throw up. But no. He needed to see this. He needed to take ownership of this defeat and find courage from it, if nothing else.
Courage to step it up at his Free Skate . . . and to finally tell Victor about his retirement.
It was time. Yuuri gazed up at his fiancé and decided right then and there that he never wanted to see Victor look that left behind again. His heart and conscience couldn’t handle it. They would talk tonight and put the matter to rest, and then Victor would feel free to return to the ice as a competitor in defense of his legacy.
The decision to end things brought with it a welcome flood of relief. There was a small part of Yuuri that was still hanging on to what had been the happiest skating season of his life, but this was the right thing to do. He smiled softly up at the man he loved—because as much as this moment hurt, it was going to be okay. He would make sure of it.
I’ve got your back, Victor. I promise I won’t let this be the end for you.
The night of the Grand Prix Final Short Program passed in a whirlwind of applause and sequins. Victor lingered in the arena well after the event was over, talking and laughing with the competitors, coaches, and even occasionally the press. The crowds in the stands had dispersed, and those left behind congregated near the ice.
It had been a good night overall. Conversation came easily to everyone after the excitement of the competition, what with its many unexpected twists. A broken world record and the fall of King J.J.
Though his mood was quite positive, Victor wasn’t entirely at ease. He was keenly aware of the absence of someone at his side. It was like a blind spot in his vision he couldn’t help but be distracted by.
A conversation between the coaches on the fairness of tonight’s scoring was getting a bit heated. There was a huge debate on why J.J. had scored as high as he did after barely landing any jumps. Victor understood why, even though he didn’t volunteer the information to the group, and he was glad when he felt a hand touch his arm.
Happy to have an excuse to engage in a different conversation, he turned his head to acknowledge Phichit Chulanont, who smiled up at him a bit shyly but addressed Victor with confidence.
“Do you know where Yuuri is?” Phichit said. “A group of us are going out. I wanted to invite you both, but he’s not answering his phone.”
Victor smiled warmly in response to this, even though it was the nineteenth time he’d been asked that question in the last hour. “He went back to the hotel earlier. He said he wanted to shower, so that might be why he missed your call.”
“Uh oh,” Phichit said. “That’s never a good sign. Is he okay?”
Of course, this was Yuuri’s best friend. Phichit would understand his moods and quirks, perhaps better than Victor did at times. It was then that he dropped the polite pretense and turned his whole body in Phichit’s direction so that no one else would overhear their conversation.
“I think so,” Victor said quietly. “He seemed to need a little space, which is why I let him go alone, but I’ll go check on him soon.”
“How long as he been by himself?”
“Just over an hour.”
“Hmm. He might be ready. If he looks you in the eye when you get back to the room, he’s fine. But if he just stares at his phone or pretends to be asleep, back off and give him more time. But you probably knew that already, huh?”
Victor chuckled and slipped his hands into the pockets of his coat. “It seems you and I speak the same language, Phichit Chulanont. The ability to read Yuuri’s mood is an art-form I’m still learning to master.”
“I don’t know why he’s upset. He got a great score, but with Yuuri, it’s always first place or nothing.”
The statement sent a pang of regret into Victor’s heart. Had he made a mistake in driving Yuuri so hard toward a gold medal? No, he didn’t think so. Yuuri was goal-oriented and needed something like that to inspire him to fight. He was fully capable of winning gold, so it had been the right decision to set his goal high. But Victor did need to make sure Yuuri understood that even though he was in fourth place, he had still done incredibly well.
Every single person who had spoken to Victor in the last hour couldn’t seem to stop talking about how much Yuuri had changed since the last Grand Prix Final. Everyone was excited to see what he would do next, and that was exactly the kind of response Victor had worked so hard to generate with his own performances when he was a competitor. Did Yuuri have any idea how difficult it was to inspire that reaction in others?
(And the compliments to Victor as a first-year coach weren’t half bad either. He rather liked that part.)
He and Yuuri definitely needed to talk about his performance, though maybe not right away. When Victor got back to the hotel, perhaps they could order some room service and have a quiet night together. Yuuri needed to relax and let go of some of the pressure he’d been holding. Once he had the right attitude in place, Victor would be there to help get him in the fighting spirit again.
“Any other advice for the concerned fiancé?” Victor asked. “I’ll take all the help I can get.”
“Honestly?” Phichit said. “I should be the one asking you for advice. You’re really good with him, Victor. After what happened to Yuuri last year, he wouldn’t talk to his friends for months, but he started opening up again when you came into his life. So whatever it is you’re doing, keep it up. You seem to be able to pull him out of his shell when he won’t listen to anyone else.”
Hearing this pleased Victor greatly. (Even though the last part wasn’t true. Yuuri didn’t listen to Victor either. He didn’t listen to anyone.) “He’s been good for me as well, so it goes both ways. I should probably head back to the hotel to see how he’s doing. We’ll text you if he’s in the mood to go out, but knowing Yuuri. . .”
“I’m not holding my breath,” Phichit said with a laugh. “But if you don’t mind . . . before you go? I was going to ask you and Yuuri both earlier but. . .”
“Commemorative photo?” Victor guessed.
Phichit grinned and pulled out his selfie stick.
Victor excused himself from the larger group not long after that, gathered together his things, and left the arena. During the short walk back to the hotel, he found himself in a peculiar mood. His head and heart were having a disagreement, and he wasn’t certain which one to listen to.
The competition tonight had been interesting to watch. Victor had assumed it would be surreal to stand on the sidelines as a coach instead of a skater, but he found himself enjoying the Grand Prix Final far more than expected. Watching the other competitors had sparked something inside of him, and he felt charmed by their performances. Yuuri had been helping him regain his motivation for months now, but tonight made it apparent just how ready Victor was.
And then, of course, there was the matter of a broken world record.
That had been a shock, to be sure. He was proud of Yurio and could certainly see how far he’d pushed himself. His score had been well-deserved, but witnessing that performance had also reignited something within Victor. It wasn’t just his desire to keep skating that had returned. He was ready to compete. He wanted to be out there, fighting to set the mark higher and higher. It was an exchange of inspiration for all of them. Every skater on the ice tonight had their eyes on the others, looking to see how far they would have to push themselves to come out on top.
Victor missed that. Badly.
Only he didn’t know how to tell Yuuri.
That conversation would have to happen another time. Tonight, Victor needed to focus on his fiancé and make sure he was okay. He had no idea what to expect when he got to the hotel.
Yuuri had surprised him earlier. He’d made it clear before the competition that he didn’t want to be coddled, so Victor had made it a point to be supportive but also not in his face. That had been difficult at times, particularly after Yuuri’s performance. He’d had a near meltdown while still on the ice but had calmed into a quiet storm by the time he reached the sidelines. Victor had stood, ready for Yuuri to hug him with a silent request for help, but he had just squeezed Victor’s hand and walked straight past him.
Victor hadn’t been able to resist keeping his arm around him until his score came in. But once he saw that Yuuri accepted it with a look of determination instead of heartbreak, Victor knew he would be okay and backed off. He was so proud of Yuuri for staying strong, even though he was disappointed.
What a positive change from last year—a victory in and of itself—and it was only going to keep getting better. Yuuri’s potential was like a hidden diamond, the enormity of which kept being revealed as the stone around it was chipped away.
Just thinking about that bright future elevated Victor’s mood considerably by the time he reached the hotel room. A quick glance inside revealed Yuuri kneeling in front of his suitcase, searching for something. He was dressed in a pair of black sweatpants, and had a towel around his bare shoulders. His hair was freshly washed and falling down into his face.
“Hey,” Victor said. He pulled the card-key out of the lock and let the heavy door fall shut behind him.
Yuuri looked up and smiled—but then his gaze shifted quickly away. “Hey.”
Victor considered Phichit’s advice and recognized that Yuuri wasn’t ready to talk yet. But he had met Victor’s eyes briefly and even offered a smile, both of which were good signs. A little extra time and space, and then he might open up.
“I could use a shower myself.” Victor dropped his coat and Makkachin-shaped tissue box onto the bed, walked over to where Yuuri was kneeling, and bent to kiss the top of his head. “Afterward, let’s order dinner in and maybe watch a movie. How does that sound?”
Yuuri already had what he was looking for in his lap—a sweatshirt to wear to bed and his cell phone charger—but he kept digging around in his suitcase, probably so that he wouldn’t have to look at Victor again. “After you’re out of the shower, let’s talk.”
Yuuri smiled again, so sweetly that Victor was almost convinced it was genuine. “Yeah, everything’s fine. There’s just something I wanted to tell you. But go shower first, and then we can order dinner. Relaxing tonight sounds great.”
After gathering together a few personal items, Victor excused himself to the bathroom. If there was one thing he excelled at (besides setting world records), it was wasting time preening in the shower. This was going to be a long one, not because he wanted to pamper himself but to allow Yuuri the chance to get in a better headspace. Victor wasn’t stupid. In spite of the smiles and relative openness to conversation, Yuuri wasn’t okay, but if he needed to pretend he was for now, Victor wasn’t going to push. He could only hope the hotel’s hot water heaters were ready for him.
By the time he was done, the bathroom was hazy with perfumed steam. Normally showers left him mentally refreshed and alert, but tonight Victor felt troubled. His good mood remained, but it was difficult to keep his distance when his love wasn’t doing well. He pulled on a robe but didn’t bother drying his hair before he felt compelled to glance into the bedroom.
Yuuri was fully dressed now and sitting on the edge of the bed, facing the window with his back to the room. The lights of the city glittered golden before him. “I found the room service menu,” Yuuri called without looking, having heard the shower shut off. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Victor relaxed. “Be right out.”
He grabbed a towel for his hair and draped it over his neck to keep his robe from getting too wet. Upon entering the bedroom, he saw that Yuuri was scrolling through his social media accounts on his phone. Another good sign that he was ready to let the world back in. Victor smiled, proud of him, and felt much more at ease as he sat on the window ledge across from Yuuri.
Victor’s hair was still dripping wet, so he brought the towel to his head and started drying the ends. He wondered what Yuuri needed from him. Perhaps it would be best just to listen for now.
“Apparently Minako-sensei’s drinking with Celestino at a bar,” Yuuri said, still looking down at his phone.
“Wow,” Victor said with a laugh. “Best to keep our distance.” He lowered the towel and looked up. Though his eyes were sparkling with affection for his fiancé, his voice was a little hesitant as he said, “By the way, Yuuri—what did you want to talk to me about?”
Yuuri finally met his eyes then and even tried for a smile that never quite came to the surface. “Right.”
And then his hands were clenching into fists, so hard that the fingers gripping his phone turned white.
There was a long pause where Victor felt the bottom drop out of his stomach.
“After the Final,” Yuuri said, “let’s end this.”
He waited for something more. Context. Clarification. Anything, really.
What was Yuuri talking about? End what? Victor must have heard wrong. Yuuri couldn’t be breaking up with him. That would be ridiculous. That would be . . .
“Eh?” Victor said softly.
“You’ve done more than enough for me, Victor,” Yuuri said, his voice steadier now, like he’d finally latched onto his confidence. “Thanks to you, I was able to give everything I had to my last season.”
The words were like a double slap to the face. Victor’s first thought was that Yes, Yuuri really was breaking up with him—and oh, God, what had he done? Had he pushed things too far, too fast? Had he not supported Yuuri enough? Had the ring been a mistake?
But then Yuuri mentioned his last season and . . . what the hell was he talking about? Last season of what? He couldn’t be thinking about . . .
And just like that, Victor’s throat was on fire. His line of vision lowered and started to blur.
Yuuri bowed to him, bending at the waist and holding the position while he spoke. “Thank you for everything, Victor. Thank you for being my coach.”
A deep, long-lasting bow such as this one was meant to be a gesture of respect and gratitude, but Victor felt like it conveyed neither. The speech seemed practiced. Well-prepared. Like Yuuri had been planning to deliver it all night.
So this was what Mari had been trying to warn him about.
“Victor?” Yuuri sounded surprised.
“Damn,” Victor said. He felt dazed. More than a little betrayed. He’d thought they were much closer than this. “I didn’t expect Katsuki Yuuri to be such a selfish human being.”
“Right,” Yuuri said—and there was a bit of an edge to his tone. “I made a selfish decision on my own. I’m retiring.”
Victor couldn’t begin to understand the touch of sarcasm in Yuuri’s words. (Did he not realize he was being selfish? How could he not see that?) But then the last two words distracted Victor from what he was about to say, and his throat started aching even worse than before.
Because Yuuri had finally said it—that he was retiring.
God, that hurt to hear. All that talent, both natural and hard-earned, down the drain. And not just Yuuri’s hard work . . . but Victor’s as well. He’d put his own career on hold to help Yuuri get his back on track. So what exactly had they been fighting for this entire time?
Something warm trickled down Victor’s cheeks and dripped from his chin onto the floor. The edges of his vision were blurred and shimmering in the light.
Oh . . . he was crying.
Tentatively, Yuuri reached out and swept Victor’s bangs to the side to reveal his face.
And suddenly Victor was angry. He wasn’t even allowed to hug Yuuri when he was upset, but apparently now Victor was expected to be comfortable with his emotions put on display. “Yuuri, what are you doing?”
“I’m just surprised to see you cry.” The response was tenderly spoken—because somehow Yuuri hadn’t come to the realization yet that they were fighting. Perhaps he needed it spelled out to him.
“I’m mad, okay?” Victor swept Yuuri’s hand away from his face.
Yuuri backpedaled and quickly got defensive. “You’re the one who said it was only until the Grand Prix Final.”
Victor was so confused. Just a few short weeks ago, Yuuri had asked him to stay on as his coach. Had he forgotten that Victor had agreed? “I thought you still needed my help.”
Did Yuuri have any idea what Victor had given up after that conversation at the airport? He’d spent weeks grieving for the loss of his career. To have Yuuri completely change his mind, saying now that he was the one stepping down . . . Victor’s head was spinning.
“Aren’t you going to make a comeback?” The level of Yuuri’s eyes dropped. “You don’t have to worry about me—”
And that was all it took for Victor to completely lose his composure. He was so tired of people putting pressure on him about his comeback, and now for the first time, Yuuri was joining their ranks. Yuuri—who was the only reason Victor had any inspiration to keep skating at all. Yuuri—who was now quitting.
All the emotion Victor had been stuffing down for many years swelled up at once, and suddenly he was struggling to keep himself from yelling. “How can you tell me to return to the ice after saying you’re retiring?” When Yuuri wouldn’t acknowledge him with his eyes, Victor stood and put his hand on his shoulder, pushing back on it to make him look. “Is that why you’re doing this? You’re quitting so that I’ll go back?”
Yuuri’s eyes were huge in the face of Victor’s anger. “Not the whole reason, no. Why would I want to keep skating without you?”
“That doesn’t make any sense, Yuuri. I’m right here, and I’ve already made the commitment to stay on as your coach long-term. You know that.”
“That’s not what I meant. Why would I want to keep skating without you on the ice with me? It’s the same thing you just asked me. You told me from the beginning this was just a break for you, and now suddenly you’re talking like it’s not. I saw your face today, Victor. You and I both know you’re not satisfied staying on the sidelines forever. You want to keep skating.”
It wasn’t something Victor could deny, but he did feel regretful that Yuuri had sensed that inner struggle and felt pressured by it. Victor should have hidden it better. “Then we figure out a way to both keep skating. Why are you just giving up?”
Yuuri exhaled and put his face in his hands. “I don’t know how to explain it to you. It’s complicated. There isn’t a simple reason I can give.”
Victor’s anger softened. Seeing someone he loved looking so dejected was heartbreaking. “Is it because of your performance tonight? Yuuri, you put your hand on the ice. Once. But there were so many things you did right. You can’t let a simple mistake like that—”
“I made the decision to retire months ago,” Yuuri said, cutting in. His hands fell away from his face, and he looked up with an expression that was set into stone. “It has nothing to do with tonight.”
This was an entirely new blow. “You’ve known for . . . months?” Victor took a step back. “How many months exactly? One . . . maybe two?”
“I decided last spring,” Yuuri said. “After I won the Onsen on Ice competition, I knew it was my last season.”
Just when Victor thought this conversation couldn’t hurt any worse.
He hung his head and swiped at his cheeks. The tears were still pouring out of him, apparently intent on drowning their creator. “I see,” he said in a quiet voice. “So you kept this information to yourself for eight months until tonight so that you could fire me on the spot.”
“I’m not . . .” Yuuri’s mouth fell open. He looked absolutely appalled by Victor’s choice in wording. “It’s not like that.”
Victor started laughing—because something new had occurred to him. “Oh. I get it now. When you asked me to take care of you until retirement, you already knew the date was just a few weeks away. Wow. . .”
He was really struggling to hold back the crying now, having to press his fingers to his lips in an attempt to keep it in. The tears streamed down his face anyway, but he kept quiet. He could save himself that much dignity, at least.
Yuuri looked like he was about to cry as well. He’d gotten to his feet and reached for Victor’s hand, and it took a great deal of restraint not to rip it away.
“Victor, please,” Yuuri said, his hand warm as it squeezed Victor’s. “I honestly don’t understand why you’re this upset. Please explain it to me so that I can apologize.”
How could he not understand? Victor had to pull the fingers away from his mouth to speak, so he pinched the bridge of his nose instead, hoping to hold in the emotion that way. “Because I thought we had decided to fight as a team. I didn’t understand that my partner had already given up and planned to let me fight alone. You’re too young, Yuuri. You’re so young.”
“So are you. And you’re not fighting alone. I’m still right here.” Yuuri tried to put his hands on Victor’s face, but they were batted away. “Do you . . . not want me?” His eyes were brimming with tears now. He looked very small standing there. Frightened. “You’re not breaking up with me, are you?”
That pissed Victor off all over again.
He ran his fingers back through his wet, tangled hair and had to take several deep breaths before he could respond without yelling. “Yuuri,” he said. “The fact that you would even ask me that shows how completely we are not on the same page. No. We are not breaking up. Unless that was also part of what you wanted to end tonight?”
He knew he shouldn’t have said it and felt a stab of regret the second it came out of his mouth.
The words found their mark, and the tears finally came spilling down onto Yuuri’s cheeks. “Of course, it wasn’t.”
And oh, Victor felt like shit after that. He hadn’t meant to make Yuuri cry. Victor wouldn’t hurt him for anything in the world, yet that was exactly what he’d been doing from the moment this argument began. He was too emotional to control his temper right now.
“I’m sorry.” Even though it was still difficult to look at him, Victor stepped forward and squeezed Yuuri’s arm. “I shouldn’t have said that. No, we aren’t breaking up. But I need to . . . leave for a little while. I’m upset, and I don’t want to risk saying anything else I don’t mean.”
He pulled Yuuri in for what he hoped was a reassuring hug, but both of their bodies were stiff and resistant to it. He let go and turned away soon after. Victor then grabbed a change of clothes and brought them to the bathroom to get dressed, barely looking at what he was pulling on. He combed his fingers through his wet hair but wanted to get out of there so badly that he didn’t bother with a brush.
As he was reaching for his coat and slipping into his shoes at the door, he heard a timid voice behind him.
“I’ll be back later,” Victor said without turning around. “Don’t wait up.”
Then he left.
Though he wasn’t crying anymore, his throat kept aching throughout the elevator ride downstairs to the lobby. He felt incredibly guilty for just walking away like that. Yuuri was upset, and Victor had turned his back on him.
By the time he stepped outside, his conscience got the best of him. He stopped in his tracks, pulled his cell phone out of his pocket, and sent Yuuri a text message. I’m sorry I yelled. I love you, Yuri. I just need to clear my head.
An incoming response window popped up on Victor’s phone almost immediately, so he stood there and waited until the message came across.
I’m sorry too. I messed up.
The words made the ache in Victor’s throat worsen. Oh, Yuuri. He honestly had no idea of the impact his actions had on other people. Victor wanted to hug him and shake him at the same time. He pressed his lips together as he typed out a response. Will you do me one favor? Don’t make a final decision until after your performance.
Yuuri took a little longer to reply to this message, but it eventually appeared. OK. But will you promise me the same thing?
Victor exhaled sharply through his nose. He didn’t even know why the subject of his competitive career kept coming up. That wasn’t what tonight’s argument had been about. Why is it so important to you that I keep skating?
Yuuri’s answer: Because it’s important to you, and you’re important to me.
Victor’s thumbs hesitated over the keyboard of his phone. He wasn’t sure what to say in response to that. Yuuri’s reasoning was so different from everyone else who had ever put pressure on Victor to make a decision. All he ever heard was that he was throwing away his talent and letting people down. But Yuuri had just stated the truth. Skating was important to Victor, and Yuuri was trying to acknowledge that. He’d gone about it all wrong earlier, but his heart was in the right place. At least about this.
As Victor sent another message, tears were stinging his eyes again. He felt even guiltier now for yelling at Yuuri. OK. I promise to think about it.
He started walking without a destination in mind, but just as he was putting his phone in his pocket, he heard it chime.
There was a new text from Yuuri. Why is it important to you that I keep skating?
Victor kept walking as he stared down at the message.
It was a valid question. Why was this hitting him so hard? It wasn’t like he was losing Yuuri forever. Their relationship would survive this, but at that moment, Victor literally felt like someone had ripped half his heart from his chest and left him with a gaping hole. Perhaps it was because he had already been emotional about other things when Yuuri had delivered a difficult message . . . but the idea that the Grand Prix Final Free Skate would be the last time Victor would ever see his Yuuri on the ice made him want to start crying all over again. It was incredibly important to him that Yuuri keep skating.
He supposed he had already explained the reasons “why” to Yuuri before. Weeks ago, in writing. Yuuri just hadn’t realized it yet.
Victor’s response to him was: Did you bring the book I gave you for your birthday like you said you would? Read the letter I wrote to you near the end. That’s why it’s important.
Minako was the first to spot Victor when he walked through the door of the bar. The look on his face must have revealed exactly how distressed he was because she stepped away from Celestino and Mari mid-conversation and marched straight towards him.
“What’s wrong?” Minako said. “Did something happen? Where’s Yuuri?”
Victor blinked a few times before responding. The bar was distractingly loud. He’d come here specifically to find Minako, having discovered the location of the bar from the post on Instagram, but now that he’d found her, he wasn’t sure where to start.
“Victor,” Minako said. “You’re freaking me out.”
“Sorry.” Victor squeezed his eyes shut for a second. His head was pounding. “Yuuri’s at the hotel. He’s fine, but he might need someone to talk to. Do you think you could . . . ?”
Her eyebrow arched upward. “Why? What happened?”
Mari appeared at Victor’s shoulder, and she said something in Japanese that sounded like a question.
“She wants to know if her idiot brother broke up with you,” Minako said. “Did he? You look like you’ve been crying.”
Oh, Victor had been dumped all right. Maybe not romantically, but it hurt just as much.
“Yuuri’s retiring,” Victor said, his tone flat. “The Grand Prix Final is his last competition.” He deflated after he said it, and Mari reached out to put a hand on his arm. She looked concerned for him, but that was wasted energy. All Victor wanted was for one of them to go to check on Yuuri.
Minako rolled her eyes and muttered, “Oh, Yuuri. I’m going to kill that boy.”
“Nani?” Mari said to Minako. After the situation was explained to her in Japanese, it was Mari’s turn to roll her eyes. Then she grumbled something colorful with Yuuri’s name featured in the middle, which must have been rather humorous because Minako started snickering and nodding.
“Everything all right?” Celestino asked. He’d left their drinks at the bar and come up behind the ladies.
“Yuuri’s just being Yuuri,” Minako explained. “I’ll go talk to him. Was he really that upset after his performance?”
Victor narrowed his eyes, trying to make sense out of everything Yuuri had told him. “I honestly don’t know. He was so calm when he told me he was retiring. How could he have been that calm?”
“Retiring?” Celestino sighed. “That boy. I swear. . .”
Victor looked at Minako, eyes pleading. “I said some things I shouldn’t have. I yelled at him and then left him by himself.”
“Victor,” Minako said. “There’s not a single person standing here who hasn’t yelled at Yuuri. We all love him very much, but that child is infuriating. Sit down, have a drink, and welcome to the family.”
Celestino laughed and patted Victor on the back in a father-like gesture. “Try not to worry. Knowing Yuuri, he probably didn’t absorb a word you said. When he makes up his mind about something, it’s like talking to a brick wall. If only he could focus that tenacity into his performance. He wouldn’t be able to stand up straight for all the gold medals around his neck.”
“Now isn’t that the truth?” Minako grumbled. “Wish me luck talking to the brick wall.”
She went to grab her purse, but before she left, she waved to Phichit, who was sitting across the room at a table with Christophe and his coach, Josef. Phichit got up, left some money on the table, and grabbed his coat with the intention of following Minako. When his eyes met Victor’s, it became obvious Phichit had guessed something had happened between him and Yuuri.
Victor felt a little dazed when he saw so many familiar faces around him. Telling Yuuri’s inner circle about his retirement was one thing, but this was how rumors got started with the larger group. Who knew how many reporters or figure skating enthusiasts were in this room?
Christophe started to get up from the table as well, a look of concern on his face for his friend, but Victor just offered him a strained smile, shook his head, and turned away. He didn’t want to talk to anyone, except for maybe Mari. He supposed Celestino’s past as Yuuri’s coach might be helpful as well. But as far as everyone else went, Yuuri hadn’t made his final decision yet, so there was no point in making something like that public knowledge. Let them assume he and Victor had a lover’s spat. That was much better than rumors of his retirement getting out.
Mari and Celestino guided Victor to the counter of the bar, each with a hand on his shoulder, and made him sit down.
“I shouldn’t have yelled at him,” Victor told Mari when she settled onto the barstool next to his. His eyes were welling up with tears again.
She nodded and squeezed his forearm. He wasn’t certain if she understood what he was saying, but she must have read the look on his face, clear as day. He put his hand on top of hers and squeezed back, stupidly grateful to have family and friends there in Barcelona with them.
There was still hope. Maybe Minako and Phichit could talk some sense into Yuuri . . . and maybe Celestino and Mari could talk some sense into Victor.
“Shots?” Mari said, a little smile tugging at the corners of her mouth.
Or they could do shots.
“This man definitely needs a drink,” Celestino agreed. He raised a hand in the bartender’s direction to signal his desire to place an order.
But Victor just slumped down in his seat. He didn’t want alcohol. He didn’t want anything except to wake up and discover this entire day had been nothing but a bad dream.
To be continued.