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Winter Song

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For most of his life, Yuuri had dedicated a good deal of time to the pursuit of solitude. He liked being alone. Liked the way his mind and body relaxed when there was no one else’s energy buzzing in the room. It was always easiest when there was nobody there to look at him or expect him to talk.

But all that began to change when Victor Nikiforov came into his life.

Now, when Victor was gone, Yuuri didn’t find the same satisfaction in being alone. His mind and body couldn’t relax, and he missed that buzzing energy. Missed being looked at and talked to. It was like half his heart had gone missing, leaving him hollow and restless. While he didn’t need Victor constantly around him, Yuuri did need to know he was there. That he was okay.

Alone in the Barcelona hotel room, Yuuri sat on the floor with his back to the bed and stared unhappily down at the book in his hands. His suitcase was open in front of him, the once neatly packed contents disturbed from his search for the book. It was the one Victor had given him for his birthday. Yuuri ran his palm down the beautiful cover, with its golden letters that spelled out his name, and tried to muster the courage to open it.

He had no idea what had just happened with Victor, nor did Yuuri fully understand what he had done wrong. His true intentions were completely different than the accusations leveled at him during their argument, and he hadn’t been articulate enough to properly defend himself. But the fact remained that he had hurt someone he loved very much, and that was something he couldn’t easily brush aside.

Victor had cried.

Yuuri’s mind kept replaying the sparkling descent of every tear. Someone like Victor should never be that sad. He was such a happy, optimistic person that when he was upset, it was clear he was truly hurting. Somewhere along the way, Yuuri had made a significant miscalculation, and there was a part of him that wanted to run and hide from the shame of it. He didn’t know how to handle failure like other people did, and it wouldn’t be the first time he’d pushed someone away simply because facing them again was too mortifying.

If Victor hadn’t texted him after their fight, Yuuri’s mental state would not be as calm and collected as it was now. Their text message conversation had cleared the air between them a little. He’d been allowed to apologize, and Victor had done the same. Still, things weren’t completely mended.

Yuuri wasn’t certain what to do. They’d never fought like this before.

He opened the cover of the book and flipped to the last few pages—past the letters from his friends and family and the many pictures documenting his years on the ice. There, beside a photo taken of Victor and Yuuri after the podium ceremony at the Cup of China, was a letter he hadn’t read yet.

When Victor had given him this book for his birthday, he’d asked that Yuuri save this page until after the Grand Prix Final. He’d brought it on this trip for that very reason and had assumed he’d be allowed to see it after he knew his ranking in the Final. Tonight, Victor had directed him to it earlier than expected, and Yuuri felt both curious and hesitant.

He knew it was not going to be a romantic letter. This book was about his skating career, as seen through the eyes of others, and his idol and mentor had taken the time to contribute. The letter was going to be written from the point of view of his coach—not his fiancé—and Yuuri wondered if Victor had any idea just how much that meant to him.

Victor Nikiforov, the actual flesh and blood living legend, had put pen to paper and written to Yuuri about his skating.

Part of him didn’t want to know what it said. He worried it was a consolation prize—that Victor had always known he wasn’t going to win and had prepared a soft cushion for Yuuri to land on when he failed. The other part of him feared Victor had poured his heart out into a congratulatory letter about Yuuri’s gold medal win at the Grand Prix Final. If he placed second or lower, the book would be ruined. It would be a lie, and he’d probably never want to look at it again.

He didn’t want to read Victor’s letter.

Yuuri just wanted him home. He needed to hear his voice and talk to him.

But Victor had asked him to do this. This letter was probably the closest thing Yuuri was going to get to a conversation for the immediate future. With an aching heart and a lump wedged high in his throat, his eyes focused in on the page filled from top to bottom with Victor’s careful handwriting and began to read.

Dear Yuri,

I have a confession to make. I have no idea how to be a competitive figure skating coach, but you probably figured that out before I did. When I came to Japan, it was with the intention of mentoring a promising talent, but after the privilege of experiencing a skating season at your side, I’ve come to realize I had our roles backwards. You’re the one who ended up teaching me.

What I learned from you is how to ice skate.

(Stop laughing. It isn’t funny.)

(Okay, it’s a little funny. I am being serious, though.)

I had it all wrong. I thought skating was a formula. A strategy to win gold. I became something I wasn’t in order to manufacture an outcome, but what you taught me was the importance of being true to who I am. You’ve never settled for anything less, in fact. (Quite the demanding coach.) You challenged me to be genuine, which is exactly what my skating was lacking. Me.

That’s what I see when you skate. You, Yuri. Your heart. I can hear the music in your head and feel the scrape of the ice beneath your feet. (How do you do that?) I want to learn more from you. Your skating is a true inspiration to me, and I’d like to thank you for being my teacher. You have not only become my best friend, but you’ve helped me gain new strength I once thought could only be found on my own.

If there’s one thing I’d like to teach you in return, it’s that you will never find satisfaction in a gold medal. The real reward is in the journey. Look around you. Look through the pages of this book and be proud of the impact you’ve had on others’ lives. I hope the riches you find here bring you a well-deserved smile. Congratulations on an incredible journey this season, Yuri.

I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Your biggest fan*,
Victor Nikiforov

*Kenjirou Minami and the citizens of Hasetsu have submitted formal complaints against the accuracy of this statement. While they have made convincing arguments that they are in fact your biggest fans, all they actually are is wrong.

Yuuri kept staring at the letter long after he finished reading it. His finger came to trace the curves and flourishes adorning that famous autograph.

Victor Nikiforov.

It was hard to believe his signature was real. The three words printed above it were even more implausible. One year ago, Yuuri didn’t think his idol would ever know his name, and now here was evidence that he had somehow inspired him.

Yuuri struggled to wrap his mind around it. He’d asked Victor why it was important to him that Yuuri keep skating, but even now, with the answer literally beneath his fingertips, it was difficult to grasp. He read the letter twice more, then quietly closed the book.

Whether he came in first or last at the Grand Prix Final, Victor had prepared for him the perfect message that he was already rich in gold. The whole book was made of it. The lettering was gold. The names of those he loved. Their words to him. Even his own name on the front.

Victor was a better coach than he gave himself credit for.

But like he said in the letter, it was important to be true to one’s self, and Victor Nikiforov was not meant to be relegated to the sidelines. Not yet, anyway. He belonged on the ice. Yuuri smiled as he hugged his birthday present to his chest, encouraged by the letter in a way its author probably hadn’t intended. He felt so hopeful that he might one day see his hero skate again. That was the greatest gift Victor could have given him. He was right. Yuuri had already won.

It made him wonder though. . .

If it was true his skating had somehow become an inspiration to Victor, was this the kind of excitement Yuuri had robbed him of by announcing his retirement?

Doubt chipped away at his resolve. Though he knew deep down he wasn’t going to change his mind about his retirement, he did wonder if there was a way he could make this transition easier on Victor. Yuuri wanted to show his appreciation for all he’d done—because it wasn’t just Victor who had found inspiration in Yuuri, as he had explained so beautifully in his letter. Victor had inspired Yuuri first, and he needed to tell him that in a letter of his own.

A gold medal would be a nice gift to him, but Yuuri wanted to give Victor something more personal. A message not written in words but instead demonstrated through Yuuri’s skating. After all, that seemed to be the way they communicated best. Maybe it would be enough to keep Victor motivated for years to come . . . to know what he’d accomplished in Yuuri and to see a reflection of himself in someone he’d inspired.

For the next half hour, he found himself lost in thought, chewing absently on his thumbnail while he stared off into space. There was music building in his mind. In his imagination, a young man with long silver hair danced in the shadows, impossible to catch but daring Yuuri to try.

A knock sounded at the door of the hotel room.

Yuuri blinked and looked up, his hand falling away from his lips. His pulse began to pick up speed . . . because his immediate thought was that Victor had returned from wherever he’d gone. But that was unlikely. He’d taken a key and wouldn’t need to knock, but who else would be here so late?

Katsuki Yuuri,” a familiar voice called from the other side of the door. “I know you’re in there.”

Then the door began to rattle on its hinges.

Yuuri couldn’t help but smile. Minako-sensei had a way of knowing whenever he needed a friend, usually even before he realized it himself. He’d lost count of how many anxiety-filled nights he’d spent practicing under her watchful eye.

He got to his feet and placed the book carefully on the bed. When he opened the door, he was surprised to find she wasn’t the only one who had come to see him. “Phichit-kun.”

Phichit stood just behind Minako’s right shoulder, and he looked up from his cell phone when he heard his name. “Surprise! Hey, I think you’re in trouble. You might want to shut the door really quick and lock it.”

“You’re definitely in trouble.” Minako stuck her foot inside the room so that Yuuri couldn’t close the door, even if he wanted to. “What’s this I hear about you retiring?”

Oh, no. Victor must have found her.

Yuuri went rigid. He hadn’t been prepared to deliver this news to anyone except his coach tonight, but he supposed he should have been. Unsure of what to say, he stepped aside to let them both enter the room.

“Whoa.” Phichit stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the arrangement of the hotel furniture. “Did you and Victor push the beds together?”

Minako lifted an unamused eyebrow in Yuuri’s direction, and he could practically feel the sweat droplets accumulating on his forehead. Thank goodness he’d hidden the lubricant in the nightstand drawer this morning so the cleaning staff wouldn’t see it.

“Yuuri,” Minako said. “Talk to me.”

“Yeah, talk to us,” Phichit said. “First off, explain how you two don’t fall between the crack of the beds when you—”

“I mean, talk about your retirement,” Minako said. “What’s going on?”

Yuuri rubbed the back of his neck, uncertain which topic made him more uncomfortable. His sex life or the fact that he had neglected to tell anyone about his fast-approaching retirement date before now. Victor had certainly not reacted well to the news. Who else was going to be angry with him? “There’s nothing to say yet. I promised Victor I wouldn’t make a final decision until after my Free Skate.”

Minako-sensei narrowed her eyes as she studied his body language. “But you’ve already made up your mind.”

Yuuri’s gaze fell to the floor, but he knew it was no use. It was near impossible to hide anything from her. She picked up on everything and wasn’t afraid to call it out.

“Oh, is this your birthday book?” Phichit had spotted the book on the bed, and he sat down and picked it up to look at. “I’ve been wanting to see this. Victor told everyone about it months ago when he was looking for letters and pictures, and it was so hard to keep it a secret.”

“Can you at least tell me where this is coming from?” Minako pressed, unwilling to let the subject change. “I haven’t heard an explanation yet.”

Yuuri sighed as he watched his friend flip through the pages of his book. That was much easier than looking his old sensei in the eyes and knowing he’d let her down. “It’s complicated.”

“If that’s all you said to Victor, it’s no wonder he’s so upset.”

Guilt drove the lump in Yuuri’s throat even deeper. “He . . . was still upset when you talked to him?”

“Oh, yeah,” Phichit said. “You really wrecked him. I never thought I’d see the day Victor Nikiforov appeared in public without brushing his hair. Thank goodness I got some good pictures, or no one would ever believe me.”

Yuuri buried his face in his hands. “I didn’t think he’d react like that. I still don’t completely understand why he’s so upset, even after he explained it.”

“Really?” Phichit looked up from the book with a grin. “Yuuri, you’re so funny.”

“Why does that not surprise me?” Minako was massaging her temple like she had a sudden headache. “Have you tried looking at this from Victor’s point of view? He put his extremely time-sensitive career on hold for you, left his home, and came to a foreign country to be your coach. He’s invested countless hours in your training. So have I, if you remember. And now you’re just throwing it all away without giving a real reason. Of course, he’s upset, and he’s not the only one.”

Oh. Yuuri hadn’t thought about it from Victor’s perspective. Not like that, anyway. “I don’t know what to do to make it right.”

“Don’t retire?” Phichit volunteered helpfully.

“Then Victor won’t go back to skating,” Yuuri said. “Not unless I fire him, and I don’t want another coach.”

That got Phichit’s attention. He lowered the book and said, “Wait . . . Victor’s coming back? Since when?”

Minako reared around and jabbed a finger at Phichit’s face three times as she said, “No. Social. Media. I mean it, Chulanont. Anything said in this room is not to be shared with the public.”

Phichit deflated, his dark eyes wide and haunted as if seeing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity slip through his fingers. “But. . .”

“Is that why you’re retiring?” Minako asked Yuuri. “So that Victor will step down as your coach and make a comeback?”

“It’s complicated,” Yuuri said for the second time. “That’s one of the reasons, yes. But there are others . . . and I can’t . . . I don’t want to talk about them.”

The last part of his response came out in a defensive rush—because there were other reasons. Deeply personal reasons he didn’t even like to think about, much less share with others. Just lightly touching upon the subject now made the anxiety start to rise up inside of him. He couldn’t handle that right now. Not when he was already feeling so raw and exposed.

“You’re only twenty-four,” Minako said. “Victor started winning gold medals when he was about your age. You have years ahead of you.”

“I’m not Victor.”

“And why can’t you be? A fifteen-year-old kid that you beat in a competition last spring just broke Victor’s Short Program record. There’s no reason that couldn’t have been you. You just have to choose not to give up.”

Silence fell between the three of them. Yuuri still couldn’t look at Minako, but he’d certainly heard what she’d said. Especially that last part . . . about Victor. That was exactly what he had been thinking about before she and Phichit had arrived.

“I haven’t given up,” Yuuri said, his voice quiet but resolved. It wasn’t a lie. He had no intention of backing down from his goal now. That Grand Prix Final gold medal belonged to him.

“Wow, Yuuri.” Phichit was looking down at the book again, his attention captured by one page in particular. “This letter Victor wrote you is incredible. It’s like a dream come true for you.”

Frowning, Minako held her hand out for the book, and Yuuri flushed when Phichit passed it over to her. It was a dream come true, and it embarrassed Yuuri to have his heart and desires on display like that. Still . . . it wasn’t just his hard work that had won him that letter from his idol. Minako had worked tirelessly for it as well. She deserved to read it.

“Wow,” Minako said after she was done. “The reigning five-time world champion . . . inspired and taught by our Yuuri. You should have a copy of this framed.” She looked up at him, her palm coming to rest on Victor’s words. “You know, you’ve always had trouble recognizing your own talent and the impact it has on other people. Do you understand Victor’s trying to thank you for being the one who inspired him to keep skating? If he ends his break and goes back, it’s because of you.”

Yuuri blushed harder. He had caught that but was still struggling to understand it.

“I know what it means to you to have him on the ice again, and that’s probably influenced your decision to retire,” Minako said. “But Yuuri, this letter means Victor is looking at you the same way. That’s why he’s upset. He wants you to keep going because he’s inspired by you. Have you even considered finding a way that you can both keep skating?”

There was a long pause before Yuuri replied. He hadn’t thought about it because it hurt too much. “I’d have to get another coach.”

“Celestino would probably take you back,” Phichit said.

Tears welled up in Yuuri’s eyes. Going back to Celestino would mean he would be parted from Victor, who would no doubt return to Russia to train. That was not an arrangement Yuuri found acceptable at all. He and Victor had barely been able to handle a day apart at the Rostelecom Cup. Training in different countries would mean they’d be apart for months (if not years) with only the occasional visit.

Minako read Yuuri’s thoughts as clearly as if they were voiced out loud. “Have you ever thought about asking Yakov Feltsman to be your coach? If he took you on as a student, you could go to Russia with Victor.”

Phichit snorted with laughter, and even Yuuri found himself smiling because the idea was so ridiculous. “That’s unlikely. He’s committed to the Russian team. Japan is the enemy.”

Everyone is the enemy,” Phichit added. “Even Yakov’s own students fall under that category because their weaknesses are what stand between him and another medal for Russia. And besides, Yuuri is the reason Victor left in the first place. Yakov is probably not a fan.”

“Then explain to him you’re the reason Victor’s returning to Russia at all,” Minako said. “You give up too easily. If you really want Victor back on the ice, then you need to be willing to fight to get him there. You might have to give up some things. Either it’s your pride with Yakov or your proximity to Victor. Even if Yakov refuses you, consider that Victor is going to be twenty-eight this month. At best, he only has a few years of skating ahead of him. I understand you don’t want to be separated from your fiancé, but even if you have to be apart for a year or two, you have your whole lives ahead of you to grow old together. You both have to take advantage of this small window of time because it will be gone before you know it. If Victor loves you, he’ll understand that and wait for you.”

Every word she said would have made perfect sense if this was the only reason Yuuri had his mind set on retirement. But this was just a small piece, and he didn’t want to get into the rest of it. All he said in response was, “I’ll think about it.”

“Don’t just think about it, Yuuri,” Minako said. “Envision what you want—a perfect future where you’re both happy—and fight to make it happen. Even if it costs you something. Because I can’t imagine that a world where you’ve retired at twenty-four will satisfy you. How are you going to feel when Victor and all your friends move on without you? What will it feel like watching Victor lace up his skates and leave you behind on the sidelines?”

“Spoiler alert,” Phichit whispered. “It’s going to suck.”

Yuuri heard them both but didn’t let their words touch his heart. Neither of them fully understood where his head was at, nor could they when he hadn’t told them anything that would put the situation into perspective. He kept his mouth shut but nodded to confirm he understood the consequences of the path he’d chosen. None of it would change his mind . . . but he understood.

“Do I need to lecture you now on not giving up on that gold medal?” Minako’s attention shifted from Yuuri to Phichit. “That goes for both of you.”

“No lecture needed here,” Phichit said. “The Free Skate is where it counts. Besides, I’m not retiring, so it’s not like this is my last chance to win.”

“I’m not giving up either,” Yuuri said. “But there is something I need to do before my performance.” He looked at Minako, his expression beseeching. “Will you help me? I want to change the jump composition of my Free Skate.”

Phichit’s ever-present smile dimmed. “Yuuri, I don’t think that’s a good idea.”

“No, I’ve already made up my mind,” Yuuri said. “I’m doing it. After the Rostelecom Cup, Yakov asked me why I hadn’t practiced for a missed jump. Then Yurio suggested I prepare variations of the jump composition so I could choose between them at the last minute. I already have some variations practiced, but I need to figure out the points. I’m not sure if it will be enough.”

“Enough for what?” Minako asked.

Yuuri fiddled with his engagement ring. “Victor said something to me last night—to show him the kind of skating I liked best. At first, I didn’t know what that might mean for me, but I think I figured it out. His skating is always what inspired me. I’ve been trying to catch up with him for more than half my life, and the skating I’ve always loved best is when I’ve let him be my direct inspiration. So I want to do what he did. I want my Free Skate to have the same difficulty as his, which means I need another quad.”

Minako had the beginnings of a smile shining in her eyes. “A quadruple toe loop? In place of the triple flip.”

Yuuri nodded. “But that means I’ll have to move the triple flip—”

“—in place of the triple loop,” Minako said. “Yes, that makes sense.”

“Four quads?” Phichit said with an impressed laugh. “That’s badass. And hey—if you fall on your face, maybe it will make you want to try again next year, and you’ll change your mind about retiring. I’m all for it.”

“I don’t know how, but I need to find a way to practice tonight.” Yuuri’s eyes pleaded with his sensei, who might as well be a second mother to him for all the times she’d been there to support him. “Will you help me?”

“Grab your skates and a calculator,” Minako said. “I’m going to make some calls and find us a rink. Let’s make this happen.”

Not far from the hotel, Victor sat on a bench and stared out at the sea ahead of him. He could see the white froth of breaking waves on the beach below, but beyond that was only darkness. Clouds had hidden the moon and stars, so not even the line between the sky and water was visible tonight. The horizon was gone.

How fitting for his mood. He had no idea now what his future held, and it was like being blind to what was right in front of him. All the same, there was comfort to be found in the sound of the waves rolling in. A familiar song. One that whispered of home. He breathed in the fresh salty air and found himself toying with his engagement ring.

Mari stood a few paces off, one arm wrapped around her middle and a cigarette held before her lips. The ember at the tip glowed red-orange in the dark. Like Victor, she seemed content to quietly watch the water, even though it had to be after midnight by now.

They’d only been here for a short time—twenty minutes or so—having left the bar when Celestino called it a night. After several solid hours of drinking, he’d gone back to the hotel to rest up for tomorrow, but Victor had dragged his feet. Mari had followed him here to this bench near the beach without saying a word and had gone through two cigarettes while she waited for him to work through whatever it was that was preventing him from taking another step. It was just like her to be a strong pillar of support without drawing attention to herself. That was simply the kind of person Mari was.

Victor wasn’t certain why he wasn’t ready yet. He’d felt much better at the bar, especially after a little alcohol. While he wasn’t anywhere near drunk, what he had consumed had taken the edge off his mood. Mari and Celestino even had him smiling at times while they tried to lift his spirits.

Celestino had regaled him with war stories of trying to calm Yuuri down before performances, some of which hit so close to home, Victor couldn’t help but laugh. Celestino then reenacted the conversation he’d had with Yuuri when he was dumped as a coach, and it was eerily familiar. Particularly the lack of a good reason.

“Yuuri never explains himself,” Celestino had said. “He just makes up his mind and acts. But if I had to guess, he was already on the brink of retiring last year. That boy has never been the same since those falls he took at the Sochi Grand Prix, and let’s not even talk about what happened at Nationals.”

When Mari had looked at Victor with questions in her eyes, he’d used the phone translator to explain what Celestino had said. She typed back: He’s right. You didn’t know Yuuri before last year but he’s different now. He might have decided to retire before this season even began.

Yuuri had said himself that he’d chosen the date of his retirement months ago, but Celestino and Mari’s words now cast a new dimension on that decision.

Was it possible the events of last year had such a profound and lasting effect on him that he still carried the weight of it all? If he had already been on the brink of quitting, perhaps he had always viewed this season as him giving it one last try before he closed the book on his career. When they’d argued, Victor had accused him of giving up, but maybe that wasn’t entirely fair if it was true that Yuuri had held on a full year longer than he’d wanted to.

But why hadn’t he just told Victor that from the beginning? This entire time, he’d thought he was preparing Yuuri for future seasons. Not prepping him for his final battle.

Victor knew there were strong emotions tied to what happened last year but hadn’t considered how deep the hurt might run. Whenever the subject came up, Yuuri would only discuss the technical details around his breakdown. Namely, what happened on the ice. The closest he got to revealing what had happened in his head was calling himself mentally weak, which wasn’t true at all.

At the time, it had seemed like a good idea to let the past fade from memory. Victor had thought to help Yuuri build happier memories this season and in turn, heal the wounds from last year. In fact, he’d thought they were already healed. If they weren’t, it was news to him.

This was what preoccupied Victor’s thoughts now as he stared out at the darkened sea. There was so much about Yuuri he still didn’t understand, and it frustrated him to be held at arm’s length like this.

As close as they’d become, Victor was beginning to realize there was still an emotional barrier between them. He wondered if it was even possible to break through it. Maybe with enough time and attention . . . but time was the one thing they didn’t have. Yuuri meant to retire after his Free Skate, and what could Victor do to change his mind before then if he wouldn’t even talk about the root of the problem?

“Like Hasetsu,” Mari said, the volume of her words diminished by the strong breeze coming in off the water. She took a drag on her cigarette and blew the smoke to the side, where it was immediately carried away.

“Hai,” Victor said softly, understanding that she’d made the same connection he and Yurio had earlier. “This place reminds me of home, too.”

The sound of his cell phone buzzing cut through the roar of the waves. His first thought was that it might be Yuuri, and Victor immediately fished his phone out of his pocket and looked at the screen to see the ID of the caller. He frowned at the name he saw there. Not Yuuri at all—but rather someone else who hadn’t proactively reached out to him in a very long time.

And it was good to see that number popping up on his phone. A sharp, vivid relief. So many times in the last year, Victor had wished he could call that number and talk to someone with decades of experience under his belt. Someone who was practically a father to him.

He accepted the call, brought the phone to his ear, and said, “Yakov?”

There was a grunt on the other end of the line, which was as close as his old coach came to offering a greeting. “What’s this I hear about Yuuri retiring?”

Victor closed his eyes, inwardly cringing. The gossip was getting around already. “Who told you that?”

“Who cares? Is it true or not?”

For a long moment, there was nothing to be heard over the line except for the sound of the sea breeze overloading the speakers. Victor didn’t know what to say, so he let a sigh serve as confirmation. “I don’t know what to do. How do I make him change his mind? It’s a mistake. You’ve seen him skate. You know it’s a mistake.”

Yakov grumbled something under his breath. “That boy has to make his own decision. You can beg and scream all you want, but at the end of the day, this is a lesson he’s going to have to learn the hard way.”

“So I just have to sit back and watch him give up his future? All that potential. All that hard work. Down the drain. Wasted.”

“Vitya, what do you think we’ve all been watching you do since you left Russia?”


Victor opened his eyes as yet another perspective on the situation joined all the others and shifted his viewpoint again. Yakov’s words were like a punch to the gut. Eight months ago, Victor had done the same thing to Yakov that Yuuri had done to Victor. He’d packed his bags and walked away from his career without warning, leaving his coach begging and pleading with him not to give up his future. No wonder Yakov had been so angry with him this year.

“I guess I owe you an apology,” Victor said. “I didn’t understand how that must have felt until now.”

“Well, congratulations. Now you know what it’s like to be the coach of a willful brat. When you’re ready to beg me to take you back, you let me know.”

“Please try not to let the rumor spread any further. He hasn’t made a final decision yet.”

“Keep telling yourself that, Vitya.”

Yakov hung up.

Victor lowered the phone and brought his other hand to attempt to massage some of the tension away from his forehead. “My coach,” he said, explaining to Mari who had called.

“Yakov Feltsman,” she said to show she understood. “Very angry man.”

Her description of him brought a much-needed smile to Victor’s face. “Hai.”

Mari drew her own phone out of her coat pocket and typed up a message for Victor on the Japanese/English translator. When she held it out to him, it read: What will you do when my brother retires? Will you go back to Russia to skate?

“I don’t know.” Victor shrugged after he said it to help her understand his meaning.

Her response: Seeing you skate would make him happy. You’ve been his idol since he was a child.

She was likely telling him this to help him see something positive in his murky future, but Victor only hung his head. More and more, everything seemed to be pushing him in one direction: toward the end of his hiatus and his return to skating. The thought would have appealed to him only a few short hours ago. Only now, he couldn’t remember why he’d wanted to go back. Without Yuuri there, what was the point? Maybe they should retire together.

Mari was frowning down at her phone like she wasn’t happy with the last translation it had provided. She knew enough English to recognize when her messages weren’t clear. “How do you say in English? ‘Happy’ is not right word. More like. . .”

She put one hand to her chest and extended her other arm in Victor’s direction to demonstrate whatever emotion she was trying to convey. There was a heartfelt but bittersweet look on her face, and her brow was held tense, even though she was smiling.

“Inspire?” Victor guessed.

He held his hand out for her phone and input the word into the translator for her. She beamed down at the results. “Yes. You inspire Yuuri.”

Victor mulled over this for a few moments before he typed another message for her. If I started skating again, do you think he would be inspired enough to keep going?

Mari’s smile faded. She wrote her response with her lips pressed into a careful line. My brother doesn’t speak unless he’s sure.

She didn’t want to give him false hope, then. Victor let his gaze slide away from her phone and instead focused on the nonexistent horizon. He could feel that awful sadness descending on him again.

“You love him.” Mari stabbed out her cigarette and came to sit beside him on the bench. “You told me.” She was referring to their conversation from earlier that morning, when she’d confronted him about the engagement.

“I do love him,” Victor said. “Very much.”

She held out her phone, which had a new message on the brightly lit screen that drew his attention away from the darkness. He has always been like this. If you don’t accept the bad along with the good then you don’t love all of him.

Mari was right, of course. Victor nodded and tried for a smile. Though his heart was still aching, he knew this was just a minor bump in the road during a far greater journey that would last the remainder of their lives. It was one argument—one bad night that had been preceded by some of the best months of his life—and Yuuri was so much more important to him than a pair of ice skates.

Suddenly Victor missed him so much, it hurt to breathe.

Mari showed him another message. Why don’t you go back and try to sleep? He won’t be there.

No, he wouldn’t.

Yuuri was a night-owl and wasn’t the type to stay in bed when he felt anxious or upset. He would have left the hotel room by now and gone to find something active to do to keep his mind busy. When Victor returned to their room, it was going to be empty—which come to think of it, was probably the reason he hadn’t wanted to go back to begin with. Because he knew his love wouldn’t be there waiting for him.

But it was late, and Mari wasn’t going to leave him here alone. That wasn’t fair to her. Besides, he didn’t want her walking by herself at this hour anyway. It was time to go back.

Victor got to his feet and extended his arm politely in the direction of the hotel as if to say: after you. “Mari-Neesan,” he said—just because he wanted to. He hadn’t had the chance to address her as his sister in conversation yet and thought she might like it. After all, she’d certainly demonstrated to him tonight that she considered him family. That meant a lot to him.

She did seem to like being called that. Returning his smile, she playfully nudged him forward toward the path that led back to the hotel. “Neechan,” she corrected as they fell into step together.

As predicted, Victor was greeted by nothing except an empty hotel room.

He’d said goodnight to Mari on the elevator, but because it was so late, he had held the door open and kept a watch on her until he was sure she’d made it safely inside her room. Once he was alone, any semblance of a good mood had quickly abandoned him. Victor could barely keep his chin up by the time he made it to his own room.

Yuuri wasn’t there.

Of course, he wasn’t. He was Yuuri.

It made Victor a little angry, to be honest. It was after midnight, and they had a public practice session at the arena first thing in the morning. If Yuuri wasn’t in bed at a decent hour, he was going to be exhausted and unable to perform to the best of his ability. The last thing he needed was a bad practice impacting his nerves before his Free Skate. Not that he would listen if Victor told him that.

With his teeth clenched together behind closed lips, he removed his coat and dropped it onto the foot of the bed. There beside it, laying on top of the covers, was the book he’d given Yuuri for his twenty-fourth birthday. So he had remembered to bring it along.

Had he read the letter? Did it have any impact on his decision at all?

It had taken Victor months to compose. He’d rewritten that letter many times because their relationship on and off the ice kept morphing and changing into something else.

While he had always been captivated by Katsuki Yuuri, the first draft of Victor’s letter to him was far less personal than the last because he honestly didn’t know him that well. In time, their relationship deepened, and the contents of the letter became more heartfelt and grateful as he began to understand how profoundly his time with Yuuri had influenced him. Victor felt forever changed, and he hoped some of that had been captured in his words to Yuuri.

Closing his eyes, Victor ran his fingers back through his tangled hair.

This trip was not turning out at all the way he’d expected, and he wondered what to do next. He supposed he could try to get some sleep but already knew he wouldn’t be able to turn his mind off. Not when he didn’t know where his Yuuri was. At the very least, Victor needed to know he was safe.

He retrieved his phone from the pocket of his coat and typed a hasty text message: Please come back. I’m sorry. I miss you. But then his thumb hovered over the Send button without pressing it.

After a solid minute of staring at that message, he tapped at the backspace key until it was gone. Deleted. Then he pulled up a text message window for Minako instead. To her, he said: Is he okay? I’m back at the room now and just need to know he’s safe.

He sent it off and waited, not knowing why he hadn’t just texted Yuuri directly. If Victor truly wanted their fight to be over and done with, this was not the right way to go about it. He knew that, but there was still a stubborn part of his heart that was angry Yuuri wasn’t here. Why couldn’t he just shake this off and move on? It didn’t have to be like this. If Victor hadn’t gotten so upset to begin with, they could be cuddled together in bed right now, watching a movie or having a calm, honest discussion about why Yuuri was so determined to retire.

A response from Minako soon popped up on his phone. He’s fine. Don’t worry. I’ll stay with him until he’s ready to come back but it might be a few hours.

With an exasperated sigh, Victor tossed the phone onto the bed and covered his eyes with the heels of his hands. Okay. Fine. So Yuuri was safe. Nothing to worry about. He was with Minako, and everything was just fine.

So why then did Victor suddenly feel like crying again?

He really shouldn’t have yelled at Yuuri.

To be continued.