There’s a place you just can’t reach unless you have a dream too large to bear alone.
It’s a beautiful day. Sunlight is spilling through the window and across the sheets, warm against the curve of his hand, and if he listens closely he can hear birds singing just outside. Yakov is yelling at him in furious Russian about responsibility and wellbeing and his media image. Victor simply smiles pleasantly and nods at appropriate intervals as his gaze wanders from his coach to the plain white walls, thinking that the room would be far livelier if they were painted a soft green or pink to pick up the sun’s golden tones. The white is too easily washed out by the fluorescent tubes overhead, making the environment look sterile and artificial. Void of life.
“Victor, are you listening to a thing I’m saying?” Yakov shouts, his face as red as borsch. His dark trench coat is open and Victor can see the creases in the shirt he wears beneath it, like he’s been wearing it for too long and it’s forgotten its form.
Victor cocks his head, turning up the voltage of his smile as he taps his lower lip with his index finger. “Yakov, if you’re not careful you’ll put yourself right into the bed next to me. You’re getting on in your years; it’s not healthy to maintain such high blood pressure.”
Yakov lowers his head, his face becoming hidden by the brim of his felt hat. It’s a pose Victor has seen many times before, usually when he’s being difficult, and it is always followed by a spectacular outburst. Riling up his coach did not start out as an intentional thing, but as Victor grew older, Yakov’s temper became less intimidating and more amusing to him. Victor feels a faint rush of excitement now as he anticipates the imminent fallout, like a child watching a train wreck; the old man is far too easy to tease. When Yakov raises his eyes to Victor’s again, however, it is not anger that Victor sees.
Instead he sees dismay. Dejectedness. Perhaps even regret.
All pleasure Victor once derived from Yakov’s torment shrinks into a hyper-dense pit in the centre of his gut, like a tiny black hole drawing all of the warmth from his body. His smile is frozen on his face and his heart has crawled into his throat to distance itself from the icy cavity of his abdomen.
God, Victor thinks there may even be tears in his coach’s eyes.
“You never said anything, Vitya,” Yakov says. He sounds lost.
I know, Victor thinks, but the words suffocate before they can pass the blockage in his throat. His gaze falls to the side, where it catches on the glare of the white band around his wrist, his name and the date printed neatly and electronically in black, uniform font.
It’s a beautiful day, and Victor Nikiforov was never meant to see it.
Dr. Markov talks to Victor often. The hospital’s resident psychiatrist is younger than Victor expected; only in his early-forties, at most. He has hazel eyes, brown hair, and a curved nose like a hawk’s beak. He wears a worn gold band on the ring finger of his right hand and the picture frame on his desk faces him, turned away from Victor and any other patients who find themselves reluctantly ushered into his office. Victor suspects it contains a photograph of his children; two girls, he guesses to himself.
A wall-mounted clock ticks down the remaining seconds of their appointment as Victor tells him all about the free skate program he performed at the Grand Prix Final in Sochi, where he won the gold medal for the fifth consecutive year. The lights glint off of the silver frames of Dr. Markov’s glasses as he rests his chin on his hands, peering at Victor across his cluttered desk. He listens to Victor speak with a look of patient exasperation, and when Victor finishes speaking, he asks, “Are you ever going to take this seriously?”
Victor grins as he replies, “Why would I? If I had my way I wouldn’t be here right now.”
Dr. Markov has crow’s feet in the corners of his eyes. The few wrinkles that have formed along the creases of his features indicate that Dr. Markov is a man who smiles often. Victor can picture him smiling at his wife and two daughters as he enters an imaginary apartment or pushes his girls on a swing set, his teeth showing as he laughs with joy. He does not smile often at Victor and he doesn’t smile now. “No, I suppose not.”
Victor has received many gifts since he’s been staying at the hospital in Moscow where he was transferred. He has received flowers and cards and stuffed animals—mostly poodles. Every surface in his room has been covered with well wishes and ‘get better soon’s. Yakov visits sometimes, and Victor’s rink mates came to see him as well, even managing to drag along a furious Yuri Plisetsky, who spent much of the visit screaming profanities at him.
But despite the endless attention, Victor finds himself dreadfully bored, and so he takes to wandering the hospital wherever he isn’t stopped. It isn’t exactly what he would consider fun, but the activity is vastly preferable to the dreariness of his room and the tedium of his sessions with Dr. Markov.
Sometimes he’s recognized when he enters the cafeteria, either by patients who are well enough to be mobile or visiting families. They ask after him and Victor learns that Russia’s news outlets were rather discrete about the reason for his hospital admittance. For the sake of Yakov’s health, Victor remains mum about the particulars of his stay, but tells his fans that he is doing well. If anything, the mystery makes him even more interesting, and so Victor tends not to spend too much time there.
It’s at the end of his second week at the hospital that there’s a break in the monotony. Victor is in the bathroom next to the cafeteria after lunch while someone is throwing up in one of the stalls. This is not unusual in a hospital, but it’s what comes afterward that gives Victor pause: the man begins crying. He’s still on his knees, clad in sweatpants and slippers, and he sounds young and broken.
Victor stands frozen in dread. He has never known how to deal with people crying in front of him, even if the stall door provides the man with anonymity. He’s struck with the uncomfortable memory of his younger rink mate, Mila, sobbing when she sprained her ankle a few years ago. He remembers staring at her in bewilderment, hands held out uselessly between them as he tried to decide whether he should hug her or talk to her. He feels much the same way now as he listens to this stranger’s gasping breaths. Does he break the illusion of privacy and knock on the stall door or leave the man be?
Before Victor can make a decision, the man starts taking deeper breaths and the muffled sobs give way to sniffles. The toilet flushes and then the dull, teal-painted door is swinging wide as the man steps out of his stall. He’s Asian and a few inches shorter than Victor, with ink black hair and glasses skewed as his fingers reach beneath them to wipe at his eyes. As his hands lower, he catches sight of Victor out of the corner of his eye and lets out a startled cry, spinning to face him.
“I’m sorry!” the man gasps in slightly accented English, and now that Victor can see him head on, he realizes that past the reddened skin beneath his eyes and the flailing hands, he recognizes him.
“I know you,” Victor says numbly, shock emptying his mind of all other thought. Normally Victor is so full of words—can talk for minutes or hours on end about everything and nothing—but now he is like a slate wiped clean.
Dark brown eyes widen and the other man’s mouth opens and closes mutely; Victor realizes that they are in a parallel state of disbelief. Victor examines his features, taking in the sharp jaw and slightly rounded cheeks as he tries to place a name to his face. It’s just on the tip of his tongue; something with a K…
The man finally squeaks out, “V—Victor Nikiforov!”
Ah! That was it. “You’re the one who was carried off of the ice at the Grand Prix Final. Katsuki, wasn’t it?” Victor says.
The man’s face goes pale with horror.
Shit. “Was I wrong? I apologize; I usually have to compete with a person a few times before I remember their name.”
“Y—you’re not wrong.” He suddenly freezes, an odd look coming over him. Victor wonders what he’s thinking. “Please excuse me!” In an instant, Katsuki is back in the stall, the door left ajar as he arches over the toilet and retches.
Victor’s hand hovers in mid-air. He’s not used to feeling helpless. Does he pat his former-competitor’s back? Try to comfort him? A shiver runs down Katsuki’s spine as if he can hear Victor’s thoughts and then he stands up straight, flushing the toilet before he marches past Victor to the sink to rinse out his mouth. Beads of sweat cling to his temples and he looks tired and older, like years have passed between the moment he darted to the stall and when he emerged once more. Victor can’t remember Katsuki’s age, but he knows that he’s too young to wear an expression like that.
“Is this why you were carried off of the ice?” Victor asks.
“This?” Katsuki replies, pointing his thumb at the bathroom stall behind him. He swallows hard, feet shuffling beneath him. His voice is rough when he speaks. “No. That was my appendix. This is something that came up during my surgery.” He swishes more water around in his mouth and spits it out before he takes a few mouthfuls to drink. He frowns at Victor then, eyes flickering up and down his body in a cursory visual search. “Are you alright? You don’t look like you’re injured.”
Victor grins. “I’m on vacation.”
A twinge of something like irritation. “You’re lying.”
Victor sets his hands on his hips, shifting his weight to one leg. “What about you then? Why were you transferred to Moscow?”
Katsuki stands up straight and looks at Victor with skepticism. His elbows are bent and his hands are curled into loose fists at his sides. If he didn’t look so exhausted, Victor would think that he’s ready to run. Instead, Katsuki says, “I’ll tell you why I’m here if you tell me why you’re here.”
It’s not the response Victor was expecting, and so he says, “Deal.” He holds out a hand and Katsuki takes it hesitantly, his grip too soft as he gives it a shake, like he half-expects his hand to fall through Victor’s if he squeezes too hard.
Katsuki takes a deep breath and then the words come tumbling out of him all at once. “While removing my appendix, the doctor found a tumour. Since I was in surgery already, she just took a sample for testing. My doctor here told me I was lucky because most carcinoid tumours don’t cause any symptoms until it’s too late.” He lets out a wry laugh, eyes drifting to the paneled ceiling. “It turns out in the long run, my appendix rupturing on the ice may have saved my life. I had surgery a few days ago and I’m undergoing chemotherapy now, hence the…” He tips his head toward the bathroom stall.
Victor almost winces, but he doesn’t. He tells Katsuki, “I’m on suicide watch.”
If Victor were to watch a slowed down recording of Katsuki’s face as he receives this news, he would be able to pinpoint each of the five stages of grief playing out across the Japanese man’s features. The widening of his eyes and the hitch in his breath, the way the inner corners of his eyebrows arc toward his hairline and his eyes fill with tears before he clenches them shut, brows now furrowed as he presses his lips together. He remains that way for a few seconds before his facial muscles relax and he lets out a slow breath. He meets Victor’s eyes again, and in them Victor sees the same question he’s been asked countless times by Yakov and Yuri and Mila and Georgi and Dr. Markov every time he sees them: why?
The smile stays plastered across Victor’s lips, plastic and superficial, until Katsuki surprises him again and says, “I’m glad you’re here.”
It’s a slow collapse, like a glacier melting in the Arctic summer sun. A piece breaks off and the corners of Victor’s mouth drop. Ever since he woke up on that beautiful, horrible day so long ago, Victor has been the recipient of anger, sadness, concern, and even guilt; but never has anyone simply appreciated the fact that he’s still here—least of all Victor himself.
Swallowing hard past the lump in his throat, he asks, “Aren’t you curious about why I did it?”
Katsuki bites his lip, his eyes falling to the grey-tiled floor. “I don’t want to intrude.”
The faucet drips, the sound almost deafening in the silence of the room. For a moment, it is as if everything beyond the bathroom has disappeared: the hospital, the doctors, the nurses with their placating smiles, and Moscow outside of it. It’s such a reasonable answer, but Victor can’t comprehend it. For so many years, Victor’s life has been a subject of sports news. He has attended photoshoot after photoshoot, answered hundreds of questions in interviews, all probing into his routine, his thoughts, his personal affairs. Even now, people keep pressing him to share more, more, more, peeling back the layers in search of naked flesh, raw and vulnerable.
But not now, and not Katsuki.
“You really don’t want to know at all?”
Katsuki blinks up at him, eyebrows drawing together with worry as he raises his hands in protest. “No, it’s—it’s not as if I don’t care. I do! It’s just…” He drops his gaze again, his eyes hidden behind dark bangs. There’s a beat. Two beats. “It’s none of my business. You don’t know me. You don’t owe me anything.”
It hits Victor then, why Katsuki’s behaviour has him so shaken. It makes something within him flutter and choke, like a bird caught in a child’s hand. It is not a cruel grasp but a gentle one, and yet Victor is utterly unprepared for it. The shock of it renders him immobile, as helpless as if his wings have been clipped. The bird’s tiny heart beats wild against the encircling fingers that hold him so delicately.
Before Victor can respond, Katsuki rubs the back of his neck, glancing at him shyly as a nervous laugh bubbles out of him. “I’ve imagined this moment so many times before. I never pictured it going anything like this. Or in a hospital, of all places.”
Victor wonders, offhandedly, what Katsuki is referring to, but before he can parse it out his lips are already moving. “Katsuki, you were only here for the competition, right? Do you get any visitors?”
Katsuki flushes and Victor realizes that this is the first time he’s actually addressed him by name, his moment of recognition notwithstanding. Katsuki replies, “My coach, Celestino, has been coming to see me, but I made him promise to return to Detroit for his other skaters. It’s been selfish of me to keep him away for so long. His flight is tomorrow morning.” In a quieter voice, “And… you can call me Yuuri.”
Selfish. Something inside of Victor cracks around that word, the gentle hand becoming a fist punching against glass. He feels it in his chest, tight and painful, and suddenly he can’t stand the thought of this man being left alone.
On impulse, Victor steps forward and grabs Katsuki’s hands. “I’ll come visit you. Where is your room?”
Katsuki splutters with shock, trying to recoil away from his grip, but Victor only holds him tighter. He blushes furiously. “It—it’s okay! I’m only here for another week before I’m going back to Japan. You don’t have to feel obligated to…”
“I want to!”
Katsuki swallows hard and lets out a shaky breath. “Okay.”
His hands are cold and a little clammy, sweat slicking his palms, but his skin is soft to the touch and Victor can’t help but think that they fit perfectly against his own.
If one were to ask Victor Nikiforov about his definition of a promise, he would define it as a declaration of intent. The emphasis here would be on the word intent and his distinct failure to mention following through with any action. It is not that Victor makes promises without planning to keep them, but more the fact that his memory can be likened to a sieve. This fact has led to the frustration of many of Victor’s associates, including his coach, his rink mates, and friends.
Later Victor will marvel that this moment ever occurred, given his penchant for forgetfulness, but for now he stands in a doorway, his shoulder pressed against the frame and slowly warming it with his body heat as he watches the young Japanese man across the room from him. The teal linoleum is like an ocean between them, making the man seem distant and somehow unreachable to Victor. An IV next to the bed feeds fluids into a vein in Katsuki’s hand and a bedpan has been set on the floor to his right. His skin is pallid, making him appear almost green in the face, like a wilting flower, and Victor wonders how much of that is due to the chemical cocktail he’s been treated with or whether he is merely another victim of the white on white on white colour scheme of the walls and pillowcase enveloping him. His eyes are closed while his glasses rest on the bedside table superimposed by the IV stand, and Victor can’t tell if he’s asleep or merely dozing.
It strikes Victor in a way it didn’t before that Katsuki Yuuri is sick. He had seen the man throwing up yesterday, had been told that he was receiving chemotherapy and radiation treatments, but talking about cancer with a man standing in a bathroom and seeing him lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to an IV, are two very different circumstances. Seeing Katsuki like this, seeming so unbearably fragile, makes it all the more salient and real. For some inexplicable reason, this makes Victor angry, and so he pastes on a grin as he marches across the room and drags the chair to Katsuki’s right closer, making it scrape loudly across the floor.
“Hi!” he calls in English obnoxiously.
A crease forms between Katsuki’s brows at the noise and he opens his eyes, doing a double-take when he catches sight of Victor. He blinks owlishly a few more times before reaching to his left for his glasses and perching them on the bridge of his nose.
“Victor?” he says. “You’re here.” His tone is one of wonder and his eyes drink Victor in like he’s seeing the sun for the first time in years, like he’s afraid that if he looks away for an instant, Victor will disappear. This close, Victor can see flecks of amber lighting up Katsuki’s eyes from within.
He waves cheerfully. “I was bored and I remembered you saying you didn’t get many visitors. Want to get lunch?”
If anything, the mention of food makes Katsuki look even paler. “They have this horrible pudding here…” he mumbles. “I think it’s butterscotch on Mondays…”
“It’s Thursday,” Victor informs him.
Katsuki visibly deflates with relief, sinking into his pillow as he sighs. “Oh, thank goodness. Honestly though, I don’t think I’m feeling up to food. I’m afraid that if I eat something now I’ll just…” He trails off, eyes drifting down and away from Victor self-consciously.
“Throw it back up?”
Katsuki winces, but he meets Victor’s eyes again. “Yeah.”
“Okay.” Victor leans back in the chair and crosses one leg over the other comfortably. “Then we’ll just stay here.”
“Oh,” Katsuki says softly, surprised. “Okay.” He adjusts the cot so that he’s sitting mostly upright and settles back against his pillow as they slip into an awkward silence, his eyes falling to his lap. His fingers, long and thin like a pianist’s, toy with each other in nervous abandon, careful not to disturb the needle taped down against the dark river of his vein. Once in a while, he glances toward Victor—his own hands, where they’re folded on his knee, or his face—and a little colour comes to his cheeks, rose petals crushed against parchment.
Victor realizes then that he is staring and he can feel the upward tug at the corners of his lips as he smiles placidly at the other skater. He wonders absently what those tugging muscles are called (he will ask the nurse later, when she comes to remove Katsuki’s IV, and she will tell him it is the zygomaticus major). He sets down his leg and leans forward to rest his elbows on his knees with an athlete’s lazy grace as he asks Katsuki, “What are you thinking about?”
Katsuki’s lips part, a little chapped, and he says hesitantly, “I’m still trying to make sense of everything. Why are you here?”
Victor’s gaze drifts to the left where a window breaks through the blank expanse of the wall. It’s cloudy today, Moscow’s sky painted in a mottled greyscale as traffic rumbles in the streets below. The natural light is thin and watery, but still visible as it catches on the fibres of Katsuki’s grey t-shirt, tracing the curve of his right shoulder and the downy hairs on his upper arm beneath the sleeve. Victor finds his eye drawn to a freckle there, solitary against the lean stretch of his triceps.
He casts his mind back to the Grand Prix Final, watching Katsuki’s free skate from the competitors’ wing. Stops himself—that’s a poor example. Remembers instead Katsuki’s short program, the way the blade of his skate flashed beneath the arena lights as his leg extended, creating a long line with his torso as his body curved into an exquisite camel spin. How the lyrical elegance of his step sequences could almost make one forget about the fumbled jumps.
He thinks of their conversation yesterday in the bathroom and tests the name on his tongue. “Yuri.”
The other man shifts to attention at the sound of his name, and a different sort of hush falls over them. He licks his lips and says quietly, like he’s afraid to break this new silence, “You’re saying it wrong.”
Victor blinks, turning to face him directly. “Correct me.”
He frowns for a moment, eyes dark, gathering his words. “You’re saying it too Russian, shortening the vowel. You need to stress the ‘u’ sound more in Japanese. Like ‘yoo-ri.’”
“Yuuri.” Victor likes it. Better than he likes the name Katsuki, he thinks as he sees a small shiver run down his former-competitor’s spine.
“Better,” Yuuri says, almost breathless.
Victor smiles (zygomaticus major). “How long have you been skating, Yuuri?”