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Bruises That Won't Heal

Chapter Text

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.

Oh.

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?”

Chapter Text

They spend their days together. Victor learns Yuuri’s treatment schedule and always meets him in his room afterward. When Yuuri is feeling well enough they wander the hospital side by side as Victor streams a steady monologue, words dripping from his lips as quickly as they come to mind. Other days Victor will sit at Yuuri’s bedside, encouraging him to drink juice and eat saltine crackers that will be easy on his stomach.

Yuuri always stares at Victor in quiet awe when he first arrives, like he cannot distinguish whether the oasis before him is genuine or a mirage that will slip through his fingertips as crumbling sand. It always takes several minutes before he becomes an active participant in the conversation, stuttering starts becoming, if not more confident, then at least steadier the more he speaks. More assured that Victor will listen, and he does. Victor drinks in every word Yuuri says with rapt attention, eyes following the movement of his lips or trapped in the rich mahogany of his gaze.

Victor likes the sound of Yuuri’s voice. The softness of it and the warm timbre that almost seems to shake something loose in Victor’s chest. Though Victor was initially motivated by boredom and a sense of camaraderie to seek out his fellow figure skater, he now finds himself increasingly fascinated by Yuuri as an individual. He peppers his companion with questions, partly out of a hunger to learn more of this man and partly just to listen to the gentle lilt of his voice; the American accent just faintly tinged with the shape of his mother tongue.

The second time Victor comes to Yuuri’s room it is mid-afternoon, following an appointment with Dr. Markov, and he catches the other man off guard. Yuuri is seated on his cot with one leg crossed over the other and a laptop in front of him, his eyes trained on the screen and a pair of headphones muting the world around him. He looks a little pale, but not as bad as he looked yesterday, his cheeks more comparable to flesh than marble. Grinning, Victor takes advantage of the distraction to bolt across the room and ambush Yuuri.

It happens in slow motion. Yuuri doesn’t look up as Victor opens the door and tenses, knees bent and poised on the balls of his feet, but the moment Victor takes off in a sprint, the sudden movement in his periphery draws Yuuri’s gaze and his eyes widen with alarm. Yuuri cringes in the bed, drawing his laptop close to his chest protectively as if he can sense Victor’s intent, but not before Victor’s feet eat up the ground between them and send him skidding against the chair with an ugly scraping sound as it ricochets off his leg.

Victor stops himself with a hand slapping against the wall and, setting his other hand on the cot next to Yuuri’s hip, leans over him, panting, to say, “What are you watching?”

N—nothing!” Yuuri cries indignantly, tilting his body away from Victor’s. His face blossoms in carnation red. “Are you always this nosy?”

Victor hooks his chin over Yuuri’s shoulder to peer at the screen, lean muscle and sharp bone warm against the skin of his neck through the thin cotton of Yuuri’s t-shirt. But then Victor realizes what Yuuri was doing before he interrupted and the smile freezes briefly on his lips before fading like a shrinking scar. The silence between them becomes strained in a way it never has before. At first Yuuri’s posture is rigid and his face is turned determinedly away from Victor’s, but then he chances a cautious glance back at him, and…

And…

Victor doesn’t know what his own face looks like. There’s not enough of him to feel. He hasn’t celebrated Halloween since he was a child, but he is reminded suddenly of a jack-o’-lantern: cut open and everything inside of him—stomach, lungs, and still beating heart—torn loose and discarded before the wound is sealed up once more, leaving only a hollow shell behind. But instead of a flame, at his core Victor feels only a vast and empty nothingness. It isn’t a sad feeling, but he isn’t sure he prefers the alternative.

Whatever Yuuri sees in Victor’s face makes him sit up again and straighten his legs, which had bent toward his chest reflexively. He rests the computer on his lap and leans back into his pillows, leaving the underside of Victor’s chin cold where his shoulder had been pressed.

Yuuri licks his lips and his voice is barely more than a croak as he asks, “Would you like to watch it with me?”

Victor breathes in, discovers that he still has lungs after all, and exhales long and slow. He remains in his stasis a little longer before he nods, telling Yuuri, “From the beginning.”

And thus Victor finds himself seated on the battered chair next to Yuuri’s bed, in a hospital in Moscow, watching his own free skate from the Sochi Grand Prix Final. There’s a little warmth in the knowledge that Yuuri was watching his routine, but it’s overshadowed by the strangeness of seeing himself in that moment: skating what was meant to be his final performance.  

Yuuri is captivated by the Victor onscreen, unable to keep from sighing wistfully as he lands a quadruple flip. But as Victor watches himself, Stammi Vicino playing over the laptop’s speakers while Yuuri’s headphones lay abandoned on the bedside table, he sees only his flaws. He sees the despondence that slips through his performance every now and again, changing the song from one of love and longing to one of loss and loneliness. Is that how he feels about skating now, he wonders? A string cut loose and left to dangle in the wind.

Objectively, he knows it is a superb performance and easily deserving of a gold medal. It is not the send-off Victor would have wanted, and perhaps that is the most disappointing part of all.

When the song concludes and the Victor onscreen breaks out of his ending pose to skate toward the kiss and cry, Yuuri’s eyes flicker over to the Victor next to him and he pauses the video before the highlight reel can begin.

“You’re upset,” Yuuri says. His voice sounds taut and nervous, a thread caught on a nail and threatening to unravel.

Victor purses his lips, folding his hands in front of his mouth. “It wasn’t my best performance,” he murmurs in response.

Yuuri bites his lip, dropping his gaze before he takes a deep breath and meets Victor’s eyes earnestly. “I think it was beautiful.”

Warmth cutting through the ice and billowing in the pit of his stomach. It spreads out from its epicenter, rushing through his limbs and pulsing in his extremities. It’s like drinking hot cocoa on a winter day. Like crawling into his parents’ bed after a childhood nightmare. Like a hand clasping his own in the darkness.

His skating wasn’t perfect and it wasn’t a send-off because he’s still here, looking at a Japanese man with chocolate eyes and hands that hold the world as delicately in his cupped palms as one would hold a flower. It strikes Victor immediately that he likes this man. The thought is swiftly followed by a flash of anger at the injustice of Yuuri’s predicament, and he thinks to himself that if Yuuri does not survive this, he will never forgive God.

But the fondness presides and Victor finds himself smiling faintly, overcome with the urge to do something to channel that warmth. He settles on taking Yuuri’s hand in both of his, pressing heat into the chilled fingertips between his palms. He holds it close enough to his face that he can feel his breath tickling over their skin.

“You’re a kind man, Yuuri,” Victor says.

Yuuri blushes furiously and tugs awkwardly at his captured hand—Victor gets the impression that he is unused to physical affection. “Not really. Anyone would say the same.”

Victor hums; not disbelieving, but knowing that this is different. “Even so.” He reluctantly releases Yuuri’s hand and stands to his feet, smiling down at his companion. “Feeling up for a walk?”

Yuuri curls the fingers of his freed hand twice, as if he’s testing to see if it works differently after being held. He gives Victor a small smile and nods. “Sure.”

And so they do, as Victor tells Yuuri about the shoreline of Saint Petersburg and Yuuri tells him in turn about the beachside town of Hasetsu, Japan.

 

 

“Yuuri,” Victor says, tongue flicking pleasantly over the ‘r’.

There’s warmth emanating from where their shoulders are pressed together, and Yuuri’s shifts now as he tilts slightly toward Victor without taking his eyes off of the laptop screen. “Mm?”

“Why are you going back to Japan?”

Yuuri becomes very still and silent for a pregnant moment before he presses the spacebar on his laptop, pausing the Russian soap opera they had been watching with Japanese subtitles. The actress onscreen is frozen mid-sentence with her mouth open, hair wild about her face as she stands on a windy bridge. Victor chose this show specifically for the sheer intensity of the melodrama, a quality that made it inadvertently hilarious. They’re seated side by side on Yuuri’s cot with the laptop resting on Yuuri’s thighs. At first Yuuri had protested when Victor suggested sitting together on the bed, but he conceded with blushing guilt as Victor complained about how awkward his visual angle was when he watched his free skate with Yuuri yesterday.

Yuuri presses a hand to the cot on his other side and slides a few inches away, their shoulders parting, so that he can turn to face Victor more comfortably. There’s a slight upturn to his eyebrows and his lips are parted. There are dark circles beneath his eyes today, like someone has pressed their thumbs into his skin and bruised it purple and grey. “How do you mean?”

“I know that staying in Russia is out of the question, but why not go back to Detroit?” asks Victor. “I’m sure your coach would be happy to help you get back into competing form while you’re recovering.”

Yuuri bites his lip and turns his head away from Victor, his eyes dropping. Victor wonders if he’s looking at the abused flesh on the back of his hand, little nebulas of discolouration where his vein has been punctured again and again. “Celestino made sure I had health insurance when I came to America, but it’s better for me to go back to Japan. My family wants me close.”

The unspoken implication sits heavy between them like a leaden anchor. Again, Victor feels that deep, instinctive fury within him, a corrupting force that infects him from the inside out. The visceral sense of wrongness. He aches to reach out to Yuuri, to touch his hand or wrap an arm around his shoulders, but such an action is all too easily mistaken for pity, and that’s not what Victor wants to convey.

Instead he tells Yuuri, “It’s clear your family cares about you very much.”

Yuuri is looking at him again and Victor can see where some of the tension has left his posture, in the slouch of his shoulders and the line of his back. The corners of his mouth tug upward with something approaching relief. Even through the weariness evident in his features, his eyes seem a little brighter, the light catching them and turning them to burnished bronze. “Yeah. They’ve always been very supportive of me and my skating career, even with me living so far away. It will be nice to see them again. I feel bad that it’s been so long.”

Victor beams, pride swelling in his chest with the knowledge that he’s the one who coaxed those lips to smile. The feeling settles in his stomach like sugar at the bottom of a drinking glass. “I’m sure they’re very proud of you.”

The smile becomes less certain and Yuuri ducks his head ever so slightly as he says in a soft voice, “I hope so.”

This time Victor doesn’t resist the urge to touch and he curls his hand over Yuuri’s where it rests on the blanket between them. Yuuri flinches with surprise at the initial contact, but he doesn’t pull away, and Victor quietly counts it as a victory. The sharp points of Yuuri’s knuckles press against Victor’s palm as he curls his fingers around the hand beneath his.

Yuuri’s eyes widen and Victor feels his own grin become smug as he turns back to the laptop, forgotten across Yuuri’s legs. “Come now. You have to see how Aleksander responds to Roksana’s confession.”

“Mm.” Redness spreading across his cheeks like watercolour on canvas, Yuuri settles back against his pillow and fixes his gaze on the computer screen as he presses play with his left hand, leaving the right one covered by Victor’s.

 

 

With the confirmation that Yuuri will soon be returning to Japan, Victor stops keeping track of his time in the hospital in terms of the length of his stay. Instead he begins to count down the number of days he has left to spend with his fellow skater, his frame of reference shifting from egocentric to an allocentric one. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to call his mindset a Yuuri-centric one.

The change does not go unnoticed by Dr. Markov, who comments during their next appointment (three days until Yuuri returns to Japan), “You seem different today, Victor.”

The walls are painted robin’s egg blue—a nice break from the monochrome pallor of the hallways—and hung with Dr. Markov’s achievements: various awards and his specialist diploma from Lomonosov Moscow State University, all proudly displayed in wooden frames. To Victor’s left, sunlight has splashed through the office’s lone window and soaked into the rough, navy carpet in a distorted rectangle that strains toward the edge of his slipper-covered foot. As the afternoon progresses, the shining stain will crawl up the side of Dr. Markov’s desk and throw the haphazard stacks of papers and folders into golden relief.

Victor leans back in his chair; it’s padded comfortably with smooth cerulean fabric, but it’s not the plush armchair he’d expected when he was first led to Dr. Markov’s office. He still has not gotten over the disappointment. He asks, “What makes you say that?”

Dr. Markov taps his pen against the notebook open on his desk in front of him. “You still tend to deflect my questions and you’re no more ready to open up than you were before, but your smile is more genuine. Has your mood improved, Victor?”

“Yes.”

He writes down a brief comment before his eyes meet Victor’s again. “That’s good news! I’m glad to hear it.” Dr. Markov smiles, and it’s everything Victor pictured: eyes crinkled and mouth stretching wide, his skin folding in familiar places. Falling into position like an old habit. “What has changed for you?”

A shared habit, Victor thinks as his own mouth curves without his permission. There’s a brief internal debate over whether or not he wants to be forthcoming. These appointments are futile if Victor never opens up to the psychiatrist, but a part of him selfishly covets the time he’s spent with Yuuri, wants to keep these moments to himself like a crow collecting trinkets, and he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t a little interested in testing the boundaries of Dr. Markov’s patience. Help isn’t the reason Victor comes to see the good doctor. He props his chin on one hand as he looks back at the psychiatrist. “I was bored, but now I have a friend.”

“That’s wonderful, Victor!” Victor hates the way Dr. Markov’s voice sounds. Bright and encouraging, but the way a school teacher would speak to a student who’s proud of their work: down. “One of the nurses or cafeteria staff?”

“No,” Victor tells him, “another patient. He doesn’t get bored when I talk about my skating.” The barb is sugar-tipped, a jab disguised as gentle teasing with his saccharine intonation.

“I don’t get bored.”

Victor’s smile twists a little, edges cracking until it becomes more of a smirk. He asks, “Is that your personal opinion or your professional one?”

Dr. Markov frowns, leaning forward with his elbows on his desk and his hands folded together like the closing maw of a Venus flytrap. “They are the same thing.”

It’s a lie, and a blatant one, but Victor doesn’t call him out on it. Deflection: that’s what Dr. Markov accused him of. Victor knows Dr. Markov becomes frustrated every time he begins to talk about figure skating in lieu of answering questions. He knows the psychiatrist believes he’s playing a game, and in a way, Victor is. It’s a game of connect the dots, and Victor has been laying them out one by one since the moment he woke up in the hospital in Sochi, his stomach emptied and flumazenil swimming in his veins. Dr. Markov simply has yet to bring pen to paper.

The pool of sunlight has crept forward, now blanketing Victor’s left foot in steady warmth. It makes him think of his hand over Yuuri’s.

 

 

Yuri Plisetsky is a wildfire, a vicious and growing force of nature that is at once beautiful and destructive. Golden hair falls about the fifteen year old’s face like a halo and his features are deceptively delicate, marble found where fragile porcelain was expected; something to be shaped and sculpted rather than broken. His eyes are the colour of antifreeze. He stands with his back straight and his hands stuffed into the pockets of his unzipped winter jacket, leopard print peeking between the edges like a stalking jungle cat. His mouth is twisted into a scowl as Victor sits cross-legged on his hospital bed, smiling up at his rink mate calmly.

“How long are you planning to stick around here?” Yuri asks, his tone dripping with acid. “You’ve already missed Nationals and if you don’t stop playing sick you won’t get back in time to train for the European Championships.”

There are two days until Katsuki Yuuri returns to Japan. Outside the window, snow is tumbling from the sky in feathery clumps and Victor can see where melted droplets of it cling to strands of Yuri’s hair and the material of his jacket, unwitting passengers as the boy made his way into the hospital. Victor wonders if it’s wet enough to pack together, thinks of winter afternoons spent throwing snowballs for Makkachin to chase after.

His smile widens at the thought of his dog and he pictures her face, the curly hairs over her nose and brows turning white in her old age. “Is Georgi tiring of looking after Makkachin already?” Victor asks.

“She’s not his dog to look after, so quit messing around!” With an angry huff, Yuri wriggles an arm free from the strap of his backpack, twisting it around to his front to unzip the main compartment. With a loud crinkling sound, he pulls a paper bag out of his pack and tosses is unceremoniously into Victor’s lap. “Here; my grandpa told me to give this to you. You don’t deserve it, asshole.”

Warmth seeps through the thick paper and into Victor’s thigh as he parts the lips of the bag to peer inside. Immediately he is hit with the smell of baked bread, cooked meat, and spices. It’s the smell of home and simple comforts, cold winters spent in a cozy living room surrounded by family and love. It’s a feeling Victor has only tasted in fleeting glimpses since childhood, experienced vicariously through the generosity of others.

“Pirozhki!” Victor cries with delight. “I haven’t had them in ages! Your grandfather makes the best pirozhki, Yuri.”

The scowl doesn’t leave Yuri’s face, but it softens and he stands a little straighter with pride. “Obviously. I bet the food here is pitiful.”

Victor’s hand has made its way halfway into the bag before he’s frozen by a single thought: this is Russia. He is in his home country surrounded by his coach, his rink mates, and adoring fans. Every surface of his room is covered in cards and flowers and plush animals. He is being given food that was freshly baked by a loving grandfather.

There is another room Victor knows that is barren. The surfaces are covered only with half-empty glasses of water and the occasional book or laptop that’s been hastily set aside. In all the time Victor has spent there, not once has he thought about the lack of gifts cluttering the bed and tables. His attention has always been gripped by the room’s single occupant, pulled in like a magnet, to the exclusion of everything else.

How foolish and self-centred he’s been.

Victor retracts his hand and rolls down the top of the bag to close it. In his periphery, he sees Yuri jerk with surprise, an indignant expression making its way onto his face.

“What are you doing?” the boy asks accusingly.

Victor grins, cocking his head as he meets Yuri’s eyes. “Your grandfather’s pirozhki is so delicious I have to share them with my friend. Come; I’ll introduce you.” He holds the bag out to his side as he straightens his legs and, in a single graceful movement, pushes himself off of the bed and to his feet. Yuri’s eyes flash beneath the fluorescent lights as Victor moves past him to lean against the door jamb. Turning back to his rink mate, Victor crooks the fingers of his free hand in a beckoning gesture.

Yuri’s brows draw further downward and he makes a face like he’s tasting bile. “Don’t be patronizing,” he grumbles before reluctantly propelling himself into motion after Victor, trailing behind him with carefully tailored disinterest.

Victor leads Yuri down the hallways, the now-familiar scent of disinfectant stinging his nostrils half-heartedly. Teal linoleum passes underfoot like a winding river, branching out in different directions as they navigate around the hospital staff and few wandering patients who form rocks that pierce the surface of the water; a lazy set of rapids between calm stretches. Once in a while, Victor glances over his shoulder to make sure Yuri hasn’t been lost in the tide or, far more likely, drifted away of his own volition.

Eventually they reach their destination and the smile comes more easily to Victor’s lips, a natural formation rather than a shape carved into wood. He opens the door and his eyes are immediately drawn to the figure across the room, that inexorable magnetic force in action, as mahogany eyes dart up to meet his own. Yuuri is sitting the same way Victor always finds him: back propped against his pillow, headphones in his ears, and his laptop open across his thighs. His gaze softens as Victor enters the room and he raises his hands to remove his headphones.

“Victor,” he says in greeting, and warmth blooms in Victor’s chest at the sound of that marvelous voice saying his name. Even though Victor has come to see him every day, there’s still an almost breathless quality to it, like Victor’s arrival is something unexpected and amazing. Yuuri’s skin is as pale as always but his lips are smooth and pink, not dry and cracked the way they get when he’s been sick too many times. Today is one of his better days, when Victor would urge him to leave his room for a walk around the hospital.

Victor stands next to the door and holds it open with one hand as Yuri warily follows him inside. He eyes Yuuri with suspicion, searching his face for identifying features.

To Yuri, he says, “This is Katsuki Yuuri. You may remember him as one of my competitors at the Grand Prix Final.” And turning to Yuuri. “Yuuri, this is my rink mate—”

“Yuri Plisetsky!” Yuuri cries, his eyebrows climbing up his forehead. “You’re the Junior Grand Prix gold medalist! I watched your programs; you are incredibly talented.”

There’s a flash of recognition and now Yuri’s gaze becomes more calculative. He crosses his arms, and when he speaks English, his accent is thicker than Victor’s. “There wasn’t much competition.” With a jerk of his chin in Yuuri’s direction, he asks, “Aren’t you the one who got dragged off of the ice?”

Yuuri flinches with a small, almost squeaking sound and his cheeks redden with embarrassment. His hands slap over his face so that his voice comes out muffled. “Is that how I’m going to be remembered from now on?”

Victor gravitates toward Yuuri with a laugh, sitting in the chair next to his bed. Victor has come to fondly think of it as his. He holds the bag of pirozhki on his lap with one hand while he reaches out with the other to pat Yuuri comfortingly on the shoulder. “That just means you’ll have to give people a new reason to remember you.”

Another groan comes from behind Yuuri’s hands, but then they lower and the Japanese man glances between the two Russians awkwardly. He stills as he notices the intense way that Yuri is staring at him and watches the younger skater with apprehension. His fingers, folded between his stomach and his laptop, fidget with each other nervously. The moment stretches on, becoming increasingly strained.

Victor breaks the silence, “Yuri was kind enough to bring a gift for us. His grandfather made pirozhki. Have you ever had pirozhki before, Yuuri?”

Yuuri tears his eyes away from Yuri and gives Victor a grateful look, the rigid line of his spine easing like a severed cord. He closes his laptop and sets it on the bedside table. “I haven’t. What is it?”

“They’re stuffed buns with meat or cabbage.” Victor pulls open the mouth of the bag and thrusts it toward Yuuri, who jerks backward with surprise at the sudden movement. “Here! Try it!”

Yuuri blinks at the bag’s contents before glancing at Yuri, looking for permission. When the boy remains tight-lipped, Yuuri cautiously turns back to Victor and the proffered bag, taking one of the buns with a curious expression. Victor watches eagerly as the other skater raises the pirozhki to his mouth to take a bite. This is likely the first time Yuuri has ever eaten traditional Russian cuisine, and Victor gets the pleasure of witnessing this new experience as well as the satisfaction of facilitating it.  

Yuuri’s eyes light up as he chews, a slight flush coming to his cheeks of an entirely different nature from the blush he’d sported earlier. Once he has swallowed, he says, “It’s delicious!” Looking at Yuri: “Thank you for bringing this. Your grandfather is a wonderful cook.”

“Of course he is,” Yuri retorts. The electric current of his ever-present anger seems to have dampened, a livewire now encased in a rubber cable. Gesturing toward Victor, he adds, “And thank him, not me; he’s the one who insisted on sharing with you.”

Victor waves a hand dismissively before Yuuri can turn to him and try to express something like gratitude. “It’s nothing! This is far from the first time I’ve had Mr. Plisetsky’s pirozhki; and I’m sure you must be tired of hospital food.” He brings the bag back to his lap and pulls out one of the buns, humming happily as he takes a bite and tastes spiced beef and bread. “Yuri, would you like one as well?”

“I’ve already had some.”

“Suit yourself then.”

They eat in silence while Yuri glares out the window in stubborn silence. He’s as still as a statue, a Greek hero immortalized in stone: solemn and devastatingly beautiful. A son of Aphrodite with the temperament of Ares. The lights overhead do him no justice, washing him out and eliminating the shadows that would have chiseled his dainty features into sharp clarity. When Yuuri has finished eating his pirozhki and begins brushing the crumbs from his lap, Yuri speaks up again.

“So are you sick or something?” he asks.

Yuuri pauses in his ministrations and meets Yuri’s eyes with a flat look. There’s a line of tension within him that reminds Victor of a bowstring, pulled back until he swears it is about to snap. His breath hitches (the short distance between him and Yuuri is suddenly a gulf) and Yuuri’s lips loose an arrow with deadly precision. “I have cancer.”

The arrow finds its mark. Victor knows that the fifteen year old is far too proud to apologize, but the discomfort of his guilt is clear in the way he turns his head away, blood rushing to his face as he presses his lips together. To Victor, he says, “So this is why you insist on loitering around here.”

“You know why I’m here,” Victor replies. “Yuuri’s esteemed company is merely a happy coincidence.”

It’s clear from the narrowing of Yuri’s eyes that he doesn’t believe Victor at all—an unsurprising non-development, given the fact that he has yet to put into words how Victor ended up in the hospital to begin with. A publicity stunt: that’s what Yuri called it when he first visited Victor with Mila and Georgi. Sometimes denial is easier than handling the truth; this, Victor knows intimately.

“You’re such a pain in the ass,” Yuri tells him.

Victor can’t find it within himself to disagree, so he merely smiles.

 

 

Tomorrow, Yuuri is going back to Japan.

Victor will remain in Russia, in his room full of gifts and well wishes from people he doesn’t know. A room that feels empty despite the clutter and cacophony of colour. It occurs to Victor that throughout all of their treks through the hospital, Yuuri has never seen the inside of his room, and suddenly Victor needs to have him here—needs Yuuri to occupy this space with him as if his mere presence could fill that inexplicable void.

Victor soon realizes with quiet awe and horror that he does.

The realization dawns on him slowly, rolling in like a lazily rising tide. It doesn’t start when Victor bursts into his room the minute he knows Yuuri’s treatment should be done, calling out his name in a sing-song voice; nor when the Japanese man’s cheeks flush prettily at his tone. Victor is practically dancing around the bed with impatience as he insists that Yuuri has to come with him now, and a crinkle of concern forms between Yuuri’s brows as he swings his legs over the side of the bed. Before Yuuri can protest, Victor takes his hands and tugs him to his feet as he splutters with shock.

“Victor, what’s gotten into you today?” Yuuri asks incredulously.

Victor grins at him without releasing his hands, instead squeezes them gently. They’re always cold these days, so he makes sure to press those long fingers into his warm palms. “I can’t believe we’ve spent all this time together and you still haven’t seen my room! You have to come see it before you go!”

“Really? That’s what all this is about?” Despite his words, there’s fondness in Yuuri’s tone. His eyes are soft and his lips are quirked with amusement. He looks less pale today, the shadows beneath his eyes less pronounced. That aching frailty dialed back so that he looks more like he’s tired than like someone who’s passed his expiration date.

This is when it starts.

“You look better today,” Victor tells him, running his thumbs over Yuuri’s knuckles absently.

Yuuri’s eyes fall to their joined hands and he swallows before saying, “The doctors have been reducing my dosage so that travel will be less difficult on my body tomorrow. I’ll be resuming treatment in Fukuoka.”

Victor doesn’t want to think about Yuuri in Fukuoka. “Then you’re feeling better today as well?”

A small smile. “A bit.”

“Perfect! Let’s go then.” Victor drops Yuuri’s left hand and tugs on the right as he begins marching toward the door.

“Victor, you don’t need to hold my hand to make me come with you!” Yuuri cries, but Victor maintains his grip until he opens the door for them. As Yuuri passes him to exit the room, Victor wonders if the reason Yuuri’s hands are always so cold is because his blood spends so much time flooding the capillaries in his face, and the thought makes him grin.

There’s almost a skip to his step as Victor follows him out and, with a stroke of mischievousness, he reaches for Yuuri’s hand again as he joins him in the hallway. Quick as lightning, Yuuri snatches it away before Victor can reach him, prompting a boisterous laugh. The way Yuuri scowls in response reminds Victor so much of Yuri that he has to tell him so.

“I think I’m beginning to understand why he wears this face so often,” Yuuri replies coolly.

The comment freezes Victor and his smile becomes one of astonishment. This isn’t the first time Yuuri has made a joke—they have spent far too much time in each other’s company for all of their conversation to be serious—but this is the first time he has made a joke at Victor’s expense. It feels like a milestone, and Victor is reminded again of a bird caught by a child, feels wings fluttering in his chest and the heat of gentle fingers curled around him; only it feels less frightful now and more akin to joy.

Yuuri pauses when he realizes Victor isn’t next to him and looks over his shoulder to find him, his scowl replaced with a worried frown. “Victor?”

Flying away has never felt less appealing. Victor shakes his head and says, “Nothing,” as he returns to Yuuri’s side, taking a slight lead to guide his companion through the halls. The impulse to take Yuuri’s hand again is there, but the knowledge that it won’t be well-received keeps him at bay. Still, he can’t help but think that he would like to catch Yuuri too, and show him that flight is not all that it seems.

When they reach their destination, Victor has to hold his breath as he lets Yuuri into his room. He watches Yuuri’s eyes widen as he takes in his new scenery: the bed across the room from them, strewn with teddy bears and stuffed poodles; the veritable jungle of bouquets splashing vibrant colour against the blank canvas of the walls, bits of paper and cardboard interspersed among them; the chair to the left of his bed piled high with more flowers and plush animals from his adoring fans; and the window to the right of the bed leaking sunlight through the canopy of flowers on the bedside table. Victor holds his breath as Yuuri pads further into the room, walking over to the small dresser until he’s bathed in gold. His mouth is dry and when he brings his hand to his chest, curled into a loose fist, he can feel his heart beating wildly against it.

Because the room is so full, it’s fit to burst.

Yuuri reaches out, brushing his fingertips against a blue rose among one of the bouquets, then he runs them along the top of a card without picking it up to read it. He touches a few more flowers and then he moves closer to the bed, a small smile playing across his lips as he reaches down to stroke the soft head of a plush poodle, long fingers disappearing among the curls of fake mocha fur. He lifts his head to turn that smile on Victor and the sun cuts a path along his cheek and jaw; one that Victor longs to follow with his own fingertips.

ART!

“You must be the most popular person in the hospital right now,” Yuuri says, and his voice is a song Victor wants to listen to over and over again.

There’s a long moment of silence as Victor simply stares at him breathlessly before he realizes that Yuuri is waiting for a response. He blinks and tosses a grin at him. “These rooms are so plain I would have gone mad if it wasn’t for everyone’s generous gifts.”

An arrangement of red yarrow is perched on the dresser closest to Yuuri and the blossoms seem to migrate to his cheeks, painting his skin in scarlet. He replies sheepishly, “You say that like you don’t spend more time in my room than you do here.”

“You’re far more interesting,” Victor tells him. “Mini-Makkachin can’t talk back to me.”

Yuuri laughs and it’s a beautiful sound. “He looks like my Vicchan.” His expression is peaceful as his eyes drink in their surroundings. “Can we spend today in your room? I like it here.”

At this moment, there is nothing Victor would like more than to see Yuuri sitting among the flowers and sunlight in his room, where the colours catch in his eyes and stain his clothes, warm his skin, turning him radiant. Here, he looks more alive than Victor’s seen him since he performed his short program in Sochi, moving like the music was written in his muscle fibres.

Victor crosses the room and sits on the side of his bed opposite from Yuuri, reaching out to stroke Mini-Makkachin’s back. All it would take is for Victor to move his fingers a few inches to the right and their hands would be touching. “Of course,” he says.

Yuuri smiles and Victor feels cool skin brush against his pinkie finger, there and gone again.

It’s enough.

 

 

It’s not enough.

Victor is no stranger to insomnia, but neither would he call it a friend. At most it is a distant acquaintance; a face rarely seen, but recognized on sight. Sleep has always been a treasured ally of his. It allows him to slip away for hours at a time, his mind drifting alone in an ocean, untouchable. Escapism is what Dr. Markov called it. But now Victor’s friend feels far away, frustratingly out of reach as he turns over in his bed, kicking his legs to keep from tangling them in his sheets.

He feels restless, like a brewing storm: ever-shifting as he nears an unseen threshold, ions colliding. It is no mystery to Victor why sleep evades him. For the first time in recent memory, sleep feels like time wasted, precious water slipping between the cracks of his fingers and soaking into the earth below. There is so much more he could be doing.

In six hours, Katsuki Yuuri will be checking out of the hospital and taking a cab to Sheremetyevo International Airport, where he will be boarding a plane back to Japan.

Victor clutches the stuffed poodle to his chest and makes a decision.

Victor has made this journey so many times it must have become muscle memory. If he was walking on grass, he imagines that by now he would have flattened a narrow path through the hallways, leaving footprints and the scent of crushed greens in his wake. Instead there is only scrubbed linoleum beneath him, unmarked by the hospital’s countless residents and unyielding beneath his slippered feet. The only evidence of his passing is the mental map that’s been burned into his neurons.

Though his body knows where it’s going, the hallways feel strange and unfamiliar, as if he’s been transported to an alternate dimension. The lights are on, but dimmed so that less of it leaks through the small windows in the doors, leaving the hospital’s patients to sleep undisturbed. The halls are empty, free of the clutter of moving bodies except for Victor’s own and that of a nurse who carries a thermos of coffee like a lifeline. It doesn’t take long for Victor to reach the door he’s looking for, and he glances fervently up and down the hallway before he slips into the room.

It’s dark inside the room, but it is not a complete darkness. After blinking several times, Victor can see the vague shape of a bed and the figure lying within it, the chair next to it that must have an impression in the shape of Victor’s body after the hours he’s spent sitting in it. Victor goes to it now, watching his feet so that he does not stub them on the corner of the cot, and the chair creaks quietly as he lowers himself into that well-worn space. From here he can faintly trace the outline of the bed’s occupant: the curve of a shoulder and the slope of a hip that tapers into long legs. Black hair spills across the pillow like ink on paper. Listening, Victor can hear slow, steady breaths.

He wets his lips, and then he whispers, “Yuuri.”

There’s no response, so Victor says his name again, a little louder. The breathing hitches and the body rolls onto its stomach with a groan.

“Wake up, Yuuri,” Victor says.

There’s a sigh, and then the figure rolls toward him sluggishly. Victor can see the paleness of skin, but not the expression on his face. He croaks, “Victor, 何してるの?”

Victor laughs softly. He likes the way it sounds when Yuuri speaks Japanese, how it rolls so naturally off of teeth and tongue. Like his mouth was made to speak this language. But it’s one that Victor’s never learned, and so he says, “English, please.”

“すみません,” Yuuri replies. “What are you doing?”

“Couldn’t sleep,” Victor tells him with a smile. “I wanted to see you.”

Yuuri makes an exasperated sound. “Just because you can’t sleep doesn’t mean that I can’t.”

“Well you’re awake now, so let’s make the most of it!”

“You’re the worst.”

Victor can’t help but laugh again, fondness unfurling inside of him. They fall into an easy silence. Even with Yuuri's cold assessment of his character, there’s a sense of serenity between them; the type of comfort that usually takes an hour or so to settle into as Yuuri’s shyness dissipates in the same manner as morning fog, evaporating gradually with the rising sun. A minute passes… Two minutes. He thinks of Yuuri and the free skate that was cut short as he collapsed on the ice. That same restlessness from before builds within Victor, itching for release. A cumulonimbus cloud threatening a downpour.

“Yuuri,” Victor says. He pauses then, lets the name hang between them with the heaviness of a summer storm. Feels the electricity of it prickle against his skin. “Will you return to skating when this is all over?”

At first there’s nothing. Then Yuuri’s voice in the darkness. “I don’t know. I don’t know how long my treatments will last or how long it will take to recover afterward. Will it even be worth it at that point? I’m already old enough to consider retiring. What if I relapse?”

Silence. There are precious few things in this world that Victor loves, but what he does love, he loves with every fibre of his being, his devotion as single-minded as a lightning strike. Hate, however… Victor does not know that there is any person or thing that he hates, but he hates the truth in Yuuri’s words. He feels the weight of them like a diver, thousands of leagues beneath the sea, the mass of an entire ocean collapsing his chest and crushing him to nothingness.

Instead of voicing this, he gives a pensive hum.

“What about you, Victor?” Yuuri replies. “Russian Nationals are over, but there’s still the European Championships and Worlds. Will you be skating in them?”

Victor sighs. He knew the question would come eventually, but that doesn’t make answering it any easier. It’s something he has thought about for a long time. “What if I do? I’ll win gold, the season will end, and then I will train anew. The next season will come, and the season after it, and I’ll keep winning gold until one day I don’t. I’ll injure myself or a new skater will come along. Or I’ll just slowly decline, gradually losing strength, flexibility, and inspiration. You said it yourself: we’re old enough to consider retirement.”

Yuuri sucks in a breath sharply, a knife slipped deftly between unguarded ribs. “So that’s why you—!” He cuts himself off, too shaken to continue.

“There’s nothing else for me,” Victor answers weakly. His voice, quiet and low, is uncharacteristically fragile, and he finds that he hates this too.

Between them, the storm grows heavier and thicker before Victor hears the sound of blankets rustling. Nothing follows until he suddenly feels fingertips grazing the side of his knee. The touch is brief, a glancing blow, but the fingers, having found him, immediately return to dig into the meat of his leg like claws. Victor brushes the back of the hand with his own, and then it’s turning over and snatching his hand in a grip just on the edge of painful.

It pulls Victor forward, closer to the cot, and a part of him wonders distantly if he’s imagining that he can feel the warmth of Yuuri’s breath as the other man gives voice to the thunder and says, “Then you find a reason to live.”

Victor shivers at the force of it. He has never heard Yuuri speak like this, hard and unforgiving. Yuuri’s skin is a heated brand against his own. He swallows hard. “It’s not that easy.”

“Then you simplify it,” Yuuri retorts. “I haven’t been where you are now, but I’ve been depressed. You don’t have to live to make a statement or fulfill some grand purpose. If nothing else, live for little things. Live for Makkachin or to eat your favourite food again.”

“Makkachin is an old dog,” Victor says, and it hurts more than the grasp on his hand. “I don’t know how long she has left.”

Victor can almost hear the gears turning in Yuuri’s head as he thinks, and then Victor is being tugged even closer. Now there’s no mistaking the tickle of Yuuri’s breath against his face. “Do you want me to skate again, Victor?”

There’s no hesitation. He whispers, “Yes.”

“I’ve always looked up to you,” Yuuri tells him. Though quieter, his voice trembles with its own strength. “Ever since the first time I saw you skate. If skating no longer makes you happy, then don’t. But I need you to watch me.”

Victor’s head is spinning and all at once he feels breathless. He wishes desperately that there was enough light to make out Yuuri’s expression. “And if you can’t skate?”

“Then I want you to outlive me.”

It’s too much. He aches with the need to see. Stupidly, Victor says, “I’m older than you.”

“I have cancer.”

His tone is wry, a sharp contrast to the way he’d spoken the same words yesterday to Yuri. The audacity of it catches Victor off guard, and for some inexplicable reason, it punches a laugh out of him. Without thinking, he brings up his free hand to cradle the side of Yuuri’s jaw, running his thumb along his cheekbone tenderly. Yuuri gasps, his hand loosening around Victor’s, and now Victor is the one curling his fingers around Yuuri’s.

Victor murmurs, “You continue to surprise me, Katsuki Yuuri.”

Yuuri shudders beneath his touch, stripped of the wild edge that bolstered him before. “Victor.” His voice, when he speaks, is soft. “You never fail to surprise me.”

Slowly, Victor drops his head until their foreheads are touching. Yuuri lets out a shaky breath that Victor feels against his lips. Victor licks them instinctively and closes his eyes, just breathing into the space between them and feeling Yuuri’s skin beneath his hands, warm and alive.

“Yuuri,” he says.

“Mm?”

“You’re going to live through this.”

Yuuri’s breath catches and then he’s clutching Victor’s hand back. “What makes you so sure?”

“You’re strong,” he says succinctly. “Stronger than you know.”

Just barely, Victor can make out Yuuri’s eyes in the darkness, sees them staring into his own. Yuuri inhales and says, “Stay with me?”

Victor squeezes his hand gently, echoes his response to the last request Yuuri made of him. “Of course.”

They end up with Victor seated on the side of the bed, settled next to the pillow with one foot brushing the floor while the other is crossed over his thigh. Yuuri has shifted closer to him, curling one hand in the fabric of his pillowcase and pressing into Victor’s hip. Leaning back against the headboard, Victor has curled his arm against the back of Yuuri’s head with his palm splayed between his shoulder blades. It’s intimate in a way Victor has never known, with no expectation and no sexual passion preceding it. They simply exist.

(They remain that way until a nurse comes by later to check in on Yuuri and kicks Victor out with a firm order to go sleep in his own room.)

 

 

Victor wakes at eight in the morning. There’s no time to shower, so he simply washes his face and runs wet fingers through his hair to tame it before changing his clothes. He takes Mini-Makkachin with him as he leaves his empty room and makes his way toward the exit.

Today, Katsuki Yuuri is returning to Japan.

Victor finds him in the hospital lobby dressed in jeans, a scarf, and his winter coat, opened against the indoor heating. He has a suitcase with him and he’s currently filling out forms in English for the administrative staff, occasionally asking for clarification as he works his way through the text. Even this early in the morning, the lobby is busy with waiting families and individuals entering and exiting the area in a steady stream.

Instead of white, here the walls are painted grey.

Victor leans against the wall while he waits for Yuuri to finish discharging himself, and when the Japanese man’s eyes finally fall on him, Yuuri smiles bashfully. His bangs are falling almost into his eyes and Victor yearns to brush them away. Yuuri steps away from the counter and meets Victor halfway as the move toward each other. When there are two feet between them, they both freeze, appraising each other. Victor searches his features, memorizing the curve of his nose and the shape of his lips; the tiny freckle below his left temple that he discovered yesterday in his room, unnoticeable to anyone who doesn’t know to look for it. Yuuri’s cheeks are red and he doesn’t meet Victor’s eyes.

“Well,” he says, “this is it.”

“For now,” Victor asserts.

“For now!” Yuuri repeats. His eyes flit upward, catch Victor’s, and fall again. He bites his lip and bends forward in a stiff bow. “Thank you for everything. I never expected to meet you under these circumstances and you treated me with more kindness than I ever could have asked for.”

Victor smiles and steps forward as Yuuri straightens up again, placing a hand on the shorter man’s shoulder. “Thank you for your companionship, Yuuri. You have helped me in more ways than you can imagine.” He drops his hand from Yuuri’s shoulder to hold out Mini-Makkachin. “I want you to have this. I think you need him more than I do.”

Yuuri blinks. “What? No! I can’t take this.”

“I insist. After all, I have the real thing back at home.”

“So do I!” Yuuri pouts. “You know this.”

“Yes, but I can head straight home, whereas you’re transferring to another hospital.” Victor presses the plush into Yuuri’s hands. “Please. I want you to have him.”

“Okay.” Yuuri nods numbly, squeezing the stuffed poodle absently. He takes a moment to breathe, more roses blossoming across his skin, and then he blurts out, “C—can I have your phone number? I just…” He swallows. Again, he glances into Victor’s eyes before dropping them. “I’m probably overthinking things, but I want to be able to check in on you and see if you’re okay…” His voice trails off toward the end of his sentence, becoming less sure. Victor feels weightless, like he’s spinning through the air in an arc and waiting for his skate to meet the ice again.

“Yes!” he cries emphatically, beaming. “I was going to ask for your number, but you beat me to it!”

Yuuri lets out a relieved breath, laughing as the tension leaves his shoulders, and he finally smiles up at Victor. “I’m glad.” He places Mini-Makkachin in his bag and takes his phone out of his pocket, opening his contact list for Victor before handing it over. Victor grins ecstatically as he inputs his phone number and types a heart emoji next to his name.

As he returns Yuuri’s phone, he says, “Text me when you land and send me plenty of pictures! I’ve only been to Japan for competitions.”

This time when Yuuri nods, it’s firm. “Yeah!” A silence falls between them and Yuuri glances toward the exit nervously. “My taxi will be here any minute.”

“Oh,” Victor says. Don’t go, he wants to say. He presses his lips together to smother the words in his throat. They gather there, pressing against his windpipe.

Yuuri stares at him for a long minute, swallows, and then, without warning, he’s launching himself forward and throwing his arms around Victor’s neck. Victor catches him in his arms, wrapping them around him tightly and curling his hands in the back of Yuuri’s coat. Their chests are pressed together and Victor can feel the wild beating of Yuuri’s heart against his (like a bird’s fluttering wings).

“Thank you.” Even muffled against Victor’s shoulder, his voice is still lovely.

Victor presses him impossibly closer. “I’ll miss you.”

Yuuri’s breath hitches and then Victor feels his hands gripping the back of his shirt—it will be stretched after this, but the thought doesn’t bother him. He’d never wear fitted shirts again if it meant they were all strained within Yuuri's grasp. Yuuri says, “I won’t skate again this season, so if you can, please finish this season for me. I want to see you at Worlds.”

That’s right, Victor remembers. This year, the World Championships will be held in Tokyo. Ever since he was seven years old, Victor has skated because he loves it. It makes him feel free, like his body was made for more than what mundane life has to offer. When he skates, he becomes part of a story, an expression of emotion as natural as a gasped breath or vocalized cry, smiling lips or a head thrown back in elation. He lives for the way his blood races through his veins as he throws himself into jumps and spins, his muscles singing with pain as they stretch and propel him through the motions. It makes him feel alive in a way nothing else ever has, and the thought of losing that is like dying.

He’s never skated for somebody else. It’s never even occurred to him to do so. But locked in this embrace with Katsuki Yuuri, holding him in his arms, he thinks he could try.

“Okay,” Victor tells him.

Yuuri pulls back a little, just enough so that he can see Victor’s face. “Okay?”

Victor nods, grinning down at him. “Okay.”

Yuuri lets out a surprised laugh and blinks rapidly. Victor thinks his eyes are becoming wet, but Yuuri buries his face in Victor’s shoulder before he can see. His breath is warm through Victor’s shirt. Victor squeezes him gently. After a minute, Yuuri’s phone vibrates in his pocket and Victor feels it against his thigh. They part reluctantly and Yuuri sniffles once, smiling at him with eyes of bronze.

He’s beautiful.

“That must be my taxi,” Yuuri says.

“Off you go then,” Victor replies. “You wouldn’t want to miss your flight.”

“Yeah.”

“Don’t forget to text me when you land.”

“I won’t.”

They’re stalling. Victor knows it. Yuuri knows it. 'Goodbye', it seems, is not a word in either of their vocabularies. Victor sighs and says softly, “Take care, Yuuri.”

Yuuri echoes his sigh. “You too, Victor.”

For a long minute, they simply stare into each other’s eyes: mahogany brown and ocean blue, a forest next to the sea. Then Yuuri jumps—his phone vibrating again—and he laughs with embarrassment as he grabs the handle of his suitcase. Victor watches him walk to the exit and turn to look over his shoulder one more time, their eyes finding each other across teal linoleum and the human tide.

And then Katsuki Yuuri is gone.

Chapter Text

Victor tolerates the hospital for all of two hours before he is calling Yakov to pick him up and bring him back to Saint Petersburg, where Makkachin and his car await him at Georgi’s apartment building. Without Yuuri here (and with the taste of a new promise still lingering on his lips like summer rain), there is no reason for Victor to remain at the hospital any longer. Dutifully, his coach agrees, ever loyal despite the gruffness of his tone; grating stone tumbled smooth in the press of his palm.

Victor wonders absently how much it has cost Yakov to travel between Moscow and Saint Petersburg these last few weeks, between bullet train tickets, cab fares, and meals purchased in transit or in quiet, locally-owned cafes that he clandestinely adores. Coaching competitive figure skating on an international scale is no entry-level job, but with the many fees a career in professional athletics entails, it is not an entirely lucrative one either. There are always new skates to be bought, costumes to be designed, appointments with physiotherapists to be made. It adds up alarmingly quickly.  

Victor remembers how insurmountable it all seemed in his first few years of competing, how it felt like sliding down a mountain slope and gripping only loose rock that fell away in his hands. He had never been poor, coming from a middle-class family, but neither had he ever been in an economic position that granted thoughtless spending, exchanging coin with the same ease with which one might trade a smile: gleaming teeth used as currency for pleasantries. It took time to grow used to the healthy padding he was afforded by winnings and sponsorship, and though he is now comfortable with having the freedom to splurge on little luxuries and live in a seaside apartment on his own, he has not forgotten. So he indulges when the fancy strikes him, but there are limits—frivolities that even he cannot justify to himself.

While he waits, he pays his hospital bill and checks himself out before lingering around the nurses’ desk to flirt with the staff good-naturedly. They laugh and titter as he thanks them for taking such good care of him, throwing in a wink when one of the nurses cracks and tells him, “But you didn’t even need us for anything!”

He throws back with a Cheshire cat’s grin, “I can take my charms to the cafeteria staff, if you’d rather.”               

“Oh, no, no,” they protest.

Over his many years in the spotlight, Victor has learned that, once mastered, charisma is less of an art and more of a finely honed weapon. An embossed shield that can be used to batter or block a falling blade. It is an aegis against barbed tongues and probing eyes, blunts them into soft lips and smiling faces, adoration offered up like benediction. After all, there are two ways to dehumanize a person: by dismissing them or by idolizing them, and there are benefits to being inhuman. People are frail and fallible. The media are a murder of crows on a powerline, ever watching and ever waiting to claim the fallen. It’s an equation with a simple solution.

Yakov texts Victor after he lands, telling him to be ready to leave as soon as he arrives at the hospital, and Victor sends back an affirmative in the form of a thumbs up emoji. He asks the nurses for some plastic bags to stuff his gifts into and blows grateful kisses to them as he departs down the familiar hallways to the room that was his. The air is fragrant with the smell of flowers when he enters, and he knows the instant he surveys it that he will not be able to bring everything with him. The thought is a bitten lip. A hand hovering over a doorknob. A breath caught and held in the cage of his lungs. Conflicted.

Flowers are a sweet, but transient sentiment. They bloom and are beautiful for a short period of time, and once they reach their zenith they die, petals dropping like Icarus from the sky. The irony of it is not lost on Victor, and for that reason he despises them, wants to shred them in his hands until his fingers are streaked in a palette of pastel ichor. But the flowers in his room now are not the flowers he received nearly three weeks ago when he was first admitted, stomach still roiling with discomfort after his emergency treatment in Sochi. Those ones died long ago and have been replaced with new flowers and new associations: brown eyes and flesh made gold beneath the sun’s Midas touch. Memories he wants to cherish.

He strikes a compromise by tucking his favourites into a bag (the bouquet of blue roses, the red roses, and the yarrow) and leaving the rest to be discarded by the custodial staff. Inside the bag, the flowers, now free from their vases, meld into a single bunch. Victor is able to cram a few of the plushes into his personal travel bag, and the rest are piled into the second plastic bag he was given. The cards go into his personal bag as well, except for one. It is printed on thick, white paper painted with green ivy that curls around the words, ‘Поправляйся скорее.’ Get well soon. It’s generic, but Victor tucks it into the inner breast pocket of his coat.

With his travel bag hanging at his hip and the plastic bags bunched into one hand, he leaves the room as empty as it ever was, but for a brief moment yesterday when it was overflowing with life. Instead of heading back to the lobby, his feet lead him along a path as natural to him as the veins that twist down his forearms until he reaches a door. He doesn’t know what he’s expecting when he peeks through the small window. The bed is made tidily, leaving no creases in either the covers or the pillowcase; fresh and clean. The IV stand has been moved, tucked out of sight from his vantage point, and the bedside table is bare. The smell of disinfectant stings his nose distantly and grey light leaks through the window like water from a loose faucet. Teal linoleum and white on white on white. His heart is a ship slipping silently beneath the waves in the night. Victor doesn’t know why he expected any different.

He takes a rose petal between his thumb and forefinger and crushes it between them. The pads are stained red.

 

 

There is a characteristic smell that seems to permeate all airplanes: stale air and too many bodies occupying too small a space. It’s a King’s Cup of cloying perfume, heady cologne, and the pungency of nervous sweat from aerophobic passengers. Beneath it all is the faint acrid stench of combusting jet fuel.

The hour long flight from Moscow to Saint Petersburg is not idly spent. As the plane slowly builds altitude, Yakov begins a steady litany of instructions for Victor regarding the remainder of the season. Victor hums along to show that he is at least half-listening as his coach details his training schedule for the weeks leading up to the European Championships, but otherwise he becomes lost in the cadence of Yakov’s voice. There is a pattern to his speech, recognizable to practiced auditors. Though he speaks in an irascible tone and is quick to scold, there is an undercurrent of care between the sharp syllables; a compassionate method to his madness. Typically, his criticisms are related to unsafe practices or poor form that increases the risk of injury. It was something that went over his head when he was younger, nuances lost to youthful arrogance and ambition, but watching him coach Yuri these last few years has made many things clear to Victor—allowed him to see past his own ego.

For this reason, he really shouldn’t have been surprised by what Yakov says next, but he is. Words that had carried an even tune suddenly come to a jarring halt as the melody is shattered by a rogue instrument crying out. A discordant sound that wails above a twenty piece orchestra until the last flute falls silent in mute horror. Victor blinks, pulse racing beneath his skin, and he whips around to face Yakov in the aisle seat.

What?” he gasps out.

Yakov’s eyes, the colour of Lake Ladoga in the winter, meet his and they’ve hardened to steel. “On Thursdays from three until four, you will be meeting with a therapist. Her name is Irina Davydova and she was highly recommended to me when I specified my concerns.”

Victor’s fingernails bite little crescent moons into his palms and he breathes in slowly. In his mind, serpents writhe beneath the surface of a dark lake and he wills the water to freeze over so that his voice comes out steadily. “I don’t need a therapist.”

Several rows back, a baby begins to cry and her mother tries gently to hush her.

The look Yakov gives Victor could wither the flowers in the bag at his feet. “Bullshit. Try saying that to me when we aren’t on a flight back to Saint Petersburg after you were on suicide watch.”

Yakov Feltsman wears vitriol with the same dedication that a Christian priest wears a crucifix. It is a fixed point in space, the cornerstone of his personality. It is a part of him as intrinsic as the pink of his skin, and so Victor does not take it to heart when his temper flares like a solar storm. But now there are cracks in the stone, and through the splitting seams Victor can see genuine anger and the raw ache of an open wound left unattended to weep blood and pus through the torn edges of paper-thin flesh.

Victor resents it and thinks, I am not yours to mourn. He says, “Okay. I don’t want therapy.”

“You don’t get a choice in the matter.”

I am not yours.

“That reminds me—”

Victor doesn’t want to hear it.

“Your parents called me; a couple days after you were hospitalized, when the news hit.”

In the silence that follows between them, the noise of the cabin becomes deafening. Too many voices speaking over each other in tandem and the constant whine of the jet’s turbines. The baby’s cries have become piercing as her mother fails to quell them. Victor hears it all through a filter, as if he’s several rooms removed from the cacophony. He’s fallen through the ice and he thinks to himself, my soul is in my heels, and means it for the first time in over a decade. His chest is a cold and hollow cavity.

He paws at the surface, forces his words to come out calmly. “And what did you tell them?”

“I told them that it is not my place to discuss your health with them,” Yakov says. “You must tell them, Vitya.”

Victor pictures a photograph. It has been printed on a large spread and hung on a mint green wall in an ornate frame, artificial gold chipping away with age to reveal iron—an imitation of opulence. In the photo, Victor is wearing his Olympic team jacket over his 2014 free skate costume, and he is smiling as he holds up a gold medal. On either side of him are two middle-aged adults: a woman with long hair of spun silver, and a man with eyes like the summer sea. Their arms are around Victor and their faces have been split wide with grins, pride pouring from their open mouths.

Victor says, “No.”

“It’s only a matter of time before someone gets a hold of the truth and it becomes tabloid news,” Yakov tells him. “Better that they hear it from you.”

His teeth form a cage of enamel and bone to hold his tongue prisoner. There is no way to make the news easier; a blade is just as sharp, whoever wields it. It will cut just as deep, and Victor is very tired of having other people’s blood on his hands. Trying to explain this to Yakov would be an act of futility. He won’t understand and if there is one thing Victor knows, it is that he and his coach are too alike in the wrong ways: they are both at all times convinced that they are right.

Because of this, the rest of the flight passes in silence. A few words are passed between them when they land at Pulkovo Airport as they coordinate the most efficient way to make their exit. Yakov agrees to bring his car around while Victor claims his luggage. Victor pulls the hood of his sweater over his head and hunches his shoulders to try to make himself look as unobtrusive as possible, just another face fading into the crowd. Thankfully he is able to escape the airport without much incident, tucking his bags into the backseat of Yakov’s car before he climbs into the passenger seat.

As they drive, Victor stares out the window, taciturn, and watches as the snow-covered countryside gradually gives way to hotels and industrialism, man-made mountains lunging through the frozen landscape. The suburbs, when they reach them, are easier on the eyes: a long stretch of row upon row of houses and trees blanketed in white. As they near the heart of Saint Petersburg, however, the buildings grow more plentiful and closer together, occupied by fewer families and more businesses as they’re overcome by brick giants. Whenever Victor has competed in American or Canadian cities, he has found himself surrounded by great monoliths of concrete and glass, imposing and impersonal. Here, skyscrapers are few and the city is dominated by storefronts and colourful brickwork interspersed with greenery, now bare and dangling with icicles like fine jewelry in the cold grip of January. They cross bridges that span the Fontanka River and the branches of the Neva River that sprawl across the city like veins as they reach for the Baltic Sea, until finally they reach the Petrogradsky District where Georgi’s apartment is located.

Impatience makes a home within Victor’s gut and unfurls the closer they draw to Georgi’s building. It is a fire racing along his nerves as if they’ve been doused in gasoline, making him restless. The fingers of his right hand drum against the armrest on his door rhythmically and the inside of his lower lip finds its way between his teeth. Even without looking at Yakov, he can feel the man’s mounting irritation as Victor fidgets, but he remains stubbornly silent until he finally pulls over next to Georgi’s building. Victor stills and stares straight ahead. The hush between them is charged now, like the air just before a lightning strike. Each of them waiting for the other to lash out.

The static dissipates and the moment passes. Victor unbuckles his seatbelt, reaching for the door handle. Just as he hears the inner latches release, Yakov stops him with a single word.

“Vitya.”

Victor freezes in a tableau.

His coach’s voice softens. “Tell them.”

Victor swallows hard. He throws back a plastic smile. “Thanks for picking me up, Yakov! I’ll see you at practice tomorrow.” Before Yakov can respond, he climbs out of the car and slams the door shut as he circles to the back of the vehicle to claim his bags from the trunk. With a parting wave, he walks up the pathway to the front entrance and lets himself into the lobby: a quaint little sitting area between the inner and outer entrances. The inner door is set into a plexiglass wall and the intercom is mounted on the wall to the left. Victor finds the button next to the name G. Popovich and depresses it with his thumb. He waits for several seconds, and then a static voice is crackling over the speaker, deep and masculine.

“Georgi Popovich,” the voice announces.

“Georgi!” Victor exclaims. “I’m here to collect!”

There’s a wry huff and Georgi replies, “Shouldn’t I be saying that to you? Come on up.”

An obnoxious buzzing noise fills the lobby and Victor rushes to slip through the inner door to escape it. It’s a good tactic to prevent tenants from unlocking the door for too long, he muses. Dark carpet passes underfoot as he slips into the elevator, pressing the button for the third floor. Victor has never been fond of elevators. He isn’t claustrophobic by any means and he doesn’t exactly fear them, but they strike an unpleasant chord within him, a piano that’s fallen out of tune. That initial, lurching movement tugs at his insides uncomfortably, tangling them in loosened strings. The ascent is a short one, and soon Victor is jogging down the hall to knock on Georgi’s door.

A bark sounds, followed by two more in quick succession. Victor’s heart clenches in his chest and he can’t help the grin that spreads across his lips. Then the door is opening and a mass of curly brown fur is careening into him. He nearly drops his bags as a pair of large paws come down on his shoulders heavily, but there’s a canine face smiling up at him, tongue lolling and her body wobbling as she tries to keep her balance despite the violent force of her wagging tail.

“Makkachin!” Victor cries, and now he is dropping his bags to run his hands up the poodle’s back and scratch behind her ears as she whines happily. “Oh, I missed you so much! I’ll never leave you for so long again!”

“Good to see you too, Victor.”

He looks up from the dog in his arms to see Georgi leaning casually against the wall that divides his living room from the kitchen, just a few feet away from the threshold. The living room is covered with a cream carpet and the floor in the entryway and kitchen is vinyl wood, pale like birch or elm. A coffee brown couch stretches along the wall behind Georgi and the apartment is hung with brightly coloured paintings purchased from new and upcoming artists in Saint Petersburg, giving it a look that is both modern and classy. It’s a look that embodies Georgi well as he gives Victor a small smile. His dark hair has been meticulously styled and he’s dressed in a plain shirt, cardigan, and slacks.

“I see you’ve been taking good care of my Makkachin,” Victor says. “I appreciate it, as does she.”

“She’s been a good girl.” Georgi rolls himself upright and closes the distance between them. By now, Makkachin has lowered herself onto all fours and is leaning her head against Victor’s thigh, gazing up at him like he hung the moon. Georgi stops in front of the door, reaching to the side to grab Makkachin’s leather leash off of a key hook. He takes the set of keys next to the leash as well and tosses them lightly to Victor, who catches them with ease. “I believe these are yours. Your car’s parked in the lot next to my Kia.”

“Thank you, Georgi.” Victor pockets the keys and takes the leash from his rink mate, attaching it to Makkachin’s collar. With his hands now free, Georgi crosses his arms and stares at Victor with an unreadable expression. His mouth is still smiling, but his eyes are not. The quiet that settles over them is not a comfortable one, but the strain of it is not great enough to incite the urge to run. They’re friends, but they are not close. They are not confidants who share their intimate thoughts—not for lack of liking, it simply isn’t a facet of their relationship. It is a friendship between colleagues born of long exposure and mutual respect. It strikes Victor then that he has few close friends, and even fewer who he would consider confidants.

“I won gold at Nationals,” Georgi tells him.

There’s a small pang in Victor’s chest, a reflexive thing that acts without permission. Victor chose not to compete in Russia’s national championships—he knew what he was doing when he stayed in Moscow. At the time he told himself he didn’t care, and it was true then. But he could never fight his own nature forever, and now he aches at the missed opportunity; a blossom that’s never borne fruit, a kiss withheld for fear of rejection.

He feels like a miscarriage.

“Congratulations,” Victor replies. His lips curve into an easy smile. “You deserve it.” And he means it. Victor has never denied that he is inherently selfish, but selfishness has not made him utterly blind. He has seen that Georgi is a great skater and that he has worked tirelessly on his programs this season. He is genuinely happy for his rink mate.

With locked eyes, a thought passes between them unvoiced: that if Victor had been there, he would have taken gold while Georgi claimed silver.

“Thanks,” Georgi says. He points a thumb over his shoulder. “Let me grab my keys and I’ll carry down Makkachin’s food for you.”

“I owe you one, Georgi.”

“More than that, but one is a start.”

Together, they haul down Victor’s luggage and Makkachin’s food while the poodle bounds at their heels. Victor has to loop the handle of his leash over his wrist while he pops open the trunk of his silver Hyundai and tucks his bags inside. After Georgi has placed the bag of dog food in the trunk, careful not to crush Victor’s flowers, Victor closes it firmly, taking a step back to grin at his friend.

“I really do appreciate all of your help.” He opens the door to the backseat and Makkachin hops into the vehicle obediently, tail slapping against the leather seat as it swings from side to side. Victor gently tosses the leash inside the car after her before shutting the door and turning to Georgi.

“Victor.” His face has lost any semblance of good cheer and the gaze he’s fixed on Victor feels like a neutron star: small and muted, but heavier than Victor can fathom. A carefully crafted composure that holds back a tide. “Be good to Yakov.”

Victor frowns.

“He’s the one who found you, you know.”

Victor did know. Of course he’d known, in a detached, perfunctory way. The same way he knows that London is the capital of England or that the sky is blue. It was obvious: Yakov was the only other person who held a key card to his room, the spare Victor was given so that Yakov could wake his pupil for their flight if he forgot to set an alarm. He kept that knowledge tucked away with the rest of his semantic memories, void of emotion, where he didn’t have to think about it.

He doesn’t want to think about it.

“Yeah,” he says numbly.

Georgi’s eyes soften, as does his voice when he speaks again. “Look, Victor, I know this isn’t something we really do, but if you ever need to talk to somebody… I won’t turn you away. I can’t pretend I know what you’re going through, but I can listen.”

Heartache has never been a metaphor to Victor, but a physical reality. It’s a pair of hands behind his breastbone that tie his heartstrings into painful knots, gathering strands and pulling them taut with the swelling of emotion. It’s not always hurt that propels those hands into motion; sometimes it just takes the right kind of good to set his heart stinging. This is one of those moments.

“Thank you,” Victor says. “It’s kind of you to offer.”

Another moment of understanding passes between them and Georgi nods, looking a little relieved at the answer he’s found. “Take care of yourself, Victor.”

“You too, Georgi.”

The first thing Victor does when he enters his apartment is remove his shoes. The second thing he does is throw himself onto the dark blue loveseat in his living area while Makkachin patrols the flat, making sure that it has not changed since she left. After Victor has placed his flowers in vases on the kitchen island and dropped the last of his bags in his bedroom, he strips out of his clothes to change into a tracksuit. His phone is slipped into his pocket, now attached to a pair of earphones, and he quickly gives Makkachin a snack before he reattaches her leash to bring her out for a run with him.

By now the sun is crawling its way down the western horizon, setting the ocean aflame as Victor jogs past the beach with Makkachin. This view is exactly why he insisted on getting an apartment in the Vasileostrovsky District. The air smells of brine, rotting marine life, and exhaust. Gulls cry out overhead, barely audible over Victor’s music as he passes beneath them. Over the tiny speakers in his ears, Victor has been listening to the pieces he chose for his short program and free skate on repeat, trying to grasp the heart of them: the raw emotion that drew Victor to them in the first place. How can he channel the music into his skating? How can he embody it the way Yuuri did in his own short program? (It reminds Victor of the way he once skated—when was the last time he felt so intimately connected to the ice?)

No revelations have come before evening falls, so Victor buys takeout on his way home and eats it on the couch while he flips on the television. Finding nothing of interest, he settles on a nature documentary about octopuses. It’s not enough to hold his attention in any meaningful way, but it’s enough to distract him from the dissatisfaction that’s churning in his gut, allowing him to eat a full meal. Once Victor has given Makkachin her dinner, he slips into the shower and spends a long while just standing beneath the steady stream of hot water, feeling it beat down against his back in a staccato rhythm. He closes his eyes and breathes slowly, in and out. Leans against the cool tiles of the wall and feels the distant spark of spontaneous arousal, his body suddenly hyperaware of the fact that he is in the privacy of his own home for the first time in weeks. He pays it no mind and the spark fades within minutes, an ember fizzling out in the darkness. He washes his hair and scrubs down his entire body twice over to remove all traces of the hospital from it, and when he’s dry he pulls on a pair of sweatpants and a t-shirt to lounge in as evening transitions into night.

In the comfort of his bedroom, with Makkachin curled up against his side, Victor finally gains the courage to take his cellphone off of airplane mode. Notifications immediately swarm him like a plague of locusts, making him wince at the sheer magnitude. He curls a hand in Makkachin’s fur and takes a deep breath before resolving to work his way through them methodically. He deletes all of the notifications from Facebook and Twitter without hesitation—no one important would use social media as their only avenue to contact him. He sets aside his emails as well, deciding to sort through those in the morning when his mind is clearer. He’ll prioritize messages from the ISU or FSR, and most others will be deleted. Texts and missed calls loom before him like a waking giant. (Fee-fi-fo-fum.) The majority of the messages are merely acquaintances wishing him well, so it’s easy enough to open them and move on, just to get rid of the notifications.

He replies to a few key people such as Christophe Giacometti from the Swiss figure skating team, but he does not get through all of them before he begins yawning. He turns out the lights and checks his front door to make sure that it’s locked before he shuffles back to his bedroom, shucking his shirt as he goes, and burrows into the warmth of his bed. Victor’s last thought is to turn on sound notifications for his text messages and place the phone on his nightstand nearby. He wraps his arms around Makkachin and, gradually, her familiar scent lulls him to sleep, a balm against the pit that’s opened up in his stomach.

 

 

Victor’s phone wakes him up at approximately quarter to one in the morning. He grumbles at the light as he reaches for it, trying to think of good places to hide a body, but all thoughts of violence fade away when he sees the contents of the message. It’s from a new number that his phone doesn’t recognize, but the short line of text leaves no ambiguity.

Landed in Fukuoka. Heading to the hospital soon.

Victor smiles and he feels that pleasant ache in his chest, hot blood pushing through his veins and reaching for his fingertips. He sends back a series of emojis: a few smiley faces, dogs, a skate, and a row of hearts. He saves the number under a new contact name: Yuuri Katsuki. A weight has lifted from Victor’s chest and he finds that he breathes easier as he turns his phone on silent and cuddles closer to Makkachin, soft fur curling under his chin. His breathing evens out and, in his head, he hears a male voice singing in Italian before he drifts off.

 

 

They say you should never meet your heroes.

Many reasons have been given, but they can all be reduced to the same general theme: a king fallen from his pedestal and the taste of disappointment, bitter and alkaline on your tongue. It’s an English adage, so he has no idea where it originated or how long it has circulated the western hemisphere, but he knows that it came long before he was born.

The phrase never crossed his mind until he found himself face to face with Victor Nikiforov in the bathroom of a hospital in Moscow, following two of the hardest weeks of his life.

But there was no broken crown and no fallen pedestal. Instead there was a crown of roses and a set of steps laid out before him, spiraling gracefully downward. Victor took to those steps voluntarily, and though he hasn’t quite reached the ground yet, to Katsuki Yuuri, he has by no means lowered himself or decreased his worth. If anything, Victor has only become more human and more beautiful than ever, the closer he draws.

Yuuri was able to sleep for about half of the eleven hour flight to Fukuoka, but it was a fitful sleep. His body had grown accustomed to Moscow’s time zone in the weeks he spent there, the Earth adjusting after a tectonic shift, and now he has to push his circadian rhythm forward another six hours. Compared to Detroit, his days and nights have been completely reversed. For that reason, Victor’s midnight visit has been something of a mixed blessing: Yuuri wasn’t able to sleep much after Victor was verbally ejected from his room, which was likely the only reason he was able to sleep on the plane at all.

Sleep has not been Yuuri’s friend as of late. He’s always been something of a night owl; he finds the quiet and darkness comforting, peace in solitude. It was something his mother had laughed about when he lived in Japan: he had many fears as a child, but the darkness was never one of them. Insomnia has been a regular bedfellow of his for as long as he can remember, but its appearance was a temporary thing, rearing its head in the days leading up to an exam or competition. Now it has taken up residence in the back of his skull like a stubborn ex-lover, prodding at his brain and tugging at his cranial nerves, leaving him overstimulated and raw.

His own body has turned against him.

And that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? Between the appendicitis, the cancer growing within him, the vomiting, and the insomnia, Yuuri’s body is working hard to get rid of itself. And he doesn’t know if he should laugh at the irony or cry, because he’s spent most of his life taking care of his body and trying to maintain his weight—first for dancing and then for figure skating. How quickly he has gone from peak physical form to a walking time bomb, doctors and nurses rushing to defuse him before he detonates. He’d compare himself to a shooting star, but he never shone that brightly in the first place. He’s a flickering candle at best.

Victor Nikiforov though… he almost became a shooting star, the end of his burning tail caught just before he could immolate. A man who tried to get rid of his body, and that’s equally as terrifying to Yuuri.

Pale fluid is dripping slowly into a winding, narrow tube that feeds into Yuuri’s arm, driven by surface tension and adhesive forces. After waking from a three hour nap following his arrival at the hospital, he met his doctor, Katsuragi-sensei. She laughed as she introduced herself, commenting on how they shared the first three characters of their names.

“I can tell we’re going to get along well already, Katsuki-san,” she told him.

They discussed his treatment plan. Katsuragi-sensei wants him on three week cycles, meaning he’ll be in the hospital for two more weeks before he can go home. His rest period will then last for four weeks, though she told him that if his white blood cell count looks good after two weeks, he can start the next chemo cycle after three. Otherwise, he’ll have the count checked again at the end of the fourth week before he resumes his treatments.

Katsuragi-sensei clicked her tongue when she looked at the back of his left hand, finding a mottled mess of bruises and puncture marks. Immediately, she resolved to insert the IV upstream on the inside of his forearm, just south of his elbow. As she gathered her clipboard to leave, Katsuragi-sensei paused to smile at Yuuri and said, “By the way, congratulations on qualifying for the Grand Prix Final. I hear that’s a great accomplishment!”

Yuuri had blinked at her, his face warm. He is well aware of the fact that figure skating is something of a niche sport. He was known in Hasetsu, but that was to be expected as a local athlete.

His stunned silence was met with a chuckle. “You look so surprised! My daughter is a fan,” Katsuragi-sensei explained.

Guilt gathered in Yuuri’s throat then, threatening to choke him. He tried to swallow past it and said, “Thank you. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to perform well.”

Her eyes softened then and she said in a gentle voice, “No one blames you for what happened, Katsuki-san. There was no way you could have known. I’m sure your fans are worried only for your health; but that’s what I’m here for, right?”  

While comforting, her words were not entirely true. There had been signs leading up to his disastrous free skate in Sochi. Cramps had sent stabbing pain through his abdomen and he’d felt ill off and on for days. At the time, he’d attributed it to his anxiety—it wouldn’t have been the first time he had gotten sick from it. He remembers nights spent curled up in his bed, clutching his stomach when midterms coincided with longer hours of practice as the competition season drew closer. Yuuri is under no illusion that he would have been able to compete in the Grand Prix Final even if his appendix had been removed sooner, but it would have saved him the disgrace of collapsing on the ice mid-performance. Katsuragi-sensei was not here to listen to his self-pity though. He let his thoughts go unvoiced and simply thanked his doctor one more time before she left.

That was a little over two hours ago. Now Yuuri is sitting up in his bed with a box of orange juice on his bedside table and his laptop open across his thighs. For the past hour he has been watching videos of Victor Nikiforov: his skating programs and interviews over the last few years. It has been a good distraction from the nausea roiling in his gut. Some of the interviews are in Russian, incomprehensible to his unpracticed ears, but it’s not the dialogue that Yuuri is interested in.

He is making a foray into human forensics, trying to pinpoint the moment Victor became convinced that his life would end with his competitive skating career. Yuuri has seen all of these videos before, but back then he was viewing them through the filter of an adoring fan, thirsty eyes drinking in the sight of the man he idolized; all appreciation with no mind for critique. Over the duration of a week, however, Victor has gradually descended from his elevated dais and it’s changed the angle Yuuri sees him at. No longer does he eclipse the sun. He’s slipped out of alignment and it now hovers overhead: bathing him in light without blinding critical eyes.

It allows Yuuri to look past the lustre and search for the hairline fractures in Victor’s composure. The places where smiles reach for his eyes and fall short. Pauses that last just a little too long as interviewers ask about his plans for the future. Presentation that feels forced instead of felt, life attempting to imitate art.

Yuuri can see now what Victor meant when he said that his performance at the Grand Prix Final was not his best. The song he chose for his free skate is not a happy one, but it is a love song. As he skates, there are brief moments between the rise and fall of a camera shutter when that love slips away and all that remains is this aching loneliness. It isn’t heartbreak, but something deeper and all-encompassing, a shadow that darkens the horizon from melancholy grey to charcoal night.

Oh, Victor, he thinks, is this how you’ve felt all this time?

Depression is a guillotine’s blade that looms overhead, with you as the executioner clutching the rope in your trembling hands. While you are not locked into place, there is a mass chained to your neck, an anchor that feels at times impossible to lift. Yuuri has held that rope before, felt the rough fibres chafing against the flesh of his palms and his arms shaking from the weight.

Most of the time, there is a trigger for him: stress and guilt building pressure behind his lips like the cork on a shaken bottle of champagne, the broken glass sensation of failure shredding his insides, or the aching absence of his support network in Japan, his tongue too used to pronouncing foreign syllables while his native language lays unused to collect dust on a shelf. It’s emotional and motivational death: a sudden arrhythmia that strikes at the heart of him in his sleep, leaving him lifeless and in mourning for days at a time. But never has he truly wanted to die. At his worst, Yuuri has wished that he could disappear for a time—a chance for respite within that quiet darkness he loves—but this hypothetical arrangement has always been a temporary one accompanied by a return to reality once the pain has passed.

Even with his life hovering over the precipice of oblivion, Yuuri fears disappointing his friends and family more than he fears living without passion or ambition. He thinks of everything his parents have sacrificed to allow him to pursue his dream and the thought of letting it go to waste fills him with guilt. It makes his current predicament all the more difficult, like rubbing salt into an open wound.

He wonders how much worse it must be for Victor, for him to feel like he has no other options: just a glowing neon exit sign hanging over an empty alleyway in an abandoned city. To skate as beautifully as Victor does, Yuuri knew that his life must revolve around skating, but he never imagined that it would be his everything; that he could derive no meaning from his life without it. It seems like such a desperately lonely existence.

He doesn’t know which is more tragic: a life forcibly taken from someone who wants to live, or a life concluded prematurely because the author can’t bear to write another page. Perhaps tragedy was not meant to be compared.

Yuuri is watching an interview with Victor at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi when a nurse comes to turn off his infusion pump and bring him a bowl of plain rice. She instructs him to eat slowly, but pulls out the bedpan from beneath his cot in case he needs to vomit.

“If you can finish your rice, I’ll bring you some purin,” she tells him with a smile. She looks just a little younger than his mother and her hair has been pulled back into a neat ponytail. Her nametag says ‘Haruko’.

Yuuri thanks her and picks carefully at the rice as she leaves. It’s strange being back in Japan after five years in the United States; being given chopsticks instead of a fork, speaking Japanese with someone face to face outside of a Japanese restaurant or Asian supermarket, and being surrounded by a sea of Japanese faces instead of the vast mix of races he’d grown used to in Detroit. It’s a strange sort of culture shock, made even stranger by the fact that it’s his own culture that’s tilted his world on its axis. It’s not as if he hasn’t been back to Japan or seen his family at all since he left to train with Celestino—every year he has competed in Japan’s National competition and the Four Continents championships were held in Osaka in 2013—but there was always the knowledge that he would be returning to Detroit soon afterward.

Now Yuuri doesn’t know if he will ever see Detroit again.

He sucks in a breath, knife-sharp, and nearly chokes. His blood has retreated to his core, leaving his fingers cold and his face numb. He shovels more rice into his mouth and squeezes his eyes shut, focusing on the mechanical motions of chewing and swallowing. No matter how many times his doctors give him an optimistic prognosis, tell him that he is so lucky that they discovered his cancer when it only appears to be in its second stage, fear has clutched his heart in an iron grip, squeezing it so hard sometimes that he cannot breathe. His mind has become a landfill, full up with thoughts of wasting away in a hospital bed, his body brittle and the insides of his forearms blooming red and violet where countless needles have been slipped into his skin.

He finishes his rice and miraculously manages to keep it down. As promised, Haruko brings Yuuri a plate of purin. Yuuri lifts his spoon to take a bite of the dessert and pauses, suddenly remembering a conversation he had with Victor once. It was the first time Victor visited him and the moment Yuuri realized that Victor, the person, was better than he’d ever dared to hope.

With his lip caught between his teeth, Yuuri picks up his cellphone and takes a picture before sending it to Victor.

It is captioned, ‘Our hospitals have better pudding.

There are only a few bites of the pudding left when the door to Yuuri’s room opens and Haruko pokes her head in. “There are visitors here to see you, Katsuki-san. Would you like me to let them in?”

His hand is hovering just above the little plate on his dining tray and the purin on his spoon tumbles down as his heart jumpstarts in his chest, electric and alert. It races on feather-light feet across his ribs and sternum. He licks his lips and nods, says, “Yes, please.” He sets the spoon down.

Haruko grins and then her face disappears. A minute later the door opens again and two women are entering: a middle-aged woman with brown hair whose care for her body over her lifetime has rewarded her with enduring beauty, and a young woman with short, dark hair, bleached at the tips and pushed back with a headband. Her ears have been pierced as many times as the auricle will allow, metal catching the light and gleaming where it’s been pushed through flesh and cartilage. She has Yuuri’s eyes and nose, and though hers are thinner, their brows are shaped the same.

“Minako-sensei!” Yuuri cries. “Mari nee-chan!”

His sister’s eyes fix on his own, filled with fire, and she marches over with her brows pulled tightly together, stern. Before he can say anything, Mari lifts her hand and cuffs him over the head.

“Ow!” It’s said out of surprise more than pain—she did not hit him hard, but the unexpectedness of the gesture makes it hyperreal, the sudden pinpoint burn of a hand held over a lit match for a moment too long. He blinks up at her in confusion, looking properly victimized.

“Of course it takes a near-death experience for you to come visit home! Seriously.” She wraps an arm around his neck and tugs him against her roughly, his cheek trapped firm against the side of her breast to keep him still as her free hand comes down to rub the top of his head in jerking motions.

“Ah! Stop it! Minako-sensei, help me!” Yuuri squirms in his sister’s hold, looking beseechingly toward his former ballet teacher. Minako’s smile widens and her eyes narrow into an amused smirk.

She says, “Who am I to stand in the way of justice?”

Yuuri sags with defeat, resigning himself to his fate. The torment lasts only a moment longer before Mari’s grip around his neck gentles and the hand that was attacking his head instead begins to smooth down the hair it dishevelled with combing fingers. He has been properly scolded, and now comes a sister’s relieved affection.

“Idiot,” Mari murmurs in a tone like warm milk and honey. Yuuri leans into her briefly before she pats his head and steps away. Her eyes alight on the purin still left on Yuuri’s plate and she snatches it up with gusto, claiming Yuuri’s abandoned spoon to scoop a bite into her mouth. Another casualty of an older sibling’s tyranny.

Minako takes this as her invitation to approach him, moving to Yuuri’s other side. She sits in the chair next to the bed (it has wooden legs and burgundy cushions; entirely different from the chair that occupied his room in Moscow). “How are you feeling, Yuuri?”

“I’m fine,” he tells her. “My doctor tells me that my incision is healing well. No signs of infection.”

“That’s good.” Though her tone is light, there’s something morose about her gaze as her eyes fall unthinkingly to his abdomen. It makes him want to shield it with his hands. “I’m sorry your parents couldn’t make it today. Someone needed to look after the inn. Your mother will be coming up tomorrow, and then Toshiya-san after that. I know the Nishigoris are planning to visit as well, whenever they can find the time. The triplets are quite the handful now.”

“It’s fine,” Yuuri replies. “I understand that they have other obligations.”

The last time Yuuri saw the triplets, they were only babies. Nishigori Yuuko and Takeshi have been friends of Yuuri’s since childhood. They were two years his senior, but they were his rink mates, growing up. Minako had urged Yuuri to pursue figure skating after years of dancing under her tutelage, and when he was twelve years old, he and Yuuko discovered Victor Nikiforov, who was the Junior World champion then. Yuuri still remembers the first time he saw Victor on the television screen at the rink: the way his body moved and how his silver hair, long at the time, swirled around him like spider silk in the wind. He looked otherworldly, as if he had stepped out of a dream and onto the ice and made it his home. Yuuri knew then that he had to skate on the same ice as him one day.

I’ve always looked up to you. Ever since the first time I saw you skate.’ Words he’d spoken less than forty-eight hours ago. He wishes he could have seen Victor’s expression, but the lighting was meagre, and what little light broke through the small window in his door was eclipsed by Victor’s face, hovering bare inches above his own. Victor’s hand had twitched in his grasp then, returning pressure for just a fleeting instant. He remembers the way his heart pounded, a drum thundering rhythmically in his chest, and the tickling sensation of Victor’s breath against his lips. Perhaps it was better that he couldn’t see; he doesn’t think he could have said the things he did if he could see Victor’s face—if Victor could see him.

It takes precious little to generate a conditioned response, to pair a feeling with something else in the physical world and act accordingly. A ringing bell and being served a meal, a stuffed toy poodle and the man who gave it to him. And so it escapes Yuuri’s notice when he begins to card his fingers through fake fur next to his hip, some unknowable part of him wishing that it was longer and silver.

It does not escape Mari’s notice, and she raises a brow as the movement of Yuuri’s hand draws her eyes to the stuffed poodle. “Where did you get that?” she asks.

“Huh?” Yuuri freezes and follows her gaze. Somewhere in Saint Petersburg, Ivan Pavlov is cackling in his grave. “Oh. I got him at the hospital in Moscow.”

Minako leans over to see the plush and coos. “You got a gift!”

His face feels warm. “Yes.”

The smirk is back and Minako pulls the chair closer. “You know, I heard Victor Nikiforov was at the hospital in Moscow. Did you see him?”

“Uh…” It feels like the temperature has increased by several degrees. He wonders if he should call the nurse in to check the thermostat.

Minako gasps and Mari fumbles the stolen spoon in her hand. “You did!

Mari nudges Yuuri with her elbow. “So you finally got to meet your big hero, huh? What was he like?”

‘What was he like?’ How could he even begin to describe Victor? Victor Nikiforov was the last snowfall before winter breaks and spring warmth thaws the earth. He was the stunning moment of clarity when the first cold flake touches your cheek and the elusive flakes that followed, eddying around you and obscuring your surroundings until nothing else remains but the kiss of them against your skin, catching in your hair, your eyelashes, your clothes. He was gentle and sad and far too mortal for something so beautiful, and Yuuri never wants him to melt away. He would be happy if spring never came so long as he could have this: his hands and face open to the sky as the snow drifts down to meet him.

But, untrained, the human tongue is a clumsy instrument and Yuuri is neither a poet nor a composer. He does not know how to articulate the immensity of what his time with Victor meant to him, and so he must settle for simplicity: inadequate, but more easily understood.

Yuuri brings the stuffed animal to his chest and dips his head to press his nose into the fur, inhaling the trace scents of disinfectant from the hospital and pine needles from Victor. He says, “He was amazing.”

Mari sighs wistfully. “I wish I could meet one of my idols.”

Minako is watching Yuuri with a calculative look in her eyes. “He’s the one who gave you that, isn’t he?” She points at the poodle in his hands.

His cheeks feel hot and Yuuri knows he must be blushing. “Yes…”

Softness; probing instruments replaced with a smile. “You must have made quite the impression on him.”

Yuuri’s first instinct is to deny it, but the phantom sensations of a hand on his cheek, a forehead pressed to his, and a pair of arms holding him tight against another body create cognitive dissonance. He cannot fathom why Victor treated him with so much care, and the uncertainty of it stays his voice. To Minako, that in itself is an answer.

“What was he at the hospital for anyway?” Mari asks. “Did he tell you?”

Discomfort settles in his gut alongside the nausea, and his hands fall to his lap, still holding the plush poodle. His eyes remain fixed on it. “He did, but I can’t tell you. It’s not that I don’t trust you, but…”

“Privacy.” Mari nods in understanding and Minako raises her hands, telling him, “Alright, no more questions about Victor Nikiforov! I really am happy for you though. I’m glad that something good could come out of all this.”

His breath leaves his lungs in a slow exhale, bringing the knot of guilt with it. “Thank you.”

“So when do you get to come home for real?” Mari asks. “Vicchan misses you.”

And as he inhales, an ache fills the cavity of his chest that the guilt left behind. While Yuuri was able to meet with his family whenever he had competitions in Japan, they couldn’t bring Vicchan with them to the arena. Five years is an awfully long time for anyone. For a dog, it’s almost half a lifetime. He had wanted so badly to bring Vicchan with him to Detroit, but between his studies, training at the rink, and traveling for competitions, it would have been a very lonely life. It wouldn’t have been fair to him, but it still hurts. It still feels too much like abandonment.

“I miss him too,” Yuuri says. “Katsuragi-sensei said that this round of chemotherapy will be done in two weeks, and then I can come home. It feels so far away.”

“You’re almost there, Yuuri,” says Minako. “And who knows? Maybe we can pull some strings with the doctors and they’ll let us bring your old best friend for a visit.”

Yuuri waves his hands in protest. “No, no! It’s okay! I don’t want you to cause any trouble because of me.”

Mari frowns. “Still… two weeks is a long time to be cooped up in a hospital. What are you going to do whenever we can’t visit you?”

It’s something Yuuri has been thinking about for a while—since before his flight to Fukuoka or even that first fateful meeting with Victor in the bathroom. From the moment his surgeon in Sochi told him about the tumour, he knew that his competitive season was over. She had tried to soften the blow, telling him that it was possible that the tumour was benign, but it made little difference to him. Already, Yuuri’s mind was racing ahead of him, full up to the brim and spilling over with images of himself in varying states of deterioration. He was done: for the season, and maybe for life. But of all of the fates he could picture for himself, the worst one he could think of was lying in a hospital bed, simply waiting to die.

So he had to think of alternatives; ways to keep himself busy to ward off the despair threatening to creep in, as insidious as the cancer in his abdomen.

He says, “I missed my final exams.”

His sister and ballet teacher alike blink at him uncomprehendingly.

Yuuri closes his eyes and breathes. Opens them and starts again. “I’m going to email my professors at my university and ask if I can take online courses from Japan. I want to graduate.”

It happens quickly: the buildup of pressure and explosive release. It reminds him of a video his friend, Phichit, once showed him in Detroit of a Mentos tab being dropped into cola. Mari’s hand comes up, still holding the plastic spoon, and for a moment he thinks she’s going to beat him with it until she slams her fist down onto the railing of his cot. “Are you insane?!” she shouts. “Mom was always going on about how stressed you get for exams; you’re supposed to be resting!”

“That doesn’t mean I have to sit around all day doing nothing!

In the vast emptiness of outer space, an explosion makes no sound. Without a medium to travel through, it is simply swallowed up by the void, as if it never happened in the first place. The silence that follows Yuuri’s outburst is like that: a vacuum. Distantly, they can hear nurses and patients making their way through the halls, but the door acts as an airlock, sealing the room off from the rest of the world.

It’s not that Yuuri never yells. He has been known to get vocal when he becomes too overwhelmed, but it is a rare occurrence. Anger that manifests in aggression, rarer still. He is irritated and annoyed often enough, but that is usually the end of it. His voice isn’t serrated and his hands don’t curl into trembling fists like they do now. It’s an anomaly. Mari and Minako stare at him, stricken.

He breathes out like the air is being shaken from his lungs and he hates the way his voice threatens to break. “I can’t do that. I can’t feel useless, like I’m already…” Breathe. “I can’t.

Minako reaches out and gingerly places her hand over his. “Okay,” she says quietly. “If this is what you need to do, then do it. But please, if it becomes too much, ask for help. You don’t have to fight this alone. Let us help you.”

Yuuri’s mouth is dry and he swallows nothing, nodding his head. “Okay,” he says, even as he knows he won’t.

 

 

Three days ago, Katsuki Yuuri flew to Fukuoka, Japan, and Victor Nikiforov flew to Saint Petersburg. Since he’s been home, Victor has sent Yuuri eight pictures of Makkachin, switched their correspondence over to Skype for the sake of their phone bills, and thrown himself back into his training with the vigour of a dying man, desperate to spend a lifetime’s energy in the span of two heartbeats. In his own way, Yakov has been pleased with his progress: after three weeks off of the ice, Victor has nearly reached his technical peak once more. What remains now is perfecting his presentation: feeling the music and projecting it through the movement of his limbs, the curve of his back, and the expressions on his face. Without the use of his mouth, he must become the composers’ orator.

But now he is sitting in the loveseat in his living room, Makkachin half-sprawled across his lap and his hair still damp from the shower. His phone is in his hand and his thumb is held hesitantly over the call button on the screen, suspended both physically and figuratively. There is a feeling called dread in his gut and his mouth tastes of sour citrus. He wishes he could put this off forever. He cannot.

Victor presses the button and brings his phone to his ear.

The phone rings once.

Rings twice.

Rings a thir—“Hello?”

A feminine voice. Victor closes his eyes and breathes, and when he opens them again he says, “Hello, Mother.”