It starts with a press conference at the 2009 Tokyo GPF. Yuuko is beside him, their matching bronzes glinting on the dark black of their Japan jackets.
“Well, all I can say is that we are excited to see you both place so well. If I could be so bold—“ the woman reporter sidles closer, presses her microphone to Yuuri’s lips, “what is you two’s relationship?”
Yuuri looks over to the skater beside him. Yuuko meets his gaze, eyes becoming soft—she knows he struggles at press conferences, in the blazing lights and quick exchanges. Her fingers spread gently over his palm, gripping his hand without lacing their fingers together, and his heart swells at the communicated support.
She’s my best friend. She’s my sister on the ice, my madonna, and most importantly of all I—
“I love her,” he blurts. “I love her so much.”
Yuuko’s other hand flies to cover her mouth, chestnut brown eyes widening, and over the gaggle of Japanese reporters Yuuri can see Celestino, squinting at them uncertainly. At first, all Yuuri can feel is pride—I did it, I managed to express how much she means to me—and then the reporter swings her microphone back to her own lips and essentially screams:
“There you have it, folks, the Japanese medalists are in love!”
Ah, Yuuri thinks, his mind slogging unsteadily through the now raging group of cameras, that’s not quite right, is it? Yuuko is trying to get the woman’s attention politely, tapping at her shoulder and mouthing words, but the reporters are talking over them in a muted blaze of noise.
“The two singles medalists make a beautiful pair! Here, at the 2009 Tokyo GPF, we have the start of this power couple’s reign!”
Georgi Popovich watches the interview later, the slave to true love that he is. He fusses over it in the hotel room until Yakov smacks him upside the head, yells you didn’t even make it to the GPF, this is not the time to swoon over relationships, especially ones that aren’t yours!
Viktor Nikiforov, his first gold medal in his hands and the screams of the crowd in his ears, doesn’t see it until much later. Georgi watches it one last time when they’re back at the rink in Russia, holds his hand on his heart in adoration until he sees Viktor blinking at the subtitled interview over his shoulder.
“Vitya,” he sighs, “Someday you’ll have a love like that.” The younger man shrugs.
“I have a gold medal.”
Georgi squints at him.
“You know them, don’t you?”
“The woman became fast friends with one of the other Russian singles skaters. This was Katsuki’s senior debut, so I’ve spent the most time with him while on the podium. We’ve all been out for dinner once, but he was quiet and she was talking to other people.”
“She’s cute,” Georgi ventures, and Viktor just laughs briefly and pulls off his skates. The older Russian pauses. “Oh, Vitya. I’m sorry.”
“What for?” The champion asks lightly.
“He’s cute,” Georgi says firmly. Viktor swings his gear over his shoulder. He exits, and doesn’t look back.
“That doesn’t really matter.”
It didn’t, not for years, not until he had all of his golds, and his mouth tasted of bitter and lonely metal.
The 2009 Tokyo GPF was not actually where everything had started.
When he was young, our Nishigori Takeshi had a clumsy classmate spill their juice on him at lunch. It had been a pain, wandering to the restroom in his soaked shirt; but it had brought him to the end stall, to the muffled sobbing and poodle-chewed sneakers that he recognized as belonging to one Katsuki Yuuri.
“Yuuri,” he said gruffly through the door. “Yuuri, what are you doing in there?”
As much as they were with each other, Yuuko had always been a welcome buffer between the two boys. But that day, that day it didn’t matter.
“I have a math test,” the twelve year old confessed through the stall door. “But I lost my key to Minako’s yesterday—“ hiccup, feet shuffling “—and then I stayed up all night and I’m scared I won’t do well and…”
“Lemme in,” Nishigori had said.
Nishigori was rough around the edges, and easily jealous, and never hesitated to tease Yuuri, and frankly—frankly, sometimes Yuuri was terrified of him, no matter how much he also admired him.
“You’re gonna do great, kid. Remember going over everything with me and Yuuko last week?” He ruffled Yuuri’s hair, knocked him gently in the shoulder. “Is it algebra? I hate that stuff. But I made it through, and you know how much of a blockhead I am. You can do it for sure.”
He pulled Yuuri off the bathroom tiles, clapped him on the back.
“Nishigori,” Yuuri mumbled quietly, eyes down, “thank you.”
“No problem.” The older boy paused. “…Does this happen a lot, you staying up all night, worrying about things?”
Yuuri had nodded.
The next time he went to the rink at night, Yuuko on his heels, Nishigori had come too, had slipped his oversized jacket onto the younger boy and quietly watched him work out the nervous energy.
“I’m so glad you know now,” Yuuko admitted to Nishigori, standing behind the glass and watching the twelve year old move in smooth circles on the ice, “he needs a lot of support, sometimes.” She held his hand in the frozen air, pressed a kiss to his cheek. She did not tell him, but she thought he would be a great father.
In another time, another universe, this universe, Nishigori Takeshi is lucky enough not to be doused in juice.
“That was a close call,” he laughs as the can pours onto the classroom floor. He does not go to the bathroom. Yuuri does not pass his test.
And this happens instead:
“You stood me up on our anniversary,” he bites out, “to go be with Yuuri!”
“He needed me,” Yuuko pleads. “Try to understand.”
“And why would he?” Nishigori snaps, “Were you two gonna obsess over your beloved Viktor Nikiforov again?”
“No,” Yuuko replies hotly, tears welling in her eyes. “I can’t—I can’t tell you, Nishigori, can’t you just trust me?”
“You like him, don’t you? You like him and you don’t like me!”
“He’s just twelve!” Yuuko bursts. “He’s like a brother to me! To both of us!”
“No.” Nishigori’s fists tighten. “He is not. And there is no ‘us.’”
When he shoves his way out of the room where they lace up, he knocks past Yuuri, who falls hard, breaks skin.
“Sorry,” Nishigori chokes out, but he doesn’t stop.
Yuuko takes the younger boy home, cleans him up. Her eyes are hard and her mouth is set. When she dabs stinging ethanol on his knee, she says lowly, “I’ll never forgive him.”
Yuuri doesn’t want them separated. He doesn’t know why Yuuko has chosen to side with him, of all people, and he wants to voice that, but nothing makes it out of his clenched throat.
“I should cut my hair,” she says suddenly, “I should cut my hair, because he broke up with me.”
“Don’t!” Yuuri pleads, because Yuuko’s hair is beautiful. “It’s—it’s like Viktor’s hair. Prettier, even.” She laughs, hugs him from the side.
“Oh, Yuuri.” Her fingertips go through the strands, and she locks eyes with him in the bathroom mirror. “You’re right. You’re right. I’m never cutting my hair.”
“Me neither,” Yuuri says breathily.
“That’s right!” She cheers. “We’ll both be like Viktor Nikiforov. We’ll skate like him, too!” They spend the rest of the week at the rink, laugh harder and spin faster. He only sees Yuuko cry once.
When Nishigori slinks up to them days later, flowers in his hesitant hand, she smiles cheerily at him and says, “I don’t have time to date anyone, if I’m going to be one of the top female singles skaters. I’ll see you around, Nishigori.”
Celestino recruits her when she’s seventeen. Two years later, Yuuri follows her to Detroit. Yuuko calms his nerves, cooks him katsudon, practices with him on the ice for hours, holds his hand when they’re the only native Japanese kids on campus. She hollers at him when he doesn’t reply to his new rinkmate Phichit’s flurry of texts; drags him moaning out of bed in the mornings. They’re both better for it—and Yuuri blooms into a skater earlier than anyone had expected.
At the 2010 Beijing GPF, where Yuuri isn’t under pressure from his home country, he takes silver and the madonna takes gold.
They wear matching traditional kumihimo during their free skates, and the natives in the crowd go wild at the intricate weavings of thread on their costumes. Yuuko has always been a madonna, but Yuuri—now, with the kumihimo and his long black hair piled into a topknot—Yuuri is becoming known as a samurai.
Yuuko holds him in the kiss and cry, bounds up to him as soon as it’s allowed when he steps off the podium, fat tears sinking wetly into his shoulder. He spins her, their matching dark ponytails streaming around them like ribbons—she kisses his cheek, and he flushes shyly, because the cameras are suddenly all pointed at them. Viktor and the bronze medalist watch mutely, stretching their faces into smiles for their own individual photographs.
Yuuko tells one journalist later: “We are definitely not dating.”
The hug at the podium is on the front of every skating magazine, pink lips pressed firmly to his red cheek.
“Yuuko is like a sister to me,” Yuuri confesses to another journalist during a private interview in the comfortable environment of the onsen, Yuuko’s hand on his shoulder. “I… I admire someone else.”
Nobody pays any attention. Nobody would, until the Sochi 2013 GPF.