Sometimes he imagined himself picking his face off like an orange peel, sticky remnants of a lifetime's worth of skin under his nails. Eyes, nose, mouth plucked off and on the floor. The quick prick-tug of his fingers traveling lower, unfolding his neck, body shed from belly to thigh. He imagined himself pooled around his ankles. Such a sad, wrinkled mess.
But for once, just once, he was so new and so clean, so nameless. All his wreckage, gone for a moment.
"Victor!" There was only one person he knew who could say his name like a demand and a plea.
Victor blinked, his reflection murky in the mirror, skin along his hairline red and swollen from all the picking.
Orange peel, he thought. Orange peel…
He felt his throat clump up. He opened his mouth. Nothing came out.
"I was in a meeting." Yuuri stormed into the bedroom, all thunder and purpose, hands yanking at his tie so hard his neck started swelling.
Victor hadn't noticed how he'd backed up against the bed, the frame digging into the back of his knees.
He swallowed. "Did you -" Breath hitching. "Did you watch it?"
"Every second." Yuuri ripped his tie off with a whack. Victor's spine twitched, all of him humming at the thought of Yuuri staring at Victor's hands working on his cock through a phone screen.
He'd filmed it in the bathroom two doors down from his lecture hall. When it came to this, to him, Victor had no shame left to question his sanity. He was a mess.
"You love torturing me, don't you?" Yuuri's chest falling, out of breath. Victor wondered if he'd sprinted all the way here, out the office, the car, past the double doors, the doorman, squeezing himself through the growing gap between the elevator doors, wanting, wanting, wanting.
"Don't you?" Yuuri said again, slinking closer, circling prey.
Victor shook his head, but he could feel the lie wedged between each twist of his neck.
Yuuri had it in him - a badness - and it tore out from underneath all that quiet composure, spreading, conquering every time Victor had the balls to string him on, vex him a little harder than usual, the way it made Yuuri shove Victor's face into the mattress, tie his hands behind his back and fuck him so hard the world went black, the way it made Yuuri wrap his hands around Victor's hair, his throat. The way he could take so much of you you were sure you had nothing left by the end of it.
And Victor kept shaking his head, but all he could think of was how much he ached for things he was too afraid to ask for, things Yuuri always knew he needed, those bad, blooming things Victor could feel on his body weeks, months, lifetimes later.
"Don't lie." Yuuri smiled.
Big Bad Wolf.
Chew me up and spit me out.
"Need you." Nothing but a croak. His heart shook. Hands reaching down to fist the sheets. "Yuuri."
And that was all it ever took.
Yuuri's hands bolted into Victor's hips, curling into the back of his thighs, lifting him into the air like he didn't weigh a thing. Room spinning, Victor felt the mattress slam against his spine, giving way, folding against him, hair flying, tangled around the two of them twisting into the sheets, mouths bursting against each other, hands roaming, ripping, wanting senselessly. Clothes off. Sticky skin.
And, Victor, sinking so quickly. Subdued into silent worship.
"Had to sit in that office with a hard-on," Yuuri pressed into the crook of Victor's neck, taking big bites so hard it hurt. He was all teeth and takeover. "Five hours," he growled. "Five fucking hours." Victor yelped when Yuuri slammed their hips together, the hard line of his cock against his own. Victor whimpered, fingers gripping into Yuuri's hair as he dipped down to bite into his collarbone. Yuuri knew it did such sweet, horrible things to him. Victor's back bowed. He was spiraling.
"Wished I could've fucked you in that stall." Yuuri stooped lower, his teeth grazing a nipple, tongue swirling.
"Shit," Victor punched out. His fingers raked down the back of Yuuri's neck, the knobs of his spine throbbing against his nails. He wanted to leave a mark, a trail blazing.
"Would've pressed your face into the wall and took you from behind." His mouth on Victor's neck again, licking up to his ear, his breath a warm flood. "Would've made you scream," he whispered. "So loud. So fucking loud. Everyone would've heard…would've known you're mine, Victor. Mine."
If Victor weren't busy being shattered apart, he would've stopped. He would've shoved Yuuri off - his hungry hands, his mean teeth, off - and he would've barged out the door, not looking back once.
But Victor couldn't stop, paralyzed in the face of this thing he wanted so madly it made him deaf to his own conscience.
Mine…Yuuri's voice pivoting through his head.
Victor hadn't wanted many things in his life. He'd never asked for much, never expected much, something he thought the universe would reimburse him for in the long run. And yet here he was, knee-dip in shit, wanting the only thing he couldn't have.
Yuuri grabbed his chin, their mouths dipping, shuddering against each other. He was on the verge of shutting down for good.
This won't happen again, I promise, he thought. By now, he should've known his promises didn't mean a thing.
Victor's hips snapped up, grinding against Yuuri's, craving friction. No reason. No limit. He wanted to feel every inch of his body in the morning. That wreckage…he wanted.
He licked into Yuuri's mouth, coaxing a groan out of that pretty throat. They were being sloppy in ways they rarely let themselves be. Yuuri ground into him, cock throbbing. Victor let a moan spill into the tight space between them. A pliant thing. Shameless.
"Victor." Yuuri gripped the base of Victor's skull so hard his fingers droned, eyes searching, jumping back and forth. He stilled. "Okay?"
Groaning, Victor tried to pull him closer, but he knew Yuuri wouldn't move until he was given an answer.
"Yes." Almost a shout. "Yes, okay. Everything's okayokayokayokay. It's okay. I'm okay. I'm okay." Victor was babbling now, mouth filling, gushing. Yuuri's hands slid to his jaw, lodged it into place, his legs pinning Victor's hips to the bed.
He tried to twist away, but Yuuri held him, kept him right where he was. Their eyes locked.
Yuuri could stare at you the way ice made your teeth ache.
His thumb brushing against Victor's bottom lip, yanking at it, bumping against his teeth and prying them apart, Victor tasted the salty tang of skin on his tongue. And he let Yuuri press it all the way in, his tongue swirling, teeth sinking in.
"So good," Yuuri mumbled. Victor groaned at the feeling of him pressing his thumb deeper. "So needy." Replacing it with two fingers, letting Victor latch onto them while he reached for the bedside table. His eyes on Victor. Always. "Fuck. Such a good boy."
Victor bucked his hips, hands coming up to grab hold of Yuuri's wrist, forcing his fingers in deeper, nails scratching his tongue until he was choking. Reduced to a throb, a soft drool, the heat coiling in his chest, stomach, right in the trench of him - Victor was long, long gone.
Yuuri pulled his fingers out, a string of saliva trailing them as he coated them in lube and pulled them down, let them graze the puckered heat between Victor's legs. Punching out a shaky breath, he arched against the sheets, his head a mess of finally and right there and -
"More." He couldn't stop pressing his hips down, wanting to feel more than those fingers. He wanted the weight and the sear. He wanted to feel that spot that made him deaf for at least a second.
Something in Yuuri went static.
"Yuuri, please," he mewled when he felt those fingers retreat. He was clouded, thoughts too soaked to make sense.
Yuuri pressed their sticky foreheads together, those eyes unraveling up close. Victor squirmed against him. His hands snapped from Yuuri's hips to his ribs, his shoulders, his hair, scratching and needing. But Yuuri kept still, kept staring at him like he was sneaking into his thoughts. Victor could feel him in there, looking around, marveling at all those shameful secrets.
Victor swallowed. He wanted to clench his eyes closed, wanted to shout for him to just fuck him already. Yuuri tensed, and when his fingers brushed along Victor's cheek, he could barely feel it, like he was numbed to all things soft as sighs.
Deadened to this.
"You love torturing me, don't you?" Yuuri said, so carefully, so quietly and so far away from what they were doing. It wasn't meant to be said like that, not in this room, in this bed.
For a second, Victor swore it wasn't Yuuri who was sneaking into his thoughts - it was Victor sneaking into his.
And he let his hands do something they shouldn't, fingers crawling up Yuuri's neck, palms cupping his cheeks, the heat of them, blotchy-flushed and smooth. Yuuri was strangely endearing like this. A little wild. A little warm. His face swimming in things Victor had yet to understand.
Yuuri leaned into him, their noses bumping, chins meeting. Careful. The kind of careful that felt somber.
"Yuuri," Victor whispered, voice a shaky thing, and he was about to say more - something stupid, something that would get him into a world of trouble - when everything in Yuuri snapped back into place. Unknowable.
Victor was so sick of these mind games. All it ever took was a second, and everything went back to the way it always was: to Yuuri being a client, to Victor doing what he was paid to do.
And he was paid to lie in this bed and let Yuuri do whatever he needed to. He was paid to turn over and slam his face into the pillows while Yuuri bit into the back of his thighs. He was paid to moan at the way his tongue flicked against his hole, to shiver against all that heat and slick and digging. He was paid to fist the sheets. He was paid to shout his name like he was staring up at a cross, spine against a pew.
He wasn't paid to want more. But some things were just out of your hands, and the universe didn't negotiate.
Victor writhed, voice going wanton. Yuuri already had two lubed fingers burrowed into him, crooking against that spot, abusing it, wrecking. Victor jerked, hands grabbing the sheets so tight he couldn't feel his arms. He was dizzy, his head full of Yuuri and his mumbled praises, all good, good ache.
"So fucking good, Victor. So, so good." His mouth against his ear. A third finger pressing into him, he groaned against that perfect burn.
Yuuri draped across him, his hand splayed against Victor's stomach, keeping him in place. "Tell me what you want." Against his neck. "Tell me." A bite.
Victor whimpered. He was falling fast. He was six feet under.
"Come on, you've been so good for me today." Those fingers grazing all the right places. "Say it."
Victor bit into the pillow. He clenched his eyes closed. And he felt Yuuri's mouth against the back of his neck, like a thunder, like a pulse.
Maybe the afterwards were a little more painful than the rest of it all, when they were both spent, breathing heavy, and the world felt like it had been muted to their fingers barely touching and their eyes trailing, their mouths opening like something might slip out but nothing ever did. Yuuri stayed, no matter where, no matter the time, brushing hair and kissing sores, giving in when Victor mumbled for him to spoil the shit out of him for a while.
It just hit twice as hard every time it was over.
Victor closed his eyes, the hushed feeling of Yuuri's fingers drawing swirls onto his cheek, his thumb smoothing along the curve of his jaw. He felt him inch closer, breath warm, and when Victor opened his eyes, their foreheads touched and their noses and chins. Yuuri's hand pressed against the dip in his back, towing him towards him. It was the kind of kiss that was barely a kiss, just the gentle, painful promise of it.
"May I feel said he," Yuuri mumbled against his mouth, and the way he almost smiled just then, the way he was so, so close to it. Victor's heart toppled over. "But I'll squeal said she. Just once said he. It's fun said she…" Yuuri kissed his chin. "E.E. Cummings," he singsonged.
Yuuri came his brains out. He was all dewy and gentle and a massive dork with a love for overrated poets.
Maybe Victor would've laughed at that a few months ago, at Yuuri accidentally reminding him that he'd earned an English lit degree before taking the bar exam, because he was one of those crazy geniuses who excelled at anything they put their minds to. He would've called Yuuri a sappy dork, and then he would've made him recite the whole goddamned poem with his dick in his mouth because they were weird like that.
But it didn't feel right. Not anymore.
May I feel said he.
Yuuri looked at him, all moony and expectant, but Victor couldn't give him anything. He had nothing left to give. Yuuri had scraped his body clean.
Letting the afterglow settle in rendered difficult when you knew the world had a tendency to catch up faster than you wanted it to. Because just like that - the punchline to some cosmic joke - Yuuri's phone buzzed, tucked away in his slacks sprawled across the floor.
Victor closed his eyes, felt Yuuri's breath fan his face, felt that wallow in the mattress when he rolled away, the cold that crept up on him so slowly. He listened to Yuuri pad through the room, picking up the phone and clearing his throat, his voice low and distant, the same kind of voice he used when he told Victor to turn around in bed, to face the wall, to look away, when he slapped a wad of cash into Victor's hand and told him to leave.
Victor opened his eyes when he heard the door click shut. Staring at the ceiling, he wondered when he would finally admit he'd lost this game. He'd lost a long, long time ago.
After a few moments of trying to eavesdrop, Victor rolled out of bed, stumbling into the bathroom. He scrubbed and scratched and picked and tore, but Yuuri's mouth stayed, there, on his jaw, here, on his shoulder blade, his hands on his throat, hips, thighs, breath still poured across every inch of skin like a rash. Victor didn't look at himself in the mirror, steam blurring him into nothing but a faceless, nameless blob.
Even after his shower, Yuuri was still on the phone, pacing around the living room, shooting Victor a glance before picking up his wallet from the sofa, pulling out some cash and gesturing for Victor to take it.
"For the cab," Yuuri mouthed, nodding to something said on the other line. "The rest should be in your account by tomorrow." And he turned his back, strolling to the windows with a hand in his pocket, the city below, roiling and breathing in the AM. Reaching the door, Victor glanced over his shoulder one last time.
Yuuri, pressed against the glassed wall like it might just give way, like he might just fall into the night and never look back.
"It's almost morning. You should go."
You should stay.
"I should go."
Victor had always hated it. The whole money part. Which was fucked up considering that was the only part he'd cared about sitting in the library that day - thinking of the water stains on his ceiling, his broken stove, and then his student loans, his mother's mortgage - scrolling down some sketchy escort site, stock photos of champagne glasses and pixel hearts flashing across the screen. The idea of being wanted so badly someone would pay you just to splay you across a mattress.
It was sad to think that back then he'd mistaken loneliness for being wanted.
But sitting in the library, quarter to twelve, the nighttime blues fogging his head, it was easier than ever to be tempted, to dream about shiny cars and expensive debauchery, everything golden and glowing and someone gazing at him over the rim of a wine glass, that haze of wanting in irrational amounts clouding the dinner table, the bar counter, the bed sheets. Miles of skin that wasn't his, all the dips of a different body, the way it curved and shivered and broke apart in his fantasies. The way he made it do these things. The way it did these things to him.
He hadn't known then how empty all of it could make him feel.
And then his first night, the way that stranger had looked at him, all that need, that desperation like a wheezing in his ear, a dog panting. And it felt so good to be wanted so much. All that strange, new violence that didn't feel like violence at all when it was given to you so sweetly.
Maybe he was too caught up in being looked at like he was the only thing that should ever matter. Maybe it was enough for him to say yes, to all of it, to him. He said it so much his tongue went dry.
Was it so bad to want to be wanted - and to be wanted so fully, so senselessly you were sure it would last a lifetime?
And he said yes, said it was okay, and it was okay until it wasn't, until it felt like there was something in him tearing and tearing, never to be closed again, and all that skin above him, the weight, those hands everywhere, latching and unlatching, and those eyes, all that want that reeled him back in. Victor let him take until he had nothing left to give.
After that first night, he locked himself in the bathroom, distracting himself with the fancy little bottles crowding the sink, shampoos, cremes, packaged hand soaps and tiny tubes of toothpaste, the whole shiny tidiness of hotel suites that soared above the city.
He caught sight of himself in the mirror. And he breathed. And he blinked. And it was the first time he understood all the beautiful, unbearable things a body could do to another.
Victor wasn't in it for the money. He was just as helpless and lonely as those men calling him baby boy in their e-mails titled 'Golf Meet-up' or 'Poker Night'.
It was the wanting that made him feel dirtier than the e-mails, the money, the key cards, strangers' hands groping his ass on the way to their hotel room.
And with every other client, it made him feel soiled-through. With Yuuri, it broke his heart.
"I wish we could've met somewhere simpler."
"A crappy wine tasting party?"
"Yeah." Victor smiled at that. "A coffeeshop. And we order the same drink."
"And I ask you if you're hungry."
"But then you realize I'm holding a sandwich."
He screeched when Yuuri pinched his side. "Victor."
"I'm holding a sandwich."
"You're holding a sandwich, and I feel incredibly stupid."
"And then I ask if you'd like to share."
"And I feel a little less stupid."
Yuuri kissed him then, hard enough to leave something in the corner of Victor's mouth. A promise, maybe.
Victor would rather lie in Yuuri's bed than lie to himself. He was done for. This was the way things worked, and he'd take whatever he was given. In another life, another time, maybe, someone would've told him he deserved better. And in another life, another time, maybe, he would've listened.
Sometimes he thought this was the closest he'd ever get to anything worth keeping.
They were being terrible to each other, and wonderful, too, ruthless and gentle and shameful and lovely. They blasted through these motions together, the wind whipping the sense straight out of their skulls. Going at it like the first week they'd met, touching each other in the back of cabs, pressing their feet against their cocks under tables, sucking each other off in bathroom stalls, fucking so loud the neighbors drummed their fists into the walls.
Back then, it was Yuuri needing release and Victor needing someone to hold him through the night. Back then, maybe they needed this because they liked the way they made each other feel. And wasn't that what everything came down to anyways? Falling in love with the feeling someone could give you?
But now, Victor didn't think it was something so simple.
He'd been with Yuuri long enough to know he had no clue how to school his face, how to hide a single thing, the way it popped open like a book on accident every time Victor got too close for comfort. But Yuuri was good at making Victor look the other way, shoving him head-first into the mattress, pressing his chest against the window to take him from behind, yanking his hair over his face like a curtain. And Victor knew. He knew more than Yuuri would've ever trusted him with.
Sometimes he was convinced this was what it was like to be hated by Yuuri Katsuki. And he wondered if being hated by him was just as severe as being loved, the knee-crumpling fury of it, the way it knocked the world right into him and out of him and into him again, being pulled close just to be pushed away.
But - because there was always a fucking but - sometimes Yuuri would do something so small and chaste, and it would leave Victor sitting on the shower floor dazed out of his mind, wondering, those dangerous what-ifs circling his head.
Like last week, just another rainy October night, Yuuri had picked him up in one of his ridiculous cars, and he'd driven around a little longer than necessary. Victor had pretended he hadn't notice Yuuri missing their exit on the highway, city lights glinting along to the songs on the radio, Yuuri's hand reaching out to grip the back of Victor's neck, that gentle, warm pressure, fingers swirling through his hair.
It was in those moments Victor hated you couldn't choose who you cared about, who you hated, who you loved. How the fuck was that fair? How were you supposed to leave something so existential in the hands of coincidence?
What if he'd been given the luxury to choose?
Victor would've chosen not to be charmed by the man who'd stood by the bar those many months ago, something sacred, invincible in the arc of his mouth, the way the whole place yielded to every breath he took, every nimble finger dribbling across the counter. Victor wouldn't have smiled so stupidly when Yuuri turned around to say Victor's name like a blurted secret. Victor wouldn't have agreed to more drinks than one, to spilling truths about himself he hadn't told anyone in years, to trust Yuuri with all those things because he was so good at making him forget his place, who he was, what role he was paid to play. Victor wouldn't have let himself fall for it, all the sweet coaxing in those lounge chairs, the back of that cab, the elevator, the hallway, all the headless haze in the bedroom, being touched the way no one ever had the guts to. Victor would've chosen to duck away when Yuuri kissed him afterwards, still dazed, the way Victor fell pliant against that soft, clever, painful mouth.
Tonight was different.
Yuuri called instead of sending a text, his voice a soft and quaky thing in the dark, barely enough of anything for Victor to catch it through his busted speakers.
Tonight was different.
Victor didn't bother putting on decent clothes before hailing a cab in his pajamas, sneakers splashing through the puddles scattered across the streets. It hadn't rained like this in months.
Tonight was different.
Yuuri opened the door, something dazed in the way he stood there staring like he couldn't remember what Victor was doing at his doorstep in the first place. Victor had never seen him with glasses. He had no clue he needed them. Blue-framed and wiry. They made him look weirdly endearing…like seeing someone in socks for the first time or hearing them sing in the shower.
"Hi." Yuuri smiled.
Tonight was different.
"Hi." Victor smiled back, expecting Yuuri to grab him by his hair, yank him through the flat and slam him face-first into the carpet, the couch, the mattress, the wall. And he hated how much he ached for it, his body buzzing, sparking in the dim lights of the hallway.
But Yuuri's smile didn't waver. He told Victor to come in and sit on the kitchen island, to wait while he poured him a cup of coffee.
Victor felt muddled throughout all of it, shoulders tugged tight and cock throbbing like he expected Yuuri to snap any second and remind him why he'd been called in the first place.
But - because there was always a fucking but - this felt normal. This was quiet, like their afterwards, those soft, soundless moments they spent breathing heavy.
The tameness of this.
Victor hated how much he liked it. Maybe because he couldn't stop staring at Yuuri's face, all low-lit and pliant in ways he never let it be. It felt like Victor could touch Yuuri's cheek and he'd lean into the touch, welcome it, kiss his palm.
Victor hadn't even been here for five minutes, and he was already spiraling into this quaint, new world where Yuuri called, needing, and Victor came, hoping, and they sat on the kitchen counter staring at the steam coiling out of coffee cups, both of them quiet and warm and wondering.
May I feel said he. That haunting question. May I feel. Victor heard it when Yuuri set their mugs down to pull him close, heard it when Yuuri's mouth touched his cheeks, one at a time, the bridge of his nose, his temples, his jaw, opening against Victor's forehead, his hair. Victor heard it when Yuuri breathed in, one time, two times, three, four, five. Weaving his fingers through Victor's ponytail before pulling the scrunchie off, all his hair spilling across his shoulders, down his back. Yuuri said something just then, something that wasn't even English.
Coaxing him into the bedroom, Yuuri didn't yank, didn't push, didn't throw Victor over his shoulder the way he knew Victor loved.
But he took Victor's hand and carefully, so carefully, Yuuri pulled him into the bedroom, onto the bed, helped him out of his clothes like he was breathing them off, letting his jacket fall from his shoulders, his sweats slipping from his hips, pooling around his ankles. There was a coyness in Victor he hadn't felt in the longest time. Shame, almost. Like this was his first anything.
Yuuri pressed his mouth against Victor's cheek before slipping his glasses off and laying them on the bedside table. His hair all messy and soft, swooping into his face. No gel. Finally. And Victor ran his hands through it, sighing, thinking of how young Yuuri looked like this, how gentle. A boy doing warm things for the first time.
Even his hands felt different, all those swift fingers on Victor, searching like they'd never been there before, here, on Victor's abdomen, there, between the hollow of his shoulder blades, the nape of his neck, the swell of his thighs, discovering, dipping into this body Yuuri so readily loved to take apart.
Tonight was different.
Victor couldn't get under Yuuri fast enough, but he stopped when Yuuri pressed his palms against his chest, something sheepish in the way he looked at Victor through trembling lashes.
"No." Barely a word. "This time…I want you to." Yuuri's breath a brush across his cheek, a soft split to his heart.
"Okay," Victor said. "Okay." Watching Yuuri's body unfurl under the weight of him.
And Victor understood. And Victor wanted. For so long, he'd wanted. Yuuri writhing beneath him, this soft, lasting rhythm. All this kissing and brushing, all this quaint shyness like two children unearthing something that felt so right, too young to fathom, too small to know nothing would ever feel this right again in a world that didn't owe you a thing.
Victor's hair tangled across Yuuri's face, glowing like a web of white, his eyes fluttering open and closed, mouth shaking.
"Victor." The way he said his name. "Victor…" The way he never did. "Victor…Victor…Victor…Victor…"
He didn't know how long he laid there, watching Yuuri sleep in that patch of early morning blue climbing through the gaps in the curtains. It was strange seeing him in the daytime. Whatever they were, it was bound to the dark. The two of them and their nocturnal appetites.
But then last night, the gentleness there, Yuuri, so timid when he couldn't rule the world with a stare and a pair of iron-rod shoulders. The way his mouth had quaked, child-like, his body yielding to Victor's touch like he'd trusted him with it, so unbolted, unbarred. All the things they always rushed over and through. All the things they never had the time to feel.
Victor felt closer to something he'd sworn to stay away from. And he hated himself for it, this fucked up fondness he had for ruining himself and letting himself be ruined. He was the kid who jumped off buildings and ran into tornados, yanked his helmet off in space, shoved his head into woodchippers, swallowed firecrackers, buckets of bleach.
The memory of Yuuri breathing into his face, losing himself, You love torturing me, don't you?
I love torturing myself so much more, Victor thought.
Shuffling into the living room in nothing but his hoodie, Victor scraped his fingers along the windows stretched across the walls, that million feet drop into the city grid. Buildings jutting into the clouds like teeth as he traced the skyline with a thumb.
He wondered if Yuuri ever stood here, thinking about the blare of life down below, about Victor, maybe, where he was, who he was with.
Down there, that was all Victor caught himself doing, staring up until his shoulders ached, wondering if Yuuri ever had the time to wonder about Victor wondering too.
He strolled through the apartment, cracking doors open that were always closed, popping his head into the fridge, chugging the leftover wine bobbing in a bottle on the coffee table, slinking into the office to touch the books lining the massive shelves, turning the globe on the desk, dipping his finger into the Atlantic Ocean. Letting his eyes trail the manila envelopes littered across the desk, the makeshift tables made out of stacks of books, this chalk-full burrow, it was the first time he realized Yuuri kept being someone when Victor wasn't around to witness it. A someone with a life. A man with a job, a family, friends, hobbies, triumphs and failures, wishes, memories.
Sometimes Victor thought he didn't know Yuuri Katsuki the way he was supposed to, all those tiny scraps of life that made a whole person, like what gym he went to or if he was scared of clowns, who his first kiss was, the name of his hometown, what music he liked.
Victor was blind and deaf and numb. Yuuri was a feeling.
And knowing him like that…sometimes it felt like he didn't know him at all, and sometimes it felt like he knew him the way no one should know anyone.
A stack of letters balanced on the edge of the desk caught Victor's attention, especially the one on top, yellowed, wilted by coffee stains and time. He'd seen it around since he'd known Yuuri: on the kitchen counter when Yuuri towed Victor into his apartment for the first time, on the leather couch when Yuuri took Victor apart on the living room carpet, on the bedside table the first and last time Yuuri told Victor to stay.
This wilted letter traveling from one corner of the apartment to the other, never opened.
But now, it was torn at the edges as if yanked apart.
He knew he shouldn't. He knew. This tiny voice in his head telling him he was crossing every line he'd set up for himself. But then there it was, the paper coarse between his fingers as he tugged out the card inside. In loopy, indented scrawl, white on black, an invitation to a funeral.
He swallowed, thinking it was all sorts of morbid that a funeral letter could look like a wedding invitation.
The quiet sound of footsteps caught him by surprise. Victor shoved the card back into the envelope, a name flashing at the bottom as he slapped it on the pile of letters.
"Thought you left."
Victor snapped around so quickly his elbow hit a jug of pens. The pang they made when they trickled across the floor. Yuuri flinched. Yuuri never flinched. "Without my pants?" Victor said, breathing heavy as he fell to the floor to collect the pens, squeezing his arm under one of the shelves to reach a stray cap.
Yuuri stared at him, face unreadable. Victor huffed, dusting his knees off as he got back up. He fumbled with the pens in his hands. He slipped one under his sleeve. "I know I shouldn't be in here." Shuffling from one foot to the other, he cleared his throat. "I didn't know you had so many books." It came out a question. He bit his cheek hoping Yuuri would take it.
And he did. Face softening, shoulders slumping.
He had his glasses on again. Victor liked him like this, messy-haired, sleepy and lived-in, not ready to be seen. Yuuri Katsuki without the world around.
"I have more in the storage," Yuuri mumbled, hand hooked around the back of his neck. "Lonely kid, I guess." He shrugged, waving a hand towards the shelves stacked against the high walls, two rickety ladders touching the top, the library of a lifetime.
Victor tried to imagine it, Yuuri, younger and smaller, glasses the size of his face, band-aids on his knees, his little nose wedged into ten books at a time.
"Me too…" Victor mumbled, imagining himself next to that small, bespectacled Yuuri, reciting him his favourite Jules Verne lines, whispering and bumbling, that marvelous feeling of being endlessly wonderstruck by the world. "I think we would've gotten along."
"I was way too shy to get along with anyone."
"You? Shy?" Victor smiled.
"First kid to get a wedgie in third grade," Yuuri said, digging his hands into his pockets. This small tenderness about him now. "And last to be chosen for dodgeball."
"You would've been my first choice."
Yuuri smiled at that, still staring at Victor with that weird look like he didn't understand why he was here. Victor dumped the pens into the jug, pushing it out of reach of his elbows. Yuuri kept his eyes on him as he slinked closer. Victor ran his fingers along the collar of Yuuri's T-Shirt, tugging lightly. Yuuri like this, all sleepy-sweet and confused. "I'm hungry," Victor mumbled. Let me stay, he thought. Let me stay.
Yuuri stilled, and Victor braced for it, the world rushing back like a fist to the face. But Yuuri took a breath and reached out to pull at Victor's hoodie strings, wrapping them around a finger.
"I'll make you something."
Victor smiled. "An omelette?"
"I was thinking toast."
Victor rolled his eyes. "You really know how to spoil a guy."
Yuuri rolled his eyes right back. "Fine."
The two of them carefully softening.
"And pancakes?" Victor tried.
"Don't push it."
And Yuuri kissed him, and Victor let himself tip over, God, he let himself.
He let himself, over and over again as he watched Yuuri bob his head along to the song on the radio, cracking eggs while Victor tried to chop onions without tearing up. But he did. Because fuck onions. And Yuuri laughed - laughed - crinkle-eyed, erupted, so hard he toppled over, before pulling Victor close to kiss one eyelid at a time. That mouth thrumming against his lashes.
It was so easy to think this was easy.
But later, at the living room table, watching Yuuri fumble with his fork, his shock of bed-rumpled hair, his quiet grumbling in the morning glow - Victor could feel something coming to an end.
He felt like nowadays that was the only thing that ever happened. Everything was a let-go.
Yuuri placed their empty plates in the sink, strolling into the bedroom and coming back out with a wad of cash.
Victor could feel the words leave his mouth before he heard them. "I don't want you to pay me for that. For last night."
Yuuri stopped, eyebrows scrunched so hard they balled in the middle of his face like fists. He cleared his throat. "Don't be ridiculous. Take it."
"Victor." Now that was the way he usually said his name, impatient and demanding whenever he thought Victor was acting his age. "Take it. Please."
"Because that's the way this works."
Yuuri stepped towards him. Victor stepped back. "I don't want it."
"Victor, stop acting like -"
"I'm not a fucking child." But he felt like one, bumbling and blurting in clothes three sizes too big, puddled around himself, his sleeves spaghettied across the floor.
Yuuri exhaled, tearing his hair back. "Please." It didn't sound like a please. It was a stop, a don't, a leave.
"It meant something," Victor said, his own voice lodged in the middle of his head. He didn't sound like himself.
Yuuri flinched, the second time today, like someone bracing for something. But he caught himself.
Victor imagined he could see the Yuuri from back then, softly folded into him like the pit of a tree trunk, all band-aids and books, glasses and bug-bit legs.
He wanted to hold that Yuuri until he didn't remember what they felt like apart.
"Don't read into things." Yuuri said, slapping the money on the table and walking to the sink, letting water run over their dirty dishes, the rush of it almost loud enough to cover up what he said next. "Especially things you don't understand."
Victor blinked. Hands to fists. "I think I understood just fine when my cock was up your ass." He didn't mean to raise his voice, and he didn't mean to say it like that either. But he could see the panic now, wedged in Yuuri's throat, the way he couldn't stop swallowing. Turning off the faucet, he stayed quiet. So quiet. Yuuri stayed quiet, and it made Victor want to kick and scream this whole building to the ground.
"Admit it." Loud. "Just admit it." He could feel all that pressure clog his ears, that roiling in his stomach making him go dizzy. "It meant something. Why can't you just say it?"
And Yuuri stood there, back against the sink, ripping his glasses off his face and wedging the bridge of his nose between his fingers. "I pay you. You work for me. That's it." Something in Victor made a horrible sound. "Look, please just take the money and leave."
Those words spiraling. "Work for you…" Victor stumbled towards him, jabbing his finger into Yuuri's chest so hard he lost his grip on his glasses. They clacked against the floor. But Yuuri didn't move. He was so still and so far away, and Victor couldn't reach him.
"I don't work for you. I let you fuck me because you're too emotionally constipated to have a relationship with anything other than my asshole." Victor wanted him to shout back. He wanted him to be mean and horrible and loud, to be anything other than this. Quiet. Yuuri was always so fucking quiet. And for once, just this once, Victor wanted Yuuri to blow through it for something that mattered.
"I don't want your money." He didn't remember storming out until he heard the front door slam shut behind him. He wasn't wearing any pants. He stood there, whiplashed, yanking at the strings of his hoodie before stuffing them into his mouth and biting down so hard his jaw cracked.
The door whipped open. Yuuri held Victor's backpack and the rest of his clothes, wild-eyed, cheeks blotched, like a kid that just stumbled out of the Tilt-A-Whirl. Victor shook himself, tore his things out of Yuuri's hands, stomping down the hallway before Yuuri could get a good look at what he could do to him.
And fuck him. Fuck him. "Fuck you!" But the door slammed shut before Victor could take it back.
It took him five tries to get his pants on, seven to tie his shoelaces, three to get himself to breathe, a hundred to not run back to the person who'd ruined him for anyone else.
His grandmother used to say heartache had a colour, the way the moon did or a kiss goodbye.
He didn't have to wonder anymore. He'd always crawl right back.
Everyone told you the addicts were the smokers, the drinkers, the jittery messes powdering their nose with a credit card in a bathroom stall.
Not you. Never you. No, you just had bad little habits, dismissive indiscretions. You were nothing like those meth-hungry lunatics slicked to the side of the road.
You were worse.
"You're not supposed to be here." Yuuri sounded like the buzz on your skin after a thunderclap.
Victor took a step back.
There was a magnitude to him in a place like this, a holiness Victor had only glimpsed upon in the bedroom. But here, above the clouds, in this labyrinth of desks and glass, suit jackets, pencil skirts, keyboards clacking, it was blown out of proportion.
He ruled the sky.
"I know," Victor felt himself say. But he couldn't hear a word. He was all white noise. "I know, I just - " He swallowed. "I wanted to give you this." Biting his cheek so hard his shoulders shot up, he dug into the pockets of his sweats and grabbed the one thing he never thought he'd end up wanting to keep. With a shaky breath, he placed the key on Yuuri's desk, pressing his fingers to it far too long to seem necessary.
Victor blinked, the memory of seeing it for the first time flashing through his head.
That strange, perfect night, in the blur of having had one too many drinks, the two of them stumbled out of the cab, and Victor bounded across the sidewalk, twirling to the sound of that street basker strumming on her guitar one block away. The way he sighed into the sky when the rain came tumbling down, the way Yuuri laughed like he didn't know how to stop, the loveliness of him. He made all the lights go out, one by one by one. And he tugged at Victor's hair, so lightly, stopping him mid-twirl to pull him under his umbrella, smiling down. Victor looked up at him the way he looked at the moon. And Yuuri took his hand then, curling the key into his palm, and Victor felt like Yuuri had given him one of his fingers, his toes, a string of hair, a pinch of a thought.
That key in his hand. The sound of the night.
Victor shook his head, trying to blink away the memory.
Yuuri stared at the key on the desk. He wasn't wearing his glasses. His hair slicked back and stiff, the pouches under his eyes. His suit made him look like another piece of furniture in his office: featureless, there out of necessity.
"You could've just left it in my mailbox," Yuuri said.
How? How could he have just left it in a mailbox? Yuuri hadn't given Victor a key to his apartment that night. He'd given him a come-in.
"I know," Victor said under his breath. He felt faded, hardly here, the memory of the last few days like a fever dream. Sitting haze-faced in the back of lecture halls, in the cafeteria, in the library trying to punch himself through essay after essay, every word he'd written floating away.
He hardly remembered coming here either, storming past the security in the lobby, the insistent shouts of the receptionist like a parakeet's, through office after office, people giving him dodgy looks over computer screens and cubicles. He was out of place, standing there in his sweats and a four-day-old hoodie, that ugly taste of not-enough-sleep sticking his tongue to the roof of his mouth.
"I know," Victor said again. Maybe he didn't say it at all. Maybe I did want to see you. Maybe I did. I did. I did want to see you. I want to. I want. I want. I want you. No, I don't. I do. Do I? Do I hate you? I do. I can't. Not you.
These words gushing through his head, wallowing around like water in a tub.
Victor barely registered the two men walking through the door, big and bulky, coiled earpieces on them like those secret agents on TV. Yuuri gave them a nod. The king and his henchman.
Victor couldn't feel the floor beneath him. One of the men grabbed his arm, hard enough to make him flinch. He couldn't move.
"I'm sorry," Yuuri pressed out, and how his face fell so suddenly, like a thread pulled out, skin collapsing. But he turned his back before Victor could catch a glimpse of the rest.
Victor closed his eyes, feeling like a child that hoped the world couldn't see him if he couldn't see it.
He got a phone call in the middle of the night, shaken awake in the midst of a day-by-day drone of flash cards and textbooks strewed across his bedroom floor. He had highlighter stains on his hands.
It was him. Victor would know his voice at the end of everything.
He swallowed. He could feel him right there, mouth to ear, his breath, the way he could say his name. The only way.
Victor's head rumbled, the senseless clutter of things he needed to say, things far more confused than angry, but all he managed was, "Why?"
Static. Yuuri's heavy breathing. The sound of a radio, the rumble of streets zooming by. Victor could feel him out there in the night, the street lights warming his skin through the windshield. "I don't know." A crackle.
Victor's eyes fluttered closed. "Not good enough." He hung up. He felt his heart thump like someone had tipped it over.
He hid his phone under his pillow the way he used to hide his baby teeth, those tiny triumphant things, waiting for the magic to happen, the impossible. It was strange to think how some things would never change.
Yuuri didn't call back.
He got a text two days later.
Victor deleted it. And then he spent two hours googling how to un-delete a text.
Victor woke to the sound of an engine rumbling up the narrow alleys. Sleep-drunk, he wiped a hand across his face. The sound of a car driving away. A clink, glass shattering on the pavement.
He stumbled to the nearest window, catching sight of a shadow floundering up to his building, the flash of a streetlight slicking across that gelled head.
He knew. He knew, and he wanted to throw something at him, all of his plates, his bed, his fridge, wanted to tell him to go away, to stay, to come in, to kiss him, to fuck off, to kiss him again and again and again and again.
He clenched his eyes shut.
Waiting for a knock on the door, he pressed his forehead against the cool glass of his window, trying to count the seconds that droned by but never getting past ten. He didn't have enough time to feel ashamed as he scrambled to the door at the sound of a knock, pressing his face against it, Yuuri, all big, balloon-y through the peephole. Cheeks puffed red. He'd been drinking.
Victor let his forehead fall against the door and tried to steady his breathing.
A soft thud. He imagined Yuuri tipped over, the two of them forehead to forehead, a quiet knowing strung between them.
"Victor's not home…" he mumbled.
"Victor." The way he could say his name. "Victor."
His jaw clenched.
His hand reached for the lock, the flakey metal biting into his skin.
This was him taking his helmet off in space. He was chugging a bucket of bleach.
And he opened the door, and Yuuri tumbled in, dove right into his chest.
Air knocked out. Thoughts knocked out, too. The world, maybe. Victor felt empty for a moment until everything came flooding back in, crashing through and through and through.
"I'm sorry." Yuuri pressed against his neck, sloppy-mouthed. Smoke. The sweet musk of alcohol. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." Against Victor's forehead and chin, every inch of skin Yuuri could reach. "So fucking sorry." Right there, against his chest. "Sorry."
Victor's body rocked through the force of it. How much he'd missed the way his head slotted into the space between Yuuri's shoulder and neck, the way their hips met, their legs tangled, fingers fisting hair. Victor sighed into him, falling into those slurred sorries Yuuri littered across every inch of Victor's face.
I'm sorry, too. I'm sorry. For what we can do to each other, I'm sorry.
He didn't know how long they stayed like that, knotted together so tightly he couldn't remember which part was whose. Finally managing to pull Yuuri towards the kitchen, Victor settled him into a chair and whispered for him to wait while he fixed him a cup of tea. Yuuri didn't touch it, his head dangling above the mug, eyes closed as the steam whorled across his face.
He looked a little out of place sitting in Victor's cluttered studio apartment, Yuuri, in the midst of sticky, bottom-ringed mugs and wilting plants, hoards of tented takeout pamphlets, Yuuri, who was used to shiny cars, leather chesterfields and restaurants that served you half a pea on a plate.
"Nice place," Yuuri said, head wobbling on his shoulders. He was trying too hard not to look drunk.
Victor nudged his head to the side. "My mom calls it a gypsy caravan."
"I like it." Yuuri rolled his eyes up to stare at the paper snowflakes dangling from the cracked lamp Victor had tried to fix with duct tape. Eyebrows scrunched, he said, "It's September. "
"It's almost December."
Yuuri coughed up a laugh. "It's always almost December."
"Not really." He squeezed himself into the chair wedged between the window and the fridge. "They're from last year," Victor mumbled. "I'm lazy."
Yuuri pointedly stared at the Christmas tree Victor had twisted out of fairy lights and taped to the narrow strip of wall jutting out between peeling movie posters. He blinked.
There was a tautness between them, the leftovers of the last few weeks still thick in the air. Victor felt like saying something just to say something.
Eyes flicking over the mess sprawled across the desk and the bed, Yuuri smiled when he eyed the crowded bookshelves. "You were right," he said, careful and slow, tiptoeing. "We would've gotten along."
Something in Victor unknotted. He'd been holding his breath. He allowed himself to smile at that, thinking of themselves, younger and smaller, sitting here on these rickety chairs with their legs dangling in the air, their little fingers and toes, their magic-manic minds. The things they would've whispered to each other.
Yuuri picked at his crumpled suit jacket for a moment, the gentle mumble of Victor's TV softening the silence. Slowly, he slumped out of the chair, maneuvering his way across Victor's minefield of a floor before standing still at the foot of the bed, staring at the rumpled sheets. He flopped into the mess, mattress sloshing. The creak of the bed frame. Yuuri's little sigh. He patted the blanket and the textbooks jutting out between pillows, eyeing the highlighters tiredly before grabbing one and waving it through the air. "Midterms?"
Victor gave him a painful smile. "Unfortunately." Earning him a laugh and a knowing nod.
It was quiet again. Victor watched the rise and fall of Yuuri's shoulders, a few stray hairs sticking up at the back of his head. He swallowed. He caught himself almost tiptoeing as he made his way over, stopping when his knees bumped against Yuuri's feet dangling out of the bed. Victor pulled his shoes off, helped him peel off his jacket and pants, undid his cuffs, one at a time, the top buttons of his shirt. Yuuri like this, so easy and tender, not putting up a fight, not looking away.
Yuuri sighed at the freedom, rolling into the sheets, blinking blearily as he looked up at Victor. He smiled. Victor felt his legs bend away beneath him, all of him sinking so slowly.
"Come here," Yuuri mumbled.
And Victor did. Because he always would.
Breathing heavy, he let Yuuri pull him under. Sheets slept-in and crumpled around them. The blinking Christmas tree. Yuuri's eyelids beating. The colour of his mouth. Some screwy commercial bustling on the TV.
Victor laid his palm on Yuuri's cheek, lids twitching when Yuuri pressed his face further into Victor's hand, the warmth of him, the quiet valleys of his face up close.
Yuuri's hand smoothed against the dip in Victor's back, fingers dribbling, piano-tinkering across the strip of skin between sweater-hem and sweats. They stayed so still. They breathed and blinked, and Victor felt the whole world rush over their heads.
"Something happened," Yuuri whispered, brows scrunched tightly together. So much pain in a face you could dig into it, shovel it out by the tons. "Something always happens," he said. "I don't understand why it can't just stop." He didn't sound like the man Victor had met in that office that day, the man in the sky, or the man in that bar, the man in those beds, the man in that kitchen who'd told him to take the money and leave, the man who'd only ever wanted him to look away.
This was the Yuuri he wasn't allowed to meet.
Victor pulled him close, Yuuri's face to his chest, his chin dug into that gelled hair. "I'm leaving." Yuuri's words cut into his collarbones. Victor wondered if he'd feel them there in the morning, see them carved, swollen. "I'm leaving."
He could feel it like a hum. Home.
He swallowed. "Japan." It left a strange taste in his mouth. "That's like - " He swallowed again. "That's really far away."
Yuuri nodded. "I'm sorry," he said, clasping the back of Victor's head to pull him closer. "I'm so sorry." His labored breaths. "There's nothing I can give you." He was so unfurled like this. Carefully cracked open. "I'm so sorry."
Victor never thought Yuuri had the guts to say the things you were not supposed to say out loud.
"I know." Because maybe there was nothing for Victor to give either. Because maybe for so long, he'd kept giving and giving without thinking about how much he'd have left for himself in the end. "I know," he said again, because maybe he did.
The silence that fell was louder than the stuttering buzz of the fridge, the TV. Victor fisted Yuuri's shirt so hard his knuckles cracked.
Maybe this wasn't the right place, the right time. Maybe they weren't even the right people.
"Tomorrow's my last day."
Victor could feel the question looming above their heads.
Will you come with me?
It felt like such an unbelievable thing. And in your head, that was what you did, those unbelievable, awful, perfect things, but outside of it, you knew better.
Come with me.
He couldn't. He wouldn't. And maybe that was okay. There was only so much you could understand about someone when you didn't even know them outside of a bed. Maybe this was all they were supposed to have.
Victor couldn't look away. Yuuri's pain. He looked lifetimes older than anyone was built for.
And he couldn't stop thinking about that wilted letter. That same last name. Katsuki. A cousin, maybe. An uncle. A grandfather. Or maybe someone even closer. A brother. Did Yuuri have a sister? Was he an only child?
Who did you lose?
Curled into him up close, those eyes glassy and somber in the low lights, Victor wondered if people ever told Yuuri he looked like his father. His mother. Maybe he didn't look like them at all. Maybe people saw him and thought he belonged to no one.
"It's okay," Victor said. "It's going to be okay." Because it had to be. Fuck, it had to. "It's going to be okay." Smoothing his fingers through Yuuri's hair, the gel waxy against his skin. He didn't like it. He liked Yuuri with his messy, rumpled hair and his glasses and his sweats and his dumb beautiful E.E. Cummings poems and his omelettes and his smiles.
His smiles. They made all the lights go out.
Yuuri kissed him and kissed him again, and Victor kissed him back, making sure every one of them counted more than the last.
There was an indent in the mattress the next morning. Every time Victor closed his eyes, he imagined he'd open them to Yuuri, sleepy, messy-haired, smiling. He let his fingers smooth over the cold patch there, imagining Yuuri's arm, the smooth curve of his hip against his hand.
"It's going to be okay," Victor whispered.
He felt sixteen again, heart torn by the boy who'd smoked on the back of his pickup outside the crumbly diner on Durham road. Some college kid, there for the summer, scarred chin, wandering eyes. Victor kissed him in the backseat of that pickup one week later, lured by that crooked smile and that promise of filthiness older boys seemed to be soaked with, their godliness, the way you thought they knew all of it and they'd done all of it, and there was so much of everything they could show you.
Victor remembered those calloused hands on him, his sweaty gym T-shirt wedged under his hips, the weight and the pain and the fastness. How easy you could lose something that never felt so sacred until it was gone.
He saw himself in the rearview mirror after. And his mouth felt open in ways it had never been before, dipped, deepened, his tongue swollen. He swore it would never close again.
They met in his pickup a couple more times after that, in the woods at night, far away from anyone and anything. The radio, the cracked windows, sweat, open mouths, the Little Tree dangling from the rearview mirror like a pendulum, entrancing, Victor's eyes on it as the whole car rocked back and forth and back and forth, the sounds of the woods climbing in once they were wet and done. The way it sounded like the trees were walking so slowly, one mighty, sluggish step at a time.
In those moments, Victor felt like he was finally hearing it all, seeing and feeling it all for the first time, the magnitude of the world.
And when he told Victor he was the most beautiful thing that had ever mattered, Victor believed him, because in those moments how couldn't he? And when he asked Victor to keep them a secret because things so special shouldn't be anything but, he did, because in those moments why wouldn't he?
He promised Victor he'd never let go until he did. It was the end of summer, the end of everything, and Victor felt himself crumble away.
Back then, you didn't have a clue you'd get to know that feeling so much you'd grow a tolerance. Back then, you thought you were invincible. You knew everything. You were everything. You had the universe spinning in your palms, and you were so impatient to just crack it open like a cherry ball, dig out all its beautiful, aching ways. And yet you thought nothing would change and nothing would end and no one would ever leave you.
His mother used to say those were the building blocks of life: things began just so they could end; people said hello just to say goodbye.
He missed Yuuri's skin at night. He missed his eyes in the morning.
Victor was paid to have dinner with a man twice his age. He was quiet, quaint, smiled a lot, and he told Victor he looked just like his wife when he slipped him into lingerie, spending half an hour making out with Victor's feet before flinging him around the bed like a rag doll, telling him he was perfect, telling him he deserved better than this while he fucked Victor's face with his fingers bolted into his skull.
And Victor closed his eyes, imagined someone else's fingers drawing swirls into his cheeks, kissing his forehead, opening his chest with a touch, brushing his hair, that gentle, familiar voice curled into his ear. May I feel said he. May I feel.
Slumped in the shower afterwards, hollow-headed, Victor turned the water so hot his skin slid off.
But Yuuri stayed. Here and there and here. Yuuri stayed.
It was buried at the bottom of his gym bag, neon green like a glowstick. The pen he'd slipped under his sleeve in Yuuri's office.
Victor locked it in a two-day-old oyster pail and stuffed it into the bottom of his thrash.
He'd washed his sheets four times that week, scrubbed his kitchen table clean, the chairs, the floor. But he still felt him, still saw him every time he wanted to see him the least. Yuuri, the thought of him, slicking back his gelled hair in the mirror, that strand of stray hair always diving across his forehead, the way he'd snap his fingers undoing his cuffs, magician-like. The soft skin under his wrist, that boyish, knowing tug to his mouth when he wanted Victor to know he needed him right then and there, a bathroom stall, a narrow doorway. All that dumb, senseless excitement. How Yuuri could hold him, all-encompassing, the heat of him, and Victor would feel like nothing out there could ever reach him.
Sometimes he lied in bed and pressed a pillow to his back just to lose himself a little, pretend Yuuri was right there, breathing. And Victor let his fingers trail his body, mapping out all the places Yuuri had touched and mouthed, bit apart and kissed together, remembering the way Yuuri unfolded him so artfully until he didn't know how to put himself back together again.
Victor felt him, and he thought of him, and he saw him in places and things and people, and it felt like it would never ever stop.
No one told you the living could haunt you just as much as the dead.
She came at the strangest of times. Her, tired and weary in those patched overalls they'd bought from a flee market in China Town, that stained Coca-Cola sweater, those beat-up sneakers shoved into the drawer of an old commode at a thrift store, gum roped into the yellowed sole.
She came at night, the memory of her. And she stayed for a moment, brushing back his hair the way she used to, braiding it just to weave her fingers through it afterwards, little leftover waves framing his face in the morning.
He thought of her. Sometimes he thought he even missed her.
People saw Victor's mother and thought she must've been a model once, a movie star, her whole old-school, limelight loveliness, the kind of linger she left in every room, like the tingle of a kiss, that intimate, bodily magic of hers.
His father used to say she was the kind of women you wrote poems about and slathered across a canvas. A born muse. But Victor never thought of her as someone who sat on pedestals, quiet and tame, collecting love letters in her lap.
Maybe that was just the way you looked at your mother when you weren't even tall enough to look over countertops. Back then, you swore they were the mightiest people in the universe.
She wasn't the muse. She was the artist, the poet, the maker of great, great things.
But she never believed him. Maybe if she had, maybe if she'd listened to Victor instead of those hollow words of a man who'd left them after a cheek-slapping, plate-smashing fight in the kitchen - they wouldn't have ended up the way they had. Living in her friends' guest bedrooms and basements and acquaintances' cellars, anywhere there was space for two. Victor, waking up to portraits lining walls and dressers of people he didn't know, families he didn't belong to. The two of them like stranded astronauts.
In the end, she'd said once - sitting in a murky-swirled bathtub at some motel between towns promising something 'more permanent' - cigarette in hand, head swimming in a fishbowl of smoke, people are going to choose who you are for you, what you're good for, where you're needed. You stop fighting it, eventually. You stop fighting at all. The way the fluorescent lights had made her brittle box-dyed hair look like powder.
She told him she'd done it because she needed change. Staring at her colour-stained hands, like she'd dipped them into a flowerpot, he didn't understand how anyone would ever want anything to change. But maybe he understood she'd done it to look…lesser. Less like herself. Less like anyone at all.
But she couldn't, even like that, dressed in saggy sweaters, face forever shrouded by cigarette smoke, she was always the prettiest thing in the room.
And every time Victor looked at himself in the mirror, he hoped he wouldn't end up like that box-dyed, bleary-eyed woman waiting to be someone else's purpose.
But everyone said you ended up like your parents anyways. You ended up like them, and you ended up with people like them, and sometimes you swore you could feel it under your skin, the curse of a bloodline brewing in the pit of you.
Victor never thought of putting an end to himself. But he thought of ways he could leave himself behind, peel his face off, shed his skin and walk away. Like box-dying his hair, chopping it off and plunging it down the toilet, moving from one town to the next, always running, always dunking his head into fishbowls of smoke.
Just to be someone new.
Except maybe it was never about being someone new. Maybe it was about being someone you've always been, the most private part of you, allowing yourself to want other things, newer things. Maybe it was about changing instead of letting go.
And Victor loved her, he did, but he'd promised himself that day, chubby-limbed, climbing into the sink of that motel bathroom after she was sound asleep on the blotchy sheets. Face squashed to the mirror, he breathed and breathed, the glass fogging, and he swore then…I'm not my mother.
He wouldn't be told what he was good for, where he belonged and who he belonged to.
He'd be the artist, the poet, the maker of great, great things.
"Victor! There you are." Bleached curls fuzzy in the blinking Christmas lights, Chris popped out of a group waving him over. "Guys, this is Victor. Yes, he's beautiful, and yes, he's very, very single, and now that we've got that out of the way, Elias' calissons are calling me." Twirling through the bunch of flushed faces, wine glass wobbling as he patted Victor's shoulder before he maneuvered his way to the kitchen.
Victor smiled. He was good at it lately, flashing his teeth enough to feel it, almost enough to mean it too.
He introduced himself, swapped a few words before moving on to the next group of people he'd seen around campus, his smiles softening with each splash of wine Chris poured into his glass when he wasn't looking.
And he liked this, everyone pleasantly buzzing, calm conversations, Frank Sinatra humming in the living room, the snow whirling outside. Chris knew how to throw a dinner party. And Elias knew how to make calissons. And this was good. They were good. They were easy.
Victor had met Chris in his art history class, the two of them hitting it off after they realized the only reason they paid attention was because Mr. Shepherd's mustache was probably just as entrancing as a trapeze artist, the way it twisted and flounced and whirled, an endless array of tricks up its tiny hairy sleeves.
They hadn't even known each other a full week before Chris had suggested Victor crashed on their couch until he found another place, after hearing Victor had had to give up his apartment. He'd quit his job. His hotel room nightshifts.
Sometimes it felt like a burden, and then sometimes he felt relieved. Other times he felt weirdly barren. Like he didn't know what to do with himself, how to just…be. For once, he didn't want to need someone and need to be needed. And it was hard. It was hard to learn how to be alone without feeling lonely.
Chris and Elias were good at getting him up and out of the house, kept him busy, kept his mind off things. They were sweet together, the two of them, like those old married couples on 80's sitcoms, squabbling and making up and squabbling again. The way they made it look so easy. The way they made Victor understand it didn't have to be so complicated, so irrational and sporadic. The way they made Victor wonder if he'd ever get to have something like that.
Chris tried to introduce him to a couple of guys. They were nice. And Victor would give in at times, let them pull him close in the back of a bar, steal a kiss or two in a booth, feel that soft heat of closeness he'd missed, sometimes starved for. In bed, they all felt the same. It was always just and it was never enough. And maybe that was the way it was supposed to be. And maybe that was okay.
Tonight Chris introduced him to a guy he knew from some campus swim meet. Daniel or Derek. Victor forgot.
He was eager, talkative, quirking up every time Victor smiled at his jokes ruined by him stuttering to explain the punchlines. But he was sweet, and Victor liked his glasses. Dark-framed and wiry. The familiarity of it. And Victor had had one too many glasses of wine to feel ashamed.
They leaned against the window by the Christmas tree, the sill covered by an extensive collection of snow globes, those little white tufts swirling around miniature Santa's and snow-caked houses. Daniel-Derek droned on about gasoline prices and the weather and CrossFit, and Victor nodded and smiled, listening until his voice hummed in the back of his head as he stared out the window.
The moon floating somewhere up there, above the clouds and the snow, alone but not lonely.
Sometimes he looked up wondering if Yuuri did too, wondering if Yuuri was wondering about Victor wondering.
And Victor smiled, balmy, and he felt it. Felt Yuuri somewhere out there in the world, beating and alive, and for now, finally, it felt like enough.
I miss you less.
On some days, I forget to miss you at all.
Wiping the condensation off the bathroom mirror, Victor looked at himself, smooth and strange, all his body-wonders tucked tight against his skin. Every day it looked less like something that belonged to someone and more like something that belonged. Just belonged.
Sometimes he touched himself, and everything fell into place, until it fell apart, until it tumbled together again, until he wasn't okay, until he was, until he was whole, until he wasn't.
It got easier, and then it didn't, but maybe strangely enough that was the point of it all. Nothing was ever going to be the kind of right you always kept hoping for. The right feeling or the right time. The right person.
Maybe that was something everyone had to live with one way or another.
And that thought healed more than it hurt.
He remembered his grandmother lying in that hospital bed, the way the pillows had puffed around her powdery bones like a clamshell. She'd forgotten his name on some days, forgotten his face on others, forgotten her own on the worst. She used to say strange things, mumbling them in a half-sleep like she was casting spells. A soft, old witch. The kind of woman who'd lived her life according to the moon calendar, wrapped in scarves and spiced perfumes, her earlobes stretched from wearing cuffs the size of fists. She'd handed out healing crystals like gum drops, swirling runes onto the back of Victor's hands with her kohl eyeliner and telling him to sprinkle pepper in a glass of milk to fend off evil spirits.
She was a fruitcake. And she'd said fruitcake-y things. But then sometimes, quietly, she'd said things that mattered, that meant something, words that carried a memory and a feeling, heavy enough for Victor to feel them like she'd pricked them into his skin.
He remembered the last few nights before she came to an end, the glaring lights of the hospital room, some moth flapping against the tubes above, the drawn curtains bobbing to the throb of the machines, pulsing like a heartbeat.
And she'd looked at him, lifetimes sunken into those glassy eyes as she tumbled into her past, whispering and wheezing about the first time his grandfather had asked her out to the movies in his cherry-red hardtop convertible. The way they'd sung along to Frankie Avalon, the way they'd kissed at every red light. And the wind, she mumbled, it made our hair fly. It stung my eyes. So I kept them closed. I kept them closed, and he was so beautiful, and I swore nothing in the world would ever hurt again. She cried then, big, dollop-y tears caught in the folds of her wrinkled face.
Don't try to forget it, she said, pulling him so close the syrupy twang of medicine made his eyes sting. Someone got close enough to leave you with something. Hand on her heart. Honor it. For better or for worse, honor the love that changed you at all.
❖ One year later ❖
Standing in the bustling coffee shop outside of campus, the glittery leftovers of New Year's Eve littered across the snow-shoveled street outside, Victor heard his name being called from behind the counter.
But he couldn't move.
He'd waited fifteen whole minutes for one stupid cup of stupid coffee, hungover, sleep-deprived, hating how his coffee machine had decided to give up today of all days.
Today of all days…
There he was, and he couldn't feel his legs. He couldn't feel his hands either. And his chest. And his head. All the thoughts in it dormant.
Rumpled hair. Blue-framed glasses. There he was, face buried in a scarf, his hands dug into the pockets of his coat. There he was.
He'd burst through the double doors so hard everyone whipped around. The clank of coins scattering across the floor as someone lost their grip on their wallet.
There he was, and he hadn't changed at all.
Victor swallowed. He'd thought of this moment, of what the weather would be like and what he'd be wearing and what kind of people they'd be. But things never seemed to happen the way you hoped for. There was never going to be a right time, a right anything.
"We order the same drink." He couldn't hear himself. He didn't even know if Yuuri remembered, the two of them in that hotel bed with their legs tangled, their fingers and thoughts, the hum of the air conditioner like white noise. A lifetime ago.
Yuuri grabbed his scarf, pulling it down, cheeks blotched red from the cold. His face. That face. He cleared his throat. "And I ask if you're hungry." He couldn't hear Yuuri either. "What about the sandwich?"
Victor blinked. The sandwich. He'd forgotten all about the sandwich. "Fuck the sandwich."
And he smiled, and Yuuri smiled back, and he felt it, all the lights going out. One by one by one.