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Gains and Losses

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It begins with devastating frustration on his part, with monstrous vanity on mine.

Yes, monstrous. Disgusting, in fact, coming to think of it. I’d imagined myself proving as brilliant a coach as I was a sportsman; showing Yakov that whatever he could do I could do just as well, or better; showing the skating world that whatever I put my hand to I succeeded at, because I was the champion with a golden touch.

The Japanese boy seemed nice and the way he skated my routine enticing, even if far from perfect. The memories of that wild dance-off helped; I thought I stood a chance for a very pleasant affair. But I came to Japan for myself, not for him.

And then, at some point I cannot really specify, my focus shifts.

He is talented, but not spectacularly so; he is not myself or that kid demon, Plisetsky. He is shy, nervous, very unsure of himself – no wonder, after the defeats he’d suffered – and most of his achievements come from application and very hard work.

But… what fun he is!

After he gets over his shock over my coming and, getting to know me as a real person, shakes off the shackles of hero worship, our friendship grows day by day. We run races along the beach, we chase each other around the rink, shrieking with laughter, we enjoy eating together, we talk about our lives. I learn that he has a degree in chemistry, in which he is ahead of me, for I have no university education, but on the other hand I am much better read – just because I like reading – and more widely travelled, so I have more stories to tell. So we find each other interesting. Under his shyness and self-doubt I discover a solid core of integrity, a gentle sense of humour and a nature mild but strong, a true rock.

Our relationship as mentor and pupil alters parallel to these discoveries. He learns not to be uneasy around me. I learn to handle him. At first I feel as if I were taming a quivering fawn; then it turns out that when he stops thinking about his inadequacies, real or imagined, he’s fine. The thing is to keep his mind occupied. On the ice, however, he takes criticism in his stride. He pays attention to my comments and corrects his faults. Intrigued by this inconsistency, I begin to explore it. When we’re at the rink, I tease him. I bait him. I infuriate him at times. He learns to resist me; just a little at first. Then one day we share a satisfying shouting match. His spoken English, once halting, gets more fluent, his accent less strong. And, although slowly, he improves as a skater.

My questions as to his sexuality dissolve, all thoughts of an affair vanish. I stop coming on him, which I admit I was doing rather heavily at the beginning and which alarmed him no end. I am just enjoying each passing day and revelling in the companionship. I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncomplicatedly happy in my life.

Then Yuriy Plisetsky arrives with his wild demands and the relationship changes again. I can see Yuri withdrawing into himself and there is suddenly much less fun.

This is when I see how he reacts to my half-joking proposal that he should seduce me with his skating. My eyes open. He… he does want me. There is no way now I would go back to Russia with our annoying young wolf. But, in truth, the poor kid never stood a chance. For Agape is a far more difficult love than Eros. It takes an adult – and then not every one – to comprehend it. Yuriy, Yurio as they dub him here, is fifteen. And Yuri is already seeking his own Eros, although he is not yet aware of it.

I rigged the contest mercilessly. Sue me.

Yuri tells me that he wants to go on eating his favourite katsudon with me. He wants to be katsudon to me. This may sound absurd, especially as a discovery of one’s erotic side, but knowing how we both love to eat… The idea of being favourite food to a cherished person is almost poetic. I realise that I might have stumbled upon something, someone, special here. Over the next few days I feel stunned. I chase him with my eyes as he skates. We have always been tactile in our friendship, neither of us finding it disconcerting, for sport, even men’s singles figure skating, makes physical touch inevitable. But now I feel a constant desire to hug him, to feel his body close to mine, even for a brief moment. I can hardly restrain myself.

He responds. I catch him once or twice looking at me, his eyes veiled, a quickly concealed expression of longing on his face. One day he leans over me from behind as I am sitting and brushes the nape of my neck, lightly as a butterfly. I’ll never know if it was a kiss, a touch or just a breath. In any case, I quiver all over, but I pretend I haven’t noticed the caress. Another time he impulsively presses the top of my head with one finger and I freeze, transfixed, at the contact. We both laugh it off as a joke.

***

I’ve come to trust him. Because he is careful with my feelings. He does not trespass on where I don’t want him to enter. So, little by little, I open up to him, a thing I’ve never done before, to anyone. When I relate some past experience or emotion that was important to me, he asks tactful questions and helps me draw conclusions. He often answers with a memory of his own. It feels good to have someone to share my thoughts with.

He is kind. And optimistic. And witty. And great fun. And he is so very much at home in his perfect body. Awkward as I am, I envy him this relaxed grace.

All my impressions of him overlap, coalesce, and slowly it occurs to me that I may have fallen in love with him.

The real him, not the fantasy I’ve been feeding on for so many years.

I would like to put my arms round his neck and kiss his laughing mouth until… until there’d be no more laughter, only a need.

But I don’t think he wants me to. I am saddened by this, but it does not come as a surprise. Why would he want me, this elusive darling of the skating world? I don’t have much to offer, I know. I can accept that. I’ve lived with this thought all my adult life. But in the past weeks I’ve come to regard him as my friend, or rather, regard myself as his friend, a fine difference but a real one; and as his friend, I am worried about him.

Because lately, he laughs less. Once or twice I catch him looking remote, his eyebrows drawn, as if he were a million miles away and not happy there, wherever it was. I’d like to ask him what’s wrong. But I do not, for I fear he’d regard this an intrusion. I wouldn’t want that.

So I only work harder on the ice; and off it, I try to just be there, by his side, in case he needs me.

***

I can see he is puzzled. Not offended, he does not take offence easily, otherwise he would have kicked me out of Japan long ago, but perplexed. I cannot blame him. What he is getting from me is massively conflicting signals.

But I am not allowed to open my arms, as I would like to, and say, ‘Come to me…!’. And the reason for my reticence is this: in the past, I was not always as careful as I should have been. So as soon as I see in what direction our relationship is heading, I sneak out and, not an easy thing to do in a very foreign country, I get to take a whole series of tests, HIV, HPV, hepatitis B and C, what have you. The last thing I’d want is to leave this sweet boy with some terrible memento of myself.

The wait for results seems very long.

It is during this limbo time that we go to China. This is our first meeting with the guys since Yuri’s defeat last season and, of course, our first as a coach/trainee duo. I can feel the eyes. My decision to leave skating for a year and go to Japan was big news in our little world.

On the short program day he is nervous. This I understand. But he also seems… angry? He is burning with an inward fury which… Which actually seems to help him focus! This is strange. What could have annoyed him so much? We were together almost all the time and I haven’t noticed anything untoward. And yet he wears an expression that says ‘fuck off!’ to everyone, even to me. He paces up and down the corridor like a caged cheetah. I step aside and watch him, entranced.

As I send him off at the rink fence, I cover his hand with mine. This is the most intimate gesture I’ve permitted myself since the day I realised he was uneasy with my advances. I feel the heat even through both our gloves.

‘You may stop imagining yourself a bowl of katsudon, Yuri,’ I say, my voice husky. ‘You’ve seduced me by who you are. You know that, don’t you? They will love you too.’

Suddenly his fingers entwine with mine. He leans to me, his eyes burning.

‘Watch me!’ he commands. ‘Don’t take your eyes off me!’

As if I could.

At the first notes of the music, he licks his lips provocatively and gives me a tiny jerk of his head. An unmistakable come-on. My breath catches.

All of a sudden he changes into a – into a magical creature. His motion seems entirely effortless, as if air itself clung like silk to the sabre of his body, supporting him, carrying him through magnificent jumps, of which he nails every one. His body communicates conscious, coy allure and shy innocence at the same time. He is the embodiment of Eros, the loveliest, the most capricious and the most powerful of all the gods.

He finishes the last, impossibly long spin and stops, motionless, all grace and beauty. From where I stand I can see his ribcage working. He is very tired. Yet as he makes his bow, he smiles radiantly at the audience. Only I know how much this smile costs him.

‘Yuri!’ I yell. ‘Yuri!’

I really like his name. It’s great for shouting and it would be nice for whispering, too, and, and for groaning out as I come. Yeah, I just can’t help having these thoughts.

By the free skate day his anger has vanished, and with it, his determination. He is going to pieces. He has hardly slept at all. As the competition starts, he is letting other skaters’ scores discourage him. This will not do. I drag him to the least peopled area of the building, the underground car park, and in an attempt – a very inept one, I know it now – to force him to brace up I tell him that if he does not reach the podium today, I’ll show my responsibility for this by resigning as his coach.

This was a bluff, I swear, I’d never do this, but how was the poor kid to know? So I watch, aghast, as a tear rolls down his cheek. He tries to stifle a sob; he fails. He stands there, crying, all curled upon himself as if he were shielding some great pain inside him against a careless touch.

I immediately recognise how wrong was what I’ve done. How utterly thoughtless. My task is to protect him, not to upset him. And I, instead of offering him support, shattered his confidence. I played the situation very badly. What do I do now? I am completely at a loss.

‘Sorry, Yuri, I didn’t mean it,’ I say lamely.

Suddenly, a change comes over him. Yes, he is still crying. He is very hurt. But he is also very angry. Angry with me.

‘You don’t need to threaten me with what I already fear!’ he shouts, his voice hoarse.

He stands opposite me, his eyes wet, but his stance aggressive. There’s a fire in him I haven’t seen before. Startled, I fall back on my old weapon, irony.

‘Oh?’ I raise an eyebrow. ‘Would it make you feel better if I kissed you?’

‘Don’t you dare!’

He looks at me with such loathing that I back off, astonished.

‘So… What do you want me to do?’ I ask nervously.

‘I want you to have more faith in me than I have myself! Because this is what I lack, the belief that I’m any good. And you know it. So I don’t see why you are threatening me with exactly the worst thing that could happen to me. Or laughing at me.’

He’s right. My quip was entirely uncalled for.

‘I am upset enough by knowing that my failures reflect on you. Haven’t you heard the whispers? Everyone is hoping you’ll leave that hopeless case, Katsuki, and go back to skating. Some say that even you can’t make me a passable skater, let alone a champion. Before you came, my failures were blamed on me. Only me! It was, in a way, easier, you know. Now they’ll be blamed on you, too. So I must protect your reputation as a coach.’

It has never occurred to me that my attention could be a burden on him, but he is right. It is. I am a part of his problem.

‘Trust me, I’ll do my best. Such as it is. What I want you to do is stand by me. Even if I fail. Which I probably will,’ he finishes bitterly. ‘And now let’s go. It’s time.’

He turns round and starts walking back. I follow without a word.

I’m ashamed that I’ve hurt him. I am also… tremendously impressed. I misjudged him. I toyed with words, and he beautifully articulated his thoughts. I toyed with his feelings, too – and he showed me my place. I saw a tearful youngster turn into a wrathful shogun. And an awesome sight it was.

As we walk towards the rink, I notice a reporter eyeing us and I am taken by a sudden rage. How dare they whisper behind our backs! How dare they upset him! Oh, I’ll show them… No, to hell with them, I’ll show him that he is not alone. That we stand together, side by side, as a duo, and that’s how it stays. As long as he wants me.

If… if he wants me at all. After what I’ve done today.

For I realise now that I may have spoilt his chances for victory. He always performs badly when he’s troubled. This makes me feel terrible. I should have just held him close and let him draw strength from me. I should have kept quiet. Or… I should have said something completely different. But what could it have been, except ‘Yuri, in my eyes you’re a marvel, on ice or off it; be strong for me’?

Maybe… Maybe this would have been the best. This is not a man I can win with glib lines. This is a man who needs sincerity, for he is himself sincere and he will take no less.

And yet he sniffs like a child and this is beyond belief endearing.

At the edge of the rink I hand him a box of tissues, he blows his nose and then, very deliberately, drops the little white ball. With every skater’s reflex I reach down to catch it before it lands on the ice. He touches the top of my lowered head with one finger, as he did that one time in Hasetsu, and, like then, I freeze at the contact. I cannot look him in the eyes.

It’s time. His name is being called.

He pushes himself off into the ice.

But he pushes himself not off the rink fence, but off my head.

A short, brusque, not at all gentle, but oddly tender gesture.

And by this I know I am forgiven.

As he waits for the music to start, he smiles a quiet, private smile, his eyes down. What can he be smiling about at such a moment? He seems relaxed, as if… distant from it all, no trace of his usual tension. There is something otherworldly in his remoteness; he seems an unbelievably beautiful but inaccessible spirit. Then he opens his body to the first notes with a slow gesture which I read as a fledgling’s first, tentative opening of wings, and sets off.

The music carries him; his expressive hands highlight every nuance of the melody. He has an incredible ear for music; if only his previous coaches had encouraged him to choose his own tunes! Then again, I’m glad they didn’t, for thus all the credit goes to me.

A quad/double toe loop combination, then a quad Salchov, all entirely clean, well done, Yuri! Keep going! A very nice spin; he was always a good spinner. A triple loop. His motion conveys indecision. This is the time when his self-doubt almost made him quit skating. What a waste that would have been!

I realise the audience is actually silent. He has them all under his spell. Frankly, I am not surprised. I myself watch him in awe, although I know this routine like the back of my hand. I choreographed it for him, after all. I am honestly trying to assess his performance objectively, as a coach should, for I’ll have to discuss it with him later, but I am finding it difficult to remain properly detached.

I think he is the first skater ever to be telling a story of himself. And how he is telling it! His performance may be technically imperfect, but the poignancy of the underlying narrative is breathtaking. So is his honesty in revealing it. Strange, but even a failed jump seems fitting within his tale.

The time when I came into his life; tension and turmoil. Only seeing him skate this for real, I mean not during practice, do I realise how very perturbed he was by my arrival. As the events of today have shown, not without reason. I took away some of his anxieties, I added new ones.

The music changes and he fluidly shifts into a gesture which is suggestive of the spreading of wings. He grows more handsome. Wow! How did he do that? I don’t think anyone, including me, had realised that under the layers and layers of his shyness there lies a considerable acting talent. I file this information away in my mind for later use.

He stretches up, suddenly taller, more confident. Happier. Yuri, did I have a hand in making you feel this way? At least a little? Please, tell me I did.

He holds a pose – one leg bent, the other straight behind him in a half-kneel, his head proudly high, his eyes shyly down. His arms open in a gesture which clearly conveys a willing, joyful giving of himself. He is gloriously, vibrantly alive, yet somehow vulnerable. A quintessence of a man in love.

Yuri… Oh, Yuri.

The curves of his body grow more sinuous, more… inviting. Wow. Am I the only one here who finds his Ina Bauer suggestive?

Damn, he touches down on the triple axel, even though he is usually so good with it.

I watch him, worried. I have often seen him lose confidence after a flub. But this time, no, he seems totally unperturbed. As if he were in another place.

The music gathers momentum and he gathers speed. What comes now will be the most difficult part for him, and it’s my fault, because now he must convey the self-assurance which a moment ago I took away from him. I ball my fists as if that could help him.

All my fears turn out groundless. He glides on, his movement pure joy. His triple flip is almost nonchalant. I have never seen him skate like this.

He over-rotates on the triple axel/single loop/triple Salchov combination. I shake my head, disappointed, but get myself under control fast, in case he glances my way. He doesn’t, though. He is focused. He should be dead tired by now, especially considering how little sleep he had, and yet he shows no sign of fatigue. He actually looks as if he were having fun.

A triple Lutz/triple toe loop combination. I cover my eyes, for I cannot bear watching, my nerves getting the better of me; and yet I peer through my fingers, for I cannot bear not seeing this. He’s on to the step sequence. The devil take objectivity! This is exhilarating to watch. His control over his body, his sheer power, are magnificent. His movement conveys authority. Yuri and authority? I can barely recognise him.

He is almost through his jumps, the last is a quad toe loop. Go for it, Yuri, all is well!

He jumps. He falls, but…

I can’t believe my eyes.

Was this…? Was this…? It was! It was a quadruple flip!

I go wild. My Yuri – a failure, yeah? My Yuri – a hopeless case? Now do you see that! Do. You. See. That. Morons!

From where I stand I am almost sure he got enough rotations. And at the very end, too! My God, what stamina he has! Even I wouldn’t have been able to pull off a quad flip at this point in the program, although it’s my favourite.

He spins. I am breathless with awe.

And then…

The music closes with a triumphant chord and he freezes in a graceful pose – all oriented towards me. His arm is stretched out to me, his whole body open to me, his hand curved in a clearly intelligible gesture: ‘It’s all because of him’. This we did not agree on; he changed the ending. I have tears in my eyes.

He throws me a tentative smile, as if asking if he’d done well enough for me.

In this moment I take a decision. Yeah, I’m doing it. No matter what.

If they really are whispering, I’ll give them a better reason than Yuri’s shortcomings.

He turns to bow amidst thundering applause. He looks as if he wasn’t tired at all, but I, being used to his body language, can see that this splendid performance has cost him all that he had. He is barely alive.

I run to the gate in the fence. Yuri shakes off his tiredness and skates towards me. I’m waiting for him, my arms open. This is a very conscious echo of the gesture I made, to my everlasting shame, at the Japanese qualifying competition, where I stepped aside as he threw himself into my embrace and he fell headlong. To this day I have no idea what made me do it.

It is a sign of Yuri’s trust in me that now he throws himself into my embrace again, with no hesitation at all.

Our bodies collide, we lose balance and as I feel us about to collapse, I kiss him on the mouth. Then we both sprawl on the ice, my hand cradling his head against the fall.

Not very dignified as first kisses go, but it feels wonderful.

‘This was the only thing I could think of to surprise you more than you’ve surprised me,’ I say, beaming down at him. He tilts his head slightly, as if for another kiss, and I see joy dawning in his eyes. He smiles a sweet, happy smile, one I have never yet seen on his face.

This is a very public declaration of affection and I know that my secret is out. And this is how I want it to be. I want him to know that I… I want everyone to know that I am no longer ‘the most eligible bachelor of the skating world’, as they used to call me. I am spoken for, and they may all go screw.

This is because I’ve come to realise that whatever news awaits me back in Japan, I am not giving this boy up. No! If things turn out wrong, we will have to be very careful, it will sure be a different, sadder, more difficult relationship, but we will find ways to be together.

Yet in the following days we exchange only a few kisses, our lips dry. I can feel that his mouth wants more and I am quivering with desire. It grows difficult to share a room. But no. We cannot.

He asks no questions. It amazes me how tactful he is.

***

I wait for him to make a move, but he won’t. And once or twice I feel him back off when I try to. And I do try, for I am desperate for his touch. I lost my heart to him so completely… For a moment I think that he is sorry that he kissed me so recklessly – though I saw the TV footage later and fortunately his arm had shielded us a little – but no, he does not seem sorry. He seems anxious, taut, almost in pain. I sense his distress and that’s why I hold my peace.

Chapter Text

On the day the results arrive I excuse myself under the pretence of some little errand, I go into a nearby park, I sit on a bench and I open the envelope. My hands shuffle through the papers and I admit they are shaking a little. By each result some kind-hearted doctor wrote an English word. Negative, negative, negative… I am clean.

I lean down, weak with relief. Only now can I acknowledge how terribly I was worried. I held myself under control so as not to upset Yuri, but I was dying inside. Oh, thank God that I am okay! Now our relationship may proceed beyond those shy kisses we’ve been sharing. I shall take him away somewhere nice for a few days; he deserves a break. And there will be just the two of us, he and I.

I can feel my mouth stretching in a big grin.

The practice over, I steer him to a café we’ve discovered close by which, apart from serving really good coffee, has the advantage of being relatively quiet.

‘Yuri,’ I say without preamble, ‘Perhaps you are wondering why I’ve been keeping off you…’

‘Keeping off me?’ he asks. This is not a real question; he wants clarification. His English, although improving, is not as fluent as mine and it is the only language we share.

‘Not trying to have sex with you,’ I explain. Couldn’t be more blunt, I guess. At least not without telling him something along the lines of ‘I want to fuck you until you scream in ecstasy and then some more’. In any case, he is so reserved that the most sound I’d count on getting out of him is a sigh, maybe a stifled moan, as he comes.

He looks at me, his eyebrows drawn, without a word. He is not one for needless talk. Yeah, he’s reserved all right. I actually like this about him, and, well, I confess I talk for both of us. I may be the strong type, but not the silent.

‘This was the reason.’ I push the papers towards him. He looks through them, reading the results highlighted in yellow, and I see he begins to understand.

‘This is good,’ he says. ‘I am glad.’

So very him, this remark, nice but noncommittal.

‘So now I can… We can…’ So very not me, this hesitation, but what I’m doing here is making a very explicit proposition to someone I really, really, really want to say yes, and this is a new feeling for me. ‘We can make love. If you want us to.’

‘I do,’ he says simply. He lowers his eyes and adds quietly, ‘Very much.’

Then we begin to talk about other things.

 ***

So it is going to be tonight and I fear that until then I shall go mad with expectation and worry. Although I must say it is a very different worry than the one I was feeling when I was certain Victor was troubled by something. Turns out I was right. It is also different than the worry I’ve been feeling over the last few days, when I so wanted him to, well, let me know where we stand.

He might have told me!

Then again, maybe not. The ‘what ifs’ would have been killing. I wouldn’t have been able to concentrate on anything, especially on training. Was he actually protecting me?

I spend some time getting ready. I am not a complete innocent, it is hardly possible in the internet age, but all that I know is second hand. I am a virgin and, in a proper virgin fashion, tonight I’m scared.

 ***

And so he stands before me, barefoot, his hair still wet. He is grave. And very tense, I can see that. Let me not spook this wide-eyed colt; he must be gentled and broken to my hand before I can ride him. I gesture towards a bottle of wine standing open on the table.

‘Want some?’

‘Better not,’ he says seriously. ‘When I’m drunk, I do stupid things.’

I pour myself a glass and toast him wordlessly. Please yourself, silly. I did not mean to get you drunk, that would be a rotten thing to do, I only wanted to loosen you up, but if you want to be tense, go ahead, be tense. It is my task to relax you. And by God, I will.

He smiles. I raise an eyebrow questioningly.

‘Do you remember that banquet when, as you say, I challenged you all to a dance-off?’

‘Oh yes. Not an evening to forget.’

‘I don’t. Not one moment of it. So I don’t want to drink. I want to remember tonight.’

‘I’ll do my best to make it memorable,’ I say and stretch my arms out to him. ‘So come here and allow me…’

He takes off his glasses and sets them on the table. He looks younger without them, oddly defenceless. His eyes are not black as I had initially thought; they are deep brown with a golden sheen, exactly the colour of the darkest amber they find on the Baltic coast.

He steps to me and puts his hands on my shoulders. I put mine on his waist and gently pull him towards me. I brush my lips against his temple. He tilts his head. His eyes are closed, the eyelashes twin crescents against his cheeks, his mouth ready to meet mine. As we start kissing, I feel the days of worry and suppressed desire falling away from me, leaving me light as a feather and (you may finally admit it, Victor Borisovich!) so very – so very much in love.

I give his upper lip a delicate lick, he answers in kind, I press down and I taste his mouth. This, this is the sweetest kiss I’ve ever had, and suddenly I know that in the time to come we will spend hours and hours kissing.

He wraps his arms around my neck. The movement pulls his shirt up, I do the rest and I can finally lay my hands on that golden skin.

I feel the ridges of his ribs. He is far thinner than he was when I arrived in Hasetsu, thanks to me, his concerned coach. I was driving him hard for weeks, but it was his rivalry with young Yurio that did the trick. I’d love to ask him what exactly he was competing with him for. I know when he got over hero worship. But when did he start feeling anything more for me than friendship?

 ***

I want him

I want him

I want him

I want him

I want him

To hell with scared

***

The kisses have very obviously awakened our desire. We got rid of our shirts somehow and I feel his cock pressing against me through his trousers. He is certainly not alone, for mine is straining, too, eager for this boy.

I undo his trousers and kneel to help him step out of them. I pull down his boxers while I’m at it, gently freeing his cock. He shivers, but does not move away. Looking up, I admire his body. It’s not that I have never seen him naked, in Hasetsu we were in and out of the onsen all the time, but then it was the body of a friend, now, the body of a lover. He is strong, muscular, we all are, the skaters, but he is also slight and with his Oriental slenderness he seems fragile. This mixture of magnificent power and an almost ethereal beauty will be his greatest asset, if only I can find a way to help him unleash it. There is an awkward grace in him, the grace of a young man not yet aware of his charm, and this exquisite skin makes him look like a golden statue.

I murmur my appreciation and I see his eyes smile. It is the shyest of smiles, but it is there, and I love it.

I move my hand up in one long stroke, all the way from his ankle to his thigh. I stretch up, still kneeling, and begin kissing his hip. He gasps. I slide with my kisses to his groin and finally to his cock. He tastes of cleanliness and his own salt, he feels wonderful in my mouth, and I melt with desire. With my free hand I am undoing my jeans and pulling them down, briefs and all. I rise, wanting to press him to me and feel his entire body against mine.

Then he sees me naked, his eyes fall to my erect cock and his mouth forms a perfect O.

***

He laughs at me. I must look a complete fool, but I was just unaware of how big his cock would be when erect. It’s not that I have never seen him naked, in Hasetsu we were in and out of the onsen all the time, but I wasn’t thinking of him as a lover then, just as a friend, and after, well, I guess I just wasn’t thinking. I was worrying.

And I would be worrying now, with the question of how on earth he is going to fit inside me, but he does not give me the time. He steps back and sits comfortably on the bed, leaning back against the headboard, his eyes sparkling, his legs spread.

‘Want to get to know me?’ he says playfully. ‘Go on, I’m yours.’

I look at him, from silver hair to sinewy feet, wanting to remember him forever as he is in this moment. Then I scramble onto the bed and kneel between his legs. He is the first man I’ve ever touched, apart from myself, and I lose myself in discovering him.

***

First he looks at me, slowly, appreciatively, a little disconcertingly. Then he kneels between my legs. I expect him to head straight for my cock, but no, he puts his hands flat on my chest and leans on me. With any other man this might be uncomfortable, but his weight I hardly feel. At first I think it’s because he is so slight; then I realise that he controls his pressure on me. Can he really be so mindful of my comfort? If yes, it’s very nice of him. I’m touched.

He reaches to my hair, drawing his fingers through it, then caresses my cheek and the side of my neck. He is grave, focused. His hands slide to my shoulders, my chest, touch my nipples, move down my flanks, trace my hips.

His shy admiration makes me light-headed. I do not move, I almost cease to breathe. I don’t want to break his mood. He seems to be here alone with my body and I sense something precious in this moment. I have never been… being discovered in this way and I probably never will be again.

He lowers his head, kisses the inside of my thigh, and then, eyes closed, moves his lips upwards along the whole length of my cock, not yet kissing, but almost.

‘May I?’ he asks.

‘Of course,’ I assure him, knowing that the question was in earnest. ‘Do anything you want.’

So he begins to suck me, his tongue at first tentative, almost ticklish, then more confident. His mouth feels heavenly. I wish I could surrender to him right now, but soon I am pushing his head away. He looks up, instantly apprehensive.

‘You wouldn’t want me to come, would you?’ I ask. ‘And I’m in danger of that.’

‘I’m sorry,’ he says, and I can’t help laughing again.

‘Hardly a reason to be sorry! I’m crazy for you.’

I can see that he is truly confused, not sure if I am teasing or annoyed.

‘Come here. I’m serious. You are wonderful, do you hear? Wonderful.’

He blushes crimson.

I lay him on the bed and gather him to me, his back to my chest.

‘I’ve been wanting this so much,’ I murmur with my lips against the nape of his neck. ‘Let me touch you, Yuri, let me…’ My words get lost in kisses at his hairline.

I reach around him. His nipple grows hard under my fingers. My hand slides down. The skin in the hollow of his belly is smooth as a rose petal, split by a narrow strip of hair leading me down. I brush my thumb against his cock; this barely counts as a touch. I trace the rise of his hip and, at last, I arrive at the slope of his butt.

For reasons of my own I like to use olive oil for sex, the same kind you might put on your salad, which provides me with much private amusement in very diverse situations. I have some at hand.

‘Shall I?’ I ask softly. My slick fingers slide into him and press against his muscles. He gasps, shudders and grabs at the pillow. I feel, I actually hear his racing heartbeat. I realise he is not at all sure whether to expect pain, pleasure, or both.

No, Yuri, no pain; not today, not ever. It is just not my idea of fun. And, my God, how I want this first time to be sweet for you. So I take it very slowly, although, in truth, I would gladly skip this stage, ram my cock up your perfect ass and… No, don’t let me even think this way lest I lose control.

He exhales with a soft moan and I feel his body curve towards my hand, a motion unmistakably asking for more.

I put my free arm across his chest and I pin his thighs down with my leg, virtually immobilising him.

‘This is only so that you don’t make some sudden movement,’ I explain, whispering in his ear. ‘I could hurt you.’

He nods. My breath must have tickled him, for I feel his chest shake with a soundless giggle. I chuckle, too, and then I blow softly at his neck and nip at his shoulder with my teeth. He laughs and then gasps as I return to caressing him with my fingers.

Ah, this is one of the things you have to learn, Yuri: that laughter and lovemaking do go together and that it really is fine to be giggling and crying out with pleasure at the same time. And that I may tease you – I will tease you, you sweet innocent – but I will never hurt you with mockery. Don’t be afraid of my laughter.

Soon he moves to my rhythm, making little grunts of delight, his hands locked on my forearm, and I move with him, my whole body pressed tight to his. I breathe in the scent of oil warmed by his heat. I feel his muscles squeezing my fingers and I imagine how before long they will be squeezing my cock. This is almost enough to make me come. I know that I won’t be able to hold out much longer.

He seems to feel it too, for he half turns to me, reaches back and stays my hand. Then he touches my cock, his fingers caressing all my length.

‘Please, Victor,’ he whispers.

‘You sure? It doesn’t have to be tonight. We have all the time in the world,’ I say, but mentally I’m crossing my fingers. I don’t want to push him, but I do so want to push into him.

He answers; but not in words. He extricates himself from my arms – I release him the moment I feel him move away – rolls over and opens his thighs invitingly, leaning back on his elbows. His cock is rose-coloured against a bush of black hair, his balls brown, drawn taut to the groin; below, the puckered bud, my long-desired doorway into the joy of his body. He offers himself to my gaze willingly, unselfconsciously, without a trace of embarrassment.

His eyes are totally trusting.

All right, my inexperienced friend, not the easiest of positions for your first time, but not too challenging either, and there are few men in the world more supple than figure skaters, so if this is the way you want it, I’m at your service.

***

I know I should probably stay where I am and let him enter me from behind, just the way he is caressing me right now, but, call me sentimental, I do so want to look at him one more time before he takes me and nothing is the same again.

He is built on a larger scale than me, taller by half a head, far more athletic, his rock-hard body perfectly proportioned. That’s why he is such a marvel on the ice, his incredible strength driving him so that seems weightless. There is something eerie and dangerous about him then, as if he were a silver-haired, predatory ghost, a shaft of incandescent energy rather than a man.

But now, as he kneels between my thighs, his cock rigid and his face hungry, I feel entirely at ease with him. His skin is luminous, as if lit from within, his eyes cobalt, an impossible hue.

You are magic, Victor.

And I am yours.

***

I help him into a better position, his lower back resting against my thighs, and brace the head of my cock against his hole, still slick with oil.

‘Shall we?’ I grin at him.

‘Oh, yes!’ he answers eagerly, his face all smiles.

Guiding my cock with my hand, I begin to push at the tight bud, asking his muscles to let me in. I watch his face for signs of distress, but there are none. He closes his eyes, giving himself in to the sensation. His lips are parted and I could kiss him were I not busy fighting for control. I clench my teeth so hard my temples hurt.

I feel him yielding to me. And just as I enter him, he invalidates all my effort at setting us a slow pace, for he hooks his feet behind my thighs, easily and instinctively, and pulls us towards each other, the strength of his legs driving me into his body. Yuri, please, this – this is too much for me!

I lose control.

I plunge into him all the way, revelling in his tightness.

His eyes open in surprise.

‘Victor…?’ There is unease in this question. He may have felt some pain.

‘Sorry,’ I breathe. ‘This was a little rough.’ I draw back a bit and thrust into him again, very slowly this time. And again. I’m back in control, if only barely. No rush, Vitka, no rush, I am telling myself. Let this moment last. He needs time to discover the joy a man’s loving can give him.

He relaxes. I feel his body accept the thickness of my cock inside him. His breathing grows deeper. He flings his head back, the line of his throat exquisite. I rock into him in a slow, measured rhythm. He begins to answer each push, first with a sigh, then with a husky cry. Finally I give him a thrust just right, and he reacts with a loud ‘Ah!’. I’ve touched the centre of his pleasure. He loses himself in the sensations I’m sending through him with every stroke. His sounds are sweet in my ears.

But soon this is not enough for him. His moans grow pleading. His face is flushed, his body rigid, glistening with sweat. I bend over him. He curls into a ball underneath me, his legs interlacing with my arms, and locks his hands on my shoulders; I will have bruises there next day. I twine my fingers in his hair. We find a new rhythm.

I ride him hard. He arches up towards me and urges me, ‘Motto – motto – motto!’. I have no idea what this means, but I can easily sense his need, for it matches mine.

We blaze like wildfire.

He is the first to come. I feel him shudder, his hips jerk upwards, carrying me with him. He reaches down for his cock, I cover his hand with mine and I feel the hot wetness over our fingers. His face contorted, his muscles corded, he is shouting out his pleasure.

He is actually shouting!

That, from this quiet boy, drives me crazy.

I ram into him with all my might and I come, groaning out his name.

Yuri, Yuri, Yuri!

***

My fingers are wet with my own sperm, my thighs with his, I am lying locked in his arms, and it’s heaven.

***

We sneak to the bathroom for a moment, me first, he after me. On returning, he pours me a glass of wine and himself a one-third of one. Ah, so now it’s all right, is it?

‘Drinking to forget?’ I ask sweetly.

The literary reference passes, as expected, way over his head.

‘No,’ he answers with a smile. ‘There’s no way I could forget this.’

Okay, maybe he doesn’t catch our European references, but there is much to be said for his polite charm.

And then, as he steps to me to hand me my glass, he does something so unexpected – and so utterly Japanese – that I am left speechless.

He kneels on the floor, effortlessly and gracefully, and makes a low bow, almost to my feet.

‘What are you…?’ I breathe.

‘Thank you,’ he says quietly and only then does he lift the glass towards me, his eyes down.

I take it, slide to the floor in front of him, my knees outside his, and I raise his face to me, my hand under his chin. I understand the gesture, I’ve read about it, I’ve seen it done, even by him to me, but never in earnest, and I never thought he would… for this…? I don’t deserve it. I kiss his sweet mouth, my lips dry and my head spinning.

***

I get up from my knees and extend a hand to him. He takes it and rises gracefully, the wine in his glass perfectly level.

I pick up my own glass and I turn to the window. The blinds are up, the bedside lamp on, so I can’t see anything on the outside, but only us, framed in the darkened pane. He stands right behind me, raising his glass to his lips. We are both stark naked. I recall how a short while ago I bared myself to his gaze. I never thought I’d be so shameless before any man. But then, this is not any man. This is Victor Nikiforov, my childhood idol, my teacher, my friend.

My lover. What a strange thought.

I used to think no man would ever want me; he least of all. And yet, in my dreams it was always him. Oh, Victor, Victor, you don’t know what gift you have given me. You could disappear tomorrow and I’d be happy for the rest of my life with this one night.

Not true. I’d be miserable. Please, don’t leave me. Not yet.

Not until you’ve given me enough memories to last me a lifetime.

He strokes the nape of my neck with one finger, light as a falling leaf. His touch anchors me in the here and now. I take a sip of the wine. I very seldom drank wine before I met him, so the taste is still unfamiliar, but it is pleasant. I find that I’ve come to like wine.

‘Victor… May I ask you a question?’

‘You always may. About anything you want to know. What is it?’

‘Well… Nothing, really.’ I cover my face, regretting the impulse that made me speak out. He reaches around me and gently pulls my hand away.

‘Ah. This blush tells me it is something about sex. You don’t blush so about skating.’

‘It’s a stupid question.’

‘There are no stupid questions. Especially about sex. Are you bothered by something we did?’

‘Something I did.’

‘You’re not sure if it was okay with me?’

‘How do you know?!’

‘Because you wouldn’t be so worried about your own feelings. Let me guess. You did something that you have never done, obviously, given it was your first time, and that you did not expect you would do. Am I right?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘So I’d imagine your own reaction surprised you.’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘And it’s something you’re worried I might not have liked. Let me think…’ He falls silent for a while, sipping his wine. ‘No. Nothing comes to my mind. All I can think of is how I loved everything we did. And how I want us to do it again.’

This means there will be more nights like this! More of these wild feelings. The pane faithfully reflects my uncontrollable grin. Victor obviously sees it, for he chuckles quietly.

‘Sorry, Yuri, I’ve hit the wall here. You’ll have to tell me yourself.’

‘Well. Brace up. Here it comes. Tell me, is it okay with you that I was so… noisy? I’m sorry, but… I just couldn’t control myself.’

Not that I tried. I lost myself in his lovemaking and only when I was lying, spent, in his arms did I realise how loud I had moaned. This was so unlike me that I found it unsettling.

‘Oh, Yuri…’ He pauses. ‘You don’t need to control yourself when we’re in bed together,’ he continues calmly. ‘Let go. You can be sure I will love every sound you make, every sound our bodies make, every sight, every scent and every taste. Not every touch; but neither will you. And that’s all right. We will learn what each of us enjoys most. Won’t we?’

I nod eagerly. He raises his glass to me, or rather to my reflection.

‘I drink to this. So, bottom line: you need to moan, or cry out, or scream, or curse – you do. Besides, your sounds tell me how you’re feeling, yes? That’s how I know you like what I’m doing. And…’

As he pauses again, I realise that I can hear his heartbeat. It is strong and… fast. Why? He seems so relaxed.

‘I like you liking it,’ he finishes, a little lamely. ‘It makes me happy. May I ask you a question in return?’

This I did not expect.

‘Okay…’

‘This is the most tentative okay I’ve ever heard in my life. Don’t worry, it’s not a difficult one. So: I am not as, as you put it, noisy as you. Would you prefer me to be?’

I consider this.

‘If you want to. But you don’t have to. I could feel you were all right. And… And you looked… nice as you were coming.’

‘You were watching me come?!’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Oh. I thought I had you otherwise engaged.’ Wonder of wonders, he seems a little abashed. ‘You were coming yourself!’

‘I was, but… I stole a glance. But since you’re asking… To hear you cry out my name. This was… nice, too.’ I can think of no way of telling him how wanted it made me feel.

‘You have a great name for this. You can be sure I’ll do it again and again. May I have another question?’

‘You’re pushing it.’

He laughs. This is an expression I’ve learnt from him.

Somehow this conversation is far less dreadful than I expected. He is amused, yes, but he isn’t laughing at my inexperience. I should have remembered how easy it is to talk to him about my feelings. Next time I’ll know there is nothing to fear.

‘Well, I’d like to ask you a thousand questions, and sooner or later I will, but now I want to know this: what does it mean, motto?’

I can feel myself blushing.

‘It means “more”. More of… More of… What it was like.’

‘Really…?’

‘Uh-huh.’

For a long while he is just standing there, behind me, silent.

‘Judging from the context, in English that would be “harder”, I guess,’ he says, the lightness of his words belying the incredulous expression which I can see in the window pane. As if he could not believe I actually begged him to ride me hard. Truth be told, I didn’t expect that of myself either, but… oh, the satisfaction.

I put my now empty glass on the windowsill and I turn around to face him.

I want to do something that I know I will find tough. But I want to do it anyway. I want to learn to do it. With him. So –

– I raise my face and I force myself to look straight into his eyes.

He seems surprised. No wonder. I rarely have the nerve to hold eye contact for any amount of time.

He is concentrated, serious. His grey eyebrows are drawn, a tiny wrinkle between them. Whereas I… The longer I look, the more I feel the corners of my mouth quivering. Finally I can’t fight it any more, I give in and I smile at him.

He exhales, his breath ragged, as if I’d touched some aching spot inside him.

He bites on his lower lip.

My eyes are still locked on his. I don’t think I’ve ever held anyone’s gaze for this long in my entire life.

Finally he, too, gives in and returns my smile with a smile of his own.

It is a sweet, hesitant smile, one that I have never yet seen on his face. If only he could see how lovely he looks with this expression of disbelieving delight.

His unexpected shyness makes me bold. I step to him, so close that our naked bodies almost touch, I put my hands on his chest and I stretch up to his mouth. I tilt my head, I close my eyes and I kiss him. Slowly, deliberately, with exquisite awareness, I kiss him.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever tell him, but it is this kiss that I will always consider to have been my first.

***

We are lying in bed, cuddled together. I can see that he is tired. His eyes are closing. And that’s good, because I’d like more sex, oh yeah, I’d like to ride him again, taking him from behind this time, but – not right now. I’m not sure I’d manage. I’m too dazed.

Because when he smiled at me, so fiercely holding my gaze, I felt the entire universe rearranging itself, like colours in a kaleidoscope, around a slight, raven-haired centre. The feeling was so intense that it actually hurt.

Truth be told, we both need rest.

‘Sleep now, lyubimyi. Tomorrow’s another day. And I am not going anywhere,’ I say, kissing him on the temple.

His eyes light up at the endearment, although I don’t think he knows what it means, and I dare not tell him, not yet. Maybe not ever. I… I didn’t intend to say this. The word just slipped out, catching me unawares.

‘Promise?’ he asks, childlike. I am suddenly aware that I don’t know how much of his naivety comes from inexperience and how much from true innocence, from something that for the lack of a better word I must call purity of the heart.

I quench my Russian tendency to emotional hair-splitting and answer, ‘The word of five times the world champion. Satisfied?’

And then there is an entirely devilish glint in his eyes and he retorts, deadpan, ‘Well enough. But only for today.’

***

I would very much like him to take me once more, from behind this time, because I already know I’m going to love it. I want to feel his hard length inside me again. Also, I want to finish what I only started: to worship his cock with my tongue, to have him come in my mouth and to lick him dry. And then to have him do the same to me. And then to kiss him and to taste myself in his mouth. Also, I want to get him under the shower with me and to feel these two wonderful things, hot water and his hot hands, on my skin at the same time. Also, I want…

I want to do all these things I’ve dreamt of doing, never truly hoping I would.

But I am so tired! Never in my whole life have I felt such exhaustion. Or such happiness. Is this… is this even normal?

I am fighting sleep. I am so sorry that this day must end. I think he senses this, for he pulls me to himself and kisses me on the temple.

‘Sleep now, lyubimyi. Tomorrow’s another day. And I am not going anywhere,’ he says exactly the thing I need to hear. There is a warm glow in his eyes.

‘Promise?’ I say, smiling at the endearment. I have no idea what it means, but I’m not going to ask, I’ll wait till he tells me himself. I think I get the sense of it. And I’m beginning to have a feeling that from now on I am often going to hear incomprehensible endearments from him.

‘The word of five times the world champion. Satisfied?’

I understand what he means, but I just cannot resist pretending that I don’t.

‘Well enough,’ I answer like a benevolent monarch. ‘But only for today.’

For a moment he is dumbfounded. Then he bursts into laughter.

***

I am lying with my eyes closed, thinking about the discovery I’ve made tonight, the unexpected gift I’ve been given. Who would have thought…? I’ve seen men with years of experience be more inhibited than this gentle Japanese with the blush of summer apples. He is sweet yet strong and, with all his shyness, he knows his mind.

He is an intriguing one, this Katsuki Yuri. Still a boy. But with a tremendous potential. Ever since he decided to trust me, I’ve kept discovering new depths to his character. I want to see the man he will grow into. He will be magnificent; kind, sensitive, wise. Only I don’t think he will ever be self-confident. I am aware that any breach of trust on my part will shatter him. I will bear responsibility for his peace of mind. But this won’t be a burden. It will be a privilege! Like standing guard at the door to a tsar’s treasury. Only in this case, I smile to myself, the faithful guardsman will also be the tsar’s lover. I’m looking forward to being that.

We have much in common, he and I. Yet at times he is alien to me like a creature from another planet. We were born half a world away and sometimes it shows. But we will learn each other’s quirks, won’t we? And with each passing day there will be more and more of what we will share. There are so many books I’d like to re-read, with him this time, just to hear what he would say. So many films I’d like to see, places I’d like to visit. With him.

My thoughts drift lazily to my various trips. I would like to go to Florence again, in spring. He will like this most beautiful of cities. Another spring I want to tour Japan, to see more of sakura in bloom. Also in autumn, for I’d like to see those flaming forests he is so enthusiastic about. I want to show him Paris, for it is special to me. And when he retires from skating, we will spend a winter in my native city, Sankt Petersburg, because it will be fun, and another winter somewhere warm, in Thailand perhaps, because I love swimming and I’m sure he’ll learn to love it. And he wants to go to Warsaw, because Chopin is a Japanese obsession and they apparently have some brilliant Chopin festival there; so one day we will. I am thinking of the fun we will have and of the awesome sex we will enjoy in all of those places.

And then the realisation hits me and my eyes fly open. In the dim light I stare at the sleeping beauty nestled into the crook of my arm, and I am literally breathless with shock.

For I have just realised that I am planning this relationship not in terms of days or even months. I am planning it in years.

***

I wake up with a start, unused to sleeping so close to someone.

‘Victor…?’

‘Uh-huh. Come, yablochko, cuddle up. Oh yes, just so. Are you warm enough? Good.’

He strokes my hair. When he stops, his hand stays resting on my head. It feels so… My sleepy mind gives me no word for it, only I know I’ve never felt this way before. I hesitate for a moment; would it be okay for me to…? Then I put my arm round his waist. I breathe in the scent of his body and I drift back into sleep.

***

Responsibility? Fidelity? For years…? Upon these realisations many men – especially men as chased by lovers as I used to be – would have backed off, mindful of their freedom; but not me. I am old enough to know that when life hands you a parcel of happiness, you don’t set conditions; you thankfully accept the gift. Especially if it comes in such a lovely wrapping as mine does. To give up my freedom in exchange – this is no sacrifice at all.

***

The village Victor has chosen for our short holiday has three old temples, one of them famous, a few ryokan and wooded mountains all around. We visited the temples the day before – I was touched to see how serious and respectful he was, even though he is not religious, and how interested – so next morning we go for a walk.

Having awoken in his arms, I was a little shy at first. I didn’t know how to act towards him. But he behaved so nicely – he was calm, matter-of-fact, as if nothing had happened, and hungry for breakfast – that soon I was all right again. And now, as we are walking through the woods, we are like a pair of dogs having fun in the snow. We run, we chase each other and I can sense a snowball fight coming. I may actually be holding a snowball hidden behind me.

***

Wet, flushed and exhausted, we find a patch of untrodden snow and throw ourselves on it.

‘This was good!’ I puff.

‘I could go on,’ says he brightly. It has just turned out that his aim is far better than mine. Also, as I note with pleasure, he is moving, running, throwing snowballs easily, without a trace of discomfort. Remembering my own first time, I’m very glad. I’ve done right by him.

‘You’re younger, you’re faster and your stamina is legendary,’ I say. ‘Have mercy on me.’

He shoots me a sideways glance. I am almost certain he is having a filthy thought.

I get up with a groan. He gets up, too, and looks at the outline of my body pressed into the white surface.

‘You’re so hot snow melts underneath you,’ he says. Turning away, he adds, ‘So do I.’

My breath catches. I never expected him to compliment me this way.

He begins to walk on. I run after him and take his hand. We go on together in silence.

The woods are lovely, filled with sunlight, and the snow crackles under our feet.

There is a thick trunk of a felled tree lying along the path. Seeing it, Yuri gives a delighted ‘Yay!’, pulls his hand out of mine, runs, leaps onto it and begins to dance along it. Even in a thick parka and boots he is as light as a snowflake.

My God, this is so… hard to believe. Up on that tree trunk, the boy who last night lost his virginity to me is dancing to his inner music and I’m in love with him.

I run to the other end of the trunk and when he gets there, I grab him round his thighs and take him off it, spinning around a few times. He laughs, throwing his head back.

I set him down, but do not release him. I need to – I need to make sure.  

‘Boyfriends?’ I ask.

He looks at me, uncomprehending. His eyes still sparkle with laughter.

‘Boyfriends what?’

‘Are we?’

He gets my meaning. He immediately averts his face.

‘You want… me… for a boyfriend?’ he clarifies in a low, tense voice.

I could think of a hundred witty answers to that, but for some reason all I say is ‘Yes’. I rub my nose against his temple; an oddly animal gesture. It feels good.

‘Boyfriends?’ I ask again. He confirms with that short, vigorous nod of his, the most emphatic gesture he makes off ice.

So over the next few weeks we settle into a relationship and our delight in each other must show, because at the next event the guys notice and there are some comments. Our Yurochka gets a verbal equivalent of a box on the ear; since I deliver it in our native Russian, it is rather forceful. Chris, who had harboured some hopes of his own, is not at all happy, but he is a decent fellow underneath all the libido, so he gets a more controlled explanation. The nastiest is, of course, JJ, who enquires who exactly is taking advantage of whom in this relationship. But I sort him out and he bothers us no more. Yuri seems unaware of those little clashes, but I suspect that in reality he knows all about them and politely turns a blind eye. The finest comment comes from Phichit, who congratulates me on landing the best one of the whole bunch and then adds, and here I quote, ‘but maybe you deserve him’.

So, I find him heavenly and he finds me okay, he says, and I am happy with that.

Chapter Text

I wear his ring, I sleep in his arms, I stand some chance for a gold medal, and I see that things are not going well.

This truth struck me when, having just finished the short program, I went looking for him and I found him standing alone, high up, in an isolated corner of the tribune, his eyes locked on the rink, his whole body leaning forward. A caged eagle.

I withdrew soundlessly.

I realise now that what I’m doing to him is not only stupid. It is cruel.

Because, as I finally take the time to examine my feelings, I see that I need him as a friend, a companion, a lover – oh, how I need him as a lover! – but I no longer need him as a coach. Perhaps I never have. I only needed someone whom I’d trust to believe in my skating talent and to convince me to believe in it myself. Since the moment I told him this, he has been unstinting with his support, encouragement and even, guardedly, praise.

But what he needs is the ice.

He is dying for it.

He misses being a skater, he misses competing, he misses being the leader of our little bunch. He was probably in need of this year off and I don’t think he regrets having taken the break. I certainly hope he doesn’t regret coming to know me. But he will never admit, even to himself, that what he needs now is to come back to it all.

He will not admit it because he told me, repeatedly, that he wished I’d never retire and that he could carry on being my coach for the rest of our lives. We were laughing as he was saying it, skating careers are far shorter than a lifetime, but still – he said it, and he would consider his return to the ice a breach of promise.

It falls to me, then. I must release him.

That’s why, late in the night before the free skate, nervously twisting the ring on my finger, I say, ‘We cannot go on like this, Victor. I’m retiring after the finals are over. I’ve decided. I will no longer need a coach. So, after tomorrow, let’s end this.’

And then I stare, shocked, as his eyes fill with tears.

‘I never thought you could be so selfish!’ he bursts out. He dresses hurriedly, waves away my attempt at stopping him and leaves, slamming the door behind him.

I expected he would argue. But I did not expect this!

I have a feeling that things have gone wrong. And that it is not entirely my fault.

***

Somewhere in Barcelona there must be people who remember a grey-haired Russian dragging himself across a half of their city one winter night, getting horrendously drunk. I certainly don’t remember them, but they are kind souls, for no-one called the police and when at dawn I turned up, like a stray dog, on the doorstep of our hotel, I still had my wallet on me.

Yuri opens the door pale with worry, his face drawn.

‘Yuri,’ I say, grasping him by the shoulders, ‘what the fuck did I do?’

I kick the door shut behind me, nearly losing my balance, and push him into the room.

‘Okay, so you want to leave me. Fine, go, I don’t care. But, damn you, why like this? You could have given me one warning! I had no idea…’

He extricates himself from my grasp and steps back, his eyes huge. This gets through to me even in my state.

‘Are you… Are you afraid of me? Yuri! Please! Don’t be! I could never hurt you. I just… I just wanted to ask. Yuri, Yuryen’ka, why…? I thought we had something special going. I thought we were for good! I was so happy that we, that we found each other. I thought you liked me, you… wanted me, maybe you even loved me… a little. ‘Cause I tried… I tried so hard to make you love me. So what happened? Did I do something wrong? I’m sorry! Just tell me what, I’ll make it right. I swear I’ll never do it again. Only please, my dearest, don’t leave me. I am so… yours. Don’t make me live without you. I love you so much. Don’t leave me. Give me a chance. I’m begging you, Yuri. I cannot live without you. Remember how we were at first? I fell in love with you so terribly. I was insane with wanting you. But if you hadn’t wanted me, I would have forgotten you… eventually. I could still go away from you then. But now, Yuri, don’t make me. Please, don’t. Because I love you. Yes, I do! I love you. With all my heart I love you, Yuryen’ka. With all my soul. Why don’t you answer? Please! Say something! Yuri, sweetheart, how can I make you see? I love you. How can you be so cruel?’

This outburst has exhausted me.

‘I love you, don’t you understand…?’ I finish miserably.

He is staring at me mutely, maybe even with compassion, but I can see that he is not persuaded. And that he certainly does not love me back.

‘Oh, why do I even bother!’ I groan, I throw myself headlong on the bed and I fall into a drunken sleep.

***

He is standing there before me, ranting, raving; he is literally tearing at his hair. I wish I could make this easier for us both. But all I can do is look at him helplessly.

‘Oh, why do I even bother!’ he ends his outburst and falls on the bed.

Dealing with a drunk Russian on my own is a new experience to me, especially as the Russian in question is some fifteen kilograms heavier than me and passed out flat. I briefly consider getting Chris to help me, but decide against it. I can’t let anyone see Victor like this. This wouldn’t be fair to him. In the end, I get as much clothes off him as possible, I cover him with a blanket and I try to get some sleep. Tomorrow, today really, is an important day.

But as I lie, my face buried in my pillow, I feel my heart crying for him.

Oh, this is not what I meant to accomplish. Not at all. But I’ve always known he was mine only for a time.

So, after today, I’ll say goodbye to the ice, go back to Japan and look for a job. He’ll go back to Russia and go on to be a champion again, I know he will. This is how it must end, this wild, brief relationship with the fiercest, sweetest man I will ever have met in my life.

How will I learn to live without him…?

How terribly I shall miss all the things that he does to me. I will miss his mouth, his hands, his marvel of a body, the scent of his hair. I will miss the fun I have when he flirts with me – the excitement, when he invites me to make love – the breathtaking pleasure of having him reach into the ecstasy within me – the joy, the fulfilment, the completeness I feel when his cock is inside me, his arms around me.

Affectionate. Patient. Relaxed. Tolerant. Witty. Hungry. Oh, this – always, I chuckle, my breath catching on tears. Passionate. Attentive. Funny. Surprising. Stylish. Daring. Bright. Courteous. Knowledgeable. Cheerful. Enquiring. How I will miss all the things that he is.

There will be no more shared fun, happy companionship, silly banter. He will never tease me again and we will never chase each other around the rink, shrieking with laughter.

And there will be no more of this certainty that when I stumble, on ice or off it, he is right by my side to catch me.

***

What wakes me up is an awful headache and a terrible need to puke.

So I do.

Someone has thoughtfully placed a bucket by the bedside. Someone is supporting my forehead throughout and then giving me some water. And that someone is, of course, my Yuri.

I look up at him and whisper ‘Sorry…’. He pushes me gently so that I lie back and I hear him take the bucket away to the bathroom. Oh God, why did I get so drunk last night?

Then I remember why.

He is not my Yuri anymore. He doesn’t want to be.

This makes me feel sick again, but this time I get to the bathroom on time.

As I emerge, he is standing in the middle of the room, obviously distressed.

‘Victor, I’m sorry, I must go. The warm-up’s starting soon. I’m sorry! I know we must talk, but…’

‘Talk?’ I say bitterly, leaning against the wall. ‘After last night, what’s the point? I already told you how I feel. You didn’t look like you cared much.’

And then he grabs me by my crumpled shirt and shakes me.

‘You told me, Victor! You told me! But all of what you said was in Russian!’

He snatches his sports bag from the floor and runs out.

***

No. I cannot allow this.

I am not a courageous person. What I am about to do requires more self-confidence than I have. But if I don’t try, Victor and I will go our separate ways and then I will never forgive myself. Not for letting him go. For that, I am prepared. It is my decision. I honestly think he needs the ice more than he needs me. What I will never forgive myself for is not trying this one way by which I may keep him.

I don’t understand Russian; all I could distinguish in his wild outpouring of soft and sibilant sound was my name. But I’ve been with him to Russia and I’ve heard it spoken. In particular, I’ve heard it spoken around the rink. I remember I could catch some terms. But in what he was saying I did not recognise one word I’d recall hearing there.

Victor was not speaking about skating. I think he was speaking about us. I think he was explaining why it is better for us to split. I even think he was apologising for leaving me. But I did not understand. Could not respond. I wanted to tell him that I would always be his friend. And I will be. It is going to be unbearable. But I will be. Only I just could not say it. I must have offended him, although I never meant to.

Yet I’ve just realised something that may, just may, be important.

And it has also dawned on me that I am not the only one who holds Victor dear.

The time has come to call for help.

***

A set of my clothes, clean ones, is lying in a tidy heap on his side of the bed. Below stand my shoes, cleaned. The suit is hanging on the wardrobe doors, right by. My watch, wallet, phone and the room key have been carefully placed on a little table by the door. My gloves, those that perfectly match my coat, are lying under the wallet, impossible to forget. The coat is hanging on the room doors, right by.

And, the final detail, another thing on that table is a cup of green tea, cool and fresh.

And I said he did not care?

This tactful gesture brings to me how desperately lonely I’m going to be without him. My heart howls in pain, and all it can howl is his name. Yuri! Please, I need you! Come and save me…!

He showed me constantly that he cared. He was affectionate, discreetly attentive, patient with me, willing to cope with my erratic ways, and…

And I called him selfish.

Have I ever even said ‘thank you’? Thank you for being there for me? Is it so fast that I came to take his companionship, his relaxed, happy devotion, for granted?

Why did I never tell him, soberly and in English, what he means to me?

I never took the time to spell it out in bold letters, first to myself and then to him, that I cannot imagine life without him. And now it’s too late, for even if he still cares, it is because he is kind and polite and I think he really likes me; but our relationship has obviously soured for him. I lost him. Oh God, where do I go now…?

I should probably return to skating. Without him in my life, what else do I have to do? I’m no-one but a skater. When I am not a skater, I am no-one. So I just as well might. In fact, it will be a wise thing to do. I need discipline, a structure to my life. Otherwise I can already picture myself getting into a whirlwind of brief, violent affairs which, having come to know an infinitely better relationship, I’d find revolting even while engaging in them. Then I’d try to drown my distaste in drink. Do I really want this?

I drag myself downstairs and to the rink. The free program is about to start, but I find Yakov still in a room that has been assigned to us coaches as a sort of an office.

‘Ah, Vitya,’ he greets me. ‘What can I do for you?’

‘Take me back.’

He considers this.

‘You’re out of shape. You’ll have to work hard.’

I am far too tired, too hung over and too heartbroken to even think of a sassy answer.

‘I will.’

‘I can’t promise you much success anytime soon.’

‘I can’t promise you that either,’ I say wearily. ‘Still, I want back.’

‘Alone?’

‘Alone.’

He must have some idea of what has been going on in my life, more or less everyone does, we weren’t exactly hiding, so he looks at me intently. He seems about to say something but doesn’t. I probably look so miserable that he takes pity on me.

‘All right. Come May, I expect you at our rink. We’ll work out the contract then.’

‘Thank you.’

He only grunts.

Outside the door I nearly collide with young Yurio coming to get Yakov. He avoids me gracefully and gives me a once-over.

‘You look like shit,’ he says dispassionately.

‘Can’t argue. I feel like shit, too.’

‘‘Cause?’

‘Yuri’s retiring after today. And he is leaving me.’

‘Moron,’ comments Yurio flatly.

All I can react with is a groan.

He seems to reconsider.

‘Both of you morons.’

I don’t get a chance to speak to Yuri before it is his turn. We only shake hands. Then I watch him, spellbound, as he skates his program. He is awesome, all fluid power and incredible grace. He is the sure winner. And I, the sure loser. I stand to lose my golden boyfriend and with him, I’m beginning to fear that I shall lose my will to skate. I have just decided to return, I’ve made arrangements, but truly, what point will it be without him?

My place was by his side. No matter where. I needed him more than I’ve ever needed the ice. But he did not see this. He made me his own for a while and now – now I am alone again. Oh God, please, no! I don’t want to be alone! I want my Yuri. It occurs to me that he may be thinking that by leaving me he is returning me to the ice. If so, he is wrong. Its glittering pane will change into an expanse of ash under my blades. I cannot skate on ash.

Yurio takes off. Just a few bars into his program I realise what miracle I’m seeing. This fifteen-year-old goes far beyond flawless – he is pure magic. A sliver of energy, harnessed by an iron will and clad in beauty. And then… Three quarters through the second half, almost at the end, he nails that spectacular, impossible, out-of-the-program quadruple toe loop, thereby burying all of Yuri’s chances for the gold.

Leaving the rink, he sends us, Yuri and me, as we stand nearby with the consequences of this sudden shift dawning on us, the most evil sneer imaginable. Yuri stares after him, his eyes narrow. There is a strange, almost cruel expression on his face, as if… As if he knew some lethal secret and was dangling it over Yurio’s head with vicious enjoyment.

I sigh heavily and take his hand.

‘Come. It is time.’

If we have to say goodbye, let it be in a decent fashion. I lead him to one of the rooms at the back which have been provided for the skaters to relax in. Fortunately, it is empty. The lamps outside wash it in a dim light and I leave it this way, counting on the semi-darkness to hide my heartbreak.

‘Yuri,’ I begin formally. ‘I must apologise for my behaviour last night. And thank you for what you did for me in the morning.’

He shrugs.

‘And as to what you told me…’

Chris barges in, pauses, says ‘Ah, a lovers’ tiff’, closes the door and obviously stands guard outside, because a moment later we hear his ‘Let’s leave them to sort it out, otherwise tonight’s party will be more like a funeral feast’ and someone’s indistinct answer ‘We wouldn’t want that’. Yuri chuckles.

‘…I must ask – are you serious? I was speaking to you in Russian?’

‘Yes,’ he answers. ‘I could hear it was important, but understand it, no.’

‘So?’

‘So?’ He raises his eyebrows.

‘Yuri, please. You won the silver, not the gold. Our contract is dissolved. You wanted to end it anyway, didn’t you?’

‘I did.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I think you’re not happy. You miss the ice.’

Even yesterday he would have been right. I did. Watching the guys skate, I felt like my heart was there with them, my body feeling their every step, every jump, my mind figuring out how I’d do it – how I’d do it better. But that was when he was still mine and I was regretting I cannot have both him and skating. Well, the way it looks now, I will end up having neither.

‘You get your wish. I’ve talked to Yakov. He has agreed to take me back.’

His eyes light up with a sparkle of amusement which gives me a pause; still, I continue.

‘And you want to leave me. Okay, I understand. I do. Really. I won’t make a scene. But what I’d like to know is why. I thought we were doing fine.’

‘What put this thought into your head?’ he asks, all calm and control. ‘That I want to leave you, that is,’ he clarifies, looking at me intently. ‘That we were okay, I agree.’

‘You were saying, let’s end this, and taking the ring off your finger. The message was pretty clear.’

He sighs heavily, the way one sighs over a hopeless moron, and begins to pull off his right glove, tugging at it, because it is tight around the wrist. Then he sticks his hand in front of my eyes. The ring is there.

‘I was twisting the ring on my finger. I do it when I am nervous. I was nervous ‘cause I wanted to persuade you to return to competitive skating. This would change the basis of our relationship. So I was preparing for a serious talk. Maybe for a quarrel. Instead, you exploded and ran off. Then you came back drunk, you bared your soul to me, unfortunately in a foreign language, and since then, seeing as I did not react in any way, you’ve been sick with misery.’

His summary of my behaviour could not be more correct.

‘So… You’re saying I got your meaning wrong?’

‘You did. I started that conversation badly. I admit. But you never let me finish. Asking me what I meant would have cleared the matter.’

The reproach is the mildest possible, but it is certainly there.

‘So… What are your plans now?’ I can hear the tremor in my voice.

And, most unexpectedly, he laughs.

‘I didn’t win the gold. I’d like another chance. I’m staying.’

This is a very good decision. He has the makings of a champion. I am glad for him. But for me, it will be hell to see him at competitions and to dream of him, never being able to touch him again. I don’t think I could be ‘just friends’ with him, he means too much to me.

And so I ask, breathless with fear, ‘So… What about us?’

Standing by the window, in the eerie glow of the lamps outside, he seems insubstantial, a lovely ghost ready to slip through my fingers. Please, not yet, please, just a while longer… There is a mysterious light in his eyes. I could go down on my knees and adore him. Would this make him stay?

‘Tell me, was it true what you told me last night?’ he asks seriously.

‘But, Yuri, you said you didn’t understand…’

‘I didn’t, but was it true?’

‘Of course it was! Every word.’

‘Then this is my answer.’

He stands on his toes, wincing, for a skater’s feet always hurt after getting off the ice, he brings his lips to my ear and whispers a slow, clear ‘Ya tyebya lyublyu’, his Japanese accent a soft staccato.

And by this I am undone.

‘Yuri,’ I gasp. ‘How… Where did you learn to say this?’

‘You taught me,’ he says quietly. ‘You said it so many times last night that I could still repeat the phrase today. So I went to ask what it meant.’

‘Who did you ask?’ I am aghast it may have been Yurio. He would have killed Yuri with derision.

‘Yakov, who else. And when I got the answer, I told him I’m not giving you up. No way.’ Then, sweetly, he drops the bomb. ‘He offered he would take me on, gold or no gold. I am coming to Russia.’

 And with that, everything falls into place.

Yakov was not being compassionate. He simply knew that things were going to work out just fine. Yuri was not leaving me as me. He was leaving me free to pursue my career. Releasing me from an unwise promise, not from the bonds of his love. Yurio capped it all by very deliberately taking the gold away from him and thus giving his ambition the ultimate prick that dissuaded him from retiring.

And I was being an idiot.

‘It was obvious that you’d go back to Yakov. He likes you, he would do a lot for you. So I thought he might take me on – for you. But he had some nice things to say about me, too. I was hoping I’d bring him the gold as a recommendation, but then…’ He shrugs. ‘I’ve got something to work for, setting myself against two world champions. On the other hand, one of them is green, the other ancient, out of shape after a year off…’ Here his cool breaks and he grins like a devil. ‘And I plan to have him constantly exhausted from sex. You two better beware, I’m coming to get you.’

I stare at him, incredulous. Is this that timid boy I knew in Hasetsu?

At this moment there is a knock on the door.

‘Sorry to interrupt,’ says Chris politely, ‘but the VIPs want Yuri down there for some reason. I hear they mean to give him some medal.’

Yuri smiles at me and runs off. I don’t even get a chance to respond.

‘You’re a lucky bastard,’ says Chris and embraces me. He briefly cradles the back of my head with one hand and immediately withdraws. ‘So is he. Promise me one thing, will you?’

‘Anything,’ I agree breathlessly.

‘That I’ll be your best man.’

During the ceremony, which, as officially still his coach, I watch from up close, I hardly manage to keep whatever’s left of my composure. I would happily slap everyone on the back and inform them, one and all, that no, I was wrong, my boyfriend is not leaving me, and, better still, he loves me. But certainly not as much as I do him.

Yakov looks at me and shakes his head resignedly. I grin at him like crazy.

Yet as the ceremony draws to a close, I fight to regain some panache. If the guys see me like this, my fame of their cool and elegant senior colleague will be gone forever.

‘I did so want to kiss Yurio’s medal,’ I inform the silver medallist as he skates off the rink.

‘Don’t even think of it!’ he growls, barges into me with his shoulder and sends me sprawling. Then he straddles me and sits down firmly, right across my hips. So much for the cool and elegant. I can hear wolf whistles as the guys leave the enclosure.

Oh, what the hell. I reach up, push my hands under his sweatshirt and undo the zip down his back. He didn’t have the time to get out of his costume after the competition, to take a shower even less, so his skin is sticky with sweat, he smells of health, strength and effort, and he is mine. I sit up and we begin to kiss like mad, my hands on his back and his around my head.

A while later it’s Chris again, looking down at us over the railing of the tribune.

‘Hey, are you…’ he begins. Then he eyes us speculatively and says, ‘Five minutes, tops, and you’ll be arrested for public indecency. Have mercy, guys, there’s people round here, spectators, innocent children. And won’t you be more comfortable in bed? Yuri could take off his skates…’

So we crash into our room and then we crash on our bed.

Some time and an explosive climax later, we take a quick shower and – and somehow land back on the bed. It seems I can’t get enough of him.

We lie, his legs wrapped around my waist, my arms wrapped around his shoulders, my cock all the way inside him, the rocking of my hips setting us a slow, leisurely pace, his body arching up to me in response. We laugh softly, we whisper endearments to each other. I tell him that he is the best, the loveliest, the most beloved. I say it in Russian, for it is all so embarrassingly mushy, but I love telling him this and I think he gets the gist.

Yablochko, zvezdochka, tsvetochek, lastochka maya,’ I croon.

‘I can’t be all those things,’ he protests, clearly amused; but I can see he’s pleased, too.

‘You are,’ I say with conviction and I continue my litany. ‘Sokol moy, sobol moy, kak-zhe ya tyebya lyublyu!

This he understands. His eyes light up. His fingers get tangled in my hair. And I get to hear, again, that he loves me, too.

He loves me! Sealed with a kiss.

He says it quietly, in plain English. He is not one to string sweet epithets; but he is one to place my gloves so that I cannot forget them and to make me green tea when I’m hung over. I must learn from him, for it is a wonderful thing to have someone look after you this way.

‘I am the happiest man in the world,’ I tell him and I mean it.

‘This is because you finally got rid of the hangover,’ he brings me to heel. Oh, he can be tart when he wants to. But he is so sweet when he is tart; just like the cranberry jam my mother used to make, long ago.

‘That too,’ I admit meekly. Since we got together I’ve been drinking much less, I am out of practice, but what I imbibed last night would have floored an elephant. ‘I know who will soon be the least happy man in the world,’ I chuckle. ‘It’s Yakov.’

‘Oh? Why?’

‘Next year he’ll have to be dealing with three over-emotional skaters.’

‘Two over-emotional and one very sensible,’ he corrects me archly.

‘The sensible one being…?’

‘Me.’

I look at him sceptically and he laughs out loud. This makes the muscles in his belly vibrate, which gives me a weird but very pleasant feeling all along my cock. It’s sweet to be caressed by a lover’s laughter.

‘Oh, Yuri! I thought I’d never lie together with you like this again. You have no idea how miserable I was.’

‘I could see.’ He traces my eyebrow with one finger. ‘So was I. Oh, Victor, just think, we nearly broke up… without meaning to.’

‘Yuri, let me be clear on this: am I right that first I jumped to the conclusion that you were leaving me, and then you jumped to the conclusion that I was leaving you?’

‘This is exactly what happened.’

‘Can we lay a ground rule for the future? We jump on ice. About our feelings we talk.’

‘In English,’ he adds smoothly.

‘Aw, that hurt!’ He is getting more mischievous by the hour. What am I getting myself into, I think with immense happiness. ‘Explain to me, then: what did you want to achieve? I mean, ideally? I understand it wasn’t our breaking up. So what was it?’

He wrinkles his nose.

‘Do you really have to know?’

‘Yes, I think I do. Now that all’s well, I’d like to know how your mind was working.’

‘Well… I thought you’d go back to skating and I’d retire. This you know. But… Deep inside, I thought, Sankt Petersburg is a big city. There must be a job there for a Japanese chemist speaking passable English and willing to learn Russian. I dreamt that…’ He averts his eyes. ‘That maybe I could live with you. To look after you. ‘Cause you’d need to focus on training.’

‘Yuri… Would you really have come… For me?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Then… I won’t have it any other way.’

‘Oh, Victor… Are you sure? I wouldn’t want to… impose.’

‘Shh. I couldn’t be more sure.’ I actually can’t believe how easy this threshold was to cross. And how right it feels to have crossed it. ‘My home is waiting for you.’

I see a tear escape from the corner of his eye. I kiss it away.

‘And my bed is yours,’ I add with a slightly more decisive push into him.

His eyes narrow.

‘I won’t have it any other way,’ he repeats my phrase. His muscles tighten around my cock and an upward swing of his hips gives me a long, powerful caress. I gasp. He smiles.

‘Can you now tell me what you told me last night? In English this time?’ he asks, all innocence.

I squirm, the exquisite feeling instantly forgotten.

‘Aww… Don’t make me.’

‘Please.’

‘I feel so stupid. I’m sorry that you had to see me so drunk.’

‘The risk of loving a Russian. Besides, you saw me drunk first.’ We smile, I, happily, at the memory, he, ruefully, at its absence. ‘Please, tell me. I told you.’

‘Can’t you guess?’

‘No, I cannot. I want to hear it. Please.’

The third degree Yuri style. Gentle but relentless.

‘Well… I was mostly telling you I love you. Apologising for all I’ve ever done to hurt you. Begging you not to leave me. I may have also said something about not being able to live without you. Because… Because I can’t. I can’t imagine life without you,’ I finally tell him what I should have told him long ago. ‘Please, Yuri, stay with me forever.’

He puts his golden cheek to mine. His hands cradle my head. I rock my body into him, the rhythm of our lovemaking as slow as breathing.

But he’s not finished grilling me. He really wants to know what he missed.

‘And you called me something. Sounded like yu-ri-eni… and one more syllable.’

‘Yuryen’ka.’ I smile at the very sound. ‘It’s a diminutive of your name.’

‘A diminutive?’

‘A short form of a name. Like Tom of Thomas.’

‘Yuryen’ka is longer than Yuri.’

‘Oh, you’re so practical. Okay, it’s a form of a name you use when you really, really like someone. And I really, really like you, so there you are.’

I get a kiss as a reward, but I can see he is working something out in his head.

‘So you would be… Vityen’ka?’ He gets the soft pronunciation almost perfect.

‘Yes.’ It’s just one of the possible diminutives of my name, but I immediately accept it as ours. I actually feel myself blush with pleasure. ‘How did you know?’

‘Yakov calls you Vitya. He likes you. I like you more. So, Vityen’ka.’

‘Makes sense.’

‘May I call you that sometimes?’

‘Uh-huh. But only when we’re alone. And only when you like me very, very much.’

‘Then you may call me Yuri-chan. But please, you too, not in public. This is very personal. Especially a boy to a boy. It immediately says who you are to me.’

‘Yuri-chan,’ I repeat, vowing to myself to call him that before all his family, friends and acquaintances at the first opportunity that arises.

‘I don’t like your expression,’ he says. ‘I’m going to regret telling you this.’

His insight into my mind is uncanny at times.

‘You’re not going to regret anything. And if you do, I’ll make it up to you. How about… this way.’

I drive my cock deep into him with a long, slow push. And again. And again.

‘Then… I could… forgive…’ he answers in time with my thrusts. His eyes go misty.

Our need grows and our rhythm quickens. Soon there is no more room for talking.

And then there is a banging on the door and a yell from, who else, Chris, ‘Will you come down! Unless you feel like a threesome, in which case I’m willing!’

‘Give us a moment, for fuck’s sake!’ I yell back.

Chris pauses, probably considering several possible answers to this, and then asks sweetly, ‘Do you guys have any idea what time it is?’

Exactly twelve minutes later, immaculate and only a little winded, we enter the dining hall. The proceedings have barely started, the officials are not yet seated and I nod thanks at Chris, for we have just enough time to find our places.

But first, there is one man I must congratulate.

‘An admirable achievement, Yuriy Grigorevich,’ I say formally. ‘I am very pleased.’

‘The pleasure is mine,’ he sneers. ‘So is the gold.’

‘Ah, but the grand prix is mine. And for that I thank you.’ I make a slight bow.

He looks at me questioningly, then he glances at Yuri smiling at me from across the room, he gets my meaning and, for a briefest instant, he grins.

Okay, so maybe he is human after all.

‘I’m returning home. Next season I’m with Yakov,’ I say, making a mental note to acknowledge my debt to our coach, too.

‘So?’ He shrugs, back to being the epitome of unconcern. Clearly he didn’t notice the corollary.

I drop the bomb on the poor kid’s head.

‘So is Yuri.’

His howl is most satisfactory.

And then, after a few speeches from the VIPs, which we disregard as usual, there is good food and good drink, and when the officials retire, there is wild fun, for we have many things that must be celebrated.

I remember Yurio shouting totally obscene and very funny invectives at Chris, who answers him in kind, myself doubled up with laughter on the sidelines.

I remember Otabek impersonating Yurio as a ten-year-old (he is the only one of us who knew him then) and Yurio looking ready to tear him to pieces; but these two seem to be getting on very well, I sense a friendship in the making there, and I’m happy for them both, for they have needed it.

We very theatrically keep Yuri away from drink, which infuriates him (‘You morons really think I cannot control my alcohol intake?!’ – A chorus of male voices, ‘Yes!!!’).

And there is music. Good one, too, you can count on the Spaniards in that respect. I dance a bit, but mostly I watch Yuri having a good time. Sober, he is still one hell of a dancer. After a while a plan is implemented that has, apparently, been brewing for a while and I am let in on it at the last moment; namely, we collectively challenge him to a dance-off. Yuri looks at us with the deepest contempt and wins easily, nearly killing us all in the process. He later tells me that that night he would have been able to dance all Barcelona off her feet, and gladly.

I also have a very vivid memory of him dancing a waltz with Sara Crispino, tonight a silver medallist in her own right. They look divine together and she later says that this was the closest she had ever felt to being weightless; from a skater, who routinely defies gravity, this is a compliment indeed.

And then this Japanese monster bows in front of me and I hear the first bars of music, and I laugh helplessly, for it’s a tango. It is a different tango than last year, which was all laughter and pranks. This one is all laughter and passion (with some pranks for good measure), and I think the whole bunch are moved, for the wolf whistles soon die down and they are standing all around us, clapping their hands to the rhythm, and then the applause is wild.

Chapter Text

Who would have thought – who could have guessed – that this slender, delicate, beyond belief tight-assed boy would like his sex so rough? He invites me shyly, almost childishly, then gets me to ride him harder than I have ever ridden anyone, howls with pleasure as he climaxes and then, then he changes back into the gentlest of creatures and seems surprised at that demon he has just unleashed on the poor, bewildered me, endlessly astonished at how in the whole wide world I have managed to locate, and then to win, this wonder. This black-haired, amber-eyed, golden-skinned miracle.

Much has changed in the past months. We’ve been sharing a flat, my flat, but I have come to think of it as ours. I’ve discovered that he is a decent cook, that he is generally very housebroken (he made me buy a dishwasher and get a cleaning lady, which greatly improved the state of the house and removed some threats to domestic peace before they even materialised), that he genuinely doesn’t care if his clothes are ironed or not (he still often looks as crumpled as he did back in Japan) and that he has a very fine singing voice. My God, how he sings! He has a sweet, powerful tenor which, if trained, could have earned him a living, at least I think so, but perhaps I’m biased. And how he can whistle! I’ve often heard him whistle Chopin while doing something else, completely casually yet totally in tune. And it’s so many times we’ve danced to his whistling, every time feeling like the first.

We are still in love as if we’d just met.

And our desire for each other is still as wild.

***

I’ve discovered so much about him since my arrival!

When I first walked into his flat, I was astonished to see how many books he had. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a private house with so many books in it. But since then I’ve visited some friends and I’ve learnt that in Sankt Petersburg many people have a lot of books. I wonder if this is a generally European thing.

Anyway, he loves reading and he’s been getting me books to read, mostly Russian literature, but others as well. They are usually English translations, of course, but he managed to buy me some Japanese ones, too. This has opened a whole new world to a sportsman and a chemist; because this is, after all, who I am. His all-time favourite, Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, was the first book over which I laughed and cried at the same time. Victor came, sat behind me, leant me against his chest and held me, reading over my shoulder. Then he cursed the translator, said that the book was a hundred times better in the original and told me I must learn Russian fast so that I can read it. I go to Russian classes three times a week and I’m beginning to get by – for instance I know now that his name has at least five diminutives, of which my favourite is our ‘in-bed’ one, Vityen’ka, but in public I use the one he calls himself by, Vitka, while everybody else says Vitya – but to read a real book…? That’s still a long way off.

Another thing I noticed during the first tour of his flat was the bathroom. It is very nice, big and modern, and it has a shower cubicle and a bathtub. Bliss! This, I admit, had been a worry. I had no idea what to expect and it seemed tactless to ask.

Several of my discoveries were made in that bathroom. I know now that Victor enjoys me combing his hair as much as I enjoy him combing mine. I’ve learnt that soaking in a hot bath together is wonderful, but it makes him sleepy and he is useless for sex afterwards. I also found the only two places on his body where he is ticklish: about three centimetres below the top of each hipbone and slightly to the front. Since I am a little ticklish in many places and he is very ticklish in just these two, several very satisfying tickle fights ensued.

In other areas, I’ve discovered that he is very handy with tools, of which he has a serviceable collection; screwdrivers, hammers, handsaws, a drill, neat boxes of nails and screws. He can mend most things at home; a leaking toilet, a loose hinge, no problem. Who would have expected! When I expressed my surprise, he shrugged and said: ‘When I was a teenager, I had to learn how to keep things working. I was the man of the house. And it spared the expense’. It appears that when he was younger, money was an issue.

I still know very little about his background, though. All I’ve learnt is that his mother died of cancer over ten years ago and that his father was ‘not interested in the acquaintance’; this is how Victor put it. So he has lived alone since he was eighteen. He told me that I am all the family he has. A tall order, to replace a whole family, but I seem to be coping.

I love him so much that I couldn’t more.

***

From day one I’m introducing him as my boyfriend. Eyebrows get raised, but there are no comments. Maybe some whispers, but I don’t get to hear them. A few skaters distance themselves from us, but no-one I liked. I also start coming out to various friends. The reaction of one Vasya is symptomatic: ‘But… You can have any girl you want!’. This is not entirely untrue; more than one girl was interested. I could have married and lived a life most people here consider proper. But I patiently explain that no, I don’t want a girl, I want a boy, this boy. He seems sceptical. I am aware our friendship may not survive. Only two people say ‘High time; we knew all along’, but they are both my friends from high school, we were growing up together, and one of them is a girl; women seem to have a special insight into these things.

So at the rink I don’t stop myself from hugging him or kissing his cheek when I feel like it; we hold hands and do brief pair skates. But most often I just flirt with him shamelessly and he, blushed all over, is enjoying it very much. He is playful with me, too. By now he catches most of my double entendres (not all of them, but I don’t expect him to, some I make just for my own enjoyment). He’s not good at quick repartee, but he can make a joke just by changing his expression. Few people realise how great his acting skills are, since he never shows off. His forte is a weird, deadpan humour, often relying on his pretending he didn’t catch the subtext of what I said or that he simply didn’t understand me; a few times he fooled me, I thought he genuinely didn’t. He can be discreetly coquettish, but very seldom in public.

I will never forget how surprised I was by the first full sentence in Russian that he said to me (not counting that single, most wonderful one in Barcelona). He was poring over his homework – this was after his second Russian class, I think – and he looked up at me and asked: ‘Victor Borisovich eto ochen’ krasivyi muzhchina. Is this correct?’. I was torn between a ‘Yes’, because it was okay as a sentence, and a ‘Come off it’, because an admission would have sounded smug. So I hesitated, a little embarrassed. He consulted his notes, as if he had the criteria for gauging male beauty in the Russian culture jotted down there, and said calmly: ‘Yes, I think it’s correct’. Then he continued with his homework. Only his lips twitched.

Generally, I have a feeling he has me wrapped around his finger. And I love the position. His fingers are long, slim, amazingly strong, capable of giving me so much joy, how could I not love it?

And as to my looks, let’s put it this way: I consider myself handsome, but not beautiful, not really; my features are too irregular for that. All I have is good eyes, unusual hair and an excellent figure. But if he wants to see me as such, he is very welcome.

His path to being accepted into our rink’s team was not entirely smooth. At first the young bloods tried to put him through their usual routine of only half-friendly taunts and challenges, testing his worth as a fellow skater. He was totally baffled. I was sorry for him, but did not interfere. I cannot mother-hen him, can I? But they soon left him alone. Maybe they saw that he truly did not understand their jibes and was unable to answer. Maybe they saw that he was a better skater than all of them together and challenging him put their own skills in bad light. But, frankly, I suspect a word or two from young Yurio might have had something to do with it. We all know what a word or two from Yurio is like. Persuasive.

For Yurio is the only one who is allowed to torment him (the permission self-given, of course). And he does. He calls him names, he challenges him, he rubs in the fact that he won the GP. But the Japanese addition to our rink team is his to torment and if anybody else tried to, I’m sure he’d make them regret it very much. Yuri bears his attentions patiently. I’ve also noticed that when the youngster oversteps some line which Yuri drew between them, and which I do not see, he just skates away, effortlessly doing some hellish combination on his way. That immediately brings our enfant terrible to his senses. Once I think I even heard him mumble an apology. Seems impossible, but with Yuri being involved… anything is possible.

By the way: we flirt much more aggressively, Yuri and I, in front of the poor kid, because he finds it acutely embarrassing and gets mad, and he is very funny when he’s fuming. We just love to gross him out. His attempts at getting us to behave are absolutely hilarious. Our unconcealed amusement drives him even more angry and… da capo, until finally Yuri takes pity on him and puts a stop to our sport.

Anyway, there seems to exist a tacit agreement at the rink that Yuri’s feelings are to be spared. The young bloods take it out on me. The heroic aura which used to surround me has evidently paled a little; they wouldn’t have dared before I left. My year off diminished the glamour of my titles. Ah, well, it can’t be helped. I at least can give them tit for tat. And if sometimes I smart, for they can be merciless, I never let them see it. I just skate up to Yuri for a moment and take shelter in his calm. Would I relinquish this to have my former glory back? Never.

The rinkmate Yuri has grown particularly close to is Mila. I think she is a substitute Yuko for him; a girl with whom he shares an easy camaraderie. It is to her that he goes for help with his Russian, on which he is working very hard. She has a lot of patience. She is also good at explaining language problems. I’m grateful to her, because I’m not.

Finally, Yakov has a mammoth-sized soft spot for him. This is because Yuri is very polite, willing to learn, and at the same time genuinely creative and talented as hell. He is also able to argue his point in a respectful manner. He is Japanese, he would never lose his self-control in front of a superior, and I think Yakov finds it restful. No wonder, having two fractious world champions to deal with… It turns out that Yuri was right; he is the sensible one. With Yurio’s constant rebellion and my unpredictability, we keep the old man on his toes.

All in all, I’m very pleased.

If only it were easier for me to get back to my old form. Then my happiness would be complete. But – it isn’t.

***

I watch Victor fighting to get back to form.

He still very much knows what he is doing, but his stamina is down, his motion less fluid, his jumps below standard. His signature quad flip is way beyond him. The first time he fell on a jump, an easy loop, I heard a collective intake of breath all around the rink. I saw him fall, of course, I seem to be always aware of where he is and what he is doing, and my heart went to him. But I did not skate up to him. My being here is too closely connected with why he is so out of shape, I thought; this is a thing he has to deal with on his own.

Yurio had other ideas. He rushed to Victor, yelled several things at him, which judging by the tone must have been nasty and hurtful, helped him up and got him laughing. I’m glad the youngster did for him what I could not. But Victor’s laughter was forced; I could hear.

He is working very hard, but his progress is slower than he had hoped.

Finally there comes a day when he returns home later in the evening than me, our schedules don’t always coincide, I hear him taking off his jacket by the door and then… silence. I rush to him, alarmed. I find him leaning against the wall, his face hidden in the crook of his elbow, his shoulders slumped.

‘Yuri…’ he whispers hoarsely, sensing me behind him. ‘What if I don’t make it?’

My heart aches for him. What can I do?

‘First you need to unwind. Then we may talk.’

I take him by the hand and lead him to the bathroom. He says nothing, he does not even try to kiss me hello. My active, energetic boyfriend has vanished somewhere and I want him back. But for that, he needs to forget the troubles of the day, if only for a moment.

I don’t switch the light on. The glow coming from the hall is enough. I undress him efficiently, matter-of-factly, not one touch suggesting anything else than a friendly favour.

‘Come.’

He gets under the shower. I quickly take off my own clothes and follow. I adjust the temperature to his liking, which means slightly on the cool side for me, I steer him to make room for me and I begin to wash him. He leans against the wall on outstretched arms and hangs his head tiredly. I kneel to wash his feet, then I move upwards to his genitals. He doesn’t even get excited at my touch. Good, because he is not meant to. The shower cubicle has seen some pretty vigorous action, but tonight I have other things in mind. I wash and rinse his hair. Then I lead him out, dry him with a towel, hand him his comb.

‘Bedroom, in three minutes,’ I command. ‘Don’t forget to brush your teeth.’

‘Okay,’ he agrees listlessly.

He comes into the bedroom. I am waiting, kneeling on the bed. He is naked; I’m not.

‘Come, lie down.’ I stretch out my arms to guide him. He complies. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so beaten. I am touched by the way he yields to me – meekly, trustingly.

Adesso fa’ silenzio,’ I quote. He smiles, his eyes closed.

I was never any good at massage, so I don’t even attempt it; but what I can do is cover all his body in kisses. Which I proceed to do, meticulously. I kiss his face, escaping when he wants to kiss me back, his neck, his shoulders and his chest. When he tries to embrace me, I pull his arms away. He reaches to my face, so I kiss the inside of his palm.

‘Yuri…’ He pushes my head towards his rising cock, but I gently evade him.

‘Lie back. Allow me,’ I say, shifting to the foot of the bed.

He smiles again and surrenders to me.

I kiss his feet. I knead the tender arches and the swollen balls under the big toes. This I know how to do; I know very well where each ache is buried. I’m a skater too, after all. I lick the soles and breathe on each toe. I move up his legs to kiss his knees, which I know are beginning to give up; soon he will need an operation. Then on to his thighs and a hip, again avoiding his groin. I kiss his belly and circle his navel with my tongue. Then up and I give each nipple a gentle bite. I breathe into the little dip between his collarbones and draw the tip of my tongue along the hollow behind his jaw. I nibble on his earlobe and put a row of tiny nips along the edge of his ear. Only then do slide down to take his cock, now fully erect, in my mouth.

I lick, kiss and suck him slowly, all my rhythms intended to soothe, not to excite. It takes him a long while to come. When he does, it is with more of a sigh than his usual groan.

I swallow all of his come. I always like doing this, but in the present situation it has an extra advantage: he is clean and I can pack him into bed right away. He is already half asleep.

Before he settles, he does something unusual. He reaches under my pillow for my worn T-shirt and puts it on, even though it is too tight across the shoulders for him. Oh… This alone would have told me how insecure he feels; ordinarily he sleeps gloriously naked. And he needs me close; the T-shirt is a substitute of me. What he doesn’t know is that I would never leave him alone now. I slip under the quilt with him. He nestles against me, his face to my chest. I embrace him and reach back to switch off the bedside lamp. It’s just after nine, I don’t feel sleepy at all, but I’m ready to lie awake the whole night if this is to ease him.

And so I’m lying, as still as I can, I’m listening to his even breathing and I’m thinking of how I can help him. How I can show him that he is not alone in his fight.

About eleven I hear the rhythm of his breathing change. He is awake. I kiss him on the nose.

‘Hello, my prince. What would you say to some tea now?’

‘You’d make a passable Englishman,’ he laughs as he reaches to the light switch. ‘You see tea as a remedy for all the ills of life.’

‘I make better tea than Englishmen!’ I huff. Good quality green tea is hard to come by in Sankt Petersburg, it took me a while to discover where to buy it. But I do this only in an emergency; the really fine matcha I get sent from home. A parcel with food essentials arrives from Hasetsu every few weeks. My mum wouldn’t let her son starve among the barbarians.

‘True. Let’s have some.’ Now he kisses me on the nose.

By the way, my mum took me aside the day before I left Japan and held a short speech to me, along the lines of ‘Vic-chan is a good person. You should be grateful for his friendship. Look after him properly; otherwise I’ll be disappointed that I’ve raised such an undutiful son’. Coming from my easygoing mother, this was serious. So I’m trying.

‘Thanks, Yuri. I feel better.’ He sighs. ‘Which does not change the fact that I’m fighting a losing battle. I never thought it would be so hard to get back to competing form. I did skate in Hasetsu a lot, didn’t I?

‘No skate-talk in bed!’ I remind him of one of our rules. ‘Let’s sit in the big room.’

We stretch on our worn couch, face to face, the teapot within reach, and pull a blanket over our legs. The dog settles between us, sighs happily and goes to sleep. Victor reaches for my bare foot and gently takes it between his hands. He seems to need to hold on to some part of me. My foot must do, for I need my hands to write. I set a writing block against my knee.

Together we devise an inhuman training schedule.

We work out what he should do – day by day, almost hour by hour; what he should eat, meal by meal; what he should achieve at the end of each week. We plan for slumps in form, they always happen, and leave one week free of goals in case of an illness. The only thing we do not envisage is time off. No respite. No mercy.

‘I was so looking forward to an autumn holiday with you,’ he says sadly.

‘There will be other autumns,’ I assure him, although I’m sorry too. We were planning to catch a few days of sunshine somewhere quiet. I voted for Greece, he for Italy. It was to be our first real holiday together. Now virtually all of our plans will have to be put on hold.

I am taking notes. Victor must be in a really bad shape, for it takes him a while to notice that I’m writing down more than we decide on; he is usually far more observant.

‘Hey, what are you…’ he says, he reaches for the writing block and looks up at me, astonished. All of my extra notes are in Japanese. ‘What’s this?’

‘I’ll tell you when you agree to follow this schedule. Faithfully and to the letter.’

‘Demanding, aren’t you.’ He goes over our notes. ‘Yeah, this is good. This may work.’

‘So, Victor, do you?’

‘I do. But…’ He gives me a sorrowful look. ‘We’ll completely stop seeing each other.’

‘Are you crazy? I wouldn’t let us.’ I point to the part written in Japanese. ‘This is for me. Same food, same schedule, slightly different goals. I’ll be training with you. All the way.’

***

We go to Yakov with our plan. This in itself is an indication of how serious we are about it; in the past, I introduced changes to my training schedule without any consultation. This drove Yakov mad, the more so that I was usually correct in my intuitions, witness my medals. Not this time, however.

‘This is unwise,’ says my ever-tactful boyfriend. In his parlance this means ‘Don’t be stupid’. ‘We need his advice.’

I let myself be persuaded. Yakov knows much more than we do about setting up very strenuous schedules. We also need his approval for the training hours we’ve planned, for he must talk to the night porter at the rink.

He looks at the schedule, which we have carefully laid out in tables and printed out. He huffs. Then he takes a pen and starts making corrections. He gets on the phone and talks to our dietician. Then he revises the diet plan (I wince; Yuri doesn’t, but only because Yakov is writing in Russian), makes some additions and puts in a note ‘From here, modify according to results’.

‘I will help you with this,’ he says finally. ‘It cannot do any harm and I see that you are both motivated. But Yuri, Vitya, I want you aware of one thing. You are going to put a terrible amount of work into this. You may get very close to success. But then, in the end, Victor may still fail to qualify. Don’t get your hopes too high, boys.’

In the past, I would have delivered some sarcastic rejoinder to this. This time, I just nod, because I know he is right. Looks like I’m finally, of necessity, growing up.

Yakov dismisses us with his usual wave of hand. But it turns out he has one more thing to say.

‘Yuri,’ he calls as we are at the door. ‘If you get him to win a medal, any medal, this year, I’m giving you a job as my assistant when you retire.’

‘I’ll accept,’ answers Yuri with a smile, ‘if you can offer me another Victor to coach.’

Very funny.

And thus we start.

Yuri needs far more sleep than I do. He can fall asleep anywhere; on a plane, in a train, I’ve seen him catnapping sitting on a bench after a workout. He especially loves to sleep long in the mornings. Soon after I arrived at Hasetsu I discovered that getting him out of bed for an early session is an ordeal. I often had time for a nice skate before he arrived, tousled and very contrite, at the Ice Castle. Left alone, he opens his eyes around eleven, gives a lazy yawn and considers if a further half an hour of slumber would not be a good idea. If he decides to get up, he sleepwalks to the kitchen, his face still crumpled – I swear he looks no more than fourteen then and I feel like a pervert for finding him sexy – and starts making tea. Only having had a mug of the vile brew (I’m kidding, I like it too) is he ready to meet the challenges of the day.

No, my Yuri is not a morning person.

Now I see him getting up at five – not only without a word of protest, but with a smile. I see him run beside me through the windy streets. It’s September and the city looks lovely, but I know that winter may start setting in as early as in October, by November it may be snowing and God knows how bad the frosts will be this year. Even I would hesitate before running outside in a howling blizzard, so we are trying to make the most of the weather while it still holds.

I see him buy food with a rigid shopping list in his hand and I help him cook meals strictly according to a plan he stuck on the kitchen wall. I see him forgo his favourite foods without even a sigh. I see him forgo his favourite pastimes. All he holds on to are his Russian classes. And he actually finds the time to do the homework.

I am aching all over. I am dead tired. I yearn to eat something nice or have a drink. I forget when we last went out or watched a film. We seldom even find energy for sex; we just cuddle before sleep. But I would be ashamed to let out even the quietest grumble, because I know he is just as tired, just as aching, just as yearning… and yet cheerful all the time. In truth, all I can think of is this: What have I done to deserve him?

***

I. Am. Going. To. Die.

This getting up early will surely kill me. I am living in a daze of not-enough-sleep and I have to concentrate twice as hard on the simplest tasks. I’ve cut my hand with a knife while cooking three times already. It hadn’t happened to me for years. I am forcing myself to remember to hang out the clothes after the washing machine has finished its cycle. The poor dog has to remind me to take him for a walk.

I am trying to catch some sleep whenever I can. Even at the rink. No wonder I become the butt of jokes. Some remarks are pretty hurtful, but as they are delivered in Russian, I can pretend not to understand them. Some are spoken in an undertone.

‘…so tired. Bet Nikiforov fucks him all night. He must have his ass…’ – something, a verb phrase I don’t know.

‘Yeah. Fucking…’ – again a word I don’t catch, but it is certainly not complimentary.

My grasp of spoken Russian is getting better and I am happy about it, but these comments I would have preferred not to have understood.

Yet I would never even think of complaining. For Victor is more tired than I am. He is growing pale. He says it’s winter pallor, but I’m worried about his health. And I can see that my optimism is helping him. But the best is, our efforts are paying off. He is no longer losing his battle. The odds have evened out.

And as he is getting better, his problems with Yurio Plisetsky are getting worse.

Victor calls Yurio ‘the young wolf’. I think he is more right than he realises. This youngster structures his world like a pack. Its unquestioned leader, the alpha male, is Nikolai Petrovich, his grandfather. The beta is Yakov. He challenges them, but one growl from either brings him to heel. I like both these men very much, gruff as they are. I know very well that they would do a lot for us youngsters. And katsudonnye pirozhki made by Nikolai Petrovich are a dream come true.

The alpha female is Lilya Ivanovna. He knows she is not to be trifled with, especially since she’s the only person who is more brutally sarcastic than he. He loves her very much, although he has no idea he does. She loves him too. And I’ve seen her reduce him, with just a few words, to carefully hidden tears.

Myself and Mila are cubs from the same litter; his equals. He may bite us, but when we bite back, he is okay with it. We growl at each other, but none of our fighting is serious.

All the rest of the younger skaters are beneath his notice. He despises them. He gives them the cold shoulder so diligently that it is actually a pleasure to watch.

I must say I derive a lot of amusement out of watching Yurio.

Finally, Victor. Well, in Yurio’s universe Victor is a male in his prime, the leader of the young-generation pack. This is a position the teenager would very much want for himself, but he knows he cannot have it, at least not yet, not for a long while. And that’s why he constantly challenges Victor. He mocks him, he taunts him, he generally treats him like dirt. Victor bears it patiently – up to a point. Then he gives him one cruel swipe, leaving Yurio belly up. Victor’s neat turn of phrase makes him very nasty when he feels like it. Yet he is the only male whom the youngster allows to plait his hair (Victor is a master at plaiting hair). Their relationship is a constant game of authority defied and acknowledged; of dominance tested and reconfirmed. Victor is a little tired with it sometimes, but he likes the kid too much to truly savage him.

The rest of humanity are not-wolves to Yurio. They are prey.

This comparison to a wolf pack is something we have worked out with Mila. She is very bright and much fun to be with. If I were single, I’d probably consider falling in love with her, but as things stand, we are good friends.

As an aside: Yurio’s relationship with Otabek did not enter into our analysis. It is still very fluid. Sometimes they seem drawn to each other; but I’ve also observed Yurio watching one of the girls at the rink with lust painted all over his face. So we decided to wait with the verdict until we have seen them together at a few more competitions. Myself, I believe that at the current moment Otabek and Yurio are good friends, just like Mila and me, and let’s leave it at that. But if I were to give an opinion, I think that Yurio will grow up to be a lone wolf. Anyone, man or woman, who binds themselves to him will have to be tremendously strong.

In any case, Victor is the closest Yurio has ever had to an older brother and vice versa. But they are both only children and they have very little idea of how to behave around a sibling. There’s twelve years of difference between them; that’s a lot. And they are also rivals, Victor the very titled senior who wants a successful comeback, Yurio the current champion who will soon have to defend the title. Not an easy situation for either of them.

And they have to share a rink, too. Yurio can see that Victor is getting closer and closer to his old form. He was there when Victor jumped a quad flip again. What he has not seen is even a snatch of the programs Victor is choreographing for himself – or for me. We practice them at dawn, when we are still alone at the rink. This makes the youngster angry. To make matters worse, he has grown at least seven centimetres since I arrived; he is now as tall as me and will be taller. His centre of gravity is shifting and he is getting less flexible. He is still graceful and very fit, but he can rely on his body far less than before and it is not doing his self-confidence any favours. I sometimes think he became a champion too early. It would have been healthier for him if he had not taken the title away from me last season. I’d be retired now… My life would be so different.

As things stand, their relationship is steadily deteriorating. Yurio is constantly trying to pick a quarrel with Victor, while Victor is so exhausted that he has grown short-tempered. They need a buffer between them and that’s where I come in.

Most often, I just steer conversations away from dangerous grounds. I stroke down the hackles of two snarling wolves, I smoothen the ruffled feathers of two fighting cocks and I quieten the rumbles of two gorillas. There are times when I feel as if I were living in a zoo.

But one day Yurio comes to our place early in the evening to eat supper and watch a movie with us and they begin to argue at the table. And I lose patience.

***

He slams his hand flat on the table. We both jump up.

‘Enough!’

We look at him, stunned.

He pushes his plate away and gets up, his eyebrows drawn, his eyes flashing fire.

‘I want you, both of you, to remember that this is my home, too. I will not have such noise in my home. Argue at the rink if you must. But not at the meal which I cooked for you, because this is disrespectful to me and I resent it.’

He does not shout. He says it in his ordinary, even tone. Then he proceeds to smoothly destroy both of us.

‘Yuriy Grigorevich,’ he says formally, with a small bow. ‘You’re our guest, so I’m sorry I have to say it. Please be more polite to Victor. Not because he is your senior or more titled. Simply because this is how I want people, and I mean everyone, not just you, to treat one another in this house. If you were a child, I’d excuse your manners. But you are not.’

Yura looks like he would say something. He doesn’t get a chance.

‘Shut up! I’m talking. Please, do realise that I know what you’re going through. I can see how you’ve grown. I sympathise. I had to deal with this shift myself and I know it’s not easy. But you knew this would happen, so take it in your stride like a man. And before you sass me, think who will be there for you if we’re not. We enjoy your company. Very much, actually. Anyone else does? And don’t give me shit you don’t need friends, because we all know it’s not true.’

This is a hard blow. I glance at Yura. He is white.

‘And you, Victor Borisovich…’

My turn. No bow.

‘Stop being patronising. It’s low. Besides, you are far more titled, but you are also far older. Yuriy is an early starter, who knows how many times a champion he will be when he’s your age. This is our destiny as sportsmen: to shine for a while, then to be eclipsed. Accept it. With your usual dignity and good humour, please, because I like them about you.’

I hang my head.

He has not finished with us.

‘I want you both to see that what you are competing against is not each other. It’s time. Time! You, Victor, must work harder than you did when you were younger. You don’t like it. This is understandable. You, Yuriy, feel your body is betraying you. You don’t like it either. This, too, is understandable. But taking out your frustrations on each other is just plain stupid. You can’t do anything about the fact that Yuriy is younger and Victor is more experienced. Work on you assets, guys, instead of harassing each other. This is unseemly.’

When Yuri is angry, his Japanese accent grows more pronounced, but his English gets better. He speaks slowly, carefully editing what he wants to say, so his sentences are neatly constructed and sharp as knives. And the most hurtful thing is his directness in stating things which should have been obvious but weren’t.

‘Both of you are worthy of admiration. You are hardworking, talented and generally damn fine men. But this is not enough! So now, as you are getting ready to defend the title…’ This to Yura. ‘And you’re striving to win it back…’ This to me. ‘I want you both to do it with more elegance. People at the rink are embarrassed by your fighting. I’m not surprised. They want to look up to you and you won’t let them. You disgrace yourselves. Some champions!’

No-one has accused me of not being elegant yet. Well, not for a long while. Not since… Fuck. I suddenly recall who was the last man to do so and the memory is not helping me any.

‘So I’d like to see some more mature behaviour. And could you spare a thought for me, too? I did not come to Russia to be dealing with two yapping pups.’

Aw, that hurt. I have no way of knowing if he is aware that to call a person shchenok, a pup, is a heavy, and condescending, insult here in Russia. I wouldn’t put it past him.

He pauses.

‘If you find you cannot conduct yourself properly when you are together, then please, stay away from each other. I will accept that. I’d prefer you not to, because I have fun with you. But now you are bringing out the worst in each other and it hurts me. So just – don’t, okay? Because…’ He averts his eyes. ‘I like you. Both of you. I am proud to be your friend.’

We are sitting, Yura and I, like frozen.

Then he looks back at us, his eyes narrow, he sends us a thin smile and delivers the final blow.

‘Besides, you seem to be forgetting one thing. In a few months neither of you may be the champion. It may be me.’

He exhales.

‘So. You finish your food. I feel like being alone for a while.’

He gives the dog a short, flat whistle. Maccachin jumps up. A moment later we hear the main door closing.

‘Oops,’ says Yura quietly.

Oops indeed. It is only once that I have seen my tactful, composed Yuri lose his cool; in China last season. He was right then. I have a sinking feeling he may be right now.

We glance at each other. Then Yura grabs his chopsticks and tucks into his food.

I look down at my plate. Busy bickering with the youngster, I didn’t even notice what was on it. It’s a salad with some kind of marinaded meat on it. As I begin to eat I realise that it is delicious while it does not infringe the diet I’m supposed to be keeping. I get even more ashamed of myself.

‘Shit,’ says Yura.

‘Is that all you can say?’ I sneer. But it is a feeble reply and he knows it. He shrugs.

‘What else is there?’

We have just finished eating and put the plates into the dishwasher when the dog bounces in and we hear Yuri taking off his shoes in the hall. We look at each other, start towards him, then look at each other again and come to a halt at the kitchen door. Keeping a respectful distance from our Japanese voice of reason seems a good idea.

The voice of reason gives us a hostile look.

‘Go away. I’m not through sulking yet.’

This is something I remember from Hasetsu. It was the Katsuki house rule that anyone was allowed to sulk, and the family would tread softly around them, as long as they stated clearly that they were. I suddenly feel an intense longing to see them all again. They are a wonderful family. And they brought up my Yuri to be a wonderful man. Who at this moment is disappearing into the bedroom, firmly closing its door behind him.

I slide down the opposite wall and plant myself on the floor.

Yura looks at me meditatively.

‘You planning to be sitting here until he comes out?’

‘Uh-huh.’

He slides down beside me.

The dog comes and scratches at the door frame.

‘Traitor,’ I mutter, but I open the door a crack and close it behind him without looking in. I’m glad Yuri won’t be alone in there.

We sit, each chewing on his own thoughts. After a long time he shifts slightly.

‘Vitya…?’

I acknowledge him with a grunt.

‘How did you deal with your body growing when you were my age?’

I consider the question.

‘I didn’t deal with it in any way.’

‘Yeah, sure.’

‘Yura, I’m not trying to avoid answering. Check my statistics. I was nowhere near as good as you. I didn’t have to prove anything. I just worked out. I endured. And the truth is, I barely noticed. When I was sixteen, my mother was already dying. A slow and… ugly death. Took her two years. And there was a man in my life who was important. So my mind was on other things, really.’

He gives me a sideways glance.

‘Sorry.’

‘For what? It was a good question. Sorry I don’t have an answer.’

I pause.

‘Ask Yuri. He’ll tell you all he knows. And Yakov’s advice is always sound. If you follow it,’ I smile ruefully. He sniggers.

A long pause again.

‘Let’s face it, we earned this,’ I say.

‘I guess.’

Silence.

‘Do you want me to stay away from you?’ he asks quietly. ‘I will if you say so.’

I consider this.

‘No.’

‘It would be easier,’ he tempts me. I can feel that he is anxious.

‘Uh-huh. It would. But have you any idea how badly we would disappoint Yuri? He is expecting us to live up to his standards.’

‘Fuck. You have to, but why me?’ he grumbles.

‘‘Cause he is a bloody idealist, that’s why. He likes his friends noble.’

He snorts.

‘I am not happy with us fighting, either,’ I continue. We speak in low voices. Neither of us is willing to tempt a second round of fire from the dragon in the bedroom. ‘I’d rather we talked like civilised human beings. ‘Cause you’re basically okay. Only you keep provoking me. All the time. I’m not asking why. But I find it hard not to react.’

‘This is why. It’s fun to see you nettled.’

‘My want of self-control amuses you?’ I ask. Without irony or annoyance, just sadly.

‘Sort of. You used to be more cool.’

‘I used to be less tired.’

Silence. It is to his credit that he does not use my admission against me, because, in truth, I have laid myself open to scorn with it. I sigh heavily.

‘I’m not getting any younger. Tell me, skater to skater, do you think I should quit?’

Hearing this, he turns to me, his expression fierce.

‘For fuck’s sake, what is it with you two?’ he snarls in a half-whisper. ‘First I have to win the GPF to keep this slant-eyed jerk from quitting. Now you. Well, no! I think: no! I’d be overjoyed if you quit, ‘cause the competition would be that much less for me and wouldn’t that be dandy. But, fuck it, you’re Victor Nikiforov, the bloody living legend, and don’t you dare give up. It would eat at you for the rest of your life. Quit when you feel like, but on your own terms. And this means, not this year. Besides, allow me to quote: have you any idea how badly you would disappoint Yuri? He’s done a lot to get you back on the ice.’

‘Do you think it’s so important to him that I compete?’ I ask quietly. ‘Would he like me less if I stopped?’

This, I admit, has been a worry. Yuri knows me only as a champion skater. He fell in love with me the champion skater. But I will not be that forever. Even this year I may still not qualify. If I do, I will probably not get to the podium. Will this change his feelings for me?

Yura rolls his eyes.

‘I think it’s so important to you and he just sees it! Himself, he doesn’t give a damn. The moron loves you to insanity whether you skate or not and if you don’t see this, you are far more stupid than I think you are.’

‘You think so…?’

He just grunts.

‘But, Yura… If I stop skating, what will I be? I don’t know how to do anything else. Yuri is a chemist, you’re still at school, you’re sure to go to the university. For me, it’s too late to learn a profession.’

Since the time I started having problems with returning to form, I’ve realised I should begin to consider what career I may hope for after I retire. I have substantial savings, but they will not last forever. For a while I may survive doing ice shows, but again, not forever. My body will give up at some point and my fame will fade. Is there anything I can do well enough apart from skating? I don’t have enough patience to be a coach; I agree with Yuri on this, I’d need another him to work with. There isn’t another one like Yuri in the whole world, and if there were, I wouldn’t want him. I am a passable choreographer, though. Maybe this? I could probably be a TV commentator at skating events, but that’s hardly a career. And except for my skating titles, I don’t have any qualifications. Frankly speaking, I’m pretty uneducated. Whereas my financial needs are considerable and I wouldn’t like to face reducing my lifestyle after retirement. Well, looks like I should think long and hard on this, and soon.

I just hope Yuri won’t notice I’m worried about the future.

And exactly as I am thinking this, I get a metaphorical bucket of cold water poured over my head by this damned imp.

‘You know what? You should talk this over with Yuri. Not with me. It concerns him too, yes? If I were your boyfriend, which I’m fucking glad I’m not, I’d be upset if you didn’t discuss something this important with me. I know you want to appear a total hero to him, but this is stupid. You’re together. For good, yes? So share this with him. He’s a sensible guy. He may have some good advice for you. And, for fuck’s sake, wake up: he knows you’re not a superman. Besides, he still has a good few years of skating in him if he wants to, but he may already have some plans for his own retirement. And you’ll need to consider them in making yours. You thought of that? I’ll laugh my head off if you end up a hotelier in Japan,’ he adds with a snort.

My turn to sit in silence, mulling over what he has said.

‘I can’t stand you, you know,’ I say finally. ‘You’re insufferable.’

He smiles as if I had complimented him.

‘So are you.’

‘Fine. We know where we stand. Question is what we’re doing about it. ‘Cause Yuri is right. We can’t go on like this. One way or another, we must stop getting on each other’s nerves.’

‘You’ll always be getting on my nerves.’

I nod. I somehow can’t see him ever not getting on mine.

‘Then are we both willing to at least try to behave?’

He exhales noisily, exaggeratedly.

‘It will take an effort.’

I’m waiting.

‘But, fuck. I’m willing.’

‘Okay. I’ll do my best.’

‘Me too.’

Silence.

‘Do you think that moron of yours has died in there?’

‘No. He just needs some time on his own. Leave him be. Here in Peter he has no other space to be alone in. Back in Hasetsu he would have gone to Minako’s studio and danced.’

‘The bastard knows how to dance, you have to give him that.’

We keep sitting at his door.

***

I kept them waiting for well over an hour. Later I realised they were certain I was being miserable in there. I did not tell them I just had a nap. I awoke refreshed and was ready to check whether they had taken my words to heart.

They seemed to have done so. They were sitting on the floor in silence, but there was no tension between them. When I emerged, Victor looked up at me and brightened. But the one to jump to his feet was the young wolf. And what he did then was hug me.

Probably because this way he could avoid looking me in the eyes.

I hugged him too, very touched, and I extended an arm to Victor, who got up slowly and was hanging back with a contrite expression. I gathered him in and he embraced us both. Yurio sneaked an arm around his waist. It was a brief but strong three-way hug that sufficed for apologies and promises.

Then I proposed we do what we planned all along, that is, watch a movie.

This episode has a sequel about ten days later. I notice Yurio keeping a distance from Victor. He must be avoiding him, as I asked. But when I try to skate up to him, I see that he is avoiding me, too. This will not do. I ambush him sitting on a bench.

‘Hi there, champ,’ I greet him cheerfully, planting myself beside him.

He answers with a hostile grunt.

‘I’m glad to see you, too,’ I grin. Then I look at him closely. He is sitting so that his hair falls across his face, but the bruise is too large to hide.

I gently pull his hair away. Large and colourful.

‘What happened?’

‘Fuck off, Katsu.’

Trust a Russian to arrive at a diminutive from an invective. His epithet for me used to truly sting me, even though I deserved it. Now it is just familiar. Quite a few people here call me Katsu thinking it comes from my surname. In fact, it’s from katsudon. Ancient history.

‘And in more detail?’

‘Nothing. Just fuck off.’

‘Don’t give me shit,’ I answer in the same vein, although I find it hard to use this kind of language when I’m not angry. And I’m not. I’m very concerned.

He shrugs.

‘I got into a fight.’

I roll my eyes. This merits no other comment.

I keep sitting by him in an interrogative silence. Few people can withstand this.

‘Someone was being dissed behind his back and I stood up for him.’

I look at him, astonished.

‘Plisetsky, a champion of the wronged? That’s news. Who’s the lucky one?’

He glances at me. His expression is odd; a mixture of hurt, scorn and worry. The exchange replays itself in my mind and I realise that although I only wanted to tease the truth out of him, I somehow managed to sound mean.

‘I shouldn’t have said that. I apologise.’

He grunts. With Yurio, a lot of conversation is done in grunts. Then he sighs and I can see that he’s going to tell me. Little do I expect what I’m going to hear.

‘I should kick your teeth down your throat, you know. It was Victor.’

‘What?!’

‘They called him… names. You wouldn’t understand. But they were nasty.’

‘Because of… us?’ I make a vague gesture at myself and the rink.

‘Yeah. So I… sorted them out.’

I recall the remarks I was not meant to hear. I admit I felt insulted; but a couple of guys I barely know voicing their prejudices over me are not worthy of being answered. But this kid is too young and too rash to see it this way.

‘Oh, fuck. Yura, this is serious. You got hurt.’

‘They got hurt worse.’

‘You should go to Yakov with this.’

He glances at the old man, who at this moment is lecturing someone at the far end of the rink, and smiles wryly. This is enough for me to guess the truth.

‘He knows! You told him?’

He nods. This means things must have got really bad. He wouldn’t have gone to seek help otherwise.

‘Did he do anything?’

‘Yeah. He hinted at who gets kept who gets dropped if there’s trouble. Basically, he pulled Victor’s rank.’

‘Oh, fuck. Publicly?’

‘No.’

‘Thank God for that. What… What should we do?’

‘Nothing.’

‘You sure?’

‘Yakov says I’ve done enough. He takes over. So don’t get into it, Katsu. Leave it to me. And…’ He glances at Victor, busy doing lovely, graceful spins in the centre of the rink. ‘Don’t tell him, okay?’

I look at him askance. It does not sit well with me to keep secrets from Victor.

‘I won’t if you tell me why I shouldn’t.’

Yurio looks uncomfortable.

‘Come on,’ I urge him. ‘You can tell me whatever, I won’t have a problem with it.’

‘Because the moron is so absurdly glad to be out. You don’t see it. You didn’t know him before. But he is. Don’t spoil it for him.’

I grunt an admission. This is true. Victor told me that he had kept his sexuality secret, his affairs always very discreet. Then he returned from his break with a stunningly attractive, exotic boyfriend (his words) and he no longer wanted to. ‘I used to watch people bring their sweethearts to the rink and I was envious. I played a cold, detached ice prince, but I was envious. Now I too have a sweetheart,’ he said. ‘And I guess I’m just bragging about it. I want all the world to see what an awesome guy I’ve won. God, I’m nearly thirty and I’m acting like a teenager. Sorry. But, oh Yuri, I’m so happy.’ Argue with that. Go on, be my guest. I couldn’t.

‘And imagine what he’d do if some fucker dissed you,’ adds Yurio. ‘Things could get ugly.’

So the young wolf is fighting Victor’s battles for him.

And the old wolf is backing these two brilliant, wayward cubs of his – all the way.

I rise from the bench. Yurio looks up, the bruise more evident as he raises his thin face to me.

‘Katsu… Don’t tell.’

As I turn to leave, I give him a nod. It is a yes. And a thank you.

The pack protects its own.

***

Yuri is peeling a mango.

Once a week we permit ourselves a treat. A big dessert. We both love sweets and neither of us should eat them, so we take time deciding what it shall be. We often gloat over the achievements of the past week while we eat it. This week it’s ice cream with mango on top, because Yuri loves mangoes and likes ice cream and I love ice cream and like mangoes, so we’ll both be happy.

So he is sitting on a kitchen stool with a peeler in his hand. He has put the rubbish bin between his feet to catch the skins and the dripping juice. Peeling mangoes is a delicate business, the amount of cleaning afterwards can be terrible if you’re not careful. I’ve put two bowls handy and now I am standing by, waiting for him to tell me to get the ice cream from the freezer.

He is dealing with the first mango.

Looking at his lowered head I am wondering how much he has matured since I came to know him in Hasetsu eighteen months ago.

Having won the silver at the GPF, he is far more certain of his worth as a skater. He is still a worrier supreme, but he doesn’t let it cripple him. He hasn’t had an anxiety attack for months. He has made friends and discovered that he can fit into a group. He won the respect of his elders. He tamed the young wolf. And he came to accept that he is loved.

He even found a way to make his extreme shyness work in his favour. I’ve noticed that people find him easy to confide in. He is growing into a perfect listener: attentive, compassionate, always discreet, never judgemental. He seems to be instinctively aware that a sympathetic ear is often more needed than true advice. I think the world lost an excellent psychotherapist in him; but I’m glad it did, otherwise I would never have met him.

But I did. And it turned out he wanted to be mine as much as I wanted to be his. And now every day I look at him and I think, oh God, how fortunate I am.

He is so kind to me. With him, I don’t have to be the glittering ice prince; I can be just his Vitka. I can be sad or tired, and he takes me as I am, with a smile and a kiss. I can be sullen and he just calmly waits out my ill humour. Or he disarms me. He is such a master at lifting my mood. One remark from him and I go from annoyed to amused or from sarcastic to sentimental. And I can tell him my worries certain of getting intelligent support and well-considered advice.

He is always aware of me. He knows what I need and spoils me rotten by giving it to me without restraint. He does not bargain. He never demands attention. When I get engrossed in a book, he does not interrupt my reading; he settles beside me with another. To an enthusiastic reader like me, this is heaven.

I never thought that sharing a home, sharing a life, with someone could be so easy. But then, I never thought that a man like him could ever exist. He is… He is a dream come true.

Yuri is reaching for the other mango. His hands are slim, fine-boned. He is holding the fruit in his left hand, sliding the peeler over it with his right, his grip firm yet delicate, his movements precise. Slivers of greenish skin fall straight into the bin. The ripe yellow flesh is oozing juice over his fingers. There is something pleasantly homey and at the same time strangely sexy in this scene.

Admit it, Victor Borisovich, you are just like this mango. You are held by him gently but firmly, secure in his grip, the layers of your defences being peeled from you one by one. You are sweet on him beyond measure and you ooze your juices all over him.

He is my rock, my haven. He is my best friend, my companion, my adviser, my lover, my hus…

My thoughts halt abruptly.

What was that?

I blink, stunned.

My…?

I watch the idea sink in and settle comfortably at the bottom of my mind. It feels right. As if it had always been there; which it wasn’t. But now… Yes, that’s it. I’m ready.

The issue of our tentative engagement was put on hold after the finals. He didn’t win the gold and he never returned to the topic. But he never took the ring off his finger, and neither did I. Now I realise how stupid I was. What was I thinking, to make his winning the gold a condition – to put forward any conditions at all? I want to marry him, gold or no gold!

For in him, I hold a treasure few ever find: a man that makes me complete.

He puts the second mango in a bowl, which he settles in his lap. He takes a small knife and begins to cut the flesh from the stone, catching the juice; soon he will pour it over the ice cream.

I lean down. Carefully, so as not to upset the bowl, I take his hand, remove the knife from it, and kiss his sticky fingers.

He looks up, surprised.

‘May I enquire as to your reason for kissing my hand over the rubbish bin?’ he asks with extreme formality. He is very good at formal English and I am not bad, so we often talk this way. We are far less comfortable with slang; this is how we’ve been taught.

‘The reason is that I am entitled to it. This hand is mine. So is the rubbish bin.’

‘Technically, this hand is ours. And since you’re so jealous of the bin, I will gladly leave it in your sole care. Remember to take the rubbish out when you walk the dog tonight.’

‘A viper in my own bosom…!’ I exclaim. He laughs. He knows the tale, because I told it to him one evening. In English. He grabbed his phone. Five minutes with the dictionary and he told it back to me in Russian. This is how good he is getting.

I kiss his fingers again and I lick the sweetness off my lips.

His hand may be mine with all the rest of him, but one day I will ask him for it nonetheless. I will be trembling waiting for his answer. And I will be crazed with joy if he says yes.

I give him back the knife, handle first.

‘Be careful with it, I sharpened all the knives yesterday. I forgot to tell you.’

‘Don’t worry, I’ve noticed. You can get the ice cream now.’

An ordinary domestic conversation.

I continue observing his hands, thinking how terribly lonely I had been before he came into my life; how empty my home. He filled it with laughter, with song, with tenderness.

‘Hey! Vitka! I said, ice cream!’

I awaken and start towards the freezer.

‘Right away!’

Yeah, I’d marry him right away, here in this kitchen, if it were possible. I want us to belong to each other, lawfully, forever. Only I know this is a dream. Neither in Russia nor in Japan is our marriage an even remote possibility.

But if we ever marry, I will always be saying I married him because of the way he was peeling a mango. Let him work that out!

***

I get up, wash my hands. He stoops, puts his arms around my thighs and lifting me, sits me on the kitchen top. He does such things often and quite unceremoniously, constantly enjoying the fact that I am smaller and easy for him to pick up or carry around. At first I was worried he would break under my weight, but he is amazingly strong.

We take our bowls. Before we start eating, I pull him to me, so that he stands between my knees, and I hook my toes, monkey-like, on the waistband of his sweatpants. In this way, we are almost nose to nose. We talk and laugh while we eat.

He finishes first. He is a fast eater.

Ochen’ vkusna,’ he grunts, licking the spoon. Then he sends me a sideways glance. I grin back, giving him permission to misbehave. He tilts the bowl and licks it clean.

It is funny how hard he finds to forget the etiquette at the, broadly speaking, table. But on the whole I very much like it that he minds his manners. It makes living together so easy.

I always thought that when a young couple starts sharing a home they either argue about chores or one of them must make sacrifices in the name of domestic peace. Either I was wrong or we are special, because neither is true about us. Victor has lived alone for ages; he knows enough about housekeeping. I was a part of a family that ran a business together and I’ve been taught to lend a hand since I was a kid. We are both clean and more or less tidy. Neither of us minds the chores. Because, really, what’s to mind? Victor does the ironing. I do the cooking, with his sometimes questionable help. The washing machine and the dishwasher are our best friends. Our cleaning lady, Lyuda Andreevna, holds us firmly in hand (and, as she is pretty talkative, provides me with extra language practice). I could live like this forever.

Victor seems to appreciate this relaxed domesticity as much as I do. I think he was very ready to start sharing his life with someone. I’m so glad I got to be that someone. I still have no idea how I managed to pull it off. Because, just think about it, me? Me, the trembling ball of fears and worries? Me, who lost competitions and failed exams because I could not get a grip on my nerves? Who had to get stone drunk to talk to a man I’d admired for ages? (I still don’t believe I did all those things the guys tell me I did that night. I think they are pulling my leg. The photos are surely doctored.) What did I have to offer? My scintillating wit? Er, no. My suave charm? No. My rampant sexuality? Certainly no. So what on earth did he see in me?

But now – now I’m no longer that miserable calf. Okay, I’m still a calf. Just look at me: big brown eyes and a stupefied expression. But I’m not miserable anymore. He changed me. He made me feel wanted; wanted the way I am. He sheltered me, making a peaceful space for me to grow. And I am endlessly grateful to him for it. Because what I’ve become is just a naïve, slightly dumb and somewhat ridiculous young man. I used to be so much less.

And… I think… he has changed, too. He is less… I don’t know… on edge. He seems to feel less need to be as glitteringly cool as he once was. Oh, he is still witty and brilliant and self-assured and very well dressed. But he is not as brittle. He seems more… tranquil.

I think it has a lot to do with his coming to terms with the realisation that his career as a competitive skater may be slowly coming to an end. I had a feeling he was worried about it. And now he is not. I think he has finally understood that there is someone who will stand by him no matter who he becomes after quitting the ice. And this made him breathe easier.

Even though this someone is only a silly, awkward, tongue-tied Japanese.

‘Open your mouth.’ I feed him the one-before-last spoon of my ice cream.

‘Thank you,’ he says politely. Then he lifts the hem of my T-shirt and plants a kiss just above my navel. I squeak.

‘Your mouth is cold!’

I twist a strand of his grey hair round my finger and pull his head away.

He looks up at me. There is a naughty glint in his eyes.

‘Then I must warm it on something hot.’

He deftly loosens the cord of my sweatpants, lowers his head and I feel his icy mouth enfold my entirely unsuspecting cock. I shudder.

‘Victor, stop it! Stop. This is not going… to… work… Damn.’

He just chuckles. Because it would be bad manners to talk with his mouth full.

I barely have the presence of mind to put away my empty bowl. I twine my fingers in his hair, pressing his head down. And my last thought before I surrender to his caresses is: How could I have lived without him?

Chapter Text

I think every lover has a favourite part of his, or her I guess, beloved. Nothing to do with a fetish; just a place they consider the loveliest. I’ve heard many a man swear that his wife’s breasts have no equal in the whole wide world. I had a lover who was crazy about my wrists and another who adored that hard to define dip where my flank passes into my hip. Hell, even I have to admit that my first lover’s shoulders were beyond compare. But these days, I am insatiable. I cannot be satisfied with just one favourite place of the man I love. I have two.

First, not very originally, his eyes.

They are the colour of the darkest amber, with a cute Oriental slant to them. Huge. Very expressive. They glow when he’s happy, sparkle when he’s laughing, turn misty, strangely opaque, with desire, and go wet with tears very easily. I don’t think he realises how transparent he is to me. He can hide neither joy nor hurt, or puzzlement, or annoyance, or satisfaction. But I don’t think he tries to hide anything of what he feels. He has trusted me with his life, with his love, with everything that he is, and he does not question his decision.

I wonder sometimes if I am just as transparent to him.

Second, his thighs.

He generally has a perfect figure: delicate ankles, long, shapely legs, narrow hips, a beautifully sculpted torso and a butt to die for (or, better, in). But his thighs are a dream. They are rock-hard, smooth as silk on the inside and hardly any rougher on the outside. They glow golden in the lamplight. Often, when he is reading in bed, wearing a T-shirt and boxers, I lie down, my face to his hip, my hand resting lightly just above his knee, and put my headphones on so that he thinks I am actually doing something – listening to music, I mean – while in reality I am just enjoying being close to his thigh. It is intoxicating to touch so much beauty.

Feel free to call me a lovesick fool. I’m in a good company. They say Alexander was ruled by Hephaestion’s thighs.

So I’m lying with my forehead pressed to his warmth and I’m thinking that sometimes, in order not to betray a trust, you have to admit to what you did – and, in my case, to what you were – however much it costs. I feel bad to interrupt his reading; he has so little time for it these days. But I so need to tell him… What happened today is a thing I cannot bear alone.

‘Yuri,’ I say quietly, ‘I lied to you today.’

He doesn’t even look up from his book.

‘I thought you did,’ he says evenly. ‘There was something not right about the way you asked me to skate Stammi with you.’

And here I was, wondering if I was transparent to him.

‘And you were not worried?!’

‘Not really. I thought that if it’s important that I know why you wanted us to skate it, you’ll tell me; and if it’s not, why should you? I’m okay not knowing.’

I analyse this for a moment. Wow.

‘Yuri, do you know what you’ve just said?’

He turns the page and only then looks at me above the edge of the book.

‘I got my grammar wrong?’ It happens. We communicate in a language that is foreign to either of us; we’ve learnt to ask for and provide clarification without embarrassment.

‘No… It’s not that. I’m just… amazed by how you trust me.’

He shrugs.

‘How else,’ he says matter-of-factly, going back to his reading.

To betray such trust would be a crime. A sin. I sit up, my legs crossed.

‘Yuri, what would you think if one day I came to you, said I stopped loving you and asked you to move out or, better, go back to Japan, for I don’t want you here?’ I begin and I immediately want to take these words back. God, how badly I’ve started this! So very me, speak first, think later. Now I’m going to have a hysterical Yuri on my hands and I won’t be able to tell him what I need to.

But Yuri, though clearly taken aback, just calmly marks the page with a bookmark and puts his book away.

‘Are you telling me that?’

‘No, I’m asking what you would think if I did.’

He falls silent for a while, a thick wrinkle between his eyebrows. He is thinking; he is certainly not freaking out. Finally, to my surprise, he smiles a strange, serious smile.

‘You know, Vitka, I’ve watched too many movies.’

‘What? Why?’

‘Because the only thing that comes to my mind is this: there is nothing that tells me you don’t like me being here. So if you wanted me away, I’d assume it’s for some reason that is… outside of us. What I would assume is that you are trying to protect me from something and distance seems to you the best way. And that you cannot tell me what that thing is. So I’d go. And not ask.’

‘And if I never came for you? Never wrote, never phoned?’

‘I’d assume you’re dead and I’d grieve. Because I like to think that you’d walk on foot all the way to Nakhodka for me, and then swim the straits.’

I actually would; or I’d die trying. So I kiss his fingers by way of an acknowledgement and, reassured by his calm, I carry on.

‘And if you knew I was alive? If you saw me on TV or something?’

‘I’d be waiting for you till I died. And I’d always think you have a good reason not to contact me. Like, you know, you’re being blackmailed. Am I being, what’s the word, melodramatic?’

‘Yes, but so am I.’

‘Told you, too many movies. Can you now explain?’

I slide down, back to where I was, and bury my face in his thigh.

‘Yuri, I saw a ghost today.’

 ***

It was mid-afternoon. He skated up to me.

‘Yuri, help! Skate Stammi with me! At least the bit where I come in. The tune got into my head so bad I cannot focus on anything else. It drives me crazy.’

But for a split second his eyes flickered away and I knew this was not his true motive. Still, I was not upset, exactly for the reason I have now given him. I sang a few bars, this is all we need to take up the tune in our heads, and we started to skate. All heads turned. It is not every day that Nikiforov and Katsuki show anything of the program that made history.

After a while he lifted me and, instead of setting me down, he held me tight and smoothly continued on to the bar at windows. There he hugged me briefly, put me back on the ice and, looking out, said quietly, ‘Thank you. I needed this’. His eyes were clouded.

‘Anytime,’ I smiled at him. ‘Come. Back to work.’

He grinned; and the rest of the day went on as usual.

And now, his face averted, his cheek to my thigh, he begins to tell me what happened. And the story starts a long way back, in the times I’ve never asked him about, for I sensed there was a great pain buried there.

‘I was sixteen, the age Yurio is now, just turned senior, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer. She lived for two years and three months after that, far longer than any doctor gave us hope. I think she wanted to see me legally adult. Because otherwise my father would have been my legal guardian and that would have been…’ He hesitates. ‘Not good.’ He clearly skirts the topic. This is a part of his story he is not ready to share. ‘And she wanted to see me settled in my own home. Because the flat we lived in was state-owned. I’ll take you to my childhood district one day. You’ll see. It is… cheerless even now. And those were the nineties. A difficult time. I was born still in the Soviet Union, you know. I don’t remember its fall, but… When I was a kid, people were worried. The atmosphere was heavy. Even we children could feel it. And things grew so expensive. We didn’t go hungry, but only because our mothers were heroes. Which, of course, we did not see. Anyway. From the moment I started winning competitions my mother was hoarding all my prize money. Initially it was not much; I started skating when I was six, what could it be? Then it improved. Still, we lived very modestly. I have no idea how she managed. Especially since, well, you know how much it takes to feed me. But on my eighteenth birthday it turned out I had enough money to buy a small flat in a very good area. Or a larger one in a not-so-good. I chose this one.’

He looks round, obviously proud. I’ve always known he loved this place. Now I know there is more to it than his love of comfort. And there is more to his love of comfort, too.

‘When I was a kid, I dreamt of living in one of these nineteenth-century tenements. They seemed so… solid. When I saw this flat, I fell in love with it. It was in a very poor condition. But the space. The high ceilings. You have no idea what this meant to me. All my life I had lived in a cramped room. I can actually remember when I grew tall enough to touch the ceiling when I stretched. So this… This was heaven. And it was almost beyond my means. After I bought it and renovated it, I would have lived on potatoes and tap water for a year if it were not for Grisha. Because, going back to when I turned seventeen and we, mum and I, both knew she was dying – this was when Grigoriy Alexandrovich Kamyshkin showed up. At that time businessmen were beginning to sponsor sport on a large scale. It was all state-financed before. Well, he put a lot of money into men’s figure skating. You can guess why.’

He seems to be waiting for an answer. It is not difficult to find.

‘This gave him access to skaters.’

‘Exactly. Handsome, athletic young men. And I, I was far more graceful then, slimmer, still not fully grown, already grey-haired.’

Yes, Vityen’ka, I know. I know. I was thirteen, a junior, and I had dozens of posters of you in my room. I remember watching you on TV when you skated as a senior for the first time. You were amazing. This was more or less when I had my first wet dream; and you were in it. This was twelve years ago. Twelve years… Half of my life have I been wanting you.

‘And you wore your hair long,’ I say calmly. ‘You looked great with it.’

‘Well, Grisha liked what he saw. He – how will we call it? Seduced me? Perverted me? In any case, I did not resist. Well, not much. I mean, not really. I did play hard to get. He actually waited until I was ready, for which I was grateful.’

‘Your mother knew?’ I ask cautiously.

‘My mother knew everything. I think she knew I was a homosexual before I realised it myself. Make no mistake, she was a simple woman, she worked in a factory, she had very little formal education. But she liked reading. And we lived next door to a public library. Our home was always full of books. And this made her horizons far broader than people like her usually have.’

He looks up at me and smiles ruefully.

‘So I am just a working-class kid by birth. Does this not disappoint you? My style, my colour sense, my educated accent when I speak Russian, my knowing how to take good care of my fingernails and what shape of a glass to pour any alcohol into – all this I have learnt. Hell, look around, the height of style for me is still IKEA.’

‘And…?’ I shrug. ‘I see nothing wrong with it. Besides, this makes me feel better. I used to feel terribly provincial compared to you. I’m the son of small-town hotel owners.’

‘Which, canonically, makes you better born than me. You capitalist swine, you.’

‘Hey! I worked in that hotel since I was a kid! I swept floors and helped clean the onsen when you were still at school!’

‘Okay. Not a swine, then.’

‘Just a piglet, huh?’ I huff indignantly.

‘Yeah, a tender little piglet, ready to be made into a tonkatsu for me,’ he laughs, biting into my flank. I let out a yelp and poke a finger into the place where he’s ticklish. He squirms, catches my hand and pulls it away. I don’t resist, since it is not my intention to start a tumble, just to bring him back to the here and now for a moment.

It works. After this intermezzo he relaxes. He rolls onto his belly and kneads a pillow under his chest, obviously getting into a storytelling mood. His eyes are less troubled now.

‘So, my mother knew. I think she was actually glad I’d have some… protection after her death. And she was glad it was not someone worse. With my background, it could have been. Grisha had culture. He was educated. Very rich but discreet about it. Not a New Russian. Not an oligarch, but a familiar face in those circles. Close to the top echelons of power, but not a politician. It being the middle of the two-thousand decade, you know what this meant.’

‘No, I actually don’t.’

‘Ex-KGB. High up. Not a man you’d like to meddle with.’

‘You make him sound like a yakuza. What was he like?’

He considers this.

‘Very good in bed. Very strict outside it.’

‘Did you love him?’ I ask quietly. I know that there were many men in Victor’s life before me and I am more or less okay with it, but this one sounds special and it won’t be easy for me to come to terms with a yes.

But Victor answers ‘No!’ without any hesitation. ‘I was grateful to him for what he was doing for me. But he was never even a friend.’ His eyes grow clouded with memories. ‘He treated me like a pretty pet. Well, I was a kid. A year above the age of consent, but still, green. Only… he made me feel it. He liked me being playful, but he never answered with the same. He never let go. And he had a mean streak. He could be cruel.’

‘Still, you were grateful.’

‘He made my life very comfortable. He took me for holidays to places I would never have visited otherwise. He taught me manners. He… looked after me when my mother died. This was the only time he softened a little. And I was terribly vulnerable then, so… it was nice of him. But apart from that… He was demanding. He liked me to be just so.’

‘The way you say it… He sounds a father figure.’

Victor averts his eyes and nods wordlessly. This is a territory he is not going into.

‘How old was he?’

‘In his late forties. He will be sixty now. I was his lover for over six years. I never had any illusions I was the only one, there were always others beside me. Some of them I met. But I was the one who lasted the longest. Yuri…?’ He hesitates. ‘Do you despise me?’

This is treacherous ground. No, I do not despise him. I couldn’t. His story is as old as the world. Besides, he obviously had a lot of respect for his patron. This… Grisha… must have been fond of him, in a way, too, if he kept him for so long. And, let’s face it, he trained his young lover well. He made him grow into a wonderful man. I can’t avoid the realisation that I am reaping what he had sown.

I see one problem, though: how do I tell him this so that he believes me?

I decide that the only approach is honesty… with a little teasing.

‘Let me think.’ I hold a pause, looking at him with pretended deliberation. ‘Should I?’

‘I was a kept boy. Essentially, I sold myself to him. This is not a nice thing to know about your boyfriend. I was thinking of telling you for weeks. I just found it… difficult.’ His face is crumpled with unhappiness.

‘I’m not surprised. It’s a difficult story.’

‘I’ll understand if you find me repulsive now.’

‘Repulsive?’ I wrinkle my nose. ‘I don’t know. Let me look at you.’

‘What?’ He is taken aback.

I make a great show of examining him, the way a good housewife examines some suspect merchandise at the market, a slightly off chicken carcass or a fish from yesterday’s catch. I check his profile. I press his jaw, making him open his mouth, and I inspect his teeth. Then I sniff him here and there, my expression dubious. He begins to giggle and rolls onto his flank, away from me. This is just too good to miss; I reach out, pull at the elastic of his sweatpants and peer at what’s inside. He snorts with laughter.

‘No,’ I decide firmly. ‘There’s nothing repulsive about you. I actually quite like you.’

‘You do?’ He makes sure, but his expression has already cleared.

‘I do.’

‘Then I’m glad I finally told you. I feel… cleaner.’

We settle back to how we were, me propped against a pillow, he cuddled to my thigh.

‘Don’t worry, Vitka,’ I sum up. ‘I’m okay with this. What is past is past.’

‘Yeah. And you won’t believe it when I tell you how it ended.’

I could live without this knowledge, but he obviously wants to tell me, so I prompt him with a ‘Well?’.

‘Grishka was to go away for three months.’ The diminutive slips out easily. Victor doesn’t even notice. ‘He never told me where. He was very secretive. Before he went, he gave me some money. So that you don’t forget me, he said. Have fun while I’m away.’

‘And you bought something that made him so angry he dropped you?! What was it?’

‘No. By sheer coincidence, it was April, so I was free for a while. I calculated that with this much money, I could survive those three months – in Paris. I wouldn’t even have to touch my savings. Two days after he had left I was on the plane. Yuri, it was heaven! I rented a small room. It was dingy, but I hardly lived there at all. I was out all day. I went to all the museums, honestly, a museum a day, and five times to the Louvre. I sought out places I had read about in Three Musketeers and Notre Dame de Paris. I swear to you I glimpsed Count Monte Cristo in a little alley one evening. I had been in love with him as a kid, you know. I still think he would have been better off with me than with that Greek girl.’

He smiles, a little embarrassed. I’m not sure he actually wanted to admit he used to be in love with a book character. I guess he thinks it silly. But, honestly, is it more silly than my being secretly obsessed with a word-class skater I knew from posters?

‘It was spring. It was warm. I sat outside cafés in the Latin Quarter, reading. I walked street after street, wide-eyed, admiring the architecture. I even managed to travel round France a bit. I saw the great cathedrals and the Musée Condé.’

I have very little idea of what he is talking about, but his joy and awe are evident – still. After more than six years. Wow, what a time he must have had.

‘This is the only time in my life I regretted I hadn’t gone to the university. I would have studied art history. And I was alone. All day! I’m not sure I exchanged ten sentences in a row with anyone during those three months. I loved it. It was so good to have the time for thinking my own thoughts. I came back a new man. But I miscalculated something about the date of my flight. Grisha returned two days before me. So, I came back, all happy, and I began telling him about my stay. I was honestly grateful to him for making it possible. And he, coldly and dispassionately, tore me to pieces. And kicked me out of his life.’

He looks at me, troubled.

‘To be frank, I still have no idea why.’

He pauses.

‘He acted as if I had betrayed him. I hadn’t, I swear. I hadn’t even flirted with anyone. Still, I apologised. He wouldn’t listen.’ He shrugs. ‘Since then I was on my own. I had a few affairs, but they meant nothing to me.’

This is a topic I am definitely not interested in. I know the fact; fine. I refuse to listen to details.

‘Was it because of the break-up with Grisha that you cut you hair?’ I ask.

‘You mean to spite him? No. You may not believe me, but I cut it only because, well, one day I looked in the mirror and I saw that it no longer suited me. I grew out of long hair, that’s all. I was twenty-three. But of course I waited until just before the season. To surprise everyone who waited to see the boy they thought they knew. They saw a man, and a stranger.’

This, too, I remember. The short program you skated that year was meditative. You were saying goodbye to childhood. I understood it even then; I was nineteen and getting ready to do the same. Your free program was very powerful, assertive, almost aggressive. You were breathtaking. And you won the first title in the row of five.

‘But my reason for fighting so hard for the title that year had a lot to do with him. He contributed an enormous sum of money as a prize for that Russian skater who would place the highest in the Worlds. And at the start of the qualifications I was not at the top of the national cadre.’

‘I remember. You made mincemeat of all your rivals.’

‘Yeah. And I took that money. To spite him. ‘Cause I could guess he made the prize so big to make me regret not having access to his wealth. He did not expect I would rise so high in one season. He chose me not because I was the best, but because I was the handsomest.’

Right, I think we’ve had enough of those reminiscences.

‘Tell me, was my comparison with a yakuza a sound one?’ I change the drift.

He pauses, knocked out of his mood.

‘I’d say very.’

‘Damn.’

‘I never knew where his wealth came from. He kept me away from his business. I was, well, entertainment. But such money, in those days… He must have had at least some contacts in the criminal world. Maybe he was some kind of a discreet go-between between the mafia and the power circles? I don’t know. But I know that he is rich, powerful and he used to be vindictive. It was a shock to see him at the rink. He was watching us so intently. I guess I panicked a bit. That’s why I started this conversation so stupidly. Sorry, Yuri.’

So this is what happened. This is the ghost Victor saw; a ghost of his past. And it is one who, at least in his view, still has power to do harm. I don’t really see in what way; but I better trust his instincts in this.

‘That’s all right. But as things stand, I want you to give me one piece of information and one piece of advice.’

‘Go ahead.’

‘How will I recognise him if I see him at the rink? And how should I act if he speaks to me?’

‘He is not as tall as me, very broad in the shoulders. Deep voice. Eyes… grey. Short dark hair, going grey at the temples. Well dressed. He used to wear a gold signet ring on his right hand. And as to how to act…’ He shrugs. ‘All I can say is, be careful. And polite. But when are you ever not?’

I roll my eyes.

‘Thanks, Vitka, you’re so helpful. Anything else?’

‘Don’t accept any favours.’

I wince. Not accepting a favour offered by a much older man; that’s going to be hard.

‘Ah, well. Maybe he won’t show up again.’

I can sense his hope. The realisation how much he would like never to see that man again makes me both glad and strangely uneasy.

I find it touching that when Victor was perturbed by seeing him at the rink, the only thing he could think of to regain his balance was coming to me and skating our Stammi with me. I am happy that he finds me a source of calm. But I have a feeling this was not a good idea. A malevolent man may have taken his gesture for a boast. And even if not, it certainly turned his attention to both of us; to us as a couple.

Victor lies quietly, his cheek again pressed to my thigh. I see only the back of his head and the line of his shoulders. He is distant, lost in his thoughts.

Suddenly I realise I’ve been very stupid to assume that I owe his merits to Grisha alone. Two people have sown what I am reaping. That’s why I must ask one more question; one more important than all of those I have asked tonight, and one that I should have thought of earlier. It is a question to which I know there is no real answer, but nevertheless I think we both need it asked and answered.

‘Vityen’ka…?’

He is immediately back with me, his lips on my fingers.

Shto, zvezdochka?’

‘Do you think your mother would have liked me?’

And at this, he breaks. His eyes fill with tears.

‘She would have loved you, Yuri!’

And at this, I slide down and hold him as he cries.

***

In vain had I hoped. A few days later Grisha shows up.

I failed to notice when he came in. I see him standing at the rink fence and talking to… Yuri! Fuck. How did he manage to approach him so quickly? He wasn’t there ten minutes ago. That’s what we call efficiency. I must admit to myself I am worried.

It’s been over six years since he dropped me. I kept seeing him once or twice a year at various functions, but there’s never been any attempt to talk, on either side. We just kept a distance, exchanging polite greetings when we had to. And now, three days after he saw me with my boyfriend – he must know we’re together, hell, this is a small circle – he is already talking to him. I would like to think this is just out of kindly interest in the well-being of his former protégé, but I cannot. Grisha was always a calculating man.

Even his rare moments of softness had a purpose. When some deal went particularly well for him and he was in a good mood, he would take me shopping and then we would go to the theatre or to a concert. If we met someone he knew, he introduced me as his nephew, a sister’s son; no-one was fooled, I think, but appearances were preserved. And here in Russia, that decade was a thaw for us gays; now the atmosphere is different. Anyway, we would have a meal at a very good restaurant and Grisha would be truly nice to me, attentive and entertaining, as if I really were someone worth being charming for. Then in the night he would fuck me so hard I could barely walk afterwards. He didn’t force me, oh no. He just knew how to manipulate me into begging him to do to me things which in fact I disliked. And sometimes, although very rarely, he shared me with his friends. It was always when we were away at somebody’s dacha (he didn’t own one, or if he did, he never took me there). I knew it would be one of those times because of how gracious Grisha would be towards me for a day or two before we left the city.

But, to be honest, he did not lay claim to much of my time. I had plenty of it for skating, for reading and for social life (no affairs on the side, though; this was his absolute demand, which I abided by, out of fear as much as out of loyalty). And my flat was a sanctuary. My life as Grisha’s boy took place elsewhere. I made it a condition. In fact, it was my mother that advised me to do so in one of the all-night talks we had when she could no longer sleep. ‘You’ll need a fortress, synok,’ she said. Grisha accepted, in return asking that I never voice any dissatisfaction with the places of his choosing. Fair deal; I agreed.

It was a bad time and a good time. I have no regrets. I’ve seen a lot, I’ve learnt a lot, life was easy. But is it surprising that I would walk through fire for this quiet Japanese who is loving and caring, who knows how to share and who never, ever asks for anything in return?

And is it surprising that I find Grisha’s attention to him a reason for concern?

I do a little camel spin to give myself time to consider the options. But the decision is taken for me, as I hear Yuri’s call, ‘Victor! Can you come here, please?’

I skate up to them.

‘Victor, do you know Grigoriy Alexandrovich?’ asks Yuri in English.

‘Yes, we’ve met.’ I give Grisha a small bow.

He says, ‘Privyet, Vitya’, his rumbling voice still very familiar.

Yuri switches to his slow, precisely accented Russian and says, ‘Help me, Victor. I am worried I will not understand’, thus giving me a perfect reason to stay by his side.

‘Ah, you speak Russian?’ Grisha is obviously surprised.

‘A little. I’m learning,’ answers Yuri. ‘Victor is a very good teacher.’

This is outrageously untrue. I am a lousy teacher, my command of my native language is instinctive, I cannot explain its inner workings. I only teach him a lot of new words. And we are beginning to speak Russian at home, a sentence here, a sentence there. But Grisha has no way of knowing this, and Yuri uses this opportunity to turn to me with a smile.

While doing this, he puts his hand on the fence. It takes me a second to register that in order to face me, he has shifted his body a little sideways, and since he is standing to my right, the hand that now rests not far from mine is his right hand.

He’s made our golden bands shine side by side.

Clever boy.

He turns back to Grisha.

‘Russian is a beautiful language. But it is difficult. I would like to understand more.’

He seems totally at ease. And, my God, his face; honest, open, with the look of polite attention in his eyes. Lulled by how sincere he is with me, I tend to forget that he is a very good actor when he wants to. If I weren’t so anxious, I’d be amused by his tricks.

I steal a discreet look at my former patron. He is heavier than he was in my time and the extra weight does not suit him. His hair is all salt-and-pepper now. But his large hands have the same well-remembered shape, his nails are manicured as perfectly as they always were, the signet ring is on the usual finger, his eyes have the same steely glint in them.

I take in all these details in one glance. I wonder if he did the same with me, and if yes, what it was that he found.

I see him smile at Yuri. I’ve forgotten how nicely he could smile, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

‘When did you start learning?’ he asks. His pronunciation is deliberately clear, but not offensively so. He’s being bloody thoughtful, damn him.

‘In June,’ answers Yuri. He gets the case wrong. Grisha corrects him; again, very tactfully. Yuri repeats the correct form. Grisha nods his approval. I have no idea what it was, maybe his movement, maybe some minute current of the air, but my next breath tells me that, fuck, he still uses the same aftershave.

They say it’s the smells that bring the most powerful memories. I can vouch for the truth of this. I feel a small spasm deep in my loins. The feeling is not unpleasant.

For Grisha may have been cold, selfish, scornful, insensitive, impossible to please, brutal at times; but, a fact I tried long and hard to forget, he was a superb lover. He was hung like a stallion. He could go on for ages. He knew what I liked and sometimes was willing to please me. And then he would please me beyond imagining. That first year after he broke up with me was not easy. I never missed him; but oh, how I missed the things he had been doing to me. Later I occasionally bottomed for some of my lovers, but none of them came even close. They were okay – I enjoyed it – but they were not him.

The fact is, Grisha taught me next to nothing about love, or even affection; but he taught me most of what I know about fucking. And all of what I know about being fucked. And I’m not sure how much of his teaching has stayed somewhere deep inside me.

This is one of the reasons why I’ve never asked Yuri to switch. I am scared of what I would feel. Because if I were disappointed – if, God forbid, I missed Grisha, even for a split second, while Yuri was making love to me – it would be monstrously unfair to this sweet kid.

I am thinking all this while listening to them exchanging some inconsequential observations about the city and the weather. Yuri is holding his own. Grisha is helping him with the language. He laughs at something Yuri has said. Yuri smiles.

At precisely this moment we hear a roar of ‘Ryebyata!’ from the far end of the rink. It’s our brave coach summoning all of us, his trainees, to him.

Grisha is our big sponsor. Yakov naturally knows him. He also knows who Grisha used to be to me. I have no way of knowing if his summons coming right on time to remove us from him is deliberate or not.

‘Come on,’ says Yuri in English, giving me a very slight push. ‘We shouldn’t keep Yakov waiting. Izvinitye.’

The cunning fox! He knows perfectly well that dasvidanya implies another meeting and any form of proshchat’ would be awkward, far too formal; so he chooses to ask, very neutrally, for forgiveness. And so, if this conversation is to proceed naturally, Grisha has no option but to let us go.

He nods. I raise a hand; it’s not even a wave. Yuri bows in a very polite, very Japanese way. But it is a bow to a disliked superior. I’ve seen him bow to Yakov. There is a difference.

We turn and skate away.

We stop with our backs to where Grisha stands. We give Yakov our full attention. Only Yuri casually throws his arm across my shoulders. He seldom does it. It is usually I who embrace him, not the other way round.

He is marking his territory.

My heart sings out. I am his territory!

I slip my arm around his waist.

He sends me a sideways glance and for a briefest instant bares his teeth in a predatory grimace. I can almost hear a growl. Wow! My Yuri possessive! I never knew he had it in him. But then, I am still discovering so much about him. The Katsuki river runs smooth, but it runs deep.

I lean to him and kiss his mouth. This we try not to do in public. Cheek, fingertips, hair, yes; mouth, no. But in this moment he is irresistible and I must.

When Yakov dismisses us, Grigoriy is no longer there.

***

I manipulate you, Vitka. I’m sorry, but I have to.

Since you vaunted me by pair-skating with me, you must now make it obvious that you own me.

So, with a few little gestures I provoke you to show your feelings. You must mark me clearly as your territory.

For Grisha is interested in this territory.

When I called you and you skated up to us, I saw a well-concealed flash of anger in his eyes. But it was not anger for what had been; it was anger for what was. In that very moment.

He had wanted me alone.

And you – you are afraid that he came back to blackmail you away from me?

Oh, Vitka, Vitka, how can you be so naïve. Or maybe so self-centred.

You told me the story of your trip to Paris; and you never drew a conclusion. Not then. Not now. Even though you actually used the right words. ‘I came back a new man’, you said. If you had thought about it for a moment from his point of view, you would have guessed what you did wrong. It is so obvious.

It was not your going abroad that he resented. If you had gone to Bali to bask in the sun, he would not have minded. This is what a pretty boy is expected to do. What he hated was you spending his money on all that Paris is: the Seine, the Louvre, the Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, the countless museums, cafés, boulevards you had read about and wanted to see.

He made you. He taught you, he trained you, he elevated you above your background. You were his masterwork, true; but still, you were his. He must have hated you having dreams of your own; thoughts which not he had put into your head. He would have preferred you empty-headed, and that I’m sure you never were.

Having vented his anger on you, he let you go. You got off easy, I think; he hurt only your pride, not you yourself. He must have been either truly fond of you or already losing his interest in you. I suspect the latter. This man likes his lovers young, slender, unsophisticated, inexperienced. They are so much easier to seduce – with his personality or with his money, this does not matter – and then to control. And you gave him an excellent opportunity to drop you in such a way that you thought it was your fault. In a sense, it was. Because in the course of those three months, you slipped from him into a territory he could not control.

This is how you betrayed him. You changed from a lovely boy to a magnificent man.

I think he simply hated you growing up.

And now you no longer excite him, Vitka. Not at all. You are far too old, far too large, far too worldly.

Whereas I… Ah, that’s another matter.

***

The autumn turns out cold and in early October the central heating gets switched on. The flat grows warm. Yuri is surprised. As I understand, they mostly use oil heaters in Japan. He finds central heating exotic. And definitely too hot. Just wait, I tell him, by January you’ll feel like kissing the radiators every time you come back to the flat. It gets down to minus fifteen in winter, I remember winters with minus twenty, but the city is windy, so it feels colder.

As I emerge from the bathroom, I see him lying belly down on the bed, reading by the light of the bedside lamp, the book propped against the pillow. It’s a familiar sight, everything would be okay with it, if not for the fact that he is stark naked. The golden slope of his back smoothly transforms into the swell of his buttocks, split by a crevice of deep shadow. One leg stretched, the other bent at the knee, I can just see a hint of his balls between them.

Was he so engrossed in his book that he forgot to put on his T-shirt, or is it…

‘A gross provocation!’ I yell, choosing the latter option.

I leap onto the bed and give all my attention to his rump, kissing, nibbling, burrowing in the firm yet yielding flesh.

‘Hey, I’m reading here,’ he says crossly.

‘Naked,’ I counter.

‘That can be remedied.’ He reaches under his pillow, where he keeps a worn T-shirt.

‘Don’t you dare!’ I stay his hand.

‘Or else…?’ he asks absent-mindedly, his eyes still on his book.

‘I will never touch you again!’ I throw him our customary answer to this opening and wait for how this dialogue develops. He has the choice of placating or defying me.

I love it when he is in a conciliatory mood, because he is just irresistible when he gets kittenish; but not this time.

‘Oh, good,’ he says briskly. ‘Then I can put this on and continue reading.’

A challenge, then! This, too, I love, because a bout of tickling, a wrestling match or a pillow fight with Yuri always ends in hugs. So I am getting ready for battle. His is the choice of weapon. I just hope he doesn’t intend to hit me over the head with his book.

All of a sudden, I receive a blow of an entirely different kind. Yuri finishes reaching under the pillow and pulls out – not the black, long-sleeved T-shirt I expected, but a white top.

‘Hey!’ I yelp. ‘What is this supposed to be?’

‘This place’s got so warm I thought this would do.’

This is so unfair. The bastard is perfectly aware that the contrast of pure white with his golden skin drives me wild. When he’s wearing a white shirt, I can’t look away. Soon after he arrived, I got rid of my old bed linen and bought a white set. We were shopping together that day and he bought a dark grey one, saying it would go great with my skin and hair. It actually does. He looks good in grey, too. So our bed is grey and white; and now this.

He puts the top on. It has a narrow strip of fabric at the back, no sleeves, it only just covers his shoulder blades and leaves his shoulders bare. He is turned away from me, but I can guess that his collarbones are exposed, too, and that is a part of him that is pretty as hell.

‘It’s really hot here,’ he comments lightly.

Hot indeed. I stare, open-mouthed, as he gathers the white fabric and ties it into a knot on his breastbone. Now the top reaches only to his midriff. Which means that his narrow waist and his spectacular butt remain naked. And all this time he is turned away from me, so the said butt is very much in evidence.

He lowers himself back onto his belly and takes his book.

My move.

‘Ah, well,’ I say just as lightly. ‘You keep reading. I’ll find myself something to do.’

I slide down to the bottom of the bed and press my face to his upturned soles.

He has lovely feet, small for a man, narrow, shapely and, for a skater, still in a good condition. The countless grazes and bruises sustained during training still heal on him and I don’t think he has ever had any of them seriously infected, because he has no scars. No wonder, really, for he is clean as a cat and he takes good care of his body. I might make fun of him for the inordinate amount of time he spends in the shower, but it’s good to know that whenever the mood takes me to get at him, I shall find him fresh and, since he does not use any artificial fragrance, smelling nicely of himself; a pleasant, slightly spicy scent by which I would recognise him, blindfolded, among a thousand men.

I lick the soft arches carefully, for it is not my aim to tickle him. My breath and the warmth of my cheek are caressing the delicate flesh. His foot curls in my hand like a small animal under the touch of a reluctantly trusted human, but apart from that, he seems unmoved.

I crawl up, dragging my cock against his soles so that he can feel how hard it is. Success: he gasps. But he recovers quickly. He turns the page.

I kneel between his legs. My hands move up his thighs, higher and higher.

I spread his buttocks. His breath catches.

I begin to lick the crinkled bud. Soon, double success: I hear a soft, sweet moan.

My tongue keeps teasing him, playing on the slight puckers of skin.

‘This is distracting,’ comes a calm complaint. He is still trying to keep his composure. I’m sorry I can’t see his face, it must be a picture.

I continue tempting him. He loves me caressing him this way. The first time I did it, he protested, shivering with embarrassment, moving away from me; but I held him down gently, giving him time to get used to the idea, he calmed down, he allowed me to continue, and… well, this was also the first time I made him weep with pleasure. Yet this sport gets to me as much as it does to him; by now I am almost sobbing with need.

My tongue gets more insistent. I feel his muscles yielding under pressure. Tell me, zvezdochka, how long can you withstand this?

‘This is just too much!’ he shouts. He pushes the book away. It falls to the floor.

He doesn’t even shift. He only dips his back, offering me his butt. Yuri, you devil! Seconds later I push into his heat. I find him ready, willing, his pretended indifference gone.

I cover him with my body, pressing him into the sheets. You’ve provoked me beyond endurance, Katsuki, so no slow, controlled rhythms for you tonight – deal with it! I pound into him furiously. And he, oh yeah, he is dealing with it all right. He meets my thrusts firmly, his hands braced against the pillow. He wails like a rutting cat. I reach around him. He grabs my hand, pressing his face into it. I feel the vibration of his cries against my palm.

I push my fingers into his mouth. He bites on them. He is a master at this, never gentle – his bite is a bite, not a nibble – but never vicious; he just knows exactly where, when and how to sink his teeth into my flesh to fill me with fire.

Having bitten, he licks. And oh…! – that does it. I can give him just one more push. I come, groaning his name with something akin to reproach.

There is no doubt as to who has won this match. Yuri gives a triumphant growl. I am left gasping.

I’d love to collapse on his body, but his desire is rampant and he won’t let me. He practically throws me off himself – he is very strong for his size, only he rarely shows it – and straddles me across my waist. With a few strokes of his hand he brings himself to orgasm. He tries to hold my gaze as long as he can. He knows this drives me insane. Then his eyes go blind. He draws his thick eyebrows in an expression that is close to pain. His mouth twists.

‘Victor! Victor!’ he shouts hoarsely.

‘Oh, give me…!’ I answer. So he allows me the loveliest sight in the world; his face as he comes. I feel a hot spurt across my mouth. He is shrieking with pleasure.

I lick his come from my lips, I dip my fingers in it and suck it off them. He goes limp above me, his body propped on his arms, his head hanging. Then he heaves a great sigh and folds in slowly into the crook of my arm.

‘Can I… go back… to my reading… now?’ he asks in a weak voice and we both laugh.

Yet the same night I dream about Grisha. About how he fucked me, his hands pulling at my long hair. I wake up with an enormous hard-on. I hiss angrily. What right does this man have to invade my dreams?

In the past, having woken up in the middle of the night, I would have lain awake till daybreak. When I was anxious, I slept next to nothing for weeks. Now I have a remedy at hand. I cuddle up to Yuri. Even deep asleep, he gives me a friendly purr and adjusts his body to mine. I focus on his warmth, the rhythm of his breathing, the scent of his skin. My erection subsides, and so does my distress.

Soon I begin to smile in the darkness, remembering how, when we started as a couple, he barely dared to embrace me as I nestled him in my arms for the night. My thoughts caress the memory of the boy he used to be; so afraid that any hour he spent with me may be the last, and so heroically ready to accept this. When he bought me the ring, I immediately bought one for him, too, because I was enchanted with the gesture; but I did not recognise it for what it was, a plea for reassurance, I never said the words he needed to hear, so I got what I deserved: his attempt to let me go (plus a colossal hangover).

I have grown wiser since then, and that’s why now he shouts exultantly ‘You’re mine! Mine!’ when I come in him as he rides me astraddle; he traps my knee between his thighs as we lay down to sleep or pushes the instep of his foot flush with the soles of mine. When I spoon him, he wedges himself into the zigzags of my limbs, vigorously shoving his butt into my belly and pressing his back to my chest. When he spoons me, he just about covers me with his body, holding on to me like a cuddly koala. And when, instead of spooning, we snuggle to each other, he lays his hand flat on my belly, just below my navel. This is his gesture of protectiveness. He once told me that it was the sight of my bare stomach that first made him think he could be useful to me sometimes. He said it had looked defenceless. Then he apologised for thinking me vulnerable. The fool. If only he knew.

Even when we get too hot and untwine, we still lie pressed side to side. He holds my hand as he sleeps or fastens his fingers on my hair. I love it. Since we got together I slept alone for only a few nights, and I slept badly. I need him beside me.

My God, how did I live before him?

Stupidly, that’s how.

My thoughts brush against some very risky things I did because I had no-one whose love could stop me. It’s a miracle my loneliness did not kill me. It might have been close. And not one person would have truly grieved for me. Well, no, Yakov would have. Just him.

I shy away from these memories. Thank God this is all in the past.

I burrow deeper under the quilt and I embrace my future.

Chapter Text

I am to go to the first competition in the Worlds series. There is a slight mix-up with the tickets. They are bought through official channels and it turns out that I’ll be coming back not on the day following the event, but the day after. I will have an entire day for a stroll or a visit to a museum. This would be nice if not for the fact that I’m going alone, Yuri stays at home. Can’t be helped and we were prepared that this would happen; still, we are annoyed at the separation. Yes, annoyed, not saddened; it is a nuisance, not a thing to be sad about.

But things take an unexpected turn.

We both come from cultures where the words ‘I love you’ do not come easily, especially to men. I could never end a phone conversation with a casually thrown ‘I love you’, as I’ve often heard the Americans doing; these words are too sacred to be said with so little heed. I say them to Yuri in the moments when we feel very close, and then only in a whisper; more often I just think them at him. And it is uncanny – he seems to know I do, because it has often happened that he answered my thought with a certain very special smile, and I knew he was thinking ‘I love you too’. He is a man of a thousand smiles, each of them different, each uniquely his; but this one is the loveliest. When it comes to words, however – over the eleven months that we’ve been together he has told me he loves me the total of six times (once in Russian, five times in English, never in Japanese; I’m still waiting, hoping, for a kimi-o aishiteru from him, but I know I may never hear it), and that’s why every one of those times is remembered and cherished.

So when on the day I have won the gold he ends his late-night call with an ‘I love you, Vityen’ka. I love you so much’, I feel a cold shiver running down my spine. Something is wrong. He is happy for me, his congratulations are certainly sincere, but… His voice is off. As if he were preoccupied with something that makes him both sad and uneasy. And ‘Vityen’ka’? Over the phone?

It takes me just about ten seconds to arrive at a decision.

Thank God for the internet and credit cards.

I leave the hotel at four-fifteen the next morning and open the door to our flat just after midnight. I jumped a few time zones, so I’m not even sure how long I’ve been travelling, but it was a long time. I am tired and disoriented. It’s dark inside, I am greeted by the delighted dog and I immediately know Yuri is not at home. I get even more worried. I have been trying to reach him on the phone since I landed and he was not answering.

I am pulling my suitcase to the bedroom when I hear tiny squeaks from the hall. Yuri is punching in the entry code downstairs. Thank God, he’s coming home.

I rush to the door. I open it. The light in the staircase comes on. I am about to yell a greeting when, to my astonishment, I hear voices. Two of them. Both male. Both speaking in Russian. One is Yuri’s. He is protesting against something the other man has said, his nyets clear.

‘Oh, but yes,’ comes the answer.

I recognise the deep baritone even though it is distorted by the echo in the stairwell.

Grisha Kamyshkin.

I quickly close the door and lean against it. We live on the third floor, so I have the time it will take them to climb six flights of stairs to gather my wits. It takes them surprisingly long to cover this distance. Oh God, has something happened to Yuri? Is he all right?

It suddenly occurs to me that our windows are dark. I failed to switch on any lights in the flat, as I first squatted to pet the dog and then took my suitcase to the bedroom, and neither Yuri nor Grisha can be aware I’m back home. What does not occur to me is a scheme that many people would probably consider obvious: to step back and see what they would be doing after they came in. This just – does not occur to me. It is only later that I will think we were very lucky it hadn’t. The situation may have turned nasty.

Now they are in front of our door. I hear the familiar jingle of Yuri’s keys.

‘Give these to me, boy.’

The epithet, malchik, and the tone are so familiar that I shudder.

‘No need,’ I say, opening the door. I am very careful to do this without any flourish; as if I were all the time meant to be here. ‘Hi, Yuri. Hello, Grigoriy.’

Then the scene registers. They are standing very close to each other. Yuri is leaning on Grisha. His head rests easily on Grisha’s shoulder. Grisha is embracing him with one arm, the other stretched out to unlock the door.

For a moment, I am paralysed. My mind goes blank, literally; I am unable to formulate a thought. Thank God for that, because I get no chance to think, or say, or do, anything stupid, anything that would betray my utter shock.

Then I see Yuri’s face. His expression is vacant, his eyes unfocused. He is drunk.

The shock passes. All I can feel is relief. He is not hurt. And he is safely here, with me.

‘Ah, Vityushka,’ says Grisha jovially. ‘What a pleasure to see you.’

But it has taken him a second too long to react to my greeting. His face is set. I know him well enough to see that he is furious.

Yuri wrenches himself from his embrace and staggers to me.

‘Victor, I…’

I catch him in the crook of my arm and steady him.

‘Shh,’ I silence him before he can say something incautious. ‘I can see.’

I take his hand, I press it to my breast, just above my heart. He clings to me. I kiss the top of his head. His hair reeks of cigarette smoke.

‘Thank you for bringing him home, Grigoriy,’ I say calmly.

He has already collected himself.

‘He is very good company,’ he says evenly. ‘Truly delightful. So sweetly flirtatious.’

This is curious. Why would he offer me such a transparent lie? He must remember that I know he has no English. The foreign languages he speaks are German, Turkish and Pashto. And Yuri cannot flirt in Russian; he doesn’t know it enough yet. Besides, my Yuri and flirting? With my former lover? A man he’s been warned against? Please. The only man I’ve ever heard him tease, apart from me, and then very shyly, is Chris Giacometti.

I am tempted to laugh in Grisha’s face and tell him all this. It would not be a wise move, though. Pity.

This awareness of an extreme need to control myself brings back memories. Grisha knew how to hurt my feelings. And in some moods he enjoyed doing it. So I made myself a master at pretending not to understand his sneers. I bet he thought me a halfwit. I learnt to hide my distress under good humour and a ready smile. And this is what I do now.

‘Oh, I know. He’s a charmer,’ I say with all the serenity I can muster. The old habit kicks in easily and I feel my lips curving in an expression of benign amusement. ‘He will collapse soon, though. The Easterners can’t hold their drink.’

And I very deliberately stretch out my hand for Yuri’s keys.

He looks down at them as if he had forgotten he held them and hands them to me.

‘We must go out together again,’ he says.

I grind my teeth. I am aware that this we may very well not include me.

‘We have a very busy schedule right now’, I say matter-of-factly. ‘As you must know. After the finals perhaps. Thanks again.’

On that I close the door.

Yuri takes a deep breath. I cover his mouth with my hand before he can say anything; I don’t know if Grisha is not standing outside, listening. I wouldn’t put it past him.

I get him out of his parka. He is wearing a soft, dark-grey shirt and a jacket, which is quite formal for him. His hair is slicked back. If he were sober and less confused, he’d look good. I steer him into the big room. He staggers a few steps in and reels against the wall.

‘I’m sorry!’ he wails. Then he slides down to sit on the floor. ‘You came back…?’

‘No, I’m still abroad,’ I say dryly. ‘And I’m having a very good time there. This is just my ghost talking to you. Come. We must get you to your senses. You’re going to hate me, but trust me, it’s better for you.’

‘What…?’

I drag him to the kitchen, put a few spoonfuls of salt into a glass of tepid water, then drag him on to the bathroom.

‘Drink this.’

He retches like a cat. I support his forehead and wait till he gets rid of all that he has eaten and drunk. Then I sit him on the couch with a mug of strong black tea, which he hates but which brings him close to his usual self. Only I can see that it is a very unhappy self.

‘First let’s clear the mystery of me being here. Yuri, if my beloved boyfriend calls me Vityen’ka over the phone and sounds as if he were about to go throw himself into the Neva, he should not be surprised I jump on the first plane home. Right?’

My attempt at lightening the mood falls on deaf ears.

‘I’m sorry… I didn’t mean to…’

‘But you wanted me to be here, yes?’ He nods. ‘Then it’s all right.’

He looks up at me, his eyes huge.

‘How can it be?’ he whispers. ‘I’ll move out tomorrow.’

‘What?!’

‘Please, may I stay this last night?’

I go weak in the knees. I can feel myself turning pale. Is he… Is he leaving me? He can’t be! I thought he was okay with what I told him about my past. He listened to me so calmly. We actually laughed… He held me when I cried. We made love. We were happy.

‘Yuri, but…’ I stutter. ‘But… why?’

He is sitting on the couch, curled into a ball, crying. I can see his shoulders shaking.

‘I didn’t mean to,’ he repeats. ‘But I’ll move out. I’m so sorry.’

So he had been okay, but since then he’s learnt something about me that disgusted him so terribly that… that he’s no longer okay. Oh God, what did this bastard tell him? I don’t remember doing anything truly foul… And it was so long ago; I have changed, I have! But Yuri’s views on that may be different than mine. Or, Grisha could have lied.

But maybe I can explain! Maybe I can give good reason for whatever it is that makes me so revolting to him. This is Yuri, my Yuri, he won’t leave me without giving me a chance to defend myself; he is too fair for that.

I kneel in front of him. I force his hands away from his face. He screws his eyes shut.

‘Yuri, this is me, your Vitka. Please, look at me.’

He shakes his head.

‘Yuri! Look at me right now!’ I shout.

‘Please, don’t be angry…’

‘I’m not angry. I’m desperate!’

I think he can hear the tears in my voice. He glances at me.

I am still kneeling at his feet. I am holding his hands firmly in mine. I can feel he is trying to free them from my grasp, but that only makes me hold on stronger.

‘Yuri, listen to me. Listen! I jumped to a conclusion once. Remember? I almost lost you then. I would have, if you hadn’t been wiser than me. It taught me a lesson. Ask first, then panic. So I am asking you. I’m asking you! In English! Why do you want to move out?’

He shakes his head again.

‘Please,’ I insist. ‘Tell me. What have I done?’

This gets through to him. He freezes.

‘You…?’ he whispers in the tone of shocked disbelief. ‘No! It’s me!’

And at this, a realisation. We are talking at cross purposes. The problem lies with him, not with me. Something has happened to him that made him feel… I hesitate, looking for a word, and, as if he were listening to my thoughts, he supplies it for me.

‘I’m unworthy.’

Oh, good God. Yuri. You? Unworthy? My dearest, how can you even think this? You are my friend, my guardian angel, my first and last love, and I…

‘I refuse to believe you’ve done anything you could be ashamed of!’ I say firmly.

‘I lied to you. I’m sorry. I know I did wrong.’ He looks at me, his eyes full of tears. ‘But I wasn’t going to sleep with him! You must believe me. I wasn’t going to!’

I am taken aback. This I did not foresee. Have I come home too late instead of too early? I was away for four nights, this was to be the fifth, it couldn’t have happened so fast. No. No way. I know my Yuri.

But – he was drunk today. And yesterday? The day before…?

I exhale slowly, forcing myself to stay calm.

‘Yuri…’ I say quietly. ‘I believe that you weren’t going to. But did you? Did you sleep with him?’

‘What?! No!’ he shouts, clearly aghast. ‘No!’

And then I stretch up and shake him by the shoulders.

‘So why do you want to move out?’ I yell. ‘Why?!’

He looks at me as if he were checking if I hadn’t gone mad. Truth to tell, I am looking at him the same way. Have we both suddenly stopped understanding plain English?

‘I lied to you!’ he yells back in the tone of an explanation.

‘Okay…’ I say cautiously, still in the dark. ‘And what was the lie?’

‘I didn’t tell you I was to go out with him! I meant to tell you tomorrow. When you came back. I really meant to. Please believe me. I wouldn’t have kept it secret. But I couldn’t tell you before you skated both programs. You’d be worrying. I couldn’t – I couldn’t let you…’ His voice breaks. He hides his face in his hands. ‘I’m sorry.’

I sit back on my heels.

‘Give me a moment to think…’

I was right. All of this is not about sex. It’s about honesty.

Yuri says he lied to me. In point of fact, he didn’t; he withheld information. But he is entirely right, it was information that would have upset me. I would have probably talked him out of the whole idea, but I can’t deny – I would have been disturbed as a result. So he did this to protect my peace of mind.

He is a man of integrity. Yet he lied. Worse, he lied to me. But had he not lied, he would have put my performance in danger. He would have jeopardised all we had worked for. Can I really find fault with his motivation? It’s not that it made his life easier. Considering his reticence, and his awareness of who Grisha used to be to me, he must have found this outing difficult. Yet he went on with it. Which, of course, raises the question of why he agreed to go out with Grisha in the first place.

And on top of it all, I returned home right in time to see him coming up, drunk, with… well, you-know-who. So now he thinks that I thought…

Oh God. I see. In the end, it is about sex, too.

I rise and stand above him. I am aware my pose is threatening. Deliberately so.

‘Get up, Katsuki,’ I command. He looks up. I must look pretty scary, because his eyes widen. ‘Get up! Now!’

He jumps to his feet.

‘You insult me.’

He pales. I never thought his golden skin could actually turn ashen.

‘You assume that I am insensitive and ungrateful. You take serious decisions on this basis. You fail to remember what we promised each other: to talk if there is a problem.’

I am severe, very severe, and my heart aches for him. But this kid is crazed with guilt and my words must penetrate through the haze of remorse which is, I am sure, misguided. He is always so quick to blame himself. Even for trifles. And this here is not a trifle.

‘You shielded me from knowledge that could have put all our work in danger. Did you think I wouldn’t see this? It hurts me to realise you have so little faith in me. Apologise to me, Yuri.’

‘I’m sorry…’ he whimpers.

‘Good. You should be.’

I put my hands on his shoulders. He is trembling like a leaf.

‘You’re not moving out. You’re not going anywhere.’ Then I theatrically sniff his hair and add, ‘Except maybe to take a shower. And then to bed. With me. Are we clear on this?’

He nods wordlessly. I release him and step back a little. I haven’t finished with him.

‘Now as to your being unworthy. I assume you mean you’re unworthy of my trust. This is for me to decide. So far, you have not given me any reason to doubt you. But I’ll reserve judgement until you have told me what happened. Calmly and in a collected manner. Because so far I haven’t heard anything beyond hysterical self-accusations and this is not helping any. Right?’

Another nod.

‘I understand I may hear something I won’t like. I accept that. I am ready to deal with whatever you’re going to tell me. Perhaps you made a mistake. But we are together for good, you and I. We make a mistake, we don’t break up. We apologise and we cope. So don’t ever assume a mistake, yours or mine, is the end of… us. Okay?’

Nod.

‘Please understand. I’ll forgive you anything. Anything! Just don’t talk about leaving me. Don’t… threaten me with what I already fear.’

A very quiet snort. He remembers.

‘This is exactly the worst thing that could happen to me. So as far as I’m concerned, you can sleep with any man, any woman or any sheep you want…’

A suspicious glance.

Yes, I am serious, even if my wording is not. I’ve had my share of men and I know what exactly it is I don’t want anymore. But I was his first and I have no illusions: one day he will want to find out how sex feels like with someone who is not me. And since I am almost certain that when all is said and done, he is bisexual, I have all the human race to be afraid of. This makes me sad, but I’m prepared to cope with it. As long as…

‘…as long as you come back home later and tell me it is me that you love. Deal?’

Nod.

‘And finally, Yuri, for God’s sake… You frightened me so. Please, come here and tell me we’re okay.’

I open my arms and I wait. This must be his decision.

He stands before me, rigid, unyielding.

‘Yuryen’ka! Will you not hug me?’ I beg him. ‘Did you not miss me?’

My heart begins to sink. What the hell happened here while I was away? What did this bastard Kamyshkin do to shatter him so?

Since the day I so clearly recognised my feelings, I’ve been thinking of how to propose to him in a way that will not sound ridiculous or, worse, insulting, because it will have to be with an ‘if’ clause, considering the laws of our respective countries. But I so wanted to tell him that I began to think of him as my fiancé. And now this.

What if he won’t relent in his self-loathing? He is honest and strong-minded and I love this about him; but he can be uncompromising. And he is so hard on himself. What if all my scolding, gentling, pleading, won’t soften him? What if he refuses to take pity on himself – and – on me?

But, thank God, no. He just needs time.

‘You want me to…?’ he asks in the quietest whisper.

‘Oh yes.’

He steps to me.

‘You sure…?’

‘Yes.’

I feel his arms reaching around me, slowly and very hesitantly.

‘Yes, yes…’ I coax him. ‘Hold me tight.’

He leans his forehead against my collarbone in a gesture of absolute exhaustion. I wrap my arms around his head, enfolding him in darkness, shutting the world out, away from us. I feel his hands clenching on my shirt.

‘It’s so good to have you close,’ I murmur. ‘I missed you so much.’

He relaxes a little.

‘Not angry with me?’

‘Not at all.’ I slip a finger under his chin and raise his face to me so that I can kiss him on the nose. ‘I’m very glad you made me come home. Thanks to you, tonight I’ll sleep in my own bed with my own boyfriend.’

‘Stop!’ he begs. ‘This is not what I meant.’

‘So what did you mean, yablochko?’

‘How can you be not angry with me? I didn’t tell you I was… I was to see him.’

I sigh. I release him.

‘You may sit down,’ I say with pretended severity.

He knows I’m no longer scolding him, but even so, he obeys. I go to the bedroom to my still untouched suitcase and bring back my gold. I kneel before him again and close his fingers on the metal circle, still cold from the journey.

‘This is yours as much as it is mine. I would never have got it without you. You have no idea how much I appreciate all you did for me. The cooking. The getting up early. Yuri, I… I saw how tired you were. I should’ve told you to stop, only… It was so much easier with you. I couldn’t. See how selfish I am?’

‘You’re not,’ he protests.

‘Without you, I would have quit. But here I am, back in the game. So how could I possibly be angry with you? Can you please get it into your head, now, that I am not blaming you for anything? So stop being contrite. Come on, piglet, give me a smile.’

The nickname comes from our early days, the Hasetsu days, when we were already in love but not yet together. These days I use it only when I want to remind him that once I was an authority figure to him and to ask him to treat me as such again, just for a moment.

It works. He smiles. He kisses the medal and looks up.

‘Nice feeling. I want more,’ he says, an impish spark in his wet eyes.

‘Soon you’ll have your own to kiss.’

Suddenly he leans to me.

‘I already have my own to kiss,’ he says and gently brushes his lips against mine. His breath smells of vodka and vomit and I – I don’t mind it at all. Because it is his breath, and he is my treasure. And I have a sweet feeling dawning in me that we have both done well; that we have passed a peculiar sort of a test as partners. That a very unpleasant situation has been narrowly avoided. And that somewhere in the night-shrouded city there is a man seething.

He sighs deeply. I think he is unloading a weight from his heart. He dries his eyes with the back of his hand and sniffs, which I find, as usual, absolutely endearing.

‘Come, sit. Can I get you some tea? Better than this horror here?’

‘Yes, please.’ I stretch on the couch he has vacated and listen to the soothing sounds of him making tea in the kitchen. He calls to ask if I want something to eat. I do, food on the plane was inedible and I was too worried to eat anyway.

‘I’ll take a shower first, though,’ I say, dragging myself to my feet. ‘I’m filthy after the journey.’

The tension dissolves in domestic routines and when we finally sit face to face at the kitchen table, I with a plate and tea (he made it black for me, a special gesture, and poured it into a glass, because he knows that this is how we drink tea in Russia), he with just tea (green, in a heavy, bowl-like mug), we are relaxed and ready to share the events of the last few days.

‘You first,’ he says and I begin to relate the jokes and taunts I exchanged with the guys, my thoughts before I skated my programs – I admit to him I had not been so nervous since my junior days – and my blurred memories from that short-but-endless moment I was on the ice.

‘I wish I had been there,’ he sighs.

‘Next time we will simply buy you a ticket on our own.’

‘No, we must learn to go to events apart. It’s inevitable. But what I will certainly do the next time you go away is throw a party for all of the rink team.’

‘To celebrate Victor’s not being at home,’ I finish smoothly. ‘Flirt a little.’

‘With whom?!’ He seems shocked.

‘I know of at least three girls who would not be averse and I suspect one boy. You heartbreaker.’

He snorts disdainfully.

‘Be serious!’ Then he sighs. ‘If only I had thought of this earlier. I wouldn't have been free to go out. Because, Vitka, that mix-up with the tickets… I don’t think it was accidental.’

This has not occurred to me.

‘What makes you think so?’

‘Mr Kamyshkin came to the rink to watch the competition with us. Both days. He immediately sat next to me. He knew my otchestvo, called me Yuri Toshiyevich.’

I smile at how he is not looking for an English word, but just uses the Russian one. It is beginning to happen to him with an increasing frequency and I’m very happy about it.

‘He must have done some research on me. And it is the federation office that buys the tickets, isn’t it? If he really is such a big sponsor, he must have some influence on them.’

‘Now that you say it… It’s not impossible.’

‘We got talking. As much as we could, with my Russian. And in the end he invited me to have dinner with him. Today. I mean, he invited me the day you skated the short program. To have dinner today.’

Ah, so Grisha had planned their outing beforehand.

‘I said yes. I… I thought other people would go, too. But you told me not to accept any favours. An invitation to dinner is a favour, yes?’

‘Yes, it is. Especially if it is a good restaurant,’ I smile.

‘It was, I think. I wouldn’t find it, we went there by car.’

‘He drove?’

‘No, he had a driver. By then I knew we’d be alone. This is when I began to be truly worried I’d made a mistake. Because, you see, when we talked last night, I could have told you. You were already after both programs. I could have asked you to return home. I wanted to. But I thought I’d handle this on my own.’

‘Why? You should have asked me,’ I say with just a hint of reproach. ‘I would have listened. Did you think I would laugh at your worries?’

‘No, no! All I thought was, you’re having fun, you’ve earned it so much. I didn’t want to sound like, you know, you can’t have fun without me. And I thought, to ask this would be too much… Too much trouble. Too much expense. Speaking of which, I owe you the money you paid for the ticket.’

‘Forget it.’

‘No.’

‘Yuri, shut up. It’s our money anyway.’

We set up a joint account the day after he arrived. We keep the housekeeping fund there, topping it up regularly to keep in the black. I pay the flat expenses from another account. Each of us has his own account for personal purchases, while fun expenses we share. We manage easily.

By the way, I know most of his income goes to keeping his parents’ hotel afloat. He’s been supporting them for years. Perhaps now slightly less so, because his fame made the hotel revive a little, but still, he has far less cash than I do. His mother took me aside one day, as we were getting ready to leave Japan, and explained this to me. She speaks very little English, but it is unbelievable what two people can do when they have an old dictionary, the internet, a shared concern and a will to communicate. We had all that. I assured her that she mustn’t worry, I won’t let him feel either inadequate or in my debt.

‘My money is his money,’ I said, keeping it as simple as possible. ‘He has family to help. I respect it. I have no family.’

She patted my hand.

‘You have now. Katsuki family.’

I bowed to her, low. I can’t do it gracefully, like a Japanese, but it was the only way I could hide the tears in my eyes. She smiled at me fondly (her son has her smile, by the way) and there was no more talk about money. I never told Yuri about this conversation and I think she did not either.

For the ticket I paid from my own account and I’ll be damned if I let him give me back one kopeck.

‘So we got to the restaurant, we ate, we talked. Mostly about Sankt Petersburg. He asked me how I liked it and listened to what I had to say. He told me stories about the city. About how Tsar Peter built it, about how it was renamed Leningrad and about the German blockade. Did you know his father survived it?’

‘Yes, I did. Both his grandparents died the first winter.’

‘So he never knew them. He told me. I said I could relate. My great-granduncle and his family lived in Nagasaki. All were lost.’

I didn’t know that. There is so much history we are dragging behind us, every one, in this blood-stained, marvellous vastness that is Eurasia.

‘I liked the way he talked about the past. He’s a good storyteller. He brings it to life.’

‘That’s true,’ I admit. ‘I liked this about him, too.’

‘He was careful to speak simply. I was surprised how much I understood. I was truly interested. And…’ Yuri looks thoughtful and a little troubled. ‘You know what the strangest thing was? He was nice. If he hadn’t pressed vodka on me… I would have had a good time.’

I sigh inwardly. And I, stupid, thought he had found the occasion daunting.

‘Yes, he knew how to be nice,’ I agree calmly, though it costs me. ‘Only… When he was extra nice to me it usually meant he was planning something he knew I wouldn’t like.’

‘Well, exactly!’

***

I’m on treacherous ground.

I’d prefer not to walk onto it at all, but I can’t avoid telling him how the meeting went. This would make him suspicious, and rightly.

‘Well, exactly!’ I agree emphatically. ‘All the time I had a feeling he was trying to… get at something. I thought he would start asking about you, but he never did. There was no talk of you at all. Do you have any idea what it may have been he wanted from me?’

‘No. Not really.’

Good, because I do.

By the time we got to the restaurant I was truly worried I had made a mistake.

Having accepted his invitation, I thought it would be no more than a social occasion that would require me to be polite, attentive, perhaps strain my knowledge of Russian a bit. Okay, I thought the atmosphere may be slightly awkward, considering we are Victor’s ex and current lovers, but I was not unduly concerned. This is not something a little tact cannot overcome, I thought. I was aware of his interest in me, but I was certain we, Victor and I, had made it clear enough that as a couple we are immune to interference.

I miscalculated. Because the thing that Victor either, being too young, did not see or, as an adult, chose to forget, or, the third option, preferred not to tell me, is – the man is fascinating. Absolutely charismatic. He has enormous presence. He is cloaked in an aura of immense power which, try as I might to resist, works its magic upon me. It makes me want to lean into him and entrust myself to his guidance.

(Katsuki, you’re such a weakling. The fact that you were drunk is no excuse.)

He has a beautiful voice that makes me want to hear him sing. He has a laughter that makes me want to amuse him. There is a spark dancing in his grey eyes that I wouldn’t mind kindling into flame.

He is irresistible.

He knows it.

And the thing he wants from me is… me.

He is playing me like a fish and I’m almost ready to swallow the bait. And the most infuriating thing is that I am perfectly aware of this. I am still at the stage when vodka makes my mind unusually clear.

The only gesture beyond the ordinary that he permits himself in the course of the whole evening is to cover my hand with his. Just once, just for an instant, and it is justified by the flow of our conversation. But his touch goes through me like an electric shock.

The room grows empty. I begin to thank him for the meal.

‘It’s time for me to go,’ I say diffidently. ‘I must be at the rink in the morning.’

‘Yes, it’s late,’ he agrees. He goes off to pay, I don’t know how much, and makes a quick call on his mobile. When he returns, he pours us more vodka.

‘Let’s drink…’ He uses an expression I don’t know. ‘The last glass before we go,’ he explains.

This is an at least third glass above my absolute limit. I try to say no, but he insists. He is firm and I get a little uncomfortable. So I drink. I barely manage not to retch. I smile self-consciously and he answers with a laugh. We get up. And then, of course, I stagger. And he, calmly and naturally, puts his arm around me.

‘Come, boy, let me take care of you,’ he says, looking at me with kind concern.

But his eyes glitter.

I feel a small spasm in the pit of my stomach. Fear or need? I don’t think I’ll ever be certain. All I know is that at this point I do the one thing I will be truly ashamed of in the time to come.

Namely, I throw him an oblique glance from under my eyelashes; I lower my eyes; I smile demurely, which I am entirely conscious can be read as coy acquiescence; and, as if coming to a decision, I melt into the circle of his arm.

And then, as he embraces me, I give a soft, seductive purr.

I never thought I could be coquettish, but I’m afraid that in that single moment I was.

All this I must conceal from the white-haired man sitting opposite me at the table, smiling at me affectionately and a little sadly. Because no, I was not unfaithful to him. Of that I am innocent. But I was not far from it, and to know this would hurt him beyond measure.

‘Well, whatever it was he wanted, he shouldn’t have insisted I drink!’ I say crossly. ‘I don’t even like vodka!’

‘Yeah, if it had been champagne things might have been different.’

This is a standing joke between us. Victor has told me how my laughter enchanted him at that banquet, wow, almost two years ago; what crazy fun he had dancing with me. He says he felt my erection when, ‘adorably drunk’ (his words), I rubbed my groin on his thigh, and he very much wished he could take me to his room, kiss me until I melted in his arms, and then fuck me until I screamed. Pity I don’t remember any of it, it must have been quite something.

‘No way. After all you had told me… I was on my guard. Still, I am angry with myself. I should have said no. Firmly. Tell me, why is it so hard for me to be assertive?’

He brightens and I know I’ve said the right thing.

It was a terribly close call. If Grisha and I had left the restaurant earlier or Victor returned later, nothing would have saved me. A few minutes’ difference would have caused irreparable damage. And I would have been to blame. My conduct was unpardonable and I am deeply ashamed of myself. But as things stand, if I play my hand well, nothing evil will have happened. So let me play.

‘In any case, he never got what he wanted, unless it was to listen to me abusing Russian grammar. But I shouldn’t have accepted his invitation in the first place,’ I say. ‘I should have followed your advice. I was playing with fire, wasn’t I?’

‘Well, a little,’ he agrees with a grin.

‘Please, forgive me.’

Oh, Vitka, my sweetest, kindest, dearest Vitka, how sincere I am in apologising to you, although it is not for what you think it is.

‘There is nothing for me to forgive. Okay, you misjudged the situation…’

How true.

‘Grigoriy was a bit too much for you. But nothing happened that I could object to.’

Nearly nothing. But not quite.

‘Only because you came back,’ I admit, mainly to myself.

‘Only because you knew how to let me know I must. We stand side by side, Yuri.’

I am humbled by his generosity, which I am now taking unfair advantage of. I have to. Just this one time.

I know I owe him a hundred ‘I love you’s for this.

I apologise to him again, just to hear another declaration of his steadfast faith in me.

***

‘And you must know one thing. I did not invite him up! He said he would walk me to the door because I was drunk. I wasn’t so badly. I could have come up on my own. He insisted. I didn’t know how to say no. But I wasn’t going to sleep with him!’

It seems that Yuri still thinks me unconvinced.

‘Of course you weren’t,’ I answer patiently.

‘But didn’t you think…’

‘Of course I didn’t.’

‘But I thought… You’re away and I return home with a man. How does it look like?’

I grab at my hair in desperation. How can this otherwise intelligent fellow be so utterly dumb?

‘This is your day for being a piglet! It doesn’t look like anything. You went for dinner with my former lover. So what? Yuri, I know you a little. And I used to know him, too. He is a man nearly forty years your senior, very authoritative, very persuasive, and he can be charming. I fully trust you when you say you found it difficult to say no. In my time, so did I.’

Yuri hides his face in his hands.

‘I feel so stupid. How did you manage to stay calm when you opened the door? Didn’t you think that I had been… doing things… with him?’

‘I was not calm. I only pretended to be. I was…’ I search my feelings. ‘Alarmed. ‘Cause I already knew who you were coming up with. I recognised his voice. I was worried for you. Yes, I did notice you were slow climbing up the stairs. But let us be clear on this: not even for a moment did it cross my mind you might be kissing or fondling there. Right? Not. Even. For. A. Moment. Can you get this into that thick skull of yours? They say the Japanese are intelligent people! You must be that one sad exception!’

‘Hey!’ he protests weakly. ‘This is not fair.’

I take his hands across the table and kiss his knuckles.

‘Look, I know you weren’t going to sleep with him. Frankly, the silliest thing you did today is drink. People do strange things when drunk. We both know it. Sometimes they do things they later regret. Yes?’

‘Yes,’ he agrees meekly.

‘We don’t know what would have happened if I hadn’t been here. So we won’t dwell on it. ‘Cause it’s a waste of time. The important thing is, nothing happened. And in the future, we’ll know that you and vodka just don’t mix. Promise me to stick to wine, will you? Good. I’ll walk the dog now and you go take a shower, you stink of cigarettes. Shoo!’

He rises obediently and rushes off.

I am back and doing the small late-night chores, loading the dishwasher and setting kitchen things in order, when he comes in, his hair wet. He is wearing a T-shirt and boxers, he smells fresh and looks much better. He steps to me and hugs me, his arms around my neck.

‘Thank you,’ he says. ‘Thank you for being the best boyfriend in the world.’

Coming from Yuri, this is worth a hundred ‘I love you’s.

I scoop him up into my arms like I would a bride. I carry him through to the bedroom, stopping in front of the big mirror in the hall to enjoy the way we look together.

He has grown used to being carried around by now; in the beginning he was very embarrassed by this and he fought me. Now he arranges himself gracefully against me, like a fairy-tale princess, and lays his head on my shoulder. Being a small bundle of tightly packed muscles, he is not light, but I love feeling his weight in my arms.

The bed is already made; he must have done it before he showered. I lay him down carefully and kneel astride him to peel his T-shirt off him. He sits up and does the same to me. He puts his arms around my waist and presses his cheek to my stomach. Then he looks up at me, his expression thoughtful.

‘Vitka…’ he says slowly, very seriously. ‘Forget men and women. I’m not interested. But…’ There’s an inexpressible yearning in his sweet face, a wild desire. ‘Are you sure about the sheep?’

I nearly choke. Then I howl with laughter. Oh, Yuri, my crazy, funny, wonderful Yuri, this is exactly why I couldn’t live without you.

He keeps looking at me. Now his eyes are soft and his smile… Yes, it is this smile.

‘I love you, too,’ I answer.

We make love tenderly rather than passionately, with deep sighs, soft moans and quiet exclamations of ‘oh yes!’ and ‘don’t stop, don’t stop!’. We trade a kiss for a kiss. We hold each other’s gaze as we come. After, we lie in each other’s arms tired and at peace.

I slip out of his embrace to go to the bathroom, exchange some pleasantries with the dog and unpack a few things before they get hopelessly crumpled. The flat is warm and very quiet, our bedroom lit only by a bedside lamp, the blinds down. I am in a happy mood and my thoughts turn to Grisha with far more goodwill than before. I am thinking that perhaps we were being melodramatic again. After all, he may have walked Yuri all the way up to the door out of sheer concern for a drunk foreigner, with no evil intentions at all. Maybe we have given the whole incident more of our worried attention than it deserved.

As the last thing before I lie down and cuddle up to the bundle of happiness waiting for me in bed, I take up my phone to set the alarm. I see that I have a new message. It is from an unidentified number.

There’s a photo in it. It’s a slightly off-centre snapshot of Yuri raising a vodka glass to his mouth, a smile on his face. And a line, in Russian, ‘Your sweetheart is having a very good time while you’re away’.

I step back. I look at Yuri. Oh… Not a bundle at all. And not waiting for me, either.

He is stretched out languorously, one arm under his head, the other flung out, his torso bare, the muscles chiselled by light, a pool of shadow filling the dip of his stomach, his nipples like small bronze coins. His thighs are still open, the inner sides glistening with sperm or sweat. A corner of the rumpled quilt is pulled between his legs, his genitals concealed, but very suggestively so. His face is turned a little away from me, the line of his cheek betraying a smile, the contours of his neck and shoulder perfect, the shock of raven hair the only dark stain in this ecstasy of golden skin on white linen. An archetypal image of a happy lover resting, weary from sex – fulfilled, relaxed, already half asleep but still infinitely seductive.

He is just begging for the hand of a painter.

(I’d suggest that old rogue Caravaggio. He’d enjoy the task. And later, the model.)

For a moment I am toying with the idea of snapping a picture of this sleeping beauty and sending it to that anonymous number with the comment: ‘And a better while I’m here’. But I decide against it. I am not going to enter into any exchanges of texts, of calls, of taunts. Of anything really. I will not invite further contact.

I cannot resist an evil grin. Grisha always hated being ignored.

I check at what time the message came. I was already nearing home then. They arrived about twenty minutes later. So this is what Grisha wanted… I am certain that the next picture I was meant to receive would have shown a naked Yuri stretched belly down on the same bed he is lying on now. I don’t think Grisha would have hurt him. Going against a boy’s will – that was never his style. But he would have shown me he could have taken my lover in my home, into which he had never been invited, on the bed he had never shared with me.

He would have hurt our relationship.

Or so he thought.

He was wrong.

Because okay, yes, I would have been furious. I would have felt that my fortress, the space I cherish and protect, had been invaded. But no more than that.

Grishka, if you planned to sow discord between Yuri and me – and I think you did, taking some sort of twisted revenge for the break-up of our relationship – then your scheme would have failed even if I had not come home on time. You have no idea what it means to trust your man, so it hasn’t even crossed your mind that I might not suspect Yuri of playing me false. And this picture here would never have made me think bad of him. For I don’t even need to look at it closely to see that his smile is one of embarrassment and that at the moment it was taken he was feeling worse than uncomfortable. He was just being himself, that is – polite.

I delete the message.

***

I was wrong, of course. It wounds my pride to admit it, but Grisha wanted to humiliate Victor more than he wanted to fuck me. I think he wished to teach him the same lesson Victor had unintentionally taught him a few years ago: when you go away, you find unwelcome changes upon returning.

The saddest thing about it all is that these two men used to be close. Had they been wiser, they could have transformed their very unequal relationship into a more balanced bond. But I suspect that Victor may have been inconsiderate towards the older man as he revelled in his newly gained masculine maturity and Grisha, in turn, was unable to adjust to it. If he had released Victor with good grace, he would have lost a lover but won a friend. But maybe with his character and his career he doesn’t need friends, just subordinates.

In any case, yes, I underestimated him, badly so. But he miscalculated, too. He had me intoxicated, entranced, pliant. What he should have done is take me to his own place. There, I don’t think I would have resisted… long.

After that, my guilt would have been enormous. Even if I managed to conceal what I had done from Victor – and I don’t think I would have, Grisha would have made sure he learnt of my infidelity – I would have changed because of it. Our relationship would have suffered, quite possibly come to an end. I would have broken Victor’s heart.

And it is a heart that can be broken. More easily than his habitual poise might indicate, actually. Because – for the first time in his life, I think – this solitary, self-contained man with a weird tangle in his past has given it away fully, without reservation. And he is less secure than he appears. His desperate ‘What have I done?’ gave him away. He was so pathetically ready to shoulder the blame before he even knew what it was for. It didn’t even cross his mind that it was I who might have wronged him.

Only upon hearing how quick he was to assume it was he that had caused my misery did I fully recognise what I had done. The shock got me instantly sober. And I was absolutely right in the judgement that this insight tore out of me: I am unworthy of him.

Because what I have done is this: I have toyed with his trust. I have endangered what it is my duty and my privilege to protect – his peace of mind, his sense of security, his joy at being alive, here and now, with me. I have put at risk the future I am only now beginning to believe we may have – we may have together.

I still can’t believe how criminally reckless I have been with the thing I hold dearest in the world; his love.

If worst came to worst, I think he would have attempted to save the remains of our relationship. He would have honestly tried to forgive me. But I’m not sure he would have managed. Any man, any woman, any sheep (what got into him to say that?!) he might – but not Grisha Kamyshkin. And I don’t think I would have forgiven myself.

If Grisha’s goal was indeed to hurt Victor, he would have achieved it.

Yet he chose to take me to Victor’s place. He probably had an idea that he would fuck me on Victor’s bed. This was stupid of him. Because Victor’s home is my home, too. And it is sacred.

Soon after I arrived Victor noticed I was ill at ease in his flat. I kept all my things in one place, I was careful to put every book back from where I took it, I left almost no traces of my presence. When I spilled something, I apologised and apologised. He sat me on the couch, told me he could see I was not comfortable at home and asked why that was. I squirmed and finally stammered that I didn’t want to intrude on anything that this space meant to him.

‘I want you to know one thing, piglet,’ he said, looking at me thoughtfully. ‘I’m not sure it will help you, but maybe. Remember how we made love on our bed, the night after you arrived? Well, it was the first time for that bed.’

‘What?’ I honestly thought I understood him wrong.

‘Yes. A baptism of fire. You are the first man to come here.’

I looked at him quizzically. He laughed.

‘In every meaning of the word. Look, I’ve been safe here and I’ve been alone here. For a long time this, security and isolation, constituted my happiness. This place holds no other memories. I never allowed it to. So it is yours to fill with… whatever you please. Even if it’s your mess.’

‘I beg your pardon,’ I said indignantly, because I am just as tidy as he. Then we went shopping, we bought some things I needed and some I liked, we cooked a big supper together and left the kitchen in a terrible mess overnight. From then on his home was truly our home and I’ve been feeling cosy and safe in it.

Was I to spoil this by bringing a man there? And this man Victor’s first lover, his ex-patron, the ghost of a past he has still not entirely come to terms with? Never.

That’s why, even as I walked up the stairs, his powerful arm around me, I was trying to think how to prevent him from entering. The fact that I was in a drunken haze was not helping. He got the upper hand by wrenching the keys out of my grasp. He did it gently but firmly and I knew the fun was over and a fight would soon begin. The odds were against me. For I would have fought against not only his, but also my own desire. My heart and my mind against my treacherous body.

I will never know whether I would have won that battle. Because a miracle was granted to a dazed fool who did not deserve it – the door opened and Victor stood there, cool and white-haired, like a protecting spirit, his breast my shield.

What saved me was Grisha’s ill-judged decision to take me home; but only because Victor had been sensitive enough to perceive something was wrong with me and to act upon his intuition. And I discovered some things about myself (apart from that I should stay away from vodka); things which I’m not happy with, but which are nevertheless worth knowing. I am attracted to older men; men with authority. I’m prone to getting suddenly, powerfully infatuated and then I find my feelings hard to resist. I perhaps do not create opportunities, but I welcome them when they arise. Aware of all this, next time I’ll be on my guard.

All in all, I was walking on quicksand.

I’ve learnt my lesson and I will never do it again.

I guess most people make similar discoveries when they are younger than me. I was single until I was twenty-four. And I want this relationship, my first, to be my last. This means some things about myself I shall have to learn, well, only in theory. And even that discreetly. For I just can’t afford to lose this bright, quirky, deeply decent man, whom I have managed – just this once, I swear! – to deceive. I love him. To lose him would leave me dead inside.

So there is one more thing in which I must consider myself fortunate. Victor is not suspicious by nature. I have never, ever felt him having any need to check on me. He simply trusts me.

That’s how I know the condoms stuck in my wallet are quite safe. They are untouched; they were there just in case; but in view of my protestations that ‘I wasn’t going to sleep with him’ their presence might be a little awkward to explain. I’ll get rid of them tomorrow.

***

The Chinese say that when someone wrongs you, the best thing to do is to sit down on the railing of a bridge and just wait, gazing calmly into the water. Sooner or later the corpse of your enemy will float by, without you having done anything at all; and this is the sweetest revenge. In our case it doesn’t get all the way to corpses, but when a few weeks later we take an odd sort of revenge, it is by coincidence.

Yakov gives us permission to stay at the rink after everyone else has gone. The night porter is to let us out.

It is close to midnight, we finished the workout and we are having fun. And more than that. Because our pair-skate choreographing time is when we are on the ice just for each other. This is when we skate our love.

There was a time when we could express our feelings only on the ice. It is seeing Yuri skate that I realised he was the man I wanted, openly and forever, and it is while skating that he confessed his love to me in a language which I understood.

Two men skating together; this has never been done. Not until Katsuki and Nikiforov skated the re-choreographed Stammi vicino last season. So we are free to devise an entirely new type of a pair skate; a single-sex one. I hope somewhere some girls are doing the same. I think their ideas and their figures will be entirely different than ours and I’d like to see them.

Our aim is not to use the figures performed by mixed pairs or to seriously alter them. My Yuri, although smaller and lighter than me, is very much not a girl. So we erase the boundary between the lead and the follow. What we want to achieve is a dance of equals.

And this time, we want it to be fast, raw and fierce.

We skate, full speed, on to a head-on collision, but at the last second we turn our bodies sideways. We pass each other, face to face, with about a centimetre to spare, but when seen from far away, we seem to brush breast against breast (we can do it hips to hips, too, arching a little backwards). This is difficult and more than once we’ve landed on the ice, our ribcages bruised, but now, as we have got really good at it, the effect is fantastic.

Now we are practising entry into the death spiral from this. As we pass – and this is done at top speed – we grab each other’s hands, my right, his left, and I stop dead in my tracks, my blade anchored in the ice. Each time we do it I choose a different position to assume as the pivot, I don’t have a preference yet. He stretches his body, flies around me for a few rotations, just the barest edge of his forward blade touching the ice, returns to vertical by almost sliding up my body and we turn together, like a double star system. Then we let go of each other’s hand and spin – and spin – and spin – and spin – and spin, side by side, very close.

I’ve got better at spinning in the past weeks, I can finally keep up with him (he is a far better spinner than me). I was very proud – until the evening he told me to watch, skated a neat little bow and started spinning… clockwise! The bastard. Few skaters can spin both ways. Now he is learning to jump with alternating spins. He is still not confident with these jumps, but I think by next season he’ll be ready to include them in his program.

The third or fourth time we spin we get the timing wrong, we bump knee against knee and that’s it – we land on the ice. We howl with laughter, exchange a few pleasantries Plisetsky style, the word ‘moron’ featured in abundance, get up and start again.

God, what fun we’re having!

Then we start on pair camels. We meet, skating in opposite directions, again. Each of us stretches so that we are belly to belly. Yuri presses his cheek to my knee, I to his, each of us holding to the other’s blade. We spin as long as we can. Then Yuri curls into a sit spin, turning far faster than I do, and when he rises, we smoothly pass into an reverse configuration: I am spooning him, the skates on our raised legs parallel, his below mine. One of my hands rests on his hip, the other is outstretched. Yuri reaches to it and our fingers interlace. With my arm offering him purchase, he curves his spine so that anyone watching us would think that the top of his head is wedged under my chin and his butt is pressed to my groin (they aren’t, but this is how it looks like from a distance). He closes his eyes. He never fails to smile at this point. He is irresistibly sexy when he does it. Sometimes I kiss him mid-spin.

Okay, these spins are a bit filthy. When mixed couples perform similar figures, you have to have a truly dirty mind to imagine anything indecent. But when two men do it, you cannot help it. Just think: he in a Biellman (yes, he can do it), me in a layback? An arabesque spiral, performed very close? Yeah. Our pair sit spins are even worse. It’s not that we do anything; it’s all in the beholder’s head. But one day we recorded ourselves and later, when we were watching it, even we looked at each other with raised eyebrows.

‘Victor…’ Yuri hesitated. ‘Are we sure we want to show this?’

‘Why shouldn’t we? Come on, this skate is going to be good.’

‘I don’t know…’

‘Yuri, please. I kissed you on TV. We pair-skated a show performance, the first ever men to do so. We’ve been seen together, very together, for a year. I chased you all the way to Japan, for heaven’s sake! Do you really think anyone has any doubts if we’re lovers?’

In the end, I persuaded him. We decided not to change one figure.

When we’ve had enough of spinning, we start on the closing section of the pair-skate. For this, we switch on the music and the mood changes.

We exchange a serious look. We skate to the far ends of the rink. I nod at him and start skating towards the centre. So does he. This part is not yet integrated into what comes before, we just have to meet in the middle of the rink, slightly to my right, skating at the correct speed.

Just before we collide, he jumps towards me. I catch him and I use his momentum to spin around my axis and turn him in the air so that we both face forward. I lift him up. He flings back his proud head, his raven hair blown away from his face. I carry him high for all to see. He is the best, the most wonderful, and this is where he should be – high above, supported by me, admired by everyone.

This is the way a warrior raises his banner.

I put him down on the ice. We spin, shift, he takes the lead. He has me lean on his arm in a deep dip. I lie back, trusting the safety of my body to the strength of his. I spread my arms, holding on to nothing. I curve my hands so as to show my open, defenceless palms. My hair almost brushes the ice. I close my eyes. I feel like I’m flying. He has control.

To do such a thing, on hard ice, moving at a considerable speed, requires skill. This we have. We did a lot of training for this. But it also requires a will to surrender and a total reliance on the man you surrender to.

And I do it easily and with pleasure. Because I, Victor Borisovich Nikiforov, a man who all his adult life preferred to walk alone, have completely given myself to another. I entrusted my love, my life, everything that I am, to him and I have no doubts.

This is the way a warrior trusts his king.

He leans over me, tilting his head as if he were about to kiss me, and helps me back to vertical. As I straighten up, he leaves me, skating backwards, his gesture enticing me to follow. I chase him, our fingertips touch and we exchange, now me leading the way, him following. Like in life, each offering his strength to help the other forward.

We come together, for a split second skating in an embrace, his head on my shoulder. Then we separate, spin individually and turn back towards each other. He jumps up, I lift him high, his hips to my chest, and we spin together, lost in each other’s eyes.

Finally I set him back on the ice, he throws his arms around my neck and we finish with an element which, alas, we will never include into a program, that is, a deep kiss. The only reason being, of course, that it goes against all the rules. After the finale the skaters are supposed to freeze motionless, not grind groin against groin, rove each other’s backs with their hands and suck on each other’s mouths as if the world was just about to end.

We have always wondered what it would take for us to come while skating, but we haven’t got to discovering this yet. Coming right after skating, well, we are close.

After a very, very long while we uncouple. Yuri lets out a triumphant shriek. Echo answers him all around the empty rink. We exchange a final kiss, an entirely innocent one this time, and turn to exit the ice.

This is when, high up the passage between the seats, we see Grisha’s retreating back.

God knows what he was thinking, coming to the rink so late at night. Or maybe he came earlier and just did not leave with the others. He might not even have known we’d be here. We have no idea how long he watched us; but this does not matter. He had seen enough.

He had seen two young men in love, being playful with each other while doing what they do best in the world. And then being passionate – while doing what they do best in the world. He would have to be dumb to think there was even a shadow of discord between them.

This was the last time we saw him. Other events intervened soon after and there were no more opportunities to meet. He died suddenly, of a heart attack, about two years later.

Katsuki and Nikiforov still skate together.

Chapter Text

And so, after a long and eventful struggle, we are standing side by side on the podium and I finally know what I have long suspected: that to lose to him feels better than winning. I put my arm around his waist and the audience goes wild. By now, everyone knows. Not everyone approves, of course, but this truly doesn’t matter. Here, on the ice, we are the precious couple, the golden boy and the silver man.

I lean to him – we are equal in height up here, although he is half a head shorter than me – and I whisper, ‘Can you imagine, can you just imagine, what sex we are going to have tonight?’

Yeah, he can, judging by the blush that instantly engulfs his face and spreads down to his neck and even to the sliver of breast that shows in the neckline of his costume (my design, and a good one, too). God, don’t I love that blush. He is still so innocent, bless him. He goes rosy at the thought of sex even though it’s over a year now that we’ve been very active lovers.

On that note: I adore making love to him. Always have, always will. That’s final. For while Yuri on ice is magnificent, Yuri on fire is divine. Yet I could have one more wish, if that’s not asking too much; I’d like to entice him to do to me what I’ve been doing to him so regularly.

I used to be worried about us switching. I used to feel that if any memories of Grisha Kamyshkin came to my mind in this context, it would be very unfair to the far less experienced, far more delicate Yuri. But my fears disappeared after those few days when Grisha forced himself on our life. There’s no way now I could avoid thinking about him – and I don’t care. I want to enjoy bottoming for Yuri, that’s all. But Yuri is still discovering his preferences and I’m not sure he’d be interested; he is a very enthusiastic bottom himself. One can only hope. Maybe some opening will present itself to broach the subject.

In any case, I’ve been looking forward to the ending of this wonderful day; but the competition must have taken more out of me than I expected, I am close to thirty, after all, not young anymore for a skater, and as the night comes I doze off, listening to the by now familiar sounds of him tending to his national obsessions in the bathroom.

***

He takes a quick shower and stretches on the bed. I take much more time in the bathroom, as usual; this, for some reason I do not entirely understand, always amuses him. I stand under the hot shower, whistling Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat major. I stretch, getting rid of the tension, and the realisation finally hits me. I have won and what lies there, on my night table, is the gold medal. And the best part of it all is that Victor seemed genuinely delighted to have been beaten by me.

As we were giving the first, spontaneous interview, he talking to the reporters in his native Russian, fluent English and passable French, me dealing with the Japanese ones, someone asked him, ‘Being his former coach and his’, here a quick glance at our intertwined hands, ‘friend, have you ever considered going easy on Mr Katsuki as his rival?’.

The question was good, they all pricked their ears. Victor smoothly replied, ‘This would have been an insult to his quality as a skater and as a man’. Then he masterfully held a pause and concluded, ‘No, gentlemen, it seems that I have met my match’.

The double meaning was not lost on anyone but me; I caught it only later, watching the TV footage.

‘Now that you’ve come second, are you thinking of retiring?’ they pressed.

‘Out of the question! This champion needs me breathing down his neck.’

As above. Only here I got suspicious, because they all giggled. I raised my eyebrows at him and precisely at that moment someone snapped my picture. Katsuki Yuri, the world men’s singles skating champion, looking at his friend and mentor with an expression of indignant ignorance; everybody has seen it.

And then, as we stood on the podium, he circled my waist with his arm, which embarrassed me, because I am far less demonstrative than he, but also thrilled me, because there are so many men who wouldn’t do such a thing in public and mine does, and whispered in my ear, ‘Can you imagine, can you just imagine, what sex we are going to have tonight?’.

Oh yes, I could. My knees went weak and I had to lean on him for support, otherwise I would have fallen off the podium. The audience erupted with shrieks and applause. They seem happy that I have stolen this silver-haired Russian prince.

By the way, poor Yura, betrayed by his growing body, did not get to that podium with us; Chris did, a cause of much giggling over men’s figure skating being taken over by gays. And, of course, he couldn’t resist making a none-too-subtle remark about a threesome being written in the stars.

‘No such thing is written anywhere, Giacometti,’ growled Victor. ‘Stay away!’

‘Er,’ I volunteered shyly. ‘If he promises to behave, we can let him watch.’

They both turned to me with dropped jaws. I barely managed to keep a straight face.

‘He has much to learn. But a three-men skate… Sounds fun. Oh, there’s Yura! Excuse me a sec, will you,’ I chirped.

‘Did he just…?’ I heard behind me as I turned.

‘No, he didn’t!’ There was a faintly hysterical note in Victor’s voice. ‘He meant on the ice!’

I just walked on, grinning from ear to ear, very proud of myself.

And now, as I stand under the shower, I know that ‘what sex…!’ is exactly what we are going to have very soon. I feel my cock rise and then – then all of a sudden I wonder how it would be… what it would feel like… to take him the way he usually takes me.

I am taken aback by this thought. I have never imagined myself doing this. I am hardly able to believe that in the course of a few months Victor has transformed me from a blushing virgin to a, well, perhaps not a sex demon, but a very happy and reasonably adventurous lover, and I have always envisaged him as the mentor, me as the apprentice. I let myself be guided by him and I love it. So wherefrom this…?

I exit the bathroom, all excited and slightly apprehensive, and I see him lying on the bed – asleep. Oh…? I don’t feel disappointed, just concerned about him. He must have been more tired than he let out. He is getting on thirty and he’s been saying he’s beginning to feel it. Still, he looks great. The light plays on the perfectly toned muscles of his back and his long thighs are iron-hard; trust me, I know. Only his feet are bruised; but then, so are mine.

His hair is greyer now than when he first came to Japan. He says he was born dark-haired, but started going grey before he was a teenager; it’s a genetic flaw of some kind (a flaw? – please!). By forty he will be as white as snow on Fuji-san and I know I want to see this, by which I mean, to still be with him then. And later too, if all goes well; my whole life. But this stretch of time is far too long to think about. My worries are more immediate.

It’s not that we need a condom; we don’t use them, never have. He had himself tested before our first time and I, well, I was a virgin. Then soon after the Grisha episode we had a heart-to-heart talk one evening on the subject of ‘men, women and sheep’ (this, despite my protests, has evolved into a standing joke; no wonder, really, since those protests were entirely false, meant only to make Victor laugh) and we both agreed that we want to stay faithful to each other. Sometimes… sometimes I feel as if we were… married.

Aw, Katsuki, your thoughts are babbling. Are you that nervous? Get a grip on yourself, man. Or, better still, get a grip on your man’s cock and… Well, give your all to pleasing him.

I sit beside him on the bed. When he is asleep, I can gaze at him to my heart’s content. When he’s awake, I try not to. I’d be embarrassed if he knew how mindlessly I adore his body.

Oh damn, no, I can’t keep my hands off him. That I am allowed to touch this pale-rose skin, tangle my fingers in this moonlight hair – yeah, it’s been a year and I am still finding it nothing short of miraculous. I stroke him lightly, so as not to wake him, from the nape of his neck all the way down his back. I lean down and kiss him on a smooth, hard buttock. He shifts a little and my breath catches. The thoughts I had in the shower come back. My cock stands erect and ready, but I – no, I don’t think I am ready.

And yet… I eye a small, exquisite tea bowl standing at the bedside. It is a celadon, over five hundred years old. Victor bought it at an antiques dealer in China for an extravagant sum of money and since then it’s been travelling with us, nestled in its own wooden box. It is filled with oil. I dip my fingers in it.

I know what I want to do, but I fear he will feel annoyed or offended. That I never asked if he would at all consider allowing me… I just assumed… I should have asked.

***

I wake up feeling him sit beside me on the edge of the bed. Thirty or not, lying naked on my belly I know I still look good; lean and muscular. I’ve let my hair grow a little longer. No more ponytails for me, though, I leave these to the young bloods. I wear it cut to just below my jaw, going asymmetrically to short at the back. Yuri finds the naked nape of my neck very sexy for some reason, so I’m trying to show it to him as much as I can.

He cannot resist it this time, either, for I feel the lightest of brushes against the stubble of freshly trimmed hair. A shiver runs down my spine. I find it hard to stay still. He strokes me all the way to my butt. Was that a kiss? I shift my thigh slightly and I hear him gasp. Well, an opening has presented itself, I guess. Let’s see if he answers the invitation.

His finger circles the said opening, as if hesitating whether to enter, and if yes, then what to do next. He should know, damn it, all the innumerable gods of his country bear witness I have shown him often enough.

Turns out he does. His fingers slide in and I exhale soundlessly, my desire rising. Soon I can’t go on pretending I’m asleep, I am moving my hips, pressing into his hand, breathing hard.

***

I slide my fingers into his smooth, tight heat. The feeling is sweet and it takes me an effort not to moan. I think of how he caressed me on our first night, making me ready for him, and I try to do the same to him. He needs this; he hasn’t had a cock in him for at least as long as I know him, two years, maybe more. So I take my time. And he, oh, he is not asleep! – for he pulls himself up to his elbows, his back curving in a breathtakingly beautiful line, and he presses his buttocks to my hand. His breath grows ragged.

I kneel beside him so that, if he lets me, I can take him from behind.

‘Victor?’ I ask. If he doesn’t like what I’m doing, now is the time for him to tell me.

But he murmurs something that is definitely not an objection.

***

He whispers my name. It is a question. It better not remain unanswered or he will shy away. I murmur my assent and I feel his body shift. He is uncertain again, awkward, but I feel the pressure of his cock and I curve my back so as to let him slide in smoothly. It hurts a little; it’s been a long time. But soon the pain’s gone and all that remains is need.

His first moves are tentative, as if questioning the correctness of what he does, but he lets his desire guide him and soon finds his rhythm. I give in to him and it feels heavenly.

***

I hesitate, I nearly back away, but he helps me, shifting a little, I push against him and I feel him yielding. And then I am inside him. Not that difficult, after all.

I rock into him slowly, exploring the new sensations. Slick. Searing hot. Tight. Tighter than I expected, but… Um, no, this is not unpleasant. In fact, it feels… heavenly. Is this how I am to him? Then – wow, I’m beginning to understand his eagerness for me. And his delight at discovering how willing I am. For I am, always. I’ve never yet told him no and I don’t think I ever will. Because what he does to me is a miracle, every time.

I would so much like to make this nice for him, too, but… Do I know how? He is very experienced and I’m so green. I give a quiet moan, half of pleasure, half of panic.

And in answer I hear a tremulous ‘oh yes!’ from him and suddenly a change comes over me and I realise that I’m wrong, because no, I’m not green at all; I had a skilled teacher. And this is not an exam. Victor knows this is my first time. And I know his rhythms as well as I know mine.

I give him a long, slow thrust. He grips the pillow and arches to me, pushing his butt into my hips, taking me deeper. His body seems to welcome me. Can it be… Can it be that he was ready for me, too? Is it possible that he actually… wanted this? I have no way of knowing. We’ve never talked about it. So perhaps he is just indulging me. This may be a one-off favour.

And if so; if this experience is not to be repeated; then this is not the way I want it.

I squeeze my cock at the base and I slowly move back.

***

I feel him withdrawing. No! Why…? Is he not enjoying this? I’m ready to beg him to at least try. I want him in me so terribly.

I whimper a wordless question.

‘Turn round,’ he tells me.

My breath catches. I did not expect a command. I obey at once.

***

He complies. Our sportsmen’s bodies move easily, fluidly. We are, after all, in top form today, the proofs of that glinting on our tables.

I look down at him.

His eyes are almost black, the pupils so dilated that only a narrow ring of blue is showing. His lips are parted, glistening, for he has just licked them; nervously, I think, since there is a shadow of worry in his face. I guess he is not sure why I pulled out.

The reason is, I want to watch him. I want to see his face as he takes my thrusts.

I put my hands on the inside of his knees and slowly slide them down, opening his thighs. My hands meet on his balls, caressing their taut roundness. He mewls pleadingly. I reach for the oil in the ancient celadon. Look, sweetheart. Does this make my intentions clear?

The ring of his muscles contracts around my fingers, as if wanting to suck my hand in. His eyes are locked on mine, an almost painful wrinkle between his eyebrows. His hair shines like burnished silver. Fine blue veins stand out against his pale breast.

He is beautiful. And he is mine.

***

He kneels between my thighs. He caresses me with his gaze.

Oh, Yuri. Oh, please, keep looking at me. Don’t take your eyes off me.

He begins to caress me with his fingers, too. He is watching me yield to his touch. There is a hint of self-ironic amusement in his eyes. I know this face; he is having a quiet, cerebral, tightly controlled good time. This tells me that everything is fine and that yes, I am getting what I so desperately want.

His fingers are firm and deft; but soon they are just not enough.

‘Yuri! Please!’ I spread my thighs wider. My body is crying for his.

He throws me a crooked, roguish smile.

‘Whatever you want, it is yours,’ he answers with playful courtesy.

‘There is one thing.’ I cast a meaningful look at where his cock is straining for me, its head smooth and glistening. He chuckles.

‘Then take it!’

His hand goes to his shaft. It is long and nicely thick, eloquently belying the common belief about the Asians, and it is slightly curved, so that I have more than once greeted it with an allusion to a katana sword; this embarrasses him terribly, he says that his family have never been samurai, not that mine were anything else than workers, I am Russian, for God’s sake, and yet he calls me ‘my prince’ sometimes, so I really don’t know what his problem is.

I open myself to him and I feel his hard length filling me again. He is much more decisive now, and yet it doesn’t hurt at all. I’m so ready, so ready for him! A surge of intense need crashes over me and I react with a cry. I am taken aback for an instant, as normally I am not very vocal in bed, but he allows me no time for thinking. He sets us a rhythm, his thrusts infuriatingly slow, a sweet torture, and oh, this is unbelievable, I must… I must… tell him…

‘Oh, yes. Oh, Yuri, yes. Oh, yes.’ My breathless affirmatives soon change into moans.

He leans over me, his lips just above mine, drinking my crazed sounds straight from my mouth.

***

He opens himself to me. He is eager, almost impatient. I enter, not needing any help this time, and I feel him giving in to me. I push my hips against him, driving my cock deep into his body, and soon he begins to moan.

I lean over him. He arches up. Before long he greets each of my thrusts with a shout and I can feel him getting higher and higher. The sounds of his ecstasy drive me crazy.

Well, then, it’s time to slow down; otherwise this game will end far too soon for my liking. I want it to last. Even though I’m beginning to have a feeling that this is not going to be a one-off episode; not if I have any say in it.

‘Come to me, lyubimyi.’ I stretch my arms out to him.

He chuckles. I was not careful and my attempted l came out as my usual Japanese r. Still, I know he loves it when I call him that, the first endearment he has ever used to me. He was surprised to learn I remembered it. But how else, Vitka? I remember most things you say. I’m still gathering memories for the time after you leave me, my love.

Although… frankly… less than before.

I help him rise. I sit back on my heels. I find this position comfortable; no wonder, this is the seiza, I’ve been sitting like this most of my life. He is kneeling astride my thighs, my cock firmly inside him, his trapped between our bellies. He is panting.

‘Tired?’ I enquire with exaggerated concern.

His eyes widen in pretended indignation.

‘Who, me?’ He tries to get his breath under control. ‘Not at all.’

‘Oh? Then forgive me, I’ve been remiss. Let me improve.’ I give him the first thrust in this new position, my thighs offering me leverage.

He gasps and I see him bite on his lower lip, hard. I freeze.

‘Hurts?’ I ask, now genuinely worried. I touch his mouth, freeing his lip from under his teeth, but it’s obvious it is not this orifice that I’m asking about.

‘No, no.’ He buries his face in my shoulder. ‘Good, this is good.’

I give him a controlled push.

His hand clenches on my hair. This, actually, does hurt; but it is a nice pain.

This is one of the many things we’ve learnt about each other in the past months. I love kissing, but I’m nothing compared to Victor; this man would sell his soul for kisses. He likes to make love in a very slow rhythm, at least at the beginning. And I like it hard, even rough at times, and I don’t mind a little pain. This discovery surprised Victor at first, but – let’s put it this way: he adjusted admirably. So we have our moments of tenderness and our moments of roughness, too, and we spend an inordinate amount of time kissing.

I’m holding him in my arms, loving him at an unhurried pace, and he celebrates his pleasure, singing it out to me in moans and cries. His body dances over me.

I feel a slight shift in his tempo. I adjust to it. He almost sobs. We are both dancers, essentially, and the sharing of rhythm is important to us.

‘How do you… How do you know… what I need… so well?’

The question is rhetorical, I think, but I know the answer nonetheless. The rhythm which his body dictates is as obvious to me as any rhythm that I hear. But this is not a time for explanations.

‘Because you’re music to me,’ I say instead and he whimpers in answer.

I smile inwardly, considering the difference between our inner melodies. My tempo is always faster than his. I wonder if this is noticeable on ice. Especially when we skate together. I raise a mental eyebrow. I think it can be shown. An idea worth exploring.

I feel ready for a change. Holding him securely, I lean him backwards. This impales him on my cock. I keep rocking into him. I feel the muscles of my thighs straining against the weight of his body. It is a very pleasant sensation.

‘Aah, Yuri,’ he groans. ‘You’re so deep in me. S-so deep.’

‘I am,’ I answer huskily. ‘But I’m not done with you yet. I’ll be deeper.’

‘Oh yes, yes,’ he agrees, blushing. The colour goes all the way down to his breast, washing his nipples in a rosy glow.

An image forms in my mind. A tea bowl, left to stand on the edge of a tea-house balustrade, the ceremony long ended, the dawn turning into daylight. It is not made of rough stoneware, as most of our Japanese ones are; it is a Chinese bowl. It is white, translucent. The rising light shines through it, turning its colour warm like flesh. The exquisite glaze has one small blemish, which only highlights its perfection.

This is what Victor’s skin is like. Finest porcelain lit by the first rays of the morning sun. With a single birthmark just below his collarbone.

This image almost does it for me. I fight for control.

Victor makes it worse.

‘Yuri, please, come!’ he begs. ‘Come in me!’

‘Not yet,’ I answer through clenched teeth. ‘Not yet.’

He throws his head back, the line of his throat and jaw perfect, and leans even farther away from me, supporting his weight on his arms, allowing me full sight of his taut body. Oh, good! While he is busy enjoying his pleasure, I can admire him as much as I want to.

His legs are open, the tendons in his groin stretched. A thick blue vein runs along the underside of his cock. I smile inwardly, remembering how I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first saw his erection. To think I was actually scared! (Although not for long.) Now his cock is familiar and much appreciated. Below I see his balls, my own, far less impressive cock lodged inside him, and my thighs offering support to his butt.

He has grown very muscular training for today’s effort (by which I mean the finals, not being fucked by me). His muscle-to-fat ratio is ideal, in no small measure due to the diet he’s been made to keep by his concerned boyfriend. A line of hair leads from his navel down to his grey-haired bush; yeah, he is grizzled there, too, which would be funny if it weren’t so adorable.

Er, by the way: his facial hair is grey as well. This is why he is always so clean-shaven.

I confess I have suggested to him that, being our skating community’s respected elder, he should grow a long white beard. He did not find this idea attractive for some reason. I can’t think why. He’d look spectacular. Especially with the beard flapping behind him as he skates.

I feel laughter bubbling inside me, a happy, carefree laughter that I came to know only when I came to know Victor. He taught me to laugh with all my heart. But is it ethical to be laughing at my sweetheart while making love to him? I should seriously consider this issue.

This is when I realise, with something of a shock, what is different tonight (apart from the obvious). It is this: when Victor is making love to me, I lose myself in the exquisite sensations so completely that I am barely conscious. And now he is the one who is lost; whereas I have the time to watch, to appreciate, to laugh and… to think.

He, too, is amazingly altered. Usually he is dynamic, very often playful, and his eyes glitter with energy. He laughs, he teases, he talks nonsense. Now his eyes are heavy, his gaze turned inward. He is subdued, ready to yield to me, quick to respond with smiles, gasps, blushes. All in all, a total darling, the sweetest mochi. I make a mental note to kick myself, hard, as soon as I’m free to do so. Because we’ve been together for more than a year and it is only now that I got round to discovering this side to his character. Katsuki, you absolute moron, why, why haven’t you asked him to switch earlier?

I didn’t know what I was missing, that’s why. And it never occurred to me that either of us might want it. I’m getting a very thorough lesson to the contrary, however, and from now on I’ll know better.

I am used to sitting seiza, I could stay like this, laughing at him, loving him, forever. But I realise that it is my responsibility now to retain the vestiges of reason; this position, although most enjoyable for both of us, puts a strain on Victor’s knees. He confirmed today that he was not retiring, he’ll need them in the days to come; and they are in a bad condition. He already has an operation scheduled.

So I bring him back up, close to me, I embrace him securely and I rise. He clings to me like a monkey. I lay him on the bed. Our bodies are so used to moving in synch that when he stretches out, my cock is still firmly inside him.

He wants to wrap his legs around my hips, but I anticipate his move and I’m quicker. I press one of his thighs to the sheets with my knee, I slip an arm around the other, I catch his ankle and give a push with my shoulder, spreading him wide. His eyes fly open in surprise.

‘Yuri!’

‘I believe you were asking for this, my prince,’ I smile, giving him time to adjust to my length. For I am in him to the hilt, he lies helpless, locked underneath me, and now – now I can ride him whatever way I want.

***

He rides me hard, oh God how hard he rides me! His every stroke sends a bolt of pleasure tearing through me. I begin to yelp, my own voice sounding strangely high in my ears. He lets out a shout. He freezes for a moment. When I open my eyes and look at him, he gives me a powerful thrust. And this sends me over the edge.

I forget all considerations. I lose control. I scream, I howl, I writhe in ecstasy. Because, Yuri, Yuri, I’ve never been fucked like this in my life! Yuri, yes! Yuri, more! Yuri, aah! I’m not even sure if I’m telling him all this as he thrusts into me relentlessly, without end.

Then I remember and I shout, ‘Motto! Yūri, motto!’, one of the very few Japanese words I can say with a perfect accent. This drives him wild; he rises, holding my hips, and rides high above me, a young god.

And then he comes. I feel his spasms inside me.

He looks at me, his eyes vast, leans down, reaches for my cock, and this is all I need, I arch up to him and I come, crying out, feeling my sperm splash against my breastbone.

He waits until I am nearly through to the other side. Then makes a low sound, almost a growl, and pushes against me one last time, driving from me one last moan.

***

I lose the sense of time. I honestly cannot say how long I ride him; it seems like ages of pure, incandescent pleasure.

He is straining underneath me, shuddering, tossing his head. His teeth are bared, his sounds feral. I can’t believe it. Is this my Victor, who once told me he was not a noisy lover? He screams like tomcat, he caws like a crow. Then, suddenly, he begs, ‘Motto, Yūri, motto!’, his Japanese clear, flawless.

And at that, I am ashamed to say, I lose all control. I slam into him, giving him more, more, just as he asked, and I get carried away by the rhythm and the incredible sensation of his tightness around my shaft. I feel my pleasure mounting, I stretch up, lifting him by the hips, and a moment later I am shouting, coming deep inside him. He is taking all that I give him, his body rigid.

I look down at him. His eyes are wide, expectant. I know what he needs. And now I am ready to give it to him. I reach for his cock and soon he arches up to meet me and comes, his sperm splashing up all across his belly. He is riding his orgasm and I watch him.

When his fire begins to subside, I answer his cries with a low sound and I push against him once more, just for the feeling of completion.

As I leave him, he squeezes his thighs firmly together. His mouth is open, his breath coming in gasps. A great shudder runs through him. After that, his body relaxes.

***

I am slowly coming back to reality. He is lying stretched beside me, propped on an elbow.

‘Are you okay, Victor?’ he asks with obvious concern. Yeah, that’s my Yuri all right; a moment ago he nearly killed me with bliss and now he is asking if I’m ‘okay’.

‘You tell me,’ I retort, opening my eyes. ‘You’re the victor now.’

By now he knows me better than to feel perplexed, or hurt, by my sudden swipe. He is easy with my mood swings. And he never fails to disarm me. He just smiles that incredibly soft smile of his.

‘We are both victors,’ he says, his eyes liquid.

This is all it takes; I go all squishy inside.

Yes; yes we are. I in name, he in fact. He has vanquished me completely, this amber-eyed Eros. And in so many ways. What has just happened being one of them. For this was the first time I opened myself to the man I love. And the first time I totally lost my mind.

In the past, as I bottomed for men whom I desired, I never relinquished control. Some part of me was always watchful, wary, ready to withdraw, not physically perhaps, but mentally. I was my own man. Now I am his. And with him, there’s no distrust, no restraint. I can surrender. I have nothing to fear.

I reach up to stroke his cheek. My fingers are trembling. I’m gloriously exhausted.

‘Yuri-chan…’ I say quietly. ‘I feel so good. I wanted this so much. You are… you are amazing.’

He blushes and shakes his head.

‘Hold me,’ I ask. I feel so sweetly defenceless. I need his arms around me.

He embraces me with tender eagerness. I feel his hands curving to cradle my head. He strokes my temple with his thumb. He leans down to my mouth.

These are not the gestures of someone who has sacrificed his own comfort for the sake of his lover’s satisfaction! It seems this insanely sexy man has found me pleasing. My body sings with joy. For this means there will be more nights like this. More of these wild feelings.

My God, what a lover he is! He has more stamina in bed than on ice, and that’s saying a lot. And more control over his body than I would have thought possible. He is commanding and incredibly strong. He knows what he wants and he does not hesitate to take it. I seem to have discovered a very assertive side to my gentle Yuri. And I am so looking forward to exploring it! We must make up for the time we lost. We could have learnt to switch weeks, maybe months ago if I had not been afraid. I was so stupid. What did I fear? Only now do I realise that his love has exorcised all my memories.

So one day I am going to ask him, no, to beg him, to ride me like this again. And I will again feel privileged when he does.

Oh God.

I’ve just realised… Will I have to lose another gold to him to earn this?

***

I stretch beside him, propped on one elbow to look at his perfect face. He is lying inert, his profile sharp, clear, a rosy glow on his skin. A smile is playing around the corners of his mouth and no, he does not seem unhappy; but even so I ask ‘Are you okay, Victor?’ just to make sure. He opens his eyes.

‘You tell me,’ he says tartly. ‘You’re the victor now.’

There was a time when I would have taken this for a rebuke; I would have started apologising. Now I only smile at him, allowing him his momentary escape into sarcasm. He needs it sometimes and I’ve learnt to enjoy his caustic wit.

‘We are both victors,’ I correct him gently.

He nods, thoughtful now, and reaches up to stroke my cheek. I notice that his hand is trembling. Is it because he was gripping the sheet so hard? I hope I’ve not hurt him. He would have told me if I were hurting him, right? He wouldn’t have endured pain just to let me enjoy myself?

But one look at him tells me that my worries are groundless. This is not the face of a man who has suffered discomfort for the sake of his lover’s pleasure.

‘Yuri-chan,’ he says quietly. ‘I feel so good. I wanted this so much. You are, you are…’ He always stammers a little when he is moved and I find it sweet. ‘Amazing.’

He is looking at me with such adoration that I am embarrassed. I’ve done nothing to deserve it. I just… I just… I shake my head mutely.

‘Hold me,’ he asks.

I should go bring a warm wet towel, get him clean, but… He looks so vulnerable. I put my arms around him, cradling his white head in my hands. All else can wait.

His hair is tousled. I stroke it smooth. He gives a purr. His eyes grow mellow, sleepy. He smiles up at me, I smile down at him. We exchange a kiss and we don’t need any words.

Soon after we snuggle to each other and I sigh contentedly.

I think I understand his desire now. I’ve discovered what he sees in me. Or rather, what he feels in me. I smile into his hair, for this pun is truly bad. But the fact is that I enjoyed the discovery. I enjoyed it, er, a lot. Which means that a whole new range of exciting games has just opened before us. I have some ideas that I… So yeah, tomorrow, and the next day, and for many days after I shall have him make love to me the way he always does. I like it far too much not to. But there will come a day when I will have him surrender to me again. I will caress him until he howls for more and then I will ride him long and hard, and he will love it.

Oh…

I’ve just realised. Will I have to win another gold for him to let me…?

Chapter Text

The shock of discovering yet again that we come from different cultures comes in the depth of winter. My birthday-and-Christmas present for Victor has arrived from Hasetsu and since he knows we’ve received a parcel from Japan and is looking forward to inspecting its contents, I have to implement a little ruse: I send him down to walk the dog, I open the parcel, get out the neatly wrapped packet, which I asked my mother to place on the very top, send it under the bed with a swift kick, and then, as I hear him enter the hall, I call ‘I’m cutting the parcel open, come see what we got!’ and rustle the wrappers a bit. Works fine.

Next day I hide the present in a place Victor is sure not to look in by accident, namely my suitcase on the top shelf of the hall wardrobe, and in the evening I approach him, wishing to find out how he envisages the day.

***

One evening my very own champion stretches lazily and says, ‘We must think of what we’re doing for Christmas. It’s only two more weeks’, and I answer, ‘It’s still a month, we’ve got time to think about it’ without a second thought. Then there is a moment of silence and we both sit up.

‘You mean… you don’t know?’ I say, utterly astonished.

‘No! What is it?’ I see him getting tense, almost panicky.

Because Yuri, you see, is a planner. He likes to know what is going to happen and while he can deal with a change of plan if he has to, he is always grouchy about it. He takes a surprise present or a surprise outing in his stride, but sudden alterations in schedule upset him. Events happening in the prescribed order give him a sense of security. Which, of course, makes him an expert thinker-forward and a brilliant organiser. And this is exactly what has me worried right now. He may have made some plans for Christmas and if they go awry, he will be unhappy.

‘In Russia we celebrate Christmas on a different day! In Japan, you have Christmas like the Catholics and the Protestants, on the twenty-fifth of December. And the Orthodox church keeps to the old calendar and has it on the seventh of January. The West changed its way of calculating dates sometime in the Middle Ages. I’m sorry, Yuri. It never occurred to me you might not know this.’ Then I get an epiphany. ‘Oh! That’s why last year you asked me if my birthday was on Christmas Day!’

‘You remember?’ He seems surprised. ‘I knew when your birthday was, of course. I was just trying to find out what you might like for a present. You were evasive.’

‘So you gave me the best one I’ve ever got.’ I kiss the ring I’m wearing. He smiles.

‘I hope you aren’t counting on another one this year.’

‘You’ve already given me another round and golden thing to kiss.’

‘How boring of me. But that was hardly a present. I took it away from you.’

‘In a fair fight. I’m happy to have lost it to you.’

This has never been a problem for us. We compete on the ice, fiercely so, but we don’t allow a sports rivalry to seep into our relationship. At home, we are friends and partners.

‘I’m honoured to have won it from you.’

My Yuri is the only person I know who can say such a thing and not sound ridiculous. Probably because he one hundred percent means it.

We’ve talked this over, slowly and with great deliberation. We defined for each other the fine but crucial difference between a competitor and a rival. We identified the line beyond which ambition turns destructive. We are both aware sports careers are short. We will be skaters – great skaters – for only a few more years (in my case: at best), while what we are building together is for… a longer time. Yuri concluded: ‘My medals are your medals’, and I said the same. And to this we hold. Competing is fine, it is a kind of a game between us, but to be resentful of my beloved man’s achievements? No, that would be sick.

Yuri opens his laptop and begins to search for the dates and the causes. Phew, we seem to have avoided a crisis. Soon he is digging through the internet, reading up on history. Not in the Middle Ages, but in the sixteenth century, he informs me. He is shaking his head. His face tells me he is thinking ‘Christians!’, because his expression of benign exasperation is similar to the one which means ‘Russians!’. Also in his repertoire there is the decidedly less kindly expression – which, admittedly, I have seen only a few times, always in the context of cleanliness – which means ‘Western barbarians!’. He is willing to cope with, even like, our food, drink and customs, but his standards of hygiene are strict.

Surprised at myself that I hadn’t considered this earlier, I am thinking how Christmas ought to look like in our household. Well, it will certainly have little to do with religion. I was brought up in a non-religious home and I’ve never given much thought to my convictions. Whether gods are real presences or social constructs is quite beyond me. I know I take God’s name a lot, but never in vain. I definitely don’t go in for organised religion. The tserkov doesn’t miss me, either. They don’t approve of men like me. To be frank, the main thing I admire about it – about all religions, really – is the architecture of temples. There is something about sacred buildings that fascinates me.

Yuri knows how to behave respectfully in a church, be it Orthodox or Western, and I bow politely to his gods. I don’t pray to them, but of one thing I’m certain and I am willing to fight the pope, the patriarchs, the bishops, the rabbis and the imams over it; namely, I don’t accept the idea of there being only one true god; whichever. I refuse to go along with the view that my Yuri is an idolater, foolish to believe in false gods.

So, on the whole, he is a very relaxed Shintoist and I guess I’ve become an agnostic polytheist with a very relaxed Christian slant. We don’t find any of it a cause for concern. But Christmas; well, this is different. Because what Christmas really is, when stripped of its religious content, is a celebration of togetherness at the bleakest time of the year.

This night I go to bed alone. Yuri stays in the kitchen and I hear him typing furiously. Next day he grabs Yura as the kid enters the rink and they both skate away. As I watch them surreptitiously, I see Yuri waving his arms explaining something and Yura first squealing with laughter and then grabbing at his mouth in disbelief. Yuri explains some more. Yura is obviously taken aback. He is scratching his head in a gesture of shocked indecision. Yuri grabs him by the shoulders. This must be serious; he is rarely so fierce. Yura squats on his heels and seems to be thinking. Yuri skates circles around him like an excited dog. Yura gets up and now he is talking and waving his arms. They seem to arrive at a consensus. And then they both throw a conspiratorial glance in my direction. The scheming weasels! I pretend I wasn’t looking at all.

A day or two later Yuri speaks over the phone in Russian, his da, da, kanyeshna enthusiastic, and he asks his interlocutor to speak slower, for he needs to take notes. When I look at him, he puts on an innocent face. I glance at his notes. They are in Japanese.

Yep, some plan is definitely brewing; and I’m being kept out of it.

***

Victor’s birthday comes and goes. It is a nice day, with an outing to a restaurant and a present which, although hastily thought up, is not thoughtless; I bought him cuff links of dark amber set in silver with a tiny gold detail. ‘You always say I have eyes this colour. So these are to remind you of me’, I said and he smiled, ‘I’ll always take them when I go to events without you. It will be enough to glance at them and I’ll know you’re with me’. The only sign that he is aware of a change of plans is his question, ‘Today is your Christmas, Yuri. Are you not doing anything about it?’.

‘We’ll call my family,’ I answer. ‘And answer a heap of e-mails from friends. Apart from that, no. Today is your birthday. Christmas is in two weeks’ time.’

‘When in Rome do as the Romans do?’ he asks. Then, seeing my face, he explains.

‘Yes. As long as I don’t have to get drunk on vodka,’ I laugh. He wrinkles his nose.

‘Do I have to?’ he asks worriedly and the issue of Christmas dissolves in happy banter.

***

The New Year’s Eve comes and goes. This is a big festival in Russia. In the evening we go for a walk, admiring the lights and mixing with the noisy crowds; but the night itself we spend at home, just the two of us and the dog, having a great time. We eat katsudon and wash it down with excellent champagne, laughing like crazy over the combination. I can’t believe it! I, who spent this night at some of the hottest parties in Russia and in some of the most exotic places worldwide, am content, no, happy, to stay at home with a boyfriend.

I can think of quite a few people who would not recognise in me the Nikiforov they used to know.

***

We buy and decorate a Christmas tree. It is as tall as me, so not very big, but it is very special; not only our first – and how I pray it may be the first of many! – but also Victor digs out a small box from the depths of his wardrobe and opens it with an odd expression on his face.

‘Here,’ he says. ‘Put them on the tree.’

I look in. The box contains some cheap baubles, a chain made of coloured paper rings, two pine cones painted gold, a few Christmas-tree toys. I can see they are made by hand, quite inexpertly but lovingly.

‘They haven’t been used for years,’ he says. ‘And I want you to put them up.’

I guess what these things are and I feel honoured.

***

Right after New Year Yuri gets busy. He disappears for hours and quite a lot of money has vanished from our joint account. The bank records show he spent it at various supermarkets, but also took out some cash. No problem, after the recent triumphs we can afford this; in fact, we could afford much more. But I can’t see any festive food in the house.

‘We’re going out,’ he says when I enquire as to why that is. ‘Make yourself useful,’ he adds and, ignoring my huff, hands me a shopping list. I stare at it, a little shocked, for it contains only alcohol. For at least four people, if I’m any judge. ‘You better take care the wines are good, or I’ll have words with you. The choice of vodka I leave to you.’

I put my liquid purchases in a sizeable cardboard box in the hall. Next day the box has disappeared. The venue for whatever is being planned remains a secret.

Another conversation in Russian. Yuri is arranging to meet someone. Addressing this mystery person he uses a respectful vy, second person plural.

‘I’m jealous,’ I inform him cheerfully.

‘The man is certainly worth it,’ he answers evenly. His eyes are glittering with mirth.

My Christmas present for him arrives by courier. I am relieved; I was getting worried if it makes it here on time. I discovered it for sale in Vladivostok, of all the places. It would have had a shorter journey to his home in Kyushu. Now I am worried that he may not like it or even understand what I’m trying to say by it. Frankly, I’m not sure I understand it myself.

Four more cardboard boxes first appear in our hall and then vanish from it. I swear I have no idea when that happened or who came to collect them.

Yuri is radiating an aura of calm enthusiasm. I discover, to my great astonishment, that I would have liked to be a part of his plan. It’s not that I resent him keeping me out of whatever he is doing with regard to Christmas – no, I’ve told him often enough that I love surprises, and I do; but it dawns on me that I would have preferred doing it with him. This would have been better than any surprise.

I find it disconcerting. No, I find it terrifying.

I love his company so much. He is such a constant discovery. He makes me happy. He makes me… whole. Maybe my dependence on him is unhealthy? Maybe I am constraining him? I hope he doesn’t think me domineering. He might be too kind to let me know he does. When he goes out without me, I keep worrying if he is safe. So maybe I am overprotective? I wouldn’t want that. On the other hand, am I making it clear I’m always there for him? I hope he knows he can always turn to me, with any question, any problem. And if the problem is of my own making, it is enough for him to tell me, I’ll fix it. I’ll do anything to please him.

The day he talked to that man whom he addressed so respectfully, I was shocked at the stab of fear I felt. I wasn’t jealous; that was a joke. But I glanced at the prospect that he might find someone else to… to hold dear, and it was like looking into the abyss.

I’ve never felt this way. I didn’t think it was possible.

This is, to be frank, my first serious relationship (good God, at thirty…). Sometimes I’m truly at sea. Yet I must, I must make it work. I can’t afford any mistakes. I can’t risk losing him. He is the air I breathe.

So yeah, back to the original question: maybe my dependence on him is unhealthy?

I whimper in anxiety. The dog looks at me with worried eyes.

***

Instead of rushing to greet me at the door, Victor hangs back. His expression is weird, half concern, half shame.

‘What is it?’ I ask, trying to conceal my alarm.

‘What? Nothing.’

‘Vitka…’ I say with just a hint of reproach.

‘No, really, nothing at all. I’m just being silly.’

Maccachin comes to sit at his feet. He seems distressed. I have long learnt to look at him to gauge Victor’s true mood. There seems to be a telepathic link between these two.

Okay, let’s try a different approach.

‘Vitka, can I ask you to do something for me?’

‘Sure!’ He seems to think he is off the hook. He isn’t.

‘Go to the window, right there. Look outside. And don’t move.’

I hurry to the kitchen, where there is a leftover half bottle of wine, I pour him a glass and myself a one-third of one, and bring them to the big room. I hand him his glass and stand so that we see each other as reflections in the darkened pane. Brings back memories.

‘I remember someone I like and respect saying that about problems we talk,’ I say. ‘I remember this someone being rather emphatic about it. I can see that you are worried. Please, tell me why.’

Victor covers his face with his palm and shakes his head.

‘Caught in a trap of my own making, I guess.’

 ‘So…?’

‘Yuri…’ he begins hesitantly. ‘You must know that I care about you very much.’

Oh, this is serious. I get even more alarmed. I hope… I hope he is not going to leave me just before Christmas. It would break my heart any day, but now it would be the worst.

‘But…’

So there is a ‘but’. Victor, please, no. No. Please, don’t leave me. Not today. Not ever. Please, my love.

‘But I am not very experienced at being a boyfriend.’

What?

‘I’ve never been in a relationship before.’

What?! Victor, have you gone mad? Six years with Grisha, do they not count? Your goodness knows how many lovers, they couldn’t have all been one night stands?

Something of my incredulity must show even in my reflection, because Victor quickly explains, ‘A relationship where I would care about, care about the man this way’, stammering with emotion as he always does. ‘And I wanted to ask you… Oh God, I really don’t know how to say this… Do you think I’m okay as a boyfriend? I mean, am I doing it right?’

‘Right?’

‘I mean… Maybe there’s something in me you don’t like. I could change. Just tell me. Maybe you find me clingy?’

‘Clingy?’ I don’t understand what this means. In fact, I barely understand what he’s saying, because I’ve gone dizzy with relief.

‘Like… Always wanting to be close to you. So that you feel… not free.’

‘Ah. Clingy. Yes,’ I accept the explanation.

‘I am? I thought so.’ Victor hangs his head. He looks like a scolded dog. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘No, no! I said, yes, I understand the word now. You, no, you’re not clingy. You like being with me. That’s not clingy. I like being with you.’

‘Really?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘And… I am not very reliable. Doesn’t that bother you?’

‘No. I never found you unreliable. Unpunctual, yes. But that’s okay. I got used to it.’

‘And you’re not unhappy? You don’t regret coming to Russia?’

I step away from him, leaving my glass on a convenient shelf.

‘Look at me, please.’ He complies, his face troubled. ‘Do I seem unhappy? I sing. I laugh aloud. I talk to people. I look them in the eyes. Well, more than before. I talk to them in a language that I am only learning. I am okay with my mistakes. I have friends. I am a, well, a rather good skater. And this is all because I know you’re right behind me.’

‘Are you sure? You’re not saying this just to cheer me up?’

‘Victor. Keep looking at me.’

He sighs.

‘I can’t take my eyes off you, zvezdochka, and you very well know it.’

I pirouette – I’ve had enough ballet practice to be able to do it nicely even without my skates on – and end up in a pose he can’t have forgotten, my right hand on my heart, my left stretched out towards him. There was a time when this gesture was full of yearning; what it conveys now is gratitude. And now I can say the words which I only thought when I was on the ice.

‘It’s all because of you.’

His smile could light up the whole city.

He takes my outstretched hand and leads me into a neat turn which I end pressed to his breast.

‘So… you are happy with me?’

‘The happiest.’

‘Yuri. My Yuri.’

He holds me close, his hand on my cheek, and I can hear his heartbeat.

***

I go to the kitchen, open a new bottle of wine and bring it through.

‘Come, sit with me,’ I say, going down on the floor. He joins me, giving my earlobe a quick nibble as he cuddles into the crook of my arm.

We sit in easy silence, backs against the couch, legs stretched out, sipping good wine, and we gaze at the Christmas tree.

Suddenly my heart overflows and I can no longer keep this inside me.

‘I love you very, very much, Yuri. And I want to ask you… When it gets possible, will you… Will you marry me?’

I am waiting, all a-quiver, for his answer.

But it is not coming.

It is not coming.

Oh God, I should have kept quiet. I shouldn’t have forced the matter of our not-quite-engagement into the open. Especially since we cannot marry, not really. I’ve spoilt it all.

‘I’m sorry,’ I whisper, hanging my head. ‘I guess that was stupid of me.’

And then, having looked down, I see his empty glass lying askew in his open hands. I turn to him and I see that his head is resting limply on my shoulder, that his mouth is half open and that his lowered eyelashes throw huge shadows on his cheeks.

He is asleep.

I burst into silent laughter. Because this is so hilarious. Here I am, proposing marriage to the love of my life – and the said love, instead of listening, enraptured, to my effusions (and then, hopefully, accepting my proposal with wild enthusiasm), is slumbering peacefully in my embrace. Serves you right, Nikiforov, for being selfish. You’re all excited over your feelings, while this poor kid is exhausted with doing whatever he’s doing to make Christmas nice for you. Think about him for five minutes, will you? And stop worrying without a cause. There is nothing, nothing that says he’s not happy. He is getting more self-confident, that’s all. Your sweet fawn is growing into a magnificent buck and you simply need time to adjust to this. No need to feel insecure. You can be proud it is happening; you had a hand in this. Just don’t do anything truly stupid and all will be well.

‘Consider this a rehearsal,’ I tell him. ‘Come, my future future husband.’

I take the glass out of his hands and lead him, sleepwalking, to our bed.

***

Next day he told me that I was even trying to help him as he undressed me and put me into bed, and that I was mumbling something in a friendly fashion, but I swear I don’t remember it. These Christmas preparations are hard work. Yura is a treasure, I would never have managed on my own. We are doing everything together and Yakov, by now aware of the plan, although not entirely delighted with it, is helping by cutting us some slack with our training.

‘You won’t get much better than you are now,’ he grumbles. ‘Which is mediocre.’

We just look at each other, thank him and run out. We are both excellent and we know it. I’m the world champion, for heaven’s sake, and as for Yura, all of the rink team may choke on the ice dust behind his skates (his words). With the exception of Victor, of course, but this the kid won’t bring himself to admit aloud. Let’s not be asking too much. He is aware of it.

Anyway, I wake up to find Victor beside me, propped on an elbow and looking at me with tender amusement. I stretch luxuriously, smiling up at him.

‘So, are you going to leave me alone all day today, too, lastochka?’ he asks. I nod. He sighs. ‘I’m glad it’s only three more days. Otherwise I’d wither and die here without you.’

We’ve been in each other’s company almost all the time for close to two years now, since the day he came to Hasetsu. We talk a lot. It feels so good to examine impressions, relate observations and test ideas against Victor’s quick, flexible mind. I got used to this constant sharing of thoughts. I feel myself a better person when I’m with him. So I’m trying to be with him as much as I can. I don’t see it as a problem. But this silly man, most probably feeling the same, thinks he’s clingy.

I come back to this as we sit at breakfast.

‘Vitka, can you promise me something?’

‘Within reason?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Then I promise.’

‘Great! Thank you.’

It takes him a while to comprehend that no more is forthcoming.

‘Er, Yuri? Can you please tell me what I got myself into?’

‘Cooking Christmas dinner with me next year,’ I grin. ‘Because, don’t get me wrong, I am having fun and it’s going to be fantastic, but… I miss you. So next time, may I do it not as a surprise for you, but with you? Together?’

And at that I see his eyes go clear, some anxiety seeming to heal in him.

***

The day before Christmas Day he’s off at eight. Things are obviously getting more hectic.

‘I’ll be back before four,’ he says. ‘Will you be at home?’

‘Yes. Where are you going?’

‘Not telling you.’ He kisses me on the nose. ‘You’ll find out tomorrow. And do you mind if I go out in the evening? People from my Russian class are meeting for a drink. Unless you’d like to come with me?’

‘Eh, no. I’ll stay.’

To be frank, I’d love to go. But, faithful to my private vow not to be clingy, I want to give him some time of his own, with his own friends. Only… pity it has to be tonight.

I am sad that he will leave me alone on Christmas Eve, but I can’t expect him to know that it is important; that this night families wait for the first star to shine in the sky to start rejoicing at the birth of Jesus. I mean, this is all very religious, but even my mother made a meatless supper that evening and we ate it together.

He returns as promised, carrying two huge bags. His hair smells of frying oil. He was cooking food. But where? I’m almost certain this damned imp Yura is involved. He goes into the kitchen and I hear some ordinary kitchen noises; a pot clangs, something sizzles. And soon after the house begins to smell the way it has never done before. I rush to the kitchen.

In a pot I find the thin borsch appropriate for Christmas Eve fast. The big pan holds a heap of dumplings stuffed with, I give a sniff, wild mushrooms. The small pan is covered. I peer inside. Slices of fried fish. I look into the fridge. A bowl of cooked vegetable salad. A bowl of beetroot salad. A tightly covered plate. I lift the cover. Herrings in oil! Another bowl. Shuba! My favourite! And, as an Asian touch, marinaded shrimps and a seaweed salad with sesame seeds. A bottle of white wine and even, wow, a quarter-bottle of vodka.

On the windowsill I see a spice cake, a heaped plate of poppy-seed cookies, a small bowl of hazelnuts and a large bowl of dried-fruit stew, and, the best of all, kutya. I inhale its honey scent and oh… It brings the memory of my grandmother. She used to live with us. It was she that looked after me; my mum worked long hours. She died when I was six. Life got more difficult after that. I was too young to know that her pension was a good part of our household’s income. All I knew was that I lost my best friend. I was so miserable that a few weeks later my mum took me to a rink. She thought skating would cheer me up. It didn’t; instead, it became my profession, my passion and my torment. It brought me much pain, much joy, and Yuri.

Through the door I see him laying the big table, not the small kitchen table where we usually eat. It is plain; austere really. We don’t have china for grand occasions, as many people do, special cutlery or glittering decorations. There is a white tablecloth, however, which I’m sure I never owned, and a single pine bough in a vase, and by the plates there are not only knives and forks, but also chopsticks, and as I look at it, I blink back tears.

I wish I could tell my mum she had a good idea.

He looks up and smiles at me. He is behaving as if nothing were out of ordinary, but he is wearing his favourite grey shirt.

‘Nearly ready. Food just needs reheating.’

I dash to him and give him a powerful hug.

‘Yuri! I never imagined…!’

He hugs me back and answers, the oddly logical non sequitur very much in his style, ‘I never imagined either. This was the best year of my life. Thank you.’

‘May it be the first of a lifetime together,’ I say quietly. ‘Am I allowed to help you carry the food through?’

‘As long as you don’t drop the beetroot salad on the floor. It’s my favourite.’

I know. He could eat beetroots every day. He told me he had never eaten them before coming to Russia. I couldn’t believe it; a whole life without beetroots? Unthinkable.

We raise a glass of vodka to each other (the rest of the bottle is for me, to go with the herrings) and sit down to supper.

‘Yuri, did you cook it all?’

‘Not alone, of course. But yes, I had a hand in all of these things.’

‘This fish, what is it? It’s delicious!’

‘It’s called sudak. I’m glad you like it.’

My God, how this boy has grown. He is still modest, but he has learnt to be proud of his achievements and to receive compliments in the spirit they are given. I remember a time when praise made him suspicious. He never really believed he earned it.

‘I have a present for you…’ I begin, but he silences me with a gesture.

‘Keep it until tomorrow!’

‘Fine. Why?’

‘Because you’re getting yours tomorrow. I don’t have it here.’

When we have eaten and cleared the table, I make coffee and we cuddle on the couch, each with a cup and a glass of wine. We feel homely yet festive. He tells me a story or two about his childhood Christmases and I relax enough to tell him about some of mine.

Around ten he checks a message on his phone, then he glances at me. He seems torn.

‘Go, Yuri, go,’ I wave him away. ‘I’ll walk the dog. Have a good time.’

‘Thanks. Don’t wait up, okay? I may be back late.’

‘Take a taxi home,’ I say with pretended unconcern. The extent to which I’m worried about his safety is ridiculous. Calm down, Nikiforov, he is twenty-five, he can take care of himself. He says you’re not overprotective, so don’t be.

‘I will.’

***

I told him the truth, I am meeting the people from the Russian course and we do share a quick drink; but this is not the purpose of the outing. Instead, we go to church for the Christmas Eve service. The teachers said we should see it, because it’s something else.

It is, indeed, amazing. The church is lit with a thousand candles, the gilding on altars glittering as their flames dance. The incense has a different, darker, more mysterious scent than the incense we use in Japan. And the singing is just incredible. I could listen to it all night.

Most of the congregation will, because I am told such services can last into the small hours of the morning, but I slip out soon after one o’clock. Two girls walk out just behind me, the quiet, serious Paola, who is Italian, and the petite, impish Ivanka, who is Czech.

‘Hey! Yuri!’ I hear them calling. ‘Wait!’

I turn round.

‘I’ve got something,’ says Ivanka, getting a flat, half-litre bottle from her bag. It is filled with an intensely red liquid, brighter than wine.

‘What is it?’

‘A fruit spirit. It’s called nastoika in Russian. My mum makes it herself. She visited me for Christmas and brought this. It’s made of raspberries. Wanna share?’

‘Sure!’

So we settle on the tall threshold of the side door of the church. The drink is wonderful – potent, I can feel it, but sweet and the taste of raspberries is very clear. The girls have taken me in the middle and soon they cuddle up to me for warmth. I put an arm around each. So, as I can’t reach for the bottle myself, they feed me the drink, carefully tipping it to my mouth. We banter, half in English, half in our still shaky Russian. We are in an excellent mood.

The bottle is empty, the clock has struck two and it’s time to say goodbye.

We rise from the threshold. I am pleasantly warm inside and I feel horny as hell.

‘I hope my boyfriend is not asleep yet. I could do with a cuddle,’ I say aloud. Then I realise what I have done. ‘Oops! This was meant to be a thought. Sorry!’ I cover my face with my hand. ‘What does your mother put into this?’

‘Magic,’ says Ivanka with a wink. ‘So you have a boyfriend, Yuri?’

‘Yeah,’ I beam. ‘A Russian.’

‘Lucky beast.’ She fails to specify if she means him or me. ‘Okay, let’s go before we freeze.’

We hug goodbye. Paola gives me a peck on the cheek. Ivanka stands on tiptoe, tilts her head a little and kisses me on the mouth.

‘Merry Christmas,’ she says. ‘Give our best wishes to your boyfriend.’

I give a little huff, not of shock, but the ‘ah, is that so?’ sort of huff. Then I lean down and return the kiss. Her lips are soft and I will always associate the smell of raspberries with kissing a girl. A funny feeling, to kiss someone who is smaller than me.

‘Merry Christmas,’ I say, keeping my voice husky. ‘I will. Give my regards to your mother. This was quite an experience.’

I bow to them and thus we part. The girls walk away and I, like a good boy that I am, do as I promised and grab a taxi.

On the way home I touch myself a little through my trousers, just to check. Yep, still horny.

I let myself into the building with the key, not the entry code, in order not to wake Victor up. Once I’m in the flat, my glasses mist up and I take them off, putting them on the little table in the hall. I do it sometimes, but not always. I smile at myself in the mirror and I draw my fingers through my hair, which must be slightly damp, because it stays back. The face that looks at me out of the mirror is the one I wear on the ice, my competition face, and I’m pleased with the sight.

I swear, all that happened afterwards was because I left my glasses behind and I slicked my hair back.

The side lamp in the big room is on. I look in, surprised, and I find Victor asleep on the couch, covered with a blanket and with the dog sprawled over his feet. He told me once he often used to sleep like this all night before I came, because, as he said, it was convenient and seemed ‘less final’, by which I guessed he meant it made him feel less lonely. Going to his big bed alone must have been getting hard on him. Good that I happened by.

I sit on my heels by the couch and I gaze at him. Asleep or awake, he is handsome. But his sleeping face is hard, almost severe, as if chiselled in stone. This is strange; most people’s faces relax in their sleep and he seems to be in pain. When his expression softens, I know he’s waking up.

And it is doing just that. He opens his eyes. Up close, I can see the threads of dark blue in the iris.

‘You were not supposed to wait up,’ I scold him.

‘I wasn’t, I just fell asleep. You look nice. Are you hungry?’

‘Very.’ I put my hand on his crotch and rub it through the blanket. The dog, poor thing, jumps off the sofa, by now used to the fact that his masters are constantly all over each other. ‘Have you anything there I can feed on?’

Victor chuckles. I can feel him getting hard.

‘Wow! Who are you and what have you done with my boyfriend?’

I know this phrase. He has used it before. But this time… I really have no idea what comes over me. It must be the magic Ivanka’s mother put into that spirit.

I rise swiftly and straddle him, with a knee on the couch and a foot still on the floor.

‘Oh, so you recognised me,’ I say, letting some coldness creep into my voice. ‘I’m impressed. I haven’t done anything with your boyfriend. I don’t know where he is.’

His eyes go wide.

‘Who are you?’ he repeats, taking up the game.

‘You should know. Here in the north you have those girl spirits who visit men to suck energy from them, no? Where I come from, we have girl and boy spirits.’

‘What are you?’

Suddenly I realise this is not entirely a game. Having just awoken, he is disoriented and this is a real question. Wow! Let’s see how far I can take it. I told him some of our tales. So I tilt my head, which I know alters the proportions of my face, and look at him sideways.

‘I am a fox.’

‘A kitsune?’

‘Well done, northerner! And the Japanese won’t tell you this, but some kitsune males just prefer to visit boys.’ I lick my lips, showing him the pink tip of my tongue.

I pull the blanket off him. His erection is clearly visible through his sweatpants. I rub my face against it. I start pulling his pants down. He is obviously not fighting this visitation, for he lifts his hips a little to help me. I uncover only as much of him as is strictly necessary.

His cock springs up. I look at it appreciatively. Then I sniff it daintily.

‘You smell na-i-su,’ I say, exaggerating my Japanese accent.

‘And you smell strange…’

It is, of course, the incense smoke clinging to my hair, but Victor has seldom gone to church, so he is not familiar with the scent. Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound.

‘It’s a perfume we kitsune wear not to frighten you humans. Otherwise I would smell of the otherworld to you,’ I purr. ‘And I don’t want you frightened.’ I give his cock a delicate lick. ‘I want you to feed me.’

I lick it again. And again.

‘Yuri!’

I stop and give him a stern look from behind his shaft.

‘Don’t call me that. I have no name in the human tongue. Now be silent. I’m hungry.’

I suck him hard. I keep watching him all the time, so when he happens to glance down, he meets my dark, intense gaze. He seems almost frightened. When he reaches to my head, presumably to press it down to his groin, I move back and bare my teeth in a snarl. I almost break into laughter seeing how fast he withdraws his hands.

Testing my luck, I shift a little to get better access, I reach with two fingers to that stretch of skin just below his balls – just there, no further – and rub it gently. This is an area of him I haven’t explored in any, well, systematic way. I let him do anything he wants with my body – he has never hurt me, I trust him absolutely and, more to the point, he is a fantastic lover – but I am a little shy with his. What happened that night after the finals was wonderful, but since then I have not gathered the courage to suggest we repeat it. So I am very surprised at the reaction: Victor gives a shout, his body arches and he goes into a powerful orgasm.

I close my mouth around his cock and I feast on his pleasure.

There will be not a trace of it left.

‘This was nice,’ I purr when my mouth is empty again. ‘You got me… interested.’

Victor looks up at me. His expression is blissful and guarded at the same time.

‘Come here!’ I undo the zip of my trousers. He half rises.

‘You’re obedient. Very proper in a boy,’ I praise him, reaching with one hand to cradle the back of his head. I brush the head of my cock against his lips and, well, I can’t say that I push it into his mouth, because he takes it willingly, but I am definitely curt about it.

He doesn’t seem to mind. I feel the pressure of his tongue. Very soon I feel like crying out. Oh, I adore being noisy when we’re making love! But now, instead of moaning, I begin to make little yelping sounds. I have no idea what the call of a fox is, but Victor is a city boy and I’m counting on his not knowing either.

Victor very gingerly puts his hands on my buttocks. No protest from the kitsune. He pulls me closer and begins to seriously blow me. My, he’s good at it. With my excitement already high, it doesn’t take me long to come. And now, yes, I am pushing. Victor is kneading my butt through my trousers (because yes, they are still up there) and I’m looking down at him, revelling in the way he looks, tousled, flushed and with my cock firmly in his mouth.

I see his throat move as he swallows my come. Then he opens his mouth and exhales with a groan. I respond with a soft growl. I would like to kiss him, but this is not the kitsune way, is it? So I lean down and I lick his cheek caressingly, with the very tip of my tongue.

Okay, this game can’t last forever. Time to wrap it up. So I rapidly lift my head, as if startled, and I pretend to be listening to some distant sound.

‘He-ss coming back,’ I hiss angrily. I rise swiftly, I pull up the blanket, covering him – oh, he’s a mess! – and doing this, I throw a corner of it across his face, as if by accident. And while his is momentarily blinded, I dash to the hall, my footsteps noiseless.

And then the real fun begins.

I quickly get my clothes right. I grab the knob of the lock. I turn it twice – click, click. I open the door, I grab my shoes and bang them on the doormat – thump, thump – as if I were stamping the snow off my feet. A moment of silence; then I close the door and lock it – click, click. I rustle my coat on the hanger.

And in this very moment I hear a call, ‘Yuri?’ and then, no, I don’t believe this, a far quieter, uncertain ‘Kitsune?’.

‘You’re awake?’ I ask, still in the hall. ‘That’s great. I need a cuddle.’

I grab my glasses and shove them on my nose. I shake my head to get my hair back into my usual mop. I emerge from the hall and start walking across the room towards him. Then I freeze in mid-stride and I raise my head abruptly.

‘Have you had some visitor?’ I ask with just a trace of anxiety in my voice.

‘No,’ he answers, doing his best to appear unconcerned. ‘What makes you think so?’

I am screaming with laughter inside. Don’t ever try to lie to me, love, you are hopeless at it.

‘There’s a funny smell in here.’ I sniff the air. ‘As if spice and… wet fur?’

He blanches. He actually blanches.

‘Must be the dog.’ Poor Maccha, cruelly blamed for faults not his, waves his tail. He reacts to the word dog in all our languages, even in Japanese. ‘We should give him a bath.’

I give a noncommittal grunt. I look around suspiciously.

‘I would have sworn…’

He sits up. Then I see him realise he must not get up; his clothes are in disarray under the blanket. His face is a picture. He tries to distract me by changing the subject.

‘Are you hungry?’

Er, Vitka darling, we’ve been here before.

‘Very.’

‘There’s a piece or two of herring left,’ he says, clearly shaking off a feeling of déjà vu.

‘Oh, that’s great. Want some?’

‘No, thanks.’

As I turn towards the kitchen I hear some movement behind me. I’m guessing it’s the sweatpants being hastily pulled up.

I put some herring on a thick slice of bread and take it through to the room.

‘Let me kiss you before I start eating. I will stink of herring afterwards.’

‘It is a heavenly aroma which I’d never mind, but okay,’ he smiles, his perturbation obviously less severe. I bring him to heel by discreetly sniffing the air again and then his cheek before I kiss it.

And then I do nothing more. I eat, we talk, we get ready for bed. I’m very amused at how he is trying not to even hint at the possibility of us having sex now. Well done me! Okay, Vitka, it is not my intention to torment you. Even though, to be frank, I could go another round. I cuddle up to him and sigh happily. I’m an embodiment of sleepy innocence.

But just before I fall asleep I grin in the darkness, for it has come to my mind what I can do in the morning. Because, you see, I am very good at whistling with my fingers. And I don’t think Victor has ever heard me do it.

***

Christmas Day. Yuri is up before six in the morning and gets ready to leave, taking the dog with him. He warns me he would return just in time to collect me.

‘The taxi is coming at four. Be ready. Dress well.’

‘It will be difficult to get a taxi today,’ I say worriedly.

‘I ordered it two days ago,’ he says with just a hint of condescension. ‘And confirmed yesterday.’

Did I mention he is a planner?

I’m at the door, letting him out.

‘Be back in good time, Yuri.’

And precisely at that moment, just as he steps out of the flat, he looks at me over his shoulder, his eyes narrow, slanted, his face weirdly unfamiliar, and hisses: ‘Are you sure this-is-ss he?’.

He disappears noiselessly down the stairs. Really, I hear no sound of his footsteps, just the pat-pat-pat of the dog’s paws. Has he risen into the air? And then, as I stand stunned at the door, frozen midway of closing it, I hear a loud, shrill whistle.

I am shocked. This is so un-Yuri! He wouldn’t disturb the neighbours with noise. And I don’t think he can whistle like that. So, for heaven’s sake, who, what, was that creature that visited me in the night? Because it sure as hell wasn’t my boyfriend.

No, please, it must have been him. He was just playing a prank on me.

But that face? It wasn’t Yuri’s. It was alien, triangular, with just a trace of cruelty in it.

Those eyes. Not his. The strange scent. The cock he so roughly pushed into my mouth. The startling touch that made me come. My, was that nice! But so unlike him. After the night of the finals he never touched me there again. Maybe I just had a weird wet dream? Yet my clothes are clean.

No, this is stupid. It was Yuri. He just acted out a fantasy and I went along.

So why are my thoughts so scrupulously skirting the possibility that this really was a spirit fox who came to feed on my essence?

And, of course, there is one more option: it is he, but he has a fox spirit inside him.

No, this does not bear thinking about. He is not possessed. Not my Yuri.

For fuck’s sake, Nikiforov, get a hold on yourself this instant. This was Yuri, no-one else, and spirit creatures don’t exist.

So why do I have this weird feeling, as if… as if I had two-timed him?

Yuri – at least it seems to be he, as I establish eyeing him warily – returns on time, but without the dog. I immediately forget the strange events of the night.

‘Where is Macchachin?’ I yell, terrified.

‘Already there,’ he answers calmly. ‘There was no point taking him back.’

‘You were “there” now, yes?’

‘No, I was “there” earlier.’

‘So where were you now?’

‘Church. Lovely singing, I liked it.’

‘You went to a church with a dog?!’

‘No, I went to a church with a man. I left the dog “there”.’

I collapse on the couch and take my head in my hands.

‘Wherever we’re going, do we have any presents for them?’ I whimper. ‘At least a bottle of wine?’

‘That’s taken care of.’

‘Yuri, I’m going to strangle you.’

‘Tomorrow, please. I want to see all of this Russian Christmas. Unless strangling a family member is a part of the custom? Odd but interesting. Very exotic.’

I chase this fountain of sass around the house and he dodges me, laughing. Finally he lets me catch him, throws his arms round my neck and begins to kiss me. He is warm, familiar, mine. There is nothing alarming about him. Yeah, I must have had a weird dream.

As we are getting ready to leave I see him lugging another box and two bags. He is wearing jeans, a polo and a thick sweater; obviously not evening garb.

‘You’re going dressed like this?’

‘Uh-huh.’

‘I understand I’m not to ask why?’

‘You understand well.’ He hands me the box. ‘Be careful with it.’

This sort of closes the conversation.

Chapter Text

The pleading involved was done by Yura, of course. I helped him devise sufficiently forceful arguments, but he delivered them. They ranged from ‘Poor Yuri, so far away from his family, and that moron Victor is never going to give him proper Christmas’ to ‘A foreigner, and a Jap at that, what do they know of Christmas, we have a duty to show him how it is done the right way’. My role was limited to making spaniel eyes (which I’m told I’m quite good at) and saying, sadly but bravely, ‘Yes, yes; very true; but what can be done?’ when asked how things stood. The strategy worked admirably.

***

He gives the taxi driver the address. Good God, Lilya’s place!

‘Are we expected?’ I worry.

‘And how…’

How indeed! Lilya greets us at the door dressed in very chic black. Despite her petite figure she looks imposing. The stilettos may have something to do with it.

‘Welcome, Vitya. Come in, Yurik, come in, you must be freezing. Merry Christmas.’

‘Hi, Katsu!’ Yura bounds in, and after him, Macchachin. He is happy to see me. The dog, that is. Yura is as grumpy as usual, but far better dressed. ‘Hello, Victor. You’re lucky your dog is still alive. Potya was just about to tear him apart.’

Poor Maccha looks tired. I hold him close, crooning endearments.

‘Victor Borisovich!’ Yura’s grandfather emerges from the sitting room and hugs me. ‘Good to see you.’

Turns out it was him that my secretive sweetheart was meeting at the station. One mystery solved. The two youngsters apparently did all the shopping for food, quite a task in the Christmas season, and then Yuri and Nikolai Petrovich cooked whatever there was to cook. Yuri is addressing the old gentleman as Nikolai-san and he him as synok, the same as his own grandson. Wow! They seem to have bonded over the pots and pans.

‘You should have seen them,’ grumbles Yura. ‘They took possession of the kitchen for three days.’

I sniff discreetly. My regrets over Yuri’s absences fade away rapidly. Judging by the smells wafting through the air, the meal will be an ample compensation. My stomach rumbles in agreement.

‘And this morning they went to church together. This slant-eyed madman of yours wanted to see a Christmas Day service.’ Another mystery solved. ‘They wanted me to go, but someone had to keep an eye on Potya.’

So it seems that Yuri and Yura, working in concert, had managed to persuade Nikolai Petrovich to come up from Moscow, to persuade Lilya to make her apartment the venue for the festivities, and, as a cherry on top, looming in the background I see a very huffy Yakov. Considering that he and Lilya have been divorced for about a year and a half, I have no idea how this hellish duo managed to bring this about.

The greetings done, the older-generation males, that is, Yakov, Nikolai Petrovich and, stretching the point a bit, myself, adjourn to the sitting room to admire the Christmas tree (read: share a glass). The tree is tall and lavish; no wonder, Lilya’s ultra-modern flat is about five times as large as mine and there’s enough space for it. Yuri distributes a few neat packets under its branches, where there are already some waiting, and then vanishes into Yura’s room.

When he emerges, he is wearing a dark-grey kimono with a narrow triangle of white shirt showing at the neck and a silver-grey haori tied across the breast with a tufted himo string. White-socked feet and sandals are showing from under his skirt-like trousers, also dark grey with a discreet linear pattern. He is every inch a perfect Japanese gentleman and I am speechless.

***

We of the younger generation lay the table, supervised, but not helped, by Lilya Ivanovna. When everything is ready and all are gathered round the table, Nikolai-san says a short prayer and we sit down.

Yesterday’s soup was borsch, cooked without any meat, as appropriate. Today’s one is made of dried mushrooms. Yummy! It has tiny meat dumplings in it. We made jellied pork (not my favourite) and three different salads. There are blini for starters and five kinds of fish: smoked eel, very different from ours back home, jellied sterlet (incredibly good), herring with vegetables, called shuba (it’s growing on me), fried zander, the same we had yesterday, with horseradish, and a sturgeon, baked whole, which is greeted with much enthusiasm, and rightly, for it is delicious.

There is something about this meal I wouldn’t have realised had Nikolai-san not commented on it while we were cooking and then patiently explained to me what he meant. The sterlet and sturgeon are rare and expensive fish and the caviar we put on the blini was of excellent quality. But the vegetable salad, jellied pork or Victor’s favourite shuba would have been eaten in the humblest homes and in the bleakest times of the Soviet Union. Nikolai-san was born soon after the war, he remembers. So he says this is a meal of people who made good, but have not forgotten where they come from. He says this is how it should be.

The cakes have been baked from scratch, of course, beginning their existence as a heap of flour in a bowl. No shop-bought Christmas cake for Nikolai-san! The baking day was yesterday, but all the cakes are the kind that keeps fresh. They’ll be gone before they get stale.

As the meal progresses, Nikolai-san and I bask in everyone’s praise. We deserve it, because we worked like slaves. But all of a sudden I realise that someone got forgotten.

‘Thank you,’ I say, reaching for my glass. ‘But the cooking team would have done nothing if not for the brave leader of the shopping team. Your health, Yura!’

To our shock, Yura blushes. Yes, this is what happens. Yuriy Grigorevich Plisetsky blushes when praised. He must have spent too much time with me.

‘Stop it, Katsu,’ he huffs. ‘I couldn’t leave the shopping to you. You would’ve made a mess of it.’

‘This is exactly what I’m saying,’ I laugh.

I can see Nikolai-san is very pleased with his grandson. And he should be. Yura is a great person. We had a lot of fun waiting in endless queues, lugging the shopping home and hunting for a Christmas tree that would be to his satisfaction. We even talked about his losing the title to me. We both know he lost it mostly because of his crazy growth spurts. Soon he’ll be back with a vengeance. Won’t that be fun!

Although, if I could have my wish, next time I’d like the gold to go to Victor. Because it may be his last. Which of course does not mean that I will go easy on him. I won’t. I’d like him to beat me in a fierce fight. It would make him very happy, and me even happier.

The goose arrives fresh from the oven. We prepared and stuffed it with sour apples in the morning and Nikolai-san set it to roast while I went back home to get Victor. I put it in front of Nikolai-san, as we agreed, and he does the cutting; I wouldn’t know how. Yura brings through tiny new potatoes with dill to accompany the goose.

At one point my dear Victor makes a fool of himself. Wanting some more of the zander that is standing in front of me, he leans towards me, says, ‘Could you pass me the fish, please’ in English, and is greeted by a surprised look from me and a silence at the table.

Shto?’ he asks, back to Russian.

Smiles all round. A giggle from Yura.

Shto?!’

‘He didn’t notice…’ whispers Yura in an ecstasy of scorn.

‘Vityusha,’ says Nikolai-san kindly, ‘you can say it in Russian. Yurik understands.’

Victor looks at me with round eyes, evidently replaying the evening in his mind, and only then does he realise that all the time I’ve been speaking Russian and everyone, including himself, has been speaking Russian to me. He begins to apologise to me and gets deservedly laughed at.

‘I’ve never seen anyone learn a language so fast,’ says Yakov.

‘I choose verb endings at random. And I get most of the cases wrong.’ I’m trying to be modest, but I’m delighted. I work hard on my Russian and it feels great to be appreciated.

‘Yura, I’d love to see you learning English like this,’ Lilya Ivanovna quickly grabs at the opportunity. Yura makes a face. ‘If Yurik can, so can you,’ she adds smoothly.

Yura gives me a dirty look. Yeah, Lilya Ivanovna knows how to play him. Our young wolf is very ambitious and he likes to set himself against me. I am a sort of a yardstick to him.

Oh, by the way, over the last few days I seem to have become a Yurik. The Russians’ love for diminutives is amazing. I have two now, Yurik among friends and Yuryen’ka when I’m in Victor’s arms, and also Katsu as a diminutive of my nickname. I love it!

***

Being the son of people who made hospitality their profession, Yuri is a perfect – no, not host, because that role he leaves entirely to Lilya, but an attentive and unobtrusive servant, while all the time he remains an entertaining and entertained guest. He takes part in the conversation while the food seems to magically flow in. How does he do this? Only once do I notice him shoot a glance at Yura, who immediately slides off his chair and follows him to the kitchen. Yuri obviously needed a spare pair of hands, because a moment later the kid returns bearing another platter.

***

I must thank my mother for teaching me how to serve food gracefully and efficiently. Only now do I see how wisely she managed her super-shy son. Knowing very well that I found direct contact difficult, she never demanded that I greet our guests on arrival, but waiting on them was a duty I was not allowed to shirk. I also worked in the kitchen, where I discovered that I liked cooking, and I helped my father with the hard work of cleaning, mending and general looking after the hotel. When, at nineteen, I left Hasetsu, it all got far more difficult for my parents. And it finally ruined my already uneasy relationship with my sister.

Mari resents the fact that I, her baby brother, ventured into the world and she felt obliged to stay and help. She wanted to find work in a big city. She dreamt of going to Tokyo. I am sorry about it, but without the money I earn skating the hotel would have closed long ago and that would have broken dad’s heart; it was established by his great-grandparents. And Mari is not the only one to have an obligation. I will probably be required to come back to Hasetsu and take over the hotel when mum and dad grow too old to manage it. I cringe to even think about it, but… so it is. I am the only son.

In any case, I persuaded Nikolai-san to leave serving the food to me. He has done a very great lot already, I wanted him to be free to enjoy the meal, and Yura’s company of course. He was reluctant at first, but agreed when I told him about my duties at home. ‘You know more about it than I,’ he said. Now I’m doing my best to show him he was not wrong.

My mum wouldn’t believe her eyes if she saw me now. She was amazed enough when I asked her to buy clothes for me, giving her detailed instructions what they were to be like. Tomorrow I will write a long e-mail home, telling them all about my Russian Christmas.

***

We rise from the table, full and contented, and move to the circle of couches and armchairs. It is the time for presents, the distribution of which is entrusted to the youngest one, Yura.

‘Hey, Snegurochka!’ I discreetly get his attention.

‘Call me that once more and you’re getting cat shit wrapped in tinsel for a present. What?’

‘That one in blue paper, it’s for Yuri, give that as the last, okay?’

‘Something special?’ He grins at me roguishly. ‘Okay.’

I settle in one of the wide armchairs and prepare for a wait.

The presents turn out spectacular. There’s more of them than can be described, and some will be remembered for a long, long time.

Yakov unwraps a characteristically shaped box and huffs in surprise. It is a Japanese whisky, apparently one that is very rare and seriously good. I don’t like whisky, so I can’t appreciate it, but Yakov, who does, is clearly moved.

‘Yuri, you shouldn’t have!’ he says.

‘Me?’ Yuri opens his eyes and radiates innocence with the intensity of a power station. ‘No idea where this came from, never heard of it in my life.’

Yakov looks at me. I spread my hands because, in contrast to this black-eyed devil, I’ve really never heard of it in my life.

‘Thank you very much, whoever you are,’ Yakov addresses the middle distance.

The next one is for Yuri and me, as a couple. I’m nearly sure it is from Yakov and Lilya. We get a pair of matching bracelets; his is of mammoth ivory beads with a single dark amber bead in the centre, and mine is of amber beads with a single ivory one. They are very fine. Inside the box there is also a slip of paper saying ‘Think of summer!’ in big, crooked letters, the sloppy hand familiar; the givers obviously employed Yura’s help for this missive.

‘This is beautiful!’ exclaims Lilya, which is unusual, since she is not given to displays of emotion. She holds up a palm-sized branch of tiny dangling flowers that tremble lightly as if they were alive. It takes us a while to work out what it is made of: paper. It’s origami. An exquisite thing! This is a present Yuri cannot disclaim.

‘Japanese ladies wear these in their hair,’ he explains. ‘You don’t have this custom here, but I thought you might like it to decorate your mirror.’

‘Thank you, Yuri. No, I think I’ll find a way to wear it. I love the colours.’

No wonder she does; he chose a branch that matches the colours she most often wears. In the future, I will many times see it on her lapel. I will find out that each time she carefully sews it on and undoes the stitches to take it off. Going on further, I may say that I will also see her wearing it in her hair once, and it will be at her wedding.

Yura squeals in a manner that would be unbecoming in a thirteen-year-old, let alone in a person who insists that he is on the verge of adulthood and can return home after midnight if he wishes (he can’t). He is holding a little box of black velvet and gazing inside rapturously.

‘Wow! They will kill me at school for wearing this!’ he says.

‘And good riddance,’ says Yakov promptly. ‘With the grades you’ve been getting, you’re not worth your feed. What is it? Show us.’

Yura begins to draw out a long silver chain. We observe him with out breaths held.

Swinging at the end of the chain is a cookie-sized scorpion. It too is made of silver and it has little rubies for eyes. Then we look at it closely and see that its sting is of gold.

The kid looks at Lilya – then me – then Yuri – in turn. We all make innocent faces, two of us falsely. It was I that observed to Yuri, long ago, that Yura is beginning to wear heavy, dangly jewellery and that we might get him something of that kind for Christmas (‘a trinket that will not be appallingly tasteless’ I think I put it). But it was he who remembered my idea. I will later learn from him that this was the hardest present to get. ‘You wanted something tasteful,’ he will comment ruefully. ‘This was the best I could find.’ Ah, well. The main thing is that the recipient is enchanted.

‘It’s super! Thank you!’ He puts it on and runs to the big mirror.

‘Stop admiring your pimply nose, Snegurochka!’ I call. There is still a sizable heap of presents under the tree. ‘We’re waiting!’

Yura sticks his tongue out at me and returns to his duties.

The next is an unusual one for Yuri. At the first glance it seems to be a small but very sturdy notebook of blank pages. Then Yuri turns it and discovers that he was looking at the wrong end. From the first page on, about three-quarters of the notebook are filled with handwritten recipes. It’s easy to guess who this is from, especially considering that the first recipe is entitled Katsudonnye pirozhki.

‘Oh, thank you very much!’ beams Yuri and begins to leaf through it, moving his lips as he makes out the headings. ‘Wow! All of them my favourites! How did you know?’

‘I sent a spy,’ Nikolai Petrovich wiggles his eyebrows. Under the tree, the spy snorts.

I am very touched to see that the recipes are all good Russian home cooking and they are written out in a clear, nearly calligraphic hand. Nikolai Petrovich must have spent days copying them. I catch his eyes above Yuri’s head and I bow. He bows back.

I think our Snegurochka must be clairvoyant, because the next present is for Nikolai Petrovich and it is similarly obvious who it is from. It is an album of stunning photographs of Japan, mostly landscapes and historic architecture.

‘It is in Japanese. I apologise, but it was the most beautiful I found. I will translate a little if you wish. It is to make you want to come to Japan,’ says Yuri. He obviously doesn’t know the word ‘tempt’. An omission on my part, I must teach him. I smile to myself at the possible context. ‘My parents will be very happy. They told me to tell you. They are looking forward to your visit.’

‘Eh, I’m too old for such journeys, synok. But this will make me feel I’ve been there.’

Yuri and Yura exchange a glance.

‘Never say never,’ mutters Yura in English.

Pozhivyom, uvidim,’ responds Yuri meditatively.

Uh-oh. The hellish duo is obviously getting ideas. The adults look at one another with undisguised alarm. I swiftly supply a ‘God help us all’ in a dramatic undertone and get looked collective daggers at for my effort.

The next one is for Lilya. It is a bottle of perfume; very fine, very costly and the scent obviously means something to her.

‘Thanks,’ she says to no-one in particular. ‘This is nice.’

Ah, so it is from Yakov. I might have known.

She gives him a book, but I do not see the title. He puts it away quickly.

Then I get my present. It is a large packet, yielding to the touch, wrapped in tissue paper. It turns out to be, again, utterly Japanese and Yuri doesn’t even try to disclaim it.

It is a haori, an outer garment, open at the front and with wide, square sleeves. How did he know I’d envy him his haori from the moment I’d see it? He must be prescient. His one is dark silver and mine charcoal-grey, the colours matching nicely. The fabric is matte, very elegant. I touch it and I purr with pleasure, for it is incredibly soft and as smooth as Yuri’s thighs. I rub it lightly between my fingers. Silk; with a small admixture of cashmere, I think. The haori will be wonderfully warm.

‘Yuri, this is amazing!’

He beams.

‘You wouldn’t know how to wear the full set, but haori you can wear instead of a jacket,’ he says. ‘Only remember, never with a tie. A turtleneck or a shirt with a collar like this.’ He makes a gesture. This is a term he doesn’t know in either language. I wouldn’t be surprised if he didn’t know it in Japanese.

‘Band collar. A grandfather shirt, good idea. Can I wear it with a warm sweater?’

‘Of course. And a big scarf.’

‘It will be great for autumn.’

‘And you don’t know how to tie the himo, so it closes differently.’

Joining the two little loops sewn on the inside of the lapel is a string of beads, most of them pea-sized, a larger one in the centre. The colour is beautiful, very deep blue.

‘What is this stone?’

‘Lapis-lazuli,’ says Lilya before Yuri can answer. ‘Very nice!’

Okay, go ahead, call me vain; I can’t resist it. I put the haori on and, just like Yura before me, I gallop to the big mirror and begin to turn this way and that in front of it.

‘Wow! This is stylish!’

‘Stop moping over your thinning hair there, princess!’ calls Yura. ‘The last present’s coming up. Something tells me it is for the best-behaved boy here. Who can that be?’

All eyes turn to Yuri.

‘Are you sure it’s not me?’ continues Yura. ‘I’m so underappreciated. Yeah, Katsu, it is for you. You’re sickeningly well-mannered. When you’re not with this moron here, that is. He is bad influence on you.’

‘I know,’ says Yuri sadly. I give an indignant shriek, which he ignores. ‘I enjoy his company, though.’

‘Only because you don’t know any better,’ grumbles Yura. ‘Ah well, what can I do.’

He hands Yuri the packet in blue wrapper. Yuri begins to open it. I hold my breath.

The wrapper reveals two small, yellowish books, booklets really, each with the word ‘Moskva’ in Cyrillic on the front. The paper is obviously old, and no wonder, because one of the books is marked with the date 1966:11 in the bottom corner of the cover, the other with 1967:1. A small leaflet with odd, dirty print falls from between the books. Yuri lifts it, puzzled. Well, until he looks inside the books, he has no way of knowing what it is.

‘Hey, look!’ says Yura, intrigued. ‘Katsu got something strange.’

The eyes of the adults turn to Yuri’s hands. And it is, somewhat expectedly, Nikolai Petrovich who first gives a gasp. Then Yakov and Lilya open their eyes in expressions whose similarity testifies to their years together.

Yuri looks at them. Then he looks over his shoulder at me. Yura wants to reach into his hands for one of the books and, wonder of wonders, his grandfather and Yakov restrain him from both sides with an identical gesture, an open palm across the boy’s breast.

‘What are these?’ asks Yuri uncertainly.

‘Work it out for yourself, Yurik,’ says Lilya softly. ‘We know, but we won’t take the pleasure away from you.’

Yuri looks at them thoughtfully, Yura, uncomprehendingly.

‘Hey, why don’t I know?’ he wails.

‘You’re too young,’ says his grandfather. Then he looks at me. ‘But that you know… That’s remarkable.’

I wave away the praise. I’ve been hunting high and low for these, in good condition. I wanted to find them in Russia, not abroad. The seller would have really needed the money to be getting rid of them. But there’s only one man here whose approval I care about, and he does not know yet what he got.

And then he looks inside. He reads the title there. He looks into the other book. He takes the leaflet, examines it. He looks at me again, comprehension dawning in his eyes. All the Russians are waiting in silence. It is a kind of a test.

Yuri convulsively presses the books to his heart and passes it with flying colours, saying, ‘This is the first Russian edition of The Master and Margarita. The censored one. Printed in November and January next year to wait for the reaction of the, um, authorities. And this, this is an original of the sa… mi…’ He hesitates. We realise what he wants to say and all eyebrows get lifted, high. ‘Sa-mi-za-da-tu list of the, of the…’

‘Passages,’ I prompt. He has earned this tiny bit of help. To hell with his Japanese syllabic pronunciation; he has us stunned. None of us expected him to know the word.

‘…passages that got cut out by the censor.’

We, the adults, raise a hooray.

‘We’ll make a Russian of you yet,’ rumbles Yakov.

‘He is one of us!’ states Nikolai Petrovich proudly.

Yura is gaping at the just-announced honorary Russian with dropped jaw.

‘Fucking hell,’ he says in English. Lilya smacks him on the head, but she does it by reflex. They are all waiting to see the books up close.

So they all take turns looking at them, holding them carefully as if they were relics – I guess they are – and Yuri comes to me, who am again sitting in the armchair. I expect him to embrace me, but instead he sits down on his heels and presses his forehead to my knees.

‘Thank you, Victor,’ he whispers in English, as if this made it more private. He looks up and there are tears in his eyes.

‘Thank you, my Russian-to-be,’ I answer. We smile at each other shyly, for the phrase has hinted at something that has recently been hanging in the air between us. I think… I think he might be guessing what my intentions are.

I am so glad that he liked what I got him. A lot of thinking went into it. But it is my present, mine, my beautiful haori, that is the nicest of all those given tonight.

***

He is the best, the wisest, the most generous, and he is loved beyond all measure.

***

I take Yuri by the wrist as he rises and steer him to sit in my lap. Here, among friends, he does not hesitate for one second. The wine and conversation flow. At one point, when I think no-one is looking, I begin to stroke his hair. The gesture may seem absent-minded, but in reality I am taking conscious pleasure in the texture of his thick, stiff mop.

This is when Yura snaps a portrait of us. It shows me sitting, a glass of wine held slackly in my hand, all my attention on Yuri, my long-nosed face almost birdlike in its focus. Yuri, curled comfortably across my body, is saying something, his white teeth showing in a smile, his eyes shining. His gaze is turned a little to the side; recalling this evening, I know he was talking to Lilya, seated on a couch opposite us.

This picture is one of our favourites, a reminder of this perfect Christmas.

In the future, I will remember it through the snapshots we have taken throughout the evening. Yura admiring his scorpion pendant. Yura and me clearing the table under Lilya’s watchful eye; she brought out her best china. Yuri and Nikolai Petrovich leafing through the album, Yuri explaining something, Nikolai Petrovich looking up at him with interest. Yakov and Nikolai Petrovich raising glasses to each other; in the background an appreciative Yuri. Yura cuddled to his grandfather, so full he’s almost asleep, his spindly legs hanging above the armrest of the couch, the cat curled on his shoulder. The cat chased off the table by Lilya. Maccachin and me nose to nose. Yuri and me loading the dishwasher, both of us in rather undignified poses (God knows who took this one; it was on my phone). Lilya and Yakov bantering spiritedly and, who would believe it, amicably; in the background the hellish duo looking at them with raised eyebrows. Myself, watching Yuri with lovesick eyes. Yuri sitting, Japanese style, below the Christmas tree, looking up at it, his little nose lifted, his mouth open in childlike wonder; the best profile portrait I’ve ever seen.

(This merits a longer aside. Both this and the double portrait of me and Yuri are in black-and-white. Yura sends them to me together with about a hundred other photos. As I take them to a professional to have them printed in large format, the man whistles in awe. For they are truly exceptional; beautiful composition, excellent light, sensitivity to the model, perfectly caught mood. And the almost eerie quality of the black-and-white.

Before I have them framed, I take them to Yura to be signed. I hand him a special pen for writing on photographic paper and he does it with evident pleasure. We are sitting at the rink’s cafeteria.

‘Tell me, Yura, are there more where these came from?’

He looks at me. Then, wordlessly, he takes out his phone, opens a file and hands the phone to me. And then, for the next twenty minutes, I go, ‘Wow. Wow. Wow! I don’t believe it. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow, how did you catch him like this? Wow. No, this can’t be real. Wow. What?! She’s gonna kill you. Wow. Hey, this is me! Do I really…? No, don’t answer, I don’t want to know. Wow. Oh, here’s Yuri! I want this one, too. Wow. Wow. What a face! Who’s this? Wow. Yeah, this is his smirk all right. Wow!’ etc., you get the gist. The point is, he has dozens of pictures there, all black-and-white, all portraits, the quality ranging from very good to excellent. Most of them are of people I know, faces familiar from the rink and the competitive circuit, but some must be of his schoolmates and teachers. Many show his grandfather and these are arguably the best.

‘You’re kind of artsy, tell me, are they any good?’ asks Yura with the scrupulously concealed vulnerability of a sixteen-year-old.

‘Good? Please! Some of these are professional quality. Say, though, what’s with the black-and-white?’

‘You mean you don’t know? Yuri didn’t tell you?’

‘You’re kidding, he, disclose a secret? Not ever.’

Yura wrinkles his nose. He seems a bit embarrassed.

‘I’m colour blind. I see some colour, but not the way everybody else does. So I snap a lot of pictures, but for the potentially good ones I switch to the black-and-white mode.’

‘So they are taken as black-and-white? Not digitally altered? Interesting. In any case, you’ve got a serious talent and if you don’t publish these pictures one day, real publish, as a book I mean, I’m going to skin you alive and have your hide for a bathmat.’

He beams. A seed has been planted that day; and it will bear fruit.)

We sing some carols. Nikolai Petrovich has a very nice voice, a rich bass, and he leads us. Yuri joins us for one or two; he knows them from his Russian classes. Then he sings for us in Japanese, his voice lovely as usual. Listening to him, I have a fleeting thought: what a pleasure it would be to hear him and Grisha Kamyshkin sing together; his tenor and Grisha’s baritone would complement each other beautifully. What a pity it can never be.

Seeing the others’ surprise, I realise that until tonight I was the only one to have heard Yuri sing. I am very pleased. He is obviously feeling safe here, accepted and liked, if he has decided to loosen his habitual restraint.

I guess I am watching him with lovesick eyes again, because Yakov steps to me and says in an undertone, ‘I never thought I’d see you so in love, Vitya.’

‘I never thought I’d be so in love,’ I answer frankly. ‘You disapprove?’

‘No. He’s good for you. You’ve finally started to care about someone beside yourself.’

Yakov knows me since I was six, he was in many ways a father to me, he knows my vices as well as he knows my virtues and has every right to speak to me bluntly. He is wrong here, though.

‘Eh… No. I still care only about myself. He is a part of me, that’s all.’

‘How romantic.’ He doesn’t get sentimental, ever. ‘I’m glad he took the gold. I was rooting for him.’

It is not like Yakov to say this to a trainee, but then I am halfway between trainee and fellow coach, with a bit of a reluctantly acknowledged friend mixed in. I chuckle.

‘So was I.’

He huffs.

‘Who would have thought.’

Then he pats me on the shoulder.

‘You’re good for him, too. Just look at him. He is glowing.’

He actually is. It is wonderful to see him so radiant.     

‘I’m going to marry him, you know,’ I blurt out.

He freezes.

‘This is stupid talk, Vitya. And stupid talk is often dangerous talk.’

‘That’s why I’m saying this only to you.’

‘But you hardly hide what you’re feeling. Be careful, Vitya.’

He has already warned me once or twice, recently in a less oblique way.

‘So would you have me live the way I used to?’

He ponders this.

‘No,’ he says in the end. ‘Ah well, we’ll see what life brings. May it be happiness.’

‘For us all. And thank you for all you’ve done for me. I wouldn’t be where I am without you.’

He huffs again, but in a different tone.

A great surprise comes from Lilya. At one point she finds us, Yuri and me, alone in the kitchen and says, ‘I must thank you for what you boys are doing for Yura. He is getting quite manageable. And I must say there were times when I despaired of him.’

‘Thank you, Lilya Ivanovna, but we are doing nothing,’ says Yuri. ‘He is just growing up. And we like being with him. He is very bright and very witty. We have much fun.’

Lilya, who is as gruff and undemonstrative as Yakov (this is what made them a great couple and this is what drove them apart), tries to hide her pleasure at having her protégé praised.

‘You are like brothers to him. This is not nothing. This is what he needed. And, Yurik, stop making me feel old. Call me Lilya.’

‘Not old, only most esteemed,’ answers Yuri smoothly. ‘Thank you, Lilya.’

Wow. When did he become such a charmer? And in Russian, too?

This is another aspect in which he has matured. Making use of his innate acting talent, he has not only learnt to control his nerves; he made his timidity work to his benefit. Because, you see, watching him at events I have realised, to my shock, that he has learnt to play timid. He is damn acting the shy sylph, just as I’m acting the aloof ice prince.

And then it hits me. The kitsune boy! He was acting out a role. He was charming me.

Rather successfully, I must admit.

We are world-class competitors in a sport which, essentially, attempts to make a highly contrived, very artificial movement look natural. I seem to have carried something from the ice into my life. In public, I keep my behaviour, speech and movement under tight control; yet I make them seem unaffected. I think Yuri has learnt how to do it by watching me. So we became very similar in this, although for different reasons. And with different results, my persona radiating detachment, his, reticence. In the company of our friends we loosen up. But only at home are we truly spontaneous.

I have a feeling these personas are starting to evolve, though, just as Yura is growing out of his punk façade. I am turning towards something wiser and more centred, changing from prince to mage. And Yuri is clearly developing a suave charm, so he will move from sylph to seducer. I suddenly realise I may start seeing the strange creature of last night more often, and not only in private. This will be awesome! A kitsune on ice. The judges won’t know what hit them. I’m curious what character Yura is going to assume; I am guessing it will be military yet romantic.

Yuri has one more surprise in store for us this evening.

‘Er, everybody?’ he says, raising his voice a little. ‘We got one more present. I mean, all of us. From China. I told Guang-Hong we’d be together. He sent us some tea. Do you mind if I make it?’

We agree, of course, even though we know it’s going to be green tea. I guess our acquaintance with several Asians made us used to it. Few Russians are.

‘Why not Japanese tea?’ asks Yura. ‘You have matcha at home.’

‘The one I asked for is special.’

He asks Yura to move the low table a little to the side. This is where he is going to sit. I note with appreciation that he had it placed in front of the dark-coloured window curtains, away from the brightly lit Christmas tree. This will be a perfect backdrop to his monochromatic silhouette. He produces a tea tray, six tea bowls of pale blue porcelain, a tea caddy and a little kettle of the same porcelain (ah, the box I was carrying), various other containers and utensils. He brings the electric kettle from the kitchen and sets it out of sight by his knee. He sits down in the Japanese posture, his silk-clad figure sculptural, and begins to measure out tea leaves. The wide sleeves of his haori don’t get in his way at all.

He looks… serene, there’s no other word for it.

This is when it strikes me how very much like a family we are tonight – Lilya and Yakov the divorced parents who managed to work out a Christmas truce for the sake of the kids, Nikolai Petrovich delighted with his beloved grandson and revered by all the young generation, myself the older son, no longer a child but an intellectual partner, Yura the younger one, held firmly in hand but infinitely cherished, and Yuri the son-in-law I brought into this circle, still a newcomer but already a favourite.

We are saying nice things to each other. We are expressing appreciation and respect, a hard thing to do on any other day of the year. And it is all his doing. For there is no doubt in my mind that this boy is the instigator, the organiser, the reason why we are together at Christmas.

So I’m observing the calm and focused Yuri making tea and I’m thinking to myself: If this night is a holy night, then he is its starlight.

***

I can feel their eyes on me. These people are a ballet dancer, two figure skaters and a skating coach, all of them people familiar with meaning conveyed through movement, and Nikolai-san knows that food and drink are powerful symbols. Aware of this, I take special care to move with dignity and deliberation.

This is not the formal Japanese tea ceremony, I’m not very good at it and they would find it boring anyway; I am doing it the Chinese way. But still, making and serving tea is my home turf and I can express through it whatever I want them to know.

I measure tea leaves into the pot. I listen to the water boiling and switch the kettle off at the right moment (yes, I can gauge the temperature of water by the sound it makes). I pour water into the pot and soon pour it out; tea from the first brewing is bitter.

I pour it over my tea pet, a turtle made of chocolate-brown clay, its eyes like little black beads. In contrast to the tea set, this is not a newly-bought thing. I got it as a present during my first foreign competition. It was in China. I was a junior. I got friendly with a Chinese skater; his name was Yu Xiao. His mother took us to a tea house for lunch one day and seeing how fascinated I was with the tea pets there, she and Xiao gave me this turtle on parting. We wrote to each other for a while after; then he stopped skating because of an injury and we lost touch. We were too young to keep up a friendship not based on a shared interest. I wonder what became of him.  

I smile to myself. My first competition. I took the bronze. If only I had known what was in store for me! A gold medal on my neck, a gold band on my finger, and a silver-haired Russian in my arms. I can hardly believe it now, I would never have believed it then.

The tea runs over the turtle and disappears into the tray, which is hollow inside specially for the purpose. I pour hot water into the pot the second time. I count in my head. One hundred and eighty. Now the brew will be just right. I pour it into a little pitcher. This is so that everyone gets their tea tasting exactly the same.

‘This is ginseng oolong,’ I say. ‘My favourite tea. Its leaves are dried in the sun. It is very healthy. It makes the mind clear and the will strong. And…’ I smile mischievously. ‘It gives men even more vigour and women even more beauty than they already have.’

‘Can’t one choose?’ asks Victor. ‘I could do with more beauty.’

He leaves the ‘I have more than enough vigour’ part unsaid, but the glint in his eye is dirty enough. Oh no, this quality of quip will not do. He needs bringing to heel.

‘Sometimes it also enhances intelligence, but not always,’ I inform him with a carefully measured hint of pessimism. Everyone hoots. He raises his hands, conceding defeat.

One thing to be said for my Victor: he never gets huffy when teased. I am trying hard to learn this from him, for it is an admirable quality.

‘I think this is the most interesting tea in all China,’ I conclude, filling the bowls. ‘I hope you’ll like it.’

 As I distribute the tea, I kneel to every person and bow in a manner appropriate to each.

The first is, of course, Nikolai-san, the senior of the company. I am grateful to him for the friendly and clear way he spoke to me, teaching me to cook food which I will be able to cook for Victor in the future (I took copious notes; and now I have my recipe book!). I could easily come to love him as my own grandfather. So I bow very low, with my forehead to the floor, and I extend the bowl to him reaching up. I raise my head only when I feel him take it.

The second is Lilya, the hostess and the only woman present. I bow deeply and respectfully. Then, as I hand her the bowl, I flash my dark eyes at her. She looks at me as if I were a brazen puppy and then she throws me a flirty prima-ballerina smile. This is exactly the effect I wanted to achieve.

To Yakov I bow just as deeply. This is a man to whom I owe a lot as a sportsman; I wouldn’t be where I am without his intelligent guidance. And besides, I will never forget that it was he who calmly and without any comment told me that Victor said he loved me. And then invited me to his team, thereby dissolving the coach/trainee bond between us to make room for a stronger attachment.

Then Yura. I hand him his bowl and – who would have believed it a year ago! – he inclines his head to me. Very properly, as to a friend and equal.

And then, as the last, Victor. To him, I kneel but I don’t bow. As he reaches for his bowl, I raise my face to him for a kiss.

***

The evening is drawing to a close. Yuri says he must take off his Japanese clothes before going home. This meets with my vehement protest.

‘Don’t! I’ll carry you all the way to the taxi and then all the way upstairs, but don’t change! You look so lovely!’           

He laughs and agrees.

And so as we get home I can undress him, needing some help with this, because I have no idea how to untie the various garments he’s wearing, but I am taking my time in the sweet certainty that under all those finely textured, tastefully coloured fabrics I shall find the golden beauty he is hiding there just for me.

Eventually I pull him to me. It’s funny to feel his nakedness against my still fully clothed body.

‘This was the best Christmas I’ve had since… since I was sixteen,’ I say. I know he knows this really means, since the Christmas before my mother was diagnosed. ‘Thank you.’

He just kisses me on the cheek and I hold him close.

Under my hands I feel the ridges of his ribs and the knobs of his spine. This far in the competing season he is all muscle and sinew, not an ounce of fat on him (this is not a metaphor; I’ve seen the results of his medical and his body fat percentage is in low single figures), but, an endearing detail, his belly is slightly distended from good food.

I smile to myself. This is how his body will change when he retires. With time, he will grow plump and I will grow bald, and sex will grow warm and friendly instead of passionate, and his eyes will continue liquid and our home will continue full of laughter, and we will be very happy together all our lives. I won’t allow it to happen any other way.  

‘Do you feel like making love?’ I ask. I would be very much in for a session of lazy sex, but the day was long and we’ve had a big meal, he might be too full, too sleepy or just not in the mood, so I’m not getting my hopes too high. Cuddles will do just as nicely.

He grins, wriggles out of my arms and vanishes into the bathroom.

The extent to which this boy likes sex is amazing. I just hope it’s because it’s with me.

***

Coming back, I stop in the doorway. He is sitting on the couch, leaning forward, looking at the tree, a glass of white wine hanging loosely in his hands. He is pensive, almost sad. Then he sees me and his face brightens.

***

He comes back, walking to me across the room. He is entirely unembarrassed, his nakedness natural. Hard to believe this is the same man as that shy colt I undressed the previous winter. He grew into a grace that takes my breath away every time I look at him move.

***

He puts his glass away. I kneel in front of him. He leans to me and I take his face between my hands. His breath smells of wine as we kiss. I begin to undo the buttons of his shirt.

***

We are lying on our sides facing each other. He is curled in a ball, I am curled around him, his butt to my groin. The lights on the Christmas tree wash us in a warm glow.

‘Are you comfortable?’ I ask, for his knees are drawn almost to his shoulders, his spine is curved in a C and my back hurts to even think of lying this way. I have no idea how we ended up in this configuration, and on the carpet, too.

‘Yes, why shouldn’t I be?’ He is genuinely surprised and I shake my head.

‘You’re so supple.’ I stroke his thigh. ‘And so nice to touch.’

‘You’re just as supple, only more lazy.’

‘Yuri,’ I ask abruptly. ‘It was you last night, the kitsune boy?’

For a moment he processes what I have said. Then his eyes go wide. He is frightened.

‘That smell! So I was right. You did have a visitor. Only he was not of this world. Oh, this is bad, this is very bad. He marked you for his.’ He looks at me with sorrow. ‘He’ll take you from me one day.’

‘Yuri!’ I yell. ‘Please, stop toying with me!’

He sighs and takes pity on me.

‘All right. It was me. I never thought you’d fall for this.’

‘God, how this messed with my head! I felt that I had been unfaithful to you.’

His grin is so wide that his eyes crinkle at the corners.

‘You were. But you are excused. A spirit cannot be resisted.’ He reaches back for my cock and guides it into his body. ‘Come, I want you. Did the kitsune leave anything for me?’

He pulls himself on me like a silken glove. I purr with delight. I’ve been making enthusiastic use of his body for well over a year now, and I am not ungenerously endowed; yet he is tight like a virgin. And the even more wonderful thing is that I know, because I asked him, that he has never felt any pain when I entered him, not even the first night, when he was not sure what to expect. I am glad, because not all men are so fortunate; I know I’m not.

Soon I’m giving him little shallow thrusts, each of them a touch rather than a push. His eyes grow heavy, his mouth opens in an O of bliss. He puts his fingertips lightly against my mouth, as if he wanted to feel my breath. He croons an endearment in Japanese. I don’t ask what it means; this incomprehensible sweet talk is one of our rituals.

His rhythm of lovemaking is faster than mine, his desire tougher, more demanding. Yet he is willing to let me go slow, slow, slow, for as long as I want. I’m so glad he understands my need for this tantalising enjoyment of him. For this could so easily become a problem. After years of being single (and, as he once confessed to me, giggling and at the same time squirming in embarrassment, of masturbating like crazy with the image of a certain master skater in his mind), his sexuality has blazed out like a supernova and sometimes I am almost overpowered by his intensity. I don’t have his stamina, either. His understanding, his absolute readiness to share is what keeps us in balance.

His erect cock has a comfortable space between our bodies and as I look at it I can’t help thinking how wonderful it will be to yield to him again. I haven’t asked him for it yet, I don’t want to push him, but… I’m dreaming of it. I want him to pierce me in one sharp stroke. I want to impale myself on this hard shaft. Was this startling touch that made me come last night a signal that he too might want it? Maybe I should ask? Some other time, though, because his moans are telling me that now he needs more of what I can give him.

He uncurls, pushing himself away from me so that our bodies lie at right angles. A swing of his hips drives me deep into him. I grip his thighs to hold him close to me as we strive towards each other. I’m leaning my cheek against the nearest available part of him, which is his foot. I can feel his toes curling in ecstasy.

I pound into him, hard, and he bends backwards so that my each stroke hits him exactly where he wants it, and he screams, his fingers clawing at his face and mouth, and it is wonderful to see him do this, because in this way he gives up control over my rhythm and my motion, he trusts all of his hips, his belly, his cock, his balls, his insides to me, and it feels great to be so trusted.

I am getting very close to coming; but he gets there ahead of me.

‘Vitka!’ he calls. He grabs my hand and pulls it to his cock. ‘Aah! Make me come!’

I wrap my fingers firmly around it. He shudders as I tease him, taking him still higher. He mewls with pent-up need. Finally, I rub my thumb against that sweet little ridge across its underside and grant him his release.

And as I feel his cock jerk in my hand, spurting his hot juice, I come, too, giving him a deep, hard final thrust.

As my orgasm dies down, I slowly move out of him and kneel between his legs. He opens his eyes. I stretch out my arms to him and he rises to kneel astride my thighs.

I’m holding him in the circle of my arms, pressed tight to me, his sperm gluing our bellies together. His balls lie against my softening cock. I stroke his back, all the way from his shoulder blades down to his hole, still stretched open and sticky with my come. I caress it with one finger and he gives a soft kitsune growl, a vibration more felt than heard.

‘You make me so happy,’ I whisper, my cheek to his chest.

He buries his face in my hair.

‘Please say you won’t leave me,’ he begs suddenly. ‘Please. Just say it. I’ll believe.’

I am so shocked that I lean back to look at him.

‘Leave you?! No! I’ll never leave you. Never. Never. Don’t you dare even think that!’ I pull him to me convulsively, terrified at the very prospect. ‘And – and you?’ I guess I need the same reassurance. ‘I am so afraid you’ll leave me one day. I’d die without you.’

‘Never. I’ll never leave you…’ He covers my face with little kisses, my cheeks, my eyes, my forehead, his mouth slides to my chin, my jaw, I feel his fingers in my hair, his nails scratching lightly against my skin. Then he looks me in the eyes and gives me the final gift of this Christmas, as he blushes dark red and concludes, ‘Patamu shto ya tyebya ochen’ lyublyu’.

Chapter Text

This late in the season we are settled into a training routine that is less strenuous than what we did in the autumn. I am back to getting enough sleep, which is fortunate; otherwise I am certain I would have fallen ill. Victor has all the mornings to himself and is rather amused by this. He says that until midday he is a grass widower.

We are settled into other routines as well: the domestic one, which I like, and… Well, that.

It must be obvious to Victor by now that my memories from the night after the finals are very pleasant and that I wouldn’t mind repeating the experience. My caresses tell him this quite explicitly; yet he is pretending not to notice. This seems to be his way of avoiding the issue. The next level of bluntness would be for me to throw him belly down on the bed and push my cock between his buttocks. This I am not ready to do, even though the vision is, er, enticing. So, the realistic next level is to say what I want. Every few days I think that it might be better if I forced the issue into the open; but it is a delicate one. I wouldn’t want Victor to feel obliged to comply with my wishes. Also, I can imagine how stupid I’d feel if I proposed we switch and he said no.

So when he tells me what he wants us to do – which he usually does in clear and explicit body language, but sometimes in words, too, which I enjoy, for his dirty talk is very sexy, and when he is in a certain mood, also very funny – I obey happily and with alacrity. When he lies back, guiding me to impale myself on his shaft, I am quick to straddle him. I adore watching his eyes go dark with pleasure, their cobalt turning to deep indigo, and his mouth open in a silent shout. When he covers me with his whole body, his cock seeking entry, I spread my legs wide and wrap my arms around his shoulders to hold him close. When he kneels behind me and I feel his caresses opening me for him, I push my butt into his groin, taking him as much as he takes me. When he chooses some weird place for sex (by which I don’t mean any public space, he says this is a no-no for him and I must say this makes me relieved), I never hesitate to play along. Because, make no mistake, I love what we’re doing and I am absolutely sincere in my moans, pleas and expressions of appreciation. I find this man irresistible and – well, that’s final. Nothing’s going to change it. But I am aware that somewhere very deep in my soul, there is a quiet sigh and a thought: next time.

Next time I will dare to state my wishes. Next time he will heed them.

***

I did warn myself not to do anything stupid, didn’t I? I should have listened to my own advice.

Our shirts are lying crumpled at our feet. I release Yuri from a long kiss.

‘Shoo! Don’t keep me waiting forever, I’m not made of iron.’

This is a signal for him to go take a shower and then join me in the bedroom, or wherever my mood happens to lead me. I expect him to respond with his usual grin. Instead, he tilts his head and looks at me from under his eyelashes, his expression a lovely mix of desire and shyness.

‘Hey… Maybe today I could be waiting for you?’

This veiled proposal is what I’ve been wishing for. Yet, God knows why, instead of jumping at it like crazy and voicing my liveliest assent I respond with a raise of an eyebrow.

‘Oh? Did you win some gold I don’t know about?’

He processes this, I can almost watch his train of thought, and I see the sexy spark in his eyes go out.

‘No, no, of course not,’ he stammers. He raises his hands halfway to his mouth. ‘I’m sorry, no, that was stupid, I just… No.’

His hands fall down helplessly, a gesture familiar to me from… Yeah, I could never forget. This is how he looked when I first noticed him, at the finals two years ago, just after he made such a mess of his free program – hurt, confused, his face frozen, only his eyes alive, burning with shame.

‘I didn’t mean it,’ he says plaintively. Then he does what he did then, and a few times in Japan, too, when he was unable to bear his mortification; he runs away. He is heading for the bathroom and suddenly I realise: he is going to lock me out.

‘Yuri!’ I shout. ‘Don’t!’

He changes direction and vanishes into the big room. I hear a noise; he seems to have run into something. Then silence.

Over the past year he got used to my teasing. He learnt to tease me back. But this time I’ve hit him where it hurts.

He construed what I’d said for a rejection; and an ugly rejection, too. Just one careless sentence and I’ve managed to link my letting him top me with his victory. This was not exactly sensitive on my part. I mean, I’m sure there was some link, I think he was feeling so happy that evening, so very much in command of his life, that he decided to try, and without asking me for consent, too, which I loved; it was so sweet to be taken. And it’s not that I wasn’t ready – I was; I had wanted him to do it long before.

So what the hell happened now?  

Why did I crush his shy offer when I’d been so looking forward to it?

I’ll tell you why, Nikiforov: because you didn’t stop to think before you said the first thing that came to your mind. You, who are so controlled and smoothly articulate in public, blurted out a neatly turned but nasty line to the man you really care about. By this, you spoilt something that could have been important to him and very nice for you.

I go to the big room. It is lit only with the glow from the outside and I leave it this way; apologies are easier to utter in darkness. I can’t see him anywhere. This is no problem, though.

‘Macchachin, where’s Yuri? Find Yuri!’

The dog heads straight for the sofa. For a moment I still can’t see him. Then I notice the top of his head sticking from behind the armrest. He is sitting on the floor, his back braced against the side of the sofa, his feet against the wall, his body filling a little nook which I’ve never noticed was there. He is curled around a cushion, which he is hugging to his bare chest. There is something both childish and merciless in his posture.

‘Yuri… I’m sorry.’

He acknowledges me with a quiet exhalation. This is all him, communicating in these strange, barely audible sounds that mean so much to me.

‘If you want to, we can…’

He shudders, curls up more tightly and gives an emphatically negative grunt. Damn.

‘I loved it that one time,’ I say sadly. ‘I was hoping for more.’

A quiet snort.

‘Yes, I did!’

The silence grows heavier. I can see I’m blundering in deeper, but I have no idea what he needs me to say.

‘It wasn’t because you won the gold.’

No. Not good. There is definitely a storm gathering.

‘I mean… It wasn’t important to me that you won the gold.’

One more moment, filled with silence which is now terrible.

‘No?’ he says very quietly. ‘This is not what you said.’

I grab at my hair.

‘This is not what I meant! You’re misinterpreting my words!’

At that, he’s had enough. He raises his head.

‘Which words of yours exactly am I misinterpreting?’ he asks sharply. ‘When you say my gold is not important or when you request it? When you say you loved it when I… when I fucked you or when you state a condition for me doing it again which you know I have not met? When you say you loved it or when you…’ Here his voice trembles a little. ‘When you tell me you don’t want it? You are saying many things and they are contradictory. So please, which of these am I to take as true?’

‘When did I tell you I didn’t want it?’ I, too, raise my voice.

‘Today, for example.’

‘I said I’m sorry! I didn’t mean it!’

‘Are you lying to make me feel better? Then don’t!’

‘What?! Yuri, I don’t understand! Why do you say I’m lying? I really liked it! God, I don’t believe we’re quarrelling over a fuck, and a nice fuck, too.’

‘A nice fuck? Really? You made it clear this is not how you feel. I got the message! And I can take it!’ Now his voice is ugly, screechy. ‘I can take it, all right? It won’t break my heart! So stop telling me you want it again! Don’t lie to me! This is worse!’

‘Yuri, what message? What are you talking about?’

‘Nothing! Go away!’ He curls back to a tight ball and covers his head with his arms. A dismissal if I ever saw one.

I sit in silence, confused, because I really don’t know what I got this telling off for.

Yablochko?’

I reach over the armrest and gently scratch the nape of his neck. It is a tactile equivalent to begging him to come round.

Nothing.

‘Yuri, can we talk?’

Nothing.

‘Please?’

‘Go away, Victor. Leave me alone.’

I wait for a while more, hoping he relents, but no.

‘As you wish.’

I rise and I go into the kitchen, turning my back on him.

***

I screwed up. Okay, his remark was a bit callous. But now that I’m beginning to think coherently I can see that there were so many better ways I could have reacted in. The least I could have done was show him the ring on my finger: ‘Yes, this’. Or I could have quipped: ‘No, none. I’m just trying my luck’. He would have answered, we would have teased each other, one thing would have led to another and we might have ended up doing just what I wanted. Instead, I made a totally unnecessary scene and I won’t be surprised if it turns out that now the topic is closed. Oh damn, damn. What a pity, I really thought it would be nice for us both to switch sometimes.

Why didn’t I ask him? An open refusal would have hurt and I would have been sorry, I felt so great making love to him… but at least we would have known where we stand. Well, over the past weeks I got my answer anyway: he is not interested. His behaviour points to this conclusion. Do I allow this to become a problem between us? No. He doesn’t have to want us to switch. His preference has always been clear. And he has never given me a reason to complain. He is caring, sensitive, responsive, very great fun, and oh damn, I want him so. I want him right now. My body is burning for his.

Do I care if what I feel is his tightness around me or his hardness inside me? Yes, I do, the feelings are different, and so are the emotions attached to them, but this is not the be-all and end-all. I want to share the rhythm with him, I want to smell the scent of his sweat, I want to hear him cry out my name. I want him to come and to come with him. This is what I want; the details are immaterial.

Okay, bottom line: I was unfair to him. I took him to task over an issue which, upon examination, has proved of little relevance. And when he wanted to apologise, I pushed him away. This was low. All in all, I behaved just like the Yuri Katsuki of old. The one I did not like. Weak. Bitter. Thin-skinned to the point of self-obsession. Lacking all sense of proportion. And, deep down, heedless of the feelings of those who truly cared about him.

Come on, Katsuki, you’re better than this. Stop sulking behind a sofa (now, how mature is that?) and go clear the matter.

***

The light in the fridge comes on and the first thing my eyes settle on, drawn to it as if by a magnet, is a bottle of vodka, standing forgotten at the back. I reach for it. I get a glass. The bottle is nicely chilly in my hand and the vodka pours out smooth, as if oily. Anticipating the cool relief of it and the pleasant sting in my throat, I raise the glass. And this is when I hear a voice behind me.

‘Put it down.’

I freeze.

‘I said. Put. This glass. Down.’ The voice gets a little harder.

I exhale slowly.

‘Why should I?’

‘Because I’m asking you to.’

I can almost hear my thought: ‘I don’t have to indulge your caprice’, its tone nasty. Because okay, I said a stupid thing, I admit, but when I tried to apologise he pushed me away, he rebuked me for God knows what, he did not explain, even though I asked. And why did he accuse me of lying? That hurt! I… I don’t lie to him. He was unfair. He made me feel… sad.

So what right does he have to make requests?

The glass hangs halfway to my mouth. Some devil in me whispers: ‘I need this’.

Then I recall how often he complied with my wishes, sometimes no more than whims, happily and without question, just to please me. And how wonderful this made me feel.

Time to return the favour, Nikiforov. Either that or you’re a bastard.

I toss the vodka into the sink, the liquid arcing, and I put the glass down, hard, the way one puts it having downed it to the bottom.

‘Happy now?’ I snarl.

***

‘No,’ I answer, coming closer. He is standing with his back to me, his hands flat on the kitchen top. He left the fridge door open, although I told him a hundred times not to, and the glow from the inside touches his back and shoulder, coaxing them out of darkness, kindling reflexes in his hair. He hangs his head. This tired gesture reveals the nape of his neck, so delicate, so vulnerable. His beauty, and his sadness, take my breath away.

***

‘Vitka…’ He touches my shoulder. He is right behind me. I did not hear him move. I breathe in the scent of his body and I am overwhelmed by desire. A weird feeling, to be so mad at him to want nothing more than to take him in my arms and kiss until we both go weak.

‘I overreacted. What you said was not nice…’ I acknowledge this with a grunt. ‘But it did not merit a scene. I’m a drama queen.’

Pause.

‘Yeah. You are.’

‘And you are a thoughtless prick.’

Pause again. He’s waiting.

‘Yeah. I am.’ I may not like it, but this is exactly the conclusion I’ve reached myself.

‘So, are we even?’

I nod. He hugs me from behind.

‘Good. Because… I haven’t lost hope for this evening yet.’

He presses his groin to my butt and I feel that the hope is certainly there.

‘I will love it either way. Or no way at all. The choice is yours.’ He turns me round with gentle pressure. ‘Only I want to know this is Vitka talking, not vodka talking.’

This is nicely phrased. I can’t help smiling.

‘Especially if… Well, I wouldn’t like to think you need a drink to let me fuck you. Am I making myself clear?’

‘Er… Yeah.’

‘Good. And now I’m going to kiss you.’

And he does. His mouth is soft, and strong, and sweet, and I put my arms around him, thinking: I was wrong. He did not push me away. He just needed space to think. I should have remembered that whatever the crisis, my Yuri always, always rises above it. Only he must have the time to reason his way through it. He cannot be hurried.

He pushes himself away from me a bit. I can see there’s something more on his mind.

‘Victor, that night after the finals. I understand you are in two minds about it. So, one thing. I feel bad that I started touching you when you were asleep. I should have given you a chance to say no.’ He touches my cheek, his eyes down. ‘I apologise.’

I grab his wrist.

‘Hold it!’ Startled, he lifts his eyes to mine. ‘You’re wrong. I was awake. I was not, er, taken by surprise.’ His mouth falls open. ‘Yeah. I guess I better come clean. I provoked you.’

‘You what?’

I explain.

‘So… you wanted me to do it?’

‘I told you that, didn’t I?’ I look at him seriously. ‘Didn’t you believe me?’

‘No, I did! But I thought you wanted it that night. As a reward for me. ‘Cause I won my first gold.’

I cringe.

‘No! I didn’t mean it this way. Not at all. You must believe me.’

I truly didn’t, but I have given him a reason to think so. Because, let’s face it, I have a history of putting forward conditions contingent on his winning the gold. That issue is still unresolved, even though he is a champion now.

‘I wanted it long before. Only I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it. So I… waited.’

I decide to omit my worries re Grisha Kamyshkin. Especially since they were foolish. Yuri’s lovemaking is wonderful in ways Grisha’s could never even begin to be and I should have been wise enough to know it beforehand.

Yuri smiles ruefully.

‘I wish I could answer by telling you I too had wanted it for a long time. But I can’t. Because…’ He rubs his hand against the back of his neck, a gesture which means ‘I’m very embarrassed by what I’m going to say, but I’ll say it anyway’, and I grow curious. ‘Until that night I had never even thought about it.’

‘What?! So you had the idea we could switch and you went on with it right away, just like that?!’

‘Not right away,’ he answers defensively. ‘Took me about ten minutes of getting my courage up. Other things were very much up already.’

‘You’re a rascal!’ I hug him. ‘Just so that we are clear on this, I wanted it today, too. And I wasn’t playing hard to get. You just caught me off guard.’

‘Off guard?’ He bristles. ‘Please! Don’t start again!’

‘Yuri, what am I starting? Please, explain, because I swear to you I have no idea.’

‘You’re implying you didn’t know I wanted us to switch. This is not true. I gave you plenty of time to get used to the thought. I’ve been showing you I was all for it for weeks.’

‘What?!’

A fraught silence.

Then – his ‘fuck!’ of discovery is so quiet it is practically an exhalation.

‘You mean… you didn’t see it.’

‘I didn’t…?’

‘You didn’t see it!’ he shouts. ‘This hasn’t even crossed my mind! You didn’t see it!’

There is such an immense relief on his face that I have to smile, although I really shouldn’t, since it is beginning to dawn on me how thoroughly blind I have been.

Because yes, he did change a little recently. His foreplay was slightly more rough. His caresses were centred on my butt rather than on my cock. The way he hugged me from behind. The way he washed me when we showered together. The way he pinned me down when we wrestled. The way he spooned me before sleep. These were all signs I was waiting for but did not see.

He was being subtle about it and I was not attuned to him enough to read his hints. It is obvious to me now: he was trying to make me feel his interest. He was reluctant to state it, not wanting to push me. This is, after all, Yuri, a man of few words, and tactful to the extreme.

Oh God, the kitsune boy’s caress! I almost got round to asking him then. Why didn’t I? This was two months ago! So – he’s been feeling rejected for a long while. He was taking it in his stride. He was as loving and as sexy as always. But today I said I liked what I showed I didn’t. This was the last straw.

I cover my eyes with my hand.

‘Sorry… No. I didn’t.’

He sighs heavily.

‘I should have sent an envoy with a trumpet. And a big sign saying, my turn to top.’ He considers this. ‘To the rink. Somebody would have pointed him out to you.’

We both picture this scene in our mind’s eye. We picture the reactions.

‘Yakov…’ I whisper ecstatically.

‘Yura…’ adds Yuri in the same tone. That does it. We burst into laughter, hugging each other. When we stop, Yuri shakes his head indulgently.

‘Eh, Vitka, Vitka. Subtlety just doesn’t work with you.’ He looks at me speculatively. ‘Shall I try a more direct approach?’

‘Yes, please!’ I drawl in my best dirty voice.

‘Fine.’

His hands slide under the elastic of my sweatpants. He goes down on one knee to help me out of them. Rising, he braces his hands on the edge of the kitchen top so that I stand between his forearms. As he leans down to take my cock in his mouth, he shows me the sculpted curve of his back. Oh, what a body he’s got, this golden Eros who is mine, mine, oh sweetheart, yes, keep doing this, don’t stop…

‘Enough. Turn round.’

Oh…? – Oh! He presses his body to mine, pushing my hips to the kitchen top. I feel his cock against my butt, hot even through his sweatpants. He takes that chunk of flesh where my neck meets my shoulder between his teeth, not biting, just holding, like a dog does to keep a playmate in place. I reach over to clench my hand on his hair.

‘Yuri…’

He lets go. The place where his teeth rested against my skin is tingling as if he had poison in his mouth.

‘Yes?’

‘Nothing. I just like saying your name.’

‘Soon you’ll be screaming it.’

He pushes his thigh between my legs. His hand slides down my flank, down my thigh, to my knee. Then, unexpectedly, he pulls my leg sideways and up. I’ve obviously danced with him way too much: my body obeys him without question. My mind gets no time to react. I end up with a knee on the kitchen top and he with full access to every nook of my nakedness.

He purrs an appreciative ‘This is nice’ and leans over me. I look up. He is reaching for the bottle of olive oil standing by the wall, rigorously aligned with bottles of soy sauce, mirin and various vinegars (this is his kitchen, after all; it is tidy). I tense.

‘No, Yuri, don’t, I’m not…’

‘Shh. I know. I’m just playing.’

He licks me all the way from the small of my back upwards, tickling my shoulder blades with his tongue. I feel as if I had wings growing there.

‘Showing you what I want in a way you cannot fail to notice.’

 His finger slides down and circles my hole. The feeling is divine. He gives me a while to enjoy it.

‘Now, tell me: are my intentions clear to you?’ he asks politely.

‘Yes…’

‘I can’t hear you.’ His finger gets more insistent.

‘Yes! Oh God, yes!’

‘Mm. This sounds like consciously given assent.’

‘This is blackmail,’ I moan. ‘Outright cruelty.’

‘Is it really?’ He teases me some more. ‘I can stop.’

‘No! Please, no.’

Soon he has me begging for his cock inside me. He has me begging loudly, in graphic detail, and in three languages.

‘Mm. Yeah. I think I get your point,’ he says when I stop for breath. He is bloody laughing there behind me, the bastard, clearly having a very good time. ‘But just for me to make sure, now the same in Japanese, please.’

‘Hey! You know I can’t!’ I protest. My Japanese is all right to order a ramen, but not enough to tell him to shove his cock in me, right now, and fuck me so hard that I scream for mercy, and not stop when I do, because this will only mean I want more.

‘But I can.’ He leans over me, never stopping his caresses, and says a few sentences. I have no idea what he’s saying, but the tone of his voice tells me it is outrageously dirty.

‘Whatever it was you said, yes! Do it to me!’

‘You’re far too trusting,’ he purrs. ‘Are you sure you can bear it?’

He reaches for my ankle and steers me so that my knee slides down from the kitchen top. I am standing with my back to him, shivering with desire. And this devil brings his lips to my ear and murmurs just one word.

‘Shoo.’

And sends me off with a very firm slap on my rump.

As I emerge from the bathroom, he is standing right there, naked, barring the bedroom door, leaning against the frame and playing with his cock. The smirk on his face is the filthiest imaginable.

***

We didn’t make it to the bed. I took him kneeling on the hallway floor, my parka bunched under his knees my only concession to his comfort. I fucked him slowly. I told him everything I needed him to know. Some of what I said shocked even me. Then I fucked him hard. He told me everything I wanted to hear. It took a long time. The big mirror is still blushing at the memory. So is he.

***

What happens a few days after is a result of a coincidence. Later, much later, I will see it as the beginning of an end. Or, more correctly, of a shift.

We have each of us ordered a new pair of skate boots and new blades. The season will close soon and for a while we will be skating less strenuously; this will give us time to break in the new skates nice and slow, so that they don’t chafe us worse than they have to. By the beginning of the next season the boots will have adjusted to the shape and movement of our feet and the blades will feel familiar and friendly.

The skates arrive by courier. They are very, very nice (hellishly expensive, too, the boots hand-sewn leather and the blades top quality and mounted by world’s best expert, but we can afford them and, naturally, we are hoping they will help us to earn some more). And as we take them to the rink, we discover that our lockers there begin to overflow. In order to leave the new skates in the lockers, we will have to take one of the old pairs out and store it at home. No problem; each of us selects a pair, we shove them into our sports bags and that’s it.

Having done that, and skated a few circles, we decide to go out for lunch. We settle on a certain little Georgian restaurant which we like and haven’t visited for a while. We set out.

And on the way – no more than three hundred metres away from the restaurant – we have to skirt an open-air ice rink.

We were aware of its existence. All winter we passed it from time to time and even stopped by to observe people having fun. We smiled to each other but were never tempted to enter. We had our own rink and, more importantly, we are used to far better skates than any you can rent at the public rink. Today, however, each of us has his own pair in a bag slung over his shoulder. And we are not yet very hungry. We can spare an hour.

We pay, we put on our skates, we go in. The ice is appallingly uneven, scarred by thousands of blades. The rink will close soon; spring is not far away.

We join the stream of skaters, positioning ourselves in the inner, faster-moving circle. No more than ten minutes later someone recognises me.

***

Soon he is surrounded by people. I have often observed how good he is with his fans, friendly and responsive. I hear laughter. He must have made some witty remark. I quietly back away and watch him from afar, smiling to myself. He is their darling, their living legend, and I am not needed there.

This is when I feel a slight tug on my sleeve. I look round. No-one. Only at the second tug do I look where I should: down. I see a young lady of maybe seven, wearing a red sweater and a solemn expression.

‘My sister says you can’t be Yuri Katsuki,’ she informs me.

I consider this.

‘Why not?’

‘He is Japanese.’

‘I am Japanese.’

‘So why are you not in Japan?’

Um, because I fell in love and I would have followed my man to the ends of the earth, but let’s not go into such details.

‘I came here to learn.’

‘To learn what?’

‘To skate.’

‘See! You’re not Yuri Katsuki. He can skate already.’

‘Maybe he wants to get better?’

‘He doesn’t have to.’

Bless you, girl. If only it were true.

‘Yuri Katsuki can’t speak like we do.’ There is a note of accusation in her voice.

‘Maybe he’s been taking lessons?’

Her turn to consider.

‘So, what do you say? Can I be Yuri Katsuki?

‘No.’

This is getting surreal. Soon I’ll believe me an impostor myself. What am I doing here, speaking Russian, skating like a champion and fucking the handsomest man in the country? I sigh heavily.

‘Pity. I would like to be him. Are you sure I can’t?’

She looks at me, her eyebrows drawn. I think she would honestly like to help me.

‘I’ll ask my sister.’

Ah, a sister, the universal oracle. I remember myself at that age. Mari ruled my life mercilessly. This was one of the reasons I made the dancing studio, and later the rink, my second home: she didn’t go there with me. She was not interested in sports. I watch my friend converse with two girls of about thirteen. One of them must be that all-powerful goddess.

She skates back to me.

‘She says he can spin.’

‘Fair point. He can.’

‘Can you?’

‘Yes.’

Gone again. Talking to sis. Back again.

‘She says that if you can spin, you may be Yuri Katsuki. But you must show her.’ Her voice is quivering a little. She is sorry for me.

‘Okay. Would you like to spin with me?’

She hesitates.

‘Just think what your sister will say,’ I tempt her. ‘What’s your name?’

‘Masha.’

I squat in front of her.

‘Look, Mashen’ka, this is what we can do: you just stand here, and I skate to you and grab you like this,’ I demonstrate. ‘I lift you and we spin together. Would you like that?’

She nods, but I can see she is doing it only to make me feel nice. She totally doesn’t believe we can do this.

Whereas I, my dear girl, have done it a hundred of times. I’ve spun with Yuko, I’ve spun with Mila, I’ve spun with every one of the Nishigori triplets, sometimes with one under each arm, I’ve spun with Victor laughing in my embrace and, the most enjoyable of all, I’ve spun with Yura furiously trying (and failing) to get away from me. So I skate a short but fast approach, I scoop her up in passing, stop dead in my tracks and we spin. It’s a pleasantly dynamic spin, nothing fancy but nice to look at. Masha squeals throughout.

I put her down. I see the sister and her friend gaping at us with their mouths open. Masha skates to them, still squealing. Two minutes later, she is back.

‘Please, can you do it with my sister?’

‘Sure.’

Another spin. And another, for the sister’s friend wants a go, too. And there’s one more girl watching from the sidelines, and when I smile at her, she skates up to us. She is a little heavier, but we nevertheless spin very nicely. And then Masha wants another go.

Soon I am surrounded by a flock of girls aged six to thirteen treating me like their own personal slave.

‘Have you ever taken a fall?’ asks one after I’ve spun with each of them at least twice.

‘Like this?’ I pretend to slip and sit down on the ice. ‘A hundred of times.’

‘But this doesn’t hurt you, right?’

‘Of course it does. But I like skating too much to quit. And you can learn to fall so that it hurts less.’

I show them how. Soon they are all flat on the ice. I have them get up and fall down again. At this point we are joined by three boys. They’ve been watching from a distance and probably disdained spinning with me as unmanly; but falling is fun. So we do some more of it. Then we form a single-file line, each kid holding to the one before, and we skate counting to ten and backwards to keep an even pace. I notice some parents watching and taking pictures, so I give them a wave and tell the kids to do the same. Frankly, I’m having a time of my life. It would take hours of this to tire me out.

***

I’ve had enough chatting to people. We came here to have a skate and look what’s happened: I am being everyone’s darling, handing out autographs left and right, and he, tactful as always, has melted into the background and is probably having a good time on his own.

I look round for him and I see that he is indeed having a good time, but certainly not on his own. He has three kids hanging at each arm and is skating backwards, dragging them with him; some more follow. What a pity there are no competitions in skating like this, he’d win gold big time. Then there’s some squealing and I see him lift a girl and spin with her.  

Watching them play, I can’t help wondering when the fact that he will not have a child of his own begins to impinge on our relationship. For my part, I’m okay with being childless, I don’t see myself as a father. But I am the last of my line, so to speak, I have no obligations; Yuri does. Sooner or later the fact that he will not give his parents a grandson will become a problem. They will want a heir to that hotel of theirs.

On his sister I cannot count. He once told me, à propos of something else, that she is getting too old to marry. She is thirty-three; in Japan this is a lot for a girl to find a husband, and, let’s be frank, Mari is a bit abrasive, which doesn’t help. But Japan has some very weird adoption laws and I am determined to take full advantage of them before I surrender my man to some girl for the sake of allowing the Katsuki family to continue for another generation. I am having my eye on the Nishigori family. They have three kids, they can have more, and they are not very well off.

Unless, of course, Yuri is with me only for a time. Only until it becomes proper for him to marry. Technically, I don’t think it would be a problem; I do, after all, suspect that he is bisexual. Emotionally… I don’t know. He says he loves me. He says he will never leave me. But will he defy custom for me? Does he love me enough to go against his filial duty? This is, in fact, one of the reasons why I haven’t proposed to him yet. I am scared. Because what will I do if he says, I would but I cannot?

And what if… one day… he decides he actually… wants a family? A wife, a child. Oh God, what will I do then? I… I won’t stand in his way. Only what will I do when he’s gone?

I want his life to be sweet, I do, oh God, I do! But – what will become of me?

I sigh and push these questions to the back of my mind. I will not let problems which may or may not arise in the future poison our present happiness. Today, life’s good.

***

The girl is small and thin. Her mother is standing right outside the fence and she is holding to her sleeve, hiding her face in it but watching us play. I recognise this gesture, averting the face yet glancing sideways, not being able to look away, wishing for the courage to join in.

I skate up, but not too close.

Privyet. Would you like to join us?’ I ask.

The girl moves to follow me then jerks back to her mother’s sleeve. Another well-known gesture. She is blond, not black-haired, and her eyes are pale, but down to where it matters, she could be me.

‘Go, Zhenya,’ says the woman, pushing her gently. ‘He is not going to eat you.’

Having decided that I’m harmless, the girl pushes herself off towards me and, quite unexpectedly, puts her hand in mine. We turn to skate towards my flock. And suddenly I feel a connection.

Her legs are far shorter than mine, but our blades strike the ice precisely her two steps to my one, her posture is perfect, the grasp on my hand feather-light – a touch of a partner rather than a pupil – and I realise that this little person is not a novice.

She turns neatly to face me.

‘Can you spin with me, too?’ she asks shyly.

‘Why not?’ I wave at the rest of the kids, who seem to be waiting for me more or less patiently, skate away from Zhenya and then turn round and glide towards her.

Wow! Instead of waiting for me to pick her up like the other girls did, she skates towards me. She does not jump, but as I grab her, I feel her spring upwards, making it easier for me to lift her. And she is both so light and so assured in her body – this is incredible, what can she be, seven, eight? – that my own body reacts to her. I lift her higher than I did the others and I know I can hold her one-armed, because she’ll know what to do.

She’s up. I enter into the spin. I put my arm up and away in a nice gesture… And she does the same! Trusting me to hold her, she throws her head back and raises both her arms above her head. My arm adjusts to the curve of hers.

This is like sharing fun on ice with a mature skater! Like I play with Mila. Yuko was never this good.

I put her down with a flourish. She lands on the ice on just one leg and does a nice swing to move away from me. I can see her body wanting, craving, a jump, because yeah, this would be a neat finish to this spin, but she doesn’t know how to do it. Not yet. But she will. A talent like this will shine out. It must, or it will tear her apart.

‘This was nice!’ I grin at her. ‘How long have you been skating?’

In answer I get a cheerful ‘I started after Christmas. The skates were my Christmas present. I asked for them!’ and – I hear the verbs. The past tense is gender-marked in Russian.

Zhenya is not a Evgenya, but a Evgeny. The diminutive for both names is the same.

I quickly recall what I have said to him and no, thankfully I have not used any verb in the past tense. He won’t know that I have taken him for a girl.

‘You’re good!’ I praise him with my whole heart. He grins back at me. This alters his face and now it is obvious that he’s a boy. ‘Shall we join the others?’

As we continue to play, I watch him surreptitiously. Yeah, he is far better than any of the others; the best. The ice loves him. It just sings with joy under his blades.

What we are having here is a future Plisetsky. A Nikiforov. This kid is a skater who will make even the memory of us fade to nothing.

***

There are still some fans around me and I continue talking to them, but my quips grow absent-minded. I can’t take my eyes off him. He is serious, entirely engrossed in the games he is playing with the kids. This is amazing! In what, forty minutes, he won their trust, got them to cooperate with him and with each other, gave them an impromptu skating lesson and now has them all looking at him with adoration.

As I watch him, enthralled, I realise what he is. A teacher. A great teacher.

I think of Yakov, who may have wished for a more biddable trainee to turn into a champion, but all he got was me – and he never let me feel his disappointment. Well, no, he made me feel it many times, but it was always disappointment with me. It was never a wish I had been someone else. He gave me over to Grisha with good grace and when I returned, bruised, he took me back without a comment. He was always there for me and he never cut me any slack.

Isn’t life weird? I seem to have had two substitute fathers, one a lover, the other a teacher. One made me a social being, the other, a professional that I am. I loved them both, with the difficult, gruff, complicated love of a son. Both let me go, as fathers should. And neither of them had been my kin.

And at this thought I feel a sudden lifting of my spirits. A hope. Perhaps Yuri will not miss being a father. Because it may happen that he will have children around him. And some of them will be, in a very special way, his own.

***

Time to say goodbye. Hugs all around, and I’m sending the kids back to their parents. It won’t be long before I am made to realise not all of them were happy about our improvised skating practice.

I skate up to Zhenya’s mother. The boy is already there, talking to her eagerly.

Zdrastvuytye. I apologise for stealing your son this way. My name is Yuri Katsuki.’

‘I know.’ She has a very nice smile. ‘We watched the finals. Congratulations.’

Oh. I didn’t realise my face was recognisable.

‘Thank you. Has Zhenya really been skating just three months?’ I ask quickly, trying to cover my embarrassment.

‘Yes. Just here, on weekends.’

‘Then he is very talented. He will win gold one day.’ I squat in front of the kid. ‘Keep skating. When you’re a junior, find me. I’ll be your coach, if you wish.’ I look up at his mother. ‘I’m serious. He’d be a pleasure to work with.’

She smiles, obviously delighted.

‘Would you like that, Zhenya?’ she asks.

He nods, his face grave. I extend my hand. We shake on the promise. Then I lift my eyes again and I see that his mother is no longer alone. She’s been joined by a man. There is an open hostility in his eyes and a fear in hers. I rise.

‘I’m sure we shall meet again,’ I say with a slight bow. She smiles nervously. The man wants to say something which I suddenly know I don’t want to hear. So I just nod at Zhenya, I turn round and I skate away. I hope I haven’t made things difficult for the boy.

‘Yuri!’ I hear Victor’s yell. He is standing near the centre of the rink. I wave goodbye to the kids, who are still hovering around, and am answered by a chorus of cheerful dasvidanyas. I turn. I see Victor giving me a very familiar signal: a quick two-handed pat on his collarbones. And, fool that I am, I feel a desire to show off. 

***

I see the ice between us grow momentarily empty and this is when I make a grave mistake.

I give him our signal to jump.

God, what was I thinking?

The answer is, I wasn’t thinking anything. I wanted to finally get a little of what I came here for, good time with my boyfriend. I guess I haven’t yet got used to my sexuality, and his, being public knowledge. I did not consider the consequences. No, more than that: I thought there would be no consequences. Soon I will be given bitter lessons to the contrary.

We skate towards each other. Yuri jumps. I catch him, lift him and spin like crazy, laughing up at him. He raises his arms exactly the way Yura does, turns his face away and throws me an oblique glance. He is both demure and sexy.

Yeah, we both got used to the liberal atmosphere of our rink.

As we begin to spin, people applaud. Then they start noticing that the person I’m spinning with is a man, not a girl, and the applause dies down.

I end the spin and set Yuri down. Somewhere behind me I hear a none-too-quiet ‘Golubye…’. Oblivious to the changing mood, Yuri skates a little away, jumps a blasé double loop and returns to me.

‘Let’s go,’ he says happily. ‘I’m hungry.’

Precisely at this moment, as we turn to skate towards the exit, we hear a woman’s shriek: ‘Zhenya!’. From behind the legs of the adults shoots a small figure, skating to us like a homing pigeon.

Yuri goes down on one knee, bracing the picks of his skate firmly in the ice, and opens his arms. The boy throws himself into his embrace, clasping his arms around his neck. They hug each other powerfully. I see the boy’s face over Yuri’s shoulder, his eyes screwed tightly. I hear them murmur a few indistinct words. Then Yuri releases the kid, who says, with an un-childlike intensity, ‘Zhenya Lastochkin. Will you not forget?’.

‘I will not forget,’ answers Yuri just as fiercely. ‘Go, Zhenya. Until we meet again.’

The boy skates away.

‘Come, Yuri,’ I say, trying to keep calm. This exchange was brief, but people noticed how strangely passionate it was. The atmosphere is growing heavy. I hear some more insults, although they are still muttered under breath.

We leave the ice. We get our bags from the makeshift cloakroom, take off our skates. And as we walk towards the exit, we have to pass about three metres from the edge of the ice.

A man pushes through people standing two, three deep along the fencing. Thank God for that fencing; if it weren’t there, I think he would have attacked us. His face is twisted in anger.

‘Keep your paws off the children!’ he yells. Then he lets out a string of invectives, his language unspeakably foul.

Every face turns towards us.

***

Poshol von, petukh!’ shouts the man. ‘Pidory! Svoloch v zhopu yebana!

Victor goes white. He trips slightly. Regains his balance. Fights for control. I can almost hear him thinking: Let Yuri not notice.

What he doesn’t know is that I understand. Every word.

Some of them I’ve been hearing, muttered behind my back, at our rink. Others I’ve seen in the internet. There were some comments on my fan page which I carefully deleted so that Victor would not see them. If there had been any on his, he did the same.

He thinks me an innocent. I’m not. I only refuse to heed this hostility. And all I can think of now is: I cannot let him react. I cannot let him get involved. There’s just two of us. Who knows how many people will turn against us. And the crowd will be, at best, indifferent.

It takes me all, all, of the acting skills I allegedly possess to control my face, to walk on without a slightest shift in my posture and to continue chatting to him without missing a beat. I’m telling him how enthusiastic the children were and how this pair of skates needs either an overhaul or a final sayonara, and I’m pretending not to have noticed his silence. He walks on beside me, the even rhythm of my stride pulling him along.

We walk away.

***

Thank God, he didn’t notice. I am letting him lead the way, hardly listening to his chatter, and I am thinking the thoughts that have probably gone, in countless variations, through the head of every gay man that ever had to face this aggression: What’s it to you?

What’s it to you if it is Yuri that spreads his legs for me, or some girl?

Scum. Fag. Pervert. What gives you the right?

Paedophile? The only man I want to fuck is twenty-five, not even an ephebe any longer, and when it comes to him fucking me, well, I’m close to middle age. Rapist? I’ve never touched a man who was not begging for it, and as for Yuri… No, this doesn’t bear thinking about.

What have we done to you that you hate us so?

I feel like screaming with fury. And with hurt. And with fear, too, because someone has surely filmed the boy throwing himself into Yuri’s arms and, Russia’s recently changed laws being what they are, the charge of attempting to pervert a child can land him deep in trouble. Neither of us is anonymous, we will be found. He may be facing an indictment. I will be implicated. If it comes to that, I will put up a fight for us both, but the legal system is against us.

Then I feel a wave of a familiar discomfort, a sort of a constriction behind my right eyeball, it’s always the right one, and I know that I have a more immediate problem.

***

‘Do you mind if we give the meal a miss?’ he says quietly. ‘I’m not feeling well.’

‘Sure. There’s enough food at home for a improvised supper.’

‘I don’t think I’ll be eating.’

I glance at him and I immediately reach for my phone to call a taxi. He is having trouble focusing his eyes and I know very well what this means: he has a headache coming. I’m sure it was brought on by shock. I must get him home as soon as possible.

He told me about his headaches soon after he arrived in Hasetsu. He assured me that I shouldn’t worry if he gets one and just leave him alone until the pain goes away. But since then I have discovered some things that make him a little more comfortable.

Once in the taxi, he leans back against the seat. The paleness of his face is tinged with blue, the skin so taut that I can discern the curves and planes of the skull beneath, and for a fleeting moment I get a glimpse of how he will look like on his deathbed. My heart goes to him, to the old man he will be one day, and I love that old man as much as I love Victor now.

***

The way Yuri deals with these headaches of mine is another of the many things I could kiss his feet in gratitude for.

I get them once every two months, three if I’m lucky. No painkiller has ever worked. All I can do is wait out the pain. But these days, when I feel one coming, I can crawl to the bedroom and I find it already in semi-darkness, the blinds down, my phone confiscated. I can lie down knowing that the dog will be fed and walked, all texts and calls will be answered with a polite but firm message from Yuri’s phone that I am out of reach until the next day, the flat will stay soothingly quiet and – the best thing of all – cool jasmine tea will keep miraculously appearing by my bedside. Being an accomplished dancer, Yuri is so light on his feet I don’t even hear him bring it. I remember how I used to drag myself downstairs to walk the dog almost sobbing with pain and, yes, fear. Because I was friendless. Now I have this sweet soul beside me. I feel so safe, so protected.

I close my fingers around his wrist.

‘Yuri… Thank you.’

He strokes my hand. He knows that when I have a headache, even a kiss hurts me.

‘If you need anything, I’m right outside.’

***

This is not a metaphor. I bring some cushions from the sofa and I settle by the bedroom door, my back braced against the wall. He rarely calls me while he has a headache, but when he does, it is in such a weak voice that I might not hear him otherwise. I command the dog to stay by my side. Maccachin is a darling, but he doesn’t realise that sometimes even a gesture of love causes our master great discomfort.

I am sorry for what happened today. What was I thinking? Me, the shrinking violet, suddenly wanting to let people see that I have a handsome lover who spins me round and round. Why? This was so unnecessary. I should have resisted this stupid urge.

I am sorry for Victor. The discovery that as an openly gay skater he is not as appreciated as he was as a presumably straight one came as a shock to him. Thanks to Yura, I was far more aware of the truth. I tried to protect Victor’s innocence and for a while I succeeded, but today, finally, I failed.

And I’m also sorry for Zhenya, whom I am now sure I will never see again. Because the man who shouted those terrible insults at us, the one who pushed through the crowd, was his father. I only hope he won’t make Zhenya stop skating. It would be a crime.

I feel an ache in my heart. It would have been wonderful teaching him. I would have known how to manage him; I have a lot of first-hand experience with shy boys, don’t I? I just hope that one day he gets such wonderful a coach as I got in Victor. And if he falls for him, fine. On condition that he is as happy in his love as I am in mine.

And that by that time Russia changes. At least a little.

I enter just once, to put some more jasmine tea by Victor’s side. It is freshly made, but I left it to stand on the outside windowsill for five minutes, so it is already cool, ready to drink. Then I stretch out on the floor again.

The next thing I see is Victor squatting beside me, his hand closing the laptop that has slid off my belly. He is still very pale, his face pinched, but his eyes are alert and he is looking down at me questioningly.

‘What are you doing here?’

‘Nothing.’ I’m angry with myself. I didn’t want him to know I watch over him this way. In the past, I always I heard him stir and removed myself in time. But today a bunch of kids tired me out so thoroughly that I dozed off.

‘Do you… do you always sit here when I have a headache?’

I answer with an irritated grunt. He presses his cheek to the top of my head.

‘I don’t deserve you.’

‘Oh, shut up. Go take a pee if that’s why you got up.’

‘Yes, sir!’ He salutes me. I huff.

I open the window for a while. He comes round better if the room is a little chilly. He returns, lies down and stretches out his arms.

‘A hug for the invalid?’ He makes puppy eyes at me. ‘Please?’

***

He is such a wonderfully cuddly creature. Since the time he started lavishing his affection on me, I have realised that for most of my adult life I was dying for precisely this, the loving touch. I curl around him and he curls into me, his legs over my thighs and his head on my shoulder. He is totally undemanding, just there. This is nice, because I am always listless after a headache. But he doesn’t expect me to do anything more than hold him.

I do so enjoy his smallness. He is not much shorter than me, but his fine bone structure makes him look fragile. Narrow hands, slim wrists, small feet. Naked, he seems whippet thin. Until you notice that this elfin body is pure muscle. (Also – an image flashes through my mind here which does much towards making me feel better – his cock is pleasantly big when erect, but on such a lean man it looks, simply by contrast, prodigious.)

There was a time when I thought he was emotionally fragile, too. But I have learnt time and again that there’s steel underneath that delicate exterior. My Yuri is like the blade of a fine dagger; thin, sharp, unfailingly reliable, and a thing of beauty.

His ear lies flat against his head like a tiny perfect shell. I tickle its edge with the tip of my tongue. He turns his face to me. I draw one finger down his forehead to where a few hairs almost cause his eyebrows to meet, down the bridge of his nose and up to its tip, down the twin ridges of his lips to his chin, down his throat to that sweet little hollow between his collarbones.

Yablochko,’ I say softly.

He opens his eyes. There is a golden speck, like a tiny flame, in each of them and if I look carefully, I can just discern the boundary between the pupil and the iris. I love gazing at his face from so very close.

Shto?’

Nishto.’

He smiles. This makes a dimple appear in his cheek. Yeah, I’m not kidding, he has a dimple when he smiles. It is only in the right cheek and it has to be a special smile, but there you are. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I first noticed it, I mean, a grown man and he dimples like a baby angel. Yet he also turns into a ruthless shogun when aroused and a veritable prince of darkness when angered. My God, what a man he is. He is… everything.

Yet, being that, he looks up at me with those enormous eyes of his as if I were a tower of strength. I am doing my best to be one. For him. I don’t always succeed. Sometimes I am simply too selfish. But even when I am – you know, Yuri, a tower can stand firm only when it is built on a rock. You are my rock, sweetheart.

What happened today was ugly. I wish I could do something about it, but I can’t. Such things can only be endured. But Katsuki Yuri, the Japanese skating champion, is lying in my arms, quietly holding me in his love, and I feel that as long as I have this, nothing can break me.

And no-one takes him away from me. I will fight like a rabid dog before this happens.

***

He is tired after the headache. There are shadows under his cobalt eyes. The recent pain still keeps his narrow lips pressed together. But I know they can, and soon will, curve into the widest of smiles, and his eyes will sparkle again.

I lie in his arms quietly, passively, waiting from him to recover. There are times when he needs me like this, soft and yielding. He needs me reliant. This makes him feel protective of me. He loves it. And I love being protected. He is the shield I hide behind. But I have my own strength, too, although of a different kind that his. And I know his needs. With the saliva of my kisses and the sperm of my orgasms I seal the cracks in his psyche. I keep him warm in the sunshine of my smiles. I stand guard over him when he takes off his armour.

He sees himself as the strong one, the hero who swept me off my feet. He is right; he did. And with all his flaws and insecurities, he is my hero. But I am a champion now myself and I know my worth.

I know who I am and I know who I want to be. Forever.

So heed me, Nikiforov: I’m giving you six months. Six. Months. Not a day more. If you get round to doing it, I will be delighted. Blushing all over, I will whisper a demure ‘yes’ and I will tell you that I’m the happiest man in the world. Which I will be.

If you don’t, fine. As you please. But know this: on the first day of September I am asking you for your hand in marriage and I won’t take a no for an answer.

And if you make me wait this long and then suffer all the nerves of proposing, I swear I’m having you wear flowers in your hair for our wedding, no matter where and when it takes place.

Be glad I’m not into veils.

Chapter Text

Soon after I arrived in Sankt Petersburg Victor nursed me through a very bad chest infection. He was endlessly attentive in a laughing, relaxed fashion. His good humour kept me convinced that even though I was feeling miserable, my illness was nothing to be concerned about. Only later did he tell me that for while it looked like it might worsen into pneumonia, which is very serious, and that he was out of his mind with worry.

‘The climate of Russia may not agree with you, I’m afraid,’ he said. I recalled this comment later. And his expression, which was odd. Did he have a foreboding of trouble? If yes, then not for long, for Yura and I began to shield him, protecting his happiness. I don’t remember if this was before or after we met that woman. We were out shopping and at some point we came face to face with a stocky blonde of about thirty-five, who looked at Victor, very pointedly spat on the ground and disappeared in the crowd. I asked him who she was. ‘My cousin,’ he answered, a strained look in his eyes. ‘But she doesn’t want to know me. She does not approve of who I am.’

‘A skater?’ I asked incredulously.

‘A homosexual,’ he explained.

Idiot me.

***

This was the last time Yuri was to have a full practice session before the break. I was to collect him from the rink. I was late, because I went to buy a bottle of wine to celebrate the end of season.

A few days earlier I had lost to him again. Yeah, you guessed: he won the Worlds. He seemed embarrassed. ‘Are sure this is okay?’ he asked, as if my opinion could change the scores. ‘Very sure,’ I said, I kissed his gold, I kissed him and I was happier than I have ever thought possible.

Because for me, it’s like with lovers: I’ve had my share. My triumphs grew barren. I stood on the podium, time after time, an empty smile stuck to my face. Oh, it was nice to shine; I’m not saying it wasn’t. But to see him shine is – glorious.

Some of our fans don’t seem to believe this. Phichit showed us a few fan sites where we’ve read some theories that made us laugh for days. I am a heartless monster, apparently, and Yuri a co-dependent weakling. Wow.

Sotto voce: this made for quite an interesting bedroom game.

Alternatively, he is a man of very peculiar proclivities and I obey his every whim. This, er, did not. I’m afraid we are both rather moderate in our tastes. Not dull, mind you, but there are limits.  

We were looking forward to having a few weeks off the ice and planning a holiday, preferably somewhere quiet and expensive. Because we are very well off now. I got myself a watch I’d been having my eye on for a while and Yuri sent his parents enough for them to have new roofing on the whole building done twice over if they so desire and he still has more cash left than he could roll in.

So: it was the last day Yuri was to be at the rink. The last day. He actually thought of skipping practice; then, always dutiful, decided not to. Had he done it, all our life would probably have unfolded differently.

I wasn’t so very late. Not even half an hour. But practice had obviously ended, for there was no-one around. No Yuri, waiting for me with his usual easy patience. Just an empty expanse of ice.

Thank God it was so quiet in the building. This is the only reason why I heard the commotion and went to investigate.

The sounds are coming from one of the side rooms on the mezzanine. It is a sort of a small conference room. Yakov used to hold meetings with us here when I was a junior. I hear an indistinct cry. I freeze. Was this Yuri’s voice?

It was. Three thugs dragged him into that room. As I open the door, I see one of them holding him down by the back of his neck, pressing him to a table. He is a very big, powerful man, his arm covered in tattoos. Yuri’s trousers are down, his butt exposed. A second man is standing behind him, his penis already out. They are obviously getting ready to have their savage sport with him. The third one is standing back. It is he who notices me.

‘Look who’s here,’ he says warningly.

The one standing behind Yuri looks up.

‘Just the fag we wanted,’ he says. ‘You’re a disgrace to Mother Russia, Nikiforov. So you’re to get what you deserve.’ He rubs at his penis and I immediately understand that our situation is very bad. ‘Yaponets waits his turn.’

The big thug pushes Yuri to the floor. He lands awkwardly, his bare buttocks pathetic; then he rolls round and drags himself backwards into a corner. His trousers have slid to half his thighs and he is feebly trying to pull them up. His eyes are white with fear.

These men have at least two hundred kilograms on us. The big one weighs easily as much as both of us together. All three have shaved heads. Neither is older than twenty-five. They are tattooed. Their clothes may be army surplus. I don’t remember any more about them.

What ultimately saves us is our skaters’ agility. And the bottle of wine which I carry in a canvas bag slung over my shoulder.

I grab it by the neck like a mace and strike the nearer one, which is the big man, on the head. His eyes cross and he slides to the floor. Later I learn that I was lucky; a little lower, towards the temple, and I would have killed him. I would be in prison now. An unenviable fate for such as me.

The other man pushes his penis into his fly. I try to hit him, too, but he easily wrenches the bottle from my hand, catches me and pins my arm behind me.

‘You fucking shit,’ he snarls. ‘You’ll get it hard up the arse for this.’

Oh, who cares. I can take it. What’s important is to get him away from these savages.

‘Yuri! Run!’ I scream. ‘Run!

My shriek, or my English, penetrates through Yuri’s terror. He scrambles up and runs towards the exit. The thug I’ve hit with the bottle is coming to; he makes a clumsy grab at him from the floor. Unable to change direction, Yuri does the only thing possible; he jumps. Even without the skates he can leap very high; the thug’s grabbing hand is way below him. He does not land cleanly, the jump was too unexpected; he hits the door with his shoulder. The door opens to the outside and he falls heavily. But a fall is a well-known thing to us skaters; his reflexes take control and he gets up in one fluid motion, faster than the eye can catch.

By then I, too, have extricated myself. A grip that would have broken the arm of a less supple man only gives me leverage to turn round, as I would in a dance, and to punch the thug on the nose. I strike him with the base of my palm, the way women are taught to hit an attacker, the blow directed upwards. I swear I heard the bone crunch. He did not expect this. He lets out a splutter and his hands fly to his face. I’m free.

The third man seems the least convinced about the whole enterprise; he backs off.

We run. We get into the lift. Once there, Yuri goes into shock.

His breathing gets fast and ragged; one minute more of this and he will hyperventilate and faint. I pull him to me.

‘Yuri! Yuri, don’t. Don’t! Please. We’re not out of danger yet. Breathe evenly. Please. Yes, that’s it, love. That’s it.’

With a tremendous effort he gets himself under some control. He is white as a sheet. His whole body is shaking.

I help him to get his clothes right.

‘Have they…’ My God, how do I phrase this? How do I ask the man I love if he has been raped? ‘Have they hurt you?’

He shakes his head mutely.

Oh, thank God for this. Apart from the horror it would have been for him, who knows what diseases these beasts may have carried.

We go two floors down, not to the main exit, where I fear they may be waiting for us, but to the back one. This is my home turf, I know this building like the back of my hand. And, years ago, I stole the keys to this exit and had a duplicate set made. It was a silly prank, but I’ve carried it on my key ring ever since, a lucky charm, never used – well, okay, used only once, to smuggle in a lover. Today it turns out that it is indeed lucky, because the keys still fit, they haven’t changed the locks for all those years, and they save us. We’re out.

The cold air hits us. Yuri is in his shirt. I tear off my jacket, wrap him in it. I hail us a taxi, not for the first time cursing the fact that I don’t have a car. I can’t even drive.

At home I help him undress and I get under the shower with him. He loves hot water, maybe it will ease him. I lean him against me and I begin to wash him, very gently, so as not to frighten him.

Little by little, he relaxes. His forehead against my collarbone, he starts to sob.

This is when I see what has been done to him; the golden skin on his back is cut with savage welts. They must have lashed him with a thick leather belt. Whining like a wounded animal, I reach for an antiseptic.

I get him into bed and two minutes later he is dead asleep.

His clothes go straight into the rubbish bin, all of them, even the sneakers.

I go to the police. I report the attack. To cut a long story short, I get laughed at. What did we expect, they say, being what we are. Their censure is mostly directed at me. I’m told I should have kept my head low and not annoyed people. One officer, a younger man, seems uncomfortable. I glance down at his hands; no wedding ring. He notices and turns his eyes away. Yeah, it takes one to know one.

I don’t even go to the rink manager. He would deny all responsibility; I know him. The rink is open to the public, anyone may enter. There’s no CCTV.

Over the next days I barely leave the flat; just to bring back Yuri’s stuff from the rink and get us some food. Yuri doesn’t get out at all. He has problems sleeping. Night after night, he dozes off and wakes with a start, waking me, then again dozes off, then again wakes. There is so much sorrow in his eyes. I hold him close as I would a grieving child and I, too, grieve; I grieve for his pain and for the innocence I’ve lost. I had truly thought two men could share a life here, even if they are to some extent famous. And I’m also dying of shame. I am Russian and those men were Russians. Why did this gentle foreigner have to suffer humiliation, for the lack of a better word, at the hands of my compatriots? He had already begun to settle in this city. He was learning our language so enthusiastically. What will he think of us now?

We don’t talk about what happened. We practically don’t talk at all.

The welts on his back start to heal, but I fear some scarring will remain.

***

When I go back to those few days, my mind draws a blank. I must have been thinking something, feeling something, but what? I don’t know. The next thing I remember is how I snapped out of it.

***

On the fourth night I wordlessly begin to make love to him. He usually falls asleep right after, so I’m actually hoping to get him to sleep this way, although, of course, this is not the only consideration. At first I don’t sense anything untoward. He responds. He seems slightly less eager than usual, that’s all. We exchange caresses, not a bit less exciting for being familiar. Finally, I try to enter him. And, for the first time ever, I feel his body resist me. His muscles clench, denying me access. And he whimpers in pain.

‘Yuri…?’ I try to hug him closer to me, all thoughts of sex instantly forgotten.

He pushes me away.

‘No!’ There is real anger in his voice.

He curls up, his back against the headboard, legs crossed, arms crossed, he hides his face and begins to cry.

I sit up and watch him for a while, helpless. I desperately want to soothe him, but I just don’t know how. I’m so afraid I’ll hurt him instead of helping. But I cannot leave him like this, can I? I reach from a distance and I stroke his cheek with one finger.

Suddenly he uncoils and hurls himself at me with his whole body. I catch him.

‘Victor…!’ he literally howls. ‘They knew…! They knew I was yours! They did it to get at you!’

‘Shh… Shh,’ I gentle him, stroking his hair. ‘This is how things are here. Here, for a man to love a man is seen as… very wrong.’ This simple phrase covers an ocean of anguish. ‘Remember how I embraced you after the finals? That was stupid of me.’

‘I loved it,’ he sniffs defiantly.

‘Me too, but still. I failed to consider that it would be shown on TV here.’

Yakov took me aside that day and warned me. I told him the Russians were better people than that. Also, I trusted in my status of a sports star. I felt myself untouchable. How stupid I was! That incident at the public rink, when so many people muttered obscenities behind our backs, should have opened my eyes. It didn’t. And now Yuri is suffering for my naivety.

‘And we did a pair skate twice already. Last year to announce my comeback and this year. Maybe they saw it. Or their mother or grandmother used to be my fan and now says that my conduct is indecent and that I need to be brought back in line.’

‘But why?’ he wails.

‘Some people think no true Russian behaves like this. This is what these bastards told me; that I am a disgrace to Russia. After all the times our anthem was played at the rink as the first because of me.’ I can’t help feeling bitter. I tried so hard.

He embraces me, his arms strong around me.

We sit for a while, huddled, our faces hidden on each other’s shoulder, each thinking his own thoughts.

‘So what did they want to accomplish?’ he asks, no longer distraught, just sad.

‘Most likely they felt obliged to remind me of my duty. A celebrated sportsman should not have a lover. Or at least should not let people see he has him. This is not proper.’

It will take me many months to realise that in most cases of hate rape against gay men I had heard of in Russia – and I did, there was no way not to – the penetration was with an object: a bottle, a tool, in the saddest instances, a knife. Yet the shaven-headed man attempted to rape Yuri the, pardonnez-moi, normal way. There could have been another explanation for this incident. But by the time this occurs to me, Grisha Kamyshkin will be dead and the truth of what happened will not matter at all.

Yuri seems to be trying to reason his way through what has been done to him.

‘They thought you would leave me if I was…’ He seems short of a word. ‘Dirty?’

Defiled is the term you’re looking for. Yes, that’s how such people tend to think.’

‘Or that I would leave you if I was… diseased,’ he observes.

I nod. So he, too, arrived at this realisation.

‘Which I would,’ he adds quietly. ‘Irreversibly.’

I feel a shudder running down my spine. Coming as it does from a Japanese, this is disturbing. They have very peculiar notions of how to attain a finality. The statistics are cruel.

‘So they were right. In this, at least.’ He pauses. ‘Would you really have left me if they had… done what they wanted?’

My answer comes without a shadow of hesitation.

‘Never.’

‘So in this they were wrong.’

Then for a long time he holds still, thinking.

‘Do you love me?’ he asks suddenly, his voice hard.

‘I do. With all my heart.’

‘Then force me.’

I recoil.

‘What?! Are you crazy?!’

‘Force me,’ he repeats.

‘No.’ I sit back.

‘Victor,’ he says, his eyes down. ‘I want you as much as ever. You must believe me. I do. But it is I that want you. Not my body. My body is afraid. Yet what it fears has, ultimately, not been done to me.’

‘I know. But what you’re asking… It’s perverse. I cannot. I cannot do this to you.’

‘Because you don’t understand what it is that I’m asking. I can’t sleep at night for the, not memories, because they aren’t, but for the images of what may have happened. What I want is for it to have happened. I want you to remind my body that pain is all right. The only thing not all right is hate.’

He kneels on the bed and puts his hands on my shoulders.

‘I want to know the pain without having to fear the man.’

I stare at him, shaken to the core.

‘Can you… Can you give me a while to think? I must…’ I have no idea what to say.

‘Come to terms with this?’

‘Yeah, something like that.’

‘Okay.’

We lie side by side, not touching. I am trying to reason with myself that there is some point in his logic and that, after all, he knows best what can help him. So if he is asking, seriously and in sober judgement, I should comply. But I am not sure if I am, in fact, capable of doing what he wants. Because, ultimately, what he is asking is for me to rape him.

***

I had felt so safe, so sheltered in his love. The attack shattered the feeling of security I had.

What helps me is anger. Because, yeah, I am furious. How dare this filth treat Victor, the kind, generous, considerate Victor, with contempt! How dare they defile what we’ve built together, he and I! I will not allow such slime as they to poison this relationship. I will not let them ruin the pleasure we find in each other. No. No way. For if I did, they would triumph; and I will not give them the satisfaction. Even though they would never learn about it.

And what also helps me is Victor, and especially his shock at my request. He is so shaken that it is actually funny.

Do not worry, my angel, I know what I need.

And do not fear you’ll hurt me. I almost know what it means to be raped, it was a very close call, and I am certain of one thing: there is no way you could rape me. How can you even think that? There are many things you could do to me that would break my heart; but there is nothing that I would regard a violation.

***

Forget kisses, cuddles and caresses. I throw him down on his belly. I force his legs wide apart and block them open with my knees. I spread his buttocks and roughly rub my thumb against his tightly closed hole.

He resists for a moment. Then he covers his head with his arms, his knuckles white, and allows me to have my way with him.

I hold him down, my hand on the nape of his neck. My other hand guides my cock. I penetrate him in one hard thrust, forcing entry. This must have caused him pain; his breath catches, but I am too far gone to care. I begin to pound into him.

Oh, we did have pretty rough sex before. But it was never vicious. Now it is.

Soon I feel close to coming. No way! I don’t want this madness to end. I hook my legs on his and roll us, entwined, round. I am now lying on my back, his body stretched belly-up on mine, and I thrust into him from below. I am holding his arms in a brutal lock and his spread legs pinned with mine; he cannot move even if he tried, his body completely under my control.

I feel the orgasm gathering in my balls and I double the force of my thrusts. I growl with savage pleasure. I am totally carried away and at the same time aghast. What I’m doing to Yuri is appalling, absolutely vile. And yet…

For God’s sake, Nikiforov, you’re enjoying it!

You are assaulting the man you love; and you love the feeling. You are intoxicated by it. You revel in the power you have over this beautiful body. Shame on you!

Throughout all this Yuri, usually so vocal, is totally silent. And totally passive.

The last cruel push and I come, deep inside him, my fingers digging into the flesh of his shoulders. Then I collapse under him, my movement tearing my cock out of his body. I wince. Even this would have caused him pain.

He lies limp. I feel his full weight on me. I feel my semen dripping from him onto my groin. His head hangs on my shoulder, so lifeless that for a moment I am certain he has fainted. Then I notice the fluttering of his eyelashes and I hear him exhale.

I release his arms from the lock, I unwrap my legs from his. He feebly tries to rise. I give him a push. He gets into a crouch, turns and kneels between my wide open thighs.

I scramble up, away from him.

I am waiting to be told I’m a beast, no better than those thugs.

He sits back on his heels. He puts his hands flat on his breast and slowly moves them down in a gesture reminiscent of removing mud or oil from his skin.

Only then do I notice that his belly is glistening wet.

He came!!! Carried by my own pleasure, I didn’t even notice when.

So… For God’s sake, Katsuki, you enjoyed it?!

He looks at me meditatively. Then he smiles a strange, distant smile and falls flat onto his side of the bed. A moment later his breathing tells me he is sound asleep.

***

What wakes me up is the certainty that he’s not there beside me. I sit up. Yes, he’s gone.

I listen to the familiar silence of the flat. Then the dog whimpers quietly and by this I know where our master is. Thanks, Maccachin, you’re a pal.

I get up. I expect to feel some pain, for what we just had was, after all, pretty rough sex, but no, all I can feel is a slight ache which is actually pleasant and which can be easily mistaken for… I pause. It is not ‘mistaken for’. It is.

***

I can’t sleep. I’m too troubled. I get up and go to the big room. The dog wakes up but does not rise. He is getting old, poor chap. I must start reconciling myself to the fact he won’t live forever. I pull up the blind. The faint glow of a city night outlines the room in an eerie monochrome. I look around. I was so proud of this flat. I bought it a week after I turned eighteen. I was very happy in it. It was my fortress, very few people ever invited here; certainly not any lover. Yuri was the first. But then, he was never just a lover.

I realise that I am thinking of this, my home, in the past tense.

My mother visited me here just once before she died. She liked what I did with the flat. She would have liked her handsome, black-haired second son. Not son-in-law. Not here.

I look through the window and I shudder. The landscape seems alien. As if I were in a foreign land.

The decision takes itself, as if outside me, descending on me fully formed.

A place where my Yuri can be raped for being mine is a foreign land.

I hear a rustle behind me, soft footfalls and the bathroom door opening and closing on a sliver of light. I tense, but I remain where I was, turned to the window.

Again the sliver of light. Footsteps going into the kitchen. The sound of water being poured. The chink of glass. Then I hear him stop at the entrance to the big room.

‘Yuri…’ I call him almost without sound.

He walks across the carpet, silent as a cat. I sense him right behind me. I can feel the warmth that radiates from his body. I’m waiting. For anything, really; a push, a blow, a curse, a goodbye. I would take any meekly, for I’d deserve it. Not for complying with his wish. For the satisfaction I found in doing so.

He puts his arms around me from behind and kisses me on the shoulder blade.

‘Come to bed,’ he says in a low voice.

I lower the blind. He releases me and dissolves in the total darkness. I cross to the bedroom, the paths of home so well known I don’t need any light. A short time ago he would have been waiting in our bed, ready to snuggle close to me. Now…

He is waiting in our bed, ready to snuggle close to me.

I lie down and take him in my arms.

‘Yuri,’ I whisper. ‘Yuryen’ka. My dearest.’

He kisses me on the cheek; a strangely chaste kiss. I sigh soundlessly. Not such kisses have I come to expect from him. But things have changed, perhaps forever.

At least he is not cursing me for a brute.

Then I feel his hand snaking slowly down my chest, down my flank, down my hip.

My breathing grows faster. Yuri, please, stop, I beg him inwardly. I cannot tell my body not to react to your touch. I cannot help wanting you. But I have been cruel enough for one night; don’t make me force you for a second time. I couldn’t stand causing you more pain.

I couldn’t stand liking it again.

His fingers wrap themselves around my rigid cock.

I whimper apologetically.

And in answer I hear a familiar and much loved sound.

Yuri’s quiet chuckle in the darkness.

‘You’re insatiable,’ he says.

‘I’m sorry…’

‘Really?’ he teases. ‘I’m not.’

I feel him shift and then my cock is enfolded in the warm wetness of his mouth.

He sucks me, the pressure of his tongue moving along my shaft, his hand caressing my balls. I give in to him, almost sobbing with pleasure. I grope for his free hand and entwine my fingers with his.

He brings me close to coming, but before I do, he releases me.

He straddles me.

‘Yuri, you don’t have to…’

‘Shh.’ Steadily, with great control, he lowers himself on my cock.

He is slick, he is ready, he wants me.

His hips begin a slow dance across mine.

A short while ago he was passively submitting to me. Now all the initiative belongs to him. Which is good, for all I can do is lie still, overpowered by joy. I’m glad for the darkness, because he cannot see my face is wet with tears. I once taught him it is possible to make love and laugh at the same time. He now teaches me it is possible to cry.

His pace quickens. He impales himself on my cock, hard. I know that he is driving my shaft straight into the centre of his ecstasy. Each time he comes down, he gives a choking yelp. I know that what he feels is an explosion after explosion of pleasure, tearing him up inside.

He leans towards me and locks his hands on the edge of the headboard, his cries now wild, urgent. I feel his wonderfully tight passage contracting, holding me stronger, the ring of his muscles sliding up and down my length in that unique rhythm of an approaching orgasm. I reach down. His motion drives my cock deep into him and pushes his into my hands. He begins to moan.

I arch up to him, pressing into his body. We come almost at the same time, my semen filling him, his spurting over my hands. Our spasms last and last, drowning us in ecstasy. Our husky, groaning cries merge in a hymn of extreme bliss.

We collapse, entwined, still coupled, utterly spent.

‘Oh, Yuri-chan,’ I breathe in his ear when I am capable of speech, or rational thought, again. ‘What are you doing to me?’

‘The same thing you’re doing to me, Vityen’ka.’ I can hear amusement in his voice.

Okay, perhaps the thought I’m capable of is only semi-rational, but I think I am excused, considering what has just happened to me. This was by far the most intense orgasm I’ve ever had in my life. After a year and a half with this sweet demon, this is saying much.

His fingers blindly caress my face, his touch soft as silk.

‘You’re my miracle,’ he whispers.

‘You’re mine,’ I answer.

‘You’re my life.’

‘You’re mine.’

‘You’re my whole world. You’re my happiness. You’re my day and my night.’

Only in total darkness is he ever so outspoken. Usually he just smiles his love at me.

‘You’re my sun and my moon,’ I continue. ‘And all the stars above me. Sokol moy.’

Chapla maya,’ he answers. In Russian. The first time he did it, he threw me so that I was left gasping and he laughed and laughed, delighted to have surprised me. It turned out he had long understood all my endearments for him, only he waited until he was ready to answer.

I once thought he was not one for romantic epithets. I was wrong. Now I know that he has a deeply buried poetic streak. In the moments of greatest closeness we play this game of endearments, and his are never run-of-the-mill. I love this image, one of the first he came up with: he a hawk, a slight dark bow against pale sky, I a heron, a thin silver blade against dark water, both birds beautiful, both dangerous.

We may not be street fighters, yeah, but in our own element, on the ice, we are a force to be reckoned with.

Sobol moy.’

Gornostay moy.’

A pair of small but fierce predators, a dark sable and a winter-white ermine, whose trademark is swift motion. That’s another of Yuri’s images; I won’t catch him there. So I try a word I taught him at the Hermitage two weekends ago.

Sablya maya.’

He tenses and says very slowly, very carefully, ‘Sh-ch-it… moy.’

He remembered! He found a fitting response and checked what it is in Russian! And, yet again, I love the image he has offered me. A sabre and a shield. It pleases me very much to think of him as my weapon, myself as his protection.

And he gets the hellish sibilants almost right.

‘You’re amazing, Yuri!’

‘And you’re a bowl of the tastiest katsudon I’ve ever had,’ he returns the compliment, breaking the mood before it gets insufferably sentimental. ‘And you’re all mine to eat.’

We both laugh.

‘I must make tonkatsu soon,’ he adds, rising from my body and stretching beside me. ‘It’s ages since we had them. And then katsudon the next day.’

Okay, he is thinking of food; he’ll live. There is just one more thing I could run past him to see if he is truly back to his normal self. And the opportunity arises now, as I need to go to the bathroom. The acoustics there is just right.

I get myself clean, open the door a crack and take a deep breath.

 

   Lyubvi vse vozrasti pokorni

   Yeyo porivi blagotvorni

   I yunoshe v rastsvete let

   Yedva uvidevshemu svet

   I zakalyonnomu sud’boy

   Baytsu s syedoyu golovoy

 

– I begin to massacre the aria. I know Yuri knows it, because it was he who pointed out to me how well it fits us, me the grey-haired warrior, he the freshly blooming youth. But the old prince is a bass, I’m a rather mediocre tenor, and poor Tchaikovsky is certainly turning in his grave (it’s he, not Pushkin, that wrote the words for this aria; Yuri checked. It’s amazing how thorough he is in such things. Must be his being a chemist).

Soon he must be feeling even more affronted, as I happily abuse his phrase, not to mention rhyme, rhythm and decency (although I’m sure he cannot disapprove of the sentiment).

 

   Katsuki, nye stanu ya skryvat’

   Bezumna lyublyu tyebya yebat’!

 

But the point is that all my attempts at opera always, invariably, bring a certain Japanese to me at a gallop, murder in his eyes.

And so it is with great pleasure that I hear a shriek from the bedroom and the sound of bare feet running.

 

   Every way you want, I love it too

   But SHUT! UP!

   That’s all I ask of youuu!

 

– insists Yuri far more melodiously than I ever could. His turn of phrase does credit to his command of colloquial Russian; I did not expect him to understand such a rude word. As he barges into the bathroom, I grab him by the waist, push him under the shower, join him there and turn on the water. He squeals.

I wrap my arms around him to hold him in place.

‘Let me go!’

‘Never!’

He squirms. I’m still not letting him go. He yields. He presses his body to me, full length, and throws an arm round my neck. I relax my hold on him. Too late do I notice a cruel glint in his eye. His surrender is a ruse; he reaches behind me and, in one swift motion, turns the hot water off, the cold full blast.

My turn to shriek.

He turns the hot water back on.

 

   You will curse each time you did not do

   All that your boyfriend told you to!

 

– he informs me triumphantly, pushing wet hair away from his face. He looks totally cute.

Yeah, the hollow-eyed ghost’s gone. I have my laughing, singing, playful Yuri back.

‘Come, my phantom menace, let’s get you clean,’ I say. He chuckles, easily catching the double reference. We begin to wash each other vigorously, just as we once used to in the Hasetsu onsen. Much splashing and spluttering ensues. Finally, he reaches for a towel.

‘The neighbours must love us,’ he sighs, looking at me with benevolent reproach in his eyes. ‘It’s four o’clock in the morning.’

He doesn’t know that most of our neighbours have at one point or another asked me for an autograph and were given it with good grace. Besides, this is an old building, solid nineteenth-century architecture; the walls are thick.

Soon we nestle into each other; our bodies fit together like two pieces of a puzzle. We exchange slow, sleepy caresses. Oh God, how good it is to lie like this, locked in his embrace, in the darkness that hides nothing of the love we feel, for it radiates from us like heat.

I will bless the day that I met you. Oh yes, Yuri, I will bless it forever. If two years ago somebody told me that today I’d be lying beside the man I want to spend the rest of my life with, I would have laughed bitterly in their face. I remember myself as I was then; very lonely, very unhappy, sick at heart, and because of this, irritable, petulant, mean. Dreadfully spoilt by success, too; insufferable really. And look at me now. I am still capricious. I sometimes say the first thing that comes to my mind, and this can be none too sensitive. But I’ve grown less selfish and I am, well, at ease, my priorities firmly in place. You transformed me into a man I actually like being. But above all, I am a man you like being with.

Who would I be without you, my dearest?

I am kissing his slim fingers. And as I turn his palm, I brush my lips against the ring he wears. I am wearing its twin. Bought on impulse nearly a year and a half ago, they were somewhere between good luck charms and tentative engagement rings. I smile inwardly. Well, they have outlived their usefulness as such. It’s high time we transformed them into true wedding rings.

And I have found a way in which this can be done.

Sometimes a precious thing must be lost – or given up freely, although with regret – for another precious thing to be gained. I can’t have both. And I know which one I want.

Just before I fall asleep I feel a gentle touch on the tip of my nose.

‘Mm?’ I ask.

‘I told you I’d be all right,’ whispers Yuri. ‘See? No lasting damage.’

In the morning I tell him my decision.

***

In the morning he tells me his decision.

‘Are you sure?’ I ask very seriously. ‘This is going to change things forever, no going back.’

‘I am sure.’

I truly cannot say if I’m happy or troubled. I’m certainly stunned. This is the last thing I expected. I really don’t know what to think. The disruption is going to be enormous, but I cannot fail to see the advantages. It would be hypocritical of me not to appreciate them.

The next day Victor holds what he calls a war council. He invites Yakov, Yurio and Lilya to our place, quickly summarises the situation and asks for their opinions and advice.

At first they are shocked. Then they ask a few questions, mostly about how I’m feeling. I say I’m fine, which is true. Then begin to discuss the matter. I watch the debate from the sidelines and when my Russian cannot cope with their pace, I pull at Victor’s sleeve for a translation. Yurio first wails, ‘But it’ll get so boooring here!’, then falls silent and seems to be thinking furiously. Yakov manfully refrains from saying ‘I told you so’ (Victor told me he had warned him to be more circumspect); he is primarily annoyed at the prospect of losing his star skater again, this time together with his second star skater. Then he says something about one’s duty to fatherland. The three other Russians stare at him in disbelief. He seems embarrassed, but argues his point. Lilya from the very beginning stands firmly on Victor’s side. In the end she makes Yakov see it from our perspective.

‘There are things that are important and things that are more important,’ she states with finality. ‘My late brother was gay. I know how he suffered. Do it.’

‘I agree,’ says, most unexpectedly, Yurio. He shoots me a glance. ‘To be looking over your shoulder all the time, that’s a lousy life. You guys go. Get a place with a guest room. I’ll be visiting often.’

Meetings with lawyers, banks, estate agents and removal firms are arranged and held.

A month later the flat is sold, the taxes paid, the proceeds – in fact, all our assets – transferred to a joint account abroad, the furniture and books packed and in storage in Germany, our contracts with Yakov not extended to the next season. Nothing holds Victor in Russia any more.

A long trip is made, some negotiations ensue, for one rule needs to be bent. But Victor is not a nobody in the sports world and, thanks to some sympathetic people, it gets bent all right.

The following week he hands in documents relinquishing his Russian citizenship.

Then he gives a few interviews, mostly in Western press, but the news quickly filter to the social media in Russia and then to the mainstream media. I am eternally grateful to him for how everything he says is phrased so as to protect me. He makes it known that we suffered an attack and that it was directed personally at him. He never states what exactly happened. But he says that this incident has soured his will to stand for Russia in sport. He cannot take his earlier achievements away from her, but is unwilling to give her any more of himself.

He makes it intensely political, but also intensely personal.

He does not hide his fury. But it is a fury tinged with sadness, for he still loves Sankt Petersburg and he used to be proud of being Russian. One interviewer asks whether it would not be Christian of him to forgive his less cosmopolitan compatriots their violent reaction to his, well, demonstrativeness. This gives Victor the opening he needed. He smiles coldly and answers that the Lord was ready to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for the sake of ten righteous men; but he, Victor Nikiforov, a sodomite, is less merciful in his arithmetic than the Almighty. He is tempted to burn Russia out of his heart for the sake of three bastards. But, he continues, he is not going to. His heart will still be Russian; only it will be so elsewhere. Because elsewhere is where he and his fiancé are safe from Russia’s officially sanctioned homophobia.

(The fiancé is, well, me. He proposed. I accepted.)

Then we switch off all social media and go to Hasetsu on a long visit to my parents.

On the day we are to leave Russia Victor is feverishly active. Our closest friends go with us to the airport to see us off. There’s Yura and his grandfather, who came specially from Moscow, Yakov, Lilya, Mila and some of Victor’s schoolmates. We exchange kisses and bear hugs, Yura is pressing some last-minute presents for my family into my hands and there is much laughter. Someone says ‘See you in winter’ and on the answer to this I hear Victor’s voice break; just once. He immediately covers it with a joke. The wait at the gate is not long and soon we settle in our seats. And then, as the airplane begins to taxi towards the runway, I turn to Victor and I see him leaning back, his cheeks wet.

‘I’m sorry,’ I whisper, taking his hand.

He opens his eyes. They are red and swollen.

‘Don’t be,’ he says. ‘There’s no reason. I’m crying for the past. I’m looking forward to the future.’ And he smiles at me with a trembling mouth.

He presses his forehead to my cheek and we hold hands as if we were to never let go. I can feel him shaking. I tuck him with a blanket, he quietens down and soon I realise he has gone to sleep. He sleeps for almost the entire journey and when we arrive in Tokyo, where we are to stay for a few days before going to Kyushu, he is back to normal. But this night it’s my turn: I leave him asleep in the hotel bed and I sit curled in an armchair until daybreak, crying.

I am sad about the friends we’ve left behind. But I know their love will follow us wherever we go and we shall see them all again, soon. What I am grieving for is what I truly lost: Sankt Petersburg, this beautiful, spirited, heroic, dark, glittering, awful and awesome city which I was ready to make my home. Now I will have to prise it out of my heart like a thorn. I must make space there for another city; another home. And I must do everything in my power to make Victor never, ever regret his decision.

This is when I decide I’m keeping up my Russian. I’m not yet sure how, but I am.

We end up staying in Hasetsu for half a year while the paperwork concerning Victor’s citizenship is going through. The only friends we are in regular contact with are Yurio, Phichit and Chris. And it is only from Yurio’s edited reports that we learn about the uproar that Victor’s ‘defection’ has caused; about the vilification in some of the less savoury media and the skating community’s unflinching support; about the statements issued by Yakov, Lilya and Yurio himself (Victor later tells me that this last was a masterpiece of controlled invective; our young wolf fluently articulated everything that Victor had felt he should not); and, finally, about the official reaction, which was an energetic sweeping of the whole business under the carpet.

We are back at our old headquarters, the Ice Castle. Yuko and Takeshi are happy to see us and the triplets squeal deafeningly. Phichit comes to visit, bringing Sumalee, his girlfriend. This is in the middle of the training season, so Victor gets back into his coaching mood and drives all three of us mercilessly. I am glad that Sumalee and Yuko hit it off immediately; otherwise the poor girl would have died of boredom. She turns out to be a lovely person and, besides, a superb and very enthusiastic cook. For the duration of their stay food at our temporary home (we rented; living with my family proved too embarrassing, because, okay, we are a little noisy at night) acquires a distinctly Thai character. A totally delighted Victor declares that he is considering switching sides and wooing her. Phichit looks ready to kill him. I am ready to kill him. Sumalee remarks that a man who enjoys her food is nice, but a man who helps with the washing up is a treasure. This praise is addressed to me, but it is not earned; I enjoy washing up when there’s so much fun going on in the kitchen. Would I consider switching sides, too? – she enquires. Together we would make one perfect husband. Victor and I raise eyebrows at each other. Phichit’s expression is priceless.

Their visit offers so many occasions for wild laughter that with it, most of our wounds are healed. The traces of lashes across my back have almost vanished; Victor says they are visible only in a certain light and only because he knows where they are. The attack on me and the break-up with Russia in its aftermath are simply overlaid by new experiences, new memories, and much fun.

Sotto voce: much fun is also had when, slightly later, Chris comes for a short visit and, well, gets his wished-for threesome.

Chapter Text

After that memorable year when I won the Worlds and Russia lost Victor, he won the next time, beating me by less than three points. Then I won the Worlds again, twice, with him getting silver, and then he, with me getting silver. This makes it five years running. Not to mention other events, including the Olympics, neither of us ever below bronze. People are beginning to find it tedious. Some younger skaters made comments. Victor only laughed and told them to read up on why the Theban Legion was invincible. They obviously did, for they started calling us the Hoplite Duo. Hardly appropriate, since the hoplites were heavy infantry; I weigh fifty-six kilos at the most and Victor seventy after a good meal. Still, it’s better than our other nickname, the Russo-Japanese Firing Squad; much less funny, all things considered. And not accurate, either, for Victor now holds a Canadian citizenship and skates for his new country. JJ was furious when he learnt of his choice of allegiance. He retired the following year, saying he wished to pursue his career in music; what else could he do.

Anyway, we made history.

But no more. Victor is retiring. The move to Canada gave him motivation to stay on the ice much longer than anyone, including himself, had expected, but now he is truly ancient for a skater. He says he’s crumbling. I have taken to calling him a noble ruin, but he is in a better shape than that, believe me. I will forever remember the moment the decision came to him. It was June. He was walking from the dining room of our house to the kitchen, carrying a casserole dish in his hands, because we had just finished eating, and just as he was crossing a patch of sunlight streaming through the window he stopped dead in his tracks. He turned back towards me. He looked magnificent, a silver-haired male standing all in radiance.

‘I’m retiring,’ he said. ‘After the Worlds.’

I raised my eyebrows in a silent why.

‘Because it is enough.’

I smiled, took a couple of glasses out of the cupboard and brought a bottle of wine. And this was all there was to it, a decision taken and accepted.

For his farewell show we are re-choreographing our most famous pair skate, The Hawk and the Heron. I’ve decided to stay on for one more season and then I shall retire, too, because competing will not be the same without him.

In fact, it is already not the same, for our little world has suffered an awful loss; last year Chris Giacometti, our exuberant, oversexed Chris, and his partner Luca were killed in a car crash. We stood around their grave, all the senior cadre, like a guard of honour, and we all cried, for a bright light had gone out of our lives. Then Victor, who had for a long time been inconsolable after the death of old Maccachin, used I don’t know what arguments to persuade Chris’s parents to give him the custody of his cat, Almond. This snow-white ball of aloofness is now living with us. I am surprised how close Victor, very much a dog person, has grown to him. I think that, being a master orphaned by his pet, he can sympathise with a pet orphaned by his master. Almond is not young anymore, but we expect him to be around for a few more years. When he passes away, I am going to put forward a carefully worded proposal we get another poodle.

On a brighter note, Phichit and Sumalee married and are now the proud parents of twin boys. Yura is struggling to reconcile his skating career with his second year at the university, but he seems to be doing fine. He is studying veterinary science and we all think it an excellent choice. He is still dreadfully annoying to people, but animals trust him instinctively. On his love life the less said the better; it is notorious enough. No wonder; he carries high the flag of flamboyant exhibitionism. I’m selfishly glad about it, for it has turned the limelight away from Victor and me. And by the way, did I say who bought Victor’s beloved flat? Yeah, he sold it to the first buyer who offered and that’s why when we visit Sankt Petersburg we sleep at a very familiar place. It is as full of animal hair as it used to be; only now it is cat hair.

Yura’s first album of portraits, On Ice, was published shortly after we left Russia, the next one, entitled simply Christophe, last year. The third will appear this winter, its title The Living Legend. It will be brought out in the Russian, English and Japanese language versions. Yura and I giggle like crazy about it, for the living legend is still unaware of the tribute he is going to receive.

There was a little problem with the Russian edition because of two pictures, the double portrait of Victor and me taken at our first and only Russian Christmas and another one of us both, dating from about a year and a half later. The publisher wanted them out. Yura threatened to have the album printed abroad and to advertise the reason all over the social media. His standing in the social media is colossal and the publisher buckled; the album will be brought out the way the author envisaged it.

It also contains two pictures taken by Phichit (although with Yura’s camera) in a moment which was to become iconic. It was the first year when Victor skated, and won the gold, for Canada. As he stood on the podium, he took a half-step down to the silver medallist, the silver medallist took a half-step up, each man standing with one leg at the other’s level, and each threw the ribbon of his medal over the other’s neck (we nearly choked each other with these ribbons, Victor and I, but the effect was quite dramatic). This is how we listened to the anthems of our countries, his new and open-minded, mine old and at least discreet.

This is a memorable image. I stand a little to the front. Victor has his hand on my shoulder, I cover it with mine; our rings glitter side by side. My face is serious, Victor’s smile slightly ironic, clearly conveying his ‘there’s nothing you can do’ attitude (yes, there was talk of disqualifying us, but no grounds could be found to condemn our gesture). And the reason why Yura couldn’t take these pictures was, of course, because he was the third man on that podium. He stands there, with the bronze, wearing a huge smirk on his face. Caption: ‘I was proud to be there’. Not ‘I was so grossed out’. Who would have believed…

And then there was the press conference. Oh, the memory still brings a grin to my face.

Because, you see, Victor’s theme that year was ‘Gratitude’. And while his jubilant short program was quickly deciphered as being about his feelings for me, his free program proved more difficult to interpret. It was extremely powerful, it required superhuman strength, setting a record for technical difficulty that remains unbroken to this day – we both tried, Yura and I, but nope – and there was nothing humble about it. The feeling it conveyed was triumph. The commentators were puzzled. Then Morooka-san posed a hypothesis that was initially discounted (he may have been given a little hint, but shh…) and for a while speculation was rife. Victor remained enigmatic. He confirmed it only after he had won the gold, there would have been no point otherwise, during the press conference.

‘I am just a sportsman. I will never build a bridge or heal a child. But, in my book, sport is about making a nation proud. Bringing this,’ he raised his medal, ‘home is all I can do to show my new compatriots how grateful I am to our country for taking me in. Thank you.’

The uproar took a long while to die down. Victor knows very well how to make the spotlight work for him; but that year… I never saw him like this, before or after. He was awesome.

Maybe because finally, after years and years of press conferences, he had something to say from the depths of his heart.

What else…? Ah. Nikolai-san, I’m pleased to say, continues in good health; only his back is playing up more than it used to. He moved from Moscow to Sankt Petersburg to be closer to Yura. He is still a brilliant cook. And, in spite of what he was saying, he did visit Japan. Yura came, too. We rented a car and went for a long trip round Kyushu and southern Honshu, the four of us. I was stunned to realise how much reading up Nikolai-san had done in preparation for this trip. I learnt a lot of things about my own country; not all of them pleasant, but all worth knowing.

Yakov and Lilya remarried. A certain long talk I had with our ex-coach one night after a competition may have had something to do with it, I think, because Yakov’s best man was me. The wedding reception was reportedly very fine, but I don’t remember any of it. It’s impossible not to drink with the Russians. The morning after, well, okay, the afternoon after I asked Victor if I hadn’t done anything stupid.

‘Of course not,’ he assured me. ‘I watched over you!’

But he was radiating sincerity a little too intensely and Lilya has grown very fond of dancing with me since then, so I have my suspicions.

Throughout all these years Victor was unfaithful to me once. He confessed right away, appalled at his own conduct and terrified he was going to lose me. I huffed and puffed and acted very hurt, leaving him to squirm for two days, and on the third I very magnanimously forgave him and he has been even more in love with me since. In truth, I never minded much. The man was a nobody. And Victor is mine.

Throughout these years I, too, was unfaithful to him. Once. With a married woman, for old times’ sake. It was very sweet and it didn’t matter any. I’m his. He doesn’t know and doesn’t need to know.

As to what we’ve been doing apart from winning heaps of medals: we are recognised skating choreographers. Victor is a reluctant coach, an adviser would perhaps be a better term, to some senior skaters. I began coaching juniors. I’m not very confident about it yet, but I’m certainly enjoying it. I’ve heard it said I’m rather good at it (thanks, Morooka-san, you’ve always believed in me). My trainees have already won their first medals, so this may actually be true. All in all, we have been called the ‘power duo’ of the skating world; we’ve got so many areas of it covered.

An important point: all the choreographies we design are signed Katsuki/Nikiforov, the order of surnames alphabetical, and we never disclose which of us had more input into the given routine. This is our work, period.

Off ice, Victor has been making inroads into fashion design. Mostly costumes for figure skaters, of course, and dancers. It turns out quite a lot of people have long admired his sense of style. It also turns out that for all these years I have unwittingly modelled for him. He could have told me! Still, I am very pleased for him. Recently he’s been contacted by a large ice show company. The idea is for him to be their leading skater and costume designer. This could be a breakthrough for him. We’re keeping our fingers crossed. But… A few days ago he was lying on the couch, doodling in a notebook, and out of the blue, he asked me, ‘Have you noticed how hard it is for an athlete to get a decent suit? We have difficult figures to sew for.’

I wholeheartedly agreed. I could practically wear boys’ sizes if not for my thighs. They are substantial, but hey, I need these muscles.

‘And bespoke tailors just don’t understand our time constraints. This is not fair.’

‘You can always get a made-to-measure suit.’

He wrinkled his nose. He has not worn a suit that was not bespoke in years. In contrast to me; my old charcoal one is still in my wardrobe, although I am expressly forbidden to wear it. A while later his doodling turned to writing. So I think he is developing some side project and I am waiting eagerly for when he is ready to tell me about it.

I’ve had some contracts in advertising. Various things; mainly clothing. I am still greatly surprised each time they offer me another deal. I’m not tall, I don’t see myself as particularly handsome and my fashion sense is exactly zero, I wear what Victor tells me to. But he says the clothes are all right and I in them reasonably attractive, so I’m happy that he’s happy. I have also been the face of a rather famous fragrance. Ironic, really, since I use practically no cosmetics; certainly no scent.

Have you seen me in those ads, all sultry eyes and a knowing smile? Don’t believe it for a moment. Great photography and a lot of inspired photo editing. In reality, I still look like a calf, albeit a thirty-year-old one. Recently Victor discovered the first grey hairs on my temples. You should have heard him coo.

Er… On second thoughts, maybe not.

I’m older now than he was when he came to Hasetsu to coach me. He seemed so serious and sophisticated to me then. I know better now. I love him to insanity, but serious he’s not. He is the one who comes up with all the madcap ideas that plunge our universe into chaos; I impose a semblance of order on it.

‘Let’s learn Italian. I’ve always wanted to be able to speak the language when in Italy.’

‘Fine. We better get a private tutor, our time constraints will make attending a regular course difficult.’

We have communicative Italian now. It is great to be learning a new language together.

‘Let’s go for a trek round Lake Baikal.’

‘You realise this takes three months?’

‘Really?’ His face falls.

‘So how about next spring? I expect it will take a while to arrange.’

‘Yuri, we will…? You’re a hero!’

You get the gist. And if you think I’m complaining, yes, I am complaining, in extravagant hyperboles that make Victor howl with laughter, because I’m loving every minute of it. I am not a flamboyant person by nature, I could never come up with those wild schemes myself, and they are so much fun.

What more have we…? Ah, yes, well, it embarrasses me to say, but back home in Japan I’ve been approached by a certain phonographic company who want me to record a few songs with them. They want some of the pieces we’ve been skating over the years arranged for my voice. I have no idea how they learnt I can sing a little. I must talk to Phichit about it. The release is to coincide with my retirement next year. I’ve decided that my farewell show will be to Time to Say Goodbye – no prizes for guessing who will skate in to lead me off the ice – and the company is hoping to get the famous tenor to sing it in a duet with me, and our old Stammi as well. Negotiations are still in progress, but I have a good feeling about the result. Victor says that the money I’ve been offered is ‘okay’, which by my standards means generous.

It has turned out that my no-longer-Russian prince has an unexpectedly good head for business. For years he’d been moving most of his funds out of the volatile, crisis-prone Russia to banks in more secure places, so he was very little hit by the various financial catastrophes of the intervening years. Some investments he has made seem to be paying off, too, and the future looks if not bright, than at least comfortably assured. After we both retire from competitive sport, we are planning to settle in Vancouver, our favourite city. We will pay frequent visits to Japan. Our base there will be the energetic, fun-loving Fukuoka, where we’ve already bought a flat. I love old Hasetsu with all my heart, but to live there would be unbearably dull. So that’s the plan.

Victor’s Japanese is good, my Russian nearly fluent. I read books in it, easy. I catch jokes and I can flirt in it. I’d say the communication in our household is sixty percent in Russian now, thirty percent in English, ten in Japanese, unless we’re in Japan, where the ratios change. Both of us can switch from language to language mid-sentence. Some people are infuriated by this, so we try not to do it in front of our guests, but we don’t always succeed.

He’s learnt to drive. I’ve learnt to swim. There would be no living with him if I hadn’t.

We travel a lot. There are so many places we want to see.

Our house is full of books.

And in case anyone’s still asking, yes, we are married.