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Put Your Curse in Reverse

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10

Yūri watches the droplet of blood form, growing bigger and heavier until clinging to his skin is impossible. It falls, almost as though in slow motion, and when it hits the ground, nothing happens for a long, disappointing moment. And then there is a whoosh and an explosion of colour, and Yūri closes his eyes reflexively. There is a noticeable drop in temperature, and Yūri swallows convulsively, squeezing his eyes tighter. The cold seeps into his bones within moments, making him shiver. What have I done?, he thinks, heart in his throat, the taste of copper in his mouth.

After several long, shaky breaths, he finally dares open his eyes, peering into the room.

There is something – someone? – there, and actually looking at them takes more courage than Yūri ever thought possible. It is indeed a man, lanky and quite a bit taller even than Yūri’s dad, his long hair gray despite his youthful appearance. But that is not right – it is silver, Yūri corrects himself after another moment of scrutinizing the being. Definitely silver. He is pale, with striking features, a beauty about him that surprises Yūri. Altogether, he does not look at all like what Yūri expected – not that Yūri actually expected anything. But still. If he had, it would not have been this.

“You look nice,” he blurts out, and immediately feels his cheeks heat up. The smirk transforms into a smile, making the man’s – the being’s? He looks human enough that Yūri has a hard time not hinking of him as a man – eyes crinkle. It makes his beauty more conventional, and Yūri pulls the corner of his lip between his teeth before he can smile back. It seems… wrong, almost, to smile in a situation like this.

“I don’t hear that often,” the man says, before growing serious. “What can I help you with?”

Yūri averts his eyes, and it is only then that he notices the lean dog at the man’s feet. Its fur is curly and brown, and the soft brown eyes meeting his make its face appear gentle and friendly. Yūri doesn’t know a lot about dogs, but this is one breed he can recognize easily: a poodle. It distracts him for a long moment, until he barely knows what he wanted to say. But when he closes his eyes, his mind fills with pictures of his mom, pale and drawn and her hands shaking. The physicians with their apologetic voices, six months at the most, probably less. Conversations between his parents when they think he’s out of earshot.

“Oh my,” says the man, making Yūri blink his eyes open again. Another blink, and the man is within arm’s reach, all of a sudden. Yūri shivers. He hasn’t seen him move.  “Oh my,” the man repeats, shaking his head. He brings a finger to his lip and bows his head a little so that his face is partially hidden behind his hair. The silence stretches like a telephone cord until it is just shy of snapping.

 “What are you willing to sacrifice for your mother’s health?” he asks, voice startlingly loud in Yūri’s room. The Onsen is quiet, now that his mother can’t help out, even though they could really use the money right now. His parents think he doesn’t know that, try to shelter him, but Yūri isn’t dumb. He can see the strain his mother’s treatment is putting on them, both emotionally and financially.

That knowledge burns as he takes a breath before answering. “Anything,” Yūri says and tries to blink the tears away. The vice around his chest is still not letting him breathe.

When he chances a look at the man, there smirk is back on his lips. Yūri’s breath hitches, but he doesn’t take back his words. “A life for a life, then,” the man announces, and for a moment Yūri is sure that the man will want him in exchange for his mother. It’s not as terrible a thought as he would have expected, but it still sends his heartbeat into a frenzy. “Your firstborn. I will spare your mother in exchange for your firstborn.” Yūri knows he should breathe, feels dizzy with the lack of oxygen, but he finds that he can’t. He’s so close – it’s an out to this terrible, horrifying situation. And the offer doesn’t sound so bad to Yūri. Don’t witches and the like often demand right this?

He chews on his lip for a moment, eyes lingering on the posters of various figure skaters around his room. No, his mother is worth so much more than what the man – the demon – is demanding, but he tries not to think about it. He doesn’t need the man to change his offer, after all.

“I agree,” he says, voice shaky and breathless still, but he meets the man’s eyes unflinchingly. They remind Yūri of the sea, blue and inscrutable.

They shake hands on it, and the promise settles around Yūri’s wrist in a faint, barely noticeable scar.

The man disappears with a self-satisfied smile on his face as soon as he has let go of Yūri’s hand. Relief crashes over him like a wave at the beach, because he is unharmed and maybe everything will turn out all right, he thinks, and finally starts crying as though he is still a child.

~*~

14

Yūri becomes aware of him slowly, like fading into consciousness on a lazy day off. Not that he has many of those; training and school and the Onsen take up enough of his time that an early start to the day is a necessity.

But there is no other way to describe the gradual realization that he is back (this time without the dog, as far as Yūri can see), and at least he recognizes him immediately. It startles him badly enough that his blade catches on the ice wrong and sends him sprawling.

Great impression you’re making there, he scolds himself, feeling his face heat up.

“All right, Yūri?” Coach asks, though there is no real concern in his voice. He knows that what usually hurts most from Yūri’s falls is his own disappointment.

“Hai!” answers Yūri and picks himself up again, trying to block out the man leaning against the wall behind the boards as he launches himself into the sequence again, gathering speed. This time his entry into the double Lutz is fluid, and he doesn’t even need to touch down on landing.

“Better,” Coach says, something close to approval in his voice. “And now again, be sure it’s not just a fluke.”

They spend the rest of the practice revising all his jumps; scouts for the national team will be at the next competition, and maybe, if he tries hard enough, he’ll even have a shot at it.

(He doesn’t think he will, though. Coach is just saying it to keep his spirits up, but Yūri hasn’t been able to properly land a Salchow yet, and there’s no way the scouts will even consider him without that.)

At the end of the practice, before they have to clear the ice for public skate, Coach has him skate his current program again. It is – well. Saying it goes smoothly would definitely be a lie, but considering Yūri is aware he has an audience, it could have been much worse.

It still is something of an embarrassment, Yūri thinks as he sinks down from the last spinning sequence, breathing hard; not only has he had to touch down after his salchow, he also had to scale down the number of rotations on two of his jumps because his eyes would catch on the stranger in the most inopportune moments.

Still, there is clapping. Clapping. His breathing is still normalizing, which is as good an excuse as any not to raise his eyes quite yet. Who would clap for such a terrible performance? Yūri’s seen kids half his age do better with this kind of choreography. He is glad that his face is red with exertion, giving a plausible explanation for the blush he can feel spreading. If only he were better…!

“What are you doing here?” he hears the harsh voice of his coach. “Public skate isn’t for another half hour yet!”

“I was waiting for Yūri,” says the man (or is he even a man?), tone melodious and soothing. “And it was well worth it, I have to say, such a talented boy!”

Yūri grimaces. The man is good at sounding sincere, except that he can’t be, since, well. But then again, with his occupation, he’s probably an accomplished liar. Coach is smiling when Yūri looks up.

“He’s my best skater,” he confesses, like he’s letting this man in on a secret. It probably is a secret, because having someone as bad as Yūri as their best skater would bring shame upon any coach (the others simply don’t apply themselves as much as he does, he knows. Which makes his ineptitude all the more embarrassing).

“So what’s your name?” The question startles Yūri out of his dark thoughts, and he hurriedly rights himself and skates over to where he has left his blade guards. If it just so happens to be the opposite side of the rink the stranger – whose name Yūri doesn’t actually know, now that the question has been thrown out there – is on, well, maybe sometimes Yūri does get lucky.

“Victor,” the man replies, and there’s a guttural quality to his voice, and for the first time Yūri considers that despite his fluency in Japanese the man is, in fact, not a native speaker.

Yūri supposes they shake hands or something, and this makes him irrationally nervous. He quickly grabs the blade guards and crosses the rink with a couple of quick strides, almost taking a spill again when Victor smiles at him.

“Yūri!” He looks positively delighted. Yūri feels his face heat up again.

“Thanks for waiting up for me,” he says with a brave face that he doesn’t really feel. It wouldn’t do to make Coach suspicious.

But Coach does seem completely convinced that Yūri knows Victos, because he only shakes his head and pats Yūri on the back. “Great practice today. Keep working on the jumps and you should figure the Salchow out soon. Oh, and Minako wanted me to remind you that her lesson is half an hour earlier today.”

“Hai,” says Yūri, and then, “Thank you, sensei.” He gives a short bow and steps off the ice, keeping his eyes fixed determinedly on the ground in front of his feet as Victor falls in step besides him.

Victor is quiet as they get to the changing room, and Yūri is too busy looking everywhere but at Victor to really think of something to say.

Yūri doesn’t even bother with changing properly; he simply pulls his sweats and a jacket over his leotard. He can shower later, after this conversation is over. Even with ballet moved forward by half an hour, he has more than enough time to spare.

“Where to now?” Victor asks as Yūri is tying his shoelaces, pondering that very question. He doesn’t really want anybody to see who he is talking to – Hasetsu is a small town and gossip travels fast – but there is a small path that leads towards a grove he knows from walking Vicchan, the dog his parents got him after Mari moved out (“so you won’t feel lonely”). It’s off from the tourist walkway to Hasetsu Castle, so hardly anybody ever comes there.

Yūri shrugs and stands. “I know where to go,” he says, and doesn’t wait up to see that Victor follows him. He knows he will.

They walk silently until the ground changes from pavement to soft bark mulch, trees on either side now growing thick enough to shield them from view. Yūri briefly considers telling Victor about his puppy at home; it seems like the sort of thing to mention for small-talk. But he is strangely reluctant to do so, whether it is because it is a poodle, like the dog Victor had with him the first time he showed up, or because Vicchan shares his name with Victor (and what a coincidence that is, a small voice in Yūri’s head whispers), or because Yūri is a little disappointed Victor has showed up without him this time – or something else entirely. He can’t say for sure, but it weighs on his mind, makes his stomach knot, because it always does that for the stupidest reasons. Like having a poodle named after the demon that saved his mother.

As if that thought has been a trigger, Victor shifts, drawing Yūri from his thoughts. “I trust your mother is well,” he says, and when Yūri chances a glance at him, he has his hands clasped behind the small of his back and is looking as though he has no care in this world. Maybe he doesn’t.

Yūri can’t help the small smile that comes to his lips at the thought of his mother with color back in her cheeks and flesh and a bit of fat in places there used to be only skin and bones only a couple years ago. “The doctors spoke of a miraculous recovery.”

Victor huffs. “I should hope so.” He is silent for a moment. “But what about you? A nice girl in sight yet?”

Yūri sputters and almost suffocates on his own spittle. Victor pounds him on the back helpfully. “I’m fourteen!” he exclaims when he can breathe again, face red as a tomato again.

“You may have a point there,” Victor concedes after a moment. “I keep forgetting how the times change.” He is silent again until they reach the clearing Yūri was thinking of. There is a bench on the side, overgrown with moss, but Yūri foregoes it in favor of the soft grass. It’s been dry these last couple of days, and the grass is green and a bit prickly, but, most importantly, dry.

Victor arches one eyebrow and settles on the bench instead, coat drawn around him so he’s not actually sullying his pristine black trousers, or something. He crosses his legs, and with the glasses he looks so totally out of place that for a moment, Yūri thinks it’s just a dream.

But no, the scar on his wrist is real, as is this (probably).

“But you are getting to an age where girls are… getting interesting, are you not?” He picks up their earlier thread effortlessly, not even expecting an answer from the way he immediately goes on talking. “Debt and the like aside, is there nobody whom you are interested in?”

Aaaand Yūri’s face is red again. He averts his eyes, tries fruitlessly to will his face to cool. “N-no, Victor-kun,” he answers, the honorific coming out before he can think about it. If possible, he would blush at this, but he thinks he might just be as red as he can get. His face itches from the question.

“Huh,” Victor says again. “You aren’t bad looking, though.”

“Er,” Yūri says, convinced he will never lose his blush again. “I’ve been mostly focusing on training.”

“It’s paying off.” Victor sounds so sincere, and Yūri finally gives in and hides his face in his hands. He can still hear Victor chuckle, though. “But don’t you see loads of pretty girls at your – at your competitions?”

“I guess?” Those girls are groomed to be pretty, heavy make-up and skin-tight clothes and manicured fingernails at an age when Mari still wanted to be a scientist and would run around in one of father’s button-downs as her “lab coat” for days at a time. It’s their competition gear, Yūri wants to say, but he can’t properly articulate that no matter what they’re wearing, it’s a sport and Yūri is usually too nervous to really notice anybody.

“I won’t hurt to look, next time,” Victor tells him, and before Yūri is certain if there was a hint of threat in that voice or not, Victor is standing already. “I’m afraid I’ll have to be off again.” He waves and disappears, and it truly does feel like it’s all just been a dream.

~*~

In the end, Yūri doesn’t even have to jump through hoops or even ask Google how to meet new girls, other girls, girls he hasn’t been training with since he could walk. It’s Minako who suggests it, just like she suggested he start ice skating.

“Have you thought about trying ballroom dancing?” she asks, not even pausing in adjusting his arms, pushing his stomach in to get him to straighten his spine. “It would be good for your overall… awareness. Spatial awareness,” she clarifies.

Yūri is panting, trying not to breathe in too much for fear of breaking the careful stance she’s maneuvering him into, but he does manage to shake his head.

Minako tuts and leaves his stomach and spine be to poke his arms, making him raise them by an inch or so. Yūri can feel sweat beading on his forehead, running down the side of his face. His hair is plastered against his face and he knows he’s close to trembling with exhaustion.

Minako tuts again and gives the sign to relax. “You really should try it out. I think it would be quite good for you, and maybe you’ll meet some new people.”

Yūri is a little doubtful of that; it’s not that he’s lonely per se, but he doesn’t really have a huge circle of friends. It’s not that easy with having to miss school regularly to compete, a large chunk of his free time eaten up by skating.

“I don’t think I can fit it into my schedule, time wise,” Yūri says, but Minako just smiles.

“Don’t worry about it. You can substitute one of your Ballet lessons with the ballroom dancing,” she promises, and that’s that. At worst, Yūri figures, it will be a chance to figure out what sorts of ‘moving top music’ he dislikes.

//*\\

As it turns out, ballroom dancing is not Minako’s worst idea to date (that dubious honor belongs to Yūri’s dance outfit in fourth grade, which had been so bad both Minako and Mari have sworn to never mention it again). It’s not her best, because Yūri loves ice skating, and no matter how fun ballroom dancing is, nothing can replace that. But it’s pretty solid on the ‘awesome idea’ scale, which might also be due to Yūri being a little bit of a natural.

Sometimes he thinks that he turns into a different person when he’s in the spotlight… If only he could take an ounce of the self-assuredness he feels like music is running and he’s figure skating or dancing and preserve it for his everyday life, maybe he could fulfil Victor’s demands earlier. (Though 14 is, for all intents and purposes, way too young to be thinking about children, Yūri thinks to himself, and then puts any thoughts of firstborns or even relationships firmly out of his mind. He will probably regret that later, when Victor shows up, but for god’s sake, he is fourteen, and if not for Victor, he doubts he would be thinking about relationships at all.)

//*\\

Boys are really sought after in ballroom dancing, Yūri realizes quickly; he’s not the only boy, but the majority of dancers are female, and quite a few are familiar from the ballet studio.

Yūri gets partnered with one of the familiar faces, and he is sort of relieved. He’s known Jinxi since she moved to Japan with her parents six or seven years ago, and so far, they’ve gotten along all right. Not that he really sees that much of her outside the studio, but he guesses he could have done worse. She’s a year younger than him but barely an inch shorter, her black hair in a perfect bun that makes her look a couple of years older at least. She’s neither shy nor particularly outgoing, just quietly studious.

The only thing Yūri dislikes about dancing lessons is the near constant stares he can feel on his back. It makes him feel self-conscious, unsure of himself, when usually music does the opposite. And truly, sometimes when he turns around and lets his gaze sweep over the others around him, one of the younger girls will not be able to look away in time, or have a blush staining her cheeks – or, on one memorable occasion, nearly get bowled over by another dancer because she’s too busy staring at Yūri to notice where she’s putting her feet.

“Is something wrong with me?” Yūri asks after two weeks, only having gathered the courage because Jinxi told him to either confront it or ignore it, but you need to stop letting it bother you like this.

The girl stutters and stumbles over her words, cheeks flaming red. Yūri feels bad for her, but he – he sort of needs this resolved, now that he’s scrounged up the courage to ask her about it.

“I like you, Yūri-kun,” she finally admits after not too little hawing.

Yūri feels cold realization sweep over him. “Like me?” he echoes, his skin feeling too tight.

If possible, her blush gets even deeper. “Hai. Do you – ” she peeks up at him through dark lashes and an equally dark fringe. She can’t be more than eleven or maybe twelve, and Yūri feels repulsed before she even finishes her sentence. “Do you like me back, Yūri-kun?” She looks so hopeful, and Yūri feels even more disgusted – he doesn’t even know by what, because it’s not that he thinks she’s disgusting, in fact –

“You are a very nice girl, Jira,” he says, trying to be nice about it, “but I’m afraid I don’t…” He never finishes his sentence, but the way her face falls makes him guilty, the confusing, bad emotions churning in his gut until he feels sick with it.

The staring stops after that for the most part, but Yūri can’t look her in the eye. Maybe he’s simply disgusted that she could be in love with him, he who promised his firstborn to a demon.

18

Detroit is noisy and busy and dirty in a way Hasetsu never was, and Yūri still isn’t used to it after more than a year. But a rink is a rink, and the ice affords him a reprieve. It’s dark outside already, the rink deserted except for him but the next competition is a mere three weeks away, and both his triple Salchow and his quad Toe-Loop – the only quad he can at least half-way reliably land – could still use some work. Well, they could use a lot of work, but if only he could manage to land the Salchow properly…

He gathers speed, launches into it, has to touch the ice. He curses. Does it over again. And again. And again.

“Don’t you think it’s enough?” a voice asks. Yūri has lost count of how often he’s failed the Salchow quite a while ago, and it takes him a couple of moments to break out of his training trance and come back to reality. He can’t immediately place the voice, melodious and refined and unsettlingly familiar, and when he turns around, he’s almost convinced he’s hallucinating (or dreaming. Whether he wants to admit it, the scene in front of him is familiar, though not from the waking world).

Victor is leaning against the outer wall of the rink, clad in black trousers and with the same trench coat he was wearing last time Yūri saw him. If he’s not mistaken, Victor looks almost exactly like the last time he saw him, not even a smidgen older.

Yūri skates over, hoping the blush he can feel creep up his cheeks isn’t obvious in the dim half-light.

Victor pushes himself away from the wall and comes over to the side of the rink. It almost looks as though he’s gliding instead of walking, and only years of muscle memory prevent Yūri from crashing into the wall because he’s so distracted.

Now that Victor is closer to the light, Yūri can see he’s wearing a white button-down shirt with a black vest underneath the trench coat, all of which makes his eyes and hair look even more silver than Yūri remembered. But then again, he is finding that his memory has not done justice to the way Victor looks.

The silence stretches between them, thick like bubblegum and quite a bit awkward. Though maybe that’s just Yūri, because Victor’s easy smile does not betray even a hint of self-consciousness. Yūri stuffs his hands into the pockets of his training suit and looks at his skates, trying hard not to fidget.

“How have you been?” Victor asks after what feels like an eternity. Yūri shrugs. “So good, hm?”

Yūri glances up at him, and he’s still smiling, twirling a strand of his long silver hair around his finger.

 Yūri shrugs again. Victor comes a step closer to the ice, leaning forward with his arms braced on the halfwall, which means he’s ever so slightly in Yūri’s space. Almost involuntarily, Yūri takes a step back.

“You’re thinking too much,” Victor says, and Yūri is startled into looking at Victor fully, because honestly, he wasn’t thinking much at all right then. Victor waves his hand. “Not right now; during skating. Stop thinking so much and just feel the way your body moves. It’s in there,” here, he leans forward a bit more and puts his hand on Yūri’s chest. He thinks Victor means to touch his heart, but, well, that’s not on the right side…

Yūri still doesn’t say anything – can’t, not with the way he can feel Victor’s touch on his chest long after he’s taken his hands off Yūri again.

Victor is thankfully oblivious to it, but he does take pity on Yūri and explains the jump and how to feel it more. He walks Yūri through it twice, gives him pointers on what to change. It sounds simple enough that Yūri thinks he has it after the second time. Victor makes a shooing motion towards the ice. “Go on, try it. Don’t focus on the jump, focus on the way your body feels.”

Well, the focusing on his body shouldn’t be so hard with the echo of Victor’s touch still lingering on him, Yūri thinks as he skates into the middle of the rink, inexplicably nervous. It’s just a stupid jump, after all!

He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and then gathers the speed to launch himself into the triple Salchow again. He tries not to think – which is pretty hard, so instead he thinks about how his weight shifts forward and how his body rotates and how he’s pushing away from the ice – and then he’s in the air, does one – two – three rotations and lands, absorbing the impact the way Celestino has tried to explain to him fruitlessly for the past three lessons, and – and he’s done it, he’s landed his Salchow without having to touch down or falling or even just wobbling.

He looks up, doesn’t care how he looks right now – sweaty, disheveled, grin splitting his face. “It worked,” he whispers, and does it again. Lands it again. Launches into it once more – and lands it once more. And as simple as Victor’s advice may have sounded, it actually works, and Yūri’s cheeks hurt from all his grinning.

Victor is laughing, as Yūri makes his way back over, a gentle sound that makes his eyes crinkle. Yūri knows he’s a demon – that’s what the explanation for the ritual said, after all – but it’s so easy to forget. Victor looks downright human like this, and it makes Yūri’s chest go tight.

“Thank you. I’ll make this jump a tribute to you, the next time I skate it,” Yūri says, because he doesn’t know how else to convey his gratitude. The smile that blooms over Victor’s face at that is so genuinely happy it makes Yūri’s chest go tighter still, and for a moment, he can’t breathe. “Why are you here?” he asks before Victor can say anything more, in a desperate attempt to change the topic as he’s still trying to quiet his racing heart, to slow his heaving breaths.

Victor sobers, and his face loses all traces of softness. The change is profound and almost jarring, and Yūri can feel the last traces of elation bleed out of him. He almost wishes he hadn’t asked.

“There’s still the matter of your… debt,” Victor says, and now he’s the one looking away. It’s for the best, Yūri thinks, because it gives him the opportunity to look back down at his skates without seeming like he’s avoiding anything. Which he isn’t, for the record.

“I know.” His voice is quiet. “I’ve been trying, I honestly am! But the girls I meet here – they’re not the kind to get pregnant just like that.” They have their sport to think of and no free time to think of, he doesn’t say. Just like me, he doesn’t add.

Victor is silent, a slight frown on his face.

“I tried!” Yūri is quick to assure him, “There was this girl – but we didn’t – I guess she wasn’t really into me.” His cheeks are heating up again, and gods, why does he have to say this?

“You see,” Victor says after another minute or so of silence. Or maybe it’s been longer than a minute, or maybe even shorter, but in any case, to Yūri it has felt like an eternity. “I’ve waited nine years already for the repayment. That’s quite a long time. I really would like to put your case ad acta, as they like to say.”

Victor pauses again, but Yūri doesn’t dare look up. With just a couple of sentences Victor has managed to make Yūri feel as chagrined as Celestino manages with a full-blown lecture. And Victor hasn’t even raised his voice. (Maybe it would have been easier to bear if he had. But these quiet, dangerous, disappointed tones – those are more or less killing Yūri.)

“I – I’ll try,” Yūri promises, voice shaky.

“Do or do not,” Victor says, “There is no try.” And before Yūri can think of anything to say, he’s already gone.

//*\\

Yūri throws himself into his skating and dancing, because isn’t that the way to meet girls?

But trying to see – to see more in the girls despite not knowing how more feels – it’s just as hard as with the girls he meets at the rink. They’re all focused on improving, and while they seem to like him well enough, there is little time to flirt or do anything similar. Or maybe Yūri just doesn’t know how to do it, because Evan, who started training at the ballroom school about two months after him seems to have no trouble to get a girlfriend within weeks.

Yūri is partnered with an objectively beautiful girl called Yania; she’s not as rail-thin as many of the skaters (and many of the ballroom dancers, too; despite not being close to competing it seems that pretty much everybody is concerned about their weight and constantly trying to lose it, which makes Yūri’s gut twist), two years older than him and usually has her blond hair tied in a sloppy bun at the back of her head. She used to have it plaited in the beginning, but after Yūri almost swallowed a mouthful during a turn, she’s started to pull it up. He appreciates it; who knew that flying hair could be that painful?

But the point is, she’s pretty, and Yūri really gets along with her – they chat during breaks, laugh together when things go wrong, and she has surprising – if not entirely correct – opinions on figure skating. Yūri likes her, and thinking about losing her – it stings a little, already, and isn’t that what falling for somebody is like? He thinks it is.

He works on gathering up his courage for two weeks, finally deciding to simply ask her on a date after training one Wednesday afternoon (he has two hours before he needs to be at the rink afterwards, that should be enough time to ask and if she says no – well, in that case he’ll have the distraction of skating).

Yania is already there when Yūri enters the studio, heart beating so hard he can feel it in his chest, can feel the pulse in the tip of his fingers. His palms are a little clammy, and great. That’s not the sort of impression he wants to make (and yet, he’s never been able to suppress his nervousness properly).

She’s chatting to a petite girl half a head smaller than her, short brown hair framing a sharp-featured face. They’re standing close together, angled towards each other, so immersed in their conversation that they don’t even notice Yūri approach at first. A terrible inkling scratches at the surface of Yūri’s mind, but he pushes it down resolutely.

He drops his shoes noisily at the side of the room, enough to draw their attention.

Yania grins, like she’s genuinely happy to see Yūri, and he can feel the answering smile bloom over his face, fueled by the warmth in his chest. (Isn’t that what being in love feels like?)

“Yūri!” she exclaims, looking close to waving. It’s cute in the same way that it’s slightly embarrassing to Yūri (he’s not that special that people should look this happy to see him, and yet he’s grateful for her exuberance).  “May I introduce to you my girlfriend, Cat!”

And that – for a moment, Yūri’s whole world is tilting, his carefully laid plans of how he would approach her shattering into a million pieces, the shards embedding themselves in his heart and his brain. There’s confusion for a moment, disappointment and something that feels suspiciously like relief warring in his chest. He forces a smile onto his face, hoping beyond hope that he merely seems shy and not like he is still reeling from that announcement.

“Hi, I’m Yūri,” he says, and his voice is steady. His vision clears more and more with every breath he takes, and the disappointment is fading with it, until all that remains is the thought that he should feel more disappointed, because hadn’t he been falling for her?

Cat smiles at Yania, he eyes crinkling and going soft. Oh, Yūri thinks. That’s what being in love looks like. “I’m Catelyn,” she says, and for a moment Yūri thinks she wants to shake his hand – does one shake hands in a situation like that? “But my friends just call me Cat.”

“Nice to meet you, Cat,” he says automatically, strangely aware of the lilt in his words he still can’t seem to get rid of. How obvious is it that he’s not American? (His skin tone and eyes must be a dead giveaway already, he realizes after a moment, and wants to facepalm at his own desperation to make a good impression on Yania’s girlfriend).

Cat grins at him, and before she can say anything more, their teacher appears and gets the lesson started.

 

~*~

19

“You make a habit out of appearing like it’s a dream,” Yūri says, and in the next moment already wishes he had just shut his mouth. At least the blush has no chance against his exertion-red face; he supposes he looks like he ran a marathon (he barely did a quarter of that, but it’s enough to tire him out after a couple of days of competition).

Victor looks at him with an amused expression that says so much more than words ever could, and thankfully doesn’t actually say anything. But it’s true; this time he’d seemed to materialize on the park bench, right where anybody could see him. Nobody has taken notice, except Yūri. All the other people are either too busy with their smartphones or actual interpersonal relationships.

 “So, how has it been going?” Victor asks, looking a bit like he’s fighting not to smile. It doesn’t even matter; the topic at hand is enough to make Yūri light up like a fire truck again.

He averts his eyes, shrugs. “I – girls don’t seem to like me much.” He feels weird, as if the admission should be painful, but it isn’t, just vaguely embarrassing. The whole matter makes him feel uncomfortable, though he can’t quite pin why.

“Huh,” Victor says. Yūri can almost feel the way he runs his eyes over his body, and somehow he’s slowly getting resigned to only ever being red-faced in the presence of Victor. “I find that hard to believe.”

Something akin to nausea settles in Yūri’s stomach (he doesn’t get how this can make him nervous to the point of feeling sick; it’s not like this is a competition). “I – I’m not interested in the girls that are interested in me,” he amends, and it is the truth. He just doesn’t add that he’s not really interested in anybody at all himself.

Victor purses his mouth and rests his index finger against his lips. “Your flight back home leaves tomorrow, right?”

“Hai,” Yūri finds himself answering almost without thought, “we will go back to Detroit with the eleven AM flight.”

“And the legal drinking age here is what, eighteen?”

A new wave of nausea rolls over Yūri as he realizes where Victor’s thoughts are heading.

“I – I have to be back at the hotel by nine,” he says, and it’s only partially true. He told Celestino he’d be back by then, after Celestino offered him the evening off to explore the pubs and clubs here. “Just remember you have a flight to catch tomorrow,” he had said, even after Yūri had denied wanting to go out. Victor smirks as though he is very much aware of that little fact.

Yūri caves before Victor even has to say anything. It makes his stomach go tight, the thought of spending a whole evening with Victor, who usually disappears just as quickly as he appears.

“Splendid,” Victor says, “Then we’ll meet in the lobby of that hotel of yours at eight?”

Yūri nods despite the sinking feeling in his gut. What has he gotten himself into?

//*\\

He changes outfits four times between half six and quarter to seven, which says something both because he only has three outfits with him, and because it’s only fifteen minutes. His stomach is a clump of lead sitting uncomfortably in his abdomen, and he hadn’t even been surprised when dinner proved to be a short affair. He finally settles on the same outfit he’s already worn to the closing ceremony that had been held right before dinner that day; he supposes he can’t really go wrong with black trousers and a white button down. The soft blue jumper is a concession to his own comfort. Maybe he’s not dressed for an outing to a club, but he already feels like he’ll lose his dinner any minute. Any comfort at all is appreciated.

Maybe he is overreacting, but then again, who wouldn’t be on edge before a night out with a demon?

Victor is already waiting for him when he gets downstairs to the lobby, chatting amiably with a skater from Denmark whose name Yūri can’t seem to recall for the life of him.

“Yūri!” Victor exclaims, and for a moment Yūri can’t help but recall how Victor said his name in this exact tone years ago, chatting to his Coach back in Hasetsu, all excited as though they’ve been longtime friends. It makes his stomach go even tighter, not that he thought that feat possible.

“Hi,” the Danish skater says, “I don’t think we’ve properly met. I’m Christoffer.”

Yūri nods at him. “Yūri.” Christoffer is Yūri’s senior by two or three years, and he appears to know exactly where to go to have a good time here.

The place he drags them to is dimly lit at the entrance, but the noise spilling towards them is horrendous, and Yūri thinks there might be strobe lights. Strobe lights.

But Christoffer doesn’t seem too bothered by it, doesn’t even seem to notice that Yūri is uncomfortable.

“Come on,” Victor says – shouts, more like it, honestly, because already the music is at a level that prevents speaking normally, and even so Victor has to lean towards Yūri and more or less shout in his ear to be understood, “it won’t be so bad!”

Yūri sighs to himself, and follows, albeit reluctantly, and doesn’t tell Victor about how he won his free skate off a perfect triple Salchow (and a quad toeloop, but it’s the Salchow that counts). Victor probably doesn’t even remember his stupid tribute-promise, anyway.

//*\\

In a way, Victor was right, Yūri has to admit a couple of hours later. It’s not so bad. It’s worse.

It’s not that Yūri doesn’t know how to move his body (he tries not to snort into his beer at the thought) or that he doesn’t know how to dance (far from it), but he doesn’t like beer – maybe has never developed a taste for it, but he doesn’t know how anybody could like this vile stuff – he doesn’t like this kind of techno music, and there’s little he would like to do less than stand here at the perimeter of the dance floor, on his own, overwhelmed by the noise and the people and the smells and –

Maybe what he dislikes most of all is the way Christoffer and Victor have simply… abandoned him here, for lack of a better word.

They hadn’t, at first, right after they’d all entered the club. Christoffer had spied a group of girls who, according to him, “really like your sort of guy,” which had made Yūri bristle. What did Christoffer mean, his sort of guy?  Victor had stood next to them, grinning at Christoffer’s words, and Yūri had felt like bolting right then and there.

He hadn’t, though he’s not sure now why. Or why he’s still here and not back at his hotel room. Christoffer had winked at him and with a “first round’s on me,” he’d made his way over to the bar.

Yūri had done his best not to look at Victor, which was why he’d been totally blindsided when Victor had suddenly been right by his side, close enough for Yūri to feel the heat radiating from his body, to smell him – a musky, indescribable scent that made Yūri shiver. (Probably a demon thing, he’d thought to himself, slightly dazed). And that was totally the only reason he hadn’t resisted in the least when Victor took his arm and dragged him determinedly if still gently towards to girls.

By the time Yūri had thought to do something, it had been too late: he’d been standing smack in front of the girls, Victor retreating to where Christoffer had left them with a wink and a smirk, and Yūri had felt himself blush, hard enough that there was no way to miss it, even in this dim lighting.

He didn’t even want to think about the embarrassment that had followed. Suffice to say it had been a total disaster, and when he slunk back to where he could see Christoffer and Victor standing, both of them were laughing, Christoffer nearly doubled over from it.

Yūri had grabbed the bottle of beer Christoffer had gotten him and stalked off, and neither Christoffer nor Victor had followed him.

In fact, he can see the both of them, jumping and moving in a throng of people of either gender, close enough that it probably counts as an orgy already. Yūri grimaces, and this time he does snort. He doesn’t really want to look, doesn’t want to see the way the bodies are gyrating against each other out there on the dance floor, doesn’t want to see how close Victor and Christoffer are dancing, doesn’t want to feel this weird tightness in his chest, doesn’t want the stale taste in his mouth.

It’s a little gross, he thinks, and maybe if he had more alcohol… But no, in the state he’s in, he’d only get maudlin or totally embarrassing, and that would really top things off.

He’s only peripherally aware of people trying to talk to him, he shrugs them off, his monosyllabic answers enough to chase them away quickly. He’s still nursing that first beer Christoffer had given him, almost completely flat now but thankfully also almost empty.

He finishes it off in two quick swallows, leaving the dregs (yucky stuff), and then goes in search of Victor. He’s not staying a moment longer than he has to in here.

He manages to catch Victor’s eyes after only a moment or two, gesturing in an attempt to say I’m leaving, and maybe he even succeeds. In the blink of an eye, Victor’s almost euphoric expression sobers, and he starts fighting his way through the crowd. Yūri feels a little bad at that – no matter how he himself feels about it all, cutting Victor’s fun short was not his intention.

“I’m leaving!” he shouts into Victor’s ear once he’s close enough to hear him, which means he’s crowding into Yūri’s space.  Victor’s face falls even further. Yūri’s skin feels too tight on his body, face crawling with heat.

“Stay?” Yūri thinks he says – the lip movements look like it, at least – but Yūri shakes his head. He needs to get out of here right now; the music seems to be getting louder and everybody is too close, it’s too much –

Victor’s hand is on the small of his back, guiding him towards the exit. Yūri tries to breathe through his nausea, feels himself starting to shiver.

The air outside is cool on Yūri’s skin, his heartbeat loud enough to almost completely drown out the music spilling through the door with them.

Still, he can hear Victor just fine when he asks, “May I?” but all he can do is stare up at him with wide eyes, words beyond him.

Victor sighs and, slow enough that Yūri could back away any time, draws Yūri into a hug. And Yūri – Yūri feels safe like this, and the tremors slam back into him with a vengeance. For a moment, they stand like that, Victor’s arms safely around Yūri, shielding him from the word, his scent so real, his body so tangible that slowly, Yūri can feel his heartbeat calm down, can feel the shivers receding back to their hiding place. Sooner than he would have liked, he disentangles himself from Victor.

“Better?” Victor smiles at him, open and unguarded, and Yūri’s heart constricts at the sight. He nods.

“I’m still leaving,” he says, his voice steady despite how he feels. “I’m not feeling well.”

“I noticed,” Victor says drily, but he doesn’t take away the hand he still has resting on Yūri’s arm. He looks torn, a little like what he actually wants is to get back to the party, and Yūri’s heart constricts again.

Of course Victor is only here because of the debt. No matter how excited he may seem when greeting Yūri in the presence of others, he’s still only here because Yūri owes him. He forces a smile onto his face.

“I think I’m well enough to find the way back to the hotel on my own,” he says, to forestall Victor having to choose (he doesn’t kid himself that he’d come out on top in that).

“Are you sure?” Victor asks, still so visibly conflicted, and Yūri smiles again. He hopes it doesn’t come out too bitter.

“Yeah. And in an emergency, I still have my phone.” The false cheer in his voice is jarring even to him, and he turns away before Victor can notice that he’s jittery still with the aftermath of his panic attack. As nice as it felt being held in his arms, he doesn’t want to be a charity case.

Before he can quite leave though, Victor pulls him back into his arms, and Yūri is not quite strong enough to refuse.

Victor mumbles something into his hair he barely understands; as it is, it could be anything from thanks for being a good sport to good luck in your sport. Yūri shrugs, which seems a safe enough response.

He extricates himself from Victor’s embrace sooner than he would have liked (he just wants to feel safe, though, maybe a demon is not the sanest choice to feel safe with), says his goodbyes and leaves without a backwards glance. And with every step away from that damned night club, he can feel himself calm down. And then he does his best to forget about this whole evening (he doesn’t have high hopes for how well it will work out).

~*~

20

Walking away from the club that night had been easy, but walking away from the debt he owes is anything but, which is the only reason he doesn’t immediately bolt when Cat asks, “You are single, aren’t you?”

“… yes,” he answers, unsure what she is getting at.

“I think I’d like to introduce you to somebody,” she says, getting excited. She’s the sort of person who gets all bouncy when she has an idea, like excitement opens up energy reserves most of the population has no access to. 

“Okay…” Yūri is oddly reluctant, even though he knows he’s more than old enough to finally get a move on. For god’s sake, others his age have already had their firstborn. And yet he still hasn’t even had his first kiss (nor has he the desire to have his first kiss, but maybe he just… hasn’t met the right person yet).

He can get neither Cat nor Yania to tell him more about that friend Cat wants him to meet, so when the day comes, he’s standing in front of his wardrobe and has maybe his worst case of indecision since that stupid night out with Victor a couple of months ago.

In the end, he settles on a pair of dark jeans and a simple navy-blue short-sleeved t-shirt. It’s an outfit that makes him feel comfortable, even if it’s not the fanciest thing he could wear.  

Yania has booked a reservation at the small café not far from the dance studio under her name, and when Yūri gets there, he finds that he is early. Or maybe his ‘date’ just won’t show up at all?

He sits down, crossing his legs and trying to rub his sweaty palms unobtrusively. He’s not even sure why he is this nervous, but he feels almost sick with the knot in his stomach. Maybe a café wasn’t the best idea; the thought of consuming anything, be it drink or food, is nauseating.

It doesn’t take that long for his date to arrive. The girl is petite, with light blonde hair in a complicated braid that spills over her shoulder and still reaches the slight slope of her breasts. She’s clad in pale washed skinny jeans and one of those layered long-sleeves where the upper layer is ever so slightly see-through. The pale colours bring out her slightly tanned skin and accentuate her forearms where she has the sleeves pushed back to her elbows. As she draws closer, Yūri can see that she wears just the slightest touch of make-up, and all in all, he’s honestly positively surprised. She’s pretty even to his eyes, and when she is shown to his table, a seemingly genuine smile spreads over her face.

The waiter deposits two menus on the table, and Yūri reaches for his after wiping his hands on his jeans again.

“Hi, I’m Janice,” the girl says, still smiling and now holding out a hand. Her fingernails are carefully manicured, the hands and fingers graceful. He grips the hand, trying his best to make his palm as non-sweaty as possible. It’s almost a little reassuring that her hand isn’t totally dry either. 

“Yūri,” Yūri introduces himself, and immediately feels like an idiot for having said one word only. It sounds awkward and stilted even to him.

“So, you’re the ‘awesome dancer’ that Yania keeps raving about, eh?” Janice says, and Yūri can immediately feel the blush creeping up his cheeks.

“I – I might be a little decent,” he admits, and that makes Janice laugh, and conversation settles into something easy going after there.

Janice is a year older than him, studying medicine here in Detroit. She’s not a figure skating fan, but has a bit of knowledge about it. “My sport is Hockey,” she tells him in almost conspiratorial tones. “Go Wings!” She laughs again, fiddles with her bracelet. She’s cute, but unfortunately more in a Mari-sort of way than in a ‘I’d like to date her’ sort of way (he’d even just settle for ‘I’d like to kiss her’, but not even that is there). But she is genuinely nice, and their comparing figure skating to hockey is enough to make his stomach unclench enough to order a hot chocolate.

He feels embarrassed for a moment as he places his order, because it’s such a childish drink, but then she orders a latte monstrosity that has, like, fifty flavour shots, and Yūri’s unintentionally horrified face makes her laugh again.

They chat for more than two hour about various things, going from sports to the environment to Yūri’s parents’ Onsen to school, before Janice looks at her watch and starts. “Shit, I have a tutorial in half an hour.” She looks apologetic, and Yūri does feel a little disappointed. Conversation with her has been really fun.

Yūri bites his lip. “We… could exchange numbers?” He cringes at how unsure and insecure he sounds, and Janice’s soft chuckle doesn’t make it any better.

“Oh, Yūri.” She brushes a stray lock behind her hair. “It was awesome chatting with you, but I don’t see this going anywhere.” Yūri feels his blush return, making his cheeks crawl. “I mean, I like you, but there’s just – there’s no spark, you know?”

And he does know, so he shrugs, kind of sheepishly, and she smiles again, a bit wistfully.

They split the bill and actually hug for goodbye. “I do think you’re really pretty,” Yūri tells her a little apologetically as they head for the door. Janice laughs again.

“Thank you. You’re such a nice guy, Yūri, I can’t deny I’m a little sad that this doesn’t look like it would work.” She looks a little unsure, before she adds, “But I do thank you for the nice afternoon, it was a welcome respite from all the assholes I’ve had coffee with recently.”

Now it’s Yūri’s turn to laugh, and he only feels a little hollow and awkward as he finally says a proper goodbye and watches her walk away. But oh well, this was just his first try, it’s bound to get better, right?

//*\\

It doesn’t get better.

He goes on another couple of blind coffee dates, but there’s nothing even close to resembling a spark there. Yania takes pity on him and finally sets him up with this guy she knows, but that’s not any closer to home, either. Yes, Piotr is nice (and the lilt in his voice seems familiar and maybe causes the closest thing to a spark Yūri has felt since he’s started this… this dating experiment), but he’s also not right. They don’t even manage to find a common topic of interest, and for once Yūri is glad to be in a night club that has speakers blaring music loud enough to make the furniture shake.

They dance a bit, and it’s fun, but then Piotr’s hand starts going lower and lower and that’s enough to make Yūri balk. He takes an involuntary step back, bumps into another person behind him, and only Piotr’s quick reflexes stop him from tumbling to the floor.

“Sorry, man,” Piotr yells into his ear, barely audible in the din, and despite blushing furiously, Yūri is thankful that Piotr’s hands do, in fact, stay above his waist after that.

All in all, it’s quite disappointing, this failed dating … thing, and Yūri is incredibly glad as the new season approaches and his training ramps up enough to make free time sparse. (Curiously, Yūri’s billet-brother, Phichit, somehow still finds the time to take a different girl out to coffee or ice-cream or public skate each week. “They’re just friends,” he insists, white teeth gleaming in his tanned face, and if any of those girls is in earshot when he says it, she’ll invariable start to giggle and nod. … Yūri doesn’t even want to know.)

And yeah, he’s probably at fault there, too, because he doesn’t actually need to study, except that it assuages his mother’s panic about but what will you do after skating? Yūri thinks it’s understandable that after skating is not a topic he really yearns to think about, what with the debt and everything. So college and skating it is, and with the national team considering him, he can go whole stretches of days without even thinking about Victor and his debt once.

Of course that’s too good to last.

It’s more familiar than usual, this time. Yūri is in the practice rink, alone with the harsh lights, making the ice seem more stark than usual. Technically, the caretaker is here still to lock up behind him, but Yūri’s gotten the keys to the building a year ago. He doesn’t think Celestino knows about his night sessions; they don’t happen frequently enough to be obvious, but nights like these, when he is too agitated to go to sleep, when his skin feels too tight and his thoughts threaten to veer into territory he’d rather not think about, when the urge to make katsudon comes crashing over him like a tsunami – on nights like these he will jog over to the rink and just skate and jump and spin until his head is clear.

He’s been trying to get a quad Salchow right – he doesn’t even want it to be a perfect jump, but so far, his Salchow is more a triple-and-a-half – for most of his late night skate, but he isn’t making much progress. He’s just taken a spill at again, when there is a rustle on the sidelines. For one short, heart-stopping moment he is sure it’s Celestino, come to scold him for overexerting his muscles and attempting the quad Salchow, but when he pushes himself up and actually looks, the flash of silver is enough to send his heart into a different kind of overdrive, make his hands sweaty. There is the ghost of an intoxicating scent as he remembers the last time he’s seen Victor a few months ago, and then he’s trying not to scramble to his feet. 

He thinks he manages something approaching calm and collected, and to his credit, Victor doesn’t smirk or seem mocking in any kind of way. He does look … different, but it’s nothing Yūri can immediately put his finger on.

“Remember to feel your body,” Victor tells him in greeting once Yūri draws close enough so Victor doesn’t have to shout.

“That’s easier said than done,” Yūri replies, only a little petulantly.

Victor chuckles, and leans on the banister, arms crossed. “Are you supposed to still be out here?”

Yūri just shrugs and grabs his bottle of water. It doesn’t really matter if he’s supposed to or not, it’s better than drowning in his own worries.

Victor sighs. “I guess I should come back tomorrow.”

Yūri shrugs again, takes a gulp from his bottle to prevent answering. As much as he’s secretly sort of missed Victor, he’s now strangely reluctant to actually spend time with him. His head really is weird.

“What’s on your agenda for tomorrow?” Victor asks as Yūri steps off the ice, covering his blades with quick, practiced motions.

“College in the morning, an hour for a late lunch, then ballet and practice in the evening.” His schedule has little variation to it; even this early in the season it’s easy to have it memorized. The silence stretches between them, like Victor is waiting for something. Yūri feels like an idiot when he realizes what it is. “If you want to, you can join me for lunch. We can, I don’t know, order something in. I’ll be home by two or shortly after. Or we can, like, eat out. But I don’t really want to subject you to my cooking.” His laughter has a weird titter to it. Why is he so nervous? He doesn’t say that he was planning on making katsudon tomorrow, like the food will stuff that weird hollow feeling in his chest.

“Is Russian okay? There’s… An acquaintance of mine has commended a small, apparently authentic place not too far from here,” Victor suggests after a pause that is only a tad too long.

“I don’t think I’ve ever had Russian food,” Yūri admits, and then hurries to add, “But I’d love to try it!”

Victor chuckles, claps a hand on Yūri’s back and disappears with an off-handed, “I’ll try to be on time.”

It takes Yūri until he’s tying his shoelaces to realize that he’s never given Victor his address. But then, the demon has always just seemed to know where Yūri is any given moment, which is, admittedly, a little weird.

//*\\

True to his word, Victor is right on time at five past two. Yūri is actually a little surprised because being on time with a direction such as “at two or shortly thereafter” isn’t something he would have expected to have such an elegant solution. But of course Victor makes it work.

He has a white plastic bag in each hand, trying to disappear into his trench coat and scarf to escape the relentless cold of approaching Detroit winter. Yūri lets him in without a word, quietly thankful that his billet family is out working. It’s not that he’s intentionally trying to be rude, not saying anything, but more that his thoughts are once again racing through his head at a speed that makes holding onto any single one impossible.

“How was college?” Victors says, with a strange little hesitation on the last word, like he actually meant to say something different. (It’s weird how Yūri’s mind focuses on these tiny details, but there he is).

Yūri shrugs. “It was okay. Got a couple of problem sets to finish, but…” he shrugs again and busies himself with getting plates and glasses from the cupboards while Victor takes a long look around the kitchen. “Gatorade okay? We also have water and…  I think Phichit has left some juice. I can also offer coffee?”

Victor is still standing in the entryway to the kitchen, eyes caught on the huge coffeemaker in one corner. The gleaming silver fits beautifully in the modern-style kitchen with its stainless steel appliances and polished black countertops.

“I guess you’ll go with the coffee.”

Victor gives a rueful grin at that, and Yūri’s stomach unclenches a little, and maybe even his thoughts slow down by a smidgen.  “That machine does truly look delicious.” There is such longing in his voice that for a moment, he almost seems human, were it not for his almost otherworldly complexion, only underscored by his silver hair. Yūri stops dead in his tracks.

“You’ve cut your hair,” he blurts out, aghast. It’s undeniable in the clear light of day, and he must have thought Victor’s hair was in a ponytail or done up in some other way. His beautiful locks!

Victor smiles, a weird mixture of sheepish and proud. “It was time for something new.”

“Oh,” Yūri says, and then turns to the coffee machine before he does something embarrassing like tell Victor that he does indeed look quite handsome with his cropped hair, or that it brings out his face better.

The food Victor has brought is some kind of meaty stew with red beet called borscht, as well as varenyky, which are a sort of pierogi. They are filled with potatoes, a weird mix of cheese, cream, and cabbage. Victor also has brought bread and sour cream to go with the dishes, and just like that it’s probably more fancy than anything Yūri has had in the past couple of months. Not that the food his billet family makes is terrible – but with both his billet parents working full-time jobs, they understandably have neither time not energy to prepare feasts (not that Yūri would expect them to).

It’s surprisingly tasty. It’s unlike pretty much anything Yūri has ever eaten before, but it’s quite good. He takes care to say as much to Victor, who beams like he himself made the food.

“I know. This food is always a little like coming home.” He shuts up abruptly after that and shoves a big enough bite into his mouth that talking would be quite rude, and Yūri can’t help but be confused. Why is Russian food like coming home?

Was Victor Russian before he became a demon? Did demons used to be human at one point? Would he become a demon after he died? The thought isn’t as scary as it probably should be, but it does making swallowing his mouthful of food challenging for a moment. And then Yūri pushes it away resolutely. Death is not something he wants to worry about now.

The conversation resumes after a pause that is only a little awkward – the food is delicious enough to make Yūri just keep quiet and appreciate it – but when it does, it moves on to safer topics: Dancing and skating, people Yūri has met here in Detroit.

“So,” Victor says while Yūri cleans up the table and puts the plates and cutlery into the dishwasher. Victor has one hip cocked against the kitchen counter, his pale eyes following Yūri’s every movement (Yūri can almost tangibly feel his gaze). He looks, for all intents and purposes, like he’s waiting for the photographer in a photoshoot for a designer kitchen. “I really hate to be prying, but how are things with the… with dating?”

Yūri stops with his whole body turned away from Victor, head bowed as he studies the almost imperceptible scratches on the counter top in front of him. He almost shrugs again, but catches the motion at the last moment. He’s doing that way too much already.

“The season has started up again,” he says, like that’s explanation enough. And maybe it is; Victor has seen him at the rink, has seen him over the years. He should know that skating – skating is everything Yūri has. Skating, for the moment at least, takes precedence over everything else.

Victor tuts behind him, which makes something flare up in Yūri’s belly, unexpected and hot. He whirls around, crosses his arms over his chest. “I’ve tried! I’ve lost count how often I’ve tried but – ” he has to swallow around the taste of defeat in his mouth, bitter and with a metal like tang. It wars in his gut with the inexplicable guilt, and he can feel his face twist into a scowl. “Maybe I’m doing something wrong, but either there is so little spark that I – that I can’t even imagine touching them, or they tell me that there is no spark and I shouldn’t even ask them for a second date.” The fight leaves him as quickly as it had come, and he lets himself slump, uncaring about what it does to his posture. “What more can I do but try?”

“Oh Yūri,” Victor says, voice impossibly gentle. He looks less like a cool model and so human once more that Yūri has to swallow again and finally drops his gaze to his feet, because Victor’s strange mixture of disappointment and concern make him feel so young, so inexperienced.

The silence stretches, leaving a ringing sound in Yūri’s ears.

“I know it’s not easy,” Victor says an indeterminable amount of time later, and he actually sounds a little apologetic. “But I need you to try again. At worst, consider this a trial run. As long as you’re still competing, I know it’ll take precedence. But be prepared to get serious after you retire. I’m not – I’m afraid I can’t use any more magic on you – contract rules, you understand? – but there might be a few things I still… I might be able to help in more… mundane ways.” Victor looks so earnest that Yūri feels the blush on his cheeks like a monster. “I’ll give you another couple of months – at least try to date during that time. And if you still aren’t getting anywhere, maybe it’s time to… see if I can’t help you a little.” Victor smiles, a winning, charming smile, and actually winks at Yūri, and Yūri can only feel his blush intensifying.

“Well, I’m afraid I have to be off,” Victor finally says when it becomes clear that Yūri will not, and actually moves as if to leave. “Thank you for the excellent lunch company, and good luck in your upcoming competitions.”

Yūri gets another one of those impossible grins that he can’t help but respond to in kind and a jaunty wave, and whilst moving to the front door, Victor already fades from view.

For some reason, it takes until dancing lessons for Yūri’s blush to do the same.

                                                                                                     ~*~        

21

As he had promised, Victor gives Yūri time. And not just a couple of months but more than half a year, which stings a little, even though Yūri does rationally know that Victor probably has better stuff to do than babysit a mere mortal.

He has, however, used the time in the way he’s supposed to, not that it has done much good.

At least sometimes, when he looks at Phichit, there might be… might be something; he doesn’t really want to classify it as a spark, but he thinks he could maybe even imagine kissing Phichit. It’s not really of any use, because Phichit – well, neither of them has the complementary equipment needed if a child is to be produced (and gods, what kind of language is that? Why can’t he even think about that in normal terms?) – and Yūri also always fails at the actual imagining part of things. He just doesn’t… doesn’t like Phichit this way (which sounds childish even to his ears), doesn’t want him.

He’s never thought I want them about anybody as far as he can remember, and isn’t that what he’s supposed to be feeling?

At least that’s what his rink mates say behind the doors of the locker room or at the rare night out they are able to allow themselves. Guys his age (and more and more boys considerably younger than him) brag about having had their first kiss at twelve and thirteen and fourteen, about losing their virginity at fifteen and sixteen and seventeen. And there he is, just turned 21, finally old enough to drink in the states and yet still a virgin.

At least he has kissed a girl. Nina had been nice and fun and outgoing, meeting him for coffee and at the library and once even at the rink. Maybe he could even call that dating, seeing how it did go on for almost a month. The kissing started in the second week of dating; a small peck on the lips at first, culminating in a snog one evening when Yūri managed to work up his courage and the determination to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach he tried to convince himself were nerves.

And kissing – kissing wasn’t bad per se. Nina had undoubtedly been a good and skilled kisser, not even commenting on his lack of experience. She had laughed into his mouth at his initial clumsiness, not mean or deriding but with something that felt like genuine fun at teaching him something. And teach him she did. All in all, he might even have described it as pleasant, but there was no – there still was no spark, and it never went further.

Not for lack of trying on Nina’s part, but he can understand that she’s not very willing to go on after encountering a flaccid dick after quite a few minutes of making-out.

“Oh,” she had said, and her eyes had been kind and sad as she had tried to hang on to her dignity. “I guess you’re not that into me, eh?” she’d asked, giving a self-deprecating laugh.

And Yūri had stood there like an idiot, hair mussed from her fingers and lips raw, failing to explain to her that he liked her and she was fun but – he couldn’t even articulate it in his head. It just didn’t feel right with her, thinking about sex didn’t feel right with her. Nina broke off the relationship not so long after, and then he has to concentrate on the last stretch of the year, trying to qualify for the Grand Prix.

If there is no time to date between flying all over the world – well, that’s not his fault, now is it?

//*\\

Victor doesn’t show up again until the middle of March; by that time, Yūri has just come back to Detroit to nurse wounds both physical and mental. It’s arguably his worst season yet; he’s not even managed to qualify for the World Championships, so his season is, in effect, over.

Phichit at least has fared better than him and won’t be home for quite a while, and since he’s competing in the World Junior Championships, his parents have flown out to Bulgaria to cheer him on. Which means Yūri has the house all to himself. He hates it. It only makes him feel more lonely and means there is nobody to reign in his food binging.

Yūri is maudlin; there’s really no other word for it, but he knows he’ll pick himself back up once the Chulanonts are back. But he has to be allowed a couple of days to mourn another botched season, right?

Phichit and his parents come back on the seventeenth, the former with a silver medal and the latter so proud Yūri can feel himself being swept up in all of it. It’s great at the same time as it is making his chest constrict, but he tries to push the latter down and concentrates on what is awesome: They go out to a fancy dinner, skype with Yūri’s parents who are equally proud, and Yūri watches Phichit’s programs five or six times, listening to the commentary and watching as his friend glows.

And yet, at night when the excitement fades a little, there are tears prickling in his eyes. His time is running out, slowly but surely, and there is little he can do but train harder, try to be better. And even while he is still caught up in last season’s failures, he starts running again.

He’s coming back from a run, cursing himself for having splurged on food so much while the Chulanonts hadn’t been there, when he spots the figure leaning against the wooden fence that keeps the chaotic flower beds Arinya prefers at bay. Even in the relative warmth of late March Victor is in his trench coat, smiling and waving as Yūri draws close. His dog is with him this time, looking exactly as Yūri remembers him: quite big for a poodle, but with curly brown fur that seems so impossibly soft. Missing Vicchan, usually a steady ache, almost bowls him over in its sudden intensity, and he looks to the ground as he grimaces, wrangling his expression under control again.

“Hey,” Yūri greets him, and tries to concentrate on breathing to avoid thinking about why exactly Victor is here.

“Hey yourself.” Victor is in such a good mood that it’s immediately infective, and Yūri finds himself smiling, too, forgetting, for a moment, about both the debt and his atrocious season. “This is Makkachin,” he introduces his dog, “I think you’ve met her before, but I didn’t actually introduce her.”

Victor runs a hand through his hair, the mannerism so human, so approachable, that Yūri has to swallow. He crouches down before he does something stupid, like comment on it, or – his thought is derailed by Makkachin, who greets him almost as enthusiastically as Vicchan usually does. Yūri laughs, almost against his will, and cuddling her and cooing at her comes so natural he feels like he could fly.

“She’s an excellent judge of character,” Victor comments, voice oddly soft. His smile looks the way his voice sounds, and Yūri quickly buries his head in Makkachins soft fur again. She smells reassuringly like dog. Victor’s next words are more upbeat, and Yūri is both disappointed and relieved. His brain really is weird. “Not like your usual hellhound.”

He gives Yūri another couple of minutes to bestow affections on her, before Yūri’s niggling thoughts make him too antsy to just sit still and pet Makkachin.

“You were here for a reason?” he asks as he straightens from his crouch, stretching his aching legs. He pets Makkachin one final time, scratching behind her ears. She gives him a beautiful doggy smile in response, and he just has too coo at her again.

Victor has a weird smile on his face when he looks up again, his own face – at least he hopes – curious, but his face morphs into its usual pleasant mask too quickly for Yūri to glean anything more. “It would be gauche to talk about this out here.” Yūri isn’t sure whether Victor is simply glad to have a topic to actually talk about or if he is evading – or if it’s just normal pleasantries, gods, why must he always see a hidden meaning in every little conversation?

“Makka,” Victor murmurs, and Yūri can’t shake the feeling that Victor is still talking in Japanese for Yūri’s benefit only, “time for you to go home.” Makkachin wags her tail, noses Yūri’s hand one last time, and then disappears in the same fashion Victor does by simply fading into thin air.

They walk up to the house in companionable silence, and Victor follows Yūri up to his bedroom with only minimal looking around. Not that there is that much he hasn’t yet seen, except for the pictures lining the staircase.

It feels weird, having Victor in his personal space here. After that initial… meeting, he’s only ever met Victor at the rink or that one time downstairs in the kitchen, but never in his room. It feels almost intimate, and that’s a line of thought Yūri abandons as quickly as it comes up.

The silence begins to stretch into awkward by the time they enter Yūri’s room, and Yūri doesn’t quite know how to break it. He is, however, quite sweaty and altogether gross after his workout, and for a moment he is torn, unsure if it’s rude to ask whether he can grab a quick shower.

Victor, with his uncanny knack for knowing what Yūri is thinking – and maybe he can actually read Yūri’s thought, which is another realization Yūri tries to bury – just grins at him. “Go clean up, I won’t die of waiting another couple of minutes.”

Yūri practically races into the shower, washing his hair and body in what has to be record time. Only once he is drying himself off he realizes he has forgotten clean clothes.

There is no way around it if he doesn’t want to put his sweaty things back on: he has to brave his room with only a towel. Which would not be a problem, except that it has Victor, and does he change in his room while he asks Victor to look away, or does he go back into the bathroom or – what is the correct response to this?

In the end, he simply wraps his towel around his hips and pads across the hallway without a concrete plan of action, though he is inclined to grab his stuff and go back into the bathroom.

Victor is having none of it.

When Yūri enters the room, Victor is standing in front of the wall with photos of Hasetsu and Vicchan and Yūri’s medals. “You have a poodle,” he says, voice once more oddly soft, and Yūri stammer out a “hai.”

Victor turns around at that, stopping short and giving Yūri an obvious and appraising look. Yūri freezes like somebody has rooted him to the ground, his skin crawling with a blush. He doesn’t think that anybody has ever looked at him like that, like he is something to be savoured. It also makes his stomach twist, and he’s not sure if it’s a bad or a good twist. Mostly, he is embarrassed by how Victor is seizing him up.

“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Victor says when Yūri keeps standing there like a deer caught in headlights, and that really does nothing to lessen in blush. Quite the opposite, he realizes when he convinces his feet to move over to his wardrobe, which has a mirror on the inside. His blush has spread all the way down to his chest, trailing off somewhere around his nipples. It’s truly mortifying.

But he can also see in the mirror that Victor has gone back to studying the pictures on the wall, clearly intending to give Yūri privacy, and so he changes into his clothes as quickly as possible. It’s not like him to be bothered so much by partial nudity; he can’t possibly count the number of times he’s been in various states of undress in front of multiple strangers in the changing rooms. And yet, this feels different, this feels like something Yūri can’t place. What he can place, though, is his edginess about the upcoming talk.

“Do you want to stay here?” Victor asks as Yūri closes the zipper of his jacket.

“I thought maybe we could go to this new ice cream place,” Yūri suggests, looking at a picture of the Hasetsu sunset slightly to the left of Victor’s head. He hasn’t quite regained his footing yet, and sometimes he hates that it can take him so long to calm down again. He has nothing really to be nervous about, why is his head so stupid?

Victor grins like a kid who was, well, offered ice cream, and so they set off.

Of course they don’t make it out of the house undetected. That would have been way too easy. Instead they run in to Arinya as Yūri is putting on his trainers.

“Ah, Yūri!” She’s smiling at them with a strange expression on her face, not really disapproving, but almost a little knowingly. Yūri wishes he knew why. “And who is this charming young man with you?”

“Hi Arinya,” Yūri greets her in English. “This is my, er, friend, Victor.” He can feel himself blush for some asinine reason as he stumbles over the correct descriptor for Victor; friend isn’t really it, but it’s infinitely better than ‘the demon I promised my firstborn to’. Arinya’s smiles widens further, her eyes sparkling. “Victor, this is Arinya Chulanont, my billet mom.”

“Hello, Mrs. Chulanont,” Victor repeats, with his most winning smile. “It’s truly nice to meet you. I hope you don’t mind me kidnapping your billet son.”

Arinya leans in a little closer, making Yūri bristle a little. “As long as you return him in one piece,” she says, tone conspiratorially. Victor laughs a little at that.

“I wouldn’t dream of doing anything else,” he says, and even though Yūri knows it’s because he’s never going to get his bargain fulfilled otherwise, it makes his stomach flutter.

 Arinya, of course, doesn’t know that caveat, and so she simply chuckles, pushing Yūri in the direction of the door. “Then off you go.”

She stops short before they can actually get out, though.

“Yūri,” she says, like something has just occurred to her, and Yūri fears the worst, “This wouldn’t be the Victor after whom you na – ”

“No, of course not,” Yūri interrupts her, face flaming and doing his best not to look at Victor.

She laughs a little, and finally lets them go, looking for all intents and purposes like a proud mother sending her son off somewhere, maybe to school, or college, or a holiday. It’s enough to make Yūri think he’s never going to lose his embarrassment, and before he knows it, he’s apologizing to Victor for it.

“Eh,” Victor says and grins again. His grin is quite nice, making his mouth look a little heart shapes. He runs a hand through his hair. “She seemed really nice. But was she talking about at the end?”

And yes, Yūri is never going to lose his blush. “Nothing. Really, it was nothing important, just – she got confused for a moment.” Because he’s certainly not going to tell Victor he shares his name with Yūri’s poodle (and why is he so reluctant about that? He’d named Vicchan before ever knowing Victor’s name, after all!), and calling the Salchow ‘Victor’s move’ just because he’s given Yūri some pointers also seems incredibly childish.

Victor has his eyebrow raised, clearly curious, but he lets it go, says simply, “but she means well.”

And that is something Yūri can’t deny, and seizes the opportunity to change the topic, chatting happily about the Chulanonts, who have been so supportive and really treat him like he is a son of their own, and also about Phichit, who is the brother he’s never had.

And Victor listens with obvious interest, asking questions in the right places, the conversation flowing more easily than it has any right to. Before he knows it, they’re at the ice cream place.

It’s one of those fancy ones where you can make your own ice cream, by choosing a base, a couple of ingredients to crush into (like fresh strawberries or Reese’s Pieces or sauces like Nutella, Peanut Butter, and so many more Yūri can never quite keep track), topping it off with the cone of choice.

Victor looks a little overwhelmed, so Yūri orders first.

His is a tried and true Peanut Butter Chocolate monstrosity: they coat the inside of his cone with chocolate sauce and chocolate sprinkles, and his ice is chocolate with Peanut Butter, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups and Cookie Dough, topped off with yet more chocolate sauce and sprinkles. It’s going to be delicious.

Victor only raises an eyebrow at the chocolate sin Yūri gets handed, and orders vanilla and blueberry ice cream with cream cheese and cheese cake, with cracknel on chocolate coating inside the cone. It sounds legitimately gross. (Victor does persuade him to try the concoction, though, and Yūri is forced to admit it’s not even that bad. But his is infinitely better)

They sit down with their cones, both equally happy for a minute or two to just enjoy the treat. Yūri doesn’t often allow himself this kind of thing – the beginning of the offseason is really the only time it is both warm enough to have ice cream and okay for him to afford the extra calories.

“I’ve made progress,” Yūri says when he can’t stand the silence anymore. It’s easier to just open the topic than wait anxiously for Victor to bring it up.

“Oh?” Victor makes and takes another spoon full of ice cream. Yūri tries not to stare at his tongue peeking out and licking off a drop that is running down the side of his cone.

“But… I think I’ve tried it with the wrong girls, so far,” he admits, his eyes fastened to his ice cream. At least that is a safe spot to look at.

“What are those girls like?”

“Well, they were… I mean, they were fun and nice and I really enjoyed spending time with most of them, but – there was no spark. On neither side.”

For a while, they are both quiet.

“I guess you will need to find out what your type is.”

Yūri looks up, and he thinks his lack of comprehension must be written on his face. Victor heaves a sigh and leans back, elbow on the arm rest and legs crossed. He looks incredibly lean like that, all long lines and sharp angles, and Yūri is quick to avert his eyes again.

“Go out, look at girls, see what attracts you. And then try again. I’m sure once you’ve found your type, there will be quite a few girls who fit it and have a personality you can work with.” Victor winks at him. “And you don’t have to marry her. There is nothing to keep you tied to her after you’ve fulfilled your side of the bargain.”

The thought alone of such behaviour makes Yūri feel sick enough he has to pause in eating his ice cream, but he pastes a smile on his face and nods. He hopes Victor can’t actually read his thoughts; not that it would do him much good right now with the way they are whirling around. But there has to be another way, because one thing Yūri knows: there’s no way he’s doing what Victor suggests. On the other hand, how can he give up a child he has with somebody he truly loves?

The rest of the meeting passes in a blur; Yūri thinks they talk about what types of girls he might be interested in (none they come up with, though he doesn’t say that out loud) and maybe the upcoming season, but his thoughts are still stuck on that huge problem:

He doesn’t think he can have a child with somebody he doesn’t love, but he also thinks he can’t just give up a child he has with somebody he loves. What the hell was he thinking?

//*\\

The next weeks, Yūri tries to go out more. Phichit is clearly surprised but takes it in stride – he’s gotten used to Yūri having these weird attacks of ‘must date now’, Yūri guesses, but since Phichit never comments on it, it doesn’t bother Yūri to just keep quiet, too.

It’s – he doesn’t really want to call it a disaster, and it isn’t, really. By now Yūri feels a little like the Bachelor or something, and it makes him reluctant to even ask anybody out. It’s weird, having this string of dates, and how the hell does anybody ever meet somebody this way?

Victor shows up without warning less than two weeks later again, at the tail-end one of the nice-but-not-amazing dates that have become almost routine (which is another sign that something is wrong with Yūri, or at least with this approach to dating, because dating shouldn’t really become routine, should it?).

Yūri only sees the door from the corner of his eye (it would be quite rude to look away while his date, a law student called Sarah, is telling him that she can’t see this working out, thanks for the two dates, you’re a nice young man), but all he needs is the combination of a flash of silver and that brown trench coat, and then it takes all his might not to look at him.

“Another failed date?” Victor asks. He’s gotten himself a milkshake, and doesn’t even wait for Yūri to offer him to sit down before he’s claiming the just vacated seat.

Yūri sighs and nods. “Not the one for me.”

“Maybe you need to lower your standards,” Victor suggests.

“I don’t think lowering my standards will help if I already have trouble thinking about – about having – you know…” Yūri trails off and blushes. When Victor doesn’t take pity on him and finishes the sentence, he blurts, “well, havingsexwiththem.” His skin itches with the blush, and Victor’s amused eyebrow doesn’t really do anything to lessen his embarrassment.

“Hm, maybe you shouldn’t lower your standards about the sort of girl you date, exactly,” Victor amends. “Maybe lowering your standard about who you sleep with is more the way to go.”

Yūri isn’t sure if this is in any way more manageable than giving away a child with someone he loves, but that is probably not the thing to say right now. And no matter what, the scar around Yūri’s wrist is reminder enough that it’s not a choice. He owes Victor.

Victor smiles at him, and maybe the milkshake has been too cold or something, because his stomach goes all funny and tight. “Sounds like a plan.”

~*~

22

In the end, Yūri decides that it doesn’t matter what he thinks he can or cannot do.  He just – he has to put his head down and try to find a girl he can date properly, and maybe Victor does have a point and his standards have simply been too high?

He meets a girl at his college, not long after that unsettling talk with Victor. Eliza is 19, outgoing and a little brash, and most importantly, she knows what she wants and can ask for it. She is a couple of inches shorter than him with hip-length, white-blonde hair and a smile that could light up the sun, despite a couple of teeth that aren’t as straight as they are supposed to be.

They don’t actually meet at the college, though she has just transferred into Detroit and majoring in business administration, just like Yūri’s, except that she has a minor in German. It probably would have been better had they met at the college, though.

The first time he consciously sees her, he runs her over at the last public skate of the season that he and Phichit have made a habit of catching. They’re just shooting the breeze, twirling and spinning and doing some simple jumps, when he doesn’t quite look where he is going and the only warning he gets is her surprised shout as he crashes into her. He tries to prevent them from falling, but they’re both flailing so much that in the end, it’s Yūri who falls onto his ass, the girl narrowly avoiding his legs.

At least she knows how to fall, Yūri thinks, and then the situation hits and he is scrambling up and falling over himself to apologize.

The girl laughs him off, apparently none the worse for wear.

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t really looking where I was going, either.” She waves off a concerned skater who is shooting Yūri dark looks.

“Will you still let me buy you a coffee? It’s the least I can do.”

“Smooth,” she grins, but doesn’t say no. Yūri waves at Phichit who gives him a shit-eating grin, and that is it.

Or rather, that is not it.

They do exchange numbers after the skate – “It can’t hurt to know somebody in my year, I’ve heard transferring can be kind of hard.” – and they don’t even talk about dating or relationships.

Instead, they fall into an easy friendship, and slowly, Yūri feels himself become more attuned to her. It’s little things, like seeing a cute dog in the park and texting her “Huuuund,” which is about the only German word he’s managed to pick up in the last couple of months. Well, he knows a couple of swearwords, too, but those don’t really count, do they? Or having their lecturer drone on and on about some stupid story nobody really cares about, and looking towards each other at the same time to roll their eyes.

And – it’s different, this time. He doesn’t have the urge to flee when she leans into him on campus so she doesn’t have to raise her voice, or when she puts her head against his shoulder when they have a couple of free minutes to just rest her eyes. He finds his eyes drawn to her lips when she licks them as they get chapped, and he has lost count of how many nights he’s lost sleep because he was texting her.

It feels only natural when they slide into a relationship. He likes her, she’s fun to hang around, and besides Phichit, she’s his best friend. Isn’t a relationship inevitable like this?

He still shies away from sex, and with that avoidance come the niggling doubts, the ones that say is there something wrong with you? Are you broken? He knows it’s not normal not to want sex; he’d have to be blind to miss the other guys in the locker room coming in with vivid hickeys their leotards hide but that are oh so obvious in the harsh light of the changing rooms, he’s no stranger to going into a night club toilet and hearing certain noises from the cubicles.

Eliza likes it, likes that they’re taking is slow. But taking it slow still implies that it’s going somewhere, and if he had a choice, they’d stay right where they are. Even kissing feels like a chore, despite the fact that he likes the way she presses against him, or straddles him, or lies on top of him, a reassuring anchor in his tumultuous competitive life. How can kissing feel like a chore? There has to be something wrong with him.

He tries not to think about it.

There is a lot, he notices drily in a quiet minute, that he tries not to think about these days. Whatever is wrong with his sexuality. The debt. How much he doesn’t want to have a unsure he is about his relationship. Victor.

Most days, he manages. Eliza makes not thinking easy, and yet he can’t help but feel guilty whenever she brings up sex. She doesn’t nag, doesn’t pressure him. But she doesn’t have to. He knows what he’s supposed to be doing, and so he finds himself gathering up his courage, fortifying himself mentally to actually… well, do it. (What sort of grown-up can’t even say that he’s going to have sex in his own brain)

It’s – it’s actually sort of anticlimactic. They don’t actually go all the way the first time; they’ve been together for two months, and that feels a little rushed not just to him. Instead she teaches him how to pleasure her, and that is something that’s quite fun. Not in a ‘really hot I’m going to come any moment’ sort of way, but in such a way that Yūri actually finds himself enjoying sex because she enjoys it. Because he is the one to make her enjoy it, and that’s something Yūri can get behind.

His own orgasm is always a little more tricky, takes longer, and half the time he doesn’t even try to get himself off. It upsets Eliza a little, but again she doesn’t push, which makes Yūri appreciate her even more.

It’s inevitable that it can’t last. He isn’t even really surprised when she breaks up with him in the middle of June. He’s definitely sad, because he genuinely liked her, but he knows they don’t really fit. It’s not just his reluctance to have sex. There is also his training picking up more and more, because while Skate Canada, his first Grand Prix qualifier competition, is at the end of October, that doesn’t mean he’s free until then. It’s only a couple of weeks until the Asian Open Trophy, which is the first international competition of the season and his first showing of his new programs. He needs to make an impression there. Worst of all, though, is his guilt over the firstborn issue (which probably contributes to his reluctance regarding sex, but how can he be sure there? He’s never not had that stupid debt hanging over his head).

They part amicably for the most part, which is pretty awesome because this way Yūri has someone to copy the stuff he misses while he trades college for international competitions.

And yet, this stint only reinforces his thought that there has to be something wrong with him.

Maybe Victor has a fix, the next time he sees him. His stomach twists at the thought of it, because Victor usually knows what he’s doing, and even though he doesn’t want to admit it, Yūri is very much aware that he has no real desire to change. Doesn’t want to want to have sex (at least that is what he tells himself, and then banishes all thoughts of Victor or relationships or sex out of his head, because he’s nervous enough before competitions without worrying about that, too).

//*\\

It becomes clear quite quickly that this just might be his season – he places second at Skate America, his showing stronger than ever, and Celestino is as happy as Yūri has rarely seen him.

His second competition is the Rostelecom Cup, and he’s objectively even better there, missing the gold by hair’s-breadth. He feels strong, he feels confident – he almost believes Celestino that this is his year.

He’s still at the Kiss and Cry when he sees Minako , face drawn and worried, phone clutched in her hand as she hovers just behind the cameras. He can actually feel his face fall, and the rest of the questions pass in a blur as his mind runs through every possible scenario that could make Minako look like that.

He knows it’s something serious when Minako hugs him first, teary-eyed, and then guides him to one of the more secluded areas to make him sit down. “It’s Vicchan,” she tells him, her voice breaking, and though she doesn’t say anything else, he simply knows. Something terrible has happened to Vicchan.

He doesn’t cry; can’t, because everything is numb. Minako makes him call his mother, and that’s when the tears start coming. It happened suddenly, his mother tells him, probably a stroke, and there’s nothing they can do but put her to sleep.

 “I’ll always remember her,” he promises, voice rough and wobbly, “Can you tell her that? And I wish I could – I could hug her again.” He has to stop at that point, because the reality of it – the reality that he’ll never see Vicchan again – is crushing, is too much to bear.

“I’ll hug her for you,” his mother says, and Yūri doesn’t think about how that isn’t the same, how that’s been the case for the past five years.

//*\\

He trains. Every minute spent on the ice is a minute he doesn’t have to think, doesn’t have to remember that his lovely little energetic poodle is gone and he wasn’t there, hasn’t seen her in five years. His lock screen is her at her best, pretty as she was, and he’s never used his phone as little as now that she is gone.

He knows Celestino and Minako and Phichit and his parents and – pretty much everybody he knows is worried about him and his season, but he grits his teeth and skates.  Thinks of Vicchan at the Trophée Éric Bompard, and almost misses the podium as his grief breaks through at the end of his Short Program and he almost murders one of his jumps. But he doesn’t, ekes out third place by a sliver, and that – that means he’s in, he’s going to the Grand Prix Final for the first time, and the excitement sweeps through his body in a wave of shivers, for a long moment chasing all negative thoughts from his head.

“I skated for my dog,” he tells the press at the final conference before his flight home leaves. “I hope she was able to watch me from dog heaven.” The press awws, and Yūri is a little proud of himself that his voice barely wobbled.

Of course the excitement doesn’t last. He has two and a half weeks between qualifying and actually skating in the Final, and it’s not really doing wonders for his quality or quantity of sleep. And as he finds out, two and a half weeks are plenty time to imagine all the things that could go wrong.

Being at the rink makes not-thinking a bit easier, but Celestino keeps cutting his ice time shorter and shorter the closer they get to the Final. But Yūri’s jittery enough that that makes matters infinitely worse, and so he finds himself sneaking back into the rink after Celestino is sure to be home, or going for runs at improbably hours. As long as his body is moving, he doesn’t have to think. The other thing he falls back on is binging. It’s somewhat mitigated by his intensified training, but his leotard is beginning to feel uncomfortably tight. And still, Yūri can’t stop.

The flight to Sochi is the worst flight Yūri has ever faced. It’s by no means the longest, but usually he’s been able to sleep. Not so this time. His thoughts are running amok, a continuous and jumbled litany of you got there by chance and you don’t deserve this and if you didn’t skate competitively you would have been there for your dog and it’s only grasping at straws anyway, you should be finishing off your debt.

Yūri turns up his music louder. It’s not quite enough to drown out his thoughts, but it helps.

//*\\

The arena is raucous with the masses of people who have flocked to Sochi to watch the Grand Prix; figure skating is huge here in Russia, even though they haven’t had a superstar in recent years like the French have with Lambiel.

Yūri feels none of that excitement. He flubbed his short program yesterday, not even managing the triple Salchow, the one move he practiced more than anything. But, well, what had he expected? The memory of the realization that he had fucked up seeping into his mind is still fresh and clear; after his program, he had stood in the middle of the ice, head hung low to avoid looking at the crowd, and almost hadn’t dared breathe as he had waited for the lights to go back on.

His eyes burn at the memory, but he refuses to cry. He still has the free program to skate, and he hasn’t come this far, be it by luck or by tenacity, to just give up now, he reminds himself. And yet he can feel the expectations of his family, of his country, like a lead jacket, trying to suffocate him. The only time he has felt this way had been way back when his mother had been sick, and back then, Victor had come and saved the day.

Thinking of Victor: for a split-second, as he’s pacing the hallways, he thinks he sees Victor in the crowd – there’s a sliver of silver with a light brown collar that might just be trench coat – but when he looks again, there’s nobody who even looks remotely like Victor. An older man with graying hair, yes. A young lady with a mud-colored jacket, yes, unfortunate choice of clothing as it may be (coincidentally also a young blond kid in a Russian team jacket, who is headed towards the ice but still finds the time to glare at Yūri like he has just killed his puppy, though he can’t really remember offending anybody, and since he didn’t beat anybody, what has this kid to be angry about?).

It seems as though Victor has rarely been closer to his thoughts than now. He hasn’t seen him since before the season has started, back in April, and while Victor has been in and out of his life for the better part of it, and while Yūri has often wished to see more of him, he’s never quite missed him like he does right now.

Thinking of Victor makes his chest constrict, like a substantial part of himself is missing. Victor, with his good mood and reassuring embrace; Yūri likes to think that he would have been able to pick up the pieces after Yūri lost his beloved dog, but Victor stays stubbornly absent.

At least, he stays absent in person. He’s a frequent visitor in Yūri’s dreams, all tall grace and proud posture. Sometimes Yūri wakes and thinks he can still feel Victor’s arms around him, can still smell him. He can’t remember ever feeling that safe, aside from after the club, and when reality sets in and Yūri realizes that Victor isn’t here, his absence feels like a missing limb.

Yūri shivers and wraps his jacket tighter around himself, trying to tune out both the announcer and the crowd. If only he could stop thinking about what is at stake here!

Qualifying for the Grand Prix – it feels like chance, especially considering his showing yesterday. Like he’s cheated his way in somehow. But he never asked Victor for anything but his mother’s health, and yet he can’t help but wonder – he’s nothing special. Has Victor done anything to make him special?

The thought gnaws at him, chews him up when he’s too tired to keep his personal demons that aren’t tall and silver-haired at bay. Sometimes he finds himself wishing that Victor would. Keep them at bay, that is. But he’s never been around long enough to really make a difference.

He looks at one of the TVs, hung up for the waiting skaters, in a desperate bid to distract himself. It shows the angry blond kid from before, proclaiming him to be Yuri Plisetsky, and now Yūri can place him. He’s Russia’s breakout star, not even of age yet, a prodigy (a hundred times the skater Yūri is, his mind whispers). His score appears in the corner, and a stunned announcer reports that that’s the new world record in the Junior competitions, breaking Lambiel’s record.

Yūri almost smiles at the exhilaration on the kid’s face – so young, so innocent when he’s not looking like he’s going to murder the next person – when the camera catches a strand of silver hair, the flap of a brown coat.

Predictably, Yūri’s heart jumps into overtime, his hands sweaty. It feels like he is catapulted into his own body at full speed, like everything is louder, brighter, more all of a sudden. He is sure: Victor is here. Victor is here and cheering on some Russian kid, while Yūri is worrying himself to death.

He takes a breath, shaky and unsure if he’s feeling sick or disappointed or angry – he has no right to be angry, Victor isn’t his, Victor has never been his, no matter what their past is, and then Yūri hears Celestino calling for him and knows that it is time for him to go back to the locker room, get one last pep talk. He swallows the disappointment and anger he definitely does not feel, because he has no right to feel that way. But the nausea doesn’t dissipate, and the knowledge that stuffing his face with pierogi just before the competition (just because they remind him of Victor) was likely one of his worse ideas, only adds to it.

He hears Celestino speak, but doesn’t understand a word he says. Victor is here, his mind repeats. Victor is here, and he will see Yūri fail.

//*\\

And fail he does. It might just be the most disastrous program he’s ever skated, and when he gets off the ice, there is no Victor there to cheer him on or comfort him. There’s only him and Celestino in the Kiss and Cry, and Yūri takes the first chance he gets to flee.

So that is what they mean when they say crash and burn, Yūri thinks as he sits in one of the halls, his competitor’s pass a noose around his neck.

“Katsuki Fell to Last Place,” one article headlines, because he burned on the biggest stage imaginably. The only place worse would be the Olympics. “Is this his last season?”

The idea has merit – he owes Victor, and he knows he can’t both keep up skating and work on fulfilling the debt. Maybe if he stops skating he can finally concentrate on falling in love. And then Victor doesn’t have to be burdened with a fuck-up like him, a twenty-three year old who has had one meaningful relationship.

And now that he has had such an embarrassing showing, how is he supposed to justify keeping up skating to postpone fulfilling the debt?

The thought churns in his stomach, but it also brings a certain freedom with it. He will hang up his skates and fulfill the debt, and after… well, he’ll find something to do after. Maybe go into coaching. Or help his parents out at the Onsen. That thought – the thought of what comes after – is actually quite scary (if also a beacon of distant hope), so he quickly turns his attention back to his phone to distract himself.

Celestino finds him like that, scrolling through the news and ignoring the messages he has on his phone. He doesn’t want to read their condolences. He’s quite aware as is that he single-handedly killed his skating career. “Yūri!” Celestino calls, in his reprimanding, concerned tone. A new wave of guilt breaks over Yūri. He was supposed to do Celestino proud today, but he did quite the opposite. “Don’t read the news!”

He reads the headline out loud, wants to tell Celestino how they are right, how he should just stop skating. But Celestino stops him right in his tracks, and the concern in his voice just makes Yūri want to get away.

“Huh?” Yūri says, and then tries to appear as though he suddenly had an urgent idea. “I – I’ll just go and phone my mother, okay?”

It was supposed to be his big day, and he failed, and it’s his own fault, too

Phoning his mother is not the best idea he’s had. At least he remembers not to call her in the open; one of the competitor bathrooms should do nicely for privacy. But while he expects – he doesn’t know what exactly he expects except that he suddenly, fiercely misses his parents, his mother tells him that not only did the whole country watch, but Hasetsu has had a public viewing, and he didn’t only disappoint Celestino but his whole town. He apologizes, feeling empty for all of two seconds before it hits him that he wasted this opportunity he was given, that he disappointed everybody, and suddenly Yūri simply can’t stop the flow of tears.

Not even the angry Junior Gold Medalist appearing can really stop him, and Plisetsky is very angry, indeed (Yūri isn’t quite sure why he cares so much). Yūri just lets him lets him rage, because he deserves this, but also because it chases away the despair a little (if only to fill him with apprehension. But that is better than feeling the emptiness inside of himself, Yūri supposes).

“We don’t need two Yuris in the bracket,” Plisetsky tells him, “Incompetents like you should just retire already.” And with a screamed BAKA (has he really looked up the Japanese word just to yell at me? Yūri wonders in some tiny part of his brain that is not shell-shocked at the events) he turns on his heel and stalks out.

Yūri sees himself in the mirror on the wall next to the door, eyes red rimmed and face pale and knows they are right. It is time for him to retire.

//*\\

The banquet is – Yūri guesses it is okay, and letting Celestino drag him to it might not have been the worst idea, but he isn’t sure, because there is alcohol and sponsors, and more alcohol, and he thinks Victor might have appeared at some point. And while he knows he wasn’t sure it was Victor, when he first spotted the glimpse of him, he does remember there being yet more alcohol, Victor grinning with the top three buttons of his shirt unbuttoned and a bottle of something that was – of course – more alcohol, and after that, his memory is blissfully blank.

//*\\

He realizes it was, indeed, Victor the night before when he follows Celestino, groggily and quite a bit hungover, out of the arena the next morning. But before he does, one of the announcers – Marooka Hisashi, a couple years older than Yūri but a friendly face for as long as Yūri can remember – catches his attention by calling his name, and Yūri makes the mistake of actually turning around.

Which is how he finds himself being yelled at to be more optimistic. It’s pretty much the exact opposite from Plisetsky the day before, and what can Yūri do but stand there and deny everything?

“It’s not like I’ve made a decision,” he tells Marooka, his voice empty even to his own ears. “Please don’t make assumptions.”

“What will you do after you graduate college?” Marooka follows up, and there Yūri finds himself at a loss. Produce a firstborn to assuage my debt to a demon is, while true, not an answer he wants to give in public. “Will you still train under Coach Celestino?”

Which thankfully gives him an out: “I’ll be talking that over with Coach Celestino.” He tries to keep his voice soft yet firm, but even he can tell that most of all, he sounds defeated.

“Kastuki-kun,” apparently Marooka still thinks he can get a decent soundbite or something out of him. “I’m asking how you feel about this!” And Yūri really doesn’t want to think – and much less still talk – about any of this. He is aware of Marooka going on and on with those painful questions, but his eyes have caught on a young poodle outside, and all of a sudden he’s hurting everywhere, and he really has to get out.

He is partially saved by a voice – a familiar, comforting voice saying his name behind him, and when he turns, his stomach starts doing summersaults and his hands get sweaty quicker than Yūri thought possible. He barely hears what is being said of the rush of blood in his ears, but it doesn’t matter; while it is indeed Victor, he is not talking to Yūri but Plisetsky. It does nothing to make any of his symptoms better; if anything, he feels even more sick.

Victor is talking in Russian, but his tone makes it clear that he is criticizing Plisetsky’s record breaking performance. And if that are his standards, how much has Yūri disappointed him? Suddenly all the nice words Victor ever said take on a new and mocking feeling. Clearly he knows enough about the sport to have realized even then that Yūri would fall short on the big stage.

Victor’s eyes fall on Yūri when Plisetsky’s coach enters the conversation, berating his charge in a much harsher tone, but his smile is a mere shadow of the grin Yūri remembers, and then he has the gall to say, “A good-bye hug? Sure!”, like they’ve been hanging out together for all the Final, like Victor hasn’t been here in Sochi without letting Yūri know.

And Yūri – Yūri is indeed yearning to touch Victor, but not this version of him with the fake smile. In the blink of an eye, Victor’s actual smiles and grins flash through his mind – at the rink in Hasetsu, in Detroit, at the party (oh dear, the party), at the Cholanonts’ house, and so many more instances of fleeting or fully grown smiles. His smile makes his eyes crinkle, makes him look handsome and pretty and Yūri wishes he could taste that smile, kiss Victor until he feels the same happiness inside and – oh dear.

He is fucked.

He tries to shove that whole train of thought down as far as he can, because even so his mouth is awash in the bitter realization that Victor – that only the debt is what ties him to Victor. Obviously if he can chose to spend time with mortals, his decision will be in favour of the Russians (and Yūri feels like an idiot that it has taken him this long to place Victor’s accent, which, to be fair, is softer than most of the Russian accents he hears). It doesn’t matter what he feels, and while this… this stupid crush or whatever it is is an inconvenience, it doesn’t change anything. And what he truly does not need is pity.

So Yūri turns around and keeps his head high, and ignores not to hear Celestino’s confusion at ignoring the request. It doesn’t matter, and he doesn’t owe anybody an explanation. The thought that Yūri had wished for a hug, an embrace, from Victor for all those years since the night club, that nobody has managed to make Yūri feel as safe as he did back then in Victor’s arms leaves a taste like bile in the back of Yūri’s throat.

Yes, Yūri would very much like to let himself sink into Victor’s arms, but he can also get a hint, and he thinks Victor’s behavior has been hint enough.

//*\\

The months after – after his Failure, Yūri spends in a daze. There are other competitions, but they too blur into each other, one disappointment after another. The Chulanonts are visibly worried, but he doesn’t – can’t – care. There is food, fatty and unhealthy and too much, but it, too, has one meal blurring into the next. Maybe he’s simply eating continuously, he doesn’t know. Sometimes, going to the rink helps.

He does not think of Victor, and Victor stays gone.

It’s a relief when the season is over and though he had planned to go home straight away, he hadn’t gotten around to booking a flight. He knows he’ll get berated for binging, but what is one more disappointment? He had the chance to have it all, and look what he made of it.

So he books the next available (and not too expensive) flight, which still leaves him with three weeks in Detroit.

It’s clear what Yūri needs to do: No matter his own feelings on the matter, he needs to fulfill this stupid damned debt so Victor won’t be burdened with him anymore. How he’ll go about it, he isn’t quite sure yet, and thinking about it hurts even worse now that he knows why it hurts.

The first couple days after the season is over, his thoughts keep circling around Victor, as much as he tries not to think about him. His nights are equally restless, a blur of silver and the flap of a trench coat and of always being a step behind, unable to catch up. Other nights, there is the wide expanse of ice and nothing else before a figure in a trench coat and flapping scarf appears, out of reach no matter how hard Yūri skates.

But the worst nights are when he is back in Sochi, after his failed program, and the crowd jeers at him, and when Yūri flees off the ice, it is to see Victor turning away, unable to look at him.

He tries to bury any and all dreams deep in his mind while awake; skating helps, so he does that, probably in excess. He may not be able to get a moment of peace with his eyes closed, but awake, he can control at least some aspects of his life. And he is sick of feeling so down all the time.

His life narrows down to the rink. He still hasn’t given up on the quad Salchow despite its incredible difficulty, but he keeps working on perfecting the triple. Keeps working until he is ready to faint from exhaustion, and some days only breaks to eat.

It happens by chance, mostly, but his skating out his frustrations – his goodbye, because who is he kidding? – has resulted in a choreo. One that seems fitting for his last goodbye to skating, and if nothing else, it’s an excellent way to regain his stamina and burn off some much needed calories from his binging.

And the more he skates this piece, the calmer he feels. He doesn’t even really remember the last time he’s had this much fun on the ice, and isn’t that sad?

The weeks until his flight are a different kind of blur; a blur of exhausted muscles and working out the right step sequences and seeing if he can spice up a couple of his combination jumps. He’s drawing from all his previous programs, taking half a minute from his junior free skate and tweaking it slightly, lifting a step sequence from that old short program, and glueing it together with ideas he himself has had but never had the chance to try.

Somehow, it seems to work.

//*\\

 

He keeps up his routine of sleep – eat – skate – eat – skate – sleep, rinse, repeat at home, making plenty of use of the key to the ice palace he got almost a decade ago. He hasn’t been able to escape Minako’s wrath over his weight, but his choreo might just get him back into her good graces.

His routine is broken after almost a week at home, when he comes down to the main room of the Onsen and finds Minako in front of the TV, watching World Juniors. The camera is focused on Plisetsky, because no matter how one looks at it, he is one of the best skaters, and this is his last year competing in juniors.

And then the camera pans from him practicing jumps to the sidelines, where a familiar figure is leaning in a familiar pose against the boards. It – he tries to look away from the scene as quickly as possible, but it has burned itself into his memory, overlaid with Victor leaning against the boards in Hasetsu, in Detroit, offering his tips to Yūri. He feels naïve, all of a sudden, to have thought that that was something special Victor only did for him, and a whole slew of ugly emotions rear their head.

Yūri runs, the only thing on his mind the need to get on the ice.

Running to the rink helps clear his mind somewhat, and seeing Yuuko – one of his oldest friends, his idol back when he had just begun skating – soothes him even further.

He still feels sick, yes, but there is also determination. It’s getting ridiculous, and maybe – maybe getting rid of the debt will help.

From the looks of it, Yuuko is just finishing off her shift after the public skate. He hesitates for a long moment, because he’s been successful in avoiding her ever since coming back to Hasetsu. But – he can’t avoid her forever, and maybe what he means to show her will make up a little for not having come to see her sooner.

She even puts on the music on the big stereo, and when the first, slow tones of Camille Saint-Saës’ Dance Macabre fill the rink, he feels himself relax, give himself over to the music.

He lets it fill him, until there is music and the melody in every corner of his body, until he can do nothing but feel, like Victor told him to all those years ago (and curiously, thinking of Victor here does not hurt as much as he would have expected).

He moves with the music, stationary until it picks up, and then sets off into a step sequence. Dance Macabre is quite long at more than seven minutes, but its pace is one he can sustain. It allows him to fly over the ice, into a quad toe-loop, followed by a step sequence, and once he has caught his breath somewhat, he has a combination jump of a double lutz and a triple axel, spinning into a crouch before going back into a step sequence. In the last third, it picks up, and he does a quad toe-loop – the music is fastest there, allows him to pick up the speed to do the proper jumps without breaking from the music, and then at the highest point, he concentrates, assesses where his body is, and then launches up, and spins once and twice and three times and four times, and when he lands, he has to touch down, but he doesn’t fall, and that was a quad Salchow, and he did it, he didn’t mess it up!

The music quiets back down after that, and he sinks back into it, finishes with another step sequence that ends with the rooster crying in the music peace, sending the skeletons back to sleep and him to the ice with it (slowly though, taking with him every note that is left). The music fades, and then there’s only the cold ice underneath him, slowly thawing and seeping into his clothes.

He’s breathing harshly, unwilling to get up, but the silence is starting to gnaw on him. When he finally raises his head to look at Yuuko, she has her face in her hands. Is she crying?

“That was super cool!” There really are tears in her eyes, but she sounds so very excited that all Yūri wants to do is hide. But he can’t, all alone and on display as he is in the middle of the ice. “I thought you’d be depressed or something!”

“I was,” Yūri admits, a small smile on his face. “But I got bored of feeling depressed, so I got thinking… I’d somehow stopped loving skating. I thought I could remember how it was with… bits and pieces from my old programs.” And then he remembers, why he skated this, and his eyes start prickling. “Yu-chan, I’ve – ” He doesn’t have it in him to finish the sentence. He tries again. “I’ve always – ”

This time he doesn’t even get the chance to finish the sentence, because  behind the boards, Axel, Lutz and Loop poke their heads out, so much taller than Yūri had remembered them, but still cute. It is sort of amazing; the last time he’d seen them, they’d been barely a year old.

 And then Lutz kills that good first impression, when she grins and tells him, “Yūri, you really did get fat!”

He wants to be mortified, but doesn’t get the chance, because Loop cuts in with “Are you really retiring?” and before he can answer that, Axel drags out the one question that’s even worse than that: “You’ve never had a girlfriend?”

He doesn’t even know where to begin, because yes, he has gotten fat (and has lost a decent chunk of his weight again), and yes, he is intending to retire, but also, how do you tell six-year olds that yes, you’ve had a girlfriend, but it was nothing serious and you’ve always done your best to keep her out of the lime light?

“Hey,” Yuuko interrupts her children. “Sorry, my girls are such groupies!” And now mortification does win out.

“They’re all your fans, Yūri,” a deeper voice adds, and it’s Takeshi, taller and more burly than Yūri remembers. “Welcome back!”

He drapes himself none-too-gently over Yūri’s back, probably intending to hug him. “Ni-shigori!” Yūri stammers out, and it feels a little like it used to, back when Takeshi let no opportunity slide to show Yūri how inferior he was. Oh yeah, the good old times.

“Now you’re fatter than me!” Takeshi says delightedly, and … did Yūri honestly think he’d changed?

He tries futilely to regain his equilibrium and dignity, but the triplets swarming around him and taking – taking pictures?! He’s going to die of embarrassment.

The Nishigoris calm down again after that, apparently satisfied with the level of mortification they’ve caused Yūri, and he’s actually let go. He seeks the relative shelter of the boards right away, making Takeshi laugh. “You can come any time to practice,” he says, “The Nishigori family’s always got your back.”

“Yūri, gambasu!” –“Lose weight!” – “You’re our star!” the triplets chime in, and Yūri almost doesn’t have the heart to tell them he’s retiring.

He gives a quiet, nervous laugh and runs his hand through his hair. It comes away wet with perspiration.

 “I’m not back,” he says, voice choked. His heart is racing because of a whole different set of thoughts, because while he’s had the thoughts for quite a while, he hasn’t yet actually said them out loud. “This was my good-bye. I’m retiring.”

They silence that follows is harsh, like his words have sucked all the levity and fun out of the air. Maybe they have.

Yuuko is the first to move again, and it’s to take his arm, pulling him towards one of the benches to make him sit down.

“You are sure.” It’s not a question, because she knows him, and she knows he does not kid about these things. And he should nod, should affirm, but he finds himself shrugging, tears welling up in his eyes. “Oh, Yūri,” she says, and pulls him into a hug without further ado, and she knows, she understands, because she, too, has once left behind skating to become a mother, and while she doesn’t know why Yūri wants to leave figure skating behind, she has been in his place and knows that it’s not an easy decision.

“Have you told anybody else?” she asks once Yūri has extricated himself from her arms. Takeshi has disappeared at some point, probably to take the triplets home. Or else they’d surely be underfoot here, but the girls are nowhere to be seen.

Yūri shakes his head, but doesn’t say anything else as he unties his skates.

He’d thought he’d feel … lighter, somehow, more at ease, now that his decision is finalized and he’s said his goodbye. But if anything, he feels weighed down by the knowledge of what he’s leaving behind.

“I don’t even know how to skate non-competitively,” he admits, and Yuuko’s “You’ll figure it out,” doesn’t really help him either.

But needs must, and what is his sadness of leaving his sport behind in the face of his mother’s continued good health?

//*\\

It would have been nice to go out with a bang, Yūri thinks and stares at the bare wall across from his bed. He’s always thought he should put up some posters, but there has never been that one skater he admired, so now his room is adorned only by a couple of pictures of him and Phichit at various competitions, him and Yuuko as kids, group shots from the different dance classes he’s attended over time. Nobody who is really an inspirational figure, and a part of Yūri aches at that absence. He likes to think that there is an alternate universe where this happened, where had this one idol, and that’s what he’s missing so fiercely here (he knows the idea is silly, but it’s exactly the kind of thought to keep him entertained during rainy days).

His phone pings, pulling him out of his idle thoughts. It’s a message from Nishigori, which is surprising in itself. Yet more surprising, though, is the content of the message – which makes Yūri twitch hard enough that he almost jumps half a meter in the air. Okay, that’s hyperbole, but landing is still quite painful, and unfortunately also proves that this is no dream.

Yūri opens Youtube with shaky fingers, and there it is, suggested for him right away:

[Katsuki Yūri] A goodbye to skating??? [Danse Macabre]

He opens the video, and it’s him, no doubt about it. The video is slightly shaky, but even so every slight misstep, bad position, the roughness of the segues is glaringly obvious. He pauses the video only a couple of seconds in, tries to breathe. This is not the end of the world, this is nothing bad.

He almost believes it – until his eyes fall onto the views. 17 711 it says, and Yūri has to blink twice. Uploaded 11 hours ago, the text on the left reads. He looks back at the views. Still 17 711.

He’s shaking all over now, typing out a text to Nishigori. He doesn’t reread it, doesn’t even want to know how many typos he’s made.

It only takes moments for Nishigori to call him back. “My kids uploaded the video, and it went viral.” Yūri can almost hear him sweat through the phone. In the background, Yuuko is audible, berating the triplets for abusing her account (again, she says as Yūri notices with interest, because in all the stress, that is the detail his brain wants to focus on). “But all the skater otaku will love it,” one of the kids says, and oh gods, this is Yūri’s worst night mare.

 “Just delete it, okay?” he pleads, and then hangs up. Yes, 17 thousand views is a lot, but it’s not as bad as it could be, right? Most of the skaters should not yet have gotten their hands on it, and his as of yet quiet phone is proof of that.

It’s like his strings are cut, because when he thought he’d like to go out with a bang he was thinking about getting a gold medal at the Grand Prix, maybe even at World’s and then retiring quietly, not having every eye in the skating world on him as he turns his back on the scene. It wasn’t actually that impressive, a tiny part of his brain says, they’ll forget about it soon enough. But who is he kidding? He skated a seven minute long piece with a quad salchow towards the end, of course it’s going to be a big deal.

“Goodnight…” he says to nobody in particular, and tries to decide whether anybody will miss him if he just stays lying there on the floor in front of his bed, or if he should tell his parents he’s going to take up the part of a Hikikomori.

But he never actually has to make that decision, because barely two minutes after Nishigori warned him, Minako bursts into his room, demanding, “What’s with that video?! It’s being retweeted everywhere!”

Yūri has a moment to be thankful towards Nishigori for giving him the heads-up, before the reality of Minako’s words filters into his mind, and then he’s scrambling for his phone.

Even as he’s shutting it down, he sees a message from Phichit coming in, but surely his friend will understand that now is not the time for him to be on the phone?

“Think of how you can use this opportunity!” Minako says, “Yes, they are thinking you will retire – which, looking at your shape is a not-so-far off thought – but think of the publicity – you will be prime material for the sponsors, and how can the JSU not consider you a shoo-in for the next Olympics with a program like that – you have truly outdone yourself, that was marvelous.”

She sobers suddenly, leveling a hard stare at Yūri. “But don’t think that this lets you off the hook for getting back in shape – how you skated that monster of a program with that condition, I’ll never understand.”

“Minako-san,” Yūri says, sounding even to his own ears like a reprimanded school kid. She’s never going to listen to him if he doesn’t sound like he is sure in his decision. “Minako-san, I …” he takes another deep breath, and when he starts again – third time is the charm, is it not? – his voice is steady. “I will not be returning to competition the following year. I don’t think I can handle this, and I think my time has passed. It is best if I retire.”

He has never seen an expression like the one she wears now on Minako’s face. She looks truly gobsmacked. And, well, it’s not hard to see where she is coming from. That reasoning had sounded shaky  at the best of times, but after a showing like the one that is probably spreading through the skater community even as they’re speaking shows it as the flimsy excuse it really is.

“You have to be – you have to be joking, Yūri! You’re – you’re so – so very very close, how can you give up like this now – you can’t – Yūri!”

He has turned away from her, because this is not making things any easier. And he – he isn’t strong enough to convince her, too. Minako huffs again and then leaves, but Yūri is under no illusion that he’s off the hook just like that. No, the next time Minako will show up with bigger ammunition, and Yūri better have a fighting plan to face her then.

But when he closes his eyes, it doesn’t take more than five minutes for sleep to claim him, and at least this time, sleep is blissfully empty of demons, be they metaphorical or literal.

//*\\

“Yūri, don’t hole up in your room!” Oh how the fates must hate him! Of course it’s his mother who tries to make him come out of his room the next morning, and the irony is striking. He’s doing this for her, after all. “Help shovel snow!”

But trust his mother to still treat him like he’s just a normal boy, even in extraordinary circumstances like these. He loves her for it so fiercely the feeling is threatening to burst out of his chest.

But – “snow?” he repeats, quietly and incredulously. But she’s right, he realizes when he opens the curtains. Despite it being April, the cherry blossoms are not just covered in a light dusting of white, but an actual layer of snow.

He reaches his phone automatically, but it’s still turned off, and – he can live without knowing what the news stations cite as probable cause for this.

After another moment of indecision he scrambles into his clothes, almost tripping over himself in an attempt to pull on both socks at the same time. He takes a breath then, and when he resumes dressing, he sinks into the routine like a warm brace.

Shoveling snow has been his duty for as long as he can remember; in the beginning it was his father humoring him with his own small shovel and his father cleaned the pathways in his methodical, unflappable manner, but age has shown its head first in this regard. But Yūri likes it, like the pristine pureness of freshly fallen snow, before it is trampled down.

He dashes down the stairs, the whole catastrophe of debt and retirement and the video fading to a steady but perfectly ignorable background hum.

He bundles up, grabs the shovel and pulls the door open, still half asleep – only to stop short. Not only is the snow blinding, but he must be hallucinating. Or – or maybe he is dreaming still, which would also explain this sudden snow storm in April. Because he can’t think of another reason for Vicchan – his sweet darling Vicchan – to be standing in the freshly fallen snow, tail wagging and tongue lolling out in a typical doggie-grin.

“Vicchan?” he asks, incredulous, and the dog takes that as his cue, bounding up to him and bowling him clean over, covering his face in wet dog-kisses.

It’s unmistakeable now, though: the longer he looks, the more differences to his Vicchan become obvious: this dog is bigger, the fur not as dark, seemingly familiar; a long forgotten memory stirring at the back of Yūri’s mind, unfolding ever so slowly with a persistent feeling of recognition.

“No, it can’t be,” he tells himself, but the dog wags her tail, and there’s no way it truly it –

“Yūri!” his dad says, cheerful as always, “isn’t he just like Vicchan? He arrived with a good-looking foreign guest!” as though it’s normal. The dissonance makes Yūri’s thoughts slow down to a crawl and for a moment he can’t move. “He’s in the hot springs right now,” his father goes on, and it takes a long moment for his words to sink in, but when they do, the implications of this dog – of Makkachin being here with a ‘good-looking foreign guest’ hit him with the weight of a freight train, sending him scrambling backwards and to his feet.

He trips and almost falls, catches himself on the display of touristy merchandise, but he doesn’t pay it any mind – doesn’t have the capacity to spare for it, because dear gods, this is really not his year.

//*\\

Yūri – there is no word for his flailing run, almost crashing into doorways and the hallway corners. He can feel the curious stares from the other patrons on him as he barrels through the quiet areas in full clothes and shoes.

He skids to a stop in one of the springs further back, gasping from his frenzied run (his heart is racing and his stomach seems to have bottomed out, shivers working themselves up and breaking through in tiny little tremors).

But there is no mistaking it: the silver hair, pale skin, going further and further down and –

“Vi – Victor,” Yūri stammers, “Why are you here?”

The appearance is sudden, and Yūri can’t remember ever being so taken aback by it. Victor has this knack for fading into awareness like he’s always been there, like he’s supposed to be there.

Victor smiles, a weird, wicked smile that has Yūri’s shivers making a reappearance in full vengeance, and then he –

For a moment Yūri loses all capabilities for speech and processing, before his senses slam back into him.

He feels himself blush, can’t quite seem to tear his eyes away from the sight on front of him, but oh, what a sight it is, indeed!

Victor, with his pale and toned body – and who knew that the demon hid such a body underneath his trench coat? – water dropping from his hair and running in small rivulets down that toned chest towards the well-defined abs, in the direction of the harsh jut of his hips –

“Yūri!” Victor’s voice is even more compelling than Yūri remembers, and it’s enough to yank his eyes back up to Victor’s face. “Starting today, I’m your coach,” Victor tells him, like it’s a decided thing, “I’ll make you win the Grand Prix Final!”

And then – and then he winks, and Yūri can feel his jaw hit the floor as Victor’s words register in his brain and –

“WHAAAAT?” he yells, his brain going into shut-down mode.

There is silence for a long moment, Victor still standing there like he’s waiting for a grand declaration in return.

“B-but the debt!” Yūri manages to get out, trying his best to look Victor in the eye. Which is probably one of the hardest tasks in his entire memory. “And I’ve been telling people already I’d be retiring. I even told Celestino and Phichit I wouldn’t be coming back!”

Victor grins and relaxes a bit, sinking back down into the hot water.

“Peanuts,” he declares, waving his hand negligently through the air. “You have not yet burned any bridges beyond repair. And now, either – that is a snow shovel, no?” he doesn’t even wait for Yūri’s answer before he goes on, still grinning, “go help your lovely parents shovel snow, or come in here with me – the water is very nice. You are standing there totally out of place and – you are quite red in the face, maybe you should take off your coat? Yūri? Yūri?

Victor’s voice follows him as he turns tail and flees without giving a verbal answer, hoping beyond hope that his blush will ever recede again.

//*\\

 

Victor is sleeping. It’s a weird thing, seeing the demon lying on the floor with his eyes closed, curled around Makkachin. Yūri has never spent much time on the thought whether Victor has to sleep – he does eat, but whether demons have to eat is something he doesn’t know – and he just sort of figured that being a spawn of hell (or wherever demons are actually based) would negate the need for sleep, but apparently that is not the case.

Victor had had an early, light supper and just fallen straight asleep afterwards, so Yūri hasn’t had any time to ask some much needed questions. Like what will happen with the debt, if he delays it further yet. If he can actually compete with the debt still hanging over his head. How he is supposed to fulfil the debt with the one person he actually finds himself wanting being so close constantly. (He wasn’t planning on asking Victor that.) And uglier trains of thought: If Victor is deliberately setting him up for failure. Why Victor wants to coach him. Why Victor wants to be a coach. If Victor actually has the experience needed to coach – yes, he has given Yūri advice in the past that has worked, but there is a wide chasm between occasionally giving tips and actually coaching, and that chasm is covered with pitfalls and bear traps.

Victor sneezes, effectively interrupting Yūri’s tumultuous thoughts.

“I’m starving,” he says, voice low and rough and leaving Yūri decidedly flustered.

“Um, what would you like to eat?” Yūri stumbles over the words, trying to get them out quickly enough.

“Hmm…” Victor thinks for a moment, “As your coach, I would like to know what your favourite food is, Yūri.”

And that is something Yūri can work with. It is probably a little rude, but he uses the opportunity to seek shelter from all this confusing stuff in the kitchens, to place the order with his mother.

Seeing Victor’s amazement at the food is even worth the humiliation that follows afterwards. He is probably a lost cause.

//*\\

He helps Victor carry all the boxes up to an unused banquet room – and how many worldly possession can a demon have? It literally looks like he’s moving in with Yūri and his parents! – and just narrowly escapes a conversation about the things he likes, his hometown, and, most mortifying, if there is anybody he is fancying followed by a proclamation about trust building in their relationship, accompanied by copious touching. Yūri is a little hazy on the details, the only thing burned into his memory the feeling of Victor’s fingertips on his face, Victor’s face close enough he can feel his breath (still smelling slightly of Katsudon, and Yūri should think it gross – it probably is gross – but he can only wonder if Victor’s mouth would taste of Katsudon, too, if he were to lean in and just kiss him – )

Choosing his battles is probably wisest, Yūri decides in a split second, and then bails before he can do something he will forever regret.

“Yūri, why are you running away?” Victor asks, seemingly clueless, and Yūri feels sweat bead on his forehead (and gods must he make an unattractive picture right now; he has to be misinterpreting things, because there is no way that someone like Victor could ever possibly see anything more in someone like him).

“N-No reason,” he stammers, and then makes for his room.

Of course, the safety and solitude there does not last long, because why should anything go according to his plans?

The day had escaped his control even before it had begun, and it just keeps stretching on and on.

He resorts to pretending he doesn’t hear Victor pound on his door, doesn’t hear him spout some nonsense about needing to learn things about Yūri, like he doesn’t know the most important things already (the lengths Yūri is willing to go for his parents, the importance of his success, the significance figure skating has holds).

Even after Victor has left, sleep seems years away, chased away by his pounding heart, fuelled by the knowledge that Victor is only a couple of rooms away and the desperate hope that maybe skating is not lost after all that keeps niggling at the back of Yūri’s mind, no matter how much he tries to squash it.

When sleep does finally claim him, it is deep and restful, the crunch of blades over ice and a crowd roaring lingering the next morning.

//*\\

Of course the next day is not much better. Victor makes him go for a run in the morning, promising him they could ‘talk’ during lunch.

Running has helped assuage Yūri’s nerves a little bit (and he even knows why is so nervous, but that doesn’t mean he can do anything. Hope is a cruel thing when it’s unfounded, and he is so very scared of having to give skating up after all at the same time as resignation has lined his stomach), but now they are back with a vengeance.

Victor is his lately usual cheerful self, a crass contrast to how Yūri feels.

“B-but I – ” Yūri glances around as unobtrusively as possible to make sure nobody is listening in, and while a few people to send the occasional glance in their direction, the excitement of beautiful stranger has come to coach local talent has mostly died down. “I can’t both compete and work on fulfilling the debt!” It’s a harsh whisper, but another look around reveals no change in the people in their vicinity.

“Yūri,” Victor says, his tone scolding, and almost too loud. Yūri gestures for him to keep his voice quiet. “I can understand your need for secrecy, but your behaviour is making you all the more suspicious. Let’s just talk like two old friends, no?”

Yūri can feel the blood rush into his cheeks, but at least he now has an excuse for that and doesn’t have to fear blushing for no discernable reason. Because this – Victor sitting across from him with a bowl of Katsudon in front of him and a glass of some red wine Yūri’s parents had broken out specifically for him, Victor leaning on his elbow so he doesn’t have to talk so loudly, incidentally invading Yūri’s personal space with his expressive hands, Victor’s feet brushing against Yūri’s underneath the table – this reminds Yūri too much of his … more pleasant dreams for him to be comfortable. It feels like… not like a date, if the experience Yūri has in the area is anything to go by, but more like the meal a pair of lovers will share. Or at least, it would feel like that if Yūri weren’t too nervous to eat a single bite of his favourite meal in the world (the last time he will see this for some time, because Victor and his mother have decided to get him back into shape, Katsudon will only be on the table after a win. And he hasn’t even come to decision yet whether he will return to skating, but apparently nobody cares for that).

“My point still stands,” Yūri repeats, voice more steady than he feels and louder than he thinks it should be. Victor grins. Yūri would like to feel angry at him for it, but, well. He’s probably too in love for that, if he’s honest. “I cannot do both.”

A weird look flits over Victor’s face, a little like confusion, but his expression is schooled to quickly for Yūri to be sure. He does look more closed off than before, though. “Yūri, I know I said you’d have to work on fulfilling the debt after your retirement, but I also remember distinctly telling you that competition takes precedence!”

Yūri doesn’t remind him that he’d made that concession only because skating used to be Yūri’s life (still is, but he does not think about this, if only to keep his sanity).

Victor’s expression turns fierce in a heartbeat, his eyes narrowed at Yūri. “I will not have you throwing your career away moments before you achieve greatness. You were so close, and all be damned if you don’t surpass everybody’s wildest imagination!”

Yūri swallows, unsure of the proper reaction. Does he nod? Does he answer? His body decides for him and settles on slight tremors and loss of voice. Well, it is a reaction. At least he doesn’t point out that as a demon, Victor is probably already damned. That would probably be the least polite reaction he could have.

“I told you before and I tell you again,” Victor says, in that same voice that reminds Yūri all too clearly (despite thankfully not being very loud), that this is a demon with the power to stop a fatal illness. “I will see you win gold at the Grand Prix.”

“Do you even know how to coach?” Yūri blurts out, and would like to sink into the floor the next moment. Of all the ways to phrase this particular question, he must have chosen one of the worst.

But Victor simply grins. “Aww, no reason to blush! It’s a perfectly legitimate question. And well, I have not that much coaching knowledge, but I have helped out with the Russian programs for the past couple of years.” A blush creeps up his cheeks, and he rubs the back of his neck for a moment, before he clarifies, “Well, I’ve pretty much choreographed the programs for Yakov’s skaters – Yakov Feltsman, you’ve probably heard of him.”

Which… is actually pretty impressive. Because all his past world-class skaters aside, he’s currently coaching not only Plisetsky, but also Georgi Popovitch, who had come third at the Grand Prix Final, and Mila Babicheva, currently placed third in international Ladies’ Singles. Their programs are usually something to behold; expressive and surprising.

“Hold up,” Yūri says, forgetting his nerves and humiliations as something clicks into place, “does that mean you are the mysterious Kolya?”

Victor is still looking somewhat sheepish, but with a mischievous edge to it. “That’s the Russian diminutive for Nikolai, which I derived from Nikiforov.” He looks so proud of himself, but it doesn’t really help Yūri understand it better.

“That seems like an awful length to go to to hide your identity.”

Victor shrugs, sobering a little. Which means he’s still grinning, and it’s still doing things to Yūri’s stomach. “I didn’t want my actual name associated with it.” His actual name? Yūri repeats in his thoughts, but Victor’s tone is final, and so he drops that line of thinking.

“But won’t they miss you?” Going back to the coaching issue at least seems safe enough. He finally takes a tentative bite of his katsudon, and when his stomach doesn’t rebel completely, another one.

“Eh, they’ll be all right on their own,” Victor says with a shrug and another one of those charming grins. “I doubt they’ll even notice I’ve been gone.”

//*\\

Later, Yūri will wonder how ever he could have been so naïve, but for a while, he actually believes Victor’s declaration that the Russians won’t miss him. He could blame it on his amped up training regime, or the fact that he suddenly has a lot on his mind – but maybe, in the long run it doesn’t matter. Both reasons would be true, regardless.

It becomes obvious immediately that Victor takes his position as a coach quite seriously. He starts Yūri on a demanding schedule of running, both on flat ground and up to Hasetsu Castle, ballet and stretching, having declared that Yūri will not set foot on the ice before he has lost some weight.

The absence of the ice aches, a yearning seemingly originating from deep within his body, but it makes him throw himself into his training more. His previous anxiety and doubts have been erased by – well, more like buried underneath – Victor’s insistent belief in him, and in their place is the burning desire to succeed. He wants to prove everybody wrong who had written him off, who thought he would retire (never mind that he himself has furthered that perception). Most importantly, though, he wants to make Victor proud.

There is one embarrassing incident – they’re up on Hasetsu castle, Victor basking in the sun while Yūri trains his jumps, when the former asks out of the blue, “Do you have feelings for Minako?”

Yūri is startled enough by that to almost fall off the bench he just safely landed on (soft as a feather, controlled like a finely tuned spring). “What?! No way!” he exclaims, maybe a little too forcefully. He is mortified almost immediately, and Victor’s follow up of “Do you have a girlfriend?” does not help matters.

“No,” Yūri says.

“Still in contact with any of your ex-girlfriends?” Yūri wishes the ground would open up and swallow him, but he shakes his head. Even contact with Eliza has tapered off, especially since he’s left in the middle of term. He will have to repeat that year, there is no way around it.

And then Victor suggests they talk about his conquest, as if to rub it in that he is a mysterious and beautiful demon, and Yūri almost flees.

Victor relents and asks about Hasetsu Castle instead, and, as it turns out, he is a mysterious and beautiful demon who has an Instagram. At least he doesn’t drag Yūri into the picture he posts.

//*\\

Maybe that picture is what makes them notice Victor is gone or maybe it isn’t – Yūri still has no clue how ingrained a part of the Russian figure skating team Victor has been – but it does tell them where he has gone.

The realization comes a week later, when a very irate Yuri Plisetsky appears at the rink, a lot more like a demon than Victor ever has been. Actually, the realization comes with a lot more humiliation than that, but Yūri tries not to think about it.

The salient point of Plisetsky’s showing up is that apparently, Victor promised to choreograph his senior debut, and then ditched him to go and coach Yūri before he could fulfill that promise. Yeah, Yūri can understand why Plisetsky’s may be a little pissed off (though the youngster is not so much pissed off as a seething ball of anger).

It is a little confusing how he rants about Yūri having made Victor take a full year off his duties back in Russia, though. Because it’s not like Yūri asked him to just show up and talk him out of retirement, is it?

But Plisetsky is almost … almost cute in his righteous youthful anger; cute in the way an angry kitten is, and Yūri finds himself smirking.

Well, good to know that Plisetsky is underestimating him, that just gives him more motivation to prove them wrong.

It’s only later, during his shower, that Yūri realized that somewhere along the line, his competitive spirit has shown back up, and the realization eases something in his chest. He is far from optimistic, but at least – at least he thinks he is determined to try, and that’s more than he’s felt since Vicchan has been gone.

//*\\

Victor decides that Yūri will have to compete against Plisetsky to decide whose choreography he will design. There is a short moment right as Victor and Plisetsky had come head to head where Yūri feared Victor would indeed go back to Russia with the kid, but then instead he has decided on said competition. Which of course guarantees that Yūri will not just put his head down and let Victor go back to Russia without fight, because there has never been a challenge he has backed down from quietly. Especially not one that will be made public and probably shown on TV (which is something he is very determinedly not thinking about).

It doesn’t end there; Plisetsky of course puts up a fuss about where he will sleep. He’s an arrogant, self-important prat who is always angry, lashing out at the people around him and excusing it with puberty. Yūri finds himself reluctantly liking the kid, because he is kind of cute in all his powerless, emo anger (Plisetsky would probably murder him in his sleep if he knew that Yūri had just described him like this, but well, he won’t actually know, will he?)

And then Mari dubs him Yurio to ‘avoid confusion’, setting off another tirade. It really is adorable, Yūri thinks as he follows his sister. He doesn’t get far before he hears Victor speak again, and he stops reflexively. “Good on you, Yurio,” Victor says, and answers Plisetsky’s irate Shut up by laughing, not quite the gentle laugh that was the first one Yūri ever heard of him, but quite similar. Familiar.

Oh, Yūri thinks, I see. Of course…  The urge to just get out is overwhelming all of a sudden, and Yūri just doesn’t have the energy to resist. Because he is nothing compared to Plisetsky, who has so much potential and knows it and is comfortable in front of Victor. He needs to get away from feeling like an intruder in his own home.

He ignores Mari shouting after him and runs, runs until all he feels are his protesting muscles, his burning lung. He needs the ice; the ice doesn’t ask questions and doesn’t hold expectations. The ice has always made him feel calm.

//*\\

Eros, Yūri thinks, staring at the ice at his feet silently. Out of all possible routines, Victor has given him the theme of eros. Maybe the demon hates him, maybe he wants to mock him, or maybe the fates simply hate Yūri (maybe that is payback for entering into a contract with said demon, a tiny voice in the back of his head says, but Yūri brushes it aside harshly).

But no, it’s just Victor wanting to surprise people. And it certainly works with them: not just the assignments are unexpected, but so is his assertion that he will choreograph neither of their routines if they stay so full of themselves. And then Plisetsky proclaims he will take Victor back to Russia with him if he wins.

Yūri may hate losing, but here it’s more than that: here he mustn’t lose. Because no matter what Victor says, he has burned his bridges, and what is he supposed to do without a coach? Right: retire and work on fulfilling the debt. And so he doesn’t even think when Victor asks him what he would like for winning. The truth comes pouring out of him without any chance to change it or hold it back: “I want to eat katsudon with you, Victor.” That is enough to make both Victor and Plisetsky give him their whole attention, and that is enough to bolster his confidence a little, “I want to keep winning and keep eating katsudon! So I’ll skate to ‘Eros’!” He refuses to be embarrassed, because it is the truth, and he could have phrased it a lot more terribly (he could have admitted he wanted Victor to love him back, which is not something he could ever get, much less as a prize for winning a skating challenge). “I’ll give it all the Eros I have.”

And Victor? Victor looks almost proud at him, a small, satisfied smile on his face that will follow Yūri for a long time.

//*\\

Actually skating his Eros is incredibly hard. More so since Yūri still isn’t sure what Eros is to him. All the thoughts from before – that he is broken, defective, subpar – come back to his mind. If it is not those thoughts, then he is back at the rink at the initial lesson for him and Yurio, Victor telling him – something about confidence? Yūri can’t properly recall the details of that conversation, because Victor had been so incredibly close that Yūri would have only had to lean forward to kiss him, and reminding himself that Victor is just doing his best to make Yūri find his inner Eros may work in the waking world, but it does not do the same at night.

If he had had hopes that the memory would spark dreams to complement his Eros, though, those are dashed quickly (because he must be broken). The week leading up to the competition, he dreams of strong arms, the scent of Victor’s aftershave, his slightly calloused thumb on his bottom lip. He wakes with an ache where his heart sits, and looking Victor in the eye gets harder with each day.

His epiphany comes about halfway through the week: his focus has been way too narrow-minded. He has known for years already that sex is not something he is particularly interested in, so trying to find his Eros in physical intimacy seems quite foolhardy now that he’s taken a step back. And once he has that wider scope, the choice seems obvious. May Yurio laugh at him all he wants, let Victor be puzzled, but his Eros? Katsudon. The one thing he would truly do anything for (Victor is fast climbing that ladder, but it just isn’t the same, and Yūri can’t really explain why. Maybe it boils down to something like this: physical intimacy is still something he can barely stand the thought of, much less lose himself in, whereas katsudon… katsudon is a whole different league, and it is an image he can work with).

But Victor shows that he is truly flexible and rolls with it, and things work, so much that Yurio becomes more and more frustrated. But Victor even knows how to deal with that, and before long, Yūri learns two things: Yurio truly loves his grandfather and Yūri needs something else – a special something if he really wants to make his program work.

As so often, Minako is the one he goes to, and as always, she has exactly what he needs.

//*\\

Yurio’s performance is breath-taking. It is beautiful and compelling and graceful and so different from how he was in practice that Yūri is stunned by the progression. Yurio has made such a leap in his skill and expression that there is little doubt about his genius.

And then Yūri himself has to take the ice, hands clammy and heart racing, because everything hinges on this. If he doesn’t win, he will lose any chance at ever competing at the same level. He has to win.

“Yūri.” Victor is there, suddenly, drawing him out of his pre-competition nerves. And while Victor makes him nervous in his own right for a whole different slew of reasons, his presence right now is calming. “It’s your turn.” His eyes are so incredibly blue that Yūri almost forgets to be nervous entirely, before a wave of nausea rolls over him as the reality slams into his mind.

“U-Um, I’m…” he stammers, and then throws caution into the wind. “I’m going to go out there and be the best katsudon!” He hugs a startled Victor, begging him to promise to watch him closely with his mouth mashed against Victor’s shoulder.

“I’m certain you will,” Victor says, and Yūri can feel his voice vibrate where they’re pressed together chest to chest. Being in Victor’s arms is even better than it has been in his dreams. “I love katsudon.”

And Yūri has to remind himself that Victor is just being a supportive coach and means the actual food, but it doesn’t do much to calm the excitement racing through his veins, spurred on by his pounding heart.

And then he takes the ice, and makes true on his promise. Victor loves katsudon? Well, that certainly gives Yūri one person to skate for, and this, this transcend all their expectations (somehow, it is easier imagining himself to be a woman who comes to town to seduce the playboy; maybe because it is not so close to himself, because it provides a distance from the sexual nature of the story. In any case, it works, and he doesn’t really want to think any more about how weird he is).

The crowd roars, shouts of ‘Welcome back’ echoing around the rink, and Victor wolf whistles. Yūri tries not to remember this bit, but he has an inkling it will be one of the moments burned into his mind for the foreseeable future.

And then he is standing on the podium, Victor at his back, and he has won, Victor will coach him, and he is filled by something similar to the bittersweetness when he thought he’d retire, but edged with excitement and a hint of greatness to come.

The battle is on.

//*\\

Deciding on his Free Skate isn’t actually all that hard; they have to shorten the Danse Macabre somewhat because more than seven minutes is almost twice as long as regulations allow, but they do manage.

Within a couple of days, Yūri gains a new mantra: he’s just your coach, he’s trying to be nice, he’s just your coach.

Victor doesn’t make it easy, though; having him there constantly somehow makes this stupid crush worse, and his insistence they spend time together (still expertly rebuffed by Yūri) makes everything harder. Victor is also clearly struggling with the language barrier, because there is no way he means to say some of the things his phrasing implies (Yūri is sure of that).

Keeping a realistic view of Victor’s intentions just keeps getting harder, culminating in a … a Situation at Hasetsu Beach when Victor finally convinces him to go.

Yūri isn’t sure what it is, but something compels him to start talking, to confide in Victor. He would suspect demonic influence, except Victor has (to his knowledge) never used such unfair measures. It’s more likely that Yūri simply trusts Victor, trusts him because he’s known him for so long and because Victor has never really given him a reason not to trust him.

<a name=”return1” id=”return1”></a> “There was a girl in Detroit,” he begins, and then tells Victor of how uncomfortable he had been when she had tried to comfort him after a team mate of his had gotten into an accident.

“Wow, why?” Victor asks, seemingly riveted by Yūri’s story.

Yūri shrugs. “I didn’t want her to think I was feeling unsettled. I felt like she was intruding on my feelings or something, and I hated it. But then I realized that Minako-sensei, Nishigori, Yuuko-chan, and my family never treated me like a weakling. They all had faith that I’d keep growing as a person, and they never stepped over the line.” He does decidedly not look at Victor.

“Yūri, you’re not weak. No one else thinks that, either.” Victor pauses briefly, like something just occurred to him. “What do you want me to be to you? A father figure?”

Yūri’s stomach churns, because ‘father figure’ is certainly not what he definitely-did-not-have-in-mind. Still, he finds lying to Victor almost unbearable, so his reply is honest. “No.”

“A brother then? A friend?”

Undefined demon-something appears not to be an option, so Yūri, stomach churning, mumbles a vague disagreement he hopes he won’t have to elaborate on. Why do they suddenly have to define their relationship beyond “Kid who summoned a demon and demon who entered into a contract with a kid who is the worst choice to fulfil those stipulations,” or even “Coach and coachee”?

“Then, your boyfriend, I guess,” Victor says, like it is the most logical conclusion. He says it so matter-of-fact that it takes Yūri’s brain at least a second to catch up, startling him so bad he visibly flinches, before the urge to  run far far away and quickly, at that, sets in. He’s on his feet without remembering getting up, staring down at Victor who is still staring out at the ocean, one hand buried in Maccachin’s fur.

Victor seems to take his silence as agreement. “I can try my best.”

Several hysterical thoughts are warring at the forefront of Yūri’s mind, and but neither of us can carry a child is definitely the least helpful out of all of those.

“No, no, no, no,” he finally gets out, hands shaking. It’s honestly ridiculous; Victor probably doesn’t even know what he’s suggesting, or what the implications are. After all, he’s merely a demon, what would he know of humans dating? (Enough to coach you on that, too, a tiny voice at the back of Yūri’s thoughts whispers, but Yūri is not thinking about that, nope, not ever.) He uses that thought to center himself, balling his hands to stop them from shaking. Honesty, right? He doesn’t want Victor bending out of shape just to suit Yūri (shouldn’t it be the other way around?), and so he goes back to the honest answer. “I want you to stay who you are, Victor.” He swallows, his heart in his throat and hands sweaty, but he’s committed to this honest thing now. “I’ve always looked up to you. I… I ignored you because I didn’t want you to see my shortcomings.” It’s almost unbearable confessing this, but something makes him look back at Victor. “I’ll make it up to you with my skating!” It feels cheap, but what else can he offer? There is still their original bargain, but Yūri thinks Victor has more or less put that on ice, transfixed (distracted) by the new shiny challenge that is getting Yūri into shape.

Victor smiles, a beautiful and soft smile that makes Yūri look away – directly at the hand Victor is offering. He wipes his own hand before taking Victor’s, mindful of how sweaty his hands are. If Victor minds, he doesn’t show it. “Okay,” he says, like Yūri’s promise is almost as valuable as his pledge, “I won’t let you off easy, then. That’s my way of showing my love.” He uses Yūri to pull himself up, for a long moment after standing close enough that Yūri can feel the warmth radiating off his skin.

And then he drops Yūri’s hand, like their conversation was entirely normal and not awkward and mortifying at all. He even somehow manages not to make it feel like he’s ignoring Yūri’s confession, just… like it’s an entirely normal thing to do (and who knows, maybe for the demon, it really is.”

They walk back to Hasetsu in silence, which gives Yūri time to calm down again and have a revelation: When I open up, he meets me where I am. I shouldn’t be afraid to open up more..[1]

//*\\

The Grand Prix assignments get announced a couple of days later, giving Yūri the Cup of China and the Rostelecom Cup.

“So, one competition against Phichit and Yurio each,” Victor comments over his morning newspaper. Yūri isn’t sure whether he actually understands Japanese and can read Kanji, or if he’s trying to teach himself that way. He’s too nervous to ask.

“And the regional,” Yūri adds.

Victor looks at him over the top of his newspaper. “I’m sure you will do fine,” he says, and that is that.

Yūri takes the confidence, wraps it around himself like a blanket, and attacks his training regime like it personally offended him (it didn’t, but Victor wasn’t kidding. He seems determined to make Yūri win, and, well, Yūri really does not want to disappoint him even further).

//*\\

The regional -- the Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu Championship – goes mostly fine. There is a moment where Yūri becomes anxious, but still manages to pull of his program decently enough, so that crisis is (mostly) averted.

There are two moments of note:

The first is Victor’s… rather unusual approach at a pep talk: hugging Yūri from behind and telling him to seduce him. It’s almost enough to make Yūri so flustered he forgets all about the audience (which might just be what Victor had been going for).

The second is when last year’s champion, Minami Kenjirou, … well, fanboys is probably the best way to describe it – fanboys over Yūri, supporting him loudly and cheering him on. Yūri has no idea how to deal with it, so he simply doesn’t – until he gets a dressing down from Victor for his un-sportsman-like behavior. Right. Open up more, Yūri reminds himself, and finds that cheering on others isn’t so much embarrassing as actually pretty nice. Victor’s pleased glow is only an added bonus.

//*\\

Life continues, and narrows down to training, competitions, and Victor. The former two seem to grow with each passing day, until Yūri has barely enough spare brain cells to keep worrying about Victor. Which is probably for the best, because it seems like less direct attention and regular exposure to Victor at the same time give his thoughts and feelings time to percolate and crystallize.

It’s surprisingly hard to panic about what exactly he feels for Victor when he’s too exhausted to work himself up in a fret, and so it’s not so much a revelation as a slow awareness and acceptance that yes, he may be in love with Victor. Thankfully, he’s also too exhausted to worry (much) about that, and decides he will deal with the whole mess later… after the whole Grand Prix debacle.

//*\\

Victor kisses him after the Cup of China. Yūri definitely Does Not Think about that and files it away under Things To Worry About Later.

//*\\

Of course, that much good luck appears to be more than Yūri deserves, and things go to shit not that much later, while they are in Russia: back in Hasetsu, Makkachin chokes on some food, and so Victor leaves to go back in between Yūri’s Single and Free Skate, leaving him under the care of Yakov.

And it’s not that Yakov is a bad coach – far from it, but he’s most decidedly Not Victor, and it’s enough that Yūri only barely makes the cut for the Grand Prix. He can’t even be relieved that he has made it – worry about Makkachin is dominating his thoughts, mixing with his general anxiety. 

Yurio is strangely nice to him after the competition, sharing Pirozhki filled with katsudon, and they make Yūri feel better despite the fact that he has not won. And yet, better is still not actually good.

He can feel Victor’s absence like a hole in his life, and it makes his heart ache. It also leaves him with too much time to think on his flight back to Japan. He loves the demon, and as though that isn’t bad enough, he loves the demon he owes his firstborn to. How is he supposed to produce a firstborn? He still cannot imagine being with anyone that way, even though he can actually imagine wanting to kiss Victor again. Which is not helpful.

His thoughts keep churning like this for the entirety of the flight, twisting in circles and keeping him from slipping into sleep.

It is only when he arrives at the airport and falls into the waiting arms of Victor while Makkachin, whole and healthy once more, slobbers all over him, that that weight finally lifts off him.

“Please coach me until I retire,” Yūri says, and blushes almost immediately after he has said this.

Victor smiles and kisses Yūri’s hand, and one of the advantages of having blushed already is that it’s really hard to tell that he’s blushing more. “That almost sounds like a marriage proposal.”

I’m so screwed, Yūri thinks, but doesn’t deny it.

“I wish you would never retire,” Victor says, and Yūri realizes only later that Victor, too, did not reject the possibility.

//*\\

 

 

It takes almost more courage than Yūri possesses, but in the end he keeps recalling all the moments he reached out to Victor and Victor listened, to the touches and casual kisses that just kept cropping up more and more lately. He had vowed to not think about all of that until after the Grand Prix, but as so often, he is not very good at succeeding at his goals.

He chastises himself for that thinking almost immediately after (it’s Victor’s influence, this trying to be more confident in himself thing), but the point remains: he and Victor have some things to talk about, and for some reason his brain has decided that that talk needs to happen before the final challenge.

So with his heart in his throat and his stomach in knots, he broaches the topic a couple of days before they depart for the Grand Prix Final (because even a broken heart fits the theme of love, right?).

“I...” He stares at his boot, leaving scuff marks on the trail they had been ambling along. They are just nonsensical patterns in the loose dirt, but it’s better than looking at Victor. “I have a problem.” He swallows his heart still hammering.

Victor makes a distressed noise, and Yūri doesn’t need to be looking at him to picture the worried expression on Victor’s face. His heart beats impossibly harder.

“I—IthinkIaminlovewithout,” he says in a rush, and the words seem to take everything else out of him, too, leaving him winded and without a single thought in his head.

The silence between them seems to stretch into an eternity, when it cannot have been more than a couple of seconds until Victor answers.

“Oh, Yūri,” he says, his voice impossibly soft, and Yūri can feel his heart sink, his hopes slowly crumbling, because that is a voice that screams reaction even if it is barely above a whisper. “Yūri-kun, I know.” Victor reaches out, his hands as soft as his voice, cool and dry where Yūri’s are too hot and sweaty.

Yūri fights the urge to take his hand back, trying not to see their linked hands, Victor’s marble-like and pale and his own already darker and even more tanned from his outside training.

“I never meant to be a problem.” Victor’s voice is ever so slightly rough, and when Yūri chances a glance upwards, he is looking… anguished. Yūri can feel his heart slowly starting to break, and his will-power is not enough to keep his hand in Victor’s.

“I’m sorry,” he says, stiffly, trying to create more distance between them, “I will – I will try not to make things awkward.” The words taste like ash, and the world, too has dimmed like it is covered in a thin layer of it. “You don’t have to keep coaching me. I will do the Grand Prix on my own.” His voice breaks on those last sentences, and there is a dull roar in his ears that almost makes him miss the tiny gasp Victor gives in response.

It is all the warning he gets before Victor is all up in his space, his cool hands cradling Yūri’s face, and despite his bleeding heart he cannot help but lean into the touch. “No, Yūri,” Victor murmurs, barely audible, and Yūri can’t tell his emotions from his voice, this time, “This is not at all what I meant.” That is enough to make Yūri look up. Victor’s face is almost painfully open, an emotion clearly visible that Yūri dares not name, even in his own thoughts.

“I never wanted you to see me as a problem. If I am such to you, I can back off, but only if it causes you less pain, not if it causes you more pain. What makes me such a problem, dear one?”

Yūri’s heart is back in his throat, not all that broken any more, but his thoughts are too frantic, too fractured to contemplate such a thing as renewed hope. He simply is in that moment, and it makes it impossible to keep looking at Victor. “I—I’m supposed to give—to give you a child—my first-born,” he stammers, fixing a point just to the left of Victor’s head. His silver hair is still glinting at the edge of Yūri’s vision. Victor chuckles, but Yūri isn’t yet done. “How—I cannot give—we are both—how should I—”

Victor chuckles again, and this time it is accompanied by his thumb carefully stroking over Yūri’s lips. It’s an effective means of silencing his stammering. “Oh dearest one,” Victor repeats, and his voice is back to being the softest thing Yūri knows, and warm with affection. He is also dimly aware that he has never heard Victor speak with such conviction, such a lack of grandeur. It is almost weird to see the demon so composed, so tightly wound. The full strength of his attention focused on Yūri is intoxicating. “I had never considered that those might be your hang-ups, or I would have talked to you much sooner. I wrongly believed us to be of the same thought on the matters of the bargain, I am so very sorry this has been plaguing you.”

Victor leans in closer, close enough Yūri can feel his breath ghost over his face, close enough their noses almost touch. Victor’s gaze is searching when Yūri dares look back at him, and Yūri’s eyes flutter closed almost of their own accord. Victor doesn’t disappoint, bridges the last distance between them, and captures Yūri’s lips in the most tender, soft way imaginable.

Yūri gasps, and that makes Victor’s lips quirk in a tiny smile—which Yūri can feel because Victor is kissing him properly, not merely a peck on the lips or forehead or hands—before he uses the opportunity to deepen the kiss. It remains slow, however, almost sinful, and when he pulls pack, Yūri becomes aware that he is clutching at Victor’s shoulders, his heart still racing, stomach fluttering in what might just be a good way, and feeling like he spent the last ten minutes deep-sea diving.

He draws in a lungful of air, followed by a long, shuddering exhale. His heart is thumping like it is trying to beat out of his chest, and his lips are tingling. One of his hands finds its way to his lips, touching them almost reverently.

There is little doubt about what Victor was trying to say with that kiss.

Before he can say or do anything, however, Victor draws him closer again. “I am sorry I was not more clear,” he murmurs into Yūri’s hair, one of his hands stroking Yūri’s back. It sends shivers down his spine, but they are (hopefully) lost in his general trembling. “Oh dearest one, thank you for being brave enough to talk to me about it. It should have occurred to me much earlier. But that is seriously the least obstacle in our paths. If you want me—if you want to be with me, there are so many different ways of putting the debt to rest, do not worry your head about this.”

He pulls back again, to look Yūri in the eye. “And since I don’t think I have said it yet: I love you, Katsuki Yūri.”

And Yūri’s heart soars at that, taking his anxiety and worries and previously crumbled hopes away with them. They do seem to leave his body out of his eyes in the form of tears, but since all Victor does at that is cradle Yūri as he cries and wipe the tear tracks away with gentle fingers, that may just be alright.

 //*\\

They get engaged before the Grand Prix—Yūri doesn’t think of it as fast, as he kind of pledged his live to Victor anyway, more than ten years ago—and while Yūri doesn’t win gold at the Grand Prix Final, he does get a very nice and shiny silver medal. There is always next year to aim for Gold again.

And years later, when Yūri retires and he and Victor adopt a child together, the child is Victor’s by default.