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The Selection

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Chapter Seven – Awareness

 

Yuri didn’t see Victor again until Sunday afternoon, and not alone.

 

“Why do we have to do this again?” This time Yuri had been shuffled over to a station next to a tan man with spiky chestnut hair and eyes that actually looked purple in certain lighting. He’d introduced himself as Michele before slumping down in his seat and proceeding to sulk for roughly five minutes.

 

“Something about an article in a magazine wanting to run a column on who looks the most like a real prince next to Prince Victor.” Yuri wasn’t pleased about this newest curveball either, but he’d already come to the conclusion that complaining about it didn’t mean it was going to go away. “It shouldn’t take too long. Mila said something earlier about us being free to go as soon as our sessions with the photographers are done.”

 

“Is this what it’s going to be all the time?” Michele didn’t seem comforted by Yuri’s words as he slumped down in his chair and shoved his hands into the pockets of his formal dress pants. “Some of us have barely gotten to spend time with him and now we’ve got to dress like matching dolls and stand next to him like this is a thing that’s actually going to happen?”

 

“It is a thing that’s going to happen. For someone, at least.” Forcing himself to keep his hands still at his sides so as not to ruin his own pressed and perfect suit, Yuri turned to face the other man fully for the first time since they’d sat down together.

 

Yuri was dimly aware of people coming and going in the background. Of the photographer shouting instructions at assistants as they adjusted the deep blue velvet drapes that were to be the backdrop for the formal photos they were to be taking with Victor shortly. Behind him, to the side of him, and even in front of him were Selected and their attendants scurrying around putting the final touches to hair and makeup. Twenty-six men all dressed in the same dark suit. Carbon copies of each other down to their shoes, the only thing setting them apart being the things not as easily changed, their eyes and hair and facial features. Different heights and weights and levels of fitness.

 

This wasn’t any of their lives. Not really. Not even JJ with his modeling career and TV appearances. This was Prince Victor’s world and they were just interlopers. Cogs trying to fit into the machine that was the royal family. Take one out and put another one in to see which one fit the closest.

 

To see which one would keep the machine running with the least amount of squeaking and shuddering.

 

“Maybe for you.” Yuri had been so deep in thought for a second that he’d almost forgot he’d been talking to someone. Michele still wasn’t even looking at him, his gaze focused on where Mila was having an intense conversation with Celestino about their schedules for the rest of the day. “Do you…? Do you ever wonder if you made the right choice when you sent in that application? Do you ever wish you’d never done it at all?”

 

There were about five different answers Yuri could have given right then. All of them would have been true in one way or another.

 

None of them would be the whole truth, though.

 

His internal confliction lasted no less than ten seconds, but in that span, he caught sight of Victor stepping into the room over Michele’s shoulder.

 

His answer came instantly and instinctually, falling out of his mouth before his brain could stop him.

 

“No. No, I don’t.”

 

~

 

Everyone is in a nervous frenzy as they get ready for their turn to have their mock official portraits with the prince taken.

 

Yuri spent most of his time waiting with Phichit and Leo and Guang Hong, who Phichit had apparently brought into the fold of his friendship pact sometime over the past two days. They pulled four stools together into the corner of the room and talked, ignoring the hustle and bustle and flashes of light from the cameras.

 

“Do you think we should be showing more of an interest?” Guang Hong wasn’t exactly nervous, Yuri had noticed. He was more of a quiet calm, as though he was constantly calculating variables in his head and was trying to work through to the perfect solution for problems that hadn’t even happened yet. “I know we don’t want to seem overeager, but it is wise not to seem eager at all?”

 

They all turned to look at Yuri then, and he felt himself color under the weight of their expectations.

 

“Why are you looking at me? I don’t know.” Yuri waved his hands in front of his face and Phichit laughed, breaking up the tiny bit of tension that had settled over their small group for a second.

 

“We’re looking at you because whatever it is you’re doing, it’s working. Prince Victor keeps looking over here and I don’t think he’s looking for any of us.” Phichit didn’t even look upset about it. “You can’t see it because your back is to him, so you’re going to have to take my word for it, but he totally is.”

 

“No, he isn’t.” Yuri shot back automatically. Phichit did have a point. Yuri had purposefully placed his chair in their circle so that his back was to the prince, so there really was no way for him to really know if Phichit was lying or not, but the denial was the quicker and easier way to go. “And even if he was, it doesn’t have to mean anything and it definitely doesn’t mean he couldn’t be looking at any of you, either.”

 

“You keep telling yourself whatever helps you sleep at night.” Phichit teased leaning over to bump his shoulder against Yuri’s. “Back to Guang Hong’s original question, though. Should we be acting more interested in wanting to spend time with him over there?”

 

“I’m pretty sure that I don’t want an elbow in my face.” Leo shot a pointed glance over at where Georgi and another dark-haired man named Kendry were bumping shoulders as they tried to get the attention of the attendant who was in charge of draping a light blue sash over the shoulder of whoever was next. “Although… If I can prove it wasn’t an accident, do you think I could get one of them sent home?”

 

“I wouldn’t try it.” Guang Hong tucked a strand of hair behind his ear and he looked over Yuri’s shoulder and towards all the commotion again. “Besides, those are the kind of men that will take themselves out of the picture soon enough. I know I haven’t spent much time with him, but Prince Victor doesn’t seem to gravitate towards those who force themselves into the spotlight.”

 

“Agreed.” Phichit chirped happily. “He’s definitely more the type to be drawn towards those the spotlight rests naturally on instead.”

 

“What are you talking about? That doesn’t make any sense.” Leo poked Phichit in the side. “Elaborate, please.”

 

“Yuri knows what I’m talking about.”

 

“I assure you, I really don’t.” Yuri was frowning now, giving his full attention to Phichit and desperately trying to ignore some of the whispers that were starting to begin behind them as others began to notice their apparent disinterest in the proceedings. “Did you hit your head rolling out of bed this morning?”

 

“You’ll never get him to admit to anything, you know that, right?” Yuri almost jumped out of his chair as Chris’ smooth voice entered the conversation and the tall man drug a chair over to drape his large frame over right in between Phichit and Guang Hong. “I’m honestly starting to believe he has no idea he’s doing it at all.”

 

“Doing what? What do you think I’m doing?” Even though he wasn’t sure he really wanted the answer, Yuri couldn’t help but ask. His so-called friends were actually starting to frustrate him. “I can’t stop doing it if I don’t know what it is.”

 

“I don’t think anyone wants you to stop.” Chris grinned widely, showing a not insignificant amount of teeth. On anyone else, the grin would have looked feral. On Chris is just looked confident. “Let me amend that statement. I know for a fact there are several people who definitely don’t want you to stop.”

 

“None of you make any sense.” Yuri protests. “If you don’t want to explain yourself, can we at least talk about something else?”

 

“We can talk about something else.” Phichit is smiling in that way that Yuri understands to mean he’s being humored. “Oh! My hamsters got here last night! When we’re done here why don’t we go back to my room and you can all meet them?”

 

Phichit led the conversation from there, and if there was a niggling voice in the back of his head that kept telling Yuri he knew exactly what Chris had been talking about, he resolutely ignored it.

 

~

 

Yuri was the last one to be called to have his picture taken with the prince.

 

He kept his back to the production the entire time. Up until Chris was called and he realized it would be even more awkward for him to sit by himself and stare at the wall than it would be to turn around and watch as Victor and Chris were photographed in a number of poses.

 

As much as it irked him to admit it, Victor and Chris made a striking pair. They were roughly the same height, Chris maybe a few centimeters taller and both were broad-shouldered and slim-waisted. Even their coloring complemented each other, Chris’s skin just a few shades darker than the prince’s.

 

They were talking, too. Yuri couldn’t make out the words from his far away corner, but the tone was clearly light and they were both wearing easy smiles. Something dark and different twisted in Yuri’s chest as Chris said something and Victor chuckled softly, achingly close to the kind of laugh he used when he was with Yuri. The one that always made him think the prince wasn’t hiding anything from him.

 

The one that had Yuri calling him ‘Victor’ without ever thinking of the consequences because it was hard to think of him as anything other than that.

 

They were so close. Pressed together as they stood against the backdrop. Holding hands as they were directed to take a seat on an opulent chaise lounge with deep purple velvet cushions and golden trim. It all looked so simple. So natural.

 

Almost like Chris had been born to take that spot beside him.

 

Well, that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. Chris was a good person. He was smart. He could be funny and insightful. He was polite, too. He would be perfect at state functions or even just sitting beside Victor every Friday on The Report.

 

Yuri could see how Chris might be someone who could be easy to love. Or, at the very least, someone that would make an excellent partner.

 

Then Chris is gone and an attendant is calling for Yuri to step forward to take his turn. His fingers ache and he looks down in surprise to find that he has his hands clenched into fists in his lap so hard that the knuckles are completely white. Yuri bites the inside of his cheek and forces himself to uncurl them as he rises to his feet.

 

“Hello, Yuri.” Victor holds out a hand to him as he steps up onto the slightly raised platform in front of the backdrop. For a moment, Yuri hesitates, but he’s able to hide it in the flurry of motion that is the attendant with the sash tossing the fabric over his head and causing him to take a step back in surprise.

 

Tension broken in that split second, they both laugh as Yuri stumbles and tries to stay on his feet. Victor’s arm reaches out lightning fast and grabs Yuri by the wrist, tugging him forward and supporting him with a quick hand to the small of his back.

 

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Kastuki!” The attendant who caused the whole thing is wringing her hands as she rushes forward with some pins and quickly secures the sash into place. His is plain, but Victor’s has medals attached to it and there are golden bars across his shoulders with two gold braids loop around his right shoulder. “I thought I had your attention! Just… Here let me…”

 

“It’s fine, ma’am. It’s been a long day for all of us.” Yuri brushes her hands away and slides the last pin into place himself. He can still feel Victor’s grasp on his wrist, the warmth radiating from the palm against his back. “Don’t worry about it at all.”

 

“It seems that gravity tends to work a little too well whenever we’re together, doesn’t it?” And with that joke the last bit of darkness lifts from Yuri’s mind and he feels settled again. Victor releases his wrist and reaches out to brush back where some of his hair has once again escaped the gel’s valiant attempts to hold it back. “There. Perfect. Are you ready?”

 

“I’m ready.” Yuri nods and this time he takes Victor’s hand and allows himself to be pulled closer to the prince’s side, turning his body so that his right shoulder fits parallel with Victor’s left. “Is this how they want us?”

 

“Yes. That’s actually pretty close to perfect.” The photographer is a small man, with squinty eyes and brown hair that is long and hangs limply around a pudgy face. His motions are smooth and precise though as he moves closer to them, and Yuri can tell he knows what he’s doing. “Your Highness, if you would just place your left hand on his waist and, Mr. Katsuki, please fold your hands right above the center of your hips… Yes. Like that. Your Highness, please place your right hand on top of Mr. Katsuki’s. There we go.”

 

“Is this alright?” Victor whispers into Yuri’s ear and it’s all he can do to nod, not trusting his voice as it feels as though there is something wedged in his throat.

 

“I’m going to take a bunch of pictures in rapid succession.” Pleased with the way they have been placed, the photographer steps back and takes the camera once of his assistants offers him. “Just actual natural. If you want to talk to each other, that’s fine. This doesn’t have to be quite so stiff and formal.”

 

“Okay, I think we can do that.” At Victor’s words Yuri tilts his face around and back so that he can look up at the prince behind him. “It has been a long day. This shouldn’t take too long.”

 

“Don’t worry about me. I’ve been sitting around for most of it. You’re the one that’s been on his feet almost the whole time.” This close, Yuri can now see faint lines of what might be exhaustion around Victor’s eyes and there is a sag to the set of his shoulders that wasn’t there when they’d begun immediately after lunch. “Do you need a break?”

 

“I would love one, but I’m afraid I’m on a rather tight schedule. Some of the photographs took longer than expected.” Victor grimaced before smoothing his face back out and grinning. “I almost wish you had been one of the earlier men. I’ve been trying to find time to talk to you for days now.”

 

“You have?” Yuri ignored the flashing of the camera in the background, vaguely aware some corner of his mind was still instructing his body to stay relaxed and a smile to stay on his face. “Why?”

 

“Do I have to have a reason to want to talk to you?” Victor asked, his thumb rubbing back and forth against the sensitive skin on the inside of Yuri’s left wrist. “Do you try to avoid having conversations with all your friends?”

 

“No. Just you.”

 

“Yuri! So cruel!” This time Victor wasn’t fooled at all by his teasing and something warm curled up at the base of Yuri’s spine that he instantly squashed down. No, this was not the time for old crushes to rise back up to the surface. “Thursday. I have the entire afternoon free. Let’s take Makkachin for a walk around the gardens together. There’s so much I want to talk to you about.”

 

“I’ll have to check my schedule, but I’m pretty sure I can squeeze you in.”

 

They had to pause the photo session for five minutes as they both devolved into laughter at that point.

 

The rest of the session ran smoothly and was over far too soon. Victor and Yuri had just stepped down off the platform and Yuri was about to scan the room to find the harried attendant from earlier in order to unpin and return his borrowed sash, when the door burst open and everyone present scurried out of the way in the face of King Yakov striding into the room and making a direct line right towards where Victor and Yuri were standing.

 

“Victor. Where have you been? I told you that you didn’t have time to play around today.” The king was short and gruff and Yuri hadn’t said even two words to him the entire time he’d been there, the other man constantly being in one meeting or another and spending most of his meals deep in conversation with either his wife or one of his sons, completely ignoring everyone else in the room. Even now, Yuri’s presence was only acknowledged by the curtest of nods. “When I agreed to go along with this exercise in utter frivolity, you promised me this would only take two hours. It’s been three!”

 

“I can’t control how long the photographer needed to get what the magazine was requesting.” Victor was no longer touching Yuri by this point, but he was still standing close. Only centimeters of space between them and Yuri shuffled closer still, some instinctive urge to stand by Victor’s side rearing up before he could stop it. He felt the cuffs of their jackets brush against each other and he could have sworn Victor’s eyes shifted over to him quickly before shifting back to where his father was fuming in front of them. “I do apologize for the inconvenience.”

 

“Bah. You apologize even when you do not mean it.” King Yakov waved a hand through the air as Victor opened his mouth to say something further. Victor’s mouth snapped shut at the gesture. “I understand this is important, but matters of state will not wait for you. We have much to prepare for if we wish to be ready to receive the retinue from Britannia at the end of the summer. Then you can spend time with your suitors.”

 

“It’s seems I’ve contributed to making you late again, Your Highness.” Yuri allowed the backs of their hands to brush against each other this time and Victor turned his head and smiled.

 

“No, I’m afraid I’ve made myself late this time. Quite on purpose, I might add.” Victor turned back to where the king was still silently fuming. “Father, I’m sure you recognize Yuri Katsuki.”

 

“Yes. The dancer.” Now the king was giving Yuri all the attention he had yet to give anyone else and Yuri struggled to stand tall under the intense scrutiny. “Would you mind if Victor got back to his work?”

 

Was that a trick question? Yuri wasn’t sure and he definitely didn’t know what the right answer could even be. He shrugged and directed his answer towards the prince instead.

 

“Prince Victor, I think you need to go.” He smiled to soften the blow from his words as Victor’s face instantly fell. “Thursday afternoon, remember? I’ll clear my schedule if you clear yours.”

 

“Consider it a date.” Yuri was sure Victor’s smile then would have been capable of melting an entire glacier into the sea in six seconds flat.

 

Before Yuri could realize what was happening, Victor had grabbed his hand and squeezed it tightly. Almost as soon as the connection happened, it was over and Victor dropped his hand and allowed his father to usher him out the door while babbling happily about something he was sure had nothing to do with the meeting they were about to go to if the sour expression on King Yakov’s face was anything to go by.

 

Yuri stared after them long after they were gone. Until the attendant from earlier reappeared and began stuttering her own apologies and she took back the sash and showed him out of the room so that he wouldn’t be in the way as they tore down the backdrops and put away any props that had been left out.

 

He didn’t even know where to begin to parse through all the emotions that he’d felt during the day. They were all starting to bleed together into one big ball of tangled everything.

 

Yuri knew what he usually did when he felt like this. When his feelings rolled together into one monstrous entity, it always helped for him to spend time in a studio somewhere. As though the act of moving his body also moved his mind, untangling all those knotted threads until he could gain some desperately needed clarity.

 

Dancing was what he usually did, but even though his feet yearned to take him to the studio. Even though the key nestled in his nightstand burned even through two floors and several closed doors like a beacon, he didn’t heed the call.

 

He couldn’t. It was too soon.

 

Luckily dinner began not even an hour later and he could bury himself in his second option for comfort: Food.

 

He knew it was a temporary fix. A band-aid, but it was the best option he had.

 

For the first time since that first night in the palace, Yuri did not sleep well that night.

 

~

 

The next morning, the shit hit the fan and continued to roll downhill as the week progressed.

 

Yuri didn’t know how it had happened, but some of the pictures from the photo session had leaked and the magazine had scrambled to get their spread out before the whole country got their hands on the photographs anyways. By Monday afternoon, they had run a special edition online and had printed as many copies as they could, distributing them in a flurry so those who couldn’t afford computers or internet could get their hands on what everyone else was gossiping about.

 

For his part, Yuri avoided it. Mila had swept through the palace just before dinner and had managed to hunt down any copies that had somehow found their way in, although Yuri knew for a fact a few missed her multiple sweeps. He was sure if he tried hard enough he could find a maid or a guard that could provide him with a copy, but he didn’t.

 

Besides, he was sure that it would die down soon enough, as all potential scandals and gossip did.

 

On Tuesday, it just got worse.

 

It had started out as a normal day. Breakfast had been pleasant, the whole royal family had been present for the first time in a while and Victor had spent some time wandering from table to table after he’d finished his own food, touching base with everyone, which had put them all in a pleasant mood going into the etiquette lesson they were scheduled for that morning.

 

That was when it had fallen apart.

 

Yuri, Phichit, Chris, and Guang Hong were milling about in the main foyer killing some time before they were due to meet in one of the larger parlors for their lesson when their attention was drawn to the top of the stairs where a group of Selected were beginning to stream down the steps led by a man named Paxton who was being followed by three attendants and a load of baggage.

 

“What’s going on?” Chris asked as soon as the group pulls even with them. Paxton glaring at their small group as he goes, his irate gaze lingering long enough on Yuri that he feels the urge to turn around and run before the other man turns away and continues away.

 

JJ is the only one who notices the question, as the others are now pushing past them, intent on murmuring their own questions to Paxton’s back as he continues his stern march to the great double doors that will lead out to the main drive. JJ hangs back, waiting for the space to clear before stepping into their circle and turning his back to the whole production.

 

“Paxton’s being sent home.” Yuri had expected JJ to be smug about it. After all, that meant one less person to contend for Victor’s attention, something everyone has noticed JJ has been growing desperate to attain. But he doesn’t sound smug. He just sounds worried, and maybe even a bit sad. “He took it upon himself to seek out Prince Victor after breakfast and apparently harsh words were exchanged between himself and the prince. They’re all trying to figure out exactly what he said so they can avoid the same fate, but Paxton isn’t saying anything.”

 

“I’d bet money it had something to do with that magazine article.” Guang Hong stated softly and jumped as he found himself the focus of everyone’s attention. “I… I heard him talking with Kieran and Hayden yesterday evening. He wasn’t happy about being ranked twenty-fourth on the list.”

 

“That’s stupid.” Phichit crossed his arms over his chest and frowned. “What the editors of some inane magazine think doesn’t make any difference.”

 

“Spoken like someone who was ranked eighth.” JJ risked a glance behind him before leaning in closer. “It matters to those who didn’t place high. It matters a lot. We’ve been here for a few weeks and the prince has only spent one on one time with a handful of us… Some of that handful even more than once… To the others it just… It matters.”

 

“Why are you worried?” Guang Hong asked. “You were ranked third. The only two higher than you were Chris and Yuri.”

 

“Me?” Everything was starting to make sense and Yuri was beginning to regret not at least taking a peek at the article. That news explained why he’d been getting more pointed looks and glares over the past day and a half at least. “That’s… I don’t…”

 

“Yuri, do you mind if we deal with your complete lack of awareness of how absolutely adorable you and the prince look together later?” Phichit pat Yuri soundly on the shoulder. “Thanks. As for the other problem, maybe the prince just doesn’t want to talk about it at all? If we just avoid mentioning it we should be fine until this all blows over.”

 

“I agree with Phichit.” Chris didn’t seem worried about the recent development. Or, if he was, he wasn’t showing it. “It never hurts to take our cues from Prince Victor as he gives them. If the prince wants to talk about it or to hear our personal opinions, he’ll ask. Unless he does, we’d be better off keeping it to ourselves.”

 

The conversation ended then as the other Selected had come back from seeing Paxton off and they were swept into their etiquette class by Mila, who was looked more stressed than usual and not amenable at all to any more distractions or small talk.

 

On Wednesday, Yuri was iced out.

 

Well, not completely iced out. Phichit, Leo, Guang Hong, and Chris still spoke to him and sat with him at meals, but everyone else kept their distance.

 

Yuri didn’t know what to do. He was sure he could go to Victor if he really wanted to. If everyone was as scared as they said they were about accidentally upsetting the prince and causing their own dismissals, then Victor could be a help, but he didn’t want to have Victor fight his battles for him. Especially when he wasn’t even sure what battle it was he was supposed to be fighting.

 

By Thursday morning, he couldn’t stand it any longer.

 

He was exhausted since he was barely able to sleep. Minako was getting concerned, poking at him whenever he did show up in his room to try and catch a few minutes of sleep. Even with the support of his friends, he could feel the weight of eyes of him whenever he was at meals or during their classes or even when they were supposed to have spare time in the Entertaining Room. He hadn’t even been able to take Makkachin for a walk because every time he thought to seek out Victor’s attendant to request he bring the dog to Yuri, there was always someone that ended up following him.

 

Yuri tried hiding in the library, only to find that it was a far more popular spot than he’d known it to be before. Either that, or the group of five men that turned up five minutes after he’d settled down with a book had been there for a reason other than reading. From their less than subtle whisperings, Yuri figured that was probably the case.

 

He tried hiding in the kitchens, but he was escorted out fairly quickly when one of the chefs realized he was sneaking tarts meant for dessert that night.

 

In a fit of pure desperation, Yuri ran to his room, grabbing a bag stuffed with his work-out gear and his brace, and stuffing the key to the dance studio Victor had given him into his pocket.

 

Yuri snuck through some of the back hallways and cut through the garden to get to the studio in the hopes that he would lose anyone who might be trying to follow him by going that way. It seems to work as he reached his destination without running into anyone and he clicked the lock into place behind him, confident enough that there aren’t a high number of people who might possess a key.

 

It’s strange, being back in a space like this. Logically, Yuri knows it shouldn’t be. It wasn’t that long ago that he was in this very same room, but Victor had been with him then and he’d been wearing a suit.

 

Now there was no Victor to distract him. He was still in his slacks and pressed collared shirt, but he had the strap of his dance bag digging into his shoulder. He could change. He could do whatever he wanted.

 

He could dance.

 

His body wanted him to. Yuri had toed off his shoes in the entryway and his socks clung to the wood floor as he curled his toes against the firm surface. In the mirror he saw his own reflection. He looked pale and tired, but his back was straight and his shoulders square. He rocked up onto the balls of his feet and sank back down onto his heels again.

 

Well, it wouldn’t hurt to change clothes. Just in case.

 

There was a curtained area at the back of the room that had hooks on the walls and a low bench. Yuri shrugged out of his clothing and into a pair of leggings and a loose shirt. He sat on the bench and pulled his brace over his leggings, biting the inside of his cheek as he tightened the straps. The rasp of Velcro echoed through the empty space and Yuri removed his glasses and tucked them away safely in his bag.

 

He could stretch. Yes, that was something he should be doing. He would always take some time before turning in for the night to do some light stretching in his room, but it had been far too long since he had properly stretched out. Surely that wouldn’t hurt?

 

About halfway through, Yuri knew he’d made the right choice. His muscles were burning in a good way and his mind was starting to clear. He was on the floor now, legs spread into a split as he leant forward with his arms extended and chest pressed to the floor. He breathed in deeply and held the stretch, frowning as he rested his forehead against the cool wood flooring. His right knee was hovering above the floor, unable to get that last bit of stretch he desperately wanted with the restriction of the brace.

 

He was seconds away from sitting up and ripping it off in a fit of frustration when he heard the click of the lock from behind him and he looked up to see Yurio walking in, the teen pausing as he instantly noticed the room was occupied.

 

“Oh!” Yuri shot up and curled his legs underneath him. “Hello, Yurio.”

 

Yurio made a noise low in the back of his throat, but didn’t say anything as he closed the door behind him and flicked the lock back into place. Without his glasses, it was hard for him to make out the finer details of Yurio’s face, but he was fairly secure in his guess that the young prince was either scowling or something close to it.

 

The teenager stalked around the edges of the room and made his way to what Yuri was sure was some kind of supply closet. Yuri watched, brows furrowed in confusion as Yurio digs around in the closet, grunting as he finds what he’s looking for and turns around to face Yuri with equipment in his hands.

 

“Do you fence?”

 

The questions takes Yuri off guard and his mouth opens and closes twice before he can manage to put words together.

 

“Um… A little?” Yuri stumbles up to his feet, squinting a bit in order to better see what Yurio had stacked in his arms. Sure enough, there are two long, slender swords poking out from an armful of padding and other things one would need to fence in. “A few years ago a guest choreographer brought us a version of Romeo and Juliet reimagined as a ballet. He wanted the big sword fight to look real so most of the corps had to take some lessons so there was a lower chance of anyone accidentally poking someone else’s eye out in the middle of a performance.”

 

“That sounds stupid.” Yurio is looking at him in an odd way. Almost as though he has just been handed the piece to a puzzle Yuri can’t even see. “Are you any good?”

 

“I’m okay. I know which direction to shove the pointy end in any case.” As soon as the words had left his mouth, Yurio was shoving some padding and a blunted foil into his hands without any further preamble. “Oh, okay. We’re really doing this.”

 

“Of course we are. Unless you’re too scared.” Yurio is smirking now, the picture of someone who knows they had won before they’ve even begun. The expression stokes the competitive part of Yuri that usually lies dormant beneath the surface and he is quick to tug on the chest protector he’d been given.

 

“Just the chest?” Yuri asks as he tightens the straps and hefts the weight of the foil in his right hand, testing out his grip and the balance of the sword. It’s not entirely unfamiliar in his hand and Yuri falls into a half-remembered stance, body angled away from Yurio and feet spread evenly with his shoulders. “Shouldn’t we have masks, too?”

 

“As long as you don’t aim for my face, we’ll be fine. I hate those masks. Too hard to breathe.” Yurio tosses his foil from one and hand to the other and then back again, swiping the blade through the air in a test swing. “Are you ready?”

 

“As ready as I’m ever going to be.” Yuri mutters, but he bends his knees and sets his feet, Yurio matching his stance from across the room and then they are off.

 

Yurio is good. Far better than Yuri is, but once Yuri shakes off the rust he’s able to at least keep up and not go down without a fight. He even manages to land a few hits and Yurio takes them with a surprising amount of grace.

 

They fall into an easy rhythm, lunging and parrying as their breaths begin to come quicker and Yuri can feel sweat dripping down from his hairline. They don’t say much other than Yurio occasionally yelling a correction that Yuri is quick to apply. In the place of words, the sounds of bare feet slapping against hardwood and the clash of metal on metal echoes through the room.

 

It’s a different kind of dance than Yuri is used to, but it is helping all the same. He can feel his mind clearing and his nerves settling even as his legs and back begin to burn under the strain. He’s spent too much time sitting around feeling sorry for himself and it’s starting to show in his lack of stamina and how they have to end their bouts long before either of them are ready.

 

“You aren’t fucking terrible.” Their last bout had ended in a draw with two touches each before Yuri had stepped back and held his hand up in surrender. He knew enough about his body by now to recognize the sharp pain in his knee was only going to get worse from this point out. Yurio accepts the equipment Yuri hands him and makes his way to stow it back where it belongs. “Since you’ll probably be sticking around for a while, what do you think about coming here and helping me practice every so often? Usually I’d ask Victor or Beka, but they are both tied up with the royal visit at the end of the summer and… Why are you looking at me like that?”

 

It was like all the dark thoughts and emotions he’d been holding down for the past several days caught up to him at once and it was all Yuri could do not to just break down and cry. Since crying was not an option he was going to explore with Yurio in the room, his body merely trembled and he didn’t have to look in the mirror to know he was staring at the young prince with what he was sure was an interesting mix of frustration, anger, and just plain confusion.

 

“I-I’m sorry. I just…” Yuri knew he should hold his tongue. Even with all that had happened, he didn’t know Yurio, but he couldn’t help it. He couldn’t hold back now even if he wanted to. “I don’t think I’m going to be here for much longer is all. I don’t want to make a promise I can’t keep.”

 

“Are you blind or just fucking stupid?” Yurio has his arms crossed over his chest and his scowl is deeper than it usually is. Every instinct Yuri possesses is screaming at him to take a step back, but he rounds his shoulders and lifts his chin instead. “Because you would have to be a braindead moron if you haven’t realized by now that the only way my brother is going to let you go is if you dump his ass and beg to go home.”

 

“Maybe I do want to go home.” Yuri shot back. That part felt safe. The rest of what Yurio might have been implying was a can of worms Yuri wanted nothing to do with. “I’m no good at this. Everyone would be better off if I left.”

 

“Alright, so you are fucking stupid.” Yurio growled low in his throat as Yuri opened his mouth in a vain attempt to defend himself. “Who do you think would be better off if you left? Those other idiots vying for my brother’s useless hand? Because if so, you wouldn’t be wrong. With you gone, Victor would be forced to pick one of them and that works out just perfectly for their agendas.”

 

“Victor isn’t going to pick me anyway.” Yuri shot back. “We’re just friends. Why do I have to keep telling everyone that?”

 

“Because you’re literally the only person on the planet that believes it.” Yurio quirked an eyebrow. “Seriously. Haven’t you seen those photos in that magazine?”

 

“No.” Yuri shakes his head and moves to retrieve his bag from the corner he’d tossed it in. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do now that he had it. Yuri wanted to run, but Yurio had taken the opportunity to place himself between Yuri and the exit. “I don’t want to see them.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because I don’t need to see Victor standing next to a bunch of different men to know that I don’t belong here.”

 

“Idiot.” Yurio shook his head and pointed at Yuri. “Stand right there. Don’t you dare move a fucking muscle. I will tackle you if I see you even glance towards that fucking door.”

 

“But…”

 

“You heard me. Don’t fucking move.” Yurio hurries over to a shelf along the back wall of the building and Yuri digs in his bag, pulling out his glasses and putting them back on his face so he can see clearly again. There is a muttering of curses as Yurio moves boxes and books aside before finding what he was looking for and letting out a quick yell of triumph. “Thank god it’s still here. That old hag has been relentless searching for these shitty things.”

 

“Here.” Yuri grabbed at the magazine that Yurio flung at him, barely managing to hang onto it and stop if from falling to the floor. “Look at it. All the way. To the very end. Once you’re done, if you can look me in the eye and tell me you still want to go home, I’ll go personally find my brother and drag him here so he can give you his royal permission to go back whatever boring fucking thing you were doing before coming here. Deal?”

 

Yuri didn’t want to agree, but Yurio’s stance was still fairly aggressive and Yuri was tired from lack of sleep and his recent exercise so he didn’t like his odds of making a break for it. He didn’t want to find out the hard way if Yurio was the kind to make good on his threat to tackle him. Yuri was sure he was.

 

Ignoring the cover, which was nothing more than a stock photo of Victor from a few years ago, he tentatively turned to the first page of the special edition.

 

The magazine started with the man they thought looked least compatible next to the prince and then went up from there. Yuri paused when he saw Paxton standing next to Victor underneath a golden ‘24’. They both looked tense and there was enough space between the two of them that you could have reasonably squeezed another human being between them if you had wanted to.

 

That was the common theme, Yuri noticed. As he turned the pages and got closer and closer to the number one spot, the physical distance between Victor and whoever he was standing with was slowly decreasing, but there was still an air of stiffness that no amount of photo editing could cover up. Half the time it looked as though Victor was paying more attention to something beyond the camera than the person at his side, though what that could have been, Yuri could even begin to guess.

 

Guang Hong had been number ten, the commentary mentioning superficial things such as the major height different between himself and the prince and how Guang Hong didn’t seem able or willing to look Victor in the eye in any of the photos they had chosen to run.

 

Nine was Leo, who looked happy to be there, if a little on the reserved sides. Both photos the magazine had chosen to run were of Victor and Leo sitting on the chaise lounge leaning against each other. They didn’t look too bad together, though Yuri had to admit that same prevailing stiffness that was in all the other shots was still there.

 

As the number eight spot, Phichit looked like his normal self. All smiles and enthusiasm even the still photograph couldn’t contain. Victor seemed fine. His smile was wide and polite and there was a shot of Phichit looking up at him that was the closest Yuri had seen so far of Victor maybe actually enjoying what was happening.

 

By the time he turned the pages and saw JJ on one side and Chris on the other, his hands were trembling so bad he was afraid he might rip the page. JJ looked flawless, as he always did, and Yuri could tell his confidence helped put Victor at ease more so than anyone so far. On the other side, Chris also look relaxed and calm, drawing Victor’s body language toward him even though that odd physical gap that had been present in so many of the earlier pictures was back. Even on paper Yuri had to admit both JJ and Chris looked radiant and prince-like hanging off Victor’s arm, no matter how much or little space was between their bodies.

 

Yuri paused. He knew from JJ’s comment on Tuesday that he had been either number one or two. He hadn’t realized until this very moment that he had instantly assumed he would have been number two and Chris would have been number one, but that wasn’t the case. It couldn’t be the case because Yuri was staring at the golden number ‘2’ right next to the scrolling text that read ‘Christophe Giacometti, Three’.

 

There was only one spot left. All Yuri had to do was turn the page and he would see himself.

 

Knowing it and seeing it were two completely different things. As soon as he’d flipped to the last page, he found himself blinking rapidly and struggling to pull in oxygen that didn’t feel like it was on fire into his lungs.

 

They had gone all out for the number one spot. His name was spelled in the same golden cursive script, but it was bolder and larger than the others had been, scrawling across the tops of both pages.

 

‘Yuri Katsuki, Five.’

 

And then there are the photos.

 

Oh, god. They look so happy together. There is no distance, no formality. Seeing them there, on the glossy pages of a magazine… It feels like someone has punched Yuri right in the gut, he almost doubles over from the phantom feeling.

 

Victor is smiling at him in every shot, eyes locked on Yuri, oblivious to whatever it was that kept catching his attention when he was with any of the others. Yuri is smiling back up at him, as though Victor is the only thing in the world he ever wants to look at. Even their bodies are in sync, not even a whisper of space between them and no formal stiffness to be found.

 

It’s a picture in the bottom righthand corner of the spread that catches his attention finally. It was a candid shot, not one he even remembers having taken. In it Victor and Yuri are standing side by side in front of the king. They look… United. Like they are discussing something much more important than Victor being late for some meeting.

 

Yuri is aware of Yurio staring at him with a smug grin on his face as Yuri carefully closes the magazine again. He is aware, but he doesn’t have any idea what to say in response. His mind is whirring so fast it’s making him dizzy.

 

As though sensing his internal struggle, Yurio breaks the silence.

 

“He looks at you like that all the time. It makes me want to throw up.” Yurio removed his arms from where they were crossed over his chest and placed them on his hips. “And you look at him the same damn way. So don’t try to lie to me and tell me you are ‘just friends’. I wasn’t born yesterday.”

 

“I… I didn’t know.” It sounds like a lame excuse even to his own ears, but it’s the truth. The signs had all been there. Apparently written in some kind of language Yuri didn’t speak since he hadn’t been able to read them at all, but they had been there. “What am I going to do?”

 

“Fuck if I know.” Yurio shrugged. “Whatever you want. Hey, aren’t you supposed to be spending time with him after lunch?”

 

Yes, yes, Yuri was. As though on cue, the was the sound of a bell ringing in the distance, calling all those who were to eat in the dining hall to lunch.

 

He’s supposed to see Victor in an hour. They’re supposed to walk Makkachin through the gardens and talk.

 

He’s running out of time and Yurio’s helpfulness seems to have run out for the day because all he does is take the magazine from Yuri’s slack grip and sprints over to tuck it back into its hiding place.

 

He has one hour to figure out what he’s going to do. What he’s going to say. If he’s even going to say anything at all.

 

Yuri had never been more terrified by the thought of a conversation before in his entire life.