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FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: HRH.VICTORN [ch.1003vSec]

HEY ASSHOLE

FUCK YOU. FUCK YOUR ROYAL EVERYTHINGNESS.

What kind of fucking trick are you pulling, Victor? Is this some kind of bid for publicity? (Because you need SO MUCH MORE OF THAT.)

Anyway, if you care, Yakov has approved my music and upped the difficulty on most of my second-half transfers. We still have to think of something to replace the orange-to-green spin sequence, the one you PROMISED TO TEACH ME before FUCKING OFF to GOD ONLY KNOWS WHERE and leaving me stuck here with your parents and your dog and Yakov and EVERYONE ARRIVING, did you know JJ is coming a whole fucking month early? All those pictures of his coronation he sent to HALF THE GALAXY and apparently he can still take time out from running the planet to come here and irritate me. If I end up having him killed I will blame the subsequent war on you because it is YOUR FAULT. ALL OF IT.

Die in a vacuum, dickbrain.

-yuri


Yuuri blows on his hands to warm them, then rubs them hard on his thighs. The heating system has broken down again. He could go and look at it, though it's unlikely he'll be able to do more than bash it with the wrong end of a screwdriver until it coughs back into life. He could call Yuuko; she's better with these things than he is anyway. She's the one who resurrected the anti-grav engine, back when they were teenagers, turning a hollow piece of scrap into the best thing in Yuuri's life.

His left foot, which is hooked through the white ring set directly beneath where he's floating, is also cold. But he's good at ignoring his feet. He used to take a pen and draw lines around his ankles, then close his eyes tight and imagine they were one-way gates. Instructions could get through, but nothing could come back the other way: no chill, no ache of the arch from flexing, no sharp pain from where a toe had been tugged back or curled under by an awkward landing.

Yuuri could exit the sphere and do his best to fix the heating. But that might take hours, and he hoards his hours here like Minako hoards bottles of cavity-spirit bought from the offworlders who spill out from their ships and down into the market, where the trade is sucked from them like meat from a bone.

No. He's fine. He can put up with a little cold.

He presses play on the remote band strapped to his wrist, moves his arms to his starting pose, and closes his eyes.

With the first notes of the music Yuuri moves his arms in a casual fall; during the second bar, he slowly bends his anchored leg. It's just a flute, to begin with, playing a fluttering bird-like air.

The strings burst joyfully into the main theme and Yuuri shoves, pointing his toes, straight into a triple loop that should send him whirling across a full diameter of the ballistic sphere and bring him hard up against the other side feet-first.

It's harder to land a loop on the opposite foot to the one you launched from, but Yuuri knows that if he can flatten that foot against the barrier like so and extend the other leg like so then his toes will hook neatly under the black ring, and if the angle's right he can backflip in place--tensing his abs hard, hard, to protect the sudden arch of his back--and then with both hands grab the black ring.

He bends his elbows, winding up a partial twist, and just as the music speeds up he unwinds it again, using a nudge of the knee to give his Naja Corkscrew more momentum.

A risky move from young Katsuki! he commentates inside his head. The crowd appreciate it, though--just listen to those cheers!

The cold air strokes Yuuri's closed eyelids. He moves, spinning and stretching as he flies across the sphere, knowing down to the miniscule space between notes exactly when his hands and feet will encounter the barrier or the rings, and exactly how to adjust them to fling himself into the emptiness once more. He's done this routine hundreds of times. It's not a challenge any more. The familiarity relaxes him.

He adapted the ring-transfer sequence from one Victor did, three years ago, in the routine that won the prince his fifth Grand Tournament. Yuuri watched the recording nearly non-stop for a week, pausing it, slowing it down, speeding it up. He even went so far as to bring his precious tablet into the sphere and let it float, at risk of damage by kicking, so that he could watch a Victor slowed down to quarter-speed and try to mirror his motions.

Victor wore pink, that year, and his costume was cobwebbed with gold thread and amethysts. The jewels glittered and winked at the cameras as though even the lights were in love with him, were bending their heads to chase him as he moved, faster and brighter and grander and more breathtaking than anyone else had ever been.

That's the image in Yuuri's mind as he finishes his routine. There are purple sparkles and a gorgeous, carefree smile on display on the inside of his eyelids.

So when he opens them to see the reigning men's ballistic champion standing barely a yard away on the other side of the barrier, feet on the floor of the arena, close enough to the sealed-shut hatch in the transparent sphere that he could reach out and touch it--

Well, for the first few seconds, it seems like Yuuri has simply found a way to project his imagination out into the world.

In the next few seconds, a flood of panicked adrenalin makes Yuuri's legs jerk, and he has to fumble for the white ring with one foot while plastering the other against the transparent barrier, to keep himself from drifting back into the empty space of the sphere.

The figure on the other side of the barrier tilts his head to the side, and keeps looking up at Yuuri with a blandly considering expression.

For his part Yuuri is mostly convinced this is a fantasy, some kind of yearning apparition, which is probably why instead of bowing or remembering any of the proper forms of address he stammers:

"V-Victor!"

After a brief moment of pause--almost like he's surprised at being recognised, as though anyone else in the galaxy has that elegant chin or that devastating fall of silver hair--the apparition leans in and touches his lips to the barrier where Yuuri's battered and dirty toes are pushed up against it. It's a light, elaborate performance of a kiss.

Yuuri wonders if he has hit his head and is hallucinating the last minutes of his life while blood fills his skull.

"So you are doing it barefoot," says Victor Nikiforov. "I thought so."


Victor is going to end up with dirty smudges on his favourite coat. It was a birthday present from a viscount convinced that Victor had enough sway with his father--and cared enough about transport infrastructure contracts--that such a bribe was worthwhile. The man was deluded; the coat, creamy wool spun through with crystal threads, is incredible.

He gathers it more tightly around himself and gingerly edges his buttocks into a marginally less rusted area of the arena seating. There is a faint, sticky sound. That does not bode well for the pride of Victor's wardrobe.

Seated next to Victor, Yuuri Katsuki also shifts, uneasily. His coat is a coal-black thing, a size too large and rubbed thin all down the sleeves.

"It's very cold in here," Victor remarks. He doesn't realise how disapproving he sounds until Yuuri winces.

"The heating system breaks down a lot," Yuuri says. "Sorry."

Frankly, Victor is surprised it works at all. They're seated in the shell of a glory, a huge metal building half-gutted and muralled with scorch marks. The lights are a sickly white, and they flicker weakly. The sphere has deep scratches and dull areas marring what should be transparent perfection. The whole thing must be one bad electrical storm away from falling to pieces.

It's surviving, though, and Victor doesn't blame it. If he were this burned-out ruin of a ballistic arena then he, too, might hold himself stubbornly together like the solar system of a dying star. He'd do it for the sheer pleasure of cradling the person who is now seated beside Victor, pressing his hands between his legs, seemingly oblivious to the ash and the dimness and the smell of damp steel.

Victor doesn't really know what he expected, but this wasn't it.

The image he saw on the video, an anonymous black-haired ballister, has now resolved itself into a boy with anxious brown eyes and a perfect bow of a mouth. This boy has bowed, introduced himself as Yuuri Katsuki, blurted out how much of an honour it is to meet Victor, and bowed again, looking flustered and skittish the whole time.

Victor has never been so charmed in his life. He wants to grab Yuuri Katsuki's cheeks and tell him he's adorable and maybe also listen to him go on about how wonderful Victor is for a while. But that can wait. He is here for a purpose, after all.

"This is you," Victor says.

He holds the tablet out so that they can both watch. On the small screen, a figure hovers upside-down with both hands clutching the white ring, looking like a diver about to break water. One leg bends; one arm releases the ring. In a motion like a flurry of petals lifted by the wind, the figure twists its body in a circle and then flies upwards.

The video is unprofessional, jerky. It suffers for being recorded by something held in the hand of a single person standing outside the sphere. Modern broadcasts and recordings are cut together automatically from the feeds of cameras set invisibly into the layers of the barrier as it's being fabricated.

"That's your routine from last year," Yuuri Katsuki says in a soft voice. "I'm doing your routine."

"Yes!" Victor beams at him.

"I didn't know Yuuko was recording me!" says Yuuri. "I'm sorry--"

"Sorry? Why would you be sorry? It's amazing, nobody else has even tried to--here, look at the comments."

He flicks downscreen, to the section beneath the video. It was posted to an empty account and with no identifying information, and probably almost no one would have seen it except that Guang-Hong somehow stumbled across it and immediately sent it to everyone he knew. Victor's settings filter out everyone except known contacts, but given that his social circle is almost exclusively comprised of ballisters, that still leaves nearly a hundred comments. Most of them agree that the video must be a fake, something stitched together on an image manipulation platform using an old recording of Victor's routine.

this isn't anybody we know, is it? no? well, there you go. Q E bloody D.

victor's the only one who can stick the landing on that red-blue spin combo. SORRY JJ YOU KNOW IT'S TRUE.

they've messed up rendering the feet. can you even see any slip-grips?

Victor notices for the first time that Phichit has left a comment. It is only a series of exclamation marks followed by a winking face.

Yuuri isn't saying anything. Victor glances up; Yuuri is fiddling with his disgracefully unruly hair, which falls to touch the frame of his glasses. His glasses. Victor had a small and enjoyable aneurysm of cuteness when Yuuri's first action, after he'd finished with all the bowing and stammering, was to dive for a pair of glasses and then blink gorgeously at Victor through them.

Now Yuuri's face is flushed. He's looking at Victor in such an earnest, flattering way that even Victor, who is used to being flattered and admired, feels it settle inside his ribcage like molten chocolate being poured into a mould.

"Your Highness--"

"Victor," says Victor, after a brief and heroic internal struggle.

"How did you know it was real? And how did you know where to come?"

It might betray something about how many times Victor has watched the video, that his finger lands unerringly on the right timestamp. He pauses it and then zooms in, adjusts the screen contrast, zooms in some more. The tip of his finger rests against a blurred green shape, nothing so recognisable as a word or an object, fuzzy with shadow.

Yuuri's eyes widen even further, which seems an anatomical impossibility. He looks up and away, to the other side of the arena. The banner is half-rotted, the remaining parts blackened and peeling. The green edge of the logo is only barely visible from down here.

"My great-grandmother performed here," Victor says. "This is the arena of the Chinzei Ice Castle, isn't it?"

"Your--you mean Princess Darya!"

"She won the women's Grand Tournament when she was fifteen. It was her debut year."

"It was the year before the war," Yuuri says. He lifts his feet to the flimsy rail in front of them, and hugs his knees.

Victor nods. He's watched the recording of her routine more times than he could count. He grew up watching it. He remembers every detail.

Yuuri is gazing at him again. Yuuri's hip presses warmly against Victor's. Victor is getting restless, but he lets the silence sit.

And then Yuuri's stomach growls like a threatened animal.

"Good idea!" says Victor, before Yuri can apologise any more. He stands up, tucking the tablet into his coat pocket. "Let's eat! You need to keep your strength up. What is there to eat around here? Show me where you live! I want to meet your family!"

Back outside and on the ground, they walk for ten minutes to a tiny, squat shuttle station, then take a twenty minute ride through rising and thickening civilisation. If it could be called that. During the trip Yuuri tells Victor about this odd little post-war colony of Hasetsu, which has sprung up among and around the ruins of an imperial palace, starting with refugees and scavengers and expanding from there. Yuuri's voice becomes more animated as he relaxes into his environment, into the fact of his belonging set against Victor's offworlder status.

Victor is never getting the stains out of this coat.

The air at their destination smells of smoke and sizzling food, old fuels and dry dust. The bulky silhouettes of ships and shuttles block out half of the late-afternoon sky; Victor almost jumps as one of them rises from the ground with a distant roar. It leaves a glowing blue-burn trail as it climbs past the buildings and up into atmosphere.

The way to Yuuri's house is through a market. Loud and furiously quick trade is taking place all around them. Yuuri buys them each a skewer of grilled chicken, sticky with sauce, and Victor has to duck into a stall when he glimpses a heinous tiger-print scarf which Yuri Plisetsky would adore; the proprietor bows even more times than Yuuri did, and tries to overcharge Victor in a deeply respectful voice. Victor feels all warm inside.

"It's for my cousin," he feels compelled to tell Yuuri afterwards. He can't have anyone thinking he would wear such a thing himself.

Yuuri lives in a boarding house. Or rather, his family runs a boarding house. Yuuri lets them in through the back door and Yuuri's mother Hiroko, who has five times the poise of her son--"I should be coaching her, Yuuri!" Victor declares--blinks at Victor for a few seconds after they are introduced, then turns to direct her blink at the stairs up which Yuuri has just vanished, after turning pale and stumbling over his own feet.

"Is Yuuri all right?" Victor asks, anxious.

"Oh, he's fine, Your Highness," says Hiroko. "He'll just be taking down his poster. Of you."

"Oh," says Victor, delighted. He shrugs off his coat--poor, poor coat!--and climbs the stairs himself, hoping he's not too late.

The huge gap on the wall, when Victor finally locates Yuuri's room, is obvious. Victor ignores Yuuri's wary gaze and the way he shifts his feet as though Victor is disrupting the room's gravity. He wanders over to look at the gap.

"You need something to fill this space," Victor declares. "Right here, where you can see it from your bed? It would be a good place to put something motivational. Maybe someone you admire deeply."

Yuuri says something under his breath that Victor's not sure is polite. When Victor looks at him Yuuri is blushing again, pulling off his glasses to rub at his eyes, running a hand through his hair and swiping it back from his forehead.

But when he looks back at Victor he looks firmer; older. His mother's poise gleams through his hesitance like sun through smoked glass. With his hair pushed back like that he looks like a ballister, instead of a beautiful accident.

"Your Highness--"

"Victor."

"Victor," says Yuuri. He replaces his glasses. "Why did you come here? Why did you decide to find me?"

He sounds like he's afraid he'll be punished. Or that Victor is here to shut down his reclaimed wreck of a sphere, to take ballisting away from him. Victor knows that fear. He knows it very well.

Why did Victor come here?

Victor thinks about the twin lines of fatigue carved deep between his father's brows. The way Yakov pursed his mouth and grunted, impressed and unsurprised, when Victor tried out the first version of his latest routine.

He steers his thoughts deliberately away and around a corner.

He thinks instead about pushing Yuuri Katsuki back against that delicious bare patch of wall, and catching the boy's inevitable gasp with his own mouth. He thinks about how Yuuri moved in the sphere today, which was how he moved in the video. The pure, thoughtless grace that spoke to Victor clear as an engraved invitation, took hold of him and dragged him all the way here.

"Oh, didn't I say?" Victor says brightly. "You're going to compete in the Grand Tournament. And I'm going to be your coach."


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: HRH.VICTORN [ch.1003vSec]

Yakov says:

  1. You're an ungrateful boy and a disgrace to his training and he's poured his blood and his tears into your development as an athlete and etc. etc. I think you've heard that one enough times before, I can't be bothered to transcribe it all for you here.
  2. If you have in fact gone away to hole up somewhere and prepare for the GT on your own, then remember what he said about releasing your ankles during the final rotation during your lutz combo.
  3. If you pass through Geviz on your way back home then bring him back a bottle of mercy-spirit. The expensive stuff.

I say:

  1. FUCK. YOU.

I don't know what is WRONG with everyone at this court, that they can run around fretting over the minor crisis of the Crown Prince having fled offplanet a month before the Grand Tournament without a word to anyone, and yet they still talk about you like you're some kind of SCAMP instead of the irresponsible, PROMISE-BREAKING FUCKWIT that you CLEARLY ARE.

This is my DEBUT YEAR, you COLOSSAL WASTE OF SPACE. I'm finally old enough to compete and all anyone's talking about is YOU, as per FUCKING USUAL.

Look. Victor.

Don't you remember your debut? I know you're a decrepit old man and you might need to hunt through your memory for a while, but I was only three years old and I can remember it, so you've got no excuses. I watched you from the royal box. Mama had to stop me from trying to climb up onto the railing and leap off, because three-year-olds don't really know how a localised anti-grav field works, and all I wanted was to be flying like you were flying.

Or maybe you don't remember it because you DIDN'T WIN. No male ballister has ever won in their debut year. Never, ever. Not in history.

I'm going to be the first. Whether or NOT you're there to see it happen. But I--

No. Fuck it. Never mind.

Mila says I should mention that JJ has brought his own HERALDS with him. She thinks this is the funniest thing that has ever happened and I think he'd better have brought some VERY GOOD BODYGUARDS as well because if I have to hear a FUCKING FANFARE every time he enters or leaves a room then I am going to kill the shithead with my. own. hands.

NO RESPECT and NO LOVE,

-yuri

ps. your stupid dog has tried to eat one of my pairs of slip-grips. she's fine. you owe me a new pair.


"Yuuri," Victor says, "The whole point of the gel is so that you stop touching your hair."

Yuuri jerks his fingers down from his head. His hair is slicked firmly back; Victor did it himself, his long fingers leaving lines of sensation on Yuuri's scalp like the ragged blue-burn trails of rising ships. Yuri's head still tingles, and it's strange to move it and not feel his hair brush against the skin of his forehead.

"Right," he says.

A soft humming sound fills the arena, there are several loud thumps, and then Yuuri feels the air begin to stir against his gel-sticky fingertips.

"Fixed it!" comes Yuuko's triumphant shout. She appears a few moments later, wiping her hands on a cloth.

"Ah!" says Victor. "Heat!" He rubs his hands briskly on his bare arms. His skin is pale and pimpled with cold, and the shape of every muscle in his arms is crisply visible beneath it.

"Thanks, Yuuko," Yuuri says.

"I'll leave you to it." She doesn't leave. Her eyes travel over Victor as though she's noticed the--muscles thing. Yuuri bites down on both a smile and the urge to remind her that she's married.

"Didn't you ever want to try it out?" Victor asks Yuuko, nodding to the sphere.

"I did try it, Your Highness." Yuuko grins. "For a few years, anyway. It was fun, but I didn't have the knack for it like Yuuri does."

"You were great!" Yuuri protests.

"You need to practice!" Victor declares.

Yuuri waves goodbye to Yuuko and tries to calm his breathing. At least he's been allowed to wear his usual old shirt and loose pants, though he doesn't have much hope of that situation lasting. Victor has promised him proper practice clothes, proper costumes, proper slip-grips for his feet.

But right now...well, apparently His Royal Highness Victor Nikiforov just up and hopped on an offworld shuttle without packing more than an overnight bag. Right now Victor is wearing a pair of clinging workout pants which he has, horrifyingly, borrowed from Yuuri's sister. Mari seems to think that sacrificing some of her clothes is a fair exchange for having Victor Nikiforov, heir to a planetary throne and seven-time men's champion of the Ballistic Grand Tournament, staying at their boarding house and forcing her little brother out of bed to go jogging at unholy hours of the the morning.

Along with these pants Victor is wearing the kind of thin white singlet that is meant to go under other clothing, or at the very least be worn to bed in the hot seasons. Yuuri's gaze keeps snagging on Victor's collarbones and pulling the moisture from his mouth.

Victor seems to misinterpret one of Yuuri's glances. He waves a careless hand.

"Don't worry, I've sent for everything we'll need. One of my attendants has been sworn to secrecy. He'll make sure it gets here soon."

Yuuri has to close his eyes for a moment against the fact that someone who's used to having attendants is here, in Hasetsu, devoting himself single-mindedly to the task of helping Yuuri to win the Grand Tournament. Yuuri was in shock, yesterday. Now the sheer impossibility of it all is starting to sink in.

Ballisting is called the sport of kings, but that's not quite accurate. Yuuri's sure that when kings and queens get together, they reminisce about their ballisting days and probably get in a few digs about who beat whom in which year's Grand Tournament, but they don't compete. The exception at the moment is Jean-Jacques, whose mother abdicated for health reasons, so he's inherited at a much younger age than is usual. He's the only king in active competition; as a general rule, ballisting is the sport of princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, and their equivalents.

Anxious tension is curling deep in the muscles of Yuuri's neck. He shrugs his shoulders up forcefully, then down. He pulls his shoulder blades together and holds it, imagining a string drawn tight, opening the front of his chest, then releases in a sudden flop.

"I'm ready," he says.

The sheer knowledge of Victor's presence is nerve-wracking for the first two minutes, and Yuuri can feel himself slowing down and misjudging his grips because he's worried about a collision. It's bizarre being inside the sphere with another person. Yuuri hasn't done it since he was thirteen and giggling with Yuuko as they whirled clumsily around the sphere, delighted at their secret, occasionally bashing elbows into legs, but lacking the skill to move quickly enough that they might do serious damage.

Victor is a professional, Yuuri tells himself. He can move himself out of the way. Trust his skill and not yours.

"Better," Victor says, when Yuuri finally picks up some speed. "Show me a ring-transfer sequence using all the coloured rings. Leave black and white alone, stay in the central zone."

Yuuri swallows. That's still eight rings; he's probably got the fitness for it, but his imagination for elements might give out. He's not a great improviser. "Any particular order?" he says, breathless.

He's clinging to the red ring, and Victor is sitting near the base of the sphere with a foot tucked through the white to keep from drifting. At this distance, Yuuri can only guess at Victor's expression.

"Can you remember an order?"

"I--I think so?"

"Blue, purple, orange, yellow, brown, pink, green."

"Blue purple orange yellow brown pink green," Yuuri mutters. He looks purposefully, one at a time, at the blurred blobs that are the rings, set into the barrier at regular intervals like dots drawn on an inflated balloon. The first transfer, red to blue, will be the longest. He can do this. He can. "Blue purple orange yellow brown pink green. All right."

He closes his eyes, sees the angle as a glowing line in his mind, and pushes off. He likes these parts of a routine, which are more about artistry than sport. It's strange to do it without music. The timing is harder. But the blue ring is where his hand expects it to be, and so is the purple, and then he's concentrating too hard to think.

Yuuri winces when his wrist scrapes hard against the green ring, but at least he's got it, and he can stop. Eight rings without a pause. If that had been in the latter half of a routine, he'd have scored astronomically. Also he'd probably be dead.

He opens his eyes and gasps, "Was that right?"

"I don't know," Victor says. "I forgot the order."

Yuuri lets his upper body go with a huff of exasperation and floats, getting his breath back, gazing at the ceiling. He gives an embarrassing yelp when a hand closes around his ankle and tugs him back to the vertical. Victor has come to join him at the green ring, halfway up the sphere.

"Now that your hair is out of your eyes, you're allowed to keep them open, you know."

"I," Yuuri says. He stops. Up close, Yuuri can focus on Victor properly. Victor's smile is affable, but there's something lurking behind the clear blue of his eyes. Yuuri swallows and tries again. "I always ballist with my eyes closed," he says. "I'm used to it."

"You did that entire routine of mine by feel," Victor says, as if exploring the idea. "By muscle memory."

"Y-yes?"

"Why?"

"I always--"

"Yes, why do you always?"

"I don't like wearing contacts!" Yuuri says. "They make my eyes itch. And it was hard, when I was first teaching myself, to aim for blurry rings. I thought it might be easier if I didn't rely on seeing them at all."

He wonders if this sounds crazy to Victor. All these things which have been packed down small and safe in Yuuri's heart, only let out to soar inside this shabby space, now have to be explained. Put on display. And in front of Victor, who Yuuri has admired more than anyone in the universe, and who is both more and less breathtaking in person.

Victor looks thoughtful. "Actually, that makes sense," he says.

"And then…" Yuuri takes a deep breath. "You gave an interview, Victor. You said you made sure you could do all of your routines perfectly, with your eyes shut, before you would dream of performing them in public."

"Oh, that," Victor says cheerfully. "I was lying."

"What?"

"It sounded good! Of course it's not true, anyone would have known--look, you can't get enough rotations on your spins with your eyes shut. That's why your impact was clumsy, on the quad flip."

The small flare of humiliation that's trying to rise in Yuuri--remembering how inspired he'd been by that interview, how fiercely he'd worked to be just like Victor--is overtaken by sheer curiosity.

"I always get dizzy after quads," he admits. "No matter how many times I practice them."

"Because your eyes are closed!" Victor says. "You need to spot as you're setting up, and as you're coming out. I'll show you."

It's warmed up, by now, but this is still an ancient place with shadowed corners, and rusting walls that creak and let in the wind. Normally Yuuri wouldn't notice; the Ice Castle is his, and it's everything he needs. Victor Nikiforov deserves better, he thinks--but he only thinks it for a moment. Watching the measured and elegant flick of Victor's bare arms, even under flickering lights and wearing Yuuri's sister's clothes, Yuuri can almost hear the music that should accompany him. Their surroundings fade into nothing. This is what ballisting should be.

Victor demonstrates, then talks Yuuri through the process of fixing his gaze--yes, even if it's blurry--on a target at the end of the motion.

Yuuri feels queasy the first few times he tries it, and his eyelids screw themselves shut without his consent. But he's spent years and years dragging his body under the control of his mind, from toes to fingertips. Half an hour later his inner ear finally catches on and he's hurtling through the four rotations of a quad loop--finding the yellow--and coming out of it steadily enough that his foot fits sure and strong into the ring, already bending in anticipation of the next move.

"Yes!" Yuuri shouts, forgetting himself.

"Yes!" Victor throws both his arms in the air, a gesture so purely delighted that Yuuri has the urge to launch himself off the barrier and right into Victor's open arms.

He doesn't do that. He pushes off carefully, landing and anchoring at the white with measured speed. Victor grabs him anyway, pressing his cheek against Yuuri's in a quick, jubilant hug, as though they've known each other for years. The affectionate contact and the smell of Victor's hair set something swooping shyly within Yuuri's chest.

He pulls away and blurts, without thinking, "There's another reason. Why I like to keep my eyes closed."

Victor raises his eyebrows.

Yuuri goes on, "If I can't see that the arena is empty, then I can imagine I'm actually competing. That there's an audience around me."

His face feels hot. Another secret unpacked, and he can't blame anyone but himself for throwing it out there. Or perhaps he can blame the way Victor smiled at him when he landed that quad; Yuuri would probably dig a rib out of his chest, if it would make that smile appear again.

"I don't know what to say to that," Victor says.

"I know, it's silly--"

"No, I mean, I'm new at this coaching thing!" Victor grabs at Yuuri's shoulders and Yuuri's feet lift off the barrier in surprise. Victor holds him steady. "Let me think a moment."

Yuuri waits, suspended in air. Victor's hands are the only solid thing. The smooth line of Victor's throat moves as he swallows.

Victor says, "Here. Let's try this. At the Grand Tournament, you'll have a real audience. That's why you have to learn to do it with your eyes open, even if it's harder. Even if you can't see them properly. A ballistic performance is a conversation between the ballister and the audience, so you won't get any marks for presentation if you aren't engaging them. You have to make them believe that the barrier isn't there." His hands move so that he's cupping Yuuri's face. His voice is low and compelling. He runs a thumb over Yuuri's mouth. "That if they reached out, they could touch you."

Yuuri's heart is racing, his whole body alight. But this feels like a test, so he holds Victor's gaze. This close, those blue eyes are like the underwater lights of an outdoor pool.

"Yes," he says. His lips brush against Victor's thumb as he speaks. "I can do that."

"Good!" Victor says, giving him a gentle shove back. "Again!"


Victor is yet to work out whether this plan of his--inasmuch as a decision that spanned less than an hour between recognising the Ice Castle in the video of Yuuri and leaving atmosphere above Nienschanz could be called a plan--would have worked out just as well if he'd shown up on the doorstep of any dwelling on the planet of Chinzei, or if Yuuri's family is...unique.

Maybe it's the fact that the family business is providing hospitality to strangers, but none of them have had to be told twice to speak to Victor informally. None of them seem worried about the fact that Victor is wandering around a strange place with no security detail. They've seen all of Victor's routines at every tournament of his career, and are full of strong opinions about the current crop of competitors, both male and female.

Victor's greatest achievement at dinner last night was telling them about the time Leo got becalmed at last year's Grand Tournament, when the senior competitors were messing around in the arena one night, because he was so drunk he forgot he was wearing his wrist remote. Victor's impression of Leo, floating in the sphere with no rings within reach--loudly improvising a tragic song about how he would be stranded there forever like a piece of space junk, while the rest of them fell about laughing and nobody bothered to remind him to hit the grav dial on his remote--actually coaxed an explosive laugh out of Toshiya Katsuki.

"Do you need us to move the furniture, Victor?" Hiroko asks placidly. "I can call my husband, he's just fixing a plumbing problem in the fifth floor bathroom."

Victor, who has been choreographing his way around the living area with small thumps, occasionally stopping to make a note on his tablet, beams at her. "No, thank you."

"Oh, is there soup left?" Mari reaches for the pot.

"Mari!" Hiroko scolds. "That's for Yuuri."

"Yuuri hasn't had breakfast?"

"Not until after his run," says Victor.

Mari sweeps her hair up into a band. "You be nice to Yuuri," she says, in a tone that reminds Victor of Mila. "He's not used to having a coach. Ballisting's something he usually does in his own time, when he wants to be alone. He's not like you. He did it all himself, just because he loved it, and apart from--" she pauses only a moment "--well, he's not had anyone teach him properly, before."

"Did Yuuri say I wasn't being nice?" Victor is torn between indignation and panic.

Hiroko and Mari exchange an amused look.

"Yuuri has never been this happy about anything," Hiroko says gently. "And that's the point. We don't want him to get hurt. It's our Yuuri. He's not the prince of anywhere. And if you take him to the tournament, Yuuri from nowhere, with all these grand people...I don't want him ever to know what it feels like to be laughed at. To be the one who doesn't belong."

"You have to promise you're not going to turn him into a joke," Mari says. There is enough steel in her voice that Victor almost steps back. "That this isn't just a fun game for you."

Victor says, "Yuuri's not a joke. He's an amazing ballister. He needs a lot of work, but he's very, very good."

"We know that," Mari says.

Hiroko imperiously beckons Victor over, then pulls his head down to hers with her palms on his cheeks.

"He admires you so much, Victor," she says. "I think he'd do anything you wanted him to do."

Victor guiltily swallows down the first three responses that spring to mind, none of which are appropriate for anyone's mother to hear.

"Yuuri belongs at the Grand Tournament," he says. "Nobody will laugh. I promise I'll take care of him."

Hiroko pats his cheek. It's almost a slap. "Good. Thank you," she says, her eyes creasing with pleasure.

There's a clatter on the stairs and Yuuri appears, hair everywhere and face bright with exertion.

"Breakfast," Yuuri wheezes, heading straight for the kitchen. "Rice. Soup."

"Good morning, Yuuri!" Victor says.

"Food," says Yuri, and buries his face in his bowl.

It's a bright, cold day as they make their way from the boarding house to the Ice Castle. Glances, whispers and often outright stares follow them, and Victor supposes that people are arguing between themselves as to whether that was really Prince Victor or just someone lucky enough to look a lot like him.

"I am wearing sunglasses," he points out to Yuuri.

"Yes," says Yuuri, "but you're also wearing--that," with a flap of his hand.

Victor looks down. He is wearing a perfectly normal jacket of dark green, rigidly structured wide across the shoulders and with a swirl of ruching disguising the fastenings at the front. His trousers are--trousers. His gloves are pale tan leather with blue crystal-thread stitching, and they match his boots exactly.

Victor glances at Yuuri, who is wearing sweatpants and a slouching jacket and is bundled up in a red scarf that seems adorably to be trying to eat the lower half of his face. This is a fairly typical look for the denizens of Hasetsu.

"I had such high hopes when I arrived here," Victor says regretfully. "I thought I could pass for a commoner, like in the stories! Walk among the normal people! Hear about their lives!"

Yuuri makes a sound somewhere between a snort and a laugh, and sticks his hands in his pockets.

"What is it?" Victor demands.

"Nothing."

"Yuuuuuri."

"I don't think you'd like it!" Yuuri says. His smile is sidelong, hesitant, but there's a spark of mischief to it. "Your Royal Highness. I think if nobody recognised you, you'd be secretly annoyed about it."

"Hmph," says Victor, and adjusts his sunglasses.

b_sg_incognito

At the arena, Victor stays outside the sphere and directs Yuuri to show him the routine he was doing the day Victor arrived. A month is long enough to put a routine together from scratch, just, but not if Victor also has to take the laser-polish of his expertise to the roughnesses in Yuuri's technique. The more they can keep, the more they can cobble together from things that Yuuri has already practised, the better.

"Very nice," Victor says, when Yuuri is done. "And not special at all."

Yuuri's face falls. Victor feels it like a gentle punch to the heart, which is inconvenient; he's sure Yakov has never felt bad about any of Victor's moping, because Victor's best sad eyes stopped working on his coach by the time Victor was thirteen. Still, there's no point in lying about it to spare Yuuri's tender feelings. Not if they're going to win.

"Your elements are good, most of them. But you put them together like--like pearls on a string. Your routine needs a story. It needs to flow."

Yuuri nods.

"I like that music," Victor tosses out, hoping to tempt the smile back. Yuuri's face doesn't look right, all downcast like that. Victor stands up and begins to strip down to his underclothes again, getting ready to enter the sphere with Yuuri. "It's the right length, it's got good speed variation. We'll keep it."

It's another two days before the practice clothes and slip-grips which Victor ordered from one of the better supply shops arrive. Yuuri glows, almost bounces, when he puts the clothes on. The black smartsilk clings to his limbs beautifully, but he almost falls over the first time he tries to walk in the slip-grips, and has to grab at Victor's shoulder for support. Victor can't help laughing.

"These are so weird!" Yuuri protests.

Victor, who's been feeling increasingly frustrated by his inability to demonstrate any foot-first transfers properly, tugs on his own pair with a sigh of relief. "You'll...get used to them?" he tries. What's weird is a ballister who's never worn them before. Like a ship that's forgotten it needs thrusters and has ended up flying anyway. "They're not meant for walking on. I'm sure it'll make sense when you're in the sphere."

After a couple of false starts and near-falls, Yuuri hauls himself up through the hatch and into the sphere. He waits for Victor to join him and then reaches for the anti-grav button on his wrist, but Victor puts a hand out to stop him.

"A ring has two possible functions," Victor says. He can hear in his voice the echo of Yakov giving this lecture. "What are they?"

Yuuri chews his lower lip. "To stop an element or to start a new one? No, not quite," before Victor can say anything. "To keep you in one place, or to help you move on."

"An anchor or a pivot." Victor nods. "The point of slip-grips is to help with both of those. The nanofibre will either increase or decrease the friction between your feet and the ring, depending on how much pressure is applied to the interface."

Yuuri carefully sets one foot against the barrier. He moves it back and forth, frowning. "I see."

"More pressure, more grip. Good if you need a firm point of contact. Less pressure, and you'll get a smooth surface, almost a gliding motion. That's how you can avoid losing speed. Try something simple, to start: a loop-loop combo, from white to orange, and pull yourself to a halt like you're going to set up for a spiral to pink. Just focus on getting the angle right for now."

Yuuri hits the anti-grav and Victor moves to anchor himself on the yellow ring.

"Go," Victor says.

Yuuri's leap is slow, into the loop, and his trajectory isn't perfect. Victor watches closely and so sees the exact motion when what should have been a simple landing turns into something more like a comedy actor slipping in an oilslick. Yuuri flails, twists, and his elbow slams into the barrier with a crack that makes Victor wince and sends Yuuri rebounding.

"Ow," Yuri says weakly, wiggling the fingers of that arm and then shaking it hard. He turns slow, pathetic somersaults in the air.

Victor rubs at his forehead. "Do it again."

Two hours later, Yuuri is alternating between agonised silence and forlorn hissing sounds as he fails spin after spin, transfer after transfer. One or twice he's managed a very slick pivot, and his face has brightened, but on the next attempt he hasn't replicated it. Mostly, he's tumbling and jerking like a complete beginner. He's still at it, though. He's got the stubborn, self-immolating streak that runs through most of the truly good ballisters Victor has met.

For his part, Victor has a headache, and he's run out of ways to try to explain to Yuuri what he means by pull back and curl in. It's useless. His feet do all of this without thinking, and have done for twenty years; he can't even begin to know how to help Yuuri unlearn his own instincts and replace them with something else.

He perches on a mostly-intact piece of arena seating, pulls his tablet out and scrolls through several dense pages of text that he's never bothered to read before.

"I can't do it," Yuuri pants finally. "I'm just an amateur, Victor. I'm a fraud. How can I compete at the Grand Tournament when I can't even use the equipment properly?"

"Mm," Victor says, still reading. The wording is precise. He's almost sure he's right about this.

"Victor."

Victor looks up, startled. There are the beginnings of tears in Yuuri's eyes as he opens the hatch, climbs down from the sphere and stands in front of Victor.

"I know, you don't--you don't want to watch me anymore, but could you tell me," Yuuri's voice wobbles, then turns almost fierce, "tell me something. Anything. Please."

"Read this," Victor says.

Yuuri takes the tablet from him. "Costume and equipment regulations. Footwear during ballistic competition is permitted when it is made from...soles permitted to have a thickness of...Victor, what does any of this matter, if I can't make it work?"

"Footwear is permitted to be all those things," Victor says. "Nowhere in all of those regulations does it say that it's required."

"But," Yuuri starts. He looks sharply at Victor. "You mean…I don't have to wear them?"

"Slip-grips are supposed to enhance performance," Victor says. He can feel the smile creeping across his face, and can see the edges of Yuuri's lovely mouth turning up in response. Victor is a genius; Victor did exactly the right thing in coming here to find Yuuri Katsuki, and now he's going to show him to the world. "Actually, they're supposed to be necessary for it. But you can do everything without them that the rest of us can only do with them. You don't need enhancing, Yuuri. You're fine as you are."

Yuuri looks at his miraculous feet in their useless shoes. He's silent a while. Then he looks up. The tears are still there; not fallen, but not gone.

"Yes," he says. It's a declaration.

Victor smiles more widely. "Now get back to work," he says.


FROM: CGIAC@SUI [ch.45203vExt]
TO: HRH.VICTORN [ch.1003vSec]

Victorrrrrrrr! Victor my CHERUB, my chocolate truffle, my taut-buttocked gazelle.

I hope you are working hard. I certainly am. Every time I gaze upon my sweat-drenched body in the gym mirror I think about how this will be the year I DEFEAT YOU, Victor.

And after the tournament our pledge will be officially trothed, or however you say it, and our union will be EXTENSIVELY consummated. There's a lot of me to consume.

Yours forever,

panting in anticipation,

Christophe


FROM: HG.MILA [ch.2988vSec]
TO: HRH.VICTORN [ch.1003vSec]

My dear flighty cousin:

You probably want to hear that we're all miserable without you but actually we're fine. So you could stay away forever, if you wanted! Let Yuri inherit the throne. I'm sure nothing could possibly go wrong there.

Prep for the GT is well underway by now. We get another delegation arriving practically every day. Chris is here, spouting his usual delusional nonsense. He's proposed to me twice even though I'm only a mere duchess, and he's proposed to your parents--on your behalf--three times so far. (Luckily for all of us, Uncle Dmitri knows better than to take him seriously.) He actually had the gall to let his gaze land on Yuri for all of two seconds, before I elbowed him so hard in the stomach that he had to run away squawking about how he NEEDED his core muscles for his performance to be as seductive as possible.

You're welcome.

Meanwhile JJ keeps making h-i-l-a-r-i-o-u-s jokes about his plans for intergalactic domination and how he'd just love to snap up a planet like ours, and does your absence mean you're finally conceding he's the better ballister, and what an interesting power vacuum you've created by running away to play peasant in some tiny place in the ass end of the star system. (Don't bother denying it; even colonists can use social media, and you're not exactly hard to recognise.)

All this in between kissing his own biceps and trying to sleep with the female half of the palace staff (most of whom are, disappointingly, Up For It). I caught Yuri trying to ask your father's defence minister how one goes about organising an assassination.

So you see I was lying before. Things are not fine. THINGS ARE DIRE.

Honest to God, Vitya, if you don't want there to be a serious diplomatic incident you might consider letting someone know if you're even going to bother to show up and compete.

Kisses!!

- Mila


"Yuuri! Look what's arrived!"

The real Victor sounds excited, but Yuuri can't bring himself to look away from the smug and cheerful Victor in the video on his tablet, declaring that his disappearance has been to a purpose, and that this year he will be coaching an entrant into the Grand Tournament instead of competing himself.

"I can't wait to continue surprising you all!" the video-Victor chirps.

The video cuts away from his face and shows Yuuri, practicing in the sphere. The clips have been carefully cut together such that it's impossible to clearly see his face, his feet, or enough of the arena for anyone to identify the Ice Castle. They could be anywhere. Yuuri, in the unmarked black practice clothes, could be anyone.

The subsequent explosion of speculation, from both the ballistic community and its fans, was easy enough to foresee. Yuuri wishes Victor had said something, though. The first Yuuri knew about it was when Victor gave a howl at laughter at a particularly clueless conspiracy theory and tossed Yuuri his tablet so that he could share in the joke.

Then someone, out of either mischief or true suspicion, suggested that Victor is coaching his own cousin, and that the video showed His Grace the Archduke Plisetsky in a deliberately misleading wig.

This was followed by a series of communiqués on the official fanpage in which Yuri Plisetsky frigidly denied being coached by his cousin, and a further series of much ruder ones in which he made reference to the mystery ballister's weight, technique, and general lack of grace, expressing his outrage that anyone would mistake that person for him.

Yuuri tries to imagine doing his routine in a wig--or anyone forcing a boring black wig over the defiant pale gold of the Archduke's hair--and bites his lip, amusement poking through the deluge of anxiety.

Yesterday, there was a brief explosion of theorising that Victor's mystery competitor is His Highness Seung Gil Lee, which was unfortunately fanned by Seung Gil's total silence on the matter. Yuri follows ballisting closely enough to know that Seung Gil's older sister was treated badly by the media during her own ballistic career, and so he flatly refuses to give interviews, and also considers interacting with his fans to be beneath his dignity. But some photos quickly appeared of Seung Gil leaving his own usual sphere complex, deep in conversation with his usual coach, and the whole thing died down again without any input from the prince himself.

"Yuuuuuri."

What feels like an entire house's worth of curtains hits Yuuri in the face. Victor doesn't like being ignored.

Yuuri manages to scramble the mass of scratchy fabric down and into his lap. It takes him a moment to realise that the scratchiness is due to small, hard things which have been sewn into--

"Aaah!" Yuuri is torn between dropping everything--his hands! they're probably dirty!--and trying to touch every single piece at once. "Your costumes!"

Victor makes a put-upon huffing sound that probably means this is what I have been saying for the past two minutes. "Well? Try them on!"

"Oh my God." Yuuri stretches out his hand; pulls it back; finally manages to tell himself not to be a coward, and reaches for a silken pile that looks like a shard of frozen lake. He stands and shakes it out and the outfit unfolds to dangle from his hands, a pale blue-grey sewn with tiny silver chains and a splashing abundance of moonstones that whisper even in the dull interior light.

"That one first?" Victor says carelessly, bundling up the rest of them. "All right. Come on."

Yuuri looks at him, speechless. It still seems barely possible that the man in front of him, impatient and already familiar, is the same person who wore this costume eight years ago. Yuuri remembers the long spill of silver hair, echoing the gems and the chains, the ponytail whipping and curling around Victor in gorgeous defiance of tradition.

A small, new smile appears on Victor's face when Yuuri doesn't move. He reaches out and touches a long finger to one of the moonstones, then uses the same finger to lift Yuuri's chin.

"My first gold medal," he says lightly. "Nobody would doubt our intentions, at least, if you wore that one. But you need to try the others!"

Between them they carry the costumes up to Yuuri's room, where they dump them in a pile on the bed. Yuuri finds his courage somewhere on the stairs, and changes into the moonshine costume. Victor sweeps some clothes off Yuuri's narrow armchair and takes a seat, chin in his hands, watching with an avidity that's nearly innocent.

"I see," says Yuuri, starting to smile despite himself as he slides his arms into the pale cloth. "This is all for your amusement."

Victor's face does the blank thing it does sometimes when his royal upbringing comes up against the idea that something in the world might not exist for his exclusive convenience. Yuuri turns around to hide his smile and says, with determined confidence, "Zip me up, then."

It takes two tense breaths before he feels Victor's hand in the small of his back, a warm pressure, and then hears the intimate buzz of the zip climbing to his neck. Yuuri turns around and lifts his arms to either side.

"What do you think?"

The blankness is gone. Yuuri isn't sure how to describe the expression that has replaced it. The closest he can come is the way he saw Mari look once, when she was mopping the kitchen floor and realised that she had worked herself into a corner.

After a long moment, Victor clears his throat, and then he looks like Victor again. "I think this one next."

The next one is a leaf green that plunges at the back in a zig-zag cutout, edged with so much gold thread that Yuuri might need to be worried about blinding the audience. Then the pink and amethyst. Then a bronze, the fabric stiffer than most of the others, which has a liquid finish and is set with onyx and topaz. Then a deep, dark night-sky blue, cut low off the shoulders, with scattered gems that shine in greens and purples and blues.

"I don't even know what these are," Yuuri says.

"The larger ones are black opals, I think," Victor says, fingering a row of them at Yuuri's wrist.

"And the tiny ones?"

"Spider-eye?"

Yuuri hears himself make a pained noise. "You had these sent here in the mail?" he says. "Spider-eye. Victor."

"Stop reminding me that I'm rich!" bursts out His Royal Highness Victor Nikiforov, and then his shoulders collapse and he's laughing with his face buried in Yuuri's hair.

Yuuri tries them all on, one by one. None of them fit exactly, all the sleeves and legs are too long and there are a couple of spare inches across the chest, but all of them fit well enough for Yuuri to imagine himself wearing them inside a sphere. Another stone in the road of uncomfortable reality leading him towards the Grand Tournament falls into place.

The last costume, which Yuuri has been putting off because he already half-suspects how it will look, is black with panels of a sheer red fabric that seems indecently transparent at some angles, and to glow like heated metal at others. Yuuri stares at himself in the mirror, wondering if he can still recognise himself as Yuuri Katsuki and then wondering what it says about him, that he can.

Victor stands behind him. His eyes narrow and he reaches around to pull the glasses from Yuuri's face; with his other hand he sweeps the hair back from Yuuri's forehead, where strands of it have begun to come loose from the gel that kept in place for today's practice.

"There," Victor says. His voice is a warm breath on Yuuri's temple.

Predictably, Yuri feels heat crawl over his cheekbones and then down his neck, under the collar of this beautiful volcano of an outfit. He can only meet Victor's eyes in the mirror in short, skittish bursts. He's afraid of what he'll see if he lets himself linger. He is not sure why he should be afraid.

"I don't think it goes with my music," he manages to say.

"Maybe not."

With meticulous care, Victor replaces Yuuri's glasses. As though a spell has been broken, Yuuri pulls away, escaping to the other corner of his bedroom to begin folding the pile of discarded costumes on the bed.

"Which one do you think I should wear?"

"You should choose," Victor says.

Yuuri looks down at the spangled mess, feeling like the man in the fable, who is unable to choose between the three magical items offered to him and who dies of old age without benefiting from any of them.

"Do I have to choose now?"

"Take your time. We won't be able to get it properly tailored until we're back in civilisation anyway."

Yuuri balls up the bronze one, which he's definitely not wearing because it made him look sallow, turns around and lobs it at Victor, who dodges neatly.

"Yuuri!" Victor wails.

"Take that back."

"Yuuri." Victor's eyes go wide. Yuuri tries to hold up one of the sheer costumes in front of his face to protect himself, but he's got no hope at all of holding out when Victor is giving him the beseeching underwater-light look. "I take it back. Hasetsu is a shining beacon of civilisation."

"And now you're being sarcastic, that's even worse."

Victor breaks into silvery laughter and launches himself at Yuuri, who goes down shouting into the pile of fabric on his bed.

"Sorry for interrupting," says a voice from the doorway. The voice does not sound sorry.

"Minako!" Yuuri calls, half-buried in a pile of priceless fabric and giggling prince. "Hello! I forgot you were coming over tonight!"

"Are you drunk?" Minako says, interestedly.

"No!" Yuuri protests.

Victor raises his head. His hair is very, very slightly mussed--Yuuri suspects there is some magic, or at least some nanotech in his shampoo, which keeps it perfect--and he looks like a child watching sunrise from atmosphere for the first time.

"Good idea!" Victor says. "You need to relax, Yuuri. One night won't get in the way of your training."

"Oh no," says Yuuri, but nobody is listening to him any more. Victor and Minako seem mutually charmed by one another within a minute of being introduced, and Minako disappears back downstairs in search of some alcohol. Yuuri seizes the opportunity to scramble into some normal clothing and clear the costumes away, so that they aren't in danger of being splashed with drink. When Minako returns she is holding two bottles.

"Don't drink her cavity-spirit," Yuuri warns Victor. "It will probably destroy your stomach."

"Toshiya said we could have this too," Minako says. The other bottle in her hand is half-full of shore-spirit, Yuuri is thankful to see.

"Is there any mercy-spirit?" Victor asks. "That's Yakov's favourite."

There's a pause.

Yuuri says, "You know that thing you didn't want to be reminded of?"

Victor leaps from the bed and grabs the bottle of cavity-spirit from Minako. "I will drink as the commoners drink!" he announces, and pours a large gulp of it straight down his throat.

Minako cheers.

Yuuri resigns himself to the inevitable and reaches out for the shore-spirit.

An hour later, the three of them are half-lying on Yuuri's bed, the shore-spirit is gone--as is a fair amount of the cavity-spirit, which Yuuri feels fine about because he hasn't had any--and the conversation has ranged from Yuuri's childhood dance lessons, through Minako's latest breakup, and has found its way to the history of ballisting as a sport. Yuuri has been clinging with both hands to the threshold between enjoyably tipsy and drunk enough to turn exuberant and unwise, mostly by taking very small sips.

"A martial art, really!" Victor says, waving his hands in illustration. "It was supposed to mimic combat in zero grav. That's why it's traditionally done in pairs, but the fashion keeps swinging back and forth. It's for solo at the moment. But the point is that a ballistic tournament is supposed to prove a nobleman's--"

"Or woman's!" Minako puts in.

"A noble person's ability to defend their planet and their people. The Grand Tournament's not just a competition, something broadcast for people to watch--"

"Though everyone watches it." Minako again.

"It's also the major diplomatic and social event of the year. Trade agreements! Engagements! Most of the details of high-level alliances are sorted out over canapés and champagne during the parties and functions around the tournament."

"I don't think anyone's going to try and form an alliance with me," says Yuuri.

"This would have been my twelfth year, you know," Victor says, slow. "That's...that's a long time. I'm not supposed to still be competing. I'm supposed to settle down and learn my duties."

"Bo-ring," slurs Minako.

Victor says, "I promised my parents that I'd take the rest of the tournament's trappings seriously and choose someone to start courting this year. In exchange for being allowed to keep competing."

The room's atmosphere has a strange edge to it now. Yuuri doesn't know what to say to that. He doesn't know that Victor is entirely aware of having said it aloud.

"Right," Minako announces with drunken tact, hauling herself unsteadily to her feet. "This conversation is too ballistic for me, 'n I'm tired."

She sways down and kisses the top of Yuuri's head. Yuuri smiles up at her and is going to get off the bed, to walk her--probably just as unsteadily--down to the front door, but suddenly the feet at the end of Victor's long legs are pinning his thighs to the bed.

"Yuuri," Victor whines.

Minako giggles and bops Yuuri's nose. "Sit, stay, good boy," she says, and then slips out of the room before Yuuri's fuzzy reflexes can react.

Yuuri sighs and looks at the pale knobs of Victor's ankles. After a moment he says, "I didn't know that, about it being a martial art. Phichit never--" and stops, catching his tongue.

"Hah," Victor says, pointing a finger at what he probably imagines is Yuuri's face, but is in fact a point over his left shoulder. He starts to say something else, then yawns hugely, and when he recovers there's a muzzy look on his face. After a moment he says, "That's why I had to find you, Yuuri. Because you didn't know."

Yuuri smiles. He's warm with the drink, and helplessly fond. "That doesn't make a lot of sense, Victor."

"No, see, we've all been trained a certain way. The training system is traditional; it's centuries old. Nobody taught you. You ballist like it's got nothing to do with war at all." A sleepy, extraordinary smile crawls over Victor's face. "Nobody else does it like that. That's why we're going to win."

Yuuri rolls his eyes and shoves Victor's feet away. "I'm going to win." Even as it leaves his mouth he's shocked at himself. He rolls his tongue over the lingering shape of the words.

"Good boy," says Victor, "very good, yes," and keels slowly over into Yuuri's lap.

"Um!" says Yuuri.

"Shh," says Victor, whose eyes are already closed. His arms are everywhere. He is an octopus of arms.

Yuuri arranges some of the miles of arms that Victor seems to have acquired, and finally settles with Victor's head and shoulders pillowed on his legs. Without Yuuri telling them to, his fingers have started combing gently through Victor's hair. A feeling like warm water has made a whirlpool of his chest.

"What are you doing, Victor?" Yuuri says, very quiet.

Yuuri knew what his life was, a month ago. A loving family, a business to help with and inherit, and a secret hobby to breathe sparks into his soul until his body turned too stiff and too old for it. He was happy with that. He was prepared to sink into that life, here in the smallness of space, before Victor arrived like a sign from the stars. Like a story for children too young to know how the world works. A handsome prince who singles you out, dresses you in jewels, and wants to sweep you out of obscurity.

Victor gives the contented snore of the drunk. Yuuri's heart is pounding, both wonderful and painful at once. He brushes the silver hair aside so that he can trace the delicate skin of Victor's eyelids, the faint lines at the sides. Ringing like a plucked string in Yuuri's memory is the slight dip from levity in Victor's voice as Victor talked about the bargain he made with his parents.

"So what does it mean," Yuuri says, barely louder than an exhalation now, "that you're here with me instead?"

Victor shifts, curling towards Yuuri. He buries his face in Yuuri's stomach, as though it's a safe place for him to hide, and sleeps on.


b_sg_outfits


me: you know something about this random guy victor's wasting his time with, don't you?

phichittering: hi yuri, nice to hear from you, I'm doing great thanks for asking

me: DON'T YOU

phichittering: hahaha I was wondering when you'd ask

me: good. move to a secure channel.

phichittering: but texting is so much easier

me: have you idiots all learned NOTHING from when georgi's tablet got hacked by that tabloid network??

phichittering: ok tigerpants calm down


FROM: PHICHU@SM-PAL [ch.0045Y5vExt]
TO: katsuyuuri@563889.1 [ch.default]

Yuuri! Hi!!

I expect a reply very soon telling me how GREAT I AM at keeping secrets. That first video of you was everywhere, and everyone in the ballistic world was talking about it. But I never said anything to ANYONE about knowing who you are or where you live, or about that week I spent staying with your family in Hasetsu after my transport broke down. I know the Ice Castle is your secret. I don't know how Victor found you, but...it wasn't me. I promise.

OK, now that you remember how great a friend I am, and also now that Victor's latest videos have kind of let the mystery cat out of the mystery bag, here's the other thing:

I'm coming to visit you!! Isn't that great? And I'm bringing someone with me. The someone I'm bringing is Victor's cousin, His Grace the Royal Archduke Yuri Plisetsky. (Don't be intimidated by how long his title is. He's tiny in person. And I think he mostly wants to yell at Victor, not at you.)

It'll all be very incognito. I will make Yuri P. wear a very ugly hat.

I can't wait to see how much progress you've made in the last three years, and now with Victor as your coach! And obviously I need to know what your weaknesses are, because you'll be competing against me.

KIDDING.

Mostly kidding.

This is my year, you know. I'm going to win gold at the GT for sure. But it's going to be so great to see you again!

All the best,

Phichit


"Have you chosen a costume yet?" Mari asks Yuuri, over dinner.

Yuuri shakes his head and shovels more rice into his mouth. He casts an apologetic glance at Victor, who shrugs to show that he doesn't mind. This is part of being a good coach. Yakov always lets Victor choose his own costumes.

Well, truthfully, Yakov thinks that costumes are the least important part of ballisting and that a real champion would be able to win wearing nothing more than a matte black suit, and so he doesn't care what Victor chooses to adorn himself with.

"You old traditionalist," Victor said fondly, when Yakov first expressed this view.

Yakov's face darkened into more of a grump. "I am not," he growled. "If I were a traditionalist I would tell you to stitch half your literal fortune onto the silk, so that everyone considering you for their children would be able to see how much wealth you bring to the match."

For his part, Victor would throw everything in the royal treasury at Yuuri, if it would make his face light up the way it did when he first tried on the costumes.

"Hey!" Yuuri protests, stabbing his chopsticks into the back of Victor's hand as Victor absently goes to steal some pumpkin from his bowl.

Victor has a few more attempts at taking his tithe of vegetables and then gives up and simply wraps an arm around Yuuri's neck, pulling him off balance. Yuuri flails, laughing, and drops his chopsticks.

At that moment, voices in the corridor turn into the sight of Toshiya, who has been dealing with a handful of new guests to the boarding house. Behind Yuuri's father are two more figures, who follow him into the dining room.

"Phichit!" shouts Yuuri from beneath Victor's arm.

"Phichit!" says Hiroko at the same time, climbing to her feet.

"Mama Hiroko!" His Imperial Highness Phichit Chulanont throws a bag to the ground and submits to being hugged by Hiroko, whose face only comes up to his chest.

Before Victor can say anything to the second figure, now frozen in the doorway, Mari bawls "Duke Yurio!" and throws her hands into the hair. A piece of fishcake goes flying across the room.

The look on his cousin Yuri's face is the greatest thing Victor has ever seen.

"Victor has told us so much about you," Mari goes on, which is a lie so baldfaced that Victor almost wants to applaud.

"I can't believe you've made me come to this godforsaken hole of a colony," Yuri fires at Victor. He drops his bag as well, with a sullen thump.

"Yuri!" Victor chides, releasing Yuuri. "Be more polite to your hosts."

"Are you hungry, Your Grace?" asks Hinoko.

"See? Yuuri's family is the greatest!"

"Yuuri?" growls Yuri.

"And oh! The clothes here are so ugly, Yuri, you'll love them--" and Victor dashes upstairs to fetch the growing collection of eyesore accessories he's been buying at the market, vaguely intending to shower his cousin with them on his return home.

When Victor comes back down again, Phichit and Yuri have been seated and bowls of food put in front of them. Yuri is eating, although he's laying each morsel on his tongue as though he half suspects it will bite him back. In less than five minutes they've been absorbed into the Katsuki family as seamlessly as Victor was.

The following day, there doesn't seem to be anything to do except take Phichit and Yuri along to the Ice Castle. By the time they step off the shuttle, Victor has wriggled his fingers into the corners of the idea and talked himself around to it being an excellent one.

"It will do you good to have more of an audience, Yuuri," he says. "And you can see what the others are working on!"

"You mean you can calculate the difficulty scores of our routines," says Yuri, hands buried in the pockets of his velvet-textured jacket, but he looks calmer this morning.

"I--I would love to see your routines," says Yuuri. Victor is only now realising how much Yuuri has relaxed around him, lately, because the difference is startling. Yuuri today is the Yuuri that Victor met on his first day in Hasetsu: speaking with less confidence, holding eye contact for a shorter time.

"You first!" says Phichit, and Yuuri nods and hurries to warm up in his usual corner.

Yuuri directs a long, nervous look at Victor as he's climbing through the barrier hatch into the sphere. Victor gives the most encouraging nod he can.

"I can't believe Yuuri didn't tell me he'd met you," Victor says to Phichit, as the three of them stand watching.

"I can't believe you spent a week here and not a peep of it appeared online," says Yuri. "I wouldn't have thought you could resist."

Phichit shrugs. His perennially cheerful face has been tempered with thoughtfulness as he follows Yuuri with his eyes. "The Katsukis were very kind to me when we were waiting for the parts for my transport to arrive, and they kept it secret. Both at the time and afterwards. Nobody was supposed to know I was ever in this sector."

"Nobody--oh," Victor says.

"Mm," says Phichit, stepping forward. His nose almost touches the barrier. "That's a neat Reicz layout, Victor, did you teach him that?"

Victor watches him for a moment, torn between two different and not uncomplicated forms of jealousy: that Phichit, a younger son and heir to nothing as long as his brother and sister live, was allowed out into the galaxy on some form of undercover diplomacy at age seventeen. And that Phichit has been here first. He met Yuuri, first. He saw him ballist before Victor ever had the chance.

Victor asks, unable to help it, "What was he like three years ago?"

"Much rougher than this," Phichit says. "But still good! He's very good, isn't he?"

"He's not that good," Yuri says, waspish.

"Yes, he is," Victor says, watching with a glow of pride as Yuuri finishes his purple-black transfer sequence and moves into a controlled dive that shows off his arm positions. "Such a talented boy."

Phichit says, amused, "He's only four years younger than you are, Victor."

"If he's a boy, then--" Yuri slams his teeth shut on his mistake, but Victor grabs hold of it with glee. He's missed his furious little cousin.

"You are a baby, Yurochka!" Victor coos, ruffling Yuri's fine hair. "A tiny infant child."

"Get off me!" Yuri slaps Victor away.

Yuuri's eyes are creased with anxious excitement when he finishes his routine and climbs down from the sphere.

"What did you think?"

Yuri is staring at Yuuri's bare feet. "You're letting your core drop during the vault-sweep," he says flatly, which is both more insightful and more helpful than Victor expected. "You could be more controlled."

"I think you're a danger to me, Yuuri," Phichit says. "Really, Victor, I thought you were leaving the top spot on the podium wide open for me when you left--"

"Hey," snaps Yuri.

Phichit's eyes crease. "I'll have to work a bit harder than I thought, to beat you."

Victor waits to see if Yuuri wants to throw any defiance back, but Yuuri just nods and reaches up to touch his hair. Victor sighs and grabs hold of his hand before it can get there, taking it prisoner, and squeezes Yuuri's fingers.

"Let's see this amazing routine of yours, then," Victor says.

Phichit motions to the roof. "Are the frequencies for the system…?"

"Still the same," Yuuri says.

Phichit smiles and straps on his wrist remote, then climbs into the sphere. Victor watches and listens, making a game of it with himself as to how long it will take him to work out the story, and planning to make Yuuri guess at it too. It'll be good for Yuuri's creative eye. Phichit's music is upbeat, very quick, and Phichit's entire routine has more speed than Victor's seen on him before. This is a warning shot, and Phichit didn't have to fire it. He didn't have to come here; he didn't have to tell Yuri Plisetsky anything. Victor indulges in a stab of resentment at knowing that Phichit Chulanont is both smarter and kinder than he is, and then lets it go.

"The Ice Castle," Yuri says suddenly, turning to Yuuri. There's a veneer of venom in his voice and real hurt underneath. "This is--do you even know how many Grand Tournaments were held here?"

"Six," Yuuri says.

That seems to startle Yuri. He nods, shortly. "And you've got it all to yourself, you're no one, you've never even--and now you've got Victor to drop everything and coach you!"

Yuuri blanches. His hand in Victor's--Victor had almost forgotten it was still there--goes tense.

"Leave Yuuri alone. Be angry at me if you're going to," Victor says.

"Oh, I'm going to," Yuri snaps, ominous, but he appears to give up for the moment, and returns the sharpness of his eyes to Phichit's routine.

Yuuri settles as well, watching Phichit with open admiration. Victor's grip on Yuuri's hand doesn't seem like enough any more. He moves and drapes his arms over Yuuri's shoulders, feeling ridiculously pleased when Yuuri doesn't tense up but relaxes back into him. He nuzzles his face into Yuuri's neck. Yuuri reaches up and takes loose hold of Victor's wrist.

After that, the day is almost like any other day at a training complex. Yuri grabs Victor by the coat sleeve at one point when Phichit and Yuuri are demonstrating tricks for one another, comfortable and laughing in the sphere. Victor casts a glance over his shoulder, pricked with possessiveness, but allows himself to be dragged outside into the chilly air and shouted at for ten minutes. Part of him tries to feel guilty, but most of him is back inside the arena, and he likes Yuri enough not to insult him with an apology he doesn't mean.

"I'm coming back," he says, finally.

"Who cares?" Yuri flings out. "Not me. So you're coming back, too late to do any good. Stay where you are. Waste your time. Watch me crush your awkward commoner boy into dust at the GT."

"You're worried," Victor realises. "You know just how good he is."

"I hate you," says Yuri.

"So hurtful!" Victor smiles. "I hate you too."

Yuri meets Victor's gaze in a quick flash of understanding and barium green, and then hunches his shoulders beneath the white fur collar of his jacket and turns on his heel, heading back inside.

Victor stays out a minute longer, looking around him at the blackened structures and skeletal frames of the old imperial palace and its grounds. This is an odd place. He can see why the colonists left it alone and decided to build around its edges, and why Yuuri managed to spend so much time here undisturbed. Something about it feels ghostly, uneasy, like static drifting in and out of hearing. The memory of war seems to hang from the yellowish undersides of the clouds.

Victor shakes himself and goes back into the arena.

As darkness is falling, Phichit and Yuri collect their bags again and prepare to leave Hasetsu.

"You're both welcome to stay!" Yuuri assures Phichit, but Phichit gives his most impervious smile and assures Yuuri that it was hard to convince his coach to let him interrupt his training for even these couple of days, now that the Grand Tournament is so close, and also that his presence is needed back home for a military investiture ceremony.

Yuri glares pointedly at Victor throughout this entire speech.

Yuuri is quieter than usual, once their visitors have left, and Victor isn't sure how to take it. There are only a few days left before Yuuri and Victor, too, will need to leave Hasetsu, in order to arrive in time for the opening ceremony and the first functions.

Victor tells himself he is not being a good coach, that he should be asking Yuuri what's changed and what's wrong. Then tells himself that he should be able to guess. None of this is helpful, but at least as long as he's arguing with himself he doesn't have to make a decision.

Finally, on the day before they're due to leave, Victor screws up his nerve. He waits until Yuuri has been for his morning jog and had breakfast, and then corners Yuuri in his room while he's getting changed to go the Ice Castle for practice.

"Victor," Yuuri says, smiling. "What is it?"

"How are you feeling?"

The pause before Yuuri's shrug is a fraction too long. He finishes tugging up the smartsilk pants and then sits down on the bed. Victor recognises the action as equal parts obedient and wary, and he crouches down in front of him. He puts a reassuring hand on Yuuri's knee.

"You'll do fine," Victor says, injecting as much certainty into it as he can. "You can win this, Yuuri."

Yuuri looks at the ground. When he looks up, there's something in his eyes that Victor doesn't recognise.

"Is that what you wanted? To coach a champion?"

"You don't want to win?" Victor asks, taken aback.

"Of course I do! Of course! But you, Victor. That night we were drinking with Minako, it sounded like you wanted to keep competing for yourself. You made a bargain. Do--do you even remember telling me that?"

"I remember," Victor says quickly.

Yuuri has his hands folded tight in his lap. Victor can feel the trajectory of this conversation and has the selfish urge to becalm it instead. He could leave the room, or smile and change the subject, or simply lean forward and push Yuuri down onto the bed and kiss every thought from his head. He's almost certain Yuuri would let him do it. I think he'd do anything you want him to.

Victor is a coward. Yuuri is twice as strong as he is.

Victor says, "Yes. But I haven't held up my end of that bargain yet."

"Instead, you..."

Yuuri looks to be biting his lip against further questions. Victor braces himself; he would deserve any of them, and it's not like he couldn't ask plenty of his own. Why did he see a stranger's homage set against the scene of his great-grandmother's triumph, and decide it was a sign strong enough to be an invitation? What does he do with the part of him that says, you're good at winning; now what else do you want? How does he know what he truly wants, and what he only thinks he should? How does he twist all the things he wants into a shape that will fit the specific hole of his title and his life?

And is he really going to smile through the tournament, accept the shocked eyebrows and the accolades, and then simply put Yuuri back where he found him?

There are so many impossibilities here, but that seems like the most impossible thing of all.

"I don't know what to do," he says, because it's easier than saying, please don't let me leave.

To Victor's surprise, Yuuri's posture relaxes. He leans back on his hands and his whole face warms with a smile.

"You'll work it out," Yuuri says. "You're Victor Nikiforov."

"I am," Victor agrees. Gratitude fills his lungs like fresh air. He stands, slowly.

"Oh! I wanted to tell you," Yuuri says. "I finally decided which costume I want to wear."

"Yes?"

"The blue one. The one that looks like the sky at night."

"Spider-eye," Victor says, and is rewarded by the spark of humour in Yuuri's cheeks as he smiles.

"I was thinking about what you said about making the audience believe the barrier isn't there," Yuuri says. "Phichit, and Archduke Yuri--both of their routines did that, I think. One of them was about wanting to share happiness with loved ones, and the other was about a transformation. He was inviting the audience to watch the change take place."

Victor bites down on a very good, and simply raises his eyebrows encouragingly.

"I was thinking…" Yuuri takes a breath. "I used to go onto the roof of the boarding house with Mari and Mama, and we'd set up the telescope and the hologram model and talk about how amazing it must have been for the first humans to leave their planet, or even the first to fly. That moment when they realised that gravity can be overcome. Ballisting, stargazing. It's the same feeling. Love as exploration. Love as...striving for something out of reach, and finding it within your grasp." He looks wary, but brimming with light, as he meets Victor's eyes. "That's the story I want to tell."

Too many things are caught in Victor's throat.

"Show me," he says, at last.

And Yuuri does. In the shabbiness of the arena he warms up, changes into the costume, slicks back his hair, climbs into the sphere, and flies.

He's nearly perfect. It takes all of Victor's effort to keep a critical mindset, to pick out the small things that could still be improved, and after the first minute he gives up on that entirely and lets himself sink into the story and the music. It's the same routine as it's ever been, but the costume completes it, showing Victor all the quirks of choreography, all the angles of neck and wrist, that are completely yearning. Utterly hopeful.

The final element is a slow, held spiral that requires Yuuri to have absolute control of his speed; in the last moment, as the last note disappears, he should be almost motionless, having brought himself down to the point where his hands, outstretched, only just touch the barrier.

Victor could commentate this routine start-to-finish with his eyes shut; he knows exactly where to be standing, exactly where Yuuri will end. Yuuri is sucking in air, his face coloured with exertion, and there's a fine tremble in his fingers before he firms them, flattens them, on the barrier.

Victor doesn't realise he's reaching out until his own hand mirrors Yuuri's, finger to finger, and an odd shock runs up his arm at the fact that he's touching something hard and cool instead of flesh.

b_sg_ya

At once, Yuuri drops his head on his neck, like a doll collapsing, and moves his foot to hook the purple ring, which is nearest. He makes his way to the hatch, opens it, and climbs out. His knees are unsteady and his whole face is a question.

Victor opens his arms, and has barely started the motion before Yuuri steps into them. Victor widens his stance, letting Yuuri lean on him. He presses his closed lips against Yuuri's hairline and it feels like one of the most important things he's ever done.

You're in trouble, says a voice in Victor's mind. He ignores it.

"You're done for today," Victor says, pulling back.

"The day's barely started, I should do it again," Yuuri starts, but Victor plants three of his fingers over Yuuri's mouth.

"No, are you crazy? You have to finish on that one. Do it again and you'll just screw something up. Trust me. I'm your coach."

Yuuri doesn't argue. He smiles under Victor's fingers, prods Victor in the stomach sharply enough to make him yelp, and goes to change out of the costume again.

Victor's as superstitious as most ballisters, and he feels like he's juggling a glass bauble today, desperately afraid to shatter it. He helps Yuuri pack; he makes Yuuri choose a particular object from his room, something treasured from childhood, to tuck into the folds of the starry costume before it's wrapped in a sheath of web-paper. He refuses to let Yuuri tell him what the object is. He pinches Yuuri's hand, and then his own, when the fretful clockwork begins to turn behind Yuuri's eyes and Yuuri starts to wonder aloud for the tenth time if they should change some minor aspect of the choreography. In the evening he picks out everything that will go on Yuuri's plate at dinner--"Trust me! I'm your coach!"--and Yuuri laughs and lets him do it.

"Did you want to watch the start of the junior expo with us?" Mari asks, afterwards.

"Yuuri should have an early night," Victor says sternly.

"I've run a foot bath for you in the bathroom, Yuuri," Hiroko says. "Go soak your legs, then sleep."

Yuuri nods, and Hiroko drags him sideways to kiss his cheek as he heads upstairs; Victor goes to follow him, but Mari grabs his arm in the doorway. Victor pulls away, startled by the fact that he almost snapped at her like a crown prince instead of a friend. He's more on edge than he'd thought.

"What is it, Mari?"

Mari has her lips pressed together. She looks at the stairs, then back at Victor. "Can he win?"

"Why, do you want to put money on him?

"Well, of course I do," she says. "But that's not the point."

Instinct pushes Victor to be honest. "He might lose badly, if he lets his nerves get the better of him. But can he win?" He thinks about Yuuri's concentration, the naked yearning on his face, the moves he does because he's never been taught that they should be impossible. "Yes."

Mari nods slowly. "Wow."

"I know," Victor says, smiling until she smiles back. "Wow."

Yuuri turns his head and smiles sleepily as Victor enters the bathroom. His feet are resting in a basin, the water reaching halfway up his calves. The water smells of unfamiliar herbs and is still hot enough that rising steam makes Victor's neck feel unpleasantly warm. He strips off his shirt, leaving just his singlet, then pulls a towel from the railing and lowers himself to sit cross-legged by the basin. He trails his fingers in the water, testing the temperature, then submerges them to the wrists. There's some kind of bath oil in here, too, leaving his skin slick.

"Victor." It's not quite a question. Yuuri looks halfway to boneless, with tiredness and with the sheer relief of the heat on the muscles of his feet.

"You've worked hard," Victor says. It's not quite an answer.

Yuuri yawns, stifling it with the back of his hand, as Victor hooks one hand beneath both of Yuuri's ankles and lifts Yuuri's feet clear of the water. He pushes the basin aside and lets Yuuri's feet come to rest in his lap, where the towel is in place to protect him from drips.

Victor dries Yuuri's feet and ankles carefully. It's strange. He's never had a reason to inspect another person's feet so closely before: he can see each chipped edge of the nails, trace the blue lines of the veins and make note of small patches of inflammation. Yuuri's soles are callused and there's a palette of blood beneath the skin, from the angry purple of fresh bruising to the dull greens and yellows. Impact upon impact, pain upon pain, and Yuuri accepts it as a price willingly paid for the joy of doing what he's doing. The thought sidles uncomfortably into Victor's mind that it seems a longer and more terrible bargain than any Victor has ever volunteered for. Victor has worked hard to be worthy of his natural skill, but he's also accepted ballisting as his birthright.

Victor can feel a smile on his lips.

"This might help," he says.

He finally looks up with the first deep, deliberate press of his thumbs into the centre of Yuuri's sole, and he's not disappointed. Yuuri's eyes flutter and a mess of half-spoken sibilants emerges from his throat, a groan and a gasp vying for prominence.

"Good?"

Yuuri nods. His eyes fall closed.

Slowly, finding the activity almost as relaxing for himself as it clearly is for Yuuri, Victor massages the muscles unlocked by the hot water. The slight residue of oil makes it easier. He gentles his fingers over the bruises and digs in hard in the thick muscle beneath the foot and up Yuuri's calf. One foot, one leg, then the other.

At the edge of hearing are faint human sounds of conversation and laughter and movement from elsewhere in the building. There's no sound here in the room beyond the soft shift of skin on skin, the occasional faint slosh when Victor's knee knocks the basin. Every small hitch of Yuuri's breath is audible. His head is tilted back. The line of his neck is like the curve of planetrise.

Victor has put in all this effort to show Yuuri off to the galaxy, but right now he doesn't want to share him with a soul.

Victor bends and kisses Yuuri's foot, right on the worst of the bruises. The clean skin there doesn't taste of anything. It's only when he's done it that he feels the echo of his actions on the day they met.

Yuuri's eyes are open when Victor looks up, and he's flushing deeply, but his foot doesn't so much as twitch in Victor's grasp. He licks his lips, a nervous flick of tongue that worms its way into Victor's self-control.

"Good?" Victor says again. There's something wrong with his voice.

Yuuri's chest is moving with his breaths, not fast but deep. His hands are tight on the chair as though he's forcing himself not to reach out nor to run away.

A feeling like vertigo, like looking down from a held pose on the black ring, shudders through Victor. It's the oddness of knowing he has to go back to reality, to making choices and living with their consequences, to being Crown Prince Victor Nikiforov--but he would also be happy to stay here on this tiny scavenger colony with Yuuri Katsuki gazing at him like he's made of stardust.

Victor decides to blame that dizziness for the fact that he doesn't stop.

He kisses higher up, this time, the place where Yuuri's ankle would crease if he pulled his toes back. There's a pulse there, barely more than a suggestion, a flutter of excitement that hits Victor's lower lip and tugs like a magnet. Victor flirts back at this pulse with his tongue and hears an inhalation as though Yuuri has surfaced from beneath an ocean.

b_sg_feet

Higher, and higher, heady with want, Victor presses his lips to the skin of Yuuri's legs. When he reaches another bruise, neat like a thumbprint over Yuuri's knee, he finally manages to stop. His hand is a circle around Yuuri's ankle and it's all he can do to stay there, forehead tipped against Yuuri's knee, breathing hot against Yuuri's skin. Imagining how it might be if he just kept going, if there was nothing under his fingers and his hungry lips but bare skin; what brilliant sounds Yuuri might make if Victor took him in his mouth, if he stayed on his knees between Yuuri's legs and unwound him slowly with pleasure. If Yuuri might put his hands in Victor's hair and pull.

"Victor," Yuuri says, and he sounds like a ruin.

Victor sets Yuuri's foot carefully against the floor. He stands, and hauls Yuuri up out of the chair as well, holding his wrists. He lowers his mouth almost to Yuuri's, where Yuuri's breath is coming fast.

"Yuuri. The way you feel right now…"

"Victor?

Yuuri is swaying into him, his pupils like black holes. He's warm and pliant and so, so tempting. Tomorrow, Victor will unhook him from his life and send him spinning into empty space.

Victor whispers, "Use it," and drags himself away.


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

Your Grace,

I received the attached communication, I believe by mistake? It appears to be an incomplete message and, obviously, the contents do not seem to be addressed to me. I thought it best to let you know immediately.

You and I have not talked before, but I am currently staying in the northeast wing with the rest of my delegation. I believe it is your first year in the Grand Tournament. It is my first year competing as well. Affairs on my homeworld have made it impossible before now.

It now occurs to me that perhaps this was a strategic move to stir up Debate or Scandal and you intended for me to bring this text to the attention of the media. If so, please inform me so that I may comply. Thank you.

- Otabek Altin


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

No. NO. That was a MISTAKE. I don't know what happened, it was a DRAFT, I was obviously never going to SEND IT, they keep updating our fucking tablet systems and maybe something autocompleted--PLEASE FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T LEAK IT, my approval numbers are almost as high as Victor's for the first time literally ever and that will TANK if I'm found to be insulting our allies directly instead of just GRINDING MY TEETH TO DUST like I usually do.

Look, I don't know what to do here, Mila says I should talk to palace PR and then to the foreign minister but I am NOT showing them that email because if it gets out then they will make me APOLOGISE to him, PROBABLY IN PERSON, and I think I would actually choke.

I suppose I'm hoping that you and JJ aren't secretly best friends. This is an appeal to your better nature, I guess? Do people even have those?

- Yuri Plisetsky


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

I have never met His Majesty King Jean-Jacques in person until this week.

He will never see this, and neither will any member of the media. I give you my word.

- Otabek


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

God, okay, THANK YOU. Thank you.

(You've only just met him? What did you think?)

-yuri


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

I think if you had any more 'drafts' along those lines that you wished to accidentally send to someone, that would be...fine.


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

OH MY GOD HE'S SUCH A FUCKING ASSHOLE I CAN'T STAND IT


The furthest Yuuri has been offplanet before now is a trip with his parents to the Helix station hotel, a birthday treat when he was eighteen. He knows what Chinzei looks like from above, clouds and water and land, home seen on a scale that got stuck in his throat even though he knew it was nothing to the vastness of humanity's reach. He remembers the arm of the galaxy like a piece of black cotton wool laid over the blue-yellow glow of atmosphere.

He wasn't nervous, then, even though Mari told him horrible stories about space travel for a gleeful week beforehand. Now, his feet feel prickling and restless as though he's been sitting with crossed legs for hours. He dances his weight from one of them to another and pats his pocket for the fifth time, letting the shape of his passcard fill out his palm.

There is a sharp tug at the back of his coat.

"Sit down, Yuuri," says Victor gently.

Yuuri shakes his head. "I might go for a walk to the kiosk. Do you want anything? A drink? I could get you a drink."

"I don't want a drink," Victor says.

Two men and a woman are settling into the seats opposite Yuuri and Victor in the waiting area. All of them are tall, all of them are fair, and all of them are wearing coats of navy blue.

The woman pushes a backpack beneath her seat and meets Yuuri's eyes with a smile that's a touch too friendly for a complete stranger. He wonders if he should recognise her, and manages an awkward nod.

"Good morning," he says.

"Good morning," she says, readily enough. "If you're getting Victor a drink, he's got a weakness for hot chocolate. But you probably know that by now."

"Um," says Yuuri.

"Sofia?" says Victor, behind him.

Yuuri sits down. He resists the urge to grab at Victor's hand. Victor is sitting very still and his back seems straighter than usual.

"Your Highness," says Sofia. The two men on either side of her are also paying attention to Victor, now, and both have the same expression of bland amusement.

Victor narrows his eyes. "Are you--how long have you been in Hasetsu?"

The taller of the men, who has an impressive moustache the colour of treated bamboo, looks across Sofia at the other one. "He's really not very observant, is he?"

"I can probably have you executed," Victor says.

"You really can't," Sofia says cheerfully. "We work for your father, not you."

"Sorry," Yuuri says, "who are you, exactly?"

Sofia Orlova and her companions, who do not volunteer their names, are members of the Nevan Royal Guard. They have been on Hasetsu since three days after Victor arrived. Victor, whose expression is slowly becoming a muted version of the one he wore during Yuuri's disastrous session trying to ballist in slip-grips, did not know they were here.

"Hakata shuttle!" comes the call over the intercom. "Now boarding! Please have your tickets ready!"

"That's us," says Sofia. "After you, Your Highness."

The shuttle takes them almost halfway around the planet, crossing the equator on the way north to the imperial capital of Hakata. Hakata Terminal is enormous and bustling, and barely anyone spares a glance for Yuuri and Victor, let alone the three guards now dogging their heels with unapologetic closeness. Yuuri concentrates on following the signs to the lounge and tries not to worry too much about the fact that he feels screamingly self-conscious making conversation with Crown Prince Victor Nikiforov in front of his security staff.

Victor hasn't talked much either, since they left Hasetsu. His silence, Yuuri thinks, is more embarrassed than angry.

They have first class tickets aboard the starliner to Neva, and the private cabin is almost as large as the hotel room on the Helix where Yuuri and his parents stayed. Yuuri's restlessness is back. He spends the half-hour before departure with his earbuds in, doing a strange heavy two-dimensional version of his choreography in the carpeted space of the cabin. He sits down as they launch into open space, feeling the shudder and burn of the engines fighting gravity. Aiming for the stars.

Yuuri wants to talk to Victor, feels like a desperate ache the new space between them, but the guards have taken up their own seats in the cabin. Yuuri is realising, now, how Victor acts around people he doesn't feel comfortable with. The difference between his real smile, and the smile he wears in public and wields like a sword. The smoothness of his manner. A new and bewildering standoffishness and care with personal space.

Sitting in a seat so plush he feels like he's melting into it, Yuuri forgets to stare at the wonders outside the window and instead gazes at the man sitting opposite him. He thinks about Victor's elastic face and easy joy, his tendency to drape his limbs over Yuuri, to play with Yuuri's fingers when he's bored, to wrap an arm around his waist as they walk. The way his face had loosened and reshaped around his blackened eyes as he gazed up at Yuuri from the bathroom floor.

The contrast is like a pebble in Yuuri's hand: something to hold in a pocket and turn over and over, learning its shape, thoughtful.

Neva is densely cloud-shrouded, on their approach. Yuuri watches it enlarge and swallow the field of view as they descend towards the capital. In the Nienschanz Grand Terminal, they've scarcely stepped off the liner before they are joined by yet more people wearing dark blue, including one who insists on carrying Yuuri's bags, and then whisked aboard a private surface shuttle which will take them to the palace.

Yuuri drinks most of a bottle of water on the way. There's something stuck in his throat. This is beginning to feel all too real. He keeps his eyes on the pale pattern of Neva's rings, slicing down to the horizon at an angle, and tries to remember his breathing exercises.

As they approach the palace, Victor begins to come alive again. He peers out the window as though in search of something, and then smiles at Yuuri and points.

"That's the palace training complex," he says.

Yuuri stares at the cluster of huge, pristine white domes, like overturned rice bowls. Each one contains a ballistic sphere; some of them are large enough to contain three or four. Even the Imperial Glasshouse in Hakata is, at most, half this size. The Nevan royal family is famously large and famously generous with its training resources, even for minor branches of the bloodline. It's produced more champions than anyone else.

"That's where you trained?"

"Every day since I was seven," Victor says. He has his chin in his hand; his eyes are blue blurs, reflected in the glass, watching Yuuri. "Well, most days. I'd run away and my tutors would find me there, and Yakov would threaten to hand me back to them, but he usually wouldn't."

Yuuri pictures a young Victor, even smaller and more angelic than the fifteen-year-old with the cascading silver hair and the butterfly grace whose debut Yuuri watched, spellbound, when he himself was eleven. Yuuri and Yuuko found the Ice Castle less than a year afterwards. It seemed like a sign.

Yuuri's first steps on the surface of another planet are, anticlimactically, in a sealed walkway leading from the shuttle bay into the palace. The air has a cool, conditioned smell to it, along with a faint floral sharpness.

They emerge into a hall as high as a shrine, with windows that gleam and flicker with shifting patterns of colour. Solar wirelights. Yuuri's seen them in Hakata, but never this many, never in someone's house. Set along the floor in tall gold stands, at regular intervals, are huge bunches of white and purple flowers. Yuuri wonders if they are the source of the scent.

Victor continues a few steps before noticing that Yuuri has stopped short. He turns and comes back.

"I know," Victor says dramatically. "Hiroko would shake her head and tell me this place must be hellish to keep clean." He reaches out and pushes Yuuri's hair backwards off his forehead, and Yuuri laughs and leans into the touch, and some of the tension goes out of his shoulders.

"Victor!" comes a shout, and both Yuuri and Victor turn. Racing towards them is a young woman in purple smartsilk, her hair sleekly tumbled around her face. Racing ahead of her, and lengthening its lead with every moment, is a large brown poodle.

"Makkachin!" Victor yells, and throws his arms open just in time for the dog to leap at him with the kind of elevation that any ballister would envy, land somewhere in the vicinity of Victor's chest, and send Victor toppling to the ground.

Victor is laughing and the dog seems to be doing its best to cover his coat in hair and his face in saliva. Yuuri's heart does something ridiculous.

"Nice to see you again, Vitya," says the dog's companion, strolling up and peering down at the wriggling pile of dog and man. "We'd given you up for lost."

"Be quiet, you didn't miss me at all!" A hand appears, then another, and Victor manages to shove Makkachin's face away from his own grinning one. "Mila, Yuuri. Yuuri, this is my cousin Mila, Duchess Babasheva."

"I loved your 'Winter Queen' routine last year!" Yuuri says, once he's bowed.

"Thank you!" Mila has a similarly infectious smile, but otherwise she doesn't resemble Victor closely. Yuuri has given up keeping track of the people Victor describes as his cousin; the full familial ties are probably recorded only by archivists somewhere.

"And this is Makkachin," says Victor, climbing to his feet.

Yuuri crouches down, holds out his hands to be sniffed, and makes the acquaintance of Victor's dog. There was a long period during the drunken evening with Minako where Victor got very maudlin about interplanetary bio-quarantine law and how much he wished he could have brought Makkachin with him.

"Any assassinations yet?" Victor asks Mila.

Yuuri blinks and casts a glance at Sofia, who has planted herself at a respectful distance. Her expression doesn't suggest that this is something to be concerned about.

"Not for lack of wishing," Mila says dryly. "I managed to convince Maxim to take JJ for a tour of the mountain wineries today, so at least he and half his retinue are out from underfoot and Yuri's blood pressure can have a break. It's not good for him, Victor."

"Nonsense!" says Victor. "He'll channel it into his training, he always does. I thought you approved of Yuri being needled."

Mila sniffs. "By us. We're family. Anyway, Makkachin wanted to see you first, obviously, but the king and queen would like to see you at your earliest convenience."

"Which means now." Victor makes a face. "Come on then, Yuuri, we'd better get it over with."

"Me?" Yuuri delivers a final pat to Makkachin and looks longingly in the direction where his bags disappeared in the hands of the blue-clad porters. "You--you want me to meet your parents? Right now?"

"Of course you have to meet them! I met your parents," Victor points out, as though that were even remotely the same thing.

After the palace hall, Yuuri is expecting a grand throne room. To his relief, their Royal Majesties the King and Queen of the Planetary Principality of Neva receive their sole heir and his tagalong Chinzeian ballister in a modestly-sized sitting room, full of well-stuffed chairs and an ironglass table with small holograms dancing at every corner. The walls are covered in full-length portraits of previous monarchs. One or two of these even have glass balls in their hands, which might represent particular achievement in ballisting.

Yuuri gives the deepest bow he's capable of. Victor is already speaking when he's halfway up from it.

"You sent security?" Victor demands.

Queen Inessa is a tall woman with a perfectly straight back and near-white hair. She raises her eyebrows and taps a finger against her cheek; Victor huffs, takes two long strides forward and drops a kiss there, then on the other side, then steps back.

"Hello, Vitya," says his mother.

"Yes. Hello. You sent security?"

The queen says, "Of course we sent security. As soon as the first picture of you appeared online. Someone had to make sure you weren't completely inundated by the press, let alone monitor the places you were staying and training. You know better, Victor. You're our son. You're not new to this. Did you really think you'd be allowed to run off, unescorted and unguarded, for this little tantrum of a holiday?"

From Victor's renewed huff as he keeps backing away and stands next to Yuuri, close enough to bump elbows, that's exactly what he thought.

"You're lucky we didn't ask Sofia to drag you back here by the ankles," the queen goes on. Her tone is milder now.

"We're being rude," says King Dmitri. His eyes, which are the exact gemstone blue of Victor's, flick to Yuuri, and he gives a smile that is not wide, but is at least warm. "It's a pleasure to meet you, Yuuri Katsuki. My grandmother Darya used to tell stories about making her debut at the Ice Castle. She said it was one of the best days of her life."

"Did you compete yourself, Your Majesty?" Yuuri asks. The king is stocky, but it's a stockiness of shoulders and legs, of muscle running to fat.

King Dmitri's smile grows a little. "Came last two years running, then decided my dignity couldn't take it. Ceded the stage to my younger sisters instead."

The queen says, "We hope our son has not inconvenienced you too much, with this madcap scheme of his."

"No!" Yuuri says. "No, it's not--I'm not--I mean, I don't know what I can ever do to thank him, Your Majesty. No matter what happens, I'm grateful for the opportunity to compete."

"Don't be an idiot, you don't have to do anything," Victor says, and drapes his arm around Yuuri's shoulders. Yuuri smiles at him. Victor smiles back, and his fingers press into Yuuri's arm in the way that means he's pleased.

When Yuuri remembers to look back at them, the king and queen are exchanging a very married kind of glance that Yuuri has no hope of interpreting.

King Dmitri says, "We hope you'll at least allow us to host your family here, for the duration of the tournament."

"Of course! Why didn't I think of that?" says Victor.

"Why indeed," murmurs Queen Inessa.

"I'll message them," Yuuri says. "They've got the boarding house to look after, but--I'm sure Mari at least--my sister--"

"Excellent," says the queen, in a kind but conversation-ending tone. "Well then. The very best of luck in the Grand Tournament, Yuuri Katsuki."

Yuuri doesn't ask where they're going, when they leave the room. Victor seems to have plans. He's once again the Crown Prince, getting bows and scrambling cooperation from everyone they pass, wearing a cooler and even more distancing version of that new smile.

He relaxes into the real smile again when they reach a pair of tall unguarded doors.

"Here, Yuuri," he says. "Give me your hand."

Yuuri holds it out. Victor lays his hand over the back of Yuuri's and presses Yuuri's palm to the centre of one of the doors. Nothing happens. Victor says clearly, "Please identify."

"Katsuki, Yuuri," says a bland synthetic voice.

"Add to permitted access list for ballister areas."

"Authority?"

"Yes, I've got lots of that," says Victor.

"Authority?" in exactly the same tone.

Victor gives a dramatic sigh and moves his hand to sit next to Yuuri's. He keeps his thumb nudged up against Yuuri's little finger.

"Nikiforov, Victor Dmitrievich. Authority accepted."

Victor removes his hand; Yuuri keeps his there, and in the next moment there's a soft swishing sound and the doors draw apart to reveal a large common area, with sunlight spilling through the windows and multiple doors and corridors spidering off from the far wall. The room is scattered with furniture and the furniture is scattered with ballisters.

"See, my house likes you," Victor says, wrapping his arm around Yuuri's waist and stepping forward.

"House," Yuuri mutters. "House," as though that's a sensible word in the face of a palace that seems almost as large as Hasetsu's town centre. But any irritation or humour Yuuri feels shrivels into nothing in the next moment, because everyone in the room is staring at him, and every face is one he recognises from broadcasts, from years and years of following the sport as devotedly as anyone in the galaxy.

This is, somehow, worse than the king and queen had been. Yuuri's heart does a neat corkscrew up into his throat, where it sets up a deafening row. His chest is tight. Only Victor's arm in the small of his back propels him into the room.

"Victor!" comes a shout, and then a red-clad streak of excitement barrels towards Victor in a manner uncannily similar to Makkachin. Victor takes a neat step to the side and manages to avoid whatever physical contact was intended.

"Yuuri," Victor says. "This is the Grand Duke Christophe. He won bronze last year."

The Grand Duke Christophe has superb reflexes, and has already recovered. He has cherubic clear eyes and a smile that would look a lot less incongruous if he were naked; he throws a wink at Yuuri and then lunges, with professional flexibility, to grab hold of Victor's hand and gaze up at him from one knee.

"Victor!" he declaims. "How long will you deny the alliance that our families so desperately long to achieve? Will you spurn my proposal yet again?"

"Yes," says Victor, before Yuuri can even blink in shock.

"Well, I suppose I can't blame you." Christophe snaps upright like elastic being released. "What a delectable pastry confection you've found out on the moors. Or was it the mines? The mercy-fields?"

"You're right, I really should introduce Yuuri to everyone else," Victor says.

Yuuri is half resentful and half desperately glad for Victor's arm around him, and it's all he can do to hear everyone's greetings over the racket of his own blood. He hears himself manage to stammer a hello to Sala and Michele, the royal twins, intimidating in their matched-set beauty. He looks furtively around for Phichit and can't see him; even the Archduke Plisetsky would be a familiar face, but he's nowhere to be seen either. He must have his own rooms in the palace, somewhere else.

Yuuri thought that after Victor and Yuri and Phichit he'd be fine at this part, but there are so many of them and they're being so nice, and the ceilings are so high and there are gold tassels on the cushions and Victor is going to be a king; what is Yuuri doing here, among these grand people, like he belongs?

His throat seems lined with jagged ice. His vision is over-sharp and there are dots at the edges of it, black like dustclouds and spite. The turbulence of his thoughts manages to unearth a small, treacherous, ugly voice which wonders if Victor's affection, the deliberate physical closeness, the fire he lit in Yuuri's body last night, was all a deliberate ploy to build up Yuuri's confidence. Make him believe he was worth all of this, so he'd be a credit to Victor's coaching. Worth Victor's valuable time.

"Uh, Victor," the Grand Duke Christophe is saying. "Is your gorgeous little pastry all right?"

Yuuri tries to pull his face together. Despite Victor's best efforts he's embarrassing the both of them in front of everyone. Perfect.

One of the few people that Yuuri doesn't recognise clears his throat and says, "There is a study on the left. Up here," and nods to one of the corridors. His voice is calm and flat as a lake.

"Right," says Victor, and the next thing Yuuri knows, Victor has grabbed his hand and is pulling him towards the empty room with the kind of blithe determination that could level cities. Ballisters part before him and Yuuri has to lengthen his stride awkwardly to keep up.

Yuuri thinks, a ridiculous bubble of observation atop everything churning in his chest: he'll make a good king, when it happens.

Then they're somewhere else. The door shuts behind them. Yuuri is so angry with himself he almost spins around and slams his fists against it, but he's aware enough and ballister enough that he doesn't. He needs his hands intact.

"Yuuri." Victor sounds panicked, which is just--unfair, it's Yuuri's turn to panic, he's entitled, he's--"Yuuri," and Victor cups his face, running his thumbs beneath Yuuri's eyes. Yuuri realises that he's crying. Just another embarrassment to round out the day.

He concentrates and takes a huge breath. It doesn't find every corner of his tight chest, but it finds some of them.

"I'm all right," he says.

"Idiot," says Victor, breathless, and folds Yuuri tight in his arms. "I'm sorry. I should have thought. That was overwhelming, wasn't it?"

Yuuri gives what is probably a sob of relief, and wraps his own arms tight around Victor. They stand there for a long time, Yuuri half-risen onto the balls of his toes. Victor is holding him, holding him, murmuring things into Yuuri's neck--you can do this, and I'm here--and Yuuri dries his eyes on Victor's shoulder and clings to him and breathes, counting, steady, until his heart feels like it's in less danger of banging straight out of his ribs.

Yuuri is an idiot. He knows better than to doubt this. Victor came for him, and Victor cares for him. Victor is a prince who ran away from a life that was looming too large, and found Yuuri in the smallness of his own, and here they are, meeting in the middle. Victor is impulsive and unthinking and the best person Yuuri has met.

Victor has been Yuuri's pivot, his change in direction, allowing him to launch off into the wonderful unknown. Maybe Victor wanted Yuuri to be that for him, too. But that's not what Victor needs. What he needs is an anchor.

Which is convenient, because Yuuri has no intention of letting him go.


"Do you consider yourself a representative of Chinzei, given that His Serene Highness Kenjiro had to withdraw earlier in the season due to injury? Or do you feel that's outweighed by the fact that your coach is a member of the Nevan royal family?"

"I," says Yuuri, and stops. Just as Victor is about to leap in and rescue him, Yuuri continues, "I wasn't aware the Grand Tournament restricted its entrants based on citizenship."

His voice has the kind of pitch-perfect sweetness and perplexity that palace PR has been trying--and failing--to teach the Archduke Plisetsky for years. Victor squeezes Yuuri's shoulder approvingly.

"Do you think that the prohibitive expense of ballistic equipment contributes to the deep class divides in this star system? What about the traditional use of precious materials in costumes--don't you think that's insensitive in the face of Neva's unemployment rates?"

"I grew up watching ballisting," Yuuri says. "I--" and this time he hasn't got the next few words.

The questions started out easy: all about the theme of Yuuri's routine and whether he was surprised to have Victor Nikiforov show up out of nowhere to coach him. Yuuri's been doing well, but beneath Victor's hand his shoulder has been getting progressively more tense. Victor was expecting to enjoy this part, the part where he truly surprised everyone. He was allowing himself a certain dose of smugness. But he misses with a sharp and unexpected stab the ruined arena of the Ice Castle, where it was just him and Yuuri and the sphere.

"I think Yuuri should go and warm up now," Victor says. "Why don't you use that room we walked past, Yuuri?"

It's better when it's just Victor, alone on the arena floor in this knot of reporters with their too-keen eyes beneath recording lenses; they'll dare less with him, the media will, even though they know him better. Victor has done this hundreds of times in his life. He's never been as careful with his language as his parents would like, but knows exactly which smiles to deploy.

''That's all," Victor says, once the questions start to veer hopefully in the direction of whether Victor had any good conversations at the welcome dinner, which is one of twenty ways of digging around his love life. "I hope you're as thrilled by Yuuri Katsuki's performance as I am! And if any of you try to harass my ballister when I'm not there, I'll have you deported. Okay? Great! See you at the banquet!"

The small room he directed Yuuri towards has been used by the royal box's catering staff; there are half-empty glasses and ravaged trays of canapés on the tables.

"Thank you," Yuuri says, when Victor enters. "Victor--"

Victor waves away whatever that's going to be, and leans against the closed door.

"Did you manage to see Mari and Minako?" Yuuri asks instead. "Mari said they made signs."

"We'll keep an eye out," Victor says. "How are you feeling, Yuuri?"

Yuuri lifts both of his hands out, palms down, in front of him.

"Steady enough?" Yuuri asks. His smile is strained, but true. He's still got his glasses on. Something about the light and the colour of the costume, the way his skin looks set against the inky fabric, makes him look less like planet-sky and more like a nebula, something glittering and dust-crammed and wondrous, full of birthing stars.

Victor feels it in his mouth like cold wine, the sheer extent of what he wants. He has to keep his lips closed so that it doesn't spill out, so that he doesn't suggest that they run; that they just fly back to Hasetsu and go wandering through the markets, buying skewers of rice-cake and laughing, for the next fifty years.

Victor takes one of Yuuri's hovering hands--kisses the palm of it, leaving all the unsaid words there like a signet ring pressed into wax--and says, "Keep stretching. I'll help."

Yuuri curls his fingers up slowly, as though around something delicate. He leans his arms on the back of a chair and kicks his legs up behind him, one after the other. Without speaking, Victor moves close and catches one of them.

"A bit further," Yuuri says, shifting his centre of gravity forward.

Carefully, Victor increases the stretch. The tension of Yuuri's leg pressing against his hand is part gravity and part tendons on the edge of their strength. There is a trust here, flowing both ways. Victor remembers urging Yakov to push him harder, certain he was warm enough, striving for those last few degrees of angle; he remembers the sureness of his coach's hand, like something not organic at all.

Yuuri rests his chin on his hands and takes slow breaths. After a while Victor directs him to switch legs; Yuuri settles into the new position and then says, "I'm going to change my ring-transfer sequence. Not by much, but I can remove the two stationary elements and do them at the end. I think I can make it work with the music."

"This is late to be changing things," Victor says. "Wait, you want to take out both of the pauses? That would make your sequence--"

"Eight rings," Yuuri says. "I can do it, even in the middle of the routine. I've got better stamina now."

Victor's fingers are beginning to cramp. He adjust his grip on Yuuri's leg, and with the other hand he reaches out and touches Yuuri's jaw, coaxing Yuuri's face around so he can look him in the eye. There's nothing there but pure mettle.

"Okay," Victor says, smiling. "I'd like to see that."

"I told your parents that it didn't matter what happened. That I was just grateful to be here."

"Yes?"

"I was lying," Yuuri says. His leg drops, and Victor surrenders it. "Even as I said it, I knew I was lying, I was just...flustered. It does matter what happens." Yuuri looks at him, firm and alight. "I don't just want to compete. I want to win."

Victor has the unbalancing sense they they could be something from a story after all, but not the one about a prince disguising himself as a commoner and coming out the other end of the experience having learned some valuable lessons. This is an older and more martial story, to match the war-game of ballisting. A knight, on the eve of battle, offering his services to his lord.

Victor wants, wildly, to offer something in return: a promise of reward if Yuuri should return triumphant. A piece of his kingdom. Gold. Anything.

"Then win," Victor says.

Yuuri nods, not quite smiling. "I'm ready," he says. "Come on, we'll miss seeing your cousin's routine."

"We could stay here until it's your turn," Victor says. Perhaps he should insist on it.

Yuuri's eyes behind their glasses dart to the door, through which muffled music and shouts can be heard. "No. I'm ready."

The ballisters' area is a ring of clear space around the base of the sphere, the boundary of which is lined with chairs. This is surrounded by a ring of walkways, then the first rows of ground-level seating. Coaches and competitors are in quiet conversation, or shaking out their limbs, or simply watching.

King Jean-Jacques is still in the sphere after the end of his routine, having turned off the anti-grav. He makes slow circles, waving with both hands.

"He's popular," Yuuri says. He casts a glance at his seat, shakes himself like Makkachin emerging from a spring puddle, and stays on his feet.

"He's a good showman," Victor says.

Yuri Plisetsky is rolling his head on his neck and shaking out his shoulders as he waits to climb up through the hatch. He ignores JJ entirely as the young king walks back to his own area. Yuri's costume is a gorgeous ombre of black to white, shading from one wrist to the opposite ankle, through rippling details of grey like glaciers and weather patterns. Black pearls climb one of his legs like a vine. His hair is braided back and seems a richer gold than usual, against the monochrome of everything else.

The announcement of Yuri's name gets a wave of noise to rival JJ's. Yuri may not be a media darling, but this is his home and these are his people, and he's still the future of Nevan ballisting.

It's a fantastic routine. It's perfect for a debut: Yuri takes full advantage of his flexibility, and throws himself at each element with the confidence of someone with everything to live up to and nothing to lose. The routine is called 'Metamorphosis' and the title's practically extraneous; the theme of change comes through clearly. He finishes in a horizontal layout, one foot hooked through the red ring, arms stretched out towards the other side of the sphere.

Yuuri cups his hands around his mouth and yells as loudly as anyone else. Probably louder. Yuri's head turns towards them and Victor waves with both arms, jumping up and down a little. Yuri pauses, then turns a neat one-eighty, presenting them with the glittering expanse of his back.

Victor laughs out loud and turns back to Yuuri, who has a lot more colour in his cheeks now, and whose shoulders look all the way relaxed.

"Here, Yuuri. Take your glasses off, I don't want you accidentally going into the sphere with them."

"I won't be able to see Guang-Hong's routine!"

"You don't need to, I saw pieces of it when he was polishing it at the local expo. He's good. He'll probably be incredible in three years. But he's no danger to you, this year."

Yuuri's mouth twitches. He holds out his glasses; Victor takes them and slips them into his coat pocket.

Yuri Plisetsky has draped a jacket over his costume. On his way around the base of the sphere he's stopped by someone who Victor initially doesn't recognise. It's Otabek; Victor met him at the tournament's opening ceremony last night, though it wasn't much of a meeting. Duke Otabek, brother to the Queen Consort on a planet not known for its ballisting program, gave the precise depth of nod demanded by protocol, made the minimum amount of small talk, and left the lavish welcoming dinner early. Either he's playing his cards very close to the chest, or he really is just here to compete, and has no diplomatic agenda.

That train of thought fades as Victor watches Otabek bend his head to Yuri's ear to say something. Yuri gives him a suspicious look that clears after an instant, then nods. Otabek claps Yuri's shoulder in clear congratulations, and fails to have his face clawed off for his trouble. Victor should be recording this for posterity.

From there, Yuri makes his way around the boundary of the ballister's area, throws himself into a seat near Victor and Yuuri, and glares at them.

"How kind of you, Yurio, to come and wish Yuuri good luck!" Victor says.

"Don't call me--" Yuri presses his mouth together and darts his eyes around. He knows as well as Victor does that they're surrounded by the enormous mass of the audience and also, invisible but ravenous, the cameras. "Fine. Let's say that's what I'm doing. It'll be good for my public image."

"You were fantastic!" Yuuri says.

A smile nearly conquers Yuri's eyes, but is sabotaged just in time by his mouth. He says, flat, "Keep your core tight in the vault-sweep and I'll still beat you, commoner."

"Not a chance," says Yuuri amiably.

"Yuuri," says Victor, delighted.

Yuuri turns his smile on Victor and Victor can't do anything but draw him into another tight hug. This already feels like the easiest thing in the world. Yuuri fits within his arms as though shaped for it by a master craftsman.

Guang-Hong finishes, to furious applause. Yuuri is next. Victor toys with the idea of never letting Yuuri go; of going into the sphere with him, dancing through his routine as a perfect mirror, the two of them side by side.

"It's really a pity the fashion isn't for ballistic pairs."

"Mm," Yuuri says, as if he understands everything Victor didn't say.

"I am actually going to vomit," says Yuri.

Victor feels a shiver in Yuuri's body and is worried for the brief moment it takes him to realise that Yuuri is laughing.

"Remember," Victor says. "A conversation. Eye contact."

"Stay close, near the white," Yuuri says. His voice is intense, almost commanding. "I'm going to find you. I'm going to look at you. I won't tell you when, but...I will. And you're going to be looking back at me."

A brilliant tingle runs down Victor's spine. He doesn't point out that Yuuri would have no hope of knowing if Victor is looking back, without his glasses. This is a statement of faith, and Victor will be worthy of it.

"I will," Victor promises.

They've drawn apart a little. Yuuri still has his hands on Victor's shoulders; they slip down to rest lightly on Victor's chest. His eyes are moving, flick-flick over Victor's face as though in search of something.

"I really do want to thank you, Victor. For everything. I know I'm...not that important, really. There are so many demands on you. Your family, your subjects. All these other rich and important people."

"Yuuri--"

Faster than thought, faster than a triple loop, Yuuri slips his fingers between two buttons of Victor's shirt and yanks Victor forward. His other hand is at the back of Victor's neck and Victor inhales sharply, and then--

And then Yuuri is kissing Victor, in front of Victor's parents, in front of twelve royal families, on a live recording that's going out to half the households in the galaxy.

There's a dull noise in Victor's ears like a far-off ocean. Yuuri's mouth is warm and sweet and insistent, and at the first suggestion that he might pull it away from Victor's, every part of Victor's well-trained body sweeps in on instinct and shouts: no!

Victor puts his arms around Yuuri, holds Yuuri tight against his chest, and kisses him back, meeting the hot demand of Yuuri's mouth with every piece of his own longing.

Yuuri makes a tiny relieved sound, and then a longer sound that probably qualifies as a moan. His fingers curl in the nape of Victor's neck. Victor's own fingertips will have dents in them from where they're pressing hard against the jewels of Yuuri's costume.

Sooner than he'd like, but later than he should, Victor loosens his arms and catches Yuuri's lips for one, two, three more kisses: brief and fast and every one of them a promise. The roar in Victor's ears is an actual sound, now, not just a joy-induced hallucination.

I did want to surprise people. The thought lands in his mind and sends out ripples.

"They can't have that part of you," Yuuri whispers, wild and tight, in the instant before releasing Victor. "That part's mine."

Victor feels the flush fall over his face like rain. He lifts a hand to his lips.

Yuuri is touching his own hair, again, and Victor's nerveless hands have no chance of stopping him. Yuuri at least manages not to muss it. The look on his face is like open night sky; his smile is the wavering smile of someone who's already won a victory and is fighting the temptation to shout it to the world.

The announcer finally finds a voice, though it's one harried by shock.

"And--ahem. Please welcome our next competitor, performing a routine entitled 'Stargazer'...Yuuri Katsuki!"

Amid cheers, Yuuri lets himself into the sphere. He waves to the crowd before turning to kiss his fingers and press them to the barrier. His luminous eyes hold Victor's for a moment.

Then Yuuri turns and makes his way to the white ring. He hooks his toe through it and drapes his arms into their hopeful pose, tilting his head up, remaining motionless as gravity releases its jealous hold on his body.

Victor only remembers to breathe again when the music starts.


b_sg_yoi