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lonely two-legged creatures

Chapter Text

 I could swear by your expression
that the pain down in your soul
was the same as the one down in mine

 


  

Victor Nikiforov spent the days that followed the 2015 Grand Prix Final with a radiant feeling in his chest. He couldn’t go five minutes without his mind wandering to thoughts of Yuuri Katsuki’s warm, strong hands in his own, on his waist, in his hair. At practice he paid little thought to the rink around him, instead picturing Yuuri’s lovely brown eyes gazing back. Victor let himself run away with a fantasy of marrying Yuuri, becoming a world-famous figure skating power couple, choreographing beautiful pair routines for the two of them to skate together before sold-out crowds.

Before the Final, Victor had been privately rooting for the late-blooming skater from Japan who skated so much like he did. Katsuki’s jumps were often shaky, but the performances themselves were just breathtaking. He had a mastery of step sequences that showed a strong foundation in dance, and an earnest, moving expression. He did for Victor what Victor had always hoped his own skating did for others--showed them their own feelings, translated with clarity into the language of ice and music and movement. Victor was surprised and disappointed when Katsuki did so poorly in Sochi. He was even more surprised when the sixth-place skater, reeking of champagne and absolutely dazzling, approached him at the banquet and whirled him away into the best night of his life.

After the Final, Victor scoured the internet for every video of Yuuri he could find. Weak jumps and questionable costume choices aside, he clearly had an extraordinary potential. The right coach to help him through his competition anxiety, the right choreography to let his heart shine clear, and he could be a world champion, Victor was sure of it.

Be my coach, Victor!

Victor grinned and blushed again every time he remembered, but soon his smiles began to fade. He was perfectly aware of his own faults--the forgetfulness, the distraction, the fundamental social awkwardness he hid beneath practiced friendliness and patched with eccentricity. The frightening ease with which his mind slipped to deadness and despair. And he’d never coached before. Yakov in fact mostly kept him away from the younger skaters in St. Petersburg on the logic that he didn’t want Victor’s lackadaisical attitude to rub off on them. You can get away with this Vitya because you keep fucking winning gold but I won’t let the others think just anyone can ignore my every instruction and piss off the Skating Federation and skip sponsor meetings to play with their dog and still be four time world champion.

“What do you think, Makkachin?” Victor asked as he scratched the poodle’s neck. “Should we go to Japan?”

Makkachin panted, then made a curious “Mrroof?”

“Ah, I don’t know either,” said Victor.

He let himself dream of it. He wondered what music would be right for Yuuri, what would give him the best chance to surprise his audience. Victor had been thinking of “On Love - Agape” for his own short program next season, and he thought of its companion, “On Love - Eros,” thought of Yuuri pulling him close in their tango at the banquet with a look of such fierce intent it still sent shivers down Victor’s spine when he remembered it. Oh, perfect, he thought with a smile. At night he lay awake dreaming up choreography.

As the days passed, however, it was not only Victor’s doubts about his nonexistent coaching skills that ate away at his fantasy. He hadn’t heard a word from Yuuri himself since that night, and Victor found himself rationalizing the entire thing away. He was drunk, we were both drunk, these feelings aren’t real, I’m just clinging to the idea of them because the whole thing seemed so romantic, he probably hasn’t given it a second thought, I shouldn’t either. I’m not in love. I’m not in love. Not really.

Within two weeks, the dream faded. Helpless, Victor felt the windows that Yuuri had thrown open to the sunlight shuttering again. He dragged himself day by day through the routines of practice and eating and smiling all on his own, as he always had, and always would.

***

When Yuuri Katsuki returned home after his college graduation, he felt odd and disconnected.

Minako, convinced Yuuri would return to skating, kept offering to put him in contact with coaches. Yuuko didn’t make assumptions and didn’t push, but she was clearly bursting to ask him about his plans. She told him all the rumors she’d heard about what kind of programs the other skaters were planning for the upcoming season, as if that would entice him to start planning his own. She kept saying how incredible his private performance of Victor Nikiforov’s “Stammi Vicino” program had been, how he could have given Victor a run for the gold if they’d both skated it. Yuuri knew she was just trying to help, but hearing all that only made him feel more pressure, and pressure was killing him.

From the walls of his room, a dazzling array of beautiful Victors looked down on him. In the past, Yuuri had always imagined them supporting him, beckoning him onward, keep going, skate well, meet me on the ice some day. But now Yuuri had met the real Victor--almost--and all he could think in the moment Victor had turned and offered a commemorative photo was how utterly unworthy Yuuri still was to meet him on the ice. Some day . But that day seemed impossible now, after this last disastrous season. Instead of inspiring him, the Victors made him anxious. He’d had every chance to prove himself worthy of skating against Victor, and he’d blown it.

The Katsuki family remained blessedly neutral on the subject of Yuuri’s skating career, never prying or even bringing it up after his first evening back home. But that too made him anxious, guilt crawling up the walls of his stomach when he thought of all the sacrifices his family had made for him--paying for ballet and skating lessons, coaches, sending him off to a foreign country for five years without a single visit. How would they really feel if after all that he just retired from the sport as a failure?

 

One frigid April morning Yuuri awoke to a weather alert for snow. He peered out his window at the flakes coming down, thick and falling fast in the early morning darkness. Yuuri groaned, knowing he would be expected to help clear the onsen’s paths once it let up a bit. He staggered around bleary-eyed, unearthing winter clothes he hadn’t worn since Detroit, and finally made it downstairs in time to join his family for a quiet breakfast before the guests arose.

“Hey Yuuri, ready to help me shovel the paths?” his dad asked, ever cheerful about the most unpleasant things.

The two of them cleared the snow as best they could, and afterward they shivered together companionably inside the onsen, attempting to warm up with a pot of tea.

“Dad?” Yuuri ventured.

“Yes, Yuuri? What is it?”

“What do you think I should do next season?”

“Enjoy the sunshine! Go for walks on the beach! It’s supposed to be a nice hot summer!”

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “Ha ha ha. I meant, you know. About skating.”

“What are you asking me for? It’s your decision.”

Yuuri hunched his shoulders. “I just--you and Mom have given me so much to get this far. I don’t want to let you down by giving up, but I’m just--I did so badly last season, and I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m just not sure of what I want anymore.” Yuuri felt hot tears begin to well up, and his heart start to race in panic.

His dad gently took his mug of tea from his hands, and set it down on the sideboard, then pulled his son into a tight hug. “Yuuri,” he said. “Your mom and I are so proud of you. Yes, we gave a great deal to support your skating career, and your college studies in America. We were happy to do it, because skating was what you wanted to do, and you were willing to work hard for it, and it made you happy. If skating isn’t what makes you happy any more, we will support you in that, too.”

Yuuri hugged him back. “Thanks, Dad,” he said shakily.

“In the meantime, I hope helping your old parents run the onsen also makes you happy, because we need to make sure the indoor baths are extra nice today since not many will want to be outside! And how do you feel about helping old Chiyoko-san around? You know she only had that hip replacement a couple months ago and we can’t have her falling on the ice. You know she also has to do all those exercises--that was your degree after all, maybe it would be nice of you to offer to help her--”

 

The next day, Mari trailed around after Yuuri saying, “You know, Yuuri, Chiyoko-san wouldn’t shut up about how sweet and helpful you were to her when she left.”

“Oh...thanks.”

“I think she miiight have a little crush on you.”

“She’s just a very nice old lady,” Yuuri scolded.

“Have you thought about, you know. Doing that?”

“Old ladies?!”

Mari snorted. “No, weirdo, physical therapy. That thing you got a degree in.”

“Oh,” said Yuuri. “Well, I--don’t actually have a degree in that, it was just kinesiology, and I’d need a whole other one to get certified.”

“So?” said Mari.

“I mean, yeah, I’ve thought about it. It was nice, feeling helpful.”

“I mean, no pressure but it could be great business for the onsen, if we could advertise that we had a licensed physical therapist--or oo, hey, a massage therapist, I mean that would be even better--”

“Okay, okay, I’ll think about it, alright?”

 

Later, Yuuri went down the the Ice Castle and put on Prokofiev’s Tale of the Stone Flower . He skated without any sort of plan, just let his feet follow the music, sometimes skating over to the speakers to skip over movements he didn’t like as much. Sometimes he slipped into Victor Nikiforov’s choreography from a free skate program from many years ago. It felt so good, out here alone on the ice, just letting the ballet move through him. It felt like freedom, with no one watching, no one tallying his jumps, no one raising an eyebrow and making a mark every time he let his hand touch the ice.

As it often did, when he let it, the ice brought him calm. With every spin, every gesture of his arms, he let go of the dream of skating on the same ice as Victor. It was a bad reason to push himself back into a career that had begun to bring him more pain than joy. He didn’t need it. The ice would always be here, and the music. And Victor, perfect and unstoppable, would keep churning out new and perfect programs to release the feelings in his heart. If no one but his close friends and family ever saw him skate them, well, that was actually a huge relief.

Back in his childhood bedroom, feeling sore but content, Yuuri looked around at all the posters. He shook his head, feeling a little ridiculous. Carefully, gently, he pulled each one from the walls, unpeeled their tape and sticky putty, and slid the whole stack under his bed.

He left just one picture of Victor, tastefully framed instead of tacked straight on the wall like he’d done as a kid. Victor at the 2009 Worlds Gala Exhibition, hands stretched high above his head, bangs flopping down over eyes made up in glittery blue eyeshadow, a look of defiant joy. The photo had run in a skating magazine, but somehow Minako had managed to get an 8x10 print of it, which she’d given to Yuuri before he went off to college. It always made him feel stronger and happier to look at it.

“Sorry, Victor,” he said aloud, as if the living legend would care or understand if he’d actually been there. But still, Yuuri smiled. He had always loved Victor for doing everything his own way. Maybe breaking away from the path he’d been on for so many years was a way of honoring Victor, too.

***

The 2016 Grand Prix Final banquet was much more subdued than that of the previous year. However, if Victor mourned the absence of last year’s tango partner, he did have the pleasure of chatting with a delightful young Thai skater named Phichit Chulanont. Victor congratulated Phichit on his success at making the Final, though he’d wound up coming in last. “You have incredible stage presence,” Victor assured him warmly. “I really hope you don’t feel discouraged. This was a very impressive group of skaters this year and you did really well! And you’re still so young--you have a very bright career ahead of you, I’m sure.”

Phichit beamed at the praise, and assured Victor he was far from giving up. “Hey,” he added, “can I get a selfie with you? For my Insta?”

Victor cheerfully complied.

“Thanks!” said Phichit once it was posted. “Man, Yuuri’s gonna be so jealous!”

Victor had been about to move on to speak with someone else, but not anymore. “Yuuri?” he asked.

“Oh, you know, Yuuri Katsuki? From Japan? He came in sixth at last year’s Final?”

“Oh no, I remember Yuuri,” said Victor. “Do you know him personally?”

“Sure do!” said Phichit. “We were roommates for the couple of years we overlapped training under Celestino in Detroit. Great dude, even if he’s kinda weird. I can’t believe he didn’t manage to get a selfie with you last year!”

Victor supposed this was true--Yuuri had never taken out his own phone for pictures that Victor had noticed, and Victor himself had spent the whole evening so entranced with Yuuri that he had left photography to everyone else. “Yes,” he said, “what a shame! And a shame to see he retired after last season.”

“Ugh, I know, don’t get me started,” said Phichit. “I have this dream of doing an ice show back in Thailand though, and I really want Yuuri to be in it! I feel like he might like performing better if he’s not getting graded on it.”

“Well I wish you success then!”

“Thanks!”

“Ah, Phichit?”

“Yeah?”

“Did Yuuri say much about last year’s Final to you? About everything that happened?”

Phichit shook his head. “No, he didn’t really want to talk about it, and I knew better than to push him. Kind of a sore subject, you know?”

Victor nodded, heart sinking. “Sure. Makes sense.”

“Why do you ask?”

Victor shrugged. “Ah, I don’t know. Just curious. Good luck with your ice show, Phichit.”

***

Mari came bursting through Yuuri’s door, then immediately flung herself face-down on his bed.

“Hey, Mari,” Yuuri said. “You okay there?”

Mari responded with a muffled “Yeurgh.”

“Rude guest?” Yuuri guessed.

“No,” came the response, Mari’s face still buried in his pillow.

“Okay,” said Yuuri, and he waited for her to cough up an explanation. At last, she raised her head and flopped it back down facing Yuuri.

“How are your massage classes going.”

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “Fine, but that’s clearly not what you want to talk about.”

“I met a girl today.”

“Okay. Oh! Oh, cute girl?” Yuuri asked.

Mari responded by turning her face back into the pillow and producing a muffled wail.

Turning back, she said, “I think I asked her out?”

Yuuri clapped his hands to his face with a big grin. “What? Tell me everything!”

“Ughhhh it’s not a big deal,” Mari said as she rolled over on her back. “She works at the library, she didn’t judge me for checking out YA stuff, we talked about this one series for like ten minutes and then I felt guilty for keeping her away from her work so I asked her if she might want to get coffee and talk about it more sometime, and she was all, ‘Yeah, I only work a half day on Saturdays, could you meet around 1?’ and I was like, ‘Sure that sounds chill’ and she was like ‘Cool see you then.’ Is that a date? I don’t even know.”

“Oh my god,” said Yuuri.

“She is super cute though. How do you get girls to like you?”

“In my experience,” said Yuuri, “being an asexual gay dude seems to help.”

“You’re useless,” Mari groaned, getting to her feet. “You’re gonna be here Saturday afternoon to cover for me though, right?”

“Yeah, I guess,” said Yuuri as she headed out the door. “Not like I have anything else to do.”

“Hey, Yuuri,” Mari said, backing up.

“Yeah.”

“What’s going on with your hair these days, kiddo?” She ruffled her hand through her brother’s ever-shaggier locks. “Is this depression or is this an aesthetic?”

Yuuri sighed. “Can’t it be both. A depression aesthetic.”

“Cause I get if you don’t feel like going to a barber, but I could trim it for you if you want.”

“No, it’s fine. I--I think I am gonna try growing it out a little.”

Mari nodded. “Cool. Well if you want highlights or something, I got you.”

Yuuri huffed a laugh. “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Any time. Hey--for the record, I think you’ll look great with a ponytail. Very young Victor Nikiforov,” she added with a little smirk.

“Ugh, don’t,” said Yuuri.

***

Victor knew it was over the moment his blade hit the ice and his knee went pop . Behind the blinding pain that shot through his leg, there was a strange and perfect clarity. It’s over , he thought, calm as the audience screamed, and people around the rink shouted for medical assistance. He didn’t need to see Yakov’s broken look, or hear the doctor’s assessment later in the hospital. In that moment, it all seemed simple. Right, even. It’s over . He’d always known it was coming, sooner or later. Here it was.

Victor carried that calm with him all the way through the hospital visit and its immediate aftermath, helped along by the generous pain medication that dulled the whole world, even his thoughts. The following day, Victor awoke from a nap to an unpleasant wet feeling on his shin. “Ah, Makkachin, why are you drooling so--” he muttered, waving a hand at the poodle only to feel it brush a half-melted ice pack instead of a curly head. It was then that all his truths hit him at once.

Of course, Makkachin is gone. You tore your ACL on live television and you’ll never skate competitively again, not at your age. All you ever had in your wretched life was Makkachin and skating and in the span of a week you lost them both. You have nothing. You are nothing. It’s all over.

The feeling of deep sunkenness in Victor’s chest welled up into horrible, choking sobs. The tissues were on the kitchen counter, several feet away from where he lay sprawled on the couch. When he looked at the crutches on the floor beside him, he just started crying harder again, and resigned to wiping his disgusting face on the sleeve of his shirt.

***

Yuuri got a text from Yuuko just as he was leaving therapy dog class.

Did you see the news about Victor? It’s so horrible :’(

Heart suddenly pounding, Yuuri stopped dead on the sidewalk, and googled Victor’s name. It usually came up with results about his record-breaking collection of gold medals, but not today. Today, the headlines read,

          Victor Nikiforov, 29, Tears ACL During Skate America Free Skate

          Nikiforov Finishes Last in Skate America Due to Injury

          Victor Nikiforov Forced Into “Early” Retirement?

Horrified, Yuuri took off back home at a sprint, the therapy-dog-in-training thundering along at his side with her tongue waving merrily in the breeze. Yuuri slid into his desk chair as soon as he was through the door to his room, and jiggled his leg as his laptop woke up. Ai lumbered over to sit beside him, bumping her head impatiently against his elbow.

“Shh, hang on girl, I’ll feed you in just a minute.”

He went searching for footage from the competition. Victor’s free skate wasn’t available on the official site, but someone had uploaded a pretty high quality video shot from the audience. Victor’s program began beautifully, perfect as always, his body expressing the music to its fullest in every moment, and then came a triple Salchow, and when Victor made contact with the ice again, he yelled, and crashed to the ground. At first, he attempted to get back on his feet to continue skating, only to collapse as soon as he put pressure on his right knee again. Someone shut the music off, and Victor was forced to just sit on the ice, helpless, as EMTs made their way out to help him off the rink.

Yuuri was crying.

He was intimately familiar with the shame of doing poorly in a competition, something Victor had probably never experienced in his life, but not like this. He ached for Victor, who had up to that point skated flawlessly in defiance of everyone who said he had clung to the sport too long and should have retired years ago, that his body would soon reach its limit. How awful, to not only have all those whispers come true, but in the middle of a competition, in front of everyone. He lost his shot at a medal, at any more medals at all, and he didn’t even get to finish his free skate. It wasn’t fair. A skater like Victor deserved to retire on his own terms, after medaling at Worlds for the millionth year in a row. Not by falling on his face in front of a stadium of onlookers, not to mention the whole internet. Yuuri felt disgusted at himself for giving in to the urge to watch. What a callous, horrid thing to do.

Athletes could recover from ACL tears, but it took months and months. It would be a long time before Victor could even hope to recover the strength and agility he once had. At Victor’s age, it was probably too long. He was nearly thirty, and few skaters ever made it even that far.

Yuuri knew how much Victor loved skating, and it broke his heart, thinking of how it had all been taken away from him.

And his dog had just died just a week ago, too. Yuuri knew that pain as well.

Yuuri shuddered with quiet sobs, and crumpled to the ground to bury his face in Ai’s thick fur. Tolerant as always, she sat and snuffled quietly until he calmed down. At last, he got himself cleaned up and sent off a text to Yuuko before taking Ai to the kitchen for her treat.

                          I just saw it. Poor Victor.

Later that evening, after finishing up his duties around the onsen, Yuuri learned that Victor had put all speculation to rest. He was officially retiring.

Yuuri felt another hot wave of tears come down, knowing at last that it was real.

He looked at the photo of Victor by his desk, with that glorious, triumphant smile.

This is how I’ll always remember him , Yuuri thought fiercely.

Victor would probably become a coach now. Yuuri wondered what young skater would be lucky enough to train with him.

***

In the darkness that followed his injury, Victor spent a lot of time staring at his walls. He unplugged his tv and left his computer uncharged in a corner. He turned on his phone once a day in case of some emergency, but refused to take calls. In the occasional mood of optimism that moved through him, he thought of how at least he now had plenty of time to read. But every time he sat down with a book, his thoughts wandered away from the pages to walk the maze of dead ends in his mind.

You’re broken.

Everything’s gone.

You’re nothing.

Sometimes he looked at the bottle of pills they’d given him, and thought, That’s an option.

But the thought of that thought always scared him more than the future did, so he just took one, stretched his leg, and tried to sleep.

 

One afternoon following his surgery, while once again staring at the second page of 1Q84 without reading the words, a loud bang on his door jolted him back to full consciousness, followed by a bellowed, “VITYA! ANSWER YOUR PHONE!”

Victor scrambled off the couch and opened the door to a red-faced Yakov holding a large paper sack.

Victor ran his fingers through his hair, aware that he’d put off showering for several days now. “Yakov, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to make sure you’re still breathing and doing your physical therapy exercises!” Yakov shouldered past him and set the sack down with a loud thunk on Victor’s kitchen counter. “What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me?” Victor felt angry all of a sudden. There were at least two things wrong with him, both of them, he felt, painfully obvious.

“If you don’t manage this recovery correctly to the letter you may never skate again, what do you think about that!”

“I know!” Victor yelled back, then screwed up his face as he felt tears burning in his eyes. He hadn’t cried in front of Yakov since he was fifteen. “What, do you think I’m going to skate another season after this? Win more gold for Russia?”

“Vitya,” said Yakov firmly. “If you try to skate another competitive season after this injury I will personally kill you. No matter how well you recover you are only going to be more vulnerable to injuries after this. Plisetsky can win plenty of gold without you around hogging the spotlight anyway. No Vitya, I want to make sure you can skate again for yourself, because skating brings you joy, and you need it.”

“Yakov, I--” Victor struggled to get his composure together. “I’ve been doing the exercises, okay? They showed me everything at my first appointment and they’re very simple. I’m handling it. It’s fine.”

“Fine, hm?”

“Yes,” said Victor. “Fine.”

Yakov took in Victor’s apartment, then said, “You need a vacation.”

“A what?”

“You need a vacation. Get out of this apartment, it looks like no one even lives here. Get out of St. Petersburg. Go find a nice beach somewhere. You’ve been working every day of your life since you were a child, you deserve some--” Yakov spit out the last word like he didn’t approve of its taste. “--fun.”

“Fun,” said Victor.

“Are you even eating? This is the most depressing kitchen I’ve seen in my life. And wash yourself, you look like shit.”

“Okay,” said Victor dazedly.

Yakov turned back to the door, his tolerance for mother-henning Victor already depleted. “If you leave town tell me, and keep your damn phone on!”

“Sure, Yakov,” said Victor. “I’ll do that.”

Yakov slammed the door behind him.

Victor investigated the sack Yakov left on his counter. It was full of food.

He put the perishable goods away, then showered, realizing he’d been a fool to put it off, because he felt significantly better after. He microwaved one of the frozen dinners Yakov had brought, deciding he could graduate to actually preparing food himself tomorrow. He ate, swiped away notifications from his phone, and thought about a vacation.

He didn’t want to go somewhere too crowded and busy--if he was going to go on a vacation, he wanted it to be somewhere the press wouldn’t find out about right away. Somewhere quiet and relaxing. A mountain lodge, or a hot spring.

Unbidden, his wild night at the 2015 Grand Prix banquet came back to him. Victor had tried not to think too much about his enchanting dance partner and what might have been, in the years since, but every now and then it all resurfaced, and he relived every moment. Including the part where a half-naked Yuuri had invited Victor to visit his family’s hot spring resort in Japan while cheerfully grinding on his thigh. Victor smiled for the first time in days. He knew it was foolish to still be a little hung up a man he’d only met once, almost three years ago, but that night still glowed in his memory as one the happiest of his life. He had felt so much joy, so much life while dancing in Yuuri’s arms, things that felt impossibly distant to him right now.

Maybe he’d made a mistake back then, thinking he should wait for Yuuri to reach out to him. By now Yuuri was surely married. He might not even live in Hasetsu anymore. If he did, he might want nothing to do with Victor. But a quick search revealed that the Katsuki family indeed still ran the modest but well-reviewed Yu-Topia hot spring resort. What the hell? He thought. He truly had nothing to lose, and if Yuuri was not there to show Victor how to live again, then at least he could look forward to pleasant days soaking in the healing waters of a rural hot spring, where no one was likely to bother him.

Feeling energized further by the existence of a plan, Victor did a load of laundry, hauled out his largest suitcase, and bought a plane ticket.

***

Yuuri heard a knock on the massage room doorway, and looked up to see his mom poking her head around the corner.

“Sorry to interrupt, dear” she said, “but there’s a guest out front who only speaks English. Will you come get him checked in when you’re done here?”

Yuuri nodded.

Hiroko left, then stuck her head back in just a second later. “Actually, you know it’s funny--he reminds me of that cute figure skater you love so much!”

Yuuri laughed. “What, Victor Nikiforov?”

“Yeah!” said his mom. “He’s got that blonde hair just like him.”

“Oh, okay,” Yuuri said with a smile. “Thanks for the uh, warning, Mom.”

A minute later, he sent the massage guest on her way, tidied up his things, and jogged out to the front desk.

The foreign guest was indeed a tall guy with platinum blonde hair, and Yuuri got a shiver of recognition just before the man turned around at the sound of Yuuri’s approaching footsteps.

Yuuri’s brain fritzed. His heart pounded so hard he thought he was going to die right there on the spot. “V-Victor Nikiforov?”

A bright smile lit up Victor’s face. “Hello! Yes, that’s me!” He held out his hand. “It’s nice to see you again, Yuuri!”

Chapter Text

Yuuri grabbed the side of the desk, feeling he was sure to faint at any second. There were...too many questions. The first to fight its way up to his throat was, “You--you know who I am?” He suddenly remembered Victor expected them to shake hands, and scrambled to do so.

Victor, whose hand was warm and soft, proceeded to wink at him. “You’re a difficult man to forget, Yuuri Katsuki.”

“Oh.” Yuuri wished the earth would swallow him on the spot. Of course. I got the lowest scores in Grand Prix Final history. I guess that would be pretty memorable. He pinched the bridge of his nose, and willed himself to pull it together before he started crying in front of Victor Nikiforov on top of it all.

“Yuuri?” Victor asked.

“Sorry, I um. I just wish I’d been a little less ‘memorable’ at that Grand Prix Final. Or at least memorable for less shameful reasons.”

“Oh no, you weren’t shameful!” Victor insisted with a wide, heart-shaped grin. “Not at all! I had a lot of fun!”

Yuuri blinked. A lot of fun? Well. Okay.

Yuuri decided that there was nothing better for dashing any lingering traces of a celebrity crush than said celebrity crush gleefully declaring they’d enjoyed watching you flub every jump in your free skate. I can’t believe this is the guy I fantasized about cuddling for over a decade. He felt his eyes grow watery and berated himself, DON’T cry in front of him don’t you dare don’t you dare don’t you dare--

“Um,” said Victor, who appeared to be losing patience with Yuuri’s tiny mental breakdown. “Yuuri? Yuuri are you alright? Have I said something wrong?”

“No no, I’m fine! Please! Just um, just uh, my glasses, they’re--” He took them off and polished them hastily on the edge of his sweater. “Sort of smudged. I got something on them earlier and it’s just uh, bugging my eyes trying to see through them, uh, sorry about that, I don’t know--”

“Oh, no, not a problem!” said Victor.

“Anyway, um,” Yuuri collected himself and forced his brain back into guest service mode. “What. Brings you to Hasetsu, Mr. Nikiforov?”

“Victor, Yuuri, please!” Victor smiled again, though with less enthusiasm than earlier. “Oh, you know. Someone once told me there was a very nice hot spring here. And I thought, now that I’m retired, a quiet, relaxing vacation was exactly what I needed!”

“Oh, wow, okay.”

“Hmm?”

“Oh, sorry!” said Yuuri quickly. “Sorry, I’m just...it’s very unexpected. We don’t get a lot of foreign visitors, especially not in the off-season. Uh,” he said, then tried for a lighter tone and a smile he knew he wasn’t quite pulling off. “And world champion figure skaters are pretty much unheard of.”

“Retired world champion,” Victor replied. “And retired Grand Prix Finalist!” he added, gesturing at Yuuri. “Small world, huh?” He winked again.

“Uh, yeahhh,” said Yuuri. “Very small.” He was still trying to process how this could be happening. He had not yet ruled out the possibility that a misguided friend--possibly Phichit--had nominated him for some tacky, hidden-camera prank show. “How long will you be staying at Yu-topia?”

“Oh, I don’t know!” said Victor. “I’ve never taken a vacation before! A month, perhaps? Is that normal?”

“Oh,” said Yuuri. “Well, some people just come for the day, but we’ve had people that stayed up to a couple months in the past. We can put you down for a month, and if you decide to stay longer, it should be fine. Like I said, it’s the off-season, so we don’t have many guests right now. It’s not like we’re expected to run out of rooms or anything.”

“Ahh, thank you! That’s very reassuring.”

At that moment, Yuuri’s mom came around the corner. She nodded hello to Victor, then nudged Yuuri in the arm. <“See, doesn’t he look like the man from your posters?”> she said with a conspiratorial little grin.

Yuuri was actually going to die. Why hadn’t he told Victor they were completely booked, in fact their guests never even stayed the night. <“Mom, that is the guy from my posters,”> he said. <“That’s Victor Nikiforov, the figure skater.”>

Hiroko gasped in astonishment. <“No, really?”>

Victor meanwhile, was looking lost.

Thank goodness he doesn’t speak Japanese , thought Yuuri. “Sorry about that,” he said to him in English. “I think you already met my mother, Katsuki Hiroko? She and my dad run the hot spring together, he’s around here somewhere. She’s a great cook, so if you want to eat at the inn while you’re here, you won’t be disappointed!” Yuuri winced at his customer service voice.

“Tell her I’m sure I will love it!” said Victor.

Yuuri relayed this, as Victor hastily added, “And, hajimemashite!” with a little bow. “I know how to say only about five things in Japanese,” he said to Yuuri, looking apologetic.

<“What a nice young man,”> Hiroko beamed. <“And so handsome, my goodness, I can see why you’re so impressed with him.”>

Yuuri had to just. Close his eyes for a moment. Deep breaths. “Oh, that’s alright,” said Yuuri to Victor. “My parents both speak only a little English, but they’ll call me or my sister to translate for you when you need it. And my mother says you’re a--very nice young man.”

“Oh, domo arigato!” Victor declared happily. “You see, there’s number two,” he added to Yuuri.

It wasn’t fair how beautiful Victor’s smile was. Yuuri was determined to be cool to him now, but the man’s cheery friendliness toward his mom was irresistibly endearing.

Hiroko laughed. “Very good!” she said. “Welcome to Yu-topia, Mr. Nikiforov! Yuuri will take good care of you.”

Yuuri felt his insides crumpling up and burning and hoped neither Victor nor his mother noticed. After Hiroko left, and Victor had filled out an English language guest form, Yuuri pulled down a key for their largest and nicest room. If Victor was anticipating a month-long stay (Yuuri tried not to panic at that prospect) he might as well be comfortable. “If you’ll just follow me, I can show you your room. I’ll take your suitcase.”

“That’s alright!” said Victor, grabbing the handle. “I can get it.”

Yuuri looked down at Victor’s legs, remembering that the guy had only just had his ACL surgery three weeks ago. Against his will, he felt his heart break just a little all over again. “Oh no, I insist,” he said. “I’m sure you need to take it easy with your injury.”

“Oh!” said Victor. “You heard about that? Very well! Lead on!”

Victor’s suitcase was quite large and very heavy, and the trainer in Yuuri cursed him for even considering lugging around something so unwieldy when his knee was still fragile, even if it did have wheels. The inn employee in Yuuri cursed him for packing something so unwieldy at all.

“Tell me Yuuri, do you still skate?” Victor asked as they went down the hall.

“Um, yeah,” Yuuri said. “I--my friends own the ice rink in town, and they let me have a key so I can come by and practice whenever I want.”

“I’m so glad to hear it,” said Victor. Then, as they reached his room, he said, “I would love to come watch you sometime. May I?”

Yuuri stopped, turned around, and just stared at him. “Sorry, what?”

Victor looked a little taken aback, but repeated, “I would love to watch you skate sometime, if you don’t mind an audience.”

Yuuri turned back to the door and jammed the key into the lock with a little more force than necessary. Unbelieveable. “Looking forward to watching me crash and burn again, huh.” He knew the sarcasm was rude, but he couldn’t help it. Victor was rude. What was this guy thinking? He shoved the door open and hauled Victor’s oversized suitcase inside, and when he turned around, Victor had a look of utter confusion on his face.

“What do you mean?” Victor asked.

“You said you had fun watching me screw up my programs in Sochi, well I’m glad someone was having fun, but I’m not interested in providing it again.”

“What?” said Victor again, his look of confusion only deepening.

Yuuri stared back. What? His flare of anger died down and he felt guilty for snapping at Victor. He looked like Yuuri had just kicked him.

“No, Yuuri!” Victor said suddenly, reaching out a hand, then pulling it back, seeming unsure what to do. Then words spilled out of him. “That isn’t what I meant at all! Why would you think that? When I said I had fun I wasn’t talking about your free program! That was very sad! Oh, no wonder you looked so upset earlier. But why would you think I would say I had fun watching you fall? I would never! I was talking about the banquet!”

Yuuri blinked. “The banquet?”

“Yes!” Victor laughed. “Of course!”

Yuuri frowned. “I wasn’t even at the banquet.”

“No,” said Victor. “I’m quite certain you were.”

Yuuri shook his head. “I mean I came by at the beginning, but I just stood in a corner and drank too much champagne and then went to bed early.”

“Ha! You did not go to bed early, you went to bed very very late. But I will not contradict what you said about the champagne, that part is true.”

“Uh, sorry,” said Yuuri. “Do you. Do you have me confused with someone else? Because I really wasn’t there.”

“Oh Yuuri, I admit I was rather tipsy at that banquet myself, but I was not so drunk I couldn’t remember who I danced with all night.”

Yuuri stared. “...What?”

Victor stared back, dawning horror in his eyes. “Were. Were you so drunk you couldn’t remember who you danced with?”

“What dancing?” asked Yuuri, feeling an edge of hysteria creeping into his voice. “Since when is there dancing at a Grand Prix banquet?”

“Oh dear,” said Victor. After a long pause he said, “Well. It all happened because of you.”

“All what?” Yuuri shouted, too loud, hysteria fully set in.

“You--Yuri Plisetsky--you know he won the Junior gold that year?--was bugging you. So you challenged him to a dance-off.”

“Oh god. Oh no.”

“Which you won, by the way, so don’t worry.”

Yuuri wanted to assert, in the strongest terms, that this was not what he was worried about.

“And then everyone was having so much fun we all started dancing! And. You asked me to dance. We danced together. Like I said, it was fun,” Victor added quietly, looking down all of a sudden, as if he was embarrassed.

Yuuri felt like a thousand pots and pans were banging together inside his head. “Are you just screwing with me right now?”

Victor looked up again, surprised. “No! Of course not! Oh, here,” he fished in his coat pocket and pulled out his phone. “I still have all the photos!”

Yuuri made a very quiet, very high-pitched noise.

Victor tapped around his screen as he wandered over to take a seat on the edge of the bed. He looked up inquisitively, and Yuuri, a sea of nausea in his stomach, came to sit beside him, leaving a good two feet of space between. Victor then leaned over and turned his phone to Yuuri. On the screen was a photo of him--it looked like, breakdancing?--and a furious looking blur to the side of him with the yellow-blond hair of the little Russian Yuri. “See? There’s your first dance-off--”

“First?!” Yuuri shrieked.

“--and,” Victor scrolled through more photos, “here’s us.”

Yuuri found himself looking at a picture of the two of them dancing cheek to cheek, Yuuri leading. He’d discarded his suit jacket, and his tie was loose around his neck. God, how much did I drink at that banquet? he thought desperately.

Victor scrolled. “See?”

In this photo, Yuuri was dipping Victor, one hand on his leg, the other supporting his neck. They were both laughing. Yuuri had the absurd thought, This must be fake. I’ve never been that happy in my life . “Oh,” was all he said out loud.

“And here’s when you and Chris had your pole dancing contest!”

Yuuri yelped and clapped his hands over his mouth.

Victor showed him a photo of him with his legs wrapped around a pole, an arm flung out and a determined look on his face. Pants and shoes now absent, of course.

“No no no no no no,” said Yuuri.

Scroll. Christophe Giacometti on the pole, doing a move Yuuri hadn’t even known was physically possible, wearing only his underwear.

“Where did the pole come from?” he whispered.

“A mystery to this day!” replied Victor.

Scroll. Yuuri standing on Giacometti’s thighs, now shirtless but somehow still wearing his tie, spraying a bottle of champagne over both of them.

“I believe it was the audience who won this one,” said Victor pleasantly.

Yuuri stifled a tiny scream in his hands. “I’m so sorry!” he said at last.

Victor looked at him. “What for? That was the best skating banquet any of us ever had! I’m the one who should be sorry,” he added, more seriously. “If I’d known how much you really drank I would have taken you back to your room, instead of dancing with you! Or possibly a hospital. In my defense, you were remarkably coordinated for someone who was blackout drunk.”

“It’s a family talent,” Yuuri said weakly.

“You really don’t remember any of it?” Victor asked.

“I remember going, and then I remember waking up in my hotel room the next morning. I assumed I--I just left early…”

Victor shook his head.

“No, I can see that,” said Yuuri miserably.

“Yuuri, please don’t feel bad.”

“I must have been so obnoxious.”

“No,” said Victor. “No, you weren’t obnoxious at all. You were wonderful.”

You were wonderful . Yuuri didn’t know what to say to that.

“Yuri Plisetsky was pretty mad about it, but he’s always mad about everything, so I wouldn’t take it personally.”

“Oh, good, okay.” Yuuri buried his face in his hands.

“Yuuri, are you alright?” Victor put a light hand on his shoulder.

Yuuri was trying to figure out how to extract himself from this bizarre interaction when the memory of the time on Victor’s phone behind all those embarrassing photos flashed into his head. “Oh!” he cried, jumping to his feet. He barely had an hour before his class started. “I’m going to be late! Sorry, so sorry, I need to go, ask for my sister Mari if you need anything, she scowls a lot but she’s really nice, I swear, okay bye,” and he dashed out the door without another word.

***

Victor gaped at the doorway following Yuuri’s rushed exit. He wondered if Yuuri had even really had this urgent appointment or if he’d just been desperate to get away from him. If that was the case, Victor could understand. He was halfway ready to book his flight back to Russia himself. Of all the ways he’d imagined a reunion with Yuuri Katsuki--this was not among them.

Victor had prepared himself for the worst possibility--that Yuuri did not remember that night fondly, that he disdained or even hated Victor now. He had not prepared for the possibility that Yuuri just couldn’t remember it at all. Outright scorn, no matter how much pain it caused, would have been a reaction he could have dealt with by simply leaving at once. The rollercoaster he’d just experienced, with Yuuri alternately terrified, cold, angry, and distressed? At one point he'd looked on the verge of tears. Victor didn’t know what to do with that. He hadn’t considered that his presence might have caused Yuuri pain. He felt sick at the thought.

He had wondered how it would feel to see Yuuri again after all this time, if he would even feel anything at all. The last time he’d seen him, the guy had been half naked, toned muscles glistening with sweat and champagne, one arm curled possessively around Victor’s waist as he’d helped Yuuri to the hallway the skaters’ rooms were on. When they’d parted at last, both giggling and grinning back over their shoulders as they staggered to their separate rooms, Victor had thought of nothing but when he might see him again. Se potessi vederti dalla speranza nascerà l’eternita , he sang, twirling around the room before collapsing into his bed, dizzy with alcohol, exhaustion, and love. If I could see you, from hope, eternity would be born.

When he had turned around to see Yuuri standing there today, he’d looked utterly different. Fully clothed, for one thing, in slacks and a soft-looking sweater. He was wearing his glasses. He’d put on some weight since retirement, looking a little thicker around the middle and a little rounder in his cheeks. He’d also grown his hair out, and now had it all pulled back in a ponytail, except for the soft fringe of bangs that framed his eyes. All the same, Victor had known him immediately. All the same, butterflies sprang to life in his stomach, urging him to do foolish things like gather Yuuri in his arms and kiss his round cheeks and run his fingers through his thick, long hair.

“Oh, what am I doing,” Victor moaned aloud. He shut the door to his room, then returned to the bed and flopped back across it. “What am I doing,” he said again in a whisper.

***

“Mariiiiii,” Yuuri whined, a hasty dinner balanced in his hands as he pushed into the laundry room, where Mari was folding and counting towels.

“What’s up, kiddo.”

“Well, Victor Nikiforov is here.”

“Uhhh, you okay there?” Mari asked, looking up at him.

“I mean, Victor Nikiforov is here . At our inn. He’s staying in Room 106. For a month .”

Mari froze. “Victor Nikiforov. You mean your Victor Nikiforov. The skater.”

“Retired skater,” said Yuuri with a sigh, slumping back against the washing machine as he ate his food.

“What the hell is he doing here?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know!” Yuuri said. “This is the weirdest day of my life and I think I’m going insane.”

Mari slowly went back to folding the towels. “This is wild, dude.”

“There’s more,” said Yuuri. Dread suffused his whole being at the prospect of relating the contents of Victor’s photo gallery out loud, but he had to tell his sister about the banquet or he was going to explode.

“More?”

“Somehow, yes.”

“Okay, spill.”

“So, you know how I said I never even got to meet Victor at the Grand Prix Final…”

“Yeah?”

Yuuri told her everything as he wolfed down his dinner, and Mari listened with growing delight.

“So what you’re telling me,” she said when he finished, “is that Victor Nikiforov is here for you?

“For me? What? No, no, like I said, he just wanted a vacation somewhere quiet, that’s all.”

“Somewhere quiet that just happened to be the hometown of the dude who seduced him at a party three years ago.”

“I did not seduce him!” Yuuri shrieked.

Mari raised an eyebrow. “What kind of dance were you doing with him again?”

“...It looked like a tango,” he muttered.

“I rest my case.”

“I don’t know why Drunk Yuuri does the things he does,” said Yuuri, “but Victor still didn’t come here ‘for’ me.”

“Yuuri,” said Mari. “We’ve got a nice little place here. But international celebrities aren’t going to just pop up on our doorstep because we were on a Top Ten Best Global Hot Springs Destinations listicle because we have literally never been on such a thing and never will.”

“Hey!” said Yuuri indignantly. “Don’t say that. We could totally be on a listicle.”

Mari ignored him. “Victor Nikiforov wants to recuperate at a hot spring, he can do that any fucking where in the world, but he came to Hasetsu, because it’s where you live. The guy who seduced him at a party.”

“I did not!”

“He was clearly smitten by your sick dance moves and has been pining for you ever since.”

Yuuri went for the door. “I’m gonna be late for class.”

“And he went on a quest to find you.”

“I’m leaving, Mari!”

“Come on, this is some fairy tale shit, Cinderella!” she called after him as he started jogging down the hall.

“And I’m not coming back either! You’re the new massage therapist and English translator now!” He yelled back. “Oh--” he turned and jogged back to her halfway. “Seriously though, you are the new translator, will you keep an eye on him while I’m gone? I didn’t even get to explain how the hot spring works because I got derailed by....everything.”

“Oh, you mean spend some quality time with my future brother-in-law? I’d love to.”

“I hate you!” Yuuri ran off again.

“I can’t believe you pole danced for Victor but not your own family!” was the last thing he heard Mari yell after him.

***

A knock roused Victor from his lethargy. “Come in!” he called.

The door slid open, and behind it was a woman with blonde highlights, an armful of linens, and a slightly bored expression. “Hey,” she said. “I’m Mari.”

Yuuri’s sister . “Hello, Mari!” Victor said, jumping to his feet. “I am Victor Nikiforov, nice to meet you!”

“Yeah, likewise,” she said, setting down the linens on top of the dresser. “So apparently you scared my little brother away before he could give you a tour of the place. We can do that now, if you like.”

“Oh! Oh no. I’m sorry--”

“Not your fault,” said Mari, “trust me. Yuuri will be fine. He’s actually just got a class tonight. Come on.” She led him off around the onsen, explaining the shower stations, rules, and guest areas.

Mari’s lack of enthusiasm on meeting him worried Victor at first, making him think she resented him for whatever he’d done or said to Yuuri, or perhaps just disliked him for her own reasons. As she took him around the hot springs though, Victor discovered that Mari was quite pleasant, just not given to great displays of emotion. Her laid-back demeanor actually somewhat calmed the nerves that had been jangling ever since he arrived, and it occurred to him what a funny contrast she and her brother were.

At the end, she left him with a towel and a blessing to make use of the hot springs as he wished, and suggested he come in for dinner before they closed the kitchen in a couple hours.

Victor was relieved to finally sink into the hot spring, and determined that he would not allow the confusing fixation he’d developed on the proprietors’ son keep him from getting what he’d really wanted out of this trip, which was a nice, relaxing vacation where he could read as much as he wanted, rest his bad leg in pleasantly hot water whenever he liked, and not have to speak to a single journalist about “what was next.”

 

When Victor arrived in the dining area in one of the onsen’s robes, he was feeling blissfully warm and comfortable. Mari spotted him, and came over wearing half a smile, which Victor took optimistically to signify that she was warming to him.

“I didn’t have time to write up an English menu for tonight, but our special is katsudon, do you know it?”

“No,” said Victor, “what is it? I am up for trying anything, though!”

Mari raised her eyebrows. “Well you should like it, it’s very popular with Westerners. It’s a deep-fried pork cutlet with egg over a bed of rice and onion. It’s also my brother’s favorite food,” she added.

“Well in that case I would love to try it,” he said, struggling to keep a face that didn’t reveal how significantly more interested he became following that information.

“Coming right up,” said Mari, and Victor thought she might have smirked before wandering back to the kitchen.

Left alone, Victor pulled out his phone. The photo gallery was still open. He lingered for only a second on the last photo of Yuuri before closing it and opening Twitter. It soon became too much, seeing all the @’s and DMs either wishing him well or asking what his plans were, so he closed that, too. Instagram was full of rinks and skaters. His background was still Makkachin, because he hadn’t had the heart to change it. Everything, everything was a reminder of a past he couldn’t return to, or a future whose uncertainty gave him a sick feeling in his stomach. He felt an urge to throw the phone across the room, but instead just turned it off, tracing patterns on the blank screen with his finger where it rested on the table.

Mari’s reappearance with the katsudon bowl was a welcome distraction.

“Oh, that smells divine!” he cried as she set it down, and he meant it. Eagerly taking his first bite, he looked up at her with wide eyes.

“Good?” she asked.

“Vkusno!” he exclaimed after swallowing. “This is the most delicious food I have ever tasted!”

Mari raised her eyebrows. “Seriously?”

Victor nodded vigorously, digging in for more. Food had recently become just a thing he tried to remember to put in his body at least a couple times a day because otherwise he got a headache. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d eaten something and actively enjoyed it. The pleasure brought to him by the Katsuki katsudon was a pleasant and miraculous surprise.

Mari yelled something toward the kitchen. Victor looked up inquisitively, and Mari explained, “Just passing on your compliments to the chef.”

Mrs. Katsuki stuck her head out into the dining area to beam at him. “Thank you, Mr. Nikiforov!”

Mari plopped herself down across the table from him.

“So,” she smirked. “I hear you’ve met Drunk Yuuri.”

Victor chewed very slowly. “Ah, yes, yes I have, he told you?”

“Oh yeah,” said Mari. “I can’t believe he spent this whole time thinking he never even talked to you at that competition. What a hot mess.”

Victor winced. “I feel I must apologize, if I’d known how drunk he really was--”

“Oh no, don’t worry about it,” said Mari. “The Katsukis can hold their liquor. He’s obviously fine. I mean if he’d died of alcohol poisoning then of course I would have had to hunt down and murder each and every one of you, but...”

“Well I would have deserved it,” said Victor, allowing himself to smile a little.

Mari nodded. “Drunk Yuuri’s pretty different from Regular Yuuri. You’ve probably noticed.”

Victor couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh, no, I hadn’t!”

“He gets it from our dad, if you can believe it--he’s a goofy drunk too. I swear I’m the only person in this family who has any dignity with alcohol.”

“Haha, really?” asked Victor.

“Mmhm. You know you really ought to take Yuuri out for karaoke sometime. That’s the best Drunk Yuuri, though I’ll admit I haven’t seen the pole dancing version.”

Victor could feel himself flushing, somewhere between the idea of taking Yuuri out and Yuuri’s pole dancing. “Oh, does he sing?”

“Sober? He’ll insist he doesn’t and that when he does it’s terrible, but it’s a dirty lie. Three beers in and he’s a fucking rock star, it’s unbelieveable.”

Victor smiled.

“Honestly it’s just so shitty that he has so much trouble with anxiety, when he’s so good at this stuff.”

Victor thought about this. It surprised him to learn that Yuuri’s anxiety went beyond ordinary competition nerves, but he supposed it made sense, now. “How did he end up in competitive skating then?” he asked.

Mari shrugged. “He loves figure skating more than anything. It was sort of his refuge when he was a kid. When he got anxious he would just go to the rink and skate and it always calmed him down. Something about it, I don’t know. And it’s a way to perform on his own without having to talk to or look at anyone, which I think is a plus for him. Hey, so I hear you have photo evidence of this banquet?”

“What? Oh, yes,” said Victor.

Mari reached across the table and gestured for him to hand his phone over.

Victor, supposing little harm could be done since Mari had clearly already heard the story, pulled up the gallery for her.

Mari scrolled through the photos with increasing delight, occasionally exclaiming “Oh no!” or “Yeah, that’s my boy!” Victor saw her tapping around and reached out to take the phone back, but she jerked it away and continued. “Oh, don’t worry,” she said. “Just emailing these to myself. And my girlfriend.”

“Um,” said Victor, but decided the situation was helpless.

“They will stay top secret, I promise,” she continued, “No further than us. Though I am going to threaten to show them to Minako if Yuuri doesn’t agree to show off these pole dancing skills. God, she’s going to flip.”

“Who’s Minako?” asked Victor, weakly.

“Yuuri’s old ballet instructor,” said Mari, sliding the phone back to Victor. “She’s sort of a family friend. She and Drunk Yuuri are real kindred spirits, if you know what I mean, but she’s one of our mom’s oldest friends and she’s been good to Yuuri since he was a little boy, so we like her.”

“Ah,” said Victor. “That sounds nice.”

“Yuuri actually teaches classes at her studio himself now, stuff besides ballet he picked up in college. Not pole dancing, because he made me swear I’d never tell her he took those lessons, but cat’s out of the bag now. If he can pole dance in front of all the world’s top figure skaters he can damn well show it to us.”

“I will confirm it was very impressive,” said Victor.

Mari snorted.

“So you said Yuuri teaches dance now?”

“Yep. Skating too, actually, that’s where he is tonight, over at the rink.”

Victor smiled. “He has many talents, then.”

“Yeah, Yuuri has like five jobs--besides doing regular work around the onsen, he’s trained as a massage therapist too. It’s a good fit for us--many guests here come for their health or to relieve pain, so it’s nice we can offer those services as well.”

“Oh!” said Victor, kicking the thought of Yuuri Katsuki, Massage Therapist, far away from his conscious brain.

“Hey, that’s you, too--I forgot Yuuri mentioned you messed up a foot or something--”

“Knee,” said Victor.

“Right. Well, Yuuri’s here to help if you need it. Well, not right now--like I said, he’s over at the Ice Castle. His class should just be getting out now, but he usually stays late after and practices by himself when everyone’s gone.”

“I’d love to see him skate again,” Victor murmured.

“Really?” said Mari.

Victor nodded. “I was rooting for him, you know, in his last Grand Prix Final. Of all my competitors, I liked his skating the best.”

Mari stared at him. “Well shit,” she said..

“I was sorry to see his nerves get the best of him when I actually had the chance to see him skate in person.”

“Yeah,” said Mari. “You really ought to see him when he thinks no one’s watching. I don’t even know that much about skating, but it’s like night and day, to be honest.”

“Yes,” said Victor, “I would really like that.”

Mari got a look.

“You want to go tonight?” she asked.

“Really?” asked Victor.

“Sure, why not. I know he’s over there. I can text Yuuko and see if she’ll let you into the building.”

“Is it far?”

“Only a couple miles. But I can drive you, no problem.” Mari was already on her phone.

Victor felt a swelling, fluttery feeling in his heart that overwhelmed any other thoughts he could possibly have in that moment.

***

Yuuri was late enough for his class that he had to take it at a jog to get there on time, his feet pounding what what what and why why why on the pavement the whole way.

He felt grateful to have the kids tonight. Focusing on being positive and present with them was often a useful distraction from his own melancholy, and tonight was no different. For two hours, he had no time to panic over the thought of Victor Nikiforov vacationing in his onsen, Victor Nikiforov seeing him blackout drunk, Victor Nikiforov seeing him pole dance while nearly naked.

After practice, he checked his phone, and saw a text from Mari.

In case you were wondering, Victor looks very impressive without a shirt

Yuuri groaned. This was going to be hell.

He set the phone back down, and with it his glasses, and took off on a lap around the rink, letting the echo of his skates’ skirr against the ice in the empty rink replace the intrusive thoughts in his head. For a while he only skated easy circles and figure eights, then gradually added jumps and motion, just skating freely to whatever music drifted through his head.

What could possibly have made you dance with Victor, drunk or sober? The question had puzzled Yuuri since he’d first laid eyes on the incriminating photographs. He knew he’d inherited his dad’s tendency to do crazy stuff when he was drunk, but he couldn’t even imagine doing this . He thought back to what happened at that Final. The memories of falling were close to him--he still woke up from nightmares about that whole season.

Victor, though. Victor had skated “Stammi Vicino” in that competition, and Yuuri had cried when he watched him. He was still a wreck from crying after his own free skate, but Yuuri hadn’t been crying for himself anymore. It was Victor, and the inutterable sadness on his face as he’d skated that day. Yuuri had looked up the lyrics to the aria after watching Victor skate it the first time on tv, earlier in the series. It was about a man full of loneliness, dreaming of being reunited with a lover who seemed to possibly exist only in his imagination. Dreaming of finding someone with whom he could move as one.

It was strange, to think of Victor being lonely. He was charming, handsome, and successful, and Yuuri could not convince himself that Victor lacked for any companionship he ever desired. But the look on his face as he’d skated that day had been so believably, earnestly sad. Yuuri had been moved to tears, heartbroken at the thought that Victor might really be that lonely, that he wasn’t just playing a part for the program. Oh, Victor , he’d thought, if I could ever be near you, I’d stay by your side and never leave.

Maybe that was how Drunk Yuuri somehow came to drag Victor into dancing all night. It was all the fault of Victor’s sad free skate, and Yuuri’s irrational desire to make him happy.

It suddenly occurred to Yuuri that it was odd Victor had come here alone. People usually took vacations with family or friends, didn’t they? But here Victor was, all by himself, no parent or sibling, no significant other, no entourage of any sort. Maybe Victor really was that lonely.

Yuuri could still remember “Stammi Vicino” down to every grace note. It felt strange, thinking of Victor’s choreography when the man himself was soaking naked in his family’s hot spring just two miles down the road, but now that it was on his mind, the music had begun to flow ceaselessly through his head, demanding to be danced.

Yuuri shook his hair out of its ponytail, and skated to the center of the ice.

Chapter Text

Mari dropped Victor at the Ice Castle Hasetsu, and made her excuses that she needed to get back, and tell Yuuri to call if they needed a lift later. Victor took the steps up to the building slowly, careful of his knee, and found the front door unlocked.

Inside, he was greeted by a gasp from a very petite woman behind the counter. “You must be Nishigori Yuuko!” he said, donning his friendly fan smile.

“Oh my gosh, Victor Nikiforov!” she said. “I can’t believe Mari wasn’t just messing with me. It’s such an honor to meet you!”

“You too!” he said brightly. “I hear you are an old friend of Yuuri’s?”

“Yes!” said Yuuko. “Ever since we were little. My husband and I were rinkmates of his here, but of course he went way further than we ever did! You wanted to see him skate tonight?”

“I hope that’s alright,” said Victor, feeling a bit nervous. “I don’t want to intrude, but I would love to see him skate in a place he feels comfortable.”

“Of course!” said Yuuko breathlessly. She seemed a little in awe of him, but Victor could also detect in her a defensiveness of Yuuri when she added, “Yuuri’s really an amazing skater. He loves it so much, you can just tell. I’m sure you won’t be disappointed...”

Victor lost track of what she was saying, because he noticed a screen behind her with a closed circuit camera view of the rink on the other side of the wall. He could see Yuuri on it, skating in smooth, easy patterns. Then something in his movement shifted, and Yuuri reached up his hands to let his hair down, and skated to the center as if he was preparing to start a competition program.

Then, Victor’s jaw dropped, and his heart fell straight to the floor. He knew that opening pose, the slow raise of the head and the arm, then dropping down to begin the skate.

Yuuko must have noticed his distraction, because she turned around and gasped again when she saw what Yuuri appeared to be skating to.

“Ohhh, he’s going to kill me,” she said, “but I don’t care! You should see this!”

Yuuko dashed out from behind the counter and directed Victor to the rink entrance. “Yuuri’s half blind without his glasses--if you’re really quiet and stand still by the door he probably won’t notice you for at least a little while. Don’t tell him I saw what he was skating when I let you in!”

Victor nodded, then rushed into the rink. He came to a rest in the entrance, where he hardly dared to breathe. He could barely remember to, because Yuuri was breathtaking. And he was skating Victor’s own choreography, to the “Stammi Vicino” aria he’d performed the day before they met.

Victor knew Yuuri had once been a promising skater, but he hadn’t really expected to see that same level of skill again when he told Yuuri he wanted to watch him, knowing the man been retired from the sport for almost three years now. But this, this--this was better than Victor had ever seen, in any video of Yuuri’s past competitions he’d found online. This was a performance that could have won gold as easily as Victor had with this choreography, if only Yuuri could manage the quads. He’d downgraded them all to triples, but other than that the choreography was exactly the same. It was so perfect, Victor could hear every note of the music in his head as if it were playing over the rink’s silent speakers.

Tears sprang into his eyes, and when Yuuri reached the “ Stammi vicino, non te ne andare ” passage, Victor had to clap a hand over his mouth to stifle a tiny sob. It was too much, too strange, to see the pain in his own heart that he had poured into this choreography now reflected in Yuuri. Victor could feel the muscle memory of it in his own limbs, as if he were sharing a body with Yuuri, as if he were out there on the ice with him, still able to jump and spin like he could when he was 26.

Le tue mani, le tue gambe,
le mie mani, le mie gambe,
e i battiti del cuore
si fondono tra loro

Your hands, your legs,
My hands, my legs,
The heartbeats
Are fusing together

Victor felt like he was falling apart, and also the happiest he’d been since he danced with Yuuri three years ago. Dreams that he had long ago pruned away now bloomed anew in his heart.  He brushed his tears away repeatedly with his gloved hands, because he couldn’t bear to miss a second of Yuuri’s performance.

Yuuri, dear Yuuri, have you been abandoned, too?

***

Yuuri’s chest rose and fell as he stood frozen in the final position, coming back to earth after getting lost in the music in his head, the sound of his blades on the ice. He hadn’t skated quite this hard in weeks, and he could feel it in the pounding of his heart.

Then a sound off by the entrance caught Yuuri by surprise, and he startled out of the pose to look over at the doorway. He squinted without his glasses, but there was no mistaking the owner of the blonde head standing alone at the boards. Yuuri’s heart began to beat even faster, now spurred on by dread. Victor’s hand was on his face, and at first Yuuri thought he was laughing. As he skated fearfully to the barrier, he realized Victor might actually be wiping away tears, and felt even worse.

“I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry!” he said desperately as he approached. “I had no idea you were coming, or I never would have done that, I’m so sorry!”

Victor looked up at him, and took his hand away from his face. “In that case I’m glad you didn’t know.”

Yuuri slowed to a stop. “What?”

“I’m glad I got to see that performance.”

Yuuri stared at him. “You’re not upset? Angry?”

“Why would I be angry?” Victor asked, breaking out in a crooked smile. “That was the most beautiful skating I’ve ever seen.”

Yuuri’s brain frizzled out for at least the third time since welcoming Victor to the onsen earlier that day. Unable to find an adequate response to that statement, he picked up his things and stepped through the rink’s barrier. After a brief panic, he quickly replaced his glasses and then his blade covers, then strode directly out to the lobby. Victor was following him

“Why did you quit?” Victor asked, as Yuuri sat down to unlace his skates. “Yuuri, you’re incredible.”

Yuuri shook his head. “I’ve been practicing that routine for three years now. And I don’t bother with quads anymore.”

“Who cares about quads?” Victor cried. “You can learn quads. You can’t learn the passion . The art . That’s what makes a truly great skater.”

Yuuri couldn’t help but glare a little at him. “If just learning quads was that easy more people would put four in one program like you always did. And I’m not that great at the ‘art’ or whatever either--all I did was copy you.”

“No,” said Victor. “You copied my choreography perfectly; you didn’t copy me. That was all you.”

Yuuri stared at him. “I--uh,” he said.

Victor suddenly sank into himself and took a seat on Yuuri’s bench. “I should have asked before coming over here,” he said. “I’m sorry, Yuuri.”

Yuuri shrugged. “If I knew you were coming I would have fallen on my face, so it’s all for the best I guess.” He sighed. “I wish I hadn’t been skating your choreography because that’s pretty embarrassing, but at least I didn’t screw it up too bad.”

“You didn’t screw up at all,” Victor insisted. “It was beautiful. I’m flattered you liked it enough to practice it for three years. But you like to skate in private and I violated that. I’m truly sorry.”

Yuuri had always liked to imagine that he understood Victor Nikiforov on some profound level that might set him apart from all of Victor’s other fans. The real Victor, who had improbably turned up on his doorstep with his giant suitcase and strange relationship with boundaries, was far more confusing than he had ever expected. “Victor,” he said, “I’m not mad.”

“You’re sure?”

Yuuri actually laughed. “Yeah, really, it’s fine. I’m only a little bit mad at Mari and Yuuko, who obviously helped you.”

“Oh no,” said Victor.

Yuuri looked at him, and a strange shiver went through his brain, the universe realigning somehow. Victor’s hair was a little messy, frizzy flyaways sticking up all over a head that had looked sleek and perfect from far off. His face was red and blotchy--he had definitely been crying, though he seemed determined not to let Yuuri know--and up close, Yuuri could see little acne scars around his nose and temples, undisguised by makeup or airbrush. Yuuri let the strangeness of Victor’s visceral reality pass through him.

Years ago, he would have been incoherent just sitting this close to Victor Nikiforov. But the man sitting beside him now wasn’t a glorious, sparkling god looking down from a poster with a frozen smile. Yuuri had always imagined him to be impossibly tall, but in truth he barely had more than a couple inches on Yuuri himself, and hunched over as he was now, there was no difference at all. He was just a man, tired and sad, imperfect in all the small ways anyone could be, maybe even in some of the greater ones. He was just another retired figure skater, same as Yuuri. After all these years of feeling like he was racing to catch up to Victor, and then giving up on the race altogether, he found himself sitting beside his hero at last, equals.

Yuuri felt so sorry for him. It must be killing him, to not be allowed on the ice, and no matter what he said, it surely must have hurt to watch someone else skating his program instead.

“Um,” Yuuri said. “How’s your knee?”

“It’s fine. It still hurts sometimes.” Victor paused for a long moment. “I can’t skate for another four months, they said.”

“I’m so sorry. I’m sure that’s frustrating.”

“Yes,” was all Victor said.

“I--I guess I’m going to head back home now. Do you want me to call Mari to bring the car back? I usually walk, but--”

“I can walk,” said Victor. “It’s good for me to use it.”

“Well we can, um, walk back together then?”

“I would like that,” said Victor, giving Yuuri a little smile.

Yuuri’s stomach gave a little flip. This was going to be a dangerous month.

Yuuko was nowhere to be seen, and Yuuri guessed that she had booked it back home as soon as she let Victor in so he wouldn’t confront her about it. He shut off the lights, and locked the front doors behind them. Neither of them spoke as they began the walk back to Yu-Topia, and by the time they crossed the bridge Yuuri felt sure he was getting an ulcer just from the stress of the awkward silence.

It was Victor who finally said, “You never told me, why you quit. You don’t have to,” he added hastily.

“Oh,” said Yuuri. “I--I love skating. I’ve always loved skating, and dancing, it’s like--I don’t know. But competitions were my least favorite part of it, they always triggered my anxiety really bad, and the more I did them, instead of getting easier, it got worse. It made me dread going out on the ice. When I left my coach in America, when I came back to Japan and just skated for myself, it felt like fun again. And I just realized that the things that felt important--competing, winning medals, whatever, none of that had anything to do with what I loved about skating in the first place. I mean, when I watched you skate, I never thought about the medals you were going to win. I thought about how you--you, um. When you skate, it’s like. The music is finding its purest expression. I just got too far away from that. It became about points and rankings instead of music and dance. The uh--the art, like you were saying earlier.”

“Hmm,” said Victor.

“Uh--sorry,” said Yuuri, wanting to slap himself for puking feelings all over Victor instead of just giving a normal answer. “I didn’t--that was a lot.”

“Don’t apologize,” said Victor, a smile in his voice. “Thank you for what you said about my skating.”

Yuuri almost said “sorry” again, just on instinct, but fought it back.

“And I think I know what you mean, about getting distracted from the art. I’ve never skated without thinking about how the outcome would be received, you know? Maybe it will be nice, when I go back, to skate just for me.”

“Yeah,” said Yuuri. “I think--well, I hope so.”

***

They fell into silence for another minute, and then Victor broke it again.

“You haven’t asked me what I’m doing next. Now that I’m retired.”

He didn’t know why he brought it up when it was the last thing he wanted to talk about. A masochistic streak, or maybe just an instinct that it was safe to talk about this with Yuuri. Maybe both.

“You said you were taking a vacation.”

Victor looked over at him. “That’s only for the next month.”

Yuuri shrugged. “I never knew what I was doing for more than a month in the future when I first retired. I’m sure you have your life together a lot better than I did, but still. I always hated when people asked me that question, when I didn’t know the answer. I wouldn’t do that to you.”

Victor felt a fresh lump in his throat. “Thank you,” he said at last.

“I guess you’ve been getting that a lot, huh.”

“Yes. Every fucking day.”

“I’m sorry. That’s gotta be awful.”

Victor closed his eyes and breathed the cold sea air. “I haven’t told anyone I’m here,” he said. “Just Yakov. Ah--that’s Yakov Feltsman, my old coach.”

“Oh! No, don’t worry, we won’t--I mean, it’s not like we planned to announce it on our website or anything.”

Victor huffed out a relieved laugh. “Ah, thank you.”

Yuuri pulled out his phone. “I’ll text Yuuko too and let her know. I don’t think she or Nishigori would spill, but their kids are hardcore skating fans and still too young for impulse control. Also they have a terrifying grasp of social media.”

Victor smiled. “They sound dangerous.”

“Yuuko caught them trying to upload a video of me skating, uh--skating ‘Stammi Vicino,’ actually, back when I first moved back home. Can you imagine if people had actually seen it? Oh my god, it would have looked so presumptuous…”

Victor knew how he would have felt, and could list a whole number of foolish, impulsive things he would have done after seeing it, but he certainly couldn’t share the whole truth with Yuuri now. “I imagine,” he said, “they would have wondered why you weren’t on the podium next to me at that Final. Or at Worlds.”

Yuuri made a non-committal noise, and Victor let it be.

He was trying to reconcile them, the two Yuuris--confident, sexy-dancing Yuuri and awkward, insecure Yuuri. And now a third one, the Yuuri who skated alone, without fear, a vision of utter beauty on the ice, like nothing he’d ever seen.

“Yuuri--” he began, then immediately felt embarrassed. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve been bugging you with too many questions, never mind.”

“Oh, no,” said Yuuri, “I--It’s only because I’m really bad at making conversation. Not because I don’t--that I don’t want to talk to you. You, um, you can ask whatever you want.”

Victor felt a smile growing on his face. Awkward Yuuri was admittedly every bit as cute as sexy Yuuri. “Okay,” he said. “Do you know programs by any other skaters?”

“Uhhh, no, um, I mean sometimes I’ll try to pick up pieces of things to see how new combinations or step sequences feel. But I uh, I’ve never learned a whole program to memory by anyone but you.”

“So why ‘Stammi Vicino,’ of all my programs?”

“Why--? You mean, why did I skate it tonight, or--? Oh! Um, I’ve learned others besides that one. Yuuko and I, we used to practice your programs when we were kids, trying to learn your techniques. I guess it sort of became a--hobby?”

“A hobby!” said Victor. But he was moved by the thought of Yuuri liking his choreography so much that he learned it by heart, not just one program, but many, over many years.

“S-sorry, that’s probably weird....I hope--”

“Oh, sure,” smiled Victor. “I think it’s sort of a nice weird though.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“And it shows, in your skating.”

“Wh-what?”

“That you’re a fan of my choreography. You skate like me in your own programs, too. I noticed, during the Grand Prix Series, when I first saw you compete.”

“Oh--oh,” said Yuuri.

“So alright, why did you skate ‘Stammi Vicino’ tonight then?”

Yuuri sighed, and was silent for so long Victor thought he wasn’t going to answer. Then he said, “I was--I mean, the uh, the banquet photos you showed me--it’s just weird because I don’t have any good memories from that Final. It was pretty much the worst week of my life. I was--I--I have problems with anxiety, I don’t know if you noticed--” Yuuri laughed nervously. “I had attacks at competitions a lot--but the Grand Prix Final was just really, really bad. I was a nervous wreck the whole time, and then on top of it all my dog died the day before it started, and I hadn’t been back to Japan since I left for university in America five years earlier, so I hadn’t seen him that whole time, and--”

Victor’s heart broke for Yuuri, hearing him say all this. He wished he’d known, at the Final, how bad Yuuri was feeling. He wished he could go back in time, find Yuuri in Sochi, and comfort him, hold him and stroke his hair and tell him he was the best skater in the competition and he knew Yuuri would do well. “I’m so sorry, Yuuri,” he murmured. “That’s horrible. I--I wish I’d known.”

“No, sorry, I shouldn’t--I just meant to say, the only good memory I have from that week was getting to see your free skate. I missed your short program because I had to warm up, but I got to see ‘Stammi Vicino’--I’d been watching you for years but that was the only time I ever saw you skate in person. Um, anyway. I--I was just remembering that, tonight, after meeting you.”

Victor barely heard him, a horrible guilt coursing through him as he thought about the banquet again. Yuuri had seemed to be in such good spirits, but now he knew about this, and that Yuuri hadn’t just been drunk, he’d been blackout drunk, surely desperate for anything to make the pain duller, and Victor knew that desperation, intimately. “I remind you of the worst week of your life, you must hate that I’m here. Yuuri, I don’t want to cause you bad feelings, I can go--”

“What?” Yuuri stopped dead on the sidewalk, facing Victor. “No! I just said you--seeing you skate was my only good memory from that competition. Any bad feelings came from inside my own head. Definitely not from you.”

Victor took in Yuuri, who was practically glaring up at him through his glasses. “Okay,” he said quietly, as they resumed walking. He still felt like a monster. “You know, it may sound unlikely to you, but much of that week was not that happy for me either. Nothing so bad as losing my dog, just. I wasn’t having such a good time right then. The banquet was a notable exception.”

Yuuri nodded, appearing lost in thought. After a while, he said, “I--I’m sure you get this all the time, but. I’ve looked up to you since I was a kid. I started competitive skating because of you. I always wanted to meet you. I can’t believe when I actually did I just got wasted and made you dance with me.”

“Really?” said Victor, feeling a little faint. “You skated because of me?”

Yuuri nodded. “I’m taking a long way to say, just, you don’t just remind me of the worst week of my life. You also remind me of every time I felt inspired when I heard you talk about your programs, every time I calmed down from an anxious mood by practicing your choreography, every time I felt like I--you’re--”

Victor could feel heat rising in his cheeks, and gave himself strict instructions not to start crying, because it would surely terrify his companion.

“--you’re very inspiring,” Yuuri said. “You’re way more good memories than bad.” Yuuri looked up at him, and Victor met his eyes with a smile. Yuuri smiled back, tentatively, with a look of such sweetness it made Victor’s heart flutter, then quickly looked back down at his feet.

Victor jumped back a few steps in their conversation. “I don’t know if you knew, but I lost my dog, too, recently. Before Skate America. I’d had him since I was just a kid.”

“I know,” said Yuuri. “Uh, I mean--”

“Ah, that’s what I get for putting my whole life on Instagram.”

“I’m sorry about Makkachin,” Yuuri said quietly. “He looked like a sweet dog.”

Victor felt tears welling up and cursed himself for being unable to stop taking their conversation to dark places. “Yes,” he managed. “He was. He was very good.”

“I know it’s not the same,” said Yuuri, “but I--I have a new dog now, Ai, did you meet her before Mari brought you over?”

Victor shook his head.

“She’s always hanging around the onsen somewhere. So if you feel like you, um. Want some dog time? Anyway, she’s very huggable.”

Victor laughed a little. “What kind of dog is she?”

“Oh, some kind of mutt. She reminds me of a poodle because her hair’s all curly, but she’s really huge. At least half Newfoundland, we think.”

“She sounds beautiful. I would love to meet her.”

“How is your leg feeling? Do you need to rest?”

Victor shook his head. “No, I’m fine. We’re almost there.”

Yuuri nodded. “You should probably ice it when we get back. I’ll get you some from the kitchen. Um, sorry,” he said. “I, uh, I studied sports medicine in college. When we get guests in who are recovering from injuries, I sometimes help out with their exercises and stuff.”

“And a skating and dance instructor, and a massage therapist too, yes, I heard all this from your sister.”

“Oh, yeah, I keep busy, I guess.”

“Well, as you know, I am recovering from an injury,” Victor said lightly.

“Oh!” said Yuuri. “Yeah, of course, I’d be happy to help. What week are you on now since your surgery? I assume you have PT instructions from your doctors back home, but I’ve worked with ACL reconstruction patients before, so I have some experience.”

Victor noticed a subtle shift in Yuuri’s demeanor, the audible hesitations and insecurities in his speech dropping out as he fell into a professional mode. He smiled, realizing he’d uncovered yet another Yuuri. “This is the fourth week beginning today.”

“Did they recommend massage therapy for your leg? It can actually be really helpful for relieving pain and swelling around your knee, but I wouldn’t want to try it unless your doctor says it’s okay.”

“Yes,” Victor said. “But I never actually got around to following up on the referral, I--” He sighed. “After the surgery, I didn’t really feel like seeing other people, much less being touched by them.”

The look Yuuri gave him then was full of pity. “I understand. It’s up to you.”

“No, no,” said Victor. “I need to get over this--this.” He gestured vaguely in the air around him. “I can’t be so stubborn if I want to actually recover.”

Yuuri nodded. “I’m--happy to help as much as I can. I know if it was me, if I wasn’t allowed on the ice anymore, I’d be going crazy.”

“Thank you, Yuuri,” Victor said. After thinking for a few moments, he added, “I want you to know, I’m really glad I met you. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Oh,” said Yuuri. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess I’m--I’m glad you’re here too, then.”

Victor’s heart swelled with hope. “So will I get to watch you skate again, or have I already spent my one chance?” He flashed Yuuri his very best smile when Yuuri looked over at him.

“Buhh,” said Yuuri. “I mean, I--if you want to. I guess it’s fine?”

Victor only smiled wider. “Oh, I want to very very much.”

They reached the gate of the onsen.

“Do you remember the way back to your room?” Yuuri asked.

“Hai,” said Victor, and smiled at Yuuri. “Number 3,” he said. To his delight, that made Yuuri laugh.

“Okay,” said Yuuri. “You should go back and lie down. I’ll be there in a few minutes with an ice pack and a dog.”

Victor intended to press the shy smile Yuuri gave him then to his heart and remember it for all eternity.

***

“Don’t talk to me,” was the first thing Yuuri said to his sister when he ran into her in the kitchen.

“What?” she said. “Come on, it didn’t go that bad did it?”

Yuuri abruptly changed his mind and threw his arms around Mari, muffling a tiny scream in her shoulder.

“Oh, jeez.” She patted him on the back. “Yuuri I’ve been your sister for twenty-six years and I still don’t know how to interpret that. Use your words, kiddo.”

Yuuri pulled back and took a deep breath. “Okay well first of all. I was skating one of his programs when he came in so, you know, that’s awesome, not awkward or embarrassing for either of us at all . Second of all. He’s really nice and he keeps talking to me like he gives a shit about my life and he started crying when he talked about his dog and now I’m bringing him an ice pack because his knee hurts and he’s acting like he’s fine with it but he’s obviously really depressed about the injury and I told him I would massage his leg because I-- ” (He took a deep breath) “--am a professional and also I hate myself and you and Yuuko are both monsters, I hope you know that.”

Mari raised her eyebrows. “Wow.”

“Oh and he doesn’t want anyone to know he’s here so if you were going to try to extract a celebrity endorsement from him save it til he leaves.”

Mari handed him a plastic bag to put the ice in. “I swear on the life of Ohno Satoshi.”

“Thanks.”

“Good luck with that massage,” she added with a smirk.

Yuuri grabbed the ice and the towel. “I am a professional, ” he hissed at her as he left.

Yuuri rounded up Ai on a detour past his own room, then knocked on Victor’s door.

“Come in!” Victor called.

He was sitting up in bed wearing loose, thin sweatpants and a black v-neck.

Collarbone , was the first thought that flashed in Yuuri’s mind, but it was quickly displaced by the look of absolute joy that came over Victor’s face when he caught sight of Ai.

“Oh, she’s beautiful!” he cried, and Ai took that as permission to trot up to his bed. Victor politely held out his hand to her. She sniffed it thoroughly, then shoved her head under it to receive scratches--which Victor happily supplied. “What a sweet girl,” he cooed at her. “I love her,” he declared to Yuuri.

Yuuri thought he could see Victor’s eyes looking a little watery again. He averted his own gaze and handed Victor the towel-wrapped ice pack. “Um, here,” he said.

“Thank you, Yuuri, you are so kind.”

Yuuri made the mistake of looking up. The look of soft gratitude on Victor’s face combined with the dog-induced teariness was far, far too much. “Um, okay, well, I’ll uh, I’ll see you tomorrow, I guess. I have a massage appointment tomorrow at 10, but I’m free in the afternoon, so just let me know if you want me to work on your leg, or if you need help with anything.”

“Thank you, Yuuri, yes, I would appreciate it.”

“O-okay. Well. See you tomorrow then. Um. Good night.”

Victor smiled at him, and Yuuri absolutely had to get away before he just melted into a puddle of goopy feelings on Victor’s floor. “Good night, Yuuri.”

Ai followed him out, and Yuuri shut Victor’s door behind them.

His phone buzzed with a text. Mari had sent him some select photos from Victor's banquet gallery. “Mari, why,” he said.

He saved the photos to his phone anyway.

Once back in his own room, he had to spend a good half hour petting Ai before he felt relaxed enough to sleep.

Chapter Text

Mari dated her librarian for five whole months before she agreed to bring her to the onsen for a family dinner. (“Family” of course included Minako, who was just as impatient as the rest of them to meet the girl who took up so much of Mari’s time these days.) Her name was Rika, she had gangly legs and a strawberry-blonde pixie cut, and to the family’s astonishment, was quite an animated talker. They learned she’d taken the job at the Hasetsu library because it brought her close to her frail grandfather, a Hasetsu native whom she was now caring for because he refused to move in with one of his children in Fukuoka.

“Oh, now what’s your mother’s family name again?” Hiroko asked. “We must have known her!”

“Nakamura? Nakamura Tomoko?” Rika said. “I think she would have graduated...hmmm...around 1982?”

"Huh," said Minako. "Why does that name sound familiar?"

“So how do you like Hasetsu?” Toshiya asked. “Do you plan on staying once your grandfather passes on?”

Hiroko elbowed her husband, and apologized to Rika for Toshiya’s lack of tact.

Rika only smiled. “I thought I’d really miss the city--and, you know, I mean you never know what kind of community there’s gonna be for trans folks in a small town like this, so I wasn’t planning on sticking around, but.” She glanced sideways at Mari. “Hasetsu has turned out to be a pretty great place. I think...I might actually stay.”

Mari turned an extraordinary shade of red and hid her smile behind a long drink of wine.

Yuuri couldn’t stop smiling himself through the whole dinner. Partly because Rika had them laughing the whole time as they swapped their best ‘rude onsen guest’ and ‘rude library patron’ stories; partly because in all their lives, he’d never seen Mari like this. She had always been terribly private about her personal life, and rarely even discussed her dates with the family, much less brought them home for dinner. Rika, quite obviously, was something different. To watch his sister actually blush every time Rika looked at her was a new and marvelous experience for Yuuri, and as he looked around the table at all of them, he couldn’t help the warm, almost spiritual feeling that settled in his chest. A feeling of wonderful love flowing among all of them, a feeling of certainty that Rika belonged there.

“I think I took your uncle’s virginity,” Minako announced, after a long stretch during which she’d been hanging back from the conversation. “Yes, it’s all coming back now.”

“Minako!” cried Hiroko, looking mortified.

“What? It’s true. He was pretty cute,” Minako told Rika, gesturing with her chopsticks. “He played soccer, right? Very nice legs,” she commented to Hiroko, who looked torn between laughter and embarrassment.

Rika, thankfully, found this uproariously funny. “Yep, yep, that’s him. That’s him...all over,” she laughed.

Yuuri grinned at her. “You sure you want to live in a small town?”

 

After dinner, Yuuri stayed at the table with the girls to play card games after Minako said goodbye and their parents had gone to bed.

“Oh yeah, Yuuri,” said Mari, who was currently trouncing both of them, “Rika has exciting news for you.”

“For me?” said Yuuri.

“Oh! Yes!” Rika said. “Yuuri, Mari tells me you like dogs?”

Yuuri’s eyes lit up. “I love dogs!”

Mari laughed. “See, I told you.”

Rika leaned forward excitedly. “My grandfather has this big mutt and he just refuses to get her spayed even though--I know! I know! I tell him all the time and anyway, surprise surprise she just had another litter of puppies, they are so stinkin’ cute but I have to find homes for them as soon as possible because I cannot take care of my granddad and this dog and all these babies, so, how about it? Do you want one?”

Yuuri nodded vigorously.

“Awesome!” Rika said. “Come back with me and Mari tomorrow and you can meet them and pick one out! You get first pick--girlfriend’s family privileges,” she winked.

“Thank you so much, Rika!” said Yuuri. “I would love to.”

Mari smiled. “Yeah, it’s really not the same around here without a dog, is it? I miss Vicchan too. It’ll be nice to have a puppy.”

“Does that mean you’ll help me clean up its shit until it’s house-trained?” Yuuri asked.

Mari snorted. “Not a chance, kiddo.”

 

Yuuri pulled Mari aside later before she could disappear to her room with Rika, and gave her a big hug.

“Aa, what is this,” Mari said as Yuuri pinned her arms to her sides.

“I’m just so happy for you,” he said, releasing her.

“Okay....”

“You love her,” Yuuri said.

Mari rolled her eyes. “Oh my god, stop it.”

“She loves you.

“Whatever, it’s not a big deal” Mari said. But she was smiling.

 

The puppies were all adorable, chubby balls of floof in shades from black to brown, and Yuuri despaired of choosing among them. When he first sat down, they all swarmed him, smelling the treats in his pocket, and their enthusiasm almost knocked him over. But now he was treatless and had yet to make a choice. He sat on the floor in Rika’s grandfather’s living room as the puppies tottered and tumbled around him, watched over by their tired-looking mother.

Eventually one of the puppies, her fluffy coat completely black, came over to sniff Yuuri’s pocket one more time, and when she found it no longer had food, flopped to the floor with her little chin on Yuuri’s ankle. Yuuri almost burst into tears.

“I think he found one,” Mari stage-whispered to Rika.

Yuuri picked the puppy up very gently and nuzzled her fur. “I love her?”

“What are you gonna name her?” asked Rika.

Yuuri looked the puppy very seriously in her face. “Her name is Ai,” he said.

Chapter Text

As promised, Victor showed up at Yuuri's massage room after lunch with a bright smile, wearing another devastating v-neck. “Hello, Yuuri!”

“Hey, uh, Victor.” He's just a person, Yuuri told himself sternly. He's just a normal, very beautiful person. You've massaged normal very beautiful people before and it wasn't weird at all this isn't weird either. Determined to remain chill, he asked Victor questions about how his recovery was progressing, his range of motion, what kinds of stretches and lifts he'd been doing and what caused pain or discomfort and what didn't, then explained what kind of massages he would perform, and what results to expect.

“It may hurt a little,” he apologized. “But let me know if it's too much.”

Victor nodded.

“I’m going to step out; if you could just remove your pants, we can get started when I’m back.” Normal. Not weird.

Yuuri was almost relieved when Victor raised his eyebrows and smirked at him before he left the room to give Victor privacy. I am a professional, he thought. One of us has to take this seriously.

When Yuuri returned, he found that Victor had obediently gone ahead and lain face-down on the table, waiting patiently. As Yuuri began to move his hands in smooth strokes over Victor’s skin to warm up the muscles, the man before him ceased to be a childhood celebrity crush, with all the embarrassment and nervousness that went along with it. He was skin and blood and nerves and muscle and lymph and ligament and bone, a system in disorder that Yuuri could help restore. A human in pain he could help relieve.

***

Victor watched Yuuri's brisk and competent professional attitude take over, and wondered--as he had wondered how someone with so much competition anxiety became a competitive skater--how someone with so much apparent social anxiety wound up with a job that required him to engage in sustained contact with the bodies of strangers.

Victor was no stranger to the hands of trainers and massage therapists on his body in the way Yuuri was touching him now; it came with the physical stress of the job. It was different with Yuuri, though, and he couldn't explain why. Victor feared he was projecting, but what he felt was that, when Yuuri touched him, it was with love. Not that he was unprofessional or inappropriate in any way, quite the opposite. Rather, what Victor felt with Yuuri was a quiet and all-encompassing feeling of safety . He felt cared for.

Maybe he was projecting. Still, it was nice to imagine. He fell into a state of tranquility, quietly obeying the occasional instruction from Yuuri to turn over, or flex his knee, as Yuuri methodically tended to the various muscle groups in his leg.

Then, Yuuri stopped, his hand resting on Victor's shin, just below his knee. Even that felt just very nice, and Victor closed his eyes, wishing to dwell in that moment as long as possible, connected to Yuuri by even this small touch.

“Victor?” Yuuri said, breaking the stillness. “How are you feeling?”

“Mm,” said Victor. “Nice.”

Yuuri laughed, and Victor finally opened his eyes, absurdly pleased that he'd been able to elicit this response a second time. Like everything about him, Yuuri's laugh was wonderful and cute and Victor wanted only more of it.

“Good,” Yuuri said. “I’ll be right back.”

Victor got dressed, and when Yuuri returned he had an ice pack in his hand. “Just move this around your knee in a circle--like this--” He demonstrated, then handed the pack off to Victor. “Keep it up for the next few minutes, okay? This helps keep the inflammation down from everything I did today. Hopefully you'll notice a reduction in pain going forward. Your doctor recommended one session per week for nine weeks, and I agree--my last ACL client did the same thing. So, next week? Same time?”

Victor smiled at him. “Absolutely.” He could swear he saw a touch of pink in Yuuri's cheeks.

“Good, well, I hope you feel better soon,” Yuuri said.

Victor sat on the edge of the table and began to move the ice pack around his knee as Yuuri had instructed. “What are you doing the rest of the day?”

“Oh, me?” said Yuuri. “I'm taking Ai to the hospital for a while.”

Victor widened his eyes in alarm. “Oh no, is she sick?”

“No, no!” said Yuuri. “She's uh, she's a therapy dog. She actually just finished her training about a month ago. Now we go down to the hospital once or twice a week to visit the patients, let them hug her or play with her and stuff.”

“Yuuri!” said Victor.

“What?”

“How many jobs do you even have?”

Yuuri shrugged. “Oh, well, I mean, this isn't a job, it's just like a volunteer thing.”

Victor had to physically stop himself from reaching up to clutch at his heart. “Yuuri,” he said. “You're.”

“What?” Yuuri asked, looking a little annoyed.

“I think you're very remarkable.”

Yuuri made a noise that sounded like “aaaaAAaa” and then said, “Oh, I'm just. I'm not.”

Victor smiled and shook his head. “If I wanted to go sightseeing in Hasetsu, where do you recommend? What about places to eat?”

“Hmm,” Yuuri said. “Well there's really not much to see in Hasetsu to be honest--just the castle. Of course, it's not really a castle, just a facade--the inside is actually a ninja house.”

“Really? Ninjas?” Victor exclaimed.

Yuuri gave him a look like he might be a little stupid. “Not, currently,” he said slowly. “It's a historic site now. For places to eat, I don't know, there's really not much. There's places to grab food down near the street market. Also I'm obligated to send you by Minako’s snack bar if you want a drink or something light to eat in the evening--she's--”

“Your ballet instructor?” Victor finished, recalling his conversation with Mari. "Does everyone have two jobs around here?"

“Oh--yeah,” said Yuuri. “You might like talking to her, she's brilliant. She was a world class ballerina before she retired. Just uh, ignore her if she hits on you. She's shameless. Uh, I mean, unless you, you know. Whatever. Anyway. Promise me you won't tell her I can pole dance, though. If she finds out she's going to make me teach a class, and I can't--there's, there's a line, you know? There's a line, and I won't.” Yuuri crossed his arms as he finished.

Victor grinned. “Your secret is safe with me, Yuuri.”

***

On the way to the hospital, Yuuri and Ai first stopped for a coffee date with Yuuko, who winced guiltily as they approached.

“Okay, Yuuri--I know you’re probably a little mad at me for not warning you that Victor was coming over--”

“Yep.”

“--but I knew it would just make you nervous and you’d be way more mad at me if I let Victor watch you skate when you were too anxious to land a jump, so, really--”

“Yuuko, you didn’t have to let him into the Ice Castle at all! You could have told him you were closed, because you were!”

Yuuko looked shocked by the very idea. “Yuuri, Victor Nikiforov. Our Victor Nikiforov . I’m not going to not let him into an ice rink .”

Yuuri sighed. “That’s fair.”

Yuuko grinned and leaned forward in excitement. “Okay now tell me everything! What did he think? How long is he staying here? On a scale of 1 to 10 how completely overwhelming is it to be this close to him in person, because I only talked to him for two minutes last night and I almost got a nosebleed it was so much.”

“Yuuko,” Yuuri said. “Yuuko, he’s so nice . I mean he’s also kind of weird, I don’t--I don’t really know what to make of him yet, but he really is so nice, like not just friendly, you know? Like he acts like he actually cares. Also he smells nice, and not like that’s a surprise or anything, just--I didn’t need to know that, you know? I didn’t need to know that the guy I’ve had a stupid crush on since I was 12 is also really sweet when he’s out of the spotlight and he smells good.”

“Well,” said Yuuko, “Now’s your chance to seduce him! How long is he staying?”

“A month, but--”

“Plenty of time!”

“I am not going to seduce him, that would be breaking every ethical rule there is--”

Yuuko gasped. “Yuuri, are you massaging him?”

“His knee hurts! It’s my job! Don’t look at me like that!”

“Can you imagine if I told you in high school that in a decade Victor Nikiforov would pay you to touch his butt?”

“Strictly therapeutic,” Yuuri mumbled from where his face was buried in his arms.

Yuuko laughed. “Okay, I’m done. But seriously, what did he say after he saw you skate?”

Yuuri picked his head up and looked at her miserably. “I was skating ‘Stammi Vicino,’ did you know that?”

Yuuko blinked. “Oh, nooo, no I didn’t.”

“You did!” exclaimed Yuuri. “Yuuko, you’re such a bad liar!”

“Okay okay okay, I know, fine, yes. But what did he say?”

Yuuri shook his head. Victor’s words were burned into his memory, but he still couldn’t make sense of them. “He said it was the most beautiful skating he’d ever seen.”

Yuuko clapped her hands over her mouth, and her eyes got suddenly watery. “Oh, Yuuri...” she said. “Of course he did. You always skate that program so well.”

Yuuri shrugged. “I don’t know. I think it actually sort of upset him. Even if he was too polite to say it. I mean, he can’t even skate at all for another few months. That sucks.”

Yuuko tipped her head thoughtfully. “Or maybe watching you skate his program also helped him realize how much his work has touched people, and made him proud of his career.”

Yuuri sipped his coffee. “Maybe.”

 

When Yuuri and Ai left the hospital, Yuuri had two missed calls from Minako, and a text from Mari that said

Oh my god call Minako she's dying

Afraid Mari was being literal, Yuuri frantically dialed Minako’s number.

“Katsuki Yuuri!” Minako bellowed as soon as she picked up. “What the fuck is Victor fucking Nikiforov doing in my bar?

“Uh--” said Yuuri.

“He said you sent him? He said he's staying at Yu-Topia?

“For a month,” Yuuri confirmed, and realized guiltily that he had failed to tell Minako about Victor's sudden and bizarre arrival. “Uh, sorry I didn't tell you sooner, he just got here yesterday…”

Yuuri had to admit he deeply identified with Minako's wordless shriek.

“Um, listen, I'm coming over, okay? I'll see you in a little bit.”

“Yuuri!”

By the time Yuuri got to the snack bar, Minako seemed to have recovered her chill, and she and Victor were chatting amiably, to the slight irritation of Minako's other patrons.

“Heyyy, Yuuri,” Minako said when she caught sight of him. “Why don't you come to the back with me and I'll see if I have a treat for that monster of yours.”

“Uh, sure,” said Yuuri, feeling wary. “Come on, Ai.”

Once they were back in the kitchen, Minako grabbed him by the shoulders. “Yuuri, what did you do to him?”

“Uhhhhhhhhh,” said Yuuri. “N--nothing…um. Why.”

“Victor Nikiforov is into you.”

“What? No he's not.”

“I don't know what you did, but whatever it was, I'm so proud.”

“I didn't do anything!” said Yuuri.

“He's been sitting here in my bar for an hour and he spent half of it talking about how nice Katsuki Yuuri is and Katsuki Yuuri is such an amazing skater and when he finally asked me about myself it was to say I must be a great teacher because of how strong Katsuki Yuuri's step sequences are.”

“Oh, really?” said Yuuri. “That's nice.”

“Nice?! Yuuri! Your idol, the greatest figure skater in history, has a big old crush on you and all you have to say is ‘that's nice?’”

Yuuri shrugged. “He doesn't have a crush on me, he's just...enthusiastic. I'm glad he complimented your teaching, though, you know I never would have been any good at all without you.”

Minako shook her head. “Shit, he's right. You are nice.” She pulled a jar off a storage shelf and tossed Ai a dog biscuit. “Well if you're not going to spill, get your mutt out of my kitchen before I get a surprise visit from the health inspector.”

Yuuri decided to stay for a bite, and Victor stayed as well even though he'd already eaten. Minako threw significant glances at him behind Victor's back the whole time, which escalated into some lewd gestures as she became more inebriated. Yuuri just rolled his eyes--anyone could see that Victor had stayed for Ai’s sake, not his, because he spent the whole time petting her and telling her what a good girl she was.

When they headed out to catch a bus back to the onsen, Minako said, “Hey, Victor--a bunch of us are getting together at Yu-Topia to watch the Grand Prix Final this week, are you going to join us?”

Yuuri saw Victor’s energy change instantly, while keeping his face perfectly steady.

“I would love to join you, of course!” he said with a smile. “It will start on Thursday here, right?”

“See you then!” Minako sang.

As soon as they left the snack bar, Yuuri grabbed Victor’s arm. “You don’t have to go if you don’t want to,” he said.

Victor looked surprised. “You mean to your Final watch party? No, it sounds fun!”

Yuuri removed his hand and looked away. “Okay, if you’re sure. I didn’t really feel like watching competitions right after I first retired. I understand if you don’t feel up to it.”

Victor was quiet for a while. “No,” he said. “I have no good reason not to watch.”

Yuuri shrugged. “I’m just saying. You don’t need a good reason, you know? That’s all.”

“I appreciate that,” said Victor. “But I will be fine, I’m sure.”

“Okay,” said Yuuri.

***

In fact, Victor wasn’t sure how he felt about watching the GPF with Yuuri and his friends. Because Yuuri was right--Victor hadn’t wanted to watch any competition skating since his injury. It made him anxious, embarrassed, and--childishly, he supposed--jealous. But Victor didn’t want Yuuri to think he was weak, and he didn’t want to look petulant or standoffish to Yuuri’s family and friends, so he hardened himself to the idea of watching. The idea of being a mature, well-adjusted adult who could retire gracefully from his athletic career without having a nervous breakdown about it.

He kept thinking of the feeling of Yuuri’s hands on his leg, the tenderness in his touch. It was so much more than he'd dreamed, and not nearly enough. It brought into focus how long it had been since anyone had touched him in a way that mattered. A childhood with Yakov Feltsman as a surrogate parent and a young adulthood with a training schedule that left little time for serious relationships had accustomed Victor to accept a life in which both physical and emotional intimacy were at a minimum. He had assumed he could live without them, but now, without hours of practice to fill his days and leave him too exhausted to think before he crashed into his bed and started all over again, it occurred to him that he had not really been living much at all. In their gentle movements over his bare skin, Yuuri’s hands ripped aside the facade that Victor had papered over the aching hole that was his heart. He wanted more. He wanted Yuuri to hold him and never let go.

It seemed so selfish to think he deserved love. But as he floated in the waters of the onsen he thought, I do, don’t I? Shouldn’t I deserve love? Happy ever after love? Not with Yuuri, specifically. Just. Someone. Someone who could make me feel as happy and at peace as I do in this water.

 

When they all sat down in the onsen’s dining room around the TV, Yuuri took a spot at Victor’s side after setting out snacks for everyone. Yuuri’s quiet warmth taking up that space beside him gave Victor a little shiver of happiness, and he thought, This will be alright. I can do this. He caught the eyes of Yuuko Nishigori’s three eight-year olds staring at him from across the room, and gave them a little wave and a wink, then watched, laughing, as they turned away to chatter among themselves.

“Watch out for those three,” Yuuri said, smiling. “You never know what they’re up to.”

When they turned on the TV and Victor heard the first words from the commentators, he almost laughed in relief. Of course. It’s all in Japanese. Never had he been so grateful that he did not speak Yuuri’s native language. He could watch the whole broadcast without having to worry about hearing what was being said about him, about his notable absence, his mysterious departure from the public eye. The first senior division event was the pairs’ short program, and he actually found himself enjoying the performances. At one point, he felt Yuuri’s eyes on him, and he looked over and gave him a little smile. See? I’m alright. This will be fine. Yuuri smiled back, and Victor felt light.

Then the men’s singles short programs were up next, and of course everything went bad. A commentator said something very serious-sounding, with the phrase “Victor Nikiforov” somewhere in the middle and Victor realized that of course whether he knew what they were saying or not, he would know when they talked about him, because they would be saying his name, over and over. The camera cut to an interview with Yakov, who was preparing for Yuri Plisetsky to take the ice first.

“How does Plisetsky feel about this Final, now that he doesn’t have his rinkmate Nikiforov to contend with?” asked the interviewer in English, subtitles flashing beneath her.

Victor was not about to stay to hear Yakov’s answer. “I’m sorry, I’ll be back,” he whispered hastily to Yuuri as soon as he heard the question begin, and fled the room, not looking back to see Yuuri’s reaction.

Victor went back to his room, shut the door, and then went and curled up on top of the covers as the tears began flowing. Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid.

***

Yuuri stayed long enough to watch Phichit set a new personal record in the short program, then excused himself from the party. He got no answer when he first knocked on Victor's door. “Victor?” he called softly. “It's--it's Yuuri. Do you--”

Victor slid the door open. He looked about how Yuuri expected. “Are you going to say, 'I told you so?’” he sighed.

Yuuri shook his head. For a moment, they just looked at each other. Then Victor put a hand over his face and started crying. Yuuri put his hand on Victor's arm. “Victor…”

“I'm sorry,” Victor said.

“Victor.”

“I'm so sorry--”

Yuuri pushed him back gently into the room and guided him over to the bed. “Hey,” he said. “It's okay. Just sit down.”

Victor sat, and buried his face in his hands. “I don't know why this is happening to me.”

Yuuri's heart ached in sympathy. “I know,” he said, settling down beside him. He raised his right hand to Victor's back and scratched light circles in it the way his mom did when he was a little kid and he was scared or anxious. “It's okay.”

“It's not okay. I can't believe I'm crying over this,” Victor shuddered. “I can't believe I'm crying in front of you, I--”

“Oh, Victor,” said Yuuri. “I cry all the time. I'm the last person you should feel bad about crying in front of.”

“Oh no I don't want you to cry all the time,” Victor said, absurdly.

Yuuri had to laugh. “Well, sometimes it just happens, you know? It's okay. I'm used to it.”

This didn't seem to help much. Yuuri slowed his circles on Victor's back to a standstill, flattening his hand between Victor's shoulder blades. “Hey, um, do you want me to stay here, or would you rather I left you alone?” he asked.

“Stay,” he heard in a quiet, shaky tone between Victor's sobs.

“Okay,” Yuuri said. Unable to watch Victor fall apart further from arm's length, Yuuri wrapped his arm around him, rubbing his shoulder with his thumb. He half expected Victor to pull away, because it’s certainly what he would have done if a practical stranger had tried to hug him. But instead, Victor responded by turning and putting his own arms around Yuuri's waist and burying his face in Yuuri's neck. “Is this okay?” Yuuri asked just to be sure, sliding one hand up to Victor's neck.

Victor nodded against him, and tightened his grip.

“Okay,” Yuuri said. For a while he just held him, rubbing just a little at the nape of his neck.

When at last Victor seemed to be calming down, Yuuri released him, and Victor cast his gaze about the room. Guessing the object of his search, Yuuri produced a packet of tissues from his pocket, and passed two over.

“You're so prepared,” Victor commented weakly.

Yuuri shrugged. “Well, like I said. I cry a lot.”

That got a very small laugh out of Victor, which Yuuri counted as a win.

After blowing his nose, Victor stared blankly down at the damp tissue in his hands. “I'm so scared, Yuuri,” he said eventually.

Yuuri frowned. “What are you scared of?”

“I'm scared of being useless.”

“You're not useless.”

“I was only ever good at this one thing, you know? Just one thing. I don't know how to do anything else. I don't know how to be anything else. I'm not like you, Yuuri, I didn't go to university, I don't have any other training. All I do is skate and win gold medals and now I--I can't do that anymore, so what can I do?”

“Well, I always figured you'd become a coach. But I'm sure there's lots you could do--”

Victor shook his head. “I would be a terrible coach.”

“No you wouldn't,” said Yuuri indignantly. “You'd be great.”

“Look at me,” said Victor. “I'm garbage. Who wants a coach who can't watch skating without crying uncontrollably.”

“You're not garbage,” Yuuri said firmly. “Listen. I understand what you're feeling--”

“No, no you don’t. You chose to leave,” Victor said harshly. “I didn't have a choice.”

Yuuri shrank away. “I--I know,” he said. “I'm sorry, I--I didn't mean to compare--”

Abruptly, Victor started crying again. “ I’m sorry ,” he sobbed.

Yuuri now felt tears swimming in his own eyes. “Victor, no,” he said, and put his arms around him again. “It’s okay.”

“I’m scared it’s always going to be like this.”

Yuuri leaned his head on Victor’s shoulder. “It won’t. I promise.”

“You don’t know that.”

“No,” said Yuuri. “I do. I know I don’t know exactly what you’re feeling right now, but I--I know what it’s like to retire, even if it was different circumstances from you. And I--I know what it’s like to feel depressed. It won’t always feel like this. I know what you’re feeling now feels like it’s forever, but it isn’t. You’re going to feel better. And--and you won’t feel better forever either, it’ll come back. But it’s always temporary, okay? That’s what you need to focus on. You will last through this. This feeling won’t.”

Victor sat up, pulling free of Yuuri’s arms. “What do you do?” he asked desperately, looking at him. “How do you make it go away?”

“Sometimes you just have to wait. But--being around friends and family helps, if you can tell them. If you can let someone else be strong for you when you can’t for yourself.”

Victor stared down at his hands. “I don’t--really have those,” he said, very quietly. “Not like that.”

Yuuri’s chest felt tight, and he was all on edge, trembling with an emotion that was half a vague, directionless anger for whoever should have been caring for Victor and hadn’t; half terror at the possibility of taking a high dive into the sea of emotional vulnerability and loose professional ethics that spread beneath him when he said, “Well, you have me, then.”

Then Yuuri added, “And you can borrow my family. They’re nice and I don’t mind sharing.”

That got a little laugh, and Yuuri smiled at Victor encouragingly.

“And while you’re waiting?” Victor asked. “What do you do?”

Yuuri gave a sheepish smile. “Uh, play video games, mostly. Watch tv. Something to, you know. Get me out of my head and living in someone else’s world for a while.”

Victor blew his nose. “I’ve never played a video game before.”

“Oh!” said Yuuri. “Really?”

Victor shrugged.

“Well,” said Yuuri. “I’m not about to let you sit alone and be sad all evening. Come on.” He stood up, and offered Victor his hand.

Victor looked up at him, surprised. “Where are we going?” He took Yuuri's hand.

“Kitchen first,” said Yuuri, hauling him to his feet. “Then Aperture Laboratories.”

***

Yuuri snuck them into the kitchen through a side door that avoided the dining room, and Victor's heart swelled at Yuuri's boundless kindness. Yuuri then piled his arms with an assortment of snacks, and also pulled out a six pack of beer from the refrigerator with four bottles remaining in it.

“Is that wise?” Victor asked.

Yuuri gave the bottles a thoughtful look, then put two back. “In moderation,” he nodded solemnly.

He then led Victor to an area of the onsen he hasn't seen yet, which turned out--in what Victor had to admit was a brilliant way to distract him from Grand Prix-induced negative thoughts--to contain Yuuri's bedroom. It was smallish and cozy, with a bookshelf, a desk, and a twin bed. Ai was curled up on a dog bed just beside it, and she lurched to her feet and thumped her tail against the mattress when Yuuri came in and gave her a scratch behind her ears.

“Just dump that stuff on the comforter,” said Yuuri.

Victor did so, and behind him heard Yuuri suddenly drop the beer bottles on the desk with a clatter, and then open and immediately slam closed a drawer. He turned around at the noise to catch Yuuri with a guilty expression.

“Nothing!” Yuuri said.

Victor's mouth twitched up into a smile. “If that was a sex toy--”

“NOPE,” said Yuuri, screwing his eyes shut.

“I'm just saying, I wouldn't judge you--”

“That wasn't--what that was, no, nope.”

“Secret diary, then?” asked Victor with a grin.

“No, no, no,” said Yuuri.

“Oh!” said Victor, “Was it a--”

Yuuri pointed a finger at him. “You sit down before I kick you out, would you?”

Victor obeyed, smiling, and sat down on Yuuri's bed.

Yuuri smiled back at him, and threw him a pillow, which Victor placed behind him so he could prop himself up against the wall. Yuuri wore some sort of scent that smelled like citrus and vetiver, and Victor caught just the faintest puff of it as he leaned back against the pillow. Yuuri opened the beers and brought them over, then gathered up his computer and joined Victor on the bed.

“So what are we doing?” Victor asked.

“I'm teaching you video games,” said Yuuri. “What did you even do in your free time as a kid if you didn’t play video games?”

Victor sipped his beer. “Well, I didn’t have much. I read. I listened to music, looking for new ideas about what to skate to.”

Yuuri paused as he was signing into his computer. “So you’re saying even your free time was spent thinking about skating?”

Victor snorted. “When you put it that way, it sounds bad.”

Yuuri hummed. “I just think it’s probably healthy to occasionally do something that has absolutely nothing to do with figure skating. Do you know what the opposite of figure skating is?”

Victor frowned. “What.”

“Surviving a mysterious dystopian science facility run by hostile robots.”

“Oh,” said Victor. “I didn’t know that.”

***

Yuuri loaded the game, then handed the mouse over to Victor, explaining how to use it with the computer's keyboard to control his movement. For a short while, as Victor fumbled with the controls and leaned wildly from side to side as if that would convince his character to move with him, Yuuri was nervous that Victor’s lack of gaming experience would keep him from enjoying even Portal . Thankfully, he caught on well enough, and soon began to look like he was getting into it, exclaiming in triumph every time he solved a puzzle, laughing at the game’s weird and dark sense of humor.

“Oh!” Victor said excitedly, the first time he caught a glimpse of his avatar in the opposite portal, “I’m a girl!”

"Chell," Yuuri said. "That's your name."

The first time he died, he made a face so shocked Yuuri had to giggle at him. “It's okay,” he said, patting Victor on the shoulder. “In games when you make a mistake you get to try again as many times as you want, and the other people have no idea. From their perspective it's like you did it perfectly on your first try. See? You're back.”

“Is that why you like them so much?” Victor asked.

Yuuri breathed, and told himself Victor hadn’t meant the question unkindly. After all, it was sort of true, wasn’t it? “Mmhm,” he answered. “I mean, games are just fun, right. But--sure. I’d worry a lot less if I knew I’d always get another chance if I screwed up.”

“I could un-fuck my knee the way I just un-drowned in that gross water.”

“Hey,” said Yuuri. “You’re gonna un-fuck your knee. It’s just gonna take a while.”

Chell missed a platform, and drowned in goo again.

“Meanwhile, you’ll have plenty of time to learn how to use portals the right way. See? You can see through this one, so you know when the platform comes by the other one and you can jump through.”

Victor laughed. “Am I driving you crazy? I thought you weren’t giving me any hints.”

“Shoot,” Yuuri said. “Well that’s your only one then.”

“Only one! Yuuuriii…”

“It’ll feel better if you do it yourself,” Yuuri insisted.

***

After two hours of stumbling his way through a video game, during which Yuuri gave him a great deal of encouragement but absolutely no help, Victor reluctantly extracted himself from the cozy nest of snacks they had created on Yuuri’s bed, and excused himself to the restroom. When he returned, he gravitated to the bookshelf. His gaze skimmed over the spines, regretting that they were all in Japanese and he couldn’t tell what kinds of books Yuuri liked.

“There’s English ones on the bottom,” Yuuri said helpfully.

Victor crouched down to look them over. There were anthologies of Shakespeare and classic English and American literature--for school assignments, no doubt--but also a complete set of Harry Potter books, a handful of science fiction novels, and, to Victor’s astonishment, a collection of Russian fairytales. He slipped the latter off the shelf, and sat back against the foot of Yuuri’s bed as he flipped it open to the table of contents.

“Oh yeah, um,” said Yuuri, padding over. “That was an elective I took in college.”

“I love fairy tales,” said Victor. “Maybe you knew that already.”

Yuuri slid to the ground to sit beside him. “You did used to skate to fairy tale ballets a lot.”

“Mmhm.”

“Do you have a favorite?” Yuuri asked.

Victor smiled. “Am I too basic if I say Cinderella?” Ai wandered over and lay down at their feet for better petting access.

Yuuri laughed as he leaned forward to give Ai a belly rub. “No, classic,” he said. “You never did Prokofiev’s Cinderella though! Now I’m surprised.”

“Well, I worried it was too basic.” Victor gestured with the book of fairy tales. “Did you know Prokofiev based his first ballet on a story from this very book?”

“Which one was that?”

Chout, based on ‘The Seven Buffoons.’”

Yuuri winced. “Oh, that’s a rough one.”

“Indeed, not really a favorite, though I do like some of the music. What about you? Did you have a favorite Russian fairy tale?”

Yuuri thought for a moment. “The Sea King and Vasilisa the Wise.”

“Ahh,” said Victor. “Yes, I like that one, too.” It was one of the happier Russian tales, about a sad prince and a clever princess who overcome all sorts of trials to live happily ever after. “I’ve never read it in English. Is this translation good? Well, I suppose you wouldn’t know.”

“You’re welcome to borrow it, if you like.”

“Mm,” Victor shook his head. “I’ve gotten terrible at reading lately, I don’t know why. I sit down with a book and can’t make myself turn the pages. I keep thinking of other things.”

“Would it be easier if it was read out loud?”

Victor looked over at him. “Are you offering your services?”

Yuuri turned a shocking shade of red, but said, “I--meant an audiobook, but. I could if--you wanted.”

Victor smiled at him. “Yuuri, that sounds very nice. If you would like to read to me, I would love to listen.”

Yuuri took the book from Victor’s hands. “Um. Where should I start?”

“Read me your favorite.”

And so Victor found himself sitting on the floor of Yuuri Katsuki’s bedroom, listening to him read “The Sea King and Vasilisa the Wise.” Yuuri’s voice trembled over the words at first, but they grew smoother as he went on. By the time he finished, Victor had closed his eyes and slid back against the bed, letting the sound of Yuuri’s voice wash over him.

“Victor,” Yuuri said softly now. “Are you asleep?”

“Mm, no, just enjoying the story,” Victor replied.

“Well, it's late, so--”

“Ah!” said Victor, sitting up at last. “Of course. You need to sleep.” He got to his feet and Yuuri stood up with him.

“Um, hey,” Yuuri said. “I have to work in town tomorrow. But I’m free tomorrow evening, and all weekend, so I don't--I mean. If you wanted to keep playing the game, or read, or I don't know, whatever, if you want to hang out. I'm--here.”

Victor’s insides twisted. “You mean if I still feel like garbage, and need a babysitter.”

Yuuri frowned and crossed his arms. “You don't need a babysitter, you need a--a friend.”

Victor looked down and folded his arms too. “I don't want you to feel obligated to be my friend,” he muttered.

“Victor, no, I don't, I mean--that's not what I meant--”

Victor shook his head. “No, I know, I'm just--” he sighed. He hated how incapable he felt, of explaining the warring thoughts and feelings in his brain in a way that made sense. I like you and I want to spend every minute of this month with you but I don’t want to burden you with all my problems and I don’t want you to feel sorry for me and I don't want you to see me cry again but if I do cry again I want you to hold me like you did today because it was the nicest thing I’ve ever felt and--

“I know,” Yuuri said.

He didn’t, of course. Not really.

“Hey, go to sleep, okay?” Yuuri said, touching his arm. “You'll feel better in the morning. And--and if you don't, that's okay too, like I said, I'm here. I'm here whether you feel good or not.”

Victor softened, though he kept his gaze on the floor. “Do you plan to build me a bridge or an orchard in the middle of the night like Vasilisa?”

Yuuri laughed. “Oh, no? I don't think I can manage that.”

Victor smiled. “Ah, that's alright. Good night, Yuuri. See you tomorrow.”

“Yeah,” Yuuri said. “Good night, Victor.”

***

In the morning, Yuuri confessed the short version of Victor’s situation to his mom. “You know I have appointments in town today, and I’m just. I don’t know, I’m sort of worried about him. I mean I’m sure he’ll be fine, I just--”

Hiroko nodded. “You want me to check in on him? Make sure he feels okay?”

Yuuri relaxed. “Yeah, I know it’s sort of a weird thing to ask, I mean, he’s just a guest, and I barely know him...”

His mom smiled. “I don’t mind at all. If my Yuuri were alone in a foreign country feeling sad, I’d want him to be taken care of.”

Yuuri rubbed his neck. “It’s like my bad days, you know? I mean his are different, but. I know what he feels like, and I just don’t want him to feel, I don’t know. Abandoned.”

“Of course. Say, why don’t I invite him to eat dinner with us tonight, with the family? Do you think he’d like that?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah, why not?” asked Mari, sticking her head into the conversation. “Rika eats dinner with us all the time now, why not Victor?”

“Rika is your girlfriend,” said Yuuri.

Mari shrugged. “Your point? Future Mr. Katsuki-Nikiforov?”

Hiroko laughed.

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “Mari, cut it out.”

Mari pulled gently on his hair. “Easy, kiddo. I’ll look in on Victor today, too. I promise--no inappropriate questions.”

“Thanks,” Yuuri mumbled.

***

Victor awoke early, feeling bleak, and proceeded to sleep through breakfast--or rather, drifted in and out of consciousness unable to muster the energy to stand up and make himself presentable. When hunger at last overcame inertia, he wandered through the onsen’s hallways, uncertain of what to do. He soon bumped into Hiroko, who greeted him cheerfully, and gestured for him to follow her. He trailed along behind her to the kitchen, where she showed him that she’d set aside some natto and white rice.

“For me?” Victor asked, gesturing at his chest.

Hiroko nodded, beaming at him as she handed him a set of chopsticks.

Victor stared at her a moment before he recovered enough to take them from her. “You’re very kind,” he said, hoping Hiroko understood his sentiment. She patted his arm, and went back to work putting away the clean dishes as he ate.

Mari arrived a few minutes later. “Oh good,” she said. “She found you.” After speaking briefly with her mother, she turned back to Victor. “Mom has something to ask you.”

Hiroko nodded, and smiled brightly at Victor as she spoke to him.

Mari translated. “She says our family eats dinner together every Friday after we close the kitchen for guests, and she wants to invite you to join us tonight, since you’re a friend of Yuuri’s.”

“Oh!” said Victor. “I--well I--actually barely know him. That is--I’d like to be his friend. And I’d like to have dinner with your family. I’m just not sure I’ve earned such an honor.”

Mari gave him a skeptical look, but spoke again with her mother. Hiroko shook her head, still smiling, as she answered.

“Mom says don’t be silly--”

Hiroko interrupted with another comment that caused Mari to snort with laughter.

“--For the sake of my brother’s dignity, I’m actually not going to tell you what she just said. Just trust me--you’re totally welcome. We’d love to have you.”

Victor felt entirely overcome. “Mari, Hiroko--thank you,” he said, bowing. “I would love to join you. I’m looking forward to it.”

Hiroko clapped to show her delight at his response.

“Oh,” said Mari. “My girlfriend usually comes over on Fridays, too--she doesn’t speak as much English as Yuuri and I, but on the other hand, she didn’t grow up with Yuuri in the house so she knows absolutely nothing about figure skating and has no idea who you are. I’m thinking that might be a plus for you?”

Victor gave a short laugh. “Oh, yes, maybe. Ah, dishwasher?” he asked, gesturing to his empty bowl and chopsticks.

Mari nodded, and took his things. “Nah, I got it. Let us know if you need anything, okay?”

“Thank you.” He paused on the way out the door. “Did--did Yuuri tell you to look after me today or something?”

Mari cracked a smile. “Or something.”

“Oh.”

“He’s a really sweet guy.”

Victor nodded. “Yes, I’ve noticed.”

***

Yuuri fretted about Victor all day between massage appointments.

He’s fine

Mari texted him more than once.

He just seems kind of tired and quiet. I mean, you know how it is.

When he got back home, the first thing Yuuri did was go looking for Victor, and found him soaking in one of the baths. He was leaning back against the edge with his eyes closed, face and chest flushed and damp from the steam.

(Mari was not wrong about his shirtlessness. Yuuri filed this under the growing list of things about Victor that were not surprising, but which he didn’t need to know.)

He looked so peaceful, Yuuri almost turned around and left, but decided that coming in here just to look at Victor’s naked, sweaty torso without announcing his presence was officially creepy, and thought better of it.

“Um, Victor?”

Victor slowly blinked his eyes open, and a small smile appeared on his lips. “Yuuri, hi.”

“Hi. Um.”

“You weren’t kidding about letting me borrow your family, hm?”

Yuuri shuffled his feet. “I--oh, well. My mom said you were joining us for family dinner tonight? That was her idea, not mine. Not that--I mean. Not that I don’t want you to eat with us. That would--that would be nice--”

“I don’t think I’m very good company today.”

Yuuri nodded. “That’s fine. I mean--I mean that’s fine, like, we don’t expect you to be good company. You’re fine--whatever you want to do. However you feel.”

Victor tilted his head. “Okay. I just felt I should warn you. I am looking forward to it, even if it doesn’t show so much.”

Yuuri smiled. “Yeah, I understand. Well, um. Enjoy your, uh, bath.”

 

Victor was still a bit subdued at dinner, but Yuuri's parents spooned more and more food on his plate and he seemed to relax and smile more as the evening went on.

<“What do you think, Yuuri?”> asked his dad. <“Is your friend feeling better?”>

“Um.” Yuuri looked at Victor, who was now being regaled by Mari with the story of the time Yuuri threw up on a judge's shoes before his short program when he was in the Juniors and still made the podium. <“I guess so. Thanks for inviting him, Mom. It was really nice of you.”>

<“Of course, dear!”> said Hiroko. <“As I told your sister earlier, we've been seeing his face around the house for so long, it's like he's practically family already!”>

<“Moooommmm…”> Yuuri banged his head against the table.

After dinner, Rika pulled Victor into a discussion of books and grilled him on his reading likes and dislikes, facilitated by Mari translating her Japanese and Yuuri, Victor's English. By the end, she’d written him down a list of five Japanese novels she thought he might like, which she’d made sure had translations available. She made a derisive noise when Victor mentioned he’d been trying to read 1Q84. “Ugh,” she muttered, “Murakami.” She checked something on her phone before looking back up. “Pretentious. Don’t bother.”

The conversation eventually swung back around to Victor’s interest in fairy tales, and he asked, “Yuuri, what is it you like about ‘The Sea King and Vasilisa the Wise?’ Why is that one your favorite?”

Yuuri thought a moment. “I like that the girl is cool, you know.”

Victor nodded, smiling. “Definitely the brains of the operation.”

Yuuri laughed. “Yes. And I like--I don’t know. I guess I like the um, the metaphor of like, the Sea King is always trying to ruin them, always trying to make Ivan feel powerless, make Vasilisa feel Ivan doesn’t really love her. But no matter what obstacles thrown before them, they’re always there for each other, in the end. And, I don’t know, it’s sappy, but that’s what you want, right? You want someone who can be strong for you when you’re weak, give you hope when you’re full of despair, someone who will always know you, always choose you. I don’t know. There’s not always a lot there to the love stories in fairy tales, but that one just. There was something more profound there, it seemed like.”

Victor hummed thoughtfully. “I like that. I think that’s why I like that story, too.”

“What about Cinderella?” Yuuri smiled at him. “Why is that one your favorite?”

Victor shook his head. “I don’t think I can tell you that without revealing too much of my soul.”

“Victor! I just revealed what a pathetically sappy romantic I am. How could yours be worse?”

“Can’t,” was all Victor said.

Yuuri understood that it was time to drop it.

Chapter Text

One of the nicest things about coming home to Hasetsu was that Yuuri got to know his old friends again after years away at college. When Yuuri left for Detroit, Yuuko and Takeshi Nishigori had just become very young and very overwhelmed parents, somehow managing to get triplets on their first go. Yuuri had honestly worried about what might have happened to them all in the years since, as they’d fallen out of touch. But Yuuko and Takeshi weren’t teenagers anymore, and the whole family had settled into a functional, if still often hectic, system. The Ice Castle, which they’d taken over the management of from Yuuko’s own parents, remained in business despite Hasetsu’s dwindling population. The three precocious girls directed their boundless energy into all kinds of ambitious and peculiar projects, which Yuuko claimed, ominously, had not yet turned out to be illegal. Yuuko and Takeshi themselves had a very comfortable warmth between them, an ease with which they moved through each other’s space, and welcomed others into it, that Yuuri found himself envying.

When Yuuri finally got his massage therapy license, the Nishigoris had him over for dinner to celebrate. After much toasting, Yuuri was feeling a pleasant buzz of alcohol, and when the triplets requested his permission to give him a makeover, Yuuri exchanged shrugs with Yuuko and Takeshi, and cheerfully agreed. This turned out to be a four-person operation, as Axel and Lutz prepared to paint his nails and Loop asked her mother to teach her how to do french-braided pigtails, using Yuuri’s hair.

“Okay! What color do you want, Uncle Yuuri?” asked Lutz.

“Hmm,” said Yuuri, examining the options they’d laid out in front of him. “I think you girls are much more fashionable than I am, so I think you should pick whatever you think looks best.”

A very serious discussion then took place among the three of them over whether blue or black or gold would look best, and a compromise was eventually resolved upon that Axel would do Yuuri’s left hand in blue, Lutz would do the right in black, and Loop would finish them all with gold tips when she and Yuuko had finished Yuuri’s braids.

Yuuko pulled out Yuuri’s ponytail elastic and began brushing his hair. “Remember when I used to let you play with my hair when we were kids?” she said.

Yuuri laughed. “Yeah, and Nishigori got all jealous about it and I never understood why? I just thought it was so pretty!”

“Stupid boy,” Yuuko said. “He could have played with my hair too if he’d just asked.

“Does he now?”

Yuuko gave a contented sigh. “Yes, he does. He’s actually pretty good at doing hair now, since he has to help me with the girls!” After brushing Yuuri’s hair some more, she added, “It’s nice, isn’t it.”

“Mmhm.”

“I hope someday you find a husband to play with your hair all the time, too.”

Yuuri laughed. “Yeah that’s the dream, isn’t it.”

“Any...prospects?” she asked.

Yuuri shook his head, which prompted both Loop and Yuuko to give an alarmed “hey!”

“Oh, sorry,” he laughed, holding his head still. “Yuuko, you’re one of my best friends, I promise if I ever have any prospects you’ll be the first to know. Anyway. I’m obviously saving myself for Victor Nikiforov.”

“Oh, right,” Yuuko laughed. “Of course.”

“I mean, I think it’s a solid plan. One day we will miraculously be in the same place at the same time. Again, you know--that first time was obviously just a test run--”

“Emphasis on the run,” Lutz piped up.

Yuuri colored. “Okay, well, harsh, but fair.”

“You’re going to be in the same place at the same time,” Yuuko continued for him, “and he’s going to have some kind of...muscle emergency.”

“Yes,” said Yuuri. “A muscle emergency. And someone will be shouting for a doctor, but there won’t be one, and I will say, ‘I may not be a doctor, but I am….a massage therapist .’”

“‘Out of his way!’” said Axel.

“‘Let the massage therapist through!’” said Loop.

“And I will ask him what hurts, and then give him the greatest massage of his life, and he’ll tell me no one has ever been able to get that knot out of his shoulder, how did I do it--”

“Yes,” said Yuuko. “And he’ll look up at you, gratefully, with those clear, blue eyes, and say, ‘What can I do to repay you?’”

“And, because I am very suave, I’ll say, ‘Take me out to dinner.’”

“You should throw a wink in there,” said Yuuko.

“I’ll say, ‘Take me out to dinner,’ and then wink. Suavely.”

“Yes,” said Yuuko. “And Victor will just swoon at the thought that this handsome massage therapist wants to go on a date with him.”

“With him,” agreed Yuuri. “A mere legendary, internationally-beloved celebrity athlete. He’s never imagined someone like me would look twice at him.”

“By the end of dinner he will have fallen madly in love with you, and will beg for your number, and the chance to see you again.”

“Oh no,” said Yuuri, “by the end of dinner he will beg me for my hand in marriage .”

Yuuko giggled. “You’re right,” she said, “that is a very solid plan.”

“Thank you,” said Yuuri.

“When you marry Victor, you’ve got to promise me you’ll persuade him to come live here in Hasetsu, though.”

“Why?” laughed Yuuri. “So you can meet him, too?”

“Well, sure,” Yuuko laughed. “But mostly because I missed you while you were gone at college all that time. If you move to St. Petersburg, don’t get me wrong--I’ll be very happy for you and your marital bliss--but I’ll be sad, too.”

“Aw, Yuuko,” Yuuri said, feeling all warm, and, on reflection, drunker than he’d thought. “I missed you, too.”

 

On Yuuri’s way out the door at the end of the night, Yuuko said, “I have a really, really big favor to ask you. It would mean so much to us, but if you don’t want to, I understand…”

“Yuuko,” Yuuri smiled, “what is it?”

“Well, you know my girls are big fans of yours, and they really want to learn to skate. Takeshi and I have taught them some basics of course, but we both have our hands full with the rink and don’t have time to give them real lessons…” She looked at Yuuri expectantly.

“Ohhhhh,” Yuuri said.

“So anyway, I was wondering if you might be willing to teach them for a little while? Just once a week? We’ll pay you, of course--”

“Oh, no,” said Yuuri, “don’t do that!”

“Yuuri,” said Yuuko. “You were a nationally-ranked pro skater. You qualified for a Grand Prix Final! You should expect to be paid for lessons!”

“Oh,” said Yuuri. “Well, I mean, I’ve never taught skating before, so I don’t know about that, but if Axel, Lutz, and Loop actually want me to teach them, I guess I can try my best.” He wiggled his awkwardly-painted fingernails at her. “You know I’d do anything for them. But if they decide to get serious about it, you have to get them a real coach, promise?”

Yuuko beamed. “Of course. Thank you so much, Yuuri! I think you guys will have a lot of fun!”

 

Yuuri was nervous before his first lesson with the triplets, and almost called Yuuko to say he was sick, but at last managed to convince himself that he could handle three seven-year-olds for an hour. They asked him a million questions, but they also hung on every word of his answers, and Yuuri was surprised to find anyone listen so closely to him. He found a check from Yuuko in his bag when he got home. When she gave him one directly the following week, he accepted it.

After the fourth week, Yuuko said, “Yuuri! You’ve been so amazing with the girls, I can’t believe how much they’ve improved so quickly! All their friends are really impressed, too, you know one of them apparently was asking who their teacher was, and when they said it was you, she wanted to know if she could take lessons with you too! Do you think you could squeeze in one more kid next week, just so she can try it out?”

“Uh,” said Yuuri, and Yuuko must have taken that as a ‘yes’ because sure enough, the following week there were actually two extra girls.

A week after that, a little boy showed up at the rink and told Yuuri how excited he was to be learning from the great Katsuki Yuuri. The next week, two more boys.

Eventually the class (it was now a class) grew to ten, and Yuuri told Yuuko that he really had to cap it there, because ten was the limit of children he felt he could safely watch at one time.

“Okay, well let me know what other nights you’re free so we can advertise for a second class!”

“What?” said Yuuri.

The second class eventually also grew to ten.

“Yuuko, we’re using your rink! You and Nishigori should be getting a cut of the class fees.”

“That’s what I said!” shouted Nishigori from his office.

“Nonsense!” said Yuuko, “It’s really all you.”

The following day, Yuuko found a check from Yuuri in the cash drawer.

Together, the two of them and Nishigori finally worked out an official schedule for the classes, payment plans, and an mutually-agreed-upon equitable split between the rink and the instructor.

 

“So I hear you’re teaching over at the rink now.” Minako said to Yuuri the next time he stopped by her snack bar.

“Yeah,” said Yuuri. “I don’t really know how it happened but, uh, it’s been fun, actually. The kids are great. It’s sort of nice to be around people who are more nervous about skating than I am.”

“More confident than a six-year-old, that’s my Yuuri,” said Minako. “You know, my students are always clamoring for me to offer hip-hop and jazz and crap. I know you said you studied more than just ballet at your American university--you think you can teach any of that?”

“Uh,” said Yuuri.

Chapter Text

Victor awoke feeling better on Saturday--restless, rather than bleak, as if his body were desperate to make up for the last 48 hours of malaise. He wanted to run, but running was still forbidden, so he settled for a walk down to the sea. There was a path that ran from the onsen to a pier down in the bay, and Victor followed it all the way to the end. The wind that blew off the sea was bracingly cold, and Victor breathed deep in the briny chill.

I can do this, he thought, feeling invigorated. I am strong and I am going to get better, and nothing is going to stop me.

When he got back up to the top of the path, Yuuri was out with Ai for her morning walk.

“Yuuri!” Victor called out, waving as he approached them.

A smile lit up Yuuri’s face when he looked over. “Oh, hey Victor!”

Ai bounded up to him and shoved her face affectionately into his leg. “Yuuri,” Victor said, scratching Ai’s ears, “I was wondering, is there a good place nearby where you can lift weights? I really need to be attending to my physical therapy and working out more; I feel weak and flabby all over already,” he pouted.

Yuuri stared for a second, then shook himself. “Uh, well, there’s a decent weight room over at the Ice Castle. It’s nothing fancy, but they’ve got all the basic equipment. No one uses it much these days except me and the Nishigoris and a handful of older kids, so at least it’s always free.”

“Sounds perfect,” said Victor.

“They don’t open til noon today, but, well, you know, I have a key. So if you want to go sooner, like after breakfast? I can let you in, and spot for you, if you need it.”

“Perfect,” Victor repeated with a smile.

Yuuri smiled back. “Ai!” he called. “Stop drooling on Mr. Nikiforov’s pants!” Ai obediently returned to Yuuri’s side, though not without a backward glance at Victor.

“I don’t mind,” Victor said. “I’m glad she likes me!”

Yuuri laughed. “Yeah, she does. Good girl,” he affirmed, stroking Ai’s head.

***

Despite his claims that he had entirely wasted away, Victor still managed to out-lift Yuuri, who grumbled internally about what a certain chiseled Russian defined as “weak and flabby.” Yuuri was spotting Victor while he bench pressed when he caught sight of Yuuko and Takeshi’s faces staring through the window in the weight room’s door. He raised one hand from the barbell to wave and gave them a look that said “I know, I can’t believe it either, please don’t ask.”

Then Yuuri’s other hand felt the barbell drop sharply, and he gasped, grabbing at it, only to look down and see Victor chuckling and holding the bar just an inch above his chest quite handily.

“Oh my god,” Yuuri said.

“You need to pay attention,” Victor scolded with a grin. “Even if your friends are outside staring.”

Yuuri stammered an apology and dutifully kept both hands beneath the bar as Victor raised it back into place.

“A joke, Yuuri,” Victor said, sitting up and smiling at him through a light sheen of sweat. “It’s fine.”

“Sorry,” Yuuri muttered, but he cracked a smile as he said it.

Victor stood up and brushed his hand over Yuuri’s shoulder before heading out to greet the Nishigoris. Yuuri floated along behind him.

Yuuko introduced Victor to her husband, who eyed him skeptically.

“What did I do?” Victor whispered to Yuuri.

Yuuri met Yuuko’s wide eyes and laughed. “Nothing, you’re fine. Takeshi just takes a while to warm up to people.”

Yuuko told Takeshi what Yuuri said.

<”Hey!”> he protested. <”I’m very friendly! It’s just that the famous guy both of you crushed on for years just showed up in Hasetsu of all places! Does no one else think that’s weird? Or uncomfortable? Anyone?”>

<”You have nothing to worry about,”> Yuuko assured him. <”My heart belongs to you, and Victor’s belongs to Yuuri.”>

<”Well I wasn’t talking about--”>

Yuuri grabbed Victor’s arm and pulled him back towards the door. “Hey okay Victor did you want to go back to the onsen? Or Hasetsu Castle--you wanted to see that--we could go there now!”

“Ice Castle to ninja castle!” Victor exclaimed. “Great plan!”

“Great, let’s go--bye!” Yuuri called, as he bustled Victor out the door.

***

Victor couldn’t believe his luck, that he had just spent the whole morning with Yuuri, and now Yuuri wanted to spend the afternoon with him, too. An afternoon showing him the treasures of his hometown. Victor listened as Yuuri explained what he could remember from history class about ninjas in the Fukuoka Prefecture, and how the house came to have the castle facade. As they walked, Victor imagined what it would be like if Yuuri ever came to visit St. Petersburg, and began to compile a mental list of all the sites he would need to take him to--palaces and gardens, restaurants where he could tempt Yuuri with stroganoff good enough to (nearly) rival katsudon. Yuuri could visit in the summer for one of the great carnivals; they could stroll along the canal in the long evening; they could go see a performance at the Mariinsky Ballet…

When Yuuri obligingly took a photo of him in front of Hasetsu Castle, Victor’s head was half in a sunset-streaked fantasy that involved gazing at Yuuri while Yuuri looked out over the lake from Gatchina Park’s Venus Pavilion.

Yuuri stood looking down at the screen with a little smile on his face when Victor walked back over to take his phone back. “Yuuri?” Victor prompted.

“Oh, sorry,” Yuuri said, handing the phone over. “It’s, uh--it’s a good picture,” he mumbled.

“Of course,” Victor said automatically. “I only take good pictures.” He winked at Yuuri for good measure, then looked at the photo himself. He did look good--happy, a dreamy sort of excitement on his face. “I take especially good pictures when I’m thinking of something nice,” he teased.

“What were you thinking about?”

Victor tipped his head to the side and considered Yuuri. You. “Hope,” he said at last.

Yuuri nodded, as if in understanding, though Victor couldn’t imagine how.

***

After their second massage session, Victor lingered over his ice pack as Yuuri put everything away, so Yuuri took the opportunity to ask an extraordinary favor.

“Uh, Victor,” he said. “Don't feel obligated, because I understand if you don't want to do it, but um. Would you have any interest in visiting one of my skating classes tomorrow?”

“Oh, really?” said Victor. “I'd be happy to!”

“Yeah?” asked Yuuri. “Thanks, um. I think the kids would really like to meet you.”

“I'm sorry I'm not in shape to give any demonstrations.”

“Oh, please don't worry about that,” said Yuuri. “They're gonna be excited just to see you. Besides. It'll be a good lesson about taking good care of injuries. ‘See? Even Victor Nikiforov rests from skating when he's injured.’”

Victor huffed a laugh. “Well, when you put it like that it sounds alright.” He avoided Yuuri's eyes. “I hope none of them ever have to face this, though. That is, the excellent massage therapy care aside.”

Yuuri touched his shoulder. “They might. These things happen. I think they need to know that, too.”

Victor nodded. “Mm.”

“Hey,” Yuuri said. “You okay?”

Victor looked up at him and nodded again. “Will you be around for supper tonight?”

“Yeah,” Yuuri said with a smile. “I'll be here. You're welcome to join us again if you want.”

“I’d like that,” said Victor.

***

Victor enjoyed watching Yuuri teach, and couldn’t hope to fight the grin plastered to his face the whole time. Though he had no idea what anyone was saying, it was clear that the children all adored Yuuri, and looked like they had been given the most precious gift whenever he praised them. He clapped and offered thumbs up from the side when the kids glanced over for his reactions, and the pleased smiles they and Yuuri gave back to him were an absolute delight.

He also noticed that Yuuri's students were respectably skilled, considering they weren't attending the kind of dedicated, competition track training Victor himself had been enrolled in by their age. He told Yuuri this after the class ended, and Victor had been able to send off the students with hugs and autographs for those that wanted them. “I think you must be a very good teacher,” he said.

“Oh, no, I just have really good students,” said Yuuri, twisting the end of his braid around his finger.

“Yuuuriii,” said Victor, frowning. “Why do you do that?”

“Huh?”

“Why do you play down all your accomplishments? You're allowed to be good at things, you know. You are good at things.”

Yuuri sighed, looking over at the ice. “I don't--I don't know. It's just the way it is.”

Victor reached out and took the end of Yuuri's braid from his fingers, and gave it a gentle little tug. “I used to do that too, when I was nervous. Hang on to the end of my ponytail.” He smiled at Yuuri, trying to let him know he wouldn't push him if Yuuri wanted to drop it.

“Oh!” said Yuuri, looking startled. He flipped the braid back over his shoulder, out of Victor's reach. “Sorry.”

“There's nothing to be sorry for,” said Victor. “It's just funny. We have the same nervous habits.”

“It's hard to imagine you being nervous.”

“Really?” Victor laughed. “I never had much fear of competitions, but interviews terrified me when I was younger.”

“Oh no!” Yuuri said, smiling now. “You always seem so cheerful.”

“Well, I've had a lot of practice now.”

“Oh, right, how could I forget,” said Yuuri. “Seven-time world champion gives a lot of interviews.”

“Do you still think I'd make a good teacher, too?” Victor asked. “A good coach?”

“Yeah,” said Yuuri. “Of course. You'd be great. You're smart. You're--nice. You’re a genius choreographer. I think anyone would be lucky to have you.”

“Hmm.” Victor looked up at the ceiling, mouth twitching. “Anyone? Would you have liked me to be your coach?”

“Uhh,” Yuuri said. “I--I don’t know, I mean, yeah, of course, but I’d never dream of asking you to waste your time with me.”

Victor snorted. “You don't remember that either, I guess.”

“Huh?” said Yuuri.

Victor shook his head, smiling. “You did ask me to be your coach, once.”

Yuuri's looked suddenly ill. “At--at the banquet…?”

Victor nodded.

“Oh my god,” Yuuri said. “I'm so sorry. I can't believe I--I am never drinking champagne ever again. Why would I do that, oh my god.”

“Oh, but you see, I wanted to,” Victor said, anxious to reassure him. “I wanted to work with you. I started picking out your music and everything!”

Yuuri stared at him. “... What? You--why? Why would you have even considered--giving up your career for--for me?”

“Well I was getting old, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep skating much longer anyway, and I thought it might be an interesting challenge.” Victor grinned. “Also, you were a very compelling dancer.”

“Oh, god,” Yuuri said. “Did I--? No.”

“Hm?” Victor asked.

Yuuri sighed. “I want to ask what other embarrassing things I did that night, but I don’t know if I can take it. Just--just tell me there isn’t anything else.”

Victor laid a finger against his lips, and thought of telling Yuuri that he’d been grinding with great enthusiasm against Victor’s hip mere moments before asking him to be his coach. “No,” he said. “There’s nothing else.”

“Thank you.”

“So,” said Victor. “Are you going to skate now?”

“Huh? Oh, well…” Yuuri was twisting his finger around his braid again.

“Please, Yuuri! I don’t want to interfere with your practice. Just pretend I’m not here!”

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “That’s--not possible.”

***

Victor pouted dramatically, and Yuuri shook his head as he sighed and laced his skates back up. “It’s fine,” he said. “You can watch, just--”

“What?” said Victor.

“Don’t--expect anything exciting, okay? And--don’t laugh if I fall.”

“I would never,” Victor assured him.

Yuuri suddenly felt stupid, remembering the circumstances that brought Victor here in the first place. Of course Victor would never laugh at him.

He warmed up, feeling Victor’s eyes on him, but refused to look in his direction. He ran through his jumps, lost his footing on a flip, only to hear Victor clap and whistle when he popped back up to his feet and kept going. Yuuri laughed, and relaxed a little. It was useless, to try and pretend Victor wasn’t there at all. Maybe he just had to put himself in the mindset of actually wanting him there. Hadn’t it always been his dream, to skate in front of Victor? Here he was. He might as well embrace it.

Yuuri made his senior debut the year he turned 18, and had wished desperately to do well enough to make it to an international competition, where he could finally compete against Victor Nikiforov. From the options offered by his coach, Yuuri had chosen the “Prelude” to Lohengrin for his free skate, imagining the tragic, romantic opera would appeal to Victor's sensibilities. In the end, Yuuri placed third at Japanese Nationals--good, but not good enough to represent Japan at Worlds. Victor had certainly never seen it.

This is for you, kid , he thought at his teenage self, and skated over to hook his phone into the portable speakers he kept at the side of the rink. Live your dream.

When he started moving, he immediately felt embarrassed as he realized how much of Victor's own style from that era had gone into this choreography. If Victor had noticed his influence on Yuuri's programs from three years ago, there could be no mistaking it here. It's fine, it's fine , he told himself. The “Prelude” was a soft and stately piece of music--nervous energy would throw it all off if he didn't get a grip. Just think of the story. A girl in trouble, the mysterious knight who saves her, the cruel forces of fate that separate them once again.

Remember this is the prelude, Yuuri's old coach had told him. This piece is an invitation. You are asking your audience to bear witness to the tragedy that will soon unfold before them. You are asking them to prepare their hearts with pity for Elsa and her knight, to consider the evil men do to each other.

Yuuri felt more at ease, thinking of it that way--performing not on his own behalf, but for someone else.

Yuuri's old program was of course much shorter than the nearly ten minute piece, but he danced his way through the whole thing, improvising as he went, and in the end didn't feel he'd done too poorly. It was a simple program, nothing worth getting excited about, but he liked it anyway.

He picked up his glasses after turning off the speakers and finally looked for Victor's reaction.

He was smiling, and thankfully not crying this time.

“Lovely,” he said.

Yuuri flushed.

“I have some ideas to improve it but I'll keep them to myself. Unless you still want me to be your coach,” he added with a wink.

He needed to stop that--it was very bad for Yuuri’s heart.

“Uh, n--no,” Yuuri said, “that's fine.”

Victor drooped a bit.

Yuuri looked at him. What, he was serious? “O--okay,” he said, bracing himself. “What am I doing wrong?”

Victor launched into a lengthy and detailed analysis of everything he would have changed about the choreography, sprinkled with advice for how Yuuri could improve his technique on, seemingly, everything. This is for your students, Yuuri thought desperately as Victor cheerfully critiqued him. You'll just be a better teacher to them when Victor's gone.

Victor didn't stop talking for fifteen minutes.

Yep, Yuuri thought. Living the dream.

***

By the end of his second week in Hasetsu, Victor settled into a very comfortable routine. Though Yuuri seemed perpetually unable to decide whether to be shy or assertive when they spent time together, he nevertheless continued to offer his company when he wasn’t working, and Victor continued to accept it. He tagged along to Yuuri's classes, and offered occasional notes to Yuuri and his students. He joined the whole Katsuki family for dinners most evenings, and hung out with Yuuri and his sister and her girlfriend into the night playing card and boardgames. When Yuuri wasn't around, Victor luxuriated in the hot spring, read the books Rika ordered for him in fits and spurts, and played with Ai, who had taken to heading straight for Victor when Yuuri left the inn, instead of her bed in Yuuri's room. Yuuri loaded Portal on Victor's own computer so he could finish playing. When Victor proudly told him one day that he'd beaten it, Yuuri presented him with a sequel. Victor picked up the game when he got too distracted to read, and decided Yuuri was onto something--there was a soothing rhythm to the pattern of puzzle solving once he got the hang of it.

Some days, still, Victor felt too restless to sit around the onsen, and went for walks along the beach or around town. Often on his walks he stopped by Minako’s, where the ballerina bar owner always seemed eager to charm him with witty conversation, and to share cute stories from Yuuri’s childhood.

On one such day, Victor had already dressed for a walk, when he realized it was pouring rain. Disappointed, he shed his coat and boots and wandered around the inn instead, looking for inspiration. Certain he’d go crazy if he tried to just sit and read, he finally poked his head into the kitchen, where Hiroko Katsuki was busy unloading a delivery. She set down a box when he came through the door, and looked at him questioningly. “Can I help?” she asked.

Victor smiled and shook his head. “Can I help you ?”

Hiroko shook her head and waved him away. “No, it’s okay,” she said.

Victor opened a translation app on his phone and typed, “I have nothing else to do and I would really like to help you! Please!” then showed her the Japanese translation, which he only hoped was accurate.

Hiroko laughed when she read it. “Okay,” she shrugged. Through gestures, she directed him to open the box she’d just set on the counter, and where to put the ingredients away in the pantry.

Relieved to have something to do, Victor set to work with good cheer. Hiroko said the names of objects out loud as he unpacked them, and Victor slowly learned the Japanese words for most of her kitchen staples. When they finished processing the delivery, Hiroko put her hands on her hips and considered Victor for a moment, then pulled out her own phone and began typing. When she turned the screen to him, it read, in Russian, <”We're finished, but if you still want to do something, I can help you cook dinner.”>

Victor laughed, and assumed the intended message was, “You can help me cook dinner.” “Hai!” he said, then typed, “Just tell me what to do!”

Victor cooked for himself on occasion, but wasn't exactly proficient. Hiroko set him to work chopping vegetables, demonstrating how to slice the onions how she wanted, then left him to it once she was satisfied with his technique.

“Thank you so much for teaching me,” he typed for her. “I've always wished to learn to cook better. I've never had time.”

<“Thank you for your cooperation!”> Hiroko typed back. <“You can help me when you want,”> she added, and laughed when he read it. <“While you are here, you are like a family.”>

Victor envied Yuuri this family--a funny mother who cooked amazing food, a caring and supportive father, a protective big sister. He tried not to think about how they were only his for two more weeks.

 

After one of Yuuri's classes at the Ice Castle that week, a group of kids clustered around their instructor, chattering at him in a way that sounded as if they were asking him about something. Yuuri waved them off at first, but soon relented, which resulted in one of the children running off and returning with Yuuko, who was holding a pair of skates. She and Yuuri had a laughter-filled conversation, then she sat down beside Victor and put the skates on.

“Did Yuuri ever tell you I used to get him to dance with me when my partner couldn't make it to practice?” she asked.

“Huh?” said Victor.

“Don't laugh,” Yuuri ordered him. “We're really out of practice.”

Yuuko laughed. “We'll just do something easy. His students have been begging us for a demonstration for weeks now.”

She joined Yuuri on the ice, and they consulted with each other quietly, making gestures to signify what moves they remembered. Victor and Yuuri's students waited impatiently, until finally Yuuko put a slow waltz on the speakers and skated over to join hands with Yuuri.

Victor suppressed the little glimmer of jealousy he felt at seeing Yuuko skate in Yuuri's arms. He and the kids watched, entranced, as the two of them skated in perfect coordination. Or, not quite perfect--they got off balance at one point and couldn't recover before they both went down. Wincing and laughing, they got back up and made it to an ending pose, Yuuko clinging to Yuuri's shoulders as he dipped her. Then they broke apart and made a bow to their little audience.

Victor clapped and grinned along with the rest of them. “I didn't know you could ice dance!” he told Yuuri when he came off the ice.

Yuuri shrugged. “Oh, I don't really. Like Yuuko said, she just taught me enough to help her practice every now and then--she was the one who actually competed in it!”

“Did you ever try any kind of pairs skating, Victor?” Yuuko asked him.

Victor shook his head. “No, never. You two make it look fun, though,” he smiled. “Someday you'll have to teach me something.”

Yuuri looked up sharply. Victor realized he had made a bold assumption in suggesting that he and Yuuri might still be friends, much less share a rink, months from now when his knee had healed.

“I'm sure Yuuri would love to show you the basics,” Yuuko said, beaming. “As you can see, he's a very good teacher.”

Victor assured her he agreed. Two weeks, he scolded himself. You only get Yuuri for two more weeks.

***

Yuuri loved his work, but lately he'd grown to resent the hours he had to spend away from Victor. With each passing day, the pleasure of his company increased while the embarrassment and awkwardness faded. He lived for Victor's earnest smiles, for their long conversations about ballets and books, for the way Victor's fingers sometimes brushed along his arm when he wanted Yuuri's attention. Yuuri had always shied away from touch in the past--he didn't even really like getting hugged by his own family most of the time. Victor slipped through Yuuri's defenses, somehow, and rather than avoiding his touches, Yuuri began to crave them.

Yuuri wished, foolishly, that Victor could follow him to work all the time, not just to skating classes. Yuuri soon learned to be careful what to wish for.

At Minako's suggestion, he sometimes led public dance classes where anyone in the community of any age could come and learn the basics of a social dance. Yuuri had been teaching the Lindy Hop recently, but was now moving on to Latin styles. He mentioned this in passing to Victor, who had not seemed to have any interest.

Then Minako showed up with Victor in tow as her partner.

Yuuri stopped dead in the middle of what he was saying when they walked in, one eye twitching. Victor was dressed more formally than Yuuri had seen him here, having donned black dress pants for the occasion and a silvery dove-grey buttondown that matched his hair. He waved at Yuuri with a grin, and Minako folded her arms and smirked.

Yuuri drew a complete mental blank for several seconds before he shook himself and set to work teaching Argentine tango.

Minako looked like she was having the time of her life, and Victor seemed equally delighted. He kissed Minako's hand after one dance, and she feigned a dramatic swoon. Then, inexplicably, when Yuuri put on music to let the attendees practice what they'd learned for the remaining half hour of the class, Minako loudly declared that she was a tired old woman and intended to sit down for a bit. “Yuuri!” she called. “Why don't you dance with Victor while I'm resting so he doesn't have to be lonely?”

Yuuri blinked. “Oh--okay. Uh, Victor? You okay with that?”

Victor beamed. “Oh yes, I think that sounds like a wonderful plan!”

“Um, well. You've been leading tonight, so…”

Victor smiled and took Yuuri's hand, then curved his arm behind Yuuri's back to rest his right hand below Yuuri's shoulder blades. Yuuri shivered, and laid his hand on Victor's shoulder. Victor was a quick learner--of course--and he led with confidence. Yuuri willed his nerves away-- Weren't you just thinking you wished Victor would touch you more?-- and let himself relax into Victor's arms, trusting him with his weight.

“So?” Victor asked after a minute. “How am I doing, Yuuri?’

“Oh!” Yuuri said. “You're--you’re doing really well. You have excellent posture, um--” Victor spun him out and then stepped back into his space again. “--good sense of rhythm.”

“Yes?” Victor said, smile overwhelming at such close quarters. “You know, the last time we danced like this, you were leading.”

Yuuri blushed. “Oh, yeah, I don't have too much experience following,” said Yuuri. “How am I doing?”

“Lovely,” said Victor. “Though I think Minako was a little more enthusiastic.”

Yuuri hooked his knee around Victor's hip, prompting him to dip him with a delightfully shocked expression. When they rose back up, Yuuri slipped out of Victor's grip, dancing backwards, forcing Victor to follow him and capture him again. Minako whistled from where she sat on this side of the studio.

“You were saying?” Yuuri said.

Victor laughed and pulled Yuuri close, slowing their tempo again. “Forgive me,” he said.

Yuuri grinned.

<”You’re welcome,”> Minako mouthed at him the next time their eyes met.

***

One day Victor went for a soak in the baths to discover that they were busier than usual, and also all full of bobbing yellow-orange fruits. At his inquisitive look, one of the other guests said, “Yuzuyu!” by way of explanation.

Victor went ahead and stepped into the bath, round fruits bumping against his chest. He found an empty corner and settled against the edge, closing his eyes. A bright citrus scent rose up on the steam, and Victor felt he was in heaven.

Moments later, he felt a tap on his arm. He opened his eyes, and Yuuri was standing beside him, his dark hair twisted up in a bun to keep it out of the water.

“Hi,” Yuuri said.

“Hi!” said Victor. Yuuri wasn't wearing his glasses, and Victor was treated to an up close view of his warm brown eyes. He didn’t know what was going on, except that he was going to die happy, right here. “I've never seen you in the baths before,” he said.

“Yeah, I--usually prefer more privacy,” Yuuri said. “But we do this every Touji--uh, winter solstice?--and it's a nice tradition to share. Sorry,” he added, laughing a little. “I should have remembered to warn you this would be going on today. You were probably confused when you saw all this.”

Victor smiled. “Yuzuyu?”

Yuuri nodded, and held up one of the fruits.“Yuzu. It's...sort of like a lemon I guess?” He cupped some water in his other palm. “Yu, hot water. A hot bath with yuzu is yuzu-yu.”

“They smell wonderful,” Victor said, poking at one of the yuzu as it drifted near him.

“Mmhm. It's supposed to bring you good health for the winter. And it's good for your skin!”

“I don't know why Russians never thought of bathing with citrus fruit. I think it's the nicest idea I've ever heard. Do you eat them also?”

Yuuri shrugged. “You can use them for flavoring. They're not that great for just eating.”

Victor slowly lifted one out of the water and pretended to bite into it.

“Ew, no,” Yuuri laughed, and swatted the fruit out of his hand. It splashed them both as it dropped back in the water with a plop, and Victor giggled gleefully.

“You're turning thirty in a few days, not three,” Yuuri scolded.

Victor widened his eyes. “You know my birthday?”

Yuuri froze. “Ahhhhh,” he said. “Well it's on a holiday so it's easy to remember, and they used to always mention in it in coverage of the Russian Nationals, so…”

“Oh!” said Victor suddenly. “Yu means hot water, like Yu-Topia!”

Yuuri rolled his eyes and slumped back against the edge of the bath. “Yeah, I know, it's a bad pun. My parents are really cheesy.”

***

Victor dining with the family had become an almost daily occurrence, to the delight of Yuuri’s parents.

<“When are you going to propose to him?”> his father asked the night after Touji. <“Your mother says he listens better to her when he helps in the kitchen than either of us. What will she do when he’s gone?”>

<”He’s been helping in the kitchen?!”> Yuuri exclaimed. “Victor, you’ve been helping in the kitchen?”

Victor looked up and turned a bit pink. “Sometimes when you’re not here I get bored!” he said. “Your mother let me help her one day and it was fun.”

“Fun?” Yuuri laughed. “Victor, you’re a guest--you’re not supposed to be working here.”

Victor shrugged and smiled.

<”I’m teaching him to cook,”> his mother said. <”He’s doing very well! He’s going to be an excellent husband.”>

<”Mom!”>

“Hey, where is Mari tonight?” Victor asked.

“I don’t know,” said Yuuri. <”Dad, do you know where Mari and Rika are? Are they not eating with us tonight?”>

His parents exchanged a look.

<”Should we--?”> Toshiya said.

<”No, no, don’t spoil their surprise!”> said Hiroko. <”I’m sure they’ll be back soon,”> she said to Yuuri.

At that moment, Mari came in from the kitchen, fighting to keep a grin off her face. Rika followed her, not fighting at all. Mari took Rika’s hand. <“Uh, yeah, well, I guess we’re engaged now.”>

<“She proposed!”> Rika squealed, displaying her left hand, and the silver ring on it. <“I said yes!”>

Yuuri burst into tears and leapt up to give his sister a rare hug.

“What is happening?” Victor asked when they all sat down. “Are you getting married?”

Mari nodded and smiled over at Rika. “Yyyyep,” she said.

Victor’s face lit up. “Congratulations! Oh, that’s so exciting! When will the wedding be?”

Mari shrugged. “I don’t know--we haven’t really talked about it yet. Next year, I guess. Summer, maybe?” She turned to Rika. <“This summer?”>

<”Perfect,”> Rika beamed.

Their parents engaged the girls in wedding planning talk, and Victor said, “Yuuri, I’m surprised you aren’t married yet yourself.”

“Huh--what?”

“Have you ever thought about it?”

Yuuri stared at him. “Uh. Well. Yeah, I mean, I--sure, I guess I’d like to get married some day. But it hasn’t really come up before, I mean, I’ve never even dated anyone.”

“What? Yuuri, I’m so astonished.”

“Yeah, why?” he asked defensively.

Victor smiled at him. “Well, you are so beautiful and kind and funny, I can’t believe you could ever lack for willing lovers.”

Mari, evidently eavesdropping, kicked his ankle under the table.

Yuuri looked down at his soup. “Well,” he said. “I guess I’ve just never met the right guy. And I don’t really have much interest in sex, so I’ve never wanted to date someone just for that, so, it just--hasn’t happened.”

“Oh, really?”

Yuuri shrugged. He hated these conversations even though he tried to be a good sport about them. He hated more the part of himself that was distraught at the idea that Victor might, in some universe, have been interested in him, if only he’d never said ‘I don’t really have much interest in sex.’ “Yeah. I mean, maybe with someone I was in a really serious relationship with. It’s just not something I think about otherwise.”

“Wow,” said Victor.

Yuuri sighed. “Yeah, I know that probably sounds insane to you, whatever.”

Victor shook his head, “No, it doesn’t.”

“It’s fine,” said Yuuri, “I mean obviously you’ve never lacked for willing lovers, I’m sure you’re just a sex god over there in Russia--”

Mari choked on her soup.

Victor tilted his head with a wry look. “Now why do you say that? Haven’t you just made the same assumption I made about you?”

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “Well sure, but--”

“I haven’t had a lover in years, actually,” Victor said.

Now it was Yuuri’s turn to be surprised. “Really?”

Victor shook his head. “Oh I had lots of sex in my early twenties,” he said matter-of-factly, “but I’ve never had a relationship.”

“Why’d you stop? Uh,” said Yuuri. “The, the--sex.”

“Ahh,” said Victor. “It can be fun, and I always liked giving other people pleasure--”

Yuuri’s face was burning, and he caught Mari widening her eyes, which only made it worse.

“--but at some point, I began to feel that I was only desired for my body. And I thought that was fine, for a while, as long as I was having fun. But one day it stopped being fun and started making me depressed, so. I stopped.” He swirled his chopsticks, watching the patterns in the broth. “The second year I won Worlds, there was this article about me in some magazine, they called me a ‘perfect, beautiful machine.’ And I thought, that’s how everyone sees me, isn’t it. Just a body, like a robot. A machine built for a purpose. I wasn’t human to any of them--not the judges, not my dates. I always thought someday I would meet the right person, someone who saw me as a--I don’t know. Something more than a beautiful machine. And then it might be fun again.” He sighed. “I guess I just never did.

Yuuri looked at the tired mask of Victor’s face, and saw the bitter melancholy and fear beneath it. “I’m sorry,” Yuuri said, and he felt on the verge of tears. “That must be hard. But--you’ll find someone. I’m sure of it. You’re kind and funny, too, you know.”

Victor looked up at him and gave a little smile. “Thank you, Yuuri.”

“Seconded,” Mari chimed in. “Sorry,” she said to Victor. “I was eavesdropping. So what about you? Do you want to get married when you find your right person?”

Victor smiled. “Oh yes. More than I probably should,” he said, turning a little pink.

 

Yuuri took some time off from his excitement over his sister’s engagement to think over his unexpected conversation with Victor from dinner. A feeling of strange clarity swept over him, and a great many things made a great deal more sense. No wonder he was so upset at being forced off the ice. As far as Victor was concerned, Victor Nikiforov was nothing more than a beautiful machine that won gold medals. And now that machine didn’t work anymore. Ever since Victor’s arrival in Hasetsu, Yuuri felt like he had been unlocking a series of glass doors that stood between them. As each one opened, it brought the real Victor--the human Victor--into sharper relief.

Victor chose not to go to the rink with him Monday night. The Russian Nationals were going on, Yuri Plisetsky expected to once more be the one to claim the gold medal that otherwise would have been his, but now Yuuri understood that Victor’s depression went deeper than the loss of his career. When he got back home, he found Victor sitting out on a bench in front of the onsen, looking up at the sky. Ai leaned against him with her head in his lap, while he absentmindedly scratched her ears.

Yuuri quietly took a seat beside him. “Hey,” he said after a moment. “You okay?”

“Mmhm.” After a pause, Victor jerked his head up at the sky. “I love looking at the stars here. I could never see them like this in St. Petersburg.”

Yuuri nodded. “Too much light pollution. It was like that in Detroit, too. It’s one of the things I missed most about home.”

“I didn’t know they were so beautiful.”

Yuuri glanced over, and it looked like Victor’s eyes were shining with tears. He put a hand on his forearm. “Victor?”

Victor sighed. “Ah, I'm fine. Just one of those nights when I'm sad for no reason. You know?”

Yuuri nodded. “Yeah. Can I--it's late, but can I get you anything?”

Victor shook his head. “No, Yuuri. I’ll be okay.”

Yuuri swallowed. “Victor, I--just so you know. I was thinking about what you said, and. You’re not a machine. No--no one who really knows you would ever think that.”

Victor closed his eyes, and two tears slid down his cheeks.

Yuuri stood up, and brushed his hand over Victor's shoulder. “Go to bed,” he said. “The morning is wiser than the evening.”

The corner of Victor’s mouth twitched up in half a smile. “Okay, Vasilisa,” he said. “I'll do that.”

When Victor had returned to his room, Yuuri dashed off to borrow the family car for a fairly ridiculous late night mission.

***

On the morning of his birthday, Victor took his time getting dressed. He felt a twinge of shame when he remembered getting weepy on Yuuri the night before, and felt pulled between his desire to keep his melancholic mood out of the way of the Katsukis’ happy existence, and his desire for the comfort of Yuuri’s company. At last, knowing full well he couldn’t just hide in his room all day, he slid the door open and blinked in astonishment at what was standing in front of it.

It was a very small yuzu tree, only about three feet tall, in a lovely little blue ceramic pot. Three brilliant orange fruits were already hanging from its branches. There was an envelope nestled among the leaves. Victor opened it. A birthday card, from Yuuri. Inside, he’d written, “Sorry I couldn’t manage a whole orchard.”

Like a splash of milk in a cup of coffee, the appearance of the little tree was like a concentrated drop of happiness that curled and bloomed throughout his heart, clearing away the darkness. Victor touched his fingers to his lips as he smiled. He brought the tree into his room and set it near a window, then walked to the dining room with a fresh bounce in his step.

Yuuri was there, with breakfast. “Happy birthday!” he said with a smile when Victor sat down across from him.

Victor shook his head, gazing at Yuuri. “You didn’t need to get me a present.”

Yuuri shrugged. “It’s--just a tree.”

Victor smiled. “It’s a beautiful tree, Yuuri the Wise. I love it.”

Yuuri laughed. “I don’t think you should call me that, for only one tree.”

“Okay,” said Victor. “Yuuri the Ordinary But Very Thoughtful And Sweet.”

Yuuri ducked his head and muttered “Just eat your breakfast.”

Victor tucked in, and to his disappointment, Yuuri told him he had work to do around the onsen that day, and a dance class in the afternoon.

“But Ai will keep you company, and once I’m done at Minako’s, Mari and Rika and Yuuko and I wanted to take you out for your birthday, at the other Minako’s!”

“Yuuri,” Victor said.

“What?” said Yuuri, smiling.

Victor smiled back. “You’re a very good friend.”

***

Minako had the karaoke system going in the snack bar that night, often going up to sing herself, either with her patrons or alone.

“So Yuuri,” Victor said. “I hear you’re a very talented singer yourself.”

“Oh, noo,” he said. “No, I’m really not.”

Mari leaned in front of Victor to hiss, “Liar!” at him.

“I told you,” she said to Victor. “Just keep the drinks coming, then you’ll see.”

“Mari,” Yuuri said. “Why do you do this to me.”

<“Oh, Minako!”> Yuuko called out. <“Yuuri would like another round!”>

<“Coming right up!”> Minako called back with a wink.

Mari and Rika sang a song together while gazing gooily into each other’s eyes, and Mari kissed Rika in front of everyone, then yelled <”Hey this is my fiance and I love her!”> into the microphone, prompting laughter and applause from the whole bar.

“What did she say?” Victor asked Yuuri.

Yuuri shook his head, laughing. “She just said she loves her fiance.”

Victor grinned. “You know, I’m beginning to think your sister is not quite as impervious to the effects of alcohol as she once claimed.”

Yuuri snorted. “Oh, did she say that? Who’s the liar now, Mari.”

“Come on, Yuuri,” said Yuuko from his other side. “Are you going to sing for Victor or not?”

“Uh, I’ll sing him ‘Happy Birthday,’” said Yuuri.

“Yuuuriiiii,” Yuuko and Victor said in unison.

Yuuri looked back and forth between the puppy dog eyes on either side of him. “Oh, fine,” he said, and finished his drink, then went up to Minako and put his request into the queue. “It’s not going to be good,” he said when he got back to the table.

“Shhhhh,” said Yuuko.

“I don’t care,” said Victor.

When Minako called his name later, Yuuri chugged back his fourth beer and strode purposefully to the mic.

***

When Yuuri’s track came up, it started so softly Victor could barely hear it over the chatter of the bar. He leaned forward, trying to catch the notes, and then Yuuri’s voice came softly over the speakers, singing, “ Rain...falls...hard… ” and Victor’s breath caught in his throat.

Yuuri sang quietly at first, his eyes closed, letting the words float out into the air. When he got to the first chorus, he opened them, looked straight at Victor, and smiled.

“And you’re shining like the brightest star, a transmission on the midnight radio…”

Victor smiled back at him, tears prickling in his eyes as he mouthed the lyrics along with him.

“And you’re spinning like a 45, ballerina, dancing to your rock and roll…”

Yuuri began to really belt then, “Here’s to Patty--and Tina--and Yoko--” and Mari leaned over to elbow Victor in the side. “See?” she said. “Fuckin’ told you.”

“And all the strange rock and rollers--you know you’re doing alright. So hold on to each other--you gotta hold on tonight…”

Victor nodded, jaw agape, transported by the joy in Yuuri’s voice as he sang through to the end-- “All the misfits and the losers, well you know you’re rock and rollers, spinning to your rock and roll…”-- Minako dashing over to join him on backup for the outro.

“Lift up your hands...”

***

Yuuri felt lightheaded as he staggered back to his friends. When he reached their table, Victor lept to his feet and hugged him. “Yuuri, I love that song!” he said.

“I know,” said Yuuri.

Victor pulled back and then grabbed Yuuri’s arms. “I skated to it once, for an exhibition!”

“I know!” Yuuri laughed. He watched as the realization dawned on Victor that Yuuri had chosen that song because he knew it was important to him.

Victor’s face softened. “Yuuri,” he said. “Are you still trying to cheer me up?”

Yuuri shrugged innocently. “Hey, I love that song too.”

Victor shook his head, smiling. “My strange rock and roller,” he said, and gave Yuuri another quick hug.

When they returned to their seats, Yuuri noticed with pride that Victor was sitting up straighter, eyes brighter, laughing more.

 

At last, the party broke up--Yuuko went home, Mari went back to Rika’s, and Victor and Yuuri set off back to the onsen. Yuuri felt pleased that, in spite of a potentially harrowing public performance, he had managed to preserve a level of inebriation that remained in the realm of feeling very excited and overwhelmed with love for everyone around him, without escalating to what he would now forever categorize as “banquet drunk.” Victor had put back a good deal of beer himself, and both of them kept bursting into fits of giggles as they weaved down the sidewalk, occasionally clutching at each other’s coats to stay upright.

“Yuuuriii,” Victor said, leaning close to talk right in Yuuri's ear.

“What,” Yuuri laughed.

“Thank you for giving me such a nice birthday.”

“You're welcome,” said Yuuri.

“It's the best one I think I've ever had,” Victor said, squeezing him in a side hug.

“Oh, no, I'm sure that's not true,” Yuuri scoffed.

“Ahhhh, look!” Victor said loudly, tugging at Yuuri and pointing up at Hasetsu Castle. “It’s so beautiful up there!”

The white walls of the facade were an almost blueish silver in the moonlight--not unlike Victor’s hair. “Ohhh,” said Yuuri. He’d seen the castle almost every day of his life, and its grand beauty had become unremarkable to him. Victor was right, though. By night, it was remarkably beautiful. “You know, you’re like that castle,” Yuuri insisted. “All beautiful and impressive on the outside, so cool. But it’s just a facade. The inside is cool too, but different. More interesting. It’s--it’s not what anyone thinks it is. From the outside.”

Victor huffed a laugh. “I’m not sure how I feel about this metaphor, but thank you, I think?”

Yuuri suddenly started giggling.

“What?” said Victor.

“Ladies and Gentleman,” said Yuuri in a very terrible Slavic accent. “Victor is like that castle!”

“Oh noooo,” Victor laughed. After a pause, he said, in a quiet, sing-songy voice, “Don’t you know me, Hasetsu? I’m the new ninja house.”

Yuuri burst into more giggles. They wound up singing “Tear Me Down” all the way home, Victor just slightly off-key half the time, but Yuuri didn’t mind.

Chapter Text

A few days before he was set to leave, Victor found himself unable to sleep. He shifted from side, to back, to side, with no relief, and so he finally got out of bed, slipped on a set of robes, and left his room to pace the hallways--quietly. He wasn’t sure what he hoped to achieve from this, exactly--perhaps another treasured conversation with an equally insomniac Yuuri?--but what he found was Mari. She took one look at him, then pulled him to the onsen’s dining room, where she sat him down and poured them both a glass of wine from the remnants of one of the bottles from dinner.

“I’m sorry I woke you up,” Victor said, speaking softly.

“Already awake,” Mari said. “So. What’s with the insomnia?”

Victor sighed. “I don’t know.”

Mari nodded. “Sure. You looking forward to going home, or…?”

Victor drank deeply from his glass. “When I go home, I have to make decisions. I ran away from them, coming here.”

“I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, under the circumstances.”

“No,” Victor said. “I don’t either. But still. I have to face things, when I go back, and I don’t…” He trailed off. “I think about my options, and Yuuri’s right, I could coach. I could certainly make an obscene amount of money at it. But only--my students will expect me to make them gold medalists, too, and what if I can’t?”

Mari frowned at him. “Surely gold medalist students aren’t the only measure of success for a coach.”

“In skating? Yes.”

“You know, I never paid much attention to figure skating except to cheer for Yuuri. I don't really get sports. But who cares if your students get medals?”

“Well, prize money, sponsorships--” Victor interjected.

Mari waved dismissively. “Yeah, sure, I mean that stuff helped pay Yuuri's college tuition--I'm not knocking it. But, look, most of the kids in Yuuri's classes right now will never be professionals--they're just learning for the fun of it. What's wrong with that? You think that makes him a failure? Those kids’ parents should demand their money back?”

“No, of course not, but--”

“But he's not you?”

Knots twisted in Victor's stomach. “I don't mean--Yuuri's a wonderful skater. His students are so lucky to have him. But there are--expectations for me. It's different.”

“Anyone who like, gets you , knows they're not getting a gold-medal machine for a coach--they're getting an artist.” Mari swirled her wine. “I think maybe you think that because you’re famous for winning so many gold medals, that must be what your fans liked you for. And all I can say is, for the Victor Nikiforov fan who grew up in this house? He was excited for you when you won, but that wasn’t why he loved you. He loved you because you were you, and whatever that is, it’s exactly what Yuuri wanted to be. He loved you because you were so, you know. Queer. And let me tell you, for my anxious little brother who spent all his free time in a ballet studio and borrowed my nail polish on the weekends, that was big, you know? You showed him he could live in the world exactly how he wanted. You made him feel strong.”

Victor’s eyes got a bit misty. “Oh. You think so?” This was the longest speech he had ever heard out of Mari.

Mari gave him a little smile. “I know it, my dude.”

***

When Yuuri handed Victor the ice pack, Victor was visibly less relaxed than he usually was at the end of a session. He looked hunched and tense, and wasn’t meeting Yuuri’s eyes.

“Hey,” Yuuri said. “Are you okay?”

Victor shrugged. “I don’t know. This is the last time, and that makes it real, all of a sudden. I have to go back now.”

“Yeah,” said Yuuri.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m worried I’ll go back to the way I was before I came here. When I just--sat alone in my apartment, and didn’t know what to do.”

“Victor--”

“And what if my new massage therapist is crap?”

Yuuri looked at him pityingly. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. If you don’t like them, you can always request a new one.”

“Can I request to have one flown in from Japan.”

“Ha ha,” Yuuri said, smiling. “Victor, you’re gonna be fine. In St. Petersburg you’ll be able to find therapists with years more experience than me. Trust me, you’ll probably be happier with them anyway.”

Victor didn’t respond, and instead stared morosely at his knee.

The tension in Victor’s posture drove Yuuri crazy. He couldn’t let him leave like this. He reached out and pulled on Victor’s arm. “Hey,” he said. “I have another half hour before my next client gets here. It’s not enough for a full massage, but why don’t you take a seat in the chair?”

Victor glanced up at him, looking slightly bewildered.

“No charge,” Yuuri added. “It’s a special I just invented. Buy five orthopedic leg massages, get one chair massage free.”

Victor cracked a smile. “Sounds like a good deal.” At Yuuri’s instruction, he settled himself in the massage chair, and Yuuri explored his back through the soft, thin fabric of his t-shirt.

There was still a tension that refused to leave, and then Yuuri heard Victor sniff quietly. “Victor,” he said, pausing with his hand on Victor's shoulder. “Are--are you okay?”

Victor pulled back from the face rest and rubbed at his eyes. “I'm sorry--”

“No, it's okay,” Yuuri said gently, smoothing the fabric over his shoulder. “What's going on?”

“I'm sad because--I'm going to miss you, and this--you're not helping,” Victor laughed.

“Oh. Do--you want me to stop? We can if you want.”

Victor's shoulders slumped. “You'd probably prefer it, with me like this. I--I can go.”

“No, Victor, I don't mind. It happens. You're okay.”

Gingerly, Victor leaned forward against the chair again, and Yuuri returned both hands to his back, focusing on relaxing strokes. As he did so, he blinked back tears in his own eyes, realizing for himself that this really was the end.

 

Yuuri regretted that he'd been stupid enough to book appointments all day on Victor's last day in Hasetsu. When Victor left, Yuuri didn't see him again until dinner, by which time Yuuri was on the verge of tears again in frustration at how quickly their time was slipping away from them.

Victor seemed on edge, too, fidgety, poking at his bowl of katsudon without eating it. Which was worrying, because he usually ate katsudon with enthusiasm, alternating between savoring it and eating as much as he could as quickly as possible. Yuuri furrowed his brow at him as he took a bite of his own tonkatsu piece.

<“How’s the katsudon tonight, Yuuri,”> asked his sister, after he swallowed.

Yuuri smiled, feeling confused. <“It’s great, Mom. It’s always great.”>

To Yuuri’s even greater confusion, Mari and their mother cheered, while Victor let out a breath he had apparently been holding for some time.

<”It’s not my katsudon!”> Hiroko said. <”Your Victor made dinner tonight! I just sous-chefed for him!”>

Yuuri laughed in astonishment. “You made this?” he said to Victor.

Victor nodded, unable to keep a pleased smile off his face. “You like it?”

Yuuri grinned. “Victor, it’s perfect.”

He had the great pleasure of watching Victor turn a brilliant shade of pink.

***

Yuuri volunteered to do the dishes after supper, and while Victor wished to stay close to him, he didn’t want to be in the way of Yuuri and Mari’s work, so he decided to take a walk down to the pier, in spite of the bitter cold of the January evening. He sat on the edge, swinging his feet above the water, and marveled at how much less discomfort he felt in his knee than he had when he arrived. It was nice to know his body was actually healing, but he also felt the ghost of Yuuri’s touch around his knee, a touch he would never feel again, and knew that some of the healing was owed to Yuuri.

Footsteps, and the creak of wood, and then Yuuri was sitting beside him. “You disappeared,” he said.

“I didn’t want to be in the way.”

“Dad said he saw you walk down here. You know it’s January, right?” Yuuri smiled. “Not exactly beach weather.”

Victor saw Yuuri shiver, and felt a little guilty for making him come out here.

“Cold?” he said teasingly, and put his arm around his friend’s shoulders, giving Yuuri’s arm a quick rub with his gloved hand.

“No, I’m fine,” Yuuri responded, and at first he was so stiff beneath Victor’s arm that Victor almost let him go, realizing even this small gesture must be more intimacy than Yuuri desired from him.

But then Yuuri suddenly relaxed, and actually shuffled closer to Victor’s side, slipping his own arm behind Victor’s waist.

“Oh good,” said Victor softly. “I was just checking.”

***

Yuuri knew he was being inappropriately clingy, but he couldn’t help it. The hours remaining with Victor were so few now, and he found he was desperate to just hold him close, and trust that if Victor felt uncomfortable, he would let Yuuri know.

Yuuri laid his head down on Victor’s shoulder, leaning against his warm side. This close, the salt smell of the sea mixed with notes of Victor’s cologne. The two together filled Yuuri with a sense of both longing and safety, a scent of home. He felt tears prickle in his eyes. I don’t want you to go I don’t want you to go.

Stay close to me.

I’m afraid of losing you.

Yuuri screwed up his eyes and fought the tears back. Victor didn’t need this now. Victor didn’t need to feel guilty for going back to his own home. Yuuri would just rest here, beneath Victor’s arm, as long as Victor allowed him to.

“I love looking at the sky out here,” Victor said. “It’s so beautiful, the stars. I’ve said that before, haven’t I?”

Yuuri smiled. “Yeah, you have. I understand.”

They sat in utter silence for several minutes, until Victor squeezed Yuuri’s shoulder.

“Okay, I admit, it is really too cold to be down here,” he said with a smile in his voice. “I could absolutely go for a soak in the hot springs right now.”

Yuuri laughed and pulled away. “We can do that,” he said, getting to his feet.

“Really?” Victor said. “It’s so late though, they are closed!”

Yuuri held out his hands to help Victor up. “Victor,” he said. “I do work here. I have keys.”

“Oh!” Standing up into Yuuri’s space, he said, in a low purr, “And you’ll join me?”

Yuuri instantly flushed and retrieved his hands from Victor’s. “Uh, I mean, um, only if you would be fine with it, I don’t want to make you feel un--”

“Yuuri,” laughed Victor. “I would like to spend more time with you tonight. Unless you would be uncomfortable! I know you said you don’t always like bathing with others--”

“Oh, no, it--it’s fine,” Yuuri said, beginning the walk up the hill. “I’m just, um. I don’t always like being naked around other people.”

“Hmm. And yet I seem to recall a time when you stripped to your underwear in front of a whole room of strangers--”

“I was drunk!” said Yuuri. “And--less fat back then.”

“Well it has done nothing to diminish your beauty, I assure you,” said Victor. “And little to diminish your athletic skill either, I might add, since I’ve seen you skate better in this past month than I ever saw you do in competition.”

Yuuri blushed deeper at the compliment, but knew that when Victor said his beauty was undiminished, it only meant Yuuri had had little to begin with.

***

When Victor said Yuuri was beautiful, he hoped it came off as innocent teasing and hadn’t made Yuuri feel uncomfortable with him.

He meant it, though. Yuuri looked very cute tonight, all bundled up in his scarf and peacoat, his hair caught up in a messy bun. His cheeks were pink from the wind and cold, and Victor thought he looked beautifully androgynous, especially with all the layers concealing the shape of his body. It made Victor nostalgic for the feminine appearance of his youth, feeling a fresh twinge of envy of Yuuri’s gorgeous long hair. As he did every now and then, Victor mentally kicked his younger self for cutting his own off so impetuously. And all the younger selves since then who had been too scared the critics would say he was regressing or repeating himself if he’d started growing it back.

He could now, though, he supposed. He had nothing left to prove.

***

Yuuri lingered in the showers when they got back to the onsen, having an argument with himself about whether to go spend as many more precious minutes with Victor as he was allowed, or to feign illness or sleepiness to avoid Victor seeing him naked. Maybe Victor really didn’t even want to see Yuuri naked and was just being polite earlier, maybe he’d rather be alone and would be grateful to Yuuri for understanding and making an equally polite excuse to avoid the situation.

In the end, Yuuri decided to be selfish.

He approached the small bath he’d opened up for them with his towel clutched around his hips. Victor smiled up at him as he came to the edge, then frowned when Yuuri paused, unable to quite make that last step.

Suddenly, Victor grinned, and then closed his eyes.

Yuuri laughed embarrassedly, and hastily folded and set down his towel, then slipped into the water. He was being silly. Of course Victor wanted him there.

He realized Victor still had his eyes closed, and Yuuri splashed a little water in his direction. “Hey, it’s okay,” he said. “You don’t have to keep them closed the whole time.”

“Oh, good,” said Victor happily, opening his eyes and moving closer.

Yuuri searched frantically for a neutral conversation topic. “So, um. How’s your knee feel now? Better than when you got here?”

“Yes,” said Victor. “Much better.” He looked into Yuuri’s eyes for a while, and then added, “I think my heart feels better, too.”

Yuuri felt a burst of tenderness. If only he could be confident Victor’s heart would keep healing as steadily as his knee.

Yuuri drifted over to the edge of the pool and folded his arms on the ledge. Victor joined, right beside him.

“I’m glad I got to meet you, and um, remember it this time,” he said, glancing at Victor, and then looking straight forward again.

“Me too,” Victor grinned, and Yuuri could feel his eyes on him, unmoving.

“I’ve--you know, after you told me about the, um. The banquet. I kept trying to understand why I ever would have done that, just gone up to you and asked you to dance. I mean, the dance-off’s I understand, that’s, uh, that’s not new. But I’ve never. I mean, no matter how drunk I was I have a hard time seeing myself have the guts to even just talk to you.”

“Oh Yuuri,” said Victor, “was I really that intimidating?” He sounded amused, but also like he might feel a little bad about it.

“To me? Haha, definitely.”

“Oh noooo.”

“No, no, it’s definitely not your fault, I know you were always friendly. You asked me if I wanted a photo with you after the competition, and I just ran away, do you remember that?”

Victor looked over and gasped. “Oh no! I remember, of course I remember! I apologized to you at the banquet for not recognizing you, but of course you--you don’t remember that either, do you?”

Yuuri laughed. “You apologized for that? I was the one who just brushed you off without a word.”

“Of course! It was so rude! I felt just terrible about it, it sank in while you were walking away but I just didn’t realize it was you at first with your glasses and your hair in your face.” Victor reached out a hand and brushed at Yuuri’s bangs.

“Wow, I really did miss a lot, huh?” Yuuri suspected he was smiling like a dope right now, but the hot water was making him blissfully calm, and Victor was cute.

Victor lowered his head to rest on his arms. “So you said you were thinking about it? About why you danced with me? Do you have a theory? Because I’m very curious myself,” he said with a smile.

“Mmhm,” said Yuuri. He rested his head in his arms, mirroring Victor, looking across at him. “You skate to really sad music sometimes.” Victor gave a little nod of agreement. “And you’re always so cheerful in interviews after, so I always told myself the sadness was just a performance for the program.” Victor seemed to have a carefully neutral expression now, searching Yuuri’s face. Yuuri continued, “But. I realize now I might have had it backwards. The interviews were the performance. The skating was how you really felt.”

The corner of Victor’s mouth twitched up in half a sad smile, and he gave a little nod again.

Yuuri felt bad for bringing up Victor’s negative emotions, but he felt it was important to tell him this. “You know I--I cried when I watched you skate ‘Stammi Vicino’ at the Grand Prix Final. It was so beautiful, but so sad. You seemed so lonely and it seemed so heavy on you, it just. Even though I told myself it was just a performance, it felt so real. I just felt my heart breaking for you. And I remember thinking that I--if--I mean. I was just thinking, I wished I could make it easier for you, whatever was wrong. I wished I could make you happy.”

Tears welled up in Victor’s eyes.

“A-anyway, I--I guess I must have just still been thinking about that, when I saw you at the banquet, and somewhere in my drunk brain, I decided the best way to make you happy would be a--a tango,” Yuuri ended lamely.

Victor blinked, and tears tracked down his cheeks. “Oh, my Yuuri,” he murmured. Then his face cracked into a smile. “It worked,” he said. Then, very softly, “It was the happiest night of my life.”

“Really?” said Yuuri, entirely unprepared for such a statement. He had thought Victor might just laugh at him.

Victor smiled again. “It’s possible I’ve had better since then. You know, this one is quite nice, too.”

They just floated there, gazing at each other, until Victor said, “Do you want to hear the reason why I did something ridiculous?”

Yuuri laughed, the tension broken. “Okay.”

Victor smiled broadly back at him, then dropped back into a more serious expression. He began, “When I got my injury, I thought everything was over. I thought my whole life was over. I had been thinking of retiring for a long time, but I just couldn’t imagine what I would do after. I had been good at just this one thing my whole life. My whole life was built around this one thing. And I was so afraid that if I gave it up, there would be nothing left.”

Victor was speaking calmly, but Yuuri remembered his breakdown during the GPF, and put out a hand to rest on his arm for just a moment. A reminder. Victor’s face softened a little, and he continued.

“And I was sitting there in my empty apartment, feeling pathetic, and tried to think of whether I’d ever done anything important that wasn’t skating. If I’d ever been truly happy anywhere that wasn’t on the ice. And I thought, well...there was this one time I was at a skating banquet, which of course does not count as being actually about skating, and this--” he let a fond smile grow across his face, “--very cute boy asked me to dance. Just because he wanted me to be happy. And I never felt happier or more alive than I did then. It was like walking into the sun after being in a world that was all cold and dark. I remembered every second of it, even if he remembers nothing.” Victor grinned and flicked water at Yuuri, who had been staring at him, open-mouthed. As the droplets hit his face, he blinked and laughed, turning his face into his arms to hide.

“And I thought, if I don’t know how to live anymore, maybe I just need to find that cute boy again, because he clearly does. Maybe he can teach me.”

Yuuri looked up. “You really came here because of me?”

“And you see, I was right,” said Victor. “I no longer feel like my life is over. You have given me new strength. And you keep making me happy.”

Yuuri felt tears in his eyes. “Oh, Victor.” He reached out a hand and brushed Victor’s bangs out of his eyes. “I wish I could always make you happy,” he said softly.

Victor took Yuuri’s hand in his, then brought it to his lips and pressed a soft kiss to his knuckles. “That sounded almost like a marriage proposal,” he said with a teasing smile.

Yuuri involuntarily squeezed back on his hand, then snatched it back in panic before he did something stupid like tell Victor he wished they could get married.

“I wish I could always make you happy, too,” Victor said.

Yuuri sighed, shaking his head. “You’ve been making me happy for years. I--I can’t even tell you how much you meant to me. You’ve done more than enough for me already.”

***

Victor pushed back from the ledge and dropped his whole body beneath the water to keep himself from yelling or bursting into tears or both.

It was hopeless. Yuuri was making it gently but abundantly clear that he did not return Victor’s feelings in the way he wished. That was fine. It was fine. He had resigned himself to it over and over only to keep wondering if maybe Yuuri only needed more time, more space, but no, that was foolish. He needed to let this go, to accept with gratitude the fact that Yuuri loved him at all, even if only as a friend. It was more than he deserved. He did not think he could ever stop loving Yuuri, but he could stop placing this burden on Yuuri of waiting for him to love him back.

When Victor rose back above the surface he said, “It’s getting late, and I will need to be on the train early to get to the airport on time. Sleep?” He hoped his smile looked both pleasant and genuine, even if inside his heart was breaking.

Yuuri nodded.

Victor politely closed his eyes again while Yuuri got out and replaced his towel. He marveled at how someone so beautiful could be so insecure about their body, but was unwilling to press the matter because he feared it would only serve to lay his feelings bare, even if Victor was certain they were already. He didn’t need Yuuri to worry he might now pounce on him in some kind of uncontrollable lust.

Returning inside, Victor said goodnight, and Yuuri gave him a little smile and a wave before turning and walking away, back to his own room.

 

The next morning, Victor stopped Mari in the hall on her way to breakfast. “Ah, Mari?” he said. “Can I ask you an odd favor?”

Mari nodded. “I expect nothing less from you, Victor.”

Victor laughed. “Well, I just wanted to--I thought I might ah, sign something for Yuuri? As a parting gift? Or do you think that sounds arrogant. I don’t even know if he has anything that would be appropriate…”

“Oh, he sure does,” said Mari. “It’s not arrogant--I think it’ll really mean a lot to him. You just need to give me a chance to sneak you into his room before you guys leave.”

Mari proved to be a great mastermind in this effort, getting her mother to ask Yuuri for help unloading an early morning delivery while Mari rushed Victor back to Yuuri’s room. “He used to have this on his wall, but he hid it when you showed up. Nerd.” She pulled open a drawer in Yuuri’s desk, and Victor suddenly remembered Yuuri stashing something there the first time he visited Yuuri’s room. He’d completely forgotten about it.

“Oh my goodness.” It was safe to say that what Mari removed from the drawer was not at all what he’d expected. It was a photo of himself, in the final pose from his 2009 Worlds Gala Exhibition skate. “Where did he even find this?” Victor asked.

“Minako has her ways,” said Mari as she made quick work removing the back of the picture frame.

Victor stared at the photo once it lay flat on the desk, marveling that Yuuri had been moved to acquire and keep such a thing.

Mari nudged him a little. “See?” she said. “I told you. Not about the gold medals.”

“I’m going to miss him,” Victor whispered as Mari reassembled the frame.

“I know,” she said. “He’s gonna miss you, too.”

“And you,” said Victor. “I--I wish I could stay for your wedding.”

“So come back,” Mari said, hanging the photo on the empty hook on Yuuri’s wall. “Leave us an address, and I’ll send you an invitation when we pick a date.”

“Really?”

Mari patted him on the back. “Yeah, dude. Obviously.”

***

Yuuri flew through the delivery, and as soon as he was finished, he and Hiroko joined Mari, Toshiya, and Ai where they were waiting out front with Victor. Victor hugged everyone except Yuuri, who had offered to walk him to the train station.

The streets were quiet, and they walked in silence the whole way. “Well, um--here we are. Oh! Victor…” He looked up, and saw that tears were streaming silently down Victor’s cheeks.

“Yuuri,” he said, and Yuuri couldn’t tell what exactly Victor meant to express, but it made him put his arms around Victor’s waist and pull him into a hug.

Victor hugged him back, clinging to Yuuri’s shoulders. It was so tight as to be almost painful, but Yuuri felt like he wished that he and Victor could just fuse into a single being, that was how much he wanted to keep Victor close, so he didn’t mind, and only hugged Victor back tighter. Tears welled up in Yuuri’s eyes too as he listened to Victor cry against his shoulder.

“Yuuri,” Victor choked out, “I don’t want to get on that train.”

I don’t want you to get on that train either, he thought, but didn’t say it. He knew Victor might be worried about going back to St. Petersburg, the place that would remind him constantly of his old life, but he was still a little surprised that it was scaring him this much. “Victor,” he said, struggling to keep his voice steady, “hey, you’re going to be okay. You’re going to be okay.” Yuuri rubbed firm circles between Victor’s shoulder blades. “You are so strong.”

“I am so tired...of being strong,” Victor whispered.

Yuuri understood. “I’m sure you have friends back home who can help though. And um, I’m--I’m always here, if you ever want to talk. You--you have my number, right?”

Victor pulled away from him, and nodded, wiping away tears. Yuuri fished a pack of tissues out of his pocket and handed one to Victor, who took it and turned away from Yuuri to blow his nose. His shoulders still trembled a little, and Yuuri desperately wanted to beg him not to go, to just stay in Hasetsu forever where Yuuri could take care of him, but he knew that wasn’t what Victor could possibly want for his future. The best he could do for Victor was to send him home.

Yuuri glanced at the station clock, and put his hand on Victor’s shoulder. “Victor, the train will be here soon, you need to get down to the platform.”

“I know!” said Victor, and it came out harsh. Yuuri realized he must have made it seem like he was talking to a child, and winced.

“I’m sorry,” he said, softly.

“No, I’m sorry for snapping,” said Victor, turning back toward him. “I’m just--” He closed his eyes. “Yuuri, if I hug you again I will only cry more, so I will just go, okay?”

Yuuri nodded, smiling, although fresh tears had sprung up in his own eyes. “Yeah, that’s okay, don’t worry. Have a safe journey! I hope you’ll think about coming to stay again sometime. My--my family liked you a lot, I’m sure they’d be happy to see you again.”

Victor gave him a little smile. “Yes. I like your family a lot too, and I would also be happy to see them again. Goodbye, Yuuri.” He took off with his suitcase, and didn’t look back once.

Yuuri waited for Victor to disappear out of sight before sprinting to the restroom. At first he almost thought he was going to be sick, he felt so horrible, but nothing came up; he only started crying harder. He felt like he’d been holding himself together so he could put on a brave face for Victor, and not give him something else to worry about when he was already so stressed out, but now it was all coming out. Yuuri sat down on a toilet and sobbed, going through an embarrassing amount of toilet paper as the waves of tears just kept coming.

For the past month, he had been falling in love. It was a feeling entirely different from the admiration and affection he had always felt for the beautiful Russian skater with the heartbreaking routines and gold medals. The Victor he knew now, as a man and not a distant god, was sad, and goofy, he loved dogs and cooking and the night sky, he loved books but couldn’t focus on them for longer than twenty minute stretches. He worked to coax smiles and laughter out of everyone he met, and worked even harder to keep his own pain secret. Pain he had only ever fully shown to Yuuri, and Yuuri alone. Yuuri loved him. He loved him more than he thought it would ever be possible to love Victor Nikiforov, or anyone. His heart was so full of love it felt like it was the weight of it that bent him over as he buried his face in his hands and sobbed.

 

It took an hour before Yuuri felt like he’d regained enough composure to make the walk back home with dignity.

“How are you doing?” Mari asked when he got back.

Yuuri shrugged. “I’m okay.”

“You cried it all out in the bathroom back at the station, huh.”

Yuuri sighed and nodded. “I’m just gonna--”

“I know,” she said. “Don’t worry about it. Hey--I let Victor in your room this morning while you were helping Mom. Don’t be mad--I think you’ll be glad I did.”

Yuuri blinked, then took off for his bedroom.

He didn’t know what he was expecting to find--had Victor left him a gift? But his bed and desk were both empty, there was nothing on the floor. Yuuri sat down in his desk chair, feeling cheated, though he didn’t know of what, and it was only then, when he glanced over and realized someone had hung his framed photo of Victor back up on the wall, that he noticed what Victor had left him.

At the bottom of the photo, there was now a note, scrawled in gold pen:

Yuuri, my strange rock and roller, you know you’re doing alright.

Love, Victor

***

Victor waited at his gate, drinking a tea he hoped would somehow mellow his feelings. So far, it wasn’t working. His phone vibrated on his knee, and he looked down to see it was a message from Yuuri.

I saw your note. I love it. Thank you so much.

Then, another.

Text me when you get home safe, okay?

And then another.

Or anytime. You can text me anytime.

And another.

I just also want to know when you get home safe because I’m going to worry until you do.

By now, Victor was laughing in spite of himself. It was a truly magical gift of Yuuri’s, that he could cheer Victor up even when it was Yuuri that Victor was upset about.

                          I’m glad you liked it :)

He wrote back.

                          And I promise, I will text you when I am home. I would tell you not to worry, but I know that is an impossible task for you. ;)

Yuuri responded,

Shhhhh I’m FINE

Victor smiled, feeling a warmth growing in his chest again. He might not have Yuuri around to hug him and rub his back and dance and sing with him when he was down, but Yuuri was still here with him, in his phone, anxious and kind and funny as he was in real life.

Yuuri was right.

He was going to be okay.

***

Now that Hasetsu was no longer at risk for potential Victor-stalkers, Yuuri finally made the call he’d been waiting all month for. He proceeded to have the longest video chat of his life, a substantial portion of which consisted of him and Phichit shrieking wordlessly.

Chapter Text

Victor’s phone lit up with a text, and when he glanced down and saw Yuuri’s name, he couldn’t contain the smile that lit up his face. Chris sat with his chin in his hand, and raised his eyebrows at Victor from across the table.

“I’ve really lost my touch if I’m less exciting than your phone.”

Victor pointedly flipped his phone face down. “Better?”

Chris sighed dramatically. “Not at all, dear Victor. Now you must tell me all about this secret lover you have texting you. Who is it? How long has this been going on? I thought you’d become committed to celibacy.”

Victor flushed. “The celibacy is ongoing,” he muttered.

“Oh dear,” said Chris. “Playing coy, are they?”

Victor shook his head. “No, no, it’s not like that, I--I just don’t think he feels...that way. About me.”

“Oh, Victor, you’ve fallen for a straight boy.”

“No, no, it’s not like that either. We’re just, ah. Very good friends. That’s all.”

“Hmph,” said Chris. “I thought we were very good friends. But even I do not flatter myself that you’ve ever made that face when getting a text from me. If your boy doesn’t appreciate the sort of fish he’s got on his line, he is a fool.”

“Oh, Chris,” Victor said, sinking his face into his hands.

“Come on,” Chris wheedled. “Tell me everything. Who is he. How did you meet him. Why is he such an idiot.”

Victor started giggling. “You would never believe me.”

Chris folded his arms, waiting.

“Ah,” Victor sighed. “It’s Yuuri Katsuki.”

“No!” said Chris.

“Yes,” said Victor. “Your dance partner, and mine.”

“God, what happened to him? I assumed he retreated to the hills to live out his days in shame as a hermit when he realized how cruel he’d been to break your heart.”

Victor laughed. “No, no, Chris--do you know he was so drunk that night he actually blacked out?”

“Absurd,” snorted Chris. “No one could dance like that if they were that far gone.”

“It’s true. When I showed him the pictures from the banquet he looked like he was having a stroke. He didn’t remember a thing about all the dancing. He barely even remembered being there.”

“Well how did you meet him again?”

Victor bit his lip. “I sort of went looking for him.”

“Oh, Victor, you did not.”

“Well, Yakov told me to take a vacation...and you know Yuuri had been telling me all about his family’s hot spring resort, and...I just decided to go. Why not, you know?”

“So many reasons,” said Chris.

“Do you know he’s a skating instructor now? He teaches little kids; it’s the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen in my life. And he still skates just for himself, and Chris--it’s a crime that he quit early. You should see him! He’s the most beautiful skater I’ve ever seen.”

“Well now I’m just professionally offended.”

“Chris,” Victor said, leaning across the table. “Did I mention he is also a massage therapist? He--Chris--his hands. They are very very very good.”

“Oh really?” said Chris with a smirk.

“Did I mention he also volunteers at a hospital, taking his dog to visit sad sick people?”

Chris rolled his eyes. “Ugh, you are disgusting.”

“He is--he is the best person I have ever met. He--oh, I can’t even tell you, he just--” Victor sighed. “I’ve never felt so--just, so much. It’s--I know it’s so childish of me to think so, but it’s not fair.”

“Poor Victor,” Chris murmured.

Victor buried his face in his arms. “Mmph. How can you love someone so much and they not love you back? No--that’s not even true. He does love me. Just, not in all the ways I could wish.”

“And you’re sure about that?”

Victor sighed. “Every time I tried to get flirty with him, he would push me back. Gently. Just enough to let me know he wasn’t interested without--hurting my ego, I suppose. You see? He’s even wonderful when he’s rejecting me.”

“Hmm,” said Chris.

“What do I do?”

Chris folded his arms on the table. “Victor? I’m going to give you serious advice; are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“You’d better hang on to him, whether he wants to fuck you or not.”

Victor huffed a laugh.

“I’m serious,” Chris said. “There’s not enough love in this world. If you find any, however it comes, you hold onto it and you protect it.”

Victor nodded, smiled. “No, you’re right of course.” After discreetly dabbing at his eyes, Victor added. “I must say, I never expected something so sentimental from you, Chris.”

Chris shrugged. “What can I say? Married life has changed me.”

“I still can’t believe you eloped.”

“Ah, well, after dragging his ass all over the world to competitions for years couldn’t shake him, I figured we might as well make it permanent.”

Victor smiled at his friend. “I’m not surprised you married Marc--that man is devoted to you. I am, however, outraged that you did not think to invite me to your wedding.”

“Well maybe one day your darling Yuuri will pull his head out of his anus and we’ll have a second chance to celebrate a wedding together, hm?”

 

Victor summoned the will to visit the rink at last, to say hello to Yakov and thank him for suggesting a vacation. He leaned against the barrier at Yakov’s side as they watched Yuri Plisetsky skate angrily through one section of his program over and over at Yakov’s command.

“What do you think of Yuri’s chances at Worlds?” Yakov grumbled.

“Hmm,” Victor shrugged. “Okay. They’d be better with better choreography.”

Yakov scowled. “Are you saying you want to be his coach now?”

“Not in a million years!” Plisetsky yelled across the ice.

“No,” Victor said. “Just his choreographer. If he wants me.”

Plisetsky sped up to the barrier. “I won the Grand Prix and the Russian nationals without your help, old man. I’ll win the European Championships and Worlds, too. Piss off.”

Victor narrowed his eyes. “Do you want them to say you only won because I retired? Or do you want to prove you’re really better than me.”

Plisetsky growled in response.

“You’re capable of things I’m not because you’re smaller than I am,” Victor said amiably. “I have all kinds of ideas I could never bring to life myself, but you could. They’re yours, if you want them.”

“Why?” Plisetsky demanded.

Yakov harangued him about looking a gift horse in the mouth and told him he would take Victor’s offer or get out of the rink, sparing Victor the trouble of answering the question. For which he was grateful, because he didn’t really know. He certainly hadn’t walked into the rink with the intention of offering his services to Yakov’s younger prodigy, and yet.

He missed those evenings at the little rink in Hasetsu, watching Yuuri’s classes, watching Yuuri. He felt an itch to create new programs again, and maybe Yuuri was right. Maybe he could be a good coach after all. This was at least a place to start.

***

Victor texted Yuuri almost every day in the days and weeks after he left Hasetsu, and Yuuri never stopped getting a warm little glow of happiness in his heart when he saw his name on the screen.

Yuuri! I finished book 5 of Harry Potter someone hold me :’(

Yuuri! My new massage therapist is fine I GUESS but I still miss you ;)

Yuuri! Look at this dog!!!!!!!!!!!

(At least ten percent of Victor’s texts were pictures of dogs he saw on the streets of St. Petersburg.)

Yuuri was glad for the ongoing evidence that, despite his fears, Victor was taking care of himself, getting out of his apartment, choreographing for Yakov’s students on the side, and--selfishly, most importantly--still very interested in remaining Yuuri’s friend. Yuuri always texted back as soon as possible, a habit that occasionally wreaked havoc on his sleep schedule when he wound up chatting with Victor late into the night, while it was still afternoon in St. Petersburg. In exchange for news of Victor’s recovery progress, Yuuri kept him informed of everything going on in Hasetsu, as well as regular updates on Ai’s cuteness, which they both agreed increased every day, according to the photographic evidence Yuuri sent him.

Victor had looked alarmed when it occurred to him that a small tree exceeded the carry-on limit, and so Yuuri moved the yuzu’s pot into his own room, right by the window, until such time as they could figure out how to export it to Russia. Or Victor comes back for it, Yuuri thought, continuously, in spite of himself. He rubbed the bark of its narrow trunk between his fingers, and felt silly for giving Victor a tree for his birthday, of all things. Then remembered how happy it had made Victor, and just missed him. And so it went, for weeks.

Then one day in mid February, Yuuri got a text that read,

Yuuri! You know Worlds is in St Petersburg this year?

                          Yeah?

I have to go of course, everyone will be expecting me and it would be rude not to, besides I want to go, but anyway, would you like to come with me?

Yuuri stared at the screen.

                         Really?

Yes!! You can stay at my apartment, no need for an expensive hotel!

I want to show you St Petersburg like you showed me Hasetsu :)

Yuuri couldn’t believe his eyes. Victor? Wanted him? To come stay at his apartment? And go to Worlds together?

                          Victor, that would be amazing. Are you sure?

Of course I’m sure!!! Yuuri, please come!

Yuuri’s heart beat double time.

                         Yes! Okay! Thank you so much!

Yay! I’m so excited!!!! I can’t wait to see you again!!

                         Me neither! And I can’t wait to see St Petersburg!

                         And all those dogs

                         Even if they’re not as cute as Ai

***

Victor spotted Yuuri in the arrivals waiting area just as Yuuri noticed him, and the joyful smile that lit up Yuuri’s face made his heart sing. “Yuuri!” he shouted, throwing his arms open.

“Victor!” cried Yuuri, and trotted across to him and dropped his bags to receive Victor’s hug.

Victor wrapped his arms around Yuuri and lifted him off the ground, spinning them in a little circle, making Yuuri laugh--wonderful, beautiful sound he hadn’t heard in three months. “Oh Yuuri,” Victor said, “I’m so happy to see you.”

“Me too,” said Yuuri, burying his face in Victor’s shoulder. Victor’s heart beat incredibly fast. At last, Yuuri pulled back and looked up. “You’re growing your hair out,” he smiled.

“Yes! Do you like it?”

“Of course!”

“I don’t know how long I’ll be able to grow it,” Victor said sheepishly. “It’s so thin, not thick and luxurious like yours.”

“Stop it,” Yuuri grinned, “Your hair’s fine. It’s--it’s beautiful. I’m glad you’re growing it out again.”

Victor beamed. “You inspired me.”

A short cab ride later, they arrived at Victor’s building.

“Wow, this place is...fancy,” Yuuri said, as the doorman waved Victor through.

“Not too fancy, I hope.” Victor’s heart fluttered with unfamiliar nerves. He had to admit he’d never excelled at being a host in the past--he’d never cared much what anyone thought about his apartment. This time, however, Victor had spent the past two weeks fretting over making sure everything would be perfect for Yuuri’s visit. He wanted him to feel as comfortable and happy as possible. He wanted--in spite of a personal resolution to abandon his romantic hopes for Yuuri--for Yuuri to look around and feel he could live there. The kitchen was stocked with Yuuri’s favorite things, he had purchased an array of new sheets and blankets to accommodate any possible sleeping preferences, and there were fresh flowers in every room.

He actually almost dropped his keys pulling them out of his pocket, and glared accusingly at his shaking fingers, then glanced back at Yuuri. Yuuri, thankfully, had not noticed, his eyes roving over the hallway’s gilt mirrors. Okay, maybe this building is a little too fancy. He unlocked the door, and gestured Yuuri to enter.

Yuuri walked in slowly, looking around.

He turned back to Victor. “It’s beautiful,” he smiled.

Victor breathed a sigh of relief.

“Um, where would you like me to put my stuff?”

“Oh, leave it anywhere! I’m sorry I don’t have a guest room, but the couch is very comfortable. Or, also, my bed is very large and also very comfortable. Or I could sleep on the couch and you could have the bed to yourself. Whatever you like.”

Yuuri laughed a little. “No, I’m sure the couch will be fine.”

Ah, worth a shot.

Yuuri settled his bags carefully in a corner, then sat on the couch. “The couch will definitely be fine. This is the softest thing I’ve ever sat on.”

Victor leaned over the back of it. “Can I get you anything? Coffee? Tea?” He raised his eyebrows just slightly. “...Champagne?”

“Uh, just water is fine for now,” Yuuri said.

Victor floated off to get a glass for him, and Yuuri stood up from the couch and followed.

“This kitchen is incredible,” he said. “Have you always cooked a lot?”

“Almost never, until Hasetsu.”

“Really? These granite countertops were just going to waste that whole time?”

“Hey,” said Victor defensively. “I didn’t have a lot of time. And no one ever really taught me.”

Yuuri slid onto a bar stool and drank his water.

“I hope I wasn’t bothering your mother too much,” Victor said.

Yuuri shook his head. “No,” he smiled. “We usually have a lot of down time around the onsen during the fall. I think she liked having a project.”

Victor laughed. “Oh, good. Well so did I.”

“Are you going to cook for me while I’m here?”

Victor leaned across the countertop and rested his cheek on his hand, eyes on Yuuri. “I’ll cook for you tonight, if you like.”

Yuuri coughed swallowing his water. “Sounds, um, like a plan,” he said when he’d recovered.

Victor glanced over at Yuuri’s luggage. “Did you want to hang up your suits? They must be wrinkled in there. There’s a very good dry cleaning service in the building that can iron them for you.”

Yuuri raised his eyebrows. “Suits? Do you think I’m someone who owns suits, plural?”

Victor stared. “You--don’t?”

Yuuri looked at his suitcase. “I have one suit, and I brought it just in case, but I didn’t really think--um. I mean yeah, I guess I should hang it up.” He went over and extracted the pants and jacket from his things. “Um.”

Victor did not like the look of this at all. “And what are you planning to wear with this?”

“Uh.” Yuuri bent over his suitcase and pulled out a plain white Oxford, a blue tie, and black dress shoes.

Victor narrowed his eyes at the items in Yuuri’s hands. “Put them on.”

“What?”

“Put them on, I want to see this one suit of yours.”

Yuuri blinked, and adjusted his glasses. “Oh--okay, uh…”

Victor ushered him towards the bathroom. “Here you go!”

Yuuri emerged a few minutes later in a somewhat wrinkled black suit.

Victor shook his head. “Turn around.”

Yuuri turned in a little awkward circle. “What’s--”

“Yes, unacceptable,” Victor said.

“Sorry?” said Yuuri.

“Is this the same suit you wore to that Grand Prix banquet?”

“Um, well, yeah,” said Yuuri. “It’s not like I’ve had anything else to wear a suit to. I--I know it doesn’t fit that great anymore, but I couldn’t--”

“No, no,” said Victor, “Dear Yuuri, you are not the problem. The suit is the problem. It was never a good suit. I didn’t take much notice of it back then because I was a little drunk and you were mostly not actually wearing it--”

“Oh, god,” said Yuuri.

“But I can now say conclusively that this suit does not deserve you. You deserve a better suit.”

“Victor,” said Yuuri. “I can’t--I can’t afford a better suit, I’m sorry--”

Victor waved his hand dismissively. “I’m going to buy it, don’t worry.”

“Victor, you can’t--”

“I can and I must. I believe a person should look as good in their suit as they do naked, and this--” he gestured at Yuuri’s unfortunate ensemble. “You can do better.”

Yuuri rolled his eyes.

Victor stepped up into his space, and loosened Yuuri’s tie, then pulled it off over his head. He fingered it a moment, shaking his head, then lowered it down and tightened it again around Yuuri’s forehead. He grinned at Yuuri. “Ah yes, there he is. I’m getting you a new tie, too. This one looks better like this.”

***

Yuuri felt completely mortified by Victor’s blunt opinions on his clothing, and when he went back to change into his normal clothes, he had to take some deep, focusing breaths and run cold water over his palms to fight back the tears of frustration that were threatening to spill over. He never thought much about money--he had enough, but not a lot. In all his excitement over seeing Victor again, he hadn’t considered that he might have to deal with the vague discomfort that often came over him when he spent time in the homes of people who had more wealth than he could ever hope to see in his life. He reminded himself that Victor didn’t mean to be hurtful, that he and his family had been generous with Victor in their own ways, that he ought to accept whatever gifts Victor offered without guilt. Breathe, breathe, breathe. You’re fine. Everything’s fine.

When he reemerged, Victor was practically bouncing around the room, he was so excited to take Yuuri shopping, and Yuuri had to smile. Victor had profound reserves of enthusiasm that seemed to always burst through in unexpected places, and Yuuri felt blessed to witness them, whatever the circumstances.

Victor dragged him across the city to a store whose name was unfamiliar to Yuuri, even when Victor said it out loud.

“An independent designer,” Victor explained. “Completely unique. Forward, yet classically chic. I think you’ll love her things.”

“I’m not--well. Okay,” Yuuri said as Victor pushed him inside. He tried not to think about how excessively expensive a suit from a boutique designer must be.

Victor immediately launched into a conversation in Russian with the shop assistant who came forward to greet them, gesturing at Yuuri and speaking animatedly, no doubt about the pathetic state of Yuuri’s current wardrobe. The shop assistant nodded and nodded, occasionally glancing over to Yuuri to eye him up and down as Victor spoke. Yuuri was just preparing to sink into the floor, never to return, when Victor finally turned back to him.

“Okay!” Victor said. “Alex here is going to need to get your measurements, let’s just step up over here--” Victor swept him towards an alcove where a poofy sofa sat across from a pair of dressing rooms.

Alex the Assistant gestured Yuuri up onto the platform in front of the dressing room doors, and pulled a measuring tape from his pocket. Yuuri was then subjected to what seemed like a thousand years of a stranger measuring and taking note of the precise size of every part of his body, and then Alex abruptly stalked off back into the store. Victor, meanwhile, had taken up a seat on the sofa. He smiled pleasantly and patted the cushion for Yuuri to join him. Yuuri had barely sat down when Alex swept back in with his arms full of clothes. He thrust a pale blue dress shirt in a soft and silky-feeling fabric at Yuuri, then handed him the pants and jacket of a black suit. “These first,” he said.

Yuuri shrugged, and took the pile of clothes into one of the dressing rooms. When he came back out, Victor nodded. “What do you think?” he asked Yuuri.

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “I think it’s almost exactly like my old suit, but more expensive.”

Victor grinned, and said something to Alex, who handed Yuuri something in seafoam green.

“Really?” Yuuri said.

“Well, try it on!” said Victor.

Yuuri sighed and did as he was told. Whatever you might say about this suit, it was not remotely like his old one. In addition to the garish color, the lapels had a weird, spiky pattern to their edges, the jacket had tails, and the pants were shot down the side with a neon pink stripe.

“This,” said Yuuri, emerging from the dressing room, “is not me.”

“Mm, no, I don’t think so either,” said Victor.

Alex looked a bit miffed to have this item dismissed, but he sighed and handed Yuuri the next suit, this one a more conservative hue of deep blue.

Yuuri took it, wondering what eccentric surprises might be in store for him this time. When he put it on, however, he discovered that its only quirk was a somewhat feminine cut, with a front closure hidden beneath a spiral of fabric that made the jacket appear twisted together down the front. The pants legs were a little narrower than he was used to, and they were cut to taper at the ankle. A closer examination of the fabric showed that the dark blue had just a hint of a purple shimmer to it as it caught the light. The suit didn’t quite fit, but Yuuri thought if it did, he might actually like the way he looked in it. He smoothed down the front of the jacket, and walked out of the dressing room again.

A soft smile bloomed on Victor’s face, and Yuuri knew without a doubt that it had to be this one.

“Better?” Victor said.

“Yeah. I--like it.”

“Better than the old one?” Victor smirked.

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “Maybe. I guess.”

Victor smiled. “It’s yours.”

“It’s a little big, I’m not sure--” Yuuri said.

“Of course not,” said Victor. “It needs to be tailored. Alex!” He spoke to him more in Russian, and Alex next produced a pin cushion and proceeded to fold and tuck bits of fabric. “That color is lovely on you,” Victor said, while Alex went about his business.

Yuuri’s blush deepened. “Oh, um. Thanks.” At last Yuuri was allowed to gingerly extract himself from a suit that was now filled with silver pins.

“You’re going to like it even better when it’s finished,” Victor said, putting an arm around Yuuri’s shoulders as they left the store. “You’re going to look extraordinary.”

“Whatever you say,” said Yuuri. But impulsively, he put his arm around Victor’s waist and gave him a light little side-hug, hoping Victor understood he was truly grateful for the extravagant gift. Even if the process of acquiring it had been unbearably stressful.

 

After dinner (pasta and roasted vegetables--delicious--Yuuri heard his mother in his head shouting “marry him, already!”), Victor touched Yuuri on the arm, and looked at him with something that almost looked like shyness.

“Yuuri, did you bring your skates?”

Yuuri nodded. “You said to.”

“Good.” Victor smiled widely. “Will you go to the rink with me now?”

“At this time of night?”

Victor leaned in close and said, “Yuuri, I work there. I have keys.”

Yuuri laughed, and Victor smiled and added, “This late is the only time Yakov’s students won’t be using it. I don’t want anyone to be there but you.”

Warmth spread through Yuuri’s chest.

 

Victor was out on the ice warming up before Yuuri had even got his skates on. Yuuri didn’t bother going out himself yet--he just sat and watched Victor move, a vision of strength and grace. It was astonishing, to see him like this, up close, a dream come to life. It was like Yuuri had forgotten, after all these months getting to know his new friend, that Victor was the most decorated figure skater in the history of the sport. Watching him was as mesmerizing as ever.

Victor skated up to the barrier where Yuuri stood. “You’re not coming?” he said.

“Sorry,” Yuuri said. “I was just--watching. You--you look like you really made a full recovery.”

Victor smiled. “With your help. If you don’t mind, would you stay out here just a little bit longer? I want to show you something.”

Yuuri almost laughed. What a ridiculous question. He would give his life savings to watch Victor do literally anything.

Victor fiddled with his phone, then skated back to the center of the ice. Yuuri couldn’t place the music at first, but then he remembered--it was Victor’s free skate from last Autumn. The one he never finished performing because of his injury. He was going to finish it now. Just for him.

Yuuri was in heaven. Victor had indeed made a full recovery--he was on fire. He was so good . He didn’t even flinch before launching into the triple Salchow that injured him, and from there forward, it was all new to Yuuri. Tears welled up in his eyes, realizing that he had been so sad not to know how this piece ended, so sad to think he might never see new choreography from Victor again--but here it was.

Yuuri clapped when Victor reached his final pose, and he could see Victor’s grin across the ice. He took off his glasses, and skated out to him.

“So? What did you think?” Victor asked, still breathing heavily.

“It was great,” Yuuri said. “I--thank you for showing me.”

“You learned all my other ones,” Victor smiled. “I thought you should have this one, too.”

“Thank you,” Yuuri said again, not knowing what else to say.

“You’re welcome,” said Victor. “Now what have you been working on?”

Yuuri laughed, and showed him the simple programs he was teaching his students for a little exhibition they were putting on for their families soon. Victor skated them back for him with enthusiasm, and looking to Yuuri for approval. Yuuri couldn’t stop smiling. He thought of his old dream of skating on the same ice as Victor. This may not have been how he pictured it, but he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

***

Victor leapt from his bed the morning after Yuuri’s arrival, the minute the sun broke through his curtains. When he got out to the kitchen, Yuuri was already awake, slumped over the counter in the rumpled t-shirt and sweats he slept in, and playing a game on his phone.

“Oh, my poor jet-lagged Yuuri, I’m sorry I wasn’t up to make you breakfast when you woke!”

Yuuri blinked up at him. “Mm it’s fine,” he said.

It was all Victor could do not to brush Yuuri’s messy morning hair out of his face and kiss him. He was looking especially cuddleable right now and it was beautiful torture. Gazing on Yuuri’s face, Victor realized he was asking him something. “Hmm?” he said.

“Um, I was wondering what the plan for today was.”

“Well I am making breakfast,” Victor said. “And I thought, since we are about to be stuck sitting in an ice rink for the next few days we might go walking and enjoy this nice spring weather! I want to show you at least one palace while you are here. They are so beautiful, though they do not have ninjas in them.”

Yuuri smiled. “That sounds nice. Do you um, do you mind if I use your shower first?”

“Of course not! Please! I will have breakfast ready when you’re out.”

Yuuri wandered back out later in a sky blue t-shirt that brought out the color of his eyes, still combing his fingers through his damp hair. Victor was stunned by affection for only a moment, before moving swiftly into action, scooping a nearly-perfect crepe onto a plate and sliding it in front of Yuuri, then pouring him a cup of coffee. Yuuri’s wide-eyed look of happiness when he ate his first bite of crepe was going to power Victor’s heart for at least a month.

While they lingered over their coffee, Victor said, “Oh! And I almost forgot. I also have a surprise for you tonight.”

Yuuri turned to look at him, and gave him a fond smile. “It’s been nothing but surprises since I met you,” he said.

“Oh?” Victor said, unable to resist brushing his fingers over Yuuri’s as he gathered up his mug. “Well this one is extra special.”

***

After just an unreasonably perfect afternoon looking at the extravagant wealth of the Russian tsars, Victor brought Yuuri home again, where he found that Victor had in fact sent his old suit out to be dry cleaned.

“It will have to do for now,” Victor said with an exaggerated sigh. “You’re going to borrow one of my shirts and ties though--I can at least do that.”

“Buh,” said Yuuri in response.

The shirt Victor loaned him was dark plum with a light blue graph check, and it fit him alright, though it was just a little long in the sleeves. Beneath his suit jacket it wasn’t that noticeable, however, and he had to admit that he looked much snazzier in Victor’s clothes than his own. Victor appeared in an impeccable navy blue suit and a wide grin.

“Ready?” he said.

“I guess,” said Yuuri. “Where are we going?”

“It’s a surpriiiise,” Victor said, and whisked them down to a cab.

Yuuri gasped when he saw that their car had pulled up outside the mint green walls of the Mariinsky Theatre, home of St. Petersburg’s legendary ballet company. “We’re going to the ballet?” he asked when they got out.

“Mmhm,” Victor smiled.

Yuuri looked up at the sign above the entrance, and processed the name written in Cyrillic. He looked back at Victor. “You didn’t,” he said, feeling bright and airy.

Victor nodded. “Have you ever seen it?”

“No,” said Yuuri.

“Oh, good,” said Victor, and put his hand to the small of Yuuri’s back as they walked to the ticket booth. “So is it a good, special surprise?”

Yuuri smiled back at him. “It’s a wonderful surprise.”

When Victor led them to their seats, the surprise got even better--he had bought them first row box seats. To Prokofiev’s Cinderella. Yuuri couldn’t wait to absorb everything so he could tell Minako all about it, but he was also quite interested to see the ballet with Victor. He remembered what he’d said, about it exposing too much of his soul to say why he liked the fairy tale, and Yuuri found himself desperately curious to know whether the ballet would offer any clues.

Yuuri glanced over at Victor throughout the performance, but his expressions would have been unreadable even outside the dim light of the theatre. Sometimes Victor caught him looking, and would smile, then look back at the dancers. Yuuri eventually gave up, and let himself get lost in the beauty of the production. And so it wasn’t until they rose to applaud after the final scene, that he looked over once more and saw that Victor had been weeping.

Victor saw Yuuri’s alarmed expression, then smiled and elbowed him gently while he wiped at his tear-streaked cheeks. “Shut up,” he said genially. “It’s just very beautiful.”

Yuuri hadn’t been able to make it through the final movement with dry eyes himself, the quiet strings of the “Amoroso” pulling at some sensitive place in his heart, so he laughed, and gave Victor a quick hug. “Thank you so much for this,” he said. “It was very beautiful.”

***

Victor woke in the middle of the night before the first day of Worlds feeling desperately thirsty, and worried that he was still carrying some unacknowledged trepidation about attending. He rose and went to the bathroom for a glass of water, and it wasn’t until he headed back across the hall to his bedroom that he glanced over at where Yuuri should have been sleeping, but wasn’t.

Yuuri was sitting up on the couch, bent over, with his hands clasped behind his neck. Fear and worry flooded Victor, and he rushed to Yuuri’s side.

“Yuuri, Yuuri,” he said, putting a hand on Yuuri’s back, “what’s wrong? Has something happened? Are you sick? What is it?”

Yuuri shook his head, but didn’t lift it. His breathing came in little gasps that sounded like crying, and Victor remembered how Yuuri had comforted him when he’d caught Victor crying in Hasetsu, and he began to rub his hand over Yuuri’s back in gentle circles the way Yuuri had done for him.

“Yuuri, please talk to me. How can I help you?”

“It’s stupid,” Yuuri said between shaky breaths. “I’m just being stupid. Please, go back to bed, I’m fine. You don’t need to worry about me.”

“What a silly thing to say,” Victor said, gently. “Of course I’m going to worry about you. I’m not going to leave you alone like this.”

Yuuri hugged himself tighter.

“Okay.” Victor brushed Yuuri’s hair away from his neck, so it all fell to the side facing away from him. “I understand your brain is being mean to you right now. Can you tell me what it’s saying? I can’t help you argue against it if I don’t know what I’m arguing against.”

That somehow made him finally sit up, and briefly meet Victor’s eyes. Yuuri wasn’t crying, but looked like he might at any second. He scrubbed his face with his hands as he slumped back against the couch.

Victor set his hand on Yuuri’s thigh, just above his knee, and rubbed it lightly with his thumb.

“I feel, like,” Yuuri began. “I don’t belong here. With you.”

“What?” said Victor, feeling as though he’d been punched in the chest.

“I’m not good enough. I’ve never--you know? You’re going to show up there, tomorrow, with more World Championships than anyone in history, and it’ll be like, ‘Who’s that with him? Oh, he fell on his face at a Grand Prix Final and retired in disgrace.’”

Victor turned sideways on the couch to face Yuuri, and reached up one hand to try, lightly, to pull Yuuri’s hands from his face. “If everyone who attended the Worlds was required to have medaled in one, the room would look pretty sad, don’t you think?” he said. “And Yuuri, I know your Grand Prix performance bothers you, but you must understand that you’re not the only skater to fall on their face at a big competition. It’s okay. It happens. You still finished with a higher score than plenty of sixth-place finalists. You have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.”

“Ugh, I know,” Yuuri said. “It’s not about me, I don’t--I’m afraid of what people will say about you for being there with me. This is your first big public event since you retired and I don’t want to make you look bad--”

“Yuuri!” said Victor, shocked. “Why would you think it would look bad for me to be seen with you?”

“There are better skaters--”

“Who cares?” Victor said, and struggled to keep his voice calm, because Yuuri’s distress was now upsetting him. “Do you really think I should choose my friends based on how good they are at skating?”

“No, but--”

“Is this--”

“--what if people compare--”

“--is this about what I said about your suit? I’m really sorry, Yuuri, I was only teasing--you looked really nice in it tonight.”

Yuuri gave him an odd look. “No, no, Victor, it’s not--it’s not about the suit.”

Victor sighed. “Okay. Look at me.” He waited for Yuuri to meet his eyes again. “The only thing anyone will think when they see you with me tomorrow is how entirely unsurprising it is that I enjoy watching skating competitions with other people who appreciate the sport.”

“B--”

Victor put a finger to Yuuri’s lips before he could finish the word.

“Yuuri, no one remembers you as a bad skater. Okay? You know what people say when your name comes up in conversations? And I should know, because I seem to talk about you quite a lot.”

Yuuri shook his head.

“They say, ‘Isn’t he the one who pole-danced with Christophe Giacometti at that one banquet?’”

“Aaa--,” said Yuuri, predictably, and Victor smiled.

“--Or, they say, ‘I’m so sorry he retired, I thought he was really good.’”

“Sure,” said Yuuri.

“I’m telling the truth,” Victor insisted, but Yuuri still seemed anxious, twisting his hands and breathing shakily. “Oh, Yuuri,” Victor said softly. “Come here.” He put his arms around Yuuri and pulled him into a hug. “But you see none of that even matters, because I don’t care what anyone else has to say about you or I or both of us. I want you to be there, because you are my very good friend and there’s no one else I’d rather be with. Please, please don’t worry about what anyone else might think.” He squeezed Yuuri tight, and Yuuri finally put his arms around Victor’s waist, and relaxed a little. Victor turned his nose into Yuuri’s hair and stroked one hand lightly up and down his back. “I’m also just selfish, you know,” he said after a while, barely above a whisper. “I still don’t really know if I’m ready to do this alone. I--the truth is, I--I need you.”

“Victor,” Yuuri said, and pulled back, searching his face.

“I’m okay,” Victor said. “I’ll just feel better. Not being alone. You know?”

“Okay,” Yuuri said, looking determined all of a sudden. “You won’t be alone.”

Victor smiled. “Are you going to be okay out here?” he asked, brushing aside Yuuri’s bangs. “You sure you don’t want to sleep in the bed? I don’t mind.”

“No, thanks, I’ll--I’ll be fine.” Yuuri caught Victor’s wrist, and pushed it back to him. “Go back to sleep,” he said with a little smile. “I’ll be fine.”

Victor nodded. “Okay. If you need anything, please. Come wake me up. It’s okay. I don’t mind.”

“I know,” Yuuri said. “I will.” Suddenly, he reached out and gave Victor a hug. “Thank you,” he said.

“Of course,” Victor murmured back. “Any time.”

Chapter Text

Contrary to his assurances to Victor the night before, Yuuri slept fitfully, and woke feeling only slightly less anxious than he had when Victor discovered him in the wee hours of the morning. Only now he felt even more guilty about it, knowing that Victor was relying on him to keep Victor calm. He strove to appear relaxed while they ate breakfast, remembering to smile, to ask Victor questions that would keep his mind on non-skating topics. Dressing for the event, however, Yuuri felt waves of anxiety come over him, nearly as bad as if he were actually competing himself. He stood in front of the bathroom mirror, waiting for Victor to finish changing, struggling and failing to get his hair into an even braid.

Victor burst from his bedroom looking more like he was going to the ballet again than a skating competition, but his wide grin fell as he took notice of the mess of Yuuri’s hair and shaking fingers. You’re so embarrassing, how could you ever, he regrets ever bringing you here-- Yuuri yelled at himself inside his head as Victor approached him. But Victor just gave him a soft little smile, and brushed his fingers through the top of Yuuri’s hair, untangling the loose attempt at a braid. “Hey,” he said. “Let me.”

Yuuri stared at him, uncomprehending, then Victor gently pried the brush from his hand and pulled him out of the bathroom.

“Sit,” Victor instructed, gesturing at the couch.

Yuuri sat down slowly, and Victor perched himself on the armrest right beside him, giving him a better height advantage. He combed Yuuri’s hair out with just his fingers, then began to brush it, one section at a time. “You--don’t have to do this,” Yuuri said. Not that he didn’t desperately want him to.

“No,” said Victor conversationally. “I suppose not. Do you want me not to?”

Yuuri couldn’t find the voice to answer.

“Mm,” said Victor. “That’s what I thought. Just relax, okay? You have taken such good care of me. Let me do this for you.”

Yuuri swallowed, and let himself give in to Victor’s gentle brush strokes, the feeling of his fingertips scratching against his neck and scalp.

Victor hummed quietly as he brushed Yuuri’s hair to the top of his head and began to separate it into strands. “May I try a fishtail on you?” he asked. “It’s been a long time since I could do one on myself.”

“Um, sure,” Yuuri said. “Whatever you like.”

“Good,” Victor said, a smile in his voice. “I think I like a fishtail.” He went back to his humming, running a finger slowly across one side of Yuuri’s head, and then the other, in soothing repetition down his scalp.

“Yuuri, can I ask you something?” Victor said when he reached the nape of his neck.

“Mm, sure,” Yuuri answered drowsily.

“Am I your favorite figure skater?”

Yuuri blinked his eyes open. What a question. “Um, well, yeah. You are,” he said, because there didn’t seem any point in denying it.

“Would you be sad if someone said mean things about me?”

“Yeah, of course,” Yuuri said. “Why? Is someone saying mean things about you?” he asked indignantly.

“Oh, probably somewhere. It’s not important.”

“Victor!”

“Shh, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to say, there aren’t, you know. Better skaters than you.”

“Huh?” said Yuuri.

“Last night, you said there were better skaters I could be seen with. There aren’t, actually. If I were given the choice between watching Worlds for the next five days, or watching you, I’d pick you, without hesitation.”

“Pssh,” Yuuri said.

“There are many Victor Nikiforov fans out there,” Victor said. “But I am a Yuuri Katsuki fan.”

“You know that’s not what I meant,” Yuuri protested, but the anxiety was fading. Frankly, now the bulk of his mental energy was directed at parsing the words ‘I am a Yuuri Katsuki fan’ coming out of Victor’s mouth.

“I don’t care,” Victor said. “I just think you should know you’re my favorite skater. You .” He wrapped the elastic around the end of Yuuri’s hair, then slid the whole braid slowly between his thumb and fingers. “So don’t be mean to my favorite skater anymore, okay?” Victor ducked his head down in front of Yuuri’s face, and smiled, tugging lightly on the braid when his fingers reached the end. “It makes me sad.”

Yuuri let a semi-delirious smile spread across his lips. “Only if you promise not to be mean to mine,” he said.

“Deal,” Victor said, and held out his hand.

Yuuri took it to shake, and Victor pulled him to his feet, then raised their hands above Yuuri’s head. Instinctively, Yuuri twirled, and they both laughed.

“Ready?” Victor asked.

“Yeah,” Yuuri said.

 

The Women’s short programs were up first, and Yuuri swelled with pride when Mila Babicheva handily made the high score with her very own original Nikiforov program.

Victor went down to congratulate her, but was immediately swarmed by press. Yuuri spotted the flash of alarm on Victor’s face, and looked up at him questioningly. Victor smiled and shook his head, so Yuuri slipped back out of the way, while Victor was bombarded with questions in three different languages. From what Yuuri could tell, he was answering them patiently, and with good humor, but Yuuri saw him reach up a hand at one point and twist a lock of hair between his fingers, while shrugging and smiling as he answered more questions. Yuuri frowned, and felt anxious on Victor’s behalf.

“Distract me,” Victor murmured when he’d finally made an escape.

“Oh!” Yuuri said. “Well have I told you about Mari and Rika’s debate over their first dance?”

“No! Tell me,” Victor said, hooking his arm through Yuuri’s.

“Oh, well, it’s a whole thing, I can’t believe I didn’t tell you. Don’t worry about them, they’re fine--it’s just been a very intense ongoing discussion. See, Mari--” Yuuri babbled on and on with the melodrama of wedding preparations until they were able to locate Mila, and Victor broke off from him to give her a big hug.

“Victor! Thank you so much!” she yelled as he lifted her off the ground.

“Mila, you were beautiful!” he grinned back, and it looked genuine, not the face he put on for the press, and only then did Yuuri feel he could relax a little.

***

By the end of the first day, Victor felt pleased for Mila, but utterly drained. Being at the competition, interrupted by fans and journalists at every turn, had turned out to be every bit as harrowing as he’d feared, and he knew without Yuuri beside him he would have had a breakdown.

It also didn’t help that so many people had eyed Yuuri with raised brows and asked him, <“Is that your boyfriend? ”> that even Yuuri had noticed, and gotten nervous himself, asking Victor if they were asking questions about him.

Back home at last, Yuuri asked him how he was doing.

“Mmph,” Victor sighed in reply. “I need a drink.” He pulled a bottle of whiskey from his cabinet, and a pair of tumblers, into which he poured two fairly generous servings.

“Oh no,” said Yuuri. “I uh--better not that much.”

Victor shrugged, and poured most of Yuuri’s glass into his own. He sat down on one of the stools, and Yuuri perched on the one beside him. “Cheers,” he said heavily, and clinked his glass to Yuuri’s before downing a third of it in one go.

“Uh, cheers,” said Yuuri, who took a conservative sip of his own.

Victor drank in silence. He had good sense enough to know that he was well on his way to embarrassing himself, but not quite enough to care. He had no energy remaining to fight back the darkness that had bled into the edges of his world over the day, and now it threatened to overtake him. His eyes began to swim, and he felt Yuuri’s hand on his back.

“Hey,” Yuuri said quietly. “You okay?”

Victor shook his head. “I’m not crying,” he said.

“I know,” said Yuuri, smoothing his palm down Victor’s spine.

“I’m just--so tired,” Victor said. He set down his nearly empty glass and leaned on the bar, pushing his fingers into his hair.

“I know,” said Yuuri.

“I forgot how exhausting it is, to have to spend all day pretending you’re okay. And then do it again, and again.”

“We don’t have to go back tomorrow,” Yuuri said. “If you don’t want to. I don’t mind, I promise.”

“No,” said Victor. “I have to.”

“You don’t have to do anything,” Yuuri said.

Victor looked at him, and tried a smile. “Baby steps, Yuuri. I am growing my hair out.”

“Uh, what? Does that have to do with anything?”

“I convinced myself I couldn’t,” Victor tried to explain. “I thought everyone would say I was going backwards and I could never do that.”

“Oh,” said Yuuri. “That’s--”

“But I like long hair. And I can do whatever I want now. So fuck them.”

“--funny. Yeah,” said Yuuri. “Exactly. Fuck them.”

“But I still have to go to this competition. And pretend I’m okay. Even if it’s--” Victor took in a shaky breath. “Hard. I spent all those months in physical therapy so I wouldn’t lose my strength. I should have been practicing this too.”

“I don’t think it’s, um. I don’t think it’s something you should have to be good at,” Yuuri said.

Victor knew he had drunk too much too fast, because his head was spinning, and also because he said, “You want to know why I like Cinderella.”

“Okay,” said Yuuri.

Victor stared into the middle distance. “She worked so hard to make everyone else happy, even when they were cruel to her, when she got nothing in return. Less than nothing. And then one day she finally meets a guy who is willing to work hard for her. He rides the length and breadth of the kingdom just to find her. And when he discovers she isn’t a princess like he thought, that she’s just a poor servant girl in rags, trapped in this house since childhood, he doesn’t love her any less. He still thinks she deserves to be a queen. You see,” he said. “Too much of my soul.” He downed the last of his drink, and stood up to shuffle off to bed before he said anything else.

Victor showered and crawled beneath his sheets feeling vaguely embarrassed and pathetic. He was just dozing off when there was a soft knock at his door, and then Yuuri came in.

“Did you drink any water?” Yuuri asked.

Victor hadn’t, to speak of, and gave a noncommittal grunt in response.

Yuuri stepped forward, offering a glass. “Trust me,” he said. “You’ll thank me in the morning.”

Victor heaved himself vaguely upright again, and took the glass from Yuuri’s hand. Yuuri stood there in silence, watching him drink. When Victor handed the glass back to him, Yuuri stayed put.

“Are--are you okay?” he asked.

Victor settled back down into his pillows and pulled the comforter up to his chin. “I’m okay,” he said.

“Okay,” said Yuuri. Instead of leaving, he came closer and pulled gently at Victor’s shoulder, prompting him to turn over onto his side. Then he sat down, perched just on the edge of the mattress, and with the hand not holding the glass, he reached out in the darkness and ran his fingers through Victor’s damp hair.

“Hmm,” Victor sighed, closing his eyes.

Yuuri continued to stroke his hair, lightly, and Victor eased toward sleep. Just before falling completely under, he thought he heard Yuuri say, in the quietest whisper, “I don’t need you to be a princess.”

But in the morning, he convinced himself he’d dreamt it.

***

Yuuri was not a morning person, but his internal clock was still set to Hasetsu, and so he was able to run out and make two purchases, each extravagant in its own way, but equally designed to make Victor happy, before Victor even made it out of bed the second day of the competition.

The first, he saved for a later occasion.

The second, he turned into a breakfast with more grease than either of them would have allowed himself to eat in a month, had they still been competing. There were plenty of perks to retirement, Yuuri felt, and he was determined to help Victor enjoy them.

Victor emerged from his bedroom a little bleary-eyed, and mesmerized by the pop and snap of fat in the frying pan Yuuri was tending at the stove. “What is that?” he asked, staring.

“Disgusting,” said Yuuri proudly. “I can cook too, you know.”

He passed Victor a cup of coffee as he sat down, and then on second thought, seeing that Victor was already in a dress shirt, took off the apron he’d been borrowing, and came around to drop it over Victor’s head. “You might need this,” he grinned.

“Oh,” said Victor, tying it around his waist. “Thank you. I, um. Sorry, about last night, I--”

“What for?” Yuuri smiled. He loaded up Victor’s plate, and passed that over, too.

Victor gave him a little smile in return. “Thank you,” he said quietly.

Yuuri ate his own food slowly, because he couldn’t stop staring at Victor.

Eventually, Victor noticed. “What?” he asked. “Do I have bacon on my face?”

“No,” Yuuri said. “I was just thinking, um. Your hair looks cute.”

Victor blinked. “What?”

“I just--you know, you said you were worried that people wouldn’t like it if you grew your hair out again. And, I think it looks cute.”

Victor gave Yuuri an odd little smile. “You’re very sweet to say so, but I know you’re lying--it’s such an awkward length right now! It looks terrible. I mean, in a couple more months, maybe--”

Yuuri shrugged, and smiled. “I still think it looks cute.”

Victor reached up to touch the ends, and grinned down at his breakfast.

I’m going to make you so happy , Yuuri thought wildly.

“Oh!” said Victor, suddenly sitting upright. “Your suit! It should be ready today! We should get it now before the competition starts!”

“The dishes--” Yuuri said.

“Oh, leave them! Let’s go!”

 

At the shop, Yuuri was once more bustled into a dressing room. He eyed himself in the mirror after he’d carefully removed the clothes he still needed for the rest of the day. The suit did not have much to live up to, he thought, according to Victor’s “better than naked” rule. He prepared himself for the inevitable discomfort of the new clothes, the things that would pinch or buckle unflatteringly.

When he stepped into the pants, however, there was none of that, and now Yuuri understood the value of allowing oneself to be half felt-up by a stranger in the pursuit of measurements. The pants were perfect in a way none had ever been. No tightness in the thighs, no bagginess in the ankles. Yuuri quickly slipped on the jacket, and felt he could cry at how perfect it was, too.

He turned in a circle, looking over his shoulder in the mirror, and marveled at how comfortable he felt. The lines of the suit made him look tall and graceful, and it fit so well that he didn't feel fat or awkward. He felt…just right.

He pulled his hair over his shoulder, twisting it into a side braid.

“Yuuri!” Victor called from outside. “Are you okay in there?”

“Y--yeah.” Yuuri tied off the end, and smiled at his reflection.

When he stepped out of the dressing room, Victor's jaw actually dropped. Yuuri grinned, and spun around. “So? What do you think?”

Victor put his hand to his heart. “I--think you look beautiful.”

Normally Yuuri would have protested such a statement, but he was feeling good this morning and frankly, he agreed. Feeling warm and invincible, he changed back into his other clothes and met Victor outside.

“Thank you,” he said. “I don't want to know how much you spent on that, so please don't tell me.”

A smile played around Victor's lips. “I think any amount would have been worth it though, don't you think?”

***

The second day felt better, perhaps because Yuuri was in a much better mood for some reason. Yuri Plisetsky came first in his short program as well, and Victor began to feel that everything would be alright. He felt proud, seeing the younger Russian skaters win with his choreography. He no longer felt he’d lost himself and his purpose when he left the ice. At last, he was looking ahead, to new and newer things. He marveled at the pairs free programs at night, wondering what it must be like to be able to skate with another person like that, and his thoughts turned to Yuuri, as they always, always did.

Regardless, Victor was fully ready to just go home and curl up in bed, when Yuuri laid a hand on his shoulder and squeezed it lightly, asking, “Hey, how are you feeling?”

Victor sighed and shrugged. “Oh, okay. You know.”

Yuuri nodded. “I know.” Then, he asked, “Do you think the rink will be free right now? Or will there be people there?”

“No, probably any of Yakov’s skaters will be on strict orders to get a good night’s rest and save it for the open practice tomorrow. Why? Feeling inspired?”

Yuuri smiled up at him, and Victor’s heart did a little flip. “Something like that. Do you feel up to skating a little tonight?”

Victor wasn’t really sure that he did, but Yuuri looked so excited he didn’t want to disappoint him. “I can do that, sure,” he said with a smile.

“Good,” said Yuuri.

At the rink, Yuuri seemed nervous, and a little inside his own head, but as soon as they were on the ice, he turned his full attention on Victor.

“You asked me to teach you how to ice dance once, remember?”

Victor widened his eyes. “Yes?”

Yuuri smiled. “You still want to?”

“Please, Yuuri,” said Victor, grinning now, all weariness gone into thin air. “Teach me to ice dance.”

Yuuri started slow, at first asking Victor to just skate a few laps with him while they worked on matching each other’s tempo. Then they did it holding hands, then with hands on each other’s waists, and then in a full dancing position, with Victor’s hand on Yuuri’s waist, and Yuuri’s on his shoulder, holding hands on their other side. They took turns going backwards, forwards, and sideways.

“I’m leading?” Victor asked. “The first time we danced that was your role.”

“For now,” said Yuuri, smiling.

He then had Victor practice other moves on the ice, twirling and dipping Yuuri until they could do it with some competence without falling. (There was some falling along the way.)

“You’re pretty good at this already,” said Yuuri later, as they removed their skates. “Big surprise,” he added, rolling his eyes good naturedly.

Victor laughed. “Well this was truly a surprise. Thank you, Yuuri, that was fun. Do you think we could do it again sometime?”

Yuuri smiled at him. “Anytime you like.”

***

When the short dances began the following morning, Yuuri looked on with fascination as Victor watched the skaters with a calculating eye, and Yuuri could tell that he was trying to figure them out. Now that Victor understood the principles of ice dancing, he was trying to learn more, to understand how the things they did worked, how he might replicate them. He thought of how Victor had climbed his way to the top of the sport and stayed there for so many years, and he was seeing now, how it had happened. There was still that drive inside him, to challenge himself, to master everything.

Then Victor looked over and caught Yuuri watching him, and he sat back and folded his arms. “I’m just trying to understand how they do it!” he said, a little defensively.

Yuuri grinned. “I know. I can tell.”

 

Later, Mila took gold, to thunderous applause. Victor was swarmed by people of all sorts congratulating him on the winning choreography and asking for quotes. Victor waved them all off, insisting the win was Mila’s alone and they should be talking to her.

Then Yuuri felt his hand on his arm, and Victor said in his ear. “You said anytime? How about now?”

Yuuri smiled. “Feeling inspired?”

 

On the final day of the competition, in a stunning upset, Phichit beat Plisetsky by two points, claiming the men’s gold. Yuuri’s head felt like it would explode with pride and joy when he saw the final scores. He hadn’t been able to see Phichit all week because he’d been too busy with practice, but now, he excused himself from Victor’s side and pushed through the crowd to get to him. In the end, he had to wait behind an impenetrable mass of press and fans anyway, but once they cleared he rushed up and hugged his friend.

“You were incredible!” Yuuri said, squeezing Phichit tight. “Congratulations! You deserved this so much.”

Phichit clapped his hands to his face. “Can you believe I’m the first person to win Worlds after Victor Nikiforov? Me ?”

“Totally,” Yuuri said, but it was, honestly, kind of wild. He remembered when Phichit showed up in Detroit as a tiny freshman just before Yuuri started his (first) senior year, and he couldn’t believe that kid was a world champion now.

“So yeah, uh, sorry I stole your boyfriend’s crown or whatever,” Phichit grinned.

Yuuri smiled and rolled his eyes. “Not my boyfriend...” he said, but he looked around and spotted Victor some distance away, cornered by a small but determined gaggle of reporters. He realized he’d run off to see Phichit exactly when Victor had probably prefered that he be nearby.

“Mmhm, sure,” said Phichit.

Yuuri turned back to him. “Speaking of boyfriends, how are yours?”

Phichit nodded over Yuuri’s shoulder. “Headed right this way to take me to get celebratory shitfaced. Wanna come with?”

Yuuri shook his head. “No thanks, um, I think we’re gonna watch the free dances. But we’ll see you tomorrow at the banquet!”

Weeee ?” said Phichit.

“Seriously?" said Yuuri.

When Phichit left, Yuuri hurried back to Victor. He hopped in place, hoping to catch Victor’s attention from behind the press. When Victor finally looked up at him, Yuuri crossed his eyes and stuck out his tongue. Victor’s eyes widened and his mouth did a highly amusing dance as he struggled not to laugh out loud. Yuuri grinned as Victor returned to the mass interrogation with a smile in his eyes. From then on Yuuri continued to pull silly faces whenever Victor glanced up at him, until at last Victor brushed past the press, insisting that he needed to get back to his seats for the free dances.

“You’re dangerous,” he told Yuuri when he rejoined him.

Yuuri beamed. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sorry I left you,” he added guiltily.

“Oh, no, it’s fine.” said Victor. “I’m okay, I promise. You had to go see Phichit! I had to restrain myself from telling Yuri Plisetsky he could have won if he’d used my choreography for his free program, too…”

Still, Victor looked a little frazzled when they got back to their seats, so Yuuri curled his hands around Victor’s arm, and bumped his head against Victor’s shoulder. “You’re okay,” he said.

Victor reached across with his other arm and put his hand over Yuuri’s. “Yes, I’m okay. Thank you, Yuuri.”

Then, to Yuuri’s surprise, Victor pressed a soft, quick kiss to the crown of his head. Yuuri closed his eyes, wishing to freeze time.

***

By mutual agreement, they both slept in Sunday morning, their weeklong schedule of spending all day at the competition and then hours at night at Yakov’s rink to practice ice dance having wiped them both out completely. They cobbled a brunch together from whatever they could find in Victor’s kitchen, shoulders brushing and hands colliding as they reached across each other to add ingredients to their respective dishes. Smiling and laughing and cooking, Victor had never felt so perfectly content.

When he went to change for the exhibition and banquet, Victor chose a tie and pocket square in a shimmery, purpley blue that matched Yuuri’s new suit, thinking of how good they would look next to each other. When he came out and saw Yuuri standing in his living room, however, he decided it had been heinous blasphemy to even think the thought that he might look good next to Yuuri. Every human on the planet was but a dull shadow next to Yuuri, who was strong and soft and lovely and perfect; sunlight shone out of every pore of his skin--

Yuuri looked up at him and smiled, and Victor’s heart lept entirely out of his chest.

“You look nice,” Yuuri said.

“You look breathtaking,” responded Victor.

“Oh, I mean, um. So do you. Uh, Victor?”

“Yes, my Yuuri?” Victor said, stepping closer to adjust Yuuri’s tie.

“Would you, um. Do my hair again?”

A smile bloomed on Victor’s lips. “It would be my absolute pleasure.”

Yuuri sat on the couch as he had before, and Victor took up his brush and sat beside him. It was so rare to ever see Yuuri truly relax, even when he otherwise seemed happy, but when Victor began to brush his hair, he melted beneath his hands. Victor would have been happy to sit there all day like this, with Yuuri’s head almost in his lap, his eyes closed, as Victor combed his fingers through Yuuri’s hair, scratching his scalp. But they had somewhere else to be, so Victor at last twisted a few sections of Yuuri’s hair into little braids that he swept back from his hairline into an updo.

“Stunning,” Victor smiled at him when he’d finished.

Yuuri blushed, and murmured his thanks.

 

During the exhibition, Victor suddenly felt Yuuri take his hand in his. He looked over, startled and delighted, and found Yuuri almost absent-mindedly massaging his palm with his thumbs. He spread apart Victor’s fingers and pressed down between them, then held Victor’s wrist in a loose grip as he smoothed his hand from Victor’s wrist out to his fingertips. Victor smiled to himself, as the lingering threads of tension he hadn’t even noticed loosened. When Yuuri let go, he reached out and curled his fingers around Yuuri's hand, pulling him back.

“Thank you,” he whispered.

Yuuri smiled, and squeezed back on Victor’s hand. He didn’t pull away this time, so neither did Victor, and so they sat holding hands for the whole rest of the exhibition. Tomorrow, Victor thought. Tomorrow, I just ask him...

***

The banquet reminded Yuuri of why he hated these things. Lots of strangers, all expecting you to make small talk with them. Being there as Victor’s plus-one instead of as a competitor was certainly an improvement in some ways, because he had a built-in buffer person between him and everyone else, and because no one especially wanted to talk to Yuuri anyway. But Yuuri’s hand also still tingled with the ghost of Victor’s, and all he wanted was for them to get away.

When they got to Phichit, he immediately started telling Yuuri about how he was ready to put his dream of a Thai ice show into action, now that he could brand it as an exhibition put on by the new world champion. “You’re gonna be in it, right?” Phichit pleaded.

Yuuri’s stomach lurched at the thought of performing in a show that big. “Um, well, I’ll uh, I’ll think about it, Phichit. I don’t know. I’m so excited you’re doing it, though! I’m sure it’ll be amazing!”

“Yuuri, do it!” said Victor. He put his arm around Yuuri’s shoulders and murmured, “The world deserves to see you like I’ve seen you.”

Yuuri saw Phichit’s eyebrows fly up and gently extracted himself from Victor’s arm. “Uh, maybe, I don’t know,” he repeated.

Yuuri excused himself to the restroom, and as he washed his hands the door slammed open, and a tall Russian boy strode through it. Yuuri found himself staring up into the icy blue glare of silver medalist Yuri Plisetsky, who had apparently hit a growth spurt since they last met, though his skating costumes revealed that his frame was as skinny as ever.

The Russian skater grabbed Yuuri by the lapels and shook him. “Hey! Pig!” he shouted in Yuuri’s face.

“This is just...gonna be a thing with us, huh?” Yuuri said.

“I’m here to tell you that if you break Victor’s heart again, I’m going to kill you! Understand?!”

“What? No--not--”

“Victor is an idiot but he’s family and if you hurt him, you die. It’s simple, okay moron?”

“Oh--okay,” Yuuri said. “You got it.”

Plisetsky shoved him backwards. “I’m watching you,” he growled as he stalked backwards out of the room. “Asshole.”

Yuuri stared after him as the door swung shut again. Wow, he thought. He sure hasn’t changed much.

Later, Yuuri caught Yuri leaning over to say something to Otabek Altin, his glare never once wavering from Yuuri’s direction across the banquet hall. “Uh, Victor?” Yuuri said, nudging him in the arm. “How do you feel about--”

“Leaving? Right now?” Victor said. “Please, I am dying in this place. Let’s go.”

Yuuri laughed, and looked back over his shoulder at Yuri Plisetsky, and gave him a little wave.

 

As was now their tradition, Victor took Yuuri to the rink before they went back to his apartment. He stopped Yuuri before Yuuri could come out onto the ice.

“Yuuri, will you watch me?” he asked. “I have a surprise for you.”

Yuuri almost laughed. What a ridiculous question. As if he would ever take his eyes off Victor when he had a chance to watch him skate.

Victor was grinning, but also seemed almost nervous. “I want to show you something new,” he said, then went to set something up on the speakers.

Yuuri could barely contain his excitement. Had Victor choreographed a whole new program? Was he going to be the first to see it? As much as he tried to distance himself from his Victor-fanboy past, a tiny twelve year old Yuuri in his head was running in circles and screaming with triumph.

Victor pressed play, then skated straight to the center of the ice. Spanish-style guitar rattled over the speakers as Victor moved his hands around his body, then the melody began and he launched into a lively program full of seductive spins and step sequences that suited the upbeat flamenco music. Yuuri suddenly recognized it--it was the same melody Victor had done a short program to a couple years ago, “On Love--Agape,” but this was a completely different arrangement, sexy and fun where “Agape” had been contemplative and sweet. The way Victor moved his body, his expression when they locked eyes, made Yuuri a little dizzy and gave him a warm and distracting hum inside, the rare sort of feeling that made him wonder if this is what other people felt like all the time.

Victor brought the program to a sharp stop with his arms wrapped in front of him, in perfect time with the music.

Yuuri shook himself out of his delighted trance and applauded as Victor skated back to him, grinning.

“What did you think?” Victor asked.

“What was that?” said Yuuri.

“That,” said Victor, as he came to a stop at the barrier right in front of Yuuri, “Was your short program.”

“What?”

“When you asked me to be your coach? I started thinking about programs for you right away, I couldn’t help myself. I had been listening to this music because it’s a companion to my own short program I was working on, ‘On Love--Agape.’ You remember? Oh of course, you are my biggest fan.” Victor winked.

Yuuri gulped.

“This arrangement is called ‘On Love--Eros’--sexual or romantic love, instead of selfless love. I would have had you skate this if we had entered such a partnership.”

“What, that?”

“What, you don’t like it?” Victor said, looking crestfallen.

“No no no! It’s cool,” Yuuri insisted. “I just, I mean, I don’t think it’s really ‘me,’ you know?”

“No,” said Victor with a smirk. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Well I’m just, I mean. I’m not really a sexy person, you know?”

Victor laughed. “Well, consider that I had just had the pleasure of doing a tango with you and watched you pole dance while almost completely naked when I was choreographing this, so you must forgive me if I had a rather different idea from you on that subject.” Victor came right up to the barrier, and leaned over it, forcing Yuuri to back up a step to keep from bumping into him. “Yuuri,” he said. “I don’t think you need to desire sex to be sexy. It’s about your energy, the way you draw people to you, it doesn’t have to be about physical attraction. And trust me, Yuuri Katsuki, you are very sexy, whether you care to admit it or not.”

Yuuri found breathing a little difficult. He ducked his head and adjusted his glasses. “Oh, well,” he said. “I won’t, but um. I guess that was a compliment.”

Victor laughed. “Yes, yes.”

“You really think I could have competed with that as my short program?”

Victor nodded. “Oh, I think you could have won gold.”

Yuuri looked at him. “Even now that you know what I’m like when I’m not drunk?”

Victor broke out in a wide smile. “Oh, yes. I think Yuuri and Drunk Yuuri are not so far from each other as you seem to think.”

Yuuri laughed. “Oh, yikes.” After a moment, he said, “Um, thank you for showing me. That program does look really fun. It almost makes me wish I’d stayed in competition after all, if you were going to choreograph all my routines for me.”

“Having seen how you skate when you’re at your best? I’m sorry I haven’t been choreographing for you this whole time, too. I still can, though, you know,” Victor added with a grin. “Who says you have to compete with them?”

Yuuri just shook his head, certain Victor was kidding. What a thought though, having Victor Nikiforov create a program just for him.

“What do you want to do now, Yuuri?”

Yuuri stared at Victor, looking all pleased and flushed with exertion and thought, I want to put my mouth on your collarbone. What? “Um.”

“What is it, my Yuuri?”

Victor was clearly in a great mood tonight, so Yuuri hoped he wouldn’t mind his actual request. “Would you--would you skate that program again? I’d--I’d like to record it.”

Yuuri needn’t have worried. Victor looked like he’d never been asked for anything he’d like better to give.

“With pleasure,” he said with another wink. “Just start the music when you’re ready!”

As Victor skated back to the center, Yuuri’s head rushed with ideas. He couldn’t wait to bring them to life.

 

Back at Victor’s apartment, showered and ready to sleep, Yuuri heard Victor call him from his bedroom. Yuuri shuffled in, and saw Victor sitting cross-legged on top of the comforter. He patted the other side of the elegant, king-sized bed. “Yuuri, come here! I want to show you something!”

Yuuri swallowed. “Okay.” He carefully made his way across Victor’s room, and hopped up beside him. He could instantly tell that the mattress was the most luxurious he’d ever sat on, including the ones at some of the fancier hotels he’d been put up in for competitions.

Victor was cradling a photo album in his lap, and moved it over between them to show Yuuri. “Makkachin,” he said. “I thought you might like to see them. Since I love all the pictures you send me of Ai.”

The entire album was filled front to back with photos of Victor’s old poodle. The first few pages clearly showed the occasion on which Victor first got Makkachin--a skinny, adolescent boy with long hair happily cuddling the curly brown puppy. “Oh my gosh,” Yuuri said, touching the photos. “These are so cute. Who took them?”

“Yakov,” Victor replied. “Makka was a gift from him. Yakov’s not a soft man, but--well, maybe that’s why he gave me a puppy in the first place.”

Yuuri flipped through the pages, and Victor often paused to tell a story about something funny Makkachin did, a quirk or trick he had. Yuuri had heard some of these stories from Victor already, but he enjoyed hearing them re-told, with the fond happiness they brought to Victor’s voice. Occasionally the photos featured Victor, and Yuuri watched him grow up all over again, filling out in the shoulders, cutting his hair. He recognized some photos that Victor had posted to social media, but most were new to him--private images Victor had chosen to share with Yuuri now, but not the public, and the thought put warmth in his chest. He relaxed enough to lean back against the ridiculous pile of pillows at the head of Victor’s bed, sinking into their soft embrace while he and Victor talked about their dogs.

Long after they finished looking at the album, they lay awake for hours, just talking. It was well past two in the morning when Yuuri finally began to feel too sleepy to carry on, and their conversation began to lull.

“Victor,” Yuuri said in the silence. “Do you ever get tired of talking with me?”

Victor rolled over onto his side to face Yuuri, gazing up at him with a soft smile. “Obviously not.”

Yuuri smiled up at the ceiling. “Me neither,” he said, and yawned. “It’s so strange, like, we’ve spent so much time together now, and I feel like I never run out of things to say to you. I’m. I’m not usually like that. It’s always been kind of hard for me to talk to people. I mean it was hard talking to you too, at first, but now...it’s like instead of losing energy when I talk with you, I get it back. Does that make sense?” He yawned again.

Victor laughed. “Poor sleepy Yuuri,” he said. “No, it makes sense. I feel the same way. You’re my best friend, Yuuri. I never tire--” Now Victor yawned. “--of talking with you.”

“Poor sleepy Victor,” Yuuri said. “I guess I should go to the couch.”

“No, no, stay,” Victor said sleepily, sliding off the bed to fold back the sheets, and then slipping back in beneath them. “You’re already here and the bed is big enough for both of us.”

“Mmm it is very comfortable,” Yuuri said, snuggling down beneath the comforter. “But the couch is comfortable too!” he added, sitting up abruptly. “I really don’t mind getting up.”

“Yuuuri,” Victor murmured, drawing out the vowels of his name in a purr that made Yuuri shiver. “Stay.” He pulled on a light switch, and the room went dark.

“Okay,” Yuuri answered, and relaxed once more.

“Hey, tomorrow,” Victor whispered, “it’s your last day. I want to take you somewhere outside the city, is that okay?”

“Sure, of course,” Yuuri whispered back. “Sounds nice.”

“Okay,” said Victor. “I think you’ll really like it.”

After a couple minutes of silence, Yuuri whispered, “Victor?”

“Mmhm.”

“I meant to say, um. You know you’re my best friend, too.”

Victor said nothing, and instead rolled over and bumped Yuuri’s shoulder with his forehead, then looked up and smiled at him in the dim light filtering in from the street outside. It reminded Yuuri of when Ai shoved her nose against him when she wanted to be petted, and he laughed a little. “Yeah,” was all he said, and gently shoved Victor back over to his side of the bed. He let his hand rest on Victor’s shoulder just a little longer though, brushing his fingers against it when he finally pulled back.

***

Victor awoke to the buzz of a phone. He felt around on his nightstand, but his was off. Sleep cleared away enough to realize it must be Yuuri’s. On the other side of the bed. Yuuri.

Yuuri was already sitting up, had grabbed the phone, and answered.

Victor heard Japanese on the other end, and Yuuri gasped and began to speak quickly, sounding distressed. Victor sat up slowly, then rested a hand on Yuuri’s back. Yuuri looked back at him. “Ai,” he said, and there were tears in his eyes.

“No!”

Yuuri shook his head, then hung up.

“Yuuri, what happened?” Victor asked, gripping Yuuri’s shoulder.

“It’s--it’s Ai,” Yuuri said. “She’s sick. Mari says the vet thinks she’ll be okay, but--but the last time I was in Russia, that’s when Vicchan died--it’s like, like--”

“Oh no,” Victor murmured, and pulled Yuuri into a hug. “Yuuri, I’m so sorry.”

“I--I know you had plans for us for today, but I don’t--Victor, I’m so sorry, but--”

“No, of course,” Victor said. “Yuuri, it’s fine. You need to go back and be with her. I understand. Here,” he said, and got his own phone. “I’ll look for a flight back right now.”

“You don’t--”

“Shhh,” Victor said, rubbing Yuuri’s back. “Don’t worry about it.” After a minute, he said, “Here, there’s a flight that leaves in just three hours. You’ll be back with Ai by tomorrow afternoon, okay?”

“Okay,” said Yuuri weakly.

“Done,” said Victor, and sent Yuuri his boarding pass.

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri whispered.

Victor shushed him and held him close. “It’s okay. Everything will be okay.”

***

Yuuri’s happiness and calm and growing sense that maybe, maybe, maybe he and Victor were feeling the same things, that there was something right there, something with a future, all crumbled to dust inside him, displaced by the wave of guilt and despair that washed through him with the news about Ai. He was selfish, and stupid, and somehow all of this was his fault, but also Victor had wanted to show him something today, and now he’d never see it, and--

Victor pulled Yuuri into a tight hug inside the airport. “Text me when you get to Seoul, okay? And when you get home? And tell me how Ai is doing. I know you will probably be busy, but I’m going to worry about both of you, so--”

Yuuri hugged him back. “No, of course I will, I--” He stopped, suddenly remembering.

“Yuuri?” said Victor, running a hand over his hair. “What is it?”

Yuuri pulled back. “Victor, I--there’s something I wanted to give you before I left.”

Victor’s worried expression softened. “What is it, my Yuuri.”

“Um,” said Yuuri. He bent down and wriggled his hand around in his suitcase until he found what he was looking for, and gripped it tight in his palm. Then he stood up and reached for Victor’s right hand. “This was the first year in a long time you didn’t win the World Championship, and I thought, well. You should have, um, something round and gold anyway, even if it’s not a medal.”

Victor’s eyes flew wide open as Yuuri slipped the golden band onto his right ring finger.

“I just--I wanted you to have something you could wear always that would remind you--that, that I’m always with you, even when I’m not here. It’s--I mean, right hand, of course, it’s not, I’m not--you know. It’s just for a--a reminder. And for good luck.”

“I will gladly wear your ring on this hand, Yuuri,” Victor murmured. When Yuuri looked up into his face at last, he had tears in his eyes. “Thank you. I will never take it off.”

Yuuri hugged him.

“But Yuuri,” Victor said, “You have put me in such an awkward position! I haven’t been as thoughtful, I haven’t gotten you anything this nice.”

“Victor,” Yuuri said, suddenly laughing. “You bought me a whole new suit! And don’t try to pretend that suit wasn’t worth more than this ring; I know it was. Besides, I was rude first--you left me with a gift in Hasetsu and I sent you off empty handed--your note was worth more to me than any ring.”

“But Yuuri,” smiled Victor. “You gave me a yuzu tree.”

“That you couldn’t take home with you! See, this you can take wherever you go. You can even--you can even bring it back with you to Hasetsu some day. If you like. When you. Come visit your tree.”

Victor reached out and tucked a strand of hair behind Yuuri’s ear, making Yuuri duck his head and blush. “I will. Sooner rather than later, okay? I don’t know if I can wait three months to see you this time.”

***

Victor’s phone buzzed. It was a text from Chris. Attached, a photo of Victor and Yuuri at the competition, Yuuri hanging onto Victor’s arm, a soft, happy smile on his face as Victor kissed his hair.

He only loves you as a friend though, right

Victor smiled, shaking his head. He had officially given up trying to label the feelings he and Yuuri felt for each other. All he knew was it was love, a greater love than he had ever known, and just as Chris had advised, he intended to hold on to it as long as he could.

Chapter Text

Ai was fine, as it turned out, and already back to her happy, perky self by the time Yuuri landed in Fukuoka.

Yuuri was not.

Everything had seemed to go so well when he was in St. Petersburg but as the miles between him and Victor grew beneath him, so did his doubts. Now it seemed as if everything he’d said and done was stupid and embarrassing, that Victor had merely tolerated his presence and had been eager to see him leave early. Part of his brain could remember that there was evidence to the contrary--Victor had held his hand, Victor had asked to dance with him on the ice night after night, Victor had asked him to sleep in his bed.... But that part of his brain could not convince the other part that any of it had been real.

He texted Victor updates, as promised, including photos of Ai; Victor texted back his relief that both of them were okay. Yuuri still couldn’t shake the fear that nothing was as good as it seemed.

 

After his next skating class, he found Yuuko lingering in the front lobby while he undid his skates.

“Soooo,” she said. “How was Worlds with Victor?”

“Oh! It was--it was great. Um, I had to leave a day early, because of Ai--”

“Aw, yeah I heard that from Mari. I’m glad she’s doing okay now!”

“Yeah,” Yuuri said.

Yuuko was still looking at him expectantly. “Well?” she asked. “Come on! What happened?”

Yuuri did his best to give her an overview of everything they’d done, tactfully leaving out the parts where one or both of them had been having a minor breakdown.

“So you danced with him? For four nights in a row?” Yuuko said dreamily.

“Uh--yeah,” Yuuri said. “Yeah. He’s probably already better than I am, it’s really--I mean oh my god, Yuuko, watching him skate up close? He’s so good--I mean, of course he is, he’s Victor, but really, he’s so good .”

Yuuko nodded. “Mmhm. Okay, so. Is that it?”

Yuuri shrugged. “Uh, yeah, I guess.”

“Do you, um, have any really big news you left out that you were maybe going to tell me?”

Yuuri frowned. “Uh, no? Not really.”

Yuuko bit her lip. “Oh, okay.”

“What? What is it?”

“Well, um. I’ve been hearing there’s rumors that Victor’s engaged? But you didn’t--you don’t know anything about that?”

“Engaged!” Yuuri exclaimed. “To who? Why do they think that?”

“Well,” Yuuko said. “He’s wearing a wedding ring.”

“WHAT?”

Yuuko winced, and showed Yuuri a paparazzi photo on her phone, with a zoom-in on Victor’s right hand.

Yuuri sighed in relief. “Oh, that’s his right hand though! So it couldn’t be a wedding ring. It doesn’t mean anything.”

“Yuuri,” said Yuuko carefully, “in Russia they wear wedding rings on the right, not the left.”

Yuuri clapped a hand over his mouth. A muffled “oh no” came from behind his palm, followed by an “oh shit.”

“Um, Yuuri?” said Yuuko. “Are you okay? I know--I know Victor means a lot to you, and you guys got really close while he was staying in Hasetsu, this--I mean I don’t know, but if you have feelings for him, this really sucks, I’m so sorry--”

Yuuri shook his head, hands still clamped over his mouth.

“Yuuri?” Yuuko gently pulled at his wrists. “You’re turning red.”

“IgaveVictorthatringit’sfromme,” Yuuri said on the release of breath.

“What? But Yuuri, you said--” said Yuuko.

“I didn’t know they wear wedding rings on the right okay?? I thought I was--I thought--I was making it clear it wasn’t an engagement ring because that would be weird, I mean I know it was weird to give him a ring anyway, I guess, I just wanted him to have something simple he could wear and--”

Now it was Yuuko’s turn to clap her hands over her mouth. “Yuuri,” she said.

“It’s not weird!” Yuuri insisted, contradicting himself.

Yuuko burst into giggles.

“It’s fine! We’re fine! We’re fine and it’s not weird.”

“Yuuri, I think you accidentally proposed to Victor Nikiforov and it kind of seems like he said yes.”

“That’s not what happened.”

“I’m pretty sure that’s what happened.”

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “He would never think of me that way, not in a million years.”

“You think of him that way, don’t you?”

Yuuri deflated. “Yeah. Of course.”

“Yuuri,” said Yuuko gently. “I think he feels the same way. You should see the way he looked at you, from the first moment he saw you skating on my monitor at the Ice Castle. It only grew the whole time he was here.”

“I’m--going home,” Yuuri said.

“Okay,” Yuuko laughed. “Let me know when you find out whether you’re really engaged, okay? I want an invite to that wedding!”

 

At home, Yuuri sank into his desk chair and buried his head in his arms. The whole trip to Russia had felt so...romantic, the whole time. No--it had felt just normal. But when he looked back on it, it seemed so romantic. From the first moment Victor swept him up in his arms and spun him around at the airport, to the way his jaw dropped when Yuuri came out in the tailored suit,  the bombshell that Victor choreographed a seductive short program for Yuuri after he first met him three years ago, the late night ice dancing lessons, the later-night conversations stretched out on Victor’s bed. And Yuuri had given Victor a ring at the end of it all--in retrospect, a bizarre parody of the romantic vacation it almost was, but wasn’t, complete with an almost-but-not-really engagement.

He had let himself imagine, at times, that he was Victor’s boyfriend. The invitation to stay at Victor’s St. Petersburg apartment, going out to the ballet, ice dancing together in an empty rink--it was like Yuuri’s every teenage fantasy come to life, except instead of actually dating Victor, he was just. In some kind of oddly intense friendship with him. Which admittedly, teenage fantasies aside, was more than he’d ever dared hope for from Victor in reality and he wasn’t about to turn up his nose at it.

I think he feels the same way.

Sure, it was easy to look back and interpret Victor’s words and smiles and touches as flirting. Victor, pining for his prince, and Yuuri had felt so sure, for a moment--but Yuuri was wary of seeing what he wanted to see. It was all too much like his childhood daydreams come to life, meeting a sad and lonely Victor, comforting him and winning his heart. What a stupid, pathetic--

Yuuri rolled his head to the side and looked at the photo Victor had signed, still hanging proudly beside his desk. “Love, Victor” he’d written. Love, Victor . There were different kinds of love, though.

I will gladly wear your ring on this hand, Yuuri. I will never take it off.

Yuuri thought of how it had felt, skating in Victor’s arms. Falling asleep in Victor’s bed, body heat mingling beneath the down comforter. It felt so nice. It felt so natural. It felt like home, like that sense he’d had on their last night in Hasetsu when they’d sat together on the frigid pier.

Yuuri pulled out his phone.

***

Victor came home from an excursion to the university with a handful of brochures, a brand new notebook, and a steady flame of determination burning in his heart. He had not heard from Yuuri in almost two days, which was the only excuse he could offer for why, when he heard the special chime of a Yuuri-text, he tripped over his coffee table in his haste to grab the phone. Swearing and writhing in pain, Victor read,

I had a really great time last week. I don’t think I ever said that

Thank you so much, for everything

All pain forgotten, Victor replied immediately.

                        Me too!!! I would have been lost without you. <3

Me too

Victor sighed, smiling at the screen.

I miss you

Victor felt his heart pounding in his ears while he typed his response.

                        I miss you too Yuuri, so much. Why do you have to be so far away? :’(

I know, it sucks

His chest felt tight and aching.

                        When is your sister getting married again?

                        She said she would invite me but I have heard nothing!

Oh! They literally just set the date today. August 3rd

Victor didn’t like that math. Hadn’t he told Yuuri he didn’t want to wait another three months?

                        Nooooo that’s so far away

                        :’((((

After about a minute, Yuuri wrote,

You could always come sooner, if you want

Victor sat bolt upright.

                        Really???

He waited, holding his breath, until Yuuri wrote back,

Of course! You can come anytime!

Victor eyed his brochures again, and looked at his calendar.

                        Could I come two weeks early?

                        Can I help with the wedding??

Of course!! :)

Yuuri wrote back.

Victor bought a plane ticket immediately, and set a countdown reminder on his phone.

Oh, and Victor?

Yuuri texted a bit later.

Don’t forget to bring your skates ;)

***

Phichit wrote Yuuri about once a week asking him if he'd made a decision about the ice show yet. Yuuri hadn't. He didn't especially want to--he'd gotten used to life out of the spotlight and he didn't relish the idea of returning. He was happy, here, with his students and his family. But he also didn't want to disappoint Phichit, who was so proud of his ice show and who still looked up to Yuuri for some reason, after all this time.

And then there was Victor. Who claimed he would rather watch Yuuri than any other skater, who said he wanted Yuuri to skate in front of the whole world again. He didn't mean it, he was just being nice-- said one part of his brain, while the other said, Never mind Phichit--how can you disappoint Victor?

So Yuuri kept saying “maybe; I don't know,” and so Phichit kept asking, and so the tension in Yuuri's chest grew and grew and grew, until one night it spilled over into full blown anxiety attack. His heart pounded and he felt like he was dying and he couldn't tune out the nasty voice in his head that said he was worthless garbage and couldn't do anything and he was letting everybody down.

Yuuri hugged Ai but it wasn't doing any good. He would give anything for Victor to be here right now. He felt so miserable there was no shame left; he would beg Victor to brush and braid his hair again, to hold him and tell him everything would be okay. It was still evening in Saint Petersburg. If Victor was home, maybe at least he would pick up the phone, at least he could talk to Yuuri.

Yuuri called, and Victor picked up immediately.

“Yuuri! Hello!” he cried in a happy voice.

Yuuri felt an instant warmth just hearing him. “Hey, Victor.”

“Yuuri, you never call me, what's the occasion? Are you alright?”

Yuuri couldn't help the shaky sob that left his throat.

“Oh no, oh Yuuri,” Victor said. “Yuuri, what's wrong?”

“It's stupid,” Yuuri said.

“No, I'm sure it isn't. Yuuri, talk to me.”

“I--I really don't want to talk about it.”

“Oh, Yuuri, solnyshko,” Victor murmured. “I wish I was there with you right now.”

“I wish you were here, too,” said Yuuri.

“I miss you,” said Victor.

“I miss you, too,” Yuuri whispered.

“Yuuri, I hate this. I don’t know what to do. What do you need me to do?”

Yuuri squeezed his eyes shut. “I--I just wanted to hear you. Could--could you just talk?”

“Oh, Yuuri, I don't know what to say now.”

Yuuri took a deep, shaky breath. “I don't care about what, just tell me about anything on your mind, but um, just maybe not--not skating.”

“Oh--okay,” said Victor. “Um, well, let’s see. Ahh, well, I've been thinking about Chell, the girl from Portal?”

Yuuri cracked a smile. “Yeah?”

“She must have been so lonely, you know? And so scared. I keep thinking, if I were really her, I would have died in the first test chamber probably. She’s so brave and so strong to survive through all of that.” He paused, then said, “So anyway, I’ve just been wondering about what might have happened to her after the end of the second game. What did she do after she escaped?”

Yuuri sniffed. “What do you think happened?”

“I hope she finds a nice, understanding lady out in the free world to be her girlfriend.”

Yuuri laughed.

“I’m serious!” he said, and there was a smile in his voice. “She spent all that time in that horrible place running for her life, and all alone except for the evil robots. So I want her to find someone who will listen to her story and show her all the green grass and blue sky, someone soft to hold.”

Yuuri may have eased past most of his awe of Victor, but there were still times the man seemed too wonderful to be real. “Victor,” he smiled. “That’s really sweet.”

“I didn’t think about any of that while I was playing, though, because I never really felt scared or lonely, because you were there with me.”

“Aw, Victor,” said Yuuri.

“Even though you did refuse to help.”

Yuuri laughed. “But you were so cute when you got excited about solving a puzzle yourself, how was I supposed to take that away from you?”

“Ohhhh so you think I'm cute?” Victor teased.

Yuuri blushed, and couldn’t think of a smooth answer quick enough.

“How are you feeling now?” Victor asked.

“Better,” he said. “Thank you.”

“Call me anytime, Yuuri. I never tire of talking with you.”

“You're--you're still coming early, before the wedding, right?”

“Twenty-three days!” Victor said at once. “Not that I'm counting…”

Yuuri laughed. “No, I--I’m counting, too. And um, my parents and Mari and Rika--everyone’s happy you’re coming back. My mom says she misses her kitchen helper.”

“Oh, I’m so glad. I miss her, too. And Mari. I want to help her have a perfect wedding, I--” Victor paused, then said, “I’ve never had a sister.”

Yuuri smiled. “She’s a pretty good one.”

When he woke up the next day, feeling a little more in control of his life, Yuuri lay in bed for a while thinking about what Victor said the night before about Chell. It was cute to think of Victor imagining a happy ending for her. Yuuri had never considered Chell’s life beyond the end of the game. Because you played from a first-person perspective, and Chell never spoke, Yuuri had never really thought of her as a character, someone with thoughts and desires different from his own. Then again, he mused, thinking back over Victor’s words--maybe Victor didn’t either.

                        I do think you’re cute btw

He texted Victor over breakfast.

!!!!!

Victor texted back several hours later.

I think you’re cute too <3

 

Yuuri couldn’t sit still. He jiggled his feet and twisted his hands in his lap, waiting for Victor’s plane to make their way through customs. Ai sensed his nervousness, and dutifully laid her big head in his lap, panting at him. Yuuri absently scratched her ears, trying to breathe and focus on her happy puppy eyes instead of the knot in his stomach and the relentlessly Victor-less hallway leading to the arrivals area.

Suddenly, Ai jerked her head away and bounded toward the barrier, shoving her nose right up to the glass. Yuuri looked up, and there, on the other side, right across from Ai, was Victor. Victor waved and smiled.

Yuuri abandoned all sense of dignity, and took off for the entrance at a run, looking over to see that both Ai and Victor were doing the same. He slid to a stop at the entrance, bouncing a little as Victor had to wait for the gate to open. As soon as he was through, Yuuri opened his arms, and Victor ran directly into him.

“I thought I wouldn’t see you til Hasetsu,” Victor mumbled into his shoulder.

“I wanted to surprise you,” Yuuri replied.

They held each other, for a long, long time.

When Yuuri pulled back there were tears in his eyes. He felt silly but he couldn’t help it, he was just so happy, so overwhelmed by happiness at seeing and holding Victor again. When he looked up into Victor’s eyes, he saw that Victor’s were spilling over, too.

“Yuuri,” said Victor. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” he laughed. “I’m just. Really happy you’re here. I missed you. Are you okay?”

Victor grinned back at him. “I missed you, too.”

Yuuri hugged him again, while Ai leaned against both their legs, determined to be included. He moved a hand up to the back of Victor's neck and rubbed it gently beneath the tumble of his hair. When they pulled back again, neither of them spoke, just gazed, smiling, into each other’s eyes. Yuuri felt like they both were struggling with hearts full of words it was impossible to say out loud. He sighed happily, and Victor laughed.

“Yuuri,” he said, but then just smiled, unable to complete his thought.

“Hey,” Yuuri said, and they both laughed again, setting off for the train station with their arms around each other.

“Did you bring your skates?” Yuuri asked once all three of them were settled into a train car.

“Yes, of course,” Victor said.

“Good,” said Yuuri. “I--I hope you feel up to skating tonight. I have another surprise for you.”

“Oo! Another surprise!” Victor looked like he’d never been more excited in his life. “What could it be?”

Yuuri grinned. “You’ll just have to wait and see…”

“Oh, Yuuri, you torture me.”

Chapter Text

Yuuri seemed different today, from all the other moments Victor had known him in. Or maybe, what he felt was that today all of the Yuuris he knew--the drunk Yuuris and the anxious Yuuris and the sweet Yuuris and the confident Yuuris--had all collapsed back down into one Yuuri, his Yuuri, the Yuuri he loved all along.

More than ever, Victor couldn’t take his eyes off him. He seemed incredibly happy--incredibly happy to see Victor. Victor kept catching him looking over and meeting his eyes, then grinning and looking away. Victor felt light inside, both weightless and bright. He was overjoyed to see all the Katsukis again, but he had to strain to keep his focus on Hiroko, Toshiya, and Mari as he spoke to them, when Yuuri was there in the background, a beaming presence of smiles and curves and soft hair.

Hiroko made katsudon, and it was only his desire to savor the glory of the Katsukis’ signature dish that kept him from bolting down his dinner so that he and Yuuri could get to the rink as fast as possible.

The evening was lovely and warm, far different from the Hasetsu Victor experienced back in December. Everywhere was green, and the sun had not yet set, though it sat low on the horizon, just above the sea. All along the walk to the Ice Castle, Victor had to stifle the urge to reach out and hold Yuuri’s hand. Though he wondered if the stifling was really necessary after all.

Though still happy, Yuuri also seemed to grow increasingly anxious as they reached the rink. Victor reached out and ran a hand down his back. “Are you okay?” he asked with a smile.

Yuuri looked up at him and nodded. “Yeah. I’m okay.” He smiled back at Victor, and laid his own hand on Victor’s arm, then sat down on a bench to lace up his skates.

Out on the ice, they skated aimlessly, just warming up, and then suddenly Yuuri was pushing Victor lightly toward the gap in the barrier.

“Stay here, okay? Watch me.”

As if Victor could do anything else.

Yuuri cued up music, and skated to the center. Victor gasped in delight as soon as he saw Yuuri’s pose and heard the opening strumming of a guitar.

As soon as he began, however, Victor could see that it was different. At first he thought it was just Yuuri not having had time to learn it all perfectly yet, but it quickly became clear that there was something more systematic about the changes. Instead of always looking back over to Victor as he skated, as Victor had done for him, Yuuri kept his eyes in front of him, looking as if he was keeping them on an invisible partner, and that’s when Victor realized that Yuuri was skating as if he were with a partner, holding his hands out as if they were holding another’s. Many elements of Victor’s original choreography were still there, but Yuuri had adapted them to suit a program for a pair. Only he was skating it alone.

When Yuuri at last relaxed out of the final pose, he remained at the center of the ice. Victor skated back out to join him.

“That was your part,” Yuuri said when Victor got to him.

“My part,” Victor breathed. “You want to ice dance to this music? With me?”

Yuuri nodded. “Think you can do it?”

Victor laughed, a touch hysterical. “Oh I will do my best.”

Yuuri grinned at him. “Okay. Let’s do it.”

Once the music started again, Victor quickly got an idea of Yuuri’s vision, and did his best to follow it. Yuuri would skate close to Victor for a close dance, then spin off, dancing on his own in front of Victor while Victor pursued him, then repeat. Victor delighted to watch this flirty, coy persona of a temptress Yuuri had donned for the occasion. They had one spill, after which Yuuri immediately hopped back up to his feet and said, “Up, up! Come on!” with a happy-sounding impatience, to which Victor laughed as he complied, and they carried on with the dance.

It was every bit as intoxicating as their first off the ice, and when Yuuri spun into the final position, Victor instinctively wrapped his arms around Yuuri from behind, holding him in place. Yuuri smelled like heaven. They both were breathing heavily and grinning their faces off as Victor gazed down into Yuuri’s eyes. They were so beautiful, and sparkling with energy. And so close.

“Yuuri,” Victor said. He kept one hand caught around Yuuri’s arms in front of him, but brought the other down to slide across Yuuri’s stomach and bring it to rest on his opposite hip. “If you don’t say stop in the next three seconds, I’m going to kiss you.”

Yuuri’s eyes went wide, and his exhausted grin fell into a look of astonishment, but he made no effort to speak up or escape.

Victor leaned in, and kissed him, just a brief, chaste touch to his lips. Yuuri’s eyes fluttered closed, and he stiffened a little. “No?” Victor asked hesitantly when he pulled back.

“No!” said Yuuri. “I mean, uh, I--I was just surprised.”

“Well you surprised me tonight, too,” said Victor, but he said it carefully, worried he’d gone too far. “Is this surprise also good?”

Yuuri’s eyes only widened farther, but then he said, “Yes! Yes, I--yeah, good,” ending with a hesitant little smile.

“Good,” said Victor, smiling back, and kissed him again, longer this time, and Yuuri kissed him back. It occurred to Victor that this might be Yuuri’s first kiss, he couldn’t quite remember if Yuuri had mentioned specifically before, and he gently turned Yuuri in his arms so they were facing, and slowly skated him backwards til Yuuri bumped against the barrier. Victor kept one hand on Yuuri’s hip, and brought the other up to cradle his head, guiding him into another kiss. Yuuri began to relax more, and kiss back with a little more confidence. Victor at last pulled away to let them breathe, and Yuuri, looking a little at a loss for the moment, suddenly flung his arms around Victor’s neck and just hugged him.

Victor laughed, and held him. “You know,” he said, when Yuuri released him. “The whole time you and I were at Worlds, the Russian press was asking me if you were my boyfriend.”

Yuuri looked horrified, and punched Victor lightly in the arm. “I knew they were asking you about me!” he said. “What did you tell them?”

Victor shrugged. “I told them it was none of their business. But I have to say, I wasn’t quite sure of the answer myself, and I think it is my business. So now I ask you this question. Is Katsuki Yuuri my boyfriend?”

“Uh,” said Yuuri. “I--do--do you want me to be?”

“Oh, Yuuri,” Victor grinned. “I have wanted you to be my boyfriend since you dipped me at the Grand Prix Banquet three years ago.”

Yuuri actually gasped at that. “That’s--crazy,” he said.

“It’s true,” said Victor. “Yuuri, you haven’t--”

“Yes!”

“Yes?”

“Yes,” Yuuri breathed, slipping his arms around Victor’s neck again. “Katsuki Yuuri is definitely your boyfriend.”

“Ah, how exciting!” exclaimed Victor. “I’ve never had one of those.”

Yuuri laughed. “Uh, me neither.”

***

Yuuri felt so light he thought he would float right off the ice, carrying Victor with him, as they worked to refine the new “Eros” program. It seemed the only logical thing to follow the kisses, the mutual declaration that the thing between them had a name now, and it was “boyfriend.”

My boyfriend. My boyfriend. Yuuri thought every time he looked at Victor as they twirled and chased each other around the rink. Victor had tied his hair back--it was long enough now for it--but his bangs still fell out to the sides and he looked so handsome Yuuri couldn’t stand it. Only once did he get so caught up watching his boyfriend that he skated backwards into the barrier. Both of them still took plenty of other spills in their giddy enthusiasm and imperfect grasp of their choreography. When at last they grew too tired to carry on, they were both sore and covered in bruises.

“Onsen?” Victor asked hopefully, leaning on Yuuri’s shoulder as they both caught their breath.

“Mm,” Yuuri nodded.

“Boyfriend?” Victor asked hopefully again, in a lower voice.

Yuuri grinned and nuzzled back against him. “Boyfriend.”

On the walk home, he thought about Victor’s first night in Hasetsu, their first of many walks from the Ice Castle to Yu-Topia, when all of Victor’s barely-concealed fear and sadness swirled between them in the dark. Yuuri hadn’t known then, what Victor needed. He had a better idea now. Yuuri took Victor’s hand in his, and rubbed gentle circles in it with his thumb. Victor glanced over at him, looking just slightly overcome, and then laced their fingers together, squeezing back on Yuuri’s hand.

“I love you, Victor.”

It just came out.

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri added hastily. “That was too s--”

But Victor’s hands were on his waist, and he was kissing him. There was just a touch of salt in it, from the ocean spray blowing over them off the water.

“Never too soon,” Victor murmured against his lips. He kissed Yuuri again. “Could have been sooner,” he added, and kissed him again. “That would have been nice.”

“My bad,” Yuuri said.

Victor smiled down into his eyes for a moment, caressing Yuuri’s waist, then brought his hands up to cradle his face. He pressed one more soft, sweet kiss to Yuuri’s lips. “I love you, too, Yuuri.”

Yuuri loved to hear Victor talk, but nothing he’d ever said sounded quite so beautiful as those words.

They wound up strolling in silence all the way back to the onsen, but it wasn’t the awkward silence from the beginning of that first night’s walk. This silence was safe, and comfortable, and they spoke words of love to each other in the careful shifting of their fingers as they adjusted the grip of their hands, the soft brush of thumbs over smooth skin.

 

Yuuri had just put on a clean t-shirt and shorts to sleep in when there was a knock at his bedroom door. Opening it revealed Victor, shirtless, a pillow tucked under his arm.

“Yuuri, let’s have a slumber party!”

Yuuri laughed. “What?”

Victor reached out a hand to slide down Yuuri’s arm. “I want to sleep with you, Yuuri,” he purred.

“Aaaaa,” said Yuuri, not sure how to express his complicated reaction to that. In an instant, he was thrown into doubt over everything. Did he want to sleep with Victor? Absolutely he did. But did he want to sleep with him now? Not particularly. When would he? He didn’t know. What if it was never. What if--

“Sleep, Yuuri, I meant sleep only,” Victor told him, detecting his struggle. “Of course,” he said, squeezing Yuuri’s hand gently. “Yuuri, I hope you understand I will never, ever ask something from you you can’t give.”

“Oh,” said Yuuri. That was unexpected, though it shouldn’t have been. It was Victor.

Victor now hugged his pillow to his chest, peering over it at Yuuri. “Yuuri? May I?”

Yuuri smiled. “Your room has a bigger bed,” he said.

Victor took that as a “yes,” apparently, and pushed past Yuuri into his room. “Yes, but yours is so much more homey. So much full of you. And on a twin bed you will simply have no choice but to spoon me all night.”

Yuuri flushed. “Is that what you want?”

Victor dropped to sit on the edge of Yuuri’s bed, and gazed up at him with an eager puppy-dog look. “Please?”

Yuuri shook his head, but only at the absurdity that was Victor’s affection for him. He brushed Victor’s bangs away from his forehead, and bent to kiss him there.

“Is that a yes?” asked Victor.

Yuuri turned out the light, and made his way back to the bed by the light of his phone. Once there, he slid under the sheets behind Victor, rolled on his side, and looked up at him in the semi-darkness expectantly.

Victor gave a happy sigh, then added his pillow to the head of the bed and lay down in front of Yuuri.

The prospect of touching Victor’s naked torso in this context gave Yuuri confusing, alternating waves of delight and dread, but he sucked it up and dutifully slid his arm around Victor’s chest, giving just a little tug to encourage Victor to cuddle back against him. Victor leaned back and hummed happily and Yuuri just about couldn’t handle how mind-blowing it was, after all these years, to find Victor Nikiforov cuddled in his bed, half-naked, drifting off to sleep with Yuuri’s hand splayed over his heart.

Victor was out in moments, his lungs shifting into the slow, deep breaths of sleep. Yuuri could not, and instead lay frozen on his side, half afraid that if he moved he would wake Victor; half afraid that any shift of balance would cause the whole relationship to crumble away beneath him, revealed to be the nothing he’d always feared it was. His heart beat faster--

“Yuuri?” Victor said sleepily.

Yuuri winced, realizing how tense he’d become. “Sorry--”

Victor rolled over to face him--a maneuver that required him to shift halfway off the mattress at first in Yuuri’s narrow bed--and took one of Yuuri’s hands in his. “What’s wrong?”

“It’s nothing--I--I just dreamed about this for so long, I’m afraid it isn’t real,” he said.

Victor squeezed his hand. “I understand,” he said. “I’m afraid of the same thing.”

“You?” Yuuri asked.

Victor leaned close and kissed Yuuri’s nose. “I dreamed about this, too. I was so scared it would never be real.”

Yuuri stared into Victor’s eyes, right in front of him there in the darkness, then awkwardly took Victor’s face in his hands, and kissed him. Victor parted his lips, letting Yuuri take his time and explore while he made soft, pleased sounds beneath him. When Yuuri pulled back, Victor nudged him to roll over onto his back, and then Victor curled up against him, laying his head down on Yuuri’s chest. Yuuri brushed his fingers slowly through Victor’s hair.

“What if Cinderella’s prince had been so drunk at the ball he didn’t even remember her the next day?” Victor mumbled against Yuuri’s shirt. “She might have died alone, starved by her cruel stepfamily.”

“Oh, Victor.”

“See, I had to be my own prince and go look for my prince on my own.” Victor traced little circles in Yuuri’s chest with his finger.

Yuuri raised his chin up to kiss the top of Victor’s head. “Thank you for finding me.”

Victor said nothing, so Yuuri twined their fingers together and brought them to his lips and kissed them, over and over.

“Yuuri,” Victor murmured. “You know you do make me feel like I'm living in a fairy tale.”

Yuuri smiled, and stroked his hand. “You, too. My prince who came to find me even though I forgot about the ball.”

“Mm, no,” said Victor, snuggling closer against Yuuri’s side. “I think you may truly be Vasilisa the Wise and I am the hapless prince who needs your help all the time and is terribly lucky that you love me so much.”

Yuuri laughed. “Victor Tsarevitch. Maybe we’re just both hapless princes. Do you know any fairytales about that?”

Victor shook his head. “But if I were a composer I would write a ballet for them.”

Yuuri felt newly grounded, with the heavy weight of Victor sprawled across his chest, the reality of Victor and his love undeniable, and at last, he fell asleep.

***

The night before Mari’s wedding, they had a bonfire on the beach, with just close friends and family, during which everyone got progressively, pleasantly drunk. Yuuri got up from his place at Victor's side to go chat with Minako, and as he walked away Victor couldn't take his eyes off the soft form of Yuuri's love handles, bare above the waistband of his shorts. Had Yuuri always worn crop tops? It struck him that he'd only ever seen Yuuri in cold weather, and realized how much of Yuuri there was left for him to learn. It might have worried him, except that every new thing he learned about Yuuri had only made his love grow deeper--and the revelation that the man in the soft, cozy sweaters he'd fallen for in the winter walked around in crop tops and short, colorful shorts during the summer was just the latest.

Victor hugged Ai, who was panting at his side. “Ahh, Yuuri's just wonderful, isn't he?” He sighed happily to her. “You're wonderful too,” he added, squishing her big face between his palms and scratching her ears. “Everyone's wonderful. I am so lucky to have such wonderful people all around, aren't I? Yes, yes, good girl. What a good girl.”

Yuuri dropped to the sand beside him with another beer for each of them. “Oh, now I get it,” he said.

“Get what?” Victor asked, confused as he took the open bottle from Yuuri.

“It’s okay,” Yuuri sighed dramatically. “I know you only want me for my dog.”

“Not true, not true,” Victor insisted, sliding his free hand up Yuuri's back beneath his crop top to rub his neck, then sliding it back down to curl around the bare skin just above his hip. “I do like Ai, but I love you very much. So much.”

“Mm,” said Yuuri, and leaned into Victor's side. He slipped his hand under the hem of Victor's shirt, too, and rubbed his back, and Victor basked in the warmth of Yuuri's palm against his skin. “I love you too,” Yuuri said, smiling against Victor's shoulder.

 

Yuuri disappeared the next morning to help Mari get ready, and Victor didn't see him again until he was processing down the aisle with two of Mari’s school friends. Victor's mouth parted slightly when Yuuri came to a stop at the front, seeing that he was wearing the blue suit Victor bought him.

Stunning. Lovely. Victor repeated over and over in his head. Yuuri smiled at him, and absently stroked the ponytail that tumbled over his shoulder from a braid that gathered along his hairline like a crown. Victor snapped a picture with his phone before Yuuri could realize what he was doing, and wondered if he could commission someone to turn it into an oil painting.

After the beautiful wedding, everyone pitched in to turn the big tent they'd set up into a banquet space with tables and a small dance floor. Victor hugged Mari and Rika endlessly, telling them how beautiful and perfect they were and how much their vows had made him cry. They laughed and hugged him back, and Yuuri said, “Victor?”

“Hm?” said Victor, parting from the ladies.

Yuuri was looking at him oddly. “They were in Japanese.”

“Yeah, hang on--” said Mari.

Victor smiled and bit his lip. “Ahhhhh, oh no, I was waiting for the right moment to surprise you…”

“Victor!”

<“I've been taking an intensive Japanese course at the University,”> he said sheepishly.

<“Well, shit,”> said Mari.

<“How am I doing?”> Victor asked.

<“Your accent is awful,”> Yuuri said, shaking his head and grinning.

Rika smiled. <“This is no fun. We can't gossip in front of you anymore!”>

Victor laughed and said, “Wait, I have a question though. There was always this thing you all used to say around me and laugh, I think it was <practically family>? What was that about? Because I still don't understand!”

Yuuri turned beet red and Mari and Rika erupted in laughter.

“What?” said Victor, <“What?”>

<“Come on, Yuuri, tell him,”> said Rika.

“I--can’t--”

“Oh, fine, then I will,” Mari said.

“It's just a stupid joke my mom made one time,” said Yuuri hastily.

Mari grinned. “When Mom told us she wanted to invite you to family dinner that first week you were here, she said we were so used to seeing your face around the house that you were practically family already.”

“Huh?” said Victor, and Yuuri put his hands over his eyes.

“Because,” said Mari. “Yuuri here, my brother, the one hiding his face right now? Used to have like, ten million posters of you on his wall.”

Victor turned slowly to face Yuuri. “No,” he said.

Yuuri nodded, still hiding his face.

<“Oh, be fair, Mari,”> Rika laughed. <“It was only a dozen.”>

“A dozen?” Victor asked, stifling a laugh.

<“You're all terrible,”> said Yuuri.

Victor hugged him, and grinned into his hair. “No, Yuuri, I think it's cute!”

“Mrph,” said Yuuri against his chest.

Victor just hugged him tighter. “Since you love me sooo much, why don't you come dance with me, okay?”

Yuuri huffed.

“I want you to dance with me like our first time,” Victor said lowly against his ear. “And I want you to remember this one.”

Yuuri pulled back and eyed Victor with a look of reluctant interest, and Victor beamed back.

“Yes, seduce me, Yuuri,” he said, bringing Yuuri’s hand to his lips and kissing his knuckles while Yuuri burst out laughing.

“Oh my god, get out of here, you two are disgusting,” laughed Mari, and pushed them toward the dance floor.

***

Yuuri held Victor in a dip as the song ended and moved into a slower number, both of them grinning breathlessly at each other. Yuuri felt his arms growing weak, and hauled Victor back upright.

“I am thoroughly seduced,” Victor purred as he slipped an arm around Yuuri’s waist, taking the lead on the next dance.

Already flushed from dancing, Yuuri’s face turned darker.

“Are you sure that wasn’t your intention the first time?” Victor teased. “You told me once you just wanted to make me happy at that banquet--”

“You don’t believe me?” Yuuri demanded in mock indignance.

“No, I believe you, sweet Yuuri,” Victor grinned. “I’m only saying you chose a very sexy way to cheer me up, you know.”

Yuuri smiled and shook his head. “Yeah, I might have been a little selfish too.”

“Yes?” said Victor.

“When I felt your loneliness in ‘Stammi Vicino,’ I thought to myself, ‘Oh, Victor,’” and Yuuri fluttered his eyelashes, shifting into a tone of self-mockery. “‘I am that voice weeping in the distance...but not that distant...I am that voice having an anxiety attack in the bathroom down the hall…’”

Victor laughed. “Stop.”

Feeling bold, Yuuri shifted his grip on Victor’s shoulder, pulling them even closer together. Serious now, he said, “I felt, if I could ever be close to you, I would stay by your side and never leave. I didn’t want you to feel that loneliness anymore. I wanted to be the one to save you from it.”

Victor turned his head to kiss Yuuri’s cheek. “So you were trying to seduce me.”

Yuuri laughed. “Maybe. I don’t remember...probably.”

“You know, everyone wondered why I kept ‘Stammi Vicino’ as my free skate for the second half of the season, too. They never guessed it was because I was trying to tell the cute boy who seduced me at the Grand Prix banquet to call me.”

“Victor,” Yuuri laughed.

“What? I’m serious. Can you imagine how I felt when I saw you skate it back for me?”

Yuuri could feel Victor’s smile against his ear as he said it, and he shivered a little, realizing Victor really wasn’t joking, that he really had fallen for Yuuri while he was stupid-drunk at that banquet, that Victor’s odd choice to keep the same free program all season was proof... All this time …, he thought. Victor had cried when he saw him skate it back, and tried to hide it. And Yuuri had thought he was just upset because of his injury.

He felt so foolish and so ecstatic all at once, and so drunk, though more with emotion than champagne this time. He leaned fully against Victor’s chest, nuzzling his face against Victor’s shoulder, and gave himself permission to lose himself in the comforting scent of Victor’s cologne, the security of Victor’s arm around his waist, his hand around his hand, the slow rock of their dance and the music washing over them--

 

The next morning, Yuuri woke to Victor whispering his name.

“Yuuri? Yuuuri.”

“Mmnnuh,” Yuuri said into the pillow. He picked his head up enough to flop it over to the side facing Victor.

Victor had his head propped up on one hand, smiling down at him.

“What,” Yuuri said, but a smile crept onto his face as it did every morning when he found Victor beside him.

Victor grinned and poked Yuuri in the shoulder. “Do you still have those posters?”

“Oh no,” said Yuuri, and pulled the sheet up over his head.

Victor snatched it back down. “Yuuuuuri, please? I want to seeeee…”

Yuuri sat up and pushed Victor off the mattress, then clambered out himself and dressed and made the bed while Victor giggled on the floor. “Put a shirt on,” Yuuri said desperately. “I can’t do this when you’re--” he gestured at Victor’s naked torso, “--like that.”

“Oh?” said Victor, rising and stepping close to press said naked torso to Yuuri’s. “Do you find me distracting?”

“I find you...no, I find me embarrassing, please,” Yuuri said.

Victor grinned and went to pull a light pink v-neck from the drawer Yuuri was loaning him for the trip. As Victor tugged the t-shirt on over his head, Yuuri realized that Victor had slept in a pair of his gray joggers. They were loose on Victor’s hips and it made Yuuri smile to see him wearing his clothes. Victor looked all soft and comfortable when he returned to sit back against Yuuri’s bed, and Yuuri was just so incredibly glad to have him here.

Out loud, Yuuri just sighed and sat down next to him, then reached under the bed. “Okay,” he said. “Just--please don't look at me like I'm a creepy stalker or something, okay?”

“Never,” said Victor, and reached for the stack of posters in Yuuri's hands.

Yuuri handed them over and sat, preemptively cringing as a smile spread over Victor’s face.

“I have an idea,” said Victor. “I will look at this embarrassing array of photos of me, and for every one you will tell me something about yourself from that year. And,” he added after a pause, “I will tell you something about me you do not know from skating gossip blogs. Fair?” he asked with a grin.

Yuuri laughed and bumped his head against Victor’s shoulder. “Fair.”

So they shuffled through the posters, and Yuuri told Victor about his college classes, how he took pole dancing one semester because he needed another credit for his dance minor and it was the only course that fit in his training schedule; he told him about how he and Yuuko once won a bookstore costume contest when they went as Harry and Hermione to a midnight book release; he told him about the time he’d kept lookout for Mari while she gleefully pumped shaving cream into the locker of a kid she’d found out was bullying her little brother. Victor talked cheerfully about how his short program costume from his last Junior Worlds had been designed with feminine elements like the half-skirt to play up his androgynous looks, and it was the first time he felt really sexy; about how he’d been to see La Traviata nearly twenty times and cried at every single one; about the summer he spent all his free time trying to learn to make pirozhkis but they never turned out right.

When he’d seen them all, Victor paused for a moment, then said, “Hey, Yuuri, you don’t have any from my 2008 season.”

“Oh!” said Yuuri. “Uh, no, no I don’t.”

Victor thumbed the edges of the stack of posters in his hands. “What happened? Were you mad I cut my hair?” He was looking at Yuuri with a teasing smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

“Oh, no,” said Yuuri. “Not--I mean, I actually was sad when you cut your hair. But that wasn’t it. Um.” When Victor stared at him expectantly, Yuuri stumbled onward. “Ugh, I don’t know, this is going to sound crazy, and I don’t want to hurt your feelings--”

“My ego is very large, Yuuri. I promise I will be fine with any criticism you have for me.”

Yuuri sighed. “Well, it’s not really criticism, it’s just. I always loved to watch you skate because I felt like...like you skated the way I felt. Like your choreography for each piece of music was exactly what I would have wanted to do. That’s why I used to practice all your routines, they felt like--like they said exactly what I wanted to say, exactly how I felt.”

“Really?” asked Victor softly.

“Yeah,” Yuuri said. He turned and looked up at Victor and smiled at him, and it looked like Victor might have been tearing up. “Yeah.”

“But not that season?” Victor asked, carefully.

“No, I don’t know.” Yuuri looked down and picked at the hem of his shorts. “I guess it just didn’t seem like you. You seemed really...angry, that season, or something. The choreography was really, uh, macho? And you’d also cut off your long hair so I guess it was just a lot of change at once, I don’t know--”

Yuuri looked back up, realizing Victor was crying, with one hand over his face. “Oh no!” he said, putting his hands on Victor’s arm. “I mean you were still really really good! I guess I just personally couldn’t identify with you that season anymore and it felt weird, and I know that probably sounds creepy, sorry, sorry--”

“No, no, Yuuri,” Victor interjected. “You’re right. You’re completely right. I wasn’t any good that season, everyone thought I was but I wasn’t. I was miserable the whole time and I wasn’t myself.”

Yuuri jumped up and brought back a tissue box and held it out to Victor, who took one gratefully.

“I’m sorry,” he said, awkwardly blowing his nose. “I don’t know why I’m being like this, I just. I hated that season too. And you knew.”

Yuuri sat down beside him again and put his arm around Victor’s shoulders. “What happened? I mean--” he added hastily, “--only if you wanted to tell me. If you don’t that’s totally fine, it’s your business.”

Victor set the stack of posters down gently on the floor, then folded his hands in his lap. “Ah,” he said. “About that time, there was this girl who skated at my rink, and she had an older brother about my age who came to pick her up after practice every day.” Victor sighed, then went on. “I, ah, I thought he was cute. And clearly loved his little sister. I got stupid butterflies in my stomach every time I saw him. Every time he came by I managed to be doing something very impressive and reckless. Show-off, very embarrassing,” he chuckled nervously.

“One day I was, you know, conveniently walking past when he came to pick her up, and she was excited to introduce us. Polina was a sweet little girl, and she obviously thought I was very cool .”

Yuuri laughed. “Oh, of course she did.”

“But her brother wouldn’t even shake my hand.” Victor twisted his hands in his lap. “I imagine he must have noticed my crush, I didn’t even know then how to not be obvious.”

Yuuri thought back on how Victor had used any excuse to hang around him, stare at him, or touch him since he first arrived in Hasetsu all those months ago, and realized that, poor Victor, he still didn’t know. He felt instantly both very fond of Victor’s guileless affection and furious on his behalf at this unnamed Russian boy who had clearly not treasured it as Yuuri did.

“As he left with his sister, he told her without bothering to lower his voice that I may be good-looking but my hair was stupid and made me look like a girl.” Victor’s tone took on an edge of anger. “I always liked looking like a girl, before. I loved my long hair. I liked looking pretty. I don’t know why I let that stupid boy’s words make me hate it, but, I did. I cried and cried when I got home, and then the next day I went to a barber and had it all taken off. And then I cried some more because it was gone.”

Yuuri slid his arms around Victor’s waist and squeezed him tight. “I loved your hair,” he said fiercely. “It was so beautiful. I remember when I first saw you skate, in that costume you were talking about from your Junior Worlds. I thought you were the most beautiful person I’d ever seen.”

Victor dabbed at his eyes with his already-damp tissue, then extracted one of Yuuri’s hands from his waist and held it in both his own, running his thumbs lightly over Yuuri’s palm. “After, of course, I pretended it was all my idea, that I was just tired of the long hair and wanted to change things up. Yakov was thrilled. He’d been trying to get me to cut it anyway, saying I was nineteen and needed an older look. Everyone said that, after I cut it, that the short hair made me look grown-up. More like a man,” he added with a sigh. “People liked it so much, I thought I should just go all the way, cut all the old feminine Victor out of it, surprise them with a completely new me. I asked Yakov to help me create more aggressive programs for that year, I trained harder than I ever had. The judges and press all thought it was exciting. It was horrible. I hated the programs, I hated myself.”

Yuuri squeezed back on Victor’s hands. “Your exhibition program though, when you changed it at the 2009 Worlds…”

Victor nodded. “‘Midnight Radio,’” he smiled. “I wanted them to know I wasn’t gone. Of all the exhibition programs I did, I loved it the most, even though I only performed it once.”

“Oh, me too,” said Yuuri. “It was perfect. I was so happy when I saw it. I--well it’s like you said. I knew the Victor I loved wasn’t gone.”

Victor took Yuuri’s head in his hands, pulled him close, and kissed his forehead. “I’m glad,” he whispered against Yuuri’s hair. “I’m sorry I ever made you doubt. For both of us.”

Victor then released Yuuri, and for a moment he seemed unsure what to do or say next. Yuuri didn’t either, honestly still feeling the strangeness of finding the real Victor Nikiforov sitting on his floor and crying next to the posters of him Yuuri had stared at for years.

Victor tucked his good knee up to his chest and hugged it. It was an oddly childlike position to see him in, and Yuuri felt his heart ache with more love than he’d thought could possibly exist in the world.

“I’ve never really had friends, you know,” Victor said quietly. “Oh, that sounds pathetic. I’ve had my rinkmates, and other skaters I see at competitions, Chris and Cao, you know. But no one I’ve ever been really close to. I know I’m a little bit of a weirdo--”

Yuuri put a hand on Victor’s shoulder and gave it a light squeeze, which he hoped Victor understood to mean, Hey I like that you’re a weirdo.

One side of Victor’s mouth quirked up in a smile, and he leaned just slightly into Yuuri’s touch, and continued, “And I’m not good at opening up and saying how I really feel, in my heart. I’m not good at letting people know, when I’m not perfect, and I know that makes it my fault, and--” He paused, and smiled a little more when Yuuri began to trace patterns in his shoulder with his fingers. “Oh, anyway.” He took a deep breath.

“When I was a kid and I felt lonely, I had this idea, this, stupid idea. I told myself if I could just pour everything I felt into my skating, if I could do the absolute best, then among all the people who watched me, surely there would be someone out there who would see me skate and they would just...understand. They would feel exactly what I feel, they would just, they would know. If just one person could reach back and say ‘yes, I understand, I feel what you feel,’ it would all be okay. It would all be worth it.”

“Victor…” said Yuuri softly, reaching up to stroke Victor’s hair.

“I didn’t take the idea so seriously when I grew up but I still thought about it, now and then. And now--now--” Victor choked up and turned to Yuuri, reaching one hand up to lace through Yuuri’s where it rested against Victor’s head, the other stretching out to cup Yuuri’s cheek. “You were here this whole time. You were real. I knew it when I saw you skate my ‘Stammi Vicino’ choreography. All this time, I’ve been skating for you.”

At that, Yuuri burst into tears, and flung his arms around Victor’s neck. “Victor,” he said, and held him tightly, one hand rubbing small circles in his back. He thought back to what he’d told Victor the night before. I felt, if I could ever be close to you, I would stay by your side and never leave. I’ll never leave you, Victor. You’ll never have to be lonely again.

Victor pulled back a little and brushed at his own tears with the back of his hand, and shook his head a little as if in attempt to clear it. “I just--” he began, then hummed, paused, and started over. “I wish I could go back and tell that stupid kid who cut off all his hair that somewhere over in Japan there’s a cute boy who thinks his long hair is beautiful.” Victor brushed Yuuri’s own long hair behind his ears with a teary smile. “And he really does understand what you feel when you skate, and he knows when you’re not yourself, and--” Victor laughed as his tears began flowing in earnest again. “--and he is so sweet, and so funny, and such a good dancer, and when he smiles he’ll make you feel the butterflies, too.”

Now they were both sort of sobbing and grinning at the same time, and Victor took one of Yuuri’s hands and held it to his stomach, which in the absence of a professional athlete’s training regimen and an abundance of katsudon, had grown just the littlest bit soft itself in the past several months. Yuuri laughed and pulled Victor close again. With his face in Victor’s shoulder, he said, “You know I’m not good at saying what I feel or letting people close either. But Victor, Victor,” he breathed. “I love you. I love you so much. I love you so, so much.”

Chapter Text

Yuuri, Yuuko, and Nishigori watched all the 2009 Worlds broadcasts with Minako, gathered around the onsen’s television, and had now settled in for the exhibition gala. Yuuko had read a rumor on a skating blog that Victor Nikiforov had changed his exhibition music at the last minute, but no one knew what it was yet. They whispered speculations back and forth as the event began.

At last, the announcer said, “And now, silver medalist Victor Nikiforov of Russia, who will be skating ‘Midnight Radio’ from Hedwig and the Angry Inch , as covered by Dar Williams.”

Minako’s jaw dropped. “Ohh,” she said as Victor skated out onto the ice, while Yuuri was still reeling from Victor’s sparkly blue eye makeup and Yuuko was admiring his new costume--a close-fitting black number similar to one of his competition outfits that glittered as he moved. He’d finished the ensemble with shining gold skates.

“What the hell?” said Nishigori. “Are the blades gold, too?”

Minako secretly dug the new, butcher Victor, but she knew it made Yuuri sad, so she was happy for him, and took pleasure in watching her favorite ballerina’s face out of the corner of her eye throughout the performance that followed.

Yuuri could see at once that something was different, and it wasn’t just the glitter. Victor felt different, his expression more open, from the very first notes. His initial movements were sort of small and hesitant, but also had a more fluid and feminine grace than the way he’d skated the rest of the season. Then the voice sang “like your blood knows the way / from your heart to your brain / know that you’re whole” and with each line, Victor pulled at a piece of his costume, freeing previously hidden elements in a flowy, lavender fabric. The first two were down the backs of his arms, so that they fanned out a little behind him as he moved; the third came from around his hips and fell down into a long skirt that bloomed and twisted around him, yet somehow never tangled his legs. His skating became suddenly stronger, launching into a combination on the chorus, and Yuuri’s face lit up in an enormous smile. The first tears hit at “you know you’re doing alright / so hold on to each other / you gotta hold on tonight” and with “all the misfits and the losers / well you know you’re rock and rollers / spinning to your rock and roll,”  Yuuri was gone. This was the most beautiful skating he’d ever seen and the most beautiful song he’d ever heard and his Victor was back and Yuuri loved him more than ever.

Victor spun slowly to a standstill with his hands stretched high above his head, palms open as if in a gesture of worship, and in the ensuing quiet, both Yuuri and Yuuko sniffed audibly, and then the crowd in the arena lost it. Minako squeezed Yuuri in a knowing little side-hug.

Nishigori was impressed, but confused by his friends’ emotional reactions. Yuuko flung her arms around him and sobbed “THAT WAS JUST SO AMAZING” into his shoulder while he patted her back supportively.

Yuuri asked Minako what Hedwig and The Angry Inch was.

“My time has come,” said Minako, and told him and Yuuko they should come over to the ballet studio for a slumber party and watch it sometime.

 

 

Puzzling over the events of the evening later, Nishigori was shocked to realize two things: Yuuri is gay? And Yuuko might be into him ? He asked her on a date a few days later. She said yes. They proceeded to become That Couple in record time, but they still both tried to make time for Yuuri in which they carefully refrained from PDA so as not to make him uncomfortable.

(Yuuri did not return this kindness once he began dating Victor. The Nishigoris didn’t mind too much though. Every now and then, Yuuko would grab the front of her husband’s shirt and shout, “Can you believe Yuuri is dating Victor Nikiforov??? ” and then they both fell into hysterical laughter for at least five minutes. Every time. The triplets worry about them.)

 


Victor Nikiforov never knew how to put agape into words, but if pressed, he might have said it’s how he felt when he skated “Midnight Radio” in 2009.

Chapter Text

Yuuri had another day off after the wedding, and Victor wanted to go to the beach. They spread towels out, and Victor promptly sat down in front of Yuuri and asked him to put sunblock on his back. Yuuri was only too happy to comply, and gave him a light massage in the process, exploring the shape of his muscles and how they lay over his shoulder blades and ribs.

“Do you have to charge me for this?” Victor asked.

“Yeah, but you get the boyfriend discount,” Yuuri said with a smile. “100% off.”

“Oh, you’re so sappy!” Victor laughed. “You’re a sappy boyfriend.”

“Me?” said Yuuri.

“Ahh, that feels so good,” Victor said as Yuuri worked at his neck. “Why am I so sore?”

“Uh, probably the same reason I am, which is that we’ve been trying to sleep two full-grown men in a twin-size bed.”

“Oh,” said Victor, as if this actually hadn’t occurred to him.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Yuuri said, wiping the excess sunblock down Victor’s arms and getting up. “I really, really like the cuddling--it’s just not, um, always the most comfortable way to sleep.”

Victor reached up and took his hand, and pulled lightly. “I’ll do you?” he offered.

Yuuri sat and let Victor return the favor, falling into bliss so quickly he forgot what they had been talking about.

“Do you want me to sleep in the guest room?” Victor asked, sounding a little quiet.

“What? Oh, yeah, I mean--Victor, I would come with you. If you wanted me to.”

“Oh!” he said. “Okay. You don’t mind not sleeping in your own bed?”

Yuuri leaned back for a second against Victor’s hands. “I think my, um. My bed is wherever yours is.”

He felt Victor press a kiss to the back of his neck. “Why have we been sleeping in that tiny little bed then?” Victor asked.

“Victor! It was your idea!” Yuuri said, and pushed back so that he fell into Victor’s lap.

“Oh! I guess so,” Victor said. He bent over Yuuri, sliding his hands down his chest, and tried to kiss him, but missed, partly because he was upside down and partly because Yuuri was laughing at him. “Some of my ideas aren’t always good,” he chuckled against Yuuri’s neck.

“Aaa, that tickles, get off,” Yuuri said, and scrambled to his feet. He ran down to the water, Ai lunging up from her spot on the towel to keep pace at his side. Victor had a slower start, but he chased after them and tackled Yuuri into the waves. They both came up spluttering and laughing and slicking their dripping bangs back out of their eyes.

After paddling around in the surf with Ai for a while, Victor put his hands on Yuuri’s waist and said, “What do you think about adding some lifts to ‘Eros’?”

Yuuri raised his eyebrows. “Who’s doing the lifting?”

Victor’s response was to squeeze tighter on Yuuri’s waist and hoist him out of the water. Yuuri screamed only a little.

“Okay,” he laughed. “So, you then.”

“Ahh, I bet you could lift me, too!” said Victor, setting him down again. “Why not have both, since we can?”

Yuuri eyed him, then reached down to grip Victor and lifted. It was a bit of an effort, and Yuuri quickly dropped him back down before he hurt himself. But Yuuri decided then and there that he would spend all his free time in the weight room for as long as it took to be able to put that look of surprised joy on Victor’s face whenever he pleased.

 

Later, they escaped the sun and retreated back to Yuuri's bedroom, where they lounged on the bed and played Breath of the Wild. Or rather, Yuuri played, but let Victor tell him what to do. During a cutscene, Victor reached over and pulled Yuuri’s hand into his.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you with nail polish before,” he said, lightly running a fingertip over one of Yuuri’s nails. Yuuri had done them in indigo for the wedding--to match his new suit. “It looks really good on you.”

“Oh--” Yuuri said. “Thanks, um. Yeah I sort of go through phases,” he laughed. “I wear it every day for weeks and then forget about it for a year.”

“Hmm,” Victor said, still stroking Yuuri’s hand.

“Victor? Uh--”

“Yes, my Yuuri?”

“Can I--?” Yuuri laughed at himself. “Can I paint your nails?”

Victor looked surprised, then amused. “Yes, please,” he said.

Yuuri saved his game, and pulled Victor up and across the room to sit in his desk chair. He pulled out a drawer, scooped out the five colors he had on hand at the moment, and set them in front of Victor. Hopping up to sit on the desk, he said, “Pick one!”

Victor tapped a finger against his lips a moment, then plucked up a dark purple polish with faint swirls of gold. “This one,” he said with confidence.

Yuuri dumped the rest back in the drawer, then spread Victor’s hands flat on the desk. Carefully, he bent over them and stroked the brush over Victor’s nails one by one, going slowly to spread the color evenly and avoid mistakes. Yuuri felt a weird rush at the feeling of Victor trusting him with this, Victor holding perfectly still for him. “Hey, you’re doing so well,” he said as he finished the second hand.

Victor beamed.

Yuuri gathered up both hands, loosely, and brought them up to his face where he blew lightly on the nails, making Victor giggle.

“Does that really help?” he asked.

“Mm, no,” said Yuuri with a grin. “I just like making you laugh.”

After Yuuri did a second coat, he made Victor sit there for a long while while it dried. “Trust me,” he said. “You’ll regret moving.”

Victor remained obediently in place, though he was starting to look a little squirmy. “I look so pretty!” he said happily, turning his hands a little to watch the tiny gold flecks catch the light.

Yuuri shook his head. “You always look pretty,” he smiled.

Victor turned to him with his eyes at their widest and his smile the most heart-shaped. “Yuuri,” he said.

“Oh my god, stop it, you know you’re pretty.”

“Yes, but I like to hear my boyfriend say it,” Victor replied.

Yuuri laughed. “Okay, Victor, you’re very pretty. You’re the prettiest person I’ve ever seen.” He brushed Victor’s bangs back from his forehead and bent down to press a soft kiss to his hairline.

“Ahhh,” Victor sighed.

“Hands still!” Yuuri scolded him when Victor tried to grab Yuuri’s arms to pull him closer.

Victor pouted.

Yuuri laughed and messed his hair. “I love you,” he said apologetically.

“I love you, too,” said Victor, and since he couldn’t touch Yuuri with his hands, he laid his head down on Yuuri’s thigh instead, and let Yuuri card through his hair until Yuuri told him he was okay to move.

 

They slept in Victor’s as-yet unused guest room that night, and Yuuri was grateful to get a full night’s sleep that didn’t leave him waking with one or more limbs numb or cramped. And Victor was still there, still filling the bed with his warmth and his scent and his calming presence. Yuuri ran his palm down Victor’s arm first thing when they stirred awake, giving his hand a little squeeze.

He gazed at Victor’s face, smiling back at him in the morning light. It was so much more beautiful than the posters could ever capture--the texture of his skin, how the pale color was splotched with a darker pink on his nose, which spread out to his cheeks when he blushed, the way his lips spread and parted in little smiles while he was thinking, the stubble that was almost invisible, but still scratched Yuuri’s cheeks, chin, and neck when Victor kissed him in the morning. The way sunlight caught in his hair and eyelashes when it struck them at the right angle, turning the silver to gold. Yuuri reached out a finger and traced it along Victor’s nose, then his cheekbones, lips, and jawline, making Victor laugh and blush.

“Yuuuuri, what is this,” he said.

Yuuri smiled and shook his head. “I just like your face.”

Victor reached out his own finger to trace Yuuri’s features, giving him a little shiver when he ran it along his jaw. Yuuri could still smell the faint trace of lacquer from his nail polish.  “Well, I like yours, too,” said Victor. “I love it.”

***

Yuuri invited Victor to attend his intermediate skating class again as a guest instructor--an opportunity Victor was delighted to accept. He found that he and Yuuri fell easily into a teasing, banter-filled dynamic the kids found very entertaining, even if they didn’t always understand him through his accent. Victor remembered most of them from when he’d sat in on Yuuri’s class last autumn, and was pleased to see how far some had progressed. He was also pleased to discover he was able to help some of them himself within the two hours of the class. Watching them skate was like a puzzle, trying to figure out what habits held them back, what advice would best help them improve, and the challenge had begun to intrigue him more and more.

Afterward, he and Yuuri sat together on the stands, taking a break before the walk back to the onsen.

“I had another reason for bringing you here, you know,” Yuuri said.

Victor’s mind immediately went to some scandalous places. “Oh?” he said with a smirk.

Yuuri grinned and shoved him in the arm. “Nothing like that.”

“What, then?” asked Victor, smiling.

Yuuri nodded out at the ice. “What did you think of the kids today?”

“They’ve all learned a lot,” Victor said. “You’re a very good teacher, Yuuri.”

“Oh--thanks,” he said. ”You too. Did any of them stand out?”

Victor nodded. “The girl with the pink ribbon--Ikumi, right?”

“Yeah,” said Yuuri. “She reminds me of Yuuko when she was that age. I think she has a lot of potential. And she just turned twelve, so she’ll be eligible to compete in the Juniors division in a year. I want her to go for it, but the thing is, she needs a coach.”

Victor nudged Yuuri. “She has one.”

Yuuri shook his head. “No, I mean she needs a real coach, someone who can work with her every day instead of just once a week. Her family has the money to pay for a good one, and I would tell them, you know, that I know a guy. Recently-retired world champion looking for a new career, good with kids, brilliant choreographer. She could really go far with him. Problem is,” Yuuri looked over at Victor. “He doesn’t live in Hasetsu.”

A smile spread across Victor’s face. “Is that so.”

Yuuri returned his gaze to the ice. “I’m--just saying. If you wanted to move, you--you’d have a job. I know one student isn’t really enough to live on, at least not the, uh, the way you're used to. But as soon as word got out that Victor Nikiforov was coaching here, I bet you’d get a fair number of skaters thinking a backwater Kyushu town might be a good place to move. And I could support you until then, I mean, I’m finally making enough that I can move out and get my own place, and we could--we could, live together…” He trailed off as the color rose in his cheeks.

Victor’s cheeks felt quite thoroughly flushed themselves, as he thought of what Yuuri was offering. A home. A life. A life with Yuuri. He actually began tearing up. “We’ve only been dating for two weeks,” he said. “It’s a--bit fast to be talking about moving in together, isn’t it?”

Yuuri looked over at him with undisguised heartbreak, only to immediately hit him on the arm when he saw Victor was smiling. “You’re mean,” said Yuuri, but he said it with a grin.

Victor pulled Yuuri into a splendid hug. “I’ll start filling out visa paperwork first thing tomorrow,” he promised.

On the walk back, they dreamed about their new home.

“We'll make sure it has a really nice kitchen so we can both cook together,” Yuuri said.

“And a yard where Ai can run around as much as she likes.”

“A giant closet for all your clothes, and a tiny one for mine.”

“Oh, and a cute little garden where I can plant my tree!”

***

“I'm highly skilled!” Victor announced proudly a week later, waving an envelope in Yuuri's face when he sat down.

Yuuri took the envelope, and found it contained Victor's five-year work visa. He looked up with delight. “It came!” He lept up and came around to kiss Victor on the cheek. “Is this why you wanted to make dinner tonight?”

Victor propped his chin on his hands. “Mayyybe,” he said with a coy smile.

Yuuri shook his head fondly as Victor got up and came back with two steaming bowls of katsudon.

“Do you ever get tired of eating katsudon?” Victor asked. “I’m afraid I make it too much, but it’s so much fun and it’s so good…”

“No,” Yuuri laughed. “Pretty much not. You can cook me katsudon any time you like.”

“Oh,” said Victor, looking pleased. “Good.”

Yuuri’s parents had gone out on a date of all things, and Mari and Rika were away on their honeymoon. It meant he and Victor had the kitchen to themselves that evening, and as they chatted about their days, it felt almost embarrassingly domestic. He thought about how it would be like this all the time, when they got their own house, and warmth spread to every corner of his body.

Victor tapped on the envelope. “Now that I have this, I suppose it’s time I find a flight back to Russia. I have a lot of packing I need to do.”

Yuuri reached across and took his hand. “You’d better get it done quick,” he smiled.

“Yes,” Victor said, smiling back. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it.”

Yuuri sighed. “No, it’ll feel like a thousand years.”

Victor quickly stood up and cleared their bowls away. “It’s still light outside,’ he said as he loaded them in the dishwasher. “Would you like to go for a walk?”

Yuuri shrugged. “Sure.”

“Okay!” said Victor. “I have to go get something--I’ll meet you outside, okay?”

Laughing, Yuuri said, “Victor, what do you need to get?”

“It’s a surpriiiise,” Victor sang over his shoulder before he disappeared.

They walked down to the shore hand in hand, Ai trotting faithfully beside them.

“Remember when we sat on the pier my last night in Hasetsu?” Victor asked. “And it was too cold?”

“I remember,” said Yuuri. “Now it’s too hot.”

“I wanted to kiss you so badly that night. The whole time. It was very distracting.”

“So did I,” Yuuri said. “You should have said something!”

“I was trying!” Victor exclaimed. “I thought you kept pushing me away.”

Yuuri felt so ridiculous. “That’s because I--I thought that was just, uh. How you were. I didn't think you meant any of it, and I was so terrified of you finding out how I felt about you. I--I didn’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, or like I thought I could--take advantage of you, or something.”

“Okay,” Victor laughed. “You’re right. We are both hapless princes.”

“Next time, just ask,” Yuuri said.

“Okay,” Victor said, and took Yuuri’s other hand as well. For a moment, he just stood there, gazing into Yuuri’s eyes and running his thumbs over the back of Yuuri’s hands.

Yuuri smiled at him. “What do you want, Victor?”

“I want,” Victor said, and he paused and took a deep breath, then looked back up to meet Yuuri’s eyes. “I want to eat katsudon with you, and dance with you, and care for you until the day I die. I want to grow old with you, Yuuri. Will you do that? Will you grow old with me, Katsuki Yuuri?”

Yuuri stared at him, mouth agape, then pulled Victor’s hands up to his lips and kissed the knuckles as tears swelled up and spilled down his cheeks. “Yes,” he said. “Please, Victor, I want all those things with you. I want to grow old with you, too.”

Victor cupped Yuuri’s face in his hands, and leaned in to kiss him, slowly, sweetly, as Yuuri slipped his arms around Victor’s neck, one hand reaching up to tangle in his hair. When Victor at last came up for air, Yuuri said, “Wait, wait, I just--to be clear, you are--you are asking me to marry you, right? I mean--”

Victor laughed and reached into his pocket.

Yuuri clutched a shaking hand to his heart. Victor had produced a simple gold band, identical to the one he bought for Victor in St. Petersburg. “Victor,” he breathed.

Victor took the hand Yuuri clutched to his heart, with hands that were shaking a little themselves. “Did you know,” he said, as he slipped the ring onto Yuuri’s finger, “that in Russia we wear the wedding ring on the right?”

Yuuri covered his face with his left hand. “No, no, not until after--”

“After you put a gold wedding ring on my finger and told me it was just a good luck charm?”

Yuuri nodded, blushing furiously. “I was so embarrassed when I found out, but you still never took it off, and that’s when I thought, maybe--”

Victor brought Yuuri’s right hand to his lips and kissed the ring. “Maybe I was sentimental and lovestruck and didn’t care if everyone thought I was taken because it was true, whether you wanted me or not?”

Yuuri kissed him. “I wanted you,” he said. “I just never dreamed it was possible you could want me back.”

“Yuuri,” said Victor. “I’ve never, ever wanted anything more.” He pulled Yuuri down to the sand, where they collapsed laughing in a heap. Victor slid the elastic off Yuuri’s braid and combed it through with his fingers until it draped in a curtain around one side of their heads, the sea breeze lifting its strands in a gentle rhythm.

Yuuri laid his hand over Victor’s chest, gazing at the ring on his finger. It was heavier to wear than he imagined, its weight like an anchor holding him safe in the harbor of Victor's heart. He couldn’t believe how lucky he was, to love and be loved by the man sprawled beneath him. “Victor,” he said. “This was perfect.”

“Well you proposed to me in an airport, Yuuri, and I hadn’t even kissed you yet--one of us had to be romantic.”

Then Ai, who had been off chasing seagulls, noticed her human friends were on her place--the ground--and came racing back up the beach to come snuffle all over their faces.

***

“Victor,” Yuuri said, his lips hovering just above Victor’s. “I want to dance with you right now.”

Victor smiled broadly, his Yuuri still managing to be sexy while holding off his dog with one hand. “Mmm,” he said, trailing his fingers down Yuuri’s spine. “On ice or off?”

Yuuri smiled at him. “On.” He sat up and helped Victor to his feet, and with a mutual look, they set off at once back to the onsen, stopping only to rinse the sand off their clothes and limbs along the way. It was all in his hair, too, from laying on the beach, and Yuuri combed through it for him with his fingers when he stuck his head beneath the shower.

When they got to the Ice Castle at last, Yuuko was still at the front desk checking the skate inventory. Victor chuckled as he watched Yuuri have to quickly make a decision about whether to tell his oldest friend he'd just got engaged, or drag Victor onto the ice first. He chose Yuuko.

“So, Yuuko--” Yuuri began.

But Yuuko seemed to have some supernatural engagement ring-detecting power because she screamed and clapped her hands over her mouth before he finished, and then almost immediately said, “Oh no, oh sorry, oh my god excuse me--” and dove to grab a handful of tissues from her desk to clamp to her nose.

“Yuuri!” she squealed nasally. “Id thad whad I thing id is?

Yuuri approached the desk and let her grab his wrist with the hand not pinching tissues to her nose. “Okay, first,” he said, “I want to say how deeply offended I am that three months ago you accused me of not telling you I was engaged because, now I am and it just happened less than an hour ago and you're the first person I told.”

“Thang you,” she said, tears shining in her eyes.

“Are you okay?” Victor asked, feeling rather concerned about the blood blooming from Yuuko's nose.

“Oh, yeah, yeah, I'mb fine,” she said. “Don'd worry aboud me. Congradulations, you guys!”

Victor walked up and leaned over the counter next to Yuuri. “Thank you for showing Yuuri my Junior Worlds performance and making him fall madly in love with me so that when we met a decade later he could seduce me at a banquet and make me fall madly in love with him,” he beamed at her.

“Thad wad definidely whad I had in mind all along,” she nodded. “Okay,” she said, taking away the tissues. “I'm okay. Are you guys here to skate?”

Victor exchanged a look with Yuuri. “Y-yes,” they both said.

Yuuko laughed. “Oh, you two, no I knew you didn't just come here to tell me the news. Go right ahead! We just resurfaced before you got here, so it should be all ready for you!”

After they got out on the ice and warmed up, Yuuri took his hands. “Baby,” he said, and giddiness surged through Victor. “You're shaking.”

“I'm excited,” Victor protested, and that wasn’t stopping any time soon because Yuuri just called him “baby” and now Victor was just waiting for what other pet names Yuuri might have in store for him. “I'm marrying you. And you're shaking too!”

Yuuri smiled. “Well. I'm excited.”

For many long years, the ice had been the only love Victor had ever known. It had given him the freedom to express himself, to grow and rise until he became known as one of the greatest athletes of his generation. There had never been a feeling quite as strong as what Victor felt when he knew he was moving a whole arena full of souls with his strength and grace and expression. He could never have known that that feeling would be nothing to what he felt when he skated in an empty rink with the true love of his life, who had just promised to spend the rest of his life with him.

Yuuri queued up “On Love: Eros,” and when they skated it, Victor felt like he was flying. Their weeks of obsessive practice had paid off--their bodies now moved in perfect time, their steps precise, yet fluid and natural. When Yuuri lifted him toward the end of the program, he didn’t stumble or miss a beat. Victor couldn’t stop smiling, and neither, it seemed, could Yuuri, who was flirtier than Victor had ever seen him--even including the banquet. Victor felt thankful for how deeply this program had got into his muscle memory, because all he could think was I’m in love, I’m in love, I’m in love.

When he came to a stop with Yuuri wrapped up in his arms, his flighty, flirty femme fatale caught at last, Victor looked down and saw their rings right next to each other. Overcome by such wild, unspeakable joy, he couldn’t resist shifting Yuuri to lower him into a dip and kiss him passionately. Yuuri let his weight rest in Victor’s hands for a moment, and gazed up at him with a warm, pure contentment until Victor’s arms began to weaken and they pulled upright again.

At the edge of the ice, completely unnoticed by him until now, Victor saw the entire Nishigori family--triplets and all--staring at them. “Oh,” he said, and gave them a bright wave.

Yuuri noticed and looked considerably more startled. <“Aren’t you girls up past your bedtime?”> Yuuri asked, skating toward them.

<“I swear,”> said Takeshi. <“I was just taking them by to pick up Yuuko--”>

<“Mom screamed!”> Lutz said.

<“We had to see what was happening!”> said Axel.

<“That was amazing!”> said Loop.

“Sorry,” Yuuko winced. “Did you want privacy?”

Victor shrugged; Yuuri seemed at a loss for words.

Then Yuuri pointed at the triplets’ phones. <“Did you--did you record that?”> he asked.

<“Ummmmmmmm,”> they said in unison.

<“Oo, can I see?”> asked Victor.

Axel handed her phone over, but eyed Victor suspiciously.

Victor watched a little of the beginning, and felt proud of how good they looked, and giddy over how cute they looked, and freshly aggrieved at Yuuri’s retirement but blessed that he, at least, would get to watch Yuuri skate for the rest of their lives, or at least until they both had irreparably bad knees. <“May I keep this?”> he asked the little girl. <“The video?”>

Axel folded her arms. <“Can I post it on the internet?”>

<“Axel…”> said her father with a warning.

Victor shrugged, smiling. <”I don’t see why not. Yuuri?”>

Yuuri frowned. He took Axel’s phone from Victor and watched from where Victor had stopped. <”Yeah,”> he told Axel at last. <”Do it.”>

The triplets let out a cheer.

A smile spread across Yuuri’s lips and he looked up at Victor, and shrugged, too. “Why not?”

<“We’re gonna break the internet!”> the girls crowed in triumph.

“I can’t wait for the whole world to see your program, Yuuri,” Victor said.

Yuuri laughed. “I think that expectation is a little high,” he said. “They’re eight, how many YouTube followers can they have? It’ll probably only get like a hundred views, and they’ll all be Minako.”

 

Victor skipped and twirled in little circles on the walk back, occasionally pulling Yuuri with him to spin them around together.

“I love seeing you this happy,” Yuuri said while they attempted to walk and dance and hug at the same time.

“Oh, Yuuri. When I first arrived in Hasetsu I was so scared I'd never be this happy ever again! But you healed me in every way and made me feel happier than ever before. Not--not just happy-- alive , and--and real , I--I can't wait to share this happiness with you for the rest of our lives.”

Yuuri pulled him to a stop with a tug on his hand. “Victor,” he said. “You know, there--there's gonna be times you're--I mean. I don't think either of us--”

Victor understood what Yuuri meant, and pulled him close. “I know. I know, darling. I will not love you any less when you are sad, and I know you won't either. I don't want you to ever pretend for me, okay? Not for me. I want to be there for you every time.”

Yuuri rubbed his face against Victor's shoulder. “I know. You won't pretend either, okay?”

“No, no, that is one of many things I love about you. That I don't have to pretend.”

“Good,” Yuuri murmured.

For a while they stood there in the darkness and held each other tight, faces buried in each other's necks, just breathing together.

“I want to make you so happy, Yuuri,” Victor said. “I know I will not always succeed but I still plan to try. Is that okay?”

Yuuri squeezed him tighter. “Me, too.”

They walked now with their arms around each other's waists, unwilling to allow any more space between them than necessary. Back at the onsen, they broke the news to Yuuri's parents with Mari and Rika on speaker phone, and after a great deal of hugging and “well, finally ” all around that set both of their cheeks on fire, they at last were free to crawl sleepily into bed and back into each other's arms.

“So happy,” Yuuri whispered into Victor's ear as he spooned him.

“So happy,” Victor whispered with a smile, and tugged Yuuri's arm tighter around his chest, falling into sleep with Yuuri's solid warmth all around him.

***

Yuuri returned from a full day of massage appointments to find his fiance lounging on his bed with Ai, reading a book.

“Yuuri!” Victor called, bouncing up to a sitting position with a big smile. Ai thumped her tail against the bed but refused to move from Victor's side.

Yuuri flashed them both a tired smile, dropped heavily to sit beside Victor on the bed, and gave him a kiss, then snuggled against his shoulder.

“Poor Yuuri,” Victor said. “You look so tired.”

Yuuri nodded. “Long day. I've been on my feet this whole time, and they’re killing me.”

“Ahhh, why don’t you put them up?” said Victor, who went to pull Yuuri’s legs up into his lap.

Yuuri sat up and gently pulled them back. “Oh no,” he laughed. “You don’t want to try that. They’ve been in my shoes all day and they smell.”

Victor nodded gravely. “Well, why don’t you go take a shower then, and then you can teach me how to give my fiance a foot massage.”

Yuuri decided yes, this was an excellent plan, and practically sprinted to the bathroom in spite of his sore feet. Several minutes later he returned in shorts and a t-shirt, damp hair draped over one shoulder, sat down on the bed next to Victor, and promptly swung his feet up into his lap. Victor had to gently bat Ai’s head away when she tried to lick them.

Yuuri guided him through all the ways to use his knuckles, thumbs, and palms to ease the pain of his swollen feet, and Victor listened and followed his instructions with the same intense focus Yuuri had seen in him when he was trying to work out a skating technique. Yuuri felt embarrassed and awed and proud that Victor found his feet as worthy of such attention as the ice.

By the time Victor finished, Yuuri had slid down to lie fully on the bed. He looked up at Victor through sleepy, half-lidded eyes. “I love you,” he mumbled with a smile.

Victor beamed. He leaned over and hauled Yuuri up so he was now sitting in his lap, leaning against Victor’s chest. “I love you too, my Yuuri.”

“I’m gonna make you do that again sometime,” said Yuuri. “Maybe a lot of times.”

“It would be my pleasure,” said Victor. He picked up his phone. “Have you seen the comments on our video? It’s very popular.”

“What, the triplets’ Eros video? Really?”

“Mmhm. Over ninety-thousand views already.”

“What!”  Yuuri grabbed the phone and looked. “Wow. That’s--that’s insane.” He scrolled down. “Most of these comments are just pepper emojis.”

“They think we’re hot,” Victor purred in his ear.

Yuuri squirmed and laughed. “They think you’re hot.”

“Mm, no, there are some very specific mentions of your arms.”

Yuuri blushed as Victor ran a hand over his bicep. The number of views and positive comments (even if some of them were a little uncomfortably sexual) was staggering to him. The last several times he'd skated before any audience larger than his classes, it had been such a miserable experience he'd forgotten how rewarding it felt to perform for an audience and actually feel good about it. He scrolled back up to actually watch the video. “We do look pretty good, don't we,” he said, pride surging when they pulled off their trickiest lift. It was both embarrassing and thrilling to see the way they looked at each other that evening, fresh from a wedding proposal and unselfconsciously giddy, transparently in love. The triplets had not bothered to cut the video before the kiss. “Oh boy, they left that part in, huh.”

“Oh I'm glad we have that to keep forever,” Victor sighed happily.

Yuuri laughed. “Yeah. I guess I am too.”

Victor proceeded to kiss him in real life, and Yuuri felt a heady rush of love and affection. He pulled back, then took Victor’s head in his hands, kissed his temple, then moved lower to his cheek, his jaw.

“You know,” Victor said breathlessly, “I used to think you weren’t attracted to me.”

“Well, that was stupid,” said Yuuri. He kissed beneath Victor’s jawline, mouthing his way down his throat. He slid his hands from Victor’s head, down his neck, slipped them down over his shoulders and crooked his fingers in the collar of Victor’s t-shirt, tugging gently at the neckline and kissing the exposed skin.

Then with a jolt, Yuuri pulled away, and clambered off Victor's lap to pick up his phone where it was charging on his desk.

“Yuuuriii,” Victor pouted. “What is more important than kissing me right now?”

Yuuri smiled and shook his head, finishing off his text message. “Nothing,” he said, and returned to make out with his fiance until dinner.

 

During dinner, his phone buzzed with a text back from Phichit.

Are you kidding?????? Of course!!!!!!

***

Victor was desperately impatient to find out what secret business Yuuri was up to that kept making him smile at his phone so much during dinner. At last, Yuuri rewarded him by looking up and asking if he'd like to take a walk down to the pier now that it was evening and the air was cooler. Victor agreed at once, and they set off from the onsen hand in hand.

“Yuuuriii,” he said, swinging their hands as they strolled along the pier. “Are you going to tell me what's going on?”

Yuuri turned and took his other hand when they reached the end, and took a deep, steadying breath.

“Are we proposing again?” Victor asked.

Yuuri smiled. “No, no. I actually--I have a different kind of proposal this time.”

“Oh?” said Victor. “What's that?”

“I told Phichit I'm gonna do his ice show.”

“Yuuri!” Victor threw his arms around him. “Yuuri I'm so proud of you. I can't wait.” He took Yuuri's hands in his. “Will you get to do your own program? May I choreograph it for you?”

Yuuri laughed. “Yes, and yes.”

Victor felt like he was ascending to an unprecedented plane of happiness. “Do you know what music you want to use? You look like you already have an idea.”

Yuuri squeezed his hands. “Yeah, I do. Um--”

“What is it?”

“I want you to choreograph a suite from Prokofiev's Cinderella .”

Victor gasped. “Yuuri--”

“For a pairs program.”

“Yuuri.”

“Because I told Phichit I would only do the ice show if you could skate with me.”

Victor had no response but to tangle his fingers in Yuuri's hair and kiss him thoroughly.

“Was that a yes?” Yuuri asked hopefully when they parted.

“Of course,” Victor said. “I would love to. A Cinderella for two hapless princes,” he smiled.

Yuuri smiled back, rubbing his thumbs gently across Victor's ribs. “Unless you still think it's too basic?” he teased.

“Mm, no,” said Victor, brushing Yuuri's hair behind his ears. “Classic.”