It happened to everyone at some point. Victor knew that, of course. It was unavoidable. Getting older was just a part of being alive.
Victor was turning thirty years old today.
He hadn’t made a fuss about it, and maybe for that reason (if he didn’t know Yuuri so well) he would have thought he could let it pass unnoticed, just another day at home with his husband and their comfortable couch and the warm blankets they brought out for the winter months. He never brought it up, and he certainly never marked it on the fridge calendar.
So when he saw the little heart that had been scribbled into the square for the 25th of December, Victor grinned like an idiot.
It had been harder to smile since Makkachin had passed, but Yuuri’s unique ability to turn his day around was a force of chaotic good.
He still missed Makkachin some days. But she had been old and tired and so well-loved, that even though Victor had been heartbroken to let her go, he regretted very little about how she’d spent the last years of her life. She’d been gone almost a year, now. Despite the fact that Yuuri and Victor still traveled together often, there was still something about coming home to a pet who loved him unconditionally that Victor desperately missed.
But Yuuri loved him, of course. Yuuri’s love was everything. Selfless. Selfish. So incredibly human and complex that Victor would happily spend the rest of his life learning the intricacies of loving Yuuri in return.
Those years mattered more—all the ones still yet to come.
Victor paused in front of the calendar and smiled. Yuuri’s heart-shaped doodle was tiny, but bubbled with enthusiasm in the way the scribbled shading had bled outside the lines. Victor touched it with his index finger, then touched his lips. Yuuri always managed to charm him, even when he wasn’t there.
Practice had been early this morning, it seemed. Victor wondered when he had stopped being the morning person in their relationship and Yuuri had started rising with the sun instead. All things considered, it didn’t matter much. They always caught up to each other eventually; a pair of systems in orbit, stars caught in each other’s gravity.
Today, it was Victor’s turn to catch up.
When he opened the fridge and saw the iced coffee Yuuri had left for him, he laughed. Yuuri was always two steps ahead—but when he pulled it out, there was a sticky note stuck to the travel cup: two hearts, side by side.
Victor smiled softly as he stuck the note to the counter top. Yuuri really was a sweetheart.
He grew delightedly more suspicious when he went to the closet and found a Post-It with three hearts stuck to the back of his woolen trench coat; in the pocket, an unfamiliar pair of gloves—beautiful brown leather with cashmere lining.
Designer tag. Another note (four hearts this time).
Victor grinned at the perfect fit as he pulled them on. So thoughtful, Yuuri.
He found a fifth on his keys in the bowl by the door. A sixth was handed to him by the girl at the front desk as he passed the door of their gated building. She refused to give him any details, but her smile was bright in response, and Victor was content to let Yuuri keep his surprises.
The seventh was taped to the window of the cafe they passed every morning on the way to the rink. Victor, absolutely charmed, stopped to duck inside. He picked out two chocolate croissants to bring to Yuuri for their breakfast—admittedly decadent, but it was mid-season and Yuuri could use the calories—and when the middle-aged owner handed the pastry bag to him, there was another Post-It attached with eight hearts.
Victor floundered when accepting it, too busy covering his face with his gloved hands and laughing into his fingers.
“Thank you,” he said as he pulled himself together to accept his purchase, and Natalya smiled back at him with her kind eyes and her frazzled, graying hair. She had always been attentive when they stopped by, called them honey or dear in her familiar way, and had come to recognize them by sight as Yuuri and Victor became regulars. She was a friendly face and welcome conversation—especially now that Victor knew she was Yuuri’s co-conspirator. “What is he up to?”
“No idea, darling. That’s the only other one I’ve got.” She shook her head fondly. “Happy birthday. Have a good one.”
“Thanks, I definitely will,” Victor said, and knew that he meant it.
The ninth was taped to the door of the rink. In the lower corner was equally-familiar handwriting, letters scrawling together in their brash, impatient way: get a room, losers!!
Yura had taken the time to express his so-called disgust, but hadn’t bothered to take the note down. The weather was cold, but Victor lingered outside to smile in privacy and felt perfectly warm.
The tenth note was on the door to Rink Two —ten little hearts arranged in two rows of five. Underneath, in hurried pencil, Victor spotted two dime-sized caricatures he knew were because of Mila: a tiny Yuuri-face with his wild hair and glasses, and a tiny Victor with an exaggerated heart-shaped mouth.
Victor loved them. Damn, but he did. He loved all of them.
Victor hustled inside, the pastry bag held in one hand, the other arm thrown over his head in greeting as he jogged to the boards. Yakov stood in the center of the rink, and his skaters were gathered around him—a few new Juniors and newly-upgraded Seniors, but most notably Georgi, Mila, Yura, and Yuuri. Even in their workout clothes, they were picturesque models of grace; Victor knew that at any second, any one of them could erupt into the kind of fluid motion that artists practiced their whole lives to capture on paper—but Yakov’s skaters were artists on the ice.
Even still, that was the art Victor was committing his life to.
That, and the performance piece of a man that had caught sight of Victor, sprinting away from the group and across the ice.
“You’re late!” Yuuri grinned as he scraped to a halt, and a spray of powder kicked up like wave. His glasses, folded over the collar of his black tee shirt, thumped against his chest with the sudden stop. Yuuri reached over the barricade and threaded his fingers into Victor’s hair, his skating glove slightly damp where it brushed his ear. Victor was all too happy to let Yuuri pull him in, and leaned over the boards for a kiss.
Victor drew away with a contented hum; Yuuri’s eyes glimmered as he caught site of the gloves and the sticky note on the paper bag Victor set between them. “I’d say sorry, but I was following your tracks.”
Yuuri caught Victor’s hand in his own and inspected the gloves with a small, private smile. The contrast between the smooth leather and Yuuri’s polyester protective gear was a clear reminder that Yuuri had bought this gift with Victor’s style in mind. “They fit okay?”
“They’re beautiful, Yuuri. Thank you.” He gently rolled his hands out of Yuuri’s grip, then slid them over Yuuri’s forearms, back and forth. “Are you cold?”
“No, I’ve been skating all morning. Yakov was talking about dividing the ice time after lunch—I probably should have stayed and paid attention.” Yuuri’s smile was sheepish; he reached for the paper bag and fumbled for the opening, then frowned down at it.
Victor huffed, amused, and pulled Yuuri’s glasses from his collar to put them on his face. “Is it that late already?”
“Almost eleven.” Once Yuuri could see, his movements were accurate and efficient—and he made a pleased sound when he realized what Victor had brought him. “I’ve been craving these.”
Victor laughed when Yuuri sank his teeth into the chocolate croissant and let it dangle from his mouth; he loosened the velcro straps around his wrists. “You could have picked one up.” Yuuri’s reply was muffled; Victor removed his new gloves and tucked them into his pocket, then reached in with bare hands for the other croissant. He smiled indulgently. “What was that, my love?”
Yuuri flushed sweetly and stopped fiddling with the straps. Even after all this time, sometimes Victor’s casual endearments still caught him off guard. “I was in a hurry,” he said again, and took another bite from his breakfast.
“Does that mean you have more surprises for me?” Victor asked; and oh, he loved this. He never had more fun than when Yuuri kept him on his toes.
Yuuri’s smile was bright; his eyes glimmered behind his glasses. “Yes, absolutely.” Yuuri took another bite, chewed thoughtfully, and his smile widened. “Check your back, by the way.”
Then he turned on his toe and sprinted back across the ice.
Victor paused; like Yuuri, he held his pastry in his mouth as he felt his shoulders, the back of his neck, his hair—
—eleven hearts on a pink Post-It, stuck to the back of his head.
Victor stared at it, and scrambled to pull the food out of his mouth. “Yuuri, how did you do that?!”
Yuuri laughed at him. Victor didn’t mind.
He found the twelfth taped to the bathroom mirror he used to fix his hair, and the thirteenth inside the locker he shared with Yuuri, tucked into the laces of his skates. Perhaps the most remarkable part was how many details Yuuri had noticed to make this happen, including the order in which Victor got ready.
After that, he didn’t find any for a while—but he did get back on the ice in his street clothes, not for any great purpose, but simply to skate . He didn’t attempt any ambitious jumps, and he was more than content to watch Yuuri run through the composition of his upcoming short program. Victor would join him after lunch; in the meantime he skated laps, offered offhand pointers to the starstruck Juniors, and entertained himself by sticking the Post-Its he’d saved onto Yuuri at any chance he got.
(They were moments made by Yuuri for Victor alone. But Victor liked them best when he shared them again, made new moments for both of them. All with Yuuri, for Yuuri.)
Their afternoon break came, and Yuuri put on his old JSF jacket over his workout clothes so they could go down the street to get something for lunch. Yuuri was vibrant, cozy, tucked himself under Victor’s arm with his own around Victor’s waist. He was as loving as he was shameless, soaking up Victor’s attention without a worry or care, even when the people on the sidewalk had to swerve around them.
It felt like any other day with his husband, but in a way only Yuuri could accomplish—where everything felt the same, but every adventure was a little bit different.
Yuuri let Victor choose the place they went for lunch: a sandwich shop that was fresh and fairly inexpensive, as far as city food went. Inside, taped to the corner of the menu board behind the counter, was a yellow sticky note with fourteen hearts.
Victor turned his incredulous stare on Yuuri; Yuuri smothered his grin behind his hand.
“Are you conspiring with everyone we’ve ever met? Is that what’s going on?” Victor bumped Yuuri with his hip, a gentle tease that Yuuri returned by nudging Victor with his shoulder.
“Wouldn’t you rather wait and find out?” Yuuri asked. He freed himself from Victor’s grasp with a wide, warm smile. “Unless you don’t like my surprises anymore.”
“I like your surprises,” Victor conceded as they approached the counter. “But, Yuuri, the suspense is killing me.”
“We wouldn’t want that. Better pick something to eat, then. I can’t have you dying on me.”
Victor scanned the menu and considered his options. “Am I going to get my sandwich and find fifteen hearts inside drawn with mustard?”
Yuuri stopped; Victor glanced back at him to see Yuuri frowning at his shoes.
“What, did I get it right?”
“No. But that would have been really cute.” Yuuri laughed and rubbed at the back of his neck, blushing and bashful. “You have such good ideas, Vitya.”
Even two years later, it still made Victor’s heart beat faster whenever Yuuri called him Vitya.
(Which was often; Yuuri only ever called him Victor when being hounded by English-speaking interviewers and journalists. In the privacy of their home he was Vitya, and the sound of his name from Yuuri’s lips was like falling in love all over again.)
Victor reached for Yuuri’s hand and guided it to his lips; he pressed a tender kiss to Yuuri’s wedding band. “I got them all from watching you.”
They descended into silent smiles, standing close enough to feel the other’s radiant warmth as they ordered their food, then went to sit at one of the small tables by the window to wait. Victor placed his hands palm-up on the tabletop; underneath, his foot found Yuuri’s and traced the toe of his shoe idly over Yuuri’s ankle, gently drifting up and down again.
He expected Yuuri to lace their fingers together. What he didn’t expect was for Yuuri to place an aluminum tin in his hand instead, topped with a green Post-It covered in fifteen scribbled hearts.
Victor lit up when he recognized his favorite lip balm, then pulled off the sticky note and tucked it in his pocket for later. He spun the cap to break the safety seal, which made a satisfying series of snaps. The scent of it was vanilla-mild, not chemical like most heavy-duty ointments. “How did you know I was running low?”
Yuuri grinned and leaned forward, his elbow anchored on the table, chin rested in his palm. “Mm, I don’t know. It’s almost like we live together or something.”
Victor shot him a fond, chiding look while he rubbed his fingertip against the waxy surface. He put some on his own mouth, already dry and stinging from the bitter winter outside; he realized he had a bit too much left on the pad of his finger, so he held his hand out toward Yuuri.
Yuuri’s wrinkled his nose, conflicted and amused in equal turns.
Victor wiggled his finger at him. “I know this wasn’t cheap, Yuuri. It would be a shame to waste such a generous gift.”
Yuuri scoffed and smiled and rolled his eyes, then leaned forward obligingly for Victor to rub the remainder of the lip balm over his chapped and bitten lips. Victor traced them again for good measure.
Yuuri pressed his lips together to smooth out the chapstick; Victor’s mouth felt a little dry.
“You probably used too much on purpose,” Yuuri murmured, and turned his face to hide his smile into his own palm.
Victor hadn’t, but it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. He reached for Yuuri’s free hand and replied, gently sardonic, “Oh? That doesn’t sound like me.”
Yuuri snorted at the jibe—and promptly covered his face with his hands altogether. Victor smiled helplessly; unexpected jokes had a way of taking Yuuri off guard from time to time. He always got flustered when he snorted unintentionally.
Victor reached to pull his hands away, absolutely charmed. “Yuuri, that was so cute.”
Yuuri swatted at him and fought to hide his glowing-red cheeks. “Vitya—Vitya, no! Stoooop, it was an accident…”
“Yuuuuuu–ri, don’t be embarrassed—”
“Here are your sandwiches,” the shop worker said, and set them on the table.
Victor, appropriately distracted, didn’t turn to look. “Thank you. Yuuri, come on—”
Yuuri fussed all the while, and in the process of fighting off Victor’s over-enthusiastic flirting, snorted again and melted into another round of embarrassed giggles.
Stuck to Victor’s parchment-wrapped sandwich was a pink Post-It, detailed with sixteen scribbled hearts.
It went unnoticed.
(For a little while longer, anyway.)
Victor had retired after Makkachin’s passing last year. His return to skating had been highly anticipated, but he had ultimately realized it was impossible to come back at full force. He had gotten rusty and spoiled and just a little bit too old, and it wasn’t worth risking injury by pushing himself further than that one last year skating with Yuuri.
It didn’t mean he wasn’t still a phenomenal athlete. Of course he was. But his heart was in something new, now—his marriage to Yuuri, and coaching.
Obviously, it had started with Yuuri. Hasetsu, and then St. Petersburg, skating together and giving him pointers, choreographing routines for him. Once the team was together, though, Yura had demanded that Victor put together a new program for his sophomore year in the Senior division; something new that would convey his metamorphosis from the rookie known as Yurio to rising star Yura. He had embraced his Russian roots and his teammates’ affections, and it seemed an ambitious enough cause that Victor agreed.
Even Mila eventually asked if Victor would put together a potential program for her, since she was unhappy with the one she had. He picked apart the classical ballet-based steps and put together something more modern that played to her physical strength; a routine that would set her apart from all the female skaters in her bracket, and eventually won her several gold medals.
From there, it spiraled outward—Juniors and Seniors alike asked for personalized choreography, and once Victor was retired, he saw no reason not to indulge them. Watching each skater for long enough to learn their strengths and weaknesses meant he got to know them pretty well. Within weeks of Victor becoming an unofficial St. Petersburg coach, he realized with a jolt of surprise that he knew every skater on Yakov’s ice. He knew their names, he knew how old they were, and where they had come from if they weren’t native Russians.
They weren’t faceless fans. Every single one of them was a real person. A student. A friend.
Friends that stopped him in the halls to wish him a happy birthday once he’d returned from lunch, despite the fact that Victor knew he’d never mentioned it.
Because Victor didn’t hate his birthday. On the contrary, it was a part of life, and one that had never really bothered him—but he had never seen it as particularly important, either. It was just another day. A holiday, even; one that he usually spent sending well-wishes to his friends on the far-flung corners of the globe.
There were a few people that knew him well enough to remember his birthday in the midst of their holiday cheer—Christophe, Stéphane, Vera, and of course his Russian teammates. But over time, he gained more: Yuuko, Minako, Mari.
Victor had been so desperately lonely when he was younger. He craved family, love, someone to spend the day with that he could call his own; who would see worth in his life beyond a few gold medals. He had found that because of Yuuri, with Yuuri.
So when the new skaters sometimes asked him if he regretted taking time off, if he was bitter about what they called the loss of his career, Victor always said the same thing:
He didn’t regret it. He would never regret it. He’d met the love of his life, gotten married, and had the incredibly good fortune of building himself a family.
He wouldn’t trade this for anything. All the medals and prize winnings in the world were not worth half as much as his life with Yuuri.
They weren’t worth his happiness.
He knew that now.
Victor found seventeen on the front of his workout shirt, eighteen wedged in the pages of his program notebook, and nineteen on the faucet when he went to refill his water bottle. He smiled at each one and stole glances back at Yuuri, who remained delightfully mum on what he was planning or how he’d accomplished this.
(Really, how had he managed to place his notes so Victor didn’t find them out-of-order?)
As the afternoon wound down, and Victor’s eager students began to pack up to go home, that happiness didn’t fade. Once, Victor might have been eager for Yuuri to concede all his secrets, to tell him everything he’d been planning. Now, despite his gentle ribbing, it was nice to experience whatever Yuuri had planned in exactly the way Yuuri planned it.
Which was why, when Yuuri asked if they could have a few people over for dinner, Victor said yes.
They changed back into their street clothes, and Victor didn’t know what he was expecting, but the sight of his former teammates waiting in the lobby wasn’t quite what he had in mind. Mila, Georgi, Yakov, and Yura all waited for them; they walked the short distance from the rink to Victor and Yuuri’s apartment together.
Their apartment had always felt open, airy, even when they’d had guests drop in from time to time. But it had been months, if not years since Victor had so many people piled in his living room, and had enough people over to fill the couch and the chairs there. Their coat closet was full, all their lights were on, and Yura and Mila promptly discovered and subsequently argued over control of the stereo system (Yakov, surprisingly, won).
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed so much with his teammates.
Having the whole family together to cook was an experience. As professional skaters, they were used to feeding themselves and accommodating their own specialized diets. But the first problem arose when no one could agree what to make—so they just made some of everything. An entire box of pasta, vegetables grilled on the stove, and when Yuuri pulled out parchment-wrapped chicken breasts from the butcher a few blocks down, Victor realized why he had been so busy this morning.
He’d been setting all this up; probably had been for days.
Yuuri pulled the twentieth Post-It from the outside of the wrapping and attached it to Victor’s forehead. The sticky back was cold from where it had been hidden in the fridge.
They unwrapped each cut of meat and laid them out; Yura climbed on the counters to take down all the spices he could find, then shoved them at everyone and told them to make your damn own so we all get what we want . It sounded good enough to the rest, who seasoned their food the way they liked as Yuuri preheated the oven. Yuuri took over and started each piece on the stovetop grill pan, then set them on a baking sheet to finish up.
They barely had enough plates for everyone. When Victor suggested that they buy more if they were going to keep entertaining, Yuuri positively glowed. He kissed Victor there, in the middle of the kitchen—to Yura’s irritated grumbling, Mila’s wolf-whistle, Georgi’s grin (as he pulled Yura into a headlock, and all the subsequent howling that went with it), and Yakov’s slight, exasperated smile.
The food went quickly once it was ready; a pack of calorie-starved athletes tended to do that, especially considering that Mila and Yura were still young. But they interacted well together; they’d grown close because of their shared dreams and shared space.
Yura had grown up significantly in the last two years—he had gotten taller, grown his hair out longer, and lost some of the slenderness that had been the constant of his youth. He would be eighteen in a few months but was already Russia’s new punk icon. He still argued with Mila, but more like siblings; she could no longer lift him these days, a fact that Yura crowed about via video chat to Otabek Altin, loudly and often.
Mila was young and at her prime, fast-approaching twenty-one. Not long ago she’d cut her hair into a devastating pixie cut; Victor suspected at Yura’s encouragement, considering how they’d both grinned when Lilia Baranovskaya absolutely lost it. Mila was still a flirt, and was something of a wild child, but she had bonded with Yuuri soon after he’d arrived, and had helped him adjust to his new life in St. Petersburg. For that, Victor was infinitely thankful.
Georgi had mellowed since his break-up with Anya. He’d dated a few other people since then, before he found comfort in taking time to himself. It was once he’d declared his intent to be single that he had met his girlfriend, Faina; they were good for each other. She didn’t skate, so she wasn’t embroiled in the drama of their world. She was patient and level-headed but could strong-arm Georgi when she needed to. Yakov didn’t know it yet, but Georgi planned to retire after this season and leave the glory to Yura—he would be thirty tomorrow, like Victor, and had just bought a ring.
Yakov was… better. When Victor had first left for Japan, he was fresh out of his bitter divorce with Lilia. Now he had settled into something like peace. He accepted that his formerly unpredictable clients had matured into a fine bunch of young adults. He regarded them all as his children (though he would rarely admit it), and it was in moments like this that Victor could tell he was proud of how far they’d come, no matter the roundabout way of getting there.
And when you put them all in the same room, chaos often ensued—but love, too.
“These are so good, Yuuri. Thanks for making the food,” Mila said with a smile, and kicked her legs up onto the couch and into Yura’s lap.
He scowled, but obligingly set the bowl on her shins as he finished off his food. “What are you talking about, Baba? We made these ourselves.”
“Not true. We may have seasoned them, but you always overcook your chicken.”
“See if I ever let you crash on Grandpa’s couch again.”
“But Yuuuura, you’re the closest to the bar—”
“Thanks, Mila,” Yuuri interrupted, comfortably seated in Victor’s lap. They had run a little low on sitting space, what with Georgi in the far seat on the couch, and Yakov in the only other armchair.
Of all the arrangements, this made the most sense. Victor had his arms around Yuuri’s waist, and he was reluctant to let him go. The chatter of his former teammates faded into the background, and Victor nuzzled at Yuuri’s shoulder. He drifted, content, not having to focus on anything but his full belly and the warmth of his love, the familiarity of their home, and being happy with his day’s work.
Yuuri reached back and stroked his fingers through Victor’s hair. “Tired, Vitya?”
“Mmhm.” Victor leaned into the touch and opened his eyes; he didn’t realize he’d ever closed them. He dropped a chaste kiss on Yuuri’s shoulder blade, then rested his chin there instead.
Mila was trying to force Yura to take her plate—the two bickered until Georgi reached over and plucked both from their hands, only to set it on the side table beside him. He shook his head back at them, then laughed when they somehow turned the whole thing on him. Typical. They were always ready to fight, but just as quick to defend each other. Yuuri jumped into the whole argument with the ease only someone not caught in the middle could manage.
Yakov was looking at Victor, though. Even, contemplative. Victor smiled a little, and let his head drop to the side so his temple brushed Yuuri’s neck. Yuuri was too busy talking with Mila to notice the quiet moment pass between them. Victor didn’t mind. There was a lot that he and Yakov could convey with silence and shared glances after twenty years of working together. And Victor could feel the silent approval; sense Yakov’s peace with the way things had worked out.
Victor felt that peace, too.
The twenty-first Post-It was unearthed when Victor and Yuuri finished washing the dishes, stuck to the back wall of their empty cabinet as he went to put them away. He peeled it off and put it on top of the stack—a reminder for tomorrow of what Yuuri had done for him today.
When he turned around, Yuuri was grinning and holding a bakery box; the twenty-second note was pasted to the top. His scribbled hearts were in no particular order, but Victor knew the number would be just right. There were half a dozen cupcakes inside, all different colors and flavors, one for each of them. This started a short but violent scuffle between Georgi, Mila, and Yura, but everyone emerged more or less unscathed.
Yuuri put candles into each of the cupcakes and floundered when he realized he had nothing to light them with. The resulting finger-pointing started a small second war when Yakov and Yura and Mila and Georgi all pulled lighters from their pockets, and subsequently accused each other of lying about quitting smoking.
Victor didn’t expect gifts. So to say he was surprised when Mila pulled four small parcels from her oversized purse later on was an understatement. All were wrapped in different papers, at different skill levels, or not at all.
From Georgi, he got a new pocket-sized notebook. Useful, practical, and exactly what he needed.
Mila’s gift was a small, framed portrait, more elaborate and realistic than the doodles she’d left on the sticky note this morning—a graphite drawing of Victor and Yuuri, sitting beside each other on the rink wall. Yuuri’s soft oooh when he saw it betrayed his own surprise; if he’d known what Mila was giving them, he’d certainly never seen it in person. Victor hugged her and Yuuri complimented her, and they promptly found a place for it in their living room beside their sound system.
Yura scowled when he handed Victor another small notebook. When Victor opened it, he realized it was already full. Yuuri peered over his shoulder and frowned at the Cyrillic letters, still too small and cramped for him to read. Victor gasped emphatically. He grabbed Yura around the waist and lifted him into the air, ignoring his shouts and helpless huffs of laughter. He’d given them a handwritten record of Nikolai’s recipes, with a note in the title page that read so you don’t bother me about them for another thirty years, old man.
Yakov’s gift was in a padded mailing envelope, still sealed. He handed it to Victor and crossed his arms over his chest. Victor glanced down; it had a bit of weight as he shifted it from hand to hand. He dug through the kitchen drawer to find scissors, since the packing tape was too thick to tear. When he upended the envelope into his hand, a piece of metal slid out—flat, short but wide, with two small holes on the far ends.
A placard that read: Виктор Никифоров, тренер.
“That’s your name,” Yuuri said, and leaned into Victor’s side. “And… oh.”
Victor traced his thumb over the embossed letters, then set the plaque on the counter. He was silent, even as everyone around him smiled.
It was an honor. An incredible honor to be formally recognized as a coach by Yakov Feltsman.
“You can have the office by the locker room. It will be loud, so you’ll have to close the door, but I’ll get you a calendar and a file—Vitya, really.” Yakov’s gruff tirade was cut off when Victor threw himself at the man and wrapped his arms around him.
“Thank you,” Victor said quietly, and swallowed down the wave of emotion that threatened to overtake him. “I couldn’t… I wouldn’t have….” Victor cleared his throat and composed himself, and pulled back to stand at arm’s length. “I owe you everything. Thank you, Yakov.”
“Oh my god, are you crying?” Yura drawled, and made a sound of disgust. “Typical Nikiforov.”
“Shut up, Yura, this is a big moment for him,” Mila snapped back and punched him in the arm. “Don’t ruin it.”
“You’re both already ruining it,” Georgi grumbled, and they turned on him immediately.
Yakov’s sigh was exasperated and exhausted. “Someday,” he said, “you will have to deal with this.”
Victor smiled and thought of Yuuri, of his Juniors, and of all the young ones yet to come, like the Nishigori triplets. “I hope so,” he said.
Yakov (barely) cracked a smile.
Twenty-three was on the bottle of wine Yuuri brought out when the others were gone.
Twenty-four was on the sound system remote.
Twenty-five was stuck to a brand new bottle of bubble bath that mysteriously appeared next to the tub.
Twenty-six was folded into Victor’s favorite towel.
Twenty-seven was in the drawer on top of Victor’s pajamas.
Twenty-eight was an email attachment under the header Important Memo for Coach Nikiforov, sent by katsuki.yuuri@SDUSHOR.ru.
And then Yuuri dragged him back to the living room with a fierce look of determination on his face.
On the side table beside the couch was a small box, wrapped in pastel green paper. Beneath it, a card in an envelope. Yuuri sat him down, then tucked himself closely against Victor’s side. They were both cocooned in their pajamas and cozy from their bath, still damp and water-warm.
“Yuuri,” Victor said softly, and turned to face him. He held Yuuri’s face in his hands and kissed him, a gentle press of mint mouths. “I don’t need anything else.”
Yuuri leaned in until their foreheads touched, and was careful to angle his face so his glasses didn’t crush against Victor’s nose. He looked… nervous. Hopeful. Happy. “This one’s for both of us.”
That piqued Victor’s curiosity. “What do you mean?”
Yuuri reached across him to pick up the final gift; he set it in Victor’s lap, and held the card in his own. “Open the box first.”
“Shouldn’t I open the card—”
“My gift, my rules,” Yuuri replied, and smiled against his better judgement.
Victor didn’t really care about the box or the card; Yuuri’s smile was what he’d been aiming for. Whatever had his nerves on edge usually didn’t bode well, but there was a glimmer in his eyes that said something different. It promised something good, maybe. Something Yuuri really, really wanted to go well.
Victor kept an open mind as he peeled back the paper. The box underneath was plain, nothing special. When he lifted the lid, though, Victor froze.
That same soft green color; thick, corded cotton. Their names, embroidered onto the band next to his phone number. A plastic clip, and a metal D-ring.
(Under the collar, a Post-It with twenty-nine hearts.)
Victor stared, and tentatively picked it up. He didn’t know what to say; wasn’t able to comprehend what it meant.
Yuuri’s warmth was ever-present at his side. When he spoke, his voice was quiet and uncertain. “Do… do you want to open the card?”
Victor swallowed, eyes wide, and turned back to Yuuri. He nodded.
He put his hand through the loop of the collar, several inches too large for his wrist. Victor tore open the envelope with trembling fingers and ignored the front panel of the card altogether. He was sure it was sweet, and he knew he would treasure it later, but right now he wanted answers, and those would only be found with whatever Yuuri had written inside.
But it wasn’t entirely about what Yuuri had written. When Victor opened the card, a printed photo tumbled into his lap—a brown poodle on her side in a roomy custom-built box. The walls were raised about a foot all around her; just enough that she could get out easily, but her puppies could not.
Victor exhaled softly.
Thirty hearts, drawn on the inside of the card.
Underneath, Yuuri’s shaky Cyrillic:
С Днём рождения, любовь моя. Я знаю, мы обе скучаем по Маккачину, но я думаю, ей это понравится. У её собаковода есть новые щенки! Далекие, но прямые родственники. Если ты готов, я готов. Я тебя люблю! ♡
“I’ve put a deposit down already,” Yuuri murmured, and lay his hand on Victor’s thigh. He rubbed back and forth, comforting, familiar—uncertain, but so loving. “I thought we could pick one out together.”
Victor shuddered out a sigh, absolutely overwhelmed—and then he broke.
Love. A love so strong it took him apart with every breath, and he pulled Yuuri into a crushing embrace. Victor pressed his face against Yuuri’s throat and felt tears sting at his eyes; he sniffled and pulled Yuuri closer, up into his lap. The card was still clutched in his hand behind Yuuri’s back, and the collar pushed up until the small band caught around his forearm.
Yuuri made a soft sound—confused, pained, disappointed; Victor knew he was getting the wrong impression, so he nodded again and again. Emphatically, irrationally. Yes, he said silently. Yes, yes. I love you, yes.
And then a thought struck him, and he pushed Yuuri back to arm’s length, his hands too-tight on Yuuri’s shoulders, but Victor had to know. Yuuri’s eyes were wide, wary, startled by the emotional whiplash… but hopeful. So hopeful.
“Yuuri are you sure? This is…” Victor’s voice broke, and he knew Yuuri could see he glimmer of tears that he tried to blink away. He smiled, instead; he wanted Yuuri to know how much this meant, but much he wanted this—but he needed Yuuri to be sure. Because a puppy now, together… could someday be something more.
And Victor wanted that. He wanted Yuuri to know he wanted that.
Victor swallowed, and his voice softened. He reached up to tuck Yuuri’s bangs behind his ear. “…It’s almost like adopting a child.”
Yuuri’s eyes widened with understanding. Victor expected him to blush, maybe for him to stutter. But Yuuri always, always surprised him.
He reached to cup Victor’s cheeks in his hands; leaned in to kiss the top of Victor’s head, then his temple, the apple of his cheek. By the time he had drifted down to Victor’s lips, Victor was drowning in the anticipation of the kiss Yuuri gave him. Longing. Sweet.
He stroked his thumbs across Victor’s cheeks, over and again. When he pulled back, it was to touch their foreheads together; they were close enough that Yuuri looked at him over the frames of his glasses and could see Victor unaided.
And then, once again, Yuuri changed his life.
“I want that too,” Yuuri murmured, and their lips brushed; Victor’s heart sped threefold. “Someday, a little further down the road. But a puppy—we know how to do that. Look at us, Vitya. Don’t you think we’re ready?”
“I do,” Victor replied and nodded again; felt so in love and so glad for everything Yuuri had brought to his life that he would have agreed with anything Yuuri said.
But he knew they were.
They were ready.
Victor turned his face into Yuuri’s hand and kissed the underside of his wedding ring. They may not have been prepared for children just yet, but they were already a family.
“I love you,” Victor mumbled into Yuuri’s fingers.
“And I love you.” Yuuri nuzzled closer, settled their bodies together so he was curled against Victor’s chest and across his lap. His arms slipped around Victor’s neck, his hands tangled in Victor’s hair, and rubbed soothing circles against his nape. “Happy birthday.”
“Mm. The happiest birthday I’ve had all year.”
Yuuri snorted, just as Victor knew he would. They clung to each other, giggling, soft in each other’s arms. Finally though, Yuuri drew back; he stood, and held out his hands for Victor to take. Obligingly, lovingly, he did—and the collar loosened from where it had wrapped around Victor’s arm, slid down with the gravity of Victor standing until it caught on their joined fingers, linked between them.
They both glanced down, then back at each other, and smiled. Victor took the collar in his hand and got down on one knee. Yuuri huffed, and Victor grinned when he placed the collar flat on Yuuri’s extended palm. “Yuuri, will you share a dog with me?”
Yuuri’s shoulders shook as he bit down against his smile, trying to remain the serious one. “Are you going to do this with our firstborn?”
Victor was okay with not being the serious one. He launched himself up without waiting for a proper response, tackled Yuuri in a hug and smothered kisses all over his cheeks, his nose, his forehead, his mouth, his temples, his ears, even his glasses. “Absolutely. Definitely.”
“Oh my god, Vitya—you brute, get off, you’re going to crush me! No—Vitya!” Yuuri shrieked with laughter as Victor tossed him over his shoulder and marched off toward their bedroom. Victor heard the telltale clatter of Yuuri’s glasses hitting the floor behind them, but he didn’t stop. “You absolute monster, Victor Nikiforov.”
Victor carried him down the hallway and into their room, and only let Yuuri go so he could toss him onto their bed. Victor followed him down; crawled up the mattress and caged Yuuri in with his arms. But when he stared down, much of the humor was gone—Yuuri’s head tipped back, laid out beneath him with a half-lidded gaze and a knowing smirk.
“We’re not going to have much peace and quiet anymore. We should enjoy it while we can.” Victor slowly lowered himself until he was pressed against Yuuri from chest to knee.
“Mm, that’s too bad,” Yuuri said, and reached up to trace the backs of his knuckles down the side of Victor’s face. The glint in his eyes grew warmer, sharper—in a fluid movement, he hooked one leg behind Victor’s and used it to flip them over. Heat bloomed in Victor’s cheeks, in his chest, and in his belly. Oh, his Yuuri was as dangerous as he was beautiful. “Peace and quiet were the last things I had in mind.”
Victor’s mouth went dry. “Take it easy on me. I’m old now, you know.”
Yuuri sat up, a hot and solid weight across Victor’s thighs. The smile Yuuri flashed down at him was positively wicked. “That’s okay, Vitya. I have enough stamina for both of us.”
It didn’t matter how Victor aged; he knew one thing for certain.
Life with Yuuri would never get old, and he couldn’t wait to see where the years would take them—together.