Despite spending the last four years of his life studying Russia, Yuuri was still greatly underprepared for how cold it was when he arrived. The palace consort had offered his sister, Mari, Minako-sensei and himself a fine fur pelt each to wear; something Yuuri gratefully accepted as the chill had gone through the wool of his mon-tsuki like needles, hakama soaked nearly up to his knees from the snow.
‘Stop biting that fucking lip,’ Mari snapped, Japanese vulgar in her impatience to get into the warmth of the drawing room they had been brought to. Yuuri squeaked, glancing quickly to where Minako-sensei was walking ahead of them. But thankfully, their tutor seemed not to hear them.
‘I c-can’t help it,’ Yuuri replied, barely containing his shiver. ‘My teeth won’t stop shaking.’
Mari rolled her eyes as they entered the drawing room, bowing her head to the servant who held the door for them. Yuuri followed after her, still dwarfed by his older sibling’s height and attempted to do the same, bending his body. Unfortunately, this just had Yuuri stepping onto the front his hakama and stumbling.
At 14, Yuuri was still adjusting to the formal wear, not used to having fabric bundle after him so much. It had taken great practice not to trip entirely over the hakama’s length, the weight of his mon-tsuki making it incredibly awkward to gather any semblance of lift over the whole ensemble. While the pelt didn’t help in that regard, it at least had the benefit of keeping Yuuri warm.
‘I’m sorry,’ Yuuri said in English to the servant, whose white skin and fine hair looked as striking as everyone else Yuuri had met in Saint-Petersburg so far. The servant said nothing, light eyes darting between Yuuri and the tall figure of their consort.
Lilia Baranovskaya was as imposing as she was alien to Yuuri, long nose constantly titled up in a position of great displeasure. Yuuri had only met her once before, four years prior when she had travelled to Japan first with the Tsar and his advisors. She seemed just as terrifying now as she did then, green eyes fixed on Yuuri like he were something she were about to dissect. She straightened the skirt of her Western gown, vivid purple silk which fitted her frame in direct contrast to Minako-sensei’s demure kimono.
‘She won’t understand you,’ Lilia said, her English sounding almost completely foreign in accent. ‘None of the servants speak English.’
‘Why not?’ Yuuri asked, curiosity ahead of his manners. Minako-sensei sighed, Mari rolling her eyes again.
‘It wouldn’t be proper. Now sit by the fire, before you catch cold,’ Lilia replied like it were obvious, before dispatching the servant in rapid Russian.
Yuuri was quiet then, knowing a dismissal when he heard one. Yuuri tightened his grip of the pelt around himself, walking closer to the chairs that were laid out before the fire.The sketches of the Winter Palace did not the do the reality of the building any justice, as far as Yuuri was concerned. It’s grandness gave Yuuri a hollow feeling in his stomach, nervous of the opulence that was gilded to the walls like it were worth the same as wood. Even the fireplace looked to be carved from riches, small gems of greens and reds encrusted along the spiralling gold carvings.
Mari sat across from Yuuri, her posture less proper than Yuuri expected. Yuuri didn’t imitate, keeping his back straight and hands folded neatly as Minako-sensei and Lilia began to speak in hushed tones at the chaise in the furtherest corner of the room. Discussing Yuuri, he was in no doubt. Yuuri watched the flames for a long while, talking with Mari about the journey, trying to ignore the mutterings behind him. When Yuuri heard the word marriage, the nervousness eating him from within won out.
‘Excuse me,’ Yuuri said politely, standing up from his chair. Lilia and Minako-sensei both looked from their discussion, eyes considering. Yuuri did his best not to blush. ‘But I’m feeling quite heavy-headed from all the travel. Could I be excused to take a turn around the gardens for some fresh air?’
Minako-sensei opened her mouth first, no doubt to tell Yuuri no. But then Lilia was standing, sharp chin pointed down in consideration.
‘Of course. I’ll fetch you a chaperone.’
Which was how Yuuri now found himself back out in the snow he had been so resentful of at first, an armed escort walking five steps behind him. But anything was better than sitting in that small, glittering room like it were anything but the cage it would inevitably be. Yuuri looked around himself, at the towering stone walls of the palace and how they seemed to dwarf out even the white blanket of the sky. The snow falling in the small, snow thick space of the garden courtyard that sat in the centre of the palace reminded Yuuri of the snowglobes the Tsar would send his family at the winter seasons.
Someday, Yuuri would be one of those small glass figures. Trapped behind a wall he could not see and drowning beneath Russian snow.
Yuuri’s turn of the square came to a halt once he crossed the far corner, the central trees passing to reveal a small arena of some kind that didn’t appear to be part of the original garden. It was like the pavement had been dug up to form a small, square pond of sorts. And on the pond’s frozen surface was a boy, a teenager perhaps, gliding across the ice like a dancer.
Yuuri stopped where he was, uncaring of the snow that was eating through his boots. He watched, transfixed as the other boy bent low, his body the delicate contortion of strength, before leaping into the air. Spinning, like string unwoven, and landing back on the ice with a clap like thunder. Yuuri’s heart swelled in his chest, entranced.
The boy was dressed well, or at least he was from Yuuri’s understanding of Russian fashion. He was wearing a coat of leather, fur-lined and thick so some of the movements of the boy’s arms looked unseamly with its bulk. On his head was one of those round, fur hats Yuuri had seen from his carriage to the palace, hands covered in rounded gloves. Yuuri found himself walking, interest and hope coming together like the stitching of his mon-tsuki, approaching the makeshift ice with speed.
Yuuri stopped when he reached the edge, which was lined with a straight wooden fence. The skater turned on his steel, speed ruddering him across the uneven surface of the ice. He looked over to Yuuri, reaching up with a gloved hand to pull the front of his coat down.
He was… beautiful. With a narrow face and straight nose, eyes vivid in their blueness and Yuuri’s breath caught in his throat. Yuuri flushed, whole body quaking as his embarrassment suddenly thawed the chill that had set in his bones. The skater approached as Yuuri tried to hide his quivering under the thick pelt.
The Tsarevich, Yuuri guessed. The boy who would become the man that would inherit this large, strange country. The man Yuuri would marry, as arranged by their respective courts.
The Tsarevich skated up to the fence, his pale skin burnished pink from the cold in a manner Yuuri couldn’t help but stare at. It was so strange, to see skin so stark like it were burnt. The boy was tall, even if he hadn’t been wearing his steel and easily the three or so years older Yuuri knew the Tsarevich to be. Yuuri’s breath was a cloud in front of him, the Tsarevich’s eyes glacial as they regarded Yuuri from beneath his cap.
When the Tsarevich spoke, it was in Russian and Yuuri was struck dumb with the speed of it, the harsh sound of it in his ears. Yuuri stared, unsure how to even respond. Yuuri hadn’t been taught Russian, on the request of the Russian court.
‘So they can hide their secrets,’ Minako-sensei had said with disdain, all that time ago. Yuuri realised too late that he still hadn’t said anything and he panicked, voice squeaking in his throat like a girls. Yuuri winced, embarrassed but the Tsarevich was suddenly cooing soothingly.
‘Prosti, prosti,’ the Tsarevich said, reaching out with a gloved hand to touch Yuuri’s shoulder. Yuuri flinched from the touch, unsure and the Tsarevich retreated. ‘I am sorry. English?’
Yuuri blinked, caught off guard. Then, his manners returned to him.
‘Yes,’ he replied, word a cloud in the cold. ‘I speak English.’
‘Wonderful,’ the Tsarevich replied, tugging a glove off with his teeth. Yuuri stared, amazed by the lack of propriety and strangely, relieved by it also. The Tsarevich held his hand out, fingers white like the snow. ‘I’m Victor.’
‘Katsuki Yuuri,’ Yuuri said, untangling a hand from where he had it bundled beneath the felt. Victor smiled, a slanted thing that made Yuuri’s stomach squeeze. Yuuri’s fingers were red now, too. Hand shaking. Victor took it, before looking down with wide eyes.
‘Your hand is freezing!’ he exclaimed and Yuuri snatched it back, afraid he’d overstepped. Then, much to his surprise, Victor tugged his other glove off and offered both out to Yuuri from over the top of the fence. When Yuuri didn’t move to take them, Victor took Yuuri’s hand into his own. ‘Please, I insist you take these. That fur won’t be enough, especially once the sun goes down.’
‘T-thank you,’ Yuuri replied, nerves catching on the words like hooks. He took the gloves, slipping them on when Victor waved a hand at him to do so. They were lined in fur as well and Yuuri couldn’t stop the sigh of relief he felt at having them. They were still warm from Victor’s skin.
Victor smiled again, his teeth sharp and eyes bright. Yuuri smiled back, happy to have pleased him.
‘Do you know how to skate?’ Victor asked, gesturing to the ice behind him. Yuuri shook his head, replacing his now gloved-hands beneath the pelt again.
‘No, we don’t really have the sport where I’m from,’ Yuuri said, not hiding the disappointment he felt. ‘But I know all about it. I’ve admired it for a long time.’
‘Perhaps I’ll teach you!’ Victor said boldly and it had Yuuri blushing. So forward, though perhaps Yuuri should’ve expected it. ‘Would you like me to skate for you?’
‘Please!’ Yuuri said, not bothering to contain the excitement he felt. Victor grinned, bright like the moon.
Yuuri wasn’t sure how much time passed between them. Enough for the snow to crawl up past the knees of his hakama, for certain and enough for even the escort assigned to him to cough. But Yuuri found that he didn’t care. He was totally caught by the movement of Victor’s body, the tumbling sound of his laugh. They shouted conversation across the ice to each other, Victor waving when he would skate close to where Yuuri was standing.
Then, Victor’s steel caught the edge of uneven ice, sending his body down. Yuuri cried out as Victor hit the ice, his cap flying off him in the impact. From beneath it, a curtain of long, fine hair spilled out. Silver as the ice it was laying against, Yuuri lost his words and even his panic for a moment at the beauty of it. Victor gathered himself up, brushing the ice dust from his jacket and looking around for his cap.
‘Ah, that was embarrassing,’ Victor said as he approached the fence again, shaking his retrieved cap. Yuuri said nothing, watching the sway of Victor’s long hair like it were a clock’s pendulum. ‘Though, I never have such a charming distraction.’
The compliment brought Yuuri tumbling right back down to earth.
‘I’m so sorry!’ he said, reaching out to touch Victor. He held Victor’s arm, barely feeling him under the layers of fabric between them. ‘You are not hurt, are you?’
‘I have survived far worse, I promise you,’ Victor said, winking and Yuuri was struck again by his brashness. Victor reached up, turning his hair around like rope.
Yuuri remembered when he had had his own hair cut before the journey, Minako-sensei pulling the strands back before taking a blade to it. Cutting it all the way up, to Yuuri’s ears. It was the fashion in the West, Minako-sensei had said. They had wanted to make a good first impression.
‘What do the people think, to have the Tsarevich grow his hair so long?’ Yuuri asked, admiring the way Victor’s hair shone like starlight from his dislodged cap.
Victor froze, abandoning the replacement of his cap and staring at Yuuri in a manner most uncomely with his mouth slightly open and Yuuri panicked, worried he had offended.
‘My- my apologies!’ Yuuri stammered, bowing as low as he could. ‘That was uncouth. Please forgive me.’
‘No, no!’ Victor said, seemingly finding his voice. Yuuri titled his head up, not entirely comfortable to straighten up fully yet. Victor pushed his fine hair from his face, looking quite sheepish. ‘You did nothing of the sort. I’m afraid it’s me who has been foolish and should be apologising. I swear, I never meant to mislead you.’
Yuuri did straighten up at that, suddenly wary. He stepped back, watching Victor carefully. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m not the Tsarevich,’ Victor said, eyes downcast with a look of shame. Yuuri’s heart stopped in his chest, stomach dropping like a stone. ‘I’m his skating coach.’