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When he was eight years old, Prince Katsuki Yuuri discovered—much to his parents’ dismay—that he was not cursed.

Now over a decade later, his memories of that day are fuzzy at best. He thinks maybe his mother cried. Or he cried. Or both—probably both, if he’s being honest with himself. It was difficult news to process. They’d really been hoping for a curse.

Despite having every right to be, his parents were not usually paranoid people. But when their young son started to complain of voices in his head—voices that said bad things, belittling and insulting him and getting louder and louder until he couldn’t breathe and his chest felt like it would cave in—they were rightly concerned. The Katsuki house was not without its enemies.

Here’s what he remembers: his mother, bundling him into a warm coat and taking him to the outskirts of Hasetsu to see someone who “knows about these things”. This was the first time he met Minako; he hid behind his mother’s legs the whole time, peeking around to stare up at her impossibly youthful face.

(For the longest time, Yuuri was convinced that she was either: a) twenty or b) two hundred and very good at what she did. Years later, he gathered the courage to ask her: “Forty-nine,” she replied with a smirk, “Now get back to work.”)

His mother rushed to explain the situation, but Minako was barely in the room with him for two full minutes before she laughed, tossed back her last sip of sake, and made her diagnosis.

“He’s got anxiety, Your Majesty, not a curse. Nothing I can do for you.”

But that last part wasn’t, strictly speaking, true. In the following year, after every bout of spiraling panic, his mother would bundle him up and make the hour’s journey to Minako’s, convinced there was something she’d missed. Minako, barely bothering to hide her annoyance anymore (you know I’m trying to retire from this, Hiroko), would lay him down and place her hands over Yuuri’s ears. He could have sworn her fingertips glowed.

Every time, the same result, and every time, while his mother talked to Minako, he would wander around her house. In hindsight, it was inevitable that he would find the dance studio, with a couple of students practicing inside. And that’s where his mother and Minako found him, completely entranced, an hour later.

“I’ll teach you, if you want.”

Yuuri remembers thinking that he’d never wanted anything more in his life.

 

 

And that was the beginning, of years of hour-long trips there and back twice a week; of pair after pair of soft-leather dance shoes he either wore holes into or outgrew entirely; of morning stretches and afternoon stretches and evening stretches; of bruised and swollen feet, but a head held higher and higher every single day.

The anxiety got worse before it got better. Minako liked to tell it like it was, and little Yuuri liked to at least breathe without being critiqued, thank you very much. But he grew under her scrutinizing gaze and when it all got to be too much, back then and to this day, Yuuri locks himself in the studio in the East wing and dances.

So no, Prince Katsuki Yuuri of the Kingdom of Saga was not cursed. Perhaps it would have been easier if he were. But anxiety teaches him a lot, and he builds himself up and thickens his skin and drinks calming tea and pushes on by doing what he loves most. Minako did help him, in the end: she brought him self-reliance and the beautifully structured world of classical dance.

And dance, in turn, will bring Yuuri everything else.

 

 

Here’s the thing: Yuuri has an older sister. Mari is confident and serious (when she wants to be) and doesn’t take crap from anyone—so, really, she’s the ideal heir to the throne.

All of this suits Yuuri just fine.

What doesn’t suit him, you might ask? That would be most everything that requires juggling complex social interactions and keeping track of the expectations and desires of multiple parties each with their own hidden motivations, all without collapsing in on his own self-consciousness and devolving into an anxious mess.

In short: diplomacy.

And what is Yuuri expected to be as the second child of King Toshiya and Queen Hiroko of Saga?

Yeah, a diplomat. So overall, not ideal.

Yuuri isn’t actually bad at his job—on a good day, he’s average, and at twenty years old he knows he has a lot of room to grow. He knows this logically, just like he knows that his parents love him and that they would probably let him drop every one of his duties and join a travelling dance troupe if he just asked.

But Yuuri doesn’t want that, not really; so he stays, and continues being average (on a good day) and hoping not to screw his people over too terribly.

And the bad days?

Well.

Everyone knows who’s to blame for the alliance with Phayao falling through last month. It had been a big deal, and a done deal, until it wasn’t.

“Then perhaps it’s better if we moved you to something a bit different for a while, Yuuri. Our ambassador to Phayao can take over for now, if you feel that strongly about being taken off of this…”

So, long story short, that’s how the Prince of Saga ended up as the chief negotiator of a trade deal with some distant kingdom of minor strategic importance to his homeland.

And he doesn’t know it, but it’s a decision that, for the rest of his life, he will never once regret.

 

 

It starts, as most things do, with an extravagant banquet.

The delegation from the Kingdom of Rossiya arrives in the afternoon with what Yuuri can only imagine is half their court in tow. If it seems like overkill, King Toshiya assures his son with that signature jovial smile, that’s because it is—this deal will be much more important to Rossiya’s burgeoning economy than to Saga’s, which has been flourishing for years now.

“They’re putting their best foot forward,” his father muses, “to assure it goes through.”

Their ‘best foot’, it would seem, involves a cultural showcase leading up to the evening’s banquet—“to show our gratitude and share our culture with the great Kingdom of Saga,” the newly-appointed ambassador proclaims as he bows deep before the throne.

And that’s how Yuuri ends up sitting atop a dais at his parents’ left hand, wearing clothes that are as stiffly, stiflingly formal as possible, and watching as curtains pull back to reveal an empty stage.

The air hums with anticipation as a group of young men and women, dressed head-to-toe in vibrant red, file to the center. Off to the side, a small ensemble strikes up a melody, and the bodies on stage begin to dance. The routine is beautiful, of course, and impossibly intricate. From only the first minute of performance Yuuri has already begun to tease out the differences between this form of dance and his own classical training. Where Sagan dance relies on subtlety and small movements, everything about the Rossiyan dancers screams grand. They circle one another in sweeping movements, jaunting in and out and around and around and, oh, leaping. It’s fascinating, if a bit jarring.

And yet, amidst the most grandiose of differences, he finds quiet commonalities, like that familiar, delicate balance between soft grace and unwavering control, present in every perfectly rotated spin and every extended arm bent at the same, precise angle.

There is, Yuuri supposes, some diplomatic value to tonight’s events that goes beyond mere politesse.

He claps along with the crowd as the dancers bow and exit, the new ambassador taking the stage. The harsh lights wash out his skin-tone and glint off of his too-white teeth.

“And that was a traditional dance of our homeland, and we are honored to have shared it today with the great people of Saga. Now, we would like to present to you something very different. The King of Rossiya is a great sponsor of the Arts, much like the Royal Katsuki house.” His voice booms just slightly too loud for the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, we have brought with us today the favored classical dancer of the King himself, certainly the most beautiful our country has ever seen. This evening, as a gesture of goodwill, you will be treated to the best we have to offer. On behalf of the King and the rest of his court, we hope you enjoy it.”

Yuuri wonders, for a moment, if the ambassador hasn’t greatly risked overselling a performance that has yet to occur—but then a flash of rippling silver stops Yuuri’s breath in his throat and his thoughts in their tracks.

The first time Yuuri saw hair the color of straw, Mari had to kick him under the table before he offended their foreign dinner guest by staring. This, Yuuri realizes, is entirely different: yes, he’s staring and no, he can’t look away, but it’s more than just the stream of silver hair trailing out onto the stage—it’s every single detail of the man it belongs to.

The most beautiful, indeed. His gleaming hair has been pulled into a ponytail, revealing high cheekbones and pink lips and startling blue eyes. He carries himself with an elevated poise that speaks of nobility and the controlled power in his limbs. As he settles into his opening position at center stage, Yuuri’s eyes trace the arcs and lines of his body. Even completely immobile, there is movement in the contour of his neck, the slight extension of his leg, the curve of his hips. The ambassador couldn’t have oversold this if he tried, and the dancer has barely begun.

But when he does…

The violin strikes its opening note, the dancer’s arms sweep outward in an arc, and eyes the color of clear sky flutter open.

Oxygen, Yuuri suddenly realizes, is quite important, and he sucks in a gasp.

The man on stage moves entirely unlike the dancers who preceded him. All navy silk wrapped around ivory skin and woven with silver to match his hair, he sweeps across the wooden stage as if his body knew every inch of it and nothing else; as if he could do nothing in that moment but spin with his arms arched above his head, head tilted back to expose the delicate curve of his throat.

As if Yuuri—as if anyone— could tear their eyes from him for even a second.

It’s impossible to tell, watching this man with the silver hair, what is movement and what is music. Every spin, every leap and every extension of the dancer’s limbs is perfectly controlled and perfectly timed and perfect. Technically flawless and emotionally breathtaking, it fills Yuuri with something hot and tight that settles deep in his chest.

Yuuri, who once wanted nothing more than to move his body with such grace and hold his head with such confidence; Yuuri, who wanted to steal the breath from an audience the way this dancer has from him; Yuuri, who was never able to rise above the level of amateur, who quit lessons two years ago, when he realized where his priorities should lie.

Yuuri, who wanted and wanted and, oh, he realizes, still very much wants.

It’s all over far too soon. The violin slows to its last note, the note pure and quivering as the dancer finishes with his arms stretched to the ceiling, his face turned away from the audience, reaching out and reaching more.

Then, like a rubber band snapping into place, the spell is broken; the music falls away and the dancer drops his arms, straightens, and, chest heaving, offers a stiff bow. The hush that had fallen over the room erupts into applause. Yuuri, seated upon the dais next to his family, takes his first deep breath since the performance started.

“Yuuri?” his mother asks.

Blinking, he realizes just how close to the edge of the seat he is sitting and just how embarrassingly hot his cheeks have grown. He sits back. “Oh. Sorry.”

When he looks back to the stage, the dancer has already gone.

 

 

Prince Katsuki Yuuri knows a great deal about Rossiya. The briefing yesterday morning contained everything he could possibly care to know—the history of its crown, the size of its territory, its agricultural output and the approximate value of its trade with Saga for the past decade. He could tell you exactly how much money his kingdom had collected in tariffs from Rossiyan merchants last year.

What the advisors failed to mention in yesterday’s briefing, however, was that Rossiyan vodka has a significantly higher alcohol content than Sagan sake.

That is to say: it’s eight o’clock in the evening, the welcome banquet has barely begun, and Prince Katsuki Yuuri is utterly trashed.

All things considered, it’s probably not his advisor’s fault. Yuuri probably shouldn’t have given up so quickly on the sickeningly heavy, meat-based Rossiyan meal and started drinking on an empty stomach. He also probably shouldn’t have taken three consecutive shots of definitely-not-sake just because he couldn’t stop thinking about his complete ineptitude at everything he’s supposed to be good at.

Well, there’s that, and there’s also the fact that the banquet has moved from dining to dancing and, from his raised seat near the head of the table, he can see the silver-haired dancer on the other side of the ballroom as he twirls for a group of giggling noblewomen.

So, yeah, Yuuri’s a bit distracted, and if he takes one or two shots too many it’s because it burns on the way down and makes his fingers and toes and cheeks flush with heat—now, at least, that something that has been burning in his chest since the performance will have some company.

Anyway, it’s all incredibly unprofessional. If he didn’t have a reputation before, he certainly will after tonight. To top it all off, his formal introduction to the new ambassador occurs while the world spins around him on its axis.

Luckily, he has a lot of practice being dizzy.

“I am Prince Katsuki Yuuri,” he says with a bow that makes his vision spot, “it is a pleasure to meet you.” If he’s slurring his words, hopefully the ambassador will think it’s his accent.

“Lord Andrei Antonovich, Your Highness. His Majesty the King has appointed me as the ambassador to your great kingdom for the time being. I hear we will be working very closely for the next month. I am looking forward to bringing our people closer together.”

“As am I. We are glad to have you here. That was a very impressive performance.”

The ambassador laughed. “I am sure the King will be very pleased to hear that you enjoyed it.”

Yuuri realizes, too late, that getting so drunk that he can hardly process his first impression of the most important figure in these negotiations was… not a smart move. How is he supposed to gauge this man’s intentions and analyze his micro-expressions and body language when the room won’t stop spinning?

“Ah, if you’ll excuse me, I believe my sister is looking for me. I will certainly be seeing you later?”

“Yes, of course, Your Highness.”

He never makes it to his sister because, believe it or not, Mari was never looking for him. He actually isn’t sure where he is headed—to the kitchens to get some food in his stomach and hide until the worst of it passes? That would be the responsible thing to do.

But no, because of course not; because Drunk-Yuuri likes to throw caution to the wind and do everything Sober-Yuuri is far too reserved and self-conscious to even consider. And whatever could that mean on a night like tonight?

Well, there’s a man on just the other side of the ballroom that dances like a dream and whose silver hair shines like a beacon. Yuuri doesn’t realize he’s moving until he is.

A ring of onlookers surrounds the dancer, oo- ing and ah- ing as he balances on one foot, his other leg extended impossibly high behind him and his back arched just so, and just as he turns—

His eyes, Yuuri discovers, are not the color of the sky but of the ocean reflecting it back to him. It’s a blue like nothing Yuuri has ever seen, deep and shimmering and pooling with something he can’t quite read.

The second their eyes meet, the dancer freezes. Yuuri is not sure where he gets the breath, but before he knows it the question topples from his tongue:

“Dance with me?”

He’s holding out his hand. It’s an offering, an invitation, and a dare all in one.

The onlookers part and a blinding smile graces the dancer’s lips.

“Of course, Your Highness.”

He takes Yuuri’s hand. Sober, Yuuri might have devolved into panic right there.

Drunk, the Prince of Saga pulls the most beautiful man in the world into his arms and leads him in a waltz.

And, oh, the-most-beautiful-man-in-the-world’s cheeks are suddenly flushed to match Yuuri’s.

“What’s your name?” he asks, because as accurate as it is, the moniker is a bit unwieldy.

“Viktor,” the man replies, breathless.

Viktor, ” Yuuri tries it on his tongue, and it sounds wrong but the man—Viktor—does not correct him, just smiles that blinding smile.

“And you are the prince?”

“Yuuri,” he breathes as they whirl across the dance floor, bodies pressed close together yet not close enough. Those blue eyes, impossibly (impossibly) blue, sparkle like the ocean on a sunny day and he wants to drown. “Call me Yuuri.”

And that’s the last thing he remembers of the night.

 

 

When he was seven years old, Viktor performed a pirouette for the first time. He remembers spinning, remembers feeling as light as a feather, remembers coming to a stop and grabbing the barre to keep himself upright as his head spun with the thrill of it all.

But most of all, he remembers brushing his hair from his face and seeing, staring back at him from the mirror, eyes so full of joy that he hardly recognized them as his own.

Now, if he closes his eyes and tries to recreate that moment, he inevitably comes up short. Fifteen years is a long time—plenty of time to forget how his eyes had sparkled, how his cheeks had flushed, how it felt to fall in love for the first time; and plenty of time to forget why he loved in the first place.

But then the Prince of Saga reaches out, pulls him close, and spins him across the dance floor; and it’s there, right there, in this man’s smile and flushed cheeks and slightly disheveled hair. His eyes, dark like his hair and rich like his robes, shine so brightly that fifteen-years-ago becomes here, in this ballroom, in the arms of a prince and there’s no mirror to prevent the joy from seeping into Viktor’s skin, into Viktor’s heart.

Waltzing with the prince is more dizzying than spinning around and around on one foot can ever be.

“What’s your name?”

The words sound like bells and smell like booze. He hangs on each one.

“Viktor,” he replies, somehow.

The prince repeats it back with longer vowels and an extra syllable on the end. It’s perfect.

“And you are the prince?”

“Yuuri,” he replies. “Call me Yuuri.”

Viktor couldn’t possibly, not out loud. Luckily, he doesn’t have to.

Prince Yuuri’s hand rests, warm and insistent, on Viktor’s left shoulder-blade and never once drifts any lower. Just the slightest movement signals Viktor which direction to move next. He responds immediately, effortlessly.

The eyes of the entire room are upon them, but Viktor has trouble caring, especially when the prince is looking up at him through thick eyelashes and saying, almost reverently:

“You are so beautiful.”

After all these years, those words shouldn’t leave Viktor breathless. They do, anyway.

“I should say the same for you, Your Highness.”

The prince’s nose scrunches up. “Yuuri, remember?”

“Right,” Viktor chuckles. “Yuuri.”

The prince beams and, okay, if he will smile like that each time, then Yuuri it is. The music changes, Yuuri shifts him ever so slightly, and they don’t stop for a moment.

“You are a very good follower,” he says.

“You are a very good leader.”

Yuuri scoffs. “I barely have to do anything. You have the much harder job.”

“Do I?” Viktor can think of counterexample after counterexample. “You may be surprised at how difficult leading seems to be for most people I dance with.”

“And do you dance with many people?”

Surely that’s a rhetorical question, but Viktor answers anyway. “Yes,” but none like you.

A sudden wistfulness crosses Yuuri’s eyes, and at first Viktor thinks it a trick of the light. But then he says, clear as day, “I want to dance with you,” and Viktor isn’t so sure.

No, he’s mostly confused, now.

“We are dancing.” Whirling, stepping, swaying, one two three, one two three.

“No, no, not like this.”

Viktor frowns. “You do not like the waltz?” Surely something is getting lost in translation. This diplomatic lingua franca is neither of their native tongues, so miscommunication is not at all out of the realm of possibility.

“I don’t mind it,” Yuuri muses. “But social dancing like this is so… limited.”

Oh.

Yes. Of course.

“I see. You prefer another type of dance, then?”

“Yes. I mean… we can only do so much, here. We’re so restricted.” Impossibly, Yuuri’s eyes shine even brighter than before. “I want to dance with you, Viktor.”

And how can Viktor say no?

(He could, of course. He could, but he finds himself unable to, anyhow. It’s terrifying, and perhaps a little freeing, that he almost wants to say yes.)

“Would you like for me to go with you, then, after the banquet is over?” The smile on his face feels different, suddenly. “So we can dance?

Perhaps it would be different, without the usual obligation.

Yuuri groans. “I think I’ll be rather… indisposed… shortly. Your… vodka, it’s called? It should come with a warning label.”

It’s a rejection, clear as day, and Viktor has not a hope of figuring out how he should feel about it.

“Ah.”

“I’m sorry to disappoint, but you should know that you’re the only reason I’m not falling over right now. I highly doubt I could show you even half of what I’ve been working on without falling and smacking into the mirror. My center of gravity is not exactly… stable.”

Perhaps Viktor is not as fluent in his second language as he thought. He blinks; maybe he’s parsing the words wrong.

“What you’ve been working on?” he repeats, slower.

Inexplicably, unpredictably, Yuuri blushes. He’s about the color of a tomato, now.

“It’s nothing special. It’s a solo routine that I’ve… Well, I’ve been trying to choreograph. I’m sure it’s not very good, but…”

Viktor blinks, and blinks again. “Choreograph?”

“Yes?” Yuuri fixes him with a strange look. “For dancing?”

The backdrop of the ballroom swirls by behind Yuuri’s head, and Viktor suddenly feels dizzy again.

“You… dance.”

“Of course, what did you think I was talking about?”

“You do classical dance?” His voice is hushed. It’s too preposterous, too unimaginable, too—

“Shhh,” Yuuri whispers with a wry smile. “We can’t have everyone knowing. I’m not that good, it’s embarrassing.”

Well, that’s one way to put it.

“Wow.” He’s not sure what else he can say; not sure what to do with the confused warmth bubbling in his chest.

“Our classical dance is a bit different than yours, but still… You are much better than I will ever be.”

It’s true, probably. Perhaps when he was younger, he would have taken it as a compliment, but now the statement rings unpleasantly in Viktor’s ears. “Years of practice.”

“Me, too. The practice, I mean. I had to stop. But I still dance, every morning. There’s a studio in the East wing, with mirrors, and windows to watch the sun rise.”

Out of nowhere, Yuuri’s shoulders stiffen under Viktor’s hand, face lighting up as if he’s been seized by something.

Viktor.

“What?!”

“You could show me!”

“…Sorry?”

“That would be perfect, you could—”

Right then, the final cadence of the song rings out, the music swelling before giving way to applause. Near the front of the room, the queen prepares to begin her closing remarks.

All of this, yet Yuuri doesn’t pull away—instead, he leans closer, the depths of his eyes sparkling and shining, until Viktor feels his breath hot on his ear. It sends shiver down his spine.

“Teach me, Viktor.”

Yuuri’s body presses close against him and he wants, wants, wants.

When the princess pulls her brother away, Viktor stares after him. Even drunk out of his mind, Yuuri moves like grace embodied, his every movement a dancer’s. Now that he knows, it’s a wonder Viktor didn’t notice before, with the way Yuuri stands and walks and carries himself, in general. Really, it’s a wonder no one else has noticed.

Yuuri floats, and even from afar Viktor floats with him.

“Having a nice time, Vityenka?”

It’s not startling—Viktor saw him approaching out of the corner of his eye—but there’s an unpleasant jolt and suddenly Viktor isn’t floating anymore.

“Just enjoying the dancing, my Lord.”

Antonovich cocks his head, but Viktor doesn’t shift his gaze from where Yuuri is standing by the table, talking to the king.

“Your cheeks are flushed. Have you been drinking?”

“No.”

“Good.” He raises a glass of wine to his mouth and sips. “You know I don’t want to have to report anything to your handler.”

“Of course.”

“You danced beautifully tonight. I’ve had three members of the Sagan court ask after you already.”

Across the ballroom floor, Yuuri is laughing at a joke.

“Is that so?”

“Mmm.” Another sip of wine. “I told them they’d have to wait, of course.”

Of course.

“Anyway, I’m almost done here, and I’ve already alerted your handler. Wait for me in my chamber, I’ll be there soon.”

Viktor allows his eyes to linger on the prince for one more moment before he tears his gaze away, a new purpose forcing everything else from his mind. He needs to leave—

“Vityenka, one more thing.” There’s slightest hint of pressure on his scalp as fingers play at the ends of his ponytail. “Remember to let your hair down.”

And he does. In the ambassador’s room in the guest wing, he sits in front of the vanity mirror and pulls the band from his hair, letting it tumble freely down his back—instantly, he lets out a deep breath, shoulders sinking with it.

The ambassador returns shortly after and says, “Dance for me, Vityenka.”

And he does. Unthinking, unflinching, unable to think anything but dance for me, dance for me, dance for me.

But that night as he falls asleep, he hears a different voice repeating different words:

Dance with me.

 

 

It will be two full months before Yuuri lets another drop of alcohol touch his tongue.

He wakes up to a splitting headache, the unfortunate and unmistakable taste of vomit on the back of his tongue, and his sister’s relentless mocking.

But none of that—none of that!—is as bad as his father saying, over the breakfast table and through a knowing smile: “I always knew you took after me, Yuuri-kun.”

On top of that, two days from now, Yuuri has to command with unwavering authority a negotiation room full of people who watched him get drunk off his ass and flirt with an impossibly gorgeous man like a sloppy, judgment-impaired teenager—or worse, like his fatherand all at a formal banquet no less.

So you can see why Yuuri swears off alcohol and runs immediately from the room whenever anyone attempts to fill the holes in his memory.

But ignoring something doesn’t mean it goes away. Two mornings later, bathed with rising sun in the dance studio, he discovers this.

 

 

Viktor arrives to train at the studio six hours early.

Never mind that the sun was barely visible on the horizon. Never mind that he’d had a very late night, or that he’d been allotted training time in the afternoon. The palace was all new to him, after all—what if he got lost on his way to the studio in the East wing? He needs to leave early. Scope it out. Build in buffer time, just in case.

And if anyone asks, he quite conveniently forgot that the prince happened to train at this time, as well. Had Yuuri mentioned that at the banquet? Hmm, no, Viktor doesn’t recall. Not at all.

It’s one of the more irresponsible things Viktor has done in his life; but then again, it has been made painfully clear to him time and time again that he is not actually responsible for anything.

So yes, when he slips quietly into the East wing studio and finds Yuuri at the barre, leg stretched back into an arabesque, he is certainly caught off guard. Definitely.

If you had told Viktor two nights ago that the prince could look more beautiful than the night he swept Viktor across the dance floor, he probably wouldn’t have believed it. How anything could compare to his elegant royal attire, his slightly disheveled hair, his shining eyes and punch-drunk smile, was completely beyond Viktor’s comprehension.

But then, this.

The sun crests on the horizon and spills golden light onto the man at the barre. The formal clothing is gone, replaced by something black and form-fitting that hugs every curve and edge of his figure. The muscles Viktor felt last night as Yuuri whirled them across the ballroom sit in plain view now, working to keep his leg extended behind him and his arm arced in front. In his form is strength, is grace, is dignity.

When he moves, Viktor forgets himself.

Yuuri dances everything and nothing like Viktor. There are movements he recognizes and those he doesn’t, but he suddenly wants to know how they feel on his own limbs. Yuuri’s style—the Sagan style?—is more reserved, perhaps, and understated. The beauty, he quickly realizes, lies in the subtlety. Was this what Yuuri has been choreographing?

Teach me, Viktor. The words have been echoing in his head for days, but Viktor realizes with a jolt that perhaps it should be the other way around.

From the shadows, Viktor sees something change. Yuuri repositions himself, letting his arms rest at his side. His eyes closed, he lets his head fall so that his chin rests upon his collarbone, and takes a deep breath.

Then, unfurling upward, he looks to the ceiling and reaches, before letting his arm fall back to his chest and curling inward around it.

Somewhere, the music has started. Viktor knows it, every note and every breath.

The studio is silent, but the music swells to fill every bit of empty space in the room, in Viktor’s mind, in Viktor’s lungs.

Viktor has been dancing this piece, his own composition, for a year now, and as Yuuri moves through the half-remembered choreography Viktor can almost feel the movement tug at his limbs as if he were moving along with him.

But, no, this is different: because Viktor has never performed this piece with that much conviction or passion or artistry. It had been many, many months since he had even tried. No one noticed the difference.

And here is Yuuri.

This is not repetition, nor is it cheap mimicry. Yuuri does not imitate Viktor’s routine—he uses his own voice to respond.

It feels wrong, to see Yuuri move like this; to see him bend his body back, folding it in on itself; to see him stretch himself out and spin and leap and spin. It feels wrong to see a prince do what Viktor does, contorting his body into unnatural shapes for the pleasure of others.

And yet—and yet. At seven years old, a boy had looked back at Viktor from a studio mirror; Yuuri moves and breathes and smiles like that boy all grown up.

As Yuuri settles into his final position, arms wrapped above his head, the music that filled the room retreats back to his body. The sudden quiet and stillness rips every bit of self-control from Viktor and he doesn’t mean to say it out loud, but—

“Wow.”

The quiet moment shatters. Yuuri spins around on his heels, eyes widening the second he sees who stands in the shadows.

“…V- Viktor?”

“That was stunning.”

Every bit of Yuuri’s confidence seems to have evaporated. He’s gaping. “Were you here the whole time?!”

“Long enough to see you upstage me with my own routine.”

Viktor had thought that Yuuri’s tomato-red cheeks were the vodka’s doing, but he begins to rethink that hypothesis as the completely-sober prince grows redder by the second.

“I…” He gulps. “My spin was sloppy.”

Viktor touches a finger to his own chin. “Hmm. It wasn’t bad, but you’re right, it could have been tighter. It seemed like you needed more speed.”

A nod. “Hai. More speed. Alright.” To Viktor’s delight, Yuuri’s panic seems to have given way to determination. “What else?”

“Make sure to keep your shoulders down and back. It seems like you usually do, but near the end you got a bit hunched up.”

“Okay. What about the beginning? Did you—”

“Yuuri.” Viktor takes a few steps forward; the rising sun bounces off of his skin now, too. “Believe me when I say it was absolutely perfect. You did that all from memory?”

Yuuri stops resisting his sheepish smile. “Well, it was very memorable.”

Viktor cannot remember crossing all that space, but they’re only feet apart, now. Yuuri’s lips are as red as his cheeks. This is not the same Yuuri from the banquet. Here, he takes up less room, speaks softer, does not hold Viktor’s gaze for too long. For a moment, Viktor can almost forget he is a court dancer speaking to a prince.

“Yuuri…”

“Yes?”

And he definitely should not continue—he has a choice here, dammit—but he’d made up his mind the second Yuuri breathed the request into his ear at the banquet.

(It’s funny, how with Yuuri he is free to say no but wants so badly to say yes.)

“Will you let me teach you, then?”

Silence.

“…Teach me?”

“Yes. It’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“Well, I mean, of… of course I want that.”

Viktor grins. “Perfect! Should I come every morning, then?”

“Every morning?” Was that a squeak?

“That’s what I was asking, yes.”

“I… sure. Okay.”

“Perfect.”

“So… from where?”

“From where what?”

“Where do you want me to start from? The beginning?” A sly smile. “Come on, Viktor. You just said you would teach me. Don’t back out on me now.”

And Viktor can say no, remember? To Yuuri, untouched by the other part of Viktor’s life, he can say no.

It makes saying yes all the more thrilling.

 

 

That night, Antonovich sends him to a Sagan dignitary. Viktor finds he prefers it, in the end, because no matter what Antonovich told the man, he has little idea how it works—how Viktor works. The classic over-politeness, such a salient feature of Sagan culture, certainly works to Viktor’s advantage, as well. So no, it’s not so bad.

But he can’t say no, and he doesn’t say yes.

 

 

Yuuri thinks he did an okay job.

Because, really, when he turned around to find Viktor standing in the corner by the door, to discover that Viktor had seen Yuuri’s poor imitation of Viktor’s masterpiece of a routine… Well, really, he could have devolved into a panic attack right there. But he didn’t. Instead, despite all of the blood rushing to his head, he comported himself somewhat like a human being.

And now Viktor is going to be teaching him—Viktor, whose dancing would rival Minako at her peak and whose beauty will certainly remain unmatched for the rest of time.

Yuuri spends most of the night attempting to process this turn of events, and despite the resulting lack of sleep he is better off in the morning because of it. He arrives at the studio just before Viktor and the sun, beginning his stretches and preparing himself mentally.

All in all, he acts much more like a human being this time.

“You need to spot the pirouette better. Your neck is too stiff.”

In their first lesson, Yuuri learns all kinds of new things: translations like arabesque and grand jeté and retiré, but also things like ‘how to focus and keep your neck straight when the golden sun is hitting Viktor’s silver hair out of the corner of your eye’.

(Focus is the biggest challenge, honestly, because Yuuri is also discovering that Viktor is quite the tactile instructor. Especially with the language and cultural barrier for dance terms, he never just tells Yuuri that, say, his leg must be higher, but physically lifts it up for him instead.)

(But like anything, Yuuri gets used to it and eventually reclaims some semblance of focus.)

“Good work today, Yuuri.”

(The constant praise, on the other hand? That he’s not so sure he’ll ever get used to.)

“Thank you, I, uh… I appreciate it. You teaching me.” He winces at how formal it sounds. “I have a lot to learn from you.”

When Viktor smiles, Yuuri realizes that morning, his lips form a heart.

 

 

Mari catches wind of it all within days.

“Just try to be discreet. That’s all I’m saying.”

“It’s not like I’m going around and broadcasting it, Mari-neechan.”

They’re at the breakfast table, Yuuri’s brow still shimmering with sweat from this morning’s practice. The skin of his hips still tingles from where Viktor reached out to steady him; his ears still ring with Viktor’s continuous critique and praise.

Mari sighs into her bowl of rice. “I know. But you know how the Rossiyans are. You know how it would look. You’re the one in charge here, and you have a certain level of prestige. You need to make sure that doesn’t change, especially aft—”

“After the banquet, yeah, I know.”

Mari shrugs. “Okay, well, as long as you’re aware.”

 

 

“How do you usually dance, Yuuri?”

They’re sitting on the floor in splits, doing their warm up stretches. When Viktor bends back, the sun hugs the edges of his silhouette and Yuuri can’t help but let his gaze trace over the gentle curve of his neck.

“Yuuri?”

“Hmm? Oh, sorry.” Yuuri blinks. “What do you mean?”

“We’ve been working on my routine for days, and you perform it beautifully, but it isn’t how you dance. Not usually, anyway.”

Yuuri bends down to touch his nose to his knee, so that Viktor won’t watch his face as he ponders that. “I usually just learned whatever pieces my old dance teacher found for me. Or made for me. But lately, I…” He clears his throat and sits back up. “I have been trying to choreograph on my own.”

“Can I see it?”

The sharp panic that shoots through Yuuri’s chest is probably unwarranted. “It’s… it’s not very good.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Our style here is a bit different from yours, you know.”

“Of course! That’s why I want to see it.”

Yuuri’s face probably looks as skeptical as he feels, because Viktor continues with a sigh as he switches to a side split.

“I’m not teaching you so that you will become a Rossiyan classical dancer, Yuuri. That’s my background, but it’s not yours, and I don’t want to instruct you as if it were. In order to teach you, I need to know a bit about your dance.” His conspiratorial smile plays on his lips as he asks, “Will you show me?”

Yes. No matter how embarrassing it might be, Yuuri says yes.

Steeling himself, he dances, pretending it is Minako’s gaze studying his every move. But Minako has never seen this piece: no one has, except its creator and now Viktor, who watches silently from the corner. Yuuri has poured months of frustration into this composition, letting his body trace and express his disillusionment and determination. He thinks of Phayao and last month’s botched deal, thinks of every difficulty and impossibility but also the unwavering support of his family. He lets his promise to them and his country drive his movements toward the end of the piece and ends with his arms extended at his side, eyes reaching to the ceiling.

“It, um, will be better once there’s music,” Yuuri excuses almost immediately after he relaxes from the final pose. For a few moments, he can’t quite bring himself to look at Viktor, fearing the worst.

And really, Yuuri should know better by now—because on Viktor’s face is that radiant, heart-shaped smile. He seems absolutely delighted.

Yuuri.

The prince looks away, blushes, then blushes some more… and finally, smiles proudly right along with him.

 

 

The trade negotiations start that afternoon. Yuuri, still riding the high of performing his own choreography for Viktor, sits at the head of the table in his most regal dress and commands the room with a voice that certainly shouldn’t belong to him.

“I would first like to begin by welcoming you, noblemen and women of the Rossiyan court, once again to our kingdom. The people of Saga are greatly looking forward to our partnership in the coming years. Today, we commence formal discussion of the proposed economic cooperation agreement between our two kingdoms. I will now cede the floor to the ambassador and chief negotiator on behalf of Rossiya, Lord Andrei Antonovich, for any opening remarks he should like to make.”

The entire session is equal parts boring and thrilling, terrifying and empowering, energizing and exhausting. By the time he leaves the negotiation room, all he wants to do is curl up in his bed and sleep.

 

 

“Yuuri, why do you dance?”

The question that has been rattling in Viktor’s head, dancing on Viktor’s tongue since the banquet finally finds voice one early morning during a water break. For a moment, Yuuri looks offended and Viktor almost regrets asking.

“What do you mean?”

Viktor forces himself to rethink, rephrase. “Well, you’re a prince. You could do anything. Why this?”

Yuuri no longer looks affronted, merely pensive. “Well.” He takes a sip of his water. “I guess because it makes me feel like a different person.”

Something about that answer strikes Viktor the wrong way. “You do not want to be you?”

“No, no, no, I don’t…” Yuuri’s brow stiches together. “It’s not that. But I’m not exactly… comfortable, most of the time. In case you haven’t noticed, I get nervous very easily.” He offers a shaky laugh.

“I haven’t, really,” Viktor lies, just a little.

“Well, I do. It’s actually kind of a problem? I’m working on it. But dancing, it’s always…” Yuuri shrugs. “It has always made me feel more comfortable in my own skin. Powerful, even.”

Why the prince of a flourishing kingdom would need classical dance, of all things, to feel powerful is a contradiction currently beyond Viktor’s comprehension.

(But then again, it’s true: when Yuuri dances, he holds himself straighter and holds his head higher than when he stands still.)

“Viktor?”

“Hmm?”

“Will you dance for me?”

Viktor’s breath hitches. He meets Yuuri’s gaze and finds genuine curiosity, but also a bit of apprehension.

In his head, the words echo in hundreds of different voices: Dance for me, dance for me, dance for me, spoken by patrons he could never not obey. But Yuuri is not a patron, and Yuuri asks, will you? and it’s different.

He supposes he deserves this, after blindsiding Yuuri just moments ago and after asking him to demonstrate his own choreography yesterday. But still.

“Would you like me to?”

Answering a question with a question. Viktor has been trained well. Yuuri’s brow furrows.

“Only if you want to. It’s okay if you don’t.”

There’s no good reason why Yuuri’s words make his chest ache, but they do. The pain is sharp and real. Viktor doesn’t know what to say. Simply out of habit, he almost says no. He would be a fool, perhaps, not to take advantage of the rare choice he has.

But he realizes, as he opens his mouth to respond, that the thought of Yuuri’s eyes on him as he dances makes his stomach flutter. In the good way.

It’s because he’s a dancer, too, Viktor justifies, but he knows that that’s far from the whole story.

So he says yes. “Of course.”

Yuuri’s brilliant responding smile would have made it all worth it on its own.

As Yuuri moves to the side of the studio to watch, Viktor lets his body settle into fourth position, the beginning of a routine from years ago. Every step follows effortlessly from the first, muscle memory taking over. It was a piece, he remembers, about longing—longing for what, he was never able to identify.

Anything. Everything. Nothing at all.

He feels it more acutely now, moving through the choreography he himself created. In every movement he reaches, stretches, grasps blindly at something invisible to the eye, never able to take those final steps to hold it and secure it.

But he wants. God, he wants and wants and wants.

When the routine slows to a finish, Viktor pulls his arms to his chest and folds back on himself.

His chest heaves. Blood rushes in his ears, and it’s all he can hear. He blinks furiously, trying to settle himself back in reality. His vision swims.

Yuuri is there, across the room, staring with widened eyes that sparkle like the day they met. For a second, he looks like he might be crying.

“That was…”

Viktor tries to finish the sentence: beautiful, lovely, gorgeous…

“…captivating. I couldn’t look away.”

There’s something buzzing in Viktor’s veins, and a moment ago he thought it was adrenaline. But with every passing second, with every repetition of Yuuri’s praise echoing in Viktor’s ears, he realizes it is less buzzing than it is humming, steady and strong. It makes him hold his head high, his body straight; it makes him look the prince in the eye and hold his gaze; it makes something akin to pride bubble in his chest.

With a start, Viktor realizes what this is:

He feels powerful.

It was this feeling, so many years ago, that drew him to dance. He never danced to bring cheap pleasure to others. He never danced so that others could watch him bend and stretch his body and be entertained.

Dance was expression. Dance was beauty. Dance was connection.

When had he forgotten that?

 

 

He finds his answer that night in the ambassador’s chambers. Somewhat predictably (but still disappointingly), the liberation he felt while dancing for Yuuri does not transfer to just any audience. That morning, dance empowered him. Tonight, he dances with the gaze of the ambassador weighing on his limbs like chains. The sharp contrast slices through him.

Stretching himself on his toes before the ambassador that night, he realizes that there was no one moment where dance changed for him. Instead, his love of dance had drained with every order and every passing night, so slowly that he did not notice how lifeless his movements had become.

He knows, in hindsight, the day it started to change. Seven years ago, he had been fifteen years old, just starting out in the king’s court and training constantly. He had always been told to dance—it was what he had signed up for, after all. That and more.

But all it took was one disobeyed order, one moment of thoughtless disrespect, and Viktor did not care to remember what happened the following day—only that, afterwards, a nobleman had said dance for me and for the very first time Viktor learned what it meant for his body to cease to be his own. That one order shoved every one of his own thoughts to the margins of his mind; it echoed in his head and forced him into first position, moving him through the opening steps of his favorite routine.

He will never forget that first time. He will never forget the wretched, suffocating helplessness that filled him head to toe. Eventually, he would learn to control it; to exercise as much control as he could within those narrow constraints. With time, helplessness would turn to distant apathy.

And tonight?

Tonight, every bit of power Viktor felt while dancing for Yuuri gets flipped on its head, and from the contrast emerges that terrifying helplessness he thought he left behind. The ambassador applauds his performance with a wry smile and on your knees, Vityenka, and the shackles had always been there, cold and heavy and oppressive but Viktor never noticed until now.

He reminds himself, again and again, that nothing has changed.

Nothing has changed.

(Everything has changed.)

 

 

Slowly but surely, the boundaries around their time together start to bleed outward. The two of them—Yuuri and Viktor, Viktor and Yuuri—are so clearly defined in the beginning. For the first two hours of sunlight each day, they are teacher and student. The walls of the East wing dance studio mark the border between their time and everyone else’s.

In the early morning light, Viktor’s beauty is ethereal. His training clothes cling to the skin around his waist and sleepy smiles cling to his lips. He has bedhead, sometimes, and yawns in between critiques of “shoulders back” and “arms straight”. Yuuri is certain he will never get enough of this.

But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? Most of Viktor exists outside of their two quiet hours together. There are Viktors that wear something other than work-out clothes, that are energized right after an afternoon meal, that are focused on other things besides Yuuri’s dancing.

Yuuri is greedy, and he wants to know what Viktor looks like now and in the golden light of sunset and every hour in between.

One day, in a rare fit of confidence, he says:

“I don’t have negotiations today, you know. I wonder what I could possibly do this afternoon?” His voice lilts, teasing.

Viktor reaches to straighten Yuuri’s outstretched leg. “What do you usually do on your days off?”

“Hmm. Dance, probably. Although, I believe a certain someone trains in the afternoons here. I wonder if he would mind sharing the studio?”

Viktor is slow on the uptake, but he grins brilliantly the second he processes Yuuri’s words. “I don’t know, I hear he’s really attached to his lonely, lonely practice time.”

“Perhaps you could convince him? Tell him the prince is asking.”

“Well then again, once he knows it’s you he’ll cave in a second.”

Something warm spreads in Yuuri’s chest. He drops the act. “You wouldn’t mind, then?”

Yuuri ,” Viktor replies, dragging the name out on his tongue, “I’d love it if you practiced with me. I have to warn you, though, I do a lot of conditioning.”

Yuuri smirks. “I think I can keep up.”

 

 

He can and he does, but it’s utterly exhausting. Yuuri did not realize just how much work Viktor has to do to stay so fit while cooped up inside the palace. His abs already hurt from the absurd number of crunches.

As they pack up their bags, Viktor’s stomach growls and an idea smacks Yuuri over the head.

“Do you have anywhere to be?”

Viktor blinks. “Not necessarily.”

“Good. Come with me.”

The path they take to the kitchens is longer than strictly necessary, but the most direct route leads right past the guest wing where the Rossiyan delegation is staying. With Mari’s warning still ringing in his ears, Yuuri drags them out back first, then in through a different door.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

“It’s a surprise?”

“Yes.”

“Yuuri, I love surprises!”

(Yuuri files this away for future reference.)

Viktor’s eyes widen as they approach the double doors. “What’s that smell? It’s delicious!”

That is what Fridays smell like here.”

“You eat something called a friday?”

“No, no,” Yuuri assures him, pushing past the doors and into the kitchen. “On Fridays, my mom makes katsudon.”

Yuuri grabs the leftovers from his family’s lunch out of the icebox. Still full himself, he serves Viktor a bowl and gets out a skillet to fry an egg.

“I’m confused, Yuuri.” He rests an elbow on the countertop and a cheek in his palm. “The queen cooks?”

Yuuri shrugs. “Whenever she has the time. Usually only for our family, and a few others.”

“Well, today I am very lucky to be one of those others, it seems.”

Yuuri places the egg on top and passes the bowl to Viktor, who picks up chopsticks with a beginner’s expertise. The moment the food touches his lips, he grins that heart-shaped smile.

“This is amazing, Yuuri! It’s the best thing I’ve ever eaten!”

There is a little place in his heart that Yuuri holds special for his favorite food, and seeing Viktor share in that love only makes it grow larger.

“My mom will be glad to hear it.”

Viktor’s brow furrows. “The queen knows about me? Us, I mean?” There’s something about hearing Viktor says us that leaves Yuuri, for a second, without a voice.

“I, uh, yeah, she knows about our lessons.”

“And she doesn’t mind?”

Mind? That Yuuri is as motivated as he’s been in months?

“She wants me to be happy.” Yuuri wonders if Viktor notices the implication: this makes me happy. You make me happy.

Either way, that grin is back on Viktor’s face and being shoved full of egg-covered katsu and rice.

Oh yes, Yuuri is greedy, because in that moment he can only think I want so much more of this.

 

 

Yuuri has another afternoon off a few days later, and when Viktor suggests sprinting back and forth across the tiny studio as exercise, Yuuri has another stroke of genius.

“The beach is right down there, Viktor. Wouldn’t you want to go running where we have all the room in the world?”

The sand shifts beneath their toes and the water laps coolly on their feet, but the mid-afternoon sun beats down mercilessly on their shoulders.

“What if we went running in the morning, instead?” Viktor suggests.

“Are you trying to cut into my lesson time, Viktor?”

“Then how about in addition to your lesson time?” Viktor smiles as if that is exactly what he wants.

And their time together grows.

 

 

Some days, though, Yuuri finds himself acutely aware of how little he knows of Viktor’s life. They talk about dance, their favorite foods, the plots of their favorite books, and their mutual love of dogs—Yuuri shares, in a quiet moment, that his miniature poodle passed away last year. But even though Yuuri knows that Viktor loves the snow and adores dogs, he could not tell you anything of Viktor’s family or his life before he came to Saga.

It doesn’t bother Yuuri. It doesn’t— until one morning, the realization of just how much he’s missed rises up out of nowhere and kicks him square in the chest.

Viktor is adjusting Yuuri’s posture, leaning over so that his fingers linger on Yuuri’s knee and push his leg higher. He’s close—of course he is, this is Viktor—and Yuuri can feel his breath on his neck. He’s blinking, willing himself to focus.

And it’s his eyes that focus first, right on the naked patch of skin near Viktor’s collarbone, right where his shirt has slipped just off his shoulder; right on the bruise that has only just come into view.

No. Not a bruise.

A love bite.

Something clicks into place.

With a sharp inhale, Yuuri falls out of position, pulling his extended leg back to the ground. He doesn’t mean to overreact, really, but his mind is spinning with the implications. Blindsided, he needs a moment to sort through it all.

Viktor notices, seconds later, and fixes his shirt.

“Ah. Sorry. Are you all right, Yuuri?”

No, Yuuri’s not all right, he’s an idiot. There are plenty of explanations for why a beautiful man would have the mark of another’s mouth on his skin, but Yuuri knows the truth in his gut as he should have from the beginning. Yes, Viktor’s culture is greatly different from his own, but as a diplomat that is his responsibility to mediate. He is a foolish child, to say the least, for not realizing the extent of Viktor’s responsibilities. It instantly seems so obvious—how had he ever thought that Viktor’s duties began and ended with dancing on a stage? How had he deluded himself into thinking that “court dancer” meant anything short of concubine?

He feels a little sick, but cannot quite explain why.

When he finally looks back up he finds Viktor with his mouth open, as if he’s trying to say something but can’t quite make the words come out. Giving up, Viktor makes an aborted noise of frustration. There’s a storm brewing in those blue eyes.

“Yuuri…”

“It’s okay, Viktor. You don’t have to talk about that.”

Viktor doesn’t relax. There’s a sound from the back of his throat that makes Yuuri’s stomach twist.

Viktor lets go of him.

They end the lesson early.

 

 

He tries to tell Yuuri.

He tries, he tries so hard, tries until his tongue goes dry and he nearly screams in frustration. He has never wanted to tell anyone before, but the need for Yuuri to know burns in his throat along with every choked word he physically can’t pronounce.

Yuuri does not need to know. They are a teacher and student, friends even, and there is no reason for this churning, black pit of a secret to touch their relationship. Yuuri does not need to know.

Viktor wants him to, anyway. He watched as first confusion then realization dawned on Yuuri’s face—he hadn’t known? how had he not known? The momentary horror in his eyes had been bad enough, but it was nothing in comparison to the sharp understanding that slowly settled over his features as he drew his conclusions. For a few dreadful moments, Yuuri’s eyes searched Viktor’s face and flickered down to his now-covered collarbone, back and forth—

Rethinking him, reformulating him, then accepting this new vision of him that wasn’t the whole truth .

Viktor suddenly wants nothing more than to explain the pitch-black hopelessness that had recently opened up inside him like a gaping, sucking wound. He longs to take Yuuri by the shoulders and scream the truth—that he didn’t want this, never wanted this, but he’d been so young and it’s been so long and this is who he is now but it’s not who he is, and God, he didn’t realize how bad it was until Yuuri came along, Yuuri, Yuuri, Yuuri…

But anyway, none of that matters, because this thing that has a hold over him would sooner have him choke to death on his cries for help than let them reach sympathetic ears. He cannot any more explain his situation than he can say no to someone he’s been ordered to serve.

Viktor, until that moment, had no idea he was so desperate. So lonely. So sad.

He wants to explain.

He can’t.

 

 

“You’ve got to be kidding me. You didn’t know?”

Yuuri’s face is red. He shakes his head. Mari frowns up at him from where she lounges on her bed.

“You just thought that they kept such a pretty man around simply to look at?”

A noise of protest comes from somewhere in Yuuri’s chest. “Mari-neechan! Don’t talk about him like that that!”

“I’m sorry, Yuuri, but you know what I meant.” His sister heaves a sigh. “It’s a disgusting practice, in my opinion.”

Yuuri doesn’t know how to interpret that. He’s inclined to agree, but he doesn’t know what he thinks about any of this, really. Except: “It’s not Viktor’s fault.”

“I’m not saying that it is.”

Yuuri traces the pattern on Mari’s carpet with his toe.

“Does this change how you feel about him?”

Her words, inexplicably, send a jolt down his spine. “How I feel about him?”

“You spend a lot of time with him, is all. Will that change?”

“No.” Yuuri does not even have to think about that. “I am just… overwhelmed. Thinking about everything I’ve missed.”

“You could ask him about it.”

Yuuri shakes his head. “He doesn’t want to talk about it with me. It’s his private life. It’s his business.”

Mari shrugs. “As long as you’re sure.”

He’s really starting to hate that answer.

 

 

Yuuri regretted his reaction approximately three seconds after leaving Viktor’s presence that morning, and talking to Mari only makes his guilt worse. The need to apologize burns in his stomach. He goes directly from Mari’s chambers to the kitchens.

A few hours later, two steaming bowls of katsudon balanced in his hand, he heads to the guest wing and knocks on the door he’s been told is Viktor’s.

The door opens, and Viktor lights up immediately. Yuuri knows he doesn’t deserve it.

“Hi. I brought dinner. Can I come in?”

“Of course,” Viktor replies, opening the door to reveal a room the size of a rather large storage closet. “Katsudon? But it’s not even Friday!”

“I know. I made it this time, so don’t get your hopes up too high. It’s never as good as my mom’s.”

“Yuuri,” Viktor admonishes, and Yuuri will never tire of hearing his name in the velvet timbre of Viktor’s voice. “Don’t sell yourself short like that. I’m sure it’s amazing. Here, have a seat. I’m sorry it’s so small. I don’t have any chairs or anything, but we can sit on the bed, I—”

“Viktor, don’t worry. The bed is fine.” The mattress sinks under their weight and pushes the two of them together. “Besides, this is my family’s palace. I’m the one who should be apologizing to you! I can request that you be moved to a bigger suite—”

“No, no, it’s alright. It’s cozy here.”

The katsudon vanishes in a matter of minutes, Viktor insisting that it was indeed as good as the queen’s. It’s a sweet lie, and that Yuuri could bring such a genuine smile to Viktor’s face through just a few hours of cooking is a lovely thought. He allows himself a moment to dwell in it, and makes a solemn, silent promise to make Viktor smile more often.

Unlike this morning. The guilt comes rushing back.

“Viktor, about what happened…”

Viktor waves a hand as he places the empty bowl and used chopsticks on the bedside table. “Please, we don’t need to talk about it.”

Yuuri shifts and the mattress gives beneath them. For a moment, he can’t help but wonder if anyone else has been in this bed. Do they go to Viktor, or does Viktor go to them? How oft—

No. Yuuri forces his mind away from that train of thought. That is Viktor’s business and Viktor’s alone. Yuuri forces an exhale from his lips and fixes his eyes on the far, bare wall.

“It’s just, I should have realized sooner. I didn’t mean to overreact. It doesn’t change anything, I promise.” Glancing up, Yuuri sees a flicker of sadness that he can’t explain cross Viktor’s features.

“I should have told you, I suppose. But I really thought you knew.”

“I can be oblivious, sometimes.”

Yuuri would spend the rest of the day making katsudon if it meant wiping the frown from Viktor’s face.

“So you really thought I only danced, huh? I guess that explains the banquet.”

What?” A red-hot spike of fear jumps down Yuuri’s spine at the mere mention of the banquet. He’s avoided the details for so long…

“Well, you know, you were talking about getting out of here and doing some other kind of dance with me. I could have sworn you were propositioning me.” Viktor’s eyes glint. “Imagine my surprise when you meant classical dance.”

“Oh, god,” Yuuri moans, face buried in his palms. He wants to melt into the mattress and never have to acknowledge this ever again. “I really did that?”

“You don’t remember?”

Yuuri’s face grows hot. “I was so drunk, Viktor,” he moans. “All I remember is asking you to dance and then introducing ourselves. After that, it’s black.”

Viktor blinks and leans back against the wall. “Huh.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Well, it’s just… you don’t remember asking me to teach you, then?”

What.

What.

Honestly, this has all been way too much for just one day. Sooner or later, Yuuri’s brain is going to short circuit.

“I asked you to teach me?

Viktor, usually the pinnacle of patience, has become the picture of exasperation and disbelief. “Of course! You leaned into my shoulder the minute the music stopped and whispered, ‘teach me, Viktor.’ How could I say no?”

“Oh, god.

“Did you actually think I just showed up having barely talked to you and declared myself your teacher?”

“…Maybe?”

“Yuuri! You’re a prince! I’d never be so forward!”

“I didn’t really think about it! The most beautiful dancer I’d ever seen was offering to teach me, I wasn’t about to question it.” And it’s an embarrassing confession, to be sure, but a smile twitches on Viktor’s lips in response and Yuuri can’t regret it.

The room suddenly feels so small for Yuuri to be sitting so far from Viktor. He sits back against the wall as well. Their shoulders touch.

“I’m sorry. For forgetting. It sounds like it would have been a memorable night.”

“Oh, it was. I can tell you all about it sometime, if you want?”

Something about his tone tells Yuuri that Viktor wants him desperately to say yes.

“Well, we have plenty of time now.”

Viktor grins, and Yuuri suffers through a half hour of embarrassment after embarrassment as Viktor recounts the various ways in which Yuuri made a complete fool of himself in front of literally everyone that matters. Of course, Viktor doesn’t see it that way—he uses words like glowing and shining and breathless and perfect. In front of them on the mattress, the sides of their legs press up against each other. Viktor’s hands rest on his own thighs.

In a bold moment, Yuuri reaches out and covers Viktor’s palm with his own. He adds it to the list in his head of “ways to make Viktor smile his best smile”, right after “bring him katsudon”.

It’s a quiet and achingly intimate moment.

“Thank you, Yuuri.”

For what? he wants to ask, but he doesn’t, because deep down he knows.

“You’re welcome, Viktor.”

Viktor’s brow knits together for a moment and he pauses. “You could… You could call me Vitya.”

“Vitya?”

A ripple of pleasure crosses the pools of his eyes. “Yes. It’s… a nickname. For friends.”

There’s a fine tremor in Viktor’s hand. Yuuri gives it a squeeze. “I’m honored to be your friend, Vitya.”

Viktor laughs, then, and it’s a piercingly beautiful sound that goes soft around the edges. He squeezes Yuuri’s hand back and nestles their bodies even closer together.

“Perfect.”

 

 

The next morning, they stretch together, run on the beach together, and lean on each other in exhaustion once they make it back to the palace. At first, Viktor worries that he is imagining it, but knows he isn’t when Yuuri takes Viktor’s hand and drags him to the barre: they are closer, physically, in everything they do.

It makes sense that things would be different after yesterday. Viktor tries to forget the morning, but he clings to the evening with every bit of energy he has to spare.

He clings to the feeling of Yuuri leaning against his side, his head resting on Viktor’s shoulder; to the feeling of their hands intertwined, trembling at first with the newness of it all; to the sound of Yuuri’s voice pronouncing his name as effortlessly and lovingly as if he had been practicing his whole life.

Vitya, Vitya, Vitya.

He lets it soak him from head to toe.

If it were anyone else, Viktor would have worried that Yuuri’s sudden tendency toward physical touch was a result of yesterday morning’s discovery. Anyone else might have taken the knowledge that Viktor let strangers lay their hands on his body as permission to do the same.

But this is Yuuri, whose cheeks still get a dusting of red whenever Viktor reaches out to correct his technique. Viktor knows that the change must have come from elsewhere.

There’s something new in how Yuuri moves that morning. When it comes time to run through the routine he’s been choreographing, he doesn’t move away from Viktor—instead, he takes a step closer and places a hand square on Viktor’s chest.

Viktor wonders if Yuuri feels his breath hitch.

“Do not take your eyes off me.”

“Never,” Viktor breathes, and then forces himself to step back out of Yuuri’s reach; the only thing he wants more than Yuuri’s touch is to watch him dance.

And oh , is it a worthy trade off.

So much has shifted that Viktor would expect Yuuri’s dancing to be different, too. Still, he is not prepared for the sheer beauty of what he witnesses, not prepared for the understated power in each extension of Yuuri’s limbs and the passion woven into every movement.

Viktor does not look away.

(He could. Physically, he could— but he could never want to.)

Yuuri finishes, his chest heaving, and Viktor grasps the air for words but ends up empty handed. He picks Yuuri’s bottle of water off of the floor and takes it to him; it’s a thinly veiled excuse to be close to him once again, and Viktor doesn’t try to hide it.

Viktor approaches first, but it’s Yuuri that ignores the water bottle completely and closes the rest of the distance. Only a thin layer of air separates them and Viktor can feel the heat radiating from Yuuri’s skin.

“Vitya.”

“Yes,” Viktor breathes.

“Kiss me.”

And Viktor could say no—

But he doesn’t even consider it.

Their bodies meet and Yuuri’s lips are impossibly soft. Impossibly warm. Impossibly gentle. Impossible.

Their bodies meet and they melt.

 

 

Yuuri walks into negotiations that afternoon with red lips and red cheeks, praying that he doesn’t look as thoroughly kissed as he feels.

He barely pays attention the entire time, which is bad. Surely. But come on, how could he be expected to think of anything but Viktor for the rest of the day?

Vitya, kiss me. Kiss me, Vitya.

Vitya, Vitya.

How could he focus on anything else when he’s just realized he’s fallen in love?

 

 

Viktor thinks of nothing but Yuuri for days. Together, apart, it didn’t matter; reconstructing every lovely detail of Yuuri occupied his mind completely. Yuuri, Yuuri, with his dark hair, shining eyes, luminous smile. Viktor closes his eyes and sees how the lean muscle of his body ripples as he creates music with every delicate movement.

And his lips.

His lips.

Much to Viktor’s disappointment, and surely to Yuuri’s as well, they have enough self-control to not spend every minute together wrapped up in each other’s arms. There is something special about that connection, special enough and new enough that neither of them want to rush head-first too quickly.

But that’s all right, because Yuuri pecks him on the cheek when they greet each other each morning, and Viktor caresses Yuuri’s face each time he makes a correction to his pupil’s form. The quiet intimacy is enough.

Viktor should have known it could not last.

 

 

It happens a week later, when the ambassador orders Viktor to his chambers. Viktor knows the drill—he lets his hair down. Knocks on the door. Moves to the bed.

“Actually, my dear, I have another task for you tonight. Sit still and listen.”

Viktor listens and, with each word, feels nausea churn more violently in his gut. He wonders cynically if Antonovich would regret ordering him to sit still if Viktor were to throw up on his shoes.

“—hear me?”

Viktor shivers as he feels the familiar, single-minded compulsion narrow his world.

The ambassador’s fingers weave into the hair at Viktor’s scalp and pull, forcing eye contact.

“Did you hear me? That was an order.

Viktor blinks. He does not have a reply.

“Answer me, Vityenka.”

He swallows. “I heard you.”

“Good. Very good.”

And Viktor stands, walks from the ambassador’s chambers, and obeys.

 

 

Though some time their days by the sun, Yuuri prefers to time his by the ocean. The vast stretch of water is visible from his bed, from his desk, from his bath, and from the dance studio downstairs. His chambers face north and every morning he wakes to sunlight skimming off its surface and into his eyes, the cries of seagulls echoing in his ears. As he practices in the studio, the tide starts to recede, and when he heads to his chambers after dinner the water has come back in again, painted orange and pink by the sunset. And when he was a child and had trouble sleeping, his mother would open the window to allow the sound of lapping waves to reach his ears and soothe his nerves.

Yuuri knows the ocean. Yuuri loves the ocean.

When he opens the door to his chambers late at night to find Viktor standing in the hallway, the first thing Yuuri notices are his eyes—Viktor’s eyes that hold an ocean.

Yuuri loves him, but he does not know him.

That night, Yuuri’s first thought is tsunami. Though he has never witnessed one in his lifetime, he has heard of the violent storms, with winds and waves strong enough to destroy Hasetsu Castle in one fell swoop. The blue pools of Viktor’s eyes churn.

But no, that’s not quite right, is it? No matter how tumultuous, Viktor’s eyes are not like water tonight.

They are fire—burning bright blue, the hottest flame there is.

“Vitya?”

“May I come in, please?”

“O-of course.” He opens the door wider, and Viktor crosses the threshold. They move into Yuuri’s bedroom.

He’s dressed in shimmering black silk, embroidered with silver around the cuffs and neckline. The ornamentation matches his hair that’s pulled into a braid down the back of his head. A few shorter, loose strands frame his face and emphasize the cut of his jaw and the curve of his neck that Yuuri’s gaze traces down to rest atop his collarbone.

Is this how Viktor usually dresses outside of training? Yuuri supposes he wouldn’t know.

Yuuri gulps. “You…” He forgets the rest of the sentence the second he looks back up to Viktor’s eyes, because they’re on fire and he has no idea what that means.

Viktor drifts closer, and Yuuri’s heart pounds out of his chest.

“Vitya…”

Viktor closes the rest of the distance, leans down, and takes Yuuri’s lips with his own. But it’s not like before, where they melted slowly into each other’s touch—

No, this time, just like Viktor’s eyes, their lips burn. Yuuri gasps, trembles, and kisses him back with equal force, surrounding himself with and stoking the flames. Sinking into the touch, he lets himself, lets them both, burn.

Viktor’s arm snakes around Yuuri’s waist, his hand resting open at the small of Yuuri’s back. The warm pressure grounds him and pulls him further toward Viktor, who has backed up so that the backs of his legs rest against the side of Yuuri’s bed.

Viktor brings his free hand to Yuuri’s neck, the heat of his palm seeping into the prickling skin just below Yuuri’s ear—and it trembles. As Viktor’s hand slides back to cup the base of Yuuri’s skull, it trembles like a flame in the wind.

It hits Yuuri, through the fog of his desire, that he has no idea what is happening.

“Vitya,” he tries when he pulls away for air. “What are we doing?”

Viktor’s fingers trace circles on his lower back. “Just relax, Yuuri.” Another kiss. “Relax.”

But he can’t, not anymore—the touch of Viktor’s lips, his palms, his fingers still threaten to light Yuuri on fire with need, but there’s something wrong and Yuuri cannot let himself succumb to it. With slight pressure from the hand at his back their hips connect, then their stomachs and their thighs and their chests until there is nothing at all between them but their clothes.

Viktor radiates warmth, but Yuuri wants to pull back.

How many times has Viktor been in this position with another man? How long has it been since he felt a touch this intimate?

Or more importantly: how long has it been since someone kissed Viktor and didn’t expect to go any further?

No, it’s not that Yuuri doesn’t want this. But Viktor? Yuuri will not be just another person to take pleasure from him. He refuses to use the man he loves—this talented, endearing, burning man—as a means to an end.

“Vitya,” Yuuri gasps, “we need to talk about this.”

Viktor tugs the tie from the end of his braid, shakes it loose, and lets silver hair cascade over his shoulders.

“Shh, Yuuri, it’s okay. Just relax. You’re so beautiful. Let me please you.”

“I don’t th—”

Viktor takes the rest of Yuuri’s sentence with his lips and sinks slowly onto the bed behind him, dragging Yuuri down with him.

Viktor is beneath him now, sandwiched between Yuuri’s body and Yuuri’s mattress and looking up at him with flames for eyes. Silver strands splay out around his head like a halo. The image is sublime, surely something from a dream. It should be perfect.

Yuuri’s gut churns.

The hand still at the base of Yuuri’s head tugs him downward—Viktor’s lips meet him halfway, but instead of settling on Yuuri’s mouth they press to his jaw and move slowly downward, downward, to the delicate skin of his throat.

Yuuri can’t breathe. His heart pounds away in his chest. His stomach twists.

“Yuuri, please.” Viktor breathes against Yuuri’s racing pulse point, “Let me please you.”

With those words, the world around Yuuri grinds immediately to a stop, his stomach lurching so violently that he almost throws up at the realization:

Viktor is begging.

Yuuri’s arms, supporting most of his weight, almost give out beneath him, but he musters all the strength and presence of mind he can to place a hand on Viktor’s chest and push him away. The revulsion returns when he realizes he’s pinned Viktor to the mattress, and he hastens to roll off of him. He sits at the edge of the bed, head in his hands.

“Vitya, what are you doing, I don’t… Why are you—”

“It’s okay,” Viktor whispers, paper-thin. “It’s okay.”

And Viktor doesn’t stop. He sits up as well and, anchoring his hands on Yuuri’s hips, leans across his lap to kiss the inside of Yuuri’s wrists.

“Viktor, stop! ” Yuuri’s voice comes out raw. Unthinking, he shoves Viktor away with a bit too much force, Viktor’s head falling to his lap. “Stop. Please… please stop.”

The strangled noise from Viktor’s throat tears right through him.

“I can’t,” comes a gasp from Yuuri’s lap. Viktor buries his face against Yuuri’s stomach, the warmth of his words seeping through the material of his shirt and onto Yuuri’s skin. “I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, I—”

He cuts himself off with a wracking shudder. Lying in Yuuri’s arms, clutching desperately to the cloth at Yuuri’s lower back, Viktor shakes violently enough to fall apart.

What can Yuuri do but try to hold him together?

“Shhh, Vitya. It’s all right, Vitya. Tell me what’s wrong.”

“I… I can’t, I have to—have to—”

A tremor rips across Viktor’s frame.

“Let me please you. Please. You have to… to let me…”

That cracked desperation does not belong in Viktor’s voice.

“You do please me, Vitya. Every day, just by being you.”

Yuuri feels rather than hears Viktor’s sharp intake of breath. The fists at Yuuri’s lower back relax and he takes it as encouragement.

“You don’t need to do anything different. I just want to sit here with you. We can talk. We can open the window and listen to the ocean. Whatever you want, that’s what would please me. Just not…” Yuuri swallows. “Not that, okay?”

Every muscle in Viktor’s body simultaneously turns to jelly in Yuuri’s lap. He takes a few shuddering gasps against Yuuri’s stomach.

“There we go,” Yuuri murmurs, pulling the errant strands of hair from Viktor’s face and tucking them neatly behind his ear. “Don’t worry, okay? This is perfect. I’m… I am pleased.”

When Yuuri had his first panic attack, it had been Mari that brought him out of it. She did not know how to deal with it properly, then, but she held him through it and that was enough. He remembers that, once the crushing panic abated, the first thing he felt was her hand tracing circles on his back. Now, the embroidered silk of Viktor’s shirt glides softly under Yuuri’s palm and he rubs the same comforting pattern between Vitkor’s shoulder blades.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers, so softly that Yuuri would have thought he’d imagined it if not for the puff of air against his stomach. “I’m so sorry…”

“Shh, Vitya. I know. We’ll worry about that later. For now, just breathe.”

And he does, until the shaking turns to quiet trembling. When Viktor finally sits up, he avoids Yuuri’s gaze by keeping his own locked down on his hands.  

“Hey… Vitya, look at me,” Yuuri whispers.

Despite Viktor’s previous reluctance, he obeys immediately. He lifts his head, turns, and meets Yuuri’s gaze. The fire has gone out, leaving Viktor’s eyes an ocean once more, and relief ripples across the surface.

“I…” Viktor begins, but does not finish. He looks like he might drift out to sea. Yuuri holds tight like an anchor.

“I know.”

 

 

The worst part is that Viktor is still Viktor.

Perhaps it would be easier for him if the commands moved him like a marionette, tying strings around his limbs and dragging him forward even as his mind screamed to go back. It would be horrifying, certainly, to be trapped in his mind as his body disobeyed him, but perhaps afterward, when confronted with what he’d done, he could have said it wasn’t me and I tried to stop and most importantly I did not want this.

But the reality is much less clean, because even as the commands seize his mind and force everything else away, Viktor is still Viktor. He controls his limbs, his lungs, his words, even as he does and says things he never would have wanted otherwise. It’s not his body, nor his mind, but his will that has been hijacked.

I hear that the prince has taken quite a liking to you, Vityenka.

Viktor pulls his hair into an elegant braid with care for each strand. He dresses himself in his finest silk. He applies kohl to his eyes and dabs rouge on his lips. Not for one moment does he hesitate.

I fear that his trust in Rossiya in the negotiation room is… decaying. We need something to remind him of the benevolence of our kingdom.

Viktor walks through the palace with a purpose, tracing the unfamiliar pathway toward an oh-so-familiar face. His naked feet pad lightly on the hardwood.

You know what you need to do, don’t you?

He pauses. He knocks. And the whole time, his purpose echoes in his ears. Yuuri opens the door, confusion then a smile then concern flitting across his face, and Viktor’s whole body hums.

Please him like you please me.

The need to do so burns through every muscle and nerve in Viktor’s body. Every second that passes without compliance makes it worse.

And he tries. He knows one way to do this, and he tries.

Then Yuuri says, “Viktor, stop!” and the fire, suddenly, is inescapable. He can’t keep going, but he can’t stop, he can’t—

“I can’t—” he tries to say, but even that gets cut off because he can’t talk about it

“Shh, Vitya,” Yuuri says, and Viktor begs and begs and begs.

Please him like you please me and he has to, he has to…

And then:

“You do please me, Vitya. Every day, just by being you.”

The relief comes slowly, a cool trickle that starts at his temples and works its way down his spine. Yuuri’s body is warm around him, Yuuri’s shirt soft against his cheeks, Yuuri’s fingers gentle as they tuck his hair behind his ear. Viktor’s breath shakes as it leaves his lungs and sinks into Yuuri’s shirt.

“…just not that, okay?”

Not that. Not that. It’s absurd on such a fundamental level.

Please him like—

“I am pleased.”

It hits him slowly: what he has done, what he was going to do, who he was going to... The revulsion makes a home in his gut and writhes with every comforting word that falls from Yuuri’s lips.

Yuuri says, “Vitya, look at me,” and, as Viktor instantly complies, another reality strikes him.

Viktor looks. Without hesitation. He doesn’t have a choice. He looks, and Yuuri is beautiful. Yuuri is concerned. Yuuri is forgiving. Yuuri—

Yuuri commands him now, too.

(For a horrible, terrible, split second, Viktor wonders if he was wrong about love. In the moment after Yuuri’s command fills Viktor’s head, he fears that it was not Yuuri he fell in love with, but Yuuri’s lack of hold on him. And now—)

(Now, Yuuri says, “It’s okay, take deep breaths. I’m here. Breathe with me.” And yes, they’re commands and no, Viktor cannot disobey… but that same love still blossoms in his chest at Yuuri’s voice. He knows then, without a shadow of doubt, that his fears were unfounded.)

They are quiet for a while. Despite everything, Yuuri does not push for information. He could demand anything yet he asks for nothing. Viktor lays across his lap, his hair tumbling across Yuuri’s thighs, yet the prince never tries to drag his fingers through the strands. Instead, Yuuri’s thumb rubs little circles on his back, a silent reassurance.

Viktor loves him so much.

“Let’s get more comfortable,” Yuuri suggests eventually, his hand gentle and prompting on Viktor’s shoulder. They slide back against the headboard, side by side. Quietly, Yuuri slips his hand into Viktor’s.

He turns, just a bit, so that he can look Viktor in the eye. Viktor braces himself.

“Can you tell me what that was?”

He wants to. Despite the nauseating shame he wants to, with every burnt-out cell in his body. Yuuri deserves at least that much. But can he?

Well, that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it?

Viktor swallows, and shakes his head. That is all he can do, because it seems that even saying that he can’t say is too much information.

The flash of hurt in Yuuri’s eyes, Viktor expects, but he does not expect the self-doubt. Viktor’s own shame doubles in size, nearly bursting from him now.

And Yuuri must see that, because understanding settles suddenly and silently across his face and eclipses the doubt entirely.

“All right. You can’t tell me. But I can guess, right?”

It’s all Viktor can do to nod.

“I don’t think it was your idea to come here tonight.”

Oh.

Oh.

So that is how this is going to go.

Viktor’s shoulders stiffen. His chest is almost too tight to let him draw air. And he can’t affirm or deny the verity of that statement, but Yuuri seems to get the message and this is it, this is it, that loophole Viktor has been searching for in vain.

All he needed, it seems, was someone who cared enough to look closely.

“I don’t think it was your idea to want to ‘please me’.”

It wasn’t. It wasn’t it wasn’t—

“You didn’t really want to sleep with me tonight.”

Ah. There it is. Because Viktor did want, remembers wanting that more than anything, remembers the need to do so burning through every vein—

But this is Yuuri, and if Yuuri were in Viktor’s head right now, he would have stopped that line of thinking the second it began, would have dug through Viktor’s psyche to find its roots in fifteen-year-old Viktor’s fear of being the helpless victim, and he would have ripped those roots to shreds.

He would remind Viktor, you didn’t really want this, and Viktor would be forced to agree.

“Someone is making you.”

A splash of water lands on their joined hands. Viktor has not cried in years—

“You are afraid.”

—but he cries tonight, his tears rolling silently from his lashes and taking black kohl with them.

He cries because Yuuri is right, because that hopelessness that opened up within him is on the verge of swallowing him whole, because his body and mind and desires aren’t his half the time and he can never be okay with that again.

Because he loves Yuuri and look what he almost did tonight.

Yuuri wipes the tears from Viktor’s cheeks and Viktor squeezes his eyes shut.

“Should I be afraid?”

Viktor’s breath hitches. He looks up, instantly. “No, no, you’re okay. Don’t worry, Yuuri, you’re not in any danger—”

“But you are.” Yuuri holds his gaze, wiping yet another tear from Viktor’s cheek and saying, “Can’t I be afraid for you?”

Viktor cannot form a thought, let alone a word of reply.

“Please, Vitya, what’s going on? Is someone threatening you?”

“No, no, I—” Viktor cuts himself off with a shudder. Yuuri won’t look away.

“Please. Tell me.”

And suddenly, with that command all Viktor can think to do is tell him, tell him , but the second he opens his mouth the words get tangled up in his throat, and he can’t, can’t tell him

“Stop, Yuuri, please, I can’t…” He’s going to be pulled apart. The contradiction plays tug of war with his tongue and his lungs and his will. Yuuri watches it happen, never breaking eye contact, and dammit, Yuuri makes him so happy and he’s so miserable and he wants to tell him every last thing but he can’t, help me, help me, help me.

“Oh. Vitya, I’m sorry, I didn’t… Stop, you don’t have to tell me.”

Viktor’s shoulders slump at the new order, the tension of paradox draining from his body.

“I think I understand.” Yuuri pulls his hand from Viktor’s and sits back, taking a deep breath. Viktor mourns the loss of contact. “I want to try something, okay?”

Yuuri’s eyes are bright with his idea, and if it were anyone else Viktor would not have trusted it. But this is Yuuri, so Viktor nods.

“Okay. Raise your right hand.”

Viktor complies, and that terrible tightness in his chest lightens just a bit. Dare he hope…?

“Put it down.”

Viktor complies.

“Stick out your tongue.”

Viktor complies.

“Tell me your name.”

“Viktor.”

“Tell me your age.”

“Twenty-two.”

“Tell me you hate me.”

“I hate you, Yuuri.”

The words echo back to Viktor’s ears a second later, and his stomach turns.

“Wait, no! I… I don’t, why are you doing this, Yuuri, I don’t hate you, I swear I don’t—”

“I know, of course I know. That’s why.” Yuuri takes Viktor’s hand again and it grounds him. “I know. I’m sorry to do that.”

“I don’t hate you, Yuuri, I would never—”

“Vitya, stop, it’s okay.”

At the command, Viktor’s vocal chords freeze and he gags on half-formed words. Yuuri realizes his mistake instantly. His eyes go wide and he starts waving his arms wildly in front of Viktor.

“Wait, no, don’t stop! I mean—wait—keep talking, or, no, don’t listen to me, do whatever you want, I don’t… Oh, god. I can’t...”

Viktor can only stare, open mouthed, as the realization dawns in Yuuri’s eyes.

“You’re—they—Vitya. A curse. A curse. Oh, god.”

Viktor barely stifles a gasp as his reality, locked within him for so long, escapes on Yuuri’s voice out into the world. There’s no taking it back, now. Hands joined, they breathe the truth together.

A curse. Viktor blinks. His vision blurs. His chest, minutes ago so tight with truth that he feared it might collapse into nothing, feels like it’s been pried open and spilled into the space between them. It’s painful. It’s vulnerable.

It’s freeing.

Viktor might be crying again; his vision is blurred and there’s a pitiful noise emanating from somewhere low in his throat, but there is no room for shame—not here, not now. He has too many years’ worth of silence to make up for.

He blinks a couple times, and sees Yuuri reaching out to him as if he wants to touch but doesn’t know where, or if he’s allowed. Viktor leans in, allowing Yuuri to cup his cheek with all the tenderness in the world.

“How long?” Yuuri whispers.  This, Viktor finds he can answer, if only vaguely.

“Years.” The admission nearly chokes him. 

“And you can’t… you can’t tell anyone?”

Viktor can’t answer that, but his silence is an answer in and of itself. “I want to,” he says instead. “I wanted to. For you.”

“I know,” Yuuri sighs, and at that very moment they both give up on the distance between them. Leaning back against the headboard, Viktor lets his head find a home in the crook of Yuuri’s neck, his ear resting on Yuuri’s shoulder and his forehead against Yuuri’s throat. “I’m so sorry I didn’t figure it out sooner.”

“You couldn’t have.”

Yuuri tucks Viktor’s hair behind his ears, his hand lingering for just a moment before joining Viktor’s on his lap. Their fingers thread together.

“But it’s you, Vitya,” Yuuri breathes, and Viktor has no idea what the words mean but he loves the way they sound, the way he can feel them hum in Yuuri’s throat and rumble in his chest. Viktor’s name is at home in Yuuri’s voice and his body at home in Yuuri’s arms.

If the ambassador expected Viktor to end the night in the prince’s bed, he certainly would not have envisioned it like this. They lie together quietly, fully clothed atop the covers and Viktor allows himself a moment to indulge in his smug satisfaction.

Many of the men Viktor has served tell him afterward to stay. Exhausted and satisfied, they like a warm body to keep them company as they drift off to sleep. Some like to talk, some to drag fingers through his hair. They like Viktor to play a lover, to warm their beds and stroke their egos. The ambassador is not one of these men. Viktor always leaves as soon as he has caught his breath, before Antonovich can tell him to. The man has no need for a sweet-talking courtesan; he knows what he wants, and orders Viktor to give it to him with little tolerance for deviation. Afterward, they part.

“Please him like you please me,” was his command, but Viktor should have known that was impossible because this is Yuuri they’re talking about, a man who hums contentedly when Viktor traces the outline of his slender fingers with his own. Nothing that pleases Yuuri would have pleased Antonovich, and everything that pleases Antonovich would have revolted Yuuri.

(Did revolt Yuuri, Viktor corrects himself.)

Even with the ocean waves lapping on the shore outside the window, Viktor has never known anything as soothing as Yuuri’s breathing: the rhythmic expansion of his lungs under Viktor’s palm, the rush of hot air against his head. Despite the pooling guilt in his stomach, he cannot be sorry that tonight happened. He’s horrified for even thinking it, after what he nearly did, but… but how could he wish for anything different, when feels so warm and cherished and safe in Yuuri’s arms? When, otherwise, he would right now be treading gingerly from the ambassador’s chamber toward his own empty bed, with Yuuri never to know the truth?

Of the night’s developments, this casts the biggest shadow: Yuuri knows. Viktor can’t decide whether he should be relieved or horrified, so he settles for a little bit of both.

Completely helpless and unable to stop himself, he’d nearly ruined everything tonight. He hadn’t even been able to give a warning. And yes, Yuuri knows now, but nothing else has changed. Viktor has not changed.

Before, there had at least been separation. Viktor’s life with Yuuri, formed of early morning sunshine and quiet touches, was wholly different from his life as the most prized dancer of the Royal Court of Rossiya. He was a different man in the East wing dance studio than he was on the stage, in Yuuri’s arms than the beds of strangers. In one, he chose freely; in the other, the encroaching, pitch-black helplessness had lately become so heavy that he could barely breathe.

And now they’re all mixed up, the ambassador and Yuuri and the orders Viktor cannot disobey. There are smudges of black on the unexpectedly beautiful parts of his life that he’d meant to keep secret and separate. But it’s too late for that, now.

Viktor is not what Yuuri thought he was. He is not what Yuuri signed up for, nor what he was surely hoping for.

Viktor is not his own, and for that reason alone Yuuri deserves so much better.

Despite all of this, Viktor cannot bring himself to move. Nestled at Yuuri’s side, his head resting in the crook of Yuuri’s neck and their fingers intertwined, Viktor simply tries to match Yuuri’s breathing. He will enjoy this, Yuuri’s arms and warmth and attention, for as long as Yuuri will allow.

 

 

Sometime in the night, Yuuri awakes with a jolt.

He had not realized they had even fallen asleep, but there they are, fully clothed and pressed up against each other, in Yuuri’s bed in Yuuri’s chambers and the memories of last night come back in a relentless barrage.

The knock, the kissing, the begging, the curse.

He’s still groggy from sleep but his heart is pounding and getting faster by the minute as his brain wakes up to this new reality that he’s only just now starting to fully process.

Viktor is under a curse. Viktor has to obey every order given to him. Viktor has no choice.

And Viktor cannot talk about it.

It’s so supremely cruel that Yuuri wants to cry, but can’t. This man in his arms, who has eyes like the ocean and a pink smile made of hearts and who has selflessly spent every morning for weeks and weeks teaching Yuuri everything he knows about their shared passion, this man deserves so much better—

Wait.

Wait.

Unbidden, Viktor’s voice from last week floats back to Yuuri:

You leaned into my shoulder the minute the music stopped and whispered, ‘teach me, Viktor.’ How could I say no?

(Oh yes, Yuuri. How indeed?)

Yuuri chokes on a gasp as Viktor’s sleeping body suddenly feels like a crushing weight in his arms. Yuuri pulls his hand back, scooting out from under Viktor and taking care to let his head down softly onto the pillow before he slides off of the mattress with what little grace he can muster. He heads promptly to the bathroom to empty to contents of his stomach into the toilet.

Okay, so he does not actually throw up, but hunched over the toilet his stomach convulses as it keeps coming:

Dance with me — the very first thing he said to Viktor.

And Viktor had, going promptly to Yuuri’s arms and staying with him for song after song.

Call me Yuuri — the last thing Yuuri remembers from the night they met.

And Viktor had. Viktor does.

Do not take your eyes off of me — Yuuri had commanded not even a week ago.

And Viktor hadn’t, not once.

Every realization is a kick to his gut with a steel-tipped boot and he’s shaking now, but he no longer thinks he’s going to vomit. He’s struggling just to pull in air and his heart is pumping so fast that he can hardly tell one beat from another. But what really does it is one final realization, one last phrase in his own voice that emerges from his memory and kicks him square in the chest:

Vitya…

Yes?

Kiss me.

And oh, had he.

The most frustrating part of Yuuri’s panic attacks is how they refuse to bend to reason. What sets him off is usually something seemingly small and insignificant—sure, at the time it feels like the end of the world, but there’s always that part of him that knows it’s not. Yuuri’s mind is clinically terrible at not overreacting and he knows it.

But this time? There’s nothing irrational about it. This time, reason actually backs up every single one of Yuuri’s fears.

Stumbling from where he stood doubled over the toilet to the wall, Yuuri slides to the ground and wedges his head between his knees, fighting a losing battle for breath. His vision has narrowed to a pinpoint and every second feels like the ground has just been ripped out from under him.

He’s not quite sure that he’s overreacting this time, because he loves Viktor and their whole relationship is a lie.

Yuuri loves Viktor — is in love with Viktor — and he has forced him into all of this.

When Yuuri finally manages to breathe, the air enters his lungs in a ragged gasp. From the bedroom, he hears movement. Footsteps. The door opens.

“…Yuuri?”

His head locked between his knees, Yuuri cannot see any of the figure in the doorway, but he can still hear the concern plastered on Viktor’s face. It’s almost more than he can take. He sucks in more air, and hears Viktor’s breath catch.

“Are you okay? Do… do you want me to get you anything?”

Yuuri considers, for a moment, saying yes, because there’s a special kind of herbal tea in one of his bedside drawers that helps curb anxiety attacks—but if he said yes, would that be an order? He doesn’t know, and he has no way of knowing, either, because Viktor can’t tell him, which, coupled with Yuuri’s willful cluelessness, is how they got into this mess in the first place.

The worst of it seems to have passed, now, because his breathing is coming easier and his head is clear enough to recognize the decision sitting before him, the right choice already made.

He knows what he has to say. He looks up.

“We should end this.” His voice is still shaky, still nearly paralyzed with shock, but it does the job. Standing in the doorway is Viktor, looking torn between keeping his distance and rushing to Yuuri’s side. Yuuri had been right—concern is plastered in his every delicate feature.

At Yuuri’s words, concern morphs to confusion and, a split second later, fear.

“End what, exactly?” Viktor asks, each syllable measured, each halting letter sounding foreign on his tongue.

“You know what,” Yuuri whispers and looks away from Viktor’s face because he’s a coward.

Yuuri…”

And Viktor isn’t the one fresh out of a panic attack—so why does he sound like he’s just had the breath knocked out of him?

“I can’t do this,” Yuuri explains, his words dry and measured. Perhaps he should be crying, but the panic had receded and left a surprising, rational calm. “No matter how much I…” He swallows. “I won’t do it.”

I won’t do this to you.

When he finally gathers the courage to look up (because he is a coward), he finds Viktor’s ocean eyes shining with tears.

And it’s not fair. None of this is fair.

But seconds later, acceptance shutters itself across Viktor’s eyes like storm doors, forcing the tears out and away. “I see,” he says, and that is that. He doesn’t fight it, not even for a second, which is all the confirmation Yuuri needs that he was never Viktor’s choice in the first place.

But he loves you, cries some desperate voice within him. Yuuri shoves it away, shoves it down, and lets it suffocate. He will not allow his own desires to delude him again.  

He has missed so much. Misunderstood so much.

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri whispers, and it sounds pathetic even to his own ears.

Viktor waits a beat. “Do you need help, or…”

“No, I’m fine,” Yuuri replies, his nails digging into his thighs. “I’m fine. Just go, Viktor.”

Something horrid flashes in Viktor’s eyes the second he hears his name—not Vitya but Viktor , and Yuuri honestly had not expected the switch to have such an effect on the man, but calling him by such an intimate nickname felt terribly wrong now. Either way, Viktor is back to his expression of stone within milliseconds. Yuuri tries to forget.

Viktor turns on his heels and leaves. Seconds later, Yuuri hears the hallway door open and shut.  Much too late, Yuuri realizes his last words to Viktor had been an order. Just go, Viktor, and Viktor had, because he had no choice, because Yuuri was clueless and thoughtless, and there’s no way to tell what Viktor’s will would have been in that moment because Yuuri went and squashed it beneath his own.

Acrid bitterness fills his mouth and his stomach churns in disgust. He made the right choice.

Really, this is all the confirmation he needs.

 

Chapter Text

 ...

 

When he was fifteen years old, Viktor Nikiforov, court dancer-in-training and bastard child of a royal servant, was given a curse.

Given , because they acted like it was a gift to be bestowed for his own good. He hardly remembers the woman’s face, now—he hardly remembers being conscious—but he remembers her voice whispering comforting lies low and sweet in his ear. “This will make everything easier on you, my boy.”

Viktor still wonders, sometimes, if she truly believed that was the truth. Could she have actually thought she was helping him? Would she be surprised to see what a horrid lie those words had become?

He knows, realistically, that she wouldn’t.

 

...

 

Yuuri, eventually, drags himself from the bathroom floor and back to bed, but he does not sleep. The vague, jittery unease that usually follows an episode of panic clashes with his utter exhaustion; it leaves him to stake out the sunrise with eyes half-lidded and mind humming with a radiating grief to which he has no rightful claim.

He gives up waiting on the sun eventually, because the only thing that works to calm him in this state is dance and he does not have the patience to wait for dawn. He sleepwalks to the East wing, not even bothering to change into his dance clothes, and stretches, drills, and runs through the choreography in the dark.

When the sky begins to lighten, Yuuri takes in his reflection in the mirror and watches himself dance. His technique, of course, is flawless. After so many weeks, he should expect nothing less. His spins are controlled, his arabesque precise, his shoulders down and back and his back straight and poised.

All this, yet his grace has all but evaporated.

No matter how hard he tries, no matter how many repetitions he submits himself to and how closely he scrutinizes his own flaws, he cannot get his movements to flow into one another. He feels stilted, mechanical, devoid of emotion…

Well, no, that’s not right. Because the emotion is there, waiting below the surface, right where he’d shoved it on the tail end of his attack a few hours ago. It’s there, it’s accessible, fresh and ready to be expressed and dealt with.

But Yuuri cannot, will not, tap into it. He does not know what to feel, so he chooses nothing at all.

Of course Yuuri cannot dance properly—after all, these are Viktor’s pieces. Viktor and Yuuri’s, together, something they created with their bodies and their passions in this space, right here on this floor, at this barre.

(It was all a lie, and it’s all your fault.)

If he dances these pieces the way they were meant to be performed, he may see exactly what he fears: the truth of the past month, of his relationship with Viktor that, no matter how real it felt, rested precariously on negligent coercion. Perhaps he will see in the choreography what he had been too blind to notice before, and Yuuri does not have the courage to face it. Not now. Not yet.

He’d done this too, right after Phayao. He’d danced until he couldn’t feel his toes or the humiliation. Blind exhaustion and exertion had numbed the memories of his mistakes that pressed like sharpened blades against his chest; had forced away the self-contempt threatening to breach the edges of his mind. It all came rushing back with ten times the force when he awoke the next morning. But who ever said that the prince learned from his mistakes?

This morning, Yuuri throws himself into his routines with even more desperation than he had on that night two months ago. Somehow, here and now, there is more at stake than tanking his political career and letting down his country and family. Yuuri dances that morning until his knees buckle, until his breath comes in ragged, frustrated bursts and his feet feel cracked and bruised like the rest of him. Sometimes he thinks he catches glimpses of silver in the corner of his eye, cruel tricks of the light. This is where Viktor had first appeared, a few short days after the banquet, promising to teach him as if Viktor had a choice in the matter. And Yuuri had thought. He had believed, despite all reason, that the most beautiful dancer in the world had decided on his own that this sloppy-drunk, politically challenged failure of a prince was worth his time to teach.

There is no one in the corner, no silver hair, no helpful critique. The room is empty but for him, his reflection, and everything he refuses to feel.

He leaves the studio feeling as terrible as the moment he entered.

 

...

 

Negotiations that afternoon go about as well as can be expected. From the looks Yuuri receives from members of both courts, the past twelve hours must show plain on his face despite his earlier attempts at tidying up. He tries to stiffen his expression into something like boredom, but he’s not sure how successful that ends up being.

Ambassador Antonovich is the first to approach him, which is unfortunate because Yuuri has trouble holding a conversation with the man on the best of days. As they head to the table to sit down, the ambassador sends Yuuri a knowing smile.

“Good afternoon. I do hope you had a pleasant evening, Your Highness.”

Yuuri blinks. “I, uh… hope you did as well.”

The ambassador meets Yuuri’s response with a chuckle. “Well, surely not as good as yours. I trust everything was to your liking?”

The realization comes slowly, in his exhausted state; and as the words ring in his ears, unease begins to pool in his gut, forcing up everything he’d done such a splendid job at burying early this morning.

And then it clicks: the possessive, suggestive lilt of the ambassador’s words, Viktor’s condition, everything that happened last night—

Someone is making you, Yuuri had stated, and Viktor had not disagreed.

Did Yuuri’s blind stupidity know no bounds? Why could he not just think? Maybe none of this would have happened if he’d been less naïve, less foolish, less self-deluded.

And because he’s completely inept, he cannot even approximate a suitable reply. “Uh…”

The ambassador quirks up an eyebrow. “Oh my. He was that bad?”

Yuuri, suddenly, wants to rip that he from the air, wants pluck the word from the ambassador’s voice and clutch it tight to his chest. He was Viktor. He was the man who cried in Yuuri’s arms last night, who shook like a candle in the wind and begged I can’t, I can’t and fell asleep with his face tucked into Yuuri’s neck.

And this is the Rossiyan Ambassador, Yuuri’s counterpart in the trade negotiations between their nations, standing before Yuuri with a conspiratorial smile half morphed by quiet fury, speaking of Viktor like he was nothing at all.

This is the man who ordered an unwilling Viktor to Yuuri’s bed last night, in what Yuuri can only guess to be a gesture of political goodwill. Viktor could not have told him this, so Yuuri should have known. Yuuri should have guessed, god, it would not have been that hard to figure out.

Yuuri wants no part in a deal with a man like this.

“I would prefer not to speak of it, Lord Antonovich.” Yuuri’s voice comes out surprisingly steady. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I am not feeling well this morning. I believe we may have to cancel this afternoon’s talks. My apologies.”

His feet take him to the carriages before he even processes where he’s decided to go.

 

 

It is only when he hears a knock on his door that Viktor leaves his bed.

He’d stumbled back here from Yuuri’s chambers very early this morning, numb and in some peculiar state of shock where he could feel every terrible thing running through his head, yet at the same time nothing at all. He’d laid on his bed, stared at the ceiling, and let his eyes go unfocused as he tortured himself with Yuuri’s final order.

Just go, Viktor.

He’d long completed this demand, but it wouldn’t stop echoing in his ears.

There is a small window on the wall at the foot of his bed, and through it he had watched—but not truly seen at all—the sunrise. It is a beautiful day, which is wrong. Usually at this time Viktor would be getting dressed, heading to the East wing for the best part of his day. Would Yuuri be there, this morning? Perhaps if Viktor went…

But this had been a passive thought, one he dismissed quickly by reason and guilt alike. Yuuri had made his choice and honestly, it had been the right one. The one Viktor should have made himself; would have made, if he’d had half the strength or even a quarter of the selflessness required to do such a thing.

Viktor is not his own, as last night made perfectly clear, and this makes him a dangerous liability. Especially to a prince like Yuuri.

Yuuri would have been dancing in their—no, his— studio at that very moment, and he did not want Viktor there. This does not change the fact that Viktor wanted, so desperately, to go, to watch Yuuri and teach Yuuri and kiss Yuuri just as they had been… as he hoped they would keep…

Viktor longs to see Yuuri dance with a visceral force that he can compare only to the effect of a command—except this need burns deeper and quieter and with an unrelenting ache that only gets worse the longer Viktor denies it.

He lays like this for the better part of the morning and into the afternoon, doing little more than wallowing in self-pity because, though he always resisted the urge in the past, something deep inside him hurts and really, what else is there to do?

Then the knock comes, and he hears, “Open up, Viktor,” in the ambassador’s voice, and upon hearing his full name all he can think is this can’t be good .

Viktor opens the door to find the ambassador as he expected, but he startles at the man standing just behind him.

The sight of the Rossiyan guard uniform makes Viktor’s blood run cold. The man is tall and lean, with average brown eyes and a clean-shaven face, his mouth pressed permanently into an unyielding line. He is unassuming enough, and to anyone else Viktor figures he would not be so fearsome. After all, in all these years of knowing him, he has never so much as laid a hand on Viktor’s body.

But upon seeing him, Viktor’s heart nearly stops.

“I just had a chat with the prince,” the ambassador begins. Upon hearing Yuuri’s name, Viktor jerks his gaze away from the man in the background and meets Antonovich’s gaze instead.

“Oh?”

“Yes. In fact, he did not seem very… pleased with your performance last night.”

Viktor knows, then, where this is going and where it ends. Really, he knew the second he opened the door and saw his handler. He resists anyhow, narrowing his eyes. “You know I did everything that you—”

“Silence. You know better than to speak to me like that.” The command is like a hand wrapping around Viktor’s vocal chords, stilling every last vibration. Viktor has probably made it worse by speaking out. He finds that he doesn’t much care.

The ambassador nods to the man behind him. “All yours,” he says, before disappearing down the hallway and leaving Viktor alone with his handler.

The man in the guard outfit steps forward, and in a low voice says, “Come.”

Viktor complies, padding behind his handler and wrapping his body and mind further in the armor of obeisance with each forward step they take. Every vulnerable, individual part of himself he had let Yuuri drag to the surface last night gets tucked away inside of him. It’s so much harder, this time around. Viktor the servant forces Viktor the man into somewhere small and dark and suffocating to wait out what follows.

His handler leads Viktor further into the West wing. They pass the rooms of what seems like every member of the Rossiyan delegation before coming to one that is empty. The handler holds the door open and reveals a room scarcely larger than Viktor’s own, with no bed and a tiny window high on the wall.

The door shuts behind them with a dull finality, the room dark but for the small patch of light on the floor between them.

“Kneel and close your eyes,” a low voice commands, and Viktor feels every scrap of resistance leave his body. He complies, without a second thought. The world goes dark.

“Keep them closed. Do not move until I say so. You know the drill.”

His knees groan in protest and a shiver runs up his spine at the pitch-black vulnerability, but he does not move. He does not open his eyes. He complies.

Somewhere behind him, the voice says, “Let’s begin.”

 

 

The house is relatively large, set just back in the woods—enough to provide the illusion of seclusion without sacrificing accessibility. Yuuri has walked up this path many times. Years ago, he would have simply opened the door and walked in. Today, he knocks.

“Yuuri! I didn’t expect you here.”

Yuuri offers a respectful bow. “Hello, Minako-sensei.”

His former dance instructor’s youthful face turns skeptical. “You need something, don’t you?” Yuuri chuckles and scratches the back of his head.

“Is it that obvious?”

“Your body language has always been an open book. It’s what makes you a great dancer.”

“And a terrible politician.”

Minako snorts. “That, too. Well, you might as well come in. Would you like some sake?”

Yuuri almost says it’s barely the afternoon, but, remembering whom he’s speaking to, stops himself. “Just tea would be fine, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all, Your Most Esteemed Royal Highness,” Minako replies with a smirk.

They settle into Minako’s sitting area, tea and sake in hand, and Yuuri takes a quiet look around the house-turned-dance-studio he knew so well in his younger years, the place where he first discovered how wonderful it felt to move. His whole life had changed then, because of dancing. He supposes that dancing with Viktor has changed his life once again. Today, the studio is much quieter than usual, but he knows that Minako has been experiencing a lack of students lately.

“I was hoping you could help me with… a problem. It’s not me, really, it’s… a friend.”

Minako takes a sip from her glass. “I see. And I’m to presume that this isn’t a dance problem you’re coming to me for?”

“Not… strictly.”

His old instructor heaves a sigh, resting her cheek in her palm and her elbow on the table. “Yuuri, you know I’m retired from that—”

“I know. I know.” Yuuri shifts uncomfortably on the pillow below him. He fixes his gaze on his tea, watching it swirl around and around. “I was just hoping, anyway, that you’d…”

“What?” A wry smile plays on her lips. “Make an exception for the Prince?”

“It’s not for me, I told you, it’s… a friend. He really needs help, Minako-sensei, and you’re the only one I—”

“Alright, alright.” She cuts him off with a wave of her hand. “Don’t grovel, it doesn’t become you. Tell me about your friend.”

His happiness at this small victory does not last long. He opens his mouth to begin, but quickly closes it again. Speaking of Viktor is harder than he thought—where should he start? How much should he reveal? His eyes search the sparsely decorated room, as if to find an answer in the painted patterns of the pottery on Minako’s shelf.

“His name is Viktor,” is how he begins. Safe enough.

“Ah. A foreigner?”

“Yes.”

“Your lover?”

Yuuri chokes so hard on his tea that it nearly comes out of his nose. “No, no, we’re just…”

Minako quirks an eyebrow. Yuuri hates it when she does that.

“I care about him. A lot.”

“With recent events, I can only assume he’s part of the Rossiyan delegation. I had heard you were taking the lead on that. He’s not their negotiator, I hope?”

“Oh no, not…” Yuuri scowls, shaking his head. “Definitely not. He’s, uh… actually a dancer. He’s been teaching me, lately. Not that I think he’s a better teacher than you! I definitely don’t think that! But he’s an amazing dancer and the Rossiyan classical style is so beautiful, and we’ve been working on choreographing a few pieces—”

“Yuuri. Calm down. I’m not mad that you’re cheating on me with another dance instructor.”

“I’m not—!” he begins, before realizing she’s teasing him. “Ah.”

“Are you ever going to tell me what the problem is?”

“Oh. Right.” Yuuri swallows drily. “Well, he’s… kind of under a curse? I think? I mean he can’t tell me, but I figured it out eventually and Minako-sensei, he can’t disobey anything I tell him to do, and he can’t even tell anyone about it! He has to follow orders, and he deserves so much better than that, and the ambassador is taking adv—”

“Yuuri.” This is, what, the second time she’s had to interrupt his nervous rambling? She huffs a sigh. “A binding curse, huh?”

“Oh. Is that what they’re called?”

“Well you can call it whatever you want, I guess. What is it with you Katsukis and showing up on my doorstep to ask me to break curses?”

“Well, at least this time it’s real.”

“True. But this kind of curse is... really complicated,” Minako huffs. “I’ve never actually encountered one. I’ve met a few Rossiyans like me, you know, and they shared some of their expertise but never mentioned anything like this. Honestly, after meeting them, I can’t say it surprises me. Of course they figured out how to do that kind of thing to their slaves.”

The tea suddenly turns bitter on Yuuri’s tongue. “Viktor’s not…”

“What? A slave?” Minako clucks and downs the last bit of sake. “Only you, Yuuri-kun. And I suppose you think this ambassador is just having him dance, as well?”

“Well I…”

“What else could you have thought he was?”

Yuuri has no reply.

“If this is true, about his curse, how do you know you can trust him?”

His teeth make an audible noise as they clack together, his jaw stiffening. “I can.”

“He’s at a foreign nation’s beck and call, and he can’t tell you anything whatsoever about what he’s been ordered to do. How do you know he’s not manipulating you?”

I’ve been the one manipulating him! I didn’t mean to, but I didn’t know about the curse and… I did. I owe him, Minako-sensei.”

I love him, he doesn’t say, because Yuuri’s feelings are irrelevant now.

Minako, for a moment, looks deep in thought. Finally, resolve settles on her face.

“Fine. I will help, on one condition.”

“Ah. What’s that?”

“That when we’re done, you and this Viktor show me what you’ve been working on. It had better be as spectacular as you’re making it out to be.”

Relief escapes him in a small, measured exhale. Surely Viktor would agree to that, right? Yuuri stands and offers her a bow. “Thank you. I… thank you.”

She waves a hand, grabs his half-empty cup of tea, and stands to head toward the kitchen. “Well, if I’m really going to be helping you break a curse this complex, I’m going to need a bottle of sake for the road. Want some?”

“I don’t drink anymore.” What little he remembers of the banquet floats behind his eyelids, blurry and bright, and with it he hears dance with me and call me Yuuri and, through someone else’s memory, teach me, Viktor. The hurt radiates from his ribcage out to his fingers and toes and makes his throat feel far too tight.

Minako snorts. “Yeah, sure. Your father used to say that, too.”

 

 

Upon returning to the palace, Yuuri shows Minako to the room she will be staying in, and asks as politely as he can for her patience. Then he turns right on his heels and heads for the West wing.

He allows himself the smallest moment of hesitation in front of Viktor’s door. His anxiety teeters on the knife’s edge of terror the more he thinks of facing the man in this room. The truths revealed last night had hurt Viktor far more for far longer than they ever affected Yuuri—and yet it was Yuuri who succumbed to a panic attack, barely able to explain himself and unable to look the man he’d grown to love in the eyes. Just go, Viktor, he ordered, ending it with a thoughtless order that Viktor was obliged to obey.

Really, it was the perfect cap on a mess of a relationship that Yuuri had handled poorly from the beginning. Given all of this, it is quite possible—indeed probable—that behind that door Viktor is angry. He has every right to be. And because of this and because Yuuri is a coward, he cannot bring himself to knock.

But eventually, his need to look Viktor in his ocean-blue eyes no matter the outcome overpowers his fear and he raises his fist to the door and raps three times.

“Viktor?”

He waits, barely able to stop himself from bouncing on the balls of his toes. No answer.

He knocks again. Waits.

No answer.

He does not know what possesses him to enter, anyhow. Surely this is a gross breach of privacy. Surely Yuuri should know better. But this is important, far too important to let Viktor ignore him no matter how great a right he has to do so.

The room is empty, the light turned out. Golden evening sunlight filters in through the window and illuminates Viktor’s empty, unmade bed.

Disappointment settles heavy in Yuuri’s chest, but soon enough the familiar anxiety has started to burn it away. He sinks down onto Viktor’s bed, eyes searching the empty walls. Where did he go? The dance studio, maybe?

He has to return at some point, so Yuuri waits.

Barely an hour passes before hunger rumbles through his stomach. He hones in on the unpleasant sensation, focusing on the physical discomfort so that his mind won’t wander to thoughts far less tolerable.

The sun has set by now, and Viktor has still not returned. Another hour passes. It is at this point that Yuuri realizes something that should have been obvious from the beginning: Viktor works at night. As a general rule, Yuuri tries not to think of this part of Viktor’s role. It doesn’t matter , he tells himself, even though it does. But thinking of Viktor like that means conjuring images that feel like a horrible violation of privacy, and it makes his skin crawl.

Tonight, though, not even focusing on the hunger can keep Yuuri from letting his mind wander  to Viktor, dressed as beautifully as he had been when he showed up at Yuuri’s door last night, his silk hair braided down his back and his eyes burning…

Of course, Viktor spends his nights entertaining. But with Minako’s candid assessment of the situation still ringing in his ears, Yuuri allows himself to process in full the implications of what he learned last night.

Slave, his teacher had called Viktor. Yuuri had objected. But…

But.

Viktor is a servant of the Court of Rossiya. He is a dancer. And he is a courtesan. He entertains. He serves.

And, stripped of free will, he is completely at the mercy of the ambassador and the entire court. Anything they ask of him, he has to comply. If they say to dance, he must dance. If they say to be quiet, he cannot speak a word.

And the nights? It does not take a wild imagination to picture what they may demand of him then. The ambassador had sent Viktor to Yuuri last night with explicit orders to please him. He had sent Viktor to Yuuri’s bed, and once there Yuuri could have forced Viktor to do absolutely anything.

Yuuri would never. But the others?

Yuuri squeezes his eyes shut only to see Viktor’s collarbone painted purple with hickeys. Viktor is with someone now. Is it the ambassador? Another nobleman? Noblewoman? He shudders, feeling more helpless than he ever has in his life. Is this how Viktor feels every day? The thought nearly makes his throat close up. The second Viktor walks through that door, they are going to Minako and not leaving until Viktor is free.

Sitting on Viktor’s bed and counting the minutes, Yuuri remembers something crucial: he loves Viktor, and that has not changed just because his entire understanding of their relationship has imploded. Whether or not he had forced Viktor to be with him, Yuuri’s love is real and freely given.

Yuuri loves Viktor and Yuuri will fix this, no matter what it takes.

 

 

Morning dawns and finds Yuuri with his face buried in a pillow that smells like Viktor, on a bed that is Viktor’s, with Viktor nowhere to be found.

Familiar panic claws at his chest, but he staves it off with deep breaths (and surely his success has nothing to do with those breaths smelling so comfortingly of Viktor). Yuuri had slept much later than usual after yesterday’s exhaustion and sleepless night; by the light shining through the tiny window he can tell he has probably missed breakfast, and yet Viktor still has not returned.

A series of worst-case scenarios come to mind, little sparks of terror popping from the mostly-tamed fire of his anxiety. He stamps them out, one by one, and tries to reevaluate.

There’s a small notepad next to Viktor’s lamp. He writes: I came by but you weren’t here. I really need to talk to you. Please, come see me as soon as y

Yuuri huffs, and starts again.

As soon as you can, I would like you to

As soon as you can, if you’re okay with it, you should come t

He gives up on the note, ripping the page off and crumbling it in his palm. He quickly leaves Viktor’s room before he can convince himself it’s a good idea to just sit down and pen an entire apology letter, here and now.

He goes to Minako first and bows more deeply than strictly necessary for someone so below his rank. But she gives him her patience, and he gives her his gratitude.

She probably felt sorry for him, Yuuri realizes as he returns to his chambers and takes in his haggard reflection in the mirror. He does his best to clean himself up for negotiations this afternoon and spends the rest of the time practicing neutral expressions in the mirror to use when he must interact with the ambassador. Turns out, it takes a lot of practice to cover his protective anger and disgust.

He just has to get through this afternoon of negotiations, then he will find Viktor. He will take him to Minako. Everything will be okay.

He arrives to the negotiation room just in time, and takes a moment outside of the closed door to gather himself. It is a good thing he did, because the first person he lays eyes on is the ambassador, and Yuuri’s mask of indifference nearly slips. As it turns out, Yuuri could not have prepared himself for how intense his hatred for this man has become in the past twenty-four hours. It burns hotter with every forward step, with every second he keeps it inside.

“Your Highness, I do hope you are feeling better this afternoon,” the ambassador greets with a bow, and Yuuri barely forces himself to bow in return.

The negotiation room is large; usually it functions as a parlor, but for the duration of the Rossiyans’ stay all of the furniture has been exchanged for a stately table. A few noblemen and women from both courts are already seated with the current draft of the treaty spread across the table, ready to continue hammering out the minutiae in painstaking detail.

“I feel much better, thank you for asking,” Yuuri replies, embracing his persona of level-headed diplomat as best he can. He will need it, if he is going to get through this meeting.

The ambassador stands by one head of the table and Yuuri by the other. Neither moves to sit first.

“Before we begin, Your Highness, I would like to extend my sincerest apologies for the events that transpired a few nights ago. It was meant as a gesture of goodwill, you see, and I hope you will not interpret the poor behavior of a disobedient servant as representative of the will of the Crown of Rossiya.”

Yuuri blinks. Apology? Is this about Viktor? Yesterday during their aborted meeting, the ambassador had asked about Viktor, and…

Oh my. He was that bad?

Cold fingers of realization creep their fingers up Yuuri’s spine. “Ah. I see,” he nods, attempting to school his expression.

The ambassador knew that Viktor did not do his job. He thought Viktor had done something wrong, jeopardized Rossiya’s place at the negotiating table. He thought Viktor had displeased Yuuri because yesterday Yuuri had carelessly given Antonovich every reason to believe this was so.

The ambassador’s eyes are as hard as stone. Disobedient servant, he had called Viktor, the ironic words encased solidly in contempt. Yuuri suppresses a horrified shiver.

“Prince Yuuri, if you would allow, I would like to make it up to you before we commence discussions of the treaty once again. If there has been a perceived slight against your country and your person, our court would like the opportunity to make amends.”

Dread creeps up behind Yuuri with each word from the ambassador’s mouth, wrapping around his shoulders and threatening to paralyze him completely. Yuuri takes a deep breath and tries to think rationally. As if the thin blade of diplomacy weren’t hard enough to balance upon on a normal day; now Viktor’s life and reputation are at stake, as well, and Yuuri does not know what to say.

The ambassador’s perceived faux pas has given the Sagan delegation leverage that they can exploit for more favorable terms in the treaty. If Yuuri were smart, he’d take the ambassador’s cues and start acting like a properly offended prince.

But Viktor. Viktor, who had done nothing wrong, who could be facing the terrible wrath of someone who could control his every action—

Yuuri glances to his left toward the few members of his own delegation already seated at the negotiating table, searching for advice and answers his economic and political advisors cannot give him. He swallows.

“Lord Antonovich,” Yuuri begins, but the ambassador has already turned away, looking to the wall behind him where a door has opened. A tall man in a red Rossiyan Guard uniform stands just on the other side. Yuuri has seen a few such men around the palace in the past month, assuming they were there for the protection of the Rossiyan delegation.

The guard does not enter the room. Instead, he turns to his right and delivers a curt order to someone Yuuri cannot see in a language that Yuuri does not understand.

A loaded second passes. Then, through the doorway, steps Viktor.

That ice-cold dread that hovered behind Yuuri moments ago seizes him by the ribcage and freezes his heart in his chest. Viktor has been dressed in elegant white robes with shimmering trim that brings out the rosiness of his complexion. With his long hair swept just to the side, exposing the skin of his collarbone, he is a creature of astonishing beauty that approaches Yuuri with measured, graceful steps.

But his bright blue eyes stare straight ahead, moving right past Yuuri to settle on the wall behind him. He does not even blink. If Yuuri looks closely, will he see the anger he deserves simmering beneath the surface? He can barely bear to look, but when he does, what he finds is far worse that justified, dignified anger: an unfocused gaze that reveals absolutely nothing.

“Kneel.”

The order comes from the guard, who has come to stand next to the ambassador at the other end of the table. Viktor, halfway between them and Yuuri, sinks to his knees in a fluid, practiced movement, his back as straight as a rail. The slightest grimace tweaks at the straight line of his mouth as his knees make contact with the hard floor. As if it hurts.

Yuuri wants to throw up, but he just stands there, frozen, hoping his face does not portray the horror that has chilled the blood in his veins and turned his stomach inside out. His skin crawls with the stares of his advisors who watch the scene unfold from the negotiating table, waiting to see how their prince will navigate the delicate situation.

The ambassador clears his throat. “Vityenka…” The nickname sounds patronizing and disgusting on this man’s lips. “I believe you had something to say to Prince Yuuri.”

Viktor does not make a sound, and silence has never sounded so beautiful to Yuuri’s ears. Of course—the ambassador’s words were not an order, and Viktor is fighting. Despite that empty stare, he is fighting. Hope swells in Yuuri’s throat and he tries to swallow against it.

“Tell him,” the guard orders in rumbling monotone. “Now.”

And Viktor responds then, his eyes still fixed on the wall behind Yuuri, his every word gutted and hollow. Yuuri almost does not recognize his voice. “I apologize most profusely for displeasing you, Your Royal Highness. I was insolent and have been corrected for my transgressions. Please let me make it up to you. I promise I will be better this time.”

When silence falls over the room again, Yuuri throws every bit of focus into keeping steady on his feet instead of swaying with the force of Viktor’s words. The word corrected had lodged itself in Yuuri’s chest and made it quite difficult to breathe, and god he hopes none of this is showing on his face.

Yuuri searches every inch of Viktor’s visible skin for evidence of abuse, and barely feels relief when he finding nothing.

(After all, last time they had marked him beneath his clothes, and Yuuri had been none the wiser.)

One corner of the ambassador’s mouth pulls upward at Viktor’s forced apology. “You see, Your Highness, he will do anything you say. It’s truly remarkable, I must admit. Let us demonstrate,” he says, nodding to the guard who takes a few steps forward.

“Viktor,” the guard begins, and Yuuri sees Viktor blink for the first time. “Put your hands behind your back.”

Viktor complies, clasping his hands behind him.

“Open your mouth.”

Viktor complies.

“Close it.”

Viktor complies.

“Shut your eyes.”

Viktor complies.

“Bow down, forehead to the floor.”

Viktor complies, prostrating himself before Yuuri and it’s wrong, so wrong that such a strong, beautiful man should be in such a humiliating position. Yuuri fights his first irrational urge to yell at Viktor to fight, and his second to sink to the floor so that they may be equal again.

“Sit up.”

Viktor complies.

“Open your eyes.”

Viktor complies.

“Stop breathing.”

The words register too late in Yuuri’s mind and nearly tear a gasp from his throat. Kneeling before him, eyes fixed somewhere in the distance, is Viktor, and his chest has stopped moving.

Panic seizes and freezes Yuuri’s lungs, and suddenly he can’t breathe because Viktor can’t breathe because that was a direct order because those men are cruel and Viktor, Viktor’s chest should be rising and falling but it’s still as rock. Viktor needs to inhale. He needs air to live, and he cannot make his own lungs move…

Yet when the order hit his ears, he obeyed instantly. He did not so much as flinch.

Inside, Yuuri trembles like a leaf with fury and helplessness and the barely-contained urge to throw himself down at Viktor and force oxygen into his lungs. Outside, both his body and expression remain frozen. “Is this really necessary?” he barely manages to get out, wincing inwardly at how brittle his voice sounds.

On the ground, Viktor looks unfazed, simply staring straight forward as before. Behind him, the ambassador laughs. Laughs. “Amazing, isn’t it? He is completely compliant, as you can see, so long as you tell him exactly what to do. Isn’t that right, Vityenka?”

But Viktor’s composure is beginning to fail as the seconds tick by without fresh oxygen in his lungs, in his heart, in his veins. His eyelids flutter, he sways slightly on his knees, and oh god his face is turning blue, and for the quickest moment the blues of his eyes meet the brown of Yuuri’s, staring straight into them with a screaming desperation that Yuuri will not forget as long as he lives. It takes the icy fear that had frozen Yuuri’s body and cracks it right down the middle.

The ambassador chuckles as Viktor sways again, and doubles over. “I can assure y—”

“Enough! Breathe! Let him breathe!”

Yuuri had forgotten, for a moment, that his orders were as good as the ambassador’s, and relief floods his chest the second he hears Viktor gasp for air. Viktor is in control of his lungs again, even as they convulse and he heaves, trying to pull himself back onto his knees once again.

“Don’t worry, Your Highness, it’s perfectly safe. Besides, even if he passes out, he can breathe again once he’s unconscious.”

On the floor between the ambassador and Yuuri, Viktor sputters a cough, takes a deep breath, and straightens his posture, hands clasped behind his back. His gaze settles on the wall behind Yuuri as if nothing had happened. As if he hadn’t just been forced to asphyxiate himself.

As if he’d done this a million times.

It is the single most disturbing scene that Yuuri has ever witnessed. No matter how many accidental orders Yuuri had given Viktor in the course of their relationship, it was nothing compared to what Viktor suffers at the hands of these men. Yuuri has never stripped Viktor of agency so greatly as these men have; has never caused him physical pain; has never violated his free will so terribly as what he has just witnessed here.

Two nights ago, Yuuri had said we should end this because he thought he was protecting Viktor. And instead, he had abandoned Viktor just when he needed someone most.

Yuuri can be careful. Yuuri can learn. There have to be ways of getting around giving orders; he will do verbal backflips and somersaults if it will protect Viktor. He needs to get Viktor out and away from these people. Minako is already here, they can start tonight, no time to waste.

Yuuri loves Viktor, and Viktor may not love Yuuri. That’s okay. Yuuri can accept that, if necessary, but he will not abandon Viktor again. The thought of Viktor being controlled like this ever again is entirely unacceptable.

“…hope you will allow a second chance, and that this does not affect the growing relationship between our two kingdoms.”

Yuuri is a poor excuse for a diplomat, but he is still a diplomat and decides to play his cards close to his chest. The political persona takes over, with his straight face and measured tone. “Very well. Take him to my chamber, I will deal with him shortly.” The disinterest that he manages to wrap around those bleeding words surprises him.

And it must have been convincing, because Viktor’s eyes snap to meet his for a second and final time, blue irises swimming with shock as he processes Yuuri’s impersonal response. Yuuri wants nothing more than to offer reassurance— I love you, I’ll keep you safe, I love you— but he cannot let the mask slip.

Turning away from Viktor’s gaze and heading to take his place at the head of the negotiation table is the third hardest thing Yuuri has ever done. The second hardest is not jumping back out of that seat when the guard orders Viktor to stand and follow him out of the room. And the first follows immediately after: remaining in that negotiation room and pretending to pay attention for an entire hour while Viktor sits across the palace in Yuuri’s chambers, alone and hurt and waiting.

The second he leaves the negotiation room and finds the hallway empty, he breaks out into a run.

 

 

It’s too bright. Early evening sunlight streams in from the window overlooking the sea, bathing Viktor in warmth and burning his eyes until he closes them against it. He does not like the darkness either, but it soothes the headache that had moved from his retinas to his temples and pulses in time with the waves. After a day of complete blackness, his eyes were unprepared for this much light.

It will go away, he knows—so will the ache in his knees, the cramps in his legs, and the faint nausea that swirls in a pool at the base of his throat. His body has been under stress, but the side effects will fade. He knows this from experience.

Yuuri’s bed is soft beneath him, which helps. He knows he shouldn’t be here— we should end this, Yuuri had said, just go, Viktor— but he has no choice in the matter. So here he sits. Waiting, listening, and feeling, trying to reconnect his brain to his body to the world around him.

The mental side effects of his time with his handler are always worse than the physical. Outside of Yuuri’s bedroom window, waves lap on the shore and black-tailed gulls cry out from the sky. His eyes are closed, and he hears this. The bed beneath him is soft, with some give and smooth blankets fit for royalty. His eyes are closed and he feels this.

But his own body, his own limbs, his own lungs? From those he feels oddly disconnected, as if the feet on the floor and the backside on the bed and the muscle that contract to feed air to the rest of the body belong to something else, someone else besides the man listening to waves crash on Hasetsu beach, who has lived the past day and a half in the red-glowing darkness behind his eyelids, absorbing orders like blows until he forgot how to so much as breathe on his own.

He’s wrong, of course. His body is his, and he knows because he tries to wiggle his toes and they move, tries to take a deep breath and his chest puffs out in response, fresh air sucked down his windpipe. This is his body, though it still may not feel that way.

(When his handler brought him here, he delivered a few final orders before disappearing through the door. Viktor had felt a sharp stinging panic for a moment, before remembering that he was not being stranded—indeed, he could move this body, could control this body, without someone else ordering its every move. After the previous day, he supposes that is simply taking a while to relearn.)

(This is what always happens, he reminds himself.)

(Somehow, it’s harder today.)

Surely it doesn’t help that, though his body is his, he cannot move from the bed, cannot even let his posture slip, thanks to those last explicit orders by his handler. And beneath it all burns the impatience that has him listening for footsteps in the hallway, for the creak of the door. That last order:

Do whatever it takes to please him.

Those words will keep driving his every thought and movement until he has done just that. So he waits, eyes closed against the bright sunlight, and forces his lungs to expand, contract, expand.

And then footsteps, getting progressively louder. And then the door. And then the soft sound of another’s shallow breaths, and Viktor waits, eyes closed, head bowed.

Do anything it takes to please him, and suddenly he feels the movement gather in his muscles, ready to stride over and do just what he has been taught t—

But.

But would that actually please the prince?

Remembering that last night with Yuuri, he redirects the compulsion away from that habitual course of action and into sitting still and waiting, instead. No, maybe that wasn’t what the ambassador had intended, but this is Yuuri and that order means something different here.

Yuuri must have anticipated Viktor’s situation quite well; his voice, barely louder than a whisper, floats over from across the room and says, “You know you don’t have to do anything to please me. You can just be yourself.”

And just like that, the burning, itching compulsion dissolves completely, taking with it the need to sit still and rail straight upon Yuuri’s bed. Viktor’s shoulders and spine round forward just a little and he exhales, low and long. He still does not dare to open his eyes, but this time not because of the lingering headache.

He hears the rustling of clothes and soft footsteps, following the movement in his mind from the doorway until it comes to a stop right in front of him. He can hear Yuuri’s measured breaths and matches the rhythm with his own, centering himself for a few moments as he focuses on the movement of his (own) diaphragm, his (own) lungs, his (own) chest.

Then he opens his eyes, lets them adjust to the light, and sucks in a sudden breath.

Right before him at the foot of the bed is Yuuri, Prince of Saga, on his knees.

Viktor has to remind himself to exhale.

Yuuri is sitting back on his heels, hands laid palm-down on his thighs, looking up at Viktor with eyes so vulnerable they make him want to look away. Yuuri bows his head.

“I am so sorry, Vitya.”

How could a voice so soft sound so unbearably heavy?

But Vitya, he called him, and it fills Viktor with unexpected warmth that soothes the ache that lingers from their last conversation. There is so much that Viktor does not understand about this moment: a prince humbling himself at his feet, apologizing for something that surely was not his own fault, bowing his head in respect and saying Vitya as if every syllable came straight from his heart to his lips to Viktor’s ears.

When Yuuri raises his gaze again, there are tears in his eyes, and Viktor cannot sit still. Without pausing to think he slides off the bed and onto his knees as well, wincing slightly at the radiating ache. Viktor finds that he does not so much mind the pain, when it is his own choice to feel it. He mirrors Yuuri’s position, sitting back on his heels, just close enough so that their knees nearly touch.

Viktor reaches out a hand—his own hand, his his his —and slides his fingers beneath Yuuri’s left palm. His skin is warm. Their breaths are shallow.

“You have nothing to be sorry for,” Viktor says, and means every word.

“No, I do,” Yuuri counters, looking quite miserable and only vaguely like he’s trying to hide it. “I should have known, I should have figured it out, and I never should have just…” The wetness that had pooled in his eyes overflows and drips down his cheeks. Viktor doesn’t know what to do with it. “I just thought I was making it worse. I was sure I was making it worse.”

Viktor’s left hand is clasped in Yuuri’s atop Yuuri’s thigh, but his right hand is free. He brings it up slowly, carefully, and Yuuri does not flinch as Viktor wipes those baffling tears away from his cheeks.

The salt water lingers on Viktor’s fingertips, warming his skin and reminding him of the ocean. He smiles a soft smile and does not let the prince break their gaze.

“Yuuri, no.” He shakes his head, “You make everything better.”

A shuddering laugh falls from Yuuri’s lips and he turns his head away. Viktor’s hand is left hanging in the air, cold and wet. “I left you to them. I… I ordered you to leave and you were all alone, after you trusted me and you needed me.”

“Yuuri, it’s okay—”

“It’s not. It’s not.” In Yuuri’s lap, his fingers wrap around Viktor’s hand as well and tighten. Yuuri is looking at him again, then, but his eyes are searching, flitting from their joined hands to Viktor’s collarbone to his neck. He shivers. “Tell me they didn’t hurt you too badly?”

“They didn’t—”

“Wait, no, don’t—I’m sorry, I didn’t… Ignore that. Or wait, don’t, or—do whatever you want, I mean…”

Yuuri is so obviously distressed but Viktor can’t help but smile. He shouldn’t find this endearing but he can’t help it, really. Yuuri is trying. So hard. Viktor’s heart swells, because, though a dark part of his mind has spent every hour of the last day doubting it, Yuuri really cares.

The hand Viktor used to wipe away the tears settles on the warm curve of Yuuri’s neck, his fingers playing at the tips of Yuuri’s hair. For a moment, he fears that Yuuri will pull away; instead, he leans in further, pressing more warmth and trust into Viktor’s palm.

“I am alright, Yuuri. I know that what happened was… frightening. But I have had worse. You do not need to worry.”

Yuuri barks a watery laugh. “How could I not worry?”

“I’m sorry that they made you watch that.”

“No, don’t—” Yuuri pauses to correct himself. “I mean, you do not have to apologize.” He tilts his head instead of continuing and asks, “Was that okay?”

Yes, Viktor wants to say, but his throat closes around the word even as he tries to force it to his lips. Even this small detail, it seems, he cannot reveal, and he huffs in frustration. If Yuuri is willing to accommodate Viktor’s issues, even just for now, the least Viktor could do is help him understand.

“Oh, right. Sorry.” Yuuri’s laugh wavers. “God, I… I can’t believe I’m crying, I shouldn’t be the one crying. I’m sorry.”

Viktor smiles. “If I can’t apologize, then neither can you.”

“Oh. Alright.”

“Besides. If you’re crying, it means you care.” About me, Viktor doesn’t say. “And that… Well. I don’t mind.”

“Of course I care,” Yuuri insists, teary eyes wide. His cheeks are flushed a deep red, Viktor feels his own face heat up to match. The warmth spreads to the rest of his body as Yuuri reaches up to where Viktor has cupped the side of Yuuri’s neck, laying his hand atop Viktor’s and rubbing his thumb in slow circles along the inside of Viktor’s wrist. Can Yuuri feel his pulse? Can he feel his heart racing? Yuuri closes his eyes, and leans even further into Viktor’s touch. “You are important to me,” he whispers, and a warm trill of electricity radiates out from Viktor’s spine. Yuuri speaks with such conviction that Viktor cannot even doubt it.

I am important to you.

Viktor accepts this instantly.

When Yuuri opens his eyes, Viktor can see flecks of honey in his irises and realizes how close the two of them have drifted. Both of their hands are still joined—one pair on Yuuri’s left leg, the other at Yuuri’s neck. Yuuri’s fingers slip through the gaps between Viktor’s. More of their skin touches this way.

For the smallest moment, as Yuuri’s eyes flicker to Viktor’s lips and the air thickens between them, Viktor thinks Yuuri may kiss him, may close the distance between their bodies and share in each other like they had so frequently in the past week, before it all went wrong.

Yuuri does not kiss Viktor. Instead he stands, never letting go of Viktor’s hands and using them to help Viktor to his feet as well. The pressure and sudden change of position sends a twinge down Viktor’s right knee.

“Are you alright? Your knees must…”

“I’m okay,” Viktor replies, with a smile meant to placate that Yuuri apparently does not buy for a second. His brow furrowed, Yuuri searches Viktor’s face as if he will find an answer there. Eventually, he asks outright.

“You don’t have to tell me, but…” Yuuri swallows, audibly. “That man in the guard uniform. Did he hurt you?”

The disclaimer, the you don’t have to, almost makes Viktor smile. Almost. “He never touched me. If that’s what you’re asking.”

It was and it wasn’t, Viktor gathers from the pensive frown still pulling at Yuuri’s mouth. Still, Yuuri does not ask for more details.

Which Viktor appreciates, and doesn’t.

“Would you like a bath?”

Viktor blinks. “Sorry?”

“My bath is fed by water from Hasetsu’s natural hot springs. It’s very relaxing. I always soak in it after I practice dance, it’s good for sore joints.” The twisting concern in Yuuri’s features has straightened out in the time it took Viktor to blink, leaving him looking both determined and bizarrely self-conscious.

“That would be lovely,” Viktor responds, because the thought of a warm bath is heaven. Leave it to Yuuri to guess exactly what he needs, even when Viktor himself has no idea.

They head to the en suite and Viktor finds his gaze drawn to the spot near the cabinets where he had found Yuuri curled in on himself the other night, breathing hard and barely looking Viktor in the eye. Less than two days ago, Yuuri had ordered Viktor from this very room as if their relationship meant nothing.

But that was the past, and Viktor knows that Yuuri had good reason to send him away, and you are important to him.

Yuuri grabs something small and pink from those cabinets and walks back to Viktor, a towel and a garment of muted green silk draped over his arm. He places both at the side of the in-ground bath. “This robe is pretty loose on me so it should fit you all right. And here is some soap. And a towel. If you need more towels, there are a few in that drawer over there.” Yuuri bends over then to begin drawing the bath, and Viktor’s gaze is not falling to Yuuri’s backside, it’s not, nor to Yuuri’s bare feet against the hardwood floor. Not at all. He stares at the bar of soap instead.

Viktor knows about the hot springs—several members of the Sagan court had invited him to their baths already. He knows, too, the culture surrounding these often-communal baths, in which neither modesty nor embarrassment had any place. And this is Yuuri’s bath, so surely he expects them to bathe together? Viktor shrugs his shoulders and his clothing off his frame, shivering at the cool air.

When Yuuri turns back around, surrounded by the steam from the bath, he yelps and his hand flies up to cover his eyes. “Sorry,” he squeaks, “I didn’t realize… I’m… The bath is almost ready. You can just turn it off once it’s full. You can stay as long as you want and yell if you need anything, I’ll just be… in… there…” He shuffles out of the bathroom, gaze fixed on the ground, and shuts the door behind him.

Huh. Okay. Apparently Viktor guessed wrong.

(Viktor will realize a bit later that, even flustered, Yuuri managed to give Viktor instructions without uttering so much as one binding order.)

Yuuri was right about the bath—the warm water is an antidote to each and every ache and pain in his body, even a few he didn’t know he had. Floating on his back, the water fills his ears and insulates his mind. When he closes his eyes so he can see nothing, hear nothing, feel nothing but warmth, he finds it does not scare him, for he is connected to every nerve in his body, right down to the tips of his fingers and toes.

It is not the isolation he savors, Viktor realizes, but the privacy. He is vulnerable yet relaxed, his body bare with no eyes to feast upon it. This bath, this room, is empty but for him.

(And through the unlocked door is Yuuri, but Viktor knows the door will stay shut unless he calls out to ask otherwise. If anything, he relaxes even more knowing the prince is there. He knows this is significant. He refuses to think about why just yet.)

Viktor has never been spared luxury. From the moment his talent was discovered, patrons and noblemen and occasionally even the king himself had laden him with scented perfumes and garments made of embroidered silk. His hair and skin were treated with expensive oils. The bed in his chamber at the Royal Palace was filled with only the finest down.

But none of this, he knows, was for him. The perfumes were meant for the noses of his patrons, the silk clothes for their viewing pleasure as they slid off his cream-colored skin, soft thanks to the same oils that made his hair gleam silver like a prize to be won. They enjoyed this all atop the plush luxury of his bed, and were entertained.

Today, this bath is for him, to enjoy the warmth, soothe his aches and relax his muscles. The green robe made for a prince’s body is for him tonight, to enjoy the feeling of sleek silk on his skin. The scented soap is for him, so that he alone may enjoy clean skin, soft skin, skin that smells of cherry blossoms.

Viktor leaves the water feeling nothing like the man who entered. His fingertips are prunes and his every muscle relaxed. The cool slide of silk feels lovely on his pink-flushed skin.

Pulling open the door, he finds Yuuri staring out the window. The prince turns when he hears Viktor and takes in his appearance with a soft smile. “You look refreshed.”

Two nights ago, Viktor had nearly forced himself on Yuuri, had burdened him with a terrible, dark secret, and then had cried like a child in his arms. Yuuri had been right to try to end this; Viktor knew this from the moment the words left Yuuri’s mouth, terrible in their truth. It was fair. It was the respectable decision. It was what Viktor would have done, if he were strong enough.

And here is Yuuri, framed on either side by golden rays of setting sun, smiling like this mess had not been forced on him and telling Viktor to sit down, because he had gone to the kitchens and brought them back dinner.

Yuuri had known just as well as Viktor that ending their relationship was the smart decision. This Viktor had established. But it is now becoming abundantly clear that Yuuri, like Viktor, has very little willpower for carrying out this smart decision. Torn between grateful and terrified, Viktor decides to just take it as it comes.

“I didn’t know what you’d like,” Yuuri admits, gesturing to the platter on the small table in the corner of his room. A delicious smell hits Viktor’s nose. “But since you like katsudon, I figured rice and meat would be pretty safe. It’s beef this time, hopefully that’s alright. I’m not sure what kind of sauce the cooks put on it, actually, but—”

“Yuuri.” Viktor sits down at the table and offers Yuuri a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. I am sure I will love it.”

And he does. And he loves a second bowl, too. Unsure of how hungry Viktor was, Yuuri had brought back enough to feed four. He watches Viktor eat with his lips quirked upward.

“What’s your favorite food?”

An easy question. “Katsudon!”

Yuuri barks a laugh, a sweet blush creeping into his cheeks. “Oh, that’s… I’m glad. But I actually meant back in Rossiya.”

Viktor very much does not want to think about Rossiya. “I haven’t given it much thought. I suppose I like borscht,” he answers with the first dish that pops into his mind.

“What’s that?”

“A kind of soup. Made of beets.”

“It sounds interesting.”

Viktor shrugs. “When I was little, I just liked it because it was pink. It was my favorite color.” Each word is delicate—until now, both the subjects of Rossiya and Viktor’s childhood were strictly, implicitly off limits.

“I would have thought your favorite color was blue?”

“I don’t mind blue, but it’s so… boring. Warm colors are much more exciting.”

Yuuri blanches, looking down at his current outfit—navy blue, black, and white. Come to think of it, Yuuri is almost always wearing one shade of blue or another. Viktor wishes he could shove his whole foot in his mouth.

“Ah.”

“That’s not what I meant! You look lovely in blue, it really suits you. It’s my own attire I was referring to, I assure you.”

“But you almost always wear blue.”

Viktor shoves a piece of beef in his mouth and shrugs. “I wear what I’m given. They like me in blue because it matches my eyes.”

Yuuri, interestingly enough, looks down at his plate like he’s suddenly lost all appetite. He stares with all intensity at the pile of rice and, after a moment of silence, asks, “Do you think it’s a bit stuffy in here?”

“Uh…”

“Let me open the window.”

“Okay.”

Yuuri stays by the window for a moment as the breeze swoops in, rustling the curtains and refreshing Viktor’s skin, still hot and red from the bath. Viktor breathes in deeply, eyelids drooping. Yuuri still has his back to Viktor, watching the waves crash on the shore. They have only known one another for less than two months, but Viktor can tell that Yuuri is sitting on a question as he so often does, running through different ways to phrase it. Viktor waits, and while he waits, reaches up to fashion his wet hair into a braid. Still damp, the heavy strands fall just to his hips. He ties off the messy, finished braid, relieved to have it out of the way. On the other side of the room, Yuuri speaks.

“Who was that man?”

Viktor does not have to ask for clarification. “My handler.”

“Ah.” Yuuri still does not turn around.

“I don’t see him very often,” Viktor shrugs, attempting nonchalance. “Antonovich has taken over a lot of his role.”

“Like… correcting you.”

Viktor knows instantly where Yuuri has pulled that word from—after all, in the past day Viktor has been forced to repeat those few sentences a hundred times over, first syllable by syllable then word by word then phrase by phrase, until the cadence of the words had been etched into his vocal tract. I have been corrected for my transgressions.

“Antonovich still leaves that to the handler.” A wry smile creeps at Viktor’s lips. “He doesn’t have the patience.”

Yuuri shudders, turns, and Viktor sees the apology in Yuuri’s eyes before he hears it. “I didn’t mean to get you in trouble. I didn’t tell him anything, I swear, but I was so angry after everything and I suppose he drew his own conclusions.”

“I know that, Yuuri.” And it’s the truth. “Please don’t blame yourself.”

Yuuri leans back against the wall by the open window, arms wrapped around his stomach. “They probably think I’m in here hurting you right now.”

“Most likely.”

“They were happy about it.”

“Don’t take it personally. They’re not the kind of people that can fathom the… the kindness you have showed me,” Viktor admits, gesturing to the delicious meal in front of him and the luscious robe on his body and the steam still leaking under the bathroom door. “But with the way you were acting in the negotiation room, they would never guess that you’re nothing like them.”

Yuuri straightens, his shoulders hunching ever so slightly up toward his ears, looking almost offended. “The way I was acting?”

Viktor attempts to backpedal. Slowly. “Well, it was a little bit terrifying, you must admit. I can’t imagine what they thought they were ordering me here to face.” That spreads a grin across Viktor’s face, the thought of Antonovich’s face if he ever knew just how lovely his Yuuri has been to him.

(His Yuuri? Where did that come from? Viktor shoves that away for later, as well.)

Across the room, Yuuri looks like Viktor has sprouted wings. Or horns. Or both. “Terrifying? I was so scared I was shaking!”

“You just seemed angry.”

“Well I was! For you! They almost… they…”

“You kept your composure well, then.” Surely he had been attempting to do just that? So why does Yuuri look positively horrified at the notion?

Yuuri’s eyes flicker away from Viktor’s, and Viktor can feel another question coming on. “Did I scare you? Back there?”

The question completely blindsides him; of everything Yuuri could have wanted to know, he was worried about that? Whether or not Viktor felt a momentary spike of terror at those disinterested words, I’ll deal with him shortly? He had. That’s the answer. He had, but he’s not sure it’s worth telling Yuuri that. After spending nearly two months critiquing Yuuri’s dancing he knows that Yuuri worries and that on an average day Yuuri has, for some ridiculous reason, the same amount of self-confidence in his whole body that Viktor has in his pinky toe.  

But hesitating apparently means yes, you did, because Yuuri soon continues, eyes blown wide. “I wanted to intervene. I swear I did. I would never have done anything to hurt you…”

Yuuri Katsuki is the prince of a powerful nation, second heir to the royal crown, but while there is something to be said for humility, right now he just sounds small.

“I know. Trust me, Yuuri, I know you would never do that. I was just a bit out of it, is all.”

Some sense of urgency overtakes Yuuri when he hears Viktor’s words. He crosses the room in a few strides and takes his place back at the table, in front of the dinner he had so hastily abandoned. He grabs Viktor’s hand over the tabletop and the sudden contact, though not unwelcome, makes Viktor jump.

“Vitya, I know—” Yuuri freezes. “It is okay for me to call you that, right? I know you said… but after everything that happened…”

“Yes. Please.” Viktor isn’t sure why Yuuri would have doubted that, and doesn’t want to give it much thought at the moment.

Yuuri lets out a shudder of a breath. “Okay. Good. Vitya. Vitya, I know that I have hurt you.”

“Yuuri—”

“Let me finish.” Yuuri does not seem to notice that it was an order, and Viktor would never think of pointing it out. “I know that I have hurt you, more than I ever realized. But… I never meant to. I only wanted you to be you . And things are different now, now that I know, but I’m not just going to leave you, unless that’s what you want. We can figure this out together, okay?” Yuuri’s fingers tighten around Viktor’s, their gazes locked. “I never meant to hurt you,” Yuuri repeats, whispering now. “Please believe me.”

Viktor, in all honesty, does not quite know what to say.

“Wait.” Yuuri cocks his head, back going straight in his chair. “Is ‘please believe me’ an order?”

Viktor blinks, attempting to think through the question, but he cannot seem to wrap his brain around the concept no matter how hard he tries. I don’t know, he tries to answer, but again the words remain trapped inside him, never to leave his chest. Yuuri, of course, realizes quickly, and his hand tightens in Viktor’s.

“Oh. Right. Sorry, I keep forgetting.”

“It’s okay,” he whispers as the vice grip on his vocal chords loosens. “And for what it’s worth, I never meant to hurt you either.”

Yuuri’s brow furrows, confusion cutting across his smile. “You haven’t hurt me,” he protests, as if he does not recall a few nights before when Viktor had all but attacked him and then proceeded to unload all of his terrible baggage upon Yuuri’s shoulders, leaving him curled in a panicked ball on the bathroom floor and then doing precisely nothing to help. Viktor hurt him. Viktor was not good for him. Yuuri knows this as well as Viktor does, because he knew to break it off. I can’t do this, he said, and Viktor knew what that meant.

“Yuuri, you know you don’t have to say that to spare my feelings—”

Knock, knock, knock.

The sudden raps on the door freeze Viktor’s words and turn his veins to ice, because he knows who that must be: the very man who dropped him off in this place to begin with, coming to collect. It is strange that they would rush the prince, especially since this particular visit was meant to make political amends, but then again they’ve had plenty of time together already and the sun has barely begun to set, leaving the rest of the evening wide open for another patron, surely—

“Don’t worry, Vitya.” Yuuri, having felt Viktor’s hand seize up in his, gives his fingers a comforting squeeze. “It’s a friend.”

“Friend?”

“Sorry, I wanted to tell you first, but she’s a bit early.” Viktor’s hand is suddenly empty and cold as Yuuri stands and walks to the door.

“She?”

Just then Yuuri opens the door, revealing a slim woman with dark, sleek hair and a birthmark dotting her cheekbone. Her expression is unreadable, even as she makes brief eye contact with Viktor over Yuuri’s shoulder. Viktor does not so much as blink.

“You called, Your Royal Highness?”

Though Yuuri has every right be addressed so formally, hearing those words is startling. A second passes before Viktor registers the woman’s teasing tone.

Yuuri bows slightly in return. “Minako-sensei. You’re a bit early.” He steps aside so she can enter the room.

“Well, the sooner we get started the better. Viktor, I presume?” she asks, facing the table where Viktor still sits. “I am Minako.” She offers him a bow.

Realizing his rudeness, Viktor stands and bows back, bending lower out of habit. “It is nice to meet you.”

“Minako-sensei was my dance teacher.”

Viktor’s eyes widen. “Really?”

“It’s true. I taught him everything he knows.” The corner of her mouth pulls upwards. “Although I hear that’s not strictly true anymore, is it?”

Viktor’s gaze flits between Yuuri and his dance teacher. “Prince Yuuri was already very talented before I met him. I’ve hardly taught him anything.”

“Not true, Vitya.”

“Well, I’m just glad he’s dancing again,” Minako admits. “Even if it got him wrapped up in this mess.”

The words sting like a slap to the cheek. He hopes he did not flinch, but has a sneaking suspicion otherwise.

“Vitya.” Yuuri is saying his name a lot. Does he know how soothing that is? Is he doing it on purpose? “She doesn’t mean you, she means the curse.”

Viktor smiles, but it’s stale. “I don’t see the difference.”

“I do.”

“Don’t waste time with self-pity,” Minako chastises. “There’s a problem, and I’m here to fix it.”

“…You?”

“Minako-sensei knows about these things.”

The meaning of Yuuri’s cryptic explanation settles in slowly, seizing Viktor’s muscles as it goes. “You are a ved’ma?

Minako shrugs. “That’s not what we call it here. But yes. Or I used to be, if there is such a thing.”

“She’s retired from it.”

“And tired of it.”

“She’s doing me a favor.”

“A big one. I’ve heard of binding curses before, never thought I’d have to break one.”

Viktor has trouble finding his voice. Break… He tries to concentrate on those words, to wrap his mind around their meaning, but it keeps slipping away. “Th-thank you,” he squeezes out. He’s not sure he’s processing everything that’s happening. He’s not sure he can.

“We might as well get started. I’ll be able to do this better if you’re seated on the bed.”

Viktor straightens, swallows. “Okay.” He takes a few steps toward the foot of Yuuri’s bed and sinks down into the mattress. The woman, who seemed tall before, suddenly looms over him. A shiver traces its way down his spine.

there’s a woman in red and he’s laying down and she’s saying—

“Viktor. I won’t hurt you. I’m not going to be able to do much today. We are probably going to be at this for a while before it goes away completely.”

“How long?” Yuuri wonders.

“A few days, a week, longer, I couldn’t tell you. I’ll know better in a minute.”

“What are you going to do?” Yuuri asks, voicing every question that Viktor wants to ask but can’t quite form, for which Viktor is eternally grateful.

“I’m just going to check it out and see what we’re working with. Viktor, I’ll put both hands over your ears. It may feel a little strange, but I promise it won’t hurt. Yuuri can vouch for that.”

“She’s right, it’s actually kind of pleasant. From what I remember.”

Viktor wants to ask why Yuuri knows this, but it’s a question for another time.

“Is that all right with you, Viktor?” She’s hiking up her sleeves and her gaze is intense and Viktor is completely overwhelmed until he feels a warm hand slip into his own and the mattress next to him dip under the weight of another body. Their thighs touch. Their fingers thread. Viktor breathes.

“You don’t have to,” Yuuri says.

“I want to,” Viktor replies, and that’s that.

Yuuri was right—it does not hurt. Minako’s hands are cold against the sides of his head but it’s not unpleasant, almost as if he is back in Yuuri’s bath, floating on his back with his ears underwater. Yuuri’s hand tightens around his. And then before Viktor knows, it’s over. He’s back above the surface.

“Well?” Yuuri asks, tone crisp and eager.

Minako huffs. “It’s pretty extensive, unfortunately.”

Something seizes in Viktor’s chest. “Does that mean…?”

“No, we’re still fixing this. It just might take a while. It’s just the nature of these things, I’m afraid.”

Viktor wants to ask what that means, but he can’t. Physically can’t. Luckily, Yuuri does for him.

“How do we break it?”

Minako laughs. “You don’t just break it. It’s not like some flimsy piece of rope tying his hands behind his back. This kind of curse is like a net, and a really intricately woven one at that. It needs to be intricate, to serve a role so complex. It must have taken hours to construct.”

the woman in red smiling and reaching out and then black, creeping at the corners, seeping until black black bl—

“The other one, though, that I can deal with very quickly.”

Viktor looks up, meeting her eyes. “What?”

“The other curse, the little one. The masking one.”

“Masking? That’s what that is?” There’s excitement in Yuuri’s voice. “That’s why he can’t talk about it?”

“I imagine he can’t think about it in much depth, either.” They both look to Viktor for confirmation, but he’s paralyzed as usual. He can’t confirm, he can’t deny, what were they talking about again? “Luckily, that one’s an easy fix.”

“You can do it right now?” Viktor manages, breathless.

“If you let me. It won’t take long. I’ll just do the same thing I did earlier, you’ll hardly feel a thing.”

Yuuri squeezes his hand again, and this time Viktor risks a glance to his left. He finds nothing but steadfast support in Yuuri’s eyes.

“We don’t have to do this now. A lot has happened today, you’re probably really overwhelmed—”

“I don’t want to wait.”

Viktor closes his eyes so he doesn’t have to see her hands descend upon him. They cup his head so lightly that he barely feels the touch, submerging him and muting the sounds he never noticed until they were gone—the crashing of waves, the crying of seagulls outside the window, Yuuri’s quiet breathing at his side. Viktor nearly forgets to breathe himself, until Yuuri’s fingers constrict around his, a gentle reminder and steady anchor.

Somehow, everything is louder in the murky silence. There’s a faint ringing in his head and he thinks that if he listens close enough, he can hear his own heartbeat. A chill settles over him, but it’s not the bitter, bone-chilling cold of Rossiyan winters; instead it reminds him of peppermint candy and a springtime breeze, tingling his nerve endings on the outside but slowly, gently working its way inside.

The chilled fingers reaching into his mind send shivers up his spine and give him the unshakeable impression of nakedness, yet it feels nothing like he expects. Viktor is used to stripping for others. He is used to peeling garment after garment from his own body to expose what lies beneath so that others may consume. This is different however: he is suddenly fifteen years old again, experiencing it all for the first time, a bit of novel excitement mingling with nervousness in his stomach. Then, it had all just been new, and he had chosen for himself.

Just like he chooses, now, to stay frozen on the bed and surrender his mind. Yuuri’s hand, warm and soft in his own, is the only thing grounding him.

And just like that, it’s over. The waves and seagulls and soft exhales come back to him all at once, and the air is warm again.

At first, everything feels the same.

“Viktor?”

He opens his eyes to find Yuuri and Minako staring back.

“Are you okay?” That’s Yuuri’s voice. Yuuri’s question.

“Ye—” Viktor tries to reply, but it comes out scratchy. He clears his throat. “Yes.”

“Did it work?”

Nothing feels different. The light is too bright on his eyes. “I don’t…”

Minako cuts to the chase. “Viktor, do you have a curse?”

Do I…?

The question echoes back in his head, and he half expects the rest of the sentence to disappear. He expects, so he barely tries to continue.

Except it’s there. The rest of the sentence. It’s there.

Do I have a curse?

The last word feels foreign to his mind. He tries to imagine how to say it, where to place his tongue, how to shape his lips. He takes a deep breath.

“A… curse?”

The word has a strange lilt to it, his mouth hanging just a bit too long on the s , but he says it. He says it. Curse.

“I have a curse.”

The sentence tumbles out without issue and he almost doesn’t recognize his own voice, speaking those words. They echo back to him, ringing in his ears, and he mouths the word once again, just because he can. Curse.

“I have a curse.

“Vitya” Yuuri’s hand is squeezing his so tightly that both of their fingers have gone white. Viktor doesn’t mind. He looks over, takes in Yuuri’s radiant smile, and squeezes back.

“Good. Glad we have that out of the way,” Minako nods. Viktor isn’t sure what to make of it.

“I don’t understand. How did you…?”

Minako shrugs. “That was the easy part. If we’re going to fix this, I am going to need you to tell me everything you can about how the curse works. That will be a lot easier now that you can actually think and talk about it.”

A few minutes ago, Minako had spoken of breaking his curse, but understanding had kept squirming out of his grasp the second he got close. He was so used to it—that slippery, nebulous something that was the nature of his curse always eluding him, dizzying and disorienting him if he ever strayed too far inside it, choking him on his own words if he ever tried to give voice to its existence. He was never able to get the full picture. Never able to speak a word.

And now?

Well, it’s all suddenly so obvious, isn’t it? He feels like a drunkard whose head is clear and sober for the first time in seven years.

“I…”

Viktor begins, and stops. He doesn’t know what to say.

“I imagine this will take a bit of getting used to,” Minako says.

Viktor huffs a laugh. “You could say that.” His chest feels bizarrely light. The world around him is bizarrely clear, the colors crisp, and it’s probably all just in his head but at this point what the hell isn’t?

Yuuri reaches over Viktor’s lap and grabs his other hand, apparently unsatisfied with just the one. Instinctively, Viktor angles his shoulders toward the prince. “You can tell me now, can’t you? If I accidentally order you to do something you don’t want to do?”

He’s right. Dear god, he’s right. Viktor grins. “I suppose I can.”

“Well, you’re not off the hook yet,” Minako huffs. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do. I need to figure out a plan of attack. Can I take another look at you?” She’s holding up her hands expectantly.

“Al… Alright.”

“Good. Lay down this time, it will make it easier for you.”

Viktor almost moves to lay back, but his gut twists—something about a ved’ma standing over him, holding out her hands telling him to lay down, calm down, she’s only trying to help… Minako won’t hurt him. Viktor trusts Yuuri and Yuuri trusts her. But memories from the day this all began are swimming close to the surface today, and he’s too overwhelmed to be quite that rational.

Viktor hesitates. “I’d rather sit up, if it’s the same to you.”

Minako shrugs. “That’s fine, whatever y—”

Vitya.

Yuuri’s voice cuts through Minako’s, bringing their exchange to a grinding halt. Viktor’s hands are suddenly empty and cold, but Yuuri’s hands reconnect with Viktor’s body near his shoulders. His fingers grip Viktor’s biceps and his widened eyes scour Viktor’s face from chin to cheeks to nose to hairline, and back again.

“What’s wrong?”

“What’s wr— Vitya. Viktor. ” Yuuri shakes his head, mouth never quite closing. “She told you to lay down.”

“Oh.” Viktor’s throat swells, his mouth suddenly dry. “I didn’t think… Well. I didn’t mean to be disrespectful, I’m sorry.”

“No, that’s not, Vitya.” Warm fingers hook under Viktor’s jaw and tilt his gaze back up, back to Yuuri’s, back to eyes that shine and shimmer like moonlight on the Neva. Those hands, warm and soft (but a little cracked around the palm; Viktor has some moisturizer he could give him, though this is not the time), they cradle his face on either side and quiver, ever so slightly. Yuuri swallows, his adam’s apple bobbing. “Vitya, you disobeyed.”

The words are an indictment that contradict the obvious wonder in Yuuri’s eyes, voice, in his entire being, and Viktor does not understand. “I was not aware I had to obey.” Perhaps his response is sharper than necessary, because Yuuri is a prince after all, and Minako likely a noblewoman, both far higher in stature than a foreign courtesan. Still, he pulls away, and Yuuri’s hands fall back to his own lap. The prince’s mouth forms an undignified 'o'. His brow furrows.

“Of course you have to obey, you have a curse!”

As if Viktor needs reminding. “Yes, and I thought you were trying to break it!”

“Well it seems like you already have! Minako ordered you, and you just…”

…oh.

Oh.

“Yuuri, I don’t, Minako’s not… She’s not a patron. I don’t have to obey her.”

Viktor does not understand why Yuuri treats the words like a physical blow, but he looks like he’s been punched in the gut. His hands come up to cover his own face, hiding those beautifully expressive eyes and leaving Viktor blind to understand what’s going through the prince’s head.

“I’m going to leave you two now.” The voice startles Viktor—he’d momentarily forgotten about Minako. “I will do some research, and we can continue this tomorrow, okay Viktor?”

“Okay,” Viktor replies, barely sparing a glance, and perhaps it’s rude and ungrateful but something is wrong with Yuuri and there is nothing more important in that moment. He hears the door open, then close, and they are alone.

Yuuri is still hiding his face.

“You didn’t know that’s how the curse worked, then.” It’s not a question. Viktor forms each word slowly, processing their meaning, and proceeds. “I guess you wouldn’t have. I couldn’t tell you. There was no reason for you to… to know that.”

Yuuri doesn’t move. Viktor wants to reach out and pull his hands from his face, but he stays still.

“You thought that I had to take orders from everyone, then. Everyone, including…” Oh, oh, oh. “Including yourself, all along. Even before… before that night?”

It’s a question, this time. He needs confirmation. Yuuri hears this, too, and lets his hands fall from his face and into his lap. Those deep brown eyes stare unfocused, stunned. But then he blinks, shakes it off, and looks up to Viktor and searches his face yet again, desperate for an answer to a question he has yet to ask.

Viktor waits quietly for Yuuri to find the words. Eventually, the prince speaks.

“You… It was real? I didn’t make you? It was all real?”

And god, it nearly splits Viktor’s heart in two. He reaches out to Yuuri’s lap and joins their hands together—it is his turn to anchor Yuuri. “Of course it was real.”

“But I thought…” Yuuri shivers, but does not look away. “I told you to dance with me. To teach me. To kiss me, I ordered you…”

“Yuuri.” Every single ounce of comfort, of happiness, of love that Viktor has felt for this man in the past two months, he pours into that moment—into Yuuri’s name on his lips and Yuuri’s fingers threaded through his. “I danced with you because you asked and I wanted to. I taught you because you asked and I wanted to. And I kissed you… Well. I think that’s obvious. Yuuri, I wanted to kiss you from the moment I met you.”

Yuuri’s face is a second away from crumbling, but unlike that night in the bathroom, Viktor thinks he might know how to deal with it. Yuuri’s hands wander from Viktor’s, tracing up his forearms, to the crook of his elbows, leaving every patch of skin like gooseflesh, pale hair sticking straight up.

“But you have to obey me now.”

“Yes.”

“Since the ambassador made me a patron.”

“Yes.”

“How long does it last?”

“Forever, I think.”

The corners of Yuuri’s eyes crinkle with a smile. “It’s a good thing we’re breaking the curse, then.”

A laugh bubbles up from Viktor’s chest. “Yes. A very good thing.”

“Can I hug you?” Yuuri asks, and though the words come out strong he seems to recoil the second they leave his mouth. “That’s weird, I’m sorry. I just thought—”

“It’s not weird,” Viktor replies almost immediately, leaning in until he can wrap his arms around Yuuri’s waist. After a few seconds, he feels Yuuri’s pull him closer, settling his own arms near Viktor’s shoulder blades. Viktor’s skin is goosebumped and electric all over, sensitive to every shifting place where Yuuri’s body meets his.

It’s quite unlikely, isn’t it? Viktor Nikiforov, dancer and courtesan of the court of Rossiya who lies with different men every week… touch-starved.

He buries his face where Yuuri’s neck meets his shoulder, and it smells nice.

“After I figured out about the curse, I woke up in the middle of the night and all I could think was that I’d forced myself on you.” Yuuri’s vocal chords hum against Viktor’s cheek. “I thought that I’d forced our relationship from the beginning, that you were only going along with it because you had to. It didn’t make sense because it felt so real, when you looked at me that way you do, and when we kissed, but what else was I supposed to think?”

And it all seems to clear now, from Yuuri’s perspective. “So you tried to end it.” Not because he couldn’t handle Viktor and his years of baggage, not because he was angry or fearful after Viktor all but attacked him that night, but because… “Because you didn’t want to hurt me.”

“I had already hurt you. I couldn’t do that to you anymore.”

Yuuri’s tearful words float back to Viktor, words that had echoed in his head in the days afterward, as he lay alone in his bed the next morning and then later, as he kneeled before his handler in a dark room for what felt like a lifetime. I can’t do this.

Now, Viktor hears what he really meant: not I can’t deal with you or I can’t trust you but instead, I can’t hurt you.

He clings tighter to Yuuri, and Yuuri clings back.

“When you didn’t put up a fight, I figured it had to be true. That I’d imagined it all, that you didn’t…”

“No, Yuuri. I thought you didn’t want me,” Viktor admits, the words murmured into Yuuri’s skin. “And I figured that was fair. You deserved better, after everything.”

Viktor does not expect the hitch in Yuuri’s breath, the hands suddenly on his shoulders, pushing him back and out of their embrace. He feels the distance between them like a loss.

Never . I would never.” Yuuri’s eyes are wild. “Viktor—Vitya—you are everything. Everything. It was me who didn’t deserve you.”

Every square inch of skin on Viktor’s body prickles and stands on edge yet again, and it dawns on Viktor that maybe touch-starved isn’t the right word. It’s not touch he craves but affection, tenderness, love. And he has it, he thinks, in the improbable form of the lovely Prince of Saga, whose dancing speaks of divine inspiration, who says impossible things to Viktor with his heart behind every word, who holds Viktor as if no one else ever has, who calls him Vitya and who, to Vitya, is not Prince or Highness but simply Yuuri, Yuuri, Yuuri.

“You have me,” he whispers, “for as long as you want.”

“And you have me,” Yuuri replies. “Always.”

Viktor wants to correct him—there are only weeks to go in negotiations. Soon the treaty will be signed, their relative trade interests strengthened, and the Rossiyan delegation will leave this oceanside kingdom for a land encrusted in ice. Viktor will return home, curse or no curse, to do his duties, but he will think of Yuuri every day.

Perhaps that is what Yuuri means by always.

For now, he has weeks left to enjoy this.

Yuuri’s cheeks are flushed. His thumb traces figure eights on Viktor’s palm. He looks like he’s forming a question, searching for the right words, and Viktor waits.

“Will you stay with me tonight?”

It is the sweetest request Viktor has ever heard, and he lets it echo in his ears over and over. He does not want to respond; he likes when the last voice in his ears is Yuuri’s.

“You don’t have to, but… you probably shouldn’t go back to your chamber. They might come looking for you, and you’re safer here.”

As if Viktor needs to be convinced: he feels safer here than anywhere else in the world.

Viktor’s exhale is long and low, and he isn’t sure if he leans into Yuuri or if Yuuri leans into him or if they fall into one another and meet in the middle. Either way, the space between them disappears and Viktor finds himself wrapped in Yuuri’s arms once again, his forehead against Yuuri’s neck. The other man’s pulse resonates throughout Viktor’s body. Their hearts beat in time.

“This is the only place I want to be.”

 

Chapter Text

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When Yuuri was ten years old, he learned to braid his sister’s hair. Back before she chopped it off at her shoulders, before she went on a trip somewhere West and returned with half her head bleached the color of straw, she had thick dark hair down to her waist. Yuuri remembers sitting at the side of her bed, feet dangling off the edge, and watching as she spent what felt like hours each night brushing out the knots—beautiful, but unmanageable.

She always braided her hair before she slept, but she grumbled under her breath the whole time that her arms ached and goddammit, she missed a strand. The end product was reliably uneven and hastily tied off at the end; until, of course, she employed her brother’s help.

Yuuri, Mari always says, pays more painstaking attention to detail than anyone she has ever met. He learned quickly and tackled the task with his brow furrowed in concentration until her hair was neatly plaited down the middle of her back.

Conveniently, the repetitive movements worked well to soothe his anxiety. When the usual remedies didn’t work—dancing, or herbal tea, or his head between his knees—Mari would submit herself without complaint to shaky hands and a less-than-stellar hairdo. It was always a two-way street with Mari, and sometimes it seemed to calm her too.

And perhaps that is why he finds himself saying, before he can think twice:

“I can do it, if you want.”

Viktor, dressed in fresh pajamas (Yuuri’s) and tugging a brush (Yuuri’s) through the ends of his mostly-dry and tangled hair, freezes at the offer. “Do what?”

“Your hair. Brush it, I mean. And braid it. I noticed before that you braided it, and, um… I could. Do that.” He shifts his weight. “If you want.”

Yuuri watches closely as the suspicion in Viktor’s eyes melts into confusion. He’s trying not to stare, really, but every movement of Viktor’s means something different than it did ten minutes ago and he wants to soak it all in.

Of course it was real.

You have me.

Yuuri studies Viktor, and Viktor, hands dropping from his hair, studies Yuuri back. A beat passes, and he nods.

“You don’t have to,” Yuuri rushes to reassure him, and that actually makes Viktor laugh.

“I know that.” He holds out the brush like an offering and sits down on the edge of Yuuri’s bed. “You don’t have to be so nervous, Yuuri. I can tell you if something’s wrong now, remember?”

“Right.”

Yuuri had never compelled Viktor to do anything, in the beginning. He knows this now. The realization is taking its time to sink in fully—the back of his mind busy re-re-evaluating their relationship—but Yuuri knows this. Clings to this.

But he also knows that, regardless of the past, he can compel Viktor now, and he finds himself compulsively analyzing each and every one of his own utterances. Just in case.

“Yuuri?”

Viktor is still holding the brush out. Yuuri blinks, accepts it, and slides onto the bed, kneeling on the mattress just behind Viktor.

“Is this okay?”

“Yes,” Viktor breathes.

Yuuri sweeps the silvery hair, softer and heavier than he expected, over Viktor’s shoulders so that every strand lies down his back. The ends reach down to the base of Viktor’s spine. Yuuri brushes out a few tangles there and feels Viktor shudder.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m alright,” he sighs. “It’s just different.”

“Different bad?”

“No.”

And so Yuuri continues, brushing out knots at a snail’s pace because he refuses to snag even one strand and cause Viktor pain. Viktor’s shoulders already carry so much tension, as if he is just waiting for it. Oddly enough, though, instead of making Yuuri’s anxiety spike, Viktor’s unease causes a wave of determined confidence to flood his system. Viktor is nervous and tense and not used to this, but Yuuri will show him with every feather-light stroke of the brush that it’s okay. Viktor has trusted Yuuri with this part of himself, and Yuuri will never take that lightly.

As the seconds tick by, the tension in Viktor’s shoulders melts and he tips his head backward into the touch, just slightly.

All of the tangles straightened out, Yuuri sets down the brush and forms three strands at the crown of Viktor’s head to begin the braid. His hair is warm near his scalp and it slides between Yuuri’s fingers like silk. He crosses the strands, gathers more hair, crosses them again, and marvels.

“Beautiful,” Yuuri whispers. He never meant to say it out loud, but his mind has been chanting the word over and over again like a mantra for the past five minutes, so it’s not surprising that it slipped out at least once.

“Are you complimenting your own handiwork, or me?” Viktor teases. Yuuri briefly considers lying, but decides against it.

“You.” Viktor’s hair is beautiful. Viktor’s everything is beautiful. There’s no point in pretending it isn’t. “Although I suppose you get that a lot.”

A small breath falls from Viktor’s lips. “It’s different when it’s you.”

Yuuri’s hands falter in Viktor’s hair. His cheeks are burning. Which strands was he supposed to cross next? “Ah.”

There is a moment of silence as Yuuri focuses on finding his place. He gathers more hair, and accidentally tugs too hard on one piece in particular. Viktor tenses.

“Sorry, sorry!”

And just like that, Viktor relaxes again. “It’s okay.”

Braiding Viktor’s hair is as therapeutic as doing Mari’s ever was. Yuuri breathes deep and slow—he’s dragged himself outside of his own head and it’s a good thing. Viktor’s breathing matches his own; Yuuri’s fingers move in time with them both.

Then, as Yuuri nears the end, Viktor says, “Sometimes I fantasize about cutting it all off.”

Distress bubbles up from Yuuri’s chest. “Why?” he asks, his voice an octave too high.

Viktor shrugs. Yuuri finishes the braid and ties off the end, sitting back on his heels, but Viktor does not turn around. “Like you said, it’s beautiful. People like it. Some people in particular.” He reaches a hand back and runs his fingers down the braid’s ridges. “Not all of them are as gentle as you.”

“The ambassador?”

Viktor is facing away. Yuuri cannot see the sad smile grace Viktor’s lips, but he knows it’s there anyway, hears it in Viktor’s voice, sees it in the slight dip of his head. “You’re a good guesser, Yuuri.”

With mere inches between their bodies, Yuuri’s hands move reflexively to comfort with touch—but they stop when they can’t find a place to rest. Viktor’s shoulders? The sides of his arms? Perhaps if Yuuri were bold, he would wrap his arms around Viktor’s midsection, but the ambassador’s name still hovers in the air and with it, the knowledge of years of unwanted touches. And Yuuri is bold—he just asked to braid Viktor’s hair—but he is not thoughtless.

Instead, he sits back, crossing his legs in front of him. “And what if you did cut it?”

Viktor turns then, eyebrows raised so high that they almost grace his hairline. “Are you joking, or do you want a serious answer?” He pulls his legs up onto the mattress as well, facing Yuuri and mirroring his position. “I’d have to prepare myself for another day like today. That’s the serious answer.”

Viktor, gaze fixed forward, eyes dead; Viktor, falling to his knees and wincing in pain; Viktor, asphyxiating himself for sick entertainment as effortlessly as if it were part of his daily routine. The images flash through Yuuri’s mind and god, that was today , only hours ago, and here Viktor was speaking of it with a shrug and a half smile.

A coping mechanism, surely. The only alternative is that this happens so frequently that Viktor is completely used to it.

It’s horrifying, either way.

“Do you have a mirror?”

Yuuri’s head twitches up. “What?”

“You did such a nice job braiding my hair. I think it deserves to be admired, don’t you?”

A laugh bubbles up from Yuuri’s chest at the preposterous but entirely Viktor non sequitur. He slides off the mattress and heads to the bathroom, stopping before he orders come here, saying instead, “There’s one in here.”

Viktor pads behind him and they quickly come to a stop in front of the built-in vanity. Yuuri pulls a hand-held mirror out of the same drawer he got the brush from earlier and holds it up behind Viktor’s head.

“You should probably lower your expectations, you know.”

“Nonsense, I’m sure it—” Viktor twists his head this way and that, until he gets a clear view of the back of his head and gasps. “Yuuri! It’s perfect!”

The two of them look lovely in the mirror, standing side by side with smiles lighting their faces. Viktor’s lips form a heart, and Yuuri’s hammers away in his chest. Yuuri has noticed before, during their time together in the studio, that he is a few inches shorter than Viktor. He misses the studio. It feels like weeks since they danced, even if it has only been a few days.

Viktor and Yuuri, Yuuri and Viktor. They look good, despite everything. They look right.

“You’re ridiculous, Vitya.” The heart-shaped smile gets impossibly wider the precise moment Yuuri pronounces his name: Vitya, precious, deserving Vitya, still so delighted at the nickname even after all this time.

Viktor gasps and wraps an arm around Yuuri’s waist. The touch shoots up Yuuri’s spine. “No, your lack of faith in yourself is ridiculous!”

“It’s just a braid!”

“Oh, my Yuuri, you sell yourself short.”

The moment the words process in their minds, Viktor tenses and Yuuri relaxes. Oh, my Yuuri, and it sounds like a sweet melody, a graceful musical phrase , an arabesque, my Yuuri. Does Viktor know what those words do to Yuuri? Does he know how quickly and viscerally the need arises within Yuuri to hear them again, and again, and again? From the way Viktor freezes, it seems not.

Viktor’s arm is around Yuuri’s waist, Viktor’s silver hair tied back with Yuuri’s braid, Viktor’s lips pronouncing and possessing Yuuri’s name, and yes. Yes. Yuuri is bold.

He watches in the mirror as his own hand comes up at his side to cup Viktor’s cheek.

“Oh, my Vitya. Your kindness amazes me.”

Viktor’s cheek burns beneath Yuuri’s hand, flushed red in the mirror. His eyes flash and his mouth falls open in a little o. He takes a single deep breath and leans into Yuuri’s palm on the exhale, his eyelids fluttering. His hand tightens around the loose clothes at Yuuri’s waist.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, Yuuri,” he whispers, eyes closed against it all.

“Neither do I.” Yuuri’s head, right at the crook of Viktor’s shoulder anyhow, settles back against him. Another point of contact; another degree of intimacy. Yuuri’s heart races, and he can hear Viktor’s hammering away to match.

“I’m scared I will screw this up.”

“You won’t.”

“I already did once.”

“That was a joint effort, I think.”

Viktor lets out a shaky breath, and his eyes finally open. They hold so much that Yuuri can barely stand to meet them, even reflected back through a mirror. Have they always been so blue?

“We screwed up together, Vitya,” Yuuri repeats, “so we’ll fix it together, too.” The solid weight of Viktor’s body catches him as he leans backward, their whole bodies touching now. Yuuri feels it, head to toe, when Viktor shivers.

“I want that.”

How often has Yuuri ever heard those words from Viktor’s mouth before: I want? Surely not often, they sound so foreign in his voice. Yet he knows Viktor wants. He knows the sheer depth of Viktor’s want, has seen it in his dancing, felt it in his kisses and touches and heard it in quiet admissions he barely dares to speak out loud. Viktor wants so much. Has been denied so much. Has been the tool of other’s wants for years upon years upon years.

Enough. Enough.

I want that, Viktor said.

Yuuri presses his body closer into Viktor’s and says, “We will have it.”

 

...

 

They don’t get much sleep that night.

It’s nothing scandalous or at all salacious. They share a mattress, some quiet words, some comforting touches, and that’s all.

(That’s all, as if the secrets Viktor spills for the first time in his life aren’t a huge milestone of intimacy; as if Yuuri doesn’t listen to each and every word with the heavy responsibility of Viktor’s trust weighing in his chest, right beneath where Viktor rests his head.)

They lay with a body’s distance between them, to start. Still, Yuuri can feel Viktor’s body heat under the blankets, can hear each inhale and exhale as if the two were on top of one another. When the pattern of his breathing evens out and deepens, Yuuri thinks Viktor has finally fallen asleep (something Yuuri has given up on accomplishing). Viktor has had a long and horrible day. Did he even sleep the night before? He must be so exhausted.

Except Viktor hasn’t fallen asleep—he is purposefully measuring his breaths, fighting something as best he can. A hitch in his breathing alerts Yuuri almost immediately.

“Vitya?”

“I’m alright,” he responds, too quickly to be the truth.

“Do you want me to turn on a lamp, or—”

“No,” he answers immediately again. When Yuuri rolls over, he can see the silhouette of Viktor’s profile against the moonlit window. Yuuri’s eyes are just starting to adjust to the darkness; Viktor’s are wide open, staring at the ceiling. “No, it’s alright. I’m alright.”

And he’s not. He’s not, but who is Yuuri to call him out? If he doesn’t want to talk…

“It’s okay if you’re not, you know.” He slides his left hand over under the covers to take Viktor’s; he finds it balled into a fist and trembling, the movement so light that Yuuri almost doesn’t notice. Still, it’s there.

“I’m alright,” he says for the third time, but Yuuri hears in the cadence of his voice that there’s more this time. Viktor sighs, and it sounds almost like defeat. “It’s just… today was a lot.” The silhouette of his adam’s apple bobs. “I think it’s just catching up to me, is all.”

Just, he says. If Yuuri had Viktor’s day, he would have imploded into an unshakeable panic attack hours ago.

“I’m here, you know. If you want to talk about it. I can’t promise it will help, but…”

A silent moment passes before Viktor’s fingers unfold. At first Yuuri thinks that’s it, but then those same fingers weave themselves between Yuuri’s with no intention of letting go. It’s enough, Viktor finding comfort in him like this. Maybe he cannot support him with words, but Yuuri can do this, for as long as Viktor wants. Yuuri can do this forever.

But Viktor is a man of surprises. His eyes close, the silhouette of his eyelashes moving down to rest upon the silhouette of his cheeks. He opens his mouth, inhales air, and exhales words barely louder than breath.

“He never touched me. He never touches me.”

Viktor said the same thing, a few hours ago when Yuuri asked about the handler, as if to write off what he’d gone through.

“…that’s the whole point, though. He doesn’t need to.”

Yuuri’s unreturned gaze feels suddenly like an intrusion, so he lies back, staring at the ceiling and grateful for the cover of darkness. He cannot see Viktor, but he can feel his skin and hear his voice.

“He uses the curse instead?” Yuuri asks when Viktor doesn’t continue.

Viktor hums. “He knows better than anyone how it works, by now. Better than me, even, because it’s always— was always—so hard to… to think about.”

“Does he do this often?” Yuuri is almost afraid of the answer.

“Only when he’s called. Only when I do something wrong, test the boundaries…”

“That’s what they thought you were doing? With me?”

Through their connected hands, Yuuri feels Viktor shrug. “I used to do it a lot, but… not so much anymore. It’s not… There’s no point.”

Yuuri searches desperately for an appropriate reply, and settles on something generic. “It’s horrible that they punished you like that.”

“Yuuri,” Viktor sighs, “it was never just punishment.”

The question begs to be asked—set up perfectly, ready on Yuuri’s tongue, yet he cannot bring himself to ask: What else, then? He wants Viktor to continue, yet he wants more desperately for him to stop.

But Viktor can’t leave it there, in the end. The question hangs in the air regardless, and the answer comes reluctantly from Viktor’s lips.

“More than that, it was…” Silence hangs in the air, then: “A reminder.”

Yuuri’s eyelids squeeze tight. “Of what?” He feels Viktor shrug again.

“My place, he always says.”

And Yuuri has never heard something so egregiously incorrect in his life. Viktor’s place is on a stage sharing his passion, or in a studio practicing, or on the beach for an early-morning run, or at a table eating katsudon or borscht, or here in a shared bed with love surrounding him, or…

Anywhere, basically, except at someone else’s feet.

Yuuri does not expect Viktor to continue, but now the floodgates have opened. Yuuri holds fast to Viktor’s hand as the images flow from Viktor’s memory to Viktor’s words to Yuuri’s all-too-vivid imagination.

“He would never go for grand orders, though, he always… He starts simple,” Viktor continues, his voice as brittle as sea glass. “Kneel. Close your eyes. Don’t move a muscle.”

A chill traces up Yuuri’s spine. He might as well be there in the room for as vivid as the image appears behind his eyelids: Viktor falling to his knees, unseeing and frozen and horribly helpless, imprisoned in his body by a man who wishes him nothing but harm.

“Did you know that the diaphragm is a muscle, Yuuri?” The question comes out of nowhere, but it’s clearly not meant for Yuuri to answer. “I didn’t at first. But then he told me, and suddenly I couldn’t…”

Don’t move a muscle.

Viktor barks a bitter laugh that prickles Yuuri’s skin. “Well. You saw something similar today, so I suppose you can imagine.”  

Even if he passes out, he can breathe again once he’s unconscious.

Oh yes, Yuuri can imagine. The picture burns against his eyes—Viktor’s face, that awful strangled blue, his head lolling, eyelids drooping—and Yuuri wonders if it hasn’t been seared into his mind forever.

Vitya…

“He controls everything, Yuuri.” His hands are shaking again, worse than before. His voice trembles to match. “Every time I inhale or exhale or blink or swallow or…”

Yuuri aches to comfort Viktor with words, but what could he say to that? You’re safe now, he could promise, but the curse is still there and those horrible men sleep under the same roof and none of that matters anyway because regardless of here and now, Viktor has suffered horribly. Yuuri can’t make that okay. He can’t.

The little circles he traces on Viktor’s hand aren’t cutting it anymore, but Yuuri refuses to stop. If he can’t comfort Viktor with words, he will comfort him like this. He will let him know that Yuuri hears him.

“He makes me say things, sometimes.”

And it’s all coming out, now: Viktor, guarded Viktor who barely revealed two details about his own life in the month and a half they spent together, is spilling his pain into the space between them.

“…Over and over again, things I’d never…”

Perhaps it is the cover of darkness hiding his face, perhaps it is delirious exhaustion. Perhaps he has just taken so many hits over the past days and weeks and years that tonight, in safety of Yuuri’s bed, he finally splits open.

“It was so dark,” Viktor whispers, choking on it. “So dark, even during the day, I couldn’t open my eyes and then at night, at night,” his breath hitches, “if I started to fall asleep he’d make me keep my eyes open, wide open and I couldn’t see—

Viktor cuts himself off. Not with a sob, not with a gasp, but with a shudder that travels from head to toe to fingertips and Yuuri feels it in his bones. It’s too much, suddenly, far too much for both of them. The darkness behind Yuuri’s eyelids means something different now and he flashes them open, drinking in the moonlight to soothe the burn of unshed tears. Yuuri blinks through them, looking over to search Viktor’s face and finding Viktor turned away from him.

Yuuri does not even hesitate before sliding over until the sides of their bodies press up together, then rolling over so that his arm that’s furthest from Viktor can wrap around Viktor’s midsection and gently pull him closer.

Startled at the change, Viktor turns his head back to face Yuuri. Even in the dim lighting, Yuuri can see the spark of fear still burning in Viktor’s eyes.

“I’m here,” Yuuri whispers, unsure what else to say. “Just me. I’m here.”

Viktor’s eyes slip shut again, and Yuuri longs to see them but he would never in a million years order Viktor to open them again. Instead, Yuuri watches as the tension drains from Viktor’s muscles, as the furrow in his brow disappears and his clenched jaw relaxes and his head falls slowly to find a natural home on Yuuri’s chest. Viktor’s hair is still pulled back in Yuuri’s braid, but fly-aways tickle Yuuri’s chin.

Yuuri forces himself to exude calm, to take deep, even breaths until his heart rate falls, because surely that’s what Viktor hears beneath his ear: thump-thump, thump-thump, thump-thump. Viktor’s breath is warm against Yuuri’s clothed chest, and it helps.

Seconds pass like this, then minutes. Yuuri does not count.

“I’m sorry, Yuuri.”

“You never need to apologize.” His words grace the top of Viktor’s head.

“I, just, that’s… that’s never happened before, I…” Viktor trails off. “I’m alright. It’s just hard, when it’s dark.”

“Are you sure you don’t want me to turn on a lamp?”

“No, I have to close my eyes to sleep, anyway,” Viktor declines, his words lilting with exhaustion as if on cue. “I am alright. Just…”

He turns his face further into the pillow of Yuuri’s chest, and Yuuri feels a small squeeze on their still-joined hands wedged between them.

“Just this, Yuuri,” he sighs. “Just this.”

The words are vague, but his meaning clear. Yuuri hums his agreement against the crown of Viktor’s head. “We can have this every night, Vitya.” If it sounds impossible, like a careless promise, Yuuri doesn’t care—he is a prince, and he will make it happen. If Viktor likes this, if Viktor wants this, he should not have to spend a night anywhere else. “I can ask, if you want me to. He won’t dare deny me. Not now.”

Against his chest, Yuuri feels Viktor’s face shift into a small, sleepy smile. “He will be so angry.”

“So I shouldn’t?”

“That’s not what I said,” Viktor mumbles. “That would be so lovely, my Yuuri. So lovely.”

Yuuri lets his fingers trace down the silver hills and valleys of Viktor’s braided hair, marveling at the shadows cast by the moonlight. He worries at first that he’s overstepped because he didn’t ask permission, except Viktor relaxes further into him with every touch. It occurs to Yuuri that Viktor has spent the past day adrift in darkness, deprived of sight and choice and contact for endless hours— of course he craves Yuuri’s touch tonight. Of course he sinks into Yuuri’s body, grounded by another human being who has him, holds him, keeps him from floating away in the pitch black behind his eyelids.

“Goodnight, Vitya.”

Viktor’s responding hum, low and peaceful, resonates in Yuuri’s chest and brings a smile to his lips. A few minutes later, Viktor’s breathing evens out. Slow and steady. Inhale, exhale.

Only then does Yuuri sleep.

 

...

 

Yuuri’s family, of course, knows everything by breakfast the next morning.

Well—not everything, he supposes, because some things will always be for Viktor and him alone, but Minako-sensei is a gossipy drunk and how could she explain her presence to the king and queen but with the truth?

Or, her interpretation of the truth.

“Yuuri’s in love.”

Minako-sensei… ” he moans, because of course that’s the one thing she decides to say. Of course.

“Well it’s true, isn’t it?” She grins and takes a dainty bite of spring roll.

Mari snorts. “As if he could hide it. I knew from the second that boy got on stage that my brother would be head over heels for him by the time the music stopped.”

“Yuuri,” his mother chuckles from the head of the table, “you don’t need to be embarrassed. We have all known for quite a while!”

It is too early for this. Yuuri doesn’t even have the energy to deny their claims. Still, they’re all focusing on a detail that is decidedly not the point.

“How much did you tell them?” Yuuri asks, turning apprehensively to Minako.

“Only that I’m here to break a curse,” she promises. “The details belong to Viktor, yes?”

Yuuri’s shoulders slump and he nods. “Thank you.”

“Yuuri,” Mari begins with raised eyebrows, “What are you going to do when the curse is broken? You know that the delegation is only here a few more weeks at the most? It seems—”

“He stays.”

Yuuri jerks at the sudden interruption, turning his head to where his father sits across the table. The king blinks, apparently not expecting the rest of the family to respond with such surprise. “What? Of course he stays. I heard what happened in the negotiation room yesterday, Yuuri. It is not too hard to guess what this curse of his might entail. Would you really send this boy back with them?”

“No,” Yuuri stutters, “no, of course not, I just…” He laughs, just thinking about it. “I prepared a speech. To convince you. I had talking points…”

Mari stifles a laugh. His mother fixes him with loving, smiling eyes that say something along the lines of oh, you silly child.

“I don’t think they’ll let go of him easily,” Yuuri admits.

His mother raises an eyebrow. “From what the advisors have been telling us, you have quite a bit of leverage. Use it.”

“Yes, but… the trade agreement, I’m sure that leverage could be used for other things.”

Mari pokes him with a chopstick and he yelps. “Why are you arguing against what you want?”

“I… I’m not, I just, I have a duty to this kingdom and I know I can’t just…”

His sister’s arms are folded over her chest. “Can’t just what, Yuuri? Prioritize the happiness of the man you love over a couple dollars in tariff revenue?”

Oh.

Viktor’s happiness. She referenced Viktor’s happiness. And here he thought they just wanted Viktor to stay for Yuuri’s sake; that it was for Yuuri’s happiness that they would take this political risk. He assumed, and assumed wrong.

He is so lucky to have this family.

He needs to talk about this with Viktor first, though. He stays, King Toshiya had proclaimed, but what of Viktor’s choice? Of Viktor’s will? He can’t imagine that Viktor would want to go back with those men who hurt him so horribly, but Rossiya is his home. Saga is not.

Saga has Yuuri, and the beach, which he knows Viktor loves. But is that enough?

Of course it is, he knows.

Of course it’s not, he doubts.

Once this curse is broken, Viktor will be the free man he always should have been. He does not have to go back to Rossiya, but he does not have to stay here, either. Yuuri will help him, but he will not decide for him.

“If the political pressure thing doesn’t work, and if we can’t get the curse broken in time,” Mari adds, “we can always fake his death.”

Minako snorts. “Or we could pretend I turned him into a potted plant or something and send that back with them.”

Oddly enough, it makes Yuuri feel better. Just a bit.

“I will talk to Viktor.” He takes the last bite of his breakfast and stands, offering the rest of the table a small bow. “Thank you, everybody. Your support means a lot, to me and to Viktor.” Then he turns to his mother. “Okaasan, do you know if there is more food in the kitchen?”

Hiroko chuckles. “I already fixed him a bento. It’s on the counter by the oven. I thought perhaps he would be joining us—he is always welcome, you know. You can’t keep him cooped up in your room forever.”

Yuuri opens his mouth, then closes it, then opens it again like a fish. “Ah. I… Thank you. I am sure he would love that.” A soft blush warms his cheeks.

He leaves the dining room and goes straight to the kitchen, finding the meal exactly where his mother said it would be. When he returns to his chambers, Viktor is still asleep in bed with the covers strewn unevenly across his body, mouth slightly ajar and drool dripping onto Yuuri’s pillow. It’s so hilariously inelegant, so contrary to Viktor’s image while he’s awake that Yuuri can’t help but laugh.

“Vitya,” he coos, brushing a few stray hairs out of Viktor’s eyes. His fingers ghost Viktor’s forehead. The skin there is warm, but not alarmingly so. “I brought breakfast.”

Viktor, Yuuri knows for a fact, rises every day just before dawn. He’s not sure if that is a habit born of necessity since he started dancing with Yuuri, or if he has always been like that. Today, however, he has every reason to sleep the entire day away, and while Yuuri is happy that he is getting much-needed rest, he knows Viktor needs to eat. How long has it been since Viktor had a meal? Yuuri isn’t sure he wants to know.

“Mmm,” Viktor hums, burying his face in the pillow. “Tired.”

“You can go back to sleep after you eat,” Yuuri coaxes, placing a feather-light touch on Viktor’s shoulder blade.

“I only wake up for katsudon,” is what Yuuri thinks Viktor mutters into the pillow. He snorts a laugh.

“That’s too heavy for breakfast. Perhaps for dinner?”

“Mmmm.”

Viktor sits up eventually, rubbing sleep from his bleary eyes and taking the box of food onto his lap.

“Thank you,” he yawns, then glances out the window with a furrowed brow. “What time is it?”

“About half past ten.”

Ten?! ” Viktor’s eyes bug out from his skull. “You didn’t wake me?”

“You needed sleep and you know it.”

Viktor looks like he might protest, then changes his mind. “Thank you for the food.”

“Of course.”

Yuuri tidies up the room while Viktor eats, rearranging his sock drawer at least three times to give Viktor some space.

“Yuuri?” Viktor asks as he takes the last bite of rice.

“Yeah?”

“Do you want to dance today?”

Yuuri grins in response. Viktor’s words are music to his ears.

“Of course.”

 

 

Two days. Only two days, since they last stood together in this room, but it might as well be weeks. Their relationship did not start here but it grew here—blossomed from a waltz only one of them remembers to dances and kisses and touches neither of them can forget.

And then, that night. And then, crying on the bathroom floor and terrible words and the door swinging shut and it was both of their faults, that night. They communicate so well with dance yet so poorly with words, though part of that couldn’t be helped. Part of that was a curse. But a lot of the rest was Yuuri’s own issues, for which—as Minako reminded his mother over and over again all those years ago—Yuuri only has his own mind to blame.

They are not the same as they were when they last visited this studio. As he takes in their reflection, standing shoulder to shoulder in the mirror, Yuuri can’t help but think they’re stronger .

The East wing studio welcomes them back quietly and instantly. They slip back into their routine with ease—stretch, do warm ups at the barre, run through Yuuri’s choreography side by side, water break, critiques and suggestions… They fill the space so well together.

“I think the transition could be smoother.”

Yuuri nods. “You’re probably right.”

Viktor folds his arms over his chest and rests one finger against his lips, like he always does when he’s thinking. “Hmm. Maybe if you changed the choreography… Oh! Your grand jeté would be much more dramatic if you changed the arabesque afterward into an arabesque penchée. The movement would flow better, don’t you think?”

“Vitya.” Yuuri quirks an eyebrow. “I have no idea what penchée means.”

“Oh!” Viktor laughs, despite himself. “It’s like an arabesque, but… lowered. Here, I’ll show you.” At first Yuuri thinks Viktor will demonstrate himself, but the expectant look on his face clearly says otherwise. Yuuri extends his leg behind him and Viktor promptly places one hand under his thigh, the other atop Yuuri’s shoulders, and angles him downward.

Could Yuuri have figured this out on his own? Probably. But is he going to complain about this thinly veiled excuse to feel Viktor’s touch? Never.

They run through it again, side by side, but this time Yuuri drops off halfway through. He wants to watch as Viktor dances, as he brings life to the piece Yuuri created. Viktor’s movements stutter when he notices, but with Yuuri so clearly entranced he offers a small smile and continues.

Viktor is more beautiful now than the first time Yuuri saw him. He had been constrained on that stage, his body free but his mind wrapped up in the wills of others. Yuuri remembers how Viktor struck his final pose, how the music ended, how the ease and freedom of dance evaporated from his body the second the applause began, replaced immediately by tension that stiffened his spine and his shoulders and his smile. In the moment, Yuuri had been too entranced to pay it much mind. He knows better now.

And Viktor—Viktor looks like a different man entirely. Perhaps it’s because Yuuri knows him now, with his sea-blue eyes and his heart-shaped smile and the fears he spilled to the darkness last night. Perhaps it’s because he’s more comfortable in this room than he has ever been on stage.

But perhaps it’s because he’s dancing for Yuuri.

The arabesque looks better when it’s penchée-d, Yuuri has to agree, but anything looks beautiful when it’s Viktor’s body creating the movement. Yuuri should know better than to think he can be objective. Viktor moves like dance was invented just for his body, just for this moment.

As Viktor settles into the final pose, Yuuri waits for the tension to snap back into his shoulders, knowing full well that moment will never come. And it doesn’t. Viktor falls out of the final rélevé , turns to Yuuri, and he looks as peaceful as the ocean outside the window, his mouth at rest in a little smile.

He should always look like this, Yuuri thinks. And it’s a goal—it’s the goal.

“Did that look better?” Viktor asks, and Yuuri almost laughs because Viktor’s grinning now and he knows, he knows that Yuuri’s completely speechless, that all he has to do is fall into first position and Yuuri will be enraptured completely.

Yuuri is still rooted to the spot but Viktor is walking towards him now and oh, this is dangerous, because Viktor is suddenly very close and Yuuri is not-so-subtly overcome with whatever warm, beautiful thing Viktor has planted in his chest. It only grows as the space disappears between them, grows until it envelopes Yuuri, and Viktor with him.

The back of Viktor’s neck is hot beneath Yuuri’s palm and Viktor’s fingers are light against the small of Yuuri’s back. They pull each other closer.

Viktor’s breath tickles Yuuri’s nose and Yuuri looks up, the blue of Viktor’s eyes like sunshine reflecting off the ocean and they’re so startlingly close that Yuuri can’t look away. He takes a deep breath, and:

“Can I kiss you?”

And Viktor shivers. Honest to god shivers. Their foreheads, damp with sweat and warm with exertion, press together. And Yuuri can feel Viktor’s breath on his lips now, their lips—

Please.

When their mouths finally meet they sink into each other and it’s better, somehow, than the first time or the second or the third or any of it. There’s something deeper now, knowing what Yuuri knows. Seeing what he sees, in this gift of a man in his arms.

“Yuuri,” Viktor sighs into their kiss and Yuuri wonders if Viktor will continue. But that’s it—Yuuri, just Yuuri, as if that’s all he wants to say.

As if that’s all he wants, period.

“Vitya,” Yuuri breathes. Viktor nearly melts.

And it’s all Yuuri wants, either.

 

 

The queen’s words that morning—you can’t keep him cooped up in your room forever—leave an impression, so they go to Minako instead of having her come to them. Trying to avoid running into the Rossiyan delegation is a noble motivation, but the thought of constraining Viktor in any way leaves a bad taste in Yuuri’s mouth. Besides, Yuuri’s going a little stir-crazy, too.

Viktor seems calm. Really, he does, remarkably so, but Yuuri can still see the way he’s buzzing under his skin and trying so hard to hide it. With one hand, Yuuri reaches out to knock on Minako’s door. The other hand he slips in Viktor’s, silent support that he hopes will be enough.

This guest chamber is on the opposite end of the palace from the rooms of the Rossiyan delegation. Just down the hallway from Yuuri’s parents, this room is exclusively for esteemed guests of the Katsuki family—like Minako. Her chambers are as lush as Yuuri’s and only a fraction smaller.

She lets them in and directs Viktor to the edge of her bed, thankfully not requesting that he lie down this time. Yuuri settles in at his side, refusing to let go of his hand for even a second.

“I’ve been doing some research,” Minako begins, standing before them with her hands on her hips.

Viktor just blinks, and waits for her to continue.

“I told you before that these kinds of curses are complicated. They are, and it’s for good reason. The human will is complex. It’s not an easy thing to restrain, period, let alone impose someone else’s will onto it.”

Viktor nods. “It will be hard to break, then.” The steeled resignation in his voice turns the question to a statement.

“Actually, maybe not.”

Yuuri perks up. “Wait. Really?”

“Viktor,” Minako says, “when I felt your curse yesterday, it felt like… a net. Or a web. There are a lot of pieces woven together to make it work. Who you have to obey, under what situations, what counts as an order… there are hundreds of pieces determining all of those things.”

“Hundreds?” Viktor echoes. He looks so young, sitting there.

Yuuri squeezes his hand. “We won’t stop until they’re all gone.”

Minako huffs. “Neither of you are listening. We don’t have to break all of them. If you were trying to get something out of a net, would you cut every single rope?”

Viktor blinks. “No, you’d—” He straightens. “Oh! You’d rip a hole!” he exclaims, looking from Minako to Yuuri with widened eyes.

Minako nods. “Exactly.”

“Oh,” he exhales, his fingers tightening around Yuuri’s.

“A net only works if the whole thing is intact,” Minako explains. “But just like a net, there are already holes. They’re probably hard to see, but they’re there. It’s just a matter of exploiting them, making them bigger until the whole thing falls apart.”

Viktor nods. Excitement mixes with nervous energy, and he buzzes. “How long will it take?”

“It’s hard to say.” Minako shrugs. “Unfortunately, I can’t do it for you.”

And just like that, Viktor’s optimism evaporates. “What?” he asks, sounding like someone punched the breath out of him.

Betrayal stings in Yuuri’s chest. “Minako, you pr—”

Minako holds up a hand to stop him. “I didn’t say I wouldn’t help. Keep coming to me every night and we can work to make the holes more obvious, but that’s all I can do I’m afraid.” Her gaze lands on Viktor, one eyebrow raised expectantly above the other. “The rest has to come from you.”

Viktor looks suddenly very pale. “I don’t… I don’t know what to do, I…” His voice tapers off, suddenly barely more than a whisper. He turns to Yuuri, gripping his hand like a lifeline, and breathes, “What if I can’t?”

Yuuri is not a confident person by design, but there is something about seeing Viktor so scared that lights a protective fire in Yuuri’s chest. “You can,” he promises, not doubting for a second. “I know you can.”

Viktor looks thoroughly unconvinced.

“Let’s just try, hmm?” Minako says. “Let me see what I can do.”

At Viktor’s nod of consent, Minako moves herself directly in front of him and places her hands on either side of his head. It has been over a decade since Yuuri felt this sensation himself, but he remembers it feeling like ducking his head beneath the ocean waves. He does not remember any pain, but then again he’d never had a curse for Minako to mess with. Just like the night before, Yuuri sees a faint glow beneath Minako’s fingertips, Viktor’s hair like water in moonlight.

He isn’t in pain, either, unless he’s spectacularly good at masking it. Still, he’s as tense as a bowstring pulled all the way back, held fast but ready to snap. His eyes are squeezed shut.

“It’s okay, Vitya. Just relax,” Yuuri coaches, squeezing Viktor’s hand yet again to remind him that he’s there. The words will be faint, but he knows Viktor can hear him. There is a lovely irony to Yuuri soothing someone else’s anxiety; Yuuri has been stepping into that role quite a bit lately, and it’s a surprisingly natural fit.

As soon as the words leave Yuuri’s mouth, he feels Viktor’s hand relax in his. Minako sucks in a breath, an eyebrow shooting up toward her hairline.

“Oh. Yuuri, I forgot you could do that.”

“Do wh—” Yuuri starts, and stops almost instantly. “Oh. Oh, dammit, I didn’t…”

Minako pulls her hands back. The glowing stops and Viktor lurches forward, eyes snapping open and immediately finding Yuuri’s.

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri says, shame burning red in his cheeks. He holds Viktor’s gaze, no matter how much he wants to look away. “I didn’t realize.”

Minako crosses her arms. “Actually, you should do it again.”

At first, Yuuri thinks he misheard. “…What?”

“When you ordered him, I could see the curse as it activated. Keep doing that and I’ll be able to get a much better idea of what we’re working with.”

Yuuri can’t believe what he’s hearing. He looks to Viktor to back him up, but Viktor just shrugs.

“If it will help, why not?”

“Why n— Because! I’m not going to, to—”

“It doesn’t hurt me, Yuuri.” It’s Viktor’s fingers tightening around Yuuri’s, this time. “I’m used to it.”

This, if anything, only heightens Yuuri’s revulsion. His stomach flips at the mere possibility. “That doesn’t make it any better.”

“But if it helps?”

“It…”

“We have to try everything.”

Yuuri opens his mouth, floundering as he searches for a counterargument.

“Please, Yuuri? For me?” Viktor’s eyes are wide and pleading, just like Yuuri’s toy poodle had when he wanted his belly scratched. It takes Yuuri a moment to realize Viktor is doing it on purpose.

Yuuri snorts a laugh, slicing the tension in half. “That’s not fair.”

“It’s pretty fair.”

“Vitya—”

“Yuuri, it’s okay.” Viktor has both of Yuuri’s hands clasped in his now, as if Yuuri is the one who needs support. As if Viktor won’t be forced to do whatever Yuuri says.

“Okay,” Yuuri replies, because there’s nothing else to say.

Viktor smiles and closes his eyes, cuing Minako to place her hands back on his head. The outside of Viktor’s eyelids are a light pink and he’s completely vulnerable, sitting there, now not only at Minako’s mercy but Yuuri’s as well. Viktor trusts him, that much is clear, and the warmth of this knowledge spreads through his body from chest to head to toe. It’s not much different, in the end, than Viktor trusting Yuuri to braid his hair or hear his fears. Viktor’s faith is a privilege he will not carry lightly.

Minako nods at Yuuri and, focused as he is on Viktor’s delicate eyelids, the first idea that pops into his mind is open your eyes. He rejects this possibility immediately, the memories of last night still fresh.

“Squeeze my hand,” Yuuri orders instead, a bitter aftertaste lingering on his tongue. Viktor’s fingers tighten immediately around Yuuri’s.

To Yuuri’s surprise, Minako pulls her hands back again. Viktor blinks his eyes open in surprise.

“Is everything okay?” he asks.

“It’s interesting.” Minako’s brow creases. “I definitely felt something, but it was more… concentrated, than last time. Less activation overall, and more focused.”

Viktor frowns. “What’s the difference?”

“Well, what do you think? Did the two orders feel different for you?”

Yuuri is about to protest—Minako used to do this all the time, as his teacher. Well, what do you think was wrong with your spin? she’d ask, and it was an effective pedagogical tool but Viktor doesn’t need this right now.

Viktor, it turns out, doesn’t mind. Perhaps Yuuri misread her tone, because Viktor treats it like a genuine question. He frowns, and considers. “The first time, when he said to relax, it was more… broad. It was more than just moving my fingers.”

Minako nods. “Okay. That makes sense. But how did you know what exactly to do?”

“What?”

“When Yuuri said to relax. You slowed down your breathing, deepened it, relaxed your shoulders muscles and your jaw. You probably changed your thought process, too—stopped thinking about your fear, started trusting more. Am I wrong?”

Viktor blinks. “No.”

“Yuuri didn’t tell you to do any of that. All he said was relax, but you decided what that meant.”

“I didn’t decide,” Viktor replies, visibly bristling. “I knew what he meant.”

Minako smiles softly. “Does it matter what he meant, though?”

Viktor looks unmoored and unconvinced. He flounders for a reply.

And suddenly, with a small gasp, Yuuri gets it. He tries to forget that night, tries so hard, but every second is burned into his memory forever because that was the night that flipped everything on its head. And it makes so much more sense now.

“Vitya,” Yuuri whispers, one of his hands sliding up along Viktor’s forearm. “The first night the ambassador told you to come to me, what was his order?”

The question catches Viktor completely off guard. “Um.” His eyes search Yuuri’s face for a way out, but Yuuri stands his ground. Viktor clears his throat. “To please you.” He takes a deep breath, but does not look away, continuing, “Please you…like I please him.”

“Okay.” Yuuri nods, shoving away his anger. It will do them no good here. “Okay. And what finally made you able to stop?”

Viktor’s brow furrows. “You told me it would please you if I did.”

“Right. But is that what Antonovich meant, when he ordered you? Is that how you please him?”

A bitter laugh tears itself from Viktor’s throat. It’s answer enough.

“Exactly. He clearly meant for you to have sex with me.” Viktor winces, but Yuuri continues, the words bubbling up from his throat. “And then yesterday, after everything that happened in the negotiation room, I assume you were given a similar order, right? But you hesitated, I saw you hold yourself back. You were thinking of what I told you before, weren’t you? About what pleases me?”

Viktor nods, and Yuuri reaches over to lay his free hand atop their already joined fingers, a smile in his eyes.

“Don’t you see, Vitya? It doesn’t matter what they mean—it only matters what they say.

Viktor opens his mouth to reply, then closes it again. He shudders, and after a quiet moment, says, “So it’s all in my head, then?” There’s a particular brand of horror, colored by self-loathing, that settles in Viktor’s expression. Yuuri wants to kiss it off of him.

“No,” he says instead. “No. Those orders are real. The curse is real.” It is important to him that Viktor knows this, beyond a shadow of a doubt. Yuuri looks to Minako, who backs him up with a firm nod.

“It seems like it’s designed so that you make assumptions about what the person wants you to do, based off of context and experience, but… it seems like those assumptions aren’t binding. Every order is going to have room for interpretation, some more than others.”

Viktor looks dazed. “That’s it, then? I just have to… reinterpret?

Minako smirks. “Creatively reinterpret, yes.”

He huffs. “I could have been doing this the whole time?”

“Well no, likely not. That masking curse I took off yesterday was strong. There’s no way you would have been able to notice these loopholes with it still intact.” She purses her lips. “In fact, that was probably its original intention.”

“So if I purposefully misinterpret what they’re saying…”

Yuuri grins. “It should be enough to undermine the curse entirely, eventually.” He turns to Minako. “Right?”

“Right,” she affirms. “And with us three working together every night to test the boundaries, we can figure out how the curse works and make those loopholes more obvious. You should be a free man soon, Viktor.”

It feels like an intrusion, to watch as Viktor processes Minako’s words. Raw hope and disbelief make Viktor’s expression their battleground and it’s almost impossible to tell which is winning. The watery, red-tinged sheen in his eyes makes Yuuri wonder if Viktor might cry, but in the end there are no tears. Viktor simply grips Yuuri’s hand like he always does, lets his shoulders slump slightly, and says, “Thank you.”

 

 

Viktor’s exhaustion shows clearly in his sluggish movements by the time they leave Minako’s that night. Testing the limits of his curse, as Minako calls it, is mentally—not to mention emotionally—draining work, for no one more than Viktor. After an hour of Yuuri’s orders and Minako fiddling around in his head, he looks like he could fall asleep on the spot and sleep until ten in the morning for a second night in a row.

When they return to his chambers, Yuuri immediately heads to the adjoining room to draw Viktor a bath. He explains the process to Viktor step by step as he goes along, ostensibly so he doesn’t have to do this for him every time. Really, though, Yuuri just wants Viktor to feel at home.

Through the cracked-open bathroom door floats steam and the sweet sound of Viktor’s contented humming. Later, Yuuri will take his turn soaking in the water from the hot springs. Truth be told he is exhausted too, but he has one more order of business tonight.

Dredging up his last vestiges of composure, he dons his diplomat persona like an ill-fitted suit. He replaces his smile with a determined frown and stalks off to the West wing.

 

 

Viktor will maintain, for the rest of his life, that his happiest moments are those mornings that he wakes up in Yuuri’s arms.

…or with Yuuri in his arms. He’s not really picky, as long as Yuuri is involved. The prince is unfairly beautiful in his sleep just like he is unfairly beautiful when he’s awake, and there is nothing more comforting than the heavy, grounding warmth of Yuuri’s body against him, around him, nestled in his arms.

This is one of those mornings, and Viktor commits every detail to memory. Outside, the sky has started to lighten, the sun hinting at the horizon. In bed, Yuuri has curled himself into Viktor’s side, their legs and knees and ankles entangled below the covers and Yuuri’s arm draped low over Viktor’s waist. Yuuri must feel Viktor wake up, because only a minute passes before he begins to stir.

“Mmm,” Yuuri sighs, pressing his face further into the side of Viktor’s ribcage. “Wha’ time ‘sit?”

“The sun’s about to rise.”

“Mmm,” Yuuri hums again, the vibration sending a trill down Viktor’s spine. “Too early.”

“Well, I have a standing appointment with a certain prince at sunrise, and I’d rather not miss it.”

Yuuri lifts his head, a smile on his lips and in his bleary eyes. “Princes are overrated. Stay here with me.”

“What an undisciplined student you are, Yuuri!”

That earns a laugh, at least. Viktor’s side is suddenly cold as Yuuri pulls away, sits up against the headboard, and stretches. “I thought you would sleep longer, honestly. You were so tired last night, you passed out almost immediately.” Yuuri’s breath smells awful. Viktor doesn’t care, because he imagines his does as well.

“I think this… This thing, that we’re doing with Minako? It’s surprisingly exhausting.”

Just minutes ago Yuuri’s face had been so relaxed and peaceful, but now a crease forms on his brow. “I’m sorry about having to do that.” They both know what he is referring to.

Viktor shrugs. “It’s no big deal,” he says, and that’s the truth.

Yuuri is wearing a full-blown frown now. “Yes it is.”

“Yuuri,” Viktor sighs. “I really didn’t mind. It’s not like it hurts, I hardly even notice sometimes.” Yuuri said relax and Viktor did so without so much as a second thought. Curse or no curse, he would have done as Yuuri asked.

“That’s not the point,” Yuuri huffs, swinging his legs over the side of the bed and heading to the wardrobe. The way Yuuri says it, Viktor feels like he ought to know what the point is. He doesn’t, though, and isn’t sure he wants to press the issue.

“Either way, you don’t need to apologize, okay?”

“Okay,” Yuuri mumbles, but it’s not very convincing. Before Viktor can read too much into his expression, he holds up two pairs of exercise pants in front of his face. “Black or magenta?”

“For me or you?”

“You.”

“Magenta, please,” Viktor grins, and Yuuri tosses the pink pair onto the bed with a chuckle. Viktor has his own clothes—lots of them, actually—but they currently reside in his wardrobe in the West wing, which he has little desire to return to just yet. Besides, he likes wearing Yuuri’s clothes, no matter how snugly the shirts fit and how high the pants hit on his ankles.

They first head to the beach to go for a run just like they used to. The ocean turns orange with the sunrise, the cool water nipping at their toes. Yuuri, though he acts like he is out of shape, can outrun Viktor any day. He sets the pace at a light jog and is barely winded by the time they double back toward the palace; Viktor, on the other hand, starts to run out of steam halfway through.

Back in the studio, they stretch, warm up, and continue to perfect their technique. No matter how much has changed, they still have this daily routine, encouragingly easy to slip back into. Viktor’s muscles burn and his lungs ache but his world narrows to this small space he inhabits with Yuuri. He thinks of pointed toes and extended legs and controlled centers. Here, he is strong, even if his mind is weak. Here, he can focus on his body instead of that throbbing, ever-present fear that he is not strong enough, that despite the amount of work Yuuri and Minako are putting into helping him, he won’t be able to do as they expect and break himself free.

Dance has always been Viktor’s escape, and with Yuuri he can almost pretend that this studio is all there is.

When Yuuri has to leave to get ready for negotiations, Viktor stays behind. Despite the exhaustion in his bones he cannot imagine leaving just to go pass the time idly in Yuuri’s chambers, where his mind is free to travel places he does not care to go. He practices his basics in the mirror instead, critiquing his movement down to the millimeter. It is then that he hears the door open.

“Did you forget something?” Viktor calls out, but only seconds later his eyes fall to the movement in the doorway and he freezes.

“Vityenka.”

At first, Viktor thinks he must be imagining this—a trick of the light, reflected to him in the mirror. But he turns, and the ambassador is still there, in the doorway of Viktor and Yuuri’s sanctuary. Every muscle in Viktor’s body bunches up, ready to flee, but the ambassador is blocking the exit and it would only take one word to freeze Viktor where he stood.

“I thought you had negotiations,” he says, voice strained.

The ambassador shrugs. “I will be slightly late. No matter, this will not take long.” With that, he intrudes into the studio, his gangly and ungraceful steps putting him completely out of place in this room.

“Is something wrong?” Viktor asks. He already knows the answer.

“I received a visit from your new patron last night,” the ambassador begins. “Despite your horrible disrespect the first time, he seems to have enjoyed your apology.”

A few seconds too many pass before Viktor realizes that the ambassador is talking about Yuuri. Why did he… when did he…? Viktor swallows. Yuuri must have slipped out during Viktor’s bath.

“But it seems you have a great deal to make up for, because he is requesting your services for the remainder of your time here.”

And now he remembers, we can have this every night, Vitya, and he won’t dare deny me. Viktor had been drifting off to sleep at the time and barely gave it a second thought. He could not have imagined Yuuri sneaking off at night, knocking on the ambassador’s door, and negotiating with him for Viktor’s body.

But he did. Viktor is stunned and the ambassador, it seems, is pissed.

“I was not aware. I simply go where I am told,” Viktor deadpans, turning back toward the mirror. It doesn’t help matters.

“Do not be smart with me,” Antonovich snaps, and even though it is a worthless order Viktor’s heart still skips a beat. This man in front of him could demand anything, including the truth about Yuuri, and Viktor wouldn’t be able to stop himself from saying I love him and I think he loves me and we dance together and he is so soft on the inside and we are plotting against you and I’m afraid, so afraid. Instead the ambassador says, “I do not know what that boy is playing at, but I don’t like it.”

The ambassador assumes, then, that Viktor does not know either—that he could not possibly have enough agency to be involved or know anything more than Antonovich himself does. Viktor has never been so grateful to be underestimated.

“I will see how this plays out,” the ambassador muses. “It is only for two more weeks. You will not try anything, do you understand?” Viktor watches in the mirror as the ambassador runs two fingers curiously along the barre, tracing the finished wood and getting closer and closer to Viktor.

Two more weeks, Viktor tries not to think. Tries not to think about what will happen after, with a broken curse but unable to let on. A broken curse, but the same responsibilities, and no smiles or touches or kisses from Yuuri ever again. He tries so hard not to think about it.

Soon the ambassador is close enough that Viktor can feel his breath, but Viktor refuses to turn. He stands square with the mirror, hands on the barre, his eyes fixed on their own reflection.

Out of the corner of his eye he sees the ambassador raise his hand and tuck a stray strand of Viktor’s bangs behind his ear. His feather-light touch makes Viktor’s stomach turn, the revulsion only worsening as those cool fingers drag their way down the length of Viktor’s hair and twisting around the ends. Viktor shivers.

How many times, how many places, has he felt these hands? Enough that he should be used to it, surely, but there is something horrid about feeling the ambassador’s touch here, in the late afternoon in the studio that belongs to Viktor and Yuuri and the rising sun.

Those fingers seize a handful of Viktor’s hair by the root, yanking his head back and tearing a gasp from his exposed throat. Viktor focuses every effort on keeping his breathing even and his eyes locked on his own reflection. His scalp stings. The ambassador leans in, his breath hot against Viktor’s jaw.

“You know who you belong to, Vityenka. Don’t you dare forget it.”

And Viktor knows what the ambassador means. He means the King, the Crown; he means the handler, he means everyone in the court of Rossiya who has taken a turn feasting on Viktor’s body with their own. More than that, though, the territorial edge in his voice and possessive clutch of his fingers in Viktor’s hair betrays what he really means—Viktor belongs to him, to Lord Andrei Antonovich, to the newly appointed ambassador to the Kingdom of Saga and to no one else.

But this is not the truth. Viktor can clearly see his position, with his head in this man’s grasp and his throat near this man’s lips. But he knows—he knows—the truth. He does not, cannot, belong to Antonovich, just like he does not belong to the King or the Court of Rossiya or even to Yuuri, the man who has his heart.

No matter how many orders he is forced to obey, no matter how many people fist their hands in his hair and make him kneel and spread himself before them, Viktor cannot belong to anyone but himself. This, he knows beyond a shadow of a doubt. It feels like the first time he danced for Yuuri alone, that power surging through his veins, moving his muscles, inflating his lungs.

Don’t you dare forget it, the ambassador ordered. Viktor pauses, rethinks, and reinterprets.

Tilting his head back up, he steps away from the ambassador, who is surprised enough to give little resistance. Viktor turns square to face him, not hiding behind the mirror’s reflection but looking him dead in the eyes instead.

“I will never forget,” Viktor promises. “That, I can assure you.”

 

 

Viktor does not tell Yuuri.

He considers it, for a moment. He wants to ask about Yuuri’s late-night confrontation with the ambassador, and he can’t do that without telling Yuuri how he found out about it. But Yuuri will bring it up eventually, Viktor figures. He does not need to know.

When they return from Minako’s that evening, Viktor is less tired than he had been the night before. Viktor is familiar with exhaustion, the kind of tired that sinks into your bones and makes your limbs and eyelids feel like lead weights. Tonight, though, he feels like he’s been through a mental and physical workout—and after hours of practice this morning and an hour with Minako and Yuuri, he certainly has. But it’s the good kind of tired where his muscles will ache in the morning. It’s the good kind where he’ll lay his head on his pillow and fall right into a dreamless sleep. Even though the nightly sessions with Minako are far from pleasant, and even though he has nothing concrete to show for it, they leave him with an odd sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

“She’s all business, huh?” Viktor muses as he changes into his sleep clothes. Yuuri averts his eyes.

“You have no idea,” Yuuri groans. “Imagine training with her.”

It’s hard to imagine that this woman who knows so much ‘about these things’ also trained Yuuri—beautiful, graceful, lovely Yuuri—in classical dance. It’s hard to picture the woman who digs around in his head every night teaching baby Yuuri to do his first pirouette, watching him grow and correcting his form and teaching him everything he knows.

“Was she tougher than me?” Viktor asks, shrugging his shirt over his head.

Yuuri scoffs. “She had a bit of a different style. She never went around kissing her students, for one.”

“I should hope not! That would be horribly unprofessional.” Viktor, now dressed, leans over Yuuri’s shoulder and presses a chaste kiss to his cheek. It’s a bit of a gamble, admittedly, and Yuuri squeaks in surprise but does not protest. His cheeks and the tip of his nose turn the color of cherry blossoms.

Then Yuuri turns around, grinning. “She was much more critical than you, you know. She would eviscerate your technique on your, your…” He blinks. “I don’t remember what you call it.”

“Grand jeté?” Viktor has always had trouble with his grand jeté.

“No, it’s…” Yuuri jumps from the bed, pushing aside his bedside table and his desk chair to clear space in the center of the room. “This.”

He then proceeds to jump three times, spinning two full revolutions each time.

“Ah. Double tours.” Three perfect double tours, he might add. “I always thought mine were okay.”

“They’re not bad!” Yuuri rushes to assure him, waving his hands in front of his face. “I don’t mean that. They’re just not as clean as they can be. You start losing your axis if you do too many in a row, they just need to be tighter.” He’s blushing again. “At least, that’s probably what Minako-sensei would say.”

“Yuuri!” Viktor protests, elongating the vowel in his name just to see if Yuuri’s face can turn redder. Sure enough, it does. “You’ve been holding out on me!”

“Well,” Yuuri frowns. He’s standing in the middle of the space he cleared, looking down at the trim of his bed covers. “You’re supposed to be my teacher, not the other way around and I didn’t want to presume…”

“Yuuri. I have just as much to learn from you as you do from me, don’t you think?” Viktor stands, falls into fifth position, and smiles down at Yuuri. “Will you show me?”

And so Yuuri shows him, having Viktor demonstrate a few times and then pointing out where he is going wrong. They are the smallest of details, as far as technique goes, but Viktor knows as well as Yuuri that at his level—their level—the details are by far the most important.

“Almost. It’s just…” Yuuri huffs. “I don’t know how to explain it in words, but your hips aren’t exactly where they should be when you land. Here, let me—”

Yuuri turns away from Viktor and reaches back, taking Viktor’s hands and placing them low on his hips. The breath catches in Viktor’s throat and he takes a moment to calm himself. He is Yuuri’s instructor. They have touched like this many times before. Seriously, Viktor.

(But they’re in Yuuri’s bedroom and it’s late and that beautiful blush still paints Yuuri’s cheekbones. It feels different, somehow.)

“The way you’re landing is like this, when it should be like this,” Yuuri says, and then twists his center about two millimeters. It’s not much, but Viktor feels the difference in Yuuri’s muscles and, god , Viktor, get yourself together . “This positions you better to jump again, and it’s a more seamless transition.”

“I think I see the difference,” Viktor replies, and he is about to continue, but—

But.

The door opens, and they both hear a woman’s voice calling Yuuri’s name and then swiftly commencing a rant. Viktor does not understand their language, but she is clearly annoyed, until she lays eyes on them and cuts herself off with—

“Oh. Hi, Viktor.”

The woman in the doorway—past the doorway by now, actually, she’s sitting on the edge of Yuuri’s bed—has short hair, the ends bleached blonde and the roots the color of Yuuri’s, all pushed back in a headband. She, too, is wearing what must be pajamas. Viktor is certain he has never met her, but he recognizes her vaguely from the banquet.

“Looks like I’m interrupting something,” she chuckles, her gaze falling to Yuuri’s hips. Viktor snaps his hands back and takes two steps away, suddenly unsure where to look or what to do with his arms. He knows that classical dance does not have the same connotations here. A prince dancing for the entertainment of others is not the scandal in Saga that it would be in Rossiya. But Yuuri is still royalty, he still has a reputation to uphold, and performing the same acts as a Rossiyan court dancer could surely damage his image.

“It’s alright,” Yuuri replies, then looks at Viktor. “Sorry. Our mother is making us attend another fitting this week, even though we both insist every time that we have enough fancy clothes. Mari just came to complain.”

Ah, so this is the princess. Viktor likes her instantly. She doesn’t look at all bothered by what she has walked in on, either.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Viktor. I’m Katsuki Mari, Yuuri’s sister,” she introduces herself. Viktor bows in response, lower than strictly necessary.

“It is an honor to meet you, Your Highness.”

Mari, of course, laughs at him. “Just Mari is fine! Yuuri doesn’t make you call him that, does he?”

“Mari-neechan! Of course not!”

“Just checking.”

Yuuri takes a step toward Viktor, giving him a reassuring nod and saying, in a soft voice just for him, “You don’t have to be nervous, Vitya. She knows most of everything.”

“Our whole family owes you a big thank you, actually,” Mari tells him. “My brother has been a lot more confident since he met you.”

“I don’t know about that, ” Yuuri protests.

“Well, with all the time you two spend in the studio, I’m sure your dancing has improved at least. I’d love to see it. I know Minako wants to, too. Maybe you two could do a performance after the delegation leaves?”

Something about what Mari says doesn’t make sense. Not the performance, nor the part about Yuuri’s family loving to see it. Not about the delegation leaving, either, because that’s only two weeks away and becoming more a reality by the hour. It takes Viktor a few moments to identify what’s wrong, but then it smacks him in the face: you two.

You two, as in Viktor and Yuuri. Performing together, but that’s not the problem.

After the delegation leaves. That’s the problem, because there is no you two after that. There isn’t… There couldn’t be.

“Yuuri,” Mari groans. “You didn’t tell him?”

Viktor just stares at Mari, stunned.

“I was going to! But I was waiting for the right time to have the conversation and I thought he… I mean of course he wouldn’t…” Yuuri sucks in a breath, and the warm pressure of a hand near his elbow breaks Viktor’s trance. He turns to look, finding Yuuri next to him with his hand on Viktor’s arm, staring up at him with wide russet eyes. “Vitya? You didn’t… you didn’t think I wouldn’t… Right?”

“Oh.”

That’s all Viktor really can think to say.

“I’m sorry, I hadn’t brought it up because I figured you knew we had options and we’d talk about it when the time came. I never meant to just… decide for you, that’s not how it is. Mari, my family, they kind of just assumed, but I wanted to talk to you about it first, and…”

Viktor can only process one thing at a time. There are too many things. He goes for the most pressing issue.

“I don’t… I don’t have options, Yuuri. Even if we break the curse in time, they would never allow me to stay here.”

Mari shrugs. “Sure they would, if the treaty relied on it.”

Nothing about this makes sense. “Why would the treaty rely on it?”

“Because Yuuri’s our head negotiator, he can do whatever he wants.”

“But…” Viktor’s head is spinning. “This is an important treaty. They will be furious, they might even try to pull out, you can’t just wager it all on, on something so… irrelevant!” Yuuri looks strangely offended at that, and Viktor can’t imagine why.

“Maybe it’s important to your kingdom,” Mari replies, “but it’s not exactly crucial for ours.”

Viktor blinks. “Of course it is, you assigned a prince as head negotiator.”

Mari laughs, then, and Yuuri blushes once more. “Yuuri,” she coos, “do you want to explain to Viktor why a prince is personally negotiating a minor trade agreement?”

“I asked to be assigned to it,” Yuuri grumbles. Viktor cannot see his face, and he wonders if Yuuri is hiding on purpose.

“What? Why would you do that! You’re a spectacular negotiator.”

“I’m not that good, trust me.”

“Oh, come on Yuuri, you had a couple bad days,” Mari groans, then turns to Viktor. “He thinks because he screwed up with the deal in Phayao that he’s totally useless and deserves to be on self-inflicted probation for the rest of his life.”

“We needed that deal.”

“Deals fall through. It wasn’t great, we’ve talked about this, but Saga is doing just fine. You’re being overdramatic as always.”

“Mari-neechan, do you mind if I… if Viktor and I speak alone?”

“Oh, yeah, of course,” she stands, and smiles brightly at Viktor. “It’s really nice to meet you, Viktor. If you ever need to commiserate about Yuuri’s pigheaded habit of selling himself short, my chambers are just down the hall.”

And then she’s gone, leaving Viktor and Yuuri standing side by side, the furniture still shoved against the walls from where they’d been dancing only a few minutes earlier. It’s uncomfortably silent.

Yuuri lets his hand, still resting on Viktor’s elbow, slide down his forearm until his fingers wrap loosely around Viktor’s wrist. Yuuri leads them to the bed, and they sit down on the side.

“I’m sorry. We should have talked about this sooner.”

“It’s okay.”

“No it’s not, I… You really thought I’d just let them take you back?”

“I don’t know what I thought.” Viktor had tried to avoid thinking about it, actually.

“What about the curse? Did you think that we were spending all this time breaking the curse so that you could go back and have to pretend it was still in place?”

Viktor sighs, looking down at his lap and studying the creases in his palm. “I could have lived with that, maybe. If it meant being free, even if it was only temporary… even if they could never know.”

Vitya.” Yuuri whispers his name like a prayer and reaches up, cupping a soothing hand against the side of Viktor’s face. “When I promised you freedom, I meant forever.”

The vow punches the air from Viktor’s chest. Yuuri looks up at him with eyes so sincere that Viktor nearly forgets everything else.

“You would really do this for me.” There is no doubt in his words, no question, just stunned acceptance.

“Of course. My family didn’t even need me to ask, either, they were on board instantly. But it’s… it’s up to you, Vitya. You don’t have to stay here. With the curse broken you could go back and, and run away. Even if you don’t go back with the Rossiyan delegation, we can arrange for your transport home, maybe help you with a new identity, or you—”

“Yuuri.” Viktor cannot let him continue with that train of thought. It’s so lovely and thoughtful but it’s preposterous to its core. He reaches up and lays his hand atop Yuuri’s where it rests at the side of Viktor’s neck. “Yuuri, you don’t need to worry about any of that. I’ve made my decision.”

“But— Look, Vitya, if you want to take time to think about this, I know it’s a big—”

“Yuuri—”

“—deal and if you don’t think—”

“Yuuri, I love you.”

He did not plan to say those words. He did not plan to, but they come out, because they’re the truth that has lived on the tip of his tongue and in the depths of his heart for so long now. He hears the words echo back to his own ears with pure conviction and they sound right.

And then Viktor has the pleasure of watching Yuuri’s face as he processes Viktor’s confession. Strangely enough, Viktor cannot even find it in himself to be nervous. Even before Viktor opened his mouth to speak, there was too much love shining in Yuuri’s eyes, too much love in the warm press of Yuuri’s hand on Viktor’s neck to ever doubt how Yuuri would receive those words.

(Yet Viktor had let himself believe that Yuuri would let him go. He had let himself believe that Yuuri would let him suffer. How? How? )

Yuuri, I love you, Viktor said, and Yuuri blinks, opens his mouth, flounders for a moment, then positively melts.

“I love you, too,” he whispers, like he can’t be trusted to say them any louder. It is not that he’s ashamed, Viktor realizes, but that he doesn’t have the air in his lungs or the control over his vocal chords to profess his love in more than a stunned whisper.

They need to be touching, suddenly, more so than they already are. They need to be pressed up against each other, arms wrapped around one another’s bodies until they can feel every breath and shiver and every bit of skin. They shift to the center of the bed, leaning back against the headboard.

Viktor knows that the moment he processes all of this will be the happiest moment of his life. Right now, it all seems too perfect to be real.  

“You won’t miss your home?” Yuuri asks, and it’s a valid question but Viktor hears Yuuri’s insecurities shining through.

“It was never much of a home,” Viktor admits, and he can feel it all bubbling just beneath the surface. He’s avoided the details for so long. He’s treated Yuuri as an escape from his real life, a human sanctuary, but Yuuri is Viktor’s real life now and it’s unfair to both of them to pretend otherwise. “I mean, I grew up in the palace, but it was just me and my mother, and when she died, I...” He clears his throat. “That’s when this all started, I guess.”

“How long ago was that?”

“I was barely a teenager, maybe thirteen. She was a servant, a cook actually, and I was supposed to be the same but I was kind of terrible at it.” Viktor laughs nervously. “All I wanted to do was dance. I saw the court dancers, I sometimes sat in on their practices and I was teaching myself and I… I wanted to be one of them.”

“Did you know? About…”

“The rest? Vaguely, I mean, my mother had made very clear that she never wanted me to be one of them. But I was a kid. I didn’t get it. When she died, I was worried they were going to throw me out on the streets. I was really a terrible cook. But I was a beautiful dancer, so… here I am.” A sad smile graces his cheeks. “I’m the most coveted dancer in the kingdom.”

“You were so young.” Yuuri shudders in Viktor’s arms. “Only thirteen, that’s… barbaric.”

“It’s not what you think,” Viktor rushes to assure him. “It was only dance training until I was fifteen. And even then I didn’t mind it at first, you know. Being an object of desire, it was exciting. Different. It wasn’t all bad.”

Yuuri’s head rests against Viktor’s collarbone and his hand atop Viktor’s heart. Their bodies touch from head to toe and Viktor can feel the tension in Yuuri’s muscles and Yuuri’s shortened breath on his neck. “And the curse…?”

“Came not too long after,” Viktor finishes. He was expecting this. It feels strange, to tell this story. He has never had to before. He never had anyone to tell, even if he could. “Sometimes it was bad, and the first time a patron treated me poorly I was… let’s say ‘noncompliant’.” Viktor takes a deep breath and watches Yuuri’s body move upward on his chest as it inflates. “I got mad. I hit him. And by then I was already the best they had, and they were worried about losing me, so…”

Yuuri all but gasps in response. He twists his torso and pulls back so that he can meet Viktor’s saddened eyes with his incredulous ones. “What? That’s all? I mean, not that you—or anyone—could ever deserve this, no matter what, but… that’s all?!

“It was enough, I guess.” Viktor shrugs, his gaze drifting down to the left, settling distantly on Yuuri’s hand draped over Viktor’s waist. “I remember my handler taking me to a woman in red, and she laid me down on a long table, then… I don’t know. That’s it.”

“You were so young,” Yuuri mourns, lying back down against Viktor’s shoulder.

“You keep saying that.”

“It’s the truth! You’ve had this curse for so long, I can’t even imagine…”

“Dancing kept me sane,” Viktor admits. His right hand draped on Yuuri’s back begins to trace idle patterns atop his shirt. Yuuri shivers, and melts further into Viktor’s body. “People ordered me to dance for them all the time, but usually they didn’t know enough about it to tell me how to dance. So I had some freedom in that, I suppose.” He purses his lips. “That’s what Minako has been trying to tell me the past two nights, isn’t it? I don’t know why I never noticed before.”

“You are too hard on yourself.”

Viktor laughs. “That’s rich, coming from you.”

“Well. Still. I’m glad you had dance.”

“You know,” Viktor admits, “I had started to hate it, before I found you. You can guess the… kinds of contexts I had to dance in. It’s hard not to associate it with that kind of powerlessness, after so many years. No matter how much freedom it afforded me.”

“Oh.”

“But then you.”

“…Me?” Yuuri asks, tilting his head back against Viktor’s shoulder and looking up at his face.

“You, of course,” Viktor smiles. One hand skates patterns on Yuuri’s back, but the other comes up to Yuuri’s cheek, the skin there soft and warm. Viktor caresses him with the backs of his fingers, leaving a lovely trail of blush in their wake. Yuuri’s eyelids flutter. “I know you’re a prince,” Viktor murmurs, “but I’ve never felt more powerful than when I dance with you.”

The sweetest smile Viktor has ever seen forms on Yuuri’s lips, and perhaps he can read Viktor’s mind because he whispers, “Can I kiss you?” and Viktor has never wanted anything more. He shudders.

“Yes,” he breathes, and Yuuri surges up in his arms to capture Viktor’s lips. He feels inadequate, to be touching and kissing and loving a man so beautiful, but he loves Yuuri and Yuuri loves him and it’s okay.

Everything is going to be okay, and god, for the first time ever, Viktor believes it from his head right down to his toes.

They’ve never kissed like this before. In the studio, sure, on the beach, sure, in a small side hallway in the East wing, sure. But never in a bed, never in Yuuri’s bed—except for the night Viktor first came here on the ambassador’s orders.

There’s no comparison, now. Yuuri’s breath in Viktor’s lungs is the most beautiful thing he’s ever tasted and he’s already an addict. There’s a smoldering fire in their kiss, something that hasn’t been there before that hints at something more and Viktor wonders how long they’ll be able to deny it. Viktor loves him. Loves him, loves him, is in—

“I’m in love with you,” Viktor proclaims against Yuuri’s lips, because Yuuri deserves the truth, deserves everything. His heart stumbles when he realizes what he’s admitted, but before he has the time to worry any further, Yuuri pulls back from their kiss just long enough to look Viktor in the eyes, smile like the sun, and give a breathless reply:

“Good, because I’m in love with you too.”

When their mouths meet again, Viktor kisses him deeper and he’s so grounded by Yuuri’s body and Yuuri’s kiss and Yuuri’s love but he’s soaring . His hand is splayed against Yuuri’s lower back, so close to the bottom hem of his shirt and the bare skin beneath it, but Viktor never strays downward. He has never in his life wanted someone like he wants Yuuri now, like he has wanted him for the past month and a half. The love in Yuuri’s smiling eyes tells Viktor he feels the same way.

It’s indescribable, really. Unbelievable. Completely improbable, that Viktor can have this.

But I meant forever, Yuuri said, and I love you, and I’m in love with you.

Even if Viktor can never break the curse, it will be okay, he thinks. After all, lying here in Yuuri’s arms and Yuuri’s love, he already feels free.

 

 

They pass their days between the studio, the beach, and Minako and Yuuri’s chambers. Yuuri hates leaving Viktor for negotiations, but it cannot be avoided. He counts down the hours until the delegation leaves and Viktor stays and they don’t have to worry anymore.

The fact that Viktor thought Yuuri would let the ambassador take him back to Rossiya defies understanding. Yuuri tries not to think about it, because it feels like a knife twisting in his gut.

Before they fell asleep that night, Yuuri told Viktor about his confrontation with the ambassador—it wasn’t much of a confrontation, he said, because the ambassador was terrifyingly icy but did not argue when Yuuri requested Viktor’s company for the remainder of their time in Hasetsu. “Less than two weeks with me, and then they leave,” Yuuri reminded Viktor. “You never have to go with him again.”

Viktor did not look as relieved as Yuuri thought he would.

They decide together that, until the very end of negotiations, Yuuri will not mention anything to the ambassador. They will wait until the eleventh hour before Yuuri even brings it up to the ambassador; perhaps, with the treaty so close to being signed and surprise on their side, the delegation will not find it worth the risk to fight Yuuri on it. Still, curse or no curse, the political fallout will be immense. Both Yuuri and Viktor understand the risk of provoking the ambassador’s anger while Viktor is still here in the palace, obligated to do his bidding.

Every time he heads to negotiations, Yuuri is torn between reluctance at leaving Viktor alone and the desire to give him space. They have done everything together for the past three or four days, and this pattern will continue into the next two weeks. Yuuri has no problem with it but, in love or not, he can’t imagine that Viktor wants to spend almost every waking—and sleeping—moment attached to Yuuri’s hip.

Except, he knows Viktor is bored out of his mind when Yuuri leaves. When Yuuri asks, Viktor says that he passed the time in Rossiya by learning as much as he could: books about the history and philosophy of classical dance, books on the taxonomy of known species (especially dog breeds), books in the diplomatic language in order to expand his vocabulary.

One of the first things Yuuri does, then, is take Viktor to the Royal Sagan Library. It is vast, airy, and elegant, filled with countless volumes and littered with comfortable places to sit and read. “It’s mostly in my language, though,” Yuuri admits. He knows Viktor’s homeland holds nothing for him anymore, but how could he possibly feel at home here, surrounded by characters and words that mean nothing to him?

Viktor grins and says, “I’ll just have to learn, then. Do you have any books for learning the diplomatic language from yours? I can try to work backwards from there.”

Yuuri’s eyes widen. “Is that how you learned this language?”

“Oh, no, they gave me lessons when I was a teenager.” Viktor shrugs. “We had a lot of foreign guests, they thought it necessary. But they didn’t do a very good job teaching me, so the rest I learned from books!”

Yuuri did not know that such intense love and intense hatred could coexist yet here he is, his chest burning with both.

“I think we have books in Sagan on learning Rossiyan, actually,” Yuuri muses, heading to a shelf by the window and standing on his tip-toes. Viktor comes up behind him and reaches it with ease. The second he sees the lettering of his native language on the cover, he lights up.

“Perfect! I will have plenty to entertain me here.”

Yuuri’s hands fidget, standing back as Viktor flicks through the volume. “You know you can go anywhere in this palace, right? I know you’re trying to avoid the delegation for now, and I know that places some… restrictions on you, but if you ever feel trapped, you know you can go anywhere. I don’t want to crowd you, or keep you locked up in my chambers all the time, or make you feel like you have to be with me all the time, but I want you to be—to feel—safe, and I—”

“Yuuri.” Viktor reaches out and traps Yuuri’s hands with his own, stilling their nervous movements. “You’re not crowding me. Or trapping me. I appreciate it, but you’re not. Remember when I said I love you?”

Yuuri nods, not trusting his voice.

“It means I enjoy being with you. That’s not going to change.”

A breath Yuuri had not realized he’d been holding falls from his lips. “Can I kiss you?”

“Of course.”

So he does.

 

 

From then on, after morning dance practice, Yuuri heads to negotiations and Viktor to the library. They meet up again for dinner where Viktor asks Yuuri questions about the minutiae of Sagan pronunciation and grammar (Yuuri’s tutors would be horrified if they knew how little Yuuri could answer). Sometimes he regales Yuuri with did you know s about Sagan history and the peak blooming times of different varieties of cherry blossom. Considering his in-depth and encyclopedic knowledge of Rossiyan (and now Sagan) classical dance, Yuuri never doubted that Viktor was intelligent. Viktor is more than good at memorization, though—he soaks up new knowledge like a sponge and internalizes it in startling detail and depth. Viktor’s heart-shaped smile as he regales Yuuri with his thoughts warms Yuuri’s chest from the inside out.

After dinner, they start taking walks on the beach. Their runs at sunrise and their strolls at sunset are a nice way to bookend the day, Yuuri thinks. In the mornings they are focused and out of breath, so they rarely attempt to talk. The evenings, however, are for the two of them, breathing in the vast expanse of ocean and its salty breeze, far enough down the shore that they don’t have to worry about who will see their joined hands.

“Soon the water will be warm enough to go swimming,” Yuuri says. The still-chilled waves lap at the shore and numb their toes.

“I don’t know how to swim.”

“You don’t?”

“I never had to learn. Perhaps you could teach me?”

“There’s not much to it,” Yuuri admits. “You’d be a natural, I’m sure.”

“You might be overestimating me, Prince Katsuki Yuuri.”

“You might be underestimating yourself, Viktor…” Yuuri trails off. “Huh.”

“What?”

“I don’t know your family name.”

“Huh.” Viktor cocks his head to the side, and says, “It’s, uh, Nikiforov.” His own name sounds bizarrely foreign on his tongue.

“Viktor Nikiforov,” Yuuri beams. “That’s a beautiful name.”

Viktor looks lost until he meets Yuuri’s eyes and his mouth spreads in a grin to match. “It’s beautiful when you say it.”

After their walks they go straight to Minako’s, each day learning more and more about Viktor’s curse. Some details feel important, others don’t, but Yuuri can see the confidence fill in Viktor’s shoulders more and more with each discovery.

One night, they play around with wording. “Raise your hand” and “please raise your hand” yield the same results, but when Yuuri changes it to “can you raise your hand?” or “you should raise your hand”, Viktor stays put.

Another night, they experiment with time. When Yuuri says, “Squeeze my hand”, Viktor can clench his fingers once and relax them immediately, if he wants to. But if Yuuri adds, “until I tell you to stop,” Viktor has no choice in the matter. Viktor suspects, he tells them, that there is an expiration point that they haven’t discovered yet—that, even if Yuuri never told him to stop, Viktor would be able to eventually.

“How long, do you think?” Minako pushes. “Hours? Days?”

“I don’t know,” he admits, not looking Yuuri or Minako in the eye. “It might depend. Once I thought something lasted as long as a week, but… it was hard to tell.”

Minako seems satisfied with their progress. Viktor does not, but Yuuri can’t blame him for being impatient.

They end the day, always, freshly bathed in fresh clothes in Yuuri’s bed. By morning they will have found their way into each other’s arms, and the initial distance between them shrinks with each passing day. By the time a week has passed, they have given up on distance entirely and curl into each other the second their tired bodies hit the bed.

Yuuri never once takes it for granted, feeling the heat of Viktor’s body wrapped behind him, or the soft tickle of Viktor’s hair on his neck, or the sweet things Viktor sometimes whispers in his ear as they drift closer to sleep.

“I love you,” he’ll say, or:

“You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” or:

“Your feet are cold.”

(Yuuri presses his feet straight up Viktor’s leg in response. “You should warm them up, then,” he says, careful that it’s not an order.)

They kiss, too—oh boy do they kiss. Viktor must put some sort of flavored balm on his lips in anticipation, because there is no way he naturally tastes so sweet. It’s lazy and lovely, being with Viktor like this. Yuuri is well aware of the implications of the two of them, pressed up against one another under the covers with only thin sleepwear between them and their tongues teasing at each other’s mouths. But there is no room for expectations in this bed, Yuuri makes sure of it. He checks his every movement and every word.

“Can I kiss you?” he asks always, even if it’s Viktor that makes the first move.

Viktor always replies, “Yes.”

 

 

Not too many days pass before Yuuri’s mother practically demands that he invite Viktor to lunch. Yuuri is not quite sure why he has put this off—probably something to do with his family’s penchant for recapping embarrassing stories and announcing, unflinchingly and casually, that Yuuri is in love with Viktor.

Which is silly, Yuuri knows. He told Viktor he loves him earlier that week. He told Viktor he was in love with him, and Viktor feels the exact same way about Yuuri.

It’s Friday, which means katsudon, so Yuuri figures it’s as good of a time as any. His family deserves to meet the man Yuuri is putting their country’s trade relations on the line for, and Viktor deserves to share in Yuuri’s support system.

And what a support system the Katsukis are. They welcome Viktor—a tall, pale foreigner who doesn’t speak their language and has an incredibly inconvenient curse—with open arms as if he’s had a place at their table for years now.

Viktor, who had been quite nervous in the hallway on the way there, surprises Yuuri by coming out of his shell almost immediately.

“This is amazing, Queen Hiroko! Yuuri tells me you make it yourself?”

It’s something about his parents, Yuuri thinks, that makes people comfortable like this. Viktor had been anxious and overly polite when he met Minako and Mari, but the king and queen? They are strangely unintimidating around those they trust, and within minutes Viktor is his usual effervescent self.

“I make it every Friday! Katsudon is Yuuri’s favorite dish, I am sure he’s told you.”

“But we have to be careful,” Yuuri’s father chuckles. “Yuuri puts on weight if he eats it too frequently.”

Otousan ,” Yuuri moans into his rice.

Viktor, thankfully, does not fixate on this. “It’s dangerous, then! I could probably eat it for every meal.”

“We would have to seriously increase the distance of our morning runs,” Yuuri grumbles.

“I could teach you to make it, if you like,” Hiroko offers, and it seems to take Viktor a moment to realize that the queen is talking to him. He starts, and doesn’t seem to know what to say.

“I, uh, that is very kind,” he stutters. “I’m afraid I will fail miserably, though. My, uh, my mother was a cook, and she never had much success in teaching me.”

“Well we’ll just have to try again! You seem like a very intelligent man, Viktor, I have no doubt that you can do it.” Yuuri has never appreciated his mother’s gentle smile as much as when she fixes it on Viktor. She has a way of making everyone feel special; Yuuri is used to this, but Viktor has no defense against it. He blushes a deep pink, eyelashes fluttering.

“Oh. I, uh, okay. Yes. Thank you.”

Yuuri brings Viktor to eat with his family every night after that.

 

 

“Is it working?” Yuuri finally works up the courage to ask one night as the final day of negotiations draws nearer. “What we’ve been doing with Minako, I mean.”

Viktor hums against Yuuri’s chest. “I don’t know for sure. I think so. It feels… weaker, maybe, or I’m just feeling stronger.”

“That’s good.”

“It is.”

“I’m sorry, you know. For what I’ve had to do.”

“Yuuri—”

“Wait. I know you brushed it off before, you said it was okay and it didn’t matter, but… it does matter. It does, because I normally try so hard to watch what I say and make sure I never make you do anything, but then I have to turn around and spend an hour each night doing nothing but ordering you around and– and– and I know you said you don’t mind. I know. And I know it’s helping, but…” Yuuri huffs, running his fingers down the braid he had woven into Viktor’s hair only minutes before. “But I don’t want you to ever get used to it. To obeying me.” Yuuri is grateful that Viktor’s face is buried in his chest. It makes these conversations easier.

“You’re nothing like them,” Viktor promises.

“I know, I know that, but I just don’t…” Yuuri shudders. “I don’t want you to associate me with that. I don’t want it to have any part in our relationship.”

Viktor shifts, then, pulling away from Yuuri’s chest, propping himself up on his elbow, and looking Yuuri dead in the eyes. “Yuuri, since this all happened, how many times have we kissed?”

Yuuri blinks. “I don’t know. Fifteen, maybe? Twenty?”

“Right. And how many times have you stopped and asked my permission first?”

“Oh.” Yuuri feels his face heat up. “All of them, I suppose.”

“Right. That is what I associate with our relationship. That is what’s important to me, not what you do to help at Minako’s.” He smiles. “And even then, you’re helping me, pushing me, just like when I push you as your dance instructor. Do you resent me for making you do endless drills and warm ups?”

“No, never.”

“So I could never resent you for this, either.” Viktor smiles. “And by the way, it’s very sweet that you ask permission to kiss me, but you don’t have to. The answer is always yes, for you. Always yes.”

Yuuri tests it out, then, by leaning down slowly and capturing Viktor’s lips in his own. He pulls back far too soon, wanting to gauge Viktor’s reaction.

Viktor is, of course, beaming.

 

 

Yuuri is smaller than Viktor—not by much, but enough that Yuuri’s pants hit Viktor just above the ankles and his shirts cling a bit too snugly to Viktor’s chest. For form-fitting dance attire this is fine, because the fabric stretches enough that it fits both of them perfectly, but the way the material clings around his crotch and to the muscles of his thighs isn’t quite decent for dinners with the Royal Family. The rest of Yuuri’s more functional attire, being so perfectly tailored to Yuuri’s perfect body, looks just shy of ridiculous on Viktor.

So after dinner one evening, with just under a week left in his mental countdown, Viktor sneaks off to the West wing with promises to meet Yuuri on the beach shortly. He has imposed on Yuuri enough. His avoidance of this part of the palace, while valid, is becoming slightly pathological.

He pushes open the door to his small room, Yuuri’s embroidered laundry bag in hand, and raids the chest of drawers for a week’s worth of dance clothes, functional clothes, and sleep clothes. He grabs the few books he had brought with him from home as well, shoving it all into the bag and slinging the bag over his shoulder.

It’s only when he turns around that he sees it.

A piece of cream-colored paper, lying folded atop his pillow, his name written in flowing script across the top.

Виктор.

He tries to stop himself from reading it. He tries not to move towards the bed, not to reach out, not to pull the piece of paper into his hands and catch the corner with his thumb, unfolding it to reveal the message inside.

He does this all, anyhow. Inside is written:

Meet me in my chambers tonight after dinner.

Just that. Not signed. Not dated. No more information than that, but it is more than enough.

Viktor had not realized the ambassador had such beautiful handwriting. A sinking feeling gathers in his stomach as he reads and rereads the words, realizing what this means. A trap, of course he laid a trap, knowing Viktor would come back here eventually and here he is, frozen, the order settling into his mind and his muscles and his bones with every second.

Except— except.

Viktor has never seen the ambassador’s handwriting before. Anyone could have written this message, anyone in the Rossiyan delegation— even a bold Sagan noble who had learned their language or had it translated. It was improbable, but not impossible, and if Viktor does not know who wrote this note then he could not possibly know whose door to knock on tonight.

Viktor also hasn’t been back to his room in over a week. How is he to know when this note was left? It could have been hours ago, but it also could have been days. Tonight after dinner, the message reads, but which dinner? Last Thursday’s? He can’t very well know when to show up if he doesn’t know if tonight has already passed.

(Of course, Viktor knows what this person wants from him. He knows what would be waiting for him in this person’s chambers. This kind of request would not have an expiration date—surely they would be happy with tonight as much as last Thursday, even if that was not the original intention.)

(But that doesn’t matter, Viktor reminds himself. All that matters is what is written, and he can’t very well carry out an order when he doesn’t know when and where he is supposed to be.)

Keeping his eyes wide open, he carefully, carefully places the note back where he found it on his bed, stepping away the second the paper leaves his fingertips as if it might explode.

The room suddenly seems too small. He walks as quickly as he can to the beach, finding Yuuri waving at him from where the waves meet the sand.

“Vitya!” Yuuri calls. “Everything okay?”

Viktor walks toward him, the sand soft between his toes. “Yes. Ready?”

“Definitely.”

Yuuri is chatty that night. They have an hour before Minako is expecting them, and Yuuri makes use of every minute.

“We should get a dog.”

Viktor, who has zoned out a bit, immediately perks up. “What?”

“A dog. I told you that I used to have a poodle, remember? He loved running around on the beach and splashing in the waves and he would have loved you, you know.” Yuuri shrugs. “I miss having a dog around, and you said you always wanted one, but we definitely don’t have to and—”

“Yes!” Viktor laughs, he can’t help it. “Yes, a dog, yes please we should get a dog. Do you want another poodle? I’ve always loved poodles too, yes, we should definitely get a dog.”

It’s so clear in Viktor’s imagination: the two of them, arms wrapped around each other’s waists, walking along the beach as a ball of brown curls bounds ahead of them with its tail and tongue wagging. He wants it so badly, feels like he could reach out and touch it and have it forever, all thanks to Yuuri.

Viktor embraces this future and forgets, for a moment, everything standing in their way.

 

 

Viktor had no intention of telling Yuuri about the note—but Viktor can’t keep anything from Yuuri, not really, not now that they’re in this together in every sense of the word. Certainly not now that Yuuri has given up his evenings to sit with Viktor and give him repetitive, pointless orders in hopes that it will help. Not wanting to worry Yuuri loses to not wanting to hide from Yuuri, so when Minako praises Viktor’s progress and asks if he has noticed any improvement, he works up his nerve and tells them.

He tells them how he found it—folded atop his pillow, his name written in beautiful script across the top and a terribly ambiguous order etched inside. He can picture every stroke of ink in his mind; any second now, the order will take hold of him. He has fought it but he is weak and the order, written out like this, is strong and enduring. He feels it tug on him, fights harder, and prays it will be enough.

“You’re right, Viktor. This is certainly progress,” Minako says.

Yuuri, however, swallows thickly, his adam’s apple bobbing, and he looks up to meet Viktor’s gaze with fear shining clearly in his eyes.

“It can’t hurt me,” Viktor promises, hoping Yuuri doesn’t catch the uncertainty in his voice.

“I know,” Yuuri replies, but it’s reluctant.

After Minako’s, Yuuri won’t take his eyes off of Viktor for even a second, as if he’s afraid Viktor will lose control and stalk off to the ambassador’s chambers after all. Viktor, at least, doesn’t think that a possibility at this point, but he feels safer knowing Yuuri is there.  

 

 

They skip their morning run the next day because negotiations have been scheduled to begin earlier than normal. Yuuri grumbles from the moment he wakes up about unnecessary revisions and irrelevant subordinate clauses and the fact that they spent all yesterday splitting hairs over the proper preposition to use in Article III, Section 5, Point iv. Viktor thinks it might be a bit hypocritical to complain considering the game-changing ultimatum they’re sitting on, but he doesn’t mention it.

The final day of negotiations is tomorrow—if it can even be called that. Tomorrow is the signing, any negotiation that occurs meant to be pure formality. It will take place in the grand ballroom in front of the entire royal family, both delegations, and any Sagan citizen that elects to attend. Viktor has seen servants flitting about all morning, preparing for the grand event.

Tomorrow, Yuuri will demand to the Rossiyan delegation that Viktor stay in Saga. Tomorrow the prince will jeopardize both his kingdom’s diplomatic relations with Rossiya, as well as the treaty that he has spent the past two months working so hard on—all for Viktor. And Viktor, on the other hand, has still barely made a dent in his curse. He is still an immense liability, and will only become more so once the ambassador realizes the extent of his defiance. Surely by now Yuuri knows it won’t happen, but he hasn’t yet mentioned any precautions they plan on taking.

Skipping the run gives them their normal time in the studio, but they are both understandably distracted. They have trouble focusing on proper leg extension for their arabesques when crunch-time has begun. The clock is ticking, and they know it.

They are both still buzzing with nervous energy once the sun has begun to set, so they decide to turn their evening walk into the run they missed this morning. Yuuri sets a punishing pace and they run even farther than normal but Viktor pushes himself to keep up even as the landscape around them turns unfamiliar.

Eventually they double back, and Viktor taps out once the palace comes into view in the distance. They walk the rest of the way, trying to regain their breath, in comfortable silence.

A servant greets them on their way back to Yuuri’s room, speaking low in Yuuri’s language that Viktor hopes to understand one day but is currently still hopeless at comprehending.

“Is something wrong?”

Yuuri sighs, running a hand through his sweaty hair. “No, sorry, I’m just needed in the negotiation room.”

“This late?”

“Yeah, it’s always pretty crazy the day before the signing. I think they just have a clarification question, it shouldn’t take too long. I’ll be back soon. Meet me in my chambers?”

“Okay,” Viktor agrees, and Yuuri stands on his tiptoes to press a parting to Viktor’s lips. Viktor’s mouth stretches into a grin beneath Yuuri’s. He misses Yuuri the second he pulls away. “Have fun.”

Hah, ” Yuuri scoffs, and then disappears down the hallway.

After nearly two months in this sprawling palace, Viktor knows his way around quite well. The short—albeit windy—path between Yuuri’s chambers and the studio is his favorite, but he’s also becoming quite fond of the walk from the library to the Katsuki family’s dining room.

Still, there’s a lot he has yet to explore. He cannot wait to make this palace his home—it is a privilege he never expected and cannot deserve but will accept with open arms regardless. He will have to go exploring, one day, with Yuuri at his side. For now, he lets his feet trace the familiar path back to Yuuri’s chambers.

Except he never makes it back to Yuuri’s chambers.

He turns a corner and his heart sputters to a stop, legs freezing in their tracks. He feels like someone poured a bucket of ice water over his head—it trickles down his spine and chills him to the bone. He fights to draw in air, taking a shuddering breath.

Waiting by the entrance to the East wing, standing tall with his flat gaze pinned directly on Viktor, is the handler.

“Follow me,” Viktor’s handler orders. The man turns on his heels, doesn’t look back, and starts walking West.

And Viktor follows.

 

Chapter Text

...

 

When Viktor was fifteen years old, he made his official debut as a dancer of the Royal Court of Rossiya. His program had been a year in the making, the product of many late nights and early mornings and constant, rigorous training.

The performance was perfect, of course, a spectacle of poise, control, and sensuality. Grace rolled down from his shoulders and off his fingertips and brought many in the audience to tears; according to multiple witnesses, even His Highness the King had been misty-eyed by the time Viktor began his final piece.

Custom normally dictated that Viktor leave with the King that night, but since His Highness had little interest in men, the privilege then went to the highest bidder. A donation, they called it, and Viktor discovered years later that the sum for his first night was far larger than for any dancer in the past. He left that night with a court advisor.

He still remembers every detail. They are not horrible memories—no, that began later, with a visiting nobleman from a faraway kingdom whose demands made Viktor’s gut twist and his skin crawl. The fallout was intense. The nobleman received one black and swollen eye from Viktor and a formal apology from the King. Viktor received a curse.

After that, the makeup of his patrons slowly began to change. A boy with Viktor’s condition attracted a certain kind of patron after all, and word travels fast. It was around this time that he met the ambassador.

Or rather— Antonovich had not been an ambassador at the time, but instead a relatively low-ranking court official with ambitions for greatness and the ruthlessness to get himself there. He climbed upward as the years passed and Viktor saw him all too frequently, never able to keep track of his title. At the bare minimum the man insisted on either “Lord Antonovich” or, even better, “my Lord”, but these names tasted sour on Viktor’s tongue and he avoided saying anything unless ordered otherwise.

How many nights, then, has Viktor waited outside Antonovich’s door, numbness seeping into his bones in the drawn-out seconds after he announces his arrival with a knock? He does not care to hazard a guess. He waits for the door to open and for the moment of dissociation to hit. It always happens this way—his body goes numb and he retreats so far within himself that he cannot be touched.

Except it never comes. Tonight, there is a pit of dread weighing in his stomach and grounding him heavily in the reality he’d rather not witness. Tonight he is buzzing, prickling, like when he sits in one position too long and his foot falls asleep.

The door swings open wide.

“Vityenka,” the ambassador purrs, and it itches beneath Viktor’s skin. “It is so good to finally see you. Please, come in.”

In his peripheral vision, Viktor sees his handler disappear down the hallway. He steps into the ambassador’s chambers.

He feels naked already, standing in this room without armor of flowing silk clothes and a mask of makeup. Instead, he is dressed in skin-tight exercise clothes, face bare, his hair tied back sloppily and his entire body covered in a film of sweat from his evening run with Yuuri. That might as well have been a week ago, for how distant it feels now.

Vulnerability slams into him like a wave, and Viktor does not know how to swim.

The ambassador moves to the chair at his desk, leaning back and crossing his legs. “I trust you did not see my note?”

“I must have missed it,” Viktor replies, his voice squeezed flat. Once upon a time, he would have added my Lord to the end. He cannot bring himself to do so now.

“I seem to have caught you a bit off guard.” Antonovich appraises Viktor with narrowed eyes. His gaze rakes up and down Viktor’s body, from head to toe and pausing appreciatively in between. His dance clothes have never felt so tight. “Practicing, were you?”

“Yes.”

“Hmm. It’s been tragically long since I’ve seen you dance, Vityenka.”

“Has it?”

“Indeed.” Antonovich cocks his head. “In fact, you will dance for me now.”

Viktor’s mouth is as dry as bone. He licks his lips and tastes salt. “Right now?”

“I suggest you do not question me.” It’s not an order, but Viktor has little choice regardless.

The ambassador’s chambers are no larger than Yuuri’s, leaving little space for any of Viktor’s routines. Nonetheless, he is quite used to—if still out of practice—performing in spaces like these. He forces his legs to move from where he stands, still frozen in the doorway, moving to the open space in the center of the room and contorting his body into fifth position.

Viktor manages to drag himself through a modified version of a routine he has not practiced since he arrived in Saga. It is understandably rusty, but the ambassador does not deserve to see anything Viktor has worked on with Yuuri. Anything Yuuri has touched is too precious for the ambassador’s ruinous gaze.

As he pulls himself through the choreography, Viktor realizes he holds nothing but contempt for this piece and every piece like it—every piece before Yuuri, really. He knows his disdain shows clearly in his performance, but cannot bring himself to care. There is grace to his movements—there always is, or he wouldn’t be Viktor Nikiforov—but the routine has been sapped of all emotion.

Viktor finishes on one knee, arms stretched to the side, and stands back up almost immediately.

“Hmm.” The ambassador has barely moved. “Do you dance like this for him, then?”

“Pardon?”

“For the prince, Vityenka. Is this the show you give him? Tell me the truth, now. Somehow I doubt that this is what keeps him calling you back.”

“No,” Viktor replies honestly, and leaves it at that.

“He seems to be quite attached to you. Unhealthily so.” The ambassador sighs and stands, taking a few steps before sinking down onto the foot of his mattress. “I can’t say I blame him, though. Being with you, the kind of power that comes with it…” He barks a laugh. “Let me tell you, it’s quite the rush.”

Viktor suppresses a shiver. “I can’t say the same, unfortunately.” A flash of anger burns in the ambassador’s eyes.

“You have been awfully mouthy lately. Quite… resistant.” He smirks. “I’m not sure I dislike it.”

Vitkor does not want to be here. He does not want to hear this. He wants to curl up inside himself and stay there until it’s all over.

The ambassador scoots backward to the center of the mattress. He nods, and says, “Take off your clothes.”

Barely a week has passed, but Viktor has already gotten used to not having to do this; used to the only orders impressed upon him being Yuuri’s. The difference is stark when the man behind the orders wishes him nothing but harm. It’s almost worse now, going back.

All of the work they’d done, all of the nights spent at Minako’s, but in this moment it is for nothing. There is no resisting this order.

Viktor peels the clothes from his body, unable to think of doing anything else—first his shirt, then his pants, until he stands before the ambassador’s stinging gaze in nothing but his small black underwear. The hair on his chest stands on edge.

The wave of vulnerability becomes a riptide, pulling him under until he can barely breathe.

“Come,” the ambassador commands, gesturing to his lap.

Viktor goes. His skin itches with dried sweat and burns where the ambassador touches him. He wants to crawl out of it.

“Perhaps I should clean up fir—”

“Don’t you worry about that,” the ambassador says, and licks a stripe up Viktor’s neck.

Viktor jumps, dislodging the pit of dread in his stomach and fearing for a moment that he may throw it up. The ambassador’s touch feels like needles and his gaze like fire as they roam Viktor’s body.

The next volley of orders leaves Viktor lying flat on his back atop the mattress. The ambassador straddles his stomach and orders him to take off his belt.

He does. The leather trembles in his hands.

“Relax,” the ambassador whispers, and Viktor’s muscles go limp but his mind still races. He squeezes his eyes shut.

“Now, Vityenka, you know the rules. Open your eyes.”

Viktor opens them but keeps his head turned to the side, his gaze tracing the wood detailing of the desk against the wall. There’s a hand in his hair, tugging out the tie that holds it back. Fingers roam across his scalp, threading through the strands to pet Viktor’s head.

“Mmm, so stubborn. Look.”

Viktor wants to do nothing less. His heart is racing. The order tugs at his mind, the muscles in his neck and eyes moving to comply but— but.

Look, but look where? There are too many options. Viktor is already looking. He is looking at the desk. The order melts away.

“Look at me!” the ambassador growls and Viktor lets his eyes fall to the tip of the ambassador’s shoe, just barely out of Viktor’s current line of sight. And then he looks away.

“Viktor.” There is a dangerous edge to the ambassador’s tone. He rarely uses Viktor’s full name, and fear prickles down the back of Viktor’s spine. “Look me in the eyes, now, and don’t you dare look away.”

Viktor has no choice then. He complies. The whites of the ambassador’s eyes are like ice, the grey-blue of his irises frigid, sharp metal.

“What is going on with you?” Antonovich hisses, grabbing Viktor’s chin in his hand. His fingernails cut into Viktor’s jaw. “Cooperate, Vityenka, or you will regret it.” Suddenly he releases Viktor’s face, sits back, and shifts further up Viktor’s chest. “Now come on. Please me.”

How many times has Viktor been in this position? How many times has he heard this order? How many times has not thought twice before doing what he thought he had to do?

He knows better now.

Please him, it’s echoing in Viktor’s head and he has to he has to he has—to do what? Please him, but please him how? There are simply too many options, too many things this could mean, and it does not have to be sexual after all. The ambassador seems pleased enough right now, sitting astride Viktor’s bare chest with his pants undone. It seems Viktor has already pleased him.

It will not happen again.

Viktor does not want to be here. Viktor does not want to obey. Viktor does not want to hear one more word in this man’s voice or feel one more second of this man’s touch. He wants to shove Antonovich off his chest, walk out of this room and never look back.

And it hits him, in that exact moment, that he can. Antonovich has not ordered him to stay here. He has not prohibited Viktor from pushing him away, from standing up off this mattress, from walking out that door.

So that is precisely what Viktor does.

The moment his palms make contact with the ambassador’s chest, shoving him back with every ounce of adrenaline- and fear-fueled strength Viktor can muster, something in his world splits open. He sits up, jumps off of the mattress, and stands upright.

The ambassador lies, crumpled and shocked, on the bed. Viktor stands above him, the net that had bound him in tatters at his feet.

Viktor walks straight out the door, his heart in his throat and shaking from head to toe.

“Viktor, stop this instant!”

Stop what? It doesn’t matter. Viktor continues down the hallway.

“Come back here now! ” the ambassador screeches after him. It’s a full order and for a moment Viktor fears it may stick, but the desperate words are nothing more than a single rope thrown to lasso him in. Viktor shrugs them off easily.

At the end of the hallway he breaks into a run, ignoring the looks he gets as his legs carry him, nearly naked and completely disheveled, across the palace to the one place he most needs to be.

He does not knock. He does not need to. Trembling like a leaf, his heart pounding out of his chest, he barges right in, crosses the room, and sinks directly into Yuuri’s arms.

 

...

 

When Yuuri returns from the negotiation room to find his chambers empty, he worries.

It turns out, he was called away from his evening with Viktor because a low-ranking Rossiyan advisor wanted to ask a random clarification question about a minor clause of the treaty; detail is important, true, but it could really have waited until tomorrow. Yuuri could have been getting ready for bed with Viktor by now, minutes away from nestling under the covers and letting that beautiful, beautiful man wrap his arms around Yuuri’s waist and press a soft kiss to his lips…

He is looking forward to doing just that when he returns, except Viktor isn’t in the bed or at the desk or in the bathroom, either.

You don’t control him, hisses a small part of his mind. You told him he could go anywhere. He doesn’t need you telling him where to be.

But they had plans, didn’t they? They promised to meet back here once Yuuri was done, he swears they did, although the business in the negotiation room did take much less time than anticipated, so maybe he will be back soon.

He waits, and worries, and waits and worries more. A horrible thought seizes him that Viktor isn’t here because he doesn’t want to be, but it’s patently false and every rational bone in Yuuri’s body knows it. The longer he waits, though, the more horrible thoughts creep up on him because his mind is horrible and Viktor, Viktor is so strong but he’s still vulnerable, and sometimes what Viktor wants has no bearing on what Viktor is made to do.

He is minutes away from calling a search party when the door bursts open and a warm, heavy body slams into his chest and sinks into his arms.

A warm, heavy, naked body.

Yuuri has no time to react—he wraps his arms around Viktor’s torso and holds him up, holds him tight, trying to force his brain to take in the details as they come. Viktor’s bare skin is warm everywhere it touches Yuuri’s body and covered in a cold sheen of sweat. He’s not fully naked—a small, black pair of underwear are left to preserve his dignity—but it’s enough to send Yuuri’s mind reeling with the horrendous possibilities.

And Viktor is shaking out of his skin, his muscles buzzing under Yuuri’s fingertips, his breath coming out in small, uncontrollable gasps near Yuuri’s ear.

His nails dig into Yuuri’s back and he clings to Yuuri like his life depends on it.

“Vitya, Vitya please, can you talk to me, what’s going on, Vitya…” Yuuri tries to make his voice as soothing as possible but there’s a sharp, terrified edge to the words. He cradles the back of Viktor’s head with his hand, smoothing down his wild, knotted hair.

Yuuri’s vision is blurring at the corners, the lights of the room suddenly too bright. Viktor’s ragged breaths are like shards of glass to Yuuri’s diaphragm and he has trouble pulling in air. No, he can’t do this, not right now when Viktor needs him, he has to stay strong, he’s the only thing holding Viktor up right now and he has to

Oh, god. This is bad, he knows it’s bad, because Viktor is distraught and disheveled and covered in sweat and clad in nothing but a skimpy pair of underwear and it doesn’t take a genius to put together the pieces and, god, oh god, he needs to breathe, he can’t help Viktor like this, he needs to breathe—

He forces his lungs to expand. He takes in air. The creeping blurriness starts to recede and he focuses on Viktor, only Viktor, who is here and real and hurt. Yuuri forces himself to feel his feet on the ground and the man in his arms and the salty air coming from the open window.

He knows what he has to do, but he doesn’t want to.

“Vitya, please, please relax…” Yuuri half-begs, half orders, and it is for his own good but that doesn’t make it easier.

Viktor doesn’t relax. Yuuri wonders if he could even hear him.

Unsure of what else to do, Yuuri turns them around and guides Viktor so that he’s sitting safely on the edge of the bed. Quickly, he extracts himself from Viktor’s arms and shuts the door, returning to kneel in front of Viktor. He takes the sides of Viktor’s face in his hands and forces, forces Viktor to meet his gaze.

Viktor’s eyes are unfocused—wild and unmoored. He keeps blinking compulsively, like he can’t stop. Yuuri has never seen himself have a panic attack, but he can’t imagine it looks much different than this.

“Vitya, I don’t know what happened, but you are safe now.” He sucks in a breath and tries one more time. “Listen to me, okay? You’re safe now.”

Viktor’s eyes slip shut and Yuuri feels his whole body deflate. His breaths are forced but suddenly more regular. He lets his head, still cradled in Yuuri’s hands, fall to his chest. He brings his hands up to wrap his fingers around Yuuri’s wrists.

“Okay,” Viktor rasps, “okay, I’m okay—”

There’s a knock on the door. Viktor shuts up immediately, his head jerking back up and his eyes flashing open.

“The bathroom, hide in the bathroom,” Yuuri hisses, in his panic not caring that it’s an order. Viktor nods but doesn’t move, so Yuuri tugs on Viktor’s wrists and pulls him into the bathroom, leaning him up against the wall and hating himself the whole time for moving even a centimeter away from Viktor when he’s in this state. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he promises, and shuts the door behind him.

Another knock on the door, three of them, louder this time. Yuuri sucks in two calming breaths, wraps himself in his persona of diplomacy, fixes his hair, and opens the door. He is not at all surprised to find the ambassador waiting in the hallway, fist in the air as if preparing to knock yet again, fully clothed yet nearly as disheveled as Viktor.

“Prince Yuuri.”

“Lord Antonovich, is there something that you need?” Yuuri asks, his voice like ice. “It is quite late, and I hardly find it appropriate to conduct business in my personal quarters.”

“This is not entirely a business matter, I’m afraid.”

“Oh?” Yuuri quirks an eyebrow. “I was not aware that we had any personal engagement.”

“Well you see, Your Highness, I feel as if my generosity has been taken advantage of, and I take that quite personally. Would you not?”

There’s a pit in Yuuri’s stomach as heavy as a boulder. He tries not to let it show on his face. “I am afraid that I do not follow, Lord Antonovich.”

“Your Highness, I do not know what you did or how you did it, but I would appreciate if you dropped this farce and stopped playing these games with me.”

“Games? Surely we are not playing a game.” Yuuri knows, before he says the words, that they will be fuel to the fire. Anger flares bright in the ambassador’s flaming eyes, barely even restrained.

“I think you know exactly what you’re playing. If you think you can outsmart me, I encourage you to think again. You have no idea what you have just done. I don’t know what kind of black magic you people here think you can pull, but regardless of what you do it is me that he answers to, do you understand?”

“Oh,” Yuuri replies, fixing a look of helpless confusion on his face. “Are we talking about Vitya?”

(He almost said ‘Viktor’. He was so close to using his full name but he couldn’t resist, in the moment. The way the ambassador’s face contorts in rage is worth it.)

“The Kingdom of Rossiya will not tolerate this disrespect,” the ambassador practically growls, and leans to search the room over Yuuri’s shoulder. “He is here, isn’t he? I know he is—”

Yuuri positions himself directly in the ambassador’s line of vision. “He isn’t, actually. Perhaps you could check his chamber?”

The ambassador’s nostrils flare. “Vityenka!” he calls into the room behind Yuuri. The rest of his words are in Rossiyan, but even though Yuuri can’t understand them he knows they are foul, hateful things, meant to hurt and insult and sear into Viktor’s brain, compelling him to come out.

Yuuri holds his breath. Every muscle in his body is tensed, prepared for a fight—diplomat or not, if Viktor had emerged from the bathroom in a curse-addled stupor, if he had tried to walk out the door and follow the ambassador, Yuuri would have slammed the door shut, snapped the deadbolt, and physically restrained Viktor until he could whisper enough counter-orders in his ear to bring him back to himself. He will not let anything else happen to Viktor. He can’t.  

But perhaps the ambassador hadn’t delivered any orders, after all. The bathroom door remains shut, and Antonovich sneers.

“I do not know how you did it, but I will not stand for this. He belongs to Rossiya—he always has, and he always will.”

It’s funny, Yuuri thinks, that the ambassador seems so convinced Yuuri was the one who broke the curse. Did he afford Viktor so little agency?

“I am quite tired, Lord Antonovich, and I must kindly ask you to leave my private chambers.” Yuuri feels his diplomatic mask crumbling at the corners and he needs the ambassador gone immediately. “We can discuss matters pertaining to the treaty tomorrow at the signing but I’m afraid all other matters, personal or not, will have to wait.”

“If that is how you want to play it, then fine,” the ambassador scoffs. “But make no mistake, you have slighted the Crown of Rossiya, and that is no personal matter.”

Then he straightens his shoulders, turns on his heel, and stalks down the hallway.

Yuuri shuts the door immediately, the sound resonating in his head and down to his toes. He takes a moment, just one precious moment, to breathe in and out. Re-center, re-focus, then Viktor.

He rushes to the bathroom, sliding open the door and searching the room until his eyes find Viktor. Of course, he’s exactly where Yuuri left him, but he’s slid down the wall and is sitting on the ground, knees pulled to his chest and still nearly naked. He has his head leaning back against the wall but his half lidded eyes never leave Yuuri. There is something strange in them that Yuuri cannot quite place, and a sneaking suspicion plays at the edges of Yuuri’s mind as he inches closer.

“Vitya?” He kneels delicately next to Viktor and takes a deep breath. “Vitya, raise up your hand.”

Then, all of a sudden, one corner of Viktor’s mouth twitches upward and he says, as clear as day: “No.”

And, god, oh god it’s the most beautiful thing Yuuri has ever heard. A laugh bubbles up unbidden from his throat and bursts on his lips. He takes Viktor’s head back in his hands, right where they left off, and commits every bit of Viktor’s lovely, shy, exhausted smile to memory. Viktor’s cheeks are cold, his skin still as white as a sheet, and he’s still trembling just a little but he’s laughing too, laughing right along with Yuuri. Fatigue and relief swirl together in the cool blue waters of Viktor’s eyes and Yuuri keeps their gazes locked as he leans forward, pressing his forehead up against Viktor’s no matter how pallid and cold and sweaty he is.  

“I’m okay,” Viktor tries to tell him, but it’s a wobbly reassurance.

“You’re freezing.” Yuuri pulls back, letting one hand fall hesitantly over Viktor’s bare shoulder. He has never seen Viktor bare-chested before, and after what just happened he’s afraid of crossing a line. Viktor leans into the warmth of Yuuri’s touch and shudders. “Did he hurt you?” Yuuri whispers, barely able to form the fearful words on his tongue. The facts as he knows them don’t add up to anything good, but…

“I didn’t let him.” He’s smiling again, small and shaky. Yuuri feels the relief like a long awaited, gasping breath of a drowning man. The dreadful pit in his stomach dissolves and he lets his shoulders fall.

“Oh, thank god,” he whispers, letting his forehead fall to Viktor’s shoulder. He can feel even better the light tremors that still course through Viktor’s body. He pulls back, smooths down the wild strands of Viktor’s hair, and says, “I think you’re still in shock.”

Viktor shivers. “I’m okay,” he repeats.

“Do you want to take a bath? The warm water will help, I think.” Yuuri has always liked taking baths after his panic attacks. This isn’t the same thing, but it is all Yuuri can think to do.

Viktor agrees with a soft “yes”, and it takes all of Yuuri’s willpower to pull back from him and turn on the faucets. He goes around to the cabinets, pulling out scented soaps, shampoos, and soft washcloths to sit at the edge of the in-ground bath. He places a towel and a robe right beside them.

When the water is ready, Yuuri helps Viktor stand up off the ground. “If you want, I can…” Yuuri trails off, glancing over to the door.

Viktor shakes his head immediately and squeezes Yuuri’s hand in his own. “Stay with me?”

Yuuri could never dream of saying no.

He strips to his underwear also, trying to push down the self-conscious embarrassment that swirls in his stomach. If Viktor is comfortable like this then Yuuri should be, too. It’s not as if their skin-tight dance apparel left much to the imagination, anyhow, and they’re in love, so…

Viktor looks at Yuuri—not just at his body but at him—and smiles the sweetest smile Yuuri has ever seen. He feels the blood rush to his cheeks and immediately takes Viktor’s hand, guiding him into the steaming water.

“Mmm,” Viktor hums, letting his eyes drift closed and his body float. After a few moments he takes the bar of soap that Yuuri offers him and runs it over his skin. Yuuri averts his eyes.

When he’s finished, he seems exhausted even further. His hair floats out around him, a shiny, slippery silver and Yuuri has an idea.

“Would you want me to wash your hair?”

Viktor hums again, deep and low and it’s obviously a yes . Yuuri grabs the shampoo and settles against the side of the bath, right behind Viktor. He takes washing Viktor’s hair as seriously as braiding it, working the soap up to a later, rinsing, and repeating, always careful not to yank on the strands. Viktor relaxes even further into his touch at every moment and it is therapeutic for both of them.

Yuuri finishes, Viktor’s hair clean and soft and smooth, and Viktor leans back wordlessly into Yuuri’s chest and settles, his head resting back against Yuuri’s shoulder. There isn’t an ounce of tension in either of their bodies and Yuuri can think of nothing but the weightless peace of that moment, Viktor’s body tucked between his legs and in the circle of his arms.

The hot water seems to have done the trick: Viktor’s trembling has finally stopped, and his breaths are have become deep, long, and even.

“I’m sorry, I screwed it up,” Viktor breathes.

“Hmm?”

“You had a plan, with the ambassador, and…”

Yuuri draws figure eights along the inside of Viktor’s wrists, making a low noise in the back of his throat in protest. “That’s not important, we can worry about that later.” He smiles despite himself and leans his head, letting his cheek rest atop Viktor’s forehead which he is pleased to find is warm again. “For now, you’re free.”

The words roll off Yuuri’s tongue like music and hang delicately in the air. He feels Viktor breathe them in, hold them in, and exhale, melting even further into Yuuri’s body.

“Yes,” he replies, his sleepy smile evident in his voice, “I suppose I am.”

Yuuri smiles in return, presses a feather-light kiss to Viktor’s temple, and they stay just like that until the water runs cold.

 

 

“I want to cut it.”

The words fall from Viktor’s lips on an impulse. He is sitting at the vanity in the bathroom, staring at the mirror—a man stares back at him, shoulders square and perfectly centered, with heat-flushed cheeks and wet hair draped over his shoulders. It hangs in tangles down to his belly button. His head feels heavy, and so does the unused brush in his hand.

He didn’t really mean to say it, but he meant it. When Yuuri doesn’t reply, Viktor twists around in the chair.

Yuuri has paused in the middle of hanging up their wet towels and is looking at Viktor with widened eyes. “Your hair?” he asks, his voice a half-octave too high. “Now?

“Yes.” Viktor frowns. “Do you have a knife?”

The alarm in Yuuri’s expression isn’t exactly what Viktor had hoped for. “A knife? No, you can’t—” Yuuri cuts himself off, what looks like a private scowl crossing his face. He takes a breath. “I mean, we have knives in the kitchen if you want, but– maybe– I mean, my mother used to cut my hair. When I was young. She was pretty good at it too, she could do it for you.” Yuuri blinks. “If you want.”

As appealing as the thought may be, Viktor can acknowledge that hacking at his hair with a kitchen utensil is probably not the best choice. “Okay,” he agrees, while privately wondering how a queen manages to be skilled in so many things when she has servants to do it all for her.

“She could do it tonight, I’m sure,” Yuuri continues as he hangs the towels. “We could go now.”

The possibility flutters in Viktor’s stomach. “That would be great.”

“Can I, um,” Yuuri begins, taking a few steps toward Viktor and stopping. “Do you want me to brush it out? One last time?”

When had Yuuri become so attached to his hair? Viktor hadn’t noticed and it’s— well, it’s not a pleasant feeling, knowing Yuuri loves it and he’s about to chop it all off. “I would love that,” Viktor smiles, holding out the brush. It doesn’t feel so heavy anymore. Yuuri steps forward, reaching out his hand to take the brush with an odd sort of reverence in his posture.

“Thank you.”

Viktor doesn’t know what Yuuri is thanking him for, but he doesn’t ask. He watches in the mirror as Yuuri steps behind him and begins to brush out the straggly ends. He could never watch Yuuri’s face as he did this before, and it’s a strange delight to see how his brow furrows in concentration, how his eyes fix on the task so intently that he looks both far away and intimately close at the same time. It does strange things to Viktor’s heart to see Yuuri so focused and know that the only thing in his mind is taking good care of Viktor.

I will miss this, Viktor thinks as Yuuri slowly works his way up to Viktor’s scalp. He still wants it gone, but there are some good things worth remembering. He commits the feeling of Yuuri’s fingers in his long hair—washing then rinsing then brushing it all out—and stores it somewhere deep inside himself.

“We should probably drop by Minako’s on the way,” Yuuri says as he gathers the tangle-free silver locks into his hand and drapes them over Viktor’s shoulder. He steps back. “I’m sure it’s gone, but…”

“Just to be sure, yes,” Viktor agrees.

They get dressed in something comfortable, Viktor in his own clothes for once, and go to leave Yuuri’s chambers. The sight of the door sends a shiver up Viktor’s spine—he’d been in a weird, panicky fog when the ambassador came knocking but he still heard every word from his spot against the bathroom wall. Yuuri doesn’t need to ask before slipping a hand into Viktor’s.

“Okay?”

“Okay,” Viktor replies, and he means it.

Minako answers her door almost immediately. She takes one look at Viktor and her eyes go wide.

“Is it broken?”

Viktor exhales a shaky breath and replies, “It’s broken.”

And Minako jumps—literally, jumps—for joy the second she hears his confirmation, but Viktor is too busy running and re-running those words over his tongue. In the past few weeks he has allowed himself to get his hopes up, to close his eyes and envision a future he never could have dreamed of before. He’s imagined him and Yuuri, dancing on a stage together, or on the beach with a dog bounding after them. He’s imagined his own belongings, however meager, lying next to Yuuri’s in his drawers. And it’s embarrassing, and he’s certainly getting carried away, but he’s even tested out his own name tied to Yuuri’s: Katsuki Viktor. He actually dared to speak it out loud, once.

All of this, and yet he’d never once imagined this moment. He couldn’t, after seven years it was absurd, but more than that it was too risky. Getting his hopes up, when failure was so probable and so devastating, was never even an option.

But it’s broken, he said; he pronounced the words from his own mouth, no matter how foreign they felt on his tongue and how unprepared he was to speak them. Barely a minute later, Minako places her hands on either side of his head and confirms what he already knows to be true.

He feels her cool hands settle over his ears, feels the familiar sensation of being submerged, but nothing else—no tugging, no tingling, no nothing.

“You’re right. It’s completely gone,” she says, looking as stunned as Viktor feels at the confirmation. “Congratulations, Viktor, you’ve done it.”

Viktor lets the words wash over him with a small smile. Yuuri’s hand squeezes his, and he squeezes back.

They go to Yuuri’s parents’ chambers next. The queen’s face brightens the second she opens the door and lays eyes on them.

“Yuuri! Vicchan! What brings you here?”

The nickname fills Viktor’s heart like hearing Yuuri say Vitya. Her accent is heavier than Yuuri’s, but every word rings true.

“We have some good news, actually,” Yuuri prompts, standing at Viktor’s side and looking up at him expectantly.

Oh. Yes. The news.

“I– uh– the curse. The curse is gone.”

It sounds just as unreal the second time. Hiroko’s responding smile is so full of love that it steals the breath from Viktor’s lungs. He can never seem to get used to it.

“I knew you would do it,” she replies, then steps back from the doorway. “Come, come in.”

“I actually was hoping– well. I wanted to, my hair, it’s too long, and…” The words just aren’t coming to him. He looks to Yuuri for help.

“Vitya was wondering if you would cut his hair for him.”

There’s no trace of surprise or disapproval in Hiroko’s expression. “That does seem like a perfect way to celebrate this day, Vicchan. I would be honored.”

She ushers them into the suite she shares with the king, who is off in a meeting, she says. The chambers are no more opulent than Yuuri’s, although substantially larger. Her vanity is near the side of the bed instead of in the bathroom and she gestures for Viktor to sit in front of it. Yuuri sits off behind them on the side of the bed, and Viktor can see his face in the mirror. Hiroko runs her fingers through the still-wet strands with a softness even Yuuri doesn’t possess—the touch of a mother, Viktor thinks. She wraps a band around his long bundle of hair, tying it off a few inches below the base of his skull.

Then she opens a drawer, pulls out a pair of scissors, and holds them out to Viktor.

He blinks, staring at the metal instrument before flashing his gaze up at her reflection in the mirror. Confusion is painted plainly on his face.

“I thought you…”

She smiles. “I can style it afterward, but I thought you might want to cut it yourself.”

That image that he’d had earlier, of cleaving off his hair with a knife— he’d wanted it terribly, the satisfaction it would bring. He wanted to be the one to do it. How had she known?

He nods and takes the scissors from her hands. His eyes flit to Yuuri’s reflection, finding solidarity in his expression. For once they are not holding hands, but Viktor can feel Yuuri’s support when their eyes lock in the mirror.

Viktor reaches back, slides the open blades around his hair tied back at the top of his neck, and snips.

It’s as easy as that. The sharp blades slice through his hair with no resistance at all. He hears something drop to the floor and suddenly he feels as light as a feather, his head oddly unbalanced. Short, silver hairs fall forward and frame his face, parted at the middle and hovering just above his shoulders.

Viktor sets the scissors down on the vanity, reaches up to feel the ends of his hair, and barely suppresses a gasp.

“Oh my god,” he whispers, running his fingers through the strands and instinctively thinking where’s the rest of it ?

Hiroko leans down, then places a tied bundle of silver hair on Viktor’s lap. It’s as long as Viktor’s forearm, perhaps longer. He runs his fingers down it from top to bottom, forcing himself to take a big breath. It’s silver and soft and shining beautifully in the light and it’s not attached to his head.

“Oh my god.”

He barely recognizes himself in the mirror. It’s unreal. It’s terrifying. It’s—

Absolutely exhilarating.

“Is it alright if I style it now?”

Viktor takes a measured breath. “Yes. Please.”

“How do you want it to look?”

“I… I don’t know, I hadn’t thought about it,” he admits. “I don’t…”

“Then I will surprise you, yes? I promise you will look very handsome by the time I’m done.”

Viktor brightens. “I love surprises.”

She sets to work trimming the ends, the cool blades tickling Viktor’s neck as she cuts closer and closer. He trusts her completely. He reminds himself of this periodically, to stay calm.

“I used to trim Yuuri’s hair when he was young, you know.”

“Yes, he did tell me that.”

“I was the only one who could, actually. He was such a nervous child.”

Okaasan, ” Yuuri moans. Viktor smirks.

He doesn’t realize Hiroko’s genius until she is completely done. She makes her last cut, fluffs his hair, then stands back with a satisfied hum. Viktor takes in his reflection slowly, trying to remember that this man in the mirror is supposed to be him.

He looks– god, he looks stunning.

His new hair sweeps over one eye and is trimmed slightly shorter around the base of his head. It’s a drastic change. The short strands of silver frame his face and emphasize the sharp cut of his cheekbones, the point of his chin, the line of muscles in his neck.

“Yes,” Hiroko proclaims. “Very handsome. Don’t you think, Yuuri?”

Behind them, Yuuri’s jaw has dropped, his mouth forming a sweet little ‘o ’. Viktor laughs.

“Like what you see, love?”

Yuuri blushes madly, and Viktor smiles wider.

“Thank you, Queen Hiroko.”

“My pleasure, always.” She extends a hand to him and he takes it, standing up from in front of the vanity. She doesn’t let go of him, though; instead, she smiles up at him and squeezes his hand just like Yuuri always does. “You are a good man, Vicchan. A very good man. Our Yuuri is lucky to have you. If you need anything, you come to me or Toshiya and we will help. Understand?”

“Yes,” Viktor breathes, not trusting himself to say anything else.

Hiroko shows them out the door, her gentle smile never fading.

 

 

“Vitya, come to bed…”

Yuuri’s voice floats into the bathroom through the open door. What would have been an order only an hour ago is sweet supplication now, irresistible in an entirely different way. Viktor takes one last look at himself in the mirror—he’s never going to get used to it, never ever—and follows the warmth in his gut that tugs him toward Yuuri.

He enters the bedroom, and there’s nothing quite like the sight: Yuuri, lying alone in the bed, tucked under the blankets and looking up at Viktor expectantly.

Instantly, Viktor forgets the unnatural lightness of his head and the chilling draft on the back of his neck. He turns off the light and crawls under the covers, the space there warm with the heat from Yuuri’s body. Viktor slides closer and searches for Yuuri’s legs with his own. They intertwine.

Lying on their sides facing one another, Viktor can see every detail of Yuuri’s moonlit face; the space between their chests is a small price to pay. Yuuri reaches out, slowly, and runs his fingers through the hair just above Viktor’s ear.

“You’re not too disappointed, then?” Viktor asks, and Yuuri frowns.

“Why would I be disappointed?”

Viktor sends a puff of air upward, blowing his bangs out of his eyes. “My hair.”

“Again,” Yuuri smirks, his eyes searching Viktor’s face, “why would I be disappointed?”

Viktor can think of a thousand reasons.

“You obviously liked it long.” He shrugs, letting his gaze fall to Yuuri’s chest so he doesn’t have to look him in the eye. “I know you enjoyed brushing and braiding and playing with it, and… Well.”  When his bangs fall back across his face, Yuuri sweeps them back with his thumb and Viktor can’t help but look back up.

But Yuuri looks—upset, is he upset? Mad? Viktor’s stomach twists. No, Yuuri isn’t mad, that’s not right. Frustrated, perhaps. Maybe even confused.

“Vitya,” Yuuri sighs, “enjoyment has nothing to do with it.”

“You didn’t enjoy it?”

“No! No, that’s not– you’re not listening to me.”

Definitely frustration, then. Viktor didn’t mean for this to happen. He wants to listen; he wants to understand, but it just doesn’t make any sense.

“Okay,” Viktor whispers. “Okay, I’m listening.”

“Do you remember when you first let me take care of your hair? The night we, uh, fixed everything?”

“Yes.”

“You trusted me to do that, and it meant everything to me.”

“…Oh.”

Yuuri’s body shifts ever so slightly, his legs sliding against Viktor’s. “Don’t get me wrong, I loved doing it, but I didn’t enjoy it, not in the way you mean. Not in the way I know that… others… have.”

Something catches in Viktor’s throat. “I never meant to imply that y—”

“I know,” Yuuri promises, pressing his hand to Viktor’s chest, right on top of his heart. “I guess I’m just… sentimental.”

“Sentimental? About my hair?”

Yuuri’s cheeks flush a shade darker. “It sounds so silly.”

“It’s not,” Viktor breathes out. He doesn’t have the words to properly express how not silly it is. “You don’t mind, then? That I look like a totally different person?”

A frown turns Yuuri’s lips downward. “You don’t,” he corrects. “Your hair is different, maybe, but everything else…” A quiet smile touches Yuuri’s face and Viktor’s heart. Yuuri’s fingers glide down the back of Viktor’s head and slide forward to trace his jaw, and Viktor shivers as Yuuri continues: “You still look just like my Vitya.”

The words punch the breath out of Viktor’s lungs. “Yuuri.”  The way Yuuri caresses Viktor’s chin, he’s only centimeters from Viktor’s lips and Viktor has no self control. He ducks his head down and presses soft kisses to the tips of Yuuri’s fingers, both of them lingering in the touch.

“See,” Yuuri sighs. “You could go completely bald and I wouldn’t care, as long as you always say my name like that.”

Horror twists in Viktor’s stomach and he jerks back, frantically feeling for his hairline and the little spot at the crown of his head. “Has it receded more? Is it thinner? Oh god, can you tell?!

Yuuri suddenly looks just as horrified as Viktor. He waves his hand in front of Viktor’s face. “No, no, no, it’s fine! It was just hypothetical!”

“You can’t joke about these things, Yuuri! My heart can’t take it.”

Yuuri taps Viktor’s chin. “I never realized you were so vain, Viktor Nikiforov.”

Something about his full name in Yuuri’s voice calms every nerve in Viktor’s body. He relaxes back into the mattress. “You’re going to give me a complex.”

“I think you already have one or two of those.”

“So mean,” Viktor grumbles, but he doesn’t mean a word of it.

“How do you feel, though?”

“About my hair?”

“Yes, I suppose, but also…” Yuuri’s eyes are fixed on Viktor’s chest; he has his hand pressed to Viktor’s heart, his thumb rubbing circles against the fabric of Viktor’s shirt. “We haven’t really talked about it yet.”

“It?” Viktor asks, but he knows.

“Well, you’ve had an eventful day. And not just because you broke the curse.”

“No,” Viktor agrees. “I suppose not.”

A soft, nighttime breeze floats in from the window and bristles the newly exposed hairs on the back of Viktor’s neck. Yuuri shifts, his ankle moving against Viktor’s shin. He still hasn’t looked Viktor in the eye, his gaze still intent on Viktor’s chest.

“I know it didn’t just break out of nowhere. Something more happened.”

What was your first clue, snips the defensive part of his brain that never wants to speak of this. Was it that he disappeared without a trace, or that turned up nearly naked? Was it that he busted through Yuuri’s door sweaty and panicked? That the furious ambassador had come knocking only minutes later?  Viktor bites his tongue, though, because none of that is fair.

“He sent the handler to get me.”

Yuuri nods. “Then the business in the negotiation room was probably a distraction to get me out of the way.”

“Most likely.” Viktor sighs. “There’s not much to tell. You know what he wanted from me. And I didn’t want to give it.”

“So you fought.”

“I did what Minako said, what we’d been preparing for. I reinterpreted.”

Yuuri’s eyes snap up to meet Viktor’s. “And it worked? Just like that?”

“Basically.” Viktor shrugs. “I started to realize how little control his tiny orders actually had over me.” A shiver runs down his spine, and he forces himself to stay here, in this bed, with Yuuri and no one else. “I wanted it to stop. I wanted to stand up and leave so badly and I just realized that… well, I could.”

A sweet smile paints Yuuri’s lips. “I am so happy for you,” he whispers, the sincerity in his eyes stunning Viktor to his core.

“Yes, I… Yes.”

“And how do you feel?”

“Honestly?”

Yuuri nods. “Of course.”

“I don’t know.”

Yuuri’s hand wanders upward to brush that same loose strand of hair behind Viktor’s ear again, and Viktor wonders if this is going to be a spectacular perk of his new haircut. “What do you mean?”

There’s so much patience in his voice that Viktor feels bad for even considering being snippy with him earlier.

“At first, it was just the adrenaline and I don’t think I even was registering what was happening. And then I got back here and you were there and I just…”

Yuuri hums, “Just what?” Viktor breathes in, trying to steady himself. He breathes out.

“All of a sudden, I just felt so terrified.”

Yuuri’s brow furrows ever so slightly. “Why?” he asks, but there’s no judgment in the question.

“I don’t know,” Viktor admits. “It felt like I was falling with nothing to grab onto except you, or like– I just– I felt… lost?” He snorts a laugh of derision. “Pathetic, isn’t it? Feeling lost without my curse.”

You need someone telling you what to do, his handler had told him once in that horrible, dispassionate voice of his. You need orders, and you need obedience. He’d made Viktor repeat it out loud back to him over and over again until he was satisfied.

Something warm on his cheek forces Viktor out of his memories—Yuuri’s palm, he realizes. “No.” Yuuri’s voice has hard, clear edges. “You weren’t feeling lost without it, you were scared and overwhelmed because your entire world as you knew it for seven years just got pulled out from under you. You experienced trauma, Vitya, and you were crashing from the adrenaline, and minutes later you went into shock.”

“He barely touched me this time,” Viktor murmurs.

“You know that doesn’t matter.”

He lets his eyes drift shut, enjoying the feeling of Yuuri’s hand cupping his face and Yuuri’s support radiating off of him in waves.

“How do you feel now?” Yuuri asks.

“Better. I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet but I’m… happy. Relieved. Enjoying being here with you.”

“Mmm, so am I,” Yuuri agrees. “Vitya?”

“Yes?”

A mischievous smile crosses the prince’s lips and he says, “Kiss me.”

Laughter bubbles from Viktor’s throat. “Hmm. I’ll have to think about it.”

“Do it.” Inch by inch, the space between them is closing.

“I don’t know, my Yuuri. You called me bald earlier.”

“I didn’t mean to! Vitya, please…”

There are barely a hand’s width apart now and Viktor can feel Yuuri’s breath hot on his lips. Everything about Yuuri is so kissable, right now and always but right now especially. He’s looking up at Viktor, doe-eyed and so very lovely. He blinks, slowly, and drifts closer. In a low voice that sends heat down Viktor’s chest, Yuuri pleads one last time.

“Please, Vitya, please kiss me?”

Viktor’s done teasing him. He answers Yuuri not with words but with action, surging forward to capture his mouth in his own.

It is his first time kissing Yuuri as a free man and it’s somehow even better than before—though it may just be all in his head. Every sensation is heightened, every nerve standing further on edge, every electric touch a bolt of lightning down his spine. Viktor is hungry, hungry for the warmth of Yuuri’s skin and the slick heat of his mouth; for Yuuri’s low, involuntary humming that reverberates in Viktor’s lips and sends shock waves through his nervous system. Their legs curl further together and Viktor wants all of this but he also wants more. He takes breath from Yuuri’s lungs and gives Yuuri his own, over and over again.

He’s on fire. He’s drowning. He’s shivering from head to toe.

He wants it to last forever.

Viktor has his free hand tangled in Yuuri’s hair, but Yuuri’s has found its way from Viktor’s face down to Viktor’s hip, tracing a spectacularly, torturously slow path down Viktor’s neck, over his collarbone, past his chest and along the delicate skin at the side of his abdomen. A spot of heat forms at Viktor’s hipbone as Yuuri’s hand pauses, lingering so close to the hem that it drives Viktor mad.

Unable to stand it, he untangles his fingers from Yuuri’s hair and brings them down to meet Yuuri’s hand at the top of his leg. Their fingers slot together instantly, habitually. And so Viktor guides Yuuri’s hand, slowly but surely, down to where the material of Viktor’s shirt ends and back up under it.

The second Yuuri’s fingertips touch the bare skin of his waist, Viktor’s entire body lights up. Every inch of his skin is covered in goose flesh and he guides Yuuri’s hand higher, over the dance-toned muscles of his core. He moans into Yuuri and Yuuri opens his mouth wider in response, still humming against Viktor’s lips and kissing back with equal force.

It is only when Viktor’s lips stray from Yuuri’s, sliding sloppy, open-mouthed kisses down past his chin and onto the delicate, pulsing flesh of Yuuri’s throat, that Yuuri begins to pull away.

“Vitya,” he pants, “Vitya, slow down.”

“Nngh,” Viktor moans in protest, burying his face against Yuuri’s neck. “Yuuri,” he begs, though he’s unsure what he’s begging for.

“I know,” Yuuri sympathizes, “I know.” He presses kiss after kiss over Viktor’s forehead, down past his temples and over his cheekbones and Viktor raises his head so their mouths can meet once again. Yuuri pulls away far too soon. His thumb rubs circles around Viktor’s bellybutton but soon enough it pulls away, sliding out from under his shirt and settling back on top of his heart.

“Yuuri…”

“We have time,” Yuuri promises against Viktor’s lips. “So much time.”

“Mmm,” Viktor replies. “We have time now.”

“Too much has happened today,” Yuuri reasons. It is reasonable, Viktor supposes. And he’ll be damned if he of all people doesn’t respect Yuuri’s wishes on this.  

“I want this,” Viktor assures him. He’s not pleading anymore, but promising. “I love you. I want you.”

“I know,” Yuuri whispers, “I do, too.” He smiles, his lips swollen and red, all freshly-kissed. “Soon, Vitya.”

“Soon,” Viktor echoes, pressing his forehead flush up against Yuuri’s.

“I love you, too.”

Yuuri’s cheeks are a lovely, burning shade of red, but not at all from embarrassment. He looks as comfortable and happy as Viktor has ever seen him, his eyes drifting half-closed and his mouth stretched into a smile. Viktor’s hand finds a home at the back of Yuuri’s neck, his fingertips playing with the short hairs at the base of Yuuri’s skull. Yuuri can do that to him too, now—and Yuuri does. With Yuuri’s palm pressed against it, the back of Viktor’s neck doesn’t feel exposed. Instead, it feels secure.

And Viktor feels safe, in every sense of the word.

 

 

He wakes up in the middle of the night for absolutely no reason.

At first he thinks it may have been a seagull from outside the window, or Yuuri shifting in his sleep against him, but the only sound from outside is the steady beating of waves against the shoreline and Yuuri is out cold at Viktor’s side.

Moonlight filters in from the window, illuminating the line of Yuuri’s cheekbones and the delicate curve of his cupid’s bow. The moon is full tonight—Viktor had noticed it on their evening run earlier. God, was that really only tonight?

Viktor closes his eyes and brings a sleep-numb hand (the one not threaded under Yuuri’s waist) up to just above his shoulder, feeling around and finding no hair lying there against his pillow. Up and up his hand drifts until the ends of his hair tickles the tips of his fingers, just millimeters from the skin at the top of his neck.

His hair is gone. How long had he been forced to grow it out? How many nights had he laid in beds that weren’t his own and dreamed of cutting it all off?

And it’s gone. He did it himself. He will never forget it: the cool metal between his fingers, the drawn out snipping sound as the blades cut right through, the literal light-headedness that immediately followed.

It’s not just his head, however—Viktor’s entire body, his entire being feels light, like he’s floating on his back in a bathtub filled with water, with nothing to force him any which direction; not gravity, and certainly not someone else’s will impressing upon his.

Free, free, he’s free, he’s free.

A light breeze blows in from the window and Viktor’s temples feel strangely cool. His hand moves from the back of his head around to the sides and his fingers come away wet.

Oh, he realizes in amazement. I’m crying.

The tears keep coming, sliding from the corners of his eyes down past his ears and into his hair. When he opens his eyes he finds the world around him water-logged and blurry. Usually when he cries (and it’s infrequently enough that each time has been quite memorable), there’s either a horrible, gasping pressure in his chest and behind his eyes, or a complete numbness throughout his entire body. This time, however, he feels neither. The tears are pure relief, pure expression, years of muted terror and helplessness and pain leaving his body.

Yuuri shifts in his sleep next to Viktor and the tears stream faster down his face. Viktor does not hesitate, simply nestles himself further into Yuuri’s body and pressed his streaked face against the top of Yuuri’s head. The tears drip into Yuuri’s hair, but Viktor knows that his love would not mind.

Yuuri sighs in his sleep and burrows instinctively closer to Viktor, his body curling impossibly closer.

That night, Viktor gets the best sleep of his life.

 

 

He wakes up in the best way, too, drifting slowly out of dreamless sleep until he feels the pillow soft under his cheek and gentle fingers sifting through his hair. Viktor does not even have to open his eyes to know they belong to Yuuri—who else has ever touched him so tenderly, so reverently?

“Good morning,” Yuuri whispers, his breath warm in front of Viktor’s face. Viktor opens his eyes to find the rich brown of Yuuri’s only inches away.

“Mmm,” Viktor hums, letting his eyes slide shut again and feeling a wave of pleasure ripple through him as he settles back into the mattress.

“Tired still?”

“Mm, no,” Viktor sighs, “just comfortable.”

Yuuri’s fingers twirl a strand of hair behind Viktor’s ear. There’s still a cold draft on the back of Viktor’s neck, but he’s starting to get used to it. He rather likes his hair short, he has decided—less upkeep and, above all, Yuuri can’t seem to keep his hands out of it, which suits Viktor just fine.

“It’s a big day today.”

His sleep-addled brain takes a few moments to process Yuuri’s words, but Viktor’s eyes fly open the second he realizes what Yuuri means. “Oh.”

Yuuri looks slightly amused. “Did you really forget? I thought you were counting down the days.”

“Maybe, but everything that happened, I…” He takes a deep breath. “I completely forgot about the signing.”

“We should go to breakfast with my family, make sure they’re all up to date.

Viktor is wide-awake now, something like adrenaline seeping into his veins. No matter how much of a disaster today ends up being (and he can’t imagine a world where it goes smoothly), by sundown everything will be settled and his fate decided. Yuuri has promised that, no matter what, Viktor will not have to return; Yuuri has leverage, Viktor has his free will, and they will both fight tooth and nail for him to stay. Still, until Viktor stands on the shore and watches the ships disappear on the horizon, he will not believe it. He knows better by now than to underestimate the ambassador’s fury.

There is no point staying in bed once Yuuri’s warmth has disappeared from beside him. Viktor gets up and Yuuri heads to the bathroom to change. When Yuuri emerges a few minutes later, Viktor’s heart nearly stops—he has not seen Yuuri in such formal dress since the welcome banquet months ago. This Yuuri has lived in his memory for months: from the first time Viktor laid eyes on him, sitting at the king’s right hand at the royal table, to the first words they exchanged, Yuuri smiling and holding his hand out and asking dance with me?

Banquet-Yuuri looked a little different than the man standing before Viktor now. His cheeks had been flushed red with too much vodka, for one, and he’d been a little bit looser as a result, more relaxed and carefree. And his formal suit, broad-shouldered and flowing around his legs, had been black instead of the navy-blue he wears now. Viktor allows himself a stunned moment to appreciate how the fine cut of fabric around Yuuri’s neck emphasizes the lines of his chin and cheekbones and brings out the broadness of his shoulders. His rank is written in the fine, shimmering detailing on his chest and reflected in his eyes—from head to toe, every part of him regal.

Viktor’s mouth is dry. He licks his lips, only realizing how suggestive it looks when Yuuri raises his brow.

“It looks okay?”

Viktor laughs. His own attire—white and well cut with gold embroidered at the seams—is the best he owns but he pales in comparison to Yuuri. This doesn’t concern him one bit.

“Okay would be an understatement.”

And Yuuri’s clothes scream powerful, commanding royalty but his blushing smile and love-struck gaze tell an entirely different story. “You look beautiful,” he tells Viktor.

“You think so? Even with the short hair?”

“Especially with the short hair.”

They arrive to breakfast to find everyone gathered around the table and dressed just as finely. Viktor takes his seat in between Yuuri and Mari. The second she notices Viktor’s haircut, she grins.

“Good choice.”

“You didn’t like it long?”

She laughs. “It makes no difference to me. You’re still probably the prettiest person to ever walk the planet.” On Viktor’s other side, Yuuri hums in agreement as Mari continues, “But I know what it’s like to chop it all off. It’s going to be so much easier to deal with, just you wait.”

“It already is! Plus Yuuri likes to play with it.”

Yuuri chokes on a spring roll and Mari grins maniacally. Thankfully, Yuuri’s father changes the subject before it can devolve any further.

“Vicchan, my wife tells me congratulations are in order.” Viktor wonders if Yuuri will have that same jovial, genuine smile when he gets to be his father’s age.

“Ah, well– thank you, I couldn’t have done it without Yuuri and Minako-sensei.” The suffix is foreign on his lips, his mother tongue lilting at the Sagan syllables, but next to him he sees Yuuri brighten. Minako waves her hand.

“We hardly did anything. Don’t be so modest, you’re as bad as Yuuri.”

Everyone at the table laughs except Yuuri, but he seems to take it in good humor.

“Do you have a plan?” It’s Toshiya talking to his son now. Viktor takes a moment to catch up to the change in topic.

“Well,” Yuuri clears his throat, “mostly. I mean, with the curse broken there’s much less to worry about. Viktor can do whatever he wants.”

“And the political fallout?” Mari asks.

Will be immense, Viktor knows. His chest tightens. He is asking so much of them. Of their kingdom. He would never dream of arguing, but he knows that cannot possibly be worth it.

Yuuri sets his jaw. “I will try to mitigate it.”

“That doesn’t sound like a very clear plan.” Mari’s gaze turns to Viktor now, a warning in her eyes. “He’s not just going to let you go easily.” Beneath the table, Yuuri reaches over and places his hand on top of Viktor’s.

“We’re prepared for that.”

Fear carves itself a place in Viktor’s stomach, curling up and sinking its claws in deep. He hides every hint of it from Yuuri.

“You know, Yuuri,” Minako interrupts, “now that Viktor’s curse is broken, you two owe me.”

Upon hearing her words, Viktor’s heart freezes in his chest.  He had grown up on tales of the ved’ma, those who messed with nature and played tricks on the mind and would help you, certainly, but only for a price. Minako is a friend, Viktor knows this, but he hears her declaration as an ominous threat—that is, until he looks over and sees her leaned back with an arm draped over her knee, smiling.

“Ah, yes,” Yuuri replies, a faint blush rising in his cheeks. He turns to Viktor. “I hope you don’t mind, Vitya, but I sort of… promised Minako-sensei that we would show her what we’ve been working on.”

Relief bubbles up from Viktor’s chest as a laugh. “The dance?” The prince nods. “Yuuri! Of course I don’t mind.”

“Good,” Minako huffs. “Then once this is all over, you will show me.”

Viktor is currently having trouble seeing past the next few hours, but he nods anyway.

The rest of breakfast, they speak of nothing of immediate importance. Or rather, Yuuri’s family speaks—Yuuri himself, as well as Viktor, remain mostly silent. There’s an anxious edge to Yuuri’s expression, the curve of his mouth bordering on a frown. He has hardly touched his food. Viktor squeezes his hand and he squeezes back.

Eventually, with the meal cleared from the table, they stand, stretch their legs, fix their well-tailored clothes, and head to the door. Just as they are about to file out, Yuuri whispers something in Sagan to Mari then pulls Viktor off to the side.

“Yuuri, what…?”

“I just want to check in.”

Viktor blinks. “Okay. I’m alright. Are you?”

“Yes. Although I’m not the one who has to go listen to two people argue over him like some kind of object.” Yuuri’s eyes flash with genuine concern.  

Viktor lets his fingers trace circles around Yuuri’s wrist. “You know it’s better that he doesn’t know the truth about us.”

“I know. But I don’t want to speak of you like that, in front of all those people, in front of you .” Yuuri sighs. “Are you sure you want to come?”

“I need to.” Viktor doesn’t need to explain it—Yuuri understands. He trails his hand up along Viktor’s chest and lets it rest against the side of his neck, rubbing the pad of his thumb over the delicate skin of Viktor’s jaw. Viktor closes his eyes, his world narrowing to Yuuri’s hands on his body and Yuuri’s words in his ears.

“Don’t worry about the treaty, okay?” Yuuri whispers. “What happens, happens. You’re never going back. That’s what matters—that you’re staying, and we’ll always be together.”

Viktor’s heart stops. It honest to god stops, misses a few beats, then starts beating again even faster than before. His eyes fly open, searching immediately for Yuuri’s and softening immeasurably upon finding them. A smile spreads across his mouth, tugging at the skin under Yuuri’s thumb. Viktor uses what little breath he has managed to pull in and repeats, “Always? You mean that?”

Right then, Yuuri seems to hear what he’s said. For a moment Viktor thinks he might panic, but in the end he just blushes an even deeper shade of red, his eyes flicking away from Viktor’s for milliseconds at a time but always returning back to him. “Of course I do,” he whispers, as if afraid of Viktor’s response.

“Well then where are our rings?”

Yuuri’s eyes go wide and he pulls back, just for a moment, searching Viktor’s face as if he may find even a trace of insincerity. When he finds nothing, a grin begins to spread across his face until it rivals even Viktor’s. His eyes shine like stars and he laughs, halfway between happiness and disbelief.

“We can go to the jeweler’s tomorrow.”

Then he raises up Viktor’s hand to his lips and presses a kiss to his ring finger. The fear that settled in Viktor’s stomach over breakfast stops squirming and shrinks down so small that he wonders if it hasn’t disappeared entirely.

For once, even with everything still ahead of them, Yuuri says tomorrow and of course and always and Viktor allows himself to believe.

 

 

The room where the signing takes place is hardly a room at all—rather, a grand reception hall directly inside the front doors of the palace. The doors are open and intrigued citizens stream inside to watch the result of two months of negotiations be signed into effect for the next decade. Some, Viktor suspects, are here to catch a glimpse of the Rossiyan delegation. A few feet away in the passing crowd, a wide-eyed child spots Viktor’s light hair and pale eyes and tugs on his mother’s robes.

Viktor ducks behind one of the many broad pillars that line the sides of the reception hall. He wants to watch, but he does not want to be seen by anyone from his home country and make Yuuri’s job more difficult. Here, he can stay out of sight of the members of the Rossiyan delegation that sit behind the grand table on the dais at the front of the hall. The foreign guests sit to the right and the Sagans to the left.

The crowd settles for a few moments before erupting into applause. Around the side of the pillar, Viktor sees both Yuuri and the ambassador enter from the wings, approach each other at the center of the platform, and offer one another a Sagan-style bow. Then they exchange a Rossiyan-style handshake and Yuuri turns to address the audience. He translates sentence-by-sentence, alternating between Sagan and the language of diplomacy that they share with the Rossiyans.

“Thank you all for coming here today. We welcome you, and are grateful for your support and hospitality to our foreign friends throughout the negotiations of this important trade agreement. Economic cooperation between our two kingdoms promises to bring great benefits to both Rossiya and Saga, and we have worked very hard over the last two months to create a fair treaty that all parties agree is in the best interest of their homeland.”

Viktor listens, enraptured, as Yuuri commands the audience, his voice steady and powerful and projecting to fill the entire room. He flips back and forth between languages as easily as if he were speaking only one. As he outlines the general terms of the treaty, he speaks clearly and comprehensibly while still managing not to talk down to his people. He barely looks down at the paper before him—he knows the treaty so well that he can recite its terms by memory.

It’s a shame, Viktor finds himself thinking, that Yuuri was not the king and queen’s firstborn. Mari will make a wonderful leader, of course, but his Yuuri would have, too.

“If anyone objects specifically to any of the terms of this treaty,” Yuuri finishes, “please speak now or forever hold your piece.”

Viktor holds his breath but the hall remains silent, no citizen choosing to speak out.

“Very well. The signing will now commence.”

“Just one moment, actually. Your Highness, if I may?”

The blood in Viktor’s veins runs cold. On the dais, the ambassador has stepped forward, turning directly to face Yuuri. Viktor is toward the back of the hall but he can still see the ambassador’s eyes and he hates what he finds there.

“Lord Antonovich, is something the matter?”

“It is funny that you should ask, Your Highness; in fact, there is. It seems that you have something of mine.”

Confused murmurs hum across the crowd; most of the citizens cannot understand the tense exchange happening before them.

Yuuri’s back straightens. “I beg your pardon?”

“In the past few weeks of negotiations, there has been a terrible slight against my kingdom that I am afraid I cannot let stand—a slight perpetrated by yourself, Prince Yuuri.”

“I’m afraid I do not follow.”

“So you will play innocent for the sake of the crowd? You may do so, if you wish. But that does not change the fact that you have taken terrible advantage of our generosity. You see, our delegation arrived here with a certain dancer, the most beautiful that the Kingdom of Rossiya has ever seen and a favorite of the King. We brought him along for the entertainment of both of our delegations. And when I offered him to you privately as a gesture of good faith during the height of negotiations, you accepted.”

A couple of gasps from the audience tells Viktor that some do understand the diplomatic language—and that their prince consorting with a foreign courtesan may soon cause quite a scandal.

“It seems your people do not approve of such a liaison for their prince. Should I tell them how much you liked it, how greedy you became for more?”

Yuuri, caught between his people’s disgust and the ambassador’s accusations, makes no reply. Viktor’s stomach twists into knots. Yuuri does not deserve this, does not seem prepared for this, having his name dragged so publically through the mud.

“And then,” the ambassador continues, “you took what was offered to you and you broke it entirely. Destroyed what was ours, made it useless.”

The sick feeling in Viktor’s stomach turns fiery as the ambassador’s words echo through the hall, speaking of Viktor as if he were a broken toy. Something burns at the base of Viktor’s throat.

“You don’t know what you have done, Your Highness. You really think you will be able to control him?” The ambassador laughs, then, eyes shining with derision. “He has no regard for anyone but himself. You think you’re anything special to him? You really think he won’t run away from you the second he gets the chance?”

Yuuri still looks torn—like he knows what he needs to say, the only thing that can be said, but is hesitant to do so.

The ambassador scoffs. “Make no mistake, Your Highness. He may still let you fuck him, but he’s just using you. You have no relationship as far as Viktor is concerned.”

And that’s– that’s enough. That’s quite enough.

“Actually, we’re engaged.”

Even Viktor is surprised at how his voice booms, filling the large hall and making every single head snap around to face him. Gasps and murmurs spread across the onlookers and on the stage, shock, fear, and then delight flash across Yuuri’s face in quick succession.

The ambassador, on the other hand, looks like he’d just been sucker-punched. Fury radiates from him in waves.

“You— Your hair, what have you— How dare you—

“Yuuri has never laid a hand on me. Not once.” With every word, his voice gets stronger and his fear shrinks smaller.

“That’s a lie—”

“It’s not. He would never purposefully order me to do anything. Unlike you, he is a good man.”

Viktor’s gaze darts over to Yuuri, finding encouragement in his eyes. He offers the prince a small smile.

A snarl twists at the ambassador’s lips. “You horrid— Insolent— Come here immediately!

Viktor starts to walk, then, the crowd of onlookers parting before him as he makes his way to the steps that lead onto the center of the dais. He walks slowly, never breaking eye contact with the ambassador.

He mounts the platform, looking at the ambassador standing just to his right, and walks left to stand by Yuuri instead. A terrible fury erupts across the ambassador’s face the second he realizes Viktor’s defiance—he shakes so hard he looks like his head might explode.

He calls out then for Viktor’s handler, who emerges from the wings and stalks toward Viktor. Yuuri stiffens at Viktor’s side but Viktor takes a small step forward, meeting his handler’s emotionless stare in a direct challenge.

“Go ahead and try,” he dares, his voice low and even. He looks the man in the eyes, this man who for years terrified Viktor with everything he could do, and stands his ground. With the curse broken, the handler has no power left to hurt him.

The handler seems to know this, too. A rare bit of frustration passes over his eyes and he steps back, sending the ambassador sputtering.

“You coward! Do something!”

Viktor barks a bitter laugh. “Hypocritical of you to call someone else a coward, don’t you think? After you spent seven years forcing yourself on the only person who couldn’t defend himself?”

“You needed it,” the ambassador spits, “don’t pretend you didn’t. You can say what you want, you can chop off your hair or pull whatever stunts you want, but the fact remains— you need to be controlled. Even now, the curse is broken, and look.” His contemptuous gaze flits to Yuuri. “You’ve found yourself another master.”

Rage boils in Viktor’s veins and threatens to burst from his chest, but he holds it back. Slowly, deliberately, he reaches his hand out next to him and threads his fingers around Yuuri’s, their palms pressed tightly together.

“Yuuri is my choice.

Yuuri squeezes his hand in a silent show of support, just like he always does. Viktor knows he is very carefully holding himself back from confronting the ambassador himself.

“And you think this prince really has any interest in you? A used-up, uncooperative whore?” The ambassador scoffs. “It won’t last.”

Perhaps a few weeks ago, these words would have sliced through Viktor’s heart and insecurities and done serious damage. Now, though, he has weeks’ worth of I love you’s and the promise of always like an invisible band around his ring finger, and Viktor lets the words roll off his skin like water.

But Yuuri– well. Yuuri trembles with anger and has his fingers wrapped around Viktor’s in a vice grip.

“Viktor Nikiforov,” he begins, his voice low and seething with fury, “is the most courageous, selfless, and beautiful man I have ever met. I love him, more than you could ever comprehend, and I will be lucky if he allows me to spend the rest of my life at his side.”

Even as he shakes with adrenaline and ire, Viktor feels his heart swell at Yuuri’s confession. His throat aches with emotion and he catches Yuuri’s eye, offering a small, grateful smile.

But the ambassador has not given up.

“None of this matters, Vityenka.” His voice lilts mockingly on the diminutive. “You are coming with us.”

He takes step forward and reaches out to grab Viktor’s shoulder. Without a second’s hesitation, Viktor smacks the ambassador’s hand away at lightning speed. The slap resounds through the entire hall. His top lip pulls up over his teeth in disgust. “Never call me that again.”

Despite the physical retaliation, a strange calm seems to settle over the ambassador’s face. He turns to Yuuri. “Fine. I did not want it to come to this, but given the circumstances, I think this is necessary.”

Yuuri quirks an eyebrow and waits.

“Your Highness,” the ambassador addresses, “if you do not turn this delinquent over to our delegation’s guards, we will have no choice but to suspend the signing of this treaty indefinitely.”

Behind the ambassador, a few of the court advisors stand from their spot at the table, suddenly on high alert. Whispers spread across the crowd.

“That would be your choice, Lord Antonovich. But know that if you do so, I’m afraid that our kingdom will no longer be able to house your delegation and you will be forced to return home, at which point any potential treaty would be completely dissolved.” A dangerous smile pulls at one corner of Yuuri’s mouth as he continues, “I am sure that your king would be happy to hear that you put your personal desires above the future of Rossiya’s economy and security.”

Viktor has never heard a threat so perfectly, cuttingly delivered. On the surface Yuuri looks calm and cold and collected, but his palm sweats where it’s pressed tightly against Viktor’s. Before them, the ambassador turns around to look at his advisors, who form a united front with clear warnings in their eyes. Most of these men, too, have used Viktor at some point. They too have taken advantage of his unwilling obedience but none of them more than a few times, and none so bad as the ambassador.

“We have put up with your antics so far, Andrei, but we will not hesitate to overrule you,” the man in the middle threatens in their language. Most people in the room would not understand the words, but the message is clear.

With his free hand, Yuuri reaches over and takes the pen off of the table, extending it to the ambassador. “Would you like to do the honors?”

And the ambassador does not want to. That much is obvious. He looks as if he would rather do anything in that moment than sign the treaty and forfeit any semblance of leverage for getting his favorite plaything back. But with Yuuri and Viktor in front of him, the rest of the delegation behind him, and a king above him, he has no choice but to take the pen, approach the table, and sign his name in furious strokes at the bottom of the treaty.

Viktor watches it with an odd sense of satisfaction. It doesn’t make up for seven years of cruelty and coercion, but it helps.

The treaty signed, the ambassador lays the pen down and turns back toward Viktor, unmasked hatred written in every line of the scowl on his face.

“You are a horrible man,” Viktor whispers in his native tongue, a taunting, too-sweet smile stretched across his lips, “and I know that one day, you will get what is coming to you.”

And Viktor does not walk away—he stands his ground, feet planted firmly on the floor, his back straight, shoulders square, head held high. He is taller than the ambassador, he realizes, and uses his height to look down on him in contempt. Viktor looks beautiful, he knows, but beautiful in the way that Yuuri always means it: strong, proud, bold. His long hair is gone, cut by his own hands, his own choice.

All of this is Viktor’s choice.

He stares the ambassador down and does not blink. Eventually, Antonovich turns on his tail and stalks off of the dais, through the crowd, and out of a side door. It is the last time Viktor ever sees him.

The rest of the Rossiyan delegation signs the treaty, then the Sagan delegation, then finally Yuuri. The palace doors reopen and the crowd begins to filter out. Both delegations, too, begin to disperse. For the first time, Viktor takes a good look around from the raised platform and sees the Katsuki family sitting off to the side. Hiroko, Toshiya, and Mari—they come up onto the stage together, smiling just as wide for Viktor as they do for their son.

Viktor’s looks at them all, slips his hand back into Yuuri’s, and hopes they can see the gratitude and love that has filled in every part of him that he once worried had been hollowed out for good.

“Thank you,” he says, his voice barely louder than a whisper. He does not want to disturb the peace that has settled in every bone, every muscle, every nerve ending in his body. He feels warm, with their smiles and their love and Yuuri’s hand in his.

He looks at them and sees his future, and he nearly cries right then and there.

 

 

The Rossiyans leave first thing the next morning. At the end of the hall from Yuuri’s bedroom is a window that overlooks the docks, so he and Viktor drag themselves from bed at the crack of dawn to watch as distant figures board a foreign ship and pull up their anchors. Viktor watches the whole time and Yuuri watches him, afraid of looking away for even a second lest he find him somehow gone, somehow down on those docks boarding that ship to return to the kingdom that had been little more than a prison.

A few hallways away, the West wing lies empty. The whole palace seems quieter and Yuuri takes a moment to savor it, wrapping an arm around Viktor’s waist. Things will be different from now on.

From this distance, the ship appears to be barely moving as it pulls out of the harbor, drifting slowly out to sea. Eventually it reaches the horizon, a tiny black speck atop a sea of blue, and Viktor turns away from the window, something disoriented in his posture and his gaze.

“Come with me?” Yuuri asks, tugging them away from the window. Viktor steadies himself against Yuuri’s shoulder.

“Where are we going?”

“It’s a surprise.”

“I love surprises!”

Yuuri smirks and presses a kiss to Viktor’s cheek. “I know.” How happy it makes Viktor, every time Yuuri remembers this single detail about him.

They exit the palace through the grand front doors, a relative rarity for Yuuri. Passing through the reception hall where yesterday’s signing took place, they soon find themselves in the front gardens, then at the front gates, then in the bustling streets of Hasetsu.

People stare but thankfully keep their distance as Viktor and Yuuri make their way through the small city. Before long, they arrive at the address that Minako scribbled on Yuuri’s hand the night before.

“Okay, I think this is the place.” Yuuri tugs on Viktor’s hand to pull him inside, but Viktor doesn’t budge. He’s staring at the window displays, his mouth hanging open in a surprised ‘o’.

Yuuri,” he breathes, his wide eyes reflecting the gleaming gems and metals on display.

“I promised you we’d pick some out, didn’t I?”

“No, you did, I mean yes, um.” He laughs shakily, running a hand through his hair. “I didn’t think you were serious.”

Something like fear seizes Yuuri’s heart. “But you want to, right?”

Viktor looks at Yuuri as if he’d sprouted horns. “Yes!”

“Good.”

A bell tinkles as they entire the jewelry shop, the man behind the counter calling out his welcome. He sputters when he sees the prince and stares at Viktor with vague recognition—the word has gotten out, Yuuri supposes.

Yuuri spots them almost instantly: a pair of simple, gold bands, laying side by side in a case otherwise full of ostentatious jewels and metal-work. They catch the light just as beautifully as any diamond and they suit the simple beauty that is Yuuri and Viktor, Viktor and Yuuri.

Viktor stands off to the side and watches, apparently stunned, as Yuuri points to the pair he has in mind.

They walk together out of the shop, a bag in Yuuri’s hand and a mission in his eyes.

“Where are we going?”

“You’ll see.”

A few blocks later the buildings begin to thin out and the road becomes a winding path through a patch of tall grass and onto a quiet stretch of beach. The palace is visible to the south and they walk toward it for a few minutes in silence, hand in hand as Yuuri lets courage build back up in his chest.

“Vitya,” he whispers eventually, his voice mingling with the gentle lapping of waves onto the shore. He pulls them to a gentle stop, walking around in front of Viktor so that they are standing face to face. Yuuri’s eyes are about level with the top of Viktor’s smiling lips; he looks up, and finds Viktor’s eyes sparkling like the sea.

“Yes, my Yuuri?”

He’s laying it on so thick that Yuuri almost laughs. “Will you hold out your hand?”

Viktor’s face, eyes, muscles, everything is soft as he looks at Yuuri and extends his right hand in the space between them. Yuuri fumbles with the bag, then the box, but eventually pulls out a single gold band. He brings one hand up under Viktor’s palm and uses the other to slide the ring over the tip of Viktor’s finger, his first knuckle, his second.

“Thank you,” he begins, his chest tight but his words confident, “for everything. For– for teaching me, for loving me even when it was hard, for just being you. Sometimes I still don’t believe you’re real, but here you are.”

There he is—looking down at the ring on his finger as if Yuuri had just plucked the sun from the sky and placed it in his hand.

Viktor reaches for the small box, then for Yuuri’s hand, and there’s the heat of Viktor’s skin and the cool press of metal around Yuuri’s finger. The ring settles perfectly, the metal warming up until it feels like a part of Yuuri’s body. He could not do without it, now—like an arm, an eye, a vital organ. Sunlight reflects off of the water and bounces off the golden band, flashing in Yuuri’s eyes.

“You never fail to surprise me, my Yuuri— and still, I’ve never been able to rely on, trust in someone as easily as I can with you. I owe you more than you can possibly imagine.”

Yuuri shakes his head. “You don’t owe me anything, that’s not how this works.”

“I know. But I want to spend the rest of our lives making you as happy as you make me.”

Yuuri’s laugh gets carried by the breeze. “That won’t be hard, you know.”

Viktor presses his right hand to Yuuri’s, threading their fingers so that their rings line up against each other. A gorgeous matched set.

“Happier, then,” Viktor amends, and Yuuri wastes no time in kissing him senseless.

 

 

They meet Minako in the studio that evening just as the sun begins to set. She notices the rings instantly and grins.

“So. What do you have to show me?”

Yuuri frowns. “What do you want to see?”

“The two of you dancing.”

“Well yes, but…”

Viktor takes a sip from his bottle of water then sits on the floor to stretch. Yuuri joins him. “We could do it together,” Viktor suggests.

“What?”

“The piece you choreographed, the one we’ve been working on!”

Yuuri’s stomach twists itself into a knot. “Both of us? Side by side?”

“Relax,” Minako huffs. “If you’re worried about me comparing you, remember that I was your teacher for a decade, Yuuri. I know all of your weaknesses regardless.”

Which is Minako-speak for encouragement, he supposes. It actually makes him feel a little better. Besides, why would she be watching Yuuri when Viktor, the best dancer in the world in Yuuri’s completely unbiased opinion, is performing the same movements only feet away?

“Do you have music in mind?” Minako asks as they do quick warm ups at the barre.

“Not exactly,” Yuuri admits. “I have an idea in my head, but I wanted to commission someone. Someday.”

“Hmm.”

A few minutes later, Yuuri and Viktor fall into the opening pose, perfect imitations of one another. The studio feels different than normal, but it could be Minako’s presense or Viktor’s freedom or the rings on their fingers or the strange lighting as the sun sets on the other side of the palace. Viktor counts them in under his breath, supplying no more than a few beats before their bodies sync to one another. They move at the exact same second, Yuuri watching Viktor and Viktor watching Yuuri out of the corners of their eyes.

They have done this so many times, the two of them, but never as a performance. Quickly, however, the sharp edges of anxiety and unworthiness soften into something round and full as Yuuri senses Viktor’s body moving in time with his. Instead of comparing his own movements to Viktor’s he takes them as inspiration, pouring out every ounce of awe and respect and love that has built up in his heart into the routine that they created across their precious time together. They fell in love over this routine, during early-morning run-throughs in this very studio, and god, look at them now.

They end facing each other, a break in choreography that neither of them planned but that neither can resist. The dance comes to a close and they stand there, eyes locked, chests heaving, each with one hand pressed to his chest and his other, adorned with a ring, stretching out to his fiancé.

Yuuri forgets all about Minako until she begins to clap.

“That was beautiful, of course,” she compliments. “But I know how to make it better. Are you up for it?”

 

 

On the mornings that they don’t go at sunrise to the studio, Yuuri will sometimes wake alone. The first time this happens he feels a stab of panic—weeks of worrying about Viktor’s wellbeing is a hard habit to break—but he quickly realizes that it’s quite late in the morning and Viktor has surely just gotten up to start his day. Viktor, when not stressed or exhausted, prefers to rise early; Yuuri is the exact opposite. That morning, he finds Viktor in the kitchens having a pastry with his sister. From then on, when he wakes up alone, Yuuri takes his time getting ready before heading out to find Viktor.

And really, this is how Yuuri knows their relationship has truly begun to grow: he no longer feels a terrified ache every time they aren’t in the same room. They live their lives, revolving happily around one another knowing that the other will always be there.

One morning a few weeks after the Rossiyan delegation departs, Yuuri finds Viktor in the library, curled up next to a window with a Sagan book in one hand and a steaming cup of tea in the other.

“Good morning,” Yuuri greets, settling next to Viktor on the armchair. There isn’t much room, but they make it work.

“Mm, good morning. How do you say ‘sleepyhead’ in Sagan?”

Yuuri laughs. “I don’t think that would translate very well. What are you reading?”

Viktor twists the book around to show Yuuri the cover. “A cultural history of Saga, I think? It’s slow-going.” Yuuri notices for the first time the three dictionaries spread out on the coffee table before him.

“You’re going to know more about my kingdom than I do, soon.”

“Well it’s a good thing you have me, then!”

“Yes, it is,” Yuuri agrees. “I actually have some good news.”

Viktor looks at Yuuri over his teacup, eyebrows raising. “You do?”

“Mhm,” Yuuri hums, tracing patterns with his pointer finger over Viktor’s leg. “I ran into my father on the way over, and he said he heard from his source in Rossiya.”

Viktor’s eyes go wide, and his voice trembles just a little as he says, “Oh?” A small smile tugs at Yuuri’s lips.

“The ambassador was fired.”

What?!”

“The second the ship landed, apparently.” They are both grinning now. “The king had heard about his stunt at the signing. Apparently threatening to pull your country out of an important trade deal for any reason is considered borderline treasonous.”

Viktor runs a hand through his hair, still messy from sleep. “That position was all he had. He worked for it for years.

“Then he’s left with nothing.”

“Wow.”

“He has nothing,” Yuuri reiterates, laying his head against Viktor’s shoulder, “but look at you.”

Viktor’s laughter is a musical sound. Yuuri wants to hear it forever. Viktor presses a kiss to Yuuri’s head and picks his book back up, allowing Yuuri to read along with him. Yuuri helps him with the characters he does not recognize, and Viktor repeats words back until he has the right pronunciation.

They stay just like that until lunchtime.

 

 

Yuuri has no regrets, not a single one. He loves Viktor. Viktor loves him. They are happy.

Sometimes, though, he has doubts. They’re just tiny things, niggling at the back of his brain where all the other non-rational, anxiety-fueled thoughts have been exiled. Sometimes he gets to thinking—like one night, well into their new life together, when Yuuri leaves the bathroom after his bath and finds Viktor staring quietly out the window at the horizon.

Yuuri has no way of knowing what he’s thinking, of course. It could be about anything. But there’s something sad in his expression that sends that non-rational part of his brain whirling.

He knows Viktor does not want to return to Rossiya. He knows that Viktor is happy here, that they are happy. This, he cannot doubt.

But Yuuri finds himself wishing, in the dark depths of his heart that will never see the light of day, that things had been different for Viktor; that he had been born into a better family; that he had been happy in his homeland, with thriving roots and a future full of people who knew his world and spoke his language. He would never have met Yuuri, of course, but he would have been saved years upon years of suffering, of helplessness, of bitter loneliness.

Viktor turns around when he hears the door open, smiles at Yuuri, and instantly banishes every dark thought in his fiancé’s mind. He looks beautiful always but especially framed as he is by golden rays of setting sun that play on his silver hair and reflect off his ring. He took a bath right before Yuuri so his hair is wet and he wears a robe to match Yuuri’s, the ‘v’ of silk plunging down his chest.

Yuuri walks toward him, drawn forward as he always is, and lays his hand on the top of Viktor’s arm.

“Do you miss it?” he wonders, hoping it shows clearly in his expression that it’s alright if Viktor says yes.

Vitkor sighs, glancing over his shoulder. “Sometimes I think I might. But then I remember what it was really like, and then I picture our future here, and…” He trails off. He never does finish the sentence, but Yuuri thinks he understands.

“Can I brush your hair?”

Viktor blinks. “But it’s short.”

“So?”

“It’s not necessary.”

Yuuri smiles. “So?”

Viktor laughs. “Okay,” he agrees, grabbing his brush from a drawer. He has to sift both through his own belongings and Yuuri’s to find it.

Viktor sits at the edge of the bed and Yuuri kneels on the mattress behind him, just as they did so many times when Yuuri brushed and braided Viktor’s long hair. Now, there are hardly any tangles and a braid is certainly impossible, but Yuuri feels the responsibility just as heavily as that first night. He runs the bristles through Viktor’s hair, watching as his fiancé’s muscles relax and his head tilts backward. He hums with every stroke of the brush.

Eventually, Yuuri abandons the brush and just runs through the fine strands with his fingers. The dip of the mattress has pushed them together, Yuuri’s front against Viktor’s back and Yuuri can’t stop himself from leaning over Viktor’s shoulder and pressing a kiss to the skin just below Viktor’s temple.

Viktor shivers and leans his head into the touch.

And that’s how it starts—with a quick, chaste kiss to the side of Viktor’s head. Then another, and another, until they’ve slid down across his cheekbone and to the corner of Viktor’s mouth, no longer quick and certainly not chaste.

Their mouths open against one another, hot and welcoming, and Yuuri climbs around until he’s straddling Viktor’s lap on the side of the bed.

“You’re so beautiful,” Viktor groans against Yuuri’s lips, and every part of Yuuri is on fire. He has one hand in Viktor’s hair, the other wrapped around his waist like an anchor. The bathrobes they are both wearing do a poor job of keeping them covered and Yuuri tries, not very hard, to think of something else besides the toned muscle of Viktor’s thighs beneath him. Unsurprisingly, he fails.

Viktor has both of his hands settled on Yuuri’s hips and Yuuri wants so many things that he can hardly think straight.

Please, ” Viktor begs, asking for everything and nothing at the same time. “Please, Yuuri, I– I want–” He cuts himself off, but Yuuri knows the rest. They’ve made it to this point so many times in the past month only to stop short, but there’s no uncertainty in the way they move against each other now.

“I know,” Yuuri groans, rolling Viktor’s bottom lip gently with his teeth. “God, I– Vitya–”

Please, ” Viktor moans.

There’s something in Viktor’s voice, low and needy and completely sincere, that makes Yuuri pull back. His mouth, suddenly cold, feels as swollen and red as Viktor’s looks. There is no trace of uncertainty in Viktor’s eyes, only burning desire that Yuuri knows is reflected back in his own.

Yuuri cups the side of Viktor’s neck with his hand, the glinting gold of his ring peeking out from behind Viktor’s ear. He runs his thumb over Viktor’s cheek and watches his fiancé’s eyelids flutter.

“Tell me to stop, or slow down, and we will,” Yuuri vows. “Promise you’ll say something?”

“I promise,” Viktor replies, his voice hoarse.

And Yuuri is kissing him again with renewed urgency, thinking of nothing but the heat of Viktor’s body beneath, against, all around his own. He takes his time kissing a trail from the corner of Viktor’s mouth, down his neck and over the wispy, silver hairs of his chest. Yuuri follows the ‘v’ of his robe until he reaches the apex just above Viktor’s bellybutton. Viktor undoes the knot himself, letting the robe fall open.

Yuuri resists the temptation to peek lower and instead takes his time. He slides slowly off of Viktor’s lap and onto the ground, kneeling at the side of the bed between Viktor’s legs. He steals a glance upward and finds Viktor’s pupils blown wide and fixed on Yuuri.

“Yuuri,” he pants, his mouth hanging open.

“Beautiful,” Yuuri breathes against Viktor’s navel, letting his hand caress the delicate skin at Viktor’s side. Viktor’s responding shudder courses through his whole body and moves into Yuuri’s. His hands hover over Yuuri’s forearms, uncertain, and Yuuri guides one to the back of his head, letting Viktor’s fingers twist around his hair.

Yuuri’s mouth travels lower, lower, and Viktor holds onto him for dear life.

When he finally takes Viktor in his mouth, he does not rush—he takes time to accustom them both to this kind of touch. Yuuri’s heart beats out of his chest, his blood rushing through his ears and almost drowning out the sweet sounds coming from Viktor’s mouth.

And it is everything and nothing like he expected, being so intimate with Viktor. Emotional and physical intimacy are not too different, he finds; Viktor still trembles and leans into every touch. It feels familiar, somehow. This closeness. This devotion.

Yuuri cares for Viktor with his touch as gently and attentively as the first time Viktor trusted him to braid his hair. He does not hesitate but he makes every movement deliberate and every touch as tender as he can possibly manage.

Being with Viktor like this is the greatest privilege, responsibility, and pleasure of Yuuri’s life.

Viktor shudders under his care, so achingly, lovably human. His moans grow louder until he’s saying his fiancé’s name over and over again like a mantra, Yuuri, Yuuri, Yuuri

Yuuri thinks, Vitya, Vitya, Vitya as the shock waves rock Viktor’s body, sea-blue eyes wide and unseeing and glossy with tears. He swallows and holds Viktor tight as he comes down, getting up off his knees and coaxing Viktor to lean up against the backboard of the bed. They settle down together, propped up with pillows and wrapped up together as close as they can be. Both of their robes have by now come undone and Yuuri’s body is still flushed heavy with heat. Viktor notices immediately.

“Yuuri,” he pants, “Yuuri, let me…”

“Not tonight,” Yuuri soothes, smoothing the sweaty hair from Viktor’s forehead. They will need to take another bath again soon, perhaps together this time.

“But you…”

Yuuri presses a kiss to Viktor’s cheek and whispers low in his ear. “Let me take care of you tonight, okay?”

Viktor shivers, melts further into Yuuri’s arms, and lets him.

 

 

A week later, they go to the shelter.

The building is small, located on the other side of town from the jeweler’s, and Yuuri very nearly gets them lost on the way there. The director greets them personally with a low bow, looking far more nervous than Yuuri thinks he ought to.

The prince regrets, almost immediately upon stepping through the doors, bringing his bleeding heart of a fiancé to such a place—the inside is clean, the space light, but the whines that fill the air and the cages that line the walls split Yuuri’s heart down the middle.

Yuuri has a vision suddenly of the two of them heading back to the palace with ten leashes held tight in each hand. The irrational part of him welcomes the possibility, because how could they ever choose?

In the end, the decision is easy. Viktor comes to a halt near the end of the row of cages and bends down just below eye level.

Makkachin is a standard poodle with floppy ears, curly, sandy fur, and an astonishing amount of love to give. The name, however, does not come until later. For now, she is just an oversized puppy with wide, sad eyes, far too large for the cage they have put her in. Yuuri’s childhood pet, a toy poodle, had been smaller even once he was fully-grown.

“She’s usually pretty quiet, that one,” the director says.

Makkachin takes one look at Viktor, wiggles in her cage, and barks.

The sound startles Yuuri and the director but Viktor doesn’t even flinch. Viktor reaches out, pushing two fingers through a hole in the wire lattice and stroking them over the top of the dog’s paw. There’s a sadness Yuuri has never seen before in Viktor’s eyes, but after a moment Yuuri recognizes it as empathy for the dog’s plight.

Only a few seconds pass before Makkachin’s tail begins to wag back and forth, smacking into the walls of her cage. Suddenly, a whine rips from her chest and she can hardly keep still. Yuuri sees the telltale twitch of Viktor’s shoulders as his breath catches in his throat.

“Can I take her out?” Viktor asks, looking between Yuuri and the director. Yuuri translates, the director says yes, and Viktor wastes no time in yanking the door open and pulling the puppy into his arms. She wriggles against his chest as Yuuri and Viktor sign form after form. By the time they leave, Viktor’s face is covered by dog slobber and she already has a name.

They take the long way back along the beach, letting Makkachin down the second they get away from the bustling Hasetsu streets. With the leash attached she cannot go far, but that only means that Viktor follows her wherever she wants to go, including shin-deep into the waves. For what it’s worth, Yuuri manages to stay dry—until both Viktor and Makkachin come running back and dry off by shaking every drop of water onto him.

On that Hasetsu afternoon, as with the many that follow, Viktor’s smile is made of hearts.

“Good girl, Makka,” Viktor coos, scooping her off the ground, and suddenly there’s a warm tongue all over Yuuri’s face. Yuuri yelps but only in surprise; he quickly takes their puppy in his own arms and lets her continue, laughing the entire time.

They walk hand in hand back to the castle, Makkachin tugging them forward, their chests swelling with laughter and their hearts with love.

 

 

They get married on that very beach six months later.

The ceremony itself is a private affair. They say their vows surrounded by family and a few close friends; Yuuri swears he sees Minako-sensei wipe away a tear as they walk together down the short, makeshift aisle.

It doesn’t go smoothly—for that they can thank Makkachin, who is far larger than a puppy now and who loves birds with all her heart. Partway through their vows she takes off running after a seagull, so of course the grooms take off running too. The guards had called out for them to stop, that they would catch her, but Viktor and Yuuri are in better shape, as well as quite experienced at chasing Makkachin down the beach.

They finish their vows with their dog at their feet, both covered in sand and wet up to their knees. They will remember, for the rest of their lives, that their first kiss as husbands tasted of sea salt.  

“I love you,” Yuuri whispers as their lips finally part. Their foreheads press together and Viktor rubs his thumb over Yuuri’s chin.

There are creases, the beginnings of wrinkles, forming at the edges of Viktor’s smiling eyes. “I love you too,” he professes, and for once everything about that moment feels real.

The reception is decidedly not a private affair. As the night surges on the ballroom fills to the brim with Sagan citizens bringing well wishes and healthy appetites. Yuuri and Viktor change beforehand, shedding the ultra-formal, now-sandy outfits they had worn at the ceremony for their tight-fitting dance clothes.

They take longer changing than they should have and are nearly late to their own wedding reception, because they cannot keep their hands off of one another. The queen reminds them, quite tactfully, that that is what the next week is for, and Yuuri and Viktor blush a dark shade of crimson.

It’s heady and tantalizing, imagining what the following days have in store for them. They have elected to spend their honeymoon in a cozy, secluded cottage on the sea, about a day’s travel from Hasetsu—but they cannot think about that right now. They have plenty of time for such things (the rest of their lives, in fact). Tonight is about celebrating with the ones they love.

And what a celebration it is. The evening starts off with the main event, all eyes on the stage that has been set up in the center of the ballroom. Yuuri and Viktor enter to applause and wild cheers, their hands joined between them and providing an anchor of reassurance.

They take the stage together. Minako stands off to the corner with her arms folded over her chest and gives them an encouraging nod.

Months of practice, of working and reworking and drilling every detail, and it comes down to this. Nerves buzz under Yuuri’s skin, every eye in the kingdom on the two of them. In the end, though, this is a showcase of love, and they both know it does not matter how they perform, only that they perform together.

The opening pose has been reworked so that they stand back to back, looking to the soaring ceiling. At their sides, their hands press flat against each other.

From behind them the music strikes up, a live quartet of stringed instruments singing a quiet melody that builds slowly in energy and complexity. It is a perfect complement to the music that Viktor and Yuuri create with their bodies as they move together on stage—no longer dancing side by side, but with one another in an intricate pas de deux. Minako’s adaptation of Yuuri’s choreography is like the original in so many ways but drastically different in others. Both are about love, about learning to give and receive it, but this version for two allows them to express that love with no room for interpretation.

Viktor lifts Yuuri into the air and the audience gasps, but catches him without hesitation. They always find each other at this part of the dance and check in with a private smile.

Somewhere in the middle of the piece, they forget the audience and the quartet and even that it’s their wedding night; they forget everything that isn’t the flow of each movement between their bodies and the warmth that surges through them with every touch.

They finish facing each other with one palm clasped over their own hearts; their other hands, sporting golden promises on their fourth fingers, reach out to each other’s faces and settle there with a gentle caress.

They barely hear the applause over the rush of blood in their ears. Grinning, they link arms and bow to the audience. From the corner, Minako calls out her encouragement; if she wasn’t crying during the ceremony on the beach, she certainly is now.

A small boy comes up to Viktor afterward, getting his attention by tugging on his sleeve. He has wide eyes and a nervous tick where he can’t seem to stop wringing his hands.

“That was really pretty. I want to dance like you. Will you teach me?”

Yuuri whispers a translation, and Viktor’s face lights up instantly.

“Oh!”

They both have the same vision, then: Viktor, in a studio all of his own, surrounded by little children standing in third position at the barre. He tells them to keep their chins up, shoulders back, and to dance as beautifully as he knows they can.

It’s quite the large decision to make based off of a split-second gut reaction, but that matters little.

“Yes. I will teach you. Okay?” His Sagan is elementary but it gets the message across.

The little boy grins, nods, and runs off.

Yuuri stays away from all forms of alcohol that evening, determined to remember every bit of his wedding night. He has a bit of wine, perhaps half of a glass spread throughout the night. Viktor, on the other hand, gets healthily, happily just-past-tipsy, matching King Toshiya’s sake intake shot for shot as the night progresses.

“Yuuri! Come drink with us!” his father calls.

“Yuuuuuri! Come drink with us!” Viktor echoes, attempting to imitate the king’s native Sagan in a garbled foreign accent.

Yuuri does not drink, but he sits between them and lets Viktor throw himself all over him.

Makkachin spends most of the night charming guests to drop food off of the table. They have so far seen her eat a chicken breast, a fried egg, assorted fruit garnishes, and, cumulatively, what amounts to an entire platter of the kingdom’s finest sashimi.

Every time a well wisher approaches them, Yuuri bows politely, thanks the guest for coming, introduces himself, and says, “This is my husband, Viktor.”

Viktor knows the word for husband because he had looked it up in his dictionaries and has been practicing writing and speaking it every day, for an occasion such as this. Every time he hears the word from Yuuri’s mouth he lights up in delight and has to take a moment to savor the sound.

He gets Yuuri back, though.

“Makkachin~!” he whines, crouching down to scratch her chin. “My husband is so beautiful, isn’t he? Isn’t he? Your papas are so happy, Makka-girl, yes they are.”

Of course, he makes sure Yuuri is within earshot. His husband, upon hearing this, loses all semblance of composure and kisses him thoroughly in front of everyone. It delights Viktor right down to his toes.

At some point during the night, Yuuri gets pulled away from their table to talk to this or that distant family member. He looks vaguely uncomfortable, conversing with a circle of people he barely knows, so Viktor stands, crossing the ballroom in a few purposeful strides, and walks up right behind his husband, tapping him lightly on the shoulder.

The crowd of people parts, and Yuuri whirls around. Their eyes meet, their faces soften, and their hearts sing.

Viktor holds out his hand.

“Dance with me?” he asks. And Yuuri laughs—he remembers this, too.

“Always,” he declares.

Then they sweep each other off of their feet.

 

THE END