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All-Japan Nationals 2016 - Osaka, Japan

 

"Hide me!"

Yuuri would argue, but he's given no time to react before a small body ducks under the back hem of his jacket and presses right up next to him, shivering and shuffling their feet so Yuuri's legs eclipse theirs. For lack of anything else to do, Yuuri blinks and slowly lowers his arms back down, wary as he returns to his previous conversation with Victor.

The door bursts open again before he can finish replying to Victor's inquiry of Yuuri's silence, and Yuuri nearly drops his phone as a handful of young girls barges in with wild eyes as they look around. They blink in surprise when they see Yuuri standing there, staring at them with a phone precariously balanced on his fingers and his glasses slipping down his nose. Some of them immediately flush a bright pink and spout apologies before dashing back out, but a few linger as their body language shifts from eager and almost aggressive to meek and respectful.

"Katsuki-senshu," the girl in a knit sweater at least two sizes too big for her says, pressing her knuckles to her lower lip. "I deeply apologize for interrupting you, but if you see Minami-kun, could you wish him luck for us?"

Yuuri blinks as the body behind him stiffens with a bitten-back squeak. Come to think of it, the voice did sound familiar...

But Yuuri is very familiar with how terrifying girls can be when they're out on a mission after growing up with Mari's thug-like friends constantly trying to coddle him, Yuuko knocking Nishigori upside the head if he got too rough with Yuuri, and Minako's long-held presence as someone to be both respected and feared -- not to mention Ketty's temper or Jess'... uh, actually, Yuuri would prefer he forgot that entire gong-show. And Minami, no matter how overexuberant his energy and fanboy tendencies can be, doesn't deserve to get thrown to the wolves.

"I'll let him know when I see him next," Yuuri tells the girls, and the tension melts off their shoulders as they clap their hands together and beam at him, leaving Yuuri feeling vaguely uncomfortable with the amount of starry-eyed and blushing teenagers looking at him.

They quickly bow and scurry out of the lobby after that in a flurry of giggling, whispering amongst each other even as the door closes behind them. Yuuri immediately grabs his jacket by the open zipper, lifts it, and squints down under it to where Minami is staring at him with a sheepish grin and an embarrassed flush to his cheeks.

"I'm sorry!" comes out of Minami's mouth before Yuuri can even ask, ducking back out from his shelter in Yuuri's jacket to bow stiff and low at the waist. "I was trying to do a normal meet-and-greet with the fans, but those girls got really excited and they started fighting about who I was skating for after I said I wanted to skate like you, and, uh. It got really out of hand?"

Out of hand is a bit of an understatement, if those girls managed to get past security. Though after seeing Yuriy's fanclub in action, maybe he shouldn't immediately count it out...

"It's fine," Yuuri tells him. He glances at his phone, where Victor has sent yet another message of nothing but question marks due to Yuuri's silence. "I won't tell your coach as long as you don't tell mine."

He tries to imagine the look on Victor's face as he finally answers him before another wave of increasingly concerned question marks floods his inbox, knowing how much stock Victor puts in seeming accessible to fans. After all, Yuuri didn't say he couldn't tell Victor himself.

Minami makes a tiny screech like a teapot and Yuuri blinks, looking up. He immediately wishes he hadn't.

He snaps his free hand back from where it's buried in Minami's hair, ruffled in the bleached locks, both of their faces burning red as Yuuri nearly throws himself half a meter away. Minami looks like his brain's short-circuited, shaking hands pressed to his cheeks at least several shades brighter than Yuuri's.

"I am so sorry!" spills out of Yuuri's mouth as he tries to salvage the situation the best he can. Shit, how does Victor do this again?! "I wasn't thinking! Are you--?"

"Yuuri-kun touched me," Minami squeaks out. Yuuri falters in disbelief. "I've been blessed! Truly blessed!"

...Yuuri is never going to get used to this whole idol thing.

A throat clears, drawing their attention to the doors again. Yuuri tries not to wince as he recognizes the boxy figure in an equally boxy suit in the doorway, all too familiar with the puckered mouth reminiscent of a child trying umeboshi for the first time and the flat glower shooting daggers at them.

"If you two are done fooling around," says -- sneers, more like -- Amano, and Yuuri swears that the glare sharpens in his direction. "Do remember that you both have a meeting with Chairman Shirogane over dinner tonight. Proper dress this time, Kenjirou-kun! You can get away with that mess on your head because you're a child, but that's no excuse for what you wore at lunch yesterday!"

Minami droops, head hanging as his cheeks burn with embarrassment rather than excitement. "Sorry, Amano-sensei. I, uh. Was in a hurry? I-it was just after practice, and--"

"I said no excuses!" Amano snaps back. Minami's shoulders stiffen and he apologizes again meekly, head still bowed. Yuuri thins his lips and straightens his back as Amano turns to him, eyes narrowed further in scrutiny. "As for you, Yuuri-kun, you're expected to actually stay after dinner this time instead of running off at first opportunity. Having no coach present twice in two years doesn't look good on you, but of course our Shirogane is far too kind."

Yuuri bites back his reaction to the insult towards Victor, knowing all too well that Amano will use it as ammunition at some later point. The man's never liked Yuuri, always gnashing at the bit to attack his faults and failures. Last year had... not been good. Amano had nearly been salivating at how much he had to work with, a glint in his eyes that could be described as bloodthirsty as he cornered Yuuri in his hotel room and reamed into him for his horrible performance at Nationals and its reflection on Shirogane. If Yuuri had allowed Celestino to come then, it would've turned into a humiliating shouting match between Celestino's booming voice and Amano's shrill shrieking; for that one reason, Yuuri is glad Victor can't be here, because while Yuuri knows Victor is good at disarming people with his charm, as cold and brisk as it can be, Yuuri does not want Victor trying to protect him from a grown, middle-aged man trying to bully him.

"Understood," Yuuri answers. Amano glares even darker at him when Yuuri refuses to add his name and honorific. It's not like it matters to Yuuri; Amano already has it in his head that Yuuri's rude and ungrateful, just because he's not nearly as intimidated by him as the other skaters.

Unable to faze him, Amano gives one last sneer to the both of them before turning on his heel and marching out the door. His heels clack against the tile harshly even as the sound fades down the hall, as if he's trying very hard not to stomp and pitch a fit in public.

Yuuri sighs heavily, pushing up his glasses so he can pinch the bridge of his nose. He really wants to skip out on the after-dinner drinking and just curl up in his hotel room chatting with and cheering on Victor now. He's all too aware of how much more insufferable Amano gets when he's drunk.

He's startled when Minami sighs, almost wistful, "Yuuri-kun's so brave, standing up to Amano-san like that."

"It's easy when you imagine him as an imp you can throw beans at," Yuuri says before he can actually think about it. Minami snorts before slapping a hand over his nose and mouth, trying to smother his laughter.

"Imp," Minami repeats, wheezing. "Oh, that suits him! He's so mean and I bet he'd really run if we did that!"

"Please don't throw beans at him," Yuuri feels the need to say. "It'd be a waste of food."

Yuuri pointedly doesn't mention that Nishigori did just that when they were kids, back when Yuuri's meetings with Shirogane were mostly done in his own home and is partially why Amano's gotten the nickname he has now. The only reason he got away with it is purely because of the fact Shirogane thought it was amusing, seeing through the paper-thin excuses that it'd been an accident that Amano got pelted with half a kilo's worth of roasted soybeans that happened to fall open when Nishigori "tripped" in Amano's loud and grating presence a little too close to Setsubun one year.

Still, Yuuri doesn't need Amano having an actual reason to go after him. He comes up with more than enough of his own excuses.

Checking the time, Yuuri realizes he doesn't have much left before he has to make it to the interview for the JSF-certified skaters, a qualification Minami is still lacking. Despite himself, he wishes he could have the extra two hours to prepare himself mentally for tonight, or at least properly talk with Victor before he has to go.

"I guess I'll see you at dinner tonight," Yuuri says.

"Wait!" Minami says before Yuuri leaves. "Yuuri-kun, what's Shirogane-san like? Is he anything like Amano-san?"

"He's..." Yuuri tries to think. Unlike the others, Yuuri's known Shirogane (and Amano by extension, unfortunately) since he was a young child. It's why he's held to much higher standards than the others, why he gets the private meetings and why Shirogane keeps taking it upon himself to see to Yuuri's well-being but no one else's. "Shirogane-san is a bit scary, but he won't raise his voice or anything like that. Just don't step out of line, and everything will be okay."

 

* * *

 

As soon as the cameras and reporters leave, Hasegawa groans and slumps over the table. Next to her, Satou nods with more gravity than necessary and pets her hair.

"It'd be so nice if we didn't have another dinner meeting with Shirogane-san tonight," Hasegawa whines. "I want a break! I still haven't gotten souvenirs for my family!"

"We can find time," Satou insists. "He can't keep us up every night, you know. We can even go to a karaoke box or something, just to relax a bit!"

Hasegawa nods against the table. "Yeah, I haven't beaten your score yet. Maybe I'll win this time!"

"I want to go to an arcade!" Miyauchi declares. He's elbowed by his partner. "Aw, c'mon, Nacchan! You keep saying there's that really cute toy in the UFO game down the block from here, it'd be the perfect chance to get it!"

"It's cute, but I'm not wasting all my coins on it!" Shishiba huffs. "We're competing the day after tomorrow, remember? We'll get to pick and choose then!"

"I want udon," grumbles Watanabe. His stomach growls on cue. "But we can't stuff our faces with Amano-san around. He'll tear us apart."

"We'll sneak snacks during the drinking," Shindou assures her partner. "Fight, Shu-kun."

Still sitting stiffly, as she's the most recent addition to the JSF-certified skaters, Kisaragi gives Yuuri a bewildered look. "Is... is it always like this, Katsuki-kun?"

Yuuri looks up from his phone to respond, but Hasegawa beats him to it with a bark of a laugh that's distinctly unladylike.

"You can just call him Yuuri-kun like the rest of us, Chitose-chan," she calls out, her chin on her hands as she gives Yuuri a look. "Yuuri-kun is very easygoing about that sort of thing, surprisingly. It must be his country charms."

"I'm still older than you," Yuuri warns her with absolutely no bite. Hasegawa, historically given she's only two years younger than Yuuri, has long since taken it upon herself to act like Yuuri's bratty little sister whenever they're at a competition together. You know, despite not looking a thing like him. Satou, of the other Singles skaters, resembles him more with her black hair and delicate hands, and even that's something of a stretch.

Shindou hums and leans over to pat Yuuri on the head. He gives her a disgruntled look, making Hasegawa laugh at him again. "Yuuri-kun is the oldest Singles skater, but he's not the oldest among us, you know. So he's Yuuri-kun."

Miyauchi also decides to take part in the teasing by reaching over to pinch Yuuri's cheek. "Hard to believe that cute little kid from a decade ago is this handsome guy now, huh? And he's managed to lock down the Victor Nikiforov, too! Is there nothing you can't do, short stuff?"

"I'm taller than you," Yuuri groans, swatting at Miyauchi's hand. "And I didn't lock down Victor! He came to me, you know!"

"Yeah, Tasuke," Shishiba chimes in, a coy smile on her face as she leans forward. "Victor Nikiforov locked down our Yuuri-kun. Get it right!"

Yuuri groans and drops his head to the table. The others laugh on.

He'd be more annoyed or upset by the teasing if he weren't already used to Shindou and Miyauchi, the two older Ice Dancers and their various partners over the years having taken Yuuri under their collective wings when he first showed up at Nationals years ago with the whispers of a reputation already following him. Shindou, similar to Mari in humor and the kind set of her eyes, had been comforting back then; Miyauchi, loud and boisterous and with little social decorum, had both been scary to deal with and safe to hide behind, so he opted to endure it.

Nevertheless, the gentle ribbing at Yuuri's expense makes for a good moment of respite before they have to go their separate ways to prepare for dinner.

Yuuri debates his outfit for the night, thumbing the lapels of the suit Victor snuck into his luggage when Yuuri was distracted. It's definitely nicer than his usual, even if Yuuri hadn't appreciated getting poked by pins when Victor insisted on getting it properly fitted while they were still in the store. Yuuri understands that appearance is very important to Victor but really, does Yuuri need... what is this again? Merino wool?

Well, it's not going to matter much. Yuuri's very familiar with how Shirogane operates, and while the man might be willing to turn a blind eye to Yuuri's new apparel, he's not going to be very happy about the fact Victor took the suit shopping opportunity from him that he's been hinting at for years.

Shirogane is... strange. Compared to Yuuri's other sponsors, he insists on funding Yuuri on a private basis rather than through his company; he claims it's only fair when asked, since he's known Yuuri since Yuuri was a small child through being a client of Yuutopia Katsuki for years. Yuuri highly suspects this is a major reason why Amano lashes out at him specifically, given how the man almost always accompanies Shirogane wherever he goes. But the more personal sponsorship plus the long history between them means that Shirogane often takes liberties that most of his other sponsors don't. More than once, Yuuri's been asked if Shirogane's actually related to him because of his actions and occasional odd comments. It's a little embarrassing to admit they aren't, because the looks he gets when he clarifies things...

Yuuri shakes it off, feeling an odd prick on the back of his neck he has to rub away. It doesn't matter what Shirogane is like. He's Yuuri's first and longest-running sponsor, and for that Yuuri is indebted to him.

 

* * *

 

He might go through this every year, but it seems like every time in the months between the last time he'd met Shirogane and the present, Yuuri always forgets how intimidating the man is.

Shirogane's presence has always been like the cologne he favors, akin to an ancient forest that towers far above and makes those underneath its canopy feel small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things. He isn't aggressive -- all that is Amano who, like the unfortunate mispronunciation of his name, is more than willing to lash out and draw blood -- but instead comes off more often than not like an apex predator after a successful hunt, sated and mildly curious about whoever dares to stumble upon him.

He is broad in every sense of the word, the velvet-black of his hair capturing the light of the room as his gold-toned eyes gleam, watching the lot of them with a faint curve to the corner of his lips. He sits at the head of the table, farthest from the door as per etiquette, with a seething Amano at his right. Yuuri feels himself sweat bullets as Amano glares at him across the table, though honestly Yuuri can't blame him -- not when, for some bizarre reason, he's sitting at Shirogane's coveted left.

The others look equally uncomfortable, stiff-backed and attempting to sit in proper seiza; they're seated in descending points order for the season so far, which only technically makes Yuuri's position more sensible. At the other corner of his side of the table, closest to the door, Minami gives Yuuri an encouraging thumbs-up just out of sight.

Yuuri's sure the main reason Minami's included in these meetings is because his parents technically work closely with Shirogane's actual business of biotechnology and laboratory equipment. It'd be more troublesome to answer to two (three, including Minami's older brother?) doctors wondering why their youngest family member is excluded when he's working so hard, even if they understand Minami's passion for skating even less than Yuuri's parents do. It'd definitely explain Shirogane's disinterest in the boy, even without Amano whispering in his ear with a baleful look shot Minami's way.

But then again...

"I have to say, Yuuri-kun," Shirogane tells him as the server bows and takes the menu away. Yuuri stiffens and straightens, turning towards the older man. "That you've done so well this year is remarkable, even with the naysayers who insisted you'd run yourself dry so soon. I'm very proud of you."

The flush that colors Yuuri's cheeks is a familiar heat. "Thank you, sir. But I couldn't have done it without Vic-- my coach's training and support."

Shirogane hums distractedly at Yuuri's slip, instead glancing down to Yuuri's right hand and the ring on it. "Ah, yes. You and your foreign coaches. I do wish you'd allow me to find you one who'd understand you better, Yuuri-kun. Surely you aren't comfortable, having to always explain yourself to them."

Amano gives Yuuri's hand a distasteful look. "Perhaps he simply enjoys being uncomfortable, sir. I see no other reason why he'd willingly subject himself to such... loud and overly familiar contracts."

There's a part of Yuuri that's certain Amano is leaving his snide comment open-ended enough to mean either Celestino's hearty, boisterous good humor and wide hand gesturing, or Victor's... very unorthodox and unmistakably affectionate cuddling. It's very much Amano's style to bait an opening like that, eagerly waiting for his intended victim to stumble right into it for an easy treat.

Yuuri is viscerally glad that Victor's yet to meet Amano, and probably won't until he properly retires and has no further obligations keeping him in Russia while Yuuri handles his nationals. Considering Victor only really has the patience he does with Yuriy because he's a kid -- and a genuinely good one under his prickly exterior, at that -- Yuuri does not want to know how vicious Victor can be if he's motivated enough to bite back. Goodness knows Celestino often fumed after All-Japan, temper worn short over the week and glowering at nothing because Amano kept finding ways to undermine his authority. Even his rinkmates in Detroit, Phichit spearheading it, ran bets to see how long it'd take before Celestino snapped and swung hard at Amano's smug face.

(Neither Yuuri nor Celestino had been amused that the pool being collected was for Celestino's inevitable bail money since they all suspected Amano would retaliate with an assault charge. They weren't wrong to think like that, but really. A little confidence would be nice.)

That being said, it would be pretty funny to watch Amano get eviscerated by Victor's sharp tongue and smile, since technically using Amano's own weapons of choice against him would throw him off after years of trying to goad Celestino into violence. Sure, Yuuri would get the puppy eyes and a lot more clinging than usual afterwards, but it'd be almost worth it... if Yuuri didn't think Amano would break out the big guns and go as hard on Victor as he had on Yuuri last year. The scandal that'd cause is definitely not worth it, and it'd likely end with Yuuri needing to be bailed out.

Shirogane hums, a faint acknowledgement, before offering Yuuri his own hand, palm-up. Yuuri blinks at it, confused.

"Let's see it, then," Shirogane tells him, something like amusement glinting in his eyes. "I can't have my Yuuri-kun going around with a cheap ring, after all."

They definitely weren't cheap, Yuuri grouses to himself. The engraving they had done after the GPF hadn't made it any cheaper, either.

Still, Yuuri has no reason not to comply, even if the request is... odd.

Shirogane's fingers are quick to wrap around his, pulling his hand up so that the light reflects off his ring. A thumb rubs against the metal, testing the torsion and the gloss. At one point, Shirogane brings his hand close enough to his face that Yuuri can feel the man's breath on the back of his fingers, and he fights not to squirm away.

As uncomfortable as Yuuri is, nothing really compares to the awkward looks the others exchange, including the scandalized gape from Minami off in the corner. The only thing that outclasses them is the almost audible grinding of teeth from Amano, who isn't even trying to hide the dark, murderous look he's shooting Yuuri.

"It's rather plain, don't you think?" Shirogane says finally, withdrawing enough to lower their hands to the table's surface. "I would have thought a man who insists on being unpredictable would pick something more... unconventional."

Yuuri clears his throat and gingerly pulls his hand free, settling it on his thigh under the table in a loose fist. "I'm the one who bought them, sir."

"So naturally, you pick the most uninteresting pair rings available," Amano sneers. He looks dangerously like he's ready to break a glass over Yuuri's head, though for what reason Yuuri has no clue. "Do you see this, Hidehiko-san? He's not worth all the extra care you put into him! He can't even be bothered to take full advantage of his so-called coach!"

"Gakuo."

A chill douses the room with a bite of a sharp winter wind, and even though most of the people present are figure skaters and are used to the cold, all of them shiver and sit still as statues as the faint half-smile on Shirogane's lips all this time finally drops into a flat line of disapproval. Yuuri's not even sure why; this isn't anywhere close to the worst thing he's heard Amano say about Yuuri in public.

"This is still a business meeting," Shirogane continues, gesturing to the rest of the table with a sweep of his gold-toned eyes. "You will conduct yourself in an appropriate manner, as is expected of a member of my legal team. Do not embarrass me in front of our guests again. Understood?"

Amano flinches at Shirogane's tone, head hung and shoulders stiff as he mutters an apology. Mortification rolls off him in waves, pride clearly smarting from the reprimand. Of course, since it's Shirogane, Amano won't dare lash out or argue. Maybe he'll take it out on someone else later, but he'll never raise his voice or make empty threats with Shirogane the way he does with everyone else.

Yuuri's discomfort in the situation grows as Shirogane completely ignores Amano and instead turns back to him, the same half-smile back on his lips as if nothing happened.

"I should have known it was you," Shirogane tells him, eyes flicking back down to the ring even though it's out of sight. "You've never been very good at praising yourself, Yuuri-kun. Of course you would pick something understated."

Yuuri swallows and drops his eyes back to his placemat. "I apologize for misleading you."

Shirogane huffs out something that might be a laugh. "Your humility is as charming as ever, Yuuri-kun. I hope your foreign coach understands how precious a treasure he has in his hands."

The server returns with the first of their dishes in hand, and the rest of the meal goes as expected. Each of them are asked to keep performing to the best of their ability, with a careless reminder to Minami to work for JSF certification as soon as possible so that Yuuri doesn't carry the burden alone. At the sudden attention Minami squeaks and nearly drops his chopsticks to the floor in his haste to assure Shirogane that he'll put in even more effort than he's already throwing in, earning him another sharp-tongued scolding from Amano that goes ignored.

No one brings up Shirogane's odd actions, and it's left as nothing but a distracted thought in the back of Yuuri's mind for the rest of the evening.