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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.

Chapter Text

"You're wearing that tie? What happened to the royal blue one I got you?"

Yuuri groans as he frowns down at the knot he's assembling around his neck, Victor on the other end of his line and trying to vicariously attend the banquet in any form. At the moment he's mostly trying to dress Yuuri, and Yuuri can hear Yakov and Yuriy in his background snapping at him to get off the phone.

With one end of his tie between his teeth, he answers as best he can, "On the rack. Had to clean out an oil stain the other night."

Victor clicks his tongue. "You didn't soak it, did you?"

"Used the powder you gave me," Yuuri assures him, dropping the fabric with a sharp blow of air. "But since Amano already saw it, if I wore it again he'd bite my head off for not having another tie on hand."

"Who the fuck is Amano and why does he care if you wear the same damn tie twice?"

Yuuri tries not to roll his eyes as he smiles at the head of blond hair pushing Victor out of frame, Victor's complaints having no heat to them. "Hi, Yurio. Congratulations on silver again."

Yuriy glares at him. "Oh, shut up. Now answer the question, Katsudon!"

Yuuri hems and haws, doing his best to tamper down the distaste in his voice. "Amano is the name of my sponsor's attorney. He has a, hm, mean personality?"

Even though his phone screen is small from this distance, Yuuri can see the way Victor stills and narrows his eyes. Yuuri tries to wordlessly convey a plea to not bring it up until they're alone.

Yuriy scowls deeper and squints at Yuuri. "Since when the hell do you call someone mean? You won't even call JJ an asshole!"

"It's amazing that how willing I am to insult someone compared to JJ is an indication to you how offensive they must be," Yuuri marvels. Yuriy's glare sharpens. "It's fine. Amano is like that with everyone. I'm not special."

Victor hums low, that guarded look firm. "Well, Yuuri, if he's like that then we won't keep you. The less he has to complain about, the more he'll leave you alone. Right?"

"Right," Yuuri agrees, ignoring the uncomfortable twinge in his throat. "I'll call again when I'm leaving. It shouldn't be more than a few hours."

"Come back in one piece," Yuriy demands. "Victor's fucking impossible to deal with when he's moping over you!"

"Every moment I'm not with you, dearest heart, the color leeches away from my world," Victor sighs, eyes downturned to flutter his long lashes at Yuuri over Yuriy's head. Despite the blush warming Yuuri's face, he can't help but laugh when Victor winks as soon as Yuriy groans, scurrying off and away. "But in all seriousness, Yuuri, you're free to use me as an excuse to get out early if that lawyer is harassing you. Doesn't his boss keep him in line?"

"If he babysat Amano every time he takes him somewhere, he'd never get any work done," Yuuri huffs. He pulls his tie snug, shifting the knot so it sits comfortably at his throat. "I kind of wish he'd bring Enma more, since she's a lot more polite, but she has other duties and Amano is good at his job despite the fact he's, um..."

"A shithole of a person?" Victor offers, an odd twinkle in his eye.

Yuuri snorts, slapping a hand over his mouth. "You're not wrong? But please never call him that to his face, he'll never leave you alone."

"Duly noted." Yakov yells again off-camera, and Victor chirps back before returning his gaze to Yuuri guiltily. "I really need to go now. Yakov can't stall the reporters any longer."

"Don't give them too hard a time." Yuuri pauses, worrying at his cheek. "...I'll save a dance for you tonight."

Victor's expression melts, a warm tenderness to his blue eyes that adds more fuel to the fire in Yuuri's cheeks. "I can't wait."

 

* * *

 

A cry and the rapid click of heels makes Yuuri reach out to hold the elevator doors open, the rest of his body following to get a better look at who his fellow passenger will be. Part of him isn't surprised to see Hasegawa, but he is caught a bit off-guard by the sparkling barettes in her short brown hair and the tinkling baubles hanging from them.

"You look nice," he offers as she hops through the elevator doors. She fumbles into the far wall, pale ears pinking at the tips.

"Thanks, Yuuri-kun," Hasegawa wheezes out. As the doors shut, she leans to the side to readjust her heels. "Ah, I hope these didn't break! I can't afford to keep buying nice shoes for these events..."

Yuuri winces in sympathy. "Well, I didn't really have very nice suits until recently. The only reason I have this one is because of Victor."

Hasegawa looks up and blinks at Yuuri owlishly. "That's right! You had a totally different suit at the conference in September, didn't you? What happened to that one?"

"Safe at my family's home, because Victor acts like it personally offended him."

Hasegawa snorts and turns away to giggle into the back of her wrist. It gives her time to recollect herself as the elevator descends, the lights up top blinking from one number to the next.

"Say, Yuuri-kun," Hasegawa starts with a couple floors later. Yuuri makes an assenting noise in response. "Is it...? I mean, about Shirogane..."

Yuuri sighs. "You ask this every year, you know. Of course he's going to be at the banquet."

From the corner of his eye, Yuuri sees Hasegawa stick her tongue out in distaste. "Ugh. I don't get it. No other sponsor tries to demand so much of our time like he does! I'm sick of having to put up with Amano's bad attitude, too!"

"It could be worse," he reminds her dryly. Hasegawa blinks, confused, then winces.

"Ah. Right." Hasegawa waves a hand in the air. "That whole 'shoving papers in your face and throwing a fit if you actually try to read them before signing' thing he does with you a lot. Surprised that hasn't happened yet this year."

Yuuri grimaces. "Please don't jinx it. I'd like to go one year without that coming up."

Especially now that Yuuri's got extra reasons for wanting to avoid the mess of paperwork that could become. If (When, he swears to himself firmly) he and Victor do get married, Victor's going to need to be written into the Katsuki family registry. It'll be harder to pull that off if Yuuri's not on there himself.

Out of nowhere Hasegawa starts snickering to herself, and Yuuri snaps back to attention to give her a suspicious look.

"What?" she says, blinking innocently at him. Yuuri's not fooled; he's lived with Phichit way too long. "I was just thinking that all things considered, it looks like your good luck charm is serving you well. It's kept the imp off your back, after all, and that's saying something!"

Yuuri's sheepish explanations of the rings to the various reporters after the GPF immediately come to mind and he groans. That's why everyone brings it up every chance they get, isn't it?

"Oh, stop complaining," Hasegawa huffs at the expression Yuuri must be making. "We're all really happy for you, you know. It's really surprising to see you so..."

Yuuri blinks and turns to her, the confusion at her trailing off growing when he sees the pink in her cheeks.

"You're glowing this year," she finishes, punctuated with a light cough. "You've always been so serious before and it did make you look really cool. But this year, it's like you've been rejuvenated! And you're even taking the time to stop and talk to us, and, uh..."

Yuuri's not sure which of them is blushing harder at this point, so he doesn't push her to finish her thought. Huh, there is definite merit in Victor's insistence that Yuuri supports his fellow skaters, regardless of whether or not they compete against each other. Then again, Victor would know better than anyone else, wouldn't he?

"I owe Victor everything," he admits, keeping his voice low as he thumbs his ring. "I... can't even begin to say how blessed I am to be able to have so much of him in my life. I might owe Shirogane for funding my career, but I would never have one if it weren't for Victor."

Hasegawa hums oddly. Yuuri glances back to her, caught off-guard by the furrow in her brow as she stares down at Yuuri's ring again. What is it with everyone lately?

"I... I wanted to ask, about Shirogane," Hasegawa says, then glances away to avoid Yuuri's eyes. "He, um. Is he always like that when the rest of us aren't around? With you?"

Blinking, Yuuri asks, "Like... what, exactly?"

"Like at dinner the other night," Hasegawa manages, looking pained. "Complimenting you. Touching you. I mean, if I didn't know how happy you are with Victor, and Shirogane wasn't so old--"

Something deep in Yuuri's stomach curdles at the implication. "Are you--? Hasegawa-san, I've known him since I was seven!"

"That's why it's so weird!" Hasegawa wails, grimacing openly in mortification. "He barely even paid attention to the rest of us that night, and he was way too close to you the whole time! Even Minami-kun picked up on it!"

Yuuri gawks at her, the curdling in his gut now solid and heavy. She can't be right, can she? Shirogane had been on the fringes of Yuuri's career since the beginning, when he was only just old enough to skate in a few Novice competitions and tourist exhibitions. He'd been there in the shadows as Yuuri fumbled his way to a national ranking in Juniors, then managed an international one. He'd been there as Yuuri advanced into Seniors at eighteen, allowing himself to be seen with Yuuri more publically since by that point Yuuri had succeeded in being consistent enough to warrant the JSF scouting him. That's just shy of seventeen years of history between them. And that was on top of the fact he'd already been in his mid-twenties when he first came to Yuutopia Katsuki all those years ago, making the man technically old enough to be Yuuri's father considering his actual dad's age when Mari was born. Who even--? Why?!

"That's not funny, Hasegawa-san," Yuuri insists, not able to look her in the eye. He hears her start again and cuts in with, "Why would you even say that? No matter how our relationship started, he's just another sponsor in the end. The only reason he cares about me is because he's known me for so long. That's it."

"Yuuri-kun," she tries again with a hand raised towards him, but cuts herself off at his hard, sidelong look. Her hand drops back to her side, clenching loosely. "...Just promise me you'll be careful around him. Okay? Amano might be more of a pain to deal with, but at least his intentions are obvious. The real creeps in this world are the ones who know how to hide."

The elevator pings as the door to the main lobby opens, and Yuuri recollects himself to step out and towards the banquet hall. Hasegawa follows with a chagrined air, a little guilty for ruining the calm.

Tonight should be simple enough, even without Victor present and by his side. Make his appearances, appease the few sponsors who he hasn't spoken with yet, then make his excuse to leave early so he can finish off the night back in his hotel room with Victor over the phone. He decidedly doesn't think about what he's going to do if Shirogane insists on introducing him to new people, as he sometimes does during these events; it's just the man looking out for him, in his own way.

Just as it's always been. Just as it should be.

 

* * *

 

Things go smoothly, as far as banquets go. Unlike the more international events, the other skaters are a little more relaxed knowing the customs of the people around them. For a brief moment, as every year since Yuuri was eighteen and impulsively signed on with Celestino instead of the sedate old coach Shirogane picked out for him, he wonders if Shirogane has a point about having a coach he doesn't need to explain himself or his mannerisms to.

Except it's very easily shaken off this year, because Victor is all that and more despite often being the polar opposite. A want is a want, but Victor's proven to be a need. He might not always understand but he always listens, nonjudgmental and patiently waiting until Yuuri's finished his thought, or can't elaborate further. His critiques are concise and cut sharp mostly when Yuuri's being overly stubborn, and when he gets it the praise is effervescent and invigorating. Sure, Victor's not a model coach by a long shot, but he's perfect for Yuuri and that's ultimately what matters most.

"You look happy."

Yuuri blinks and glances over, wondering. Minami's coach, Kanako, smiles back at him with a wry expression before reaching past him to the refreshments. It feels a bit like déjà-vu, considering he's almost certain he's had a conversation like this already tonight.

"Thanks for saving Minami-kun from his fans the other day, by the way," Kanako says with a laugh in her voice. "Poor kid doesn't even realize the effect he has on those girls, being so sweet and bubbly. A little like his idol, don't you think?"

...Why does Yuuri get the feeling he's being made fun of?

"Minami-kun's earned his popularity," Yuuri says instead of giving her the satisfaction. "He's better off than I was at his age, I think."

Kanako hums. "You had Shirogane's support even then, didn't you? He's kind of an odd one, compared to your other sponsors."

The conversation Yuuri had with Hasegawa in the elevator flashes back briefly in his head, but Yuuri swallows down the reflexive discomfort. "He was a client of my family first. It was most likely a favor to my parents."

And just like with Hasegawa, there's a moment of awkward silence as Kanako looks off into the crowd, brow furrowed. Yuuri does not follow her stare, wary of what she may be looking at. But unlike with Hasegawa, Kanako doesn't press on. Instead, she turns back to Yuuri with a strain to her expression, dimmer than moments before.

"Whatever his reasons, I'm sure he means well," Kanako says. "It's not as if he's been pushing his boundaries, right? I think you've had enough scandal following you around this year!"

Yuuri can't help the squeak of a startled laugh that escapes his throat or the flush that warms his face. Oh, scandal followed him all year, all right -- it followed him straight from Russia, glacier-blue eyes wide and bright with unspoken affection Yuuri had spent months baffling over, trying to understand. After all, to the Yuuri who'd never dared to humor his small ember of a celebrity crush for long, the simplest explanation had been the most unbelievable.

He doesn't let himself dwell on it long. By now he thinks he's spent enough time at the banquet, the only sponsors he hasn't made small talk with being one who couldn't attend for personal reasons and Shirogane himself, and frankly Yuuri's seen enough of him and Amano over the past week to last him until next year's nationals.

Double-checking the time on his phone, he's sure that he'll be able to leave without too many complaints. He smiles to himself as he flicks fingertips over his screen, opening up his messages to give Victor a ten-minute warning so he'll be prepared when Yuuri's finally alone in the privacy of his hotel room again. Where the night will go from here -- well. No point in ruining the surprise for either of them, is there?

Satisfied, Yuuri tucks his phone back into his jacket pocket as he exits the banquet hall, bowing slightly to the doorman who returns the gesture. If he hurries, he can wash out the product from his hair, clean his face, and brush his teeth by the time he's sure Victor will be alone. Like that, though Victor might pout for not being able to join Yuuri in his nightly routine, maybe...

"Yuuri-kun."

Yuuri stops in his tracks, looking up dumbfoundedly at the person who'd addressed him. That's... odd. Yuuri could have sworn he saw Shirogane still inside, going through his talks with some other skaters hoping to appeal to him. Why is he out here, out of sight and near the elevators?

"You're retiring early," Shirogane tells him, still leaning against the wall with a hand tucked into his overcoat's pocket. "Could it be you're tired? I suppose having to shoulder everything in there on your own, as you were, would do that."

Yuuri blinks, brow furrowing. "I... guess so? It's something I'm just going to have to accept for now. Though maybe in the future, considering how decorated Victor is..."

"Hm." Shirogane doesn't seem interested in Yuuri's explanation. Fair enough; Yuuri knows he's not much of a skating fan. "He asks so much of you. I can't say I like it."

The subtle insult has Yuuri prickling before he realizes it. "Well, he's my coach and he's earned his reputation. I think he's allowed his eccentricities, Shirogane-san."

There's a long moment of silence where Yuuri meets Shirogane's level stare, a faint pinprick of horror as he realizes he's actually spoken back to Shirogane. Regardless of Yuuri's long history with the man, other businessmen are scared of Shirogane for good reason. After all, most of them don't have a scandal from almost twenty years ago still following them around, one that whispers of just how ruthless and cruel Shirogane can be given the incentive.

"You are certainly bolder with your foreign coach," Shirogane sighs, head falling forward in a dry amusement that feels like it's parching Yuuri's throat. Still, his golden eyes stay locked on Yuuri's, carefully set into something Yuuri can't read. "I wonder, is that the way things are going to be from now on? Or is it that he takes as many liberties with you as he does because he knows he can get away with it?"

Yuuri swallows. "Shirogane-san--"

"I worry for you, Yuuri-kun," Shirogane says, and takes a step forward. Despite the way his legs twitch, Yuuri keeps his feet planted. "It's so easy for someone like that to hide behind his culture when the truth is, he knows better. It's not as if you've made your admiration of him secret. All he has to do is say the word, or look at you a certain way, and you'll bend for him."

Heat immediately floods Yuuri's face and he gapes; all week, Shirogane's been ignoring and avoiding the topic of the more scandlous aspects of Yuuri's relationship with Victor, and this is how he finally breeches it?!

But Shirogane isn't finished, and as he closes the gap between them with measured strides, he continues with that same furrow in his brow, "There's no way a man like that doesn't know you'd give him everything he asks and more, you know. And as publically visible as he is, he'd have to be extremely careful about how to use it to his advantage. Or," and Shirogane rests a hand on Yuuri's shoulder, thumb flush to the line of Yuuri's tense throat, "do you really believe that he is as foolishly smitten with you as he claims? It's awfully convenient, that. A dream come true for so many, you included."

Part of Yuuri wants to snap at Shirogane, tell him how wrong he is because of course none of that is true, it's Victor and Yuuri knows him better than most -- but, what Shirogane is saying makes sense, doesn't it? Yuuri had thought that himself, before Victor proved he was just as helplessly clueless on how to convince Yuuri to give him a proper chance. Everyone Victor supposedly had been with before insisted he was a suave and confident lover, and sure, Victor seems to know how to act a certain way when they're... like that, but...

"He has no reason to lie to me," Yuuri insists, clenching his jaw as he frowns up at Shirogane. "Please believe me when I say that, if you can't believe him."

Shirogane doesn't say anything, instead humming low and slowly drawing his hand back. He pauses to hook his fingertips under Yuuri's jaw, causing Yuuri to freeze in stunned surprise as he meets Shirogane's cool gaze.

"My offer always stands for you, Yuuri-kun," he says, which is not what Yuuri expected to come out of his mouth after being oddly quiet about it so far this year. "Say the word, and I can have Amano process the paperwork by noon tomorrow. You'll never have to worry for anything again."

Despite himself Yuuri blushes, the embarrassment from the direct offer from six years ago and every year since flooding back. "I can't accept, Shirogane-san. You know that."

"Ah, but I can still dream," Shirogane sighs, and releases his loose grip with a small flick of his thumb to Yuuri's nose. As he's always done when Shirogane switches gears so suddenly on him, Yuuri flinches back and blinks bewilderedly to Shirogane's low huff of a laugh. "One day, Yuuri-kun. I'm an old man, and people would kill for what I'm offering you."

Yuuri winces. "Ah, um. I... don't think I'm the best choice, that's all. I'm an athlete when it comes down to it, not a businessman."

"Nonsense," Shirogane says lightly. He tucks his hand back into his overcoat pocket, shoulders lax. "You are the one who's proved he can handle balancing multiple projects at once, with equal dedication to see it through. You are far more prepared for the role than you give yourself credit for."

Yuuri says nothing to argue, at least partially because he doesn't think it's worth mentioning. Shirogane knows he doesn't really like the business aspects of his career, even if he does handle it better than some of his colleagues because of his background. Especially because what Shirogane keeps offering him is so far out of his comfort zone that he has no desire whatsoever to feign the interest necessary.

With one last shrug, Shirogane steps around Yuuri towards the front lobby to the hotel. Perhaps he'd only been this way to grab his coat, and decided to speak privately with Yuuri once he saw him. Why he'd wait until now for that is a bit odd, but not overly unusual for the man. He, too, is allowed his eccentricities for how successful he is.

"By the way, Yuuri-kun," Shirogane tells him as he passes, glancing aside with his usual half-smile and cocked brow. "Your flight is tomorrow afternoon, isn't it? Perhaps you can indulge this old man one last meeting over breakfast. There is something I wish to test for a clinical run, but unfortunately I am lacking in volunteers."

"Clinical run?" Yuuri repeats, confused. "Sir, I... don't think--"

"It will not affect your performance," Shirogane cuts in. "In fact, mostly what I wish from you is samples. Your body will have no other involvement in the testing. After all, you are ideal in every sense, and it'd be a shame to ruin that over a little experiment."

Yuuri manages to work up a brief if nervous smile. It's probably those kinds of comments that lead to the awkward conversations like what Yuuri had earlier with Hasegawa.

"I should ask Vi-- my coach first, but I don't think it should be much trouble," Yuuri says, slow and considering. Usually when Shirogane wants samples -- and due to his company's involvement with the drug testing the ISU and various other sports organizations have their athletes undergo, he is perfectly in the right to ask whenever he desires. It isn't as if he's the one actually processing the samples and performing the tests; it's the team of scientists who work on his payroll, who work long and dedicated hours to ensure that his products and services are top quality.

After all, it's in GIL Technologies' slogan: The gold standard in laboratories worldwide.

Shirogane huffs another low laugh. "Perfect. Be sure to head to our clinic here at your earliest convenience, Yuuri-kun. The sooner we get it out of the way, the sooner you can go run off half a world away again."

Yuuri sputters at the remark. "I'm not--!" Shirogane's half-smile starts to widen to a full one, a bit of a smug air settling over him. The anxious wind in Yuuri's sails promptly dies out, and he can't help but sulk. "Shirogane-san, that's mean. I'm a grown man, you can't just keep teasing me like a little kid!"

Shirogane hums, almost considering, then reaches over again to ruffle Yuuri's hair. His hand's heavy against Yuuri's scalp, nearly bending his head down parallel to the floor, and his fingertips are cold between Yuuri's roots.

"You are most definitely an adult," Shirogane says, the amusement from earlier fading from his voice. "That has not escaped my notice. Even so, you're still cute when you get mad. It's impossible to resist, you know."

Yuuri's not sure what it is -- the phrasing, the odd tone, or the way he swears Shirogane's fingers seem to curl through his hair. But something doesn't feel... right. He laughs nervously, keeping his head bowed, and waits for Shirogane to pull away. When he does, Yuuri can't tell if it's his overactive imagination or not that Shirogane's fingernails scrape across his scalp.

It's weird because Victor's done that, when they're lying in bed together with limbs entangled and skin-to-skin, murmuring dream-sweet praises into Yuuri's hair as he pets and gently massages Yuuri's nape in his sleep-roughened native tongue. Yuuri knows Victor's intentions when he does it, and it's nothing like what Yuuri expects out of Shirogane--

Internally, he shakes himself out of it. He's imagining things because Hasegawa put ideas in his head, that's all. There's no way a man who may as well be an honorary, if eccentric uncle could be thinking of Yuuri in that way.

By the time Yuuri works up the nerve to look up properly, Shirogane is already walking away with his hands snug once more in his overcoat pockets, broad shoulders lax and gait crisp and steady.

"Until tomorrow, Yuuri-kun," Shirogane calls back at him. "Remember, bright and early."

Yuuri can only swallow and raise a hand in parting to confirm he's heard and understood.

It's only once Shirogane disappears from sight that Yuuri notices his phone buzzing against his chest, and he blinks and pulls it out with a confused frown.

--and then promptly pales and dashes for the elevator, worrying at his cheek as he jabs at the up button. He's going to be late to his own surprise for Victor! Who even does that, seriously!?

Chapter Text

The samples Yuuri's supposed to give, it turns out, are a little more embarrassing than usual.

Urine? Okay, that's perfectly normal. Blood? A little unusual to do, but not unheard of. Spit? That's... odd, but it's still pretty harmless.

He is drawing the line at semen.

"Why," he makes the mistake of asking Amano, who looks as annoyed by this as Yuuri is mortified.

"Are you so helpless that you need someone to hold your hand for this?" Amano snaps at him without even looking up from his phone, "Why our Shirogane wastes so much time and money on the likes of you, I'll never understand!"

Sometimes, Yuuri thinks with both a bitter surety and a dry humor, Minako is right about Amano needing to get over his adoration of Shirogane by any means necessary. At least even at his worst, Yuuri never talked down other skaters besides himself when gushing about Victor; and even then, it was because Yuuri knew, deep down, that he could do better.

The nurse is a picture-perfect professional as he hands Yuuri a sterile cup and ushers him towards the sitting room next to the bathroom he'd been in not twenty minutes ago. He glances briefly at Yuuri's phone peeking out of his pocket when telling Yuuri how to best prepare himself for, uh, getting the sample, but doesn't blush or stutter over his words. Yuuri appreciates that someone here is perfectly calm about this, even if he's still reeling.

Is this some kind of weird revenge because Yuuri complained he was an adult who can make adult decisions? Is that what this is? It almost feels too petty for Shirogane to do that, considering the man always acts like he's above that kind of immature response. But then again, this could honestly be something Shirogane did need done, and it's just really unfortunate timing for them both.

Granted, he thinks as he looks over the rack and sees the flirty-pink gravure magazines and the more mature-looking, raunchier stuff tucked behind them, there are probably better ways of communicating these sorts of things.

These kinds of magazines did little for him when he was growing up and a few classmates would taunt him with them, mostly to mock Yuuri's laser focus on his skating career and to a lesser extent, his small candlelight-flame of a celebrity crush on Victor. In his teenage self's defense, late-teens/early-twenties Victor was a lot prettier than most of the models in those magazines, if only because he didn't look half as uncomfortable in his shoots for interviews and commercials.

Nervously lifting a corner of the magazine up and making a face at the coy, clearly-staged image he gets a glimpse of, he figures they'll do even less for him now that Victor is only a phone call away.

He really should just cut to the chase and save himself the trouble and embarrassment. After their makeshift date last night and with the time differences, though, Yuuri would hate to wake him up so early when he'll clearly be tired and in need of rest. Even if Victor does tend to wake up before the sun rises half the time...

Yuuri shakes his head, willing down the flush creeping into his cheeks. This is definitely not the time to be thinking of how even through a woefully inadequate phone screen, his night ended on a much better note than it started. That line of thinking will only lead to wondering if he'd missed being warned about this whole thing sooner and that he should've refrained from letting things get heated.

Then again, if he takes too much longer, his morning is going to get worse anyway. Why does Shirogane keep using Amano as a gofer? Surely the man's got better things to do than herd around his company's (or in Yuuri's case, Shirogane's personal) investments place to place.

Well, it's not like it's any of Yuuri's business. What is his business, though...

"Victor," Yuuri whines as soon as the call connects and he hears the mumbled, thoughtless greeting, "help."

Fabric shifts on the other end. He must still be in bed, like Yuuri suspected. Four-hour time difference, after all -- Yuuri's just glad that most clinics don't even open before eight, and it's a quarter to nine now. "Yuuri? What's going on?"

"One of my sponsors is having me do data sampling and I can't really do the last alone," Yuuri grouses, rubbing his face with his free hand. Should he unzip now? Would that be too weird? "It's-- I'm so sorry, it's stupid and embarrassing but if I take any longer in here I'm going to get yelled at and I'd really like not being treated like a little kid because it looks like I don't know how."

"Yuu-ri," Victor groans, and Yuuri can hear him shift again. "Start from the beginning. What are you doing and how do you need me to help?"

What is a simple, yet appropriate way of talking about this? Better yet, how would Yuuri talk about this if he had to discuss certain issues around the younger skaters, but in a way someone older would understand?

"I was asked last night to help a sponsor with something their company does, but they need... human data? I've done the typical stuff so far, but the last needs, uh, a more... adult touch?" Yuuri tries, and immediately smacks his forehead in embarrassment. That's even worse than his initial attempt at explaining this whole mess. "It's not that I can't-- myself, but this whole thing is awkward as it is and then what they've got here does nothing for me and--!"

He's interrupted by the rough bark of laughter from Victor's end, a slight wheeze at the end of it. Yuuri's ears start to burn with his cheeks.

"Ah, I see," he can practically hear Victor grin into the phone, and the image of him in Yuuri's mind is near sparkling with mirth. "This is another 'katsudon is my eros!' moment, isn't it?"

"Quit making fun of me for that!" Yuuri whines, and Victor just laughs more. "And it's not that! I just-- I'm a little weirded out by the fact I have to-- do that, all of a sudden!"

Victor, clearly not willing to let it go, hums long and lilting. "What's wrong, then? Is it hard for you? Do you need a hand? Should I kiss it better?"

Yuuri glares at the wall, the flush in his face starting to spill down his neck. "You're enjoying this way too much, you know."

Another muffled laugh into what's likely a pillow on Victor's end, then a sigh.

"I can't say I've ever heard of a sponsor who wants you to cum for science," Victor says so casually that Yuuri sputters and reflexively snaps his head towards the door. It's still, thankfully, firmly shut and locked. "Is there a reason for this? Because I can't think of one, and I don't know if it's because it's not even five yet or because it really does sound like bullshit."

Yuuri winces as he rubs his forehead, scratching at his scalp. "It's... You know GIL Tech, right? The company who engineers the drug test kits?"

There's a soft hum. "I'm familiar with the name." A pause. "Wait, GIL Tech sponsors you? I don't remember seeing them on the list you gave me. Is this new?"

"...No?" Yuuri bites his cheek, suddenly feeling nervous. "I mean, the company doesn't sponsor me directly, but its chairman and CEO is definitely on the list. Shirogane?"

For a long moment Victor is silent. Then, "Okay. Fine. That name's on the list, though I have no idea why someone in that position would privately sponsor anyone without good reason. But Yuuri, this isn't really part of your contract, not if it's a private sponsorship. You know that, right?"

Yuuri makes a face. "And how is that going to look, if I refuse to do what a man who's in charge of drug tests tells me to? That's asking for all sorts of trouble!"

"I somehow doubt that there are any drugs or steroids unique to cum," Victor huffs. "But if it makes you feel more comfortable, go ahead. No point in getting you detained on false suspicions."

And that is exactly the sort of logic Amano would jump for, isn't it? Anything he could use to make Yuuri look bad, he would. Now Yuuri's even more uncomfortable with the fact the man's impatiently waiting in the lobby.

"Speaking of getting detained, though," Yuuri hums, giving the door a huffy look. He refuses to give Amano the satisfaction of thinking he can cow Yuuri into submission. Not after last year, and not after his worse-than-usual attitude this past week. "I did call you to ask for your help, you know. A bit of coaching through?"

Victor falls silent for a moment, sheets shifting on his end.

"Well then," Victor purrs, and Yuuri flushes and grins a bit as he sees in his mind's eye the way Victor must look in this moment, fine hair mussed by the shift of his pillow and sleepy blue eyes dark and lidded. "I'd be remiss in not assisting my dearest protégé, wouldn't I?"

 

* * *

 

When Yuuri finally shuffles back into the lobby, avoiding the eyes of the nursing staff while reminding himself that they are all professionals and will at worst giggle about him after he leaves the building, he somehow does not expect to not be the only one there. But the proof is in front of him, in the form of Satou grimacing and pressing a heat pack to her lower abdomen and Shindou sitting far more stiffly than she usually does. Naturally, Amano is sneering at them, but the crispness of his remarks towards them are dull and more annoyed than anything.

The difference becomes more pronounced when Amano realizes Yuuri's returned, and the dullness immediately sours into a bitter scowl. Yuuri tries to keep his wince internal, already anticipating where this incoming lecture is going to go.

"How," Amano starts, tone sharp, "does it take a supposedly healthy young man fifteen minutes to ejaculate into a cup?"

The nurse who'd led him to the lobby winces and clears his throat. "Sir, this is a public setting. Please do not speak so crassly where other clients can hear."

By sheer force of will, Yuuri keeps a straight face. "My apologies," he says. "The material provided was unsuited to me."

Satou's shoulders jerk and she slaps a hand to her mouth, hissing and pressing the heat pack firmer against her as she tries desperately to look like she's not blushing and giggling into her hand. Shindou raises her brows at Yuuri, looks him up and down, then solemnly gives him a thumbs-up. The nurse must be up-to-date on recent news, because he startles and coughs, turning away but not fast enough to hide the pink that flushes his cheeks.

Amano, on the other hand, blinks in stunned silence before realization hits and he sputters, eyes narrowing dangerously and teeth grinding at Yuuri's comment.

"You have the gall to hold us all up because you decided to choose now to flaunt your clandestine relationship with that foreigner?!" Amano spits at him, fuming. "This is an abuse of power! I have half a mind to press charges!"

"You're so kind, Amano-sensei," Shindou says simply. "Looking out for Yuuri-kun, just like Shirogane-san would want."

Amano freezes, slowly turning his head towards her. "Excuse me?"

Satou nods along, biting her lip. "Yeah! We all know Shirogane-san thinks of Yuuri-kun as his favorite, so the fact you're so invested in Yuuri-kun's well-being is admirable!"

...Those two have a death wish. Yuuri mostly decided to roundabout admitting he contacted Victor to shut Amano up since he knew he wasn't going to get out of getting publically embarrassed. He hadn't expected Satou and Shindou to actually play along when Amano got started on one of his tangents.

But since they're bringing it up, and since Yuuri still wants to make sure he's got everything ready for his flight later-- "Ah, speaking of Shirogane-san," he draws out, humming carefully as he makes a show of checking the time on his phone. "We should really get going so we can meet him like he asked, shouldn't we? I'll be sure to take the blame for us being late, don't worry!"

Clearly unused to being outnumbered, Amano slowly turns purple as Yuuri, Satou, and Shindou all give the nurse and the other staff their thanks before shuffling out the doors single-file. With at least a few meters' distance between them and Amano, the women give in to their earlier urges to poke fun at Yuuri for his unexpected boldness.

"Fifteen minutes for a quickie, huh?" Satou asks, clearly trying not to grin. Yuuri groans and tries to bury himself under his scarf and hat.

"Yuuri-kun's legendary stamina strikes again," Shindou adds unhelpfully.

"I am not discussing my private life with either of you," Yuuri hisses at them under his breath.

"Ah, Victor's so lucky," Satou sighs, pressing her hand to her cheek. "Though I would've thought for sure you wouldn't last so long with a man as beautiful as Victor, either, Yuuri-kun. You're really amazing!"

"Do you rush in art museums?" Shindou has no right to look so deadpan talking about this kind of topic. "No. You take the time to admire things. It's a waste otherwise. Clearly he trained for this all his life."

"Please stop talking," Yuuri begs them, nothing but his glasses and some longer tufts of hair sticking out at this point.

Satou laughs and bumps her shoulder to Yuuri's arm. "Oh, lighten up a bit, will you? You got Victor Nikiforov eating out of your hand! You're allowed to brag about it!"

Yuuri gives her a look. "Victor isn't some kind of prize to be won and shown off, you know."

"Right, right," Shindou says, tapping her chin. "Victor is probably the last person who wants to be a trophy husband. No offense."

The thing is, Victor's rarely minded being only known through his relationship with Yuuri, as his coach or something else entirely. He's admitted he likes the amount of anonymity he had in Hasetsu, still known enough for people to remember seeing his face somewhere but mostly recognized because of how he was always seen with Yuuri or one of Yuuri's friends or family. Standing out because the old ladies complained that it wasn't fair Yuuri's mom now had two tall, strong sons to help her with higher shelves instead of just one, and the old men poked fun at Yuuri's dad for managing to get another boy who blinked in confusion at the TV when a game was on.

The rest of the world will get to see the Victor Yuuri knows when they've earned the right, after Victor's retired and no longer has to maintain his farce of untouchability. It's the least Yuuri can do in turn to let Victor retire properly, to let everyone else get the happy ending to his long and illustrious career, officially passing the reins he's held for half of it to the rest of them and prove his years of sacrifice were worth their influence. Until then, all anyone needs to know is that Yuuri and Victor are happy together, and nothing will change that.

Even if Yuuri doesn't appreciate being teased, even gently so, for convincing a long-rumored playboy to change his ways and what that implies about their private life.

As the three of them wait for the crossing light, the subway entrance in view, Satou and Shindou end up discussing (read: complaining about) their exams. Unlike him, it seems, they'd been warned about it and were grateful that it'd been saved until after nationals, when they didn't have to worry about a stinging ache from the aftermath distracting them from their practices and programs. Yuuri winces himself hearing it, at least happy that even though he's still pretty convinced this whole thing had been sprung suddenly on him, his part in today's... donations to science didn't hurt.

They'll be meeting Shirogane at a fancy café several stops from this particular station and halfway back to the hotel, far enough that paparazzi who might be tailing them won't be able to make too many assumptions while not forcing Satou and Shindou to undergo the tight quarters of the subway's cars for long. It's just another consideration Shirogane didn't have to do, but still insisted on.

The unease Yuuri's been experiencing must be his own hang-ups and the seeds of paranoia his brain and environment love to sow without permission. It wouldn't be the first time something like that happened, and it wouldn't be the last. He just has to mentally step back and consider that he might be letting his imagination get away from him.

 

* * *

 

Satou looks over the display case with stars in her eyes and a happy flush on her cheeks, and Shindou has a content air about her as she waits for her coffee to finish brewing. Both are eager to take advantage of Shirogane's generosity, given free reign to choose whatever they want for breakfast since they helped him out this morning with their samples. Yuuri lags behind waiting his turn, wary of the rows of sweet breads and desserts when the food he would actually want for his accomplishments this week would be found in an entirely different restaurant.

Look, he likes sweet things as much as the next person, but if Yuuri's going to eat something fattening as a reward it may as well be his actual favorite food.

"They have Mont Blancs!" Satou cheers, clutching her hands to her chest. "And so many danishes! Ooh, and those madeleines are so cute--!"

"Christmas just passed," Shindou says as her name's finally called, a mug and slice of pannetone laid out on a small plate waiting for her. "Get something seasonal while it's around."

"That doesn't help at all!"

Yuuri glances towards the more savory options, a little surprised when he sees a familiar word on the displays. He hesitates before shaking it off, looking to the other options. He's going to be heading to Russia soon, just after he finishes packing and mailing the last of his and Victor's things they have marked to go to Saint-Petersburg; there's no point in buying pirozhki here. Besides that, Yuriy would probably be genuinely offended if he found out about this, after he'd given Yuuri the last of his grandfather's homemade batch a month ago.

Maybe the pumpkin gratin, he decides, noting the buttery pie crust serving as its bowl. If there's anything he's learned living in America for five years, it's that they seem to think pumpkin is only for desserts. That, and it gives him a little more leeway in getting something sweet for the road because he's sure he's not going to see custard bread or anpan for another several months.

As Satou finally comes to some kind of decision, Yuuri feels the heat of another body next to him. He looks over to Shirogane, who has a look of mild amusement as Satou eagerly tells her order to the strained smile on the cashier's face.

"I suppose the restraint all of you show when it comes to maintaining your bodies for the season is admirable," Shirogane says, tone light. "You used to get that excited over sweets too, you know."

Yuuri winces, flushing a bit. Apparently, despite what test samples Shirogane ordered for him to do, Yuuri's still being treated like a little kid.

"Things are a lot sweeter in America," Yuuri tells him. "And bigger, too. Phichit and I used to split these things when we got one because of it."

Of course, with Phichit having a faster metabolism than Yuuri and a bigger sweet-tooth, he also took the larger half more often than not. Phichit swears the reason he could get away with it is because of all the spicy food he eats, but Yuuri is still highly skeptical of that theory.

Shirogane hums low, considering. "Ah, yes. Ambassador Chulanont's youngest boy. He's doing well, I presume?"

"He's happy to be training back home," Yuuri says. "More for the fact he can leave ice in the rink this time of year."

"He's a funny one." Shirogane's brow raises just slightly. "It's good to know you keep in contact with someone so influential. It will serve you well, once you've tired of competing."

Yuuri bites his tongue, stamping down the small flare of annoyance. Shirogane means well and he knows that. He's had to be cutthroat to make it in the corporate world, and that means seeing people as networking and business opportunities, not... well, people. The fact he's even indulging them like this at all is proof he's a little more aware than others in his position. It doesn't make the brush-off of Yuuri's livelihood and passion sting any less, though.

"Phichit's a good friend and I'm lucky to have him as one." Yuuri watches Satou near-skip away from the register and takes it as his cue. "I should go order, too."

Shirogane nods and waves him off, reaching up to pat his shoulder with his usual faint half-smile. As Yuuri steps up to the counter he thinks he hears Shirogane answer his phone, but other than curt and bland responses from Shirogane, Yuuri doesn't know what it could be about.

He points to the pumpkin gratin and an anpan bun, ordering them with a hot coffee. The cashier nods and turns to prepare the coffee before gathering his food, stopping only to call out Satou's order of the Mont Blanc she'd been gushing about before and a milk tea.

For fun, Yuuri snaps a photo of the pirozhki display to post while he waits, chewing at his cheek as he tries to tag it appropriately. He barely hears his name called to pick up his own order when Yuriy responds with an annoyed emoji and an insistence that it was more likely than not a poor substitute. What's more entertaining is the flood of equally offended, if not morbidly curious responses from the others who Yuuri vaguely recalls making Yubilenyy their home rink. Huh. Yuuri did not think he'd even be on their radars.

Distracted by it as he is, when he gathers his meal and turns around he sees the back of a familiar overcoat step out through the doors. He frowns, confused, before looking to Satou and Shindou who've sat themselves off in a private corner of the café.

"Do you know where Shirogane-san's off to?" he asks as he sets his tray down. "I mean, I know this was to pay us back for earlier, but..."

Shindou shrugs, tearing off a bite-sized piece of the pannatone. "Who knows. Shirogane-san's face got scary while your back was turned, though. I don't think he liked what he heard on the phone."

Yuuri hums and gathers his coffee mug in his hands, letting the heat of the ceramic seep in. There could be so many reasons for that. How would Yuuri even begin to guess?

"Whatever it is, it doesn't concern us," Satou says, still admiring her dessert. "For now, all we can do is do our best to keep performing up to his expectations."

"I suppose you're right." Yuuri sighs, finally reaching for his spoon to start on his gratin. He has a flight to Hasetsu to catch in five hours and a hotel room to check out of in two. If they're needed, Shirogane knows how and where to find them.

 

* * *

 

It's as Yuuri's sitting in the terminal, waiting for his flight to board, that the call comes in.

He's not expecting it, and he's definitely not prepared for what he's told. He blinks in complete bewilderment as the voice on the other end, otherwise unrecognizeable, tells him he has to repeat this morning's dumb, embarrassing test before he leaves the country for training.

"But I'm going to be too busy to stay here for the labs--"

"We simply ask that you are able to go to our Nagasaki office to fulfill the requirements," says the... receptionist? Assistant? Nurse?? "Of course, this time we ask that you refrain from sexual activity for the next two days so that the sample can be properly tested. The appointment has been pre-made. All you need to do is confirm it and show up within the time frame given."

Yuuri huffs, biting his cheek. True, he's got the handful of days left to finish packing and he'll technically be ready for the second sample by the time he's ready to fly to Saint-Petersburg to meet again with Victor and continue training. But even so -- why?!

"And this is the last thing needed?" he asks for one last bit of clarification.

Papers rustle on the other end of the line. "Yes. Truthfully, this extra sample is purely for insurance, not necessity. We would not want a false positive as our control unit."

That... makes a lot of sense. And it did take some of the edge off, knowing it'd hold even less importance than the samples taken this morning. The seemingly pointed remark about Yuuri's personal life, though, he doesn't like.

Maybe that's what Shirogane heard on the phone: Amano screeching at him how Yuuri must've purposely screwed up their metric out of spite and pride, flaunting his wild, foreign lover while his dependable and stoic countrymen mourned the loss of his good sense. If it was, then it's no wonder why Shirogane made the face Shindou saw back in the café.

(But seriously, Amano needs a better hobby.)

Annoying as it is, the request isn't unreasonable. Perhaps this is just Shirogane realizing he hadn't given Yuuri enough warning, or that he should've been clearer. It'd look bad on Yuuri if he "failed" the tests, especially when Yuuri knows the only reason it'd look that way is because he wanted to celebrate Victor's birthday with him in any way he could.

He sighs, reaching up to rake back his hair. The flight attendants call for first- and business-class passengers to board.

"I understand," he says, embarrassed for how this whole day's gone when it comes to this one stupid thing. "Please let Shirogane-san know I apologize for this."

It isn't until after Yuuri's landed in Fukuoka and swipes his phone out of airplane mode later that afternoon that he sees the text message saying nothing but a simple, straightforward 'Of course I look out for my own, Yuuri-kun.'

But also, not long after the first: 'But this proves my point, doesn't it? You wouldn't have made that sort of mistake before he came.'

Chapter Text

Saint-Petersburg, Russia - Winter/early Spring 2017

 

He's barely got one foot in the door to the apartment, Victor's hand pressed to the small of his back and his warm voice chattering away in his ear, when he's knocked flat by a blur of brown and the warm aroma of a slow-cooking stew.

Maccachin, having traveled here with Yuuri and is for once not the culprit, barks at the sudden movement and tries to push off the other dog with his shoulder. Yuuri can't tell what breed it is, but it's licking his face and snuffling in his ear eagerly, large paws and their blunt nails digging into his collarbone and thigh.

"So it's not just Maccachin after all," Victor laughs from somewhere above him.

A set of footsteps approaches from inside the apartment while Yuuri attempts to gently push the dog off, noting distractedly from the curls between his fingers that it's probably another Standard chocolate poodle like Maccachin. There's an odd off-beat to the steps, though, but Yuuri can't pinpoint what it is that itches at his ear. It's soon accompanied by a different, heavier set, drowning out the light taps against the hardwood floor.

Some quick Russian is spoken above him, in both Victor's familiar voice as he falls back to his native tongue and the two new ones. Yuuri doesn't understand, but he thinks he's getting a note of exasperation from Victor.

Sitting up finally, the other poodle panting at him with a rapidly wagging tail that's slapping against Yuuri's knee while Maccachin grumbles and rests his head on Yuuri's shoulder, Yuuri looks up to see Victor talking with an older couple who might have a few years on Yuuri's parents, consisting of a tall, thickset man with a scruffy beard who seems to be quailing behind a smaller, slighter woman and her sunny smile. Yuuri takes in their features as he pets the dogs to keep them both happy, noting the soft blue of the man's eyes and the pale blonde of the woman's hair compared to Victor's own.

Ah, he realizes with a sudden lance of alarm through his chest. Of course Victor's parents would take care of the things he left behind in Saint-Petersburg while Victor was overseas. Who else would he trust with it all? Yakov? The man's busy enough as it is.

Victor's mother finally glances down towards Yuuri with a blink of equally silver-light eyes and her smile turns sheepish, the light flush on her face spreading.

"You know," she starts with, her English as bright and crisp as Victor's, "when he told us you were good with dogs, I didn't think he meant it like this. She's usually much better behaved."

Yuuri feels his own face heat up and he clears his throat, glancing briefly to the clearly younger poodle looking back to Victor's mother with a whine. From the corner of his eye, he can see how she's leaning against the doorframe, weight off one leg and the faint outline of a lacquered wooden cane just inside. That would also explain the odd gait he heard just a few moments ago, wouldn't it?

"It's fine," Yuuri assures her, patting the younger poodle's neck one more time before shooing her away. She immediately hops towards Victor's mother, a prance in her step. "I hope I didn't scare you or inconvenience you."

Victor's mother waves him off with a light laugh. "Oh, it's fine. She's not a service dog, no matter what she thinks."

A hand comes into view in his periphery, and Yuuri looks over to Victor and his own sheepish expression that, now that Yuuri's seen it, has a lot of resemblance to his mother's.

"I'm sorry about them," Victor says as Yuuri takes his hand and pulls himself back up to his feet. "I expected them to come later, after you'd already settled in."

Victor's father makes a noise Yuuri's sure he's heard Victor whine out before. "Zvyezdochka, you've been gone so long! And then you come home with a husband! What are we supposed to do?"

"Imagine that," Victor's mother chirps sweetly over Yuuri's sputtering and Victor's grousing that they're not married yet. "It takes our Vityen'ka a year to get married, and it took you six months to even have a conversation with me."

"Golubushka," Victor's father whines. "It's been thirty years! Must you keep teasing me about that?"

Despite the wounded look on Victor's father's face, easily kissed off with a tittered giggle pressed into his scruffy jaw, Victor's mother turns again to her son and Yuuri still in the doorway.

"Let's get everyone inside and properly introduce ourselves," she says. "You've both had a long week, from the looks of things!"

 

* * *

 

The main thing Yuuri gets out of Victor's parents visiting and preparing for their homecoming is that for all their differences, they're not too unlike Yuuri's own parents while being so much like Victor he can't find himself too unsettled by their presence.

Victor's mother, Elena, is a bubbly woman with something that looks like an old heartbreak in the back of her eyes when she scoots forward in her seat to gush over Yuuri's programs with Victor, Yuuri himself being a little mortified to hear the enthusiastic discussion of On Love: Eros between a mother and son. She's a big fan of Minako's, it turns out, and recognized her influence in Yuuri's form years ago. All that does is make Yuuri internally panic that Victor had known about him for a while and just... had been too drained last year to connect the dots when they briefly crossed paths in the back lobby of Sochi's Ice Palace, just like Yuuri had been too drunk to remember the banquet the following night.

His one ally in the awkwardness is Victor's father, Anatoliy, who is a surprisingly mousy man considering his size and looks. He's not much help in the beginning, trying to quietly disappear into the background while stirring in two heaping spoonfuls of a floral-scented jam into his tea (Yuuri is never going to understand this custom; and he was so sure that Victor was only teasing him!). But eventually he makes a small complaint that has his wife and son stopping mid-sentence to turn and stare at him with wide eyes before Elena makes a face of her own and starts to scold him about the amount of jam he used.

Victor leans over as Elena sips at her husband's cup, makes another face, and then starts trying to mix their tea together to even out the sweetness.

"So aside from being a bystander to my father's attempt to derail the conversation," Victor says low, a faint laugh in his voice, "how are you feeling right now?"

Yuuri leans closer as well, his glasses slipping down his nose as he squints at Victor. "I think I'd prefer not hearing how your mother feels about a program as charged as Eros is, thanks. It's weird enough my mother has opinions on it!"

Victor bats his eyes all too innocently at Yuuri. "Would you prefer we discuss Chris' SP instead?"

"You think you're hilarious, don't you?"

Yuuri doesn't get an immediate answer so much as a cheeky twinkle of eye and a quick peck to the tip of his nose. He blinks, stunned, as Victor leans back to sit properly. Victor's parents straighten up themselves, the jar of jam tightly closed and scooted out of Anatoliy's reach.

"Now, where were we?" Elena asks, tapping her finger to her lips. Anatoliy winces and glances longingly towards the jar. "Oh! Yes, right -- Yuuri, I wanted to ask about something."

Yuuri clears his throat. "Yes?"

Elena leans forward. "How did you manage to meet Minako, and make enough of an impression for her to teach you? I can imagine that must've been costly."

Yuuri blinks. Did... did Victor really not tell his apparently very-into-ballet mother about how he knows Minako? "Oh, she's a childhood friend of my mother's. They went to middle school and high school together."

Stunned, Elena's back straightens and she turns an almost accusing look towards Victor. Victor laughs and sips delicately from his cup, eyes dancing with mirth.

"Surprise, Mamochka!" he chirps when he sets it back down. "Your future son-in-law was taught from the very beginning by one of the best!"

"Well, that explains the gossip your grandmother's heard about Lilya's excitement," Anatoliy says finally, managing a feeble smile despite the knit of his brow. "But really, zvyezdochka, do be more careful with your games? Please? Someone is bound to get the worst impression of you one of these days!"

 

* * *

 

"Your family's nice."

Victor groans as he collapses onto the couch, draping an arm across his forehead. "You can be honest, Yuuri. They mean well, but they're insufferable at times."

Their midday arrival has long since bled into an absurdly early sunset even for this time of year, but apparently this is typical for Russia. Victor's parents left an hour or so after lunch, deciding on their own to let them rest and settle in before the last member of Storm Nikiforov decided to descend upon them. The face Victor made at that had been part annoyed, part anxious; apparently, Victor's grandmother is a force to be reckoned with, to the point even Yakov despairs having to deal with her. Yuuri figures she can't be that bad.

Yuuri takes a seat next to Victor's hip, humming soft and considering. "You looked like you enjoyed talking with your mom at least, even if your dad looked like he wanted to be anywhere else but here at the time."

"He's like that," Victor huffs. He turns, shifting so he's on his side and half-curled around Yuuri. "My father's a worrier, but he's not so nosy that he needs to pry deep into my personal life."

"See? That's not so bad," Yuuri says, letting his hand rest on Victor's crown. His thumb moves on its own, smoothing along the soft silk of Victor's fine hair. Victor melts into the touch, tilting his head to blink soppily up at Yuuri, and Yuuri can't help but smile back. "You saw how nosy my family was, after all."

"You mean everyone but the people you were blood-related to?" Victor says with a soft laugh. Yuuri pouts at him. "Darling, your friends are nosier siblings to you than Mari is, not to mention her friends. I think I got a bigger shovel talk from her friend at the teahouse."

Yuuri clicks his tongue, frowning. "I'm still very sorry about that."

Victor reaches up with his free arm and cups Yuuri's cheek, his palm cool against the flushed skin. "She knew I made you cry. I think she had at least a little right in being mad at me."

He tries to stamp down the wince he reflexively makes at the reminder. Of course Sumie can recognize Yuuri's post-cry face; she'd seen it numerous times over the years, given her friendship with Mari since they were in middle school. And with how nasty Amano could get once he started coming with Shirogane to Yuutopia, it'd gotten far more common than the occasional end result of a panic attack or frustration at himself when he couldn't figure out how to land a jump properly.

It's not too important, though. Yuuri learned to deal with him just as he had with any other bully through the years. As stressful as Amano could be, him and his pettiness and pretentiousness weren't worth dwelling over.

"We were both dumb," Yuuri says instead. He hasn't forgotten how he, with his own blinders on, hurt Victor a few weeks ago, after all. "Let's both rest for now, please? I missed you."

Victor makes a small noise and pushes himself up. Yuuri doesn't know what to expect, his hand slipping off Victor's hair and over his shoulder, so he's a little caught off-guard by the gentle brush of Victor's lips against his. Soft and pleased, Yuuri presses back, a knot between his shoulders melting loose he didn't even recognize being there.

With Victor's hand still on his cheek, Yuuri curls his loose arm around Victor's neck, pulling in closer as Victor's other hand grasps at his shirt and tugs him down. Legs slot and curl to fit together on the couch, weight shifting the cushions beneath them. Hands change position, trailing elsewhere. At some point Yuuri's glasses fall askew and they're fumbled onto the end table over their heads.

How long they stay like that, languidly reacquainting themselves with each other, Yuuri can't say. All he knows is that he's brimming with everything Victor makes him feel, and in turn he does what he can to let Victor know this and experience it, as well.

Maybe Yuuri didn't make dumb mistakes in the past like he does now, but he thinks it's worth it for moments like this where he's someone worth Victor's long-neglected heart.

With a sigh and some resettling, they lay squeezed together on the couch. Victor's fingernails rake gentle, back-and-forth trails against Yuuri's scalp, the cup of his palm guiding Yuuri's head to rest in the crook of Victor's neck and shoulder. Even half-asleep as they are, Yuuri can feel the contentment roll off Victor.

The world outside is still moving, though, and they'll have to get up and rejoin it soon enough. Until then, Yuuri lets himself settle in and breathes in Victor's soft, floral cologne and the lingering crispness of wintry-cold air that clings to him after years of it being one of his few constant companions.

He's happy. They're happy. And really, that's all that matters for now.

 

* * *

 

Almost as soon as break starts, a pale hand snaps around Yuuri's wrist and tugs him away from the dance studio. Lilia huffs and snips out a warning, which is returned with a brisk affirmative -- or, at least, that's what Yuuri assumes is going on.

"Apparently, you need a reminder of what good food is," Yuriy grouses as he drags Yuuri down the hall towards the break room. "Showing off that pitiful pirozhki, knowing you're coming here a few days later? Unbelievable!"

Ah, Yuuri thinks mildly. Yuriy really does get mad over the strangest things.

"You know I didn't actually buy that, right?" Yuuri reminds him. "I just thought it was cute."

Yuriy glowers at him over his shoulder, green eyes sharp and narrowed in offense. "If by cute, you mean tiny! It was like half the size of a real one! And what was with that crust, huh? Awful!"

Yuuri says nothing else as he's tugged through the break room doors and dropped into a chair, startled more by the thump of Yuriy's sole hitting the back of it to shove him towards the table. Yuuri blinks, stunned, as he looks over his shoulder at Yuriy stomping towards the kitchenette, still prickling and bristling with whatever it is about this incident that has him so riled up.

A tray sets down on Yuuri's other side. He looks back, curious.

"Hi," Mila says with a chirp and a smile, settling down in her seat. "I see little Yuriy's got it in his head that he's the only one here who can give you real Russian food, huh?"

Yuuri blinks. "So this is normal for him?"

"Not at all!" Mila laughs, resting her chin on her laced fingers. "You see, he's as bad as Victor sometimes. Except Victor doesn't usually have an entire bag full of contraband goodies in his things that he keeps managing to sneak in."

Yuuri recalls the small, hidden pocket in Victor's sports bag and the handful of chocolate he'd found inside when cleaning it out. And Victor's attempts to justify it by insisting nothing really existed that could sate a craving for that specific flavor, which would make more sense if it wasn't a sweet, creamy milk chocolate and not the bitterer dark variety. He simply nods in loose agreement anyway.

Mila sighs and watches with amusement and fondness as Yuriy attempts to smuggle out something from his pocket without witnesses, either oblivious to Mila's presence or not caring. "It's like watching a cat gift someone a part of their hunt. It's adorable."

"Attempting to force-feed me proper Russian food is adorable?" Yuuri deadpans. Mila laughs again.

"I see why Sara likes you so much now," Mila says in response, which makes no sense given their conversation. "You know, she and Erika told us for years you weren't nearly as cold as you looked when you were preparing to skate, but it's only now I'm getting why."

It takes Yuuri a moment to place the name. He stares when he does, bewildered. "You're friends with Hasegawa?"

"Right. Japan does the family name first thing." Mila taps her chin with her curled finger. "Sara's better friends with Erika than I am, but she introduced us when I moved up two years ago. She's fun to hang out with during a competition! Her and Yuki both!"

And Yuki is Satou, if Yuuri remembers right. Satou makes more sense for Mila to know since they're closer in age, but he does not remember either of them mentioning being friendly with any of the Russian contingent.

Before Yuuri can ask further, a tray slaps down in front of him heavy with a paper bowl of what looks like borsht, some meat-and-bread thing, and a box of apple juice. He blinks at it, then looks up to Yuriy bewilderedly.

"This'll do for now," Yuriy huffs, then moves to take his seat across from Yuuri. He glares at Mila as he sits down, and the older teen smiles cheekily at him. "Stop being weird, hag. It's bad enough Victor's got so much influence over this guy!"

"You don't give me any of your special apple juice," Mila sing-songs, and leans away with a cackle when Yuriy sputters red and slaps the table in front of her. "Treasure that, Japanese Yuri! He gets mad when people take them all before he can grab some!"

Yuriy snaps at her in rough Russian that's probably nastier than the situation warrants, but it's clear Mila doesn't care one bit. She just keeps baiting him and grinning, enjoying herself as Yuriy's attention turns towards her almost entirely in his attempts to maintain his gruff reputation.

Yuuri smiles a little to himself and quietly says thanks for the food before starting on it, mentally taking notes so he has something to say when Yuriy finally stops posturing. These quiet, unspoken little ways are what Yuuri knows best, and he appreciates that Yuriy understands them, too, despite his insistence that people only ever really look out for themselves.

 

* * *

 

Europeans comes and goes, as does Four Continents. Worlds approaches, the air charged with anticipation as Victor claws his way back to what many still consider his rightful place and challenged by the two he reached out to assist this season and long-term rivals who finally have a leg up on him. It's probably the most exciting season of figure skating in years, and Yuuri is still bewildered that he's a part of it.

 But despite all this, it's eerily quiet on a different front and Yuuri is starting to get antsy.

Yuuri gets a call a week before Worlds that is mainly Mari grousing about Shirogane making one of his now-sporadic trips to Yuutopia, and how their parents lament the loss of Victor hanging around mainly because he actually interacted with their other clients in spite of the language barrier. Not long after, there's a video on Yuuko's/the triplets' Instagram that earns a few laughs from commenters, though Yuuri doesn't find it nearly as funny.

The video consists of Nishigori puffing up and looking cross as an older man in a boxy suit attempts to interrupt a skating lesson Yuuko is teaching, face dark and tone condescending. Two of the triplets (because of course it's the triplets) attempt to trip up the older man and get screeched at. That's where the video ends, with the only description being an unhelpful 'I guess someone got lost www'.

Yuuri doesn't understand; there's no reason for Amano to be harassing Yuuko and Nishigori, not when he knows well enough where Yuuri is and how to reach him. What's the point of this?

"Oh, don't worry about it," Yuuko tells him when he calls, the sounds of dishwashing in the background. "He was rude as he always is, but all he wanted were sign-in records to prove you'd trained here before shoving a check at us."

That's... odd. "Why?" Yuuri asks, bewildered.

Yuuko hums over her end of the line, ceramic clanking together and water splashing. "Takeshi and I guess that Shirogane-san is doing his usual thing when it comes to you and compensating for what revenue we supposedly lost by closing for your training. I mean, it's not like we hadn't already between the Onsen on Ice exhibition and the extra traffic we got from Victor's fans flocking here to try and see him, but it's not like we can return the check to him."

Yuuri worries at his cheek, brow furrowing. "I wasn't told about that. And why can't you return the check anyway? Or just... not deposit it?"

"We tried that already," Yuuko sighs. "It was worse the second time around. I honestly don't know how you deal with that man and his temper, Yuuri-kun. He called us both irresponsible and overly proud, and used the girls as his proof for it! And then he had the nerve to say that if we actually intended to make up for those mistakes -- and he did say mistakes! -- we'd accept Shirogane-san's generosity! Can you believe that?"

That sounds about right for Amano, really.

"I'm sorry about him," Yuuri says, trying to think of what else he can do. "I know you and Nishigori know better, but the girls didn't need to hear him go off like that."

Yuuko huffs. "You act as if it's your fault he's got a terrible attitude! Really, if a grown man is still harboring a grudge against us for playing a few pranks on him when we were younger, he's the one with the problem."

Yuuri breathes out a weak laugh, humorless to his own ears. "He'd leave everyone alone if I just performed up to expectation."

There's a moment of quiet that goes on a little too long, then: "Yuuri-kun, I mean this in the nicest way possible: from what we know of the imp, you'd bleed dry before he admits you did a decent job in anything. He might even be harder on you than you are on yourself."

"He's not wrong, though," Yuuri sighs. His grip on his phone tightens. "How many times did I screw up in a competition? How many chances have I missed because I let my nerves get the better of me?"

Yuuko sets down whatever it is she's scrubbing. "Okay, let's try a different method here. What if you overheard Amano talking like how he does to you, to Yurio-kun? How would that make you feel?"

"I don't know if Amano has that much of a death wish, personally," comes out of Yuuri's mouth first and foremost. "Yurio's all but declared Jean-Jacques Leroy his sworn enemy just over him being a bit obnoxious like he sometimes is."

But Yuuri also gets what Yuuko means. Knowing how nasty Amano can be and hearing even half of that get directed towards Yuriy and his prickly, pigheaded pride would not end well for a number of reasons. Even delicate attempts to get Yuriy to sit and rest to catch his breath get the boy riled up and swinging, practically foaming at the mouth to prove he isn't frail and weak. They're extremely alike, in that sense; the only real differences are in motivation.

That being said, Yuriy is still far more likely to punch Amano in the face than let the man talk the way he does to him. Yuuri doesn't have that luxury, not when Shirogane is still a presence keeping them in each other's circles.

"So they're there for the live viewing?" Yuuri asks, though he has no idea why when they could just... show up at the actual competition. Yuuko sighs, clearly not falling for Yuuri's attempt to divert the conversation elsewhere.

"I think so. Shirogane-san is, at least," Yuuko says. "Although... he's being weirder than usual. I don't know how to describe it."

Yuuri blinks. "How so?"

There's a huff of a sigh and a long hum of consideration. A shift, like Yuuko's changing phone position, and then a sliding door shuts.

"He's paying a lot of attention to the girls," Yuuko admits, and Yuuri straightens up because this is the same voice Yuuko admitted to being pregnant at eighteen with years ago. "And me, too. At first I was thinking it's just another one of his moments, but when we brought up the check to him directly, he said something about making a deal with us to feel more comfortable accepting it. Takeshi... really didn't like that, though I don't blame him."

Yuuri bites his lip, wondering what Shirogane would've even said to get Nishigori that riled up. "It wasn't that bad, was it? I mean, it's Shirogane-san. He's always been a little strange."

Yuuko hums, deliberating. "I mean, sort of? It still feels wrong accepting his money, but it's better than the deal he was trying to make with us. It felt really gross, you know? And it's not like an uncle like him doesn't have willing volunteers for that sort of thing back in Tokyo. If the only reason he singled me out is because of the girls, then that's a little..."

Wait. "What?" Yuuri scrunches his nose, trying to make sense of what he's just heard. "Yuu-chan, what kind of deal was he trying to make with you guys?"

This time, the grimace is audible. "Egg donation? Apparently me already being a mother makes me a better choice. It was a lot of money, but between Takeshi getting mad and knowing how painful the process can be, it wasn't something we could agree to. So... yeah, we ended up accepting it as compensation for your training with Victor in our facility."

Well, no wonder Nishigori got so upset over it. The triplets had been hard on Yuuko, effectively stripping any remaining hope she had of pushing forward towards a competitive career post-pregnancy. As much as the two of them love their girls, neither want to relive that year in any way, shape, or form -- especially with a price-tag attached.

"Do you want me to talk to him?" Yuuri offers before he can think about it too deeply. "Maybe he'll listen to me. After all, he has a... soft spot for me, so I might as well take advantage of it now and then."

"Oh, don't worry about it!" Yuuko cuts in, sounding a little flustered. "It's fine, Yuuri-kun, really! It just means we have extra funds for updating, and that's always good. Right?"

"...Right." There's that odd twist again in his gut, but Yuuri can't figure out what could be causing it. "But Yuu-chan, please let me know right away if it happens again. I'd rather know and at least try to do something than find out after it's too late."

Chapter Text

World Championships 2017 - Helinski, Finland

 

"Peein' in a cup, we'll be peein' in a cup, they're lookin' for mistakes I'd never make..."

"All right, who's the asshole singing about this bullshit?!"

JJ laughs and goes right back to chugging water to prepare for this with a hum. Yuriy looks about ready to chuck his still-sealed container at JJ's head.

All Yuuri knows is that there are way too many people waiting for their turn in the bathroom of the rink's clinic and even the nurses and techs are starting to look stressed at the volume present, either bored out of their minds or trying to make sure they're hydrated enough to actually do something when they're called in.

At least Shirogane's not actually here, he thinks with a minor sense of relief. Only a handful of people here know about Yuuri's connection to the chairman of the company behind all this, and he'd like to keep it that way.

Two of them, unfortunately, have decided to flank Yuuri with their respective cups and complaints about not being allowed to have their phones out.

"I want to record JJ singing that dumb peeing song so much," Phichit whines, slumping against Yuuri's shoulder. "Let his fans see how cool he is while waiting for the okay to compete in major competitions!"

Yuuri doesn't look up from his game, one of the few electronics the staff's opted to let pass given the amount of people they have to deal with. "You say this every time, Phichit."

"It doesn't make it any less true!"

Victor, on Yuuri's other side with one of his novels (some dime-store paperback, of all things), head also resting against Yuuri's shoulder, hums thoughtfully. "He has a point, Yuuri."

Refusing to risk his score but also not wanting Victor to feel neglected, Yuuri leans his head to press his cheek into Victor's crown. Phichit manages a weak noise of faux-complaint as he slides down Yuuri's side. "The ridiculousness of this or wanting to record JJ being JJ?"

"This." Victor gestures loosely to the rest of the waiting room with his novel. "This isn't even the first time this season for some of us. Why are we all being tested at once?"

"I wouldn't really know," Yuuri says dryly. "It's just annoying, really. It's not like we have anything to fear."

"It's boring, is what it is," Phichit complains. "I wanted to do a little sightseeing before we really got into practice and interviews tomorrow. Now we're not going to have time!"

Something about Phichit's word choice makes Yuuri pause, blinking. He only barely recovers in time to save himself in-game, but he can tell from the way Victor stills against his arm that it didn't go unnoticed.

"Nikiforov!" someone at the front desk calls out, and Victor straightens up with a furrow in his brow as the rest of the waiting room groans. "Victor Nikiforov! You're up next!"

"There's no rhyme or reason to this call-list, huh?" Phichit grumbles to himself. "I'd already be out of here if it were alphabetical, and Victor would've been called a lot sooner if it were about age."

Yuuri elbows Phichit in Victor's defense. Phichit pinches his side in retaliation.

Sighing at them and shaking his head fondly, Victor slowly stands and stretches before leaving his novel and coat draped on the seat of the chair where he'd been sitting. Before pulling fully away, he turns and presses a quick kiss to Yuuri's cheek. Only then does he straighten up to his full height and make for the open door where a nurse is impatiently waiting, his camera-ready charm up and settled over him. The nurse looks distinctly unimpressed with it.

Yuuri stares after him, heart tight in his chest, and tries to ignore the sad tune crackling out of his earbuds.

"Now that he's gone," Phichit says, and Yuuri blinks and turns back to him. "You're sure that your creepy sponsor guy's not going to show up, right?"

"I don't see how he's worse than that one CEO's PA who keeps flirting with you every year at FCC," Yuuri gripes, clutching his game system tighter.

Phichit shrugs. "That guy's only a few years older than me and just awkward. On the other hand, your sponsor who's apparently spent the past... eleven years now? -- trying to adopt you while your parents are still alive and don't want to give you up? Yeah, sorry. That's weird and creepy. Evil Advisor levels of it, even."

"Phichit."

"He has the motives of a movie villain, Yuuri. You can't say that someone like that is completely trustworthy!"

"Phichit," Yuuri repeats, exasperated. "I have it on good authority that he's joined my family's viewing party in Hasetsu. He's not going to be here."

Phichit pauses, blinking slow at first then speeding up. "...A man who has every right to come here and see it for himself is choosing to stay in Japan, specifically the vacation home he basically made himself in your family's business. To watch you compete here."

"...Yes?"

"Yuuri." Phichit's expression is grave. "He's a movie villain."

Yuuri groans, letting his head fall back to the wall. "Look, he was already in Kyushu handling some business, from what Yuuko and Mari told me. What would the point be in getting on a plane to fly to the other side of the world when he could get more done staying in Japan?"

"I'm just saying, I think I've only ever seen him leave the country once in the time I've known you," Phichit says, raising his hands in a placating gesture. "And that one time, he was very weirdly interested in hearing about me, a diplomat's son, and not me, a world-class figure skater."

"He's not a big fan of figure skating," Yuuri says.

Phichit's brows raise higher. "And somehow, he's sponsoring almost every JSF figure skater? Really?"

"I don't pretend to know what goes through his mind, Phichit," Yuuri sighs. He would say he feels a headache coming on, but one has been building between his temples since he stepped into this waiting room more than an hour ago. "He has his reasons for going about it like he does. It's probably nowhere near as convoluted as you're making it out to be."

"You have to admit it's really weird for someone to spend so much money on a thing he doesn't even like that much," Phichit insists. "What's he getting out of it? There's no way a man whose first reaction to meeting me was 'you're Ambassador Chulanont's boy, aren't you?' is doing it out of the goodness of his heart."

Yuuri has to remind himself sometimes that what happened with Shirogane years ago is a very insulated incident, Japanese media refusing to leak out a scandal of that size to the world at large. Most of Yuuri's fellow skaters wouldn't know to look for it even if they dug back into news archives, especially with many of them being barely old enough to walk or go to school at the time it happened. The only reason Yuuri even remembers is because no one stopped gossiping about it behind Shirogane's back whenever he visited, and Minako's firm insistence that they needed to keep an eye on him.

...And thoughts like that remind Yuuri of how old he is and he grimaces.

More names get called to go back and give their samples. Phichit gets called before Yuuri, leaving him alone for all of three minutes before Yuriy stomps over and claims Victor's former seat with a dark mood that Yuuri respects by not trying to start a conversation. He's joined by Guanghong, who fidgets with his hands as he waits, and inexplicably Michele huffs and takes Phichit's former seat to glare at the makeshift acapella group forming on the other side of the waiting room consisting of JJ, Emil, Leo, and... Otabek?

Well, no wonder Yuriy looks so annoyed. He probably forgot that JJ and Otabek are, loosely speaking, also friends.

"How much longer is this going to take?" comes from Michele, who's still scowling and... trying to lean away from Yuuri. Honestly, this guy. "I have better things to do than sit here being tortured!"

"They aren't that bad," Guanghong immediately says.

Yuriy snorts but doesn't move or say anything else, still glowering at the group.

"I'm not talking about the failed choir over there," Michele huffs, though his glare darkens when Emil sees him and waves mid-high note. "Sara has to do this tomorrow, and if the wait's going to be half this bad for her--!"

"So tell her to bring a book like Victor did!" Yuriy snaps, flapping the novel he'd shoved aside in Michele's face. Yuuri leans back, startled by the arm suddenly in front of him. "Or are you never gonna get a clue that she doesn't want you fucking babying her for the rest of her life?!"

Michele grits his teeth and turns towards Yuriy, lip curling up into a snarl. "What did you say about my sister? What right do you think you have?!"

"Guys," Guanghong hisses, glancing towards the front desk. "This really isn't the time or place for this."

"And if you two are going to fight," Yuuri grouses, "can you do it without me in the middle? Please?"

"No one asked you, you-- you tramp!"

Yuuri blinks, stunned. Well, that's a phrase he doesn't usually hear.

There's a growling snarl and a flash of animal print between blinks, and the next thing Yuuri knows Guanghong is flailing to try and pull Yuriy back down into his seat. Michele's also bolted up, refusing to be beaten or intimidated by someone much younger.

"What the fuck is your problem?!" Yuriy snaps, yanking his arm free from Guanghong's grip. " 'Cause believe it or not, it's not this idiot's fault your sister flirts all the time!"

"Thanks, Yurio," Yuuri deadpans. Though to be fair, for all the insults he'll throw at Yuuri in one of his moods, Yuriy's never insinuated anything like that about him.

Michele's face goes a furious red. "How dare you insult my sister's honor?! Sara is an innocent--!"

Seunggil, of all people, snorts at that from the adjacent couch. Michele whips around to glare at him.

It's all the opening the staff needs to close in and take him by the arms, faces set in thin, firm lines as they drag him into the back sputtering wildly. Another nurse, tall and heavily muscled, stands in front of Yuriy with his arms crossed and tapping his foot, a thick brow arched at the boy he dwarfs.

"You gonna cooperate, or am I going to have to restrain you, too?" asks the nurse in a mild, no-nonsense tone. Yuriy glares up at him, stubborn and defiant. "Kid, you don't scare me. Behave yourself or get the same treatment that guy did."

JJ walks over, the smile on his face wavering. "Hey now. Is this necessary? I mean, he's just a little kid--"

"I'm sixteen, shithead!"

The nurse sighs and starts to steer Yuriy towards the back door. "Okay, Mr. Big Man, we're pushing you to the front of the line so you can get done quick and go cool off somewhere else."

"Hey--! Get your hands off me! I can walk, dammit!"

Guanghong groans as he and the rest of the room watch them go, sinking back into his seat with a dark flush splotching his face. "That was so embarrassing to get caught up in..."

Yuuri blinks after them, bewildered. He's not entirely sure what just happened, but he's sure that this is a good reason for them to not have their phones out.

 

* * *

 

Obviously the coaches hear about the near-fight in the clinic's waiting room and are ready and waiting to blow up at them for getting so worked up over nothing. Sara, flustered and furious, refuses to talk to her brother at all and rushes over to Yuuri to apologize on his behalf.

"Please don't get into a fight with your brother right before we all have to skate," Yuuri begs when she keeps snubbing Michele's attempts to get her attention. "It won't be fair to everyone else and you know it."

Sara scoffs and waves off his concern. "Oh, please. Mickey will be fine if I ignore him a little bit. But he's a grown man and he knows how you helped me in the past! He should know better than to talk to you like that!"

Ah. Right. That one time Sara was getting harassed by obnoxious fans leering at her post-practice back when they were in Juniors together, and Yuuri -- already familiar with the routine from being friends with Yuuko -- automatically walked up to her to block their view and managed to hold a conversation with her until they backed off. Michele had not been happy about it when he found out. Is that really what Michele's whole issue with him is? Still?

During this talk Victor sidles up next to him and presses his palm between Yuuri's shoulder blades. Tension Yuuri didn't even know he had melts at the touch, and he glances over to Victor with an apologetic look.

"Now, enough feeling guilty over nothing," Victor tells him. "It's Michele's own fault for insulting you when he knows Yurio's temper."

"It's not like he knew Yurio doesn't actually hate my guts," Yuuri points out glumly. "I mean, Yurio's got a strange way of showing he cares about people. Is it so hard to believe that someone else would see it as the opposite?"

Victor sighs, reaching up to massage his temples. "You're not wrong. Yurio needs to work on that more than anything else, really, or he won't survive in Seniors with that attitude of his no matter how solid his programs are. But Yuuri, most people will get upset if someone they care about is insulted like that. I don't know why you're not more upset by it."

He almost says it, because it's Victor who asks for an explanation. It's on the tip of his tongue, percolating in his throat to try and voice a truth Yuuri generally doesn't share. But Yuuri bites it down, swallows the words, and instead smiles wanly up at Victor.

Instead of I've been called worse, Yuuri says, "It was a heat of the moment thing. There's no point in getting upset over something like that."

Victor frowns at him, like he doesn't quite believe Yuuri's calm expression. After a moment, he sighs and pulls Yuuri in close, embracing him and nuzzling his hair. Yuuri squeezes him back, burying his face in Victor's shoulder in reassurance. For Victor or himself, Yuuri can't say for sure.

Yakov marches over with Yuriy sulking in tow, Mila flitting away to chatter with Sara. Only then does Victor release Yuuri, but he still keeps him tucked under his arm and pressed to his side.

"So besides that nonsense," Yakov grouses, shooting Yuriy a disappointed look that has the boy turning away with a huff. "You are all ready for tomorrow's practice, yes?"

"Yes, Coach," comes from the various skaters in various tones.

Yakov nods sharply then gives Yuuri a look. "Katsuki. Avoid same practice time as Vitya. He needs to focus." Victor's complaints about how Yuuri's his student are mostly ignored as Yuuri nods. "And you, Vitya -- make sure Yuriy does not get into another fight!"

Yuriy bristles. "Hey, Yakov--!"

"I don't care!" Yakov snaps as he scowls at Yuriy. "You are growing and grumpy? That is something I can help with. You are upset because your friends have other friends? All I can say to that is 'get over it'! You are here to win! Not make drama!"

Even if the rest of them aren't the ones getting scolded, everyone says another low, "Yes, Coach Yakov," just to prove they heard him loud and clear. No drama. No fights. A normal competition, or at least as normal a competition as Worlds can be. There's no point in causing an international incident because someone's stuck in a bad mood.

Victor sticks with him through dinner, shooting Chris a quick apology text to say they can't make it out tonight. Yuuri tries to do the same with Phichit, but gets an insistent fisticuffs kaomoji instead with a promise to get Yuuri to hang out later. Yuuri can only assume he heard about the incident directly from Guanghong, since Leo had been on the other side of the room and didn't get a good look at what was going on until JJ decided to try and break things up himself.

He leans into Victor's side as they make their way back to their hotel room. When the door swings open, the city lights glow faintly through their window, casting large shadows across the floor and furniture. Their training shoes sit in the entryway, laces loose and ready to slip on in a moment's notice. The corner, as much as it drowns in the darkness of the room, reveals the faintest traces of the room's armchair.

And in order to burn it from his memory, Yuuri turns to Victor and kisses him hard, tugging him close and letting them both fall apart in a messier but more fulfilling way.

 

* * *

 

The first time Amano starts singling Yuuri out with his nasty attitude, earning him his nickname of "the imp" -- which is a poor translation in English, considering how vicious amanojaku actually are -- Yuuri is only fourteen.

Yuuri's not sure what changes Amano's usual disdain towards him to the sudden vitriol that spews out of his mouth whenever Yuuri is around, but Mari picks up on it lightning-quick and nearly clocks Amano when she catches him sneering after Yuuri and commenting that he's more of a burden than Vicchan, because at least Vicchan takes care of the fleas.

(Vicchan did not have fleas because he was well taken care of, thanks.)

It was only that first time she saw and retaliated on Yuuri's behalf, and for good reason: the next day, Yuuri's parents were interrupted during dinner rush to hear that Mari had been detained in a holding facility downtown over causing a public disturbance, and until the incident could be sorted out she'd be in custody. The look on Amano's face when he and Shirogane were told why Mari wasn't around helping out like she usually did was so self-satisfied that Yuuri resolved to never, ever letting anyone else get caught in the crossfire. The only other person who has an idea of how bad Amano can be is Phichit, and even then it's only because he's seen the way Yuuri reacts to some of Amano's temper tantrums over the phone or email.

Things tend to be worse when no one else is around, or whoever else is around is just as helpless to do anything about it as Yuuri. Yuuri's been called so many things by Amano that he couldn't even recall half of them if he tried, but Amano's favorites remain embedded in his mind and echo loudly between his ears whenever his own personal demons start to act up.

Ungrateful. Selfish. Rude. Worthless. Greedy. Stupid.

Pet.

Yuuri hates the references that imply he's just Shirogane's little pet to entertain himself with the most. It's demeaning at best, snide comments about how Shirogane spoils him and gives him more than he deserves. At worst, Yuuri has to recall how Amano treated him at last year's Nationals, the guilt gnawing at his gut as he was screamed at and punished like a puppy who hadn't figured out how to use the paper pad laid out in the corner. One night was bad enough; Yuuri had to endure three nights of it, each time getting worse the more anxious and jittery he became the following day and how it showed in practice and performance.

He still remembers the bite of the shoelace against his ear, the thud and crack of the shoe hitting the wall behind him. Being forced to look at the damage, all while Amano hissed it was his fault for not being good enough to warrant getting off easy, for being so arrogant for thinking he was above reprimand.

No, Michele's heat of the moment insult didn't hurt or even sting. Not when someone else exists that's done so much worse.

More importantly, Yuuri needs to focus. He wants to win, even against Victor -- a lot rides on him earning gold, a final test to prove to himself that Sochi and that awful All-Japan were not Yuuri's best or normal. That he deserves to be at Victor's side as an equal, and that is why Victor looks at him the way he does.

Someone approaches while he's stretching, but he pays them no mind. He immediately starts to mind when they press a hand very low on his back, the flat of a palm smacking the flesh of his butt with the decisiveness Yuuri imagines his mom uses when judging cuts of meat.

Head whipping around, he gives Chris an exasperated look. Chris grins back and releases his handful of Yuuri's ass to waggle his fingers at him.

"You can't blame me when it's sticking out so temptingly," Chris drawls. He turns to lean against the wall Yuuri's using for his stretches, folding his arms in front of him. "So! We haven't had much of a chance to speak this week. How are you?"

Chris hadn't been in the waiting room when the fight started, having been one of the early ones called into the back. Still, with so many teenagers and young adults around, not to mention Victor's cancellation of their pre-competition night-out, gossip is bound to happen and there's no doubt that Chris has heard... a version of the incident.

"I'm fine," Yuuri goes with. "It's really no big deal, you know. I just kind of got caught in the middle of things."

"As you do," Chris hums. Yuuri huffs at him. "Now, chouchou, you know it's true. How often have I caught you looking like a terrified rabbit stuck between a fox and a hound?"

More times than Yuuri's willing to admit, if he's going to be honest. Yuuri has no idea how he keeps ending up in these situations.

Chris notes his stubborn silence and tilts his head, thick lashes fluttering and a smirk on his face. "My point exactly. You are a bit of a magnet for these things, you know."

"I'm just a normal, everyday guy in his twenties," Yuuri laments as he thunks his head against the wall.

"Most normal, everyday guys in their twenties don't break a world record like you did." Chris makes a face and grouses, "Or, you know, win the heart of the celebrity they've fawned over for half their life."

Yuuri rolls his eyes at Chris' pouting, mostly certain Chris is just huffy for dramatics' sake. They'd bonded over admiring Victor years ago, as well as already having weak eyesight so early in their careers and stubborn baby-faces (that one had been temporary, as Chris lost his once the last burst of puberty hit for him -- meanwhile, Yuuri is still getting suspicious looks every time he goes near alcohol in some countries). Besides, Chris had been friends with Victor for most of his Senior career; Yuuri only actually met Victor just over a year ago.

Still, Yuuri gets a little nervous when Chris falls silent, idly starting his own stretches.

"I overheard a representative of GIL Tech's just checked in," he says finally. Yuuri startles, bolting up to stare at Chris with wide eyes. Chris won't look at him, but even in profile Yuuri can see the way his brow furrows. He's one of the few others who know about Shirogane, having bumped into him at a Junior competition they shared years ago; unlike with Phichit, though, Shirogane had mostly ignored Chris' presence and to this day, Chris still sours at the memory of being snubbed by such an influential sponsor. Shirogane never gave Yuuri a good reason for it either, if he remembers correctly.

"Did you hear who?" he asks, biting his cheek. It can't be Shirogane. He got confirmation Shirogane was still in Hasetsu last night, and there's no way he flew all the way to Helsinki on such short notice. Maybe Amano? Yuuri did forget to ask about him, though the idea of Amano being here, so close to where Yuuri will be living in the foreseeable future even with the man's wariness of Phichit's by-proxy political power--

"Some woman." Chris answers. Yuuri blinks. "Matthieu overheard that she wants to speak with you after we're done with practice today. Victor's talking to her now, I think."

A woman. A woman who represents GIL Tech. A woman who represents GIL Tech, who wants to talk to Yuuri.

Oh.

"Did she say her name was Enma?" he guesses, internally crossing his fingers. Enma is good. Enma is better than good, actually. For one thing, Enma is nice, and Yuuri could use nice for once.

Chris shrugs. "Something like that, I suppose? I wasn't paying that much attention once I figured out who she worked for."

The sigh of relief is probably more external than Yuuri's willing to admit.

He quickly and quietly excuses himself to beeline for the rink, promising himself to not draw too much attention. The other skaters' teams hustle about around him, and he ducks between them. He eventually catches sight of Victor's telltale hair and he zeroes in on it, and as he approaches and people keep moving he sees the tired-looking older woman with salt-and-pepper hair cut in a short and clean bob, wearing a business suit of sharp angles that was trendy once upon a time.

He catches Victor's eye first, and Victor raises a brow at him with a wry smile before gesturing him to come closer. As he does, Enma looks over, the lines in her face looking like they've been carved deeper since the last time Yuuri saw her a few years ago.

"Good afternoon, Enma-san," Yuuri addresses immediately, bowing a more appropriate depth compared to how he would with Amano. It brings a faint smile to her face and she returns the bow with a small duck of her head. "I have to say I'm surprised to see you here."

"Well, our Shirogane had other business to attend to that required Amano's... special touch," Enma says, grimacing ever so slightly at the mention of her younger colleague. Yuuri immediately feels sorry for whoever has to deal with Amano in his stead, though he's not self-sacrificing enough to ask to swap. "You have this old lady to speak with, unfortunately."

"If that's so," Yuuri says, "then I hope you can enjoy yourself this week."

Why Mari dislikes Enma almost as much as she dislikes Amano, Yuuri doesn't think he'll ever understand. But then again, Mari rarely gets the full brunt of Amano's temper like Yuuri, and as someone who'd been with the company longer than Shirogane and Amano both she's far more reliable. It's the least Yuuri can do to be as polite as possible for her.

Enma raises her chin, the tiredness never fully leaving her face or eyes. "I sincerely hope so, as well."

Chapter Text

Hasetsu, Japan - June 2017

 

It started as a throwaway idea a few months back, which should have been Yuuri's first realization that Victor was going to take and make something of it. Another, less stressful rendition of the Onsen on Ice exhibition, still with a spark of competition but nowhere near as charged. It's the sort of thing Yuuri's learned is right up Victor's alley, a means of showcasing genuine talents that often gets overlooked in favor of maximizing scores.

So Yuuri is a little surprised when Victor announces that he wants to organize a two-week training camp in Hasetsu, partially to prove his own capabilities as a coach to the stubborn naysayers and partially because it gives them a legitimate excuse to return without getting yelled at by Yakov for wasting valuable training time. What surprises Yuuri more (and really shouldn't, in hindsight) is that the camp will end with Hasetsu's second Onsen on Ice show as the crown jewel of the whole event.

Yuuri is certain the reason the tickets sell out in a matter of ten minutes is because Victor's performances at ice shows, rare as they've become, are usually some of his more inspired pieces. Victor laughs at him when he says this, though, and tells him that since Yuuri's so known for his musicality and grace in addition to the fact Hasetsu is his hometown, he's the reason people are flocking in so quickly.

Yuuri doubts this. There's an entire in-joke among his fans online that it's required for one of the judges takes offense to Yuuri's presence because it's always one judge's critical scoresheet that keeps him at an average placement. It's annoying, but he doesn't care nearly as much as others seem to.

Still -- as most things Victor touches do -- it's a success in a number of ways and... well, surprising is definitely a word that could be used to describe some of the nonsense that happens right before the event. Yuuri is never going to be able to look Officer Tsujii in the eye again without remembering the woman's forced-stern face at having to reprimand him for public nudity and inappropriate behavior.

Of course, it's not all fun and excitement. Following Yuuri's gold at Worlds, he's been getting another string of angry calls and curt messages from Amano insisting that he start taking responsibility and groom up Minami so he stops being a deadweight. Yuuri bristles on Minami's behalf, especially when he catches sight of the boy flinching whenever his own phone goes off while he's in Hasetsu for the training camp.

His fears are confirmed when Yuuri pulls him aside at the onsen, shaking and wilted despite how excited he'd been after the show.

"He's right, though," Minami mumbles as he rubs his arm, refusing to meet Yuuri's eyes. "I haven't been doing nearly as well as I should. I was so excited to be part of this, because it's more experience and I got to skate with you, too! But I guess it's still not good enough..."

Yuuri hisses out a breath and runs his hand over his hair, lips pressing together. "For starters, Minami-kun, remember what I said back in December? Don't take anything Amano says at face value. He's rude and mean and everyone knows it, including him."

Minami, still unconvinced, asks, "But then why would Shirogane-san let him talk like that to us? It's so demoralizing, hearing your best isn't good enough all the time!"

Yuuri remembers asking that question once himself, when he was Minami's age. He didn't like the answer he got, but after all these years it's still the only answer he can give, as well.

"It's his job to be like that, even if it doesn't translate well to other areas of life," Yuuri says. "Look, what you should do is focus on what your coach and fellow skaters tell you, not Amano. He doesn't know what we go through. Just pay enough attention to get dates for meetings and ignore the rest, or he's going to drive you to quit in no time."

Minami finally looks up at Yuuri, eyes wide. "Is... Yuuri-kun, is that what happened to the others? I know I'm not the only other male figure skater to move up since you got certified by the JSF, but I thought it was for other reasons!"

Ah. Right. The others. Yuuri tries not to think of them, because that way lies madness and Yuuri deals with enough on his own. Their coaches avoided Shirogane and refused to have their skaters sign on with him as a sponsor; now, most of them have resigned themselves to careers as professionals rather than competitive athletes, if they kept skating at all. It's not that they're any less talented, but there's an expectation that's been carved into the foundation of this career over the past decade and it is very much tied to Shirogane and his company.

And poor Minami, who has even deeper ties than the average skater. If Shirogane had never come to Yuutopia all those years ago, even Yuuri would've been spared had he opted to avoid competitions. Minami, on the other hand, comes from a family of doctors and has heard the name GIL Tech all his life. He doesn't get the option to say no either way.

Yuuri doesn't get a chance to answer due to a commotion happening in the main hall. Concerned, Yuuri shares a glance with Minami and weaves through the corridors towards the noise. He knows several of the other skaters are leaving for the airport now, needing to get back to their coaches with the competitive season starting in a few months, but surely that can't be the reason for what Yuuri's hearing. Right?

He turns the corner just in time to hear glass shatter against the floor and Yuriy snarl at someone. Yuuri freezes along with Minami as another voice cuts in, sneering and sharp, and the two of them share a horrified look.

"He just sent me a message an hour ago saying I was wasting time goofing off here!" Minami hisses in a low whisper, wringing his hands.

"He left me a voicemail just before the show." Yuuri decides against sharing the contents of said voicemail, because no one really needs to hear Amano's opinions of Yuuri's decision to train overseas with his fiancé-slash-coach. "I know they were here a few months ago for business, but do you think...?"

Oh no. No. Yuuri knew it was inevitable, but he wanted to delay Victor meeting Amano as much as possible. To have it happen in front of so many of their friends and colleagues, too? This is the worst-case scenario!

Darting into the main hall, Yuuri sees that the glass shattering was a bottle from the vending machine, the smell of sweetened peaches and milk filling the air. If Yuuri thought this couldn't get any worse, he's been proven wrong: the only thing worse than Victor meeting Amano is Yuriy, in one of his prickly moods, meeting the man.

Amano already looks furious at Yuriy spitting at him to watch where he's going, both their tempers flaring in challenge over the shards of glass and the puddle of fruit milk. The others in the main hall hesitate in interrupting, wary of getting caught in the crossfire. Phichit has his phone half-out, grip tightening on it in small spasms. Guanghong and Leo stay near the back, Guanghong hugging onto Leo's arm with a thin line of a frown on his face to match the pinched glare on Leo's. Georgiy looks like he wishes Mila were here to physically haul Yuriy away, his own hands out like he thinks he might have to fill in for her. Chris has his shoulders squared up, chest out and back straightened to his full height, and looks about ready to do it himself to Amano with far less care.

And Victor, ever the big brother Yuriy's never had, has stepped in with his sword-sharp smile ready for battle, blue eyes cold as the glacier ice they resemble.

"Now, I'm sure we can settle this matter like adults," Victor opens with, briefly shooting Yuriy a stern look when the boy whips his glare at him. "You came to relax, after all. Didn't you?"

"Do you ever shut up?" Amano snaps at Victor, scowling. "No wonder the brat goes along with everything you do, if you keep yapping over his spineless self!"

Victor's face hardens, eyes narrowing suspiciously. Still, his smile stays firm on his face.

"My apologies," Victor tells him too-sweetly. "I wasn't aware telling a middle-aged man not to pick a fight with a teenager was considered yapping. I'll be sure to remember that for later."

"Then perhaps you should teach this child their place," Amano spits back, flushed red with anger. He whips towards the office. "Katsuki! Be useful for once and clear this place out! Shirogane-san doesn't need all this commotion when he comes in!"

Mari, disbelieving as she approaches with a broom and dustpan for the broken glass, asks, "You don't seriously expect us to kick out a dozen paying customers just because Shirogane is here, do you?"

Chris makes a face in recognition of the name, which Amano unfortunately catches out of the corner of his eye when he glowers at Mari for her remark.

"Watch your manners, foreigner!" Amano ends up snapping at Chris instead. Chris huffs, clearly showing what he thinks of that idea.

Yuuri can't sit and listen to this anymore. He gestures for Minami to stay behind him before they finally enter the main hall properly, his own shoulders and back set and face hard.

"Amano-sensei," Yuuri greets curtly. "Surely you have better things to do than this?"

He can see how Victor tenses out of the corner of his eye, leg twitching in an attempt to stop himself from standing between Yuuri and Amano. He'll have to apologize for this later, but for now Yuuri knows how effective his presence tends to be for drawing Amano's temper from everyone else. As long as no one gets further on Amano's bad side, they'll all be safe.

Sure enough, Amano zeros in on him immediately, the bitterness of his glare sharpening as he turns Yuuri's way.

"Imagine that," Amano starts, a growl low in his voice. "Away from your homeland for a few months, and you immediately revert to the same childish pride as before! Shirogane-san will not like this attitude of yours, Yuuri-kun."

"You seriously need to chill," Phichit deadpans. Amano shoots him a dark look, but falters in recognition of Phichit's features and darker skin. "Oh, look at that! You have a mouth when it comes to everyone else here, but not little ol' me! I wonder why?"

...Well. At least it's Phichit and not someone else?

But it gives Yuuri an opening, and he takes it while swallowing down his nerves. Showing weakness in front of Amano never ends well, and he'll be damned if he does it in front of so many others.

"If Shirogane-san is outside waiting, then you shouldn't keep him," Yuuri says, blinking in faux-concern. "That's what you always tell me, isn't it?"

Amano bristles in immediate offense. "Don't you take that tone with me, you useless brat!"

Yuuri can practically hear Mari's teeth grinding, her grip on the plastic handle of the broom creaking faintly as she tries desperately to keep her anger reigned in. Between this and witnessing Amano being his usual self towards Yuriy, Yuuri is sure she's absolutely furious. But she's not the only one, because Yuuri can see the tension in the shoulders of his friends new and old, and the already-thin line of Victor's mouth presses thinner as he watches the exchange.

The main door opens with a groan and a hiss of old wood on old wood. Yuuri sees Amano jolt briefly before shooting another dark look at Yuuri and turning towards the sound with a high head that gives away none of his previous attitude. Crossing the threshold is the reason for it, Shirogane filling the open doorway with both his form and his presence as the tension in the room freezes under his stare.

He takes in the room, gold eyes falling on each person visible for a brief moment. Yuuri thinks he sees him linger briefly on Victor and Phichit both, something in his face shifting.

"I see you're busier than usual, Toshiya-san," Shirogane greets instead, inclining his head towards the office as the man addressed peers through the office window with a feeble greeting. "Is this why Amano was taking his time? I was starting to lose patience."

"Please pardon my disrespect, sir," Amano says, bowing his head low. Even so, his deference doesn't hide the sneer in his voice as he continues, prim, "These foreigners are stupid and don't understand basic orders. If you will, make use of Yuuri-kun and his junior while I set them right."

Minami startles with a squawk at that as Yuuri bristles, raw panic lancing through him at the thought of leaving his friends to Amano's brand of lecturing. Before either of them can actively object, though, something odd happens.

Shirogane laughs.

"Oh, don't be so stiff, Gakuo," Shirogane says blithely. Amano blinks in disbelief at the casual use of his given name. "Let tourists be tourists. Even Yuuri-kun's new Vicchan deserves to go off-lead every now and then. Don't you agree, Yuuri-kun?"

Yuuri sputters, not expecting that to come out of anyone's mouth, let alone Shirogane's. Most of the others are lost, not understanding the conversation being held over them, but unfortunately Victor isn't one of them. He blinks at the reference, stunned and bewildered, before his face resettles into something more media-worthy with a sharper edge.

"I imagine being his coach would be difficult otherwise," Victor answers airily, voice falling into the smooth roll he's known for. Yuuri winces and sends him an apologetic look, but Victor's eyes stay firm and locked on Shirogane. "It's odd, though, that I'm only meeting such a formative figure in Yuuri's career now. Is he not important enough to set aside some time for properly, rather than monopolizing it all at one competition?"

Someone hisses Victor's name. Yuuri blinks, fingers pressing to this throat, but it's Chris with the pinched brows and hair almost visibly standing on end. Even then, warned by someone else, Victor does not back down.

Shirogane considers Victor, giving him a proper once-over before the corner of his mouth quirks slightly in an uptick, his lax shoulders rolling into a wider stance.

"So this one speaks," Shirogane drawls to Yuuri with a note of dry amusement. He then tells Victor in the same tone, in indulgent English, "I have a business to run, you know. Even I can't just drop everything I've worked for because Yuuri-kun gives me a sad look."

Yuriy makes a strangled noise akin to a swallowed snort. Victor's eyes ice over, lips pressing thinner.

"Shirogane-san," comes from the office, and Yuuri's eyes track to the nervous smile and wringing hands of his father. "Surely you're tired, aren't you? Why don't we get you settled into your room, and you and Victor can discuss business properly later, hm?"

Shirogane's mild humor doesn't change. "So we will."

Yuuri has no idea why that simple phrase makes him so uneasy.

 

* * *

 

"Wow. So that's why Ciao-Ciao hates that guy so much."

"Phichit, please. Not now. And be careful with your phone, he might get it taken away!"

Phichit gives him a disbelieving look. "Yuuri, it doesn't matter how good that lawyer thinks he is. He is nowhere near good enough to get my phone confiscated."

Yuuri's come to accept over the years that Phichit has made it his life's goal to document everything he comes across. It's as much a part of him as his fondness for fairytale romances and those habitat-decorating videos he swears he's going to do for his own hamsters someday.

For that reason alone, Amano's generally left Yuuri alone at international competitions where Phichit is present. Phichit's gregarious nature and minor addition to social media means that not only does Phichit have feelers out everywhere, but he can, will, and often does post things that tend to go viral pretty quickly. That in combination with the fact Phichit shares that small fraction of his mother's diplomatic immunity wherever he stays? Even Amano's not so full of himself as to think his usual methods are worth the risk.

Yuuri's sure that's why Amano's sticking with more generalized insults this time, knowing Phichit's here. He does not want to know what Amano's reaction is going to be when he finds out that Phichit's flight is early tomorrow morning. Hopefully, he and Shirogane are only staying for the night as they pass through, as they sometimes do when Shirogane's making his rounds across the country to the different GIL Tech labs.

As it is, Leo is the one who continues Phichit's initial remark first as they help Phichit pack up his things, trying to finagle in the souvenirs he'd bought for his family and Celestino.

"Is he always like that, though?" Leo asks, eyebrows knitted together. "I mean, he acted like it was somehow your fault he was picking fights with Yuriy and Chris."

"And the way he spoke to Victor was so disrespectful," Guanghong mutters. "Even if he weren't a coach now, who talks like that to someone they just met?"

Phichit makes a face. "Ooh, you should've seen how mad Celestino got after dealing with him. There've been rants about how it isn't up to some nosy lawyer to decide how hard Yuuri needs to work and that he's not a sub-par coach for making Yuuri take rest days."

Yuuri tugs at the zipper for the side-pocket of Phichit's luggage a little too harshly. He really should've known that Phichit would share his own experiences, even if they are second-hand. At least Minami is out of here, having pulled Yuriy into town in an attempt to keep his fellow, if younger teenager from actually trying to punch Amano while Yuuri's family does their usual routine of settling Shirogane in for his stay. That being said, though...

"So I heard," Victor says, tone still brisk. The tension hasn't left his shoulders or face since they all shuffled into the guest area to give Yuuri's family space to work; if anything, he seems tenser than before.

Chris sighs, head falling back against the wall. "You were warned, Victor. Celestino told you to look out for him, and I'm sure at least Minako told you the same. I certainly did, as did that ice dancer back at Worlds last year. Miyauchi, I think?"

Yuuri pauses, blinking as he looks up and sees the annoyance flicker across Victor's face and the wry sympathy over Chris'. "Wait, Miyauchi said something to you guys? Why?"

A brief pause, then Chris sighs, "Oh, Yuuri. Did you think Victor never even tried to look for you after you so brazenly ran off with his heart? He was asking around while we were in Tokyo last March and your ice dancer friend got a very peculiar sort of defensive over it."

Phichit tilts his head as he looks up. "You mean the guy who got all worked up and accidentally broke his water bottle, so his coach had to get him a new one?"

Chris snaps his fingers. "That's the one! Cute, but I like them a little less excitable."

That... definitely sounds like Miyauchi. How embarrassing.

Okay, but even with that acknowledged: why? Miyauchi is brash and has next to no filter, true, but for him to make any kind of scene like that so close to Amano and Shirogane? What if he'd been overheard? What if that's why Amano's been so withdrawn this year, waiting to see if he can get away with the same tactics he'd used with Celestino on Victor?!

Instead, though, Victor says, "What Tasuke Miyauchi told me was to not get too close to Yuuri unless I was sure of him. I assumed it was because of his big-brother attitude, not the fact Yuuri has a grown man using his position as a liaison to treat him lower than dirt. If anyone warned me about that, it was Mari, and even she clearly understated it."

"It wasn't that bad," Yuuri grumbles, but that seems to upset Victor as well as the rest of the room more.

"He called you spineless!" Phichit balks, bristling nearly as sharply as Yuriy had earlier.

"He was talking down on you the whole time, even before you came in!" Guanghong adds with the same tone.

"And he acted like you stepping in to defend Yuriy was you being arrogant," Leo says, face scrunched irritably.

"He called you a brat, more than once if I understood some of that correctly," Chris chimes in.

"Speaking to you like a disobedient child in front of your family and friends isn't that bad?" Victor spits out, some of his anger finally leaking through his mask. "How much worse is he usually, then?"

Flabbergasted at their vehemence, Yuuri stares at them with wide eyes. He's speechless, honestly. Sure, none of his other sponsors and their representatives talk to him the way Amano does, but it's not like Yuuri doesn't know why he's treated the way he is. And Phichit knows why, too, even if the others don't. Doesn't he?

"Yuuri Katsuki," Georgiy finally says, and Yuuri looks to see him with a tormented, guilty look on his face. "I feel I must apologize. Had I not been so intent on opening the gates of Hell last night, perhaps these other demons would not have made an apperance."

Yuuri tries not to let his reaction to the reference show on his face. "It's... not really your fault. They would've come whether you were drinking or not."

"Even so," Georgiy sighs. "To mess with such dark magic was foolish."

Chris blinks. "It was just liquor, though?"

A knock on the doorframe draws his attention away, and he turns to see Minako with a sharp look in her eyes. She must've heard what happened from Mari, because as far as Yuuri knows his parents have stopped trying to talk to her about Shirogane after years of Minako stubbornly standing between the man and his odd interest in taking Yuuri under his wing.

"Yuuri," she says curtly. "Shirogane wants to talk to you and Victor over tea. Apparently he brought Castella cake with him from Nagasaki and is having your mother serve it."

"Oh." Yuuri hadn't expected Shirogane to call them in so quickly. He figured Shirogane would wait another few hours after he soaked and settled in, bring it up again later in the evening once the alcohol started pouring. "We'll be there shortly."

Victor raises a brow, arms folded over his chest with a stern expression on his face. "Or we could make him wait a little longer."

"Is that wise, Victor?" Chris asks, a wariness creeping into his voice. "I know you're annoyed at how he treated you, but in your position being contrary is not really an option."

"I don't feel particularly inclined to be in a room with a man who tried to shame a sixteen-year-old boy into groveling at his feet over a bottle of spilt milk," Victor spits. Yuuri, startled, whips his head towards Victor with wide eyes. "Nor do I want Yuuri anywhere near someone with a temper like that, especially since this behavior isn't even out of the ordinary."

"That's what happened before I came in?" he asks, something burning in his chest. Wow, no wonder Yuriy needed to be physically dragged out. With how defensive the boy usually is with adults, having one try and humiliate him publicly like that? He'd be out for blood if he stayed.

Guanghong's face sours. "Oh, yeah. It was the whole kowtow he was demanding, too, and I'm pretty sure that guy didn't care that the glass was still there."

"I definitely don't want to be around him, that's for sure," Leo grouses, face equally sour.

Phichit gives Yuuri a look and gestures towards them, eyebrows rising up into his hairline. Yuuri makes a face back, not willing to debate this subject in front of others.

Minako sighs and leans against the doorframe, mouth pursed. "Chris is right, Victor. You don't say no to Shirogane. He's the only thing that keeps Amano in check, and from the sound of things you've already seen what Amano is like when he's in a mood."

Victor's face hardens again. "So not only is this normal, it's expected? You've just let Yuuri deal with this on his own all these years?"

"I hate the assholes too, but they go harder on Yuuri if you try to interfere," Minako says, face grave. "Or do you seriously think that Amano would get away with his attitude if Shirogane actually cared as much about Yuuri as he claims? Because that man is shit at hiding how much he despises Yuuri over something he doesn't even want."

"Minako-sensei, that's enough!" Yuuri pleads. When she huffs and tosses her head to the side in surrender, he then turns to a more reluctant Victor still scowling at the information he's just been given. "Victor, please. Let's just go and get it over with, okay?"

Yuuri watches as Victor, jaw grinding tight, forces himself into his media persona: pleasant but distant, blue eyes bright and cold, the smile on his face sharpened. It breaks his heart to see Victor like this after coming to know his genuine personality but after how Shirogane spoke to Victor, Yuuri can't blame him for wanting the security of it given the similarities to how Victor was treated by the old guard of the skating world.

"Fine," Victor says finally, voice and features giving away nothing that simmers below. "Let's see how well he handles someone who knows how to play his game."

Chapter Text

The tea set is the beautiful ceramic work from Old Granny Hisako, glazed a soft earthy-gray and painted to create misted silhouettes of wisteria blooms. Hiroko pours the four of them -- Yuuri, Victor, Amano, and Shirogane -- the oolong they receive from Sumie and her family's teahouse, the silky creaminess and gentle smokiness of the tea cutting into the sugar of the warmed Castella cake, cut into individual servings and laid out onto an equally beautiful plate. It seems nice, almost, if you ignored the heavy tension filling the small banquet room tucked away from the rest of the onsen, nothing like the space upstairs that Victor's long since claimed as his.

And then Hiroko sets down the small glass jar of homemade strawberry jam next to Victor, and Amano's lip curls up into a sneer.

"How appropriate that Yuuri-kun's foreign coach has the tastes of a child," Amano huffs. "Pitiful."

Yuuri bristles, mouth thinning as he bites his cheek to avoid scowling too deep at Amano. He knows better, but hearing anyone insult Victor is still an exercise in restraint.

"Is it?" Victor asks, tone cloying and breezy. "You must forgive me. I am used to how we do things in Russia, and Mama Hiroko has been so kind to me even if she finds my habits strange at times."

Amano glares at Victor, clearly expecting him to react differently. Hiroko titters and pats Victor's shoulder with a weak but grateful smile that Yuuri can't find it in him to look too much into.

"Hiroko-san," Shirogane interrupts blithely. She startles a little, then turns to him. "Tend to your other guests. I will call you if we are in need of refreshment."

Hiroko nods, then bows at the waist at a respectful depth. "Yes, Shirogane-san. Please make use of us and relax to your heart's content."

"I always do," Shirogane tells her, then waves her off. As she leaves, serving tray tucked in her arms with the door sliding shut behind her, Shirogane speaks again. "Now, please enjoy my treat. We can properly discuss business matters once we are all settled."

Victor doesn't touch his plate. "I would rather not spoil such a treat by talking business over it. Let's get it out of the way now and leave the sweets for after, hm?"

Amano makes a noise, face going red, but Shirogane raises a hand to stop him from lashing out.

"The pushy type, are we?" Shirogane asks, low and smooth. "My, Yuuri-kun. Is he like this with you, too?"

Yuuri looks down at his empty plate and tea cup. He knows better than to grab a serving now; he's the youngest in the room, and the one with the least amount of prestige. He can't touch anything until either Shirogane has started or he's given permission.

"People in Russia are very straightforward," Yuuri answers. "Victor spoils me sometimes, but he's always equally honest."

"So say many in your position," drawls Amano. "An empty excuse."

"Amano," Shirogane says as Yuuri's face darkens at the implication in Amano's words, his fists clenching on his knees below the table. "Indulge our Yuuri-kun and his foreign coach for a little bit, will you? He will learn, as everyone does."

Victor gives away no indication of how much he understands, but even Yuuri can hear the condensation from earlier in Shirogane's words.

"I feel as if I must echo your concern, Chairman Shirogane," Victor says blithely. "This is the third time your attorney here has talked about bodily harm towards others in little under an hour. You shouldn't overwork him."

Shirogane's face levels, golden eyes locking onto Victor's glacier-blue. Yuuri tries not to fidget, if only not to draw a steaming Amano's ire.

"You seem fixated on something," Shirogane says, echoing Victor's tone. "If you're as straightforward as our Yuuri-kun claims, then you should say it. It will be simpler."

Something in Victor's eyes flashes, but his expression gives away nothing. As if Yuuri wasn't worried enough, given Victor's penchant for mischief and how protective he can be towards Yuuri.

"Funny you should say that," Victor starts. "You see, though I am admittedly more of a direct person, sometimes I like to tell a story to emphasize a point. Do you care to indulge me in that little whim of mine?"

Shirogane's face doesn't change, though there's a faint arch of his brow. "What could there be to say that can't be said simply? Either you are what I've said, or you are not."

Victor shrugs. "My own coach often calls me contrary for the sake of being contrary. I like to prove him right every now and then."

Distractedly, Yuuri wonders how Yakov's going to take this when he hears about it. No doubt either Yuriy or Georgiy will bring it up once they get back to Saint-Petersburg, because Victor is so notoriously closed-mouth about his personal problems and he's been particularly proud when it comes to his coaching Yuuri. Somehow, despite Yakov's insistence that he's not around to wipe their faces (or, uh, asses as he sometimes snaps when he's particularly in a mood) for them, Yuuri gets the feeling Yakov will have his own words about this mess.

There's another moment of silent scrutiny before Shirogane's mouth quirks and he steeples his fingers together around his tea cup. "Go on, then. Entertain us."

Yuuri bites his cheek again to still his tongue. Under the table, Victor's fingers find Yuuri's knee and brush along it, and Yuuri lets a long breath leave him.

"How very generous of you," Victor croons, voice crisp and sweet and with an obvious bite. Shirogane's eyes narrow slightly, the curve of his mouth falling back down.

"Get on with it!" Amano snaps. "If you're going to be as useless as the last one, then get out and leave business to those of us who actually matter!"

"Then that means you should be the one to leave, don't you think?" Yuuri hears himself deadpan. His heart nearly stops as it catches up to him, and the glare Amano shoots at him freezes him in place.

"Oh, that won't be necessary, Yuuri," Victor says, turning his cool smile towards Amano. "I have the feeling he's going to like this story!"

Amano squints at him, suspicious. Yuuri blinks, brow furrowing in concern at the confidence radiating off Victor. What in the world is he planning?

With a flick of his wrist, Victor continues blithely, "Now, neither of you seem aware of this, but the start of my career wasn't too different from Yuuri's. A humble beginning, some unexpected fortune because someone else saw my potential, and then opportunity after opportunity to become exactly what that person saw in me. There's just one little difference between my story and Yuuri's, though. Do you know what that is?"

Amano's mouth purses, gearing up for possibly one of his usual comments, but Victor doesn't give the man the chance.

"That person was my coach," he says, smile cold as he stares pointedly at Shirogane. "Not my sponsor. And everything he did for me professionally was through approval of my country's federation. No matter how attached he got, he always kept a very hard line he refused to cross in place. It's that very line I'm implementing now: since your contract with Yuuri is that of a private sponsorship, and therefore has less regulation than a brand sponsorship, I would strongly advise you to void it as of today. If you want to keep it, we have our own legal team in Saint-Petersburg who would gladly negotiate terms with you."

Yuuri is glad no one's started drinking yet, because he would've spat out his tea at that.

His own mortified cry is drowned out by Amano slamming his hands on the table and pushing himself to a half-stand, viscerally snarling. "Listen, you worthless foreign mongrel! You have no right to be making any sort of demand of Chairman Shirogane! You should be grateful you're allowed even half the privileges you've been given!"

Victor, completely guileless, only tilts his head up at Amano with the Media Smile Yuuri remembers him wearing so often his first month in Hasetsu, back when things were awkward and tense between them.

"What's wrong?" he asks, then glances back towards a stone-faced Shirogane. The look on Victor's face is nothing short of angelic. "This is standard when it comes to private sponsorships, especially when the beneficiary isn't related to you in any way. It protects your assets, since you gain nothing from Yuuri's skating like you do with those who wear your company's branding. Wouldn't a man as successful as you've been prefer that?"

"You have no power here--!"

"You're going to have to speak more clearly," Victor tells Amano, the angelic look getting even more exaggerated with a doe-eyed blink. "I'm just a stupid foreigner, after all."

Yuuri's actually a little concerned at the shade of red Amano's turning; he's starting to veer into purple, and he doesn't think that's good.

Shirogane watches the exchange, golden eyes narrowed in scrutiny. Yuuri doesn't know what could possibly be going through his head. Even so, Yuuri is still caught off-guard by Shirogane's sudden scoff interrupting the stand-off, his shoulders straightening and his brow raised at Victor.

"You certainly have a mouth on you," Shirogane drawls. "But I like your confidence. It's refreshing."

He reaches forward for his tea cup, still steaming faintly but nowhere near as hot as it should be. Even as Amano and Yuuri gawk, unsure of what to expect, his demeanor doesn't change and they watch as he sips his tea before setting the cup back down.

"Well then," Shirogane says, smiling thin at a now stern-looking Victor. "Let's see what kind of plan you have, hm?"

 

* * *

 

Despite the quiet and the sunset starting to smear warm colors across the horizon, Ice Castle Hasetsu still has remnants of the day's activities. The Nishigori elders sweep up the floors and stands, their son and his wife carefully going through the numbers from sales to send off to Victor later in the evening, the triplets giggling and laughing amongst themselves as they go through their pictures and videos to see what's worth posting about the event.

The only thing to break the quiet is the muted bickering in the rink, occupied by a pair of blond teenagers. They're left alone, though, to the knowing smiles of the owners; Yuuko knows Yuriy, as riled up as he is, still won't do more than a stubborn stomp with rented skates, and Minami is too nervous to risk anything either. Why neither had their actual skates with them when they came in an hour ago, Yuuko and her family have no idea, but the boys looked lost as they tried to pretend it was intentional that they came here after what seems to be a couple of hours at the cat café downtown.

This is how Yuuri finds them, when he and Victor are finally excused from the meeting with Shirogane and they realized neither of the teenagers returned to the onsen. Yuuko greets them as they come in, smiling at first but sobering when she sees the look on Yuuri's face.

"Uh-oh," Nishigori grimaces as he looks over Yuuko's shoulder to see what's got her so grave-looking. "Did Shirogane and the imp actually come back around so soon?"

Yuuri, exhausted as he is, only nods.

"Oh, Yuuri-kun," Yuuko sighs, then presses a curled finger to her lips as she glances back towards the rink doors. "Is that why those two are here, then? I can't imagine the imp behaving himself with Yurio-kun's personality like it is..."

Victor, suspiciously quiet since they'd been excused from Yuutopia, frowns. "So everyone here is familiar with them, then."

"He's spent years trying legally kidnap Yuuri," Nishigori deadpans, folding his arms over his chest. "And a few months ago he tried to bribe Yuuko into having more kids. And that's just Shirogane! I'm not even getting into what that damned imp keeps getting up to!"

"Takeshi!" his mother scolds from the back. Nishigori winces and tries to calm her down from her insistence that he's not to talk like that where the girls can hear.

Yuuri had almost forgotten about that, and he winces at the disbelieving look Victor gives him and a nervous Yuuko. He hadn't told Victor what his and Yuuko's conversation before Worlds was about, but in Yuuri's defense he hadn't really thought it was wise to talk about without Yuuko's permission.

The noise lures out all five of the children in the facility, though the two teenagers seem to be done with their impromptu skating session judging by the skates hanging over their shoulders. Minami yelps at the sight of them, going stiff and wide-eyed until Yuriy knocks him upside the head with his knuckles.

"Quit getting in the way," Yuriy grouses with little heat, and Minami harrumphs and sticks his tongue out at him. Yuriy rolls his eyes and looks past Minami to scowl at Yuuri and Victor. "Is the jackass and his creepy boss still there?"

Nishigori's mother, who doesn't understand English, doesn't seem to notice the annoyed look that crosses her son's face as the triplets gasp and giggle amongst themselves over the swearing.

"Shirogane and Amano are staying the night for their flight to Tokyo in the morning," Yuuri says carefully. Yuriy's glare sharpens and Minami grimaces.

"I'm gonna have to ride back to Fukuoka with them, aren't I?" Minami whines. "I have exams I have to study for! This is so unfair!"

"Demon Magician," Lutz mutters, causing the other two to nod along.

"He knows way too much," Axel says. "It's weird!"

"Does that make Yuuri the Lord in the story?" Loop asks.

"We can always ask Old Man Hiragaki!" Axel insists.

"You are not bothering Priest Hiragaki over a folktale," Yuuko interrupts, giving them a look. "Shirogane-san and Amano are human. Not... necessarily good or kind, but human all the same."

Nishigori mutters something under his breath along the lines of, "The kind of humans that make you lose faith in humanity," but his mother smacks his arm and scolds him more. Neither Yuuri nor Yuuko react, all too familiar to Mama Nishigori's overly fretful fussing.

Yuriy goes a shade of ashen at the mention of Priest Hiragaki, the pleasant old priest from the temple up the mountain path who Victor had him visit last April. He hadn't liked a second of the encounter, and kept bristling and scrambling away the moment Victor would bring it up again. Apparently, the old man scared the living daylights out of him.

("He predicted me meeting Otabek again!" Yuriy defends himself on the issue when pressed later. "In the 'reuniting with a close friend' way! I don't even remember meeting him the first time!")

"It doesn't matter," Yuuri interrupts, drawing attention back to him again. "Minami-kun, I... actually wanted to thank you for deescalating the situation earlier. It made what Victor did after you left less stressful for everyone."

Victor, miffed, crosses his arms. "I don't see how forcing a new contract is a bad thing when he's clearly been taking advantage of the vagueness of the current one."

"I told you, he's been trying to push for adoption ever since he started sponsoring me--"

"You're an adult, Yuuri. You can just say no--"

Yuuri throws his hands in the air. "I've been saying no! He still pushes for it every year at least once! Why do you think Amano hates me so much? I'm a threat to him getting that position!"

"Then the one he needs to be getting mad at is Shirogane, not you." Victor insists, clearly starting to lose patience. "Either way, he's not going to sneak something like that in the new one with our legal team looking it over. The FFKK doesn't allow any company closely tied with the ISU's Medical Commission Board to sponsor athletes due to scandals in the past, especially since most skaters are underage if not actively considered children."

Minami glances between them awkwardly and clears his throat. "U-um, Victor? Yuuri-kun's a Japanese skater. The JSF doesn't have that kind of regulation, a-and not getting sponsored by Shirogane-san is career-suicide?"

Yuuri, grateful that finally someone else can say something about the issue, gestures to Minami with a pointed look at Victor. Victor, definitely annoyed now, huffs as Yuriy looks between everyone with an increasing amount of suspicious bewilderment.

"I didn't say my plan was perfect," he says. "And if his approval is that integral to having a successful career, it just proves my point and Minako's that he's not to be trusted. I don't want to see him walk away from this unscathed and thinking he's won, Yuuri. Not if I can help it."

"Hey, old man," Yuriy interjects, tone deadpan. "Not everyone's been raised by the woman who told half the government to fuck off and let her retire in peace. Just 'cause you've got nothing to lose here--"

"What's the worst he can do?" Victor huffs. "It's an Olympic season. Even the JSF isn't going to let one man ruin their best chance at medaling in Pyeongchang. If he refuses to sponsor Yuuri and prevents him from skating for his homeland, there are at least three different countries willing to snap him up. He tries to ruin Yuuri's reputation, Yuuri's friends across the globe -- one of which is the son of one of Thailand's Ambassadors -- can easily vouch for him. I haven't even touched on Yuuri's fans, because believe me they are a fiercely loyal lot and would be livid if they knew how he's being treated behind the scenes."

Yuuri sighs heavily, much of the fight leaving him. "Victor, Shirogane has never so much as raised his voice at me. Sure, he has... odd requests every now and then, but..."

Victor, too, sighs in defeat. He reaches forward, thumb smearing over the crest of Yuuri's cheek below the rim of his glasses.

"He might not try anything, true," Victor concedes, however reluctantly. "But the gasbag he takes with him? That one can, has, and will continue to do any and everything he can get away with -- and whether you want to admit it or not, Yuuri, Shirogane allows it. As your coach, I can't accept that. I refuse to."

"I'm not the only one--"

"And I will do everything in my power to make sure this gets to the other coaches who have skaters dealing with him," Victor swears, glancing past Yuuri's shoulder to Minami. "But you are my skater, and as such you are my priority. Maybe this isn't how Celestino or Yakov would've done it, but you can't expect me to sit and watch while a grown man treats you like a wayward child in constant need of discipline."

Yuuri wants to tell Victor not to waste his time -- Yuuri's coaches in Juniors had been largely useless in this topic, too wary of losing Shirogane's favor to push Yuuri the way he needed, and even Celestino had gone soft after meeting Amano the first time -- but today has been exhausting in so many ways. He doesn't know exactly what he expected when this inevitable meeting happened, but he can safely say he hadn't expected any of this.

Shirogane's going to consider a new contract for the first time in eleven years. Victor's determined to keep pissing off Amano in every way possible without actually instigating a fight, playing into Amano's prejudices to grate at the man's nerves. With Victor's contacts and connections, they might even be able to help the others out, too.

Maybe it's hoping for too much, but for once Yuuri wants to believe things will turn out all right.

If he walks a little closer to Victor when the four of them finally leave Ice Castle Hasetsu, leaving the Nishigori family alone to their business, and if he pretends he doesn't hear Hasegawa's voice from half a year ago echo in his ear again when he catches sight of Shirogane watching him and Victor huddle together out of the corner of his eye, then that's on him.

In the morning, when Minami forces up a smile and walks behind the adults with a highly suspicious Phichit squinting and smiling thin at Amano while pointedly taking as many pictures and videos as he can, giving Yuuri minute-by-minute updates to ensure that Amano doesn't take out his frustrations from Victor and Yuriy not being scared of him in the slightest, it takes a long time for Yuuri to relax again. Victor calls ahead to Saint-Petersburg so the legal team is ready.

This is, after all, the first time someone's directly challenged Shirogane in years, and no matter how hard he tries Yuuri can't forget just how ruthless he knows Shirogane can be.

 

* * *

 

Tokyo, Japan - June 2017

 

The door to the Chairman's Office had been one of the first things to change with Shirogane's ascension, Aoi remembers. A twenty-five-year-old only working in the company for two years and suddenly he was in charge of all of them, overseeing their projects and payrolls with a muted humor and a sharp eye. Everyone in this administrative area had been replaced, from the security guards to the secretary -- Aoi knows this all too well, remembering how the young punk who'd taken over the company under everyone's noses smiled at Aoi over her grieving wife's shoulder as she cleaned out her desk, and how he assured Aoi that her position in the legal department was safe.

As she steps inside, she remembers the warm, natural wood and light colors the previous chairman had preferred, the way he'd laugh and point out that working with the healthcare system meant working with people, and so it was his duty to be inviting. Now, with Shirogane, things have turned to the modern trend of stark black and metallic accents. Everything is sleek, glass tops over dark-stained wood and treated black leather. It's the office of a wealthy businessman who likes to showcase his work, a display of power that knows how to shift with the times.

It's everything that Chairman Araki would have hated.

Shirogane sits at his desk, watching as Aoi steps forward with the paperwork in her arms. The dossier is heavy with the notes of a whole team of scientists and doctors, imaging and test results and observations. Perhaps there are fragments of humanity stuck between the pages, as well; it certainly feels that way as she sets it down and the paperclip taps against the glass louder than expected.

"Everything is on schedule," she announces, words short. She doesn't want to spend more time in here than she has to. "As expected, the second phase will end in February of next year."

Shirogane blows a huff through his nose that might be amused as he pulls the dossier towards him and flips it open. "So right around the Olympics. How wonderfully timed."

Aoi swallows down the nausea that knots itself in her stomach. Of course he'd think that would be wonderfully timed. "Chairman, is this really necessary? There are other, more capable candidates--"

"Like Reiko-san?" Shirogane interrupts, tone going cool and sharp. Aoi immediately bites her tongue. "Oh, Enma. Surely you know better than I do why that's impossible. Don't you? That's why my dear uncle had this whole project hidden away for you two. I, however, know better than to play favorites."

Aoi draws in a breath. "Chairman Araki's... untimely passing was hard on her. You know that, Hidehiko-kun--"

"That's Chairman Shirogane to you, Enma." The pen between Shirogane's fingers clanks hard against the glass top of the desk. "Your wife knows her place, and so should you by now. Am I understood?"

"...Yes. sir. I humbly apologize."

As she bows, hair falling from its place tucked behind her ear, she notices another file on Shirogane's desk. For the life of her, she can't figure out what it could be.

Shirogane tuts. "Ah, enough of that. A woman older than me shouldn't be making that face." Not wanting to push her luck, Aoi straightens up, and he continues. "Isn't this better in the end? If this proves successful, then all of your dear Reiko's heartbreak will have purpose at last. Don't you want that? If not for me, then for Yuuri-kun?"

A spark of indignation flares in Aoi's chest. "Yuuri-kun isn't even married. For that matter, neither are you. The laws are strict in this--"

"Amano is handling it, don't you worry." As he waves off her comments, he pushes forward the smaller file. "Here's what I called you in for. Make use of this properly, will you?"

Aoi bites her lip as she accepts the file and flips through it. Her brow furrows at the foreign names, the only one immediately recognizable to her Katsuki Yuuri's. She realizes quickly, though, what a major concern with this is. "Chairman Shirogane, GIL Tech is a blacklisted corporation by the Russian sports and culture federations. What are you trying to do?"

Shirogane, unbelievably, huffs a laugh.

"Yuuri-kun's new Vicchan is surprisingly cute," he says, that quirk of a half-smile he always wears twitching up. "He thinks he's outsmarted me with this, when instead he's basically handed me everything we need on a silver platter. That's why I need you on it, Enma. You know how worked up Amano gets over being sassed."

With that, Aoi is dismissed and she leaves as quickly as she entered.

It's only once she's out of sight and earshot that Aoi stops and looks at the contract in her hands, remembering a night twelve years ago with an increasingly nervous Katsuki Toshiya starting to guard his cup from refills, the subtle pushes for the man to cave, the weight of the plan to discredit his memory if he tried to fight back later heavy on her shoulders.

Her wife had been furious when she learned what was supposed to happen that night, especially considering how they first started dating. Chairman Araki would have never resorted to such underhanded tactics. But then again, he would have never chosen his nephew as his heir willingly. Not when he'd already had Reiko, who he treated like the daughter he never had and who adored him as a father-figure in turn.

Aoi sighs, heart heavy, and closes her eyes.

"Forgive me, Reiko," she says to the quiet of the halls. "This is the only way to make things right."

Chapter Text

Saint-Petersburg -- Late Summer 2017

 

Things Yuuri was expecting out of this whole mess: mysteriously lost paperwork, deadlines being suddenly sprung on them out of nowhere and interrupting their training and daily lives. More of Amano's special brand of harassment when he can't physically be around to intimidate people.

Things Yuuri was not expecting: Victor's parents huffing and rolling up their sleeves, Elena's sweet face going sharp and Anatoliy's soft temperament going stony, and the two of them tearing apart the first draft of the contract sent to Victor's inbox in English and Yuuri's in Japanese.

Elena hums as she swipes through the PDF file pages, lips covered by her wrist as she leans onto her arm for support while she reads. On either side of her are Anatoliy and Yakov, who have their own copies as Yakov gives his own input with a tight furrow in his brow and Anatoliy jots down their comments. Their coffee mugs have been mostly forgotten, half-full still and cold.

Yuuri fidgets in place, trying desperately to ignore both the roiling in his gut and the chill that keeps seeping into his spine. Victor sits next to him, back straight and expression unreadable. The only real comfort here is that the dogs -- both Maccachin and Elena's equally friendly Iriska -- have both sensed the uncomfortable mood of the room and lean against Yuuri's knees below the table, occasionally huffing out sighs and nudging Yuuri's fingers for scratching them instead of his pants.

"Katsuki," Yakov says to him finally, and Yuuri nearly jolts out of his skin. "If this was presented to me, I can guarantee I'd have never allowed it to happen in the first place. How the hell did Celestino miss this when he took you on?"

"Celestino isn't where it started, for one," Victor answers while Yuuri tries to swallow down the guilt thick in his throat. "Even you would fall for the simplicity of an old family friend helping out, I would think."

Anatoliy clears his throat. "He isn't wrong, Yasha. Presented like that, it doesn't sound all that suspicious even to me."

"And by the time he got to see what Yuka was dealing with, he'd be too attached to just drop him while knowing he'd been made helpless to do much but control the damage being done," Elena huffs. "Bear in mind that our Vitya had lived with Yuka and his family for nearly nine months and didn't see either of them until now despite the fact he's apparently close to them. That's likely the reason he knew to be wary of them even without being properly warned."

Victor sighs. "I was warned about the attorney -- several times over, in fact. Celestino pulled me aside as far back as Sochi to thank me for looking out for Yuuri while he'd been out, then again in Beijing when he finally explained his reasons for it. Even in Hasetsu there were a few comments here and there, but nothing really prepared me for the intensity of it."

"To be fair," Yuuri mutters, frowning down at the table, "he hasn't been that bad until recently?"

"Yuka," Elena sighs. "Are you really saying 'not that bad' in defense of a man who was apparently harassing you and another skater over the phone for a week prior to his lashing out at a teenager for accidentally spilling a little milk on his clothes?"

"And has been harassing you at competitions for a minimum of five years, to the point your coach felt the need to take his own precautions whenever he overheard security talking about people trying to sneak in?" Yakov adds, gruff. "Again, I would have dropped this sponsor immediately, damn the consequences."

"I'm not defending him!" Yuuri denies immediately, irritation now burning in place of the guilt as he snaps his head up. "I mean, he's always been a jerk to me since I was a kid, but he's only been this bad since I embarrassed myself and Japan as a whole at Sochi! If I had been in better control of myself--!"

A hand rests between Yuuri's shoulder blades, equal parts gentle and grounding. "People generally perform better when they aren't stressed," Victor says, low and firm. "You were very stressed and in the worst mindset for a competition possible. Fear for your well-being should not have been added to that the way he has been doing to you."

Yuuri, knocked a bit off-kilter from that, turns to him warily. "So you agree with Coach Yakov, then?"

"I'm aware your situation is far too complicated to simply cut ties and be done with it," Victor says instead, which definitely means he agrees. "But after seeing this? I stand by what I said. Chairman Shirogane is letting it happen, not because he can't control his attorney but for the exact opposite reason: it allows him to show that he can."

Anatoliy makes a noise. "How long have you suspected this?"

The look on Victor's face is somehow both serious and sheepish. "Since December? Several things stood out to me as odd, though I couldn't figure out why."

"Because your grandmother would be out for blood if anyone tried to take advantage of you," Anatoliy sighs, almost sounding fond despite the exasperation in his voice.

"She would've been out for mine, if I allowed it," Yakov grouses.

After meeting the infamous Nadezhda Nikiforova, Yuuri can definitely see that. She is... not a woman Yuuri would cross if he could help it. One of the few people to collectively tell her own country's government to "fuck off", as Yuriy so eloquently puts it, and not be put on a watchlist is a degree of powerful that only a rare few succeed in obtaining. It's... a bit weird, that she seems like she genuinely enjoys Yuuri's moments of deadpan sass.

Elena clears her throat, tapping the plastic of her tablet's casing. "Speaking of this sponsor in particular, there's something I would like to know more of in case it's just a cultural difference."

Yuuri blinks and turns his attention back to her.

"There's this bit tucked away in here referred to as a 'line of succession' clause," she points out, pursing her lips as she reactivates her screen. "Page three, line 22: 'As previously agreed upon, should some catastrophic event occur that would incapacitate and prevent the sponsor from continuing their duties, one of the following shall succeed and inherit the GIL Technologies name: Katsuki Yuuri firstly; then any surviving children, current or future, of the sponsor.' It seems... strange to have something like that in the middle of a sponsorship contract."

Victor, taking an ill-timed sip of coffee, chokes and slaps his mug back down to the table with a hacking cough. Yuuri gawks, unsure of which to address first.

"He managed to get that in there again?" Yuuri ends up saying, reaching over to help Victor with a clap between his shoulders. "Look, no one ever agreed to me inheriting his company or his position. He doesn't have kids but he's fond of me for some reason, so he's been trying to make me his heir for years. The problem is that in order for that to work, he needs to adopt me. Japanese law is... very strict about what defines family because we use a family registry system. Blood ties matter, but many courts tend to consider the registry their decision maker."

"I'm starting to think Takeshi was onto something with that 'legal kidnapping' comment of his," Victor wheezes out. "Where did he get the idea we wouldn't notice that?"

"The fact Yuka's barely even shocked by this tells me that he's done this many times," Anatoliy says, grimacing. "He might have been anticipating us focusing more on his company, given it would be an automatic rejection by FFKK standards. This, though... This is far more concerning, in my eyes."

"What I don't like is the implication that if you sign this as-is, you're agreeing to some imaginary previous contract that has nothing to do with this," Yakov says darkly. "Katsuki, this is the same man who just comes into your home whenever he wants? Why do you let him do that?!"

"We run the last traditional hot springs resort in my hometown," Yuuri whines, flushing. "It's not that strange! It's a business!"

"And I am one of the best figure skating coaches in Russia, do you see me taking students because I feel like it?" Yakov scoffs, "No! They earn my help. Even Vitya had to prove he was worth the effort!"

"We all know I'm your favorite," Victor chimes in.

"What you are is a pain in my ass, and don't you forget it!"

Elena shakes her head at them, pressing her lips together to keep in the mirth flickering in her eyes. Even Anatoliy's sigh and shaking head is fond despite the worry lines in his face. Yuuri often wonders how they feel about him, knowing that Victor had not stayed nearly in contact enough with his clearly loving parents because he was so caught up in everything bright and new to him a world away. He sips at his coffee, annoyingly lukewarm but not willing to waste it.

"Besides, Yasha," he hears Anatoliy say as the man turns back to his tablet. "It is not as if Yuka's family can run background checks on every client, and even if they could someone like this probably has a cleaner record than you'd imagine. The worse a person is, the better they know how to avoid being caught, after all."

One of these days, Yuuri will learn to not handle anything while having these talks. Today is not that day.

Sputtering, Yuuri struggles to swallow down the sudden and oversized gulp he'd taken, heart racing as it hits him that these people, who know Victor and Russia's laws so well, have no idea what Shirogane's reputation is. Yuuri's coaches in Juniors had all known and were appropriately compliant, wary of the man but eyeing his money. Celestino having no background with Shirogane had changed things up considerably, with Yuuri being properly challenged for the first time in what felt like forever, but even that came to an end once he met Shirogane and Amano at All-Japan and started being more cautious in his treatment of Yuuri off-ice. Victor, with his penchant for being contrary and charming, has been the only coach so far who hasn't started treating Yuuri like something delicate afterwards.

And now that Yuuri's realized this, he's terrified that admitting to Shirogane's biggest brush with the law will do what Amano and his foul temper hadn't.

Victor notices Yuuri's shift of mood -- of course he does, because Victor has made a point since last October to pay more attention to Yuuri's cues -- and his brow furrows, his thumb rubbing circles over Yuuri's nape. "Are you all right?"

"M'fine!" Yuuri squeaks out, and forces a weak cough not unlike the one Victor made only a few minutes ago. "Just got a bit too much at once!"

For a brief moment it seems like Victor doesn't believe him, but Victor sighs and gives Yuuri's far shoulder a squeeze before letting his hand drop. There's another dog chin on his thigh, whining faintly, but at this angle it's hard to tell which of the two poodles it is; he assumes it's Maccachin, if only because he's had to listen to Maccachin's snoring in his ear for the past year and a half and he'd like to think he recognizes his dog's voice by now.

"And how are we going to keep that attorney away?" Victor asks as he turns his attention back to his parents and Yakov. "Needless to say, I don't agree with this whole 'kicking me out of the hotel room so Shirogane can talk to Yuuri alone for an hour' business he's listed as an alternative."

"That is also something I consider very concerning, actually," Anatoliy agrees with a muttered tone.

"It fits in uncomfortably well with the clause about how he retains the right of judgement for whether or not Yuka is being neglected, and if he thinks it is happening he can take action to right things without interference," Elena adds. "For someone who tends to pick softer coaches for his clear favorite, he is being very harsh on them. I think a safer bet is enforcing your contract with Yuka first before agreeing to anything here, Vityen'ka. A coaching contract holds more sway than a sponsorship."

Yuuri blinks. Victor suddenly shows a distinct interest in his coffee. The air going quiet, the three older adults stop and stare at them, growing more and more suspicious and pained.

"Please say you did not forget to write up a contract after all the trouble you caused suddenly up and leaving for Japan last year," Yakov grinds out, narrowing his eyes at Victor with the vein in his temple starting to swell. "If you went and did all of that with no proof, Victor, I swear to God--!"

"Of course I did!" Victor chirps finally, the smile on his face clearly forced. "I even had it notarized! Remember that, Yuuri?"

"Victor," Yuuri sighs, exhausted but fond all the same, "it's two pieces of stationery you slapped together when Minako-sensei got on your case about it after Yurio went back home. I still don't know how I'm supposed to pay you, or how you managed to convince that notary to stamp it in the first place!"

"A notarized contract is still a contract, even if it's handwritten."

The tension in Elena's shoulders loosens just slightly, but Anatoliy and Yakov still don't seem convinced. "So other than your refusal to take Yuka's money, you have solid proof that you have an obligation to look out for his career. And we can get a copy of this contract, if not the original you both signed?"

"That is possible, yes," Victor says, nodding slow. Yakov starts to grind his jaw. "It is perfectly usable as a legal form."

"Vitya," Yakov interrupts, scowling. "Stop talking. You are embarrassing yourself with how much you're hedging."

"Vityen'ka," Anatoliy sighs, looking every bit an exasperated father. "Please, for your own good, fix it up before you try using it to defend yourself against this man. And include a pay stub, even if it's not the most romantic thing in the world?"

Victor huffs, a bit put-out, but he complies.

 

* * *

 

"I know Erika and Yuki say this guy needs a hobby, but this is way past that."

Mila, of course, means the twenty-seven unanswered calls from Amano that Yuuri hadn't gotten to hiding in a spam folder yet. It's been a long week, okay? He has better things to do between traveling and contract wrangling.

Shaking her head and scrunching her nose, she swipes her finger up and down Yuuri's phone screen. This is the last time Yuuri lets people borrow his phone to look something up quickly. "Ugh. I'm glad Sara and I opted out for the beach instead. No wonder Yuriy's been so angry since you guys came back!"

Yuuri shrugs and tries to keep in the yawn as she tucks his phone back into his bag, tears budding at the corner of his eyes. That, too, doesn't go unnoticed, and Mila clicks her tongue and grabs Yuuri's wrist from the other side of the boards before physically dragging him along.

That startles him, and he jolts before trying to forcibly stop himself on the ice.

"Don't even try it!" Mila sings at him, glancing over her shoulder with a sharp grin. "Seeing as you could borrow my pants just fine, I have a good feeling you weigh about as much as I do and I can definitely lift that!"

"Why do you even still remember that?" Yuuri gripes.

"It's a little hard to forget Yuriy's yelling at Victor over why you had to."

...Okay, that's fair.

Victor's been pulled away by the Novices, all of them eagerly seeking his approval of what they'll be showcasing in various ice shows and minor competitions over the course of the season. It's clear that's the direction Mila's dragging Yuuri because she pulls him along the edge of the rink to the other half, towards the sounds of the children clamoring for attention and their beleaguered coach's attempts to keep some sense of order to the demonstrations.

The one up at the moment is Petro, one of the older Novices. The others cheer him on from their place on the bench and peering over the boards, ignoring the way he stiffens and shakes at the encouragement. Obviously his friends Misha and Sonya are the loudest of the group, though both of them quickly get distracted by Yuuri's and Mila's entrance. Sonya barely glances towards Coach Aliona before hopping off the bench and bouncing towards them.

"Mila! Yuuri Katsuki!" she greets brightly, and tries to peer over the boards at Yuuri. "You are in time! Please give Petro some of your magic, or he will fall and embarrass himself in front of Victor!"

"Sonya!" Coach Aliona snaps as the other Novices gasp at her declaration. Petro, from his starting position a few meters away, makes a face and rolls his eyes up, all too familiar with Sonya's weird ideas as to how Yuuri seems more graceful than the average Senior skater.

Victor, for his part, crouches down to Sonya's level with a gravity at complete odds to the humor twinkling in his eyes. "Now, we can't have that happen, can we? Thank you for looking out for your friend."

Sonya preens, and her coach squints at Victor as he pointedly doesn't add any sort of reprimand at the end of his statement. Yuuri doesn't know why Aliona is still holding out for Victor to start turning into Yakov; sure, he's taken notes from Yakov on how to handle a stubborn skater, but surely she should know better by now?

Mila, snickering into her free palm, pulls her hand away enough to ask cheekily, "How is that going to work? It's not going to be fair if it's just Petro, you know!"

Immediately the other Novices start chiming in that they want Yuuri's "magic", too, much to the clear exasperation of their coach. Victor laughs, holding the boards for support as he rights himself and gives Yuuri a look that's equal parts fond and alluring.

"I think I might have an idea," Victor purrs, leaning forward to rest his weight on his folded arms. Yuuri, already flustered from the Novices' demands, blinks at him dumbfoundedly. "What's the strongest magic again?"

"Oh no," comes from Coach Aliona.

"True love!" Sonya answers, bouncing on her toes and eyes sparkling. "True love's kiss!"

Ah. So that's what Coach Aliona's complaining about.

Mila seems to be on the same boat as the Novices and Victor, grinning as she lets go of Yuuri's wrist to clap in time to the chants of "True love's kiss!" someone on the Novice's bench starts. It's probably a good thing Yuriy's on break now. Last thing they need is him getting cranky. Crankier.

Looking down at Victor batting his eyes up at Yuuri, trying hard not to burst into giggling himself over it, Yuuri asks, "Do you really think this will work?"

"It's worth trying either way," Victor answers, and for some reason Yuuri can't help but feel that Victor means more than just boosting the Novices' confidence.

Either way, Yuuri's shoulders soften and he leans forward, meeting Victor halfway in a sweet, lingering kiss that has half the Novices shrieking about grown-up cooties and the other half clapping and cheering. That's what sets them both off, laughing into each other's mouths, noses bumping and eyelashes tickling. He doesn't even think as he cups his fingers around Victor's jaw and pulls him back in, humming in contentment as Victor straightens with a sigh as he melts around Yuuri in an encompassing embrace with the boards still between them.

It occurs to Yuuri then and there that they really haven't been able to relax even thousands of kilometers away from the source of their stress, untouchable in almost every way. Amano's already put himself in hot water by effectively getting himself banned from ever interacting with Yuuri again after the way he lashed out at Yuuri, Yuriy, and Victor during the visit. Shirogane was backed into a corner and forced to renegotiate a contract he's kept solid for twelve years. If things go well for them in the conference call at the end of the week...

Maybe it's a disaster in the making and they're missing the signs for it. But maybe, just maybe, things are going to turn out okay.

 

* * *

 

Ultimately, the terms of Yuuri's new contract are this:

One, and what Yuuri finds most relieving and almost worth the month of back-and-forth stress, is that Amano is no longer Yuuri's primary point of contact. That honor goes to Shirogane's newly-hired secretary, some nervous-looking college girl Shirogane has a weird smile on his face when he explains how he found her. Apparently she's repaying a family debt? Either way, she seems... nice. A bit clumsy and disorganized, but nice.

Two, and a point Victor is still annoyed over, is that Shirogane still has the right to exclude Victor from meetings and conference calls. Shirogane's defense holds strong for this, citing that Shirogane doesn't work with Victor but Yuuri, and so Victor has no place in their discussions even if he is Yuuri's fiancé as well as his coach. That he's allowing Victor to participate at all is generous.

Three, to absolutely no one's surprise, the whole adoption-inheritance clause is immediately vetoed and removed. Again. Yuuri suspects he's going to continue fighting Shirogane on this issue until the man himself keels over at this rate. He's suddenly very glad he never went through with retiring, because this would be a lot worse without having his career to hide behind.

The fourth point, though, is what becomes an unexpected jab right in not just Victor's pride, but also Yuuri's.

Not long after things have finalized, a package comes in the mail with Yuuri's name and the address of the GIL Tech main office in Tokyo as the sender. The doorman seems just as confused as they are when he tells them about it, and though it's barely bigger than a shoebox it still feels strangely light for its size.

"What could he possibly have sent?" Victor asks as they slip through their front door, brow furrowing. "I thought we agreed to maintaining professional boundaries."

"I don't know," Yuuri admits. Maccachin sniffs the package in his hands, tail sticking upright like a flagpole the way Vicchan's used to whenever Shirogane's cologne lingered longer than usual. "He never really sent things like this to me before, not with the company's name."

Victor's lips thin as he locks the door. "Barely two weeks into the new terms and he's already looking for work-arounds?"

"He's not exactly used to people telling him no," Yuuri sighs. Victor mutters something about money and toddlers, but Yuuri opts to ignore it. "Come on, it's probably just more paperwork or something. That is something you have to handle as my coach, you know."

"The cloud and email attachments exist for a reason," Victor huffs, but they make their way to the spare bedroom Victor's long since converted into a study. Maccachin continues to follow closely, shoulder bumping against Yuuri's thigh.

Yuuri can't help but give Maccachin a strange look as the behavior continues all the way to the couch, the normally friendly poodle not taking his eyes off the package for longer than necessary. There can't possibly be anything weird in it, right? It'd have never gotten past customs otherwise! Besides, what's the weirdest thing Shirogane could've sent on the company's time and money?

The tape is cut with a letter opener Victor hands him, and the flaps fold down to reveal foam packaging holding a couple of smaller wrapped boxes in place, as well as two letters. One is the same kind of fine stationery that seems a bit outdated by today's standards but definitely high-quality, and the other clearly has GIL Tech's logo marked on it. Victor gives him a look as he accepts the letter opener back to set aside, one Yuuri also ignores.

He opens the official letter first, worrying at his cheek as he opens up the envelope. It's not much despite the build-up, just a thank-you note following up the contract; other than being in strict, formal Japanese, the worst thing about it is how bland and impersonal it is and Yuuri can blame the flash of hurt towards that on being a little more familiar with Shirogane than the average skater.

As he lifts the second envelope, Maccachin rumbles out something between a bark and a whine, making Yuuri look up in surprise at him. The old poodle's ears are pinned back, tail standing almost straight-up and puffed out. Even Victor seems shocked, and they share a glance before Victor slowly gets up off the couch and tries to coax Maccachin towards him.

Instead Maccachin hops forward and knocks the box right out of Yuuri's hands and onto the floor. Something clinks and rattles as the two smaller boxes inside tumble out onto the rug, but when Yuuri tries to lift Maccachin off his lap the old dog goes boneless and refuses to be moved, still staring at the box with raised hackles.

"Maccachin!" Yuuri starts, bewildered, but Victor interrupts.

"He's only done something like this once, when I had a particularly forward fan try to send me gifts," Victor says as he reaches over and sets the two smaller boxes onto the coffee table. Maccachin glances over, still making that agitated sound in the back of his throat. "That's when a lot of the security I have now was put in place. I'm not sure we should open these."

Yuuri's brow furrows; he remembers hearing about that, but investigations had been curt and secretive. Still, though, Yuuri knows he'll be asked about this. He needs to at least see what was sent to him so he can mention it the next time he talks to Shirogane. It's strange, though; even Vicchan, as standoffish as he was towards Shirogane, never reacted like this.

The other letter still in hand, Yuuri shakes his head and decides it's probably best to just get this part over and done with for now. Maybe he'll check the boxes out later tonight, after Victor and Maccachin both have gone to bed.

He opens the second, more personal letter with frequent glances down at Maccachin, who still refuses to move even with Victor now leaning over to scratch behind his ears in an attempt to soothe the old poodle. The old, familiar scent of deep woods plumes out, making Victor's nose wrinkle and Maccachin sneeze. He ignores that, as his eye catches onto faint words that makes his stomach drop.

"Yuuri?"

Yuuri swallows, shuts his eyes tight, and hands Victor the envelope.

"I'm sorry," he hears himself say. "It's for you, not me. I guess it was easier to send it through me since I wouldn't..."

"Yuuri." The envelope gets pulled from his fingers and Yuuri's chest twinges at the loss. "Oh, darling."

He's caught off-guard by the heat and weight of arms circling him, pulling him closer until his cheek rests against a collarbone and his lenses smudge against skin. He finds himself not particularly caring, burrowing in deeper and breathing in the gentle flowers on Victor's skin, a small and anchoring reminder that Victor has never followed people's expectations of him.

The envelope containing a check with Victor's name, written for an amount that would more than cover coaching and living expenses for his nine months in Hasetsu twice over, is left ignored with the other gifts on the table for the rest of the evening.

Chapter Text

Skate Canada 2017 - Regina, Saskatchewan

 

Skate Canada starts on a surprisingly warm weekend for the season, the inside of the venue still noticeably colder than the comfortably crisp autumn air outside. Perhaps it's an omen of things to come, but for now Yuuri just takes the good weather at face value and forces himself to think calming, pleasant thoughts. Cute dogs. The gorgeous autumn colors splashed over the trees. Definitely not the fact JJ's oldest brother, the World Champion Victor had stolen the title from seven years ago, keeps scowling at them despite his exasperated spouse's arm slaps.

Really though, the man's been doing well for himself despite his career-ending injury in the 2012-2013 season and Victor's nothing short of a revolutionary to the sport. Yuuri has no idea why he's still bitter about someone breaking his records and then it taking another five years before it gets challenged... by people literally trained by Victor. You know, suddenly this whole Canada-Russia rivalry seems to be making more sense the longer Yuuri thinks about it.

It does get a little annoying that Victor asks for his input on the issue more than once, but it's not really Victor's fault JJ has four other siblings besides the former World Champion in competitive figure skating. Yuuri can imagine hearing the name Leroy over and over and over gets old after a while.

Admittedly, Yuuri is letting himself get distracted by such ridiculous trains of thought due to the fact this is going to be his first real encounter with Shirogane's... alternate for Amano. Sure, the girl hadn't seemed like much in the calls where they were introduced, but neither does Amano if he's muted and even remotely behaving.

He's getting nervous about a girl around Hasegawa's age and not even half as peppy. He wasn't even this skittish with Mila and she's younger, not to mention regularly threatens to bench-press other small-framed skaters, including him since it's a surefire way of annoying Victor. What is wrong with him.

His thoughts are interrupted by Victor's laugh, and he glances up at his face before following his line of sight to where JJ's fiancée (wife? he was really sketchy with his excuses for the training camp and June is known for being a popular time of year for weddings) is handing out fliers to a group of largely women, all bright-eyed and cheerful as they chatter amongst themselves.

"Ah," he says. "JJ Girls."

While technically more restrained than Yuriy's fan club, they're not really any less loud. It's a toss-up if they're better or worse, considering both are considerably more vocal than even Victor's or Chris'. Probably a matter of perspective.

Victor leans over, his fringe falling against Yuuri's frames. "Yours are much stealthier, I think."

Yuuri turns to him, squinting. "What do you mean 'mine'?"

Victor smiles. "My point exactly."

...That's not the weirdest thing Victor's said all week, but it's pretty high up there.

Things have been... strained since Victor sent back Shirogane's check with a bitterly cold fury radiating off him. Complaints about the heady cologne that permeated the study for another several hours after it'd been discovered that one of the smaller packages had been a bottle of it that cracked open with the fall, also packaged with Victor's name, sent that one to the garbage immediately. Victor had very nearly mailed the other box back as well, but a quick scramble and (maybe unfairly) getting Yakov and Lilia to talk him down over the phone stayed his hand.

Of course, once it'd been opened to reveal two sets of tie-pins and cufflinks that very obviously outpriced their plain gold bands, Victor had given in to the urge and no one stopped him. Oh boy, the rage that hit Yuuri's phone after that made it back to Shirogane's office...

Other than Amano taking some matters into his own hands regardless of contracts, the real drama has been from Shirogane's offense at having his money returned to him point-blank, not nearly as entertained by Victor's attitude now that it's not at Amano's expense. Victor stands firm in his cold affability, smiling bright and sharp in contrast to Shirogane's thinned, tight expressions through the screen with an increasingly curt tone.

It doesn't escape Yuuri's notice that the only reason he hasn't gotten dragged further into it is because Victor wants to avoid putting Yuuri in an awkward position, despite Shirogane's attempts. His own pride hadn't particularly liked that, immediately interpreting it as Victor being overprotective. Victor swears that's not it, it's just that he doesn't like how Shirogane keeps trying to use Yuuri as an ace in his sleeve.

The tension's lead Yuuri to fretting in private over how all of this will transfer to Shirogane's secretary, knowing the poor girl's been subjected to setting up these appointments and probably has the worst impression of Yuuri and Victor by now. He'd been looking forward to having another pleasant person to talk to aside from Enma. Couldn't he at least have that much going for him?

He briefly hears his name among the crowd, but brushes it off as being used as a reference point. It happens, though not all that often since he's not as immediately obvious as some of the other skaters--

"--Katsuki-senshu! Please wait!"

...Okay, there really isn't that many here who'd call him that.

A frantic click of heels against concrete sidewalk behind him makes him turn, and he gets a vague sense of déjà-vu as a disheveled girl a few years younger than him nearly skids to a halt to avoid crashing into him with pinwheeling arms and a vice grip on her portfolio pad. She still loses her balance and tips over, squealing and cringing instead of attempting to break her fall, so Yuuri does the polite thing and reaches out to catch her.

There's something odd about the whole thing as the girl blinks and goes bright-red in realization before snapping up and apologizing to Yuuri profusely for making him catch her, bowing a little too deeply for his comfort. Victor, of no help whatsoever, stands to the side and watches with an entirely too amused look on his face.

"You're fine!" Yuuri finally manages to get through her babbling, desperately swallowing down a sigh at the deer-in-headlights looks she gives him. "It's not that big a deal, miss. Really."

Somehow, she manages to look even more flustered. Yuuri wonders if this is why some people take a weird amount of offense to Yuuri's own indoctrined politeness.

Still, her face is familiar now that she's not flailing around, and Yuuri blinks as he finally connects the dots. "Wait, aren't you...?"

"Yes!" she squeaks out, and bows again. "M-my name is Yanagi Mai! It's an honor to meet you in person, Katsuki-senshu!"

Huh. She's... something, all right. Yuuri's not sure, but he almost thinks the girl's more nervous dealing with him than Shirogane.

Victor's laugh is soft and practiced when he loops his arm around Yuuri's shoulders, stepping into view. "Are you a fan, Mai?"

And if Yuuri thought she was nervous with him, she's on the verge of a breakdown when she realizes Victor is here, too.

"Something like that!" she squeaks out, suddenly standing stiff and wide-eyed as she clings to her portfolio pad. "I-I mean, because it's Katsuki-senshu, and...!"

But Yuuri does remember how Phichit, Mila, and even Yuriy to an extent have described Yuuri's presence in the past: a bit cold, seeming distant, barely paying attention to anyone but his coach and maybe a select few. Phichit had described it as nonsensical since in his head, "owns a cute dog" and "that persona" did not go together. Mila had been among those surprised by Yuuri's drunken antics at Sochi two years ago now, a complete flip of his usual demeanor as far as she knew from hearsay. And Yuriy, in one of his rare moments of honesty, has admitted that it was that assumed cool factor that had initially caught his eye, and that Yuuri's wariness of certain jumps had been more of a brag that he didn't need them to be a top contender just like Victor had said once or twice; of course, coming from Yuriy, it was quickly followed by flustered and defensive posturing that he should've known better, but Yuuri gets what the boy means.

So Yuuri takes a breath and tries to smile, feeling awkward but also a little guilty. Between that and all the drama, he can kind of see where all her nerves are coming from.

"I apologize for how things have been lately," he starts with. She freezes and her expression turns bewildered. "It's not much of an excuse, but things are just in a transition stage right now. I promise it's not usually this... hectic?"

Yanagi blinks again, then sputters pink. "Oh! No, no! I'm sorry! I-I shouldn't have assumed! I mean, Shirogane-san's been stressed, true, but I thought--!"

"That's probably enough for now," Victor interrupts with a faint laugh. Yuuri shoots him a look. "Yuu-ri, if I leave you two to it, you'll both be here for far too long. If I'm going to be giving the impression I'm a pushy coach, I may as well at least make sure you get to practice, don't you think?"

...It's a good point. Yuuri doesn't have to like it, but it is.

He sighs and bows again briefly to Yanagi, who shakes herself out of her stunned stupor and returns it. "I have to go now, Yanagi-san, but please do enjoy yourself. I promise we'll behave."

"Y-you as well!" Yanagi parrots back.

Yuuri smiles wanly at her one last time before he finally turns to join Victor up the steps to the venue, intending on making sure he's prepared for the upcoming short skate tomorrow evening. Victor has big plans for this season, after all, and the less stress Yuuri puts on him the easier it will be for him to pull off what will undoubtedly be the biggest surprise of his career.

"He's not what I expected at all," he thinks he hears Yanagi mutter underneath her breath as they go, and honestly Yuuri can say the same right back to her.

 

* * *

 

(Group) Skate Canada Cheer Squad for Yuuri-kun & Miya/Shishi! Go--!!

Satou Yuki
Does anyone else think that Shirogane-san's being more generous than usual this year?

Miyauchi Tasuke
if getting the imp more often is "more generous", i wanna go back to him being stingy.

Watanabe Shuuhei
lol tell me about it
I feel so bad for Yuuri-kun, dealing with this for so many years on his own

Hasegawa Erika
seriously, even Mila's said it looks bad from her angle
Yakov Feltsman is LOUD, yeah, but not like the imp apparently?

Shindou Kaname
Yuuri-kun needs to confirm for us.
He's being quiet. Distracted by something big?
An illustrated fox giggling.

Kisaragi Chitose
is that supposed to be a dick joke?
bc it sounds like a dick joke

Satou Yuki
Chi-to-se-cha~n you're not supposed to SAY it
it's funnier if it's implied!!

Shishiba Natsumi
And you all wonder why he never responds to anything here.

Minami Kenjirou
Yuuri-kun is busy, I think!
or at least that's what Yuriy-kun tells me...

Watanabe Shuuhei
oh? since when were you close to that punk kid, Minami-kun?

Shishiba Natsumi
I just visualized Yuriy's Angels and Minami's Cuties teaming up and my ears started ringing...

Minami Kenjirou
waitwaitwait!!
what are you even saying? we're rivals! rivals!!

Watanabe Shuuhei
Rivals go to cat cafés together and like each other's pet photos?

Kisaragi Chitose
lol does that make Yuuri-kun and Victor Nikiforov the ultimate rivals?
whoever wins has to do the annoying chores?

Shishiba Natsumi
To be fair, that would definitely be a good motivator.

Katsuki Yuuri
What did I come into...?

Hasegawa Erika
We need the truth, Yuuri-kun!
Do you and Victor make bets to decide who gets stuck with the annoying chores or what?
Society itself depends on your answer...!!

Katsuki Yuuri
No.

Miyauchi Tasuke
that was a quick response.

Katsuki Yuuri
We switch depending on our mood.

Shindou Kaname
Ah. How scandalous.

 

Yuuri tries not to react in the LINE chat as he sits on their hotel room's bed, Victor behind him humming and smoothing his hair dry with an old cotton shirt. Even if Victor were peeking over Yuuri's shoulder, the comments from the other JSF skaters go by too quickly, especially when aided by Shindou's liberal use of stickers and the others' streams of short comments. Besides, it's not like it's anything serious that's being discussed. Aside from some grousing about Amano's temper, which Yuuri's not surprised by but still feels a bit guilty over.

Most of them know better, having at least been witness to some of the man's fits over the years. No one's immune or exempt from them, it's just that Yuuri's been the most likely to get the worst treatment from them all. So why does he feel so bad about it, now that he's finally somewhat free from it?

"Is what the others saying that boring, darling?"

Yuuri blinks and tilts his head back, meeting Victor's soft, amused look. "They're just poking fun at Minami for becoming friends with Yurio."

Victor nods, his fingers gently running through Yuuri's hair. "I think they'll be good for each other. Otabek might balance out Yurio's more prickly nature, but Minami has a far better handle on interacting positively with others. He'll take another teenager's advice over mine, no doubt. Just to prove he's better."

The smile that settles on Yuuri's face is fond with a hint of teasing at the corners. "Spite's the only way he's willing to do anything, huh?"

"Let it never be said he's unpredictable," Victor laughs, and bends down to meet Yuuri with a brush of lips and the mild sweetness of mint. Yuuri ignores the chimes of new messages added into the chat, figuring most of it to be the same silliness with perhaps a different target. Let them take Yuuri's comments however they want; it's not exactly wrong, after all, just uncomfortable to go around flaunting.

But it's Victor who tenses and whose smile slips off, and Yuuri blinks as Victor pulls away with a knit in his brow as he stares at Yuuri's phone. Yuuri follows his eyes and finds himself stunned by the article pulled up by one of the others, some smear piece accusing Satou of a secret boyfriend and another accusing Shindou of skating pregnant. What's weirder, the pictures are from last December, a poor image of Satou cheerfully chatting with a starstruck fan from that café Shirogane took them to and Shindou rubbing her lower stomach, likely still sore from the exam Yuuri distantly recalls them doing.

"What in the world is going on in there?"

Yuuri shakes himself out of his confused recollections. "What?"

"From everyone discussing it, it's likely fake," Victor says, eyes narrowing. He reaches over Yuuri's arm to gently swipe down, getting a better view of the previously linked articles. "Anyone looking properly at the photos can see they're the same location, probably even taken at the same time. But taken out of context and misconstrued like this? This is mean-spirited at best and a personal attack at worst. Shouldn't that lawyer be pulling his weight and doing something about this?"

Yuuri swallows, glancing away. He knows Victor means well, but the truth is something he knows Victor will refuse to swallow.

Unlike with Yuuri's protection via Shirogane's favor, as much as a double-edged sword it is, the others don't have that sort of defense. Amano won't risk ruining Yuuri's reputation no matter how much he hates him, if only because it affects Shirogane's. But the others, who are technically replicable with the next bright-eyed young skaters trying to press on into Seniors? There's really very little stopping him, so long as no one links it back to Shirogane or GIL Tech.

Rumors like this could kill a career, considering how idol culture works. Some have opted to disappear into tiny, off-the-map villages and other countries to avoid the scrutiny, because being a nobody is better than the shame of a ruined reputation, as well as a less extreme option than the old-fashioned alternative.

Once in the public eye, your best options are either to succeed and flourish, or take your pick between exile and death. Victor hadn't understood why Yuuri was so insistent on retiring on a high and with grace last year, and Yuuri doubts any of his views on this subject have changed since. In Victor's eyes, the death is entirely metaphorical, the real punishment being fading into a distant memory as most beloved celebrities do; in Yuuri's, who has seen the lengths some people have gone to try and destroy lives without raising a finger to them...

What's going on in the group chat is everyone attempting to band together to protect their own. They don't need Yuuri interfering because he's got his own safety secured whether he wants it or not.

Before Yuuri can scrounge up a more cohesive answer, another alert trills on his phone. Both of them blink and look down at the new screen popping up, and Yuuri feels the way Victor's arm tightens around his torso.

"I suppose I have to step out for a bit," Victor snips, still annoyed that he'd lost that particular battle in the negotiations. The kiss he presses to Yuuri's cheek feels all the more pointed for it. "I'll be back in an hour. Don't let him drag on like he's going to try, given the competition hasn't even started yet."

 

* * *

 

The black screen flickers to the sight of Shirogane in his office, fingers laced together in front of him with a relaxed slope of his shoulders and the brightness of midday behind him. Yuuri swallows, trying to make his seating more comfortable as he'd felt a little unnerved at the idea of Shirogane having a clear view of Yuuri around beds. He's not sure why it even occurs to him, but the shudder that goes through him at the thought is... ew.

"Good afternoon, Yuuri-kun," Shirogane opens with. "Or perhaps it is 'good evening' for you? Yanagi and Amano have both mentioned the fifteen-hour time difference."

"It is very late on my end, yes," Yuuri admits to. He fiddles with his ring, glad it's out of view of the camera. "I'm surprised you're calling so soon. I don't skate until tomorrow evening."

"It's never too soon when it comes to you," Shirogane huffs. "Ah, but I did hear that your new Vicchan talks to you like that. A pity. I expected better of him, after the big show he made in summer."

Yuuri bristles automatically. "Would you stop calling him that? It's weird!"

Shirogane hums, but doesn't comment on Yuuri's obvious annoyance. Once, this wouldn't have bothered Yuuri all that much, grateful that Shirogane knew not to press issues Yuuri just needed to cool down on. Now, after learning how to open up properly to Victor so he wouldn't dwell too long on negative thoughts, it feels like a brush-off.

"It appears that you'll be in Osaka again the week before your birthday," Shirogane says instead. Yuuri frowns, confused at the topic change. "You won't have further obligations until the finals, assuming you make it through. Perhaps you should take the opportunity to rest here. After all, you'll just be off to Nagoya not long after."

"It's an Olympic year," Yuuri says. "I can't afford to rest. Besides, Victor has his own training to do and shouldn't be away from his coach for that long."

"He can't spare even a weekend for you?" Shirogane sighs and shakes his head. "Oh Yuuri-kun, you poor thing. Not even married yet and he's making these decisions for you."

"Victor isn't making any kind of decision for me," Yuuri argues, but his gut tightens in a defensive coil at the words. "It's just good sense that he treats this seriously, even if he is coaching me."

"And yet he refuses generosity when it's given to him."

Yuuri swallows the knot in his throat at the memory. Even two months later, it still stings to recall all of those things in Victor's name, Yuuri's seeming only there as a means to an end and as an afterthought. "...It's not as if you're innocent here either, Shirogane-san. A lot of people would consider that a bribe."

Undeterred, Shirogane shrugs on his end. "A bribe or proper recompensation? It's all a matter of perspective. If he wishes a change in profession, he should learn to see it from a less involved point of view. After all, did he not do the same to you, except his 'bribe' was effectively having free access to your body?"

"That's not what happened at all!" Yuuri has no idea why Shirogane's so insistent on this. This isn't even the first time he's suggested such a thing about Victor! "He's not like that. Please stop trying to imply that about him."

Shirogane sighs. "I wish I could believe you, Yuuri-kun. But understand my position instead of just brushing me off because he's got a pretty face: a celebrity of his caliber just comes into town and sets his eyes on the most sought-out and adored person in it, then proceeds to take over everything because he can? All in the name of some so-called 'love' for you? That sort of thing only exists in fairytales. Surely you're not so far gone that you can't see that yourself."

Something in Yuuri burns. He's not sure what, but he feels it across his skin. Whether it's embarrassment, shame, or anger, even Yuuri doesn't know.

Another sigh from his phone, and the faint squeak of a chair as Shirogane straightens and leans forward, golden eyes set on Yuuri through the screen. "I don't say these things to hurt you, you know. You are far too precious for that. Can't you trust me in this, after everything I've done for you?"

"I want to," Yuuri finally works up the nerve to say, voice unsteady. "But you're making that hard lately. At least Victor's honest with me, and he doesn't just shut me out because someone else made him mad."

"I had my reasons," is all Shirogane says in his defense. "Settling Yanagi in took some work. Getting Amano to delegate his duties also took time. And my attempts at trying to peacefully settle things with your foreign coach were thrown right back in my face." Something cold flickers across Shirogane's eyes. "I've gotten rid of people for far less than that, you know. The only reason I've let it pass is because of you."

All of the feebly gathered courage Yuuri's mustered to this point promptly withers in his hands. His throat feels dry and tight from the ashes of it, eyes stinging.

He hears Shirogane sigh again, a low mutter that's undiscernible to his ears, but instead of looking up he keeps his head hanging to avoid eye contact. He tries to keep his breathing steady, but it still stutters out of him and it just makes him more upset that such a stupid little comment's affected him so much.

"Perhaps this season should be your last," he finally hears Shirogane say. "You deserve better than a coach that keeps making you move around so much. And it will look good, performing well in the Olympics and bowing out for the next generation."

"I owe Victor at least five more years," Yuuri says, voice a little more monotone than he wants.

It doesn't dissuade Shirogane at all. "Then perhaps he should retire instead, if he really cares for you like he says. This stress can't be good for you. Someone like you needs an anchor, a place worth calling home."

"If he wants."

"Now, Yuuri-kun," Shirogane sighs. "Be good, won't you? If you give me time, I can make things much easier on both of you."

"It's fine." He just wants this to end. He's so tired. "I should get some sleep in before morning practice tomorrow."

At that, Shirogane huffs a low laugh. "At least some things never change. Good night, Yuuri-kun. Let's talk like this again soon, shall we?"

Not trusting his voice, Yuuri nods and allows Shirogane to end the call. As soon as the screen's gone dark and stays that way, he yanks his glasses off and rubs at his eyes with the heel of his hand in frustration, jaw grit tight and breath again stuttering.

He has to get control of himself before Victor comes back in. He doesn't want Victor's terrible pep-talks right now, not when Yuuri keeps feeling like a rope toy between two stubborn dogs. And since Miyauchi apparently goes around blabbing about Shirogane and Amano to anyone who asks, Yuuri can't just call him and Shishiba up, either. But then again, they don't need to be dealing with Yuuri's problems two days before they're due to compete. And even if they claim to not mind, it isn't a big enough concern to bother them with. Not when Shindou and Satou are dealing with some actual personal attacks and need serious, unified support. It'll make Yuuri look like a giant, self-centered jerk, whining about the fact he's got an overindulgent sponsor and an overprotective fiancé-slash-coach fighting to look after him.

"No one thinks you're weak," Yuuri mutters to himself darkly, remembering that May day when everything was bright and scary for how much hope he was putting into Victor's hands with his admissions. "Well, apparently a lot of people do."

He doesn't really remember much after that. He feels himself go through the motions, getting up to wash his face and the water dripping off his hair and lashes, then burying into a soft hand towel hung next to the sink. He feels himself slip under the covers, the cool air on his skin as he reaches out to turn off the bedside lamp. He knows that eventually, he reaches over to turn his phone face-down on the table so he doesn't have to see it flicker to life repeatedly.

At some point he hears the lock on the door pop open and sees the light from the hall spill into the room. Victor says nothing as he shuts the door behind him, keeping quiet as he toes off his shoes and slips into the bathroom to presumably start up his own nightly routine. Yuuri guesses the talk was shorter than he thought. It's kind of a pity, because Yuuri usually enjoys bumping elbows with Victor and right now he's not in the mood.

He's not very responsive when Victor eventually slips into bed with him, but neither of them mention how Yuuri curls around the arm that automatically falls over his waist, their rings clinking together as fingers interlace under the covers, the soft sigh tickling Yuuri's nape and the gentle brush of lips to skin.

If this is the sort of thing only found in fairytales, then Yuuri doesn't want this one to end. He's not sure he could survive it if he loses any of this.

Chapter Text

Internationaux de France 2017 - Paris, France

 

Reputations, like empires, take ages to build and seconds to fall. The foundations of them are built into ancestral grounds, some already paved with those past and others as raw as untouched earth. There are benefits to both; the former brings stability, the latter new resources. It becomes a matter of perspective, deciding which is more necessary.

Or, like certain businessmen, you could be greedy and attempt to hoard it all.

Now, Victor is sure he's not being entirely fair. It is true that he doesn't really know the whole story behind Shirogane's apparent foothold in the ISU; it might not even be through Yuuri like he's been theorizing. That being said, it is certainly something to see how visceral the reactions get at his name, especially from other Japanese officials and reporters.

There is something being covered up, that much holds true. But to what extent, and at what cost?

Yuuri stays withdrawn but silently seeking comfort throughout Skate Canada and bleeding into the next week when it's Victor's first event of the circuit at Rostelecom with Mila and Yuriy. It leads to a whole mess where Yuriy tries a little too hard and overturns an otherwise simple Lutz, taking a spill across the ice and smacking ankle-first into the boards. Yakov promptly (and loudly) pulls him from competition despite his protests that he can go on, only shutting up when the on-site medical team declares that he's on the brink of a more serious injury between his training, his growth spurts, and the accident itself. Victor pretends that he has no idea why Yakov glares at him when lecturing Yuriy about taking better care of himself.

The only benefit of the accident is that it gives Yuuri something else to worry over, pulling him out of his head better than Victor's attempts over the past several days. Mila seems to be getting a kick out of it, poking fun at the stubborn blush that keeps splotching Yuriy's face, but both Yuris opt to ignore her in favor of making sure Yuriy's recovered enough by Europeans, if not the Grand Prix Finals itself, that he won't have to sit out of the Olympic team.

It's been another two weeks since, and Victor is in Paris for his second event and the deciding factor on whether or not he'll be a finalist. Not that anyone seems to think he's not going to be, judging from the news reports; they're pretty confident that barring some injury like Yuriy, nothing will stop him from reclaiming his golden touch now that he's competing again this year.

And yet, like it has been for so many years except for last, Victor has decidedly less interest in the outcome than they do.

"I know I'm missing something," he grouses to Chris as they meet at the hotel's bar, tucked away into a more private quarter to avoid stray cameras. "No sponsor is this invasive without reason. Especially considering how distant he'd been last year. Why is he suddenly so invested in Yuuri's whereabouts?"

Chris makes a low noise into his glass, brow knitted. "From what I know, he's never had to be this heavy-handed before. All of Yuuri's other coaches caved sooner rather than later."

Victor huffs a sigh, leaning against the bar as he nurses his drink. Like always, Chris favors his red wines while Victor leans towards whatever local spirits are available. Unlike his new norm, however, Yuuri isn't with him and is sleeping off his small but persistent bout of jetlag. Right. If Yuuri didn't seem so miserable whenever the topic of Shirogane and his odd actions came up, Victor would almost worry he's the one upsetting Yuuri somehow. And frankly, this is genuinely starting to piss him off.

"Celestino said similarly when I reached out to him," Victor admits. "He hated playing along, but doing so meant that lawyer backed off of Yuuri. Keeping Yuuri's stress low was more important than pushing him for better programs, even if it led to Yuuri underperforming for as long as he has."

"I'm not surprised," Chris sighs. "He was pluckier when we were in Juniors together. You're probably the best thing that's happened to him, even if I can't help but worry."

Something about that comment makes Victor pause. "What do you mean by that?"

To his credit Chris doesn't show too much distaste, but the sourness coming off him is heavy. Setting down his glass, Chris sighs and leans onto his palm, looking at Victor through thick lashes.

"You do realize that with how much Yuuri adores you, it's even easier for that man to control him. Right?" Chris elaborates, tone flat even as Victor blinks in shock. "Yuuri knows better than most how awful these people are. Of course he'll jump when he's told if it means you stay safe."

"Which is stupid, given I'm heavily protected by Russian law," Victor huffs, eyes narrowing. "If you knew all this, why didn't you do anything?"

Chris rolls his eyes in response, sighing. "My parents are accountants for a fair-sized company and otherwise are very boring. I'm not exactly the kind of person that man considers worth his time, which makes me seem less credible. Even you would be getting shooed off and ignored if you weren't as famous as you are. Or did you already forget he insulted you to your face before making Yuuri's family drop everything they were doing to serve him?"

As much as Victor hates to admit it, right now he doesn't feel far off from that. It's no small wonder that Yuuri's been considered so hard to follow if you're not in his inner circle because it's not just his natural tendencies towards introversion, but also this ridiculous amount of gatekeeping. How was Yuuri ever supposed to feel comfortable making friends when he had to hear about how they weren't up to Shirogane's standards? For that matter, why did Shirogane think his opinion mattered so much? No matter how much he dotes on Yuuri, it doesn't change the fact he's nothing but an overly invested sponsor. Victor has never fully understood his grandmother's stance on wealthy men until now that he's knee-deep in one's ridiculous demands with a risk of stepping off into deeper trouble.

"I'm saying this as a friend," Chris continues, staring down at his glass. "To you and Yuuri both: find a way to get him to leave you alone on his own. Do not piss him off, because his type will always try to seek revenge."

And there lies the crux of Victor's concerns in this.

"From what I've seen, he has no intentions of letting Yuuri go," Victor says, clutching his glass tighter. "I have my suspicions as to why, but nothing's been confirmed. Yet. He'll slip eventually, and when he does I'll be ready."

Chris grimaces. "Victor, mon cher, don't be a dumbass."

"He's the one underestimating me, even with my refusals to let him think I can be won over." Victor smiles, but it feels thin and brittle. "I intend on keeping it that way until I have something solid on him. But until then, I'm just the stupid foreigner who Yuuri only likes because I'm pretty."

Chris gives him a long, pained look, then sighs and picks up his glass again. "Well, at least he's not wrong on that."

"Hey!"

Chris snorts into his glass, something a little past snickering, and though Victor huffs and faux-whines to Yuuri later when he returns to the hotel room it continues to serve as a mood-lightener for the rest of the week. Victor is not someone who is easy to fool or cow, and he'll be damned if he lets some egotistical businessman be one of the few who can succeed in that.

 

* * *

 

NHK 2017 - Osaka, Japan

 

"Holy Mother of God, Katsudon, you could've warned me the girls here are bonkers!"

What is it about this arena that has teenage boys using Yuuri as a meat shield?

Yuriy, still hobbling along on crutches and a JSF jacket a size too small on him over his shoulders, keeps swinging himself so he's out of sight of the doors. Victor, still a little annoyed that Yuriy managed to finagle his way to the airport after them with a ticket on his phone and a stubborn fire in his eyes, is decidedly less help than he should be on the matter.

Fingertips pressed gingerly to his cheek, Victor tuts with false sympathy. "Well, Yurio, you being here is a surprise for your very concerned and adoring fan base. Perhaps you should have thought of that before coming?"

Yuriy pauses in his attempts to shuffle behind Yuuri to glare at Victor over Yuuri's shoulder. "Shut it, old man, I'm not here for you! Is your ego seriously that huge?"

"Considering I'm not even the one competing, I had no illusions you were here for me." A pause. "Nice jacket, by the way. I could've sworn leather was more your thing, though!"

No. Really. Yuuri wants answers for why this keeps happening.

"If you two are done," Yuuri cuts in over Yuriy's strangled sputtering, deadpan. "I'd like to actually go cool down so I can get out of these sweaty practice clothes, thank you."

He doesn't know what Yuriy's doing, but the noise of distaste he makes gives away that he didn't miss the cheeky grin and raised eyebrows Victor shoots Yuuri at that. Yuuri, exasperated, gives Victor a chastising look to behave himself.

Yuuri would like to say this is the end of today's shenanigans, but it doesn't take long after he squeezes himself free from their bickering for something else to happen.

He recognizes the sharp tones instinctively, tensing up and heart jackrabbiting against his ribs at the sound. Right. He's far from the only JSF skater here, most of the others also present. Which unfortunately means...

"--a simple thing, and you can't even do that? What use are you? A waste of--!"

When Yuuri found out that Amano was apparently taking out his frustrations on the others, he hadn't expected it to be this bad. As it is Yuuri has no idea who's on the receiving end of his temper, and part of him is afraid to find out. It's not Minami, since apparently he and Yuriy were running separate ways to distract their overeager fans. Shindou and Watanabe? No, Watanabe's not as level-headed as Shindou and they're usually together. Same problem with Miyauchi and Shishiba; neither of them have patience for these kinds of long tirades. Satou? No, she definitely would've interrupted by now, too, as would Hasegawa. Yuuri really doesn't know Kisaragi that well, though, but she's not even--

"I-I'm so sorry, sir!" cuts into his train of thought, answering one question and leaving Yuuri more as he blinks in surprise. "I'm really trying, I am! But--!"

"Listen, little girl," Amano sneers, and poor Yanagi immediately squeaks and goes silent. "No one here cares about your cutesy act, so drop it! This isn't that miserable soapland our Shirogane so graciously rescued you from, you know. This is an actual, reputable business on the line! If you can't shape up--!"

There are... several things Yuuri doesn't like here, some worse than others. After all, Amano apparently really not liking how Yanagi is handling things on her own seems minor in comparison to the fact Shirogane's newly-hired, skittish secretary used to work in a soapland. For starters, Yuuri absolutely does not want to know why Shirogane would even frequent a soapland, let alone build up enough of a rapport to go ahead and poach one of their workers. There are so many unfortunate implications just in that one line of thought without digging deeper.

But stranger still, the fact that Yanagi is as pleasant as she is, starry-eyed and a little over-eager in her desire to help, and she's from this kind of background...

Well, it's pretty obvious she doesn't get much respect for it. It's a little stupid, considering Yuuri knew several people back in Detroit who were only in that sort of business because it was their best means of survival. It's no wonder Yanagi is so determined to prove she can do things right, but knowing how strict and petty Amano is it seems like a pipe dream.

As he leans a little further out from behind the corner for a better look, his shoe squeaks against the tile and his heart freezes for a split-second of panic. Though he gathers himself quick enough to snap his back straight and not be so obvious in his spying, the tiny mortified whimper and the prickling anger is palpable and Yuuri has little choice but to reveal himself with his own shaky breath and pinched brow.

Amano's expression is flat and dark, eyes narrow and mouth puckered in his usually sneer. Yuuri tries to swallow as subtly as he can, shifting his footing as his inner Yuriy snaps at him to look tougher and more assertive.

"Ah," Amano says with dripping sarcasm. "If it isn't the ever-so-revered and illustrated Katsuki Yuuri gracing us with his presence! Did you come for a refreshment? A snack? Perhaps a laugh at my expense?"

Well, if this isn't a typical display of Yuuri's overall luck. He may as well commit to it at this point.

"I was hoping to clear up a few things with Yanagi-san, actually," Yuuri pulls out of his ass, hoping to all higher powers that exist that his face doesn't give it away. "It's easier that way than just over the phone or messages. But it seems a little cramped over here, don't you think?" Yanagi blinks owlishly at him, confused. Yuuri tries again, a little more insistent: "Perhaps it'd be better to go somewhere less crowded?"

Amano, for his part, isn't fooled by Yuuri's attempt at subtlety. His sole taps against the tile, arms tightening as his stare darkens the longer he looks at Yuuri. Internally, Yuuri begs for Yanagi to clue in faster.

It takes another second, but Yanagi's shoulders jerk and her eyes go wide, a blatantly fake smile on her face as she nods and straightens her back. "A-ah, yes! Of course! I must've forgot with all the commotion! Thank you, Katsuki-senshu. Wh-where did you want to talk?"

"I'm not done with you yet!"

Yuuri really hates having to do this so often, but as always Amano gives him no choice in the matter. He points down the hall he came from. "Over there should be fine. After all, Shirogane-san did ask you to do this for me. Surely that makes your input very important."

Yanagi flusters bright at the statement in a way that's painfully familiar to him (which also answers something else Yuuri would rather not know) but nods again. As she attempts to gracefully power walk away, Yuuri turns to make sure he stays between her and Amano, or at the very least in close enough proximity that Amano won't risk someone else overhearing.

Still, the increasing distance does little to stop him, and Yuuri is glad his back is to the older man when he hears the venomous bite of, "You think you're so wonderful, don't you, Yuuri-kun? Just you wait, your days as Shirogane-san's precious little pet are numbered."

Yuuri ignores him despite the reflexive clench of his jaw. He refuses to let Amano get under his skin again like before. Even if Yuuri deserved the browbeating from two years ago, he's under no contractual obligations to let it continue.

He keeps walking instead, tuning out Amano to the best of his ability. There's nothing forcing Yuuri to stay and listen now -- and he is not going to have another distracted skate, not when he needs to be there supporting Victor by proving his competence as both a coach and competitor.

Yanagi gives Yuuri an odd look as they walk the hall, one he considers ignoring as well.

"You know," she says finally. "You're actually, like, really cool. I didn't think guys like you existed for real."

Yuuri immediately makes a face at the comparison. Yanagi's a little old to be making that kind of comparison; Yuuri usually gets that from children, not people only a few years younger than he is.

"I'm nothing like that at all," he answers in a dry tone. "I just know what it's like to be on the receiving end of the imp's temper."

Yanagi huffs. A glance aside reveals she has her arms folded defensively over her chest. "I'm used to middle-aged farts like him acting like I'm an idiot. Happened all the time with my old job. Shirogane-san, though..." Her face pinks and she bites her lip. Yuuri tries to keep his withering internal. "He was always so nice, if a little cold sometimes. That's why..."

"You don't have to prove anything," Yuuri interrupts. She blinks at him. "Look, Yanagi-san, I... heard what Amano said and I really don't want to know the details. If you could just keep letting me believe that you two didn't meet in that kind of place? Please?"

As Yuuri should've probably expected, Yanagi goes a bright red. "I-in my defense--!"

"Please," Yuuri begs. "I'm not judging because I've done cross-training with exotic dancers in the past. But there are things I never want to know, and that is very high up there!"

Another moment of awkward silence, then Yanagi squeaks, "That's fair."

 

* * *

 

The washcloth is warm and damp against the skin of his inner thigh, which is what Yuuri focuses on to keep his mind off the heat of open lips against his collar and the tickle of long lashes and starlight-silk hair against his cheek and jawline. A drop of water trickles free and it rolls down towards the mattress and the rumpled sheets, growing cooler in its journey.

"You're supposed to be cleaning up," he murmurs, making no move to pull away or clean up himself. "Not making more mess."

The lips on his neck curve, a small huff of a hot breath making his own catch at the sensation. The hand on his thigh squeezes just enough for a few more droplets to seep free, the heel of that same hand digging against the line of his quads.

"Are you complaining, darling?" Victor asks, the thick roll of his native tongue rumbling his words. The blankets shift as he leans in even more, ghosting kisses along Yuuri's neck. "I, for one, think I'm doing a wonderful job."

It might be the endorphins still running rampant in him, but Yuuri finds that funnier than it probably should be as his smile widens and he turns enough to bump his nose against the rising tip of Victor's as the kisses escalate to his jawline proper. The shift allows Victor to prop himself up on an elbow, and Yuuri finds himself staring up into Victor's impossibly blue eyes dopey and warm.

God, there's no reason for Victor to still look so gorgeous with his fine hair as mussed as it is and a spattering of dark bruises along the line of his throat. Yuuri still can't believe that he gets to call this man his, or that he has the right to shout it out to the world if he chose to do so.

"It's not a complaint, it's a fact," he says. "You're playing a dangerous game, sweetheart."

Victor's eyes twinkle in the low light of the room, neon lights bright in the paleness of his coloration. All things considered, it's probably still going to get out that Victor was seen ducking into a love hotel with him, given how much he stands out compared to the average Japanese citizen, but to be fair there are a lot of other foreigners in town for NHK as it is. Besides, it's hardly like people think they've been chaste. It'll be embarrassing if he sees this pop up in headlines anywhere, but with the results finalized he's sure people have better to talk about anyway.

Silver at Skate Canada and gold here in NHK -- Yuuri is again heading to the Grand Prix Finals alongside his coach and (now) fellow finalist. It'll be a lot of familiar faces -- Chris, JJ, as well as Phichit to his friend's elation judging by the way Yuuri had to mute his phone before even leaving the arena -- but between Yuriy's injury and Otabek scoring bronze here with an off-podium finish for Cup of China, both of them will have to sit this year out. Instead the new face will be Seunggil, who looked almost constipated as he accepted his silver last night and muttered something about reevaluating his jump composition before slinking off, his coach snapping after him in brusque Korean. Yuuri can only imagine how much stress Seunggil's under, knowing the Winter Olympics will be held in his country and that he'll be expected to at least podium at the GPF, if not the Olympics themselves.

The relief of knowing he's safe until the finals and with his birthday again around the corner has led to a somewhat premature celebration Victor is writing off as purely for the former, not the latter. Which is definitely why they've holed themselves in a love hotel for the past two hours with about twenty minutes left on the clock. Yuriy had not been pleased to catch them sneaking out earlier, but had looked like he was about to blow a gasket when he realized where they were going on their own before stammering that he was going to "hang out with cooler people" and hightailing it back into the room in a huff.

Yuuri's pulled out of his thoughts as Victor leans in, lips brushing over his and a content sigh shared between them. The washcloth's slipped free by this point, cooling between Yuuri's thighs and dampening the fabric beneath him.

"Victor," he warns feebly, no sense of urgency in his tone. "Come on, we only have so much time left here. Don't leave a big mess for the staff."

Victor sighs, pushing himself up and staring down at Yuuri again, expression wry and affectionate. "I'd ask if this is you being cute about asking for another round, but I think you'd be a little more direct than that after more than a year together."

Yuuri snorts and gently smacks at Victor's shoulder. "Everything gets sticky after a while and it's gross, that's it. We can clean up with the time left over instead of rushing out when that alarm tells us to." He reaches up to brush aside a hanging lock of platinum-blond hair. "Let's not be too obvious about what we were doing, okay? That kind of thing's really rude."

"Fine, fine," Victor relents, dropping one more kiss against Yuuri's nose before pulling back into a sit, back arching with a small groan. "With the gala tomorrow night, you have a light morning practice and the rest of the day off. Is there anything you want to do until then?"

"We could go to that café I went to with Satou and Shindou last time I was in town?" Yuuri offers. He shifts to prop on his elbows as Victor reaches for the loose washcloth still clinging by a damp corner to Yuuri's skin. "It was good, even if some paparazzi were apparently hanging around without us knowing. I don't think either of them are willing to revisit, but if nothing else it'll be good for a quick meal after practice."

Victor pauses just as he's about to get off the bed, an odd look crossing his eyes. Yuuri blinks, confused.

The moment passes as Victor shakes his head and smiles at Yuuri, expression going soft. "You did mention that place before. That was the café that had those cute little pirozhkis, right? The ones that got Yurio all riled up?"

"That's the place." Funny how Victor remembers that particular detail, considering Yuuri's sure even Yuriy's mostly forgotten about that by now. But then again, that kid does have a good memory when it comes to things that've somehow offended his sensibilities. "Or, if you have other ideas...?"

"No, it's perfect," Victor says, smiling. As he pushes himself off the bed back towards the small ensuite, he continues, "A little privacy from everyone is just what we need. Even if we get caught, it won't look too out-of-place."

Yuuri feels his face flush, knowing exactly what Victor means. No one will question them pouring over a tablet together in a café when they've always been a bit on the obnoxious side of affectionate with each other, to the point that no one will even bother guessing what they're looking at while pressed into a booth shoulder-to-hip.

People have all come up with their own theories and ideas, but very, very few know the full truth. The jokes and teasing over the past year are amusing in their own way, but Yuuri does intend on finishing what he started all those months ago and nothing is going to stop him when he's so close to the payoff. And Victor, enabler he is to Yuuri's wilder side, has been bright-eyed and eager in assisting this in every feasible way.

By the time they're both fully cleaned up and redressed, the warning bell on the alarm goes off. Victor has his scarf redraped around his neck and shoulders to help shadow the marks left behind, straightening the fall of his coat and nearly aglow as he looks to Yuuri through his pale lashes.

"Shall we?" he asks, his elbow rising up in silent question. Yuuri bites his lip to smother his laugh, his face warm as he reaches forward and slips his hand around the crook of the offered arm.

He buries his face into Victor's shoulder as they start to walk together into the hall and towards the doors, ignoring the more shame-faced patrons shuffling past them to their own rooms. The receptionist thanks them briskly for their patronage, and soon the neon lights and crisp air of Osaka's nightlife hits them full-force once more.

Chapter Text

Grand Prix Finals 2017 - Nagoya, Japan

 

Phichit Chulanont
aaaaaa
i'm!!! so mad!!!
。゜(`Д´)゜。

Katsuki Yuuri
You feel okay otherwise, though?

Phichit Chulanont
unfortunately (*`へ´*) still not cleared to fly but i can think straight at least
an ear infection thREE DAYS BEFORE GPF ISTG (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

Katsuki Yuuri
It happens. (o・_・)ノ”(ノ_<。)
I'll keep you updated!

Phichit Chulanont
you better (ง •̀_•́)ง i have a best man speech to give!!

 

Well, Yuuri thinks grimly as he tucks his phone back into his pocket. So much for Phichit's second Grand Prix Final in a row.

It's probably stupid for Yuuri to be so annoyed about it, especially given that Phichit knows better than to fly sick with something that can affect his balance like that. And even if he'd been stubborn enough to try and fight the decision, Celestino would not allow it and neither would Phichit's family.

Even so, it seems... weirdly ominous that Yuriy's out with a sprained ankle and Phichit has to be replaced with an alternate due to illness. No offense to Emil, who seems as cheerful as ever with the opportunity to compete this year, but it almost feels like something is out there purposely trying to make things difficult. Maybe Yuuri should visit a proper shrine, since they're here in Japan?

He offers the idea to Victor, who beams and immediately agrees. Unfortunately, it seems like everyone else participating has the same idea.

Okay, Yuuri can understand Seunggil getting desperate enough for this, given all the stress he's under. But JJ? Chris? Hasegawa?

"Don't judge me," she grumbles at him as she shuffles into the train next to him, pressing her purse to her chest defensively. "Amano's being a huge dick lately and I am taking every excuse I can to avoid him."

Yuuri gives her an odd look. "You know he's usually like that."

"He's usually like that to you," Hasegawa snaps. Yuuri blinks at the obvious frayed nerves in her tone. "Which I should feel worse about right now but honestly I'm more mad that my coach won't stand up for me the way Victor does for you!"

Victor, apparently done with pretending that he can't understand their conversation, finally cuts in with a furrowed brow. "Why not? He's being disruptive to your training at best."

Hasegawa blows a stray lock of hair from her eyes. "Seriously? I do not fit Shirogane's 'type' enough for me or my coach to be making demands and Amano damn well knows that. And he has the nerve to rub it in my face, too! Ugh, I hate him so much."

Yuuri feels Victor's eyes glance his way, and Yuuri only chances a small look himself to be sure of the concerned stare Victor's giving him. He swallows, considering his next words, but Chris takes this opportunity to interrupt with an arm snaking around Yuuri's chest and the other around Victor's waist.

"I will never be over how tight these places are," he whines, hooking his chin over Victor's shoulder. "Say, why didn't we all just take a bus or something? This will get scandalous very quickly for me."

"You wouldn't be the first and you're not going to be the last," Yuuri mutters under his breath as he gingerly pries off the finger hooked into his coat's breast pocket. "And calm down, it's just a few stops away."

"That's all it takes in the right situation." Chris winks as Hasegawa chokes and fumbles with her purse, face going red. "But you wouldn't know that, would you, Yuuri? Little stamina demon, you!"

"We're in public," Yuuri groans, glancing around. Thankfully, they're mostly surrounded by non-English speakers who just give the obvious foreigners curious looks and whisper to one another about how handsome they are. There aren't that many younger adults or foreign fans who are running off to shrines for good luck at the moment.

Hasegawa, the traitor, starts giggling. Yuuri has a brief moment of dread before she mimics, "Wouldn't be the first Yuuri-kun's been told that and it won't be the last~!"

"What did I ever do to you?" Yuuri hisses at her. She shrugs and looks out the window, a smugness in her face. Rude.

Victor laughs and pulls Yuuri in closer, mostly ignoring the way it presses Yuuri's temple to Chris' jaw. "Wow. You're getting very well-known for that sort of thing lately, aren't you, Yuuri?"

"Don't encourage them," Yuuri grumbles. The last thing he needs is more people teasing him over ridiculous things.

They stick together as the intercom calls for the doors to shut, careful to mind their own space as well as they can. When they get off about ten minutes and three stops later, the bright red arch of the torii is immediately obvious. Hasegawa ends up breaking off to go browse the shops, presumably waiting for her friends, so Yuuri ends up leading Victor, Chris, and a very lost-looking JJ with a nervous Isabella clinging to his arm.

JJ doesn't seem to notice the faint blank look that crosses Victor's face, immediately throwing a hand up to clap Victor between the shoulders loudly. "It's great we found you, eh? They would've had to hold up the whole competition if Isabella and I went missing! Imagine the chaos that would've happened then!"

Victor's face is perfectly placid as he responds, a little too smoothly, "I'm sure you would have managed."

JJ seems oblivious to Victor's cool tone, but Isabella narrows her eyes.

"Is there a reason you two came here?" Yuuri asks, and Isabella ends up frowning at him instead. "I mean, this isn't exactly a common tourist site?"

The suspicion in Isabella's eyes softens, not gone but not nearly as stark. "I wanted to see one of these in person! I thought that maybe I could read at least a few signs, but..."

But as always, kanji is a lot more complex than most people are prepared for. Isabella has features that make her blend in a little more here compared to Barcelona or even Sochi, so Yuuri's not too surprised that she got overconfident. Especially given who she's with. JJ does tend to end up biting off more than he can chew a lot of the time...

Of course, it means that Yuuri is forced to be the whole group's guide as they walk through the torii and head for the chouzuya. He reminds them of the washing procedure, going slow so that JJ and Isabella can keep up since they didn't get practice in Hasetsu like Chris and Victor have. A few stray cats that call the shrine home peer at them from around the base, familiar enough with visitors to brazenly mewl at them in demand for food and attention. Predictably, Chris croons back at them like the proud owner of a spoiled cat he is, making kissy-faces and, according to an amused Victor, lovingly teasing them with weird endearments; Yuuri suspects that Yuriy would be behaving similarly, if he came. Maybe not the faces, though.

As they go through towards the main shrine, Yuuri continues to find himself the center of attention through a discussion of how the prayers are made. A vending machine sits next to the donation box, a little out of place compared to the more traditional shrine Yuuri's used to in Hasetsu. Still, coins are fished out and passed around, and everyone takes turns to draw their fortunes and prepare to pray for what they wish. Yuuri opts out of participating despite Victor's attempts to cajole him into it, knowing his luck with draws and feeling uncomfortable with having a large-print curse or worse imprinted in his mind over the next week.

Between Isabella's excitement over her great blessing and JJ's small blessing, Yuuri startles when something tugs at his coat hem. He whips his head down for a better look and immediately gapes at the sight of three identical faces nipped pink with cold in pastel pink, purple, and blue knit hoods.

"Hi, Yuuri!"

"Long time no see!"

"Don't you ever check your phone?"

"Um." Yuuri is going to pretend that Victor isn't watching from the corner of his eye, shoulders shaking as he turns to busy his hands with the vending machine. "Hi... girls. Where are your parents?"

Axel huffs, letting go of Yuuri's coat hem to cross her arms. "It's just us and Mama!"

"And Mari and Minako-sensei, too!" Lutz adds brightly.

"They said it was a girls trip," Loop explains. "Since Mama wanted to see you skate in person last time, but Barcelona was way too far."

"Oh." So Yuuri should be expecting Yuuko hanging around with Mari and Minako. That's... something. "Well, I'm glad you all could make it."

The girls all preen and look entirely too smug over the fact. Yuuri is really going to have to make time for them later, isn't he? He technically hasn't seen them since July, after all...

"My, Yuuri," Chris laughs, his own prayer slip tucked into his pocket. Probably something good, then. "I keep forgetting you're popular with a certain crowd. I'm jealous! The little ones don't like me like they used to."

"Oh, you should see how the Novices follow him around," Victor sighs, fond and entirely too amused. "They're like little ducklings. It's precious!"

Yuuri turns towards Victor to give him a chastising look, but movement past their group catches his eye instead. He'd recognize that long ponytail anywhere, a vibrant chestnut-brown and whipping with quick movement, even if the cause this time is panic and not a spin or jump. "Girls, did you really just run off from your mother in a strange city you've never been to before?"

A long moment of awkward quiet, then a meek, "Maybe?" interrupted by an elbow and frantic whispers. Yuuri sighs.

As Yuuko finally catches sight of their group and recognizes Chris' and Victor's blond hair and height, she scrambles towards them with a face quickly cycling between fear, relief, and indignation. As soon as she's close enough, she's bent down and herding her appropriately sheepish daughters around her, lowly scolding them for wandering off even if they saw and recognized Yuuri before she did.

Isabella leans into JJ's shoulder and sighs, face soft and gooey as they take in the scene. "Little kids are so cute, even when they're being naughty."

"Don't encourage them," Yuuri grouses. "These rascals are the reason that video of me even exists and they've been bragging about it ever since."

JJ shrugs. "Well, God works in mysterious ways. Could've been a lot worse than making Victor quit skating to woo you properly, even if it pissed a lot of people off!"

The face Victor makes at that is the sort of mild Yuuri's learned means he's actually annoyed but too polite to voice it. Even knowing that, Yuuri still finds himself wincing at the reminder of how badly received Victor's initial foray into coaching was, the constant stream of what-ifs making Yuuri too stiff and nervous to even properly appreciate the fact Victor saw something worth his time in Yuuri that had nothing to do with attraction or romance.

"I am so sorry," Yuuko finally switches to English, face red as she stands and looks to the other adults in the group. "I hope we didn't interrupt anything important."

Victor shakes his head, smiling more genuinely to her. "We're almost done. We can all go back together, if you're up for it."

Yuuko nods, grateful. As the triplets immediately start to beg for coins for their own fortunes, Yuuri turns to Victor and glances down at the paper still in his hand.

"What was yours, anyway?" he asks.

"Nothing I've seen before." Victor smooths the paper out as Yuuri leans over, reading the slip and trying to ignore the odd twist in his stomach at the bold kanji up top. "I suppose it's good? Just strange."

Victor's fortune reads future blessing, with a warning about enduring hard times before the good can emerge.

 

* * *

 

"Wow," Mari says flatly, expression sour and tapping her arm with a pointedness Yuuri pretends he can't understand. "So your old coach wasn't kidding when he said Amano is a complete asshole even in a public place like this, huh."

She and Minako had caught the tail-end of Amano effectively lording over Hasegawa and her coach as men's and women's practices switched, taking the lull while the zamboni smoothed the ice to start a snide tirade about how they were wasting his time and he had better things to do. JJ nearly intervened with a puffed chest, but his parents held him back and Yuuri thought he overheard Alain mutter about nosiness inviting trouble. Everyone else -- even Seunggil and Emil, who didn't get to see Amano's temper flare at the end of the training camp like Chris and Victor have -- has kept their distance with obvious distaste, rink workers and JSF officials who are overly familiar with Amano's attitude doing their best to divert attention.

Yuuri almost wishes he could turn an equally blind eye to it, but after so long of being the main target of Amano's spite and the memories of Hasegawa's stressed face flashing in his mind, he finds he can't really turn off his reactions so easily. Victor practically had to drag him out to avoid a confrontation, the only thing finally stopping Yuuri being the concerned shadow in Victor's eyes and the spark of anger that assured Yuuri he wasn't crazy for wanting to step in even now that he's free from his obligations to sit and let Amano have at him.

Minako sighs and purses her lips, scowling back over her shoulder to the doors. "Twelve years of this, and he still thinks terrorizing people is the way to make them respect you. If I didn't know what kind of person Shirogane is, I'd wonder what kind of idiot lets that imp run around like this."

"I've done all I can," Victor grumbles, reaching up to run a hand through his hair. "None of the other JSF skaters' coaches feel secure enough in their positions to risk standing up to him. I don't understand. What kind of trouble can one man cause that scares people in completely different industries into compliance?"

The three of them flinch, automatically glancing around for eavesdroppers. When nothing turns up, they collectively sigh. Victor blinks in bewilderment at them, his grip around Yuuri's shoulders tightening.

"You really need to be careful with how you speak about him in public," Minako tells him lowly, eyes flashing. "Trust me, if you think he's bad now? He can be a hell of a lot worse."

Mari's about to add her own input when she freezes, her hands tense and her expression tight. For a moment Yuuri thinks Amano's behind them, but instead he hears Yanagi's familiar bright voice chirping, "Oh, Katsuki-senshu! Am I interrupting?"

Yanagi's gotten a lot more comfortable with Yuuri after their embarrassing talk, less prone to stuttering and fumbling as she tries to uphold a professional mien. The shift has led to Yuuri also being less nervous around her, realizing they weren't very different even if Yanagi has... unusual work history for a secretary of such a big company.

So Yuuri doesn't think much of it as he gives Mari a warning look and turns. "It's fine, Yanagi-san. What did you need?"

This time it's Minako who hisses in a breath. Yuuri blinks, looking back at Minako and Mari both who look like they've seen a ghost. Victor seems just as lost, eyes flicking between Yuuri's family and a confused Yanagi.

"Um," Yanagi manages, some of her nerves starting to resurface. "I was told to let you know to keep your schedule free at about eight tonight? For your conference."

Victor's sour, "Before skating again?" gets cut off by Yuuri's sigh as he slumps against Victor's side. At this point Yuuri is starting to think Shirogane's doing this for the sole purpose of irritating Victor, not because he actually feels the need to check in so frequently.

"I'll mark it down," Yuuri assures Yanagi. "Thank you. At least he's giving me some warning ahead of time now."

Yanagi smiles. "It's no trouble!" Her gaze turns to Mari and Minako, both still eyeing her. "U-um...?"

"Your posture's decently straight," Minako says, something odd in her tone. "Did you take ballet when you were little?"

Yuuri gives Minako a look. Really, was this line of questioning even necessary? Not everyone Yuuri interacts with has a ballet--

Yanagi makes a pinched face punctuated with a blush. "According to my parents, I did. I'm surprised you figured that out, though; I'm nowhere near as graceful or sure-footed as Katsuki-senshu!"

"Huh." Mari clicks her tongue, expression guarded. "Must've had a really good teacher, then. Minako-san here's one of the best, and it's not easy to impress her. Just ask Yuuri."

"We are not going over my entire ballet background when there's another prima who's determined to heckle me over picking figure skating over the stage," Yuuri grouses, remembering the glint in Lilia's eyes every practice. Minako, thankfully, snorts indelicately. "Stop making Yanagi-san nervous, you two. She's who Shirogane-san is having replace Amano's duties for me."

Mari's jaw tightens. "Is that so. How fortunate."

Okay, what is their problem? Yuuri knows very well why they dislike Amano. He can understand why they're both so wary of Shirogane. Even Enma makes some sense, based on how complacent she tends to be. But Yanagi? Really? She hasn't done anything!

Oddly, Minako is the one who sighs in what seems like defeat. "Mari-chan, that's enough. We'll talk about it later."

Confused, Yanagi gives Yuuri a worried look. Yuuri can only shrug apologetically, unsure as to why everyone seems so on-edge for reasons only known to them. Regardless, though, there's a lot at stake and Yuuri refuses to let this year and all its unnerving problems screw him over. He is not letting another Sochi happen to him again, not when everything rides on him winning gold.

 

* * *

 

"I have an announcement to make."

"You eloped with Katsuki months ago and insist on pretending to be engaged for publicity."

"What-- No." Victor shoots Yakov a disappointed look, which the old man snorts at and keeps sipping at his wine glass. "At least let me finish talking before making guesses, Yakov!"

Yakov's side looks strangely empty without Lilia's imposing figure, but without Yuriy present there is no need for her to come. It's a pity, all things considered. Lilia and her steely eyes are a good deterrent for the media storm Yuuri knows is about to descend on them all.

But Yakov is a veteran in this industry and has known Victor for most of his life, so he grumbles before setting down his glass and giving Victor his full attention. "Spit it out, then. We have a lot of preparation to do for getting everyone primed for the Olympics, and I'm not about to go easy on you just because you decided to give yourself and everyone else an ulcer over your time management skills!"

Victor laughs at the cursory grousing and glances aside to meet Yuuri's eyes, mischief and affection both twinkling bright in them. While it's true that this year's been a balancing act in terms of Victor's dual-career, neither of them can really deny that it's been exciting and new for everyone involved. Frantic, yes, and definitely stressful, but... fun.

"It's about that, actually," Yuuri says, and Yakov's brow immediately furrows as he darts a wary frown towards Yuuri. "Victor and I talked about this, and... well, we've decided to stay in Japan until the New Year."

Yakov stares. Yuuri tries not to sweat under the intensity of it.

"Vitya," Yakov starts, a low growl in the back of his throat that Victor blinks innocently at. "I heard that wrong in my old age, yes? You're not actually staying in Japan when you have Nationals in a week."

"Yuuri needs a coach more than Russia needs me," Victor says, breezy and to the point. Something about that phrasing splashes the beginnings of a fuming red to Yakov's face. Yuuri's beginning to think he might've been better off not being front-and-center to this, but he made a promise to stand by Victor and he's going to keep it come hell or high water. "And honestly, I am not keen on the idea of a repeat of last year. You wouldn't allow all that nonsense to happen to any of us, would you?"

"None of that nonsense would've happened in the first place, if it were me!" Yakov bites back. "What are you really up to, Victor? Last time you told me that was when I caught you cleaning out your locker! I'm not dealing with your grandmother getting on my back for not stopping you again, forget it!"

"You don't have to worry about her," Victor brushes off easily. "My family's aware of my plans this time. And it's not like opting out of Nationals will negatively affect me. I have to take care of myself, too!"

Yakov opens his mouth, pauses, then closes it again with renewed suspicion.

"You're talking like Georgiy," Yakov says slowly. "Georgiy, who is the only one of you hooligans who actually listens to me on a regular basis. You have always been his polar opposite. What are you planning, Vitya?"

Yuuri glances up to Victor. Victor meets it and quirks up a smile punctuated with a wink before turning his attention back to Yakov fully.

"I intend to retire from competitions immediately following the Olympics," Victor says. "And only to that point. I'll gladly still help with ice shows and choreography, but I want to maintain my abilities for the future and not run them into the ground."

Yakov's face twists, almost like it's instinctual, but he breathes in and fixes Victor with a stern look. "And this is your final decision?"

"Unless I have a reason to return, yes." Yuuri tries to ignore the way Yakov flits his eyes towards him briefly at that. Victor continues, a little softer, "As much as I hate to admit it, my father had a point all those years ago. The way I lived before wasn't sustainable and I was starting to really feel it. I don't want that for my future, or the future of others who will follow. Perhaps retiring while I'm still fit and capable will also bring about a change instead of waiting until I've been run dry."

Their compromise last year had been this, plain and simple: let Victor skate one more year, back in his home rink, and see for himself if he was really so eager to quit skating. If Victor still felt the same as he did when they argued in their hotel room in Barcelona, then Yuuri would accept his quick decision to retire and continue coaching. If not, if Victor found himself drawn right back in and only needed a rest year, then their contract would end and Yuuri would sign under a different coach. Most likely Yakov, given neither Yuuri nor Victor were bulit for long-distance relationships, half-wilted with longing even for a mere few weeks apart.

Victor was never intended or expected to uphold two different workloads for longer than that. They hadn't initially counted for the Olympics, but the reminder had them readjusting the length of the experiment. The FFKK would have Victor's head if he flounced right before the biggest competition of the sports world, and if they couldn't touch him they'd turn right on Yakov and his other skaters.

For a moment more, Yakov fixes them both with a steel-blue glower, but ultimately he sighs and reaches for his glass again.

"You, the brat I had to physically ban from the rink multiple times over the past sixteen years, turning around and advocating healthy restraint," Yakov snorts before knocking back the rest of his wine. "Now there's a surprise if I've ever seen one from you!"

Victor huffs a laugh as well, his hand on Yuuri's shoulder squeezing briefly. "Who understands its importance better than someone like me?"

"A sorry truth, that." Yakov pushes his empty glass away again, then jabs a finger at Victor's chest. "You both stick around afterwards, you hear? I'm not letting you run wild with your half-baked ideas on how this works! You're damned lucky Katsuki's got a good head on his shoulders, as much as he worries over nothing!"

Yuuri coughs. "Sorry, Coach."

"Quit apologizing if you've done nothing for it," Yakov immediately huffs at him. It's become something of a typical exchange between them over the past year, for as little as Yuuri tries to interrupt the others' practices, warm-ups, and cooldowns. Ultimately, Victor had been right about Yakov; he's got about as much bite to him as Nishigori does, big and burly with a grouchy demeanor but worth every accolade he has as a coach and mentor. Even if the chips had fallen the other way, Yuuri knows that Yakov would fight for Yuuri with everything he has, livid as he was while overseeing that Victor was handling the rewritten contract fiasco properly.

With Yakov's blessing, most of the stress that's been holding Yuuri upright loosens its hold on him. He leans into Victor's side, smiling and looking up at Victor when he starts to rub circles over Yuuri's shoulder, his own bright eyes clear and warm.

They've done it, Yuuri thinks, giddy and wistful. It's been hard, this year, but they've really gone and done what the rest of the world thought was crazy and a fool's goal. And no one, not even those who knew them best, managed to stop them. Never in his life would Yuuri think this would be a good thing, but Victor, as always, never fails to bring out the best in both of them.

"Oh, and one more thing!" Victor pulls the papers he's kept in his jacket pocket out with his free hand and waves them in the air, grinning wide and bright. "The ceremonies won't be until after the Olympics, but the boring parts are done and documented! Keep it quiet from the others, will you? See you in the new year!"

Yuuri yelps and yanks Victor back towards the doors, ignoring how Victor laughs and immediately starts dragging him along as they scramble out of the room and down the hall, away from the gobsmacked, reddening old man gawking in disbelief and increasing offense.

By the time they reach the elevator in the lobby, the tirade explodes with the force of a shaken champagne bottle.

"I thought you were better than this, Katsuki! Victor, get your ass back here right now! VICTOR--!!"

Chapter Text

Saint-Petersburg, Russia -- January 2018

 

Like so many good things in Yuuri's life, the giddiness of the very small, very quiet and quick signing of the marriage license in Nagoya vanishes all too soon. Not because of it seeming rushed or anything, given the only thing that's really changed is their signatures on an official document, but because of the rest of the world around them.

All-Japan is a stilted affair, one Yuuri would like to forget. Several times Victor is forcibly shooed away while Shirogane drawls about needing time alone with Yuuri and the other skaters to ensure that there's no outside influences; each time, either Enma or Yanagi has to usher him away. To make matters stranger, Shirogane takes to guiding Yuuri along with a large hand splayed between Yuuri's shoulders, fingertips curling into Yuuri's nape whenever he attempts to turn back and watch Victor go helplessly.

"If he could survive on his own in Hasetsu," Shirogane tells him, blasé and almost curt, "then he'll be fine here, Yuuri-kun. And it's healthier to give yourself some space, too. You can't expect to do well in life with someone breathing down your neck all the time."

Yuuri nearly says something in response, but bites his tongue and avoids eye contact for most of the outings. If he and Victor cling a little tighter when they reunite, Victor smoothing away the goosebumps starting to take residence on Yuuri's skin in Shirogane's presence, then that's their business.

When they return to Saint-Petersburg it's to a different kind of chaos. Sometime in the two weeks they'd been gone, Yuriy's shot up about five centimeters and has been very loudly complaining about his center of gravity shifting. This is the least of their problems, really, even if Yuriy ends up irritably demanding a second pair of eyes as he goes through his programs over and over to pinpoint where he needs to reset his axis.

Now that Yakov's in the know about their plans, he's drilling Victor harder than ever in the hopes of squeezing one last gold medal out of him. Victor goes along with it, pretending he doesn't notice the almost concerned looks that he gets from the others and playing into the illusion that Yakov's just bitter that Victor's had what seems to be a long working vacation. Again. Even Lilia scoffs and tells Yakov to show some maturity, lips pursed during practice and loose in irritation when she has tea with Victor's grandmother on the weekend. Nadezhda, who is also in the know because she'd skin Victor alive if he tried to keep something that big from his family for the second time in as many years, only laughs at the topic.

What she finds less amusing, though, is what Victor apparently shared with his family regarding Shirogane's actions over their time in Sapporo, because Nadezhda actually stops by the rink for the sole purpose of pulling Yuuri aside while Victor's busy with a sharp iciness to her eyes and a severity to her expression Yuuri would be more scared of if he didn't know the sour old woman liked him.

"Tell me, Yuka," Nadezhda opens with as soon as they're alone in a break room, knotted and callused fingers tapping against a thin arm. "This sponsor of yours -- what does he get out of keeping you to himself?"

Yuuri blinks at her, ignoring the familiar stir of nerves taking root low in his gut. "I... I don't understand? What do you mean by that?"

Nadezhda sighs, clicking her tongue. "I know his type -- far better than my grandson ever did, thank God. Soulless husks of men, they are. Doubt yours is any different, especially if he's playing the high-and-mighty role. But they're all the same when it comes down to it: put a little pressure on them and they lash out because people aren't supposed to ask questions, just obey. Sound familiar?"

He stares, dumbfounded. Sure, things have been... strained. Victor keeps playing dumb and clingy, only partially because he clearly doesn't like Shirogane. Most of it can be written off, but Yuuri suspects it's only a matter of time before even Shirogane loses his patience.

But the thing is that Yuuri knows Victor better, and he knows Victor is purposely making himself as unassuming as he can while maintaining his authority as Yuuri's coach. Which leads to a different, and just as unsettling question floating around in the back of Yuuri's mind: if Victor doesn't know about the rumors surrounding Shirogane and GIL Tech, then why does he feel the need to outsmart him and make him drop his guard?

"He wants something from you that he hasn't gotten yet, and our Vityen'ka has gone and planted himself in his way," Nadezhda continues when Yuuri stays quiet a moment too long. "He's pushed to the point you're seeing it yourself. But that's not necessarily a good thing in this situation."

Yuuri's brow furrows. "I don't understand. I mean, yes, he's being really weird lately, but..."

"Are you scared of him?"

Caught off-guard, Yuuri can only blink owlishly at Nadezhda. The old woman's face is even, despite the sharpness of her tone and the set of her shoulders.

"It's a simple question, Yuka," she insists. "Are you scared of this sponsor of yours, or do you think we are all being overly cautious because everything he's done and said so far looks bad? Answer truthfully instead of immediately jumping to defend his honor like you've been doing."

"I haven't--!" Yuuri starts, but a flash in Nadezhda's eyes silences him. His protests withered in his throat, he can't muster the conviction to hold her gaze and looks away, catching his cheek between his teeth and worrying at it. "Granny Nadya, it's a very complicated issue. I can't just... tell him to leave me alone and expect him to listen to me. That's not how it works."

"Yes, that is generally how that sort tends to be," Nadezhda huffs. "The fact you're avoiding my question seems answer enough. So I'll ask you this one last thing before I go and yell at Yasha for eating up what little free time my fool grandson allows himself these days: would you be okay with how things are if the roles were reversed?"

Before Yuuri can properly answer her second question, Nadezhda reaches up to pat his cheek and leaves the break room without another word. It's all Yuuri can do to stare at her as she goes, wondering why the tangled knot in his gut feels heavier than ever.

 

* * *

 

Europeans 2018 - Moscow, Russia

 

Almost as soon as the men's skaters steps out of the main arena following the short program, a rink official with an oddly pale face approaches Yakov and starts gesturing apologetically. Yuuri's plan of action is to ignore it, but that proves completely fruitless when Yakov snaps a hissed, "What!?" that booms a little too loudly in the back lobby.

"I'm very sorry, sir!" the rink official says again, looking harried at the new attention on them. "But we have orders from up top, and it's not like we can say no. It won't be more than an hour for the four of them, I assure you!"

"I asked to have this sorted out before any of mine stepped on that ice!" Yakov snaps, fuming. "I was given an all-clear, and now three days later you're saying the opposite?!"

Yuriy watches the exchange quiet down to angry whispers with a suspicious narrowing of his eyes, drinking slowly from his water bottle. While he's still on strict orders to take it easy, he hasn't made it secret that he despises it; it's more than clear that he's on wary lookout for anything that might hurt his chances for the Olympic team further than his forced break. Of course, it doesn't stop him from being grouchy about it, but he's still dominating most of the competition here even with reduced jumps and quickly adjusted choreography.

"What the hell's going on over there?" he grumbles around the mouthpiece of his water bottle. "More stupidity from the federation assholes?"

Victor sighs and drops his hand to Yuriy's shoulder. "Most likely. Yakov will handle it, don't worry. Just stay focused on what you need to do for now."

"I don't need you to tell me that, old man," Yuriy grouses, making a cursory attempt at swatting Victor's hand away. "Ugh. It's been one thing after another this whole season, I swear. What are we, cursed?"

Unable to resist, Yuuri turns to Yuriy with an expression of mild concern and keeps his voice light as he asks, "Would you like me to get in contact with the priest again?"

Yuriy promptly goes white and sputters, coughing on water. "What the hell, Katsudon!? No! Keep that old freak away from me!"

Victor laughs, relocating his hand to Yuriy's flyaway-ridden nest of braids. "Aw, but he's been so helpful to you, Yurio! He won't mind!"

"You!" A more serious attempt at swatting Victor away is immediately made. "Shut up!"

"It really isn't a bad idea, Yura," Georgiy adds, and Yuriy turns to him with the most offended look of betrayal Yuuri thinks he's ever seen on the kid. "He is better trained in the art of curses than any of us. If we are to properly combat whatever dark magic is upon us, we must be prepared to make allies even of those we fear."

"Whose side are you on?" Yuriy complains, shuffling out of Victor's reach when his swatting about fails him.

Yuuri is sure that had they been left alone, this teasing would continue and the matter would be forgotten, but Yakov finally turns to stomp towards them with frustration and irritation radiating off him. A manila folder sticks out against the dark fabric of his overcoat, tucked under his arm. Yuuri carefully nudges Victor's arm to grab his attention, and quickly enough the goofing around dies down into seriousness.

"You three need to head off to the hotel to get Mila, then come back to the clinic," Yakov grouses as he stops in front of them, slapping the folder to Victor's chest. "Damn lazy bureaucrats waited until now to say all of you need to get tested. Yes, Yura, that means you, too!"

"I just had a check-up last week!" Yuriy whines. "Why do I need to do another one?"

"Because the ISU says they don't trust me or the FFKK to be honest about your results since you'd been prescribed medication." Between Yakov's growl and Yuriy's bristling, Yuuri's not sure who's more insulted by the implications of that. "I don't know why they waited this damn long to decide that, but we need them off our backs immediately. Get it done and then we can give them hell when we prove they wasted our time."

Georgiy clicks his tongue as Victor hands him his papers with a tight expression. "They are really determined to find some sort of leverage over us right before the Olympics, aren't they? How shameful."

"I'm not surprised they're targeting us over others," Victor sighs in tired agreement. He narrows his eyes at one particular line in his own paperwork. "It's about instigating scandals, not maintaining integrity. Why not aim for stirring up trouble in the last Olympic gold medalist's rink instead when it creates more traffic?"

Something about this isn't sitting right with Yuuri, though. He's not sure what it is -- stress, general anxiety, the echoes of past warnings bouncing between his ears -- but he finds himself wondering about the strange timing of it all. Yes, everyone will be tested at the Olympic village as a last-minute precaution, but at this rate Victor's getting pulled aside at every one of his competitions for one reason or another, either because of this or...

The knot that's made itself at home in Yuuri's gut over the past few weeks aches like it's petrified to lead. After all, if the rumors are even partially true, then this wouldn't be the first time Shirogane's pulled something like this.

"Yuuri?" Victor's touch startles him more than it should, blue eyes bright with concern. "Talk to me. What's happening in your head?"

Wary, Yuuri shakes himself out of it and forces up a weak smile. "It's... nothing. Really." To distract Victor from further questioning, Yuuri presses a kiss to Victor's cheek, fingers almost unconsciously hooking on Victor's jawline. "You're not here as a coach, Victor, so don't worry about me. Just get this out of the way so you can focus."

Yuuri has a call of his own to make, after all. One that's long overdue.

 

* * *

 

"I'm sorry, Katsuki-senshu, but Shirogane-san has asked that no one disturbs him at the moment," Yanagi tells him, sounding apologetic. "I can take a message, though! Would you like me to?"

Yuuri bites back a groan as he rakes his fingers through his hair. Of all the times for Shirogane to decide he's not going to be available, he chooses now? Really? "Is he even in?"

There's a beat of silence. "I'm not allowed to say." So that's probably a no. Wonderful. "But he's been very busy this week, I can say that much! He'll most likely get back to you once things settle down. Unless this is an emergency...?"

"Probably not an official one, no," Yuuri sighs, pulling back the curtains to look out over the snow-covered skyline of Moscow. "But the sooner I can talk to him, the better."

Mila had been just as shocked as the others when they came and collected her, pulled from a drama marathon she and her friends were having in the Crispino twins' suite. Yuuri had been invited in while Mila was gone, but despite Sara's pleading and the suspicious look Michele shot him over her shoulder Yuuri knew he needed to settle what was more important before anything else. Of course, he hadn't anticipated Shirogane pulling away again, burying himself in work right when Yuuri needs to speak to him most.

He could push, Yuuri thinks as his grip tightens on his phone. Shirogane's said many times over the years that Yuuri was free to reach out to him whenever he needed, and this definitely counts as a situation that calls for it. But is Yanagi going to get the blame for interrupting Shirogane's work? Will he somehow end up having to listen to Amano rant and fume at him again?

But on the other hand, what happens if he doesn't push? If something happens to Victor that could've been avoided if Yuuri just talked to Shirogane like he's supposed to...

Yanagi clicks her tongue, the faint tap of a keyboard on her end of the line. "Well, if you can wait another fifteen minutes, he has an opening in his schedule then? I mean, it won't be like having an appointment, but at least you can get one arranged if it needs more time?"

Yuuri doesn't like it, but there's no point in getting upset at Yanagi over it. "That should be enough, thank you. It's just... strange, what's happening over here."

It should be as simple at that, even if the uneasiness twists around Yuuri's gut while he waits. He paces, teeth catching his thumbnail, brow furrowing and finding himself glancing towards the bright numbers on the tableside clock often enough it feels like time slows just to spite him. He's just being paranoid, right? It wouldn't be the first time his mind's played tricks on him. Yuuri knows better by now than to trust his perception of the world around him. Hell, even with a world record and a few gold medals to his name now, Yuuri still finds it difficult to break the habit of referring to himself as a dime-a-dozen skater when asked.

And besides, what would Shirogane gain out of Victor's reputation being sullied? Even if he doesn't like Victor, it's not like his career is any of Shirogane's business. He's just being overprotective because he knows how easily public opinion can shift, that's it.

Unless that is what Shirogane gets out of it: proving a point. Minako had pointed out more than once how awfully convenient it was that the one person who openly insulted Shirogane his first time in Hasetsu had been guilty of taking advantage of people, as well. Or how Mari muttered behind closed doors that the other onsen owners, even those who were better established than they were, found themselves hemorrhaging clients faster than they could replace them. All of them had turned Shirogane away at the door when he showed up all those years ago, the news that sprouted all the rumors about him fresh in their minds. They all eventually fell under the changing times, closing one by one, leaving Yuutopia Katsuki as the sole survivor between Shirogane's constant trickle of business associates and his own breaks from his work. Yuuri wonders even now what happened to them after they left Hasetsu, especially those who'd tried their hardest to stay open purely through historical significance. The Miura family's youngest child had been a classmate of Yuuko's, but they'd left before the end of elementary school. And the Ya--

Yuuri nearly drops his phone as he redials, the lead in his gut from earlier doubling in weight and heart stopping.

"Yanagi-san," Yuuri says when the call connects, hoping desperately that he's wrong, "You... you said when we first met that it was 'something like that' when Victor asked if you were a fan of mine. Why is that?"

For what feels like a long moment, Yanagi stays silent though Yuuri can hear her typing slow and the faint buzz of a heating fan on the other end of the line. Then, quiet and a little overly meek, "O-oh, um. You see, my... family came from Hasetsu? It's actually kind of funny, they ran an onsen, too! They were--"

"Really proud of it," Yuuri finishes, voice distant as he drops into the hotel room's armchair, his knees giving out under him. His free hand grips the armrest, knuckles white. "One of the oldest in town, and the largest. Very traditional."

And they'd kicked up a ridiculous amount of fuss over Mari running around with bleached hair and Yuuri being put front-and-center in Minako's classes as an example of the rewards of diligent practice. They'd been among the first to fall, reputedly because they had denied Shirogane entrance when he arrived with a sneer and a threat to call the authorities. Is... Is this what became of them after all these years?

A little stunned by the interruption, Yanagi continues, "Yeah, that. My dad said it was some dumb curse that cost us the onsen, but I always figured he didn't want to admit to refusing to adapt to the times changing. He's been really mad about me having this job when I told him, too, you know? First job I have I can actually talk about and he tells me it's better to stay poor! Honestly!"

It isn't a weird coincidence. This isn't some bizarre nightmare.

"...Katsuki-senshu? Are you still there?"

"Yanagi-san, I think--" Yuuri shakes his head, feeling the fog creep through his skull as he fights to keep his breathing steady and voice calm. "Can you... make an appointment instead? Something-- something came up."

As soon as Yanagi agrees and sets aside a time for later tomorrow afternoon, Yuuri forces himself to stand and set his phone aside. His mind's racing as his hands wrap around his stomach, fists wrenching in the fabric. It's too much for him right now, far too much to deal with alone, but who in the world can he even talk to that won't put them at risk, too?

Everyone Yuuri knows here is either out sight-seeing, staying in to avoid the cold, or are stuck in a clinic for some last-minute scheduling changes in testing. He's hours behind Phichit, who's probably preparing for an afternoon training session right now. The same goes for anyone in Hasetsu, and there Yuuri has no clue if Shirogane happens to be around and overhearing. Besides that, what could Yuuri even say? 'Oh, by the way, the new secretary Shirogane has is Yanagi-san's daughter? Do you remember her, because I sure didn't!'

--Shoot, that's why Minako and Mari were acting so strangely around her at Nagoya, isn't it? Minako likely recognized Yanagi's face even grown, and Mari knew Yanagi's parents well enough to piece it together on her own. Yuuko hadn't, the brief time she'd crossed paths with Yanagi, but Yuuko had been distracted and never knew the other onsen owners as well as Yuuri's family did. Would Yuuri's parents have realized it, too, if they came? Is Yuuri overreacting to this, even though he saw how unnerved Minako and Mari were?

...But Minako and Mari didn't know about Yanagi's time as a soap girl, which is how Shirogane found her. It's way too convenient to be a coincidence, but... the alternative is...

Yuuri's stomach seizes, lurching as the last threads of his composure frays apart. He's in the bathroom before he realizes it, coughing and hunched over. He can hear his heart thump wildly between his ears, feel it slam against his ribs.

He remembers Nadezhda's frank, to-the-point question a few days ago. He'd hesitated then, but now?

Now, Yuuri has an answer. And Yuuri wonders, a stray dark thought, if Victor's family would be as kind to him as they've been if they knew just what Yuuri's damned their son to by association.

 

* * *

 

Perhaps hanging up so strangely on Yanagi caused more commotion than Yuuri's willing to deal with, because his phone rings with Shirogane's personal number far sooner than Yuuri's prepared for.

Victor's not back yet, caught with the others in a media snare perched right outside the clinic that had apparently been tipped off due to some keen-eyed journalists carefully watching Yakov after the short program. From what Yuuri's seen based off of Yuriy's overzealous fanbase hovering around and posting about it after he'd cleaned himself up, it might be another good half-hour or so before any of them can make it back.

Still, the panic knots itself around Yuuri's throat as he shakily swipes to connect the call, hoping that he hasn't gotten Yanagi in trouble. She's clearly been through enough as it is.

When Yuuri brings the phone up to his ear, the other end of the line is quiet save for a light, even tap against glass. It isn't until Yuuri's voice cracks a weak greeting that he finally hears, low and smooth, "Ah, so you decide to speak after all. I was wondering why you suddenly felt the need to interrupt my day, Yuuri-kun."

He flinches, grip tightening on his phone. The tone is unlike Yuuri's ever heard directed at him before. The words come automatically, placating and deferent, "I, um. I'm sorry. I just... I needed to speak with you, and..."

"And what was so important that you insisted on scaring Yanagi so?" Shirogane huffs, "She's a pitiful thing, you know. Forced into working young to help her parents with their debts, fell into the wrong crowd. But I've made sure you never knew what that was like, so perhaps it's my own fault for pampering you so much."

Unwittingly, it's Amano's sneered insults that come to mind instead of Yuuri's own methods of self-flagellation. It's true that Shirogane has been overly generous with him in the past, but in light of what Yuuri's learned... is that really a good thing?

"...Sorry." Yuuri closes his eyes. "I panicked. Things have been... odd lately. With Victor."

It doesn't occur to Yuuri until after he says it that the way it's phrased makes it sound like he's fighting with Victor, but before he can correct it something in Shirogane's mannerisms shift.

"Oh?" Some of the more familiar gentleness returns to Shirogane's voice, along with a curious uptick that makes Yuuri's skin crawl. "Trouble in paradise, then? He did seem more overbearing than last time at Nationals."

Despite himself, Yuuri forces himself to play along. "Something... like that, I guess." He glances warily towards the hotel room door. If only Yuuri had a way of keeping updated with Victor's whereabouts in here, not wanting to be caught off-guard. Or at least a way to do it without interrupting Shirogane, who'll undoubtedly hear it if Yuuri tries to switch apps to check on social media. "He keeps getting pulled away, and it's... frustrating that he can't seem to do anything about it."

A considering hum sounds on Shirogane's end. "Yes, the Russian federations are notoriously hard on their little wind-up toys, aren't they? They want instant perfection without the side-effects. Your Vicchan is the closest they've had to that in a long, long time. It's no wonder they're so possessive of him."

Yes, Yuuri's well-aware of the very vocal minority who still insist that Victor being with Yuuri is a downgrade to what he had before; some nights, the bad ones, Yuuri half-believes them. But Yuuri did not spend two years living with the man, at first as bewildered as any of them before Victor finally got through his thick skull, to let a bunch of jealous has-beens decide who is "good enough" for Victor instead of letting him decide on his own.

Shirogane doesn't like Victor; Yuuri knows this all too well after the past several months. But he clearly still sees value in him despite that, and that is what Yuuri has to believe in more than anything else right now.

The doorknob rattles suddenly, startling Yuuri as he snaps his head up towards it. Yuuri hadn't bothered with the second lock, not being sure if he'd end up napping or busy when Victor returned, but now he finds himself wishing he had. At the very least, Victor sounds like he's alone. Perhaps Mila convinced Yuriy to join her for the drama marathon with the Crispino twins and Emil, then.

He almost misses it when Shirogane clicks his tongue and says, offhand, "And here I thought I'd have to do more convincing to get you to agree to the deposit, if even your Vicchan's this desperate to get away. How serendipitous."

Yuuri freezes mid-step for the door, glasses slipping as he feels his expression shift. "...Deposit?"

"For the apartment, of course," Shirogane says breezily as Victor walks through the door and calls for Yuuri, casual and a little huffy at first but stopping dead in his tracks at the look on Yuuri's face. "Your lease starts in March. Wonderful view of the bay, I promise."

View of the--? Where the hell is Shirogane trying to make them relocate to?! It sure doesn't sound like Hasetsu! "Hey, I never asked for--!"

Shirogane laughs, just loud enough for Victor to recognize his voice. Victor's face twists, features going cold in realization, but Shirogane keeps going. "Oh, Yuuri-kun, don't you understand yet? Precious things need to be treated accordingly, or they become useless. See you both after the Olympics. I'm sure we will have much to discuss before your move here."

And just like that, Shirogane hangs up with no allowance to argue or fight back. Yuuri stares at his phone, eyes bugged behind his smeared glasses, as it dims and flickers off.

"...Yuuri?" Victor tries, a strain in his voice that sounds so far past unsettled that all the horror from Yuuri's earlier revelations start to resurface with a vengeance. "What was that about?"

There's... no choice anymore. All the rumors, the warnings, the signs, even the blatant evidence in the form of Yanagi and the fact he's pulled this out of what seems like nowhere--

"Victor," Yuuri starts, scrapping together what he can of his courage. "I-- There's... something I have to tell you. About Shirogane."

Chapter Text

Tokyo, Japan - February 2018

 

They don't get to revel in the Olympics for long. Barely twelve hours after closing ceremonies, Yuuri's phone chimes with an alert for a two-ticket flight from Incheon to Haneda, business-class. It's accompanied by a too-casual reminder of the apartment lease Shirogane brought up last time, and how a walkthrough was only proper and therefore mandatory. The timestamp for the tickets is in a little over five hours, and with a four-hour train ride they're forced to pack hurriedly and as incognito as possible; the less they're recognized and stopped, the easier this will be.

But Haneda means Tokyo, and Tokyo means that Shirogane's likely trying to force them to settle in easy reach rather than all the way in the peace and quiet of Hasetsu where Yuuri's actual family resides. Yuuri doesn't mind Saint-Petersburg and he hadn't minded Detroit all that much, either (especially because he hadn't actually lived in the main city proper) but Tokyo is a monster of a metropolis for a reason and he has never found himself fully comfortable there.

This time, it's not even for a skating event or some uncomfortable photoshoot. This time, it's to avoid being stuck there.

He and Victor are barely out of baggage claim when he sees a familiar face in the crowd, staid and expressionless in her old-fashioned suit. Yuuri nudges Victor with a squeeze of his hand, and points her out with  the jut of his chin.

Victor squints, lips thinning. "...The older woman. Enma, was it?"

Yuuri hums in affirmation. "That's her. I hope I didn't get Yanagi in trouble because of the questions I was asking last time. I wasn't thinking."

"She's a tough one, even if her taste in men is questionable," Victor says. He tightens his grip on Yuuri's hand just barely enough to be noticeable, especially given his face doesn't shift from its cool friendliness. "But between that gasbag lawyer and what you've said Shirogane is more than capable of, I'm now wondering if this one's hiding something, too."

When they approach, Enma gives them both a long look that gives away nothing. She glances down at their bags, then them, before turning on her heel with a curt, "Follow me, if you will."

Victor raises a brow at her exit, understandably wary considering the circumstances. Yuuri can only shrug and lean in closer, biting his cheek. For how little she tends to get involved, Enma is more of a wild card than any of them. He doesn't know what to expect from her any more than he did before. Then again, Yuuri had been stupid enough to blindly trust Shirogane all these years. What good is his judgement?

A part of him still balks at the thought. Shirogane had always seemed so generous with him and his family, minus... well, everything to do with Amano. Had that simply been part of his revenge, rubbing it in the others' faces what kind of business they could've gotten if they'd looked the other way? Is everything Yuuri's known for so much of his life one giant, convoluted lie? And even if it is, what was the point of letting it go on this long? What was the point of sponsoring Yuuri, completely altering how the JSF and its skaters worked? What was the point of anything he did for Yuuri specifically?

It's just-- he's never felt so used before.

The car Enma leads them to is sleek black and luxury, much like the cars Shirogane rents for his trips in Hasetsu. The pop of the trunk as it opens echoes loud in the parking deck, lined with only about two-dozen other, similar vehicles. Their larger luggage takes up most of the trunk, wheel carriages framing a small space that might fit one of their carry-ons. Carry-ons that contain very precious and valuable medals and skates, as well as their phones.

"I'd rather keep it on me, thank you," Victor says primly, raising his brows at Enma in challenge.

Enma gives Victor another look, just as unreadable as before. "If that's what you wish, Mr. Nikiforov. Katsuki-kun?"

Yuuri flinches, his grip on his carry-on strap tightening. "I'll... keep it with me, too."

"Very well." The trunk closes with a snap. "Please seat yourselves in the back, as we are heading directly to the administrative office. It will not be long, twenty minutes at most."

Yuuri bites his lip, exchanging glances with Victor. The hand Victor has tucked into the crook of his elbow tightens, but behind his cool façade his eyes spark with a more honed version of the defiance he usually shows Yakov. They have about half-an-hour before meeting with Shirogane, and for all the times Yuuri's had to do this in the past he's never been as fraught with nerves as he is now.

 

* * *

 

Only once has Yuuri ever been to GIL Tech's headquarters, back when he was young and barely understood why people reacted the way they did to Shirogane. He still remembers the way so much of the staff lined up along the halls, hands together in front of them, the wave of low bows as Shirogane passed with his head high and barely acknowledging them. Yuuri had walked just behind him then, gripping tight to the strap of his sports bag and feeling too self-conscious of all the eyes on them that he didn't dare look up until the halls thinned to Shirogane's hand-selected office staff upstairs. Even then, they'd been very quiet and spoke only when addressed or necessary, so Yuuri shrunk in on himself and did his best to not disturb their work.

There's something to be said of childhood naïveté, taking so much at face value and never looking deeper. The deference he saw back then from the workers -- was it proper respect, or was it always fear?

The building looks no different now, even if the research hospital and laboratory built around it is a new feature. The large windows of the high-rise office building reflect the Tokyo's skyline even at this angle of the city, each floor framed in solid concrete painted a stark white. It looks as sterile and clean as a building like this could be, fitting all too perfectly into its role.

Their luggage left behind, Enma leads them through the halls with clicking heels and set shoulders, only turning back once she's in the elevator and waiting for them to catch up. The silence from her nips at Yuuri's composure, tearing it in small shreds at the pace of a leaking faucet. Even she's not usually this stoic, not meeting anyone's eyes and instead staring ahead with a detachment Yuuri's not used to seeing. The doors close and the number for the administrative floor lights up with a chime and a robotic chirp announcing their destination before the elevator shifts and rises, sleek enough to be barely noticeable.

Victor's hand brushes the curve of his elbow again, fingers curling in between his arm and his ribs. Yuuri swallows and lifts his arm just enough for Victor's hand to slip the rest of the way in, and the two of them slowly press together side-to-side.

As the elevator starts to slow with their approach to the administrative floor, Enma finally speaks.

"Regardless of what happens, Katsuki-kun, know you are in a privileged position." Yuuri stares at her face reflected in the sleek metal of the doors, stunned. Still, she continues, "Stay in his good graces, and you will be able to do more."

Victor's hand tenses and his reflection narrows its eyes, but the chime alerts them of their floor. The robotic voice warns them to be careful of where they put their feet ushers them out into the lobby, the decor darker and more noticeably modern compared to downstairs.

Enma takes the lead again, heels clicking against the tile, and reluctantly they follow. Everything seems oddly empty for a weekday morning, barely even the tap of quick typing or low-spoken phone calls being made behind the rows of closed doors. Perhaps they've been soundproofed, or perhaps a number of them are on break or... something. Either way, the quiet is unsettling.

Soon enough the hall turns into another lobby, framed in glass. Inside at a desk is Yanagi, who looks smaller and more withdrawn than Yuuri remembers her being last time. Guilt gnaws at him, and he swallows. He'd hoped she didn't get punished for sharing what she did a few weeks ago, but from the lack of energy and the gloomy cloud almost palpable over her even from here, it's looking like more and more of a possibility.

Enma doesn't slow her pace, pushing the door open and allowing him and Victor to pass before letting it close shut behind them. Yanagi doesn't look up, still staring at her computer screen and typing periodically.

"Good morning," Yanagi greets, tone weak. "Chairman Shirogane has his morning block filled. If you really need to speak with him, please come schedule an appointment."

Enma's face softens by a hair. "Don't worry about us, Yanagi-san. We will see ourselves in."

Yanagi startles, blinking as she finally looks up. For a brief moment she seems to relax, but as soon as her eyes shift over to where Yuuri and Victor stand her frame stiffens and she turns back to her monitor, not even saying a word. It stings, but Yuuri can't find it in him to blame her. Best case scenario, she told her parents about their conversation and they had a very long, very painful talk about their life in Hasetsu so long ago; worst case, she'd talked to Shirogane instead and who knows what he'd tell her, if he managed to lie so successfully to Yuuri's and his family's faces all these years.

They're given no more time to dwell on it, as Enma inclines her chin to grab his attention once more before walking around Yanagi's desk. A few paces away stands the door to Shirogane's office, completely blocked from sight with its solid dark-stained wood and the brass nameplate on the door. It's just as imposing as it had been all those years ago, cold and professional and uninviting. Nothing like the man Yuuri thought he knew.

Enma knocks twice, a cursory announcement of her presence, before reaching for the handle and twisting it down to open. The only real light in the office is from the floor-to-ceiling windows behind the desk, and despite himself Yuuri freezes at the sight of the executive office chair's silhouette casting a long shadow across the floor towards them.

Yuuri hasn't seen Shirogane since nationals, but so much has changed in those two months between then and now. A part of him desperately wants the image of the eccentric wealthy businessman he'd known for so much of his life again, but he can't shake the knowledge of what he's learned so easily.

The door clicks shut behind them -- then again with the activation of the lock.

He and Victor immediately whip around, on the defensive, but Enma doesn't look up as Amano struts out from the corner, grinning viciously at them the way he had when he'd heard his actions got Mari detained all those years ago. Yuuri freezes in place, heart dropping in realization.

"I told you your luck would run out eventually, brat," Amano sneers, more smug and self-satisfied than he's been in a long time. "Go on. Run to Shirogane-san like you always do. See where that gets you now."

A low scoff from the desk chair cuts in, reminding Yuuri of the mastermind behind this meeting. Shooting Enma a betrayed look, Yuuri swallows and turns back to the desk trying to keep himself together.

Shirogane is looking over some files on his desk, and barely even looks up as he addresses Yuuri with a drawled, "Take your seat, Yuuri-kun. We have much to discuss before we head out to see your new place."

"You need to lock us in to tell us to take a seat?" Victor shoots back without hesitation, expression tight. "That's hardly welcoming or good manners."

There's barely a pause as Shirogane clicks his tongue, a hand pressing down the papers between his fingers. "Yuuri-kun -- get your Vicchan to behave, or I'll have to discipline him for you. You really do spoil that thing."

"Victor is not a thing!" Yuuri finally snaps, the many months of trying to be diplomatic about this behavior worn down to its breaking point. "And he's not Vicchan! Stop calling him that!"

The sharp edge of a folder jabs Yuuri between his shoulders with the intensity of something much pointier. Yuuri yelps as he whips his head back around to come face-to-face with Amano's glare and snarl.

"You will sit in the chair Shirogane-san so kindly offered you," Amano growls at him, "and if your foreign mongrel has any good sense rattling around in that empty head of his, he'll shut up and do as he's told."

Chair is apparently singular here, because there is currently only one leather armchair set in front of Shirogane's desk. The other space, where its mirror should be if the room were properly balanced, is empty save for a single cushion which, no matter how a person sits, makes it impossible to see over the desk.

The intent is obvious here, and despite the lead weight in his gut Yuuri's blood boils.

"I am not sitting anywhere unless Victor has a seat," he bites back. "He deserves some basic--!"

"Yuuri-kun," Shirogane cuts in, tone sharp and cold in a way that startles him silent. "I won't ask again. Take your seat, and leave your foreign show dog where he belongs."

He hesitates, glancing between Shirogane, the chair, and Victor with increasing distress. He probably shouldn't push his luck, but this is beyond insulting and he refuses to stand for it. But if he doesn't listen, does that mean Victor gets punished instead?

Victor squeezes his hand, and as Yuuri glances back to him he nods a fraction towards the chair. He's planning something, Yuuri knows; as unlike him as it is to acquiesce to such a demand, any bewilderment Yuuri would have at his actions now is put to rest with the spark in Victor's eyes, honed and focused in the same way he's driven so many up the wall over the years.

Reluctantly, Yuuri takes in a breath and obeys, taking the few steps forward and away from Victor to lower himself into the armchair. The leather creaks with his weight, uncomfortably loud with the eyes of four other people on him waiting to settle. His eyes flick to Victor again, apologetic and guilty.

Only to bite back a squawk as Victor perches himself on the arm of the chair, long legs folding over Yuuri's lap and purposely leaning against Yuuri's frame. On instinct Yuuri reaches to balance Victor with a hand settling around his hips, and Victor wraps his own arms around Yuuri's shoulders with a pointed, overly sweet, "Thank you, darling."

Shirogane seems unimpressed with Victor's little show of defiance, expression unchanged. He stares at them, a single finger tapping against the glass of his desk, before the familiar corner of his mouth ticks up once more. With a flick of his wrist, he snaps his fingers.

Victor is yanked out of his arms before Yuuri can even react, a fist in his hair pushing his head down enough that he tumbles off and hits the desk as he goes. Yuuri tries to jump out of the chair after him, but the flash of security blues and the bite of blunt nails digging into his shoulder keeps him still and forces him to witness Victor's humiliation. Hissed Russian swears fill the office as Victor cradles a knee with one hand and tries to grab at the hand still tight around his hair with the other, but he's pushed down lower until there's a noticeable thunk against the rug.

"You're cute, Vicchan, but not that cute," Shirogane drawls. Yuuri's attention turns back to him, torn between horror and fury. "Do be more careful. You'll make Yuuri-kun cry if that pretty face of yours gets bruised."

Victor hisses out another colorful swear at him, but it's muffled in the rug.

Amano pulls him back against the chair and grins down at him, eyes as wild as they'd been those terrible nights two years ago. The folder Amano jabbed him with only moments ago slaps down in front of Yuuri, already cleanly marked with his name and a list of dates going as far back as June of 2005 -- the date that the original sponsorship contract was discussed with Yuuri's parents.

"What the hell is this," Yuuri manages to bite out, jaw tight as he stares at the folder with disgust. "Do you really think I'm going to want anything to do with you after all this--!?"

"I'm afraid you don't have a choice in the matter," Shirogane says simply, leaning forward as his fingers lace together in an arch. "You see, I have an investment to bank, and it requires your cooperation, Yuuri-kun. Be a good boy for me, won't you?"

The comment, condescending as it is, stuns Yuuri silent. How is he even supposed to react to that?

Shirogane takes his silence as obedience, and for a brief moment there's a flash of the man Yuuri thought he knew. It's more upsetting than a complete betrayal; in some ways, Shirogane's fondness for him is actually genuine. But like this, and at this expense...

He yelps as his chair is shoved against the desk, the arms trapping him further in place. A pen is pushed towards him, and the burn of so many unwanted eyes on him stings sharp.

"Don't sign anything, Yuuri," Victor manages from his position, teeth grit. Yuuri gives him a pleading look Victor can only barely return, the arch of his nose buried firmly into the fibers of the rug. "No contract is viable in these circumstances. They damn well know this!"

Amano snorts. "And who will the courts believe? A man who has given so much of his own time and money to supporting a hick-town hero? Or some painfully average pretty-boy who's retiring to get away from all the drug testing?"

Yuuri's heart stops and Victor goes still. Shirogane huffs a laugh and waves his hand.

"You have to admit it doesn't look very good on you, Vicchan," he says as the security guard loosens their grip on Victor's hair, finally allowing him to straighten his back. "An unbeatable record, and then once you cross paths with my Yuuri-kun, you keep trying to weasel out of the career you've been so heavily involved in for your whole life. It's almost as if you're trying to hide something."

"Hiding what?" Victor shoots back, unimpressed. "I have more backing than you do -- and I didn't have to dirty my hands for it like you did."

Amano cuts in, almost sounding bored, "Yes, you are so very innocent, seducing Chairman Shirogane's little charity case and trapping him in a coaching contract with laughably vague terms and conditions. There's nothing suspicious about that timing at all."

The edited contract Anatoliy and Elena recommended Victor present must've not been enough. Or maybe Amano got his hands on a copy of the original before they brought it up, probably in anticipation for this. And then building his case against Victor stronger by constantly having him dragged off for testing this past year? He had to have known what it'd look like: a seed of doubt planted and slowly growing in the eyes of the public, and leaving it up to Yuuri to let it wither or flourish depending on how much he cooperates.

And unfortunately, Yuuri has a very good idea of what all this is ultimately about.

"Fine," Yuuri forces out, jaw tight. He reaches for the folder, hands shaking and drawing in a steadying breath. "...I'll read it. But leave Victor alone, please."

Shirogane shrugs. "I am merely defending myself. Surely you're not going to ignore how argumentative he's been, or that he's refused every offer and gift I've sent to smooth things over for your sake?"

From the corner of his eye, Yuuri sees the sour face Victor makes at Shirogane for that comment. It's not true -- it'd only been the once, every other interaction being Victor merely holding his ground -- but again, Yuuri knows better than to think that Amano won't continue to twist things in his favor if it comes to it.

The first paper in the folder visible is a flyer for the high-rise apartment complex Shirogane supposedly put the deposit down for, with further details about the actual apartment itself. For the area it's spacious, taking up a third of the floor it's on. It's no wonder why Shirogane picked it out, on further inspection; it's meant to be a housing facility for foreign corporate workers, leaving maybe half the actual residents more permanent fixtures. Cost-wise, maintenance and other fees are understandably high, much higher than what Victor pays for his private apartment in Saint-Petersburg.

"Worrying about money again, Yuuri-kun?" Shirogane interrupts, and Yuuri glances up at him warily. The man looks like he always has, and if it weren't for the pinch of how close the armchair is pressed to the desk and Victor's kneeling form next to him, Yuuri would almost think this is like any other time they've interacted. "Put it from your mind. That will be handled accordingly."

"It's too much." Yuuri turns the page, only to feel more nauseous at the break-down of the costs and services available, including what looks to be an overly complex security system. "Shirogane-san, I... know you mean well, but I can't accept this. Victor's still needed in Russia, and even if we were to get our own place in Japan I'd prefer to be closer to my family. I can't justify this at all."

Shirogane, though, clicks his tongue and shakes his head. "What's done is done. Regardless of your Vicchan's situation, I have need of you here. Now. If he can't respect that, then there's no need for you to maintain that contract, is there?"

His lip curls up, glancing down towards Victor with a cutting coldness. Victor's jaw clenches, eyes narrowing in recognition of his words from their first meeting getting thrown back in his face. Yuuri is a little more fixated on something else.

"You say that like I've already agreed to this," he points out, uneasy. "But I've told you over and over that I'm not accepting the adoption or inheriting your position. Why?"

Shirogane scoffs, canting his head and propping it up with the curl of a forefinger to his cheekbone. "Nonsense. You're too valuable an asset to squander just because of pride. It'd be such a waste, especially with your background."

"My background is no one's concern--"

"On the contrary." Shirogane leans forward, an odd gleam in his eye as he smiles at Yuuri. "People eat up fairy tale endings, and I am handing you one on a silver platter. And it's yours, if you just let me take care of you."

"Hi," Victor interrupts, visibly bristling as Yuuri presses his back into the chair, more than a little unnerved by the mood shift in the air. "I've been in this business too damn long to not know what that phrasing means. Keep your hands to yourself."

Well, Yuuri thinks, more than a little nauseated. That was not something Yuuri ever wanted to bring up, especially around Victor. Or... at all, really. But maybe Victor's looking too much into it. After all, he'd gotten himself worked up over nothing before--

Shirogane laughs.

"Oh, you poor thing," Shirogane sighs mid-recovery, an actual grin on his face. "As lovely as my Yuuri-kun is, he's not what I prefer -- lacking a few critical parts, you see. A pity, really. That would've made my life so much simpler, if things worked out that way."

Amano huffs, posture going a little stiffer. "It is better this way. You spoil this brat enough as it is; I can't imagine how much worse this would be if you were getting him to--"

"Sir," Enma cuts in sharply. At least there's someone in this room who seems as uncomfortable as Yuuri is with the turn this has taken. "The report."

Any comfort Yuuri has from Enma's interruption withers as Shirogane's expression smooths over and he gestures again to the open file in front of Yuuri. The pen offers nothing by way of protection, but still Yuuri tightens his grip around it.

The flyer for the apartment finally gets put aside and Yuuri sees an itemized list of expenses. He blinks at it, confused and wary as he reads down the list. It's... a lot. Roughly seven years' worth, from things as small as parking expenses to as big as Yuuri's tuition costs. It doesn't make sense laid out like this without explanation, but Yuuri is almost too scared to ask.

"In front of you is everything our Shirogane has spent on you since you opted to continue skating as an adult," Amano explains with a huff. "As your foreign coach so kindly pointed out -- and, might I add, I've known for fact and have said so for years -- Shirogane loses more money than he gets out of you. That, by definition, is a poor investment. And yet he's persisted, because there is one thing he can get from you that he cannot get so easily from other sources."

There's a pause, which Yuuri assumes is for dramatic effect. When it runs a little long, he chances a glance up towards Amano and isn't overly surprised to see the sour look on his face like it physically pains him to admit to anything good about Yuuri.

Victor is far from amused. "You know, most people wouldn't be struggling this much for a compliment."

"Most people are smart enough to keep their damn mouths shut by now," Amano snaps at him, bristling. "But here you are, still talking out of turn!"

"What Amano means to say is that you possess a congeniality that is hard to replicate," Enma elaborates instead, pointedly ignoring Amano's blustering. "As you are aware, Chairman Shirogane's reputation precedes him. You have been successful in mitigating that. It is the Chairman's intent to capitalize on that further."

"On what?" Yuuri asks, voice pitching higher in disbelief. "I'm just an athlete from a small town, everyone here knows that! There's nothing special or unique about me! I've just-- trained and practiced to get where I am now."

"Exactly." Shirogane gestures loosely to the papers in front of Yuuri, that familiar half-smile on his face. "A simple, otherwise unremarkable child from a dying tourist town -- but one with ambition. One who embodies the idea of working hard to achieve those dreams, and is willing to make sacrifices for them. All it took was a little nurturing, a little... assistance in ways your blood family could not provide, and you proved yourself every time."

The ice in Yuuri's veins hardens. He swallows, blinking; somehow that stings more than the other admissions he's heard so far.

"You've been using me," he manages. "All this time, I was-- just a way for you to fix your reputation?"

"If that was the case, I would have just stuck with the lovely Mai-chan out there," Shirogane tuts. "No, Yuuri-kun, that ambition and drive of yours is far more useful to me than your cute face."

Shirogane again gestures to Enma with a loose wave of his hand. She steps around the desk, a tablet in her hands Yuuri doesn't remember her picking up.

Enma taps at the tablet's screen, her face carefully devoid of expression, before she closes her eyes and turns the tablet around for Yuuri to see. He doesn't know what he's looking at, brow scrunching together. As far as he can tell, it's some kind of security feed from the research hospital on the other end of the campus, a sterile-looking room with numerous machines and some clear chamber with something wriggling inside.

The itemized list is removed from in front of him, revealing an all-too-familiar form. The only odd thing about it is that it's noticeably... blank.

"I already said--" Yuuri starts, but Amano slaps another folder next to him.

"You owe Shirogane-san your livelihood, brat," Amano bites out. "And you are going to pay him back like you're supposed to one way or another today."

The new folder opens to reveal something even more confusing: copies of the forms Yuuri signed last year when Shirogane had him sign into the research clinics for whatever it was that he was trying to do. Yuuri, admittedly, barely gave them a read-through then, tired from staying up and from packing the second time. But hadn't the sample been--?

The thing in the chamber lets out a squeak of a gurgle through the speakers of the tablet, and if Yuuri thought his blood couldn't curdle more, he could not be more wrong.

Shirogane smiles at him, but there's nothing kind about it anymore despite the familiar gleam in his golden eyes. A particular memory of the first copy of the revised contract jolts back into the forefront of Yuuri's memory, the odd phrasing of such a tired old request taking on new meaning.

"You have proven time and again that your loyalty is to your family first," Shirogane starts, tone almost blithe. "Then your Vicchan and your skating, then me. So since you've been so stubborn, I am giving you one last chance, Yuuri-kun. Think very carefully before making a decision.

"Either you fill that out and sign yourself over to me like I've offered you, taking your rightful place as my heir." Shirogane gestures first to the pen and blank adoption form in front of Yuuri, then tilts his head towards the tablet gripped in Enma's hands.

"Or, you can work off your debts to me by signing for this little one you helped me create so that he, eventually, will take your place."

Chapter Text

Saint-Petersburg, Russia - March 2018

 

"What do you mean you're going back to Japan?!"

Victor gets a sense of déjà-vu that, if he were in a more playful mood, he'd recreate to his heart's content. Snow still falls this time of year, after all, and the sturdy old leather trunk is still tucked away in a corner of the closet. It's up in the air if the exact scarf and coat he'd used are still floating around somewhere, but that part is less important as far as details go.

However, every moment away from Yuuri now is one he knows is spent unable to keep an eye on Shirogane. He cannot leave Yuuri in that kind of situation, not after their reluctant and painful forced parting at the lobby of the new apartment building. The quicker he can pack their things and return to Japan, the better.

"Due to unforeseen circumstances, Yuuri cannot leave Japan unless it's related to his career and only for short periods of time," Victor explains as best he can, knowing that if he tells Yakov everything that the old man will furiously charge at Shirogane with the force of an angry bear -- and leave himself just as open to getting shot by an opportunistic hunter. "His home address for the next half-year or so must be there, and I refuse to let him fight this alone. I can still work remotely with you and the others."

Yakov's furiously red face nearly steams as Victor tries to step around him, the leftovers of his and Yuuri's things in the duffel bag he'd brought to the rink after usual practice hours. It'd been like this, too, two years ago when Victor rushed out his apartment to gather the pieces of his life together so he could shove them in a suitcase and run for the airport as fast as his legs could take him. The difference is that this time, Victor had spent his time in layovers back to Saint-Petersburg updating his parents on the situation, carefully following their frantic instructions while they handled the more frivolous packing and leave him with time for a quick turnaround with the essentials so Shirogane cannot reasonably add those to the total of what he expects Yuuri to pay off with his plans.

Victor is honestly almost tempted to leave Maccachin in his family's hands, knowing the old poodle might be seen as an easy target. But after Yuuri mentioned that this process could be drawn out for as long as a year and a half, and with the possibility of being forced to repeat it if the court process goes against their favor, Victor knows that if he leaves Maccachin in Russia he runs a very high chance of never seeing his closest, dearest friend since he was a lanky thirteen-year-old boy again. He doesn't know if his heart can take that.

It's selfish, yes. But Victor's never denied being selfish, least of all when it comes to the handful of people who know him as more than a pretty face and a silver tongue.

And just like two years ago, Yakov is equally selfish and dead set on giving Victor a hard time about his choices.

"You're making a mistake, Vitya," Yakov growls, chest puffing. "Do you not remember how messy this whole place got after you left the first time? How Yuriy waited until you slipped up and posted something so he knew exactly where you were to hunt you down? How Georgiy started wailing because one of his only remaining childhood friends he's still close to abandoned him at the same time his girlfriend properly dumped him? Everything to do with the Novices?!"

Victor sighs. "For starters, I didn't slip. Hasetsu was -- still is, really -- suffering from a lack of tourists and it was the least I could do to help bring some attention to the town if I was going to be staying there rent-free like Yuuri's family insisted. I just didn't expect a boy who just barely turned fifteen to actively come after me because of a bet I made with him two, three years prior. And the Novices know I'm going back to Japan eventually, it's just... happening sooner than expected."

"And Georgiy?"

"Yakov, he's the one person here who would perfectly understand why I'm doing this." In more ways than one, if Victor's going to be honest. "Believe me when I say that this is not a choice I make lightly. I left Russia last time to leave behind who I was because I was sick of that image. I'm leaving Russia now to protect the man I love."

The suspicion doesn't leave Yakov's face, but the anger finally starts to ebb away. "You're sure this is the only way."

It's brief, but the flash of smug golden eyes flits back and forth in the forefront of Victor's head, along with the echoes of the matter-of-fact, drawled denial that Victor still doesn't fully believe. His grip on the duffel bag's strap tightens. "The alternative requires me to go against everything I am, so yes. This is the only way."

Yakov's face darkens in realization, and Victor gives him a thin, wry smile.

It takes another long moment of shared silence, but Yakov eventually sighs and tiredly steps towards him, a stiff hand reaching out to rest on Victor's shoulder. The shock of being pulled forward shouldn't catch him as off-guard as it does, but the familiar arms wrapping around him and the clap of a firm hand in the middle of his back is as familiar as the spicy cologne Yakov has been wearing since Victor was an overly mischievous twelve-year-old meeting the grumpy bear of an old man he'd been introduced to all those years ago. The one who promised to make Victor a champion if he proved he had the discipline and the drive.

Yakov might've not been the first coach he had or was even the first adult to see him as more than just an over-energetic troublemaker, but he is the first and among the few who see Victor as someone to be taken seriously, no matter how young he was or how outlandish his ideas could be. For that, Yakov has and will always be someone worth looking up to, because he earned Victor's respect long before there was even a proper gold medal hanging on Victor's neck.

With that in mind, Victor squeezes back a little tighter before letting go. He has too much to do to stay for long, but with Yakov here it makes the other part of his reason for coming to the rink a lot more difficult. He'll have to get his parents (probably his mother, Yakov is less likely to kick up a fuss at her) to do it for him. If nothing else, it will ensure that there's plenty of space between him and Yakov at that point, since he'll likely be on the plane by the time Yakov actually looks at it.

Leaving the rink is harder this time than last. He knows he'll miss it, miss the people who have made it so welcoming to him and Yuuri both when they weren't obligated to care. But Victor knows that he can never choose freedom at another's expense, not when he remembers the spark of defiance in Yuuri's eyes reigniting even in the face of such an ultimatum.

Victor barely has a foot in the lobby when a slim shadow moves. He reacts faster than anticipated, and his sore knee protests at the sudden stop and tension, his heart stuttering in suspicion.

"So we're not good enough for you two losers after all, huh?"

His breath releases in a long sigh. Prickly as Yuriy is, he's a kid with his heart in the right place and, occasionally, a good head on his shoulders. In all honesty Victor should be more worried about him following close behind, but he just so happens to have the perfect distraction on him. Yakov won't think to suspect Yuriy when it comes to a thing like this.

Yuriy is just starting to widen out, shoulders a little less lanky than they've been. Still, he gives off the usual impression of a defensive stray refusing to acknowledge he came inside of his own accord as he postures at Victor, green eyes narrowed and form tight.

"Katsudon's not even here, is he?" Yuriy bites out. "Whatever. We didn't need him around. Or you."

"Something came up," Victor says simply. "You'll still see and hear from us, you know."

"I'm not hearing 'meet' or 'visit'." And sometimes, Victor forgets how sharp Yuriy can be. "I can take a fucking hint, you know."

Victor tries to ignore the pang in his chest at the tone Yuriy's voice has taken. But Amano already has a chip in his shoulder regarding Yuriy's attitude; Victor would be a much bigger fool if he allowed Yuriy to visit, especially when he has more to lose than Victor does. If that means letting Yuriy think that he's being left behind without so much as a second thought, then that's something Victor and Yuuri both can apologize for later.

After all, it's already been proven more than once that Shirogane doesn't care how young his pawns are, or how willing. Just that they can do what he wants.

Instead he sighs again, looking up wryly to meet Yuriy's guarded eyes. Victor has one chance to get this right. If he fails, he'll risk either Yuriy getting suspicious about being used as a messenger, which can lead to him digging into the matter himself and getting in more trouble than he's prepared for, or Yuriy reverting to one of his old temper tantrums and refuse to be of any help whatsoever.

Nothing like the tried-and-true method, then.

Victor makes a point to pause, tapping a fingertip to his bottom lip and furrows his brow. Yuriy immediately goes on guard, shoulders tensing and frowning at him. He then carefully pats his coat, knowing full well what's in his inner pocket but pretending he just noticed the weight as he blinks slow and carefully tightens his fingers around it from the outside of the coat.

"Ah," Victor says, voice lilting up. "I knew I forgot something!"

Yuriy's wary stance promptly goes boneless and he gives Victor a disbelieving look. "Seriously?"

Untold permission granted, Victor slots his hand into his coat to fish into the pocket. On habit he runs his thumb along the seam of the object, taking a last moment of satisfaction at the resistance of a nub catching on his nail.

When he pulls it into the open air and waves it, Yuriy's expression doesn't change. "The hell're you carrying a remote in your pocket for?"

"Wow," Victor says, trying to not wince. Technology hasn't moved that fast, has it? "I'll have you know this 'remote' is what carried me through several seasons' worth of gold medals!" The blank look stays. Victor sighs. "It's a voice recorder, Yurio. I don't always have a notepad and pen on hand and it's easier to send music ideas to my composers this way."

"That's what a voice recorder looks like?" Yuriy balks, looking even more bewildered. "God, Victor, use your phone like everyone else!"

Victor taps the side of the voice recorder. "When I started doing things this way phones didn't have that feature, or if they did the quality and amount of space was questionable. Yakov can tell you all about it if you take this back into his office for me!"

"Why don't you do it yourself?" Yuriy huffs, even as he reaches out to snatch the device from Victor's offered hand. "It's not like you give a shit about Yakov yelling at you anyway."

Victor shrugs in response, keeping his expression at a pleasant neutral. It's not Yakov's temper he's worried about -- at least not towards him.

When Yuuri explained to him, even going as far as to pull up an old, archived article from one of Japan's news sites, why so many people were too scared of Shirogane to defy him, a lot of little details fell in place. He knew after that explanation if they went to Shirogane that the man would hold all the cards, determined to reclaim his runaway ace any way he could, and that because of his reputation no one would openly challenge him on it if they did at all. Men like Shirogane are as cunning as they are cutthroat; only a fool would go in defenseless.

So? Victor didn't.

The files are already copied and backed up on a private cloud, only the original left on the physical device. If he'd handed this to Yakov a few minutes ago, there stood a larger chance of getting cut-off by some security team so Victor didn't go endanger himself because he didn't want to leave Yuuri alone. Victor needs space between him and Yakov before he passes this piece of evidence. If Shirogane and his team are willing to play dirty by twisting Victor's relationship with Yuuri into something that looks self-serving and manipulative, then Victor is more than willing to show them why he's been called 'fey-like' even long after he'd grown out of those looks.

While Yuriy is still in arm's reach, Victor takes the opportunity to ruffle his hair and grins when Yuriy sputters and swats at him, a faint flash of something like relief in the teenager's expression under the annoyance.

"We'll see you at Worlds in a few weeks," Victor tells him. "Try not to get yourself in more trouble in the meantime, okay?"

"Speak for yourself," Yuriy scoffs. "I'll make you both regret this stupid move of yours."

Victor laughs. "We'll look forward to it."

 

* * *

 

Tokyo, Japan - March 2018

 

The week is up, and Victor's still not back from Saint-Petersburg.

Yuuri fidgets with his phone, flipping between screens. Aeroflot apparently held up a runway in Moscow, adding another three hours to Victor's expected arrival time in Haneda much to both their irritation and concern. But Yuuri needs to check out of the hotel by two, and from here he needs to take his meager belongings and make his way to the apartment where he'll need to stay for, at a bare minimum, the next six months.

He can make it another night or two in the apartment without some of the essentials, he thinks around the heavy weight that's settled over him as he's been enduring long meetings and blank faces alone. Convenience stores are far more common here in Tokyo than they are in Hasetsu and they're cheap -- a thousand yen at most for the basics and just him. The only thing he might even remotely consider splurging on is an extra cleaner, if only to rid the floors and walls of the stubborn new-construction smell that had been present in the walk-through.

At this point, he's willing to try about anything to make the place seem less like a prison with a nice view.

Yuuri still waits until the last fifteen minutes before he can check out of the hotel, and only then does he force himself to gather the luggage and trudge downstairs. He startles when the elevator door opens and he sees Enma waiting in the lobby, her phone to her ear and as stoic as ever as she talks. So much for Yuuri's plan of wandering the streets until dusk starts to settle.

If Enma notices the stiffness in his back and shoulders, she doesn't comment on it. Instead she acts as if this is any other meeting in any other circumstance, like Yuuri is still stupidly clueless about this whole mess. When she asks for him to follow her to the car, Yuuri answers instead with a terse silence and a tight expression. Even that, despite the faint moment of hesitation in Enma's expression, is left ignored.

Is Yuuri being childish about this? Probably. But it's better than continuing to keep himself awake at night reading over the papers that will be held against him if he tries to fight, or feeding into his own demons by wondering how things would be different if he'd paid some actual attention to everyone's warnings.

It doesn't really take that long to get to the apartment, though traffic adds time that could've been better spent walking there. However, it becomes quickly apparent why Enma picked him up instead of letting Yuuri come in on his own.

Entering the parking garage requires a permit, the cameras along the concrete entrance scanning for what is apparently just a small sticker on the corner of the windshield because the gates don't budge until a chime goes off. Spaces are available everywhere, another reminder of how new this building is, but even so they don't turn into a spot until they're near the elevator. A bellhop stands at the ready in the elevator when the doors open, gloved hands clasped in front of them as they bow and offer to take the bags.

They bypass the ground floor and its entrance lobby, the concierge desk already having him in the system. Up and up they go, no one looking at each other or daring to speak for their own reasons.

Eventually the elevator slows and chimes a cursory alert as the doors slide open to a floor empty except for them. The bellhop gestures for them to exit first, and Enma looks to Yuuri with that dull, expectant stare. Yuuri bites his cheek, not particularly wanting to be stuck here longer with her but also not eager to enter the place Shirogane picked out for him. He wanted to wait until Victor came back, but there's not much Yuuri can do at the moment.

The door unlocks with a sharp beep and a click, another reminder of how extensive the security in this building is. Beyond that it pushes open easily, heavy as the door feels.

The worst part is that the apartment itself is actually nice, bright and open with heated wood floors and large windows that span wall-to-wall of the living and dining area. It's also already furnished as part of the initial payment, and though the clean minimalist style doesn't necessarily suit Yuuri's tastes, it's not like it's the worst thing he's seen.

"Katsuki-kun," Enma addresses him as the bellhop slips back out of the room with their tip. Yuuri doesn't look at her, instead tightening his grip on his jacket and continuing to stare out the window towards the bay. She sighs. "You are being childish right now. Remember you agreed to this."

His chest flares in offense. "Because you gave me so many choices to begin with? What's better, letting Shirogane have his way now or putting it off for another eighteen years?"

"And you agreed regardless." Enma remains unmoved as she continues, "Perhaps this is not what you expected, but you are better off than most. Try to see the benefits instead of sulking like you tend to do when you're upset."

Yuuri refuses to dignify that with a response. He hears her sigh again and the door clicks shut. Only then does Yuuri chance a glance over his shoulder to see that she's left, his luggage set next just outside of the entrance hall, two sets of keys hanging from the small rack above them.

Biting his cheek, Yuuri slowly moves to sit on the floor, legs crossing under him and fishing out his phone again. He checks his messages to see if Victor's arrival time changed again, leaves another update for Victor to see once he takes his phone out of airplane mode, and debates hunting down the closest rink in exchange for his earlier impulse to scrub this place clean of its sterile and unwanted scent.

Unwittingly, his eyes drift off towards the far wall where the nook holding a small shrine sits. The papers and images of the baby sit there, already neatly set-up. Yuuri's own handwriting stares back at him, accusing, with the characters he'd written down.

Three of them are identical to Yuuri's name, but one he changed with full intent on taking advantage of Shirogane's soft spot for him when he noticed how the smug smirk on Shirogane's face widened that day as Yuuri shakily wrote down his family name. If Shirogane was going to insist that Yuuri was loyal only to his family and force a more solid version of that bond on Yuuri, then there was no way in hell he'd let this child have any obvious connection to the man. Let him play 'uncle' all he wants; that's all he'll ever get out of Yuuri even with this.

Instead of the character Yuuri shares with his father and Mari, the name on the papers has 'know' written down before the 'courage' from his own name. It's as much a self-reminder as it is a form of rebellion.

 

* * *

 

The doorbell rings later that afternoon while Yuuri has his sleeves rolled up as he folds the sheets he'd stripped from the bed, having gotten annoyed at how pathetic his own behavior looked not long after Enma left. Yuuri's head shoots up, heart rattling against his ribs as he darts out of the tiled wash area and nearly throws himself against the door in his frantic rush to open it.

Barely a moment after the knob turns and the heavy wooden door swings inside, Yuuri has to stagger between having Maccachin hop almost directly into his arms with a whine and Victor's own desperation to get inside, looking frazzled and exhausted from his long journey.

Yuuri doesn't give himself time to think. Even with Maccachin clinging to him for dear life and snuffling and whining in his ear, Yuuri holds out his other arm and drags Victor into the embrace as well. The stale airplane scent clings to Victor's clothes, all but burying the soft cologne Victor uses, but at least it's something familiar. Victor lets out a slow breath against Yuuri's neck as he nuzzles in deeper, his hand gripping at the back of Yuuri's shirt.

Neither of them say a word as they stay like that, only breaking apart once Maccachin's decided he's had enough of being sandwiched between them. The old poodle shakes after he's been set down, the faint clink of tags slapping against each other breaking the silence, before trotting off to sniff around the apartment. The two of them watch him go, still leaning into each other's sides.

"I told you Aeroflot is a mess," Victor finally says, fingers moving in small circles along Yuuri's back. A glance up reveals the faint furrow in his brow despite the light nature of his comment. "Have you been here long?"

Yuuri fishes his phone out of his back pocket, frowning at the lock screen when it lights up. "About four hours, give or take."

It's not bad, considering the delay. If it hadn't happened, then he and Victor could've just met here instead of all the nervous cleaning Yuuri's been doing while waiting for Victor's flight to arrive. Especially considering how obvious it'd been that he wasn't allowed to greet Victor at the airport. Whether it was Shirogane not trusting Yuuri or just Enma, he has no clue.

Yuuri can take a hint, thanks. There was no need to rub it in by having the concierge desk act like they had no idea where the nearest station entrance was when he asked earlier, instead offering their chauffeuring service. Which would be also paid on Shirogane's accounts, so he'd know where Yuuri was going if he used it. He hadn't even had this much hovering over him when he was an actual child; it's just salt in the wound at this point.

Victor nods distractedly, aware of Yuuri's annoyance at this whole set-up after their exchanged messages when his plane landed half an hour ago. "And I see that you've kept yourself busy in ways that don't require me being here?"

"Just a little extra cleaning and reading," Yuuri says. Victor raises a brow at him, the usual mild amusement flickering across his face. "...And some time at the rink we'll be using. But I swear I just marked the jumps!"

Victor laughs softly and leans in to press a kiss to Yuuri's temple. "You are quite the troublemaker when you want to be, aren't you?"

Yuuri makes a face. "I've done the whole 'choke at a smaller competition after a bigger one' thing before and it sucks. I'm not doing it again if I can help it!"

The back-and-forth is anchoring in its comfortable familiarity, much of the tension that's been keeping Yuuri together seeping out of him. He knows Victor hasn't had it easy either, having a week to return to Russia, gather their most important and necessary belongings, and rush back here before more costs were added to Yuuri's debt.

Still, there is a reason they're here instead of back home, as much as Yuuri would like to forget about it and stay buried in Victor's arms.

"...We have until tomorrow afternoon," Yuuri tells him with more than a little hesitation. Victor's grip on him tightens. "I think he wants to reveal it during Worlds, if not immediately afterwards."

"Classy," Victor huffs. "Are we already prepared for it?"

"Sort of." Yuuri loosely gestures down the hall towards the more open living space. Almost as if on cue, Maccachin sneezes from deeper into the apartment and the sound echoes back into the hall. "Most of it's coming with Enma tomorrow, but we've got stuff here."

As they are, Yuuri can't see the expression must be making but he can feel the way Victor's jaw works against his crown where he's nuzzled in. His own grip tightens in response.

"We're going to be getting a lot of questions," Victor says. "It's only just gotten out we're married. For us to suddenly have a baby will be... interesting for our PR teams, to say the least. And our friends."

"I'm sorry," Yuuri says in response, almost on instinct. "But I couldn't just... let it happen all over again. Even if it means letting him use me as one big advertisement..."

"This is on him and his ego, Yuuri," Victor insists. "He planned for you to be his success story one way or another. At the very least, we're better people to raise a child than any of them."

Yuuri grimaces, immediately thinking of Amano's short temper and visceral disdain for him. At least as an older child already used to being teased, he'd been able to understand that a grown man lashing out at him was fundamentally ridiculous and pretty pathetic, no matter how effective the scare tactics were. Letting Amano anywhere near someone who hasn't even developed a frame of reference for good behavior yet? Absolutely not.

Tomorrow is tomorrow, though, and tonight Yuuri wants to forget what awaits him from now on. He doesn't think he's ready for this level of responsibility, but the alternative is so much worse. If nothing else, he's good for that much.

"Let's finish settling in," he says finally. "So we'll be ready for Chihaya."

Victor smiles, or at least it feels like he does. "Of course."

Chapter Text

"Are you sure you two are going to be fine there on your own?"

Victor laughs a lighthearted assurance behind him. "Mamochka, it's not like this is the first time moving into an apartment in the city for either of us. It's fine!"

It's a small reminder, not only for Elena but for them as well. Victor's had his apartment in Saint-Petersburg since he was eighteen, bought with the winnings he'd earned over the first few years of his career so he was closer to the rink than he was at his family's home on the outskirts of the city. Yuuri's rental in Detroit had come bundled with Celestino's coaching fees, since he'd bought the old condominium at an auction and remodeled it for extra money on the side; one of the apartments had been free when Yuuri first came, so Celestino allowed him to move in with a waiver of half the usual rent.

Still, Elena tuts at the dismissal of her concern and insists again, "But this... man, if you can call him that -- he can come into the apartment whenever he wants, yes? Can't you change the locks at least?"

Yuuri is beyond relieved they're having this conversation in Russian, but even so he can't help but wince, glancing furtively towards the front door and the hefty lock mechanism he hadn't paid as much attention to as he probably should have the day before. In a sleek, modern building like this, a smart lock shouldn't be so surprising, but in combination with the traditional deadbolt, it's a little... much.

In answer to his mother's fussing, Victor sighs and turns his phone around to let her see the lock herself. The soft hiss she makes, accompanied by a click of her tongue, burns at the back of Yuuri's neck.

"As you can see, that would be impossible to pull off," Victor huffs dryly, turning the phone back towards him and wandering back towards the living area. "This is on top of the access cards to get inside the building and the check-in gates at every door to the outside. I understand this complex is intended for people more important than a couple of athletes, but there's no reason for it to be this secure."

"We're a couple of stations away from several embassies," Yuuri mutters weakly. "This place was definitely made for their employees and other foreign big-shots, not us."

"On the bright side, it also means I'm not far from the Russian Embassy!" Victor chirps, a scheming glint in his eye. "I'm sure that means I'll be seeing at least a few familiar faces soon enough!"

Despite the situation, Yuuri bites his cheek to avoid laughing at that. Victor, much like his grandmother, is not very well-liked by several members of the Russian Cabinet and he knows it, but he's too valuable for them to get rid of. Even now that he's retired from competitions, he's become such a public symbol that if anything were to happen to him, hell would descend quickly on the people responsible -- a fun little benefit of being a National Treasure twice over, or so Victor claims.

Yuuri is certain this is the reason Victor wasn't really harmed in their encounter with Shirogane, just humiliated. He does worry, though, that if Victor keeps pushing his luck this won't be enough immunity for him.

Almost as if hearing Yuuri's train of thought, the doorbell chimes through the living area just as the blank face of the modern analog clock on the wall reads two. He and Victor share a glance and Victor gives him a wry, lopsided smile. His thumb shifts over his screen before tapping off the speakerphone and bringing it back up to his ear, continuing his conversation with his mother in more relative privacy.

Yuuri swallows, but forces himself to stand and brush off his front to busy his hands. They've had the reprieve of last night and this morning to themselves for settling in, but now, twenty-four hours after Yuuri checked out of the hotel, the real changes start.

He isn't surprised by Enma when he opens the door, having fully expected her, but he is surprised by both her attire and the company she's with. He doesn't recognize the other woman, who has a similar youthfulness to Minako only with more streaks of gray at her temples, nor does he fully expect the fact they're both dressed… casually. Or as casual as a woman like Enma allows herself to be, apparently. But even so, the blouse doesn't have the same structure as her usual suit does and it's odd seeing her like this.

"Good afternoon," the other woman says, voice soft. Something about her expression makes her seem simultaneously warm and at arm's length, which is an odd contradiction Yuuri can't fully wrap his head around. "You're the Katsuki boy, right? The one who Shirogane is so fond of?"

"Yes, I... suppose?" Well, that is definitely one way to be remembered; not a great one even before all this happened, but a way. He glances briefly towards Enma. "I'm sorry, but I don't think we've met?"

"You have not," Enma confirms, the corner of her lips twitching oddly. Is… is she laughing at him? Seriously? "This is Reiko, my wife."

Reiko smiles faintly. "It is nice to finally meet you after all these years."

"...It's nice to meet you, as well."

Yuuri's confusion only grows as he glances down towards Enma's bare hand. Sure, it's not uncommon here for married couples to stop wearing their rings eventually to protect them from wear and tear -- or in Yuuko and Nishigori's case, barely have time to wear them at all because of children -- but he's pretty sure that the fact that Enma's married should've come up at least once in the years he's known her, right? Who stays married for at least several years and never so much as mentions having a spouse at home?

...Okay, that might just be his newlywed brain short-circuiting. Maybe Enma has her reasons? Preferably better ones than what she's been giving him so far, because how do you just... not mention someone so important to you? Ever?

Enma clears her throat, drawing attention to her again. "As you know, the last of the supplies will be here shortly. Once they are in order, you will be escorted back to the research facility to pick up the baby. Mr. Nikiforov is allowed to accompany you, if you wish."

Yuuri bristles. "Thank you, but my husband can decide for himself if he wants to come."

"Katsuki-kun," Enma sighs, pursing her lips. "Please do not take my words out of context."

"Is it really so out of context, though?" Reiko asks aloud, still maintaining that odd blend of warmth and distance. "They do come from that man, after all."

"Reiko," Enma warns, turning a weary look to her wife. Reiko hums and looks away, and Enma sighs before turning back to Yuuri. It almost looks like she wants to explain, but bites her tongue at the last moment instead.

Yuuri wonders if there's a reason for that. Reiko doesn't seem to like Shirogane even with how careful she is to not mention him by name, though it's not like it's the first time Yuuri's seen such behavior; it could just be the same dynamic Minako and Yuuri's mom have, one distrusting and the other trying to keep the peace. It's how these things usually go, right?

A soft click of nails approaches from behind him. Maccachin noses his thigh, carefully threading his head between Yuuri's leg and the wall. Yuuri keeps his leg in front of the old poodle to ensure he doesn't dart out, but Maccachin only pants, tongue lolling out, and the faint thwap of his tail against the wall beats behind them.

Reiko perks up at the sight. Enma looks more conflicted.

"Is it wise, keeping a large dog around an infant?" Enma asks.

"It's a poodle, Aoi," Reiko huffs. She crouches down, tucking her skirt around her legs as she reaches forward with delicate fingers. Maccachin, ever the friendly dog, sniffs them with enthusiasm. "Hardly a breed worth making a fuss over! Especially at your age, huh?"

Maccachin tilts his head, ears flopping, then woofs a low bark in response. Reiko coos, the smile on her face looking far less forced.

Soft footfalls approach from behind, and Yuuri watches as the faint exasperation in Enma's face smooths out when Victor's arms wind around Yuuri's waist and his chin rests on Yuuri's shoulder. Warm skin presses to Yuuri's cheek, settling comfortably.

"Hi," Victor greets. "Pardon my tardiness. My family wanted to be sure I made it here safely."

"Of course." It almost sounds as if Enma doesn't believe him, but that's ridiculous. Why would she think Victor would lie about that sort of thing? "We were discussing our itinerary for the afternoon. The movers will be up soon, and when they are finished Katsuki-kun will be able to check out the baby from the research hospital."

"Chihaya," Victor corrects briskly, still smiling.

"He is still currently property of GIL Tech's labs and will not have his name until Katsuki-kun signs the final papers," Enma says flatly. "Be grateful you are not getting him pre-named like Amano wanted."

Reiko doesn't even try to feign politeness this time, scoffing as she straightens her skirt and stands. "Does he think he has any ground to stand on to justify that? This whole affair is ridiculous as it is, making a father have to adopt his own child!"

"Reiko," Enma warns for the second time, features tightening. Like before, Reiko huffs and turns away, lips pursed and brow furrowed.

"Of course. My apologies," Reiko mutters sourly. "We wouldn't want to make trouble for the Chairman, after all."

With that, Reiko breaks off and heads for the elevators, shoulders tense and head high. Enma, for a brief moment, looks conflicted enough to reach for her or attempt to follow her, but she grits her teeth and tightens her grip on her elbows, her arms folded in front of her like a barrier.

Well. Looks like Enma's well aware of how bad her advice about staying in Shirogane's good graces comes off. She's just sticking with it out of personal pride.

"Forgive her," Enma says instead, watching as her wife nods a curt bow to the bewildered bellhop coming up with the moving crew as she sits on the bench next to the elevators, prim and stiff. "She is… not terribly fond of Chairman Shirogane or those who follow him."

"So I guess she's not too happy with you, either," Victor comments without hesitation. It comes off as a lot more accusatory and bitter than even Yuuri expects, and he winces at the bite of it.

Enma's shoulders drop and she sighs again, deeper and heavier than before. "My job is to protect the company and its reputation. Shirogane-san just happens to be the current chairman. She knows this, but it doesn't make it easier for her."

That... is more than what Yuuri usually gets out of Enma. The first half of that is pretty normal from her, the rare times he pushes Enma for answers, but she never really goes into detail like this. Apparently Enma isn't a total robot who can shut off her emotions and morals when needed.

There isn't much more time to discuss things after that, as the moving crew approaches to introduce themselves and start working. Yuuri nods along, trying not to think too hard about the furniture being carried in and assembled in the proper room. All that had been here to start with had been bags of vacuum-sealed fabric in the usual soft colors and scribbly patterns that people associate with babies, along with a low sofa bed only just big enough for two grown and very comfortable-with-each-other adults to share. (Or just Maccachin stretched out. Whoever claimed it first, really.) What comes in now is made of pale, fragrant wood and smoothed into something almost modular, more boxes of fabric sewn into padded shapes, some odds and ends that Yuuri's pretty sure won't be needed anytime in the next half-year, if that. Everything looks nice, yes, but ultimately it's the sort of décor that, like the rest of the apartment, is more suited for magazine spreads and stock photos.

Reiko refuses to come inside, even when Yuuri musters up the nerve to call out to her sitting in the hall corridor. Victor and Maccachin aren't able to get her to budge, either, nor are the increasingly bewildered movers who've clued into the awkwardness of the situation if not the reasons for it. The only one who doesn't try is Enma, and the tired expression that Yuuri's so familiar with on her face deepens when it's brought up before the notion is set aside in lieu of continuing to set up the last of the apartment.

In a brief moment they're alone, Victor leans over and murmurs into Yuuri's ear, "Something tells me that she'll be sympathetic."

Pressing his lips together as he glances aside to meet Victor's eyes, Yuuri says in kind, "I hope so."

It's all Yuuri can do, at this point. Hope and pray for something -- anything -- that can work the odds in their favor.

 

* * *

 

It doesn't take much longer for the crew to finish. At this point Victor is told of the choice Yuuri had been given in his stead at the beginning, which earns Enma a crisp, placid smile and a bright-toned remark about how it wouldn't be right to leave everything up to Yuuri since they were in this together. They were married, after all.

Enma did not rise to the bait. She clearly didn't find it funny, judging by the look she gave him, but unlike Amano or even Shirogane she kept her mouth shut and chose to ignore the underlying sass in the comment instead.

Leaving a whining Maccachin behind, Yuuri and Victor are escorted down to where the same sleek black luxury car Yuuri's grown very sick of over the past week sits at the ready. Enma takes the driver's seat as always, and Reiko takes the passenger side with the same aloofness that she's been harboring since her and Enma's spat earlier, refusing to look at her wife even as she buckles her belt and straightens her back to look ahead. The backseat remains as it has, even down to the small tuft of frayed thread that grazes his knuckle as he snaps his own belt into place.

Being escorted to and from the facilities rubs Yuuri the wrong way, but he's more than aware of why it's necessary. Shirogane has emphasized that he wants to keep this whole thing under wraps until its reveal at the big medical technology conference being held in Milan the same week as Worlds. For that to happen, Yuuri needs to return to his old ways of keeping a low profile between competitions and it will be much easier to do that if he's never actually seen with the baby until then.

Victor doesn't like it, either, judging by the sharp set of his jaw when Yuuri glances over to him, but even he expressed concern for being tracked down by Yuriy again last night if he posts anything that gives away their new address. The word on the rumor mill for their combined radio silence has stayed pretty firmly in the territory of "prolonged honeymoon", but it won't last much longer.

The research hospital itself is both less intimidating in its appearances and more, dwarfed by the corporate tower it shares a lot with but hidden amongst the trees of the landscaping. It's the kind of building that no one would really suspect, even if it makes perfect sense in hindsight. Truthfully, Yuuri's only been inside once a few days ago, and that was solely to be allowed access for today. He's a little too scared to ask if this whole... thing is just one of many experiments being kept under wraps. At this point, Yuuri wouldn't put it past anyone.

The lobby of the hospital isn't nearly as empty as expected, a handful of tired, dazed elders and shell-shocked younger couples huddled tightly together in small patches across the waiting room. No one looks up even as the receptionist greets them and hands Enma an access card with instructions. A security guard steps forward, making Victor tense and press his side closer to Yuuri's. Thankfully, this security guard only bows curtly and announces that he is to escort them to their private waiting room and keep watch.

It takes an elevator ride and a three-minute walk down a restricted hallway, but they finally arrive. The guard opens the door and ushers them inside. Inside the waiting room is nothing special, really. A couple of loveseats and a low coffee table, a tall potted plant in the corner, a small counter along the far wall with a hot water dispenser paired with a neat stack of disposable paper cups and a tray of instant tea and coffee. It's quiet this deep in the hospital, especially in here, and Yuuri can almost swear he can hear the footfalls of the staff a hall down even through the now-closed and -guarded door.

Enma sets down the files she'd been carrying with her on the table. "Please take a seat. We have one last set of paperwork to go through, and then the hospital's release forms to sign. Once both of these are complete, you will be allowed to remove the infant from GIL Technologies' possession and proceed through more standardized channels for full custody. Witnesses will be provided throughout the process, as they have been over the previous sessions regarding your new position. Do you have any further questions before we begin?"

Yuuri swallows, uncomfortable as ever with his heart quivering in his chest. "I'll... still be able to compete after this season, right? That's not going to be taken away from me just because of all this?"

Oddly, it's Reiko who pauses and blinks at him, brow furrowed as she stands in front of the small drink counter. Enma, on the other hand, barely hesitates as she takes her seat on one of the loveseats and starts to spread the documents over the table.

"That is up to the Chairman's discretion," she answers plainly. Yuuri can practically hear Victor's frown at that. "With your... husband freshly retired, however, I do not think that it is a major concern at this point in time."

"Ah. Of course." Victor's tone is strangely icy even for this situation, his hand tense between Yuuri's shoulder blades. "Me being in the equation does make things easier for Yuuri, doesn't it? How fortunate."

And if Yuuri hadn't already felt uncomfortable as it is with this whole thing, that alone would have pushed him into the deep end.

"Take your seat, Katsuki-kun," Enma repeats instead of acknowledging Victor's thinly-veiled accusation. She sets down a pen from her bag with a click. "The sooner we are done, the better this will be for everyone involved."

Despite the knot in his gut, Yuuri glances sidelong to Victor plaintively and steps away to maneuver around the loveseat across from Enma, the coffee table and the papers laid out on its surface between them. Other than Victor's concern and the odd curiosity from Reiko, there's no other strong sense of attention on him. It's just the weight of another, incredibly vulnerable life being thrust in his hands as soon as this last bit of formality is complete. This is just work for Enma, after all. It's not like she cares.

Although that does make Yuuri wonder why she brought her wife along, if this was still largely business-related. While Yuuri's grateful he doesn't have to deal with Amano on top of all this today, he's... well. Confused. And wary, but mostly confused.

As Victor finally follows Yuuri's lead to sit next to him, the tap of leather soles gets louder in the hall. The guard outside crisply greets whoever it is as the steps slow to a stop at the door. It gives Yuuri and Victor both a front-row seat to the way Reiko freezes with her fingers above the hot water dispenser's button, her whole frame tensing in a jerk and the way her head snaps around to give the back of Enma's head a wide-eyed expression that's half stunned and half furious.

Victor grabs his hand, their fingers lacing together automatically and clenching tight, and Yuuri's not sure if the rapid beat he's feeling is his or Victor's. Possibly both.

The door opens again, Reiko's face briefly gives in to pure fury before quickly being masked in a barely more neutral expression of bored distaste, and the scent of deep woods filters into the room from behind them. Yuuri's gut drops like lead again and Victor's jaw tightens along with his grip as he hisses out a slow, even breath.

"My," Shirogane says, tone blasé. "Such a cold atmosphere. Did your Vicchan bring his homeland with him when he arrived last night, Yuuri-kun?"

Reiko responds first, oddly enough. "You should be used to such reception by now, I would think."

There's a beat of dead silence. It's only because Yuuri's gawking at Reiko that he even sees how Enma freezes in place, tension tight in her form.

"Reiko-san," Shirogane greets with equal distaste to Reiko's expression, firm even in the face of his annoyance. Then he scoffs, almost a sneer, and adds, "I do suppose today's event strikes a nerve for you. But then again, it has been... ah, that's right -- eighteen years since you were last here? A pity you're still holding such a petty grudge."

Fury flashes again in Reiko's eyes, but she holds her tongue this time. Victor's grip tightens, and Yuuri helplessly squeezes back.

A large hand drops onto his head, startling him. He tenses under the weight, even with the familiar way blunt fingertips curl into his scalp and ruffle his hair. It's a small, mindless gesture that Yuuri had grown up with, but in light of Shirogane revealing his true colors to Yuuri the intent feels less sincere even if there is a still-surviving grain of truth to it. The moment passes just as quickly as it comes, and Shirogane walks around the couch to take his own seat in the free spot next to Enma.

"I believe we've stalled long enough," Shirogane says, lacing his fingers together as he leans forward. His golden-brown eyes bore into Yuuri's, paying no attention whatsoever to Victor even as Yuuri feels the grip on his hand shift to his arm, both possessive and protective. "Remember that you agreed already, Yuuri-kun. This just makes it official. From this point on? You're mine."

Yuuri bristles despite his chill that shoots up his spine. "I am and will always be my parents' son."

The smile on Shirogane's face doesn't quite reach his eyes, but it's the closest Yuuri thinks it's ever come.

 

* * *

 

The resident who wheels in Chihaya looks familiar, but Yuuri can't place his face.

It could be because Yuuri feels so drained, despite the fact all he did was sign another dozen papers to finalize this whole farce. He's too tense to lean against Victor's shoulder despite how desperately he wants to fall apart right now. He doesn't have that luxury anymore. Presuming everything actually goes well, Yuuri won't have that kind of luxury for another three years at minimum, when preschool and nurseries start accepting children.

Shirogane's smile is sharp as he stands and breezily takes his leave, once again pausing briefly to ruffle Yuuri's hair as he passes. Yuuri bites his cheek, fighting back his instinct to flinch away. That was fine years ago when it was just Jess accidentally overstepping her boundaries. Those rules don't apply to Shirogane no matter how uncomfortable Yuuri gets, and it's Yuuri's own damn fault things have turned out this way.

"Enma, finish up here." Shirogane orders. Enma answers an affirmative, not looking up from organizing the files. "Send the copies to Yanagi when you're done. That's all I need from you today."

"Yes, sir," Enma says. Reiko, who's been fuming in the corner for the past twenty minutes, too-loudly slaps down the paper cup she'd been nursing. Yuuri can only guess she was either unable to leave, or just unwilling.

No one moves until after Shirogane walks back out the door, the sound of his footfalls fading down the hallway. Only then does the resident clear his throat and start to rearrange the wriggling bundle of fabric and baby in the cart, looking like he'd rather be anywhere else right about now. Yuuri knows the feeling.

"So, uh," the resident starts, and the familiarity of him immediately snaps into place because Yuuri's pretty sure he only knows one person who has Hakata-ben dialect. Good god, and he'd been worried enough about Minami before things got this out of hand! "I guess it's time for you to take this little guy home?"

"...Yes, I suppose so." Yuuri does his best to swallow down the knot in his throat. The youngest Dr. Minami nods, trying his best not to show his discomfort with his situation as he finally lifts Chihaya out of the cart.

He ignores the way Enma seems to be having a silent fight with Reiko through their facial expressions, reaching up to give Victor's hand on his arm a squeeze before making himself stand. Victor spares a glance to the two women before following Yuuri's lead, and the two of them slowly approach the cart and the youngest Dr. Minami with trepidation. He hasn't actually seen Chihaya yet proper, nothing more than the fabric of his onesie and the wisps of dark hair against the white material of... basically everything else in the cart he's been kept in. He only vaguely knows what to expect, given most babies don't really look like much when they're this young.

There's still that little wisp of dark hair, shifting slightly with small grumbles and whines as the youngest Dr. Minami hands Chihaya off a little too eagerly. The weight in Yuuri's arms is a little denser than he expected, but the wriggling is what catches him more off-guard.

Despite their mutual wariness, Victor melts quickly. The smile is weak, much weaker than Yuuri's grown so familiar with, but all of Victor's usual kindness is behind it as he reaches up to gently run his thumb over a chubby pink cheek just barely peeking out of the blankets.

"He really does look like your baby pictures," Victor says, a faint laugh in his voice.

Yuuri huffs. "Wow. I wonder how you know that." Not that there's any real mystery. His mom is... very enthusiastic about those, as embarrassing as it can be.

The thought is sobering now. He knows he needs to tell them -- warn them, even, of what Shirogane's done behind their backs. Show them what he's capable of, prove that Minako had been right to stay suspicious of him all these years. He's just not sure how to do it, much less in a way that won't put them all at risk. And how can he possibly explain Chihaya to them, when Yuuri still barely understands how this little baby came into existence himself?

Chihaya's face scrunches again, and he peers out at them with much lighter-colored eyes than Yuuri's own.