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if music be the blood of love

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Music has been a part of Victor's life for as long as he can remember. His childhood is a mix of the scratch of blades on ice and the mournful cries of his grandmother's violin. His first medal, the one he's truly the most proud of, is hard-won and set to a whimsical dance of horsehair against strings she'd performed when his father had been a boy. So many nights he's drifted off to her evening practices, the feeling of her fingers tapping notes on his scalp when she took to tending to his fine hair when he still wore it long.


His childhood is aged wood and rosin, long fingers tipped with thick callouses and scars from snapped strings. Music is in Victor's blood, and though he is more of an athlete he is just as much a performer and an artist as his grandmother. His body is his instrument, his skates his bow. He's all too familiar with how to enrapture an audience, how to keep their eyes on him without purposely seeking it.

 

Reporters and TV show hosts alike ask Victor constantly if there's someone special in his life. If he ever skates to impress someone. No one person could possibly perform as passionately as Victor consistently does without some sort of muse, they insist.

 

Victor's default answer is a blithe smile, a "Who knows?", and a coy wink. He lets everyone watching at home, everyone reading the article being written, think what they want.

 

In truth, there is no one person for Victor. He strives to inspire, to pave a path for others, to bask in the unknown and allow others to see the path themselves. Victor pours himself into his art, all for the shy smiles of young fans who tell him with stars in their eyes that he's their hero, for the older ones who smile with fond remembrance and tell him he reminds them of their youth. For the ones on the cusp of adulthood who, with determination, tell him that he lets them know there's time left to do what makes them happiest.

 

Victor's entire career banks on his ability to give something intangible to the audiences he enthralls. At the end of the day, at the close of the season, all Victor has that's his own is an ever-growing shelf of trophies and medals, an aging grandmother who refuses to accept her arthritis, and a dog who adores him as selflessly as he does in turn.

 

But eventually, it becomes harder to find inspiration. Though he's been around the world, though he's seen and experienced many things, Victor finds himself sinking into a dreaded ennui. The blank canvas given to him every year becomes smaller and smaller, and he finds his grip on his lead weakening by the day.

 

He refuses to let himself burn out, but he doesn't know how much longer he can light the way.

 

That is, until now -- alone in his apartment, Maccachin sprawled over his torso, eyes glued to his phone and the video he's been replaying for the past half hour. It shouldn't be so entrancing, watching someone else perform his latest magnum opus, his fifth consecutive gold-medal performance. There are dozens, he knows, if he takes the time to look. Victor wouldn't have even bothered with this one, if he hadn't seen the way his entire timeline exploded in reposts to keep at least one video player on screen at any given moment.

 

It takes him about forty seconds to recognize the face of the skater, a flash of limpid eyes looking haunted as he passes the camera. The light of the rink reflects off the paleness of his full(er) cheeks, and Victor's memory flashes to Sochi, to a downtrodden young man who'd stared at Victor like a sailor finding land after being lost at sea -- and, instead of swimming for shore, merely turned away and let the waves swallow him whole.

 

The Yuuri Katsuki he saw at the Grand Prix is only a measure in a bar, a simple whole note in the midst of tremolo. The Yuuri Katsuki in the video is a page of a concerto, a loose leaf aloft on an updraft of air, and Victor desperately wants to know the rest of his song.

 


 

"You won't be able to return," Yakov warns him as he leaves for the airport. "I won't be able to protect you anymore," is what Yakov means.

 

Victor is fine with that. The government and its opinions aside, the world adores Victor Nikiforov -- even if he loses some of the support of his fanbase should he dare open up, others will pour in to fill the cracks. The world isn't quite like it was back when he was an impressionable child. With his record, Victor figures that if anyone's going to blow the lid on that particular pot, it may as well be him.

 

(He tries not to think about how Yakov knows, and just accepts that Yakov is more attentive than his gruff face leads people to believe.)

 

He knows what this looks like. What kind of star athlete, at the newest peak of his career, just drops it with an offhand announcement that he's going to train a fan and fellow skater, one who'd competed against him months before? Even if -- especially since, really, but those words seem too bitter -- said skater had crashed and burned at the Finals, when focus should've been its sharpest. Some critics who've never liked Victor much will jump at this fresh blood in the water, making inappropriate comments about Victor's careless charm, assumptions that Victor will never give them the satisfaction of knowing whether it's true or not.

 

Besides, it's not like it's a foregone conclusion. Victor is a professional, even if this venture is completely on a whim. No ordinary coach is going to know how to utilize Yuuri Katsuki's skillset to its fullest, and Victor doesn't want to risk losing this narrow window of a golden opportunity. At best, a normal coach will help him find a piece and choreography that resonates with him and he owns it. At worst, well… there's probably a reason Yuuri Katsuki is so low in the rankings this year. So what if Victor's never coached before? He's been following his own rhythm for years, only taking Yakov's suggestions with a halfhearted nod and a hefty pinch of salt. And if Yuuri Katsuki can pull off Stay Close to Me when he's so obviously out of shape and after such a bad slump, then he certainly can handle Victor's personal regimen.

 

This gets him through the hell that is customs and stopovers in Dubai and Tokyo, with hours-long flights and a lot of dodging of stray cameras. It's easier when it's just him and the other skaters, each with just a suitcase and carry-on, versus now with twice as much luggage and a large dog. At least he doesn't have to carry the larger boxes around with him. Moving out-of-country for a year is definitely not for the faint of heart.

 

He takes the long hours as an opportunity to do some digging, study up on Yuuri Katsuki so all the cards are in his hand. Yuuri is the one of the few top certified male figure skaters for singles in Japan, a high accomplishment on its own. His page on the site lists his successes (which Victor then hunts down) and his failures (which he also hunts down, because that's what a coach should do, right?). News articles say that Yuuri's family runs the last running hot springs resort in Hasetsu, which settles Victor's lodgings as far as he's concerned. Interviews show he's withdrawn, a polite if awkward sort of quiet. He trained in Detroit, under Celestino which Victor does recall, and that this is the first time in five years he's been home.

 

On a whim, Victor checks to see what the characters of Yuuri's name mean, because he knows he's not going to be disappointed. Winning courage, he guesses after some fumbling, and Victor can't help but laugh.

 

It's a beautiful name, poetic and grand and very fitting for a young man like Yuuri. The honor of helping Yuuri live up to such a name is going to be Victor's.

 


 

Victor remembers, briefly, a conversation at the start of the Grand Prix Finals:

 

"I wouldn't bother with Yuuri," Christophe said when Victor started asking aloud who else to drag along with them to eat at some local hole-in-the-wall a staff member insisted had the best zakuska in town. At Victor's confused blink, Christophe laughed and clarified, a wry smile on his face, "Poor guy was all nerves when I saw him earlier. Give him a break."

 

"Ah," Victor said in response, dimly aware he was pouting. "Oh well. There's still time afterwards."

 

Ah, Victor thinks in the present. There's those nerves I was promised.

 

Yuuri is such a bright red that Victor is almost a little concerned, back flush against the far wall with more distance between him and Victor than they've had since Yuuri barged in on him in the outdoor bath. Victor's actually a little more surprised it's taken this long for Yuuri to panic, with how heavily Christophe implied he was too delicate for Victor's enthusiasm. There's more steel to Yuuri than Victor anticipated, which is a good sign for the future. He did well up until Victor laid the flirting on a little too thickly to be confused for cultural differences, and even then it had been a long moment before Yuuri flung himself away so dramatically, blushing as soon as Victor let his voice go a little silky and reached for him. And it's such a cute blush, too, though Victor will admit it might just be the full cheeks, plush with the weight Yuuri's gained over the past few months. Kind of a pity those will have to go.

 

Something tells Victor he was warned off Yuuri for less than altruistic reasons back in December. He can't help but be amused by that; Christophe really doesn't like competition, does he?

 

Yuuri stammers out an excuse to go back downstairs, apologizing with a flurry of words and a ducked head. Victor is almost certain half of that isn't English, which is honestly funnier than it probably should be.

 

"He's adorable," Victor tells Maccachin, who's given up attempting to find out what's under the floor mats.

 

This is going to be better than Victor dared to dream. He can't wait until morning, when they can finally, properly start working together.

 


 

It's been a week, and Victor has learned plenty of things.

 

One, it's no wonder Yuuri gains weight so easily with how wonderfully his mother cooks. Victor almost feels sorry for him as Yuuri's left with restrictively plain dishes and water while Victor is working his way through the inn's menus. Both of them. Yuuri doesn't actually seem to mind that much, which assuages some of the guilt, but Victor does notice Yuuri sneaking glances at him while he eats, shoulders tense until Victor cheerfully tells Yuuri's mother what he thinks of the food. It tells Victor that Yuuri may downplay his own achievements and successes, but he's really and truly proud of those around him.

 

Two, while Yuuri is easy to tease and fluster, there's this flicker of something sharp and solid Victor only sees when he pushes just a little too much that snaps Yuuri into the exact kind of mindset Victor knows got Yuuri to the Grand Prix Finals to begin with. Victor wants that Yuuri to come out more often, because that Yuuri is the one who isn't afraid of what anyone -- even his idol -- thinks of him.

 

Three, for as odd as Yuuri occasionally acts around Maccachin, the two of them clearly adore each other. Maccachin's always been friendly and bouncy, but when Yuuri starts lacing up his running shoes it's almost like a switch is flipped and suddenly Maccachin's ten years younger. It's such a stark contrast from how he's like in St. Petersburg, where sometimes Victor has to pry him out from under a pile of spreads and stuffed toys to go for a run. Maybe it's the warmer climate. Maybe it's the fact Hasetsu is new and interesting, especially for an old dog. Who's to say?

 

Four, he really likes the hot springs. Really likes them. They're just so convenient, after long days of chasing after Yuuri on a bike and exploring the town all at once. It's the perfect place to  recharge, the heat soothing sore muscles and warming the chill from their bones. For the first time in almost two years Victor finds himself sleeping fitfully, a satisfied kind of tired that makes the bright smiles and light words come easier.

 

Five -- and less fun -- he knows a lot less Japanese than he thought. Sure, he can get through an interview with little pause and can order his own food and other fun basic directional phrases, but actual, casual conversation? Not as easy. Yuuko and Nishigori's girls are very helpful in that regard, slipping him copies of their lessons on the sly while Yuuri's off elsewhere running errands. While Victor doesn't mind needing Yuuri to translate, it's just basic courtesy to at least try and hold conversations without him.

 

Overall, Victor's happy with his decision. If nothing else comes of this, then Victor's at least had a nice, relaxing vacation for a few months getting to know someone he really should have introduced himself to sooner, because for all of Yuuri's hero worship he's very level-headed -- a trait Victor will admit he probably needs more of in his life in general. It does help that he's cute, but that's not the important part.

 

Of course, not everyone agrees with him.

 

"You are fucking shameless." Victor doesn't bother responding to Yuri's blatant disgust as he closes the door behind Maccachin, reaching for his lapels to shrug off his jacket. "What the hell does that pig have that you can't get better back home?"

 

He waits, because Yuri hates being ignored, and sure enough the boy strangles down a screech and stomps into Victor's space, grabbing the front of his shirt and glaring up into Victor's expecting half-smile.

 

"You're wasting your time," Yuri says, snarling. "That fatass can't handle it and you know it!"

 

Victor quirks a brow, the half-smile still on his face. "Lost your claws already, kitten?"

 

"Fuck no!" Green eyes flash at Victor from under a curtain of golden blond hair. "If this is going to be a competition, I actually want a challenge. You can't just make me go up against the worst and act like that's a good test!"

 

Victor laughs. "Yurio--"

 

"It's Yuri! Fuck you!"

 

"--if you honestly think Yuuri is the worst," he continues, face placid. Yuri jerks back, his grip on Victor's shirt loosening -- "you have not been paying near enough attention."

 

Yuri scowls, shoulders rigid. "Do you even remember his scores? He's an embarrassment!"

 

Victor shrugs. "He may have a lot to improve, but it isn't his cute face that got him into the finals." Yuri opens his mouth. "Of course, I understand your concerns. He's older, more experienced--"

 

Yuri's jaw clanks shut audibly, hackles rising. "I'll kick his ass so hard he'll find himself crying in that stall again."

 

That's an interesting additional bit of information Victor was not expecting to get this evening. Victor files it away with the rest he learned tonight, in a box labeled with Yuuri Katsuki's name.

 


 

As Yuuri settles into his starting position, eyes closing as the guitar strums to life over the speakers, Victor realizes just how in over his head he's gotten.

 

He'd thought nothing of the publicized exhibition match the Nishigori triplets offered. It's a good opportunity to show just what kind of training he'd prepare for both Yuri and Yuuri, no matter who wins. They both need attitude adjustments if they plan on making it to the top, albeit very different ones. Yuri needs to learn how to dial back, to accept that even if he knows his limitations better, his coaches are more experienced and know what they're talking about. Yuuri needs to stop second-guessing himself, needs to trust his own judgement instead of constantly relying on his coach's cues and focus on the showmanship Victor knows he's capable of.

 

Casting them into Agape and Eros respectively is just as much a subversion of their current images as it is a test of the skillsets they currently have. Wild-hearted, fierce Yuri likes his jumps and constantly tries to sneak them in despite quads being forbidden for official competitions up until now? He gets the airy, reverent Agape. Soft, meek Yuuri with experience under his belt and a strength towards step sequences? He gets the flirty, sensual Eros.

 

As Victor predicts, Yuri struggles hilariously with Agape, if only because he's too impatient and foul-mouthed to properly grasp how to convey a gentle heart to the audience and make his every movement a prayer in it of itself. The excuse to drop into the temple up in the mountain is just a happy bonus, even if Yuri glares daggers at him every time the priest turns away. Victor takes the opportunity to write down a prayer in a display of what Yuri's supposed to be doing, and that earns him even more angry teeth gnashing on the way back to the inn. Still, for all his complaining this week he makes some kind of revelation, and it shows in the first half of his program. It's really a pity he ends up defaulting back to keeping as technically sound as he can manage when he visibly loses steam and momentum.

 

Yuuri and Eros, though, have been a… journey, to say the least. Victor's not entirely sure what kind of standards Yuuri's holding himself to, but the days he's not on the ice he's clearly overthinking something that's supposed to come naturally. He lets the katsudon comment slide for this reason alone, since it's at least progress and that's something. He still seemed to be holding back, still didn't seem to grasp it in a way he could convey without turning into a blushing mess on the ice at yesterday's practice.

 

None of that is evident now. A heady air settles over the rink as Yuuri drags his fingertips over the contours of his borrowed costume, eyes dark and lidded as he cants his head, jawline still soft with the weight he's yet to shake off. He turns, just slightly, from the hips to glance over his shoulder at where Victor stands behind the barricade, and huffs a soft breath of a laugh before dancing away with the keen of the violin.

 

When Victor first choreographed Eros -- even when he demonstrated it for Yuuri a mere week ago -- he sought to make it an invitation. No strings attached, nothing but a simple acknowledgement of consenting adults with a long night ahead of them and a chance to go with the flow. It's a fun piece, if a little risqué. Victor can get away with that now, especially with his reputation as a charming flirt. It's not meant to be part of some grand love story, nor is it some kind of warning of being too free with one's affections. Victor knows, if he were skating his Eros, the rink would be full of red faces and coy laughter smothered to be polite.

 

Yuuri's Eros, though, is a completely different beast. He commands the attention of everyone in the rink in the set of his shoulders, drops jaws with a twirl and a flash of the deep crimson of the underside of the costume's half-skirt. He plays up his thicker frame and lets his movements sway in time, so blatantly a challenge to chase that the long hair Victor had worn to complete his illusion in that costume is unnecessary. He brushes off all but his unseen suitor with a wave of his hand, and even then he makes it clear he's still going to make them work for anything more than a glance and the barest touch. Yuuri makes himself a lure, a dare: "Prove you're worth my time, and I just might give it to you."

 

Victor, a little lightheaded, offers his sincerest apologies to whoever Yuuri inevitably ends up spending his life with. The promise of katsudon only provides the tinder for this performance; something else entirely is what sets it aflame.

 

The announcer is just as breathless as he makes a weak crack about Yuuri's stated inspiration, one no one in the captivated audience pays mind to. All eyes are on Yuuri and the allure that catapulted Victor halfway around the world in full display. His uneasy technique is the only thing that gives away his nerves, the only window where Victor finds the Yuuri he'd seen mere minutes ago, shaking like a leaf as he waits for his turn. Yuuri's weaknesses are evident in the second half of the program, just like Yuri's, but unlike Yuri he never breaks character. Every misstep is disguised as a give in Yuuri's defenses, a flash of acknowledgement that his suitor is on the right track to undoing him.

 

The music crescendos in its final swell, and with the last staccato Yuuri enfolds himself in a lovers' embrace. Victor only has a moment to drink in his face flushed with exertion and his eyes now bright in the overhead lights before the crowd roars with cheers, banners waving frantically and cries of "Welcome back!" from longtime fans eager to see Yuuri perform and redeem himself.

 

For Victor, another page of the mystery that is Yuuri Katsuki is revealed to him, and it's to a dawning uneasiness that Yuuri might be more than just a piece of music to polish up.

 


 

Victor calls Russia exactly twice.

 

The first is a simple exchange with Mila, a cheery "How's Japan, Yura says it sucks?" and an amused "He's just mad Yuuri's mom likes me more." It ends with her wishing Victor luck in his endeavor to train Yuuri, an update on Georgi's funk since his girlfriend left him, and a chiding reminder to call his grandmother before the old woman and Yakov tear each other's throats out. No one wants to deal with the fallout. No one especially wants to deal with Yakov's sulking.

 

The second is in the quiet of Hasetsu's streets, along the bridge he and Yuuri cross to get to Ice Castle. His grandmother laughs when he tells her the story after she reams into him for his radio silence the past two months (she's still skeptical of social media, or she'd know what he's been up to) and reminds him again why she calls him her little magpie.

 

"You and your fancies and your shiny things, Vityen'ka," she gripes, and Victor feels himself grin knowingly. "Go find yourself a nice partner, settle down for once! You're at the age it's harder to find someone."

 

"I'm twenty-seven and still very handsome," Victor laughs. She barks out a scoffed "ha!". "I have plenty of time for that later. Besides, I'm too busy training Yuuri to be worrying about romance."

 

She hums, skeptical. Even thousands of kilometers apart, Victor can feel her eyes bore into him.

 

"Promise," he adds. At that, she definitely snorts.

 

"You say that now, and just watch," she huffs. "By December you're going to be trying to bring back some pretty-faced thing! I've seen it happen enough times in my own career."

 

Unbidden, Yuuri's face crosses Victor's mind. It's not of Yuuri in his old costume, coy and challenging, which would make sense. It's not even of Yuuri as he is in practices, hair loose and lips pursed in too-grim determination that immediately brightens to an attentive smile when he catches Victor's eyes on him. No, it's of Yuuri from that first night, eyes wide and round cheeks flushed red from just a look and a touch, in an unflattering sweatshirt and glasses askew.

 

"We'll see," Victor says, noncommittal.

 

He doesn't call again. Partially because he is as busy as he claims, and partially because… well.

 

It's annoying, that the old woman has a point.

 

While he considers himself well-intentioned (he won't even pretend he's virtuous, he gets way too much enjoyment out of ruffling feathers), Victor has moments where he finds that he is still but a man. Moments he finds himself staring just a little too intently, hands lingering just a little too long or too close, where his blood booms between his ears and he finds himself wanting.

 

These moments would be understandable, if they happened with normal things, if they happened like before. But no, it's not that simple. It's not that predictable. In that sense, there's an even greater thrill to them.

 

It's in the crinkle of skin between Yuuri's brows when he mumbles his interpretation of the Eros program in their first one-on-one practice after Yuri leaves, of why he incorporated something as subtle and overt as a shift of perspective with just a few changes of his body language. It's in the whorls of a fingertip against the sweaty cans of tea Yuuko brings them during their breaks, outlining what they've yet to get to for practice that day in the condensation. It's in the way Yuuri's dark hair can't make up its mind whether to dangle in his face or stick back where he brushes it aside, and the pink of the hair tie the Nishigori girls loan him when Victor finally makes him stop so he doesn't misstep while trying to blow hair out of his eyes.

 

It's the unceremonious snort Yuuri makes as he watches Victor try to conquer a gatchapon machine outside of a convenience store they break at during their evening runs, the way his eyes bug out and he slaps a hand over his nose and mouth as Victor whips around with a grin splitting his face and a sparkle in his eye. It's the delight dewing at the corners of Yuuri's eyes and the fond laugh when an old, old show pops up on the TV when they're up late, how Yuuri's voice rises and falls as he explains the plot and characters to Victor like they're sharing secrets. It's the worn hole at the collar of Yuuri's favorite shirt to sleep in, how he keeps trying to repair it with such shoddy sewing that Victor has to intervene so Yuuri doesn't impale his finger.

 

It's the fact Yuuri still feels the loss of his dog bone-deep, and how in turn Victor finds himself spoiling Maccachin more when it hits him how old his closest, most beloved friend really is. It's the fact Yuuri gets cheeky when he's flushed with shochu, eyes bright and dancing as he returns teasing as good as he gets it, even as Victor finds himself pouting about the loss of the cute, flustered Yuuri he's more familiar with. It's the fact Yuuri still nearly jumps out of his skin when Victor sneaks up behind him, even if the shock doesn't last as long anymore.

 

It's not elegant, it's not graceful. It won't fill a concert hall with hundreds of elites and nobles looking for entertainment for an evening. It won't satisfy a thousand bouncing teenagers who want to be irresponsible for a night. Still, it's raw and real in a way Victor hasn't allowed himself to listen to or feel in years, a simple scale he wonders if he's forgotten under the weight of symphonies. Victor finds himself in a waltz with Yuuri, each step in pizzicato at allegretto speed. Yuuri still doesn't know all the steps, but that's okay because for once Victor doesn't really know what comes next, either. They're both learning. They're both new at this.

 

He wonders, as he watches Yuuri skate back into position, running through the same quads a dozen times each, if Yuuri knows how much richer Victor's life is with him in it. That it's no longer just Victor offering his experience and expertise, that Victor's learning just as much from Yuuri as Yuuri is from him, if not more. Life in Hasetsu is life with Yuuri, and though he hears the seagulls and thinks of St. Petersburg or finds himself missing the savory acidity of a good bowl of borsht amidst the mild umami of miso and fish broth, he finds it harder and harder to imagine returning to the apartment he once called home, picture-perfect for magazine spreads but lacking all the warmth and comfort of Yuu-Topia.

 

Victor thinks of rosin dust and shavings of aged wood, of melodies sung by strings and horsehair. Perhaps when this is over, he should move in with his grandmother instead. He puts it from his mind before his eyes rake over Yuuri's form, looking for mistakes to correct and footing to adjust. He knows what his traitorous mind will imagine, if he lets it.

 

(As long as he'll have me, Victor decides, firm. I'll stay.)

 


 

Maccachin sulks at the corner of the bed, tail tucked under him and turned in a way that makes it obvious he doesn't like this development but refuses to outright leave what he thinks is "his" spot. Yuuri sits just above Victor's knees, a flash of guilt in his eyes when he glances over to Maccachin but excitement flushes high on his cheeks. Victor holds the earbuds in place, leaning forward and opening himself for the music Yuuri's friend composed.

 

It starts with a piano: simple, repetitive but quick-paced. Yuuri's last piece from her has the same melody, but it makes up the bulk of the work. So the backbone is still there, the acknowledgement that Yuuri can stand on his own even if it's not what he has to do. The harmony deepens in complexity at eight measures in, and with it the melody shifts into something more pensive and weary. Not giving up, no -- he's picked himself back up here, even if he's resigned to his fate of again walking the road alone.

 

And then Victor hears it.

 

His eyes don't pop so much as slip open, that all too familiar warmth flushing his veins at the first sweet croon of the violin, and how with it the melody goes from weary to hopeful, the barely-there thump of drums hidden in the background. Victor can easily see the long graceful strokes of the bow, ethereal and elegant and warbling in vibrato alongside the swell of the piano's gentle notes. From hope to a growing confidence as the violin lets itself take second melody, supporting the piano as it soars, its own beauty finally realized.

 

Everything cuts off, leaving the piano to again play alone. This time, though, the melody keeps its confidence, quiet and sure in each note. The violin eases back in so seamlessly with the solid harmony he almost misses it, a perfect duet. Piano and violin dance in equal melody, a swell that grows so encompassing that in the quiet when both sharply peter off, Victor feels as if his breath has been stolen away.

 

Victor looks at Yuuri as the last vibrato and the final notes of the piano fade. He doesn't know what his face looks like, but from the watery smile and warm, warm eyes Victor can guess it's the reaction Yuuri was hoping for.

 

"It's perfect," Victor says, soft and low. Yuuri nods; Victor doesn't think he's ever seen him so happy. "But, Yuuri, that violin--"

 

Victor knows that violin's voice. He'd know it through shoddy speakers and poor-quality audio rips, though this demo is neither. He knows it the way he knows his skates, the way he knows how to count to a hundred or tie his shoes. He's spent so many nights as a child listening to its brethren in a small shop on the fringes of St. Petersburg, where five generations of Nikiforov men took maple and spruce and created masterpieces that sung with the voice of angels. A tradition Victor found himself incapable of continuing, clumsy with chisels and wood despite his grace on the ice, a tradition extinguished decades before his father's life and death. A tradition taken new shape in his grandmother's once smooth, graceful hands, to honor the family she'd lost in Russia's dark history.

 

Victor cannot be a luthier like so many Nikiforovs before him, and though he loves his grandmother's playing he is not that sort of artist. How the music in Victor's blood shows is in his dance, and with that Victor has made it his life's work for no one to ever forget how a family of artisans has lasted as long as it has. For Yuuri's song to have such a piece of history in it…

 

(Ah, Victor thinks too, too fondly. So much for those nerves of yours, darling.)

 

"She--" Yuuri starts, the flush in his face darkening. "She has an uncle or something that found one at an estate sale. The family didn't know how valuable it was." He laughs, dropping his gaze to the laptop in his hands. "If they did, there's no way they'd sell it. I'm just really glad that she still has it, or I would've had to settle."

 

Victor blinks. "You asked for it? Specifically?"

 

"It's a Nikiforov," Yuuri says, meeting Victor's eyes. "How could I not?"

 

He's supposed to understand something, Victor thinks. He's supposed to ask, to pry. His family's history isn't that well known, overshadowed by both his and his grandmother's dance and music; even then, only those who know his grandmother better would know a Nikiforov violin by sound. His fans? Most would be in the dark, the only thought in their heads maybe being that the violin sounds noticeably bright.

 

Of course Yuuri knows the difference. Of course he does.

 

Rather than speak Victor reaches up, past the laptop screen, fingertips ghosting the curve of Yuuri's jaw. It's more defined now than it had been the first time Victor really, truly looked at Yuuri, though Yuuri is no waif when at his physical peak. He's still solid, thick. Barely, still flushed, Yuuri leans into the touch, and Victor's hand melds to his form. Yuuri's pulse flutters under his fingertips, a gentle tremolo that knocks the air out of Victor's lungs all over again.

 

It would be so easy. It would be the easiest thing in the world to do, easier than taking home another gold for his collection, easier than enduring thirty hours of flights and stopovers on nothing but a flicker of inspiration from a single video gone viral.

 

"Not yet," Yuuri breathes for them, his heartbeat still racing against Victor's fingertips. Still, he doesn't tear himself away, not like he used to.

 

It makes sense, so much so that only a small part of Victor is disappointed. Already too many people in the industry have loud and scathing opinions about Victor's inability to keep the line of coach and student between him and Yuuri clear-cut, people Victor used to compete with and Yuuri still has to, coaches and commentators and fans alike. As if they don't know that Victor gives his all to the things he treasures, as if he'd jeopardize Yuuri's chance at the Grand Prix and the gold medal Victor's promised him by letting this take precedence.

 

"Not yet," Victor agrees, pulling his hand away.

 

He gingerly closes the laptop, hand resting on its surface. It's only then Yuuri notices how compromising their position is, and Victor has to bite his cheek to stop himself from laughing aloud at Yuuri's soft flush cranking up to a boiled red.

 

"I-I'm just," Yuuri stammers, hands shaking as he leans over to reclaim his earbuds, "gonna. Go. To bed."

 

Victor smiles blithely. "You should. We have a program to choreograph in the morning, after all."

 


 

Yuuri has nerves at the most inconvenient of times. He also finds his steel core at the most inconvenient of times.

 

Yuuri's magnum opus is the culmination of months of grueling practices finally set to music just barely in by the deadline. Victor has worked to ensure it has the high difficulty to rack up technical points, has taken his countless hours upon days learning Yuuri and his glass heart to figure out how to guide his performance to move the judges and audience to heartfelt tears. If Eros is meant to instill that flush from starting the game of romance, Yuri On Ice is the thrill of emerging on the other side victorious. It's up to Yuuri from here, to take these two programs and prove to the world that last year had been a slump and nothing more. It's Victor's job now to keep his confidence bolstered and his anxiety at bay.

 

Which, again: Yuuri shuffles between his nerves and his steel core at the most inconvenient of times.

 

He'll give Yuuri an earful about that some other time, away from the cameras and reporters, in the quiet of the spaces between them no one else fits. For now--

 

"Here." Victor brushes the dried blood from Yuuri's upper lip, eyeing the red already pooling under his skin on the bridge of his nose. "Let's get you on that podium before you really start bruising, hm?"

 

Yuuri huffs a weak laugh. "I guess I'm in a lot of trouble later, huh."

 

The look Victor gives him is the same placid expression he always gives Yuuri when he screws up something he should really know by now, but he knows he can't hide the warmth in his eyes. "We'll see."

 

Yuuri is so, so stubborn. How he's managed to convince the world he's some delicate, frail-hearted thing is beyond Victor. He won't argue with Victor about a program he can't see himself in, so he struggles in silence until he hits an epiphany and completely changes the tone just to make the music his own. He guards his thoughts and words carefully, desperate to only show his best self to others, only to throw Victor's world off-kilter when he opens up all at once to him. He can't accept anything less than what he's practiced, even if Victor and his years of experience tell him it's okay to hold back. He won't acknowledge Victor's appreciation of his soft, hearth-warm beauty, and the moment after such a breathtaking display of rebellion Yuuri throws himself towards Victor's waiting arms.

 

By tonight, the results of the Chugoku, Shikoku, and Kyushu Championship will go public, along with the multitude of pictures taken over the past two days of the two of them wrapped around each other. It's one thing for the many, many pictures Victor's taken and posted on Instagram and Twitter over the past several months; his fans know of his fondness for local cuisine, know he adores Maccachin, now know that he likes making Yuuri blush over the silliest things. Tonight, though, there's the real chance people's speculations start getting accepted as fact.

 

There are only so many ways people can interpret Victor embracing Yuuri from behind with his face buried in Yuuri's shoulder, Yuuri's relieved and tearful calling of Victor's name and rush to him, all the little excuses Victor's used to touch Yuuri and the fact Yuuri allowed it.

 

(What do you want me to be? he'd asked, that cloudy day in May.

 

You, was Yuuri's answer, time and again in the months to follow. I just want you.)

 


 

The door to Yuu-Topia creaks open just after midnight. Victor looks up from his phone, chin propped up on his palm.

 

Yuuri looks at him like a child caught with their hand in the cookie jar, a hand frozen in place where he started reaching to remove his shoes. The too-pale blue tie Victor focused on to avoid questions hangs from his neck, as clean and neat as it'd been on TV.

 

"You didn't stay for drinks," Victor says, a too-light lilt to his voice. When Yuuri's eyes bug, Victor lets himself grin. "Yuu~ri, we've talked about this. You have to learn how to mingle!"

 

"Sorry, sorry." Yuuri actually looks more sorry he was caught sneaking in like a teenager after curfew, but that might be one of those things Yuuri's just embarrassed about in general. "What are you doing up so late, though? I expected everyone to be asleep."

 

Victor smiles and pushes himself up from the table. Eyes fixed on Yuuri's, he approaches with all the grace learned from years on the ice, grace Victor leans on now for a very different reason. Yuuri notices, of course; Victor can tell, in the sudden stiffness of his back and the wide eyes behind his glasses. How nostalgic. The last time Yuuri was this stiff with him was months and months ago, back when Victor still naively thought he held all the cards in this game.

 

"Yuuri Katsuki announces theme of 'love'," Victor reads off his phone, voice light. A rush of red colors Yuuri's cheeks, and Victor struggles to keep the grin at bay. "Japan's ace figure skater delivered a powerful speech tonight about how this past year has allowed him to reflect upon what and who truly matters to him. Included in this is his coach, five-time World Champion Victor Nikiforov, in a category all his own." And Victor's voice drops, leans forward and, for the first time since April, raises a hand to gently cradle Yuuri's chin. "I could keep reading, but I think this is something I should hear from you directly, Yuuri."

 

Unlike April, Yuuri doesn't go bright red and scuttle away or stare at Victor in a mix of star-struck awe and disbelief. Instead, he maintains eye contact with Victor, cheeks still flushed but eyes bright and sure. "I probably should," Yuuri agrees, voice soft. Still, Victor still feels him swallow as he steels his nerves. "I said… that I've become a stronger person because of you. That I couldn't really see or accept what I already had until you came, and how much more it meant to me because of you."

 

Ah. That would explain Minako's sulking.

 

Yuuri blinks. "What?"

 

"Nothing," Victor says, smiling. "Do go on. Tell me, what fired you up so much it made you promise the country a gold medal?"

 

Victor knows Yuuri can go redder; he's seen it himself multiple times in the past half-year, been the cause of the majority of those incidences. He expects Yuuri's blush to spread, his skin to flush with heat as it creeps down the lines of his throat. Victor does not expect Yuuri's touch on his wrist, quivering fingers wrapping around Victor's, or the dip of his head that presses lips, chapped (he's been biting at them, probably all evening) and branding, into Victor's palm.

 

It's like watching him skate to Eros that first time all over again, the way Yuuri's eyes flick up to meet Victor's, mouth still against Victor's palm and cheeks still dark. His glasses catch the low light filtering in from the outside world; the way it filters into his eyes make them the rich, deep color of rosewood. His breath is hot against Victor's skin, and Victor wonders, not for the first time, how anyone could look at this man and not want to give him the world.

 

Yuuri only pulls away the millimeters necessary to murmur, soft and low, "You haven't forgotten your promise to me, Victor, have you?"

 

"I could never," Victor breathes. Yuuri's grip tightens. Victor has never wanted anything more than to pull him in.

 

But they're so close. The Cup of China is only weeks away. Yuuri needs to focus now more than ever, and while once Victor might've not cared one way or another it now feels like a blast of bitter winter wind in his chest when he thinks of Yuuri stumbling when he's almost to the finish. Yuuri is strong and dedicated, he wouldn't get distracted by something like this if the past six, almost seven months hasn't flagged his enthusiasm, but--

 

The effort to relax his hand and let it drop is herculean. Yuuri squeezes it once more in what almost feels like solidarity before releasing his grip as well.

 

"Soon," Victor assures Yuuri.

 

"Soon," Yuuri agrees. The flicker of disappointment is gone before Victor fully manages to register it, it's so quickly replaced by conviction. "I won't let you down!"

 

The space charged between them aches, now that the what-ifs and maybes are dissipating in the wake of Yuuri's bold declaration tonight. At the same time, nothing is more comfortable than walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Yuuri as they make their way to their hall, hands brushing together and smiles shared as they take the lead in the stairs in turn.

 

Victor's room is first. It always is. It's a gamble at this point which room Maccachin is in, one Victor doesn't dare bet on. For once, he's not actually sure which room he'd prefer his dog; the company is something Victor always seeks, but Yuuri's become just as precious to him. He just knows he really doesn't want to sleep alone.

 

"…Victor?"

 

Victor looks up, blinking owlishly at Yuuri a pace away.

 

Yuuri worries at his lower lip, glancing between his bedroom door at the end of the hall and Victor, the soft pink from earlier blooming again across his cheeks. Then, with a shaky sigh and closed eyes, he pulls his glasses off his face and rakes back his fringe, a softer variant of how he presents himself in competitions without the mousse and the touch-ups. The transformation is complete when he reopens his eyes, half-mast and dark in the low light, a small smile at the corners of his mouth. Victor's gut lurches in a sudden knot, his hand on his own room's door faltering. Even after their agreement in the lobby, is Yuuri actually going to--?

 

"Thank you for waiting up for me," Yuuri say, soft and sweet. "I didn't mean to keep you."

 

One would think, after months of this dance, a man would get used to being teased like this.

 

Victor's not actually sure what his face does, but the blush on Yuuri's face deepens and Victor can't resist a last tease of his own. He takes Yuuri by the wrist, presses his lips to the back of Yuuri's hand and croons, "I'm yours to keep, darling," followed by an embarrassingly quick exit stage left into his room before he does something else stupid and impulsive.

 

Victor only hears Yuuri squeak something in strangled-sounding Japanese because he too finds himself incapable of walking away from the now-shut door between them. It takes everything he has not to throw his head back and laugh, not to turn back around and throw the doors open and just drag Yuuri into bed with him anyway.

 


 

coda.

As Victor predicts, only a handful of the people in the audience can tell the sweetness of the violin is a Nikiforov. Only Yakov, among the other coaches and the choreographers present, recognizes it and shoots Victor an incredulous, offended look.

 

But as he approaches the final quad, Yuuri's footing changes and Victor's heart lurches in a desperate plea to stop him.

 

Botched landing notwithstanding, the audience is already on their feet in raucous applause when Yuuri jumps a flip and gets in enough rotations to make it a quadruple. Victor blanks, no one else in the stadium mattering but the stubborn, anxious, beautiful man spinning into his final pose, out of breath but legs still firmly keeping him upright despite everything today going horribly, terribly wrong.

 

Yuuri shouldn't have been able to do it. On more than thirty hours without sleep, stress at an all-time high, just after sobbing his heart out and eyes raw down in the carpark, it should have been impossible to pull off. Hell, Victor never risked it, choosing easier quads to land for a finale if he did one at all. And yet--

 

(Yuuri knows the difference, Victor realizes, heart pounding between his ears. But this is something for the rest of the world to recognize.

 

If Eros is the flush at the start of romance, then Yuri On Ice is the thrill of victory as you come out the other side.)

 

Victor knows this calm washing over him, the quiver in his jaw, the set his shoulders automatically fall into. The rush is an old friend, one Victor knew was missing for some time but hadn't noticed until it was long gone and he looked back through the years. He's seen glimpses of it in the past seven months, flashes of energy and drive that had nothing to do with discipline and everything to do with excitement. He's moving before he realizes it, and when he does he pushes himself to run faster. He doesn't look at Yuuri until he's waiting at the entry, Yuuri gliding forward to meet him halfway with wide, hopeful eyes and a flush -- exertion or pride, possibly both -- high on his cheeks.

 

This time, Victor doesn't give Yuuri a chance to get nervous and back away. This time, Victor doesn't care there are a minimum of twenty different cameras broadcasting everything across the globe.

 

All that matters is the warmth of Yuuri's head and shoulders cradled in his arms, bracing for the inevitable impact, and the hitched breath Victor swallows as he finally, finally closes the gap between them.