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Of Duty and Love

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Yuuri flies down the spiral staircase, fingers working nimbly at the tie round on his neck. He's vaguely aware that his dress shirt is not properly tucked, white fabric spilling out wildly over rumpled trousers. He ducks a housemaid on the way to prepare the rooms, ignoring the look of surprise on her face.

He has made a terrible error in judgment, and now he's ridiculously, absurdly late, and he's not in his room. The butler of the house is going to have his head on a platter.

Mentally, he runs a list of possible excuses through his mind: he had a nightmare and needed a walk to clear his head; he heard noises and left to investigate; the young master had summoned him for a personal request – no, no, oh, that one is far too close to the truth –

He lets out a squeak when a hand clamps down on his arm, stopping him in his tracks.

"Yuuri, where have you been," Phichit says, concerned, grip tightening, "You've missed breakfast and Feltsman is going mad looking for you – "

"Tell you later," Yuuri says, pushing lightly past his friend to hasten down the stairs to the kitchen.

Yakov is there, barking orders at the kitchen staff. Anya's face is dark with annoyance as she scrubs at the pots in the sink, while Celestino scurries about in his rush to cook breakfast for upstairs.

Hurriedly, Yuuri shoves the fallen edges of his shirt into his trousers and smoothens down his waistcoat, before walking up as calmly as he can to the peevish butler. "Good morning, Mr. Feltsman, I'm so sorry for the delay – "

"Save the apologies, Mr. Katsuki," Yakov snaps, whirling round on him with fire in his eyes. "His Lord Marquess Giacometti and his Lord Earl Popovich will be staying at our honorable estate for the next two days, and as Lord Giacometti's valet has recently left service, he will require your services for the entirety of his visit. I am, however, beginning to question if you can juggle between two lords, given that you appear to have sufficient difficulty managing one."

Yuuri stands tall, chin lifting. Yakov the butler has worked for the masters of the estate for generations – "Centuries," Phichit insists, "Like a gargoyle," – and he is renowned for his disapproval of meek behavior, even in the face of a scolding. Fake or not, confidence is key. "I will manage, Mr. Feltsman."

Yakov snorts. "See that you do. And fix your hair, will you," he growls as he strides past, "You look like a dog that's been through a wind tunnel."

Once the heavy footsteps fade, Yuuri allows himself to sag, dropping his hands to the top of a dining chair to steady himself. The relief is palpable; he didn't have the proper excuse for his absence and the truth would have given Yakov a lethal heart attack.

"Thank your lucky stars he didn't skin you alive," Celestino says, flashing a grin as he bustles by with a ladle. An Italian chef who used to work at a celebrated hotel, Celestino's cooking is second only to his mother's Japanese home cooked meals.

"Sorry if I've made him more irate than usual," Yuuri starts, but Anya sniffs disdainfully at the sink.

"Please, he and Baranovskaya were born irate," the kitchen maid says, her thick country brogue betraying her humble background. "They've both got their knickers all up in a twist with two lords visiting this week."

"Baranovskaya's on the rampage, too?"

"She's upstairs, surveying the housemaids. I don't envy them at all."

"Never you mind," Celestino chides and gestures at the dining room. "Sit down and have breakfast, Mr. Katsuki, you're going to need your strength soon."

Eagerly, Yuuri complies.

 


 

At mid-afternoon, with the sun beating down upon them, they assemble at the entrance, awaiting the lords' arrival.

Yuuri takes his place at the end of the line, greeting the rest of the downstairs staff with a smile. Though they return his greeting amiably, Yuuko and Minako sport similar looks of irritation, no doubt a result of Lilia's morning surveillance. Phichit throws him a jaunty wink while the other footmen, Guang Hong and Leo, respond with smiles of their own.

"Where were you," Sara mouths where she stands across from him.

Yuuri shrugs, just as the front door opens to reveal the lords and lady of the estate, accompanied by Yakov and Lilia.

"It's just Georgi and Christophe," the younger lord grumbles. "Must we wait outside in this bloody heat?"

"Lord Popovich and Lord Giacometti are important guests, Yura," the lady corrects, smacking the smaller blond in a distinctly unladylike fashion. Silently, Sara stifles a giggle behind her hands. "Welcoming them is the least we can do."

"I doubt Christophe appreciates being addressed so formally, Mila, though Georgi seems to enjoy it."

The master of the Nikiforov estate, oldest and the most regal in blood and appearance, steps through the doors. His Lord Duke Viktor Nikiforov tosses his head and silver hair flows almost ethereally, shimmering like glints of sunlight over calm waters. Elegant, charming, and debonair, he outshines even his half-siblings; both blessed enough with a sense of transcendent beauty that stuns men and women alike. All three are Russian by heritage, and Yuuri sometimes wishes he could take a trip to Eastern Europe to see if there are others like them.

Those bright, bright turquoise eyes flicker over, and Yuuri swiftly averts his gaze, cheeks growing warm.

"Feltsman," Viktor calls, voice smooth as velvet, "Who will be serving as Christophe's valet?"

"That would be Mr. Katsuki, your Grace."

There is a glimpse of displeasure on Viktor's face before it vanishes as quickly as it appeared. "Perhaps one of the footmen could do it instead?" he says serenely. "After all, Katsuki has his hands full serving out his duties as my valet."

Yuuri flushes harder at the possessive note in the young master's tone. From the corner of his eyes, he can see Phichit's growing smirk and he knows he has to prepare for a barrage of questions when the day is over.

Yakov frowns. "I would advice against that. None of the footmen have any experience serving in the capacity of a valet. I am confident that Mr. Katsuki can fulfill both duties with adequate competence, can you not, Mr. Katsuki?"

Heads turn to Yuuri who feels as though his face is on fire from the scrutiny. "Ah, y-yes, of course, Mr. Feltsman."

"Well," says Viktor, his stare deeply penetrating. "If Katsuki is certain."

It is the younger lord who breaks the uncomfortable silence that follows.

"I don't have a valet," Yura says. "Why should Christophe require one?"

"You don't have a valet because you dismissed the last four," Mila points out.

"Must you always undermine everything I say, you old hag?"

"Only when you speak without thinking, you silly child."

"And your mother was a – "

Feltsman clears his throat loudly, nodding towards a car in the distance. "It appears his lordships have arrived."

 


 

"All right, what happened last night," Phichit demands in a hushed whisper.

Eyes wide, Yuuri looks up from polishing Viktor's shoes. The interrogation is not supposed to happen till the end of the day and most certainly not in the presence of so many potential eavesdroppers. Phichit must be feeling impatient today. "Nothing happened," the valet replies in an unnaturally high pitch.

So much for being casual.

"Nothing my skinny Asian arse," Phichit snorts. "You and his Grace were clearly making doe eyes at each other. Don't even get me started on the whole 'my valet' business."

"Phichit," Celestino calls from afar. "Could you bring up the stew, please?"

"The stew, Phichit," Yuuri says, pointing to the kitchen.

"Uh no, you're not distracting me that easily," Phichit huffs. "What. Happened."

Anya pops her head into the dining room. "If the first footman could bother his Grace's valet on his free time before the stew gets cold and Mr. Cialdini busts a vein?"

"Tell Ciao Ciao I'll get right on it– " the maid rolls her eyes and withdraws back into the kitchen " –once someone tells me what happened last night."

Desperately, Yuuri flails with the polish cloth, making shushing noises at his friend. "I'll tell you later, you mad man," he swats feebly at the footman's chest, "Happy?"

"Ecstatic," Phichit responds, grinning. He heads out to the kitchen just as Leo descends the stairs.

"Feltsman wants to know where the stew is," Leo says, shaking his head. "His eyes are doing that weird twitching thing."

"It's on the way, it's on the way~" Phichit sing-songs, sweeping up the stairs.

"How's it going upstairs?" Yuuri asks.

Leo leans on Yuuri's chair, shoulders rolling in a shrug. Yuuri rather likes Leo: the footman is sweet, affable, and an incredible source of information. Together with Guang Hong, they know much about the comings and goings of the household, especially the latest gossip from upstairs. "Nothing new, really. Lord Popovich is waxing poetry about his latest whirlwind romance while his lordship and ladyship gag on the side, and Lord Giacometti is still persuading his Grace to find a suitable wife to wed."

"Oh," says Yuuri. He bows his head and resumes polishing with vigorous motions, heart pounding in his ears. Of course Viktor would have to find a partner; the great Nikiforov estate needs an heir worthy of the title. He would have to be a fool to even consider the alternative – if there even is an alternative at all.

"You all right, Yuuri? You've gone all pale," Leo says, eyebrows furrowing.

"Just fine," Yuuri says quietly.

"Good heavens, are those shoes I see on the dining table?"

Yuuri leaps to attention at the shrill voice, shoes cluttering off the table in his haste. "Mrs. Baranovskaya, I was just – "

"Out," Lilia snaps, the lines on her face growing sharper in her fury, "Out of the dining room with you. And you, Leo, don't you have a dish to serve upstairs?"

Snatching the shoes, Yuuri hurries out of the room to the sound of Lilia lecturing poor Leo for his lackadaisical attitude and slipshod work ethic.


At Viktor's request, Yuuri heads to Christophe's room first at the ring of the dressing gong. He knows the Swiss noble is a handsome man with the reputation of flitting from lover to lover, pleasuring any lady that happens to stumble across his path. The irony of a lady's man trying to convince the Duke to settle down doesn't escape Yuuri's notice, but it's certainly not for him to comment on. Not aloud, anyway.

"Ah, you must be Katsuki," the Marquess drawls. He's sitting on the edge of his bed with his bowtie undone, legs spread open in a lewd fashion.

Suddenly, Yuuri thinks he knows what it feels like to be one of those ladies.

"I'm, um, I am here to assist with your dressing, your lordship," he stammers nervously.

"You mean my un-dressing," Christophe suggests, lips curling.

"Um," says Yuuri eloquently, frozen in place as the noble's eyes rove down his figure lazily, sensuously. This is familiar, all too familiar, and the very tips of his skin prickle in trepidation at the dark sensation.

Christophe laughs then, rich and throaty, and the tension drops a notch. "No need to panic, I'm only teasing you." He rises from the bed, stretching his arms out. "Go on then, assist me."

After some hesitation, Yuuri walks over to remove the lord's jacket and reach for the buttons of his waistcoat.

"How long have you been working on this estate, Katsuki?"

"Just a year, milord," Yuuri replies, consciously willing himself not to stare when Christophe removes his dress shirt to reveal hard abdominal muscles underneath. "His Grace was generous enough to offer me a position when we met at the outdoor rink in London."

"Rink?" asks Christophe, inhaling deeply.

Yuuri's eyes dart away from the Marquess's chiseled stomach. "Y-Yes, the, um, the ice skating rink."

"Oh yes, one of Viktor's quaint little pastimes."

There follows a lull in their conversation, which Yuuri is grateful for. He's not quite sure why he divulged that information about his first meeting with Viktor, but there's really no point in crying over spilt milk. He is picking up the sleepwear he has prepared when Christophe speaks again.

"Are you any good at skating?"

When Yuuri sees Christophe's reaching out, feels fingers stroke at his cheek, it takes a few seconds to register the sensation, then a few more to hastily evade the touch. "I, I skate well enough not to fall," he stutters, holding out the pajamas, stretching his arms to their full length and as far out as possible.

"How modest," says Christophe, eyes at half-mast. He takes the sleepwear slowly, somehow still managing to brush against Yuuri as he does. "You know, Katsuki, I couldn't quite fathom why Viktor was so vehemently against taking a bride." Slipping on the clothes, he gives a salacious smile. "Now I believe I understand."

Trembling, Yuuri begins edging to the door, hands clasped tightly behind his back. "Will you, uh, will you be in further need of my services, m'lord?"

"Hmm," Christophe rumbles. "If I were to say yes?"

"It depends on the exact service you're requesting…"

"Perhaps the very one Viktor has been enjoying since your employment?"

Yuuri's breath catches. "I'm afraid I don't – "

"Katsuki, are you finished? I do need sleep at some point tonight."

When Viktor emerges at the door, Yuuri resists the strong urge to throw his arms round the man's neck and thank him profusely for his fortunate timing.

"Sorry," Yuuri gasps, darting out of the room like a mouse sprung from a trap.

As he sprints down the hall to Viktor's quarters, he hears the master's voice behind him, sharp as a knife. "What did you do to him?"

"Nothing you haven't already done, I'd wager," says Christophe.

The next few minutes feel like years.

Yuuri spends it standing awkwardly by the closet in Viktor's bedroom, fidgeting with the sleeves of his livery and hoping to the gods above that Christophe hasn't actually figured out his relationship with the young Duke. It will absolutely destroy Viktor's reputation and reputation is everything to a person of his status. Terror, guilt and shame grip his heart at the very idea of being the reason for Viktor's ruin.

When the noble in question finally returns to his room, Yuuri braces himself for the inevitable reprimand for letting the cat out of the bag and his lack of propriety with a man of status. Instead, Viktor is silent, pacing up and down the room in mute agitation.

"Your Grace?" Yuuri ventures after a while.

"That is why I didn't want you serving Christophe," Viktor spits out abruptly. "Much as I like the man as a friend, he's an incorrigibly sexual being."

Yuuri chews on his bottom lip. The gods had answered that much of his prayers at least: the Duke's rage seems centered on the Marquess's impropriety rather than his. His last employer hadn't been as kind. All the same, luck has its limits. "Does… does his lordship know?"

Viktor pauses. "Know what?"

"About, um… about…" Yuuri swallows as Viktor tilts his head to the side questioningly. Somehow, it feels wrong for him to say it aloud. "Are you seriously making me say it?" he blurts out in frustration.

Viktor studies him for a moment. Then, with the grace of a panther, he advances, tugging his tie off with one swift movement. The look on Viktor's face is hungry, almost predatory.

Yuuri backs into the wall, just in time for Viktor to slam two hands on either side of his head, pressing against him in a way that shoots a bolt of lightning straight down his spine. The young master has the body of a trained athlete, lithe and trim in a way that is entirely surprising for an aristocrat of his class, and the feel of those hardened muscles alone is enough to force all of Yuuri's senses to take leave. But it is Viktor's mouth – dropping feathery kisses across the line of his jaw, down his neck, and sweeping up again to claim his lips, hard and possessive – that drives him positively mad.

"I would've liked for you to talk about our dalliances," Viktor purrs when they finally part for air.

"You haven't answered my question," says Yuuri, flushing.

"No he doesn't know," Viktor presses his lips on Yuuri's ear, breath hot against his skin. "At least, he believes this to be nothing more than another hobby of mine."

Yuuri breathes. "You mean it's not?"

"Oh my Yuuri," Viktor chuckles softly, and Yuuri feels tendrils of joy coiling warmly within his stomach, "You are far, far more than a hobby. You are the Juliet to my Romeo, the Ophelia to my Hamlet…"

Yuuri laughs. "So I'm due for a tragic death in the near future then?"

"Cheeky," Viktor nips admonishingly at Yuuri's skin. "I'm going to insist to Feltsman that Christophe have one of the footmen instead, starting tomorrow. Have you any objections to that?"

Boldly, Yuuri leans up, brushing his lips lightly across a fair cheek. "None whatsoever."

"In that case, my darling valet," Viktor murmurs then, low and deep, "Isn't it high time you stopped shirking your duties?"

"Yes, your Grace," Yuuri sighs, hands gliding under Viktor's jacket.

For a noble of his class, Viktor is also far quicker at removing clothes than a trained valet.

 


 

"You've been shagging Viktor Nikiforov!?"

Yuuri flings a bolster at Phichit. They're in their shared room in the men's quarters with paper-thin walls; the entirety of Leo and Guang Hong's conversations can occasionally be heard in the next room. "By all means," he hisses, "Say it loud enough for the rest of the staff to hear."

"Blimey, Yuuri," Phichit slaps both hands to his face in a shocked gesture, dropping his exclamations (thankfully) to a whisper. "This whole time I thought you might finally have something going on with his Grace, but apparently you've had it going on! I am so happy for you!"

"Thanks," Yuuri says, feeling somewhat abashed by his friend's enthusiasm. "Honestly, we've been together a while now… today's just the first time I've slipped."

"So your tardiness this morning…?"

"Was because I made the mistake of falling asleep in his arms the night before, and he, well…" Yuuri blushes at the thought. "He let me."

Phichit looks as if he's about to burst at the seams with pure delight. "To think I've never noticed you sneaking back in the middle of the night! My best mate – and a Duke no less – !"

Yuuri smiles weakly. "Yes but nothing can be more scandalous, can it?"

"What do you mean?"

"For a start, our status couldn't be further apart."

"You do know Lord Popovich fancies Anya, right?"

"What," says Yuuri, blinking.

"He's in the kitchen every time he visits," Phichit explains, smirking impishly. "You probably don't know this because you're with his Grace whenever Lord Popovich comes downstairs."

"But his 'whirlwind romances'?"

Phichit scoffs. "Just a façade. The only 'whirlwind romance' is Anya's constant rejection of his advances, which, honestly, are a shade away from disturbing sometimes."

An Earl openly courting a kitchen maid; a Duke dallying in secret with a valet. Both disasters waiting to happen, but nothing is more catastrophic than his relationship with Viktor, who is of higher rank and the same gender. Yuuri recalls the first time Viktor kissed him in the shadow of the trees behind the skating rink, his mind reeling from pure elation: he's like me, this beautiful man is just like me, an impure, an abomination, an unwanted – just like me –

And he recalls the revelation right after – the alarm – of Viktor's admission of his title that sent him crashing back to reality.

"Be that as it may," Yuuri sighs, "The fact that his Grace and I are both men – "

"Shhh." Phichit pushes a finger to Yuuri's lips, effectively cutting him off. "Cross that bridge when you get to it. For now, enjoy what you've got." The footman pulls away with a grin. "It's the only way we common folks can get by, eh?"

Yuuri laughs. When he took Viktor's offer and returned to service, he never imagined he would meet someone like Phichit Chulanont. They were cordial at first, unsure of what to make of the other, until the night Phichit walked into Yuuri with his hands in his trousers, coming to a strangled gasp of Viktor's name in their room. In place of the looks of pure disgust Yuuri had come to expect, the Thai-born's simple, empathic reaction – "We all have needs!" – had sealed their friendship forever. Really, Yuuri cannot remember a time in his life without his infectiously optimistic, accepting best friend. "Thanks, Phichit."

"Anytime, mate." Phichit flops back onto his bed. "How am I to sleep with that knowledge now? Hardest thing I'll ever have to do in my life."

Yuuri lies down, hiding a smile in his pillow. "Don't be so dramatic."

 


 

Their routine solidifies as the seasons change. They share stolen kisses when they're alone, soft, intimate conversations with each dressing, and rounds of blissful lovemaking at night.

The Duke is a passionate lover: tactile and affectionate at best, thoughtlessly driven by emotions at worst. More than once Yuuri has had to remind him, breathlessly, against leaving marks that can be seen, against touching him in public – those sinfully talented fingers trailing for just a little too long on his shoulder, his wrist – even against, oh, looking at him like he is the very air that gives life. The struggle is neverending as Viktor defies him time and again, seeming to enjoy making him squirm.

("You'll be ruined," Yuuri moans.

"My solnyshko," Viktor rolls up and forward, mouthing at the bruises scattered beneath a sharp jawline as Yuuri keens above him, "You have already ruined me.")

Phichit turns out to be a formidable ally in Yuuri's apparently solo mission to keep the sordid relationship a secret – "I told him to keep it below the neck," Yuuri grouses over Phichit's sniggers, yanking his collar up as high as it can go – and the valet wonders why he didn't tell his friend earlier. The wily footman is swift to cover for Yuuri whenever there's a slip.

That one time Viktor decides to feel extra raunchy before breakfast, Phichit manages to distract Yakov's tirade on Yuuri's disheveled appearance with the shattering of a very expensive piece of china. When Yuuri develops a limp from banging his hip against the heavy dresser in Viktor's room, Phichit lies to Lilia about kicking him in the ankles by accident. ("Yuuri, you filthy animal," Phichit shrieks in glee later that night and Yuuri has to spend most of next morning fending off Leo and Guang Hong's questions.)

Lapses aside, Yuuri hopes to repay Phichit for his kind loyalty someday.

It is in winter almost a year later that the gears of fate start to shift direction.

"The Season is upon us," Viktor announces to simultaneous groans from his half-siblings. "It is a privilege to be invited to Buckingham Palace," he continues mildly, keeping his gaze fixed on the gathered servants, "And we shall leave for London in three days. As you'd imagine, we will require some of you to come with us. I have left the decision in the capable hands of Feltsman, with the exception of Ms. Crispino and Katsuki. They will accompany Mila and me, as they always have."

Next to him, Phichit nudges Yuuri with his elbow, grinning like a Cheshire cat. Yuuri nudges back, silently telling his friend to keep calm.

"One more thing," Viktor adds. "We must be dressed in our finest wear when we appear before the King and that's not likely when one of us seems to think that suspenders are appropriate dinner attire."

"Ex-cuse me?" Yura growls.

Smiling brightly, Viktor turns, ignoring the blond. "Feltsman, perhaps Chulanont could serve my brother as he had with Christophe?"

Yakov nods. "Certainly, your Grace, I don't see why not – "

"Oh no," Yura snaps, rearing up to full height and looking taller than he actually is. "If you're going to force a valet to play dress-up with me, I'm not getting some wretched footman to do the job." He jerks a head at Yuuri, whose eyes widen in surprise. It's the first time the young lord has addressed him, even indirectly. "I want him."

"Katsuki?" says Viktor, eyes narrowing. "Why on earth would you want Katsuki?"

Yura crosses his arms. "Because he's the only real valet we've got."

"Christophe was quite satisfied with Chulanont's services."

"Ha! Christophe would've been satisfied with anything warm with a hole." Sara looks absolutely scandalized, while in the back row, Anya begins to quiver with suppressed snickers. Unfazed by the servants' reactions, Yura gestures at Viktor's pressed suit. "Besides, Katsuki dresses you well enough."

"Is that an actual compliment?" Mila chimes in with a mock gasp.

"No one asked you, crone."

"I am only three years older, you know." Mila glides over to lay a hand on Viktor's shoulder. "What's the harm, Viktor? You'll only have to make allowances for a couple of days. Surely even Katsuki can handle an unruly teenager in that time."

"I'm standing right here!"

Yuuri keeps his stare locked onto his shoes, determined to stay out of the siblings' bickering. He feels Viktor's eyes on him, lingering for just a scant few seconds.

"All right," Viktor relents, sighing, "But you will heed Katsuki's advice on your dressing without complaints."

"Fine," says Yura, looking smug to have won the battle.

"In fact, let us start with the arrangement tonight, so the two of you can become acquainted with each other before the trip."

"Fi – Wait, tonight?" Yura says, looking much less smug.

"Good luck to you," Mila says to Yuuri, before she barely dodges her brother's vicious high kick.

Vikor clicks his tongue. "Feltsman, I believe we're ready to proceed with dinner now."

"Very well, your Grace."

The new change results in a flurry of excitement thrumming through downstairs staff, particularly among the housemaids. Tittering, they surround Yuuri the minute he enters the kitchen.

"Lucky you, serving two of the handsomest lords in all of England," Minako says, stars in her eyes.

"And to be handpicked by his lordship," Yuuko swoons, clasping her hands together in reverence, "When he's dismissed all his past valets!"

Yuuri rubs nervously at his neck, uncomfortable with the attention. "Steady on, ladies, he might just dismiss me too before we're done."

"I highly doubt that," Leo remarks, breezing past with a dish of seafood.

"Lord Yuratchka's previous valets were nasty pieces of work to begin with," Guang Hong adds, following after his friend with another plateful of food.

"Ah," says Yuuri, impressed as ever by the pair's endless breadth of knowledge, before he startles at the sight of the maids watching him with wide, watery eyes. "I-Is there anything else you wanted…?"

"Since you asked, yes," says Minako, beaming.

"Do you think you could nick something of his for us?" Yuuko asks sweetly.

Yuuri blinks owlishly. "What?"

"Oh, something small, you know, something he's not likely to miss."

"An unused cufflink," a maid suggests eagerly.

"Or a loose thread," says another.

"Or a lock of hair," Minako says.

"A what?" says Yuuri.

"Are you quite finished with your nonsense?"

As the tall shadow of Lilia falls over them, the maids disperse instantly, muttering about chores or errands they have to run. Yuuri smiles feebly at Lilia when she turns her glare on him, lips curling. If Yakov Feltsman is the guard dog of the Nikiforov estate, his bark worse than his bite, Lilia Baranovsky is his companion with a bite that sinks deep and festers as time progresses. Even Yakov himself has shown fear in the face of her ire.

"How is your ankle, Mr. Katsuki?" she asks, looking past her nose with disdain.

"Better," Yuuri replies, catching the grin Phichit tosses at him as the footman ascends the stairs with a plate expertly balanced on one hand.

"Good," Lilia sniffs. "We certainly can't have an invalid serving both our young masters now, can we?"

"No, Mrs. Baranovsky, we cannot."

"Oh, leave him alone, Phichit's the one who injured him," Sara says at the dining table where she's mending a tear in Mila's dress.

Scowling, Lilia sweeps out of the kitchen, keys jangling ominously down the hallway.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Yuuri pulls up a seat next to Sara. The lady's maid is a beauty, with her tanned skin and long, dark eyelashes, dampened only by the modest black dress she wears for her station. She's a mentor of sorts to Yuuri, having trained him immensely on the duties of serving the Duke. As his last employer was a mere Baron with a small mansion and less than five staff, he would've been utterly lost without Sara's assistance.

The maid prods at him gently. "You really should stand up to them. You're of equal rank as his Grace's valet, if not higher."

"They've been in service for so long, it doesn't feel right." Yuuri smiles. "And I'm not as brave as you."

"Silly," says Sara, a tinge of fondness in her voice. "You're taking on the young lord for the next few days. I'd say that takes more courage than a soldier going into battle."

"It's not like I have a choice in the matter."

On the panel, a bell rings, sharp and insistent.

"Speak of the devil," Sara giggles. "I'll be here, praying for your survival."

"Very funny," Yuuri laughs, but he makes sure to walk at double speed to the young lord's room.

Clink, goes the gears of fate.

Chapter Text

Lord Yuratchka Warren Plisetsky is moody, foul-mouthed, and prone to explosive tantrums – the polar opposite of Viktor. Yuuri struggles to maintain his composure at times, especially when the young lord rejects every single one of his dress selections, persisting obstinately with his own choices. The more time they spend together, the more Viktor’s concern about his brother’s fashion becomes apparent. They’re not terrible choices by any means – albeit a little garish for Yuuri’s personal taste – but they are certainly not appropriate to any formal occasion.

“You agreed to heed my advice, m’lord,” Yuuri lets slip once, frustration getting the better of him.

“I agreed to heed it without complaint,” Yura says, smirking, “But I never said I’d take it.” He raises his arms and flaps them impatiently. “Quickly now, I’m going to be late for breakfast.”

“Your lordship, you’re to wear a single-breasted morning coat to start the day,” Yuuri holds up a long black coat lined with golden double buttons down the front, “But this is a, a, um, to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure what this is – “

“This is my fashion style,” Yura snaps. “Now are you going to dress me, or do I have to dismiss yet another incompetent valet?”

Yuuri bristles, and with great reluctance, obeys.

“He’s impossible,” Yuuri huffs later in Viktor’s room, jerking a little too hard at the other man’s waistcoat.

“Easy, solnyshko,” Viktor murmurs, amused. “That nearly took a button off.”

“Sorry,” says Yuuri, slightly ashamed by his outburst. He straightens the waistcoat with less vehemence, before reaching for the coat hanging on the closet. “Where does he even buy his clothing?” he continues, holding the piece steady as Viktor slips into the coat and shrugs it on with practiced ease. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

“I suppose that’s the point,” Viktor says, checking his reflection in the mirror. “My brother’s fashion and temperament suit his purpose of shocking others into submission, almost like a defensive armour of sorts. It has been that way since our father left.”

Yuuri pauses in his brushing of Viktor’s coat. “Oh,” he says softly, feeling like a demon then. From what he had heard from Guang Hong, the siblings’ mothers were completely absent, while their shared father, a drunken English lout who never cared for the responsibility of managing an estate, had passed his inheritance to Viktor and vanished without a trace.

“Still, it doesn’t excuse his behavior,” Viktor cuts into Yuuri’s reverie, drawing the smaller man closer to him. “Shall I tell him off for you?”

“Thank you but no.” Yuuri clenches his fists, recalling Sara’s words. “This is my battle, not yours.”

“If I had known how feisty he’d make you, I wouldn’t have worried when he asked for you,” Viktor breathes, and Yuuri feels teeth on his neck, hands cupping his behind.

“I just dressed you, Viktor,” Yuuri chides, swatting the other man with the coat brush.

“Then we’ll just have to find a way to do this without undressing,” Viktor purrs.

They do find a way, but Yuuri decides he doesn’t quite like it, after he’s forced to go about his duties for the next few hours with the perpetual feeling of having pissed in his trousers. Phichit practically falls off his bed in hysterical laughter when he finds out.

Three days fly by, and they are soon on the train to London with Yuuri dreading every minute of the journey. He has had no success in persuading the young lord to dress appropriately and the pressure of this responsibility remains a heavy weight on his shoulders. Thankfully, Phichit has been chosen for the trip along with Yuuko and Minako, so they share a car together, the cheery conversations helping to relieve some of Yuuri’s anxiety.

The London mansion is smaller, less spacious, but no less grand. Yakov and Celestino head straight for the kitchen to check the stock and survey equipment, while the housemaids rush around the home, dusting, sweeping, and putting on the bed sheets. The footmen have their hands just as full, carrying up suitcases and preparing the dining table.

Instinctively, as it has always been done, Yuuri stands by Viktor’s side, ready to follow the master to his room – seconds before the nightmare begins.

“Katsuki, come help me dress,” says Viktor, just as Yura calls, “Katsuki, I want to change.”

The brothers stare at each other in surprise, but Yura is quicker to react.

“I said it first,” the blond says.

“I believe I did,” Viktor says, frowning.

“No, I did.”

“May I remind you that he is originally my valet.”

“So what? You’ve always let me go first.”

“Yes, but I am tired from traveling and wanted – “ Viktor hesitates, eyes flickering over to Yuuri, “ – wanted to change as quickly as possible.”

“And I don’t?” Yura snorts, disgruntled. “Fine, let’s do it this way: Katsuki, you choose who you’d like to dress first.”

In unison, the two lords turn to Yuuri.

If the valet thought he had nerves on the train, he was badly mistaken; the horror he feels now is churning his insides, threatening to shoot bile up his throat. If he chooses Viktor, Yura will be intolerable for the remainder of the trip. If he chooses Yura, Viktor will be hurt, and the last thing he wants to do is hurt Viktor. He wishes Sara were here to help him, but the maid has already withdrawn with Mila to help the lady out of her travel clothes.

If only his life were that simple.

“Katsuki?” says Viktor.

“Katsuki,” Yura snaps.

Cornered, bile rising, Yuuri blurts out the first thing that enters his mind. “I could dress you both at the same time!”

There’s a beat of stunned silence, before Viktor lets out a burst of hearty laughter. “I’m afraid that was rather unfair of us, Katsuki,” he says warmly. “You may dress my brother first.”

“Could’ve done that in the first place,” Yura grumbles.

As Yuuri follows the young lord up the stairs, he hopes to come out of this ordeal in one piece. 

 


 

 Sara is extremely sympathetic when Yuuri relays the days' events to her in the quiet of the dining room. The rest of the servants have gone to bed, but Yuuri had stopped her before she left, asking if he could consult her advice on his current troubles with the young lord.

“I’m sorry, Yuuri, the whole affair sounds ghastly,” she says, patting his hand lightly.

“He left the house without a waistcoat, Sara. In public. Said it was too constricting.” Yuuri slaps a palm across his forehead. “You should’ve seen Feltmans’s face; he was ready to burn me on a stake.”

“Lord Yuratchka isn’t known for his agreeableness,” Sara offers kindly.

“What should I do,” sighs Yuuri. “He won’t listen to reason.”

Sara frowns in contemplation. “I don’t know. It’s a repeat of what happened with his previous valets. They would insist, he would resist, Mr. Feltsman would blame them for dressing his lordship inappropriately, and then finally, they’d lose their temper on either Mr. Feltsman or his lordship and be given their letters.”

“Guang Hong said they were nasty pieces of work.”

“Well they were uppity and arrogant, yes, thinking they’re higher than the rest of us for serving a Duke’s brother. I even caught one of them badmouthing his lordship for his ‘tainted’ blood, as he called it.”

“That’s terrible,” Yuuri says, feeling a swirl of anger. He’s aware of the harsh words circulating about the impurity of the family’s bloodlines among the upper classes and he’s always hated it: it is Viktor’s distinctly expressive Russian charm that Yuuri fell in love with, and he cannot imagine the Duke in any other fashion, much less the stiff upper lip of a full-bred Englishman. For a servant to bear the same prejudice – well, that’s an entirely new level of high-handed insolence.

“I agree,” says Sara fiercely, “And you won’t hear me saying they didn’t deserve their just desserts. Still, they were trapped in a vicious cycle, the same one that you’re in right now.”

Yuuri pinches at the bridge of his nose. “So there’s no way about it then. I simply have to accept that I’m going to fail and face his Grace’s disappointment.”

Sara shakes her head. “Actually, there is one thing I’d imagine his past valets have never tried.”

Yuuri inhales sharply, allowing his hand to drop. “What is it?”

“Have you considered asking his lordship why he won’t dress properly?”

“That’s… that’s it?” Yuuri stares at her incredulously. “Just ask?”

Chuckling, Sara pats his hand again as she rises from the dining chair. “You men, all bluster and no sensitivity. I can’t guarantee it’d work but give it a go why don’t you.”

“Right. You’re absolutely right. Thank you.”

“You’re very welcome. Oh and Yuuri?” Yuuri blinks, turning to where Sara is standing by the kitchen entrance. “I have a feeling you could never disappoint his Grace. 

“W-What,” says Yuuri, but the lady’s maid is gone, leaving him to ponder her words on his own. 

 


 

“Your lordship, please – “

 “No, no, it’s hideous and dull and I won’t be caught dead in that thing!”

 “It’s a Court function, so you must be in white tie – “

 “Can’t I wear that with my suspenders instead?”

 “Suspenders are not formal wear, milord, and that… is a giant plaid bowtie.”

 “Are you giving me cheek, Katsuki?”

 “I would never give you cheek, milord.”

 Yura flings a book at Yuuri, missing his head by inches. “You’ve got cheek written all over your face,” the young lord snarls.

 “I can’t help how my face looks, m’lord,” Yuuri responds, gritting his teeth.

They are three hours away from the social event of the year, Viktor has yet to be dressed, and Yura is still refusing all his suggestions. The young lord lounges in silk robes on an armchair with nary a care in the world, while Yuuri is on the verge of yanking his own hair out in frustration.

Taking a deep breath, the valet pulls on the reins of his temper. Maybe he needs to take a step back and attempt a different tactic. “If I may ask, your lordship, why are you so against proper dressing?”

Yura raises his eyebrows. “Isn’t it obvious? There’s no colour to the bloody things for men, no life. It’s all shades of black and grey, like some sort of funeral attire.”

“Is that really the only reason? Surely you could endure the hideousness for one day and be done with it if that’s the case.”

“Is it so hard to believe that I’m a man who keeps to my principles?”

“It wouldn’t be hard if you could help me understand what those principles are, m’lord.”

“I just said – “

“Is your dressing perhaps a way for you to protect yourself?” Yuuri suggests. “That’s what his Grace said.”

Yura sits up then, frowning. “Viktor said that?”

“Not quite in those words, but yes.”

Viktor actually talks to you about us? A valet?”

“Doesn’t he always?” says Yuuri, surprised.

“Viktor doesn’t talk about family, period.”

“He seems quite open with me.”

“Is he now.”

For a long while after that, the young lord is silent; Yuuri can almost see the cogs spinning beneath the long, golden tresses. Then, slowly, Yura sinks back into the cushions, mumbling something too faint to be heard.

“Beg pardon, your lordship?”

Yura shoots him a withering look. “It’s because my father rejected this life,” he mutters.

Carefully, Yuuri hangs up the formal wear. He can’t tell why the lord has chosen to disclose, but he’s not about to spoil the opportunity. “What do you mean?” he probes gently.

“To participate in this foolishness is… is to be a part of everything my father rejected.” Sulking, Yura crosses his arms, though it looks more to Yuuri like he’s trying desperately to fold himself in and away from the world. “A part of everything he left behind.”

Yuuri’s eyes soften. In that moment, all the annoyance he feels for the blond evaporates, replaced by sadness and a great deal of sympathy. The feeling of abandonment, of rejection, is one that Yuuri knows all too well. “I’m sorry, m’lord. I wasn’t aware.”

“Yes, well,” Yura says. “Now you know. That's why I need some colour in my clothes.”

And then something clicks.

“Some colour, you said?” Yuuri clarifies.

“Uh, yes?”

“So then… your lordship would be willing to wear the dress coat if there were some colour in it?”

Yura pauses, before he rolls his eyes. “I see what you’re doing, Katsuki, but yes.”

Turning back to the formal attire, Yuuri considers the options, taking his bottom lip between his teeth in contemplation. A coloured cravat will stand out too much, whereas pins and badges will wreck the delicate materials of velvet and silk. Patterned cufflinks might work, but he doubts Yura would be satisfied with so little.

His gaze falls on the bowtie the young lord had pointed out earlier – the plaid pattern brought out by a bright splash of periwinkle blue – and, suddenly, the beginnings of an idea start to take form. “Might I make a suggestion, your lordship?”

“Why not,” Yura shrugs. “Can’t be anything worse than dressing me and Viktor at the same time.”

Yuuri resolutely ignores the jibe. “How would you feel about adding colour to your hair instead?”

Yura blinks once.

Then a grin spreads slowly across his face.

 


 

That night, Phichit regales the staff with tales of Lord Yuratchka’s metamorphosis, the awed reactions from the esteemed guests at the ball, and the Nikiforov family’s triumph during the event, their combined charm and good looks glowing with inhuman radiance above the rest. Pleased, Yakov allows Phichit’s extravagant performance, even toasting Yuuri’s success at the start of their celebratory dinner – a feast Celestino prepared specifically for the downstairs folk.

 Though Yakov retires early, the party carries on far past dinner.

 “Using the bowtie as a hair piece,” Phichit cheers, clinking Yuuri’s glass with his. “Brilliant, bloody brilliant!”

 “I can’t believe our little hairstyling sessions came to use after all,” Sara says happily.

 “Just getting his lordship in a proper dress coat is a feat on its own,” Celestino says, clapping Yuuri on the shoulder. “Well done, Yuuri.”

 Yuuri beams at them, wine sloshing as he sways dangerously on his feet. He cannot for the life of him recall how many glasses he has had, but he feels too good to care. “It’s thanks to Sara, really,” he manages to say and the lady’s maid gives him a soft smile.

 “Wish you could’ve served with me, Yuuri!” says Phichit. “You’d have seen all those lords and ladies fawning over your handiwork on his lordship… he looked so embarrassed! Probably wasn’t used to the positive attention.”

 “Her ladyship had her share of admirers as well,” Sara adds proudly.

 “To Sara and her ladyship!” Phichit agrees above the cheers of the footmen, taking a swig from his glass.

 “Let’s not forget his Grace,” Minako pipes up to the giggles of Yuuko and the other housemaids. “In full military regalia with the badges of honour and rank and a sword. I’ll bet the ladies of the Court couldn’t keep their hands off him.”

 Past the alcoholic fumes, Yuuri sees a haze of red. He doesn’t like the thought of hands on his Viktor, hands that don’t belong to him. He knows the dress uniform the maids are talking about; he’s the one who chose it after all. It’s a pity Yura had yet to serve in the army or it would have been far less difficult to dress the young lord in the Russian military uniform: that brilliant blood-red a stark contrast from the English dress coat of black and white.

 Viktor had looked magnificent in his uniform, and now, more than ever, Yuuri craves the feel of that magnificence under his hands, if only to rub off the touch of others. Resting his glass on where he approximated to be the dining table, he storms upstairs, tripping several times on the way up. Vaguely, he hears Phichit calling his name, but he’s set on his path, the mix of alcohol and adrenaline fueling him with single-minded determination.

 Upon reaching Viktor’s door, he knocks once, twice – because it’s the polite thing to do – before bursting into the room without waiting for an answer.

 Viktor’s on the bed, reading, and he bolts upright when Yuuri enters, door slamming behind him.

 “Yuuri, what – mmh!“

 Yuuri swallows the rest of Viktor’s words in a hard, open-mouthed kiss, shoving the older man roughly onto the sheets. The Duke is fully naked as he always is, and Yuuri relishes in the heady feel of that taut body melting into his, the role reversal inflaming his desire to heightened levels.

 “Well this is a lovely surprise,” Viktor murmurs against Yuuri’s mouth. “Is that white wine I taste?”

 “Viktor,” Yuuri presses a kiss, then another, and another. “Viktor, Viktor, Viktor…”

 “Mm, what is it, Yuuri?”

 “I want you.”

 Viktor hums low in his throat. “So take me.”

 “But I can’t have you,” Yuuri replies then pauses, startled by his own admission before the words belatedly take on meaning in his alcohol-riddled mind, old voices surfacing:

 He will never be yours.

 A rush of sadness fills his chest, cutting air, choking him. “I can’t have you and I want you so bad.”

 Chuckling, Viktor cups a hand against Yuuri’s cheek. “You’re not making sense, my drunk little solnyshko,” he says fondly. “You do and have always had me. You have me right now.”

 “Right now,” Yuuri chokes, the voices swarming in like vultures, circling, “I have you right now, but – “

 But don’t you see: you never had him; you will never have him, because you are a scandal, a horror story – forbidden in the world of nobility; unnatural in the eyes of god and man –

 "Yuuri.”

 – but the women, the ladies with their gowns and ruffles and feminine trimmings, they can have him; they can live with him, love him, bear him an heir: everything you will never have with him –

 “Yuuri.

 A vision of Viktor’s worried expression swims back into view, blurry and unfocused.

 Yuuri draws in a shaky breath, the sensation of Viktor’s warm hand returning to his cheek.

 “Solnyshko, you went completely rigid the last few seconds. Are you all right?”

 Solnyshko.

 Sunshine.

 Sometime in the past few months, Viktor had made him impossibly happy with the term of endearment, just as he caved to Viktor’s insistence on addressing him by name.

 Yuuri looks down at Viktor, those handsome features soft with concern and something that looks almost like love, and an overwhelming sense of despair washes over him.

 Unnatural, a voice whispers.

 “No,” he says, quivering, “No I’m not all right. Can I stay with you tonight? Please?”

“Of course.” Brushing a kiss on Yuuri’s forehead, Viktor draws the covers over them, encasing the smaller man in his arms. “You never have to ask.”

 Clink clink, goes the gears of fate.

Chapter Text

“You skate beautifully.”

Yuuri nearly tips over in his arabesque pose on the ice, catching himself just in time. He rises up to see a stranger – a foreigner by the looks of him; beautiful, silvery strands shimmering in the moonlight – step out from behind a tree, skates dangling from one hand. “Oh… how long have you been watching?”

“Long enough.” The stranger lifts the skates, smiling. “May I join you?”

Yuuri hesitates; he usually escapes to the rink at this godforsaken hour precisely because he prefers to skate alone, away from the rest of the world. Yet, a part of him is intrigued by the presence of this stranger – and fairly attracted, if he were honest with himself.

“Yes,” he says with a nod.

After changing swiftly into his skates, the stranger glides towards him with graceful motions. Up close, Yuuri is relieved to note that the man is dressed in a modest black suit and a simple winter coat, showing no sign that might suggest noble blood. The last thing he needs is for an acquaintance of his employer to catch him in the middle of his secret midnight activity, especially when he’s not in the Baron’s good graces at the moment.

“Do you come often?” the stranger asks, as they set off together at a leisurely pace.

“Nearly every night when I’m in London,” says Yuuri, “It helps me relax.”

“Every night? I’d have come sooner if I’d known,” the man chuckles.

Yuuri’s glad for the darkness; it hides his blush perfectly. “Do you live around here?”

“I have a place on Piccadilly.”

“That’s a fine location.”

“It’s decent enough.” The stranger smiles down at Yuuri with soft eyes, a mesmerizing mix of blue and green. “And what about you? Where do you live?”

“I live just a few streets down, actually.”

“Hence why you’re able to come nearly every night.”

“That’s right.”

They skate in silence for a while, sliding slowly across the smooth surface.

“Are you spoken for by any chance?”

This time, Yuuri does fall.

He lets out a squeak when strong arms catch him in the nick of time, and he finds himself pressed against a firm chest, much to his embarrassment. Stammering a string of profuse apologies, he scrambles frantically to regain his balance, only to realize that the stranger is laughing – a soft and pleasing sound.  

“I suppose that answers my question,” the man says, wiping at his eyes.

“I, I’m so sorry,” Yuuri apologizes again, backing away, “That was very improper of – “ He flails as he slips, tipping backwards, before the stranger tugs him back into his arms.

“I don’t find it improper at all,” says the stranger, breath ghosting across Yuuri’s ear.

Mere hours ago, the Baron’s visitor had him in almost exactly the same position against the wall, yet the racing of Yuuri’s heart now has an entirely different meaning from then.

“I should go,” Yuuri murmurs, eyes lowering shyly. He pulls away and begins skating towards the bank of the frozen river before he does something stupid like, well, kissing those soft, delicate lips.

“Will I see you again?” the man calls.

“Come back tomorrow night and ask for Yuuri,” Yuuri teases, turning back to catch a smile of delight crossing the handsome features.

“Then tell Yuuri that Viktor cannot wait to do just that.”



Yuuri hates the banging and clanging and shouting and why on earth is there so much noise. He’s at the dining table downstairs, nauseous and clutching at his throbbing head, desperately wishing someone would just put him out of his misery.

“Yuuri!” Phichit shrieks shrilly down his ear. “Are you still sitting there like a lump? We’re due to head out for the skating rink in Regent Park!”

 “Stop yelling,” Yuuri groans.

 “No one’s yelling,” says Phichit, though it sounds like he’s hollering his lungs off.

 There’s a loud thump of a cup being placed in front of Yuuri. He looks up blearily, squinting at the contents.

 “Drink,” says Celestino firmly. “It’s my mother’s home remedy for hangovers.”

 “If it’ll stop you all from screaming like stuck pigs,” Yuuri sighs, downing the drink with a large gulp, before nearly retching it back out. “Ugh, that was disgusting.”

 “You have to swallow for it to work,” Celestino points out helpfully.

 Yuuri is scrubbing at his tongue, frantic to get rid of the foul taste, when Yuuko pulls out a chair next to him with scraping noises like nails on a chalkboard. “Yuuri! Where on earth did you run off to last night?”

“Yes, you went upstairs and never came back down,” Minako says, plopping down on the seat on Yuuri’s other side.

Oh, Christ on a stick. As if this bloody hangover wasn’t enough.

“I uh, I just went up for some air, that’s all…”

“Well where’d you end up sleeping?” asks Minako shrewdly.

“Um,” says Yuuri.

“Mr. Katsuki, are you still here?”

For once, Yuuri is glad for Yakov’s presence.

As one, the staffs rise to their feet upon the butler’s entrance – or, at least, Yuuri tries. As Yuuri sways unsteadily to standing, he catches Yakov’s appalled stare. “Good grief, man, how much did you drink last night?”

“Too much,” Yuuri responds honestly to the sniggers of the staff.

“This won’t do,” Yakov snaps, right eye twitching furiously. “The Lord Duke and his lordship are heading out to Regent Park this very moment and I cannot allow an inebriated valet acting like an imbecile by their side. Minako, Yuuko, hose this man down with cold water, then help him to look respectable again. Mr. Cialdini – “

“He’s had a cup,” the chef says.

 “Give him another,” Yakov says sharply. “I want Katsuki well and truly sober before he sets out with the young masters.”

“I managed to dress them well enough in this state,” Yuuri objects.

“The masters might be generous enough to let this by, but I will not have you embarrass the Nikiforov name in public.”

Yuuri flinches; Yakov has no idea how close he hit to home. “No, we can’t have that, Mr. Feltsman.”

“I’m glad we’re in agreement,” says Yakov with a nod, before Yuuri’s hauled off by Minako and Yuuko, too eager to turn the hose on him.



Every night that week, Viktor returns.

  And every night, they skate together, sometimes languidly, sometimes in full speed, incorporating spins and twists and varied dance poses. As they skate, they talk about everything and anything. Yuuri has never felt more comfortable or open with anyone else. He tells Viktor about his family back home: his mother’s famous home cooked pork cutlet dish, his sister’s constant, fruitless pursuit of good-looking men, even his father’s drunken antics. In return, he learns that Viktor used to own a dog that died young from an unfortunate chocolate binge – “I cried for days!” Viktor says sadly – that the man’s favourite colour is purple, and that he would wear every shade of that colour possible if such fashion existed.

Yuuri also learns that, despite limited exposure, Viktor turns out to be a natural on the ice, picking up Yuuri’s coaching with great ease.

“I watched my sister during her dance lessons and practiced in secret,” Yuuri explains when Viktor asks about his dance skills on the fifth night. Idly, he skates a wide figure of eight round the taller man. “I’d imagine it’s odd for a man to know so much about dancing.”

“Quite the opposite,” says Viktor, snagging Yuuri by the wrist as he drifts by. “I think it’s positively captivating.”

Yuuri flushes. “Don’t tease me, Viktor.”

Viktor drops a kiss on the back of his hand. “I only tease women, Yuuri.”

Yuuri feels his stomach curl in excitement. He daren’t hope for it’s too good to be true and god knows he has had his hopes dashed one too many times. “Viktor,” he says, licking at his parched lips, “Do you mean… do you mean to say that you…?”

“Shall we talk off the ice?” Viktor replies, lips curving. “I feel like this is a conversation we should have on solid ground.”

Nodding, Yuuri follows Viktor off the rink to a spot lit by the faint light of the moon. It’s so incredibly romantic, the two of them standing together under the moonlight, that Yuuri vaguely wonders if this was at all planned.

“I found out when I was ten,” Viktor starts, and Yuuri hears his heart in his ears, beating heavily like a war drum. “I liked looking at pretty girls well enough, but I discovered quite early on that I didn’t harbor the same kind of attraction for them as the other boys.”

“Twelve for me,” Yuuri hears himself say, “When my childhood crush gave me my first kiss and it just didn’t feel… right.”

Viktor takes his hands in his. “Did your family understand?”

“My family doesn’t know.”

“Of course. Neither does mine.”

“You can’t imagine how happy I am to know I’m not alone,” Yuuri whispers.

“I can’t imagine that someone hasn’t claimed you for their own,” Viktor caresses Yuuri’s cheek, the brush searing against his skin.  

Yuuri swallows at the memory of hands ripping at his waistcoat, pulling at the button of his trousers. He had reacted without thinking, ramming his knee upwards, hard as he could; “An Earl,” the Baron shouts later, purple with fury, “You had the audacity to injure an Earl in my house – “

“They’ve tried.”

“Oh Yuuri,” Viktor says with such tender compassion that Yuuri feels the tears rising unbidden to his eyes. The warm hand cups his cheek then, thumb stroking lightly. “Please don’t cry. I never meant to distress you.”

“I’m not distressed,” Yuuri laughs shakily, trembling in his effort to hold back his emotions. “I’m just so, so happy.”

Viktor’s face softens into a warm smile. “Does this mean I can kiss you?”

“Yes,” Yuuri curls his hands into the collar of Viktor’s suit, “Yes.”



By the time Yuuri arrives at the park, dry in every sense of the word, Phichit has set up a picnic spot near the edge of the rink, chairs and tables laid out with baskets of food on top. Meanwhile, Sara stands on the other end, watching her lady with trepidation. Mila is skating at a leisurely pace with Yura, who looks more relaxed than he typically does back at the house.

“Feeling better?” his friend asks, grinning.

“Never get drunk,” Yuuri grimaces. “Celestino’s family remedy is the most foul tasting concoction I’ve ever tasted.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Phichit snickers.

Far in the distance, Viktor is skating with a bevy of ladies, tittering coquettishly around him. One of them pretends to stumble, and Viktor being ever the gentleman, catches her in his arms, eliciting screams from the others.

“His Grace is certainly popular,” Yuuri says, chest tightening.

 Phichit eyes him, arching an eyebrow. “You can’t seriously be jealous. You spend every day with the Duke.”

“As his valet,” Yuuri mutters.

“As his lover,” Phichit corrects. “Really, Yuuri, you need to look at the forest and not the trees for once.”

“It’s hard not to look at the trees when one is about status and another is the sheer abnormality of our relationship.”

Phichit opens his mouth for a retort, but ends up coughing loudly instead.

“What’s the matter, Phichit?” Yuuri says, frowning.

“I’d imagine he’s just a little shocked by my presence.”

Whirling round, Yuuri finds himself face-to-face with Christophe, cutting a smart figure in his dark suit. “Y-Your lordship,” Yuuri gasps, backing away instinctively. “I wasn’t aware you’d be joining us today.”

Christophe tips his top hat. “That’s because I’m not. I happened to be in the area and I thought I’d stop by to say hello.”

“Oh, well, let me I call for his Grace then – “

“No need,” says Christophe, lips curving. “I was hoping to say hello to you.”

“Me?” says Yuuri, eyes wide.

“I do believe I’ve forgotten something for the picnic,” says Phichit swiftly. “Excuse me, your lordship.”

As the footman strides away, Christophe chuckles. “He’s very smooth, isn’t he? I quite enjoyed his services as my valet, however temporary.”

Yuuri clasps his hands behind his back. “What did you want to talk about, my lord?”

“Not keen on banter, I see,” the Marquess says, leaning lightly on his cane. “Very well. I hoped to speak with you about Viktor.”

Inhaling, Yuuri lifts his chin. “What about his Grace?”

“As you know, I have nothing against a little dallying here and there. Unfortunately, you and Viktor seem to have far more than just a physical connection.”

“What makes you so sure of that?”

“Katsuki,” Christophe laughs, “Give a man some credit. I am Viktor’s closest friend, after all, and I can easily recognize the signs of a fool in love.”

Yuuri’s heart stutters, and his veil of bravado falls, just a little. “Love?” he breathes softly.

“Love,” Christophe affirms, nodding. “But you see, therein lies the problem.”

Forbidden in the world of nobility; unnatural in the eyes of god and man –

Yuuri lowers his eyes, swallowing. “I’m holding him back.”

“Well,” drawls Christophe. “It seems this conversation may be briefer than I expected.” The Marquess drops a hand on Yuuri’s shoulder, patting it gently. “I don’t mean to be unkind, Katsuki. It’s just that, unlike the dying Giacometti estate, the Warren estate is still making substantial earnings for this day and age. That makes it doubly essential for Viktor to maintain his reputation among the upper class and his tenants, as well as to have a – “

“A suitable heir to inherit his title and property,” Yuuri continues. He tracks Viktor’s motions on the ice as the Duke teaches one of the ladies how to skate, holding her tightly by her gloved hands. “Would things be different if I weren’t a servant?”

Christophe squeezes Yuuri’s shoulder. “I’m afraid not. Scandals of masters falling for servants are common enough; we have Lord Popovich as a fine example. No, Katsuki, it’s not the class difference that would ultimately bring Viktor’s downfall but the, shall we say, similarities you both share.”

– but the women, the ladies with their gowns and ruffles and feminine trimmings, they can have him –

“I suppose you find me revolting, your lordship,” Yuuri murmurs.

“On the contrary, Katsuki, I find you absolutely charming and I only wish Viktor hadn’t gotten to you first.”

“But you are the exception to the rule.”

“Indeed I am.”

On the ice, Viktor says something that makes the ladies blush and giggle.

“If you love him,” Christophe squeezes the valet’s shoulder another time, “You will let him go.”

Yuuri doesn’t respond, barely noticing when the Marquess silently takes his leave. It’s taking all of his effort to keep his composure, even as his eyes burn with unshed tears. He knows he can’t have Viktor; he has known that since Viktor revealed his nobility in this very park that fateful day. He was just so determined to live in blissful denial – god knows Viktor certainly is – but now, hearing his worst fears confirmed by the Duke’s good friend no less, the illusion has finally shattered.

Alcohol must have dampened the pain of his despondency last night, because in sobriety, it feels as though someone has twisted a sharp blade in his belly and dragged it up and across his chest.

Katsuki,” someone bellows, before he feels a hard blow to the side that sends him flying.

When he looks up, Yura is looming over him with a scowl on his face. “Didn’t you hear me call for you? I must’ve yelled your name three times!”

“I, I’m sorry, m’lord,” Yuuri says, swiping at his eyes. “What can I do for you?”

Yura’s scowl deepens. “What did Christophe want from you?”

Alarmed, Yuuri fights to keep his expression neutral. If the young lord had heard any part of their conversation, there would be consequences. “He just wanted me to pass on his greetings to his Grace.”

“Rubbish,” Yura says. “Unless you mean to tell me that his greetings managed to make you cry.”

“I’m not crying.”

“Your eyes are red and you look like a kicked puppy with its tail between its legs.”

Shaking his head vigorously, Yuuri forces a smile. “I’m not crying, m’lord, really.”

Yura sniffs. “You’re a terrible liar, Katsuki, but fine. I shan’t force the issue, much as I’d like to teach that filthy man a lesson.”

Yuuri allows a small, genuine smile in spite of himself. After their breakthrough last evening, Yuuri has come to see the young lord in new light: behind the brusque exterior lies a kindness and sensitivity that may rival even Viktor’s. “Thank you, your lordship.”

“Anyway,” Yura says, straightening. “That’s not the reason why I wanted to speak to you.”

Perhaps it was a good thing Yakov forced sobriety on him; he wouldn’t have been able to deal with having this many conversations otherwise. “What is it, m’lord?” asks Yuuri, bracing for the worst.

“I would like you to be my valet,” the young lord proclaims.

“Oh, but I am your valet – “

“I mean beyond this trip.”

Yuuri feels his heart stopping for the second time that day. His last employer was so glad to be rid of him, especially after that incident with a certain Earl. Yet now, he has two lords vying for his services. “I’m very honoured, your lordship, but his Grace – “

“Let me deal with Viktor,” Yura says fiercely. “Mila’s on my side, for once, so I won’t be alone in this fight. And we’ll increase your wages, of course, since it wouldn’t be at all fair for you to serve double-duty under the wage of one.”

“I…” Yuuri chews on his bottom lip, “I don’t suppose you’d take no for an answer?”

“What do you think?” Yura bares his teeth.

“Then, if his Grace agrees, I will gladly be of service.”

“Good,” Yura says then, face shifting into a smile so bright that Yuuri can’t help but return it.

As Yura cheerily rejoins Mila in the rink, Yuuri turns his gaze back to Viktor, who is now entertaining a different lady, twirling her about the ice, laughing.

Just as he’s considering the thought of closing a door, a new one opens – one that leads to an entirely different path, but a path that leads to a real future. The only problem left to overcome is his foolish wish to keep that first door open as long as he possibly can.

Perhaps it is time to take the hand that fate has dealt him.

“All that setting up and no one’s eating,” Phichit says grumpily, coming up to stand by Yuuri’s side. “So what did our lovely lords want?”

“A lot of things.”

“Things you can handle?”

“I honestly don’t know.”

“You have that look on your face,” Phichit peers at him. “You’re not about to do anything stupid, are you?”

“Actually, Phichit,” says Yuuri softly, “I’m about to do the wisest thing I have done in my entire life.”
 



“Yuuri?”

“Hm?”

“I’m afraid I haven’t been fully honest with you.  

Yuuri looks up from where he has his head resting on Viktor’s chest. “Were you a woman in your past life?” he jokes.

“Not quite,” Viktor says quietly. “I’m a Duke in my current life.”

Yuuri blinks once, twice. “You’re having me on,” he says then, unable to process the other man’s words, “You’re trying to soften the blow of our last night together – “

“No, listen to me, my darling.” Hands take his face between them; blue-green eyes boring into his. “My full name is Viktor Warren Nikiforov, Duke of Sheffield. My father, James Warren, was my predecessor, but I chose to take on my mother’s last name to honour her memory.”

It takes several minutes for the immensity of the reveal to sink in, and then, suddenly, Yuuri finds it extremely difficult to breathe. “You’re a Duke,” he says, gasping, “You’re a Duke - "  

“Yuuri, shhh, it’s all right – “

“How could this possibly be all right?” Yuuri jolts out of Viktor’s lap, eyes flicking about in horror, “I’ve kissed a Duke! Me, a lowly servant – a lowly male servant – “

“You are not lowly or a servant to me,” Viktor says firmly, yanking Yuuri back by his arm. “And I was the one who kissed you.”

“But – “

“Yuuri, hear me out: this can work for us. I want you to come back with me.”

“You’re mad,” Yuuri says, eyes bulging. “You’ve gone straight off your rocker.”

“I assure you, I’m quite sane,” Viktor says, drawing the smaller man into his embrace and pressing a kiss on the crown of his head. “You’ve mentioned that you’re a valet, haven’t you? It just so happens that I’m in need of a trained valet.”

“You want me to work for you?” Yuuri yelps, voice muffled in the fabric of Viktor’s dress shirt.

“I want you to stay by my side, always,” Viktor amends gently. “Surely you want the same?”

Yuuri pauses, gradually remembering how to breathe again. He considers Viktor’s proposal, mind speeding through the options, the consequences. “If someone were to find out?” he asks gingerly.

“No one will find out. You’ll be my valet, which gives us plenty of time together, just the two of us.”

“But – “

“Yuuri, we can debate about this until we’re blue in the face, but I am not leaving here without you.”

“You hardly know me,” Yuuri says, turning pink at the other man’s directness.

Viktor rests his forehead against Yuuri’s. “I know enough to say that I will regret not having the chance to know you better.”

Yuuri’s heart swells with an indescribable emotion, and casting his doubts aside, he finally gives in.



“How on earth did you manage to get in Yura’s good graces? Not even Mila and I know how to talk to him and we’re family.”

Shrugging, Yuuri gathers Viktor’s clothes in his arms. “His lordship is unpredictable.”

“Yes, that much I can agree with,” Viktor chuckles as he drops into an armchair. “Are you quite sure you’ll be fine serving both of us? I can always put my foot down, you know.”

“I’m happy to.”

“Very well then.” Viktor pats at his thighs. “What are you doing standing way over there? Come sit with me.”

Yuuri’s eyes dart to the ground.

If you love him, you will let him go.

“I’m afraid I have a lot more work to do – “

“Oh let me hold you for just a few minutes?” Viktor pleads softly, and Yuuri feels his insides twist painfully. “I’m exhausted from having to keep up appearances all afternoon when I would have much rather skated with you.”

“Do you mean that?” Yuuri asks quietly. “Because it looked like you were enjoying yourself.”

“Years of practice,” sighs Viktor, before he taps at thighs again. “Now what does a Duke have to do for his valet to respond to his summons?”

Yuuri hesitates. Then, laying the suit down carefully on the rack, he crosses the room to settle on Viktor, who wraps strong arms round him with a noise of delight.

“Finally,” Viktor breathes, burying his face into the crook of Yuuri’s neck.

“Viktor,” Yuuri starts. “What…” he trails off, worrying at his bottom lip. “What, um…”

“What is it, solnyshko?” Viktor murmurs, tender and so filled with affection.

A fool in love, Christophe had said.

“What are we?” Yuuri forces out, stomach coiling.

“Hmm,” Viktor vibrates against him in quiet bemusement, “After two years, I would’ve thought that obvious by now.”

“Is it really?”

Yuuri feels the Duke shift, lips pressing on his neck. “If it’s about my behavior with the ladies again, my jealous solnyshko, you know very well why it has to be done.”

 “It’s… it’s not just about the ladies.”

“What is it about then?”

 Yuuri pauses, before he takes a deep breath and turns to face Viktor. “What do you see in our future, exactly?”

“Well let’s see,” says Viktor, smiling gently, fingers tracing patterns round the buttons of Yuuri’s waistcoat, “You and me, together, living and loving till death do us part.”

“So a happily ever after?” Yuuri says, throat burning. “Do you really think that’s possible for us? A Duke and a valet, both male and so far apart in class?”

The fingers cease in their motions as Viktor stiffens against him. “Christophe’s spoken to you, I see.”

“Yes, but don’t you think he’s right?”

“The man is a good friend but he’s rarely right.” Viktor frowns. “Is this what last night was about?”

Yuuri flushes in mortification. “I’ve always been concerned, Viktor, you know that. Alcohol just brought it out of me.”

“Then Christophe has somehow given you reason to take action.”

“Good reasons,” Yuuri points out sadly. “For one, if our relationship is exposed, it will only destroy your family's name.”

“Listen to me.” Hands hold his face steady between them; blue-green eyes searing into his. The familiarity of the gesture makes Yuuri’s heart ache. “Christophe may be open-minded about certain matters but he’s a traditionalist at heart, more so now that his family has gone bankrupt. His warnings are but a mere projection of his wish to preserve the old ways.”

“And you don’t intend to do so? You can’t just toss away your reputation and fortune – “

“My fool of a father did, and for the support of some ridiculous cause no less,” says Viktor sharply. “Why can’t I?”

Quaking with emotion, Yuuri rises from the Duke’s lap, barely suppressing the dam threatening to break within him. He’s sad, angry, and terrified at the turn of events, spiraling horribly out of control. It’s their first fight and he’s never heard Viktor express anything beyond mild irritation. Not with him, at least.

“Is that what this is about? Some sort of petty rebellion against your father?”

“You know that’s not what this is,” Viktor snaps, rising with him to grab his wrist. “I simply mean that I don’t care about the Warren reputation as much as you think!”

Yuuri jerks out of Viktor’s grip. “Then why bother with appearances?” he demands, voice wavering, “Why bother flirting and teasing the ladies if you didn’t care? Why not skate with me as you had two years ago?”

“That’s…” Viktor flounders then, stunned. “That’s different…”

“You do care,” Yuuri plunges on, “And I can’t do this anymore, all this sneaking around and keeping a straight face every time you decide to switch on the face of ‘Public Viktor Nikiforov’, the Viktor who is appropriately attracted to women, who isn’t in an unnatural relationship with his male servant – “

“Yuuri, that’s not the real me,” Viktor says desperately, reaching out for him again, “Only you know the real me – “

“That’s just it, don’t you see?” Yuuri shakes his head, backing away. He wants to stop, he really does; he doesn’t even know what he’s saying anymore but the words just keep pouring out of his mouth, streaming like tears, even as his face remains totally dry. “If you didn’t have me, then maybe– maybe that could be you, maybe you’d try a little harder, and I can’t stay with you like this, not when I’ve become the obstacle to your happiness – “

“YOU ARE MY HAPPINESS,” Viktor roars, grasping the smaller man abruptly by the shoulders.

There’s a beat as Yuuri freezes, eyes large.

And then Viktor is kissing him, fiercely, deeply, and Yuuri responds in kind, hands sliding to Viktor’s shoulders, through the silky, silver strands. They kiss until they run out of air, and then they kiss again, Viktor’s hands sliding down to Yuuri’s hips to pull him in. The Duke’s intoxicating scent fills Yuuri’s senses and he allows himself to drown in it, to wash aside his worries and fears –

His fears

“Stop,” gasps Yuuri, pushing at Viktor’s chest. “I can’t. We can’t. We have to end this.”

Solnyshko,” Viktor begins, but Yuuri closes his eyes and heart, disentangling out of the man’s embrace.

“I can’t,” Yuuri says again. Gathering Viktor’s clothes from the rack, he moves shakily to the door.

“Yuuri, don’t do this. Please.

He makes the mistake of turning back to see Viktor’s face twisted in confusion, in hurt, and Yuuri wants to die on the spot.

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri chokes out before he bolts, the sound of the closing door like a death knell to his soul.

He manages to hold it in until he reaches his room. It is Phichit’s mute look of worry that is the final blow to his fraying sense of control, and he falls apart, unraveling fully in his friend’s arms.

“You’ve gone and done something stupid haven’t you,” Phichit says quietly.

Clutching tightly to Phichit, Yuuri sobs harder between heavy breaths.

Somewhere, the gears of fate shift with a note of finality.

Chapter Text

Viktor stares at his reflection in the mirror, noting the dark circles around his eyes, stark against pale skin. He hasn't had proper sleep in days, not since –

" We have to end this."

He closes his eyes, drawing in deep breaths. The mere memory of Yuuri's last words to him, of Yuuri's soft voice and the feel of those hands pushing at him – pushing him away – shreds his heart to pieces and makes it so hard to breathe.

"Are you all right, m'lord?"

Shaking his head, Viktor turns to smile at the man standing behind him. "I'm fine, Leroy. You may go, I can manage the rest on my own."

"Really? Fantastic," says Leroy brightly in a lilting accent. He grabs the pyjamas off the bed, the material creasing madly in his arms, before he takes his leave.

Jean-Jacques Leroy, his new valet, is nothing like Yuuri. Where Yuuri's confidence is quiet and unassuming, Leroy's overflows with sheer cockiness; where Yuuri glides with a gentle grace, Leroy strikes out with wide strides; where Yuuri treats him and his belongings with reverence – and if Viktor dared, perhaps even love – Leroy is haphazard and unprofessional.

But most of all, Leroy is not his sweet, beautiful Yuuri and never will be.

Heaving a sigh, Viktor straightens his tie one last time before heading down to breakfast.

Mila and Yura are at the table and they exchange glances the minute he enters the dining room. Viktor knows right away that he's in for some kind of interrogation but he also knows that his siblings will wait till he has taken his food from the line of dishes on the side. So he takes his time with selecting his breakfast, ignoring the crass noises of Yura's teeth grinding in impatience. He has just settled into his seat at the head of the table when the bombardment begins –

– from an entirely unexpected source.

"I am sorry to interrupt your breakfast," Feltsman says, stepping forward from where he was standing by the door. "But if I may ask, how did Mr. Leroy address you this morning?"

Viktor flaps open his napkin. "It doesn't matter how he addresses me."

The butler's reaction is instantaneous: he rears up with barely contained indignation, right eye twitching. "I have told him time and again that he is to address you as 'your Grace' – "

"Really, Feltsman, it doesn't bother me."

Feltsman seems to struggle with his temper for the next few seconds before he speaks again. "That is very kind of you, your Grace, but there are standards to be met and I'm afraid Mr. Leroy is far below any standards of a reasonable household."

Yura snorts loudly.

"He helps me dress, he brushes my clothes, he polishes my shoes," Viktor cuts delicately into his ham, "That's all I ask for in a valet."

"Is that truly all you ask?" Mila asks suddenly.

Surprised, Viktor raises his eyebrows at his sister, but Yakov swiftly redirects the conversation.

"Your Grace, I did warn you that his mother is French?"

"That's not very kind of you, Feltsman," Mila remarks.

"I apologize, your ladyship," Feltsman says, dipping his head respectfully. "But I'm afraid Mr. Leroy's actions are not much help in disconfirming my view of our supposed allies."

"I have every faith that you will soon whip Leroy into shape," Viktor says idly, popping a piece of ham into his mouth.

A well-trained servant knows precisely when the conversation is over and Feltsman prides himself as highly well trained. Looking slightly disgruntled, the butler nods, returning to his position in the dining room.

"Well now that that's over with," Yura jabs his fork in the direction of Viktor. "What the devil is going on with you?"

Blunt as ever.

Viktor sets his utensils down. "What exactly do you mean?"

"What our dear brother is trying to say," Mila shoots a wry look at Yura, who rolls his eyes in response, "Is that you have been extremely miserable recently and we're worried that something has happened."

"It's true that I haven't been sleeping well but that's all."

Yura opens his mouth but Mila beats him to the punch. "And we might be inclined to believe you, only…" she pauses, "Only that this change of mood seems to coincide with your… sudden change of valets."

There's a beat of silence as Viktor's mind races. Sometimes he forgets how perceptive his younger siblings can be; silly squabbles and petty fights so often obscure their keen insight. A part of him wants to tell them everything: his fateful, clandestine meeting with Yuuri in London, their illicit relationship, and the separation – how it is slowly but surely tearing his heart and soul apart. But he doesn't because he knows Yuuri wouldn't want him to do that, because his darling little idiot has sacrificed their relationship for him to do the right thing.

Except the right thing has never felt more wrong.

"It's all too easy to develop an intimate relationship with someone who dresses and undresses you every day," Mila says softly, accurately reading his hesitation to respond. "I would be distraught if I were to lose Sara."

Calmly, Viktor schools his face into a neutral expression. "It's really not about the change of valets, I assure you."

"I find that hard to believe," Mila persists, frowning. "You were so territorial about Katsuki before this, and then for no rhyme or reason, you entrust him entirely to Yura and hire a new valet? A valet who – "

"Is an insufferable idiot," Yura chimes in.

" – is the complete opposite of Katsuki," Mila continues smoothly, as though her younger brother never spoke, "It just doesn't add up." She fiddles absently with the utensils in front of her. "Sara tells me that Katsuki has been quite distressed by this change as well."

"Has he?" Viktor says, his expression faltering slightly.

"I can vouch for that." Yura pokes at his eggs with a fork. "Yuuri's been in an annoying glump for weeks."

"On a first name basis with your valet?" Mila touches her lips in a shocked gesture. "Golly, our tenants' pigs must have sprout wings."

"Oh shut up," Yura says half-heartedly.

Yuuri.

As his siblings keep up their banter, Viktor feels his expression threaten to shift into one of deep, deep envy. Not once in his relationship with Yuuri has he called the other man by his first name in front of others, and here his brother has effectively declared his closeness with Yuuri with such incredible nonchalance.

" You DO care!"

Perhaps Yuuri was right. If he truly cared nothing about his name and reputation, he would have put his affection on full display and showed the world that Yuuri belonged to him and only him, condemnation be damned. He did leave tiny physical hints of his love – deliberate love bites on exposed skin, light touches and brushes in public – but he wonders now if maybe that was his own way of fooling himself into thinking that he didn't care what others thought.

"Viktor?"

The Duke refocuses on Mila who is now giving him a sympathetic smile. "You don't have to tell us if you don't want to, but is there anything we can do to help?"

Viktor returns the smile tiredly. "No, but I appreciate the offer."

Again, his siblings share a look between them, but the topic is put aside for the rest of the meal.


The hallway is empty save for hushed voices puncturing the silence in the darkness.

Viktor recognizes them instantly: the sweeter, softer voice belongs precisely to the person he's seeking, having felt so small and alone on the giant bed. The other voice is deeper and belongs to someone he doesn't like as much. In fact, he doesn't know that other person at all, not till he was brought here to that person's very big house, so big that he's forced to walk till his legs ached just to go down for a meal. Of course, he was excited when he first arrived – what little boy wouldn't enjoy running up and down the many hallways and endless flights of spiral staircases – but the novelty quickly wore off.

As he follows the sound of the voices, it dawns on him that it might be rude for him to interrupt their conversation; at least, his mama always tells him to wait his turn. When he's close enough to see the figures in the shadows, he decides to wait until they've finished with their grown-up talk, ducking behind the closest potted plant.

" I'm still failing to understand why you brought that brat here," hisses the deep voice in Russian. It's heavily accented and guttural and rings of danger that Viktor can't quite explain.

" Stop calling him that," says the sweet voice Viktor loves, the voice that sings lullabies to him every night, "He's your son, for heaven's sake."

" I will not ask again: why did you bring him here, Alina?"

" Surely you know what's happening in my country."

" I do, and I solidly applaud it! I can only hope the Bolsheviks will succeed."

" James," the sweet voice wavers with emotion, "I brought him here to be safe. Just him. I promise to leave once he's settled."

" As if it's not bad enough that I've been forced to inherit this ridiculous title – "

" Then why not train him to take over for you? He can be your heir."

There's a lull in the conversation and Viktor holds his breath; even behind the plant, the tension is as thick as the odd, distinctly English pie they had to eat for dinner that night. (His mama's cooking is so much better.)

" It's what you want, isn't it? To leave this life and be a regular man," the sweet voice says, breaking the silence. It sounds firmer now, more determined.

The deep voice scoffs. "Why would I need to do that when I could just leave right now?"

" Because the villagers and tenants look up to you, to your family. How can you abandon the very people you claim to support?"

" You have a silver tongue, I'll give you that much. But it doesn't change who the boy is and represents."

" If you would just get to know him – "

" Don't push me into doing this, Alina, don't you push me. Not after you've lied to me about your true identity."

" James, you're being an obstinate fool – "

" I will not be insulted by a bloody Romanov in my own house!" the deep voice bellows, before there's a scream and something shatters.

Unable to see clearly in the darkness, panic seizes Viktor, and he dashes out from the potted plant to fling his small body forward. "Don't hurt mama!" he cries, seconds before his vision blurs and expands and –

Gasping, Viktor shoots up, eyes flying open. The book he was reading falls to the ground, thrown by the sudden movement. He's on an armchair in his bedroom, he realizes after a second of bewilderment, not in the hallway of the guest rooms.

Viktor drops his head into his hands. He is sleepless with memories of his lost love, yet filled with nightmares of his most cherished when he sleeps. It is moments like these that he most yearns for a certain Japanese man, to hold that slim frame in his arms and breathe in his calming scent – a unique fusion of herbal soap, shoe polish, and a smell that is distinctly him. He keeps hoping they would run into each other in the hallways or on the stairs but Yuuri must have devised some strategy that allows him to avoid Viktor completely; he hasn't clapped eyes on Yuuri for what feels like centuries. His solnyshko can be so very determined when he chooses to be.

If his mama could see him now, would she still love him if she learned about his perverse longing for another man?

Lifting his head with a shake, Viktor rises to tug at the bell pull.

His darling Yuuri would have arrived in seconds, entering the room with polished grace despite his swiftness. Much as Viktor loves Yuuri beyond his position and social standing, he loves and respects the man even more for his humble efficiency and strong work ethic. As it were, his new valet is not Yuuri.

"You rang, milord?" Leroy asks cheerfully after a good fifteen minutes, swinging open the door to his room. A casual greeting coupled with the use of an incorrect title – Feltsman would have gone into conniptions.

"I'd like to have a bit of a ride after breakfast tomorrow, so I'll need my riding gear and horse prepared."

"Very good, your lordship," Leroy replies, before strutting back towards the door.

A sudden thought strikes Viktor and on impulse, he acts on it. "Ah, Leroy?"

"Yes?" says the valet, blinking.

"How… how are you fitting in downstairs?" Viktor asks carefully.

"Mr. Feltsman can be, ah, how you say? Peevish? But they treat me well enough," Leroy says, beaming. "Especially Miss Crispino and Katsuki. They're awfully nice and they offer lots of advice."

Viktor's heart skips. Leroy doesn't know it but he has struck right to the heart of his questions. "Yuu – Katsuki has been offering you advice?"

"Yes, him being your previous valet and all. The other servants say it's odd that you've dismissed him, considering how much you used to favour him."

"I didn't dismiss him," Viktor says quietly.

Leroy looks surprised. "Really? Then why – "

"How is he," Viktor cuts in sharply.

"Uh, quiet," Leroy says, slightly thrown, "Kind of depressed most of the time."

"Ah," Viktor exhales, closing his eyes. Sadness twists inside him at the thought of his love feeling just as miserable as he is, even if the man had brought it upon himself. Upon them.

"You know, if you want to know how Katsuki's doing," Leroy scratches the back of his neck awkwardly, "You'd do better to ask Chulanont. They seem real close."

There's a twinge of jealousy but Viktor quickly suppresses it. This shouldn't come as a surprise; Yuuri has mentioned his friendship with the first footman many times. "I will keep that in mind, thank you."

"So I can go then, m'lord?" the valet asks after a beat.

"Yes," Viktor says with a small smile as Leroy takes his leave without a "good night". Chuckling to himself, he slides into bed. If only Feltsman were present to witness this; the butler's epileptic fit over Leroy's disrespectful manner would have cheered Viktor up greatly.


Viktor enjoys riding almost as much as he does skating. It gives him a chance to be alone with his thoughts in nature and to survey his lands. After all, he is only worth as much as the lands he own. Slowing his horse to a canter, he looks over the vast greenery, breathing in the crisp morning air. Spring continues to be one of nature's wonders. The grass, dead in winter, has sprung up once again, dotted with the light colours of daisies and kingcups throughout the emerald meadow.

It's a fine day too, with the sun's rays striking the canopy of trees just so, and Viktor wishes he could show this to Yuuri. He misses his lover deeply, terribly. He never imagined he could care this much for another, not since his dearest mama. Horrid memories flash through his mind, of angry shouts and desperate pleas, and the irony doesn't escape him: both of his beloveds have sacrificed their own happiness for his.

His horse lets out a quiet snort, shaking his head. Viktor reaches down to pat the taut neck, admiring the firm muscles rippling beneath well-brushed hair. He must remember to thank the grooms for their services.

"Sorry, old boy, you were hoping to stretch out your legs, weren't you?" His horse shakes again and Viktor feels the thrum of anticipation under him. "Take it away then, my friend," he says, driving his heels into the powerful flanks.

And for a time, just a brief time, Viktor ceases his worries. He remains quite exhilarated all throughout his ride and even after he returns to the house an hour later, all thoughts about Yuuri, their relationship, and his unhappiness banished from his mind.

That is, until he actually runs into his former valet in the hallway.

Yuuri wears an endearingly stunned expression on his face, frozen in the act of closing the door to Yura's bedroom. No doubt Yura has asked him to fetch something – an impromptu request that even Yuuri cannot have included in his calculations to avoid Viktor. (Mentally, Viktor thanks his little brother.) Yuuri looks tired and so much skinnier, his suit now looking a little too baggy for his form. With a sharp pang in his chest, Viktor wonders if his solnyshko is eating well; at least appetite is one thing Viktor hasn't lost.

For a long moment, the two of them remain at opposite ends of the hallway, staring at each other in absolute silence.

Now that the opportunity to speak to Yuuri has been presented, Viktor hasn't the faintest idea what to say to the other man. He knows what he wants to say – I want you, I miss you, I love you so much – but he also knows Yuuri wouldn't respond well to any such affection, and god knows he doesn't need the remaining pieces of his heart to break.

It is Yuuri who moves first.

Slowly, the Japanese-born unfreezes and pulls the door shut. Then, he turns to walk in Viktor's direction.

Viktor watches as the man draws closer and closer to where he stands, heart hammering in his ears –

"Your Grace," Yuuri says tightly as he walks right past him.

Wait, what?

"Yuuri," Viktor snags Yuuri's wrist, feeling another pang at how thin it feels, "Is that all you have to say to me?"

The other man stiffens and his chin lifts, emotions betrayed only by the slightest tremble in his lips. "What would you like me to say to you, your Grace?"

Frustration and irritation surface within Viktor then. He has seen Yuuri posture like this with others before, knows that this is Yuuri's false mask of confidence, and he hates that Yuuri is now using it with him.

"Why have you been avoiding me," Viktor asks, anger helping him to find the words.

"I'm not avoiding you," Yuuri retorts, a little too swiftly.

"You are and I want to know why."

"I…" Yuuri looks past Viktor, jaw clenching, "I'm surprised that I even have to explain it to you."

Viktor tightens his grip, pulling the smaller man closer. Those beautiful eyes widen, long eyelashes fluttering nervously. "Don't get cheeky with me," Viktor says, low and quiet.

"You're the one who hired a new valet," Yuuri huffs, his lower lip sticking out petulantly.

Momentarily distracted, Viktor has to squash the immediate urge to taste Yuuri's lips before fully registering what the other man said. "Now I am surprised you didn't expect that," he says, eyebrows raised.

Yuuri pauses. "I just thought," he starts, frowning, "I just thought we could still work with each other even after… after, um…" He tapers off then, face falling into a look of such sorrow that Viktor physically aches.

"Silly little solnyshko," the Duke sighs. Though Yuuri flinches at the term of affection, Viktor takes solace in the fact that he doesn't pull away. "Do you honestly think we could carry on as we had before? Seeing each other every day, you dressing and undressing me," he lifts Yuuri's hand and presses it, splayed, against his chest, "The feel of your hands on my body, touching me, brushing against my skin – " Yuuri's lips part ever so slightly. " – even now it's taking all of me not to kiss you senseless," he finishes, raising his other hand to trace Yuuri's lips.

For a moment, Yuuri doesn't speak. Then, Viktor feels his heart sing in triumph when Yuuri rests a hand atop his.

"You're right," his sweet sunshine says softly, "That was… insensitive of me."

"Yuuri," Viktor murmurs, cupping the other's cheek. To hell with status, bloodlines, and prejudiced laws; to hell with the world. All he wants – all he needs – is this kind, enchanting, loving man standing right in front of him. Slowly, Viktor leans in –

"There you are, m'lord!"

Yuuri jolts away so fast that he stumbles and bangs his shoulder against the wall.

Silently, Viktor curses Leroy and his entire lineage as the valet strides up to him with a huge grin, a suit draped across his arm.

"I figured you might want to change out of your riding wear…" Leroy halts mid-sentence to glance at Yuuri. "Am I interrupting something?"

"No," Yuuri says through gritted teeth, clutching at his shoulder. "I was just leaving. Your Grace," he says with a polite nod – ah, such strong work ethic – before he wobbles down the hallway, the back of his neck tinted in a noticeable shade of red.

"Oh, is that how I'm supposed to address you?" Leroy laughs, seemingly oblivious. "Mr. Feltsman gets so furious with me and I've never quite understood why."

"I'm glad the matter is cleared up for you," Viktor says, face stretched into a strained smile. "I will see you in my room for dressing, Leroy."

"Yes, your lo – your Grace."

Insufferable idiot, indeed.

While the valet enters his room, Viktor spends the next few minutes composing himself as he processes the new events. Leroy's untimely disruption aside, it is now abundantly clear that Yuuri still habours feelings for him – thank the gods; he was worried the man had already gone off him – but there is little doubt his silly solnyshko would resume his avoidance tactics again, especially after they were nearly caught red handed. No, he will have to make a connection that will give him insight, advice, and perhaps even updates on his Yuuri.

He will have to talk to Chulanont.


"My," says Mila, taking a piece of venison onto her plate, "Someone has a little more colour to his face."

Viktor smiles; behind, Chulanont shifts inconspicuously to offer the food tray to his brother. "I had a rather enjoyable ride this morning."

"How interesting," Mila says. She's looking quite lovely for dinner this evening, clad in a dress of forest green with intricate designs lining the collar. "Because Sara tells me that Leroy caught you and Katsuki conversing in the hallway this morning."

Viktor nearly chokes on his drink of red wine. "W-What?"

"Yuuri was in a weird mood, too," Yura adds, shooting him a piercing look. "I asked him to retrieve a book from my room and he came back all tight-lipped and ashen-faced. Whatever you said did a number on him."

"Honestly Viktor," Mila ladles spoonful of offered gravy on her meat, "I know you're not keen on talking, but you're making it quite difficult to ignore. What on earth is going on between you two?"

Viktor's eyes dart between his siblings. Of course Leroy would talk; of course Sara would inform her lady. He constantly forgets people's love for dramatic intrigue; represses it, really. "Is it so peculiar for me to have a chat with the valet who used to serve me?" he asks calmly.

"The way you keep dodging the subject is rather suspect."

"I agree," Yura says, taking the ladle in the gravy bowl, "If Yuuri were a woman, I'd say you were having some sort of tryst behind our – bloody hell!"

Heads whip to the small blond as he leaps off his seat, a large stain of gravy spreading down his trouser leg.

"I am so sorry, your lordship," Chulanont hastily picks up the gravy bowl on the carpet, "My hand slipped – "

"Chulanont," Feltsman snaps from his post by the door, "Go downstairs and fetch more napkins for his lordship this instant."

"Of course, Mr. Feltsman." As he sweeps out of the dining room, the footman reveals an expression of keen slyness before it slips back into its professional mask.

There's a beat, before Mila bursts into hearty laughter. "You should've seen your face," she gasps, practically hiccupping in glee.

"It's not funny, woman! You want I should dump a load of scalding liquid on your trousers?"

"Considering I don't wear trousers, I'd like to see you try!"

Feltsman's eye is twitching again, undoubtedly shocked by his masters' vulgarities, but Viktor cannot care less about the butler's vulnerable sensibilities. It's only a guess, but if he is correct about Chulanont's crafty brilliance at distracting his siblings from a treacherous line of conversation, then he's certain of one thing:

Chulanont knows.

This would make their conversation so much simpler.

Viktor approximates the timing as best as he can. Yuuri cannot be present when he approaches Chulanont, which means he has to wait for Yura to call on Yuuri for his dressing before bed. Fortunately for him – and once again, thanks to Chulanont's quick thinking – Yura chooses to ring for Yuuri immediately after dinner, complaining incessantly about the wetness on his trousers.

And so, without hesitation, the Duke races downstairs. It has been years since he last entered the basement and he feels a sense of thrill for committing this act, like a naughty child sticking his hand into the cookie jar. He hears voices and clattering in the dining room, so that's where he heads first with long strides.

The minute he steps in, the servants rise from their seats in astonishment.

"Your Grace," Feltsman splutters, Baranovskaya wearing a matching expression of horror beside him, "You needn't come downstairs, this is absolutely beneath you – "

"Please, carry on with your dinner," Viktor interrupts, flicking his wrist dismissively, "I only wished to have a word with Chulanont."

Startled, the first footman gapes at him just as Feltsman growls, "If Chulanont has caused any trouble for you – "

"Oh no, really, it's just a word."

"With a footman?" Feltsman asks, dumbfounded, before Baranovskaya steps forward, clearing her throat. "My sitting room is available if you don't mind, your Grace," she offers.

"Not at all, that works perfectly." Viktor smiles at Chulanont. "Shall we?"

They enter the housekeeper's room, kept as neat and pristine as Baranovskaya's tightly wound bun on the top of her head. Chulanont eyes flicker about and Viktor understands his nervousness: it's the first time Viktor has spoken to him directly. "Have a seat, Chulanont," Viktor gestures at one of the sitting chairs, "I promise you're not in trouble."

"So this isn't about the gravy incident then?" Chulanont asks, still standing.

"No, actually," Viktor sinks onto a chair, "This is about Yuuri."

Chulanont blinks. Then, slowly, he drops into the chair beside Viktor.

"You know, don't you?"

"And what am I to know, your Grace?" Chulanont asks tentatively.

"About Yuuri and me."

"Ah," says the footman. He gazes at the door, then back to Viktor. "I know more than I probably should, yes."

"How is he?" Viktor says, leaning forward, eyes shining. "Has he been eating well? What has he said about me? Does he miss me? Does he – "

"Your Grace," Chulanont interrupts, frowning, "May I speak freely?"

Viktor beams. "Of course. Please."

Chulanont takes a deep breath, as though stilling himself for an uphill climb. "I think, your Grace…" he pauses. "I think that, unless you have a foolproof plan on what to do about your relationship, you should leave Yuuri alone."

Instantly, Viktor's smile drops. Here he was hoping he had an ally – someone who cares for Yuuri and supports their relationship – but it seems he couldn't have been further from the truth. The disappointment feels like a douse of cold water to his system.

"Chulanont, I love Yuuri. Desperately," he implores quietly. "I want nothing more than to be with him."

Chulanont shakes his head. "I don't doubt that, but I just don't think love is enough in this case. I used to, I really did. In fact, I thought the whole business about Yuuri giving you up so you'd have a chance at happiness was stupid and absurd."

Viktor's eyebrows knit together in confusion. "Then what changed your mind?"

"Well…" Chulanont hesitates. "This afternoon, your Grace."

"Why would this afternoon – "

"You were almost caught, your Grace." Viktor stops at the footman's sharp tone, which sounds akin to a stern schoolteacher. "You were almost caught, and Mr. Leroy carried on about what he saw, gossiping like an old fishwife downstairs. There's also the matter of his lordship and her ladyship; they've obviously got their suspicions. I confess that it was all rosy and marvelous to me when Yuuri first told me about your relationship, but the panic I felt at the real possibility of Yuuri being exposed – the panic attack Yuuri had after the incident – has made me rethink my stance."

Viktor's eyes harden. "That was my fault and I fully take responsibility for it, but I fail to see why I should stop fighting for Yuuri because of that. Surely I just have to be more cautious in the future?"

"Oh I want you to fight. But only if you have a proper plan."

"What is this 'plan' you keep referring to?"

"Well, suppose someone narrow-minded found out about you and Yuuri?"

"I would most certainly step in and protect Yuuri."

"Very noble, your Grace, but think about it – " When Viktor opens his mouth to respond, Chulanont holds up a hand. " – really think about it. Master and servant in a tryst: who will people blame? Who would they say seduced the other in an ambitious attempt to achieve a higher social standing? You might lose reputation, respect, and maybe the annual invitation to Buckingham Palace, but between you and Yuuri, a Duke and a servant, who stands to get thrown in prison and lose everything?"

Viktor closes his mouth slowly, realization dawning.

"That's what I mean by a plan. Something that covers all possible problems." Chulanont exhales in an explosive sigh. "Yuuri was in a real state all day worrying about you. But, see, my concern lies with him. I want you two together; I want Yuuri to be happy. Unfortunately, we're trapped in a biased system and my best mate's at high risk of becoming the next Oscar Wilde."

"I…" Viktor averts his gaze, quaking slightly. The thought of his solnyshko behind bars, alone and obscured by grimy darkness, frightens him to the very core. "I hadn't considered that…"

"No," Chulanont agrees, "But you don't have to consider this sort of thing very much, not in your position." Viktor winces at Chulanont's honesty but the footman is kind enough to ignore it. "Even what you've done here: coming downstairs to talk to a footman… I'll bet the staffs are already conjuring up all sorts of wild reasons in the servant's hall right now. So forgive my impertinence, your Grace, but unless you have thought through every consequence and come up with a solid plan on how to move forward, I won't be keen on discussing about Yuuri with you. Not if it will only hurt him further."

Viktor swallows, a lump rising in his throat. "I appreciate your candid opinion, Chulanont."

The footman smiles sadly. "I'm sorry it's not what you expected."

"No, I… No. You've given me something to think about."

"I'm glad." Chulanont turns his gaze back to the door. "What shall I tell Mr. Feltsman and Mrs. Baranovskaya about our interaction? They'll want to know."

"Tell them…" Viktor wracks his mind, "Tell them I'm considering a trip to Southeast Asia and wanted your opinion on the best spots to visit."

"Not bad," the footman says with a grin. "I'll take my leave then, your Grace. Mr. Feltsman might just alert the estate firemen if I stay in here any longer."

Mutely, Viktor nods.

After the door shuts behind Chulanont, the Duke sags in the chair with heavy breaths. Shame bubbles within: churning his stomach, searing through him. Yuuri once said that he adored how Viktor is "full of surprises", which Viktor knows is a generous substitute for "recklessly impulsive". Yet he has never had to face any repercussions for his impulses; rather, he has always been handsomely rewarded. It is only now that he realizes how his actions may actually cause consequences for someone else.

All this time, Yuuri had thought of nothing but him and he couldn't even spare a single consideration for the other man. To think he was so giddy about this afternoon when it had actually caused his poor solnyshko more grief – what a fool he has been.

A plan, Chulanont had suggested.

Clenching his teeth, Viktor glares at the wall in front of him. He has been selfish and inconsiderate, but he's not helping anyone by wallowing in guilt in his housekeeper's sitting room.

He needs a plan and a plan he shall devise. For Yuuri, him, and their future.


A month later, Viktor begins to seriously reconsider his friendship with Christophe when the Marquess, yet again, introduces an unnecessary complication to his life.

Her name is Isabella Yang.

Chapter Text

 

"Complete equality of rights for all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations —
such is the national programme that Marxism, the experience of the whole world, and the experience of Russia, teach the workers."

~Vladimir Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 20, pp. 393–454.


 Viktor turns in time to catch the fine line of his lover's back, seconds before a white shirt slides in and obscures his view. He makes a small noise of displeasure and Yuuri's quiet laughter drifts over him like fresh fallen snow.

"Go back to sleep," Yuuri murmurs, and Viktor feels soft lips press against his forehead, "I'll see you in the morning."

"No, stay," Viktor grabs groggily for Yuuri's hand, "Empty without you."

"You do have a very big bed for one person."

Viktor tugs Yuuri's hand over, nuzzling his cheek against it. "Not talking about the bed."

The bed shifts slightly, before he feels Yuuri lie next to him, radiating warmth and comfort. "Nightmares again?" Yuuri asks gently.

"Memories."

A firm body presses against his; instinctively, possessively, Viktor slings a leg across, pulling them in tighter.

"What can I do to help?" Yuuri whispers and Viktor feels as though his heart would burst from too much affection.

"Tell me about your family," Viktor buries his face into the crook of Yuuri's neck, breathing in the comforting scents.

Yuuri chuckles. "You've heard so much already."

"Tell me again."

"What about?"

"Your mother. How she wakes up early to prepare food for the family. How she sends your father off every morning and welcomes him home every evening. How she tucks you and your sister in at night."

"Mm yes, she would tuck us in and sing us a lullaby every night. It's supposed to be sung to toddlers, really, but my sister and I loved it so much that my mother would sing it even when we were older. It was a simple song and a bit melancholic if I thought about it… but it signaled home, family, and – "

"Love?" Viktor exhales.

"Love," Yuuri presses another kiss on his temple.

"Then will you sing it for me?"

"What?" Yuuri's surprised laughter thrums through Viktor in gentle vibrations, "We have a perfect word for your unreasonable request in my native language."

"I should probably learn it because this wouldn't be the last time," Viktor murmurs.

There's a soft huff of amusement. "Muchaburi."

Viktor repeats the word, wrapping his tongue slowly around the unfamiliar syllables.

"Very good."

"So will you acquiesce to my mu-cha-bu-ri?"

"Well," fingers thread gently through his hair, "Promise you won't blame me if your nightmares get worse because of my singing?"

"Oh my solnyshko," Viktor breathes, "You could sound like a wretched cat in heat and all I'd hear is the voice of a nightingale."

"If the world only knew how dramatic you can be," Yuuri snorts. "Right, here goes."

"Nennen korori yo, Okorori yo. (Hushabye, Hushabye)
Bōya wa yoi ko da, Nenne shina~ (My good baby, sleep~)

Bōya no omori wa, Doko e itta? (Where did my boy's nanny go?)
Ano yama koete, Sato e itta. (Past the mountain, back to her home)

Sato no miyage ni, Nani morotta? (As a souvenir from her home, what did you get?)
Denden taiko ni, Shō no fue." (A rattle drum and a bamboo flute)

As the quiet strains of a foreign lullaby fill the dark room, Viktor feels all tension in his body wash away with Yuuri's silvery tenor voice. He drifts off then, safe and warm in his lover's arms.


When Christophe calls in for dinner and says he's bringing a friend, Viktor thinks nothing of it. He is used to the Swiss noble's propensity to invite his temporary lover-of-the-week to their dinners, and Mila seems to enjoy playing the guessing game, 'What sort of person will Christophe bed next?' (Yura finds the whole matter distasteful, but of course, Yura is too young to understand such adult affairs.)

Viktor is thus startled when Christophe pulls him to one side in the drawing room to explain that his guest is really a potential partner for Viktor. The Marquess had been nonplussed and more than a little disappointed when Viktor informed the man of his intention to pursue his romance with Yuuri, so it doesn't come as a surprise that his traditionalist friend has decided to throw a wrench into Viktor's plans.

The candidate is Miss Isabella Yang, the daughter of a successful restaurant owner in Soho, London. She is a lovely sight, Viktor acknowledges, with her raven hair, ruby red lipstick, and silk dress, glimmering like a sunny spot of orange in the room. Christophe must have suggested the true purpose of his dinner invitation for she is dressed boldly, fabric dipping low down her back. Mila doesn't bother to hide her delight with Yang's fashion, professing her jealousy when they are introduced to each other.

"Come, you must meet my brother," Mila says cheerily, tugging Yang to where Viktor stands with Christophe by the mantelpiece. "Viktor, this is Lord Giacometti's incredibly well-dressed friend, Miss Isabella Yang."

Viktor doesn't miss the looks Christophe and Yang exchange with each other, before the lady curtsies. "A pleasure, Duke."

"The pleasure is mine, Miss Yang."

"Doesn't she look fabulous?" Mila gushes, clasping her gloved hands together. "Now I absolutely have to go shopping tomorrow."

"Yes, quite exquisite," Viktor says, smiling politely.

"You are a flatterer, I see," Yang says with a breathy laugh, "I do hope I'm not in the presence of another Lord Giacometti."

"How you wound me, Miss Yang," Christophe responds smoothly, just as the door opens and Feltsman silently pads into the drawing room.

"It seems dinner is ready," Mila says, beaming. "Shall we go in?"

Yang proves to be an intelligent young woman, adept at maneuvering around social etiquette and conversations. Her parents are immigrants from China, she discloses candidly, and it is only recently that her father's venture into business has flourished. Despite her more humble origins, she is elegant and poised, fitting in well with their ilk. As disgruntled as he feels about the whole affair, Viktor feels obliged to recognize Christophe's choice in Yang.

"Did you serve in the war, Sir Viktor?" Yang asks, taking a piece of roast duck to her plate.

"I was fortunate enough to turn of age just as the conscription began," Viktor says, lips quirking, "So yes, I did. I served in the 48th Division until the war ended."

"How exciting to have a war hero in the family."

"Oh I wouldn't say that," Mila frowns, "It was the most frightfully nerve-wracking period of my life. We lost two footmen and a hall boy to that dreadful war… it's a miracle we didn't lose a brother."

"Should've seen her," Yura says, grinning, "Nearly fainting with relief every time Viktor sent a telegram."

"Says the one who cried when we didn't receive a telegram," Mila shoots back.

"I was eight!" Yura snaps, flushing pink, "I thought he fell in a hole somewhere and died!"

"Wouldn't be far from the truth if I had died," Viktor says mildly. Behind him, he hears Chulanont's quiet snort of amusement as the footman moves about, replenishing the wine.

"Must we talk about the war?" Christophe pipes up then, looking pained. "I have no wish to recall any memories of my time in battle."

"I do apologize," Yang says, "It's my fault for bringing it up."

"Certainly not," Viktor smirks, cutting into his duck once Mila starts on her slice, "It's not your fault Christophe gets so squeamish about the war."

"I'll have you know that shell-shock is a real phenomenon, you bloodthirsty Russian."

"And of course, the Swiss managed neutrality so well."

"As a military, we did, thank you very much."

"But politically, you housed the most barbaric – "

"Boys," Mila interrupts sharply. "Play nice, we have a guest tonight."

Yang giggles. "Oh, but I do enjoy intellectual debates."

"Then perhaps you'd prefer to join us men for a cigar after dinner?" Christophe says jovially, nudging at Viktor under the table.

"Perhaps I shall, if Sir Viktor will have me," Yang says, smiling coyly.

Viktor returns the smile, feeling like a plastic marionette on display.

Across the table, Yura watches them with narrowed eyes.


"She's lovely isn't she," Christophe remarks, exhaling a puff of smoke.

They are alone in the dining room, the ladies having gone through and Yura claiming the need to retire early because of a massive headache. Viktor suspects his brother is referring to the rather unsubtle stench of a marriage plot rather than an actual ailment. Though he'll never admit to it, Yura has always been a firm believer in true love and happily ever after, if his choices in romantic reading material were anything to go by.

Viktor takes a sip of port, rolling his eyes. "Regardless of your Machiavellian schemes, Christophe, my heart belongs to another."

"Come now, you can't deny she's terrific on paper," Christophe clicks his tongue. "She might not come from a line of aristocrats, but who does nowadays? What's more important is that she's rich, sophisticated, beautiful… and did I mention rich?"

"Clearly a match made in heaven then," Viktor says with a thin smile.

"Well I did also choose her for her, ah…" the Marquess waves a hand in the air, cigar stuck in the corner of his mouth, "Her eastern origins, you might say."

Viktor raises an eyebrow. "I beg your pardon?"

"No?" says Christophe, tendrils of smoke framing his face as he breathes. "I just assumed, what with Katsuki being Asian and all…"

Disgust fills Viktor in an instant. Christophe's presumption is common and precisely the sort of thinking that led to the Earl's attack on Yuuri at his last employment. The allure of claiming an exotic creature, taming it, defies even the strongest repulsion over going against the laws of nature. If Yuuri hadn't reacted as quickly and viciously as he did –

Viktor slams his glass onto the table, taking some satisfaction in Christophe's recoil. "I don't love Yuuri because of his race," he says quietly. "I am not attracted to Yuuri because of his race."

"Perhaps not entirely, but – "

"There is no 'but' about this, Christophe," Viktor states, turquoise eyes flashing in the candlelight.

The Marquess is silent for a moment, taking a long drag out of his cigar. Then, he exhales, leaning back in his seat. "My mistake then," he drawls. "You have to see though, Viktor, how I am otherwise unable to comprehend why you're willing to throw your life away for one man."

"Have you never been in love?" Viktor tilts his glass back for another drink.

"Once," Christophe sighs, "Or so I thought. Turned out to be a bad case of food poisoning." He crosses his legs, lips curling. "So tell me more about your perfect lover. How does he have such a hold on you? His performance in bed, perhaps?"

"Oh yes," Viktor's face softening into a wistful smile at the thought of Yuuri's singing, light and clear as a bell in the distance, "In more ways than one."

"You and Georgi will be the death of me," Christophe shakes his head sadly.


Nennen korori yo, Okorori yo. (Hushabye, Hushabye)
Bōya wa yoi ko da, Nenne shina~ (My good baby, sleep~)


The first Saturday of that month is the day of Mila's charity bazaar, an event that his sister has driven herself to near exhaustion over. The guest list is filled to the brim with names, big and small, and Mila is determined to organize a party that is worthy of her status as the sole female member of a Duke's family.

On this very important day, Viktor is nervous throughout breakfast and most of the morning. Not for his sister, he knows Mila will excel superbly with her event. No, it's the thought that every servant will be at the event so as to tend to the large number of guests, which inevitably means that the valets will also be present, which then means that Yuuri will be present, and it has been so very long since he has had proper interaction with his lover. They have crossed paths now and then, but their exchanges have consisted of nothing more than a nod and a formal greeting – the result of Chulanont's lecture.

Indeed, when he traverses with his siblings to the garden, Yuuri is there, laughing at something one of the footmen has said. He's dressed impeccably, as always, with the addition of white gloves covering his slender hands for the day. Viktor swallows, feeling his heart ache with longing at the sound of Yuuri's laugh, wishing desperately that it was for him and with him. His mind spins rapidly as he comes up with reasons to approach the group of servants and address Yuuri in particular –

"Yuuri!"

Viktor starts as his brother breezes past to march up to Yuuri and grab the older man by the arm. "Thank god," Yura exclaims, "You'd better stick with me or I might just hurl from all this unnecessary socializing."

Yuuri chuckles with such affection that Viktor feels deep envy twist at his insides. "But I'm to serve as a footman today, my lord."

"Feltsman," Yura calls, "You can afford to let Yuuri off, can't you?"

"Actually, your lordship, we're a little short on – " Feltsman stops at the dark look on the young lord's face. The craggy features contort with mute frustration as the butler spits out his next words. "Certainly, m'lord."

"I thought so," Yura smirks, before dragging Yuuri away with him.

Even from afar, Chulanont flashes Viktor a look of sympathy, which only serves to fuel the growing prickle of irritation.

So to distract himself, "Public Viktor Nikiforov" – as his solnyshko so aptly named – makes his appearance, greeting guests and answering to calls of "Sir Viktor" with extravagant words and a charming smile. It's a familiar role that he has played since childhood and he takes comfort in hiding behind the façade that shields him from his own storm of emotions.

And then Christophe arrives, naturally, with Yang.

Mila is delighted to see Yang; over the course of Yang's visits, the two ladies have become fast friends, bonding tightly over their love for trendy fashion. Dressed in a periwinkle blue dress and white pearls, the Chinese lady has gloved hands laid demurely atop one another, eyes crinkled in a sweet smile, as she listens to Mila animatedly describe her layout for the bazaar.

"Your sister appreciates her," Christophe declares, coming up to Viktor's side. "What's taking you so long?"

"I would think that obvious," Viktor mutters, his stare fixed on Yuuri as the valet trails dutifully behind Yura. Every so often, Yura would turn back to whisper into Yuuri's ear and they would share a snickering laugh between them.

The Marquess follows Viktor's line of sight, before releasing a deep sigh. "You can't be serious."

"How is it fair?" Viktor grits his teeth. He knows he sounds like a petulant child, but after playing the chivalrous grown-up for hours, he feels he's entitled to several minutes of immaturity. "My own brother gets to enjoy and flaunt the perks of Yuuri's companionship with such ease, whereas I have to be proper and act as though we're strangers."

"My dear fellow, you are Duke and owner – "

"Well maybe I don't want to be," Viktor snaps.

Guests nearby turn in astonishment, Yang included.

Christophe lets out a loud laugh, slapping Viktor noisily on the back. "I'm afraid Sir Viktor has had too much to drink; his foreign blood just can't help venting all that pent up emotion!"

There's laughter – how it prickles – and Yang is drifting over, a flute of champagne in her hand. "Are you all right, Sir Viktor?"

"I'm fine," Viktor runs a hand through his hair, forcing on a smile, "I simply haven't been sleeping well lately."

"I did notice the circles beneath your eyes," Yang says, resting a hand on Viktor's arm. "Is there anything worrying you these days?"

Viktor's eyes flick over to Yuuri, only to lock eyes with his lover who happened to be looking his way. An expression of yearning flickers across Yuuri's face, soft and sad, and suddenly Viktor wants him to croon that gentle lullaby by his ear again, their shared symbol of home, family, and love. Then Yura calls for him and Yuuri turns away to direct a most tender smile toward his brother – a smile that used to be reserved for him.

"No," says Viktor, the sting of jealousy and resentment piercing in deeply, "Nothing's worrying me at all."


Bōya no omori wa, Doko e itta? (Where did my boy's nanny go?)
Ano yama koete, Sato e itta. (Past the mountain, back to her home)


Mila's bazaar is a resounding triumph, and every guest present congratulates her, lavishing her with flattery and praise. Even Georgi, who joins the festivities later in the evening, showers her with flowery compliments. Much of dinner is focused on the celebration of Mila's success, not that Viktor would have noticed. Seated next to him, Yang makes valiant attempts at conversation, but his mind is miles away, drifting to thoughts of Yuuri and his budding relationship with Yura. His brother is looking exceptionally lovely these days, with those rebellious long tresses beautifully tamed in elaborate knots and colorful ribbons. Viktor can easily picture the deft hands that work patiently at the delicate creations; can easily feel the phantom sensations of those same hands searing against his own skin.

Did those hands work to unravel his brother's tension as they did for his? Did they make Yura tremble, make him gasp and writhe on the sheets, make him beg for release? (Oh if Christophe only knew just how brilliantly Yuuri performs in bed.)

Part of him – the truest part of him – wants to throw all caution to the wind, take Yuuri by the waist, and kiss the man in front of the entire household. "Mine," he wants to say, "Only mine." But Chulanont's warnings continue to yank him back, trapping him effectively into immobility. The first footman's presence at dinner doesn't help matters, serving Viktor each course with a penetrating gaze, as though he can read Viktor's every thought.

By the end of dinner, Viktor has spiraled into such a sour mood with his ruminations that he excuses himself to take a walk around the house, not at all keen to go through the tedious social traditions of yet another dinner party. He waves off Feltsman's insistence that Leroy fetch him a hat and steps through the front door to the gravel path.

"May I join you, Sir Viktor?" asks a deep, bass voice.

Smiling, Viktor slows his pace for Georgi to catch up to him with quick strides. "Not joining the others?" he asks his old friend.

"Lord Giacometti is taking such pleasure in tormenting young Yuratchka with his graphic conquests that I'd hate to snatch that away from him."

Viktor chuckles softly. "Can't we dispense with the formality? The three of us have been friends since childhood, after all."

"Very well, while we're alone at least," Georgi sniffs disapprovingly. "Christophe tells me Miss Yang is to be your betrothed?"

"Or so he hopes."

"Ah," says Georgi, his voice full of sympathy, "You harbor no feelings for her then."

Viktor relishes in the crunch of gravel beneath his shoes. "Enough for a marriage of convenience, I suppose, but not one of love. Speaking of which," he arches an eyebrow at Georgi, "How goes your pursuit of the kitchen maid downstairs?"

His lovelorn friend lets out a deep sigh. "Horribly. She continues to spurn my every attempt."

"I don't know how you do it, Georgi. I can't imagine the pain you must feel each time."

"Oh but to see her face and be in her divine presence again, that far surpasses any pain I feel from her rejections. You would understand."

"What do you mean?"

Georgi halts suddenly and Viktor almost walks past him. The Earl's expression is tender as he gazes at Viktor, eyes filled with devoted piety. "I won't intrude into your private affairs and ask for details, but I've noticed you these days, Viktor. The agony within you, the anguish, it exudes from you in waves that would surely give painters and poets inspiration for days." He drops a hand on Viktor's shoulder. "You are in love, my friend, and I am happy for you, truly."

For a beat, Viktor doesn't know how to respond. He has always admired Georgi for his ardent and open courtship of a servant, and one of the lower ranked servants, no less. Even with the changing times, a relationship of such vast class difference is a shock to everyone across classes. Yet, the Earl has resolutely sat through ridicule and humiliation for his scandalous romance without turning a hair.

Viktor wishes he had the foresight to speak to Georgi about his own forbidden romance early on, though he can never be sure if his friend is open-minded enough to accept the extent of the illicitness. "To love is to be in pain?" the Duke settles on saying.

Georgi sighs again, gaze shifting to the star-studded sky. "Plaisir d'amour ne dure qu'un moment; chagrin d'amour dure toute la vie."

"The pleasure of love only lasts one moment; the pain of love lasts one's whole life." Viktor squeezes Georgi's shoulder. "How very poetic."

"All credit goes to the wonderful Jean Pierre Claris de Florian," Georgi says, smiling dolefully. "A pity Anya hates his works."

When they return to the house, they choose to stop by the drawing room to bid the others good night. Viktor immediately regrets the decision when he opens the door to reveal Yang singing verses in her native tongue on one of the sofas, slumped backwards in a rather unladylike manner. Feltsman looks as though he is about to combust, while Mila and Christophe sit on a different sofa, too disconcerted to act. Only Yura has a huge smirk on his face, clearly amused by the situation.

"I do believe I hear my chauffeur outside," Georgi says quickly. "Good night, everyone."

Traitor, thinks Viktor, as Yang lifts a gloved hand to wave at him. "Tovarishch," she giggles, "So glad you've returned to join us!"

Viktor freezes at the sound of a word he hasn't heard since childhood; a word that he despises with every fibre of his being. "What did you just call me?" he says in a low voice.

"I'm afraid Miss Yang's had a bit too much of the claret," Mila says primly. "Fortunately it started after most of the guests left."

"'Fortunately'?" Yura sniggers, "I think they've missed the highlight of the night!"

"The end of the monarchy is nigh," Yang proclaims, and the revelation of the truth behind Yang's polished veneer hits Viktor harder than a ton of bricks.

The Duke tosses a look of fury at Christophe, who shrugs sheepishly in return. If this is the price of irresponsibility, Viktor thinks it a miracle that he has managed to survive thus far with his own tendency for thoughtless action. Inhaling deeply, he nods at Mila. "Why don't we have one of the maids escort Miss Yang to a room? It's dangerous for her to leave in this state."

"Yes," Mila says, pressing a hand to her forehead, "Yes, of course, I should have thought of that. Feltsman – "

"Right away, m'lady," the butler says, exiting the room so quickly it looked as though he had performed a vanishing act.

"Equal rights for all nations," Yang crows from the sofa and Viktor feels a shudder of revulsion run up his spine.

"Christophe," he calls, flashing a row of white teeth, "Might I have a word?"

Christophe blanches. "Perhaps it'd be better if you calmed down – "

"We will talk now, Christophe."

Reluctantly, Christophe trails after Viktor into the library, fiddling restlessly with his jacket collar. "Viktor," he starts once the double doors are slid shut, but the Duke whirls on him first.

"You've been bringing a socialist into my house," Viktor snaps, stalking up to his friend and towering over the other man despite his shorter height. "When exactly were you planning to reveal this to me? After I've married that woman so it's too late to turn back?"

Christophe holds his hands out in defense. "All she does is attend meetings and recite socialist doctrines now and then. It's all very harmless, really…"

"They slaughtered children in cold blood, Christophe. An entire family, shot dead in the night."

"Now that's hardly fair, my friend, it's not like she's the one who held a gun to their heads. And I thought you should be pleased that she knows your native language – "

"She called me 'comrade'."

"I'm sorry?"

"She called me 'comrade'," Viktor hisses, eyes hard as diamonds. "Need I remind you the irony of a Romanov descendent being referred to as an ally by a Bolsheviks socialist?"

"Ah. Well," Christophe swallows, Adam's apple bobbing nervously, "In vino veritas, as they say."

"Well, za cyun v shopu, as they say."

"Er, I'm afraid I'm not familiar with that…"

"I will allow Miss Yang on this estate insofar as Mila wishes to continue their friendship," says Viktor, pulling away, "But let this be the end of your marriage scheme."

"Viktor, I don't think – "

"And that's just the problem, isn't it?" Viktor laughs bitterly. "You don't think. You claim to do this for my sake, my estate, yet you bring in a bride that's part of an organization actively seeking the destruction of our lot. As if the new Labour government isn't bad enough! Honestly, Christophe, are you so desperate to preserve the old ways that you've lost all your senses?"

The Marquess's cheeks are uncharacteristically flushed as he opens and closes his mouth like a goldfish, clearly struggling to find the words. Then, finally, he speaks, eyes darting to the ground. "I suppose I deserved that," he murmurs, shame-faced and sounding like a reprimanded child, "For deceiving you in this manner."

"For far more than that, I'd say."

There's a knock on the door and Feltsman's voice drifts through the hardwood. "I beg your pardon, your Grace, but Lord Giacometti's chauffeur has arrived."

Casting Christophe one last glare, Viktor straightens his dinner jacket and tie, before opening the door. "Could you send Leroy upstairs, please," he says stiffly as he strides past Feltsman to sweep up the spiral staircase, not waiting to hear the butler's response.


Sato no miyage ni, Nani morotta? (As a souvenir from her home, what did you get?)
Denden taiko ni, Shō no fue.
 (A rattle drum and a bamboo flute)


Viktor is still stewing in his fury as he makes his way towards his room. Yang's drunken words had called back thoughts of his wretched father – memories that trigger feelings of pure hatred buried deep within him. The Marquess must be out of his mind to think Viktor could ever overlook the lady's socialist principles –

Viktor barely has time to react before something – someone – steps out of the shadows and falls into him, the sudden impact driving him against the wall.

"There you are," Yang purrs, her breath smelling distinctly of alcohol.

"Miss Yang," Viktor gasps, feeling hands tug clumsily at the knot of his bowtie, "This isn't the guest wing."

"I know," she giggles drunkenly, leaning in close, "I was waiting for you."

"But the maid – "

"She took me to a guest room, but I snuck right back out." Yang pouts when Viktor grabs at her hands, yanking them off his collar. "You were ignoring me through most of the bazaar and dinner… that really hurt my feelings."

"I apologize," Viktor clenches his teeth in frustration, "But this is hardly the place or time – "

"I know how you can make it up to me," Yang breathes.

And then Viktor feels lips press against his, tasting a mixture of sweet claret and bitter lipstick even as his eyes widen in shock –

There's a light cough.

"I'm terribly sorry, but I was just leaving after dressing his lordship…"

No.

Viktor shoves Yang off him, not caring that Yang tumbles over feebly with a squeak; not caring that he, Lord Duke Viktor Nikiforov, had shoved a lady to the ground.

No, all he cares about is that his suit is rumpled, his bowtie is loose, and Yuuri – his darling, beloved solnyshko – had witnessed him kissing someone else in the dark, three doors away from his bedroom.

"Yuuri," Viktor pleads, "It's not what you think."

"Golly," Yang chimes in unhelpfully from where she's sprawled on the ground, "You even have a Japanese servant in your employment! Does your generosity for the Asian working class know no bounds?"

Yuuri visibly flinches and Viktor wishes he had a gag on hand. "Yuuri," Viktor tries again, "She was drunk – she is drunk – and I was caught completely unawares…" Panic surges in him at the blank look on Yuuri's face. He wishes his sunshine would have some reaction – any reaction. "Had I known she was going to do that, I would've stopped her, I would have – "

"I think you should tend to her, your Grace," Yuuri says quietly.

Ah, a response. A response is progress.

"But I must explain what happened."

"You don't have to explain anything to me."

"Yes, yes I do. I'm not letting you leave thinking that I fancy Miss Yang. Because I don't. In fact, I'd much rather be kissing – "

"Your Grace," Yuuri cuts in, eyes darting to Yang, "It doesn't matter what I think." His solnyshko smiles then, that beautiful face softening into such deep sadness that it rips through Viktor's heart. "After all, I'm just a fortunate working-class Asian, aren't I?"

Throat burning, Viktor reaches for Yuuri. "That's not – "

"Heigh ho, your Grace, your magnificent valet's here to dress you for bed!" Leroy announces cheerily.

Viktor wonders if the Gods above have it out for him as the idiot valet approaches them. At the sight of Yang, Leroy's face twists comically in confusion. "Wait, what's she doing here?" He glances over at Yuuri, expression twisting further. "And what is Katsuki doing here?"

Mentally, the Duke counts slowly to ten. "Leroy, take Miss Yang to her room in the guest wing," he instructs, "Then go downstairs and wait until I've rung for you."

"Oh," says Leroy, frowning. "But Mr. Feltsman said you wanted me upstairs, so I assumed – "

"You assumed right, Mr. Leroy," Yuuri says abruptly, chin lifting – and god does Viktor hate that mask on his beloved – "Go straight to his Grace's room for dressing after you've escorted Miss Yang."

"Yuuri," Viktor says sharply, ignoring Leroy's inquisitive look at the informality, "We're not done talking."

"Good night, your Grace. Mr. Leroy."

"Yuuri, please – "

Then, of course, his foolish, headstrong little solnyshko disregards him entirely and leaves, back straight as an arrow.

"Is he allowed to talk to you like that?" Leroy asks after a long pause. "Because that makes things easier for me if I can do that, too."

"Just… take Miss Yang back to her room. I will manage on my own tonight," Viktor says tightly.

"If that's what you wish, your Grace."

As the Duke wrenches open the door to his bedroom, he hears Leroy's grunt as he hauls the Chinese-born to her feet ("You're heavier than you look, mademoiselle Yang,"), and Yang's giggly remark about Leroy's "darling" French and very firm biceps.

This is wrong. This has all gone very wrong.

He's supposed to be coming up with a viable future for him and Yuuri so they can be together again, not dally about with some female revolutionary, much less be caught dallying about with said female revolutionary by his sunshine.

Viktor sits on the edge of his bed. Yuuri's right: it's far too big for one person.

"Empty without you," he murmurs, sliding a shaking hand across the pristine white sheets.

In that moment, in the responding silence, all his emotions crash down on him at once: the envy at his brother's relationship with Yuuri, the shock and rage at discovering Christophe's deceit, the pain of seeing the hurt in those wide, soulful eyes, hurt that he caused…

A soft voice whispers in the back of his mind, echoing in the deafening darkness.

"What can I do to help?"

Viktor presses his forehead to the sheets and cries.

Chapter Text

" I hate my father."

Viktor feels Yuuri shift against him, strands of hair tickling his chin with the motion. "That's not the kind of pillow talk I was expecting," the Japanese man mumbles sleepily.

" I'm sorry," Viktor chuckles, kissing the crown of dark hair tucked comfortably in the curve of his neck. "It's just, I thought about your stories of your father and wished I could've had the same experiences."

" Of my father embarrassing himself in public after overdrinking?" Viktor feels a puff of warm breath on his skin. "I doubt you'd want that."

" Oh I do," the Duke sighs, "I would much prefer that over a revolutionary who feels no love for anyone or anything but his own misguided beliefs."

" Well… I don't know if it's entirely misguided."

Viktor tenses, fingers digging deep into the slender waist lying atop his. "What are you saying? Surely you're not – "

" I'm not a socialist, you know that," Yuuri reaches up to cup a hand on Viktor's cheek and the Duke relaxes slowly. "I don't agree with the way your father treated you and your mother, either. But I'm also not a monarchist."

" What are you then?" Viktor murmurs.

I'm just… a pragmatist, I guess."

" What does that mean?"

" It means, as a working class citizen, I support any system that does right by me and my family." Yuuri pulls his hand away and raises himself up by the elbows. The covers fall from his shoulders, exposing sharp collarbones and love-marked skin, inch by agonizing inch. Even in the darkness, his solnyshko is a vision, his usual styled hair mussed by a round of lovemaking, brown eyes at half-mast. "Will you do me right?" he says in a low voice.

Viktor's eyes turn hazy with renewed desire. Mere weeks ago, Yuuri would have fled the room, beet red with embarrassment at his own audacity, but oh, for the Japanese man to speak vulgar innuendo with such ease now – his lover has emerged from his metamorphosis so very beautifully.

" Right and wrong and every possible way I can," the Duke breathes, before he curls a hand round the back of Yuuri's neck and surges upward to crush their mouths together.

Yuuri laughs into the kiss as he allows Viktor to tug him back down, pressing their heated bodies together and into the sheets. "You'd make a horrible politician."

" Then it's a good thing I'm not in politics," Viktor purrs against Yuuri's mouth, hands sliding down to the curves of his lover's behind.

They go for second round, and then a third before Yuuri leaves, when his sunshine does that ridiculous little hip wiggle as he pulls on his underpants.


Breakfast is a quiet affair. Mila and Yura have prudently chosen not to comment on the puffy redness of Viktor's eyes, the shadows of fatigue on his face. Viktor can see the questioning looks they exchange, the looks of concern, but he resolutely ignores it, focusing instead on forcing food down his throat.

A knock on the door breaks the terse silence. Feltsman opens it before he shortly announces, "Miss Isabella Yang."

Again, Viktor's siblings shoot piercing looks at him as Yang enters the room, still dressed in her clothes from last night. "Good morning," she says hesitantly.

"Good morning, Miss Yang," Mila replies brightly. "Would you like to join us for breakfast?"

"No, thank you. I'm afraid I've rather overstayed my welcome," Yang winces, glancing at Viktor. "I was only hoping to speak to Sir Viktor before I leave…"

Nodding, Viktor tosses the napkin on the table and rises to his feet. "Outside," he says curtly, sweeping past Yang and out of the dining room.

Yang follows after him, tugging nervously at her silk gloves. "I must apologize for my behavior last night…"

"What part of it, precisely?" Viktor says thinly.

Yang inhales, tugging once more at her gloves, before she straightens and meets Viktor's gaze evenly. "I will apologize for my impropriety, but not for my political inclinations."

"Of course you won't," Viktor sighs, turning to leave. "If that will be all – "

"Lord Giacometti warned me you might not approve," Yang says fiercely, "But I didn't realize it was to this extent. You must know that the world has no need of your kind any longer; a marriage with me would have helped you adapt to the changing times."

Three hours of poor sleep, drifting in and out of dreams and wistful memories, have not prepared him for a political debate, much less a burst of fury in the early morning. "You are here by the grace of my sister, Miss Yang, but not by mine," the Duke says through gritted teeth, "Never by mine."

Without waiting for a response, Viktor strides up the spiral stairs, barely containing his temper. Now that he is privy to Yang's true nature, his dislike for her has exponentially increased. "Adapt to the changing times", indeed. What is it about socialists and their infuriating sense of self-righteousness? His father always acted like he was right, even when he was very much in the wrong, and it is exactly that sort of arrogance that Viktor cannot tolerate.

He's so lost in irritation that he bumps his shoulder against someone, who releases a small noise of surprise.

"I'm so sorry…" Viktor pauses when he realizes that the person is Mila's lady's maid. He so rarely speaks to the maid directly that his sleep-deprived brain grasps at thin air for her name.

"Crispino, your Grace," the maid supplies after a moment.

"I do beg your pardon, Miss Crispino," Viktor replies smoothly.

Lips quirking, Crispino bobs in a tiny curtsy. "That's all right, your Grace. I'm sure you have a lot on your mind."

As the lady's maid continues her way down the stairs, a thought flashes through Viktor's head and he calls to her before he even realizes what he's doing. "Ah, Miss Crispino?"

Crispino looks up, blinking. "Yes?"

"As it happens, I do have a lot on my mind. Such as, well, how…" Yuuri is doing "… ah, my new valet fits in downstairs?"

"Mr. Leroy?" the maid says, eyebrows furrowing together. "Some of us feel he's a little full of himself, but we generally get along with him."

Viktor nods slowly. "Right…" Yuuri's name remains on the tip of his tongue, but this is Mila's maid, which means his sister is likely to find out that he has been asking after his former valet. Even if he swears Crispino to secrecy, her loyalty will understandably lie with her mistress. And yet, Viktor can't bring himself to step away; besides Chulanont, who doesn't want to indulge him in his wishes, and Yura, whom he has no intention to involve at all, the lady's maid may just be his last remaining window to Yuuri's current state of mind.

There's a long beat where Viktor struggles with his next move, before Crispino clears her throat. "Is this about Mr. Katsuki?" she asks delicately.

Viktor's eyes widen in surprise. "What makes you think that?"

"Her ladyship and I think he's the source of your recent moods," Crispino says, "If you'll forgive my impertinence for saying so, your Grace."

Mila did mention something to that effect. He could deny it, of course; attribute his moods to something else, something less damning.

But after last night, he needs to know.

"Since you brought it up, I haven't had a chance to speak with Yuu – " Viktor mentally lets out a swear word in his head, "– Katsuki properly these days and I wish to know how he's faring."

If Crispino caught the slip of tongue, she didn't show it. Instead, she gives him a look that is soft and filled the compassion. "He is unhappy," she says, "Terribly, terribly unhappy."

A flash of brown eyes; covers pooling around a lithe waist –

" Will you do me right?"

Exhaling, Viktor digs a palm in his eyes, hard, willing the visions away. It's memories like that that keep him up every night, enveloping him with guilt and misery. "Will you pass a message to him, please? Tell him that I…" never meant to hurt him; miss him; want him back in my arms "… I hope he can find happiness again."

"Is that all?"

Viktor drops his hand. "What?"

Crispino doesn't flinch or back down; even Baranovskaya's ferocity pales in comparison to the maid's blatant disregard for servant propriety. "I would think you have more to say, your Grace," she states firmly.

First Yang with her politics and now Crispino: who on earth decided women was the weaker sex?

"Miss Crispino," Viktor says quietly, "What are you implying?"

"Only that you and Mr. Katsuki should have more trust in the people around you. Like lady Mila, for example."

"Mila?" Viktor frowns, just as a sharp voice pierces into their conversation from the ground floor.

"Miss Crispino, lady Mila wants to see you in the library!"

"Coming, Mrs. Baranovskaya," Crispino calls. She flashes an apologetic smile at Viktor before she hurries down the steps, flying by the ascending Baranovskaya.

"Has she been bothering you, your Grace?" the housekeeper asks, lips pursed in perpetual expression of distaste.

"No," says Viktor, eyes following the small figure below as it traverses the front hall towards the library. "No, she hasn't. Could you let Leroy know that I will be resting in my room until luncheon? I'll ring if I need him."

"Certainly, your Grace."

Once in his room, Viktor sheds his clothes and slips under the covers, Crispino's words circling round and round in his mind. It's clear that she and Mila have been discussing his relationship with Yuuri enough to form assumptions about them – whatever those assumptions may be – but what could the lady's maid have meant by having more trust? How could placing more trust in Mila help him or his situation with Yuuri? What would that involve anyway; surely not telling Mila about his love for Yuuri?

Huffing at the absurdity of the idea, Viktor rolls to his side to reach for –

Yuuri as the other man curls into him, mumbling on and on about staying for 'just five more minutes' until Viktor has no choice but to silence him with more kisses

– cold, empty sheets.

Ah. Right.

He withdraws his arm, releasing a shaky breath. One thing is certain: if not heartbreak, he'll die from sheer exhaustion if he doesn't find a way to bring his beloved back into his life.


"So you really are in here," Yura declares.

Viktor looks up from his reading as Yura slides the doors shut behind him. "Were you looking for me?" he asks curiously.

"All over the bloody house," Yura flops onto the sofa next to Viktor, "Feltsman said you were in the library, but I never imagined that to be true."

"I do read now and then," Viktor smiles at the veiled insult, tucking a marker in his book before shutting it. "What did you want, Yura?"

"To talk about Yuuri."

For a whole week after that ghastly night with Yang, both his siblings have allowed him space to recover by leaving him to his own devices and waiting for him to initiate interactions. Viktor imagines Mila must have given Yura a stern talking to, because he cannot fathom his teenaged half-brother being in such fine control of his behavior. (Perhaps Crispino may have a point about trusting Mila more.)

It seems a week is the longest Yura's patience can last.

"What about him?" Viktor says calmly.

"Promise you won't go bonkers on me."

Viktor arches an eyebrow. "And why would I go bonkers?"

"Because Yuuri handed in his resignation."

It takes several seconds for Yura's words to fully register, before a sea of white emptiness rushes into Viktor's vision, crashing like a surging wave. The Duke feels his body slump forward, hears Yura's voice, but everything echoes and flickers around him like a scene in the moving pictures. Resignation has never been an option; it is not supposed to be an option. He knew that moment with Yang must have hurt Yuuri beyond reason, but he never expected such a drastic reaction. Then again, he never knows what to expect with his Yuuri.

Something like a sob, or maybe a scream, is trying to claw its away up his throat. How could Yuuri do this to him? How could his sunshine rip his soul to shreds so callously?

How could Yuuri expect him to go on living without him?

"tor, you still with me?"

"So he's gone?" Viktor whispers brokenly.

"I knew you'd slip into the deep end," Yura sighs.

Viktor feels the sofa shift, before a sharp blow lands on his left cheek, snapping his head to the side and his mind back to reality. When he turns back to face Yura, his brother is on his knees on the sofa, right hand raised high in the air.

"Now are you going to listen properly this time or do I get to slap you again?" says Yura, looking a little too gleeful about what he has just done.

Closing his eyes, Viktor takes a long, deep breath. Calm down, calm down. If Yura's still in good spirits, then Yuuri can't have left. Not yet, at least. (And he can and will dedicate his life to tracking his lover down till his last dying breath.) He reopens his eyes with a nod. "…I'm listening."

"You really think I'd let Yuuri go like that? When I've finally found a decent valet?" Yura sniffs, dropping back down to a sitting position, "No, I threw his notice straight in the fire. I've told Feltsman to give me any notices Yuuri tries to hand to him so they can suffer the same fate."

Color returns to the world as relief floods through Viktor; thank god for Yura's adolescent self-centeredness. "And if he just disappears in the night?"

"He's too dutiful to resort to that," Yura shrugs. "But more importantly," he adds, jabbing a finger in Viktor's face, "I'm telling you this because I think his notice has something to do with you."

"Me?" says Viktor casually.

Yura rolls his eyes to the ceiling. "Oh, please, save your pretending. You looked like you were about to hang yourself when you heard about Yuuri's resignation."

"I was only – "

"My grandpapa told me there are different kinds of love in this world," Yura continues, leaning back, hands clasped behind his head, "Love for family, for friends, for our pets... that it's not only romantic or sexual love that exists." He rolls his head to the side, green eyes piercing into Viktor's. "I bet grandpapa would also say that one can love one's servants."

Struck dumb, Viktor can only stare in return. Of all the things he expected, he never thought he would hear such words from his insensitive brother. Even if Yura hasn't exactly hit the nail on the head, he is so close to claiming acceptance of Viktor's relationship with Yuuri that ribbons of unbridled joy wash away the horror of hearing Yuuri's resignation. "Yura…"

"Look, I don't know what's going on between you and Yuuri, nor do I care," Yura sniffs, crossing his legs on the sofa in a most ungentlemanly manner, "But it's turning into a real nuisance for me. If I have to watch the two of you put on your bloody 'brave face' again, I might just have to slap you both. So for all our sakes, or at least mine, take Yuuri back as your valet already. Not completely, mind you, I still want him as my valet, so we'll just go back to our original – ack! What the hell do you think you're doing!?"

Viktor has moved before he can think, drawing Yura in a tight hug and ignoring the loud protests and flailing that result.

" You and Mr. Katsuki should have more trust in the people around you."

"I love you too, Yura," Viktor murmurs, tightening his grip.

There's a pause, before slowly, Yura stills in his arms. "So… you'll take him back?"

"It's not that simple."

"If you mean Leroy, just sack the buffoon already."

"I'd like my old valet back' is not an adequate enough reason."

"Ha, I can give you a hundred more."

Viktor chuckles lightly. "Just what is your beef with Leroy? I don't recall you interacting with him that much."

"Once was enough," Yura mutters with a shudder.

"Besides, it wouldn't be fair to dismiss him quite so soon after hiring him. We have a duty to do right by our employees."

"Do right by our employees?" Yura's eyes slant. "Is that woman rubbing off on you?"

"Not Miss Yang," Viktor says, lips curving at the memory of Yuuri hovering over him, glowing with radiance in the darkness, "Definitely not Miss Yang." He pulls away then, lifting a hand to ruffle Yura's hair as he always did when they were younger. "Leroy isn't the only factor anyway."

"Stop that, I'm not a child anymore," Yura swats at Viktor's hand, the familiar scowl returning to his face. "Whatever it is, figure it out. Knowing you two, you're probably just complicating things for no good reason."

Viktor lowers his head, laughing. "Probably."

He still has so much ground to cover – not to mention the yelling he's going to do about that resignation stunt when, if, he and Yuuri make up – but it's the first time in a while since he's felt even just a sliver of happiness.

He has been so preoccupied with what he lost that he had entirely neglected what he had.

"I feel like we haven't had a proper chat in ages," Viktor says, face softening into a smile. "Tell me about your week."

Yura blinks, and grins. "All right."


For the first time in a while, Christophe decides to host dinner at his country house – a final hurrah before he sells it away and moves into his smaller, more affordable London home.

Viktor isn't surprised to see Yang mingling among the guests – Christophe is a firm believer of maintaining every connection in his address book – but he takes care to maneuver about the drawing room in a manner that allows him to avoid the political woman. Though Mila has continued to entertain Yang at their estate, Viktor has always found something to do in that time, either out riding on his horse or taking a slow walk through the village.

Unfortunately, there's only so much one can do to avoid a person in an enclosed space for too long, so Viktor is relieved when Georgi finally arrives – and then intrigued, when he sees a handsome young foreigner trailing in after his old friend. The stranger's military cut, hard features, and stiff gait suggest the career and personality of a seasoned soldier, and Viktor wonders how the romantically-inclined Georgi would have met a person of such a hardened nature.

"Ah, Sir Viktor," Georgi says, smiling as Viktor approaches. "Allow me to introduce Sir Otabek Altin. His father is an official in the Kazakh – ah, government," Georgi coughs surreptitiously. "Sir Otabek, this is one of my oldest friends, his Grace, the Duke of Sheffield, Viktor Nikiforov."

Otabek clicks his heels together and bows sharply. "It is a pleasure to meet you, Duke."

"A pleasure to meet you as well, Sir Otabek," Viktor dips his head in greeting. "I can't say I'm familiar with your country. Are you in civil service as well?"

"No, I'm a lawyer, actually."

"That's how we met," Georgi chimes in. "My family has been keen on tying up my inheritance ever since they heard about my undying love for Anya. Sir Otabek has been a most kind mediator throughout the whole ghastly process."

"I was only doing my job," Otabek notes modestly. "And I quite enjoyed the verbal sparring with Lord Popovich's grandmother."

Viktor raises his glass of scotch. "Then I shall know who to call if I'm ever in need of legal assistance."

"Dear god," says Yura, nudging his way into the conversation, glowering, "Would you believe that socialist woman's gotten even worse since the last time we saw her? It's like she lost all her filters along with her marbles."

"One shouldn't use the lord's name in vain, Lord Yuratchka," Georgi chides.

"Well one was just trapped in a neverending lecture about women's suffrage, so one will use whatever the hell name one wants."

Otabek lets out a quiet snort.

Yura's green eyes flick over, narrowing. "And you are?"

"Otabek Altin," Otabek responds smoothly. "You don't support women's suffrage, Lord Yuratchka?"

"I think women can do whatever they want," Yura shrugs, "Just so long as they don't bloody preach my ears off about it."

"Hm," says Otabek, and Victor sees the hint of a smile on the stoic features for the first time that evening, "Fair enough."

"Dinner is ready, Lord Giacometti," the butler announces near the door.


Dear god, thinks Viktor, as Yang's voice continues to drift over the dinner table. Yura isn't exaggerating about the loss of her filters. The woman has taken command of the dinner conversation, which in itself is a travesty, but people are far too shocked by her words to react.

"… and for that matter, I don't see why property should come into play. In fact, I would argue that the woman with the least amount of property and hardly a penny to her name has the greatest right to a vote!"

"I don't disagree with you, Isabella," Mila says quietly from the other end of the table, "But there is a time and place to talk about such matters."

"For goodness sake, Mila, it's 1925," Yang laughs, "Surely anything goes at the dinner table by now. Did you know that America has allowed full suffrage for women since 1920? Five years, five whole years! Must the continent always lag behind foreigners when it comes to treating our people right?"

"So go to America then, if you like it so much," Yura huffs several seats away from Viktor.

"Oh it's very tempting, but I believe I can make a greater difference here. Perhaps you would best understand that, Sir Otabek, given that your father serves in the Soviet Republic."

Viktor's eyebrows shoot up and he turns to the Kazakh man sitting next to him. He is surprised, not only by the fact that Yang knows Otabek, but that Otabek may be a socialist. Perhaps he ought to start familiarizing himself with the politics of Kazakh.

"I'm afraid I may not be the best comparison, Miss Yang, as my country's alliance with the Bolsheviks was not by choice," Otabek says, expression unreadable.

"But surely – "

"Miss Yang," Christophe cuts in suddenly, the corner of his smile twitching slightly. "Much as we appreciate your passion for the downtrodden, I would like to note that I am losing the home that I have lived in for my whole life because of the new reforms, so I hope you might respect me enough to leave aside your politics for tonight?"

Yang has the sense to finally cease then, and the murmurs of conversation resume after a brief pause.

"I struggle to understand why Christophe keeps her in his address book," Viktor sighs, reaching out to take a drink of claret. "How can she hope to open people's eyes with such an obnoxiously self-righteous attitude?"

"Perhaps Lord Giacometti enjoys her fire," Otabek states, dark eyes shifting over to Yura.

Following Otabek's line of sight, Viktor smiles behind his wine glass. "And does that draw you as well?"

"I fought for my country before the surrender," Otabek says, lips quirking as Yura rolls his eyes at something his conversation partner is saying, "So I greatly appreciate a person with spirit."

Having had to read social cues from men for most of his life, Viktor would consider his radar fairly accurate, especially when a misinterpretation could so easily lead to an entire gamut of social and legal consequences.

And his radar is now screaming that Otabek Altin is smitten.

Though Yura is not quite as easy to read, his real emotions hidden beneath the thick cloud of anger and bluster, Viktor does know that his lonely half-brother could do with more friends.

"How would you like to visit my estate this Saturday?" Viktor suggests lightly. "You could stay the night and go shooting or hunting the next day if you so choose."

"I'm not very adept at either of those, I'm afraid."

"Perhaps Yura can assist you then. Hunting happens to be one of my brother's favourite outdoor activities."

Otabek arches an eyebrow. He glances at Yura again. And then, slowly, his lips curve into an almost imperceptible smile. "I would like that, thank you, Sir Viktor."

After all that Yura has done for him and Yuuri so far, one good deed deserves another.