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Falling (Victor's Story)

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Yakov,

Greetings from Hasetsu! The building on the front of this postcard is a NINJA CASTLE. Isn’t that amazing?? I’ve met the nicest people here. So many fans, too!

When are you coming to visit? I think I’m getting the hang of this coaching thing, but I do have some questions for you. Is your phone number still the same? I tried calling a few times but no answer.

Running out of space to write! Talk to you soon!

Victor

 


 

Every morning at precisely 6 o’clock, Makkachin woke Victor up with a polite woof and waited for his master to dress, grab a leash, and take him outside for their daily walk. Those quiet moments, spent standing at the top of a hill with his best puppy friend—leash in hand and a cool ocean breeze blowing his hair back from his face—made Victor fall deeper in love with the country of Japan than he already was.

This was his favorite part about living here. The morning sky. Overhead, it transitioned from a sleepy, muted purple to a radiant blue that would soon overtake the rest. Hasetsu was always beautiful, no matter the hour, but in the morning, the view stole his breath away.

“Ohayō gozaimasu!” Victor called to the man fishing on the bridge.

“Ohayō!” the fisherman responded in kind, then laughed and waved a hand of appreciation. Makkachin’s barking had inspired a trio of seagulls to take flight and abandon their plot of stealing the fisherman’s morning catch.

Victor had been living at Yu-topia with the Katsuki family for more than a month now. Since this wasn’t his first visit to the country, having traveled here several times for competitions in past years, he had already known he loved its beautiful landscape, quiet traditions, delicious food, and friendly people. But what Victor didn’t anticipate was how the place would creep into his bones and slow his footsteps. Perhaps it was the ever-present sound of the gentle ocean surf or the quiet descent of springtime cherry blossoms to the earth, but there was something about Hasetsu that made Victor want to stop and savor every moment. It made him realize how often he’d neglected to do so for many years now.

When Victor returned to Yu-topia, Makkachin’s leash slipped from his fingers. The dog had spotted Hiroko, who was unloading crates of fresh produce from the back of a truck, and bounded over to wish her an enthusiastic good morning.

“Vicchan, ohayō!” Hiroko called as Makkachin nosed at her fingers. Yuuri’s mother did not speak much English, but that had never stopped her from doing everything in her power to make Victor feel at home.

He helped her carry a few crates into the kitchen before sitting down at her insistence to enjoy a hot breakfast. Every morning, she made green tea special for him, today infused with a hint of a floral aroma that Victor couldn’t place. Then came the delicious food—miso soup, along with a bowl of steaming-hot white rice and natto served with an egg on top.

Victor was immediately transported to heaven, just from the smell alone. But the feeling of warmth he got in his belly from having this beautiful, kind mother serve him breakfast . . . that was the best thing of all.

“Itadakimasu,” Victor sang and took his time savoring the meal.

It was then, holding that warm bowl in his hand, that he decided he was wrong about the morning sky being his favorite thing about Hasetsu. No, it was this. This simple homemade meal. Victor had dined at Michelin-starred restaurants across the world, but nothing could compare to the love and years of slowly-refined talent he could taste in every bite.

It seemed a shame that someone was still upstairs in his bed, missing this.

When Victor was done eating, Mari came in with a tired but friendly smile to take his dishes. “Good morning,” she said in accented English. Her foreign language skills were more developed than her mother’s, but Mari was still only able to have the most basic conversations with Victor. “Yuuri still sleeping?”

Victor returned her smile and nodded. It was a running joke between them. The whole family had been awake and working since dawn, but Yuuri would remain in his room until the sun was high in the sky. He probably hadn’t even gone to bed until just a few hours ago. Perhaps his internal clock had never readjusted after living in Detroit, but sometimes Victor couldn’t help but wonder if Yuuri might be avoiding him.

After breakfast, with his heart and belly filled to the brim with the joy of the morning, Victor went to Yuuri’s bedroom door. His heartbeat skipped ahead of itself as he knocked.

After all this time, he still got nervous. . .

“Yuuri,” Victor said. “It’s a gorgeous day outside. Wake up, and come enjoy it with me!”

But even with Makkachin’s help, which came in the form of an imploring bark and a snuffle at the crack of the door, Yuuri did not respond to Victor’s invitation. He supposed he shouldn’t be surprised. It wasn’t the first time he’d knocked at this door with the offer of friendship on his lips, only to walk away disappointed soon thereafter.

“I guess I’ll see you later at practice, then?” Victor said eventually, his heart sinking as his fingertips slid down the door. “Yuuko put us down on the Ice Castle schedule for 10:00 AM sharp.”

“Okay.” Yuuri’s groggy voice came from inside the room. It sounded like he was face down in his pillow. “See you then.”

And therein lay the one concern Victor had about his new life in Hasetsu. It was the only thing that made him feel at all unsettled.

He wasn’t sure if Yuuri wanted him here.

 


 

It was a silly thought to have, really.

Deep down, Victor knew it wasn’t true.

At the Onsen on Ice exhibition, Yuuri had fought hard to win the opportunity to call Victor his coach for the season. That battle had cleared up any lingering doubt that Yuuri did indeed want Victor there in Hasetsu, and he continued to prove that every day by pushing himself harder than the last. He also showed his dedication by practicing off-hours, being diligent with his cardio and strength-training routines, and minding his diet so that he would be in top physical condition when competitions started later this year.

However, Victor still felt something vital was missing in their relationship. He wanted to understand Yuuri. How could he call himself a true coach if he didn’t? How could he help Yuuri find his way to success when he didn’t know where to start?

Victor wanted to be Yuuri’s friend—or at least, be his something—but so far, all he felt was confused about his place in Yuuri’s life.

“Mind your posture,” Victor said. His voice echoed across the Ice Castle rink, where Yuuri was practicing a spread-eagle entry into a triple axel. While it was a difficult entry into a difficult jump, Yuuri should have mastered the maneuver weeks ago, but he was still struggling to polish it to perfection. “Think more ‘princely’ and less ‘little piggy.’”

But even with that helpful analogy (which Victor was rather proud of), Yuuri’s posture got even worse after the feedback was given. On his next attempt of the jump, he almost didn’t get the extra half rotation in and barely caught himself before he fell.

And it puzzled Victor, to be honest.

Yuuri had performed this very same spread-eagle into a triple axel at the Onsen on Ice exhibition. It was the opening jump of his Eros routine, and while it was true that it had been less than perfect at the exhibition, Yuuri was not improving. If anything, it was getting worse, and Victor didn’t understand why.

“Sorry,” Yuuri said, his eyes aimed downward.

“Where’s your focus today? Try again.”

“Hai.”

When Yuuri skated back to the opening position, it was obvious he was trying to be mindful of his posture, but the end result was still lacking. His heart was simply not in it today.

It was difficult for Victor to feel cross with Yuuri, even after he had shown up 27 minutes late for practice and kept him waiting. Yuuri was penitent and apologetic when he messed up. His problem wasn’t a lack of caring or respect for his coach’s time. Victor wasn’t even convinced anymore that this was just a confidence issue. Something deeper was going on with Yuuri that Victor couldn’t put his finger on, and that was what sometimes frustrated him—that he wasn’t allowed to get close enough to understand the situation in order to better help Yuuri overcome it.

Though they’d lived under the same roof for weeks now, Yuuri was still a mystery to him. A beautiful dark-eyed enigma. He was also a walking contradiction, being surprisingly stubborn for someone who claimed to have no confidence.

Stop, stop.” Victor said the words a full three seconds before Yuuri tried the triple axel again. Even before he left the ice, it had been obvious from the positioning of his feet that he wouldn’t land the jump. Victor wasn’t surprised when Yuuri fell a moment later and slid to a graceless halt dangerously close to the barrier. “Are you all right?”

The question came out a little harsher than he intended.

He wasn’t angry that Yuuri had messed up the jump. It had become clear that he was just having a bad day—and who didn’t from time to time? But Yuuri hadn’t listened when Victor had said Stop, and a three-second warning was plenty of time to prevent a bad fall. Yuuri had made a conscious decision to attempt the jump anyway and could have potentially hurt himself in the process.

It was the lack of trust between them. Trust and communication.

That was what bothered Victor.

Thankfully, Yuuri didn’t appear to be injured from the fall. He got to his knees and clapped his gloved hands together to knock off the wet ice. It seemed he hadn’t heard Victor’s question. “Sorry,” Yuuri said again, sounding even more discouraged than before. He looked terribly embarrassed as he got to his feet. “I’ll do it right this time.”

“No, let’s move on to something else,” Victor suggested, tapping a finger to his lips. “Something you’re more comfortable with.”

It’s what Yakov would have said.

Whenever Victor felt like he was failing over and over again at something, Yakov would always tell him to work on something else he was good at to give him a boost of confidence. It never failed that when Victor went back to whatever jump or move that had brought him so much frustration before, he had a much easier time mastering it. The mind was a powerful thing.

But the problem was Victor didn’t understand Yuuri’s mind. It didn’t work like his own, and it puzzled him even more than he already was when Yuuri seemed hurt by his suggestion. He came to an abrupt stop with his shoulders visibly tensed. He looked like Victor had just told him to give up skating entirely.

“But I can do it,” Yuuri said, his hands balled into fists. His expression was stricken, but his frustration wasn’t aimed at Victor. It was turned inward at himself. “Just let me try one more—”

“We’ll come back to it later,” Victor assured him. “Let’s move on to your step sequence for now.”

Again . . . it’s what Yakov would have said. Yuuri’s step sequences were among his chief strengths. What better way to rebuild his confidence than to direct his path toward something he’d succeed at?

But it didn’t work out that way. Not even a little.

Yuuri’s remaining confidence leaked out of him like his skin was made of mesh, and he never did recover it that day. Victor watched helplessly as Yuuri struggled through the rest of the practice, looking more and more frustrated by the second. Had Victor chosen his words poorly? Had he not explained his reasoning well enough? Was it a problem with the language barrier? But no matter what he said to try to make it better—even kind, encouraging words meant to offer the reassurance that everyone had a bad day sometimes—Yuuri had slipped somewhere beyond his reach.

Eventually, Victor made the decision to end practice early, and he didn’t see it as a bad thing. Maybe they could do something fun and get Yuuri’s mind in a better place.

“Let’s go get some lunch together,” Victor suggested with a bright smile. “My treat. And maybe afterward, take Makkachin into town? It’s such a nice day today.”

It was the kind of distraction Yakov would have encouraged.

So why wasn’t it working with Yuuri?

Yuuri’s answering smile was equal parts sweetness and evasiveness. “Thanks for the invitation, but I have some things to do this afternoon.”

Even then, knowing Yuuri was upset with himself, Victor didn’t fully grasp how much he was truly struggling inside. How could he, when Yuuri was so good at smiling when his heart was covered in bruises? No, that realization happened later.

Victor had already packed up his things and left the rink by himself, since Yuuri had declined his invitation to walk him to his next destination. But then Victor had remembered something he wanted to tell Yuuri and doubled back to the Ice Castle. However, when Victor pushed open the double glass doors leading out to the rink, he stopped dead in his tracks.

Yuuri had vanished. Two minutes ago, he had been at the barrier, sliding the guards onto his skates and smiling while he told Victor for the third time not to wait up. Two minutes ago, Victor had thought everything was fine, and that Yuuri understood why they’d scrapped today’s practice—that it wasn’t because Victor was disappointed in him or because he thought Yuuri was wasting his time. No, they had called it a day because Yuuri needed to take a deep breath and stop beating himself up. He could do that stupid jump with his eyes closed. He just needed to come back to it tomorrow. But it seemed that message had gotten lost somewhere.

Still standing in the doorway, Victor couldn’t see Yuuri anywhere . . . but he could hear the crying.

It was a soft sobbing—the kind people do when they don’t want anyone to hear. Little more than sharp, descending breaths muffled by the spread of fingers. Yuuri was probably hiding somewhere behind the barrier, sitting on the ground with his back to the rink and his face in his hands, and just the sound of it and the mental images it evoked absolutely broke Victor’s heart.

He had no idea what to do. He’d never been good at dealing with this kind of thing, but this was even worse than his normal ineptitude. Yuuri was hiding from him. What if Victor made it even worse? It’s not like anything he’d tried so far had worked.

Was giving Yuuri privacy the right choice here—or was it wrong to walk away and leave him?

In the end, it was Yuuko who helped him make the decision. She came up behind Victor and put a hand on his arm to stop him from going inside. When he looked at her with questioning eyes, she shook her head and whispered, “I’ll go check on him in a few minutes. Don’t worry. Sometimes he just gets too much noise in his head and has to let it out.”

“Noise?” Victor whispered back, not understanding.

But at the same time, Yuuko’s words did make a certain amount of sense. Sometimes it felt like Yuuri couldn’t hear him. Were his thoughts so loud at times that they deafened him to everything else?

Yuuko encouraged Victor to go home and promised she would look after Yuuri. So that’s what he did. But Yuuri didn’t return to Yu-topia at lunchtime, nor did he appear at dinner that night. Victor ate alone and bathed by himself in the onsen, and when he retired to his bedroom, he was painfully aware of Yuuri’s empty room just a short distance from his own.

Where was he?

Yuuko had texted him a few hours ago and said Yuuri was still at the Ice Castle. Victor had the worst feeling he was still practicing that damn jump, even after his coach had told him he needed to take a step back. Victor wished he could talk to Yakov and get his advice.

He bit his lower lip and stared down at his cell phone screen, which had his call history displayed. He’d called Yakov four times today, and every attempt had gone unanswered. There were other calls listed there as well, stretching back weeks—all of them outbound and not a single inbound call from Yakov to Victor.

That was odd.

As Victor turned the screen of his phone off, a powerful loneliness rose up inside of him. It made him feel strangely small. Younger than he actually was. Like a little boy who had let go of an adult’s hand, run away, and gotten himself lost in a strange place.

The people of Hasetsu had been wonderful to him. He knew he wasn’t alone here, and there were others he could talk to or rely on if he needed them. Even the ever-evasive Yuuri normally spent a good amount of each day at Victor’s side—at minimum, sharing meals and practice time on the ice with him. But ever since leaving Saint Petersburg, Victor felt a lack of foundation beneath him. He had no deep, lasting ties to Yuuri or his family. There was no blood relation between them or years of friendship in their history.

Here, Victor was just a visiting coach. A temporary guest passing by.

This bothered him because he had a very different kind of relationship with his own coach. Yakov was Victor’s family. He knew everything about him—the good and the bad and all the ridiculous things in between—and maybe that was why Victor was struggling so much to understand why Yuuri wouldn’t let him in. Victor wanted to be his coach.

Did Yuuri have any idea what being a coach meant to Victor? It meant being Yuuri’s family.

In Sochi, when Yuuri had said those three magical words—“Be My Coach”—Victor had been unspeakably flattered because he thought it was an offer to engage in a very lasting and personal relationship with Yuuri. He had thought Yuuri was telling him he wanted Victor as a confidant, ally, and friend. He’d thought Yuuri was inviting him into his family—that he held Victor in such high esteem that he wanted him to be his “Yakov.”

Except younger and with better hair and far superior taste in clothing and much, much more pleasant to look at. And talk to. And be around in general.

Anyway, the analogy had made sense at the time.

Victor did a lot of thinking that night, sitting on the bed with his legs crossed beneath him and Makkachin draped across his lap. He combed his fingers through thick curls of fur and tried to think of a reason why Yakov might not be answering his calls.

He had asked Yuri Plisetsky if Yakov had perhaps changed his phone number and forgotten to share it, to which Yuri responded: no he just doesnt want to talk to you so stop calling him already. it puts him in a bad mood and i get yelled at enough.

But that couldn’t be right. Yakov must have accidentally blocked Victor’s number or something like that. Maybe he should try reaching out to him through e-mail instead. He had so many questions about what to do with Yuuri. They just kept piling up.

Victor was already in bed with the lights out by the time Yuuri came home. He wasn’t asleep though, and heard the quiet tiptoeing on the tatami mats in the hall, as well as the soft opening and closing of Yuuri’s bedroom door. Victor almost got out of bed and went to him, but he ultimately stayed where he was because he didn’t know what to say.

“Shhh,” he whispered to Makkachin, coaxing him back down beside him in the bed. The dog had perked up when he’d heard Yuuri’s footfalls. “Let him get some sleep. Everything seems more complicated than it actually is when it’s dark outside. Morning has a way of simplifying things.”

Yakov used to say that, too.

 


 

As it turned out, he was right.

The next day, Victor woke up feeling much more optimistic. He had a bright smile on his face as he dressed and wished Yuuri’s father, Toshiya, a very good morning when they encountered each other downstairs. Victor’s mind was full of possibilities when he took Makkachin on his morning walk.

During practice today, he and Yuuri were going to conquer that jump. They were going to break it down into pieces and figure out where exactly Yuuri felt less than confident. From there, they could put together a set of repetitive drills to work through that weakness and make it strong.

When Victor returned to Yu-topia after the walk, he was so excited that he rushed right up to Yuuri’s room to share this plan with him. Only Yuuri wasn’t there. His bedroom door was slightly ajar, and it was as quiet as a photograph inside. A scene frozen in time.

Victor pushed the door further open and peered in. Though he’d seen the inside of Yuuri’s bedroom before, he’d never been invited past the threshold. It was even smaller than Victor’s room and could honestly do with a bit of decoration to make the space seem more welcoming. (Perhaps some artwork or posters on the empty walls?)

All the same, there were little touches of Yuuri’s presence here and there that made Victor miss him. A piece of paper with his careful handwriting, left slightly askew on the desk, and the rumbled pillow on the hastily-made bed. Yuuri’s scent, in particular, tickled Victor’s senses and made his legs go a bit wobbly. It took him a few moments to remember what he was doing there and realize Yuuri must have risen and left the house while Victor was still on his morning walk with Makkachin.

Since when did Yuuri get out of bed at this hour?

They weren’t booked to practice at the Ice Castle until later that day, but Victor had an inkling that was exactly where he would find his missing protégé. After eating a quick breakfast, he grabbed his things and hurried to the ice skating rink.

“Is he here?” Victor said to Yuuko when he walked through the front door.

She was filling out paperwork at the desk and greeted him with a smile, her dark brown eyes warming as she nodded. “Go see for yourself. He worked hard last night.”

Worked hard at what?

Even though he’d been so optimistic that morning, Victor wasn’t smiling when he pushed open the doors to the rink and looked inside. He wasn’t sure what he was going to find. Would Yuuri still be upset? Did he know Victor heard him crying yesterday?

What on earth was he supposed to say to Yuuri after all that?

As expected, Yuuri was out on the ice, and judging from the color staining his cheeks, he’d already gone through his warm up routine and had moved on to more complicated maneuvers. He didn’t seem to notice Victor at first—and perhaps that’s why Yuuri looked more confident than he had since drinking two bottles of champagne in Sochi last December. Either way, his gaze was full of steel and determination as he performed a spread-eagle into a triple axel—and absolutely nailed it.

It was perfect.

His posture, the takeoff, the sure-footed landing. All of it.

And best of all was the satisfying slap of Yuuri’s skates on the ice, which meant the landing was solid. There wasn’t a competitive skater on the planet that didn’t love that sound.

Victor’s eyes widened, and he stepped into the room, letting the double glass doors close behind him. He marched straight for the opening in the barrier, dropped his bag, and stepped out on the ice without putting his skates on first. It made approaching Yuuri a little challenging, but Victor didn’t care. He just kept walking and eventually Yuuri took notice of him. He stopped in place and looked somewhat alarmed when he saw his coach’s attention honing in on him.

As soon as he was close enough, Victor gathered Yuuri up into his arms and hugged him tight, chest to chest.

Yuuri let out a gasp and went rigid with surprise. Eventually, he managed to sputter, “V-Victor?”

“That was perfect,” Victor said softly, his eyes squeezed shut. “Yuuri, you’re amazing.”

It’s what Yakov wouldn’t have said.

But maybe that was okay. Yakov wasn’t here to give his advice, but Victor was and this was what was in his heart to tell Yuuri. Surely he couldn’t go wrong if he spoke from his heart, right?

A shiver went through Yuuri’s small, warm body, and that just made Victor want to hug him tighter. How many hours had Yuuri spent practicing that move last night? Yuuri must have dried yesterday’s tears and gotten right back on his feet. He had turned his frustration into determination, and even though Victor would have chosen a different path (one that was much kinder, in his eyes), Yuuri had gotten the job done on his own.

Victor might not understand Yuuri, but at that moment, it dawned on him that Yuuri understood himself just fine. And to be honest, it scared him a little.

Because he already knew what to do. What to work on. How to accomplish it. And he had proven that he could do it without Victor. That meant his role here in Yuuri’s life was even more diminished than what he first feared. It meant Victor wasn’t even his coach. Not really. He was just his choreographer and onsen buddy—and also the weird Russian guy that sometimes gave him awkward hugs that lasted too long.

And that . . . that lack of something . . .

Purpose. Significance. Meaning to another living, breathing being other than his dog.

. . . that was terrifying.

But maybe Victor could give him this—an embrace and a “well done”—and hope Yuuri would be okay with him staying here anyway.

 


 

From: v-nikiforov@mail.ru
To: yakov.feltsman@mail.ru

Hi, how are you?? It’s been so long since we’ve talked that I’ve lost count of the days. Did you get the postcard I sent a few weeks ago? The one with the ninja castle. I hope it didn’t get lost. Yuuri’s sister, Mari, suggested the Hasetsu Castle ninjas might have stolen it, but I think she’s just messing with me.

(She’s just messing with me, right?)

(Do ninjas steal mail to keep their location a secret? Is that a thing? Yuuri won’t tell me.)

Anyway, I mentioned on the postcard that I have some coaching questions for you. Yuuri’s doing great. He really is the best student and gives it his all, but sometimes I don’t know what to say when he’s feeling discouraged. He’s different from me, so the things you used to say to encourage me don’t often work on him. He struggles with confidence, and there’s something else on top of it. A lack of trust between us, maybe? I don’t know. It’s hard to explain.

I guess I just don’t understand what he wants me to be to him. Does that make sense, or is that a stupid question for a coach to ask? Like we show up to practice every day, but there’s nothing else except skating. I do think he wants me to be his coach, but it’s like we have different ideas about what that means.

What should I do? If you could give me a call sometime, I’d love to talk to you about it.

How is everyone in Saint Petersburg doing? Georgi, and Mila, and Yuri?  Everyone here calls Yuri “Yurio” because it got too confusing with the other Yuuri. He hates it. Isn’t that hilarious?

Hey, did you know you can make a ninja with text art???

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Or maybe that’s a hockey player or Tiger Woods, I don’t know.

Can’t wait to hear from you! Better yet, come visit me in Hasetsu!

Victor

 


 

In a quiet room at Yu-topia was a shrine built to a beloved pet.

It was the family shrine, actually—a butsudan, Hiroko called it with a reverent smile—but Victor came to associate it with Yuuri’s dog, perhaps because of the pair of tags from his collar displayed on the shelf next to a framed picture of him with Yuuri.

Victor went there sometimes in search of Makkachin, who was often drawn to the room for unknown reasons. It was a peaceful place with sunlight angling through the window and painting a broad rectangle of light on the floor. Victor would sometimes sit there quietly with Makkachin at his side and look up at the picture of Yuuri as a child, hugging his own dog.

Victor knew that as a boy, Yuuri had named his dog after his figure skating idol. Oh, he had thought when he saw his own name on those dog tags on the shelf—and left it at that.

The whole family referred to the pet as Vicchan, but that was also what Hiroko called Victor from the very first moment she’d recognized him. It was as if that nickname had belonged to him first before it was gifted to another in his honor.

And it was probably stupid. . .

No, it was definitely stupid.

But sometimes Victor felt like the other Vicchan had brought him here. Not just to this quiet room with the incense smoke curling like ribbons in the air. But to Japan.

To Yuuri.

Like maybe after he passed away during the Grand Prix Final last December, little Vicchan had known how much his death would hurt his master. Maybe he had watched Yuuri crash and burn afterward. Maybe he had been the one to put the thought into Victor’s head: Take care of him. He still needs a Vicchan.

Or maybe Victor just wanted to be needed.

That was probably more likely.

But he liked to imagine that it was Vicchan the puppy that drew Makkachin to this room day after day, where Victor would find him staring up at that picture as attentively as he might if it was speaking to him. After leaving this room, Makkachin often went in search of Yuuri and licked his face until he got him laughing and smiling.

Yes, it was a stupid thought. Perhaps the most ridiculous he’d ever had.

But it made Victor wonder sometimes.

 


 

His friendship with Yuuri developed slowly, like little droplets of water falling one by one into a bucket, eventually filling it up until it could no longer be blown over by a gust of wind.

First came the familiarity of routine, as Yuuri grew used to having Victor as a constant in his everyday life—in his home, at the family dinner table, next to him in the onsen. Along with that awkward phase came small talk—simple inquiries about the other person’s day or perhaps a funny anecdote leading into a recollection of the past. They got to know each other in this way, like passing strangers at a coffee shop who knew each other’s names and enough information to ask about family members and jobs.

Slowly, those shallow conversations added up into a general understanding of the other person. Victor could more or less read between the lines now when Yuuri talked to him. He knew just how hard to push to make Yuuri blush. (And God help him, he loved making Yuuri blush.) He now better understood what made Yuuri hurry off to his room and slam the door. (Victor didn’t like that as much.)

He’d also figured out how to make Yuuri smile.

“I love Japan,” Victor might say. “I’m so glad I came.”

Without fail, it worked. Yuuri’s face would light up, and he would smile so beautifully that Victor would at once start plotting to make it happen again.

While Yuuri enjoyed receiving compliments, they also made him self-conscious enough that he might run away altogether. But that was not the case when Victor complimented Yu-topia or Hiroko’s cooking or Japan in general. Yuuri always smiled then, and Victor liked to imagine it was because Yuuri wanted him to enjoy his stay here. Because as long as Victor loved Japan and everything in it, that meant he would be happy to remain there with Yuuri.

Little by little, their shallow conversations began to slip into the deeper end of the pool.

They often chatted while bathing in the onsen, with the stars overhead blurred by steam rising like ghosts of the past off the water. There was something about shedding their clothes and getting chin-deep in the hot springs that loosened their tongues and got them talking.

Yuuri would tell Victor stories about growing up in Hasetsu, and even without his glasses on, he would stare up at the sky. He often got nostalgic during these conversations, like seeing the same constellations he gazed at as a child had brought him right back to those days.

He would talk about crowded holiday weekends at Yu-topia and how he used to wish they had a normal family home without a hot springs resort attached to it. He told Victor funny stories about onsen guests, particularly the foreign ones who couldn’t read the signs, and how a few got lost in the house with nothing but soggy towels clutched to their waists. And then there was the time when a two-year-old Yuuri had accidentally toddled through the entrance of the women’s baths.

“I didn’t see anything,” Yuuri said, “but Mari told me they found me happily stomping around in a puddle with a bunch of naked ladies in towels just a few feet away. Apparently, they were all mothers and grandmothers and thought I was adorable.”

“Imagine that,” Victor said, a smile playing at his lips as he gazed across the water at Yuuri.

Over the passing weeks, Victor listened to hours and hours of similar stories. Like the one about the special bento boxes Yuuri’s mother would send him to school with as a boy, and how Nishigori used to tease him mercilessly about the panda faces on his onigiri rice balls. That is, until Yuuko started making him bento boxes of his own, and then Nishigori decided onigiri with cute animal faces were not only acceptable, but an indication of superior social status. And because Yuuri’s panda face onigiri came from his mother and Nishigori’s came from his girlfriend, that made Nishigori’s less childish and therefore better.

When that got old, he just teased Yuuri about his weight. And when Nishigori’s stomach grew much rounder than Yuuri’s, he then moved on to teasing Yuuri about his glasses.

“Why didn’t you tease him back about his weight?” Victor said.

“Too easy,” Yuuri said with a laugh. “I prefer to get my revenge through success.”

Savage. Victor loved it.

The stories didn’t stop there. Yuuri talked about dance recitals at Minako-sensei’s studio, sharing his first beer with his father at a soccer game, Mari’s heated teenage battles with their parents over her many ear piercings, and their mother’s top secret love for Japanese soap operas, which she would sneak off to watch even though everyone had figured out what she was doing years ago. Yuuri talked about the smell of thunderstorms in the summer, about the earthquake and tsunami scares they’d had when he was growing up, and about the volcano that fed warmth into the hot springs.

He told Victor how nostalgic he had felt the moment he’d returned home after five years. Even the scent of the train station had taken him back immediately.

“I think living in Detroit made me appreciate Hasetsu more,” Yuuri said. “Everything felt different when I came back. Not that I didn’t like America. I loved living abroad and want to do it again someday, but I don’t think I appreciated where I came from until I left Japan. My roots are here, and I never understood the importance of that until I moved somewhere people couldn’t even spell my name. I’m sure you know what that feels like. You came all this way from Russia. You know what it’s like to miss your roots.”

“Oh, of course,” Victor lied.

Not that he wanted to be dishonest with Yuuri. It was more of a white lie—something well-meant instead of a statement designed to deceive.

It would have been rude to tell Yuuri he was wrong—that Victor’s roots had been dug up and starved of nutrients many years ago—and he also didn’t want Yuuri to stop talking about his own family history. Victor found it fascinating. It was like seeing Hasetsu and the people that lived there through a different set of eyes. Yuuri was letting Victor walk around in his memories for a little while, and that was nice.

“What about you?” Yuuri asked. “What was it like growing up in Russia?”

It was an easy enough question to answer without getting too deep.

He talked about the good parts. The shining moments painted in his memory like a lens-flare in a photograph. Victor had been a happy child who had loved to make believe. His daydreams were bright, whimsical things that inspired him to run and laugh and play.

“When I was young, I wanted to be a veterinarian and take care of animals,” Victor told Yuuri. “And let’s see, what else? I wanted to be a cosmonaut, a famous chef in Paris with one of those funny mustaches, a ballet dancer, a shoemaker, a prince, an officer in the . . . army.” He faltered for a second when he said that last one but then regained his composure. “I wanted to be everything. That’s what I think of when I remember my childhood. Dreaming about the endless possibilities.”

He told Yuuri about the great palaces and cathedrals of Russia, and how Victor used to look through picture books of them as a child like he was scanning a real estate magazine. He liked to pretend he could pick one out, pack his bags, and go live there. “I always wonder what would have happened if I’d been brave enough to stroll up to the doors of the Winter Palace with my pillow and asked to be shown to my room. Part of me still wants to try one day.”

This made Yuuri laugh . . . and the sound of it made Victor falter again.

Yuuri had a beautiful laugh. Warm and genuine and far too rare. It heated the air in Victor’s lungs and made him want to hold it there.

There were other questions that followed—innocent inquiries that Yuuri likely didn’t realize were difficult to answer—but Victor was good at this dance.

After all, dancing was in his roots.

When asked what his favorite food was as a child, he said, “The bakery down the street from where I lived would make the most beautiful desserts. All kinds of cakes and sweets, but the ones that made my mouth water most were the poncziki. They’re similar to doughnuts, but these had orange zest in the dough and lots of powdered sugar on top. They would display them in the window, and the smell would wake you up in the morning and make you so hungry, you couldn’t think straight.”

When asked what kind of school he went to, he said, “Oh, I didn’t go to college. I was already so focused on skating that it didn’t leave much room for anything else. I went from winning gold medals in the Junior division to having to climb back up the ranks with the Seniors, and I was determined to make my mark.”

When asked who introduced him to skating, he said, “Did you know there’s a Russian hockey player named Viktor Nikiforov? He won a gold medal at the Olympics in the 1950s, and when I read about him as a child, I thought about being a hockey player, too. For about five minutes. But I liked dancing and I didn’t want to cut my hair, so I decided to go after a gold medal in figure skating instead. Now there are two of us with the same name who have won gold Olympic medals for Russia.”

Either Yuuri didn’t notice that Victor never once gave him a direct answer to these questions, or he was too polite to make mention of it. Probably the latter—because while Yuuri listened to Victor’s stories with an attentive smile, there was a larger question forming in his eyes. Victor could see it there, getting clearer and clearer every day.

Why had Victor chosen to talk about the smell of desserts in a bakery window instead of describing what they tasted like? Why had he given Yuuri his reasons for skipping college when they both knew very well that he’d been asking about Victor’s experiences at school as a younger child? Why had he told him about a hockey player from the 50s instead of naming the person who first asked him if he wanted to take ice skating lessons?

The more Victor talked, the more it became apparent what he didn’t talk about. He danced around the void and filled the air with sparkles to distract from the vacancy beyond.

And it wasn’t that he was trying to hide anything from Yuuri. It’s just that from a very young age, Victor had been taught that to please others and be a desirable companion, he had to be pleasant and fun to be around. Uncomfortable topics were better avoided. People simply liked you better when you made them happy, and Victor wanted Yuuri to like him.

Somewhere around this time, after sharing all these stories and memories with each other, Victor and Yuuri hit a wall in their relationship. A big one.

It was like going straight back to square one. Declined invitations, doors shut in his face, one-word answers given to his questions. Yuuri started avoiding Victor again, just when he thought he was making some real progress.

They were on the brink of something, caught somewhere between an acquaintance and a true friendship, and they had gone as far as they could without truly taking the plunge.

Victor wanted more than anything to take that plunge. His insecurity about his place in Yuuri’s life had become more of a whisper of doubt instead of a fear that kept him up at night, but the same question still burned in his mind every day. What do you want me to be to you?

A friend? A mentor?

A lover?

If only he could get Yuuri to stop running away long enough to ask.

 


 

Victor finally got his chance late that spring, when the weather was still chilly enough to demand a sweatshirt but hints of summer were making themselves known. The days were growing longer as quickly as the shadow beneath his feet shortened.

That particular afternoon—the day Yuuri stopped running away from Victor—was full of shadows, as well as uncertainty. Overhead, unsettled clouds moved in different directions. It was like witnessing the clash of seasons, like summer was trying to hurry spring along when it wasn’t ready to go. There was probably a metaphor to be discovered somewhere in those clouds, but Victor was too nervous to ponder it.

They walked to the beach together, with Yuuri barely saying a word, Victor trying his best to mask his frustration with cheerfulness, and Makkachin blissfully unaware of any tension. He barked at the seagulls that were taking a break on the beach and charged at them until they took flight.

Together, the three of them sat on the sand amongst the driftwood and talked about a girl from Yuuri’s past.

He told Victor that he’d shoved her away—literally pushed her body off of his—just for giving him an ill-timed hug when he was feeling vulnerable. Apparently Yuuri didn’t like it when someone intruded upon his feelings, and he couldn’t always control his reaction when it happened.

He hated it, he said. He hated being seen as weak.

And okay. That made a certain amount of sense, especially when taking Yuuri’s past behavior with Victor into consideration. The way he responded to what he perceived as failure. The way he hid from others when he cried. The way he stopped talking and went blank whenever Victor asked about his dating history. Yuuri didn’t like when Victor saw what he thought were “shortcomings.”

The realization made Victor want to laugh. Did Yuuri have any idea how much he envied him? He was so blessed with love and support. His life and everything in it was like a beautiful story playing out. Victor could almost see it in his mind, choreographed in a dance on the ice. But that was beside the point.

The important thing here was that Yuuri had finally given Victor a hint about what he was thinking, which then allowed Victor to correct that misperception. No, Yuuri wasn’t weak, and no one else thought that either. Certainly not Victor.

He blurted out the question not long after that, no longer able to keep it inside himself. “What do you want me to be to you?”

But Yuuri’s answer was not at all what Victor expected.

It was, however, the kind of answer he liked. It sparkled in his mind and puzzled him enough to keep him awake that night, pondering the irony while he was sitting alone in his bedroom with the smell of ocean salt and driftwood still clinging to his hair.

“I want you to be yourself,” Yuuri had said in reply.

And wasn’t that just the funniest thing?

This whole time, Victor had been trying to figure out which mask to wear to make Yuuri happy, when all he wanted was for Victor to take it off and show him the real person beneath.

Yuuri took a big step there that day on the beach. He’d been the first to remove his mask, toss it into the wind, and introduce Victor to the real Yuuri. Now it was up to him to do the same.

They shook on it.

 


 

Hey Yakov!

Just wanted to text and say hi.

Well, actually there is something else.

Do you remember that time you told me I was getting burned out because I cared too much what people thought?

You said I wasn’t being true to myself anymore.

I guess I just wanted to say thanks.

You were right.

¯\_(ツ)_/¯

 


 

The summertime sunshine suited Yuuri. It tanned his beautiful brown skin, put a sparkle in his eyes, and made his ink black hair shine with health.

Gone were the baggy sweatshirts he’d hidden himself under during the spring. Yuuri looked more confident now, dressing in v-necks that showed off the muscles of his chest and shoulders, as well as his trimmer waistline. His stomach was still a bit soft, but Victor rather liked it that way. Whenever they hugged, he would put his hands on Yuuri’s middle on purpose, just to feel that bit of give in his flesh.

That was one of the major things that changed in their relationship that summer. Yuuri let Victor touch him more often. While he still had a moment of panic now and then, particularly when Victor caught him off guard with a hug, Yuuri no longer seemed to mind when they sat so close that their shoulders bumped together or when Victor took Yuuri’s hands into his own and lifted them into the air to demonstrate what he was looking for in his skating.

The tension that had defined their relationship that spring was gone—they were truly friends now—but a new kind of tension had taken its place. It was, however, a far more pleasant thing to endure.

When their hands brushed together while they walked, they didn’t talk about it. When Yuuri caught Victor staring at him at dinner, they didn’t talk about that either. And they definitely didn’t talk about Yuuri slowly gaining the confidence to stare back.

What they did talk about was skating. Their big project that summer was producing Yuuri’s Free Skate program and Victor couldn’t have been prouder of Yuuri for taking charge. He not only picked out the music, but he’d had it commissioned. He decided what his theme would be, helped with the choreography, and every time Victor challenged him to include a difficult element, Yuuri declared without hesitation that he would do it.

Watching him rediscover his love for skating was a beautiful thing to witness.

Watching Yuuri in general . . . that was beautiful, too.

“What does the end of this music mean to you?” Victor said one day at practice. “What do you see when you hear it?”

They were at the Ice Castle, hovering around the CD player on a break. Victor had a pad of paper in one hand and a pencil in the other. Something about the jump composition they’d decided on still didn’t feel quite right, particularly the last part.

“What do I see?” Yuuri said.

“For yourself,” Victor clarified. “For the end of your story.”

“Sorry. I’m still not following.”

Victor tapped the final jump listed on his notepad. The one that felt out of place. “This doesn’t go anywhere. The finale is anticlimactic because it lacks substance. It feels like you’re just sailing off into a metaphorical sunset instead of achieving a satisfying ending to your story.”

“But what if I like metaphorical sunsets?” Yuuri offered him a sheepish smile. “That sounds kind of nice, actually.”

“A sunset isn’t an ending. Let me explain it this way. You’ve said the beginning of Yuri on Ice represents when you felt like you were fighting alone, and then the tempo picks up and the violin joins the piano, which is me showing up here as your coach. Then the break in the music is where you soar on your new understanding of the love that surrounds you. But what happens after that?”

Yuuri shrugged and looked down at the notepad. “Hopefully I win a gold medal.”

Victor shook his head. “That’s a goal. It’s important to have those, but a win at the Grand Prix Final is not a real end to your story. I’m talking emotion, Yuuri. When you look back at everything that’s happened in your life—all the fighting and struggling—what do you want as your reward?”

Yuuri met Victor’s eyes.

And it made the bottom drop out of his stomach, the way he looked at him. Victor heard it clear as day, even though Yuuri hadn’t said a word.

I want you.

“I guess what I want most at the end of all this,” Yuuri said, “is for the people I care about to understand how much I appreciate them. I want to take the love they’ve given me all these years and aim it right back at them. I want this Free Skate to pay homage to the people who got me here.”

He swallowed then and his face turned bright red, like he was afraid he’d just said something stupid.

Victor threw both hands up, sending the notepad and pencil flying, and said, “YES!! Yes, yes, yes! Oh, you are so good at this. Yuuri, I love it!”

Yuuri really was the best student.

A much better student than Victor had ever been.

 


 

It wasn’t that he didn’t listen to Yakov.

He did.

Selectively. . .

Victor approached Yakov’s skating tips and general advice about life like he had been presented with a lovely pinot noir at a wine tasting. He gave it a swirl and a speculative sniff before tipping the glass back for a sip. Then he swished it around in his mouth, considered the notes and flavor, and spared a moment to ponder the origins. Somewhere in there, he made a determination of its value and formed an overall opinion on his likeliness to buy.

And regardless of that opinion, be it positive or negative, Victor would then spit Yakov’s advice right back out again into a bucket on the floor.

But that didn’t mean Victor didn’t like or have an appreciation for his coach’s advice. What person at a wine tasting didn’t like wine? But sometimes it was better to taste than to drink. Sometimes too much wine made his head spin.

Yakov was a damn good coach. The absolute best in the business, and there was value in his opinions. Victor knew that. But he also knew he was a damn good skater and had good instincts of his own. Yakov worried too much, and he didn’t put as much trust in Victor’s instincts as he did.

While he’d done a lot of listening throughout the years, Victor had not done much hearing. He didn’t absorb Yakov’s teachings, particularly in the past few years when Victor was already a pro at winning over the judges.

But his coach’s words were still somewhere in his brain, and sometimes they surfaced in his memory.

Vitya, look at me. I’m an old man, and I lost my wife because I decided I’d rather be married to my career instead of her. You are at the top of the world right now, but what happens afterward? Where does your story end?

A gold medal is not an ending. A career is not a complete life.

You’re burned out because you haven’t started living yet. You’ve crafted this persona for your audience instead of taking the time to discover who you really are. You’re out of ideas because you haven’t refreshed your creativity.

Are you listening, Vitya? You never listen.

You think you know it all already. What advice could an old man with four decades of brat-coaching experience possibly pass onto you before he dies? I’m not always going to be around, you know. I’m seventy years old. One day, you’re going to want to pick up the phone and talk to me, but all you’re going to have is silence and a mountain of gold medals to keep you company.

Have those gold medals made you happy, Vitya? Do you even remember how much you used to love skating?

But then again, I’m just a grumpy old man.

What do I know?

 


 

Victor Nikiforov was the most decorated male figure skater in history.

But no. He wasn’t a very good student.

 


 

Left without a means to communicate directly with Yakov, Victor decided to make things up to him the only way he could: by taking some of his advice to heart now.

While Yuuri was on a journey of self-discovery and learning how to give and receive love from others, Victor was on a journey of his own. In the last few years especially, he had put far too much focus on his career, much of his time spent worrying about how to keep his audience pleased.

Yakov had encouraged him to have more of a work/life balance and that would, in turn, take his skating to the next level. Victor hadn’t listened to him, of course. (More wine he’d spat right into the bucket.) But now he was starting to see the sense in it.

Victor made it a point to disrupt his normal routine, seek out ways to get more enjoyment out of his life, and connect with the world around him. He extended his morning walks with Makkachin to a full hour, going as slow as his aging puppy friend asked him to. They stopped to look at strange flowers that didn’t grow back home in Russia and made sure to talk to that fisherman on the bridge instead of just wishing him good morning.

(His name was Asahi, and he brought three fish home every day. One for himself, another for his wife, and the third for their three cats.)

These walks opened Victor’s eyes to how beautiful the world was. He’d always known that. After all, he’d been going on these walks for months now, but he hadn’t taken the beauty inside himself. He hadn’t become a part of it. Now, he loved to breathe deep and soak in the sunshine and let it all renew his mind.

Both he and Makkachin were happier for it, and Victor soon found himself no longer having to fake smiles. There was no need to wear a mask anymore when the joy rose up from him naturally.

It reminded Victor of how he’d felt as a little boy. Those first seven years of his life were filled with wonder and curiosity over the smallest thing, even when he didn’t have many toys or playmates at his disposal. Little Victor’s imagination had solved that problem.

The world around him had served as his best friend. The clouds would paint funny pictures for him in the sky to make him laugh. Flowers grew between the cracks in the sidewalk for him to pick and put in his hair. He would copy the dance of the snowflakes that fell from above in winter, and when summer came, he would mimic the dance of the dust motes that were set aglow by the sunshine streaming through the window outside his mother’s closed bedroom door. His mind had been a happy place, and it had never occurred to him until later that some parts were a bit unusual.

Victor had a lot of time to think about those first seven years during those walks with Makkachin. Sometimes he would stop and pluck a flower free from a crack in the sidewalk, then smile fondly at it before sliding the stem behind his ear.

Yakov’s advice hadn’t stopped there, so neither did Victor’s efforts to listen to him. His coach used to call Victor “selfish” more often than he called him by his name, so he sought out ways to be less self-involved. He started asking what he could do to help at Yu-topia and soon became more immersed in the family business. Toshiya asked for assistance with promotion, while Hiroko liked having someone tall around who could reach items from high shelves without her having to get a ladder. Mari just told him it would be nice if he could bring his own dishes to the kitchen for once.

And Victor kind of liked that. Family members brought their own dishes to the sink and rinsed them. Guests had dishes taken away for them.

Victor also poured his time and energy into Yuuri, who still had a stubborn streak on the ice and chose his own path more often than not, but Victor would be hypocritical indeed if he faulted him for that. It was the same kind of stubbornness he’d displayed with Yakov throughout the years.

Maybe Victor was Yuuri’s “Yakov” after all.

Except prettier. And with fresher breath.

Their coach/student relationship was an odd one. They weren’t that far apart in age, and some days it felt more like they were partners instead of mentor and protégé. Victor’s skill level might be more advanced, but he knew from his time with Yakov that being a coach wasn’t about skill. It was about knowing how to guide and encourage and correct. It was about being a rock-solid foundation beneath someone who was desperately straining their fingers toward the sky.

Victor and Yuuri were still figuring that balance out. It wasn’t perfect. Yuuri still had days where he looked so defeated that Victor felt a little defeated himself. He’d grown protective of Yuuri and hated seeing him hurt or uncomfortable. Sometimes Victor’s advice fell flat, and sometimes Yuuri took things too much to heart when Victor had only been joking. There was miscommunication all over the place, but one general understanding could be heard over it all.

You’re not fighting alone anymore.

We’re in this together.

Finally. That purpose Victor had been searching for.

He saw a bit of himself in Yuuri, not just in his stubborn streak but also in his propensity to put too much focus on the color gold. Yuuri was a hard worker and would think nothing of practicing for hours by himself, late into the night when he couldn’t sleep. His focus on winning the Grand Prix Final bordered on unhealthy at times, and Victor knew well that while a gold medal did bring a sense of pride and happiness, that feeling faded as soon as the next season began.

As Yuuri’s coach, Victor wanted to impart lessons about what was truly important in life. That way, even if Yuuri didn’t win in Barcelona, he would still be left with treasure in his heart. It’s what Yakov had tried to teach Victor, and his failure to listen had resulted in a depression that he hadn’t even realized he was neck-deep in until he started to pull out of it.

Now wiser for it, Victor wanted to protect Yuuri from what he’d experienced. He wanted to give him that balance he’d never had himself. So that summer, Victor made it a point to remind Yuuri that not all practice happened on the ice. Having fun was just as important as hard work.

It’s what Yakov would have said. No, it’s what he did say. Over and over until he sounded like a broken record.

One July morning dawned particularly bright. The sky was endless blue. Radiant and sparkling and so saturated with color that it had a gravity all its own. Victor took one look at that sky through a window, marched straight to Yuuri’s bedroom, and threw open the door.

“Okay, look,” Victor said. “I know we made plans to work on revising your jump composition today, but it is way too nice outside to be trapped indoors at the Ice Castle. I don’t want to skate today. We always skate. I’m tired of skating. I want to be outside enjoying this, and you’re coming with me whether you like it or not.”

Still half-asleep, Yuuri sat up on his knees in the bed and rubbed his right eye with a fist. He stifled a yawn and felt around for his glasses. “What about going to the beach?” he suggested as he slid them on.

Victor’s face lit up.

And that was how one of the best days of his life got started.

 


 

It was the kind of day he didn’t want to let go of, one that defied the passage of time and seemed to stretch on without end. More of a feeling than an actual event. Later he would look back on that day in July like a series of snapshots in his memory. He would smile as he remembered Yuuri chasing Makkachin down the beach, laughing and kicking up sand in his wake.

As it turned out, the summer Hasetsu sky wasn’t the most beautiful thing Victor laid eyes on that day. Not even close.

They danced on the sand and played together in the ocean, splashing each other without mercy and ducking beneath cresting waves. Afterward, they inspected tidepools and watched a quartet of baby crabs tiptoe across the wet sand in search of the water’s frothy edge. When they got hungry, they sat shoulder to shoulder to feast on the bento boxes Hiroko had packed for them and searched for shapes in the billowy white clouds overhead.

And they didn’t—not even a single time—talk about ice skating.

It was amazing.

Afterward, when the sun was just beginning to strain toward the west, they went to rinse the saltwater off their bodies and the sand from their feet in the outdoor showers near the sidewalk. The day was deliciously warm, and the water from the showers cooled down their sun-kissed skin.

Rainbows sparkled in the water vapor, and the ocean breeze stirred the leaves of nearby trees. Just when they both had washed the final traces of sand away, Makkachin came bounding over and shook his fur out just a few steps from where they were standing. It got them all dirty with sand again and had them flinching away and holding up their hands to shield themselves while they laughed.

Victor took advantage of Yuuri’s distraction and ruffled his wet hair. As water rained down on them from the double shower heads above, Victor held Yuuri’s head beneath the stream until he was sputtering for mercy. However, this turned out to just be an act because the moment Victor let up, Yuuri reached out to hold his head beneath the water in revenge. Then they were both sputtering and trying desperately to push their hair out of their eyes and wipe the streaming water from their faces at the same time.

And it almost happened.

Right there, standing on the wet concrete in the bright sunlight.

Yuuri looked up, smiling breathlessly with water dripping from his bitten-red lips. Victor almost stepped forward, put his hands on Yuuri’s face, and wiped the beads of liquid away from those lips with the pad of his thumb.

Would Yuuri let it happen? Would he stand there while Victor leaned in close enough to breathe the same air?

“I think you’re a little sunburned,” Yuuri said. He pressed a finger to Victor’s shoulder, which turned stark white before shifting back to red.

Yuuri wasn’t sunburned. His body was tanned and glittering with water droplets like diamonds. As those droplets collected and slid down the valleys of his body, Victor felt a pulse of attraction in his lower belly.

“My mother has an aloe vera plant at home,” Yuuri said. “I think you’re going to need it tonight.”

Victor quirked an eyebrow. “Are you volunteering to do the application?”

 


 

Volunteer or not, Victor made Yuuri do it anyway. It was the least he could do for not reminding Victor to reapply his sunblock in a timely manner.

They avoided the onsen that night because Hiroko warned Victor that it would make his sunburn hurt worse. He and Yuuri sat together on the couch in Victor’s bedroom instead with a plate of sliced aloe vera leaves in Yuuri’s lap. The room was filled with a fresh, green scent and the warmth of the sun still rising off their skin, even though it was now dark outside.

“You know, I’m pretty sure you’re capable of doing this by yourself,” Yuuri said while he dapped a bit of the gooey aloe vera gel on Victor’s shoulder. “Your sunburn isn’t even that bad.”

Victor was dressed in one of the green onsen robes with the front tie undone and the top pulled low enough that his shoulders were exposed. “Can you put some on my cheeks? They feel so hot.”

Yuuri rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and said, “You are definitely capable of putting this on your own cheeks.”

But he did it anyway, and Victor cooed with happiness while Yuuri gave his cheeks, forehead, and nose a nice coating with the gel. “Your mother really grows this here at your house? Yuuri, I hope you realize she’s a goddess sent from heaven. Cherish that woman. Not everyone is so blessed.”

There was a funny kind of silence that fell between them for a few seconds too long.

One side of Yuuri’s mouth pulled into a smile, but the other side resisted. “Yeah. She really is the best.”

It was obvious there was more he wanted to say, so Victor waited until it came.

“Can . . . can I ask you something?” Yuuri said a few moments later. He placed the aloe vera leaf back on the plate and rubbed his hands together to coat them in what was left behind. “And if you don’t want to answer, that’s perfectly fine. You won’t hurt my feelings if you change the subject.”

He looked at Victor like he already regretted opening his mouth.

“Yuuri,” Victor said. “Spit it out.”

But even with permission, Yuuri had difficulty putting the words in the right order, and when it finally came out, it wasn’t a question at all. Instead, he said, “It’s just . . . we talk about my family a lot, but we never talk about yours.”

Oh.

“I mean, not that we have to or anything,” Yuuri said, backtracking as fast as he could. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to pry. We can talk about something else.”

Victor laughed off the awkward moment, even as he felt himself tense up. “It’s fine, Yuuri. What do you want to know?”

It wasn’t fine. But God, he was tired of dancing around this.

Yuuri took a deep breath, as if needing a bit of courage to continue. “Your mother was a dancer, right? And your father was an officer in the army?”

He had probably pulled those facts straight from Victor’s Wikipedia page. They were common knowledge to his fans or anyone else who cared to look.

“Well . . . that’s what I was told, at least,” Victor said. “My father was never really in the picture, but my mother would tell me stories about him when I was young. From what I gathered, she caught his attention after sneaking into a fancy party, and I made my scandalous grand debut approximately nine months later. She never told me what his name was. I think she must have known.” Victor blinked several times, staring off into nothing. “I hope she knew. It must have been frightening for her if she didn’t.”

Even though Victor trailed off there, Yuuri remained quiet, waiting for the rest.

“She was so beautiful, Yuuri,” Victor said in a faraway voice.

Long, silvery hair that stretched past her waist and glittered in the moonlight. Eyes the color of a winter sky and delicate, elven features that would have looked more at place in another world.

“Maybe she still is,” Victor said. “I haven’t seen her in years.”

Twenty, to be exact.

“You don’t . . . know where she is?” Yuuri said.

Victor pressed his lips together and fiddled with the tie of his robe.

Yuuri sighed and sat up straighter. “Listen, I’m really sorry. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. But . . . I’m here if you need someone to listen. Okay?”

You see? You made Yuuri uncomfortable.

That’s what happens when you stop smiling.

Other people stop smiling, too.

It was tempting to listen to these unpleasant thoughts, which were just symptoms of a far greater insecurity inside of Victor. But though Yuuri did look uncomfortable and neither of them were smiling the way they had earlier that day at the beach, there was a part of Victor that wanted to give Yuuri a glimpse of that vacancy in his heart. It wasn’t his responsibility to fill it, but it would be a relief not to have to hide it anymore.

“Those people. . .” Victor said. “My parents . . . I guess I don’t talk about them because they aren’t my family. I mean, they are blood relations, but . . .”

Yuuri nodded to show he understood without Victor having to explain further. “Yakov is your family.”

It made Victor smile . . . that Yuuri had figured that out without being told.

“It’s the way you talk about him,” Yuuri explained. “He was always the person you mentioned at important events in your life—like birthday parties and holidays. He still hasn’t answered any of your emails or calls, has he?”

Victor hung his head. His throat was suddenly tight, and it hurt to swallow. “I don’t understand why. I think he must be really angry with me, Yuuri.”

“Well, that’s the thing about family. You get angry with each other sometimes because it’s safe to be at odds with people who will still love you the next day. I ran away from my family for five years because I was ashamed that I hadn’t done anything to make them proud, but they still took me back in when I had run out of places to hide. I don’t know Yakov very well, but he’s probably hoping the silent treatment will guilt you into returning to Russia. It doesn’t mean he hates you.”

“I don’t know why he can’t just be happy for me,” Victor said. “What am I doing that’s so wrong?”

Yuuri didn’t know the answer, but that was okay. It was nice to just have him there to listen.

Victor dropped his head onto Yuuri’s shoulder and closed his eyes.

 


 

"Hi, Yakov. It’s Victor calling again.

Listen, I know it’s a little late to be talking to your voicemail. Well . . . actually, I guess it’s not as late there in Saint Petersburg as it is here. What is it, about seven o’clock your time? I guess you’re probably having dinner right now. It’s, um . . . it’s after midnight here. I haven’t been able to sleep.

I just . . . do you think you could call me sometime?

If you’re not too busy, I mean.

There’s a lot I want to tell you. Yuuri and I, we’re . . .

I wanted to let you know that I didn’t make a mistake coming to Japan. I know you think I did, but I didn’t. Everything you’ve tried to teach me about living my life and being less selfish and thinking about others . . . don’t you understand? That’s why I’m here, Yakov.

It’s why I’m here.

And I wish . . . I just want to talk to you. And okay. Maybe I took you for granted when you were always there for me. That’s fair. I can admit that, and I’m sorry.

But I think if I could sit you down now and explain, you would understand, and you would be happy for me. I know you think Yuuri took me away from the ice, but I wish I could make you understand what he’s given me in return.

I don’t have to pretend around him, Yakov. It’s the strangest thing. I don’t even know how to explain it. I just show up . . . and I’m the real Victor and he’s the real Yuuri, and somehow it all works out okay even though it’s not always pretty or acceptable or what the audience wants to see.

. . . Anyway . . .

I’m probably not making much sense. It’s really late here. After midnight.

Did I already say that?

I guess I’ll let you go. I hope you had something good for dinner. I heard Lilia is back living with you again. That’s really good to hear. Say hi to her for me.

Take care, Yakov.

I understand if you don’t call me back, but I hope it’s still okay if I keep leaving messages on your voicemail from time to time. I know it’s stupid, but it feels like talking to you, even though it’s just a machine.

So . . . I guess this is me saying ‘bye,’ then.

Bye.

. . .

Sorry.

Sorry, I’m really hanging up this time.”

 

 

 

 

Click.

 


 

About half an hour later—after Victor had already plugged his cell phone into its charger, turned out the lights in his bedroom, and was trying his best to sleep despite his sunburn—a cheerful ringtone filled the air.

Victor sat up ramrod-straight in bed and blinked at his phone, which was lit up, buzzing, and playing a familiar song. It was a ringtone he hadn’t heard in months—one he had set up to play only when a specific person called him. The song was Lady Gaga’s Telephone.

Stop telephonin’ me. . .
I’m busy.

Victor had picked that ringtone as a joke because this particular individual use to call him day and night . . . only it didn’t seem as laughable now. He’d forgotten how often he used to let Yakov’s phone calls go straight to voicemail.

Snatching his phone off the nightstand, Victor unplugged it and answered the call. “Алло?”

“Vitya.” Yakov’s tone was as gruff as ever but had an unusual urgency to it, like something bad had happened. “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

“Yakov,” Victor said, his voice soft with amazement. “Is that really you?”

“You left me a message on my phone. Should I be worried?”

“I’ve . . . left you lots of messages.”

“Answer the damn question.”

“Question? Sorry, I didn’t h—”

SHOULD I BE WORRIED ABOUT YOU OR NOT?”

Yakov yelled loud enough that Victor had to hold the phone away from his ear until a safer volume was established. Then, a little bewildered, he said, “No . . . no, not at all. That’s why I called you—to let you know how well I’m doing here. I’m happier than I’ve been in a long time.”

There was a long pause.

Long enough that Victor felt compelled to ask, “Are you still there?”

“Call me when you’re ready to beg for your place back,” Yakov said.

Then he hung up.

Victor blinked a few more times and then pulled the phone away from his ear to stare down at the screen, which confirmed the call had been terminated. Beside him on the bed, Makkachin rolled over with a yawn and licked the back of Victor’s hand.

“That was Yakov,” Victor said to Makkachin, reaching out to pet him. “He actually called me back. Oh, I’m so relieved! I was worried he was angry with me. I can’t wait to tell Yuuri that everything’s fixed now!”

 


 

To be continued in Part 2.

 

Chapter Text

“Yakov, hi! It’s Victor calling again.

Listen, I think I figured it out. Why you won’t call me back, I mean.

You’re trying to teach me something, aren’t you? You want me to stand on my own two feet, own the decisions I’ve made, and not come crying to you every time it gets difficult. It’s tough love, right? I probably should have guessed that from the beginning, knowing you.

Anyway, I do have one coaching question for you. And yes, I realize now that you want me to do this all on my own, and I fully intend to! But the thing is, Yuuri’s first block competition is coming up faster than I realized, and I need your guidance in this one area.

Yakov, please.

This is really important. I wouldn’t call you if it wasn’t.

My whole future success as a coach could hinge on this moment, and I don’t want to mess it up. For myself or for Yuuri. Because everything I do reflects on him as well.

My question is . . . what do I wear???

I mean, it is my formal debut as a coach, so it only makes sense that I wear a suit, right? But what kind of suit? I’m thinking a well-tailored, three-piece with gloves. It’s going to be strange going to a competition without my team jacket, but a suit is probably the most professional look, right?

And maybe an overcoat? I mean, you always wear one. . .

Thoughts??

I want people to take me seriously, Yakov. I guess I’m just surprised by how many people aren’t. But just wait. They’re going to be the ones who end up surprised.

Anyway, sorry we’re playing phone tag again, though I’m not sure if this counts as a game anymore since you haven’t tagged me back in a few weeks.

Tag, you’re it!

Haha, talk to you soon!

 


 

Slipping his cell phone into his pocket, Victor turned clear blue eyes up to the afternoon sky and let the warm, ocean breeze fill his lungs. He could hear a summer thunderstorm rumbling on the other side of the island.

The smile fell away from his lips and softened into something more wistful. Not a frown exactly, nor even a look of discontentment. He wasn’t sure what he was feeling anymore. His eyebrows were lifted like he was asking the sky a question.

A quiet woof from Makkachin disturbed Victor’s reverie. He blinked, remembered himself, and followed his dog back to the entrance of the Ice Castle. Though he felt slightly unsettled in his heart after yet another unanswered call to Yakov, Victor was resolved to let this go. He had more important things to focus on. Like being a coach himself.

Once inside, Victor unhooked Makkachin’s leash from the collar and let him trot over to where Yuuko was filling out paperwork at the front desk. She greeted them both with her usual bright smile and stretched down a hand to give Makkachin a scratch behind his ears.

“He didn’t take a break like I told him to, did he?” Victor said.

Yuuko’s eyes sparkled at Victor. “Does he ever? You know our Yuuri.”

Victor certainly did.

Summer was fading fast into fall, and he’d had the privilege of being Yuuri’s coach and friend for almost five months now. Well . . . maybe not his friend for that entire time, but they had definitely grown close that summer. Not only could they officially call each other ‘friends’ now, but Yuuri was probably the best friend that Victor had ever had. (Aside from Makkachin, anyway.) Yuuri was the only person Victor had talked to about what was going on with Yakov, and it helped to have that outlet.

Victor pushed open the double glass doors that led out to the rink and glowered at Yuuri, who was definitely not taking a break like his coach had implicitly instructed him to.

The outright defiance was unbelievable, particularly coming from someone who was, at first glance, seemingly so timid, soft-spoken, and sweet. In reality, Katsuki Yuuri was as stubborn as a short-sighted mule and more outspoken than Victor could have thought possible for someone who struggled with self-confidence.

Out on the ice, Yuuri was covered in sweat and panting, but that didn’t stop him from pushing himself even harder as he moved through the choreography of his Eros routine. They’d spent the last few weeks working hard to finalize his Free Skate choreography, but today’s practice was dedicated to his Short Program. It was important not to neglect it.

As the challenging step sequence gave way into the first jump, Victor watched his protégé with mixed feelings, one finger tapping an indecisive rhythm against his lips.

Yuuri was fired up today. The execution of his triple axel was flawless, evidence of the countless hours he’d devoted to practicing it. He looked beautiful out there, from the graceful way he held out his hands to the careful positioning of his feet. Even his posture was good today.

But something vital was missing. Yuuri still wasn’t where he needed to be.

The Salchow was satisfactory, but the sweeping dance that followed it was less so. Victor was unimpressed, even after Yuuri landed his combination jump at the end. When he struck his final pose, Victor wasn’t even watching anymore. He was lacing up his skates.

As he tied a double-knot and reached for his second skate, Yuuri glided over to him and leaned against the barrier. He was breathing hard.

“It’s so hot today,” Yuuri said as he mopped his face with a towel.

“I told you to take a break,” Victor said. “Don’t expect me to feel sorry for you when you don’t listen.”

Yuuri blanched in response to the criticism, but then he relaxed when he saw the teasing gleam in Victor’s eyes. He wasn’t really that cross. He just wanted Yuuri to know he could be if he wanted to.

“Did you see any of that just now?” Yuuri said.

“I did.”

“What did you think?”

Victor offered him an encouraging smile but said, “We have some work to do this afternoon.”

The air rushed out of Yuuri like someone had poked him with a pin. “But I actually landed all the jumps that time. Even the Salchow. . .”

“A performance isn’t just about the jumps. You’re trying to tell a story, and you’re forgetting to sell it to the audience.”

“But I don’t have an audience today.”

Victor lifted an eyebrow. “Really?” He tightened the knot of his skate, let his pants fall back into place, and got to his feet. Placing both hands on the barrier, he leaned closer to Yuuri and said, “And who exactly do you think I am?”

“My . . . coach?” Yuuri said, his voice uncertain. He wasn’t sure he had the answer right.

Victor let out a dry chuckle and stooped briefly to remove the guards from his skates.

As he stepped out onto the ice, he said, “No, I’m the person who created your Short Program. I commissioned the music and had it composed to my exact specifications. I crafted the choreography and demonstrated it to you on this very rink. I am exactly the person you should hope is watching you while you skate. Even when we’re in an arena with thousands of other people, I should be your target audience.”

Yuuri looked taken aback and maybe a little confused. “Okay. . .”

“Now let’s talk about that performance you just gave me,” Victor said. “You know, the one that bored me so much that I stopped paying attention.”

Still frozen in place, Yuuri let out a whimper.

“I can tell you’re really focusing on your jumps today, which is good, but don’t forget that you’re also supposed to be dancing for me. This is the most challenging part of the program. Mixing the technical components with style. I’m not getting Eros from you at all today. Do you remember what that means?

“It’s a . . . it’s a kind of l-love.”

“It’s sex, Yuuri.”

Yuuri swallowed. He looked like a deer in headlights, too startled to even blink.

Victor laughed. “Look at you . . . so demure with that pretty little blush. But I think you have it backwards. You’re supposed to be making me blush, remember?” He skated in slow circles around Yuuri, twisting his hips, aiming the heat from his eyes in Yuuri’s direction so that he would understand the attitude Victor was looking for. “Make me look at you and no one else. Demand it. You don’t want your coach getting distracted when we’re at a competition with all those other skaters, do you?”

He saw it, then. That flash of possession in Yuuri’s eyes. He didn’t like Victor talking like that.

But Victor certainly liked seeing it. . .

He smiled and barked out a command. “From the top. First position.”

Yuuri scampered away so quickly that his skates almost went sliding out from beneath him. Victor’s smile relaxed into something more affectionate while he watched Yuuri skate out to the middle of the rink. There, he got into the opening pose of his Short Program, with his eyes lowered and his right hip thrust out.

And he was beautiful—from the inward curve of his waist down to the flare of his hips. His eyelashes rested black and thick on his flushed cheeks, and his lips were pressed into a careful line as he tried to slow his breathing so that he could begin.

Only he still wasn’t ready yet.

“Don’t move,” Victor said and skated over to him.

Yuuri peeked one eye open and looked half-ready to panic while he watched his coach’s approach. His shoulders were so tense that they were in danger of touching the lower tips of his ears.

“I said, don’t move,” Victor ordered. “Eyes closed.”

Even though Yuuri obediently squeezed his eyes shut again, his entire demeanor was still all wrong. Victor came to a halt just behind him and said, in a much quieter voice, “Relax, Yuuri. This is the most important part of your performance, right here. You have to take the time to focus your thoughts and get into the right headspace, or everything you do after this moment will be less in your control. Take charge of your performance right now.”

Yuuri blew out a breath and nodded to show he understood. It took him a while, but slowly, the tension began to leak out of him.

“Don’t be startled,” Victor said, his mouth very close to Yuuri’s ear. “I’m going to touch you.”

He started at Yuuri’s chin, which Victor encouraged to lift just a tad higher with a gentle brush of fingertips. Then he ran his hands down Yuuri’s arm to his wrist. Victor gave it a little shake to encourage Yuuri to relax his fingers, and then he put both hands on Yuuri’s waist at each side. His t-shirt was damp and warm, and the body beneath was trembling.

Victor was getting distracted. The scent coming off the back of Yuuri’s neck was like some kind of drug. Victor wet his lips and said, “Think about the woman in the story. Become her, Yuuri. Breathe in and let her fill you up.”

As instructed, Yuuri breathed in through his nose.

And maybe Victor was just imagining it, but he could swear the body he held between his hands began to change. The trembling stopped, and the thrust of Yuuri’s hip deepened, as if the hips themselves had grown more prominent. His waistline was more pronounced as a result, and the flirtatious fall of his fingers toward the ice was deliciously feminine.

“That’s it,” Victor said, pleased with everything he was seeing. “Good. Not only are you the most beautiful woman in the room, but you know it. Even with your eyes closed, you already know everyone is watching you, don’t you? They can’t look away.”

The corners of Yuuri’s mouth twitched into a coquettish hint of a smile, and Victor’s pulse was starting to skip ahead of itself as a result. It made him feel a little jealous, to be honest—that Yuuri would smile like that at the thought of other people looking at him.

“But there’s only one man you want to watch you,” Victor said, his fingers spreading apart where they gripped Yuuri at the waist. “Who is it, Yuuri?”

There was a soft lilt in Yuuri’s voice when he said, “You.”

And all Victor could think at that moment was Thank God because half of him was still expecting Yuuri to say “katsudon” instead.

It wasn’t Yuuri’s voice speaking . . . except it was. This was a character that he had created, and he’d brought her to life for the purpose of this performance. While Victor would have been happier seeing Yuuri’s own personal charm shining through, if he needed to use this fictional female character to help get him in the right mindset, so be it. They would strive to reach that next level in time.

“Now. . .” Victor let Yuuri feel his breath on his neck before letting go of his waist. “Seduce me, Yuuri. I want to see you dance.”

He backed up a little to give Yuuri room to work . . . or at least, Victor tried to. He forgot what he was doing mid-stride because Yuuri had started to move.

His hands went into the air as if prompting an orchestra to lift their instruments, and by the time he was sliding them back down his body like it was a musical instrument of his own, Victor was having trouble keeping the pace of his breathing steady.

Yuuri’s arms wrapped around his body and then pushed outward. “Are you still watching?” he said, his tone unexpectedly powerful. It was demanding. Sexy.

God, it was sexy. . .

“I am,” Victor replied. “But what are you going to do to make sure I don’t look away?”

Yuuri turned his head and shot Victor a look that clearly said: Don’t you dare.

With his lips curling into a smile, Victor quieted down to watch Yuuri’s best performance of Eros to date.

 


 

 

The thunderstorm waited to strike until just after practice.

When Victor and Yuuri left the Ice Castle that afternoon, both had given the sky a speculative glance and agreed they had adequate time to make it back home before it started to rain. The subdued rumbling of thunder never seemed to get any closer. That is, until lightning flickered over the choppy water while they were crossing the Hasetsu bridge, and the resulting clap of thunder was enough to make Makkachin yip and skitter underfoot.

The clouds were piled on top of each other all around them, colored white and gray and even heavy blue at the bottoms. Victor had witnessed enough summer thunderstorms in Hasetsu to know the blue clouds—the ones that were almost the same shade as the sky on a clear day—meant a significant storm was on the horizon.

Up ahead, rain had begun to pour down from the clouds like a smear across a painted canvas. They had maybe a minute or two before the deluge reached them. A gust of warm air blew Victor’s hair back from his face, allowing a fat raindrop to land square in the center of his forehead.

On second thought, maybe they had less time than he realized. . .

Yuuri hiked his backpack up higher on his shoulder and said, “Come on. I know a place, but we’ll have to run.”

Running didn’t help. By the time they made it to the other end of the bridge, the rain was falling so hard that Yuuri had to take off his glasses so that he could (ironically enough) see where he was going. He held them in his hand as he ran and made a sharp U-turn around the barrier of the bridge where it ended. “This way!”

“Where are we going?” Victor called as he followed, having to raise his voice to be heard over the pounding rain. Makkachin barked several times in quick succession, as if repeating the same question as his master.

“Down to the beach. There’s a place beneath the bridge where we can take shelter.”

Once they rounded the barrier and jogged down a sandy decline onto the beach, their hiding place was revealed. A small stretch of the bridge was built over land, and though it wasn’t open all the way through to the other side, there was a shallow alcove that was just big enough for two grown men and an oversized dog to stand in.

Yuuri and Victor stepped from damp sand that stuck to their shoes and the bottom hems of their wet pants onto dry sand that had been soaking up the warmth of the sun for most of the day. Makkachin darted into the alcove first, followed by Victor, who turned and extended his arm to Yuuri to make sure he made it in as well.

They put their bags down on the sand. Both of them were soaked and panting from running, as well as from the humidity. Overhead came the whish of passing cars on the wet bridge, but the sound of the rain was muted here. It fell softly into the sand and into the water beyond. The storm stirred up the briny air around them and cooled the temperature down a good ten degrees.

“Wow,” Yuuri said as he stared out at the churning water. He had cleaned the raindrops off his glasses and placed them back on his face. “That came out of nowhere.”

Victor wasn’t paying attention to the storm anymore. His gaze followed a droplet of water that slipped down the length of Yuuri’s neck and disappeared beneath the collar of his t-shirt. Wow, Victor agreed silently.

“What a beautiful place to wait out a thunderstorm,” he said out loud. He wasn’t talking about the beach.

His hand was resting on Yuuri’s shoulder, but once Victor had fully inspected their surroundings and made the decision to relax, he hooked his arm around Yuuri’s neck instead and drew him closer. Might as well get comfortable. The storm looked like it could last a while.

Yuuri let out a soft sound of surprise as his back came to rest against Victor’s chest, and there was a moment of tension that passed between them. A moment where it was all too easy to imagine Yuuri stammering out an apology, stepping out of Victor’s arms, and putting a good amount of distance between their bodies.

It was hard to believe this was the same person who had just seduced Victor into a near-catatonic state back at the Ice Castle.

But Yuuri didn’t move away. It took the span of several minutes—the duration of which Victor was very careful not to push any further—but the tension slowly began to leave Yuuri’s shoulders. His every breath went in through his nose and out through his mouth, the same way it did when he was jogging uphill.

Victor could feel Yuuri’s heartbeat all over—through the arm he had draped over his chest and along the curve of the back that was molded against Victor’s front. Yuuri never did protest. He just stood there quietly and tried to slow his breathing while they watched the rain.

“Good job at practice today,” Victor said. “I’m proud of you.”

“Thanks. . .”

“Your program is really starting to solidify, but we still have some final details to work out. Have you given any more thought to what you want your theme to be?”

Yuuri sighed and looked down to watch the shoe he was twisting into the sand. “Not really. I wish you would choose for me.”

“Well . . . if you ask me, the theme is pretty obvious. Especially now that you’ve developed the story of your Free Skate.”

“It is obvious,” Yuuri agreed. “But it’s just not something people talk about a lot here.”

“You mean . . . about love?”

Predictable as the tide, Yuuri blushed. Turning his head slightly so that he could see Victor in his periphery, he nodded and said, “Not that it’s taboo or anything, but it is something that’s normally kept private. If I announce that as my theme, it’s going to shock some people.”

Last spring, Victor would have pushed Yuuri towards this theme because of the shock factor. After all, Victor had spent years and years molding himself into whatever he thought might surprise the audience most, but after suffering from the consequences of that, Victor knew that was the last thing he wanted for Yuuri.

“Who cares what they think?” Victor said. “This program is about you and the story you want to tell. What do you think the theme of your story is?”

Yuuri was quiet for so long that he must have forgotten Victor was there at all because he fully relaxed against him. The storm blew a gust of wind into their safe haven beneath the bridge, and it might have made Victor shiver were it not for the warm body pressed against his own. He had to remind himself repeatedly not to do something stupid like nuzzle the back of Yuuri’s head or stroke his stomach with his thumb. Though they were just good friends, it would have been far too easy to act like Yuuri was Victor’s something else. . .

“Love,” Yuuri said in a quiet voice. “That’s my theme for the season. It feels right.”

“Then it is right. Now you just need to decide what you’re doing for your Exhibition. Not that I’m getting impatient or anything. . .”

He was absolutely getting impatient.

Yuuri had to figure this out soon, or they weren’t going to have enough time to get the choreography worked out, much less a new costume.

“Whatever you think is best,” Yuuri said. “My coach has always chosen for me in the past.”

“No, Yuuri. Your Exhibition performance is supposed to be fun. It’s your reward. It’s when you finally get to skate what you want instead of worrying about the judges or how many points a jump is worth.”

“I don’t know what I’m supposed to want. . .”

“Well, what makes you happiest when you’re skating?”

Again, Yuuri quieted. His gaze was still aimed downward at the sand.

“Come on,” Victor said. “There must be something. A type of music or a dance style or a story you’ve always wanted to tell.”

The silence persisted, and it felt strangely personal. It was like Yuuri knew exactly what he wanted to skate for his Exhibition, but something was stopping him from telling Victor what it was. A lack of confidence, perhaps. Or a lack of trust. Maybe both.

“I’ll think about it,” Yuuri said at last.

Victor felt a pang of disappointment. As far as he’d come in his friendship with Yuuri, there was so much they didn’t know about each other. “I hope you’ll tell me soon what it is.”

They quieted then, content to stand and watch the rain together. The worst of the storm had blown through quickly, leaving a steady rainfall behind, and the darkness of the sky seemed to indicate it wasn’t going to let up anytime soon. Victor flinched when he saw lightning flicker out over the water, but though he counted to ten in his head, the thunder didn’t reach them.

He kept counting silently. Eleven, twelve, thirteen. . .

“My mother used to love storms like this,” he said out of the blue.

The words came as a surprise to them both. As a rule, Victor didn’t talk about his family. Not with anyone. Even Yuuri, who probably didn’t realize he was Victor’s closest friend and the person he confided in the most.

But the problem was, Victor didn’t like the way Yuuri wouldn’t tell him what he wanted to skate for his Exhibition. It bothered him that Yuuri wouldn’t trust him enough to open up. But honestly, how could he expect that of Yuuri when Victor had barely paid him the same courtesy?

. . .eighteen, nineteen, twenty. . .

Finally, a quiet rumble of thunder vibrated the air around them. That distant flicker of lightning over the water was much farther away than Victor had realized. Strange that it made him flinch so. . .

Drawing in a shaky breath, Victor said, “I was scared of thunder when I was a little boy, so my mother would try to distract me whenever a storm blew through.”

He paused and laughed a little as the memory came spilling out of his mind, unfolding before his eyes like a movie.

“If the weather was really bad, she would tell me stories inside the house,” he continued. “But if it wasn’t too dangerous, we would go out into the yard. She would make up stories about the trees blowing in the wind and the way the raindrops would make ripples in the birdbath. She was always making up the most amazing stories, and we would run and dance and play in the rain like we were the main characters. And I don’t know how she did it, Yuuri, but I would always forget about the thunder. It’s like her voice had magic in it. She had the power to transform whatever I was afraid of into something I could laugh at.”

While Victor was speaking, Yuuri had half-turned in his arms and was watching Victor’s face with a cautious smile shining in his eyes.

And for the life of him, Victor couldn’t remember the last time he had ever made himself so vulnerable to another human being. “Sounds pretty silly, huh?” he said, trying to laugh off the awkward moment.

Yuuri shook his head. “Sounds like an amazing way to spend a thunderstorm.” Moving away from the circle of Victor’s arms, Yuuri stepped out into the rain, turned his face up, and laughed when fat water droplets spattered his cheeks and forehead. “Why are we even hiding here anyway?”

“Yuuri. . .” Victor was still laughing as well, though his sounded a bit more uncertain. “What are you doing?”

“A little rain won’t hurt us.” Yuuri’s smile widened into a playful grin. He stepped back beneath the bridge just long enough to pick up his bag again and slide it onto his shoulder. “Race you home?”

Hearing that invitation was like someone channeling electricity into Victor’s body. The thunderstorm was inside him now, lighting up his mind.

It often felt like that with Yuuri—like he was shocking a depressed, lonely Victor back to life again—but this was different. This wasn’t about the attraction Victor felt for Yuuri or his longing to deepen their relationship. This was about Victor sharing something intensely private with another person and not being told to stop living in the past. It was about Victor’s best friend inviting him to relive a special memory, and in the process, making it even more special to him than it already was.

Together they darted through the streets like a pair of wild banshees, laughing and uncoordinated with their bags jostling on their backs and Makkachin barking at their heels. At first, they tried to run around the deepest rain puddles while they chased each other home, but eventually, they gave up and started sprinting straight through them.

They even stopped to kick and splash water at each other and got honked at by a bus driver in the process. Victor found this hilarious. People in Japan didn’t often use their horns, so he and Yuuri really must have been making a scene.

Halfway home, Yuuri begged Victor to slow down and let him clean the raindrops off his glasses, but that just turned out to be a trick. The second Victor paused to let Yuuri catch up, Yuuri shoved his glasses into his pocket and sprinted past him.

“You little cheat!” Victor called after him.

“It’s not my fault that you’re gullible!” Yuuri shouted back.

By the time they reached Yu-topia, they had each regressed about twenty years in age. Giggling like little kids, they both ran under the sheltered porch and leaned against the building to catch their breath.

“I won!” Victor declared, lifting his arms over his head in triumph.

“Makkachin won,” Yuuri said, after which Makkachin barked in agreement and bent down to shake the water out of his fur. “I can’t believe we just did that. People must think we’re crazy. I wonder if anyone we know saw us?”

Victor raked his wet hair back from his face and turned to look out at the thunderstorm, which was still going strong. Thunder boomed overhead, unexpectedly close, but he barely registered it. “Who cares? That was so much fun.”

How freeing it was not to care what other people thought of him. Victor laughed and stretched his fingers back out again to feel the rain.

“Hey . . . Victor?”

He looked at Yuuri and saw that he was wearing an uncertain expression on his face. Like he wanted to say something but wasn’t sure if he should.

“This may sound stupid,” Yuuri continued, “but that thing you say your mother did for you. . .”

Immediately, Victor could feel tension returning to his body, but he kept his smile in place and waited for Yuuri to finish. Victor had trusted him once. Maybe the second time would yield similar results.

“The way you said she helped distract you from your fear of thunder,” Yuuri said. “You do that kind of thing for me all the time as my coach.”

“What do you mean?” Victor asked, not sure he was following.

“I mean whenever I get bogged down with fear or anxiety or whatever, you distract me by creating these stories in the choreography or in the music. You did it today at practice. I was thinking too hard about things, and you reminded me about the story. And maybe it’s a bad analogy because the stories your mother made up for you are a completely different thing, but I don’t know . . . it just felt similar to what you do for me.”

Yuuri trailed off and lowered his gaze to stare off into nothing. He looked very much like someone who thought he had just said something profoundly stupid.

But that wasn’t stupid. It wasn’t stupid at all.

Unexpected tears stung the inner corners of Victor’s eyes. “Oh,” he said softly. “I guess I didn’t realize she had rubbed off on me.” A cautious smile, one that bordered on amazement. “Thank you. . .”

Yuuri smiled tentatively in reply. “Let’s go inside through the back entrance. If we track mud through the front room, Mari will kill us.”

“I’m right behind you.”

 


 

 

Dear Yuri,

I’ve tried to write this letter about a hundred times. This will probably be failed attempt #101.

Why is this so difficult? I’m not kidding when I say there are dozens of pieces of paper already crumpled up in the trashcan by my feet, and this piece is seconds away from joining the others. But maybe rambling here in this letter that I’ll never give you will help me work out what I want to say.

You see, I’ve been putting together a book as a birthday present to you. I know your birthday isn’t until November, which is still months away, but I’m working with a designer back home in Russia. He needed everything far in advance, so I have to get this done soon.

The book is going to be beautiful, all detailed in gold with “Yuri on Ice” printed on the front. I wanted to give you something that chronicled your skating career since that’s what your Free Skate is about. I’ve got Minako and Yuko helping me gather old news articles and pictures of you, as well as personal letters written to you from the people in your life. I even got in contact with some of your old rink-mates from Detroit

It’s going wonderfully. All the letters I’ve received for you so far are perfect. Your friend Phichit wrote you something really nice, and so did your old coach, Celestino.

And I probably shouldn’t be jealous of them. . .

They’re in your past, and I’m your “now.”

But Yuri, I have to tell you something.

I’m really, really jealous.

I want to be petty and have Phichit and Celestino’s letters printed in extra teeny tiny font so that you can’t actually read what they say. Because both letters are perfect, and it’s so obvious that they know you well. Like, really know you in a way that I still feel I don’t.

Why the hell can’t I seem to write you a good letter?? I’m your coach and your friend. And you’re special to me, you know? You work so hard every day, and I need to write you a letter that tells you all the things I feel in my heart when I see you skate. But every time I try, it doesn’t come out right.

I don’t want to give you a letter filled with meaningless platitudes. “Do your best!” “I believe in you!” “Make me proud!” It all sounds so empty. I honestly don’t know what I’m trying to say to you, Yuri. But I feel it.

Do you feel it, too? Like you’re falling but don’t know what happens when you stop?

I really need to stop now and just throw this away.

Your hopeless coach,
Victor

 


 

 

The waterfall beat down onto Victor’s shoulders and head without mercy, but he forced himself to stand still with his hands folded in front of his chest as if in prayer. Little rainbows could be seen in the mist, their colors perfectly stationary in the open air as the water vapor moved through them. Crystal clear droplets dripped like tears from Victor’s eyelashes and chin, a miniaturized reflection of the world around him encapsulated in every drop.

He’d been there so long that the sound of rushing water had lost all meaning. It was instead like pure white noise. Like the static of a television that had lost its signal.

This was a Shinto purification ritual called misogi, and while Victor wasn’t religious himself, he maintained a deep respect for the power of it. Today in particular, he needed the simple clarity of giving himself over to something bigger.

He was struggling for reasons that evaded understanding. His throat ached, and his hands were trembling in front of him. Even his nose was running, like a child who’d been out too long in the cold. Only he wasn’t a child. He was a grown man.

What was wrong with him today?

Nothing really. At least, nothing he could put his finger on.

In truth, Victor had never been happier. It was a wonderful feeling to finally have a friend. Someone he could really talk to. But what he hadn’t expected were the emotions involved in finally opening up his heart to another person. It was like shining a flashlight into a dark place full of spiderwebs and dust. Who knew what else could be hiding in there?

Victor had come to terms with the fact that he’d been depressed for quite some time now, and he was actively working to battle it, starting with the establishment of a better work/life balance.

However, this whole time, he’d thought his workload balancing issues were the cause of his depression, but it was becoming more and more apparent that they were only a symptom. He’d thrown himself into his skating so that he wouldn’t have to deal with what was really hurting him, and he had only just started to realize there was a deeper, underlying cause.

And it was all Yuuri’s fault, really.

Not the depression itself. No, it was Yuuri’s fault that Victor was finally addressing it.

He had never felt comfortable enough to talk about certain things until very recently. It was like he’d revealed a hidden injury to Yuuri that he’d borne in silence for years, and Yuuri had coaxed him into peeling the bandage off to reveal the festering infection beneath. The wound was exposed now, and Victor was finally having to acknowledge it was there. He’d kept the bandage so pristine and out of sight for all these years so that no one would ever guess how bad it was underneath. Not even himself.

The waterfall continued to beat at his shoulders and head. It was unbelievably relentless, that waterfall. Never slowing down or pulling its punches, even for a second.

Victor was having trouble catching his breath. He swayed on his feet and squeezed his eyes shut. His hands struggled to remain clasped in front of his chest. The water from the falls was cold enough that he was shivering, but Victor felt a strange warmth sliding down his cheeks. It eventually occurred to him that he was crying. It was the warmth of his own tears that he was feeling, mixed in with the cold water pouring down on him from above.

“I’m sorry, Momma,” Victor whispered, water dripping off his lips. “You tried your best, didn’t you? It wasn’t your fault.”

 


 

Afterwards, Victor felt better.

Lighter on his feet. Younger, even.

He toweled himself off and hummed an absent melody while he changed into dry clothes. Everything felt very normal and easy. On the walk back to Yu-topia, he paused at the entrance of the temple and shielded his eyes with one hand while he looked out to the ocean ahead, which was a flat, gorgeous blue. Miles and miles of peaceful perfection with no clouds in sight.

It was the end of August, and it was like the beginning of a sunset of sorts. Difficult to explain, but Victor felt it in his heart. He was awash in bright summer sunshine still, but the sun was now angling toward the west, a little more so with each passing day. The leaves would eventually start turning, and the days would grow shorter. Then . . . colder.

That meant it was almost time for Yuuri’s competitions to begin. And after the Grand Prix Final in December . . . well, Victor didn’t know what would happen or what he was going to do next. He didn’t like to think about it. Better to focus on what was right in front of him, at least for the present.

He returned to Yu-topia with wet hair and a deep shiver that he couldn’t seem to shake off, even though the day was quite warm. Perhaps he was just hungry.

Hiroko was working outside and saw Victor coming through the main gate. She brightened and lifted a hand overhead. “Vicchan!”

And who could resist that? Anything that was bothering Victor was immediately forgotten, and he smiled and waved back. In broken English that was getting better every day, she told him to go to the dining room so that she could bring him some lunch.

Victor had never been so happy to have someone boss him around. In the dining room, he settled down on the floor in front of one of the low, traditional Japanese tables and waited for Hiroko to come fuss over him, the same way she had every day since he’d come to stay here.

Yuuri’s mother was the most beautiful woman on the planet. Victor adored her.

He loved her plump figure and pre-arthritic hands. He loved the deepening laugh lines that hugged her eyes and mouth and the soothing sound of her voice. He loved that she had called him “Vicchan” from the beginning and had accepted him at once, even before she really knew him. He also loved that she talked to him all the time in Japanese. Just because he couldn’t understand every word, that had never stopped her from communicating an emotion or sentiment to him.

“Vicchan,” Hiroko said as she set a plate of food in front of him on the table. “元気出しな!私のいなり寿司を食べてるからにわ、笑って.” [1]

Victor had no idea what she’d just said, but he smiled nevertheless. Something about the tone of her voice brightened his spirits immediately. “Sushi?” he said, pointing at the dish. It didn’t look like any sushi he’d ever had before. The pieces appeared to be deep-fried.

“Tofu,” she explained. She held out her hands and made a motion like she was folding something up inside. “Sushi rice. Eat. You see.”

With a set of chopsticks, Victor picked up one of the pieces and took a bite. An explosion of flavors filled his mouth. The subtle vinegar in the rice. The delightful texture of the fried tofu. This woman was an evil genius. No wonder Yuuri had problems maintaining his weight while living here.

Victor threw up his arms and yelled “Vkusno!” to anyone who cared to listen.

Hiroko clapped, delighted with his reaction, and left him alone to enjoy his meal. Victor felt warm inside while he watched her go. Hiroko was the traditional kind of mother he had always assumed other children had. It was nice to experience that.

Victor’s mother, on the other hand. . .

She was a thing of haunting beauty and very little substance.

Built like a silk scarf. Pale and beautiful. Like a transient being not meant for this world.

She was the kind of person who defied being labeled with an age. It was impossible to guess if she was a teenager or a grandmother. Her skin was as smooth and poreless as an infant’s, but her calm, blue eyes had seen things. Things that had aged and quieted her.

Like Victor, her hair had been silver since birth, and it was long enough that it fell past her waist, even when braided. He remembered sitting in her lap and wrapping the ends of her hair around his fingers to see if it would hold a curl.

“One day, I’ll have long hair, too,” he had declared and earned a kiss on the cheek in the process.

She was a different person with Victor than she was when she was alone. When they were together, they would play for hours and hours, more like two siblings rather than a parent and child. They played dress up, make believe, and choreographed ballets set to the music from the old vinyl record player she had in her bedroom. Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos. Chopin’s Nocturnes. Prokofiev’s Cinderella.

She loved old jazz classics as well. Count Basie. Billie Holiday. Charlie Parker.

But when she listened to jazz, it was usually late at night after Victor had gone to bed. She was different when she thought no one was looking. Upon occasion, little Victor would sneak out of bed, drawn by the music coming from the record player, and find his mother brushing her long hair and staring wistfully into her cracked vanity mirror like she wasn’t happy with what she saw. When he would call her name, she sometimes didn’t hear him.

Victor remembered feeling particularly lonely at night when he was a child. It was like he was home alone, even though his mother was just in the other room. He used to hug his pillow in bed and wish it was a dog that could keep him company.

In many ways, Victor’s mother was the exact opposite of Yuuri’s. Flighty where Hiroko was steadfast. It was the difference between a wisp of cloud and solid earth.

And perhaps that was the reason why Victor was still so angry with his mother.

One of the reasons, at least. . .

The sound of the door sliding open and shutting again drew Victor’s attention away from his lunch. Yuuri had come into the dining room, and judging from the disheveled state of his hair and clothes, he looked like he had just woken up.

“Hi,” Victor said, pleased to have some company.

Bleary-eyed and scratching his hair, Yuuri dropped into a sitting position on the floor on the opposite side of the table. “Morning,” he muttered.

“It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, my little night-owl.”

Yuuri groaned and cracked a single eye open to glance at the lunch spread out on the table. “What time did Yuuko put us down for practice?”

“No practice today,” Victor said. “You have your costume fitting, remember?”

Yuuri scrunched up his face in distaste, and Victor couldn’t help but laugh. He was just so cute when he was sleepy. It made Victor wonder how adorable Yuuri might look when he was actually asleep. . .

When Hiroko returned to the dining room with a pot of hot tea, she began to chide Yuuri in Japanese, probably for sleeping in so late. Victor leaned against the table with his chin propped up on one hand and smiled as he listened. It was so nice to have someone else roast Yuuri for once so he didn’t have to do it. Like a vacation, really.

“Hiroko-san,” Victor said before she left again. With his most winning smile, he batted his eyelashes up at her. “You look especially beautiful today. Did you do something new with your hair?”

Though she probably only understood a few words, there was no mistaking the wink he gave her.

Vicchan,” she laughed in reply and playfully flicked a hand-towel at him. “そう言う物はユーリに言いなよ、この浮気男.” [2] Giggling, she slipped out of the room and left her son and Victor alone again.

“What did she say?” Victor asked. “I didn’t understand.”

Yuuri looked far more awake than he had less than a minute ago. His eyes had gone wide, and his face had turned red as well. Was it because of what Hiroko had said before she left?

“Stop flirting with my mom,” Yuuri said, his voice cracking in the middle.

“That’s not what she said. And no, I won’t stop. She deserves to know how beautiful she is.”

Why do you think I flirt with you, Yuuri?

Yuuri pretended to glare at him, but there was a hint of a teasing smile in his eyes that gave away the fact that he was more amused than upset. As he sipped at his tea, he seemed to wake up more—enough that he noticed Victor’s appearance. “Did you bathe in the onsen this morning? Your hair is wet.”

“Uh, no,” Victor said, tucking his still-damp hair behind one ear. “I went to the temple again.”

“Oh.” Yuuri was quiet for a beat. And then, in a smaller voice, “Is . . . everything okay?”

Victor offered him a bright smile to assure him he was fine, and half of his heart even meant it. “Yeah, everything’s great. I’ve just been doing some . . . searching, I guess.”

There was another moment of lingering silence, and Victor felt compelled to fill it.

Just tell him. It’s really not that difficult.

Victor swallowed the lump in his throat. “Some things have been bothering me lately. Nothing serious. Just some old family stuff.”

Stop downplaying it.

Tell him.

Yuuri kept quiet, his face disciplined into a carefully neutral expression as he listened. He looked neither encouraging nor discouraging. Just a friend there to listen if Victor wanted to keep talking.

And he did. He wanted very badly to talk to someone.

The problem was, he didn’t know where to start.

“Yuuri, listen. . .” Victor sat up a little higher on his knees and placed a hand on the table between them. His blue eyes implored Yuuri to take what he was about to say seriously. “I said something to you a few weeks ago. It was that day we spent at the beach. We came back to the house afterward and went up to my bedroom to talk. And I said something to you about my mother, and I want to take it back.”

The corners of Yuuri’s mouth were slowly pulling downward into a frown. “Okay.”

“I told you that I didn’t consider her to be my family, and that Yakov was my family now instead. And maybe I meant it about my birth father because he was never in the picture, but my mother was. She tried her best to be a good parent to me, and I shouldn’t have said that. So yeah. . .” Victor lowered his gaze and started toying with his teacup where it rested on the table. “I just wanted to clear that up.”

Every word hurt to say, like an infection being drawn out of his body. He could practically taste it.

But after he’d gotten it out of his system, he felt relieved.

“Wow,” Victor said with a laugh. “That’s been bothering me for weeks. I don’t know why I didn’t say something sooner.”

He looked up to see Yuuri’s expression hadn’t changed. He was still attentive, still waiting quietly in case Victor wanted to say more. And there was a lot more. . .

“It’s like when I think about my mother,” Victor continued, “my thoughts are still the thoughts of a little kid instead of a grown man. I think that’s because I never knew her as an adult, so I’m having to review some things that happened with a different viewpoint than I had at the time.”

Yuuri nodded. “That makes sense.”

Victor released a slow breath. He wasn’t used to having someone validate his emotions rather than telling him to stuff them down. He looked at Yuuri and silently pleaded with him to keep talking. Though he appreciated Yuuri listening, what Victor really needed at that moment was acceptance.

Please say something.

Tell me I’m normal, even though I know I’m not.

“Sometimes the reason I don’t say a lot,” Yuuri said, “is because I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about certain things. I kind of go . . . mute. Like there’s just too much to sort through, so I don’t even try. But what I’m finding is that whenever I start talking to someone—even if I don’t think I’m making sense or if my thoughts aren’t completely in order—it helps me work out how I really feel and get some clarity. It puts things into perspective, I guess. Maybe that’s why your feelings about your mother are changing?”

“What do you mean?” Victor asked.

“Well . . . you’ve been telling me all these great stories about how much fun you had with her when you were a kid. But . . . and please forgive me if I’m overstepping . . . but it seems like maybe something happened that changed how you felt about her?”

Victor stared at him, frozen inside. Yuuri was absolutely overstepping, but there was a part of Victor that wanted him to keep charging in.

“My point is,” Yuuri said, “sometimes negative emotions can make us forget that good things happened, too. It makes sense that your feelings about your mom might change as you get deeper into the memories. You might feel angry or regretful or incredibly happy, and it’s all valid. It’s like the story of my Free Skate. I had a lot of built up negative feelings about Hasetsu and my whole skating career in general because I felt like I had let people down. But you helped me talk about it, and it allowed me to work out some things that have been bothering me for a really long time. It helped me realize how much love was surrounding me, when all I could feel for so long was nothing but that negative emotion. That wouldn’t have happened if you didn’t challenge me to open up to you. And . . . I know your private life isn’t any of my business, but if you ever want to talk with me more about your mom or anything else that’s on your mind, I’m happy to listen. That’s what friends are for, right?”

Yuuri offered him a shy, self-conscious smile, which Victor answered with one of his own.

He was a little startled, to be honest. He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had strung so many sentences together for his sake. Ever. At least, not since his mother used to tell him those wonderful stories all those years ago.

And this was Yuuri. Timid, soft-spoken Yuuri who second-guessed everything that came out of his mouth. Just how long had he wanted to say this to Victor?

“Are you sure you want to go there?” Victor asked, striving to lighten the mood with a self-depreciating chuckle. “I always make our discussions about her so awkward. . .”

Still smiling, Yuuri shook his head. “No, you don’t. I love hearing stories about your mom. Your face lights up when you start remembering. It’s nice.”

Something stirred in Victor’s heart. Warm, hopeful. It made him want to walk around the table and wrap Yuuri up in the biggest hug. And then maybe hold him for the rest of the day and into the evening.

“I’ve been trying to talk about her more,” Victor said. “I really have. She was such a wonderful mother when she was stable, but then some not-so-good stuff happened when I got older. She was . . . she was very ill. And I was just a little kid, you know? I didn’t understand, and sometimes I think I still don’t. It’s hard for me to talk about.”

Because I’m still so angry with her for leaving me. I still have abandonment issues because of it.

You say those emotions are valid, Yuuri, but how is it fair to be angry with someone who was ill?

“But maybe I could try, if it’s okay with you,” Victor said. “Talking about the good memories isn’t that difficult. At least, not once I get started.”

Yuuri’s smile was quite possibly the sweetest thing Victor had ever seen. “I’m all ears,” he said and quieted down to listen.

 


 

Yuuri’s final fitting for his costumes was scheduled for late that afternoon, and not only was Victor anxious to see how everything had turned out, but he was equally thankful for the distraction.

He felt a little wrung out from his earlier talk with Yuuri, but it hadn’t ended up that bad. They’d shared some funny and embarrassing stories from the past, and it had been a good talk that really wasn’t that painful or serious at all. But now Victor wanted to be quiet and focus on other things instead. Like Yuuri.

Beautiful, perfect Yuuri.

As if Victor’s crush on him wasn’t bad enough already.

Not only was Yuuri gorgeous on the outside, but his heart was beautiful, too. He’d been a good friend to Victor today, and now it was time to return the favor by helping Yuuri get closer to his goal.

Getting him fitted in his skating costumes was one of the last things that needed to fall into place before his competition schedule kicked off in the fall. Yuuri would try on his Free Skate outfit today, as well as the one for his Short Program, which had to be taken in since he’d dropped some additional weight over the summer. Ideally, the costume for his Exhibition should be in the works as well, but Yuuri still hadn’t told Victor what he wanted to perform yet.

Victor had given Yuuri the whole day off from practice for a reason. He’d been working hard lately, and tonight was going to be an ordeal because the entire Nishigori family was coming to Yu-topia for the fitting. The seamstress was affiliated with the Ice Castle, and Yuuko had helped facilitate discussions with her. As a special thank you for her help, Victor and Yuuri had agreed to babysit the triplets tonight so that Yuuko and Takeshi could have a much-needed date night alone. It was their anniversary.

That was why Victor and Yuuri needed a day off to prepare for tonight. It didn’t have anything to do with the costume fitting.

It was the prospect of babysitting six-year-old triplets who had an unhealthy penchant for social media. Victor was already tired, just from thinking about wrestling their shared cell phone away from them at bedtime, but he knew they’d have fun together. He liked children and hadn’t had much opportunity to be around them in the past.

The costume fitting took place upstairs in Victor’s room since it was the biggest. Though it was just Victor, Yuuri, and the seamstress present for the actual fitting, the triplets kept running up and down the stairs and peeking through the crack between the sliding doors. After snapping a picture or two, they would run back down again to report to everyone else how things were going.

“This is going to end up on Instagram, isn’t it?” Yuuri lamented.

“I’ll be very surprised if it hasn’t already,” Victor said and closed the bedroom door for the eighth time.

The seamstress was someone that Yuuri had worked with in his junior days, before he’d left Japan. She was an elegant, middle-aged woman who wore her long, black hair up in a high bun. Although she was polite and smiled often, she rarely spoke unless asked a specific question about the garment.

She stepped out of the room briefly while Victor helped Yuuri into his Eros costume. It was a moment that probably should have felt awkward—with Yuuri struggling to get his foot out of his pants while Victor waited patiently with the costume held in his hands—but it didn’t feel strange at all.

It hit Victor then how comfortable they had grown in each other’s company. It wasn’t perfect. Yuuri was still prone to blushing every time Victor touched him or let his eyes linger too long, but he didn’t run away anymore. And as a result, it was easier for Victor to feel like he could be himself.

“Finally, I have you alone in my bedroom,” Victor teased. “And in your underwear, too.”

Glancing up through his bangs, Yuuri shot Victor a dirty look that was so adorable, he couldn’t help but laugh. Yuuri certainly wasn’t afraid anymore to give him attitude.

Once the Short Program costume was zipped up and smoothed into place, Yuuri went to stand in front of the full-length mirror that Victor had purchased for the room. (Because who in their right mind could survive more than a day without a full-length mirror? Certainly not Victor.)

“Hmm,” he said as he came up behind Yuuri and adjusted the fabric at his shoulders.

Even he had to admit the seamstress had done an excellent job. The fabric hugged Yuuri’s body nicely without being too tight. Still . . . the last time Victor had seen Yuuri wear this outfit, his curves had been more exaggerated, and Victor was visibly pouting as a result. While he knew it was necessary for a figure skater to stay lean, he missed the softness of Yuuri’s body.

“What’s wrong?” Yuuri asked. “Don’t you like it?”

“You look beautiful,” Victor assured him. “Hey, do you think we could ask your mom to make katsudon for dinner tonight?”

“But. . .” Yuuri trailed off and gave him a funny look. “You know I can’t eat that. I’m not supposed to have any until I win a competition, remember?”

Victor’s pouting intensified.

The seamstress came in to see if Yuuri and Victor were satisfied with the fit, which they were. The final check was the length of the pants, which Yuuri would have to put his skates on for.

“Oh, I forgot,” Yuuri said. “I think I left them downstairs in my bag.”

Victor turned to see the triplets peeking through the crack of the door again. They were whispering to each other behind their hands. He knew their names were Axel, Lutz, and Loop, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember which one was which. Yuuko had even color-coded them for convenience, but not even that helped.

“Can one of you go get Yuuri’s skates?” Victor asked. “They’re downstairs. We need them for the fitting.”

Yuuri followed this up with the Japanese translation, and the triplets scampered off in search of his skates. They made an awful lot of noise in the process, first arguing with each other in the stairwell before launching into an outright war to see who could find Yuuri’s bag first.

Victor smiled in spite of the noise. It was kind of nice to have the kids around. . .

The triplets found the bag and brought it upstairs so that Yuuri could put on his skates. At age twenty-three, Yuuri was taller than Victor had been in his junior days when he’d originally worn this outfit, and the extra length of fabric that the seamstress had let out on the hem of the pants made a huge difference from before.

“Perfect,” Victor said as his eyes took in the long line of Yuuri’s body. “It looks even better with the skates on. How does it make you feel?”

Yuuri blew his bangs out of his eyes. “Like I’m in over my head.”

“Remember the story of your Short Program. You’re a seductress. You chose this outfit on purpose because you knew it would get you attention.”

“If you say so. The nerdy glasses and messy hair are kind of ruining the seductress vibe.”

Victor chuckled affectionately and said, “I like your nerdy glasses and messy hair. You could charm me like that any day of the week. But here . . . let’s try something.”

Carefully, he removed Yuuri’s glasses. Sliding them into his pocket, Victor began to comb his fingers back through Yuuri’s hair, guiding it away from his forehead in the process. The seamstress was on the other side of the room, steaming the wrinkles out of Yuuri’s Free Skate outfit. Whenever she glanced their way, a knowing smile played at her lips.

Again and again, Victor patiently combed Yuuri’s hair back with his fingers, but it never stayed for long. It fell back into Yuuri’s eyes like it had a mind of its own. Not that Victor cared. He could happily do this all day.

“There’s some hair gel in the bathroom, if you want it,” Yuuri said quietly. His cheeks had gone pink.

“Hmm?” Victor asked, too distracted to hear.

The seamstress spoke up then and told them she was ready for Yuuri to try on the second outfit. After she left the room so that Yuuri could change, Victor fell silent as he watched.

It was strange, watching Yuuri at that moment. Though he was half-naked in Victor’s bedroom with his gorgeous black hair still falling attractively into his eyes, the mood wasn’t sexually charged at all. It was comfortable. Warm and relaxing. Victor felt protective of Yuuri in a way that he’d never experienced with anyone else.

“Okay, this is a little weird,” Yuuri said as he held up the leotard that went underneath his Free Skate outfit. “Can you do me a favor and turn around?”

Victor laughed and did as he asked. Fondness hummed in his heart while he waited.

He was excited about Yuuri’s Free Skate costume. The first sample had been all wrong, and Victor had asked for certain aspects to be reworked. The concept was simple but elegant, dark in color with a dusting of sequins at the shoulders. There was a colorful design that traveled up the length of Yuuri’s spine and hugged his middle, which was meant to represent the strength he’d found from love.

“Help?” Yuuri said in a timid voice.

Victor turned and saw that Yuuri had successfully gotten most of the costume on by himself. The leotard, pants, and jacket were in place. However, he was having trouble getting it fastened at the waist.

But Victor didn’t move to help him right away. He was too busy staring.

The late afternoon light had faded in the last hour, and Victor’s darkening bedroom was lit only by the glow of a single lamp. It washed Yuuri in soft, golden light and made the sequins at his shoulders glitter and sparkle like stars against a nighttime sky. The v-neck cut of the shirt dipped down attractively, revealing a peek of the muscles of his chest, while the inward design at his waist accentuated his curves in a very pleasing way.

Yuuri looked strong and beautiful, and yes, Victor was still staring. He couldn’t seem to stop.

He blinked eventually and extended a hand in invitation. “Come here.”

Together, they figured out how to work the clasp at the waist, which was really quite clever in design. Victor was pleased with the quality of the fabric and how his eye kept being drawn to the design that journeyed up the line of Yuuri’s back.

“Go stand in front of the mirror,” Victor said. “Let’s get a good look at you.”

After Yuuri went to the mirror, Victor came up behind him and ran both hands down his arms to smooth the fabric into perfection. “Lift your arms.”

Yuuri swallowed, and though he looked a bit uncertain, he did as he was told. With his hands in the air, the bottom of the jacket rode up higher on his body, but the seamstress had done a good job with the fit. Victor was satisfied with everything he saw.

“How does that feel?” he asked. His hands were on Yuuri’s waist now, and his mouth was close to his ear.

For some reason, Yuuri seemed to be having a hard time concentrating on his own reflection. “S-sorry . . . what did you say?”

“Is the jacket still comfortable with your arms raised? Move around. Bend your knees. You need to get a feel for what it’s like to skate when you’re wearing this.”

At Victor’s insistence, Yuuri walked around the room and extended his arms every which way. “I wore a jacket like this last year, but the sleeves were more fitted at the wrists because there were ruffles. I like the way these sleeves feel better, but they’re a little long when I’m at rest.”

“Hmm, agreed,” Victor said, his eyes narrowed as he studied the length of the fabric at Yuuri’s wrists. “That’s easily fixed. Anything else?”

Yuuri’s brows were drawn together in the middle, and he was frowning. It was clear he wanted to say something but was hesitating.

“What’s wrong? Do you not like it?”

“No, it’s really nice. I just . . . I don’t know. Isn’t it a little plain?”

One side of Victor’s mouth pulled upward into a smirk. “It’s not plain at all. It’s simple and elegant. Understated, because we’re trying to show you off. Not the costume.” He gestured to the mirror to draw Yuuri’s attention back to his reflection. “See the way it dips down at the chest and makes your face stand out? It’s a perfect contrast to your skintone. And the design on the back and around the waist shows off how strong your body is. Do you see what I mean?”

Instead of answering the question, Yuuri just frowned at his reflection.

“Do you want to put your glasses back on?” Victor said. “Because I don’t think we’re seeing the same thing right now.”

“I can see myself in the mirror just fine . . . but maybe that’s the problem. It’s not the costume that’s plain. It’s me.”

“Then we definitely aren’t seeing the same thing.” Victor combed his fingers through Yuuri’s still-messy hair, pulling it back from his forehead again. “Let’s put some gel in your hair. Maybe that will help you get the full picture.”

While Victor was fetching the hair gel and a comb from the bathroom, the seamstress returned to get feedback on the fit of the costume. The triplets piled into the room just behind her and started firing off question after question to Yuuri. Since it was all in Japanese, Victor had no idea what they were saying, but they certainly seemed excited. When he returned to the room with the hair products in hand, Yuuri was sitting on the edge of Victor’s bed and smiling down at the three sisters with patient affection.

He reached out a hand so that Victor could hand over the comb and gel, but Victor shook his head. “I can do it. Just relax.”

Victor came up behind where Yuuri was sitting and rested a knee on the mattress to balance himself. The seamstress was in the background, fiddling with a loose thread at the sleeve of Yuuri’s Short Program outfit, while the triplets scrambled about, snapping pictures and inspecting every corner of Victor’s room.

They were far from alone, but in the middle of it all, Victor and Yuuri were quiet.

Victor had taken the comb and was running it back through Yuuri’s hair with reverence, delighting in the cool, silky slip of it through his fingers. He could see Yuuri’s face in the mirror. He looked just as happy and content as Victor felt.

He took his time—far more time than was really needed to slick someone’s hair back—but he was enjoying the peaceful moment too much to rush it. But once he’d used a bit of gel and carefully smoothed everything into place, Victor put his hand on Yuuri’s shoulder and gave it a little squeeze.

“Stand up, and go look in the mirror. Tell me what you see.”

Yuuri stood and tugged his jacket down into place while he strode over to the mirror. He was still wearing his skates, so his shadow loomed long and lean behind him. For a long time, he just stared at his reflection. His eyes were sparkling as they often did when he was searching for something.

Eventually, Yuuri turned his head and offered Victor a tiny smile.

“Told you so,” Victor said with a wink.

 


 

After the seamstress left with a promise to adjust the sleeve length of the Free Skate outfit, Victor and Yuuri herded three very hungry triplets downstairs to the dining room. Mari was usually the one who was in charge of serving dinner, but tonight she stayed far away and sent one of the kitchen workers instead.

“Does Mari not like kids or something?” Victor asked Yuuri in English, knowing the triplets wouldn’t understand him. They were busy shoveling rice and vegetables into their mouths at an astonishing pace. Makkachin was sitting just behind them, tail wagging as he waited to gobble up every morsel of food they dropped.

“I’m sure she likes them well enough,” Yuuri said. “I think she just doesn’t want to get suckered into babysitting them for us tonight. They’re our responsibility.”

Yuuko and Takeshi were long gone, out celebrating their anniversary, and the triplets had been left in Victor and Yuuri’s care for the next few hours. Throughout the duration of dinner, the girls talked nonstop in lightning-fast Japanese that Victor could not possibly hope to understand. Yuuri wasn’t part of the conversation either, but he did look amused, particularly when the three sisters started glancing at Victor and whispering behind their fingers.

“What are they saying?” Victor asked. “They’re plotting something bad, aren’t they?”

Yuuri was fighting a smile. “I think it depends on your definition of bad. Better get ready, though. You’re the person they’ve got in their crosshairs.”

After dinner, the triplets decided it was time to enact whatever plan they’d been concocting. Two sisters took Victor by the hands and dragged him upstairs again, while the sister with the blue scrunchie (he still couldn’t remember her name) ran to get the suitcase they’d brought with them to Yu-topia. It had their toys, sleeping bags, and some nightclothes packed inside.

Pink Scrunchie made Victor sit down on the couch in his bedroom while Purple Scrunchie adjusted the mirror and light. Blue Scrunchie put the little suitcase down on the floor and started pulling out the contents.

It looked like they had brought things to play dress up in. There were little bows and feathered boas and colored hair extensions that snapped into place with glittery barrettes. They even had a little makeup kit with some face-paint and lip gloss inside.

“What’s happening?” Victor asked Yuuri, who had come to stand in the doorway with his shoulder resting against the jamb.

“I think they’re pretending this is another costume fitting,” Yuuri said. “Except this time, it’s your turn, and they’re your stylists.”

“Oh. . .” Victor brightened and turned to the triplets with a smile. “That sounds fun! What should I wear first?”

For the next hour or so, Victor laughed until his stomach hurt while the triplets dressed him up. He let the girls snap pink and purple extensions into his hair and apply snowflake stickers to the outer corners of his eyes. Blue Scrunchie wound a long, feathery boa around Victor’s arms, pinning them in place against his body so that he couldn’t escape. Not that he wanted to. He was having a ball.

Makkachin had received a makeover as well. He was sitting at the foot of the couch with bows in his fur and his claws freshly painted with peel-off nail polish.

When Pink Scrunchie guided Victor’s face in her direction and showed him a lip gloss wand that was covered in sticky pink goo, he obediently puckered up so that she could apply a messy coat on his lips. (And nose. And chin. And strangely enough, his ear.)

After getting a puff of Barbie perfume to the face, Victor proclaimed, “Oh, I feel so beautiful! Thank you!”

At some point, Yuuri had come over to sit on the other end of the couch, and he had the back of his hand pressed to his mouth to keep himself from laughing. This did nothing to hide the amusement dancing in his eyes. Victor wasn’t the only one having a good time.

“How do I look?” Victor asked, then grinned to show off the lip gloss on his teeth.

Yuuri’s shoulders shook with silent laughter, but then his gaze softened and warmed into something unexpectedly affectionate.

The way Yuuri looked at him at that moment—like he really did think Victor was beautiful, even with lip gloss on his teeth and stickers on his face—was like nothing Victor had ever experienced.

Victor knew he was handsome. Beautiful, even. He’d had plenty of men tell him so but then act like they hadn’t after they got what they wanted from him.

But Yuuri wasn’t looking at him like those other men did. Though he hadn’t moved from where he was seated on the couch, it was like he had leaned forward and dropped a little kiss on Victor’s cheek, then locked eyes with him afterward and smiled. Victor felt like his insides were going to flutter right out of him.

After Purple Scrunchie painted Victor’s fingernails the same shade of peel-off turquoise that Makkachin had and Yuuri barely saved his own nails from a sloppy coat of bright red, the triplets set about tearing the room apart. They pulled every pillow and blanket off Victor’s bed and then ran into Yuuri’s room in search of more. When they came back, they set about constructing a fort for themselves at the foot of the couch between Victor and Yuuri’s legs.

Yuuri pulled up a Miyazaki movie for them on his laptop, which he placed on the floor in front of their fort, and the three sisters got all snuggled up in their pajamas and sleeping bags to watch. When he settled back down on the couch, Yuuri was sitting a little closer to Victor than before.

And it was nice . . . sitting there beside Yuuri with a bunch of little kids at their feet and a movie flickering on the screen. Beside him, Yuuri’s legs were pulled up to his chest, but Victor’s posture was more open. His arm rested across the back of the couch.

“You’re really good with kids,” Yuuri said. “Better than me, for sure.”

Victor laughed quietly, careful to keep his voice down so as not to disturb the triplets’ movie. “All I did was let them bedazzle me. It was fun.” He unclipped one of the extensions from his hair and reached to slide it behind Yuuri’s ear instead. “Do you see yourself as a father one day? I really want kids. . .”

“I’m honestly not sure,” Yuuri said as he pulled the clip out of his hair and set it on his leg. “I like kids, too, but it’s . . . complicated.”

“Why’s that?”

“Well, I’m gay, so. . .” A dry smile tugged briefly at Yuuri’s lips.

Again, Victor’s heart fluttered. He had always known (or at least strongly suspected) that Yuuri favored men. But since Yuuri had never volunteered any information about his sexual preferences, Victor had never asked. There were some topics that shouldn’t be pushed until the other person was ready to open up.

It made him wonder why Yuuri was telling him this now . . . and why he’d chosen to sit in the middle of the couch beside Victor instead of at the opposite end. That was new.

“That doesn’t mean you can’t have kids,” Victor said. “There’s always adoption or surrogacy.”

“Oh, I know,” Yuuri said. “I didn’t mean that I thought it was impossible. Just . . . more complicated. More steps to go through, I guess is a better way of putting it. But yeah, I think I do want to start a family one day.”

You already are my family, Yuuri. You just haven’t figured it out yet.

“Me, too. But like you said, it’s complicated.”

Yuuri met Victor’s eyes, a question shining in his own.

Victor winked at him. “Because, you know . . . I’m gay, so. . .”

It wasn’t the way he had imagined coming out of the closet to Yuuri—wearing a feather boa and Barbie perfume, with three little girls falling asleep at their feet. But really . . . if Yuuri hadn’t guessed by now that Victor was gay, then he was beyond oblivious. All the same, it was nice to say it out loud to another person. Though Victor didn’t hide his sexuality, it wasn’t something he spoke openly about to just anyone.

Yuuri blushed after Victor said it, and his gaze fell down to his hands, which were now fidgeting in his lap.

“But you probably already knew that, huh?” Victor said.

Yuuri let out a little chuckle. “The thought might have occurred to me once or twice.”

Unable to resist, Victor reached out to cover Yuuri’s fidgeting hands with one of his own. He rubbed a thumb over Yuuri’s skin and left his hand there while he turned his attention to the movie. Beside him, Yuuri had visibly reacted when Victor touched him, but he didn’t pull his hands away. As the movie played on and painted moving pictures on the lenses of Yuuri’s glasses, Victor slid his fingers between Yuuri’s and gave them a squeeze.

They stayed like that for the entire length of the movie, even after Victor started dozing off in the middle when he got tired of reading the English subtitles that Yuuri had put on for him.

Victor fell asleep towards the end, and when he stirred again and opened his eyes, he saw that the movie was over. The screen of Yuuri’s laptop had gone dark, and the triplets were softly snoring in their sleeping bags on the floor. Victor yawned and glanced over at Yuuri, who was still awake and just sitting there quietly, holding Victor’s hand.

“When did the movie end?” Victor asked.

“Oh, um. . .” Yuuri sat up a little straighter. “Maybe five minutes ago?”

“Where were you just now? You looked like you were a million miles away.”

“Just thinking about stuff. Skating actually. . .” Yuuri drew in a slow breath and then pushed it back out again in a big gust. “I think I know what I want to do for my Exhibition.”

“Really?” His interest piqued, Victor sat up as well. “What do you have in mind?”

“Well . . . let me start by saying that I want you to tell me no if you’re not comfortable with the idea. I promise I won’t be mad. I’ll just think of something else.”

“Why wouldn’t I be comfortable with the idea?”

“Because it’s your program. I want to skate to Stammi Vicino.”

Victor’s lips parted in surprise. Really, he couldn’t have been more astonished if Yuuri had crawled into his lap and kissed the tip of his nose. “Why?” he asked quietly.

“It’s supposed to be what I want to skate to, right? The kind of skating that makes me . . . happy.” Yuuri trailed off and covered his face with his free hand. “Oh, God. I feel really, really stupid. . .”

Victor tugged gently on the hand he still had captured within his own. “No, Yuuri. Please tell me.”

“You know I’ve always looked up to you. I used to copy your skating whenever I’d get depressed or anxious. It would make me so happy when I watched it, and being able to figure out how to do it was even better. Whenever I would forget why I love skating, all I would have to do is go to the rink and skate like you. You asked me what kind of skating makes me happy, and that’s it. Now . . . if you’ll excuse me . . . I think I need to go jump off a cliff or find a very big rock to crawl under and die.”

“Don’t you dare leave me.” Victor smiled at Yuuri when he finally met his eyes again. “Thank you for telling me that. I would love to see you skate to Stammi Vicino again. Of course, you can do it for your Exhibition.”

“It would be a tribute to you. I hope you know that.”

Victor squeezed Yuuri’s hand again, just to remind himself that he could. It was so nice to be able to touch him like this. The newness of it hadn’t worn off at all. “Now that I think about it, I guess it even matches the ‘love’ theme you decided on. Except it’s kind of a sad ending to a program that’s otherwise so hopeful. Hmm.” Victor tapped his lips, dissatisfied.

“I actually thought the lyrics were kind of romantic. Especially the ending. . .”

“I guess it depends on how you choose to interpret them. The whole thing always felt kind of desperate to me. Like the singer is pleading, or asking a question that never gets answered. Hmm. I wonder if we could alter it somehow. . .”

A comfortable silence fell between them, and they were content to just sit there, hand in hand, and listen to the triplets sleep. But sooner than expected came the sound of footsteps up the stairs, and Yuuri tugged his hand out of Victor’s seconds before Yuuko popped her head through the doorway.

Though she opened her mouth to say something, she hesitated when she saw how close Victor and Yuuri were sitting. Then her lips spread into a smile as she said, “Knock, knock. Sorry we’re so late. Are they sleeping?”

Yuuri pointed to the fort that the three sisters had made in front of the couch. “They didn’t make it very far into the movie.”

“Hopefully they didn’t give you too much trouble,” Yuuko said. “Victor, I’m loving the new look.”

Victor tucked a sparkly hair extension behind his ear and said, “Yeah, it’s just something I’m trying out. Sometimes you need to feel a little fancy, you know? Did you see how pretty your girls made my nails look?”

While Yuuko inspected Victor’s turquoise polish, she said, “What do I owe you guys for babysitting my little monsters?”

“After all the times you’ve helped me out, you really think I’m going to charge you?” Yuuri said.

“No kidding,” Victor said. “We owe you a lot more than this. Besides, tonight was fun.”

All of it was. Especially the part where he got to hold Yuuri’s hand. . .

Yuuko smiled while she pretended to think about it. “You know, you’re right. And you’re welcome.”

They walked Yuuko and the sleepy trio of sisters outside to the main gate of the onsen, where Takeshi was waiting with the car to drive his family home. Once the girls were all loaded inside, Victor slipped his arm around Yuuri’s shoulders while they watched them drive off. The temperature was noticeably cooler tonight.

Beside him, Yuuri concealed a yawn beneath the palm of his hand. “I think I might turn in soon.”

“Before you do,” Victor said, “come back to my room for just a minute. There’s something I want to show you.”

Together, they returned upstairs, and Victor went straight for one of the chests in his closet that had some of his old skating costumes stored inside. Getting down on his knees in front of it, he started digging around. He was glad he hadn’t had a chance to ship these unused costumes back to Russia yet. This was just too perfect. . .

“Here it is,” Victor said when he found what he was looking for.

He stood with the garment in hand and smiled as he held it up for Yuuri to see. It was one of the rejected samples from Victor’s Free Skate outfit fittings from the prior season. “Last year, I had this made in a few different colors before I settled on fuchsia with the white shirt underneath. I have a purple version as well, but I think this blue one would look best on you. Do you want to try it on?”

Yuuri looked absolutely stunned.

For a minute, he could only just stand there with his mouth hanging open, but then he looked up at Victor with the most amazing expression of gratitude. “I . . . I could really wear that?”

He must have forgotten that he was tired because he tried on the costume right then and there. Victor was a larger person than Yuuri, both in height and weight. His shoulders were broader, and his torso and legs were longer as well. This meant the costume didn’t fit Yuuri very well, but with a little tailoring, that was a simple enough problem to fix. The potential was easy to see, reflected there in the full-length mirror.

While Yuuri stared at himself in Victor’s costume, Victor put his hands on his shoulders and said, “Now I know why this color didn’t work out. It was never meant for me.”

“I feel like a fraud in this,” Yuuri said, almost in a whisper.

“Well, you look like a prince . . . though maybe a prince who accidentally drank a spoonful of shrinking potion and woke up to discover his clothes didn’t fit him anymore. We’ll need to get this tailored before you wear it at a competition.”

Victor’s hands fell away from Yuuri’s shoulders as the younger man turned to hug him around his waist. It stunned Victor a little, even though it was hardly the first time Yuuri had initiated an unexpected embrace. He’d done it in Sochi when he’d asked Victor to become his coach, and then Yuuri had hugged him again before his Onsen on Ice performance.

And this was another moment like that, when Victor felt Yuuri was trying to tell him something deeper than any words could ever express.

One thing was for certain. Yuuri really liked that costume.

“Thank you,” he said, his face pressed against Victor’s shoulder.

Victor put gentle pressure on Yuuri’s back to encourage him to stay there as long as he wanted. “You’re welcome. We’ll start work on your Exhibition soon, okay? You’re going to be amazing.”

 


 

Dear Yuri,

I’m writing this letter on the eve of your very first competition of the season, and I couldn’t be prouder of you. For the last few months, I’ve had the honor of being your coach and watching you blossom under the

Okay, how about no?

No, no, no, no, no, I don’t like this letter at all.

Looks like this one will be joining the others in the trashcan soon. What is wrong with me? Why can’t I seem to write it?

It’s been weeks, Yuri. The designer of your birthday book has started leaving nasty messages on my voicemail, saying if I don’t get the final draft to him soon, he’s going to have to leave it out. He said there are already so many nice letters there from your friends and family, so why is another one needed? But like EXCUSE ME??? THIS IS MY PRESENT THAT I’M PAYING FOR, MR. FANCY PANTS DESIGNER MAN, AND MY LETTER IS GOING TO BE BEST ONE THERE, OKAY?

If I can ever get what I want to say down on paper, that is. . .

There’s so much I want to tell you, Yuri. So much that’s in my heart. I can’t stop thinking about what it was like to hold your hand that night, or the way you looked at me when I gave you that old costume of mine.

But this isn’t supposed to be that kind of letter. I’m supposed to be writing this as your figure skating coach. Not as your friend or . . . whatever else is going on between us.

You drive me crazy, you know that? But I really am proud of you, Yuri. Good luck tomorrow.

Your coach,
Victor

PS - Is it strange that sometimes I feel like you’re the one teaching me instead of the other way around? Maybe that’s my problem. Maybe I’ve got my perspective on this whole letter thing backwards.

I’ll think about it. . .

 


 

Yuuri won his first competition.

And it really wasn’t that much of a surprise when he did, considering he was up against a bunch of teenagers who were still learning the ropes. Yuuri was a Grand Prix Series Finalist, and his closest opponent at this little block competition couldn’t even land a single quad. So no, it wasn’t a surprise that he won.

No, the part that surprised Victor was just how shaky and unfocused Yuuri’s two performances had been. The “little block competition” turned out to be not-so-little after all.

Victor had entered the venue in his brand-new suit, full of confidence that his prized pupil was about to make a stunning season debut, and he’d instead found himself wanting to strip off his gloves and chew his freshly-manicured fingernails down to the quick. The Free Skate in particular was beyond nerve-wracking. Yuuri kept altering the jump composition in direct disobedience to Victor’s instruction.

And really. Who just defied their coach like that?

Well, besides Victor. . .

Yuuri had even altered some of the choreography, and that was unexpected as well, though it took some time for the full brunt of the surprise to really sink in. For the final pose of his Free Skate, Yuuri had extended his arm in Victor’s direction like he was pointing at him or perhaps paying tribute . . . and that was not what they had practiced. What they had agreed on was Yuuri slowly trailing his finger along the line of the whole audience until the music faded into nothing.

When he asked Yuuri about it later, the response shocked Victor more than anything else that had happened that night.

“I don’t know why I did it,” Yuuri said. “I guess I was thinking about the story. Remember that day at the Ice Castle when you made me think of a more defined ending for my Free Skate? I came up with the idea of taking all the love that was surrounding me and giving it back, but then I got to thinking. You were the one who made me love skating to begin with. So . . . I guess my Free Skate story kind of ended where it began. With, um . . . with you.”

After which Victor’s mouth had fallen open and stayed like that pretty much the entire way back to Hasetsu.

Back at Yu-topia, they were greeted by Yuuri’s family and friends, who had gathered to celebrate his first win of the season. They’d brought out balloons, confetti, and cake, and the whole thing was grand enough that it was almost like Yuuri had brought home a World Championship gold medal instead of a regional certificate.

A little more subdued than normal, Victor hung back to watch while Yuuri was swept up by his family.

Five times, Victor had won Worlds for Russia, and he’d racked up dozens of gold medals before that. So many, in fact, that they’d long-since lost their meaning. He’d sometimes been treated to lavish celebratory dinners after a win, but the only ones typically in attendance were Yakov, a rink-mate or two, and maybe a representative from the Figure Skating Federation of Russia. Once or twice, his aunt and uncle had shown up with the cousins in tow.

But all of those people—the skeletal remains of Victor’s family—seemed very far away in that moment.

Yakov had tried his best to be a father-figure to him when there was really no one else there to do it, but Victor realized now that he hadn’t been very appreciative of his coach’s efforts. Now, Yakov wouldn’t even talk to him.

Yuuri’s celebration that night was different from anything Victor had experienced himself. While it wasn’t as lavish as a restaurant, somehow the homemade food and drink seemed so much more substantial and nourishing. The atmosphere was so welcoming that even Victor’s mood couldn’t stay melancholy for long. Yuuri’s family wouldn’t let him, and it wasn’t long before Victor was being pulled into conversations or being handed something yummy to eat.

While it was amazing to see just how much support Yuuri really had, watching him come to understand it himself was even better. Tonight, Yuuri’s eyes were bright, and he was full of smiles. Though he was a bit overwhelmed with all the attention, he had changed so much in the months since Victor had come to Japan. Yuuri was beginning to get more comfortable with the idea of love—not only receiving it but giving it back as well.

Toshiya tapped Victor on the shoulder to get his attention, then gestured to the bottle he had in his hand. “Saké?”

Victor smiled and held out his glass.

Getting drunk with Yuuri’s dad was always a good time.

Katsuki Toshiya didn’t speak a word of English, but he was always happy to teach Victor a Japanese bar song or a naughty phrase that made Hiroko shoo him back into the kitchen with a snap of her towel. Though jovial and good-natured when sober, Toshiya was downright hilarious when he’d had a few drinks.

Drinking with his own “father” was different. When Victor came of age, Yakov would sometimes bring him to his favorite dive bar after a particularly satisfying practice, and together, they’d sip vodka and have a quiet conversation about how they could push Victor’s performance to the next level. To this day, every time Victor smelled the scent of cigarette smoke, he would think about that bar.

Then he would think about Yakov . . . and how Victor really might owe him an apology for not inviting him to that bar before he left for Japan. Victor should have taken the time to better explain why he needed to go. Maybe if he had, their relationship wouldn’t have been so damaged by his sudden departure.

Yuuri’s father, on the other hand, was the polar-opposite of Yakov.

Toshiya didn’t sip his alcohol quietly in a downtown dive bar. With him, every drink was a celebration meant to be shared with others.

By the time he and Victor polished off a few bottles of saké together, they were almost falling onto the ground because they were laughing so hard. Toshiya was trying (and failing . . . good grief, was he failing) to balance their most recent bottle on his nose. Unfortunately, it was still half-full of liquid, so when it fell, they both got splashed. The mess just made them both crack up even harder.

Hiroko came over to mop up the saké and fuss at her inebriated husband. As Victor wiped tears of amusement from his eyes, he spotted Yuuri smiling at him from across the room. There was an edge of worry in his gaze.

Victor perked up, pleased that Yuuri was finally paying attention to him again.

Soon after, Yuuri came over and picked up Victor’s glass, which had fallen onto its side on the table. “Hey. How are you feeling?”

“Mmmm gooooood,” Victor said in a perfectly sober manner.

“Uh-huh,” Yuuri said with a patient nod. “How about we get you upstairs and into bed? It’s getting late.”

“Mmmmkaaaay.”

Okay, fine. So maybe he’d had a little too much to drink. . .

But it was Yuuri’s fault that Victor was drinking in the first place—what with the general perfection of his family and his continued imperviousness to Victor’s more amorous advances—so it served him right that he had to be the one to help Victor remember how his legs worked.

With a little creativity, Yuuri got Victor up the stairs, and the whole thing was really quite enjoyable. A bit like cuddling. Victor had his arm around Yuuri’s shoulders and was too busy relishing the feel of Yuuri supporting his waist to give much thought to concepts like gravity or social decorum.

“You should come to bed with me,” Victor said, his lips moving against the warm skin just above Yuuri’s ear. “I promise I’ll be good. . .”

Yuuri let out a breathy chuckle as he helped Victor up the last step. “Victor, you’re a little drunk.”

“Mmm, and you’re cute. Seriously, come to bed with me. I wanna cuddle.”

“Maybe another time.”

“Promises, promises.”

Victor blew his bangs out of his eyes and staggered the rest of the way down the hallway. When he passed up his own bedroom door and tried to go for Yuuri’s instead, Yuuri gently caught him by the elbow and turned him back around. Victor pouted when he found himself in his own empty room.

“Not even Makkachin wants to sleep with me,” he lamented. “He’d rather cuddle with Mari and forget all about me.”

“I’m sure he’ll come upstairs when he gets tired of the party,” Yuuri said.

With a sigh, Victor resigned himself to sleeping alone yet again and collapsed face-first onto the bed with his legs hanging off the end. “You’re so lucky,” he muttered into the mattress. “Your family really loves you. What’s it like, Yuuri?”

There was a long pause that seemed to last forever to Victor’s inebriated mind.

And then, Yuuri’s calm voice broke through. “They love you, too, Victor. . .”

Victor turned his face to the side so that his cheek was resting on the blanket. “Not like they love you. I’m just a visitor here.”

“That’s not true. We don’t give temporary guests a master key that unlocks the whole house.”

Rolling onto his side so that he could see Yuuri better, Victor said, “Does that mean I’m special? Because I have a key to Yu-topia?”

Standing over him, Yuuri wore a tender smile as he nodded.

“And I don’t have to give it back?” Victor asked. “Never ever ever?”

Yuuri’s smile split into a grin. He shook his head ‘no.’ “You can keep it for as long as you like.”

“I’m special,” Victor declared, preening over this news. “And I have a special key because I’m special and you like me.” He focused in hard on Yuuri suddenly, wide-eyed and concerned. “You do like me, don’t you? Because I like you. Yuuri, I like you a lot. . .”

“I like you, too, Victor. Let’s get you under the covers, okay?”

Sticking out his lower lip, Victor pulled ineffectually at his shirt, which was damp in places from the spilled saké. “Want off.”

A sigh, and then Yuuri’s knees hit the mattress. A second later, he was guiding Victor onto his back so that they could unbutton his shirt together. Once he was naked, Victor tossed his black bikini-cut underwear across the room and settled down beneath the blanket that Yuuri had pulled over him.

Victor was already feeling a bit choked up at the thought of being left alone, and he wondered if the emotion wouldn’t be this powerful if Yuuri wasn’t being so sweet to him. “Thanks for taking care of me,” Victor said in a small voice. “I know I drink too much sometimes. . .”

“It’s the least I can do after you’ve taken such good care of me.”

Yuuri tugged the blanket up to Victor’s chin and smoothed it in place, but before he could slip away, Victor reached out to take hold of his wrist. He stared up at Yuuri in the darkness and whispered, “Please don’t go. . .”

Stay close to me. I’m so tired of feeling alone.

Yuuri was visibly hesitating, his lips parted, his hair falling into his eyes. The mattress seemed to tremble where he was kneeling on the bed.

Though Victor already knew his request was going to be denied, he couldn’t help but say, “Just this once? Just until I fall asleep. Yuuri, I don’t feel right. . .”

The mattress moved again as Yuuri fully sat down beside him. “Do you want some water?”

There were warm fingers brushing Victor’s hair out of his face, and he leaned into the touch, pathetically hungry for it. “Want you. . .”

The fingers stopped moving for a few seconds.

When they started up again and continued to stroke Victor’s hair, he could have sworn he heard Yuuri say, “I’m here.”

And that was the last thing Victor remembered.

 


 

When he woke the next morning, he had a bad taste in his mouth and the beginnings of a raging headache drilling into the backs of his eyeballs. But that wasn’t what made Victor sit up in bed and stare straight ahead in a near-daze.

Overwhelming emotion was stirring inside—strong enough to drive an ache deep into his throat that he couldn’t seem to swallow—and for the life of him, he had no idea what to do with all of it.

Because Yuuri hadn’t left him last night.

He was still there in Victor’s room, sleeping on the couch that was much too small to allow a grown man to comfortably stretch out. He didn’t even have a pillow or blanket, which he could have easily fetched from his own room. (Was it possible he hadn’t wanted to leave Victor alone for that long?) Morning light was pouring into the room from the door that they’d neglected to close last night, and it painted both shadows and illumination on his peaceful face.

Victor had always known Yuuri would be beautiful in his sleep. But this. . .

A slow breath shivered out of him.

It was the first time since his arrival at Yu-topia that Victor stayed in bed until Yuuri woke up first.

 


 

Victor found himself quieter than normal in the days following that drunken night.

Something had changed within him. Locked into place. He wasn’t sure what to call it, but it made him feel calmer and more centered than he had in a long time. When Yuuri bid him goodnight at the end of each day and went to his own room to sleep, Victor no longer felt so desperate to follow.

And it wasn’t that he didn’t long for Yuuri anymore. If anything, Victor’s feelings were more intense than ever. But maybe it was the fact that he knew now that someone cared for him in return.

Maybe it was because Victor had realized that if he really needed it, Yuuri would stay with him if he asked him to. Being patient wasn’t such a big deal after that.

Fall had officially descended upon Hasetsu, and with it came the first real cold snap since last spring.

Victor and Yuuri had to wear jackets that morning, and they ran the whole way to the Ice Castle to keep warm. “Let’s rehearse for the Exhibition today,” Victor said, his breath freezing into clouds that rose into the air above them. “The Cup of China is coming up fast, and you’ve barely let me work with you on it.”

Yuuri’s expression melted into a look of pure panic. He pushed his hands deeper into the pockets of his jacket and didn’t respond.

Undeterred, Victor poked his shoulder and said, “Okay, what is up with you? Why won’t you let me see you skate the routine? Every time I want to practice it, you refuse, and then you sneak off and work through it when I’m not around.”

“You know why,” Yuuri said. “Stammi Vicino is your routine. Do you have any idea how nerve-wracking it is to even think about performing it in front of you?”

“I’ve seen you do it before, Yuuri.”

“No, you saw a YouTube video that I never meant for anyone to see. This is different.”

Letting out an exasperated growl, Victor nudged Yuuri in the direction of the Ice Castle doors. “Get in there. No, don’t give me that sour look. I don’t care. You’re skating it for me right now. No excuses.”

And then he gave Yuuri a light kick in the pants just to make sure he hurried.

 


 

Out on the rink, Yuuri’s nerves showed no signs of improvement. He fidgeted and ground the toe-pick of his skate into the ice while he waited for Victor to get settled so that their real practice could begin. He had rushed Yuuri through his stretches and warmup drills, allowing just enough time to make sure he wouldn’t sprain anything, but Victor was eager to get to the main event.

He tossed his gloves onto the CD player and called over his shoulder, “What do you prefer? Music or no music for the first run-through?”

“Neither?” Yuuri called sullenly back.

Which, of course, prompted Victor to put the CD player on full-blast. “From the top!” he declared.

Once the music got started, Yuuri surprised them both by taking in a deep breath, composing himself . . . and starting to skate.

As Victor watched Yuuri perform Stammi Vicino live for him for the first time, he couldn’t even begin to understand why he was so nervous. This was to be his Exhibition routine, and while it was still important to prepare a well-polished performance, this was not the time to get all anxious and uptight. This was supposed to be fun.

(Yuuri had specifically requested to skate this routine, right? Victor hadn’t just imagined that part?)

“Looking good!” Victor called out to him. “Keep going.”

It wasn’t a lie. Yuuri had obviously been practicing the routine in private because he was putting in a pretty solid performance for someone who was so nervous. And this was just their first run-through. With the hard work of actually learning the choreography already out of the way, it was going to be easy to get this polished in time for the Cup of China.

Yuuri had altered the jump composition all on his own, the same way he had in the viral video, choosing quads and triples that he was more comfortable with. He couldn’t yet do all the jumps Victor had performed last year. All the same, he was quite pleased with the choices Yuuri had made, which were a good mixture of more challenging jumps and ones Yuuri knew he could land every time.

After the music reached its climax and Yuuri struck the final pose, Victor didn’t hesitate to start clapping, and he wasn’t just going easy on Yuuri because of his nerves. Victor was genuinely pleased that they had such a solid starting point to build on.

When Yuuri skated over to the barrier for a drink of water, Victor said, “Very well done. Do you feel better, now that you got that over with?”

“Not really,” Yuuri said between sips of water. “I know I can do better.”

“Of course, you can. That was a warm up. Now that you’ve got the nervousness out of your system, let’s try that again. I think we both know you weren’t completely focused that time.”

“Hai.” Yuuri wiped his mouth and set the bottle back on the barrier with a look of steely determination glinting in his eyes.

Unfortunately, subsequent run-throughs of the routine did not go as smoothly as the first.

Now that Victor was beginning to critique his performance, Yuuri’s confidence was suffering as a result. While he occasionally had a day where he took Victor’s constructive criticism too much to heart, Yuuri was normally good when it came to honest feedback. Not only did he want to grow and improve, but he hated being coddled. Therefore, Victor didn’t hesitate to give him a good roasting if he thought he could do better.

But today, he didn’t have to. Yuuri was doing all the roasting himself.

After each run-through, he had something negative to say about himself—whether it was his posture, his jumps, his inability to do it as well as Victor had, or his competence on the ice in general. Not only that, but Yuuri didn’t seem to hear any of the positive feedback Victor kept offering him.

And the real problem was that the more Yuuri talked negatively about himself, the more his words were becoming reality. Victor was literally watching Yuuri become a worse skater, right before his eyes. That was how much power his mind had over him.

“Yuuri. . .” Victor said, turning the name into a sigh.

“I know, I know.” Yuuri skated over and snatched the towel off the barrier. “I’m too tense. My attitude is all wrong. I’m not skating to the music. I’m messing up my jumps because I’m thinking too much. I know.”

Victor lifted an eyebrow.

It was moments like this when he wasn’t always sure how to help Yuuri. . .

“I can do it,” Yuuri said as he wiped his face. “Just give me a minute to focus.”

Pressing his lips into a thin line, Victor bent down to take the guards off his skates, and then he stepped onto the ice. He’d purposefully relegated himself to the sidelines today so that Yuuri wouldn’t feel even more intimidated than he already did, but enough was enough.

“No, that’s the last thing you need to do,” Victor said. Gliding over, he grabbed the towel away from Yuuri, tossed it aside, and took hold of his now-empty hand. “Come on.”

As Victor dragged him back out to the middle of the rink, Yuuri went along with it willingly until Victor started swinging him around in a playful manner. At that point, Yuuri pulled back on Victor’s hand and said, “Hey. I need to practice. I don’t have time to mess around.”

“Exactly who do you think is the coach here?” Victor said. “You don’t have time not to mess around. Ice skating is fun, remember? You told me you wanted to skate to Stammi Vicino because you thought copying my routines was fun. So have fun with me now. Come on, let’s do it together.”

As the music continued to loop on the CD player in the background, Victor pulled Yuuri along in a very unwilling dance, switching hands occasionally and twisting around to smile at him. Though Yuuri didn’t return the smile, he held onto Victor’s hand and went with it.

They held hands like teenagers on a date at the skating rink and did a few laps around the perimeter before Victor felt encouraged enough by the change in Yuuri’s attitude to try something more daring. “Dance with me,” he said and pulled Yuuri out into the center of the ice. “Doesn’t this music make you want to dance?”

So that’s what Victor did, and though his partner wasn’t immediately willing to play along, even Yuuri was soon fighting a smile. When Victor started dramatically dropping down onto one knee and singing along with the male tenor in the Aria, Yuuri was even laughing a little.

“You should maybe stick to ice skating,” he said, “and not quit your day job to become a singer.”

Ever defiant, this just made Victor sing louder. With extra vibrato.

And okay, maybe he was putting it on a little thick for Yuuri’s sake. Victor had never felt particularly silly or lighthearted when skating to this music in the past, but if his time in Hasetsu had taught him anything, it was that he never, ever wanted to return to that listless state of mind again. He also wanted to protect Yuuri from making the same mistakes he had. If that meant goofing off with him for the rest of the afternoon instead of preparing him for his competition, so be it. This was one area that Victor knew what he was doing when it came to being a coach.

Smirking at Yuuri playfully, Victor started doing some of the choreography from his old Free Skate routine and encouraging Yuuri to mirror him. And wouldn’t you know? The second Yuuri allowed himself to start having fun, his skating improved. Just like that.

In the places where it didn’t work to skate side-by-side, Victor reached out to take Yuuri’s hand instead and swept him along like they were dancing. “You know, there’s a duetto arrangement of his music. We could adjust some of the choreography, and do it as pairs instead.”

“What has gotten into you today?” Yuuri said, laughing as Victor twirled him around.

“Oh, you know. . .” He brought Yuuri’s hand to his mouth for a kiss. “Life. Love. That kind of thing. Hold still. I want to try something.”

Though they were gliding together at a considerable speed, Yuuri obediently held his body still while Victor turned to grasp his waist with both hands. But just as he was preparing to lift his partner into the air, Yuuri seemed to figure out what Victor was planning to do. Victor only got him a few centimeters off the ground before Yuuri started wriggling so much that Victor had to set him back down again before they fell.

Yuuri came to an abrupt halt and looked at Victor, who kept sailing past him. “No way,” Yuuri said and shook his head ‘no’ for good measure.

“Come on,” Victor said as he looped back around. “That wasn’t a bad first try. Let me lift you.”

Nuh-uh.”

“Why?”

Yuuri couldn’t seem to think up a good reason, so he just shut his mouth and turned bright red instead.

Ever charmed by Yuuri’s bashfulness, Victor laughed. “We’re just having a little fun, remember? No one is around. It’s just you and me. What’s the worst thing that could happen if we practice a few lifts?”

“You mean, besides you finding out exactly how fat I am?” Yuuri said.

“Oh, please. You have a beautiful body.” Victor skated a little closer—close enough that Yuuri’s blush intensified. He stared straight ahead at Victor’s chest so that he wouldn’t have to tilt his head back to look up into Victor’s eyes. Resting his hand on Yuuri’s waist, Victor said, “You have to have figured out by now how much I love touching it.”

Again, Yuuri was having trouble vocalizing a response. His blush was now hot enough that the ice around them was probably going to evaporate into steam in the near future.

“Yuuri,” Victor said. “Please trust me. That’s all I really want from you right now.”

There were actually many things he wanted from Yuuri—a snuggle buddy, an obedient student, and today, a pair-skating partner—but there was a common theme amongst all the things standing in their way. As far as they’d come in their friendship and even in their coach/student relationship, Yuuri still didn’t trust Victor. Sometimes he didn’t trust Victor not to push too hard. Sometimes he didn’t trust Victor’s kind words since they were in such disharmony with the negativity in his head.

Today, Yuuri didn’t trust Victor to still like him as much as he did before practice began.

“W-what if I fall and . . . and . . . hurt you or something?” Yuuri asked.

“Then we laugh and get back up again, the same way we do when we skate alone. We’re going to fall, Yuuri. Just know it’s going to happen, and that it’s not a big deal.” Victor touched Yuuri’s chin, coaxing him to look up at him. “It’s just me here.”

As Yuuri blew out a breath, his eyes darted away. “Explain to me why we’re doing this again?”

Victor shrugged. “Because it’s a learning experience? Because it’s fun?”

“Maybe for you. But I’m. . .”

His gaze dropped, and Victor moved a bit closer. “Nervous?”

Yuuri nodded, his teeth clenched hard behind his lips.

“Why?”

“Because I care what you think of me.”

“Yuuri, I think the world of you. The problem is that you don’t trust me not to change my opinion if you’re anything less than perfect. I hate to break this to you, but you’re less-than-perfect on a near minute-by-minute basis. You’re going to have to work a lot harder than this if you want to knock my opinion of you down a peg.”

The side of Yuuri’s mouth pulled into a shy smile.

“Be vulnerable with me, Yuuri.” Victor’s fingers spread where they were still touching Yuuri’s waist. “Let go of all those doubts that do nothing but hold you back. That’s what this is about.”

“I don’t know how to be vulnerable. . .”

“Yes, you do. You taught me how, remember? Do you realize I’ve never told anyone else a single detail about my childhood other than you? Start with something simple, the same way you encouraged me to. Tell me something you’ve been too scared to in the past. Trust me with a piece of yourself, Yuuri. And after you do, I want you to trust that I’m going to care about you just as much, if not more.”

Yuuri was finally looking up at him, caution wavering in his eyes. “You first.”

Victor’s mouth twitched into a thin smile. “My mother abandoned me on a bus when I was seven-years-old. She just got up, left me there all by myself, and I never saw her again. Your turn.”

Yuuri’s mouth fell open. His eyes had widened to the size of saucers. He looked like he'd been slapped. “Victor. . .”

“Do you understand what me telling you that means? I just trusted you with something, and I’m trusting that it’s not going to impact our friendship because I know you care about me. Do you still care about me, Yuuri, even though I’m more messed up inside than you can even begin to imagine?”

“Of course, I care about you. . .”

“I know you do.” Tears glittered in Victor’s eyes, even as his smile spread a bit wider. “Now let me prove that I care about you as well. No matter what. Tell me something, Yuuri. Something you’ve never had the courage to before.”

Tell me I’m not imagining this whole thing between us.

Tell me you want me just as much as I want you. . .

Yuuri blinked at him a few times and then wet his lips before he spoke. “My number one goal throughout my entire skating career has been to surpass you. That’s why skating to Stammi Vicino is stressing me out so much. It’s not just because you’re watching. It’s because I want to do it a thousand times better than you ever did.”

Startled by this confession, Victor could feel laughter bubbling up from deep inside himself. “Is that so?”

“Oh, my God.” Yuuri slid up his glasses and covered his eyes with the palms of both hands. “I can’t believe I just said that out loud.”

Victor took Yuuri’s hands into his own so that he could see his beautiful face again. “I think that’s wonderful. I’m flattered, Yuuri. I can’t wait to cheer you on every step of the way.”

With his glasses now crooked on his nose, Yuuri stared at him for several seconds as if he couldn’t comprehend Victor’s reaction. Then he blurted out, “That’s not all I want.”

Victor grinned, thrilled by the sparks of confidence he was seeing. “Tell me.”

“I want to skate on the same ice with you again.”

“But . . . you skate with me every day. We’re doing it now.”

Yuuri shook his head. “No, I mean, in public. At a competition . . . or I don’t know, somewhere. And the Sochi Grand Prix doesn’t count because that was a nightmare.” Determination flashed in his eyes, more fearsome than Victor had ever seen it. “I messed up the first time, and I want another chance.”

“Okay,” Victor said, absolutely loving where Yuuri was going with this. “Then I’ll make you a promise. When you make it onto the podium at the Grand Prix Final, we’re going to pair-skate to the Stammi Vicino duetto arrangement at the Exhibition. You and me on the same ice. In public. At a competition. And we’re going to make it a thousand times better than anything I ever did. How does that strike your fancy?”

Yuuri was breathing hard, even though they’d been standing still for most of the conversation. It was his thoughts that were going a million miles an hour. “For the lifts . . . if I bend my knees more and push off, do you think it will help with the momentum?”

Excitement flared to life in Victor’s eyes. “Here. Let me show you.”

 


 

Pair-skating was hard.

But it certainly was fun. Victor hadn’t sported so many bruises or scrapes on his body since his early days in the Junior Division, and Yuuri’s arms and legs weren’t in much better shape.

They often skated side-by-side during practice, with Yuuri mimicking whatever choreography Victor was demonstrating for him that day, but it was much more challenging to turn toward each other and engage in a mutual dance. There were timing and distance issues to deal with now. They had to learn just how hard to push and pull. Where to place their hands and feet. When to look at each other for signals and when to look away and trust.

Victor got to know Yuuri’s body very well during those rehearsals.

He learned where Yuuri was ticklish and where he wasn’t. He learned that Yuuri’s arms and core were just as strong as his muscular legs, and that his stomach still had a delightful bit of softness to it after all, if Victor gripped him around his middle just right.

He also learned that Yuuri was incredibly versatile when it came to leading and being led. He shifted between the two roles with ease, showing no preference for one over the other.

Considering their lack of experience, everything about their pair-skate routine was going surprisingly well. . .

Except for the damn lifts.

Good grief, the lifts. Why had Victor ever suggested them?

In many ways, Yuuri was the perfect partner—mindful, considerate, and willing to give and take—but he did not like being lifted into the air. No matter how many times Victor insisted that Yuuri wasn’t too heavy and that he really wasn’t trying to drop him on purpose, it just wasn’t working out.

The lift practices on the ice were too hard on their bodies, and Yuuri couldn’t risk an injury this close to the start of the Grand Prix Series. So at Minako’s suggestion, they moved to her dance studio instead. As a professional dancer who’d often performed with a partner, Minako actually had quite a bit of good advice for them when it came to pair-skating.

“Yuuri, you have to help Victor when he lifts you,” Minako said. “It doesn’t matter how strong he is or how much you weigh. If you position yourself wrong or go rigid or even limp, his strength is going to fail, and you’re both going to hit the ice.”

“Wow, thanks,” Yuuri said, his fingers pinning his sweaty bangs back from his forehead. “That doesn’t make me feel pressured at all.”

It was quite late in the evening, and Minako’s studio was empty except for the three of them.

Victor and Yuuri were both dressed in tights and loose tank tops that were damp with sweat. They’d been at it for a while. Yuuri’s skin was even getting raw and red in places from how many times Victor had to hold him up, especially just beneath his arms. Yuuri’s shirt was loose enough that Victor could see just how bad it was getting. While it most likely wasn’t bruised, it was obvious his skin had seen some rough handling in the last few hours.

“Sorry,” Victor said quietly, his fingertips brushing Yuuri’s arm.

With a sheepish smile, Yuuri reached up to touch the tips of Victor’s ears, which were also bright red from where Yuuri had grabbed hold of them during their last failed attempt at a lift. “Sorry,” he said.

“You’re both going to be sorry if I don’t get my evening cocktail soon,” Minako said. “One more try, and then you two are on your own.”

Yuuri nodded and shook out his arms to help the circulation come back. “Show me how to do it one more time?”

The first lift in their pair-skate involved Victor picking up Yuuri from behind by the waist. Yuuri would then do a half-rotation in the air and land facing Victor’s chest. There was another planned as well, where he would lift Yuuri up with both hands planted beneath his arms. Ideally, Victor wanted to put at least one more into the routine—(maybe with Yuuri lifting him?)—but first, they had to get these two nailed down.

While tonight’s practice certainly hadn’t been easy, Victor was feeling a little more optimistic than he was just yesterday. Yuuri responded well to Minako’s guidance, and it helped to have her there as a buffer between him and Victor. This was far too intimate a dance for Victor to be an effective partner and coach at the same time.

(Not that Yuuri ever listened to his coach anyway.)

Minako again walked Yuuri through how to correctly position his body, and even made him lift her into the air several times so that he could get a feel for what he was supposed to do.

Victor rather enjoyed standing back and watching that part. Yuuri had some nice definition in his arms. The only thing that would have made it better is if it was Victor being lifted by Yuuri instead of Minako. Alas. A man could dream.

When Minako waved Victor over so that he could try with Yuuri next, they didn’t get very far. Yuuri got into position ahead of him, and Victor was just starting to stride up to him from behind when. . .

Stop,” Minako said, interrupting. “Yuuri, he hasn’t even touched you, and you’re already cringing. Stop anticipating him.”

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri cried. “I’m really trying.”

Minako sighed. “Okay, you need to work this out on your own. This isn’t a physical problem. This is all in your head. You already know what to do, Yuuri, so figure out how to get it done.”

Victor could have tacked on a few suggestions to this feedback, but he kept quiet. Yuuri was already frustrated, and Minako was right. He already knew what to do. It was just a matter of getting him into the right mental state, and offering more criticism wasn’t going to help.

“I’m going to work the snack bar for a while,” Minako said, which really meant she was going to the snack bar to pour herself a drink. “You two can stay here as long as you like, but it might be a good idea to give it a rest for a while. Yuuri, can you lock up before you leave?”

“Sure, Minako-sensei,” Yuuri said. “Thanks for letting us use the studio.”

After she left, silence fell over the room, but it wasn’t uncomfortable. The three of them had been talking and working for hours. It was kind of nice to just be quiet and still.

Yuuri turned to Victor and looked about as exhausted as he probably felt. “I’m really sorry. . .”

There wasn’t any need to apologize, so Victor didn’t answer him with words. He just walked over to Yuuri and wrapped him up in the hug he’d been wanting to give him all night. And oh, it felt good just to close his eyes and hold him. Yuuri must have needed it as badly as Victor did because he hugged him back and let out a quiet sigh of contentment as the seconds ticked by on the clock.

“I hope I didn’t bruise you,” Victor said after a wonderfully long span of silence.

“I’m sure you didn’t.” Yuuri pulled back from the embrace first and smiled up at him. “Anyway, it’s not like it’s your fault. I’m the one that can’t seem to pull it together. I bet your arms are so tired from lifting me so many times. . .”

Victor’s smile faded into something more serious. He bent his knees and stooped down, his arms sliding around Yuuri’s lower body. Victor’s arms tightened around Yuuri’s thighs, just below his bottom, and then he picked him up like he weighed nothing at all.

Surprised, Yuuri breathed out at the same time that he was lifted into the air. His eyes were huge as his arms went around Victor’s neck.

“I could do this all night,” Victor said, his voice calm and sure. “That is, unless you want to take a turn.”

“Victor. . .” Yuuri’s body shifted against him, slightly uncomfortable. “I’m too heavy.”

“You’re perfect. Yuuri . . . look at me.”

It took a few seconds, but Yuuri finally locked eyes with him. A little hesitant. A little scared.

“You’re perfect,” Victor said again.

They continued to gaze at each other. Yuuri was the first to look away, and he shifted his body again with a silent request for Victor to put him back down on the ground. Victor did as he asked . . . but slowly. As he lowered Yuuri, he let their bodies slide against each other every inch of the way. Victor’s hands skimmed lightly over Yuuri’s bottom before coming to rest on his waist.

It was by far the most intimate moment they’d ever shared. At least, physically. . .

Victor’s heart was pounding, and judging from the way Yuuri’s chest was working harder as it rose and fell with every breath, his pulse was racing, too.

Eyes darting away, Yuuri put a few steps of distance between them and said, “Do you think we could try the lift again? I’m just going to close my eyes this time and let it happen.”

After Victor nodded in agreement, Yuuri turned away and closed his eyes. His shoulders were moving up and down with every labored breath, but he looked strong as he stood there. Like a dancer.

Victor moved forward, aware of his own heartbeat with every step. When he put his hands on Yuuri’s body, Victor smiled when he heard the quiet exhalation of air from his partner. Yuuri bent his knees and pushed off to give them a little momentum, and then Victor had him in the air.

A little twirl around the room, and Yuuri’s toes were soon stretching back down again. When Victor had Yuuri safely on the ground, he lowered him into the choreographed dip that was meant to follow the lift in their Exhibition routine.

There, they stopped, both of them surprised that they’d gotten that far at all.

“Well,” Victor said, still holding Yuuri in the dip. “That wasn’t so hard, was it?”

And then they were both laughing—because that was the hardest damn move either of them had ever done.

 


 

They held hands on the walk back home from Minako’s studio and didn’t talk much.

There really wasn’t much to say anymore—not when the feel of strong fingers laced between his own was already saying so much.

When they reached Yu-topia, they let go of each other but still stood quite close while they took off their coats and left their shoes by the door. Victor put his palm on the small of Yuuri’s back to guide him into the house ahead of him, and Yuuri stretched a hand behind so that Victor could take it. They walked like that up the stairs towards their bedrooms, with their fingers hooked together and Yuuri leading the way.

It was past Victor’s normal bedtime, but he didn’t stop at his bedroom door. He followed Yuuri a few more steps toward his own room, and they both paused somewhere in the middle of the two.

It was the kind of moment that felt surreal, like he was watching it from somewhere outside his own body. Victor could hear the tick of the clock downstairs and the quicker drum of his own heartbeat muffled in his ears. Yuuri’s pulse was racing as well. He could feel it in the warm fingers held within his own.

“We don’t have to say goodnight just yet,” Victor said. “I miss you when you go.”

Yuuri’s gaze was fixed on some obscure point on the wall. Normally, he would have been protesting. Making excuses. Darting into his room. But tonight, Yuuri just stood there. “I like spending time with you, too,” he said, his voice small.

Victor tugged gently on his hand, prompting Yuuri to face him in the hallway.

And he probably could have done it then.

He could have guided Yuuri’s chin up and molded a hand to his cheek before leaning in closer. Close enough to know what his breath tasted like. But Yuuri’s hand was trembling, and the last thing Victor wanted to do was ruin this moment by frightening him away.

Trust me, Yuuri. Please trust me.

There’s not even a fraction of my heart that wants to hurt you.

“Please look at me,” Victor said, running his fingertips down Yuuri’s cheek. “You have to know how much I want to kiss you right now.”

Yuuri’s breath shuddered out between them. “Victor. . .”

He never did look up like Victor asked him to . . . but Yuuri did hold still while Victor continued to touch him. Yuuri’s eyelashes fluttered shut and trembled while Victor’s hand came to rest on his cheek. But as his thumb stroked the soft skin there, Yuuri’s body language became more and more closed in on itself. His confidence was beginning to run thin.

“Shhh, it’s okay,” Victor whispered and folded him up into a hug. Pressing his mouth to Yuuri’s hair, he said, “I know you’re not ready. It’s okay.”

Yuuri hugged him fiercely back. His whole body was shaking. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

“It’s okay.” Victor kissed the top of his head. “But I hope you know I’m going to do it one day. I’m going to kiss you when you least expect it, and you’re going to be so mad. I can just picture your face now, all furious and blushing.” He chuckled softly and rocked Yuuri back and forth.

He felt Yuuri laughing silently as well before he gave Victor a squeeze around the middle. “I won’t be mad. . .”

Victor’s breathing slowed. Did Yuuri really mean that? Victor wanted to kiss him so badly that his head was spinning.

He’s not ready. He’s not ready.

Let him go. Don’t scare him away.

Victor moved slowly when he released Yuuri from the embrace, every cell in his body resisting the moment of separation. Immediately, he felt colder when they parted. Yuuri didn’t hesitate to slip away, but he did turn around to look at Victor after opening his bedroom door.

For a moment, it really felt like Yuuri might ask Victor to join him.

He’s not ready. He’s not ready.

Look how overwhelmed he is. He needs time to process. Tell him it’s okay to go.

“Goodnight, Yuuri.” Victor backed up a few steps to give him some space. “Sweet dreams.”

Yuuri lingered there for a moment with the door half-closed in front of him like a body shield. “Goodnight, Victor,” he said and gave him a little smile before he quietly closed the door.

Victor stared at it for a long time before remembering himself and going to his own room.

 


 

Dear Yuri,

I’m in love with you.

I love you. I love you. I love you, and I could write it a thousand times on this piece of paper, and it still wouldn’t be enough. I thought I was in love with you after our first dance, but this has gotten a thousand million trillion times worse.

Is that even a real number? I don’t fucking care.

I love you . So much that my heart feels like it’s going to rip right out of me.

I want to kiss you and fold you up in my arms afterward and tell you everything that’s been in my heart from the beginning. I want to tell you how beautiful you are and nuzzle your warm cheeks when you blush. How I wish you would let me hold you while you sleep. I promise I would keep you safe, even from whatever it is that seems to scare you so much about me.

I love you, Yuri. Do you think you could ever love someone like me back?

 

 

Oh, God, this is killing me.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Yakov Feltsman—Missed Messages (10)

2:03PM So are you alive or what?

2:03PM I would appreciate if you would text me back and let me know.

2:08PM This is Yakov by the way.

2:08PM You remember me right? The man who followed you to the airport and begged you not to do exactly what you’re doing but you’re still doing it anyway?

2:33PM Well????

2:38PM Vitya, it’s been close to three weeks since you last made contact with me. Your Instagram hasn’t been updated in days. At the very least I need to know if you’re alive or dead.

2:40PM How am I supposed to know if you’re alive if you don’t call or write? I’m blind here.

2:40PM Does Katsuki even have my contact information if something happened to you? Would he know who to contact?

2:40PM Did it ever occur to you that I might like to have HIS contact information???

4:23PM I don’t appreciate being ignored. If I don’t hear from you soon, I’m calling the Russian Embassy in Tokyo. You’ve got one hour.

 


 

 

Yuuri was having an exceptionally good practice that day. From the sidelines of the rink, Victor whistled under his breath as he watched his protégé dance, sensuous and free.

The Cup of China was fast approaching, and Yuuri’s Short Program had never looked better. At last, it seemed he had latched onto a bit of confidence—or at least, he’d grown so comfortable with the choreography that he could fake it. His movements hinted strongly at the female character he’d created for this performance, from the toss of his hair in the breeze to the distracting pout of his lower lip. The corners of his mouth were drawn into a coquettish smile. Whatever he was thinking about—whether it be a steaming hot bowl of katsudon or a seductress showing off for a prospective lover—it was working well for him.

All the same. . .

Yuuri really should have known better than to smile like that during practice. If the routine had become that easy for him, then it wasn’t difficult enough.

“Stop,” Victor called out and aimed the remote at the sound system to pause the music.

At the far end of the rink, Yuuri kept skating, even though the slight hesitation in his dance made it clear he’d heard his coach’s instruction. (Yuuri not listening to him? Goodness, what a surprise.) When the lingering echoes of the music faded away, he finally whipped around to face Victor, momentum slowing, gloved hands lowering to his sides.

Victor was coaching off the ice today, his skates left in his bag along with the rest of his things, and he beckoned Yuuri over to where he was standing to make it easier to talk.

As he skated closer, Yuuri’s displeasure became more apparent. He wasn’t glaring at Victor exactly, but Yuuri’s stare was rather . . . penetrating. His chin was down, dark brows arching upward and lips set in a subtle purse. The message was clear: he knew he was skating well and hadn’t appreciated being interrupted.

Victor struggled not to smile. Well, well. It seemed Yuuri’s inner-seductress wasn’t content to just make an appearance during her performance today. He was still in character, pretending to be the woman, and she was getting impatient to show off.

“Is there a problem?” Yuuri asked, braking abruptly in front of Victor, the barrier of the rink between them.

“Not at all. I’m loving the energy and confidence.”

Yuuri’s brow arched ever higher. “Then why stop me?”

It was hard to believe this was the same person whom, just a few short months ago, Victor had caught crying after a rough day of practice. The same person who had trembled so sweetly in Victor’s arms not two weeks ago, too overwhelmed to let himself be kissed for the first time.

Yuuri certainly wasn’t trembling now. He (she?) looked like he was about to snatch the sound remote away from Victor and take it back out onto the rink with him so that he couldn’t be disturbed again.

Indulging in a quiet laugh, Victor slipped the remote into the pocket of his hoodie, placed both hands on the barrier, and leaned over it. “Because as good as you look, that kind of confidence means I’ve let you get too comfortable. I think it’s high time we pushed you to the next level of your performance, don’t you?”

It took a second or two for understanding to register in Yuuri’s expression, but when it did, approval glinted in his eyes. Good. He wanted to be challenged, then. “Tell me what to do.”

“Um,” Victor said, his voice cracking, because hearing Yuuri talk like that was, um. Clearing his throat, he tried again. “Well, you started this journey out by pretending to be the sexiest little bowl of katsudon around, and now you’ve successfully progressed to assuming the character of this beautiful woman. It’s working for you, Yuuri, but there’s still something missing. In my opinion, what your performance is suffering from most is the lack of your own personal charm. I’d like you to bring more of yourself to the forefront.”

“W-wait,” Yuuri said. “What?”

And just like that, the seductress vanished. Gone. Poof. In her place, a very anxious young man gaped at Victor like he’d just thrown a bucket of ice water in his face.

“Which part was confusing to you?” Victor asked patiently.

“The part where you want to see me instead of her. Victor. . .” Lowering his gaze, Yuuri began to fidget as he stared off into some vast void that only he could see. His fingers twisted together into something that almost looked painful. “I need her.”

Victor reached across the barrier to cover Yuuri’s hands and make him stop. “I’m not saying she can’t be your inspiration. I like her attitude, but I seem to recall receiving a little attitude from you once or twice.” He gave Yuuri’s fingers a squeeze. “I think you’re more capable of commanding your audience than you realize.”

“But I’m not. . .” Yuuri swallowed, fingers still clenched and rigid beneath Victor’s.

“Not what? Sexy?”

Though Yuuri didn’t respond, the blush that flared to life on his cheeks was answer enough.

“You do realize,” Victor said, “the only reason this seductress of yours knows how to seduce at all is because you know how. You did create her, after all. The real issue here is the same one you’ve had since the beginning. A lack of confidence.” He offered a bright, reassuring smile. “But my job here is to make you feel confident, right?”

Yuuri went still, eyes flickering back to Victor’s face.

There was a strange lull in the conversation, and as Victor’s smile slowly faded away, he was left wondering if he’d said something wrong. This was supposed to be a pep talk. So why did Yuuri look like he’d just swallowed something bitter and unpleasant?

Yuuri slid his hands free from Victor’s grasp and looked away again. “Right,” he said softly.

Something was definitely wrong, and it wasn’t just Yuuri’s usual lack of self-esteem that had sent his mood plummeting. Though Victor wasn’t sure how his words could have been misunderstood, he wondered if perhaps the language barrier was to blame. It wouldn’t be the first time they’d had to work out a miscommunication.

Hoping to clarify what he’d meant, Victor said, “Look, somewhere along the way, you’ve gotten the impression that you’re not good enough. But I need you to understand that my job here as your coach is not to wave a magic wand and transform you into a different person. You don’t gain real confidence by pretending to be someone you aren’t; trust me on that. What I’ve been trying to make you realize is that you already have everything you need. Right now. Today. You’ve had it from the beginning. The problem is helping you see it.”

It was Yuuri’s turn to look confused. “But that doesn’t. . .” And then he stopped talking, seeming to reconsider what he was going to say. Shaking his head, he said, “Never mind. I think I understand what you’re getting at. I’ll do my best.”

Reaching out again, Victor caught Yuuri’s arm before he could turn and leave. “No, what were you going to say?”

“It’s nothing.”

“Yuuri, we both know it isn’t nothing. Tell me.”

Yuuri let out an exasperated huff and brushed Victor’s hand off his arm. “It’s just . . . how can I believe anything you’re saying? You’ve told me more than once that it’s your job to make me feel confident. Am I supposed to forget I heard that part?”

Victor blinked at him, absolutely bewildered. He didn’t understand where Yuuri was going with his argument, but he had a feeling it wasn’t anywhere good. “I don’t. . .” He blinked again, several times in quick succession, but nothing got any clearer. “I’m sorry, what?”

Annoyance and embarrassment had conspired together to turn Yuuri’s face bright red. He seemed to regret speaking up at all. “All I’m saying is that you don’t have to fill me full of hot air or . . . or f-flirt with me to try to build up my self-esteem. You know I don’t like it when you coddle me. I know you think it’s your job, but you’re not helping me by not being honest about how I’m really doing.”

Realization dawned on Victor in stages, his mouth dropping open a little more with each passing second.

No, no, no. That couldn’t be right. Surely he’d misunderstood. Surely Yuuri didn’t think Victor offered praise and encouragement for the sole purpose of boosting his confidence and not because he honestly meant it. And he couldn’t possibly think Victor would only flirt with him to psych him out and help his skating.

He couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Not after all the hours they’d spent together since last spring, getting to know one another so deeply that it felt like they would be forever tangled up with each other. Victor couldn’t even fathom being separated from Yuuri anymore. How would his heart keep beating if part of it went missing?

One thing was for certain: he had greatly underestimated how little Yuuri thought of himself.

“I asked you from the beginning to just be yourself.” Yuuri sounded incredibly tired as he spoke, like he hated every word he was saying but was convinced they were true. It was the voice of resignation. “That’s all I want. Just tell it like it is.”

“Okay,” Victor said simply, still staring in astonishment. “Come here.”

There was another pause wherein Yuuri hesitated a few seconds too long. He started to say, “What do you—?”

But Victor cut him off. “Yuuri.” They stared at each other, the tension thicker than it had been in the entire history of their knowing each other. “Come here.”

Leaning his lower body against the barrier, Victor spread his arms wide for a hug, and Yuuri’s wariness evaporated. He didn’t hesitate to move forward into the embrace, seeming to need a hug just as much as Victor needed to give him one. However, two seconds later, Yuuri was gasping and crying out Victor’s name as his entire body was hauled off the ice and over the waist-high barrier.

It was awkward and a bit of a struggle, especially when it came to getting Yuuri’s skates on the other side of the wall, but Victor was insistent. With one arm like a vice around Yuuri’s middle, Victor scooped his other arm around Yuuri’s legs and ended any resistance right then and there. At that moment, having Yuuri right in front of him—in his arms, face to face, where there was no escaping the truth—was absolutely necessary.

Yuuri’s body was damp with sweat beneath his t-shirt. “What are you doing?” he said, panting wildly as he clung to Victor’s shoulders.

“Exactly what you asked me to,” Victor said. “Telling it like it is.”

Yuuri’s breathing slowed. He gripped Victor harder and closed his eyes.

They almost fell to the ground in an ungraceful heap, but Yuuri grabbed hold of the barrier at the last second and saved them. Victor was able to lower them both to the floor, mindful that the blades of Yuuri’s skates had no business touching the concrete without any guards to protect them. When he could manage it, Victor got up on his knees beside Yuuri and wrapped his arms even tighter around him.

God, he was pissed.

Victor’s fingers gripped Yuuri’s t-shirt near the back of his neck and held it, prompting Yuuri to go as still as a puppy held by the scruff of his neck. Didn’t want to be coddled, did he? He was lucky Victor was so overprotective of him. Otherwise, Yuuri would be pinned on the ground beneath Victor with his pants undone and his coach’s tongue sliding into his mouth. Sometimes a little coddling was a good thing.

“Now you listen to me,” Victor said, his thumb stroking Yuuri’s neck to assure him he was safe. “You are not a job. I have never in my life felt like I could be more like myself in front of anyone. And don’t you dare purposefully misunderstand me because you’re scared of what I’m saying. Because we both know that’s what’s happening here. You know very well none of this is faked for your benefit.”

He’d never spoken to Yuuri so bluntly before but couldn’t bring himself to regret a word of it. While Victor might have sympathy for Yuuri’s struggle with low self-esteem, he was not going to put up with this. He refused to let Yuuri hurt himself in such a way.

There was a hint of resistance in Yuuri’s body at first, but as he listened, he seemed to deflate and give up. He dropped his head onto Victor’s shoulder and let himself be held.

It was true, then. Yuuri really did know his argument was ridiculous. What was he so scared of?

“This is me, Yuuri,” Victor said, gentler than before. “You asked me a long time ago to just be myself, and that’s exactly what I’ve been doing this entire time. Is it really so hard for you to believe I . . . I care about you?”

He almost fumbled his words and said something else, but the L-word would not have gone over well at that moment. If Yuuri was having trouble letting himself believe Victor would want to flirt with him on his own volition, he was certainly going to block out any attempt to convince him there was a much, much deeper emotion simmering inside of him.

God, he wanted to just kiss him already.

That would clear everything up. The whole mess. Then they could live happily ever after and forget it ever happened. But Yuuri still wasn’t ready. If today had shown Victor anything, it was how much that was still true.

“I know you care,” Yuuri mumbled. “I’m sorry. I’m just being stupid.”

“Tell me what’s really bothering you. You were doing so well today until I pushed you.”

No response. Yuuri turned his face into Victor’s shoulder and stayed there, hiding.

A swell of protectiveness made Victor’s heart ache. Oh, sweetheart. I can’t stand it when you’re sad. His fingertips came to stroke Yuuri’s hair. “I meant every word I said before, you know. You really are enough, just as you are.”

They were quiet for a moment, but eventually, Yuuri found his voice. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I just can’t see it.”

“Then I guess you’re going to have to trust what I see.” Victor drew back from the embrace and placed both hands on Yuuri’s cheeks. With a little smile, Victor’s eyes flickered over Yuuri’s face, taking everything in, from the curl of his eyelashes to the rosy tip of his nose and down to the sweet pink of his lips. His skin burned hot beneath the spread of Victor’s fingers. “Let me be your mirror, Yuuri. Have you ever seen me look at anyone the way I look at you?”

Like a startled cat, Yuuri couldn’t seem to tear his eyes away from the intensity of Victor’s gaze, but bit by bit, his own expression began to change. His near-panic softened into something quieter. Amazement. It was like Yuuri was letting himself accept for the very first time that yes, Victor really did see something beautiful in him. Potential hidden by doubt. An unassuming little piglet unaware that he was already holding the crown of a prince. All he needed to do was take ownership of it and place it on his own head.

But that wasn’t all Victor was seeing or thinking about. Very deliberately, he dragged the pad of his thumb along the underside of Yuuri’s full lower lip, eyes flickering down to watch it move.

“This is me,” Victor said again. “This is real. Take whatever time you need to wrap your mind around that. You can even reject it if it’s something you decide you don’t want, but no more denying it’s there.”

Have you figured it out yet, Yuuri? That I’ve fallen in love with you.

Look closer. It’s there for the viewing if you’re brave enough to see it.

A strange light came over Yuuri’s face.

His eyes widened, and the tension that had been wrinkling his forehead relaxed into perfect smoothness. And just for a second—so brief a time that Victor didn’t even have a chance to exhale—a bright, shining jewel seemed to glitter at the center of Yuuri’s forehead, a circlet of gold holding it in place. The prince’s crown, in its rightful place.

And then Yuuri was blinking and looking away and gently brushing Victor’s hands aside so that he could sit up straighter.

Victor’s smile widened, even as the vision of the crown faded.  Oh, good, he thought, a little dazed but very, very pleased. You figured it out.

Knowing he’d have to allow Yuuri time to process what happened, Victor gave him an easy escape. Getting to his feet, he said, “Stay there. I’ll grab your skate guards. Now that we’ve cleared all that up, do you think you have another run-through or two left in you?”

Yuuri was still too stunned to respond, so Victor just chuckled softly and went to fetch his guards without expecting an answer. When he returned, Yuuri slid the guards onto his skates, took a deep breath, and accepted Victor’s help getting to his feet. His shoulders were tense under Victor’s arm as he walked him to the rink’s entrance.

“Go on, then,” Victor said, nodding toward the place he expected to see Yuuri on the ice. “Practice isn’t over yet. Opening position.”

Shoulders hunched, Yuuri did as he was told and took to the ice, skating out to the center of the rink so that they could get started. But then he just stopped there and didn’t turn around again. As he stared at the back wall, his shoulders moved up and down with every breath.

Victor could practically see the thoughts swirling around Yuuri’s head. He probably didn’t even realize that he’d frozen up and that Victor was waiting for him. In time, Yuuri finally turned around, his expression open and vulnerable, that strange light still shining upon his face. His eyes sparkled like he was searching for something.

He wasn’t even in the opening pose for Eros, and yet with that one naked expression, Victor felt like Yuuri had just sent Cupid’s arrow sailing across the rink and straight into his heart. It almost forced him back a step.

As Victor drew in a shaky breath to steady himself, he could feel himself getting excited. Wearing the beginnings of a new smile, he called out, “Mind your posture. In case you’ve forgotten, you’re in the Senior Division now. You look like you’re longing for your Junior days.”

Yuuri visibly panicked and scrambled to adjust his posture. Then, seeming to realize he wasn’t even standing in the right spot on the ice, he almost slipped and fell in his haste to get into place. Blushing furiously, Yuuri dropped his head down into the opening Eros pose, his posture hopelessly worse than before.

And he was so, so sweet. So beautifully flawed. So endearingly Yuuri, in every way.

Another arrow from Cupid. This one hit Victor’s heart right beside the first arrow.

Thud.

Victor covered his mouth with one hand, truly unable to keep himself from smiling now. How on earth was he supposed to coach this man when every imperfection was the most perfect thing he’d ever laid eyes on? Once he’d somewhat composed himself, he dropped his hand and asked, “Are you quite done being adorable so that we can get started?”

Out on the ice, Yuuri looked up again, sending another pair of arrows just with the warmth of his cinnamon brown eyes.

Then came the kill shot. The tiniest smile surfaced in Yuuri’s eyes before softening his entire face. By the time it reached his mouth, Victor was lost, lost, oh God, he was bleeding out from the volley of arrows that rained down on him in that moment.

Because he had finally seen it: Yuuri’s confidence and personal charm flaring to life like a match dragged against the side of a box.

That bright jewel was again visible on his forehead, the circlet of gold glittering in his black hair. There wasn’t a seductress on the planet that could rival his royal magnetism in that moment. Victor couldn’t tear his eyes away, humbled all the while by the knowledge that the only difference between the Yuuri of five minutes ago and the Yuuri of right now was that he had finally gotten a good look at himself in the mirror of Victor’s love for him.

There you are, Victor thought, breathless with amazement, and lifted the remote to start the music.

 


 

After practice, Victor had to walk it off.

Excusing himself while Yuuri was finishing his cool-down stretches, Victor went to the bathroom to freshen up before the journey back home. There, he washed his hands and splashed some cool water onto his flushed cheeks. Though he took his time drying up and smoothing his hair and clothing into perfect order, not once did he focus on his own reflection in the mirror. He was too distracted by the visions of Yuuri skating around the edges of his mind.

Still metaphorically bleeding from all the arrows sticking out of his chest, shoulders, and back, Victor leaned both hands against the sink, closed his eyes, and took a moment to pull himself together.

Then, finally looking up at the mirror, he told his reflection in no uncertain terms, “I’m going to marry that man.”

Behind him, a toilet flushed in one of the stalls.

The door opened, and out came Takeshi, wearing a distinct smirk as he came up beside Victor and started washing his hands at the sink. After drying them, Takeshi gave Victor a trio of approving slaps on the shoulder and left the room, humming a merry little tune under his breath.

When he came out of the bathroom, Victor bid an awkward farewell to Yuuko and Takeshi, who were huddled together by the front desk and snickering over some private conversation. Pretending he didn’t know what they were giggling about, Victor hurried outside, where Yuuri was waiting for him near the Ice Castle doors.

Yuuri was frowning down at his phone, so distracted by whatever he was reading that he seemed unaware that his backpack had slid down to the crook of his arm.

“Something wrong?” Victor asked as they fell into step together.

“Looks like Mari’s been trying to call me,” Yuuri said. “She texted, too. Something about the Russian Embassy calling the onsen, looking for you?”

They exchanged a glance, both equally puzzled by the message.

While Yuuri called his sister back, Victor took his own phone out, having left it in his bag during practice. He felt a jolt of panic when he saw he had a number of missed calls and texts. Some from Mari. One voicemail from an unknown number based in Tokyo. And then there were all the missed text messages from one very pissed off Yakov Feltsman.

YAKOV!! How long had it been since they’d spoken? Victor’s heart did a little somersault of hope, thrilled to hear from his coach for the first time in months.

“Look at this,” he said, nudging Yuuri’s arm to get his attention. “Yakov texted me during practice. I guess he got nervous because he hasn’t heard from me in a while. He, uh . . . he might have been the one that contacted the Embassy.”

Phone still held to his ear, Yuuri scanned the messages on Victor’s phone and said, “Yeah, about that. Mari says you need to call the Embassy in Tokyo back today and let them know you’re all right.”

“Are you serious? What, do they think you kidnapped me or something?”

“I’m sure it’s just a misunderstanding. Mari has the phone number if you want to call them back now.”

In his hand, Victor’s phone started buzzing with an inbound call. “Actually. . . I think they’re trying to call me right now,” he said. Bewildered, he hit the button to accept the call and lifted the phone to his ear.

 


 

Victor Nikiforov

YAKOV WOWWW HI!!!!  it’s so good to hear from you!!! 6:34PM

Sorry!! I was at practice and didn’t see your texts but I can call now if you want to talk.  6:34PM

 

 

OUTBOUND CALLS (2)

  

   

I guess you’re not by your phone  6:36PM

I just talked to someone at the russian embassy and straightened everything out  6:36PM

So no worries there!! But next time give me a little more time to respond hahaha!!  6:37PM

To answer your question, I’m doing great! Just really busy.   6:37PM

Sorry I haven’t called. I guess I stopped because I thought you wanted me to.  6:37PM

But I’m really sorry I worried you. I promise I’ll check in more.  6:37PM

 

 

Do you have time to talk now?  7:01PM

 

   

OUTBOUND CALLS (6)

 

 

 Yakov?  11:18PM

 

 


 

Victor didn’t feel much like talking that night.

He was unusually quiet throughout dinner and couldn’t even finish the lovely plate of curry and rice Hiroko-san made for him. Mari brought him an extra soft-boiled egg as a garnish, as well as some of the homemade fukujinzuke he loved so much, and even Toshiya made a rare appearance to show him a new Japanese beer they’d started serving guests in the dining hall. Victor sipped at the beverage out of politeness but barely tasted it.

Meanwhile, Yuuri sat at the other side of the table, slowly chewing his own dinner in silence. Victor could feel his eyes on him.

Every single member of the immediate Katsuki family seemed to sense that Victor wasn’t doing well, even when he faked smile after smile and assured them that everything was fine. (Since when did people not believe his smiles?) More than once, he felt compelled to assure them that he’d called the Embassy back, and everything was sorted out now. Yakov would no doubt call back soon, and Victor couldn’t wait to tell him about everything he and Yuuri had been working on!

(Who was he kidding? Yakov wasn’t going to call him back.)

(Why, oh why, had Victor let himself hope that he might?)

Throughout all this, Yuuri said very little unless asked to translate something into English or Japanese to help his family converse with Victor. But even though he was quiet, Yuuri did make sure to offer Victor a sweet, reassuring smile for every fake smile Victor gave him. It made him feel guilty for receiving something that beautiful in exchange for something so empty.

“At least we can say one good thing came out of this mess,” Yuuri said as he watched his mother set a special dessert in front of Victor: a pair of colorful daifuku filled with ice cream. His favorite. She’d even put a little pink flower on the plate for him.

To thank her for her thoughtfulness, Victor gave Hiroko-san the most adoring, worshipful smile before turning his attention back to Yuuri. “What do you mean?” he asked, his mood descending into melancholy again the moment Hiroko slipped out of the room. It was too exhausting to maintain the façade in front of Yuuri.

“Well. . .” Yuuri cleared his throat discretely. “After listening to you lie through your teeth all night about being fine, at least I know now that you were telling me the truth before. You know . . . earlier today at the Ice Castle when we had our, um . . . little misunderstanding. I guess you really do like me after all.”

In spite of his gloom, Victor cracked a smile. A real one. Oh, you little brat, he thought. How dare you try to cheer me up by being cute.

“You’re a really bad liar, Victor,” Yuuri said. “Like.” He pressed his lips together for a brief moment, brow knitting in the middle. “Really, really bad.”

“Hush,” Victor muttered. He popped a daifuku into his mouth and batted Yuuri’s hand away when he tried to steal the second one. Truly fighting a smile now, Victor pushed the plate toward Yuuri a moment later and let him claim his prize.

 


 

There were times when Yuuri was too caught up in his own thoughts, fears, and ambitions to pay much attention to anyone else around him. He could be incredibly thoughtless and emotionally clumsy without meaning to be. Aloof, distant. The type of person who couldn’t see past his own nose. But that night at Yu-Topia, after Victor’s eighth call to Yakov went unanswered, was not one of those times.

Half an hour before midnight, Yuuri came into Victor’s room and sat down on the edge of the bed beside him. At their feet, Makkachin was stretched out with his chin resting on the ground, whining with concern for his master, but his tail started wagging when Yuuri appeared.

Victor had been reading the texts from Yakov for the millionth time to see if he had imagined that his coach might have been a little worried about him. The battery on Victor’s phone was at 3% and fading fast. Gently, without being too abrupt or imposing, Yuuri took the phone away and leaned over to plug it in by the nightstand.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Victor told him, already having to fight the urge to reach for his phone again.

He really was fine. It wasn’t like a punch to the gut was going to kill him.

Victor had survived hurts much, much worse than this.

With a slight nod, Yuuri pushed his glasses up higher on his nose and said, “Okay. Then we won’t talk about it. Do you think you’d like to try to sleep?”

Victor hummed under his breath, dismissing the idea. “Maybe I’ll take Makkachin for a walk. I’ve been neglecting him all night, and anyway . . . it might do me some good to clear my head.”

When he heard his name, Makkachin lifted his chin off the floor, and Yuuri reached out to let the dog lick the tips of his fingers. “Would you like some company?” he asked as Makkachin nosed into the palm of his hand, asking to be pet.

Victor blinked and glanced over at Yuuri as if realizing for the first time that he was actually sitting there. In the flesh. Not avoiding Victor or making excuses to hole up alone in his room.

There was a peculiar symmetry to that moment. Earlier that day at the Ice Castle, Victor had tried his hardest to help Yuuri understand and acknowledge his true worth. Now, Yuuri seemed to know without being told that Victor’s own confidence had just taken a serious blow. Yakov’s cold rejection of him hurt. It made Victor feel unlovable on a level that he couldn’t even bring himself to think about, much less attempt to put into words. He wanted to shove that hurt far from himself and pretend it didn’t exist.

But having Yuuri’s calm, steady presence there beside him was a much-needed reminder that Victor wasn’t alone. His best friend was here, and maybe that meant there was something worth loving in Victor after all.

He nodded, hoping and praying that he’d heard correctly. “Always.”

Smiling softly, Yuuri bumped shoulders with him. “Meet you downstairs, then. I’ll grab our coats.”

 


 

They walked to the beach with their arms linked and only the occasional streetlamp to light their way. Neither the moon nor stars were out that night, hidden by clouds that hung low overhead.

The streets of Hasetsu were all but abandoned at that hour. Everyone was at home, warm and cozy in their beds and not foolish enough to wander around in the cold darkness. The temperature had plummeted at dusk, stealing over the horizon with the disappearance of the sun, and the midnight air seemed sharp somehow, like it had frozen and crystalized.

When Victor caught the familiar scent of snow in the breeze, he felt a little pang of sadness. Where had the summer gone? His time here with Yuuri was going much, much too fast.

Makkachin led them down the path he was most familiar with, and by habit, they stopped on the Hasetsu bridge where the fisherman always stood, waiting to reel in his daily catch. The fisherman’s place was empty tonight, and Victor and Yuuri took up residence there instead, standing shoulder against shoulder and leaning forward against the metal railing. Makkachin had his nose to the ground and was chasing the scent of fish around their feet.

“Okay,” Victor said, gazing out at the water ahead. “Maybe I do want to talk about it.”

Yuuri looked up at him and leaned with a bit more pressure against Victor’s shoulder, silently letting him know he wasn’t going anywhere.

“Of all people,” Victor began, “Yakov should know better. He knows what my mother did to me. How she left me on that bus when I was a kid. He knows I have abandonment issues.”

He’d changed his mind.

This punch to the gut might kill him after all.

“Victor,” Yuuri said in his soft, gentle voice that reminded Victor of summer rain. “I’m not sure if my opinion matters much. I don’t know what Yakov is thinking, and you know him better than I do. But it seems to me like those text messages he sent prove how much he cares about you. He’s been watching your social media accounts to make sure you’re okay. But . . . you’re not a little kid anymore, you know? You’re twenty-seven years old, and you were the one who made the decision to leave home. Yakov might be angry, but he didn’t abandon you.”

Victor hung his head. “You’re right. I was the one that abandoned him.”

“That’s . . . not what I’m trying to get at.” Yuuri sighed, seemingly exasperated by his own inability to explain himself. “I think he’s just giving you the cold shoulder while you’re off doing your own thing. You said yourself that he told you to call him when you’re ready to beg for your place back. Yakov . . . well, if he has any heart at all, knowing what he knows about your mom, I can’t imagine anyone hurting you like that on purpose. It’s more like he’s refusing to have anything to do with your ‘disobedience.’” Yuuri said the final word with air quotes before folding his hands in front of him again, forearms resting against the bridge’s railing.

Victor was quiet for a long time. Then, leaning just a little bit more against Yuuri’s warmth, he said, “You really think he’s just trying to teach me a lesson?”

“I do. I mean, isn’t that the kind of thing some parents do when their kids go against them? They let them fail, then wait for them to come crawling back with their tail between their legs before taking them back in again.”

“I guess. I wouldn’t really know what parents do.”

There was an awkward pause, after which Yuuri let out a groan, his eyes squeezing shut behind his glasses. “Oh, wow. I just stuck my foot in my mouth, didn’t I?”

Victor let out a quiet laugh. “Relax. I’ve had twenty years to get used to being an orphan. It’s really not that dramatic.”

Yuuri fell silent again, probably at a loss for how to respond to that.

And it honestly wasn’t his fault that he couldn’t talk to Victor in that moment. He had told Yuuri so little about what had happened with his mother. He probably didn’t even realize how much healing Victor had undergone during his time in Hasetsu. The abandonment wasn’t a raw, festering wound anymore. Victor had already drawn the infection out of his heart, processed the trauma, and forgiven her. It was only when the matter of Yakov’s enduring silence came up that he felt the old wound being prodded and bruised.

“Can I tell you about her?” Victor said.

Yuuri glanced up at him again, his breath freezing in the air between them.

“About my mother,” Victor clarified. “I want you to know what happened. But you have to promise something first. Promise me you won’t think badly of her. That’s the only reason I haven’t already told you yet. It’s not that I don’t trust you or want you to know. I’m just scared of making you hate her.”

Yuuri’s eyes were huge in the darkness. “I won’t hate her, Victor. I promise. How could I when you seem to love her so much?”

Drawing in a deep breath, Victor wet his lips and began to talk.

 


 

Victor’s memories of his mother were hazy and sometimes skewed.

He knew very few specifics because of his family’s attempts to shield him from the twin scandals—the first being the disreputable circumstances that led to his birth and the second, the events that resulted in his coming to live with his aunt and uncle. Namely, his mother’s abandonment of him at the age of seven.

As a child, Victor had adored his mother without question, but now that he’d grown into a man, he wasn’t always sure he trusted his own recollections. She’d hidden things from him.

Smiling. Always smiling, with her sapphire blue eyes twinkling and her face as tranquil as a morning reverie. Sometimes, when he recalled the smile she always wore—so disarming that it made men and women alike stop in the street and stare—he wondered if he’d been too young at the time to realize her happiness was cracked along the edges.

The only thing about her that he knew with absolute certainty was that her name was Sashenka. But to Victor, she was just Mama, and he loved her very much.

As a child, Victor had imagined his mother was a famous dancer with countless patrons awaiting her return to the stage, and that his absentee father was an officer in the army who was due home from war any day now. Mama had never told Victor those things exactly but had instead tried to distract him with stories and make-believe whenever he asked difficult questions.

Though she never had a job that he could remember, they always had food and enough money to scrape by in their lonely little house on the outskirts of town. When Victor asked who his grandparents were and why he’d never met them, Mama would give him a book to read or game to play, then go off to her room to cry. He eventually learned to stop asking.

As an adult, Victor was old enough to realize that any dreams his young mother had about being a dancer were just that. Dreams. He knew now that his father was never going to be in his life and probably didn’t even know he’d sired a child at all. Though it was true he’d been in the army, whether or not he was actually an officer was unknown, and there had never been any “war” for him to come home from. Most likely, he was just an ordinary fellow who had taken a fancy to Mama at a party and had left her life almost as soon as he’d entered it.

Upon meeting his well-to-do grandparents at the age of seventeen at his first Olympic games, Victor had by then figured out that they had all but disowned their daughter when she got pregnant out of wedlock—by a veritable stranger, no less. They were the owners of the house little Victor grew up in and presumably sent Mama enough money each month to survive on her own. They just wanted her scandalous offspring far away from them where he wouldn’t have an impact on their reputation, and their attitude hadn’t changed much since then.

Victor didn’t talk to his grandparents much anymore.

In spite of everything, Mama did her best to be a good mother to Victor, and in many ways, she excelled. Still quite young herself, she encouraged Victor’s imagination and talents, played with him for hours and hours, and cuddled him and sang him to sleep after supper. He was an immensely happy child with little idea that his mother might be less so.

It was her that had taught him to smile whenever he felt like doing otherwise—like when he wanted something sweet they couldn’t afford from the bakery or when he wasn’t invited to play with the other children in their neighborhood.

“Your mama will always love you, no matter what,” she’d told him, “but other people take some convincing. A smile will get you much farther in life than a scowl. Be pleasant and learn what makes others happy. They’ll want to make you happy in return.”

Armed with this knowledge, young Victor learned how to charm people, led by the example his mother provided.

He knew he was a pretty child, but strangely, this hadn’t made anyone in their neighborhood like him any better. People didn’t want much to do with him or Mama. Mothers yanked their children away if Victor attempted to make friends with them. They didn’t get invited to dinner at the neighbors’ houses the way other people did, and even the owners of stores sometimes spoke coldly to them.

Much later in life, Victor figured out that their isolation was most likely due to the fact that Mama was an unwed mother. She’d raised Victor on her own, with no man in sight, and the neighbors had judged her accordingly.

Then there was the added complication of Mama’s lack of employment, which became an even greater source of gossip. People wondered where she got her money, and more than once, Victor heard others speculate that she was a “kept woman.” He didn’t learn what that meant until years later, and it angered him now to think of how she’d been treated.

But slowly, throughout his childhood, Victor watched his mother bewitch them all into changing their minds about her. Mama never got angry with anyone, even when they were sometimes unkind to her, and she smiled even when she was the recipient of an insult or slight. She thanked the store owners, even though they didn’t always thank her for their business, and she brought the neighbors freshly baked cookies, even when they closed the door a little too firmly after she left.

As time went on, her magic weaved its way into them all. People became much friendlier, and after a lonely childhood spent with his mother as his only playmate, Victor didn’t need any more convincing that Mama was right about the smiling thing. Being pleasant really did seem like the only way to make others like you when they were determined to do the opposite.

It worked for Victor, just as well as it worked for her. Soon, his charming smiles and friendly demeanor earned him regular free sweets from the bakery, and he made friends easily once he was old enough to attend school. One of his new friends from the neighborhood even invited him to go ice skating one day, which Victor loved and took an immediate interest to. He begged and begged his mother until she saved up enough money to buy him a pair of used ice skates for his birthday.

That’s when things began to change with Mama—when he started spending less time at home. School, his new friends, and the siren’s call of the ice rink kept him away for greater and greater lengths of time.

He’d come home sometimes and realize that his mother hadn’t gotten out of bed for the entirety of the day. Still too young to understand what might be wrong, Victor assumed she was just very sleepy and thought little of it.

The crying was more difficult to ignore. Though she never did it in front of him, he would hear her sometimes at night and sneak out of bed to see what was the matter. If she spotted him, she would dry her face immediately, don that smile that no longer seemed so bright, and pretend she didn’t have a care in the world. But sometimes Mama didn’t see Victor. Sometimes he would stand on the other side of her closed bedroom door and listen to her weep without end.

And little Victor had no idea what to do.

It frightened him. Made him feel like his limbs didn’t work right. The helplessness that filled him made him want to run around in circles until the feeling stopped chasing him and went away.

His mother always smiled. Always. If she was now crying, something truly awful must be about to happen. A monster waiting to eat them, a plague about to strike, or maybe a great fire sweeping across the whole world, coming to consume them all.

As an adult, Victor could now pinpoint untreated depression as the likely culprit, but as a child, he’d had no idea what was wrong or what to do about it. No matter how much Victor had smiled and smiled and tried to charm his mother back to life, it did little good.

But it wasn’t just depression that plagued Mama. The comorbidity of another illness crept up on them slowly, revealing itself over the span of several years.

As far back as he could recall, little Victor remembered Mama talking to herself, which he never thought much of. After all, he talked to his toys all the time—and to the flowers outside, and the trees, and the neighbor’s smelly cat that wandered onto their porch whenever it rained—but Victor wasn’t afraid of his imaginary playmates the way Mama was scared of the voices that talked to her. She hissed at them to go away and leave her alone. The voices weren’t very nice to her, and neither was the dark shadow person that started following her around the summer after Victor turned six.

He only knew it was a shadow because Mama sometimes asked him if he could see it, too. When he told her nothing was there, Mama got very pale and quiet.

At first, she seemed to sense that her own mind was playing tricks on her, but as time passed and the illness went untreated, it was like she forgot the difference between make-believe and real life. This made little Victor nervous and eager to play along with whatever strange game Mama seemed to be playing with greater and greater frequency. That decision turned out to be a mistake.

“Oh, there’s the shadow man over there!” Victor said once, laughing and pointing at the empty corner of the kitchen. “I see it now, Mama. Should I run away and make it chase me?”

But Mama didn’t like Victor’s suggestion at all. “No,” she’d snapped at him. “You stay away from that thing; do you hear me? Are . . . are you the one who’s been telling it things?”

At first, Victor had thought Mama was yelling at the invisible shadow person, but then she’d slapped Victor across the face and said, “How dare you.”

It was the first time she’d ever struck him in his entire life. The blow was more emotionally painful than physical, but Victor had been too startled to cry. He’d known then that Mama wasn’t playing make-believe. Something was very, very wrong.

His confusion didn’t end there. Mama had dragged him into her bedroom, locked the door, and shut off all the lights. She made Victor hide in the closet and proceeded to yell at the shadow person to get out of their house and leave them alone. She had paced and cried for hours, with Victor just a few feet away, paralyzed and helpless.

Eventually she quieted, and he was able to fall asleep on the closet floor, nestled between pairs of shoes. He awoke the next morning in Mama’s bed, bundled up in a blanket with his head cradled on her lap. She was still awake, her face haunted, streaked with tears. All the same, Victor could tell she was feeling better than she had the night before. The shadow person was gone.

“My sweet baby,” Mama whispered when she saw that Victor was awake. She kissed the top of his head and hugged him close. “I’m so sorry. Mama didn’t mean it.”

“Mama, what’s happening?” Victor had asked. “I’m scared.”

“I don’t know, angel . . . but I promise I’ll never put you through that again.”

Things got a little better after that.

Days and sometimes weeks passed without Mama having a bad spell. She started coming ice skating with Victor and showed him how he could make it more like a dance than just a way to fly away from his troubles for a while. He loved showing off for her and demonstrating all the tricks he’d learned, all on his own without any teacher showing him what to do. He’d taught himself by attempting to mimic what he’d seen the Russian Olympians do at the last Winter Games, which he’d recorded on VHS and watched over and over again until the tape was almost worn out.

It was around this time that Mama arranged for Victor to have ice skating lessons with a real teacher. She became fixated on making sure Victor had a solid foundation and path set for his life. He remembered her spending a lot of time on the phone with Victor’s uncle and even his grandparents, talking about schools for him. He and Mama often discussed what he wanted to be when he grew up. (That was a no-brainer: a world-famous Olympian.) She seemed to make it her mission to give Victor a shot at realizing his dreams, even though her dreams for herself had long since been lost.

She really had tried to be a good mother. The more Victor thought about how hard she’d fought for him, the more he realized the odds she’d been up against.

The distraction of planning Victor’s future seemed to help Mama. For a while, at least.

But one day, not long after Victor turned seven, it happened again. One minute, she was fine, and the next, something she’d seen in the kitchen had her screaming and throwing a cast-iron skillet through the window, shattering the pane to pieces. Then she spent the next few hours chasing invisible spiders out of the house with a broom, breaking just about every plate, glass, and valuable they owned in the process.

Victor remembered sitting outside on the back porch and crying. What he really wanted to do was call for an ambulance or at the very least, fetch the neighbors to help, but Mama had already made him promise that he would never involve other people in one of her bad spells. She was scared someone would try to take Victor away from her if they deemed her unfit to care for him, and since he didn’t want to be taken away either, he did as she asked. His instructions were to go somewhere safe and stay there until it was over.

So he’d sat there by himself, his stomach growling with hunger because Mama had thrown his breakfast through a window, and waited while she destroyed their home.

It took her almost the whole day to snap out of it, but seeing Victor sitting outside in the cold with an empty belly and tears drying on his cheeks seemed to do the trick. When Mama realized how badly she’d frightened him—and worse, how she’d actually put her little boy in real danger of getting hurt this time—she went strangely calm.

Victor remembered thinking that she was still very much in the middle of a bad spell because she still wasn’t acting like herself, but she must have been fighting to cling to reality for his sake alone.

She’d gone into the bedroom to make a phone call, and the next thing Victor knew, they were packing up suitcases to go on a trip. When he begged Mama to tell him where they were going, she said, “To stay with your aunt and uncle for a while. They’re going to . . . to help.”

The relief Victor felt at that moment was enormous.

He’d never met his aunt before, but his uncle came to see them a few times each year, usually around Christmas or Easter. He was Mama’s older brother. Surely he’d know what to do to help her.

Early the next morning, they got on a bus. Victor remembered Mama writing his uncle’s full name, address, and phone number on a piece of paper and putting it in his coat pocket. “Just in case you get lost,” she’d told him.

That paper confused Victor for a long time afterward. Had she known then that she was going to leave him alone on that bus, or was it unplanned? He wasn’t sure which was worse.

Whatever the case was, Mama was extremely agitated during that long bus ride. Victor tried to cuddle up to her and put his head on her shoulder, the way he always did when they talked or read bedtime stories together, but she was far too restless. Eventually, he had to sit up straight and leave her alone. It was at that point that she got out of her seat and started pacing the aisle.

He would never forget that bus ride, as long as he lived.

Likewise, he would never forget the fear of knowing his mother was unwell . . . that she was talking to herself and someone was going to take Victor away from her at any second because she’d revealed their secret. Nor could he forget the shame he felt over not being smart or capable or old enough to take better care of her, of not knowing what was wrong, not knowing what mental illness was, what to do, how to ask for help.

Rendered mute by these feelings, Victor just smiled at the woman sitting across the aisle from him, silently begging her all the while to help him.

But other than that, he did nothing. That was what he was supposed to do during one of Mama’s bad spells, after all. Stay safe and out of the way and say nothing to anyone else until it was over.

Mama eventually became so disruptive that the bus driver pulled over on the side of the road in some tiny, nondescript town Victor didn’t know the name of. There was a big commotion involving some of the other passengers, who got out of their seats and crowded around Mama in an attempt to subdue her. Victor didn’t try to stop them because he could tell they were just trying to help her—even the two big men who guided her off the bus and sat her down on the ground outside in the hopes of calming her.

And it seemed to work. For half an hour or so, several of the other passengers sat with Mama, talking with her and giving her sips of water. Victor let himself breathe a sigh of relief, thinking her bad spell was finally ending and she was regaining her senses. Any minute now, she’d get back on the bus, and they could go.

Eventually, the crowd of people outside did file back onto the bus, and Victor was beyond thankful when the driver restarted the engine. The nightmare was over. As the bus pulled away from the no-name town and started down the road again, Victor sat up straighter in his seat and squinted toward the front, trying to see Mama amongst the people still standing and talking to the driver.

It never occurred to him that she might not be there, even after twenty minutes of driving, when the final passengers finished their conversation with the driver and returned to their seats.

When he still couldn’t see Mama, Victor rationalized it in his mind, thinking perhaps she was sitting next to some nice person who was taking good care of her. In his wildest dreams, he could not have imagined a world where his mother would have left him on that bus alone, so he continued to sit there and watch the scenery pass by, counting the minutes until they’d reach his uncle’s house and this awful, horrible, no-good day would come to an end.

But as the bus rattled on, Victor began to realize something wasn’t right. Mama had never gone so long without checking on him. Suddenly filled with doubt, he shot out of his seat and stumbled down the aisle toward the front of the bus. He looked hard at each person he passed, searching for Mama’s face in theirs, and felt himself panicking more and more by the second when he didn’t find her.

Victor’s path eventually led him back to his own seat, which was empty save for Mama’s purse. Even then, he couldn’t wrap his mind around her absence. It didn’t make any sense.

The woman who was sitting in the seat across from him took notice of Victor’s distress. “Honey, are you okay?” she asked.

Victor nodded and tried his hardest to smile. Then he said in a small, shaky voice, “I don’t know where my Mama is.”

“You mean . . . that woman they took off the bus earlier? That was your mother?”

Another nod, which prompted the woman to get out of her seat, take Victor by the hand, and guide him to the front of the bus to speak with the driver.

Victor was starting to cry now, so scared and confused that he could no longer speak, even when people began asking him questions that should have been very simple to answer—like what his name was, where he was going, and if that woman they’d left behind on the road miles back was really his mother. Little Victor struggled with every word.

In fact, it would be twenty long years before he talked willingly about it again.

 


 

“They never found her?” Yuuri asked.

He and Victor were no longer standing on the Hasetsu bridge. The wind had picked up, and they’d wandered down to the beach instead, walking slowly and without aim while Victor shared his story. When Makkachin started to show signs of getting tired, Victor and Yuuri sat down together on the sand to talk while the puppy rested up for the journey home. Makkachin was warm and happy, snuggled up on Victor’s lap, half wrapped in his coat.

Yuuri sat at Victor’s side, pressed up against him to share as much warmth as possible. Victor had one arm around Makkachin . . . but the other belonged to Yuuri, who had Victor’s ungloved hand held between both of his. The glove was in Yuuri’s pocket.

“No, they never did,” Victor replied. “Apparently, Mama had wandered off when I wasn’t paying attention, and when no one could convince her to come back to the bus, they just let her go off on her own. Somehow, my seven-year-old self didn’t notice that part.”

“Well, you were a little kid. Who expects something like that to happen?”

Victor sighed. “Anyway, they drove me to the next town and called the police. It was a good thing I had my uncle’s phone number in my pocket. He was able to come pick me up after a few hours. He tried to work with the police to track Mama down but . . . well, I like to think she just didn’t want to be found. It’s not a very pleasant thought because it means she really did leave me there by myself on purpose. But trust me, imagining that she wanted to be found but something or someone prevented her from finding help is much, much worse. You can probably see now why the whole thing has me a little stuck.”

“There’s never been any resolution,” Yuuri said, squeezing Victor’s hand.

Victor nodded once, and a long moment of silence fell over them, filled only with the crash of the waves up ahead. The wind was so strong now that it blew frothy mist off the choppy ocean. He could taste salt in the air. It really did feel like it was going to start sleeting or snowing at any minute, but neither one of them made any indication that they were ready to go back home. The harder the wind blew, the closer they sat.

It was funny to think that just a few months ago, when they’d sat together on this very same beach, Yuuri wouldn’t come anywhere near him. Now he had Victor’s hand cradled in his lap and was caressing it gently, exploring the lines on his palm with the tips of his fingers.

“What are you thinking?” Victor asked eventually.

Don’t hate her, he thought. Please don’t hate her. It wasn’t her fault.

Yuuri shrugged, his attention aimed downward at Victor’s hand. “I don’t know. I guess I wish the story had ended differently, for your sake. And for hers. I wish someone had recognized what was going on and gotten her help. And I mean an adult. Not a little kid who’s never been taught about mental illness. You know none of that was your fault, right?”

“I do. Or at least, I know it in my head. My heart’s taken some additional convincing, but it’s coming around.”

“And it wasn’t hers either.”

Victor smiled, relief pouring through him. He should have known from the beginning that Yuuri would understand. “I know that, too, but it’s nice to hear someone else say it. Let’s just say the rest of my family doesn’t share that opinion.”

“Your aunt and uncle?”

“Mm-hmm. And my grandparents and first cousins and second cousins and fourteenth cousins thrice removed. The list just goes on and on. I have a very large family, Yuuri. Some of them are nicer than others, but in general, I just don’t like what they have to say very much. They only really started showing any interest in me after I became famous. It’s a testament to just how much they hate scandal that none of this has ever gotten into the press.”

“You went to live with your aunt and uncle after all of it happened, right?”

“Yes, but just for a year or so until I moved in with Yakov. They’re nice enough people, but they’re not what you would call emotionally available. They’re kind of like my grandparents in that way. But they opened up their home to me and gave me the kind of structure I so desperately needed at that point. I was never hungry or without a roof over my head. I have a lot to be thankful for, especially considering they already had children of their own. They even supported my ice skating, I guess because it kept me distracted while they were searching for Mama. My uncle was the one who hired Yakov and got me enrolled in a special school that allowed me to spend more time at the rink. And I loved it. I threw myself completely into my skating because I didn’t want to think about Mama anymore.”

Victor trailed off and indulged in a bitter laugh. “Isn’t that the worst thing you’ve ever heard?” he continued. “It felt good to lose myself in skating. I ran away from everything that hurt me, shut people out from getting too close to me so that they couldn’t leave me, and set my goal on pleasing my audience instead. The better I skated, the more affection and approval I got from other people. In a way, I guess my audience replaced my need to receive love from anyone else—like a parental figure or close friend or even a serious boyfriend—and that’s pretty much been my life for the last twenty years. And I don’t know . . . now that I’m getting closer to the age when I’m expected to retire, it’s like I’ve suddenly realized how fleeting it all is. The audience only cares about you when you keep surprising them, but who’s left to love you when your inspiration runs dry? I guess that’s no one’s fault but my own, though. Yakov tried to tell me. For years, he lectured me about how I wasn’t investing in my life outside of skating, and I didn’t listen to him. And then it’s like I finally woke up and realized I wasn’t seven-years-old anymore. It was such a strange feeling, like I didn’t know where my life had gone. Sometimes I feel like I’m still sitting on that bus. Just . . . stuck.”

When he was done speaking, Victor was a bit stunned by how long he’d rambled on without end.

Never in his life had he shared such thoughts with another person. Not even Yakov. It was one thing to tell Yuuri about what had happened with Mama, but those were just facts. Events, people, places. But what had just come out of Victor’s mouth was far more personal—the kind of unflattering inner thoughts that might make others think less of him. He felt like he’d just taken a knife and flayed himself open in front of Yuuri, who had in no way asked Victor to do any such thing.

It made him feel guilty for oversharing . . . and a little afraid Yuuri would be turned off when he realized his figure skating idol was an ungrateful, friendless nobody who’d gone cold on his own family and cared more about his ice skates than actual people.

“You probably didn’t want to know all of that, huh?” Victor said with a nervous laugh. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to dump all that on y—”

“Victor,” Yuuri said, cutting him off gently. “Don’t ever apologize for being yourself around me. You don’t have to fake a smile or put on a performance to get me to care about you. The real Victor is plenty loveable, all on his own.”

Victor’s throat started to ache, even as a smile came to soften the set of his lips.

Had Yuuri really just said that? The words felt like a sweet little kiss on the cheek.

He’d called Victor loveable—not just likeable—and he’d said it immediately after Victor had confessed some of the darkest thoughts and fears he’d ever had.

God, Victor was happy. So, so happy and in love.

That’s it, he thought. I’m calling it. You’re my boyfriend. Maybe you’re not ready to hear me say that word out loud yet, but we are so past the ‘just friends’ stage, it’s not even funny.

“You can tell me anything,” Yuuri added. He had Victor’s hand hugged to his chest now, and it was so warm there inside the folds of his coat. “I mean that. But . . . well, I might not always know what to say or do to fix the situation or make you feel better. I’m sorry. I’m not really any good when it comes to—”

Yuuri,” Victor said, cutting off the apology the same way Yuuri had done to him. Their fingers laced together beneath Yuuri’s coat. “Don’t ever apologize for being yourself around me.”

Yuuri looked up at him, surprise touching his features.

And Victor liked that—the way Yuuri’s surprise made him feel. It was like a little spark of lightning and inspiration had passed between them, a thousand times more fulfilling and real than the surprise of any audience of strangers. It made Victor want to do it again and again, just to feel that electricity.

“I didn’t tell you all that because I expected you to do or say anything,” Victor said. “I’m good, Yuuri. I’m healed and happier than I’ve been in a very long time. I just wanted you to know me a little better. That’s all.”

They gazed at each other for a long moment—so long that Victor’s heart started beating a strong, accelerating tempo in his chest. He could feel himself trembling inside, partially because of the cold but also because he was thinking about how it would be such a simple thing to lean in and press his mouth to Yuuri’s. It would have felt so warm and quiet and nice. But then a frigid gust of wind inspired Yuuri to duck his head down until it relented, and Victor had to remind himself for the millionth time to be patient.

Yuuri was worth waiting for. So what if he wasn’t ready for the physical stuff? Victor had done a lot of things with other lovers before, but none of it had ever felt as intimate as this.

Victor pressed a kiss to the top of his boyfriend’s head and kept his mouth there, savoring his warmth and the smell of his shampoo. “Thanks for listening,” he said.

Yuuri nuzzled closer against the warm pressure of Victor’s mouth and said, “Thank you for asking me to.”

 


 

The next morning, Victor woke up already wearing a smile. Turning his head to the side on the pillow, he gazed adoringly at the reason why.

Yuuri had fallen asleep in Victor’s bed last night.

They’d come home from their late-night walk to the beach and lingered for a while longer on Yu-Topia’s porch, watching the first snowfall of the year drift down from the overcast sky. It was long past midnight and absolutely freezing—much too cold to spend another minute outdoors—but still, they’d hesitated.

That is . . . until Victor said, “We don’t have to say goodnight just yet. You could come to my room for a little while.”

“Okay,” Yuuri said and turned to go inside like it was no big deal at all.

But it was a big deal. Victor had lost count of the times he’d invited Yuuri into his room late at night, only to have a door closed in his face.

It was amazing how much could change in a single day.

Their conversation at the Ice Castle yesterday seemed to have unlocked something in Yuuri’s confidence and willingness to let himself trust Victor. Or perhaps it was because Victor had poured his heart out to Yuuri at the beach last night and let himself truly be seen and known for the first time. Whatever the case was, Yuuri had willingly joined Victor in his bedroom, and it was wonderful. They’d talked for a long time, sitting together on the bed with Makkachin snoring between them. The conversation was light and carefree, the heaviness of their earlier discussion nowhere to be found.

But then Victor’s eyelids had started to droop, and the next thing he knew, he was asleep. He’d woken up in the middle of the night to find a little miracle sleeping in the bed beside him.

Yuuri was gorgeous when he slumbered, with his lips parted and kissably soft, his features free of any hint of tension. Victor remembered staring at him for several minutes, wondering if he was dreaming.

It was such a fragile thing—this trust Yuuri had gifted to Victor. Something to nurture and protect so that it could continue to blossom. The last thing Victor wanted was to scare Yuuri off when they were finally in the beginning stages of a romantic relationship. Because that’s exactly what this was. It couldn’t be ignored any longer—not when Victor had made his feelings so clear yesterday at the Ice Castle, given Yuuri a way out if he wanted one, only to have Yuuri do the opposite and move closer to him instead.

Before falling back asleep last night, Victor had carefully removed Yuuri’s glasses and set them on the nightstand. When he leaned over to switch off the lamp, Yuuri had stirred and opened his eyes. “Gomen,” he whispered in the dark. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”

“Stay here with me,” Victor whispered back. “I like having you close.”

“Okay. . .”

Oh, yes. They were definitely boyfriends now.

Yuuri had turned his face into the pillow and closed his eyes as Victor pulled a blanket over them. He didn’t touch Yuuri, wary of overwhelming his new bedmate. This was enough. Victor really did just want him close.

Now, waking up the following morning with his sweetheart breathing softly beside him, Victor discovered Yuuri had snuggled closer to him during the night, all on his own. Perhaps it was because of the chill in the air from last night’s snowfall, or maybe Yuuri had just wanted to. Either way, the moment was perfectly innocent. Victor couldn’t remember the last time he felt such happiness radiating out of him.

He didn’t want to get up, even after his alarm went off. They had stayed up much, much too late last night, especially considering they had an early practice that morning.

After hitting the snooze button twice, Victor couldn’t ignore the time any longer and still call himself a proper coach. Reluctantly, he got out from beneath the warm covers, stretched his arms high over his head, and indulged in a yawn. Then, smiling down at the sleeping beauty in his bed, he leaned over to brush Yuuri’s hair away from his eyes. Getting to see him like that was amazing.

Intending to visit the restroom, Victor quietly slipped from his room—but then he stopped short in the doorway. Hiroko was standing in the hallway in front of Yuuri’s open bedroom door, brow furrowed and mouth curved downward in concern. No doubt, she was wondering why her son’s bed was empty. Yuuri wasn’t exactly the kind of person to be awake at this hour.

When Hiroko spotted Victor, her frown transformed at once into a smile, though it wasn’t as carefree as it normally was. Concern for her son’s whereabouts was still evident in her expression, even as she said, “Vicchan, ohayō!”

“Oh, Hiroko-san,” Victor said, eyes growing wide. “Ohayō. . .”

Oh no, he thought, realizing that he and Yuuri were seconds away from getting caught sharing a bed together. And by Yuuri’s mother, of all people.

“Eto . . . Yuuri?” she said, pointing to her son’s empty bedroom. She was asking if Victor knew where he was.

“Oh . . . um. Well . . . he’s, uh. . .”

In the end, Victor didn’t have to explain. Hiroko’s gaze focused past his shoulder and into his bedroom, where Yuuri’s messy black hair could be seen peeking out from beneath the covers. Victor flushed and pressed his lips together, at a complete loss for what to do or say. Thank goodness he and Yuuri were both fully dressed, still wearing the same clothes they’d worn to the beach last night.

Surprise registered on Hiroko’s face, but she contained it soon thereafter and averted her gaze. With a polite bow, she smiled at Victor and excused herself.

Victor gaped at her retreating figure, not knowing whether to feel panic or relief. Yuuri’s mother didn’t look particularly dismayed that she’d just found her son in another man’s bed. A man who was his coach, no less. Someone who had been welcomed into the family without hesitation and trusted to guide Yuuri along the right path.

Did Yuuri’s family even know he was gay? Did Yuuri want them to know? Did they approve of such things, or was Victor about to complicate Yuuri’s home life? Not only that, but had Victor just damaged his own relationship with Hiroko?

He had no idea, but it worried him. Victor had come to love Hiroko-san like family. It would break his heart to disappoint her.

But . . . well, she really didn’t seem all that upset.

If Victor didn’t know any better, he could swear he heard a little giggle of amusement from her as she padded quietly down the stairs.

 


 

“Vicchan,” Hiroko said to him the next day while she was pouring his morning tea in the dining room. “May I ask what your intentions are with Yuuri?”

Victor blinked up at her, puzzled by her perfect English.

He’d had a feeling a lecture was coming or at least some acknowledgement of what had happened the prior day, but he hadn’t anticipated having that conversation in a language Hiroko didn’t speak.

She knew bits of English, but just enough to guide foreigners to the right place at the onsen when the need presented itself. When Victor came to live at Yu-Topia, she’d learned a few new phrases and words for his sake, but she was still only at a level where they could have the simplest conversations. This was a suspicious jump in talent, making Victor wonder if she’d memorized the question from the internet or gotten someone to translate it for her. The words were carefully pronounced using katakana syllabary, which was how Japanese people sounded out foreign words.

“Um,” Victor said, uncertain how to respond. He wasn’t shy about his feelings but didn’t know how to phrase his answer in a way she’d understand. His Japanese was getting better by the day, but it wasn’t that good.

Hiroko poured herself a cup of tea and settled down across from Victor at the table. Beside the kettle, she placed a little piece of paper, which had katakana script written on it. She referenced it before asking, “Do you have feelings for my son?”

That was an easier question to answer. Victor nodded and said, “Hai. I’m in love with him.”

Sensing Hiroko didn’t understand, Victor followed up with the Japanese word. “Ai.” He touched his heart and pointed in the direction of Yuuri’s room so that she’d understand what he meant, even without a complete sentence.

A slow smile spread across Hiroko’s face. With her round cheeks pink with pleasure, she picked up her tea with both hands and blew steam off the surface before taking a sip. For a while, they sat quietly and drank their tea together.

And yes, it was awkward.

In spite of Hiroko’s smile, her reaction to Victor’s confession of love was difficult to decipher. There seemed to be a hint of worry in her countenance, and it made him uneasy. More than anything, Victor wished he could speak fluent Japanese at that moment. He wanted to tell Hiroko just how much his friendship with Yuuri meant to him, as well as assure her that he would never take advantage of any authority he held as Yuuri’s coach and use it to put pressure on him.

(It wasn’t like Yuuri treated Victor like he had any authority over him anyway. Yuuri was not the kind of person who would give in to someone twisting his arm.)

Victor also wanted to tell Hiroko how much she meant to him. He stared at her, silently begging her not to turn her back on him the way every other parental figure had done.

“Vicchan,” Hiroko said when the tea was half gone. “Be patient.”

Victor nodded with wide-eyed vigor, feeling very much like a little kid who’d narrowly avoided a fierce scolding from his mother. That was a much gentler rebuke than he’d anticipated.

“Yuuri is . . .” Hiroko trailed off and seemed to search her memory for the right words. Eventually, she became frustrated with her limited knowledge of English and started talking to herself in Japanese instead.

“Gomen nasai,” Victor said. “I don’t understand. Wakarimasen.”

Hiroko again referenced the paper with the katakana script, making it obvious to Victor that she’d already planned much of what she wanted to say to him before this conversation even began. “Yuuri feels deeply,” she explained. “It scares him. He hides.”

“Don’t worry, Hiroko-san,” Victor said. “Shinpai nai yo. I won’t push him.”

She might not have understood every word, but Victor’s meaning seemed to translate. Hiroko smiled again and sipped at her tea, prompting Victor to do the same. The mood felt much lighter now, the fresh morning air and sunshine making everything seem hopeful and relaxed. This was a feather-light slap on the hand compared to the lecture Victor had thought he was going to get. While it was true that he did feel a bit scolded, it was a relief to know Hiroko had enough respect for him to speak to him directly about her reservations instead of just going cold.

Or at least . . . Victor thought Hiroko had reservations about his relationship with Yuuri.

But then, out of the blue, she glanced at her piece of paper again and said, “You should kiss him.”

Victor choked on his tea. Setting it down, he cleared his throat and said, “Uh . . . k-kiss Yuuri?”

“Yes, yes,” Hiroko said with a bright smile. “I want grandchildren.” Then she held up four fingers to show him how many she expected.

Victor was so confused.

Hadn’t Hiroko literally just told him to be patient in his pursuit of a relationship with Yuuri? Why was she now teasing Victor about grandkids and nudging him to hurry it up and seal the deal with a kiss?

But then it occurred to him that he might have misinterpreted what she’d been trying to say from the beginning. Hiroko wasn’t asking Victor to be patient and give Yuuri more time. She was telling him to be patient with Yuuri. With his reluctance. With his fear of jumping into a relationship. Hiroko was trying to explain that the reason Yuuri was pushing Victor away was because the intensity of what he felt scared him.

And his adorable, polite, soft-spoken mother was suggesting that the right course of action might be to kiss her son anyway. Wow.

“Four grandchildren, huh?” Victor chuckled and adjusted his cup where it sat on the table. “That’s, um . . . that’s a lot of kids to have running around. What about two?” To help her understand, he held up two fingers to see what she thought of his compromise.

Dear, God. If Yuuri ever found out about this conversation, Victor and Hiroko were both going to find themselves in a world of hurt.

She shook her head and persisted with four fingers, refusing to meet him in the middle with three, and Victor threw back his head and laughed.

 


 

From: v-nikiforov@mail.ru
To: yakov.feltsman@mail.ru

Hey Yakov! I just wanted to check in with you so you know I’m okay. Hope you’re doing well too!! Can you believe the Grand Prix Series is already starting???

Anyway, I wanted to send you my flight details for the Cup of China. I know you’ll be there with Georgi, so let’s get together and have dinner or something! I’m really excited about catching up and hearing how everything’s going with you. How about the night before the Short Program? You can finally meet Yuri! (My Yuri. Not yours.)

My flight schedule is attached below. See you in Beijing!!!!!!!

Victor

PS – I caught a preview of Georgi’s Short Program online. Is his makeup supposed to look like that? Maybe a touch of blush might help? Just a thought. . .

 


 

As much as Victor adored living in Japan, he was thrilled at the prospect of going on a trip abroad with Yuuri. Hasetsu was a small town, and it was getting increasingly more difficult to show Yuuri affection out in the open without raising a few eyebrows. It would be nice to have some time alone with him.

(How else was he supposed to get a jumpstart on Hiroko’s request for four grandchildren? That was a tall order. The adoption paperwork alone could take years.)

They shared a blanket on the plane to China, and Yuuri even let Victor cuddle up against him while they napped, which made an otherwise miserable flight so much more enjoyable. Victor couldn’t remember the last time he flew coach, and if sitting in the aisle seat and letting Yuuri have the window didn’t say, “You are my special person, and I value your needs above my own,” he didn’t know what did.

When they touched down at the Beijing airport, Yuuri stirred from his nap and turned his head to blink at the window, his expression glazed over with the fog of sleep. Victor was already awake, but he still had his head resting on Yuuri’s shoulder, unwilling to move from such a comfortable spot. Together they watched snow drift past the window while the plane taxied to the gate. It seemed to take a long time with several stops along the way, the icy weather perhaps causing a delay.

Victor didn’t mind. Not when it gave the two of them such a perfect opportunity to cuddle and flirt.

All around them, the plane was noisy—with passengers already rustling around, eager to make their escape from the plane, and flight attendants imploring them to stay in their seats—but neither Victor nor Yuuri took notice of the commotion. Victor was touching the top of Yuuri’s hand, tracing lazy little figure-eights with the tips of his fingers. Yuuri swallowed and turned his hand over, palm facing upward, so that Victor could touch him there as well. When it finally came time to unbuckle their seatbelts and exit the plane, Victor had long-since forgotten where they were. The feel of Yuuri’s skin had hypnotized him.

Victor stepped back and let Yuuri go first down the aisle toward the front of the plane. This was another thing he hated about flying coach—the amount of time it took to exit. It was a traffic jam of people who had nowhere to go. But today, it wasn’t so bad . . . because Yuuri was standing directly in front of him. Victor moved closer while they waited, molding his front against Yuuri’s back and slipping an arm around his middle.

Last spring, Yuuri would have shoved Victor away in horror. Last month, he would have gone rigid at the very least. Today, Yuuri leaned back into Victor’s body and stifled a yawn while they waited for the traffic jam to move.

It wasn’t until Victor nuzzled his face into the side of his boyfriend’s neck that Yuuri seemed uncomfortable at all. “Victor. . .” he said, jerking away. The tips of his ears had gone pink. “Not here.”

Interesting. . .

Victor had already known Yuuri was going to tell him to back off. He’d pushed their otherwise comfortable little flirt session too far on purpose, just to judge Yuuri’s reaction to it.

It was Hiroko-san’s fault, really. She was the one who’d put the idea in Victor’s head that Yuuri might need a little nudge in the right direction when it came to the physical stuff. While Victor would always stop if Yuuri said no . . . well, he hadn’t exactly said no just now. He’d said: not here. Did that mean Yuuri wouldn’t have protested if Victor had come on to him somewhere else?

Very interesting.

“Wanna share a room with me at the hotel?” Victor asked when they were finally off the plane.

“No,” Yuuri said bluntly. “I have to sleep, Victor. We’re here for a competition, remember?”

Victor frowned. “Oh, yeah. I keep forgetting that part. . .”

 


 

It honestly wasn’t his fault that he was so distracted from his coaching duties. There was a lot going on at the arena the next day, as well as a slew of emotions Victor hadn’t anticipated having to deal with. Some were more difficult to get through than others.

The easiest by far was the fact that he wasn’t competing in the Grand Prix Series himself. He’d be lying if he said he didn’t feel a sharp pang of longing in his heart when he smelled the ice. It was beyond strange to arrive at the arena without a pair of ice skates in his bag, but the moment he saw the press already doing pre-competition interviews, he remembered why he’d decided to go on hiatus in the first place.

It wasn’t that he disliked doing interviews. He’d always maintained a positive relationship with the reporters that frequented these events. They were nice people, many of them huge fans of the sport and of Victor himself, and they’d helped him gain a dedicated following of fans throughout the years.

But the questions they sometimes asked. . .

What are you going to do next, Victor? How will you top your own performance?

Do you think you can break your own world record again, or have you peaked in the sport? What do you think about the fresh, new talent coming up the ranks?

Have you thought about retiring while you’re still number one?

And really. How was he supposed to make up new answers to questions like that, year after year after year, and maintain a dazzling smile and positive attitude for the cameras at the same time? What a relief it was to know he wouldn’t have to deal with any of that at this year’s Grand Prix Series.

No, this weekend’s competition was about Yuuri.

Victor was actually looking forward to bragging about his protégé to any member of the press that would lend him a spare moment with a microphone. (Especially since Yuuri was so terrible at bragging about himself. Someone had to get his fans excited.)

Unfortunately, members of the foreign press weren’t as focused on talking about Yuuri as Victor would have liked. Back in Japan, it had been much easier to get the reporters focused on Yuuri alone, who was widely referred to as Japan’s Ace. Even after his loss last year at Nationals, his home country was well aware he was the number one male figure skater they had. But here in China, at the series of competitions Victor had dominated last year with two gold medals in the preliminaries and a third won at the Final, people wanted to talk about him. The reigning champion. Not the future one.

Have you left the ice for good, Victor? Are you planning to officially announce your retirement at tomorrow’s event, or is this truly just a hiatus?

What made you decide to become Yuuri Katsuki’s coach? Do you feel qualified as a first-year coach to lead him to victory after his poor performance last year?

Are you aware of the things your former coach, Yakov Feltsman, has been saying about your coaching skills to the press?

Oh, Victor was aware all right. Yuri Plisetsky had been more than happy to forward him links to various news articles that contained not-so-flattering quotes.

Victor would be the first to admit he’d jumped into the role of coach without being fully prepared for everything it entailed. He and Yuuri both had a lot to prove here in China, and it bothered him a little that he couldn’t do more to help carry that burden. Everything was riding on Yuuri’s shoulders alone now. It wasn’t like Victor could lace up and skate at his side.

(A shame, really. That would have been fun.)

On top of the stress this caused, there was the added emotional toll of having Yakov there at the competition. He still hadn’t returned any of Victor’s calls, texts, or emails. And as a result, Yakov’s presence was a major distraction, especially during practice at the arena the day before the Short Program was to take place.

Yakov was supposed to be there with Georgi, who would compete against Yuuri tomorrow, but either the Russian team was running late or weren’t coming. That didn’t stop Victor from constantly looking around for his old coach when he was supposed to be doing other things—like paying attention to what Yuuri was doing out on the ice.

Eventually, Yuuri got so fed up with his coach’s neglect that he skated right up to where Victor was standing by the rink barrier, crossed his arms over his chest, and cleared his throat. When Victor still didn’t look at him, Yuuri plucked a tissue out of the poodle-shaped box in Victor’s arms and waved it around in front of his face.

Startled, Victor blinked and finally focused his attention on Yuuri. “Oh . . . hi. Sorry. Didn’t see you there.”

“I noticed,” Yuuri said, his dark eyes simmering with irritation. “I don’t suppose you saw anything else I just did either? Like the half-routine I performed before I realized my coach wasn’t paying attention?”

Victor blanched. His eyes darted around the arena, taking note of the other coaches—seasoned, professional coaches that had business cards, tax IDs, and everything. Out of all of them, Victor was the only one not actively working with his student. “Um. . .”

It was at that moment that Yakov breezed through the door and into the arena, wearing his signature overcoat and hat, Georgi all but invisible at his side.

Victor brightened and stood up straighter. Instantly, his heart began to pound. He’d been anticipating this reunion from the moment Yuuri’s Grand Prix assignments had been announced in the summer.

When Yuuri followed Victor’s gaze to the left, his irritation softened into understanding. “Ah. That’s why you’ve been so distracted.”

It was nice not to have to explain because Yakov was headed their way. But the closer he got, the more it became apparent that he was keeping his eyes very purposefully aimed in any direction except Victor’s. Not even Georgi would look at him. It wasn’t as if he and Victor had ever been best friends or anything, but they’d been rink-mates for well over a decade. The fact that Georgi didn’t offer so much as a glance or a “hello” meant either that he was also angry with Victor, or more likely, that Yakov had instructed Georgi to ignore him.

Warning bells went off in Victor’s mind. He knew his heart was about to be broken yet again, even before it happened, but he couldn’t just stand there and say nothing. When Yakov came close enough to hear him, Victor felt unusually shy as he said, “Yakov, hi. It’s really good to see . . . you.”

His words faltered as Yakov stomped past him without so much as a glance of acknowledgement.

And oh, it hurt.

That was the man who had practically raised him from his pre-teen years all the way into his twenties. It was Yakov who had taught Victor about life, taken him into his home when it felt like no one else wanted to deal with him, helped him put what had happened with his mother into perspective, mentored him during his transition from a boy into a man, and stood alongside him during some of the most important moments of his career. Yakov had been the one constant in Victor’s life when he’d badly needed someone to not go anywhere.

Victor knew he’d been the one to hurt Yakov first. He understood that he needed to apologize, but how could he ask for forgiveness when Yakov wouldn’t even look at him? Victor’s gaze fell to the floor, his throat on fire with emotion.

A gentle hand came to rest on his forearm. “Victor,” Yuuri said, drawing his coach’s attention back to the present moment.

Victor stared at him, wondering if Yuuri had any idea how badly he was hurting at that moment.

He must have because he squeezed Victor’s forearm so firmly that he was impossible to ignore. “Keep your eyes on me,” Yuuri said, quietly commanding. “And no one else. They’re not even here, okay? It’s just you and me alone together.”

And just like that, Victor felt anchored to the ground again. He blew out a slow breath and nodded, more appreciative of Yuuri’s support than he could ever put into words.

But at the same time, it bothered him. He was supposed to be the one supporting Yuuri today—not the other way around—but so far, the only purpose Victor had served at this competition was as an overly-qualified tissue box holder.

 


 

Victor got drunk at dinner that night. The kind of drunk that resulted in impaired memory and missing items of clothing.

And it wasn’t just because Yakov had turned down his invitation to join them by telling Victor that it “made him sick” to see him pretending to be a coach. (Ah, family.)

No, Victor didn’t really start going in with the alcohol until two people he’d never met before joined them at a local Hot Pot restaurant. Yuuri’s best friend, Phichit Chulanont, as well as his former coach, Celestino Cialdini. Both men made Victor feel insecure in different ways.

First, there was Phichit, a young Thai man with a bright smile and infectious laugh. Victor was already familiar with the sound of his voice. He sometimes heard Phichit and Yuuri’s conversations through the walls back in Hasetsu, laughing and talking late into the night over Skype. Yuuri’s face lit up whenever Phichit’s name was mentioned in conversation, even in the context of having to compete against him. Clearly, they were close.

And yes, Victor was jealous, even though he knew he didn’t have a reason to be.

He’d already quizzed Yuuri on his relationship with Phichit several times and had been assured they were “just friends,” but the jealousy remained. Not that Victor was determined to dislike Phichit or anything. He just didn’t like the reminder that his best friend, Yuuri, already had a best friend before him. Victor wanted to be Yuuri’s number one.

So when Phichit arrived at the restaurant that night, Victor was already a little guarded and wondering if he would be made to feel like a third wheel while the two old friends caught up. But then Phichit and Yuuri didn’t even move to hug each other. They just smiled and exchanged a “good-to-see-you” wave, which came as a surprise to Victor, who couldn’t go more than an hour or two without demanding a Yuuri-hug. (Highly addictive, those hugs.)

Victor’s jealousy was tempered somewhat when Yuuri got up from his seat, offered it to Phichit, and moved to the opposite side of the table to sit down beside Victor instead. It was much easier to be friendly and welcoming to Phichit after that. While it still irked Victor a bit that Phichit was Yuuri’s best friend . . . at least Victor was Yuuri’s boyfriend.

All the same, a lingering insecurity remained. Victor didn’t like that someone else might know Yuuri better than he did.

Celestino Cialdini hadn’t arrived at the restaurant yet, but his presence could still be felt. From the moment Phichit announced his coach would be joining them for dinner, Yuuri’s anxiety went into overdrive. It was an understandable reaction, considering he had fired the man as his coach last season.

Victor also felt a small jolt of apprehension, which he hadn’t anticipated feeling around Yuuri’s former mentor. Though Celestino was a well-respected member of the figure skating community, Victor had been dismissive of the man’s coaching abilities from the beginning. Obviously, he hadn’t been cut out for the job of guiding Yuuri to success. Up until arriving in Beijing, Victor had felt confident he was the better man for the job.

But today’s practice at the arena had shaken Victor’s unflinching confidence in himself. He’d barely been able to focus on Yuuri, much less offer him any useful advice, and more than once, Victor had noticed Celestino watching him from across the rink. The disapproval could be felt from a distance.

The two of them had only spoken once before—just a quick phone call a few months ago to ask about Celestino’s reasoning behind his music choices for Yuuri. Though Celestino had been cooperative with the request and didn’t show any hint of holding a grudge against Yuuri, he hadn’t been as friendly toward Victor. He’d told him to stop playing at being a coach, which was a little too close to the kind of thing Victor was already hearing from Yakov.

Back then, Victor had laughed it off, but now, he couldn’t help but notice he hadn’t encountered a single person at this competition who thought he had any business being Yuuri’s coach. The prospect of having dinner with a real coach was a bit daunting.

“Did you have to invite him?” Yuuri asked, looking very much like he wanted to crawl beneath the table and hide until the restaurant closed.

“Kind of, yeah,” Phichit said. “He asked me earlier if I was planning to see you tonight and mentioned he wanted to come. I think he wanted to talk to Victor about something.”

“Victor?” Yuuri echoed. “About what?”

“Probably some coaching thing. Ciao Ciao just wants to make sure you’re doing okay.”

Yuuri groaned and put his face in his hands.

Victor smiled brightly at Phichit, but inside, his stomach was twisting into knots. Great. Yuuri’s old coach was on his way here on a mission to make Victor feel more inadequate than he already did. Victor signaled to the waitress to bring him another beer, knowing he was going to need something to take the edge off.

It was at that moment that Yuuri’s phone started buzzing and lighting up with rapid-fire text messages. After Yuuri read through them, he said, “Minako’s texting. Her taxi driver got them lost trying to find the hotel, and she’s asking for directions. Do you mind if I go outside to call her? It’s so loud in here.”

He looked at Victor, who said, “Of course.”

“Be right back,” Yuuri said as he got up from the table.

Left by themselves, Victor and Phichit smiled awkwardly at each other from across the table. Victor wasn’t sure what to say, so he used his chopsticks to grab a live shrimp from the tray in front of him. Holding it out, he said, “Sure you don’t want one?”

Phichit laughed and shook his head. “So . . . how’s our Yuuri doing anyway? Everything going okay with his programs this season?”

One of Victor’s eyebrows arched upward. (What did he mean, ~our~ Yuuri?) “We had a few hiccups at the beginning, but he’s doing great overall. Lots of progress from last year.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Phichit said. “I’ve been worried about him since he left Detroit. Well . . . I’m sure you know why.”

“Oh, yes,” Victor lied. And then he lied again. “Yuuri tells me everything.”

“I’m sure you know then that he needs a little extra support at these competitions. I don’t know why he goes into such a panic sometimes.”

“Well, it’s normal to get nervous, especially at the opening of the season. Don’t worry. We’ve been working on his confidence.”

Phichit stared at Victor for a long moment before parting his lips to speak again. “But . . . you’ve seen Yuuri in an actual panic before, right? I mean, when he gets one of his attacks.”

Since Victor had witnessed Yuuri practically writhing out of his skin with anxiety before, he felt confident in saying, “Of course. I’ve been living with him for the better part of a year. There’s not much I haven’t seen.”

Phichit looked a bit amused at Victor’s suggestive choice of words. (Which, yes, were meant to be suggestive.) With a mischievous smirk sparkling in his eyes, Phichit said, “So are you two officially dating or what? Yuuri won’t tell me.”

Oh, thank God, Victor thought. I’m not the only person Yuuri keeps in the dark.

“I have no idea,” Victor confessed. “Maybe. Yuuri won’t tell me either, so I’m going with ‘yes’ until I hear otherwise.”

Phichit’s smirk split into a grin. “He’s not an easy one to pin down. Congrats on being the first. I’ve seen several people before you try and fail.”

“Were you one of them?”

Laughing, Phichit said, “Where did you get that idea? No way. We’ve always just been friends. But you? Victor, Yuuri worships the ground you walk on. You’re all he’s been talking about since last spring.”

Victor was starting to like this Phichit person much better now. “Really? That’s funny, considering I could barely get him to talk to me back then.”

“Well, that’s just Yuuri. He has some serious intimacy issues, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. He’s one of my closest friends in the entire world, but there are times when he’s pushed me away so hard that I’ve wondered if he hates me.”

“He doesn’t hate you,” Victor said. “His face lights up like it’s Christmas morning every time he hears your name.”

They exchanged another smile, this one much warmer and more genuine than the ones that had preceded it. The awkwardness between them was fading fast. Though the two of them might not know each other very well, they had a link formed by just how much they cared about Yuuri.

“Listen,” Phichit said, “I don’t want you to take this as a criticism . . . because I have to tell you, I really like what I’ve been seeing and hearing from Yuuri ever since you’ve been in his life. You’re a good influence on him, Victor. Trust me, I’m a fan.”

“But?” Victor prompted.

“But you’ve never seen Yuuri have a panic attack before,” Phichit said. “I can tell because of the way you dismissed the idea a few minutes ago.”

Victor frowned, puzzled by the remark.

Was Phichit referring to the jitters Yuuri often got before he skated in front of an audience? Sure, he was an anxious person by nature, but he also knew what he had to do to get focused before stepping onto the ice. Victor had seen Yuuri conquer his own nerves several times over, either going to stretch by himself before his performance or taking the time to walk it off. It wasn’t a huge hindrance.

“Look, I’m not trying to make you feel like I know him better than you,” Phichit continued. “I just want you to be prepared because I wasn’t prepared the first time. Yuuri has this bad habit of pushing people away when he gets upset. It’s like he doesn’t even realize what he’s saying. He gets these irrational ideas in his head and projects them onto other people. Like he’ll imagine that everyone thinks he’s worthless or like they hate being around him, when it’s actually Yuuri who thinks he’s worthless and doesn’t like being around himself. When he gets like that, you have to figure out what’s actually going on, and that’s not an easy thing to do when it’s so hard to get him to open up in the first place.”

There was a wariness in Phichit’s eyes that made Victor hesitant to dismiss his concerns a second time. “Is there anyone at this competition who thinks I’m capable of being a good coach to him?”

Phichit smiled, but there was something sympathetic about it, as though he was well-aware of all the things people were saying about Victor’s inexperience. “Well, I’m personally rooting for you. I meant what I said earlier. I really do like what I see in Yuuri when he’s around you—and that makes me like you, even without knowing you all that well.”

They quieted for a moment while the waiter delivered their drinks to the table. Victor sipped his beer and waited until the man was gone before speaking up again. “Can I ask you something?”

“Go for it,” Phichit said.

“A while back, Yuuri told me a story about one of his old rink-mates. A girl. He pushed her away when she tried to hug him.”

“Oh, you mean Ashley. They were pretty good friends back in Detroit, but you know how Yuuri gets when people try to get too cozy with him. It probably didn’t help that Ashley was practically in love with him, and he was oblivious, as usual. Pretty sure she’s still nursing a broken heart over him going back to Japan.”

Victor frowned as he listened, all too familiar with Yuuri’s obliviousness himself. There was a part of him that still worried Yuuri was prepared to push him away if he got too close. “He really didn’t know she liked him?”

“He thought she just saw him as a friend, no matter how many signs were there. Don’t underestimate Yuuri’s low self-esteem, Victor. He probably can’t even wrap his mind around the fact that you might have feelings for him.”

“But . . . how is that even possible? We hold hands all the time. We cuddled the entire plane ride here. Yuuri knows exactly how I feel.”

Phichit shook his head sadly. “Just because he knows you like him doesn’t mean he thinks he’s good enough to keep your interest for long. Seriously, Victor—don’t underestimate Yuuri’s low self-esteem.”

With a sigh, Victor drained half the beer from his glass, already thinking about ordering another one.

Yuuri came back to the table and slid into the seat beside Victor. “Sorry about that. Minako finally made it to the hotel. What’d I miss?”

“Oh, we were just talking about Ashley,” Phichit said. “You know . . . our old rinkmate back in Detroit. The one who was completely head over heels in love with you.”

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “Be serious. She was not.”

“Yuuri, you’re so funny,” Phichit said. “She literally told you she had feelings for you, remember?”

When Yuuri shrugged like that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with the truth of the matter, Victor’s mouth fell open. Phichit glanced at him, that pitying smirk of amusement still on his face. I told you he was beyond oblivious, he seemed to say with his eyes. Good luck with that.

Victor let out a quiet groan and drank the other half of his beer in a single swallow, disappointed when it barely loosened him up. He might need to order something a bit harder soon. . .

Shooting Victor a curious glance, Yuuri picked up his own glass and took a sip of water. “How is Ashley, anyway? Have you heard from her recently?”

“Yeah, I talk to her online all the time,” Phichit said. “She’s doing great. Has a new boyfriend and everything. Haven’t you kept in touch with her?”

Yuuri flushed and set his glass back down on the table. “Uh . . . no. I haven’t really kept in touch with anyone except you. I doubt she wants to hear from me anyway. But that’s great to hear . . . that she found someone.”

“Speaking of people you should’ve kept in touch with but didn’t, there’s Ciao Ciao.” Phichit raised a hand and waved at his coach, who had just walked through the front doors of the restaurant. “Over here!”

As anxious as Yuuri was to see his former coach, he relaxed and gave in to a reluctant smile when he saw him. Victor might have also relaxed had Celestino not sat down at the table and said, “So . . . how’s the rookie coach this evening? Ready to throw in the towel?”

Caught off guard by the remark, Victor resorted to his usual defense mechanism—a bright smile. His fingers tapped on the table beside his empty glass, impatient for a refill.

Ciao Ciao,” Phichit said, laughing and scolding at the same time. “You can’t just say things like that to people!”

“Oh, relax,” Celestino said with a dismissive wave. “I’m just teasing the boy. Victor, I wish you all the luck in the world with Yuuri.”

Victor remained tense, still smiling, and waited for the rest.

“But please understand,” Celestino continued, “it’s difficult to watch my former star pupil in the hands of an amateur. Everyone knows how brilliant you are on the ice, but coaching is a different animal. It requires a certain maturity that takes years to refine. Have you even thought about what you’re doing to Yuuri’s career in the meantime?”

Oh, ouch. Victor was doing all right with Celestino’s criticism up until that final question. The reporters today had asked him similar things, and while Victor could defend his decision to leave the ice all day, it was more difficult to consider what his inexperience might be doing to Yuuri. If Victor’s overconfidence in himself ever hurt Yuuri, it would break his heart.

Before Victor could respond, Yuuri spoke up first. “Victor’s doing a great job. Don’t worry, Coach Celestino. I might not have come back at all this season if it wasn’t for him.”

“Well, I’m glad to hear you didn’t give up,” Celestino said, his voice warmer as he turned his attention to his former student. “That would have been an incredible shame. You have so much talent and potential, Yuuri.” To Victor, Celestino said, “And I know how frustrating it is to watch it all go down the drain the moment he starts second guessing himself. Let me know if you want any advice from someone who’s been in your shoes.”

“Thank you,” Victor said earnestly. “I might take you up on that.”

“Lesson one,” Celestino said, taking Yuuri’s water glass off the table and giving it a sniff. “Never, ever let this boy near alcohol at a competition. Trust me, I learned that one the hard way.”

“It’s just water,” Yuuri said.

Across the table, Phichit dissolved into laughter and used his phone to snap a picture of his best friend shooting him a glare.

“Lesson two,” Celestino said. “Make sure you have plenty of alcohol with you at all times. And I mean, alcohol for yourself. Because you’re going to need it with this one.” He jerked his head twice in Yuuri’s direction. “Just make sure to keep it out of his reach.”

Yuuri’s cheeks had taken on a good bit of color. “I’m sitting right here, you know.”

“Shall we order a round of drinks now?” Celestino said. “Drinks for the coaches, I mean. None for you, Yuuri, so don’t get any ideas. I see you eyeing that lady’s cocktail over there.”

“Oh, my God,” Yuuri said, covering his face with both hands. “Stop.”

As Celestino’s boisterous laughter joined in with the sound of Phichit’s, even Yuuri was having trouble hiding his smile. Amusement danced in his cinnamon brown eyes when he peeked out from behind his fingers. Whatever anxiousness had plagued him before this reunion with his old coach and best friend was long since forgotten, and familiarity with one another had taken its place.

Victor watched the three of them, a little smile playing at his own lips, and tried not to feel insecure about his own place at that table.

 


 

The alcohol helped.

After a bottle or two of the strong stuff, Victor felt great.

So great, in fact, that Yuuri had to help him walk back to the hotel because Victor was having trouble remembering how things like traffic lights and feet worked. His entire body was flushed, covered with a thin sheen of sweat in spite of the blustery winter weather outside.

“Please put your coat on,” Yuuri begged him. “It’s freezing out here.”

“No, s’not,” Victor said, slurring his words together. “M’all sweaty.”

Stopping dead in his tracks in the middle of a busy crosswalk, Victor stripped off his shirt. The cold air felt amazing on his overheated skin. He tossed the shirt onto the hood of a car, which was idling at the crosswalk, waiting for the streetlight to switch to green. Leaning down to smile at the driver behind the wheel, Victor waved and said, “Hiiiii!”

Then he started signing his autograph with his finger in the layer of dust on the car’s hood.

Victor.” Yuuri snatched the shirt off the hood and dragged Victor to the other side of the street. Once they reached the safety of the sidewalk, Yuuri made him put his shirt back on again.

“Wass wrong?” Victor asked. “You mad?”

“No,” Yuuri said as he threw Victor’s coat around his shoulders. “I just need to get you back to the hotel. Preferably without frostbite.”

This inspired Victor to go into full-blown pout-mode, crossing both arms over his chest and puffing up his cheeks. “But I thought we were going to an onsen.”

“Victor, how am I supposed to find a hot springs resort in the middle of Beijing?”

Throwing the coat off his shoulders, Victor said, “But I want a bath.”

“You can take one at the hotel. Please. You’re making a scene.”

Good. Victor liked making scenes. Especially scenes in the nude.

“What will you give me if I’m good?” Victor asked. “Because I gotta tell you, Yuuri . . . I do not want to be good right now. These pants are itchy.”

With a longsuffering sigh, Yuuri went up on his toes and pressed a quick kiss to Victor’s cheek. “I’ll give you another one if you keep your clothes on until we get you to your room. Actually, you have to promise me you’ll keep them on after that, too.”

Stunned and pleased by the kiss, Victor nodded and let himself be pulled along the sidewalk by his much-too-serious significant other. And he didn’t try to steer them in another direction or slingshot his bikini briefs at any passersby. (Even though that would have been fun.)

No, Victor wanted that second kiss, so he was on his best behavior from that moment on.

In time, they made it back to the hotel, and Yuuri guided him through the lobby in a hurry, anxious to avoid the attention of any reporters or fans that might be in the vicinity. Once Yuuri got them both in an elevator, he leaned against the closed doors and let out a huge sigh of relief.

“Yuuriiiii, now I’m cold,” Victor whined, hugging himself. “Where’s my coat?”

“You’re already wearing it. . .” Yuuri approached, put his arm around Victor’s shoulders, and rubbed him to warm him up. “I’ve got you.”

Victor snuggled closer into Yuuri’s warmth and closed his eyes. He suddenly wasn’t feeling too good, shivering and sweating at the same time.

Though Victor was certainly no stranger to alcohol, indulging in it a little too often for a professional athlete, he was surprised at just how hard those drinks at the restaurant had hit him. He hadn’t meant to get so drunk and had only wanted a distraction. But this was a little more than a mere distraction now. The hallway outside his hotel room had turned into a spinning tunnel ride at a carnival.

Without Yuuri there to help him, Victor might have simply sat down and given up trying to walk altogether. Just the idea of being alone and abandoned at that moment was enough to make him emotional. “Yuuri. . .” he whimpered.

“Shhh, I’ve got you,” Yuuri said for the second time, his grip on Victor strong and sure. “Come on. We’re almost there.”

Once they made it to the room, Victor had a strange feeling of clarity wash over him. It was like his stomach had sent an urgent message to his brain, which moved his body forward in spite of his disorientation. He pushed the coat off his shoulders, stumbled out of his shoes, and marched himself silently into the bathroom. There, he knelt in front of the toilet and started taking deep, steadying breaths.

He waited for the worst, but nothing happened. He hated this part of being drunk—when the fun was all over and reality was waiting to crash down on him, far worse than it ever was before he took a sip.

Yuuri came into the bathroom and got down on the floor beside him. He offered Victor a bottle of water, which he had to help guide to his lips.

Victor took a sip but winced and turned his face away when the liquid hit his stomach. “Ugh. . .”

“Not good?” Yuuri said.

“I feel sick.” Victor put his head in his hands and willed the awful spinning sensation to cease its attack on his vision. “It’s all stuck in my throat.”

“Do you need to throw up? You might feel better if you do.”

“No,” Victor said. “It’s here.” He moved his hand to his chest, a few inches below the base of his throat.

“Your . . . heart hurts?”

Victor nodded miserably, trying his hardest not to break down and cry. He hadn’t even realized he needed to. “Yakov hates me,” he said.

There was a pause, and then Yuuri leaned in closer, putting a palm on the small of Victor’s back. “Oh, Victor. . .”

“I don’t understand what I did that was so wrong. I’m a good person, right? I try so hard to smile and make everyone happy. What is it about me that makes it so easy to walk away?”

These were private thoughts that Victor would never have willingly said out loud, but for some reason, they felt safe to give to Yuuri. He would know what to do with them.

“You’re a very good person,” Yuuri said. “And I’m not going anywhere, okay? No one is walking away.”

“Everyone’s waiting for me to fail as your coach. They’re all watching.”

“No. If I fail tomorrow, it’s my fault. Not yours.”

Victor shook his head. “No, it’s mine. And I just want to make Yakov proud. He used to be so proud of me . . . and now he just hates me.”

“No one hates you, Victor. How could they? If Yakov wants to pick someone to be angry with, he can aim it all at me because I’m the one that stole you away. And I don’t care if the whole world blames me for it. People are never going to be satisfied seeing me instead of you on the ice anyway, so let them go ahead and hate me. I’m okay with being the bad guy in this situation if it makes you feel more protected from the scrutiny.”

So disjointed were Victor’s thoughts that he could barely make sense of anything Yuuri was saying. But the feeling behind the words—a fearsome protectiveness unlike anything Victor had ever witnessed before from his boyfriend—was evident in the way he talked.

“You take such good care of me,” Victor said in a near-whisper. “But I’m supposed to be the one taking care of you.” He swallowed hard and sat up a bit higher on his knees. “Yuuri . . . I don’t feel so good.”

Over the next ten minutes or so, Victor threw up several times. Yuuri stayed with him, on his knees on the hard tile floor with a cold washrag, which he used to wipe Victor’s face and mouth between bouts of sickness. It was a humbling experience, to say the least.

Afterward, Yuuri helped Victor peel off his sweaty clothing so that he could take a shower, and that made him feel much better. He turned the water all the way to cold, which quelled the sick feeling in his stomach and cleared his head somewhat. Though he was shivering by the time Yuuri helped him out of the shower, the bathroom towels were gloriously warm and huge. Victor’s boyfriend wrapped him up in one, helped him brush his teeth, combed the knots out of his hair, and then brought him a clean pair of pajamas and underwear.

It was almost worth being sick. Yuuri was taking such good care of him. The steadiness of his hands . . . the gentle way he guided Victor’s limbs into his clothing . . . the way Yuuri averted his eyes whenever Victor’s naked body was on display . . . all of it was just so sweet.

“Don’t go,” Victor whispered after Yuuri tucked him into bed.

“Shhh. . .” Yuuri placed a bottle of water on the nightstand and switched off the lights, casting the room into darkness. “I wouldn’t leave you alone when you’re sick.”

This cheered Victor considerably. He snuggled down into the warm, heavy blankets and watched as Yuuri walked across the dark room towards the couch, which was positioned on the far wall beneath a frost-covered window. Grabbing a pillow off the bed, he placed it on the couch.

When Victor realized Yuuri meant to sleep there, he said, “You can sleep here with me in the bed. I don’t mind.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. . .”

“Why not?”

“You know why.”

“Because you don’t want to take advantage of me when I’m drunk?”

Yuuri sighed and looked away, rubbing the back of his neck as he searched the room for a spare blanket. “Something like that.”

Propping himself up on one elbow, Victor asked, “Or is it the other way around, and you don’t want me taking advantage of you? I wouldn’t do that. . .”

“I know you wouldn’t. I’m just trying to be respectful.”

“You could come respectfully cuddle with me. I’m still cold.”

Yuuri had finally located a spare blanket in the closet, but instead of keeping it for himself, he brought it to the bed and unfurled it over Victor. “Is that better? I can find you another pair of socks if that would help.”

Victor was so touched by Yuuri’s thoughtfulness that his chin quivered. “Socks would be nice. . .”

Yuuri brought him socks.

“Bet you’re tired of taking care of me when I’m drunk, huh?” Victor said after his boyfriend finished tucking his feet beneath the covers again, two pairs of socks on each one.

Another sigh. Yuuri sat down on the couch and said, “No. I just get worried sometimes.”

“I know I drink too much. It just feels so much better to laugh and have fun instead of worrying about things I can’t control. That’s not such a bad thing to want, is it?”

“Oh, trust me,” Yuuri said. “I’ve been there. But listen, I don’t want you to worry about tomorrow. I’ll take care of everything. No one’s ever going to call you an amateur coach again if I have anything to do with it.”

Victor smiled and settled back down onto his pillow. “But I am an amateur. Yuuri, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you this before, but I have no idea what I’m doing.”

“It’s okay. I’ll take care of it.”

“Mmm . . . Yuuri, you’re really pretty. You have pretty eyes and nice skin. And I like your smile and your voice, and you smell good, too.”

Yuuri’s blush couldn’t be seen in the darkness, but Victor knew it was there. The temperature in the room had just gone up a good ten degrees, which was a dead giveaway. Or maybe it was just because of the extra socks he was wearing. . .

Victor frowned and toed the socks off beneath the covers. (He hated wearing socks to bed. Why had Yuuri thought he wanted these?)

“Uh . . . thanks,” Yuuri said. “Though I think that might be the alcohol talking.”

“Then the alcohol has good taste in men.” Now sockless, Victor turned on his side to gaze at Yuuri in the darkness. “Do you think I’m pretty, Yuuri?”

Even as the words came out of his mouth, Victor didn’t really think he was going to get an answer. He was just teasing his boyfriend. A little harmless flirtation before bed.

The last thing he expected was for Yuuri to flirt back.

“Yes,” Yuuri said in a quiet voice. “But I’m sure I’m not the first person to tell you that.”

Victor stopped breathing.

Then, parting his lips and drawing in a slow breath, he said, “It means more, coming from you. I never know what you’re thinking when you look at me.”

Yuuri let out a nervous laugh that could barely be heard over the sound of the heater kicking on overhead. “I’m sorry I keep you at such a distance sometimes. I’ve just never done this kind of thing with anyone before.”

“What kind of thing do you mean?”

“Let someone get this close. . .”

Victor’s heart was about to beat out of his chest. “Come here,” he said, patting the mattress in front of him. “Lie down with me.”

Yuuri looked at him, clearly hesitating.

“Yuuri, you can’t sleep on the couch with no blanket the night before a competition. You can’t afford a stiff neck tomorrow. I swear I won’t do anything. Besides, it’s nothing we haven’t already done when I’m sober. Listen to your coach for once, and come get some sleep.”

“My . . . coach?” Chuckling under his breath, Yuuri stood and unzipped his jeans. After kicking them off, he got into bed wearing a t-shirt and his boxer briefs. “You can’t pull the coach card when you’re this drunk. The slurring doesn’t really lend a lot to your voice of authority.”

“Can’t blame me for trying. It’s not like you listen to me when I’m sober either. . .”

“I listen to you, Victor. I hear more than you probably realize.”

Victor watched as Yuuri settled down on the pillow beside him, just out of reach. Black eyelashes blinked at Victor in the darkness. Still awake, watching.

Yuuri was just so damn beautiful.

“You still owe me a kiss, by the way,” Victor said. “You told me if I was good and kept my clothes on all the way to the hotel, I’d get another one.”

Again, he was only teasing—and maybe trying to make Yuuri laugh.

But Yuuri didn’t laugh. Instead, he moved closer in the bed and propped himself up on one elbow. Finding Victor in the dark, Yuuri cupped his face in his hand, leaned in, and pressed a kiss to his cheek. His lips were searing hot as they lingered on Victor’s skin.

“Mmm,” Victor said, smiling up at Yuuri when he drew back. “That made my toes tingle. . .”

Yuuri smiled sweetly back at him. “Mine, too.”

Settling back down on the pillow, Yuuri pushed his bangs out of his face and stared straight up at the ceiling. Though Victor kept his word and didn’t try to touch him, they were both keenly aware of the sexual tension in the room.

“Victor. . .” Yuuri said after a long stretch of silence. “Can we please just make it through this competition? I need to focus if I’m going to win this thing.”

Victor turned his head on the pillow to look at him. “And after the competition is over? What happens then?”

Yuuri rolled onto his side and gazed back at Victor for a long moment before reaching out to him. His fingertips guided Victor’s bangs out of his eyes and tucked them behind his ear. Yuuri continued to pet his face—the pad of his thumb journeying up his cheekbone before massaging his temple, easing the headache already developing there—until Victor fell asleep.

Yuuri never did answer the question.

 


 

Something curious happened the next day.

Yuuri wasn’t acting like his normal, timid self. Not at all.

When Victor’s 6:30 AM alarm woke him up, he was surprised to discover Yuuri already awake and doing stretches on the floor in his hotel room. Victor groaned and brought a hand to cover his eyes, but that did nothing to quell the throbbing ache in his head. It felt like World War III had been declared behind his eyeballs.

“Why did I drink that much?” Victor lamented, his throat hoarse and scratchy. “Why? And after eating Hot Pot, of all things. I think I might hate my past self.”

“There’s aspirin and water on the nightstand,” Yuuri said, reaching his fingers past his toes until his belly rested flat against his thigh. He exhaled and closed his eyes as the stretch deepened.

Victor dropped his hands from his face and peered at his boyfriend, baffled by how alert he was at such an early hour. Since when did Yuuri get out of bed before him? Even hungover, Victor almost always made it to breakfast first. “Thank you. . .”

He sat up in bed, reached for the pair of pills Yuuri had set out for him, and popped them into his mouth. Unscrewing the bottle of water, Victor drained half of it in a single go, and as he wiped his mouth, he studied his boyfriend’s body language. Yuuri’s gaze was sharp and unclouded, the corners of his mouth pulling ever so slightly down. He didn’t look unhappy. Just intently focused on something.

“I thought we didn’t have to be at the arena until nine,” Victor said. “What got you out of bed so early?”

“I just needed to get up and move,” Yuuri said. “I was thinking about going for a run before practice. Is that okay, or did you have anything already planned for me to do this morning?”

Was Victor supposed to have something planned? Oops.

“Uh . . . no, a run should be fine, as long as you stretch.” Victor’s frown deepened as he watched Yuuri switch legs and reach past his toes again, wrapping both hands around the bottom of his foot. “Which . . . I guess, you’re already doing.”

It was official. Victor really was the world’s most useless coach. Yuuri didn’t even need him here. Letting out a quiet groan as his head continued to pound, Victor squinted at the clock on the nightstand and tried to make sense of the blurred numbers.

“Why don’t you go back to sleep until your medicine kicks in?” Yuuri suggested. “I can call you when it’s time to get up.”

“Okay. . .” Victor laid back down on the bed again but turned his head so that he could watch his boyfriend lace up his running shoes. “Yuuri? Not that I mind or anything . . . but what are you doing here?”

Yuuri glanced up at him, surprised. “What do you mean?”

“I’m just surprised to see you in my room, I guess. I thought you wanted to sleep by yourself on this trip.”

“You . . . don’t remember last night?”

Victor searched his memories, but it hurt his head too much to dig deep. “I remember throwing up. Oh . . . you were there with me, weren’t you?”

Flashes of last night began to surface. Yuuri’s gentle but firm hands rubbing Victor’s back while he knelt in front of the toilet, helping him out of the shower, drying and combing his hair, getting him dressed in warm pajamas. Yuuri’s eyes had looked everywhere but at Victor, who honestly didn’t care if his boyfriend wanted to stare at him all night when he was naked. But knowing that he hadn’t—that Yuuri had treated Victor with care and respect when he was in such a vulnerable state—made Victor’s eyes go suddenly misty.

He really did have the sweetest boyfriend in the world. How did he get so lucky?

“Uh . . . gomen,” Yuuri said, cheeks blazing with color. “I was worried about you being alone when you were still so sick. Nothing happened, though. I mean, I-I helped you shower and get dressed for bed, but I didn’t . . . I would never. . .”

“Yuuri,” Victor said with a gentle laugh. “Do you really think I’m mad at you for taking such good care of me? You should know by now you’re always welcome in my bed.”

Yuuri was in the middle of double-knotting his shoe laces, but his movements faltered for a second as his eyes met Victor’s. “I don’t suppose you remember anything we talked about?”

“Hmm. I vaguely recall asking if you thought I was pretty.”

A smile tugged at the side of Yuuri’s mouth. “Do you remember what you said about Yakov?”

Victor’s own smile dimmed a degree. He nodded once, even though his memory of exactly what he’d said was fuzzy at best. There was no telling what he’d babbled on about.

“I just want you to know that I’m going to take care of it,” Yuuri said. “Don’t worry about me today. I’ve got this.”

Shhh . . . I’ve got you.

The memory of Yuuri’s voice, whispering reassurances to Victor when he was so drunk and lost and emotional last night, inspired a rosy blush to rise up and warm Victor’s face.

Yuuri got to his feet and shook out his legs in preparation for his morning jog. “Feel better, okay? I’ll be back soon.”

Puzzled and flattered all at once, Victor watched him go, wondering all the while exactly what he’d said last night to bring out such a protective side of Yuuri.

 


 

Hours later, Victor still didn’t fully understand what was going on inside his boyfriend’s head, but one thing was for certain. Something lit Yuuri on fire that day.

And it wasn’t an easy day for either of them. From the moment they entered the arena, the press was all over them, pestering them both with uncomfortable questions and not-so-subtle jabs.

Yuuri, how are you feeling before your first big competition after coming in eleventh place at All-Japan last year? You must be feeling an incredible amount of pressure to redeem yourself, not to mention having to impress all those unhappy Victor Nikiforov fans out there.

This kind of thing came at them from all angles—comments from the volunteers at the venue, pitying looks from the other coaches, outright glares of hostility from Yakov, awkward conversations with fellow skaters, and strained smiles from fans.

Really, the whole lot of them just wouldn’t shut up.

Victor, it’s just not the same without you. . .

What a shame you’re not skating tonight. Such a loss to the sport. . .

That Japanese boy better be ready to impress people. What’s his name again?

It’s you people came to see, Victor. I hope you prepared him for an angry crowd.

Just break things off with him already.

Don’t you feel sorry for him?

Victor smiled and laughed in response to the comments, not because he was trying to be polite but because these people were just all so funny. None of them had even the slightest inkling of what they were talking about.

Because in spite of the criticism, the bulk of which Yuuri no doubt overheard again and again, his laser-sharp focus remained soundly in place. If anything, the more people laughed behind his back and doubted him, the more determined he seemed to become. Victor had never seen Yuuri that way before. It was wholly unexpected from someone who so often struggled with confidence.

But even then, Victor didn’t fully grasp just how fired up Yuuri really was.

It wasn’t until the time came for his performance, when Yuuri laced fingers with Victor, pressed their foreheads together, and said in a commanding tone, “Don’t ever take your eyes off me,” that Victor’s eyes went wide.

Holy shit, he thought. What’s flipped your switch?

Yuuri was far too different that day.

Victor had always known his boyfriend was capable of commanding an audience, but what he hadn’t expected was for Yuuri to lick his lips in front of ten thousand people and proceed to annihilate each and every negative expectation anyone ever had about him.

It was amazing, really.

Everything came together at that moment. All their hard work. Hours spent toiling away at the Ice Castle, refining and nitpicking and nursing sore feet and muscles.

Yuuri nailed all four jumps, including his quad Salchow and the tricky combination at the end, but honestly, who even cared about the technical details when there was so much of his personal charm on display for all to see? His sweetness was there, mixed in with a healthy dose of sexuality and sass, and when Yuuri’s flawless performance reached its conclusion, Victor threw up his arms and cheered.

The joy he felt at that moment was unlike anything he’d ever experienced as a competitor. He was already in love with Yuuri, but at that moment, Victor fell in love with being a coach, too. He’d won many competitions throughout his skating career, but none of them matched the feeling of pride of being Yuuri’s coach. Victor felt inspired, his head swirling with inspiration and new ideas.

When Yuuri stepped off the ice and into Victor’s arms, he asked, “Did I do okay?”

Victor laughed and hugged him tighter. “Are you joking? Yuuri, that was amazing.”

Yuuri’s score was about a million points shy of what his coach thought he deserved, but it was still high enough to put him in first place. The competition wasn’t over yet, but Victor was no longer even the slightest bit concerned about tomorrow’s Free Skate. While it was true that Yuuri was still struggling to get through it during practices, all he had to do was flip that lovely switch inside him again and nail another performance.

And all Victor had to do was figure out what had flipped Yuuri’s switch in the first place.

“What exactly did I say to you last night when I was drunk?” Victor asked as they walked back to the hotel together, their shoes crunching in the freshly fallen snow. “I’ve never seen you so fired up before.”

Yuuri looked a bit dazed and had been that way ever since he’d realized he was now the person everyone wanted to beat tomorrow. All his focus had gone right out the window, but that was all right. He deserved a good night’s sleep and could get his focus back again in the morning.

“Oh . . . um.” Yuuri looked at the sidewalk and had to push his glasses up when they slipped down his nose. “It was nothing, really. You just said you wanted Yakov to be proud of you.” He pushed his hands deeper into the pockets of his coat. “I tried my best.”

Victor’s pace slowed. “You did that . . . for me?”

“You kept saying last night that he hated you. I guess I thought I could make him hate me instead if I proved I wasn’t wasting your time.”

This was a eureka moment for Victor. For months, he’d agonized over the fact that he couldn’t seem to figure out what Yuuri needed from him as a coach. It never occurred to him that what Yuuri might need was more pressure. And not just any kind of pressure—because apparently Yuuri wasn’t as motivated when it came to winning for his own sake as he was when Victor was involved.

And come to think of it . . . tonight wasn’t the first time Yuuri had done something like this. Last spring, at the Onsen on Ice showdown against Yurio, Yuuri had tapped into the same kind of determination to win because . . . well, Victor was the prize. If Yuuri had lost, Victor would have gone back to Russia to coach Yurio instead.

So that was it, then. Yuuri was motivated by Victor.

He wanted to keep him there as his coach. That’s why he’d won against Yurio last spring.

And Yuuri also wanted to prove to the naysayers that he wasn’t wasting Victor’s time. That’s why he’d destroyed the competition tonight.

“Just when I think I have you figured out, you keep surprising me,” Victor said, slipping his arm around Yuuri’s waist. “Feel free to defend my honor again tomorrow. Show everyone exactly how I’ve been spending my time. . .”

The final words were spoken with enough suggestiveness that Yuuri blushed. His body tensed against Victor’s side. “That’s a lot of pressure. . .” he said in a small voice.

“Well, I’m the most famous face in the sport. You’ve got big shoes to fill. And besides, we wouldn’t want Yakov or anyone else thinking tonight’s performance was just a fluke, right? Especially when my reputation is on the line.”

Yuuri went rigid, his red cheeks draining to white.

Victor mentally patted himself on the back. Not that he meant anything he’d just said, but if piling on the pressure was how Yuuri found his perfect focus, then Victor could intimidate him all day, every day.

Really, this whole coaching thing was just getting easier and easier.

(As long as Yuuri kept giving him such helpful hints, anyway.)

 


  

Yuuri didn’t sleep in Victor’s room that night, retreating instead to his own after mumbling something about needing to call his family. That was all right. Even though Victor was a bit lonely without his boyfriend there to keep him company, he had the wonderful memories of tonight’s performance to distract himself with.

After indulging in a long shower, Victor sat down at the desk in his room and stirred some honey into a steaming mug of tea, which he’d ordered from room service. The bagged tea wasn’t nearly as good as the loose-leaf kind Hiroko served back home, but it would have to do.

He sipped his drink and smiled at the glittering skyline outside his window, thinking about Yuuri.

When Victor’s eyes fell to the desk, he noticed a pen and pad of paper there. Complimentary writing utensils left for hotel guests. Suddenly inspired, Victor placed his tea aside and took up the pen instead. He still hadn’t finished writing Yuuri the letter he wanted to include in his birthday book, and if Victor didn’t finalize it soon (like yesterday . . . or maybe last week . . . or possibly last month), the designer of the book was probably going to quit. What better time than now to write it, when Victor was feeling so incredibly proud of Yuuri’s amazing performance?

Taking up the pen, Victor poured out his feelings onto the page. He talked about how inspired he was by Yuuri’s skating, how much he valued their relationship both on and off the ice, and how honored he was to call himself Yuuri’s coach.

And it was a good letter. Heartfelt and true. But as Victor reread what he’d written, it still didn’t feel right to him. His love and respect for Yuuri was evident in every word, but something vital remained absent from the lines of handwriting.

Crumpling up the first draft into a ball, Victor tried again to write the letter. And again, he failed. More rejected drafts joined the first in the trash bin until eventually, Victor grew tired and gave up.

He sat back in the chair and took up his tea again. Taking a sip, he found it had long-since grown cold. Even so, he held it to his lips and wondered, What am I doing wrong?

This shouldn’t be that difficult of a task. Yuuri was his best friend, and talking to him face-to-face was practically effortless now. Victor felt like he could tell him anything. Like he could be 100% himself.

Come to think of it . . . maybe that was the problem.

Victor hadn’t been talking with his authentic voice in the letters, instead utilizing a cordial but professional tone. He’d made that choice on purpose. After all, this was supposed to be a letter written from a coach to his student—not from a boyfriend written to the man he loved.

But it wasn’t romance that was missing from the letter. No, the more Victor thought about it, the more he realized it was him that the letters were lacking. Victor wasn’t being honest about who he really was. Not once, in all his failed drafts, had he told Yuuri how scared he’d been this entire year of failing him, and how it was Yuuri who was slowly teaching him through trial and error what to do.

But what kind of birthday letter was that?

Happy birthday, Yuuri! Hey, did I mention I have no idea what I’m doing as your coach? Yep, pretty much just playing it by ear at this point and looking to you for guidance. You’re doing a GREAT job, by the way . . . you know, teaching me how to do MY job. Keep up the good work, coach!

Heaving a sigh, Victor flicked the pen off the desk and pouted as he watched it clatter to the floor.

This was beyond hopeless.

 


 

In all seriousness, Victor didn’t think he was doing that badly.

Certainly, he was inexperienced and often felt more like Yuuri’s peer than his mentor. And yes, he got down on himself at times and succumbed to moments of insecurity. But overall, Yuuri’s performances spoke for themselves. He’d placed first at every individual competition so far. That was Victor’s choreography Yuuri was performing out there. It was Victor who’d helped him tap into his self-worth. It was Victor that inspired him to win.

That had to be worth something, right?

So no, Victor didn’t really think he was a bad coach. No, that particular revelation didn’t come until the very next day. The day of Yuuri’s Free Skate program. That was when Victor realized he probably needed to be fired.

The whole day was a disaster from the get-go.

Yuuri showed up for practice that morning looking like he’d just escaped the Hunger Games, and after Victor prodded him for the reason behind his disheveled appearance, he confessed he hadn’t been able to sleep. So Victor did what any good coach would do (or so he thought) and brought his student back to the hotel for some much-needed rest before that evening’s competition.

And he joined Yuuri in bed, of course. (How else was he supposed to make sure he slept?)

Unfortunately, Victor was so comfortable lying there with one leg hitched over his boyfriend that . . . well, he fell asleep, too. Without setting an alarm.

They were late arriving to the arena that evening. Not terribly so, but late enough to rattle Yuuri’s nerves and leave him feeling even more unsettled than he already was. Victor tried to get him to eat a little dinner before the competition, but Yuuri’s normally healthy appetite was nowhere to be found. His hands were shaking so hard that he could barely unscrew the cap from a bottle of water. And the more Victor tried to help him, the more Yuuri evaded every effort.

The confident Yuuri from yesterday was gone, and in his place was the jittery, insecure skater Victor had met when he’d first arrived in Japan. The one who hid inside his room and barred the door so that Victor wouldn’t see his shortcomings.

It was like having half a year of hard work and friendship erased in a single night, and Victor had no idea how to get it back.

He attempted to preserve any remaining confidence Yuuri might have by ordering him not to do any jumps during his six-minute warm up. (Yuuri didn’t listen to him. Did the jumps anyway.) Then Victor tried the optimism approach and told Yuuri not to worry himself one little bit about all the jumps he’d just screwed up in front of an arena full of people. Failed jumps during a warm up didn’t mean anything. (Yuuri didn’t listen to him. Launched himself into an outright panic anyway.) Then Victor attempted to bring his terrified boyfriend somewhere quiet where he could go through some relaxing stretches to steady his nerves, far away from the television screens that were broadcasting his competitors’ performances. (Yuuri didn’t listen to him. Went straight for the televisions anyway. Then freaked out even more and shut them all off, one by one.)

It was at that point that other people started to notice that Yuuri wasn’t doing so well.

And the looks on some of their faces . . .

It was obvious they’d seen Yuuri in the midst of a panic before.

Victor hadn’t. He’d seen Yuuri pacing the halls in the middle of the night back in Hasetsu, too anxious to sleep. He’d seen him cry after a rough day of practice and work himself into a near-frenzy when he was struggling to get something right on the ice. But Victor had never seen Yuuri like this before. Blank-faced. Unreachable. Hands shaking. Eyes flat, staring into the void like he was seconds away from becoming one with it.

A feeling of helplessness bloomed in Victor’s stomach and started creeping up his throat, making him feel somewhat panicked himself.

Why hadn’t he listened to Phichit the other night at dinner when he’d tried to warn Victor about this very thing? Why hadn’t Victor asked more questions about what to do and how to help Yuuri through it? Phichit was nowhere to be found now. He had his own performance to prepare for.

Victor brought Yuuri to what he thought was a quiet hallway so that he could get through a few stretches in peace, but when a team of reporters came around the corner and aimed a camera at Yuuri, Victor knew he had to find someplace more secluded.

They ended up downstairs in the parking garage.

The sounds from the arena could be heard through the ceiling, where it filled the echoing space around them. Upstairs, someone had just finished their performance—Christophe, Victor believed—and from the reaction of the audience, he’d done quite well. The noise meant it wasn’t exactly an ideal place for Yuuri to get his mind off his own performance, but at least there were no cameras on him now.

“Victor, what are the current standings?” Yuuri asked, so nervous that he could barely stand still.

Victor held up his hands. “O-okay, Yuuri. First, let’s take deep breaths.”

The deep breathing didn’t work. (Surprise, surprise.) But what did work—for a little while, at least—were the ear plugs Victor made Yuuri put in. That way, he couldn’t hear all the excited screams from the audience or the booming thunder caused by thousands of feet striking the floor whenever a skater landed a jump. But eventually, as Yuuri tried to focus and go through some of the movements of his Free Skate, the sounds from the arena overhead got so loud that the parking garage literally started vibrating beneath their feet.

Victor scowled at the ceiling. That was Phichit performing up there, if his guess was right.

Someone certainly had a lot of fans in China.

When Victor’s attention fell back to his boyfriend, he saw that Yuuri had taken his ear plugs out and was staring at the ceiling in abject horror, intimidated to the point of completely losing all composure. Gasping, Victor rushed forward and clamped his hands over Yuuri’s ears.

Don’t listen,” Victor ordered, raising his voice with Yuuri for the first time.

The earplugs dropped silently to the concrete near their feet.

Victor had long since lost control of the situation, and he knew it. He panted and kept his hands over Yuuri’s ears, ice blue eyes locked with watery brown. Yuuri stared up at him, pleading silently for help, but the only thing Victor could think to do was move closer to him, hiding Yuuri in the protection of his shadow. His gloved hands readjusted themselves over Yuuri’s ears, making damn sure the sound was muted as Phichit’s scores were announced upstairs.

They stood there, eyes locked, for a long time. Yuuri was clearly uncomfortable, but for once, Victor had no intention of backing off.

He didn’t understand why Yuuri was so intimidated by the other skaters, especially considering his age and years of experience at competitions just like this one. Victor had already witnessed someone he loved being destroyed by their own mind, and was all too familiar with the powerless, out-of-control feeling that gripped him now. But he wasn’t a helpless child who knew nothing about mental illness this time. Victor understood that Yuuri’s fears were very real to him, even if they didn’t make much sense to Victor. Yuuri wouldn’t be panicking in such a way if they weren’t.

There was a world of difference between a panic attack and psychosis. They were two completely different things, but the common thread was that Yuuri’s mind was not letting him see the world as it actually was. There was no threat here except for what existed in his head.

Victor knew this. He was supposed to be Yuuri’s mentor. The person he looked up to, to guide him. Yet he had absolutely no idea what to do.

And it brought him back to a bad place, mentally. He felt like a little boy again, standing outside his mother’s bedroom door while she cried. More than once, Victor had imagined bursting into that room and hugging her around the waist or even yelling at her until she stopped. In his sweeter dreams, his actions had fixed everything. Her illness was cured, and they lived happily ever after as mother and son for the rest of his childhood.

But real life didn’t work that way, and Yuuri didn’t like being hugged when he was upset. He’d made that clear to Victor a long time ago when he’d told him the story about that girl he’d shoved away.

“V-Victor?” Yuuri put his hands on Victor’s wrists and guided them away from his ears. “It’s almost time. We need to get back.”

Exhaling hard through his nose, Victor watched Yuuri move toward the stairwell and knew he had to do something. “Yuuri,” he said.

Yuuri turned. “Huh?”

Victor didn’t want to do it. He put a hand to his forehead, as he often did when he was stressed or faced with a decision he disliked. But this had worked before, at the Onsen on Ice exhibition, and it had also worked at last night’s Short Program.

Yuuri was motivated by Victor—especially when he feared he might lose him as a coach altogether—which meant there was really only one thing to do to get him focused on his goal again.

Even if it was an outright lie.

“If you mess up this Free Skate and miss the podium,” Victor said, standing up straight to look at Yuuri, “I’ll take responsibility by resigning as your coach.”

His hand dropped to his neck as he waited for the response, not entirely sure what to expect next.

Silence answered him.

As Yuuri stared at him, all color drained from his face. He looked sick. Like he’d been punched in the gut and betrayed by his best friend. Then tears started to overflow from his unblinking eyes, and Victor let out a gasp as he realized the extent of the damage he’d caused.

“Why would you say something like that?” Yuuri said, voice trembling as tears poured down his face. “Like you’re trying to test me. . .”

He folded in on himself and started to weep openly. Ugly, naked tears. The kind of crying meant to be hidden behind closed bedroom doors that were locked from the inside.

Victor was horrified by what he’d done. Though he rushed forward to offer comfort, he did so with his palms raised in submission, afraid hugging Yuuri might make things even worse. “Uh, sorry, Yuuri. I wasn’t being serious—”

But Yuuri wasn’t having it. His demeanor shifted from hurt to angry in a split second, the volume of his voice increasing exponentially. “I’m used to being blamed for my own failures, but this time, I’m anxious because my mistakes would reflect on you, too. I’ve been wondering if you secretly want to quit.”

“Of course, I don’t,” Victor said, a little smile forming at the ridiculousness of the idea.

I know,” Yuuri snapped. Then something inside him seemed to snap as well. He started crying even harder than before, holding himself rigid as he sobbed, all the pressure and anxiety pouring out of his body in the form of tears. His head was bowed, hands clenched into fists, obviously ashamed that he’d succumbed to emotion at all.

And it was Victor’s fault. Every tear. Every tremble of Yuuri’s lips and hands. All of it.

Victor was truly frozen now. Seeing Yuuri cry like that hit much too close to home, and those memories of Mama were not something he cared to relive. He put a hand to his forehead again, feeling the tension gathering there. “I’m not good with people crying in front of me. I don’t know what I should do. Should I just kiss you or something?”

He was half joking. Half not joking at all.

Mostly just desperate.

Kissing was a good way to make someone stop crying, right? Victor could get on board with slipping into his role as Yuuri’s boyfriend instead of a coach. It wasn’t like he was good at his job anyway.

But Yuuri was not in the mood for jokes. “No,” he said, actually yelling now. The word sounded like it hurt when it tore from his throat. But then his expression turned pleading again, his eyes earnest as he said, “Just have more faith than I do that I’ll win. You don’t have to say anything. Just stand by me!”

Victor was taken aback. “But . . . I always do that. I’ve been standing by you and barely doing anything helpful all night.”

I know,” Yuuri said again, his frustration boiling over.

Still at a loss, Victor threw up his hands. “I’m sorry. I’m trying my hardest here, but I still don’t understand what you need me to be right now. How do I motivate you? Do I comfort you? Do I give you tough love and tell you to suck it up? Yuuri, I’m bad at this. I’m barely older than you. I’m not really a coach at all.”

“You think I don’t know you’re inexperienced?” Yuuri snapped back, angrier than ever. “I don’t care. It’s you I need. Not some coach with a thousand years of experience, who knows nothing about me and doesn’t really believe I can do anything but fail. I need you, Victor. I have never once wanted you to be anyone other than who you already are.”

Unable to stand there any longer while his boyfriend cried, Victor moved forward and gathered him up into his arms. Yuuri went rigid at first, but the anger soon drained out of him. He leaned against Victor and let himself be held, drawing in deep, gulping breaths in an effort to calm down.

After his tears slowed, Yuuri rubbed his face against Victor’s shoulder and said, “You’ve been motivating me for more than half my life by just being you. Don’t you understand what having you here, believing I’m worth anything at all, means to me?”

Victor was starting to.

He held Yuuri for a long time, stunned and humbled by what he’d just heard. There were many things Victor could have said in response, but he kept them to himself. Instead, he closed his eyes and squeezed Yuuri tight. Of course, I believe in you. Of course, I think you’re worth it.

But I still don’t understand. Is that really all you need from me?

Yuuri eventually pulled away from the embrace and wiped his face on his sleeve. “Come on. If we don’t go soon, they’re going to disqualify me.”

 


 

Neither of them uttered a word to each other as they walked to the rink. Yuuri was clearly still angry with Victor and wouldn’t so much as glance in his direction. Victor, on the other hand, felt mostly just worried and sad. If there was any anger in his heart, it was aimed at himself.

He kept his mouth shut as he led his boyfriend into the main hall of the arena, even after Yuuri shrugged Victor’s arm off his shoulders and chose to walk on his own, without support. Victor just drew in a deep, steadying breath, crossed his arms over his chest to keep them from feeling so empty, and followed Yuuri to the rink.

Victor had no idea what was about to happen, but there was a very good chance Yuuri was going to hit rock bottom tonight if he messed up this performance. No, stop it, Victor told himself. Don’t think like that. Yuuri needs you to believe in him.

Out on the ice, Georgi was in the final chorus of his Free Skate. The lyrics of the soaring ballad could be heard, ringing off the metal rafters above: I promised to save you. I’ll save you now.

Victor tried not to roll his eyes. Melodramatic much, Georgi?

That wasn’t how love worked.

Not the way Georgi meant that song, anyway. His history with past relationships was not something to aspire to. Love wasn’t about rescuing someone or forcing a solution on them. Sometimes it meant just standing there, saying and doing nothing at all, and watching while the other person waged war on their own demons.

Victor couldn’t save Yuuri tonight. He couldn’t put on those skates for him and take the ice. But what he could do was be himself—Victor Nikiforov, five-time world champion and former Grand Prix Final gold medalist—and send a message to the whole figure skating world that he believed in Katsuki Yuuri, just by standing on that sideline as his coach.

You can do this, Yuuri, Victor thought when the time came for his boyfriend to step out onto the ice. Now go out there and save yourself. I’ll be here if you need me.

They had a few moments to themselves before the announcer called Yuuri out to the center of the rink, and he took the opportunity to blow his nose one last time and compose himself. Victor stared at him, with little idea of what Yuuri was thinking or feeling, and offered his gloved hand out to take the tissue from him. It felt odd not to talk. Victor always tried to say something encouraging before a competition.

But then again, not all conversations required words, and Yuuri was a master at the unspoken.

He met Victor’s eyes and, very purposefully, dropped the tissue just outside of his reach. Victor had to lean forward to catch it before it hit the ice, then froze when he felt Yuuri poking him on the crown of his head.

Right where his hair was starting to thin.

And good God . . . Yuuri knew Victor hated that.

After grinding his index finger into the literal embodiment of Victor’s insecurity, Yuuri covered Victor’s head briefly with the palm of his hand. The gesture was almost protective.

Victor could almost hear his boyfriend’s voice in his head, saying, Yes, Victor. I’m still mad at you, just in case you were wondering. I am fully aware of all your faults and imperfections, but I still want you here anyway. I accept you for who you are . . . so you better still be standing there when I get back.

With a gloved hand held over his tingling scalp, Victor stood up straight and blinked at his boyfriend in bewilderment as he skated off. Had that really just happened?

In time, the music began, and Yuuri cupped his hands in front of him in the opening choreography. He already looked tired but more relaxed than before, like maybe crying down in the parking garage had taken the edge off his anxiety. Victor found himself frowning while he watched—not because Yuuri was struggling out there but because Victor couldn’t figure out what his boyfriend was thinking about. Why was he suddenly smiling? Talk about emotional whiplash.

The performance was . . . unexpectedly okay.

When Yuuri landed his first jump combination, even he looked surprise. It set the tone for the rest of the first half, which was as fluid and relaxed as if Yuuri was performing back home at the Ice Castle instead of before a panel of judges. For the second time at the Cup of China, Yuuri nailed his quad Salchow, a jump that he historically fumbled at competitions, and Victor lifted his arms in triumph. His worry had quickly shifted into excitement. Yuuri was doing well.

It wasn’t all perfect, though. After a solid first half, the second part of his Free Skate was shakier. He touched a hand to the ice after his triple axel and messed up several jumps after that. All the same, Victor couldn’t look away.

He could feel Yuuri gaining strength and determination out there. He seemed to draw it inside himself from seemingly nowhere . . . and Victor had the strangest feeling that it was coming from him. Yuuri was thinking about Victor as he skated.

You are the one who makes me skate like this, he seemed to say as the tempo of the music picked up speed. You are my inspiration. Knowing you’re there for me is what makes me stronger.

Victor’s eyes widened, hardly believing what he was witnessing.

And then Yuuri launched into the final jump of his Free Skate—but instead of performing a quadruple toe loop, he changed it into a surprise quadruple flip. Though he fell, the look of determination on his face never faltered. He got up and pushed through to the end of his performance.

Victor’s mouth fell open.

He’d never been more shocked in his life.

Who . . .  who did that? Who randomly threw in a jump they’d never landed at such an important competition? And a wickedly difficult jump, too. The quadruple flip was Victor’s signature move, one he’d tried to teach Yuuri more than once, only to be told later that Yuuri wanted to continue practicing it on his own.

Yuuri hadn’t slept. He was exhausted. More anxious and emotional than Victor had ever seen. Yet he’d done a jump that not even a well-rested, relaxed Victor Nikiforov at the height of his career would have attempted at the end of a demanding Free Skate. It was like a direct challenge to his legacy.

The audacity alone . . .

Victor wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. He put his hands over his face.

He was furious. Elated. Shocked. Amazed. Exhilarated. So many different emotions all at once that he didn’t know what to do with everything.

A good coach would have disciplined his student. Yakov would have screamed until he was purple in the face if Victor had pulled something like that, regardless of if he won a gold medal in the process or not. This was serious. Yuuri could have just thrown away his chance at a medal with that fall. . .

But Victor wasn’t a good coach.

Dropping his hands from his face, he turned and ran.

Out on the ice, Yuuri had just finished his performance. He bowed to the judges and gave the audience a wave before looking around for Victor, who was sprinting around the circle of the rink, intent on meeting Yuuri at the exit. When Victor made it to the opening in the barrier, he stopped and had to catch his breath before he could stand up straight again and meet Yuuri’s eyes.

Yuuri was skating towards him. “Victor,” he called out, smiling and breathless, arms extended. “I did great, right?”

Victor didn’t think much about what happened next. He just smiled and nodded, then launched himself forward, meeting Yuuri where he was at on the ice with a kiss.

You wanted the real me, didn’t you, Yuuri? Victor thought as their lips came together. Well, here I am.

And I want to kiss you like this every day for the rest of my life.

 


 

The aftermath of the competition was a blur.

Victor took about a million and a half pictures of Yuuri receiving his silver medal and posted every single one of them to his social media accounts. And no, he didn’t care if he was spamming his followers. Victor was a proud boyfriend and coach, and Yuuri deserved to have someone gush over him in front of millions of people, thank you very much.

(Besides, he was the most beautiful man on the face of the planet. Victor’s followers were probably weeping for joy over every new picture that popped up on their feeds. Really, the whole lot of them should be sending him flowers and thank you notes for providing such quality content.)

At Victor’s suggestion, they skipped giving interviews after the awards ceremony and went straight for the locker-rooms instead. Not only was Yuuri much too tired to deal with the press, but Victor sensed his boyfriend wasn’t yet aware that their first kiss had been captured on camera. Yuuri was not going to like people asking him questions about his relationship with Victor off the ice. After a good night’s sleep, they could decide together what details they were going to share with the rest of the world.

Yuuri was still a bit dazed by everything that had happened, but he also seemed quite happy about it, smiling shyly at Victor and blushing whenever their eyes met. Likewise, Victor was over the moon himself. Like a dutiful boyfriend, he waited patiently outside the locker-room doors while Yuuri showered and changed.

But in the pit of Victor’s stomach was a hollow ache. . .

He smiled at people who passed him by in the hallway and hummed a merry tune as he retweeted news articles about Yuuri on his phone. But inside, Victor was struggling. For the last twenty minutes or so, he’d been fighting back tears.

Yakov had ignored him again at the awards ceremony.

Just . . . walked off and left Victor standing there when he’d tried to say hello. Arms extended for a reconciliatory hug, smile melting off his face, a look of shock and hurt taking up residence there instead.

God, it had hurt.

Victor felt so stupid afterwards. Ashamed of his own eagerness and naïveté.

Why couldn’t the old man just be happy for him? Was it because Yuuri had stood on the podium instead of Yakov’s new darling, Georgi? Did Yakov think Victor was going to rub his success as a coach in and brag? That wasn’t it at all. He had just wanted to apologize and attempt to repair some of the damage he’d caused.

As if fate had decided to give him one more chance, Yakov appeared at the end of the long hallway, probably in search of the locker-rooms himself.

Surprised, Victor pushed himself away from the wall he’d been leaning against and straightened his posture. Their eyes locked, and Yakov drew up short, the soles of his shoes squeaking on the linoleum floor. Pressing his lips together into an angry line, he turned to stalk off in the opposite direction.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Victor muttered under his breath.

Teeth clenched, he shoved his phone into the pocket of his overcoat and started after him, quickening his pace so that he could catch up. It wasn’t often that he got angry, but he just couldn’t stand this anymore.

Yakov,” he called, much louder this time. “I want to talk to you.”

Yakov glanced back over his shoulder, seeming a bit surprised at his former student’s commanding tone, which he’d probably never heard before. Victor had always maintained such a cheerful attitude with everyone, even when he was upset. But he was too tired to hide behind a fake smile at that moment. He was sick to death of being ignored and wanted things fixed already.

Grasping the handle of a nearby door, Yakov attempted to escape into a stairwell. Victor caught the door before it could slam shut and snagged the back of Yakov’s overcoat with two fingers.

Excuse you,” Yakov barked coldly at him, yanking his coat free. “Just who do you think you are?”

It was the kind of thing the old man might have said to a perfect stranger who’d been rude to him in the hallway. Victor drew back as if he’d been slapped. Then, lower lip quivering, he rushed forward and wrapped his coach up in a hug, pinning his arms down to his side.

“Oh, you have got to be kidding me. . .” Yakov muttered.

I need help,” Victor wailed as he squeezed.

Giving up, Yakov rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and let out a dramatic sigh. “Help with what, exactly?”

“I don’t know . . . I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

Another sigh, though this one was more longsuffering than irritated. Yakov finally managed to push Victor off of him, and the two of them stared at each other in the cold, harsh light of the stairwell. It was a barren place that echoed and amplified their every word a dozen times, making the confrontation feel raw and exposed.

“That was an interesting performance tonight,” Yakov said gruffly. “Yours, I mean. Not his.”

The comment rubbed Victor the wrong way, as it was probably meant to. That hadn’t been a performance. Kissing Yuuri was the most authentic thing he’d ever done. All the same, Victor kept his tone calm as he said, “I’m in love with him.”

“Well, I certainly hope so. You just kissed him on live television.”

“I told him about my mother. I told him everything.”

Yakov’s eyes widened. If nothing else, that got his attention.

Victor offered him a tight, rueful smile. Do you get it now, Yakov? Do you understand what he means to me?

“I told him about you, too,” Victor said, “and how you helped me through that rough time. I told him you were like a father to me . . . and that I really must have hurt you when I left Russia. I told him how much I regretted not listening to you all those years, and how everything you’d ever told me was making so much more sense.”

“Did you also tell him not to throw in random quadruple flips into his Free Skate that he’s obviously never practiced before?” Yakov asked, arms crossed over his chest. “Because you should.”

Bittersweet amusement shimmered in Victor’s eyes. “He wouldn’t listen to me, even if I did.”

“Mmm, now why does that sound familiar?”

“Coaching isn’t as easy as I thought it would be.”

“I’ll admit . . . you’ve done better than I thought you would.”

“Well, I trained under the best.” Victor tried to swallow the lump in his throat, his tone becoming softer, humbler. “I’m really sorry, Yakov.”

Yakov’s arms tightened over his chest as if to shield himself against the words. “Sorry for what exactly? Explain it to me.”

“For leaving the way I did. I didn’t know how to tell you I was burned out and needed a break from competing.”

“You think I’m angry with you for taking a break?”

Victor shrugged helplessly. “How am I supposed to know what you’re thinking when you won’t talk to me?”

“I never realized you were so interested in listening. You never have before.”

“I’m listening now. Please, Yakov. You’re important to me. . .”

Yakov fell silent for a long moment, still glaring, but there was a crack forming in his anger. He never was able to stay upset with Victor for long. Perhaps that’s why Yakov had ignored him all this time—because he knew he’d give in the second Victor hugged him. Hugs were Yakov’s Achilles Heel.

“For years, I’ve been begging you to find more balance in your personal life,” Yakov said. “I’ve lectured you about it until I’m blue in the face.”

“I know,” Victor whispered.

“But what I didn’t tell you to do was throw the balance completely in the opposite direction, and let your career come to ruin just like your personal life did. Do you understand what the word ‘balance’ means, Vitya? It means to find a happy, comfortable place in the middle. Unfortunately, I think that word vanished from your vocabulary the second you saw that drunk Japanese boy dancing on a pole in his underpants.”

Victor flushed, drawing back.

“Suddenly, my Vitya’s entire career goes out the window,” Yakov said. “What am I supposed to say when you walk away from your entire life and everyone you’ve ever known for some international booty call? What were you thinking?”

“That is not why I left.”

“Oh, no? Then explain it to me. Because you sure as hell didn’t explain anything last spring. No, you treated me like a goddamn employee you could fire on a whim instead of the man who took you in and raised you like you were one of my own.”

Victor winced, unable to defend himself against the accusation. “I was going to quit anyway,” he whispered.

Yakov’s chin lifted slightly, eyes narrowing.

“I was going to announce my retirement after the World Championship,” Victor continued. “I was so . . . so tired of everything. Of having to fake my way through life and do everything to please everyone else instead of what I wanted, for a change. Yuuri didn’t derail my plans for next season. He gave me another option. He gave me time to think about it while still keeping me rooted in the skating world, when all I really wanted to do was hide from it. Yakov, I wouldn’t be anywhere near a rink this season if it wasn’t for Yuuri. I might not have ever wanted to skate again. Being his coach . . . watching him pick himself up, again and again, and keep trying when everyone doubts him . . . when he’s so scared of failing . . . it makes me want to try again. He’s so much stronger than I ever was.”

Yakov stared at him, barely blinking, seeming to see something in Victor’s face that disquieted him. “This is the first time I’m hearing any of this. But these emotions you’re describing don’t happen overnight. Why didn’t you tell me these things last year?”

“I don’t know,” Victor said, his voice small. “I’m sorry. You know how I freeze up when I don’t know what to do.”

A little boy, alone on a bus with no one there to guide him.

“Vitya, you have got to start telling people what you need,” Yakov said. “You’ve gone from one codependent relationship with your audience and transferred it onto this boy. You can’t just focus all your attention on him and expect this relationship to last. He needs to be supporting you, too. Remember that ‘balance’ word we were talking about a minute ago?”

Victor winced again, worse this time. Yakov wasn’t pulling any punches tonight. He knew Victor had an unhealthy habit of trying to please others more than himself.

“Yuuri has been there for me when no one else would pick up the phone,” Victor said, tears stinging his eyes.

It was Yakov’s turn to wince. His eyes darted down to the ground.

“He won’t let me get away with anything,” Victor said. “Not one of my usual tricks to get people to like me worked on him. All he ever wanted me to be was myself. He wasn’t satisfied with anything else. Do you know how hard it was for me not to be told what to do? Who to be? How to act? I admit, I tried bringing the codependency thing into our relationship, but Yuuri sure as hell didn’t let me get away with it for long.”

“I admit, I know nothing about him,” Yakov said. “But even I’ve noticed the change in your tone in your voicemails and texts. Perhaps this boy isn’t the bad influence I first assumed him to be.”

Victor’s expression softened. “I would love to tell you about him sometime. I’m sorry I haven’t opened up to you in the past. And I’m sorry I made you feel like an employee instead of like my family. That was wrong of me.”

Yakov kept staring at him like he didn’t recognize the person standing in front of him. “Your face looks so different. There’s light in your eyes I’ve never seen before. Not even on the rink. . .” He suddenly looked at Victor sharply. “You’re not dying of some terminal illness, are you?”

“No. I’m just . . . happy. Yakov, I’m so happy. Being Yuuri’s coach. His friend. I love sharing my life with him.”

“But?”

Victor hesitated, not sure how to respond to that.

“But you miss ice skating,” Yakov said, answering the question for him.

With a shake of his head, Victor corrected him. “I miss you.”

But even he knew that it was all tied together. Yakov, Russia, skating. Victor’s heart had never felt complete without Yuuri, but it also didn’t feel quite right without the rest of his family there, too.

Yakov sighed and made a gesture like he didn’t know what Victor expected. “You’ve made your choice.”

“Are you seriously going to make me choose between you and him?”

“Of course, not! I’m an old man, Vitya. I’ve lived my life. Don’t you understand that this isn’t about me and you? You walked away from your calling. You are the finest skater on this entire mess of a planet. The very best in all of history. Skating is in your blood. It saved your life, once upon a time, and you’ve turned your back on it. There is nothing wrong with falling in love with that boy, but don’t forget that you love skating, too. The rink was your first love, and you need to find your way back to it. If your Yuuri truly cares about you, he will encourage you in that direction.”

Victor liked the way that sounded. Your Yuuri.

My Yuuri.

“He hints at it sometimes,” Victor said, “but I always change the subject. We’ve been working on choreography together. Pair skating, if you can believe it. It’s been a nice change. Sort of . . . easing me back into the idea of skating again.”

“He must really look up to you. You could see your influence all over his skating, even before you became his coach. Imagine how inspired he would be to see you compete again.”

Victor hung his head. He was not prepared to go to that place mentally yet. He was still too raw.

“He could find another coach,” Yakov hinted. “You could skate together.”

“I don’t want Yuuri to find another coach,” Victor said. “I’m his coach.”

Yakov pressed his lips together, exhaling through his nose. Then, stepping forward so that he was standing directly in front of Victor, he said, “For months, you’ve been calling me, begging for advice. Are you listening, Vitya? Because here it is. Figure out a way to keep skating and keep your Yuuri at the same time. And when you’re ready to come back to me, you call me. I will answer.”

“And what if I don’t go back?” Victor asked. “What if I’m done forever and never skate again? Am I worth anything then?”

Yakov reached out both hands to cradle Victor’s downturned face between them. Stroking his boy’s cheek until he looked up again, Yakov said, “You call me.”

 


 

They exited the stairwell together.

Yakov held the door open for Victor, who had his head ducked down so that he could dry his cheeks discreetly. There was no telling who would be hanging around outside the locker-rooms. But as luck would have it, the hallway was empty for the most part, with no one there to witness him in such an emotional state.

That is, no one except for Yuuri. He was standing outside the locker-room doors, trying to balance his backpack in his arms and type on his phone at the same time.

He didn’t spot Victor until he was almost right in front of him, but when he finally looked up, Yuuri sagged with relief and said, “There you are. Hey, Phichit texted me and said everyone’s going out to dinner. Do you want to . . . ?”

And then Yuuri trailed off, his mouth dropping open as he realized Yakov was standing behind Victor.

Victor smiled at his boyfriend, eyes a bit sad but holding within them a glimmer of hope. “Dinner sounds great.” Turning to Yakov, he added, “You’re welcome to join us, if you’d like.”

“Hmph,” Yakov said, straightening the lapels of his overcoat. “Another time, perhaps.” He marched straight past Yuuri without acknowledging him, posture stiff, like he still wasn’t sure if he approved of Victor’s pole-dancing boyfriend or not.

“Coach Feltsman?” Yuuri called out.

Yakov turned, his expression sour and guarded.

“I just wanted you to know that my family and I are taking good care of Victor,” Yuuri said in a soft but steady tone. “I know you worry about him . . . so please know that I want what’s best for him, too. You have my word on that.”

Victor blinked at him, stunned . . . and definitely more in love than he was five seconds ago.

Yakov was taken aback as well. Once he’d disciplined his expression, he gave Yuuri a curt nod and said, “Enjoy your dinner.”

Then he left.

Once Yakov had rounded the corner and disappeared from sight, Yuuri let out a huge gust of relief. “Oh, my God. Did I really just say that out loud? To Yakov Feltsman? The Yakov Feltsman? Victor, I’m so tired. I can’t seem to stop talking. Why can’t I shut up? See?” He pointed to his mouth, hand trembling. “It’s still happening. Why aren’t you doing anything about it?”

Victor’s heart hummed with affection. “Because my Yuuri is already perfect, of course.”

Blushing, Yuuri said, “Are you . . . okay? That looked a little intense.”

“Definitely intense. But I think Yakov is finally on speaking terms with me again. Or at least, I hope he is. I’ve been wrong before.”

“Well . . . even if he’s not, you know that you’re not alone, right?”

Victor gazed steadily at Yuuri, unable to respond right away.

A mental image had overtaken him without warning of that lonely little boy sitting on the bus by himself, not knowing what to do . . . until a friend came to sit down in the seat beside him. A cute little boy with glasses, too-big eyes, a softly rounded face, and the sweetest, most disarming smile he’d ever seen. Victor wasn’t alone anymore.

“Yuuri. . .” he whispered.

Yuuri reached out to take his hand, those beautiful too-big eyes staring up at him in concern.

“Sorry,” Victor said, his throat almost too tight to speak. “It’s hard to get this out.”

“You don’t have to say anything,” Yuuri said. “Just know I’m not going anywhere.”

Eyes crinkling with a smile, Victor leaned in and kissed the tip of his boyfriend’s nose.

 


 

Dear Yuri,

I have a confession to make. I have no idea how to be a competitive figure skating coach, but you probably figured that out before I did. When I came to Japan, it was with the intention of mentoring a promising talent, but after the privilege of experiencing a skating season at your side, I’ve come to realize I had our roles backwards. You’re the one who ended up teaching me.

What I learned from you is how to ice skate.

(Stop laughing. It isn’t funny.)

(Okay, it’s a little funny. I am being serious, though.)

I had it all wrong. I thought skating was a formula. A strategy to win gold. I became something I wasn’t in order to manufacture an outcome, but what you taught me was the importance of being true to who I am. You’ve never settled for anything less, in fact. (Quite the demanding coach.) You challenged me to be genuine, which is exactly what my skating was lacking. Me.

That’s what I see when you skate. You, Yuri. Your heart. I can hear the music in your head and feel the scrape of the ice beneath your feet. (How do you do that?) I want to learn more from you. Your skating is a true inspiration to me, and I’d like to thank you for being my teacher. You have not only become my best friend, but you’ve helped me gain new strength I once thought could only be found on my own.

If there’s one thing I’d like to teach you in return, it’s that you will never find satisfaction in a gold medal. The real reward is in the journey. Look around you. Look through the pages of this book and be proud of the impact you’ve had on others’ lives. I hope the riches you find here bring you a well-deserved smile. Congratulations on an incredible journey this season, Yuri.

I can’t wait to see what you do next.

Your biggest fan*,
Victor Nikiforov

*Kenjirou Minami and the citizens of Hasetsu have submitted formal complaints against the accuracy of this statement. While they have made convincing arguments that they are in fact your biggest fans, all they actually are is wrong.

 


 

Through the dim light of the hotel room, Victor stared down at the letter he’d just finished writing and tried to find fault with it. He chewed on his thumbnail while he scanned the handwritten paragraphs, which he’d penned in a single go without stopping to think, reread, or edit. Not one word was crossed out or reworked. The sentences had poured onto the page as effortlessly as they might have rolled off his tongue.

Feeling satisfied with Yuuri’s birthday letter for the first time, Victor capped his pen and smiled.

That was it. That’s what he’d wanted to say this whole time.

Thank you for being my teacher.

Using a special scanning app on his phone, Victor snapped a few pictures of the letter and sent them off to the person who was designing Yuuri’s birthday book. Finally, it was done.

Victor stood and clicked off the lamp on the hotel desk, plunging the room into near-darkness, save for the city lights glittering through the window like moonlight reflected on water. Folding the letter in half, he put it on the nightstand by the bed and placed his phone on top of it so that Yuuri wouldn’t find it.

In the bed, Yuuri stirred beneath the covers and turned his face toward Victor, black eyelashes pressing together tightly before they fluttered and blinked open.

Victor smiled down at his boyfriend, overwhelmed by the emotions that coursed through him every time he looked at him now. It wasn’t just love. There was inspiration, too. And joy and peace and belonging and hope and. . .

“It’s just me, baby,” Victor said, his voice a gentle rumble as he leaned down to stroke his sweetheart’s cheek. “Go back to sleep. Sorry I kept the light on.”

Yuuri hummed, still half asleep, and said, “Vikutoru . . . come to bed. . .”

Victor’s smile spread wider at the sound of his sleepy boyfriend turning his two-syllable name into four. He loved it when Yuuri said his name like that.

Pulling back the covers, Victor waited patiently for Yuuri to scoot over to give him more room in the narrow, single-person bed before lying down next to him. Yuuri stifled a yawn against Victor’s shoulder and snuggled close, his head tucked under Victor’s chin, a hand on his waist, and one leg pressed between Victor’s thighs.

What a night it had been. . .

To celebrate Yuuri’s silver medal win (as well as their very first kiss), Victor had taken him out to dinner, where they were joined by several of the other competitors and their coaches. Yuuri had fallen asleep on Victor’s shoulder, exhausted after not sleeping the night before, as well as from the emotionally taxing day. They hadn’t left the restaurant until it shut down for the night, after which Victor walked his sleepy boyfriend back to the hotel with an arm draped across his shoulders.

He’d kissed Yuuri again, there on the snowy sidewalk, fingertips caressing his much-beloved face, the opposite hand curved around Yuuri’s hip.

And it was perfect, that kiss. Everything Victor had been waiting for and more.

He’d kept his advances slow and sweet, still wary of pushing too hard. But apparently, Yuuri had grown tired of “slow and sweet” because the next thing he did was bring Victor back to his hotel room, push him down on the couch, and straddle him.

In the cool darkness of Yuuri’s hotel room, the two of them had made out for the first time—with Yuuri straddled on Victor’s lap, letting out the softest little pouts and moans between kisses, sucking on his boyfriend’s upper lip before moving to do the same to the lower, and nearly coming to pieces at the feel of Victor’s tongue sliding into his mouth for the first time.

And it was surprising, to say the least.

He’d courted Yuuri for such a long time just for the privilege of being able to call him his boyfriend. Victor had assumed they would spend an equally long amount of time enjoying first base before they even thought about moving on to second. But then Yuuri had stripped off his own t-shirt, cast it behind him like he never wanted to feel fabric between his skin and Victor’s for the rest of eternity, and then attempted to divest Victor of his clothing as well.

It seemed Yuuri had built up a considerable amount of sexual tension over the past few months. Perhaps it was because Victor had teased him one too many times about seducing him . . . because that was exactly what Yuuri did on that tiny hotel room couch. Victor remembered hoping the damn thing was treated with fire retardant because his sexy little katsudon had thrown off sparks like a runaway train streaking down the tracks.

Eros, indeed.

They never did make it to second base. Yuuri got as far as pushing Victor’s overcoat and suit jacket down his arms and working his tie loose before the courage leaked out of him. This happened right around the same time that he felt Victor getting aroused by the gorgeous man wriggling so provocatively in his lap.

The moment had been awkward but sweet, with Yuuri seeming to realize exactly how sexually suggestive his actions had been and Victor reaching out to touch his face and assure him he wasn’t expecting anything more than Yuuri wanted to give.

Even though having sex with Yuuri would have been the best thing that ever happened to him, Victor was secretly relieved things didn’t get that far. It would have felt rushed, with a high potential for regretting their actions later, and Victor wanted to do right by Yuuri. After all, this was the last time he was ever going to fall in love, as well as the last time he would make love to someone for the first time.

Victor was done searching for his perfect partner. All his “firsts” and “lasts” belonged to Yuuri from here on out, and Victor planned on savoring and celebrating every single one.

After that, Yuuri had invited Victor to stay the night with him in his hotel room—another first for them, because thus far in their relationship, they’d only ever slept in the same bed together at Victor’s request. Never Yuuri’s.

But tonight was different. This was Yuuri’s room. Yuuri’s bed. Yuuri’s pillow.

And now it was Victor’s pillow, too. By invitation.

Yuuri had fallen asleep first before Victor made it into bed. Just the sight of him there, cuddled up in the covers and comfortable in the knowledge that Victor was there in the room with him, had caused Victor to get emotional. Love and pride and sheer amazement had swelled up inside him at that moment, and instead of getting in bed, he’d gone to the desk and sat down to write Yuuri his birthday letter.

With that task now complete, Victor could finally get some sleep, snuggled up tight with his sweetheart beside him.

In his arms, Yuuri burrowed deeper into Victor’s warmth and let out a happy sigh. “Vikutoru. . .” he said again, his accent inspiring invisible hearts to rise up over Victor’s head, where they swarmed and popped like little bubbles. Yuuri’s fingers curled around Victor’s shirt and held it as he whispered, “I’m really happy.”

Victor’s heart was so full of love that it ached. He kissed the top of his boyfriend’s head and whispered back, “Are you, love? Are you sure this is what you want?”

After so many months of hesitation, he had to be certain.

Because as many times as he’d referred to Yuuri as his boyfriend in his head, they’d still never had an actual conversation about putting an official label on their relationship.

Yuuri pulled back just far enough so that he could look Victor in the eyes. A little smile tugged at his mouth as he reached up to touch Victor’s. With the pads of his fingers flitting over the sensitive skin of Victor’s lips, Yuuri said in a hushed, reverent voice, “I’ve never wanted anything so much in my life.”

And then he leaned closer, eyes still cracked open so that he wouldn’t miss a single detail. He first nuzzled the side of Victor’s face before moving in to press a warm kiss to his mouth.

Victor exhaled, eyelids trembling as they drifted shut. Yuuri is kissing me, he thought, absolutely amazed.

Falling in love was a frightening thing.

A bit like plunging off the edge of a cliff with no understanding of what might be in store for him at the bottom . . . of how long or fast or far he would fall . . . if the landing would mean the end of him, or if it would give him the most exciting and gratifying thrill of his life.

It was Yuuri who was the gravity that had pulled Victor into that terrifying freefall. It was Yuuri’s undeniable pull that had unmade him, tearing Victor’s carefully constructed mask into pieces in search of the real person hiding beneath. It was Yuuri that was kissing Victor now, sliding his hand up the back of his neck and weaving fingers into silvery hair, laying claim to the treasure he’d found beneath the mask.

It was Yuuri who had pulled Victor out of that lonely freefall into a mutual dance instead. Like two stars, they orbited around each other, their paths now hopelessly intertwined, bending and spinning and weaving their dance in the sky for eons to come.

Not that Victor noticed any of that.

Yuuri is kissing me, he thought, blissfully floating along in the pull of his boyfriend’s gravity. My Yuuri is kissing me.

 


 

Yakov Feltsman—Missed Messages (10)

7:33AM Vitya, what time is your flight back to Japan?

7:33AM Assuming that’s where you’re going, that is.

7:33AM Do you know WHY I have to assume, Vitya?

7:33AM Because you haven’t emailed me the second half of your flight schedule, that’s why. How am I supposed to know if your plane lands safely in Japan if I don’t have a flight schedule?

7:34AM I thought we talked about this. I expect you to stay in touch with me while you’re out of the country so that I know you’re alive. I’ll be looking for that email in my inbox.

7:38AM Oh, and make sure you include the flight number. I like watching the progression on the airline’s website. They have this map that shows exactly where the plane is at. Gives me peace of mind to see it moving.

7:55AM Well????????

7:55AM Wake up, you lazy boy.

7:55AM And call me when you do.

7:55AM Maybe we can grab a coffee before you go. I seem to recall you saying you had a few questions about how to be a good coach to your Yuri.

 


 

 

The end