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By Chance One Turns

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Right foot. Left foot. Yuuri watches the smooth surface of the ice pass beneath his skates. The scrape of his blades echoes in the empty silence of the rink around him. It’s hypnotic, soothing, like white noise. He could probably record it, play it on loop in his bedroom, and fall asleep peacefully.

At least until he woke a few hours later in a cold sweat, haunted by the ghost of his own failures.

None of that now, though—it’s just Yuuri and the empty rink. Right foot. Left foot.

It comes so easy to him in these quiet moments. His heart pounds with a spark of that same pure, fiery joy he found out here as a kid, long before he ever heard the word “competition”, back when skating was nothing more a fun trick Yuuri could use to show off to his friends and family.

He used to like that—showing off.

Remembering, he turns, sets his legs and his edges, and as he spins again, he leaps. Forward take-off. Double axel. It was always one of Yuuri’s favorite jumps, as well as his best. He waits for the ice to catch him and sweeps out his other leg as the blade finds its balance, forming yet another groove in the ice.

Clap. Clap. Clap.

The echoing applause catch him by surprise, and Yuuri spins around to look. His equilibrium slips away, and so do his feet. He skids down on one knee. There’s a twinge, but no real pain to it. His dignity takes a hit, if not his body.

Across the rink, Yuuri spots the familiar, blurry figure of his old coach leaning up against the boards, his voluminous waves pulled back into a tight ponytail and dark sunglasses still perched on his nose from driving. When he notices Yuuri watching, Celestino stops clapping to wave him down.

“Good morning, Yuuri,” he calls out, his voice reverberating off the high ceiling. “The axel still looks good!”

Yuuri clambers back to his feet and skates over, catching himself on the boards. Celestino reaches up, setting Yuuri’s thick-framed glasses back on his nose, and the world snaps into focus.

“Thanks,” Yuuri says, tucking his ear pieces into place. The clock by the offices blinks red: 7:35. “You’re early.”

“No traffic.” Celestino lifts his expressive eyebrows, glancing out on the ice where the tracks of Yuuri’s blades are still visible. “I see you came early to practice. Do you have something to tell me? An announcement, perhaps?”

“Uh, no. Nope.” Yuuri shakes his head vehemently, little droplets of sweat showering his hands and the boards. “Still retired. Just… didn’t want to humiliate myself in front of the kids.”

Celestino hums, then shrugs, shoulders rolling dramatically. “Oh, well,” he says. “Let me know if it changes, hm?”

Yuuri nods again quickly. He grabs his water bottle, then makes a run for the nearest exit before Celestino can press him any further. Stupid. There’s a bank holiday in the US today, so of course traffic is lighter. Yuuri should have known that Ciao-Ciao might get to the rink earlier and catch him practicing.

He sighs as he drops onto a bench in the locker room, unlacing his skates so he can grab a quick shower before the first students arrive. Life would be easier if he didn’t feel the need to hide his skating from Celestino, but the questions are so exhausting. After two years, Yuuri had hoped people would give up on his returning to competition, but that hasn’t been the case. Each new inquiry only makes him feel more weighed down, trapped beneath a heavy blanket of expectation. It’s a regular reminder of how many people he’s let down—as if he could forget.

As Yuuri stands in the shower, tilting his head back to rinse the shampoo out his hair, he circles back over what Celestino said. It would be easier for other of them if Yuuri left Detroit. He could pack up and go home, or he could move somewhere new. If he started over in a new city, far away, no one would know what he’d done before. He could pretend he’d never been a figure skater at all.

Instead, Yuuri is like an addict, still lingering around the same places that have hurt him in the past, stalking through alleyways full of bad memories—as well as a few good ones that are just as painful.

He finishes washing up and turns off the shower, pulling the towel up over his head as he tries to scrub his negative thoughts away along with the water. Yuuri’s students will notice if he’s in a bad mood, and they don’t need that extra stress. They’re already pushing their developing bodies and minds far beyond what most adults can handle. They don’t need another layer of Yuuri’s worries on top of their own.

Despite the holiday, it turns into a pretty typical day at the rink. Yuuri helps out in the morning with the juniors who come in before the school day begins and again with the novices and beginner lessons in the afternoon. Between the two time slots, he’s left at loose ends.

He used to use this time to study, but now that he’s finished his degree, he’s still at a loss for how to fill the hours. He reads a pulpy romance novel from the eighties that Phichit unearthed in the storage closet last week. He takes a walk, followed by a long lunch in a nearby park— anything to keep him out of the rink while the senior skaters are practicing. Watching that group train won’t do his state of mind any favors.

Once the last of the beginner kids is safely out the door for the day, Yuuri waves farewell to the rink staff and begins his short walk home.

The skating club’s athlete housing is only a few blocks away from the rink itself, and though the dark brick building has seen better days, Yuuri knows he’s lucky to have it. The fact that Celestino has been willing to let Yuuri stay in exchange for assisting at the rink made it much easier when Yuuri started to panic about what to do after retirement.

Phichit helps, too.

At the top of the stairs, Yuuri can already hear the tinny strains of upbeat pop music drifting down the hall from their apartment. The walls may be thin, but he can’t say he minds at times like this. Phichit’s music is like a little hand reaching out to him from the other end of the building, pulling a smile from Yuuri and reminding him that he doesn’t have to walk through the dark alone.

Opening the door to their place releases a warm wave of light, sound, and delicious fragrances. Phichit is in the kitchen, singing along with an egg-shaped bluetooth speaker, the sound overwhelming the hiss of the skillet where he’s preparing dinner. Somehow, he still manages to hear the door shut behind Yuuri and turns to flash him a brilliant, white-toothed smile.

“Welcome home, sweetie,” Phichit teases. “How was work?”

Yuuri groans, not at the question, but at Phichit’s outfit. At some point after Ciao-Ciao sent all the senior athletes through cooking lessons, Phichit had acquired an apron. Yuuri’s never been certain if he bought it or if it was a gift, but somehow, they wound up owning a frilly checkered apron with strawberries on it, and Phichit isn’t capable of cooking without putting it on.

Phichit’s hair rustles. There’s a hamster nestling atop his head. Their nutritionist would not approve, and neither would their veterinarian.

“Ciao-Ciao asked if I’m going to come back to competition this morning,” Yuuri says, dropping his bag onto their battered plaid sofa with a soft thunk. “Again. He caught me practicing before the rink opened.”

Humming, Phichit stirs the pan with a wooden spoon before cocking his head at Yuuri. “Are you?”

“You know I’m not.” Yuuri bites out the words, then drops onto the couch beside his backpack. “It’s been two full years already. It’s too long.”

“Stranger things have happened.”

That’s true. Much stranger things have happened in figure skating during the past decade. Yuuri’s quiet fade from competitions isn’t even a blip on the radar to most people, coming as it did just a few short years after Victor Nikiforov’s sudden disappearance before a Grand Prix event.

Yuuri doesn’t blame anyone for not noticing him. Victor was a star, a champion, a world record-holder at the peak of his career and only expected to get better. Five years later, Yuuri still remembers the events with startling immediacy—first it had been one competition Victor dropped, then two, and then a whole season. Like Yuuri, Victor had never officially announced that he planned to retire, he’d simply vanished, right as his star was on the rise.

In comparison, Yuuri is only a second-string skater. He hasn’t won internationally since juniors. Aside from Celestino and Phichit, few people would care if he returned to the ice.

Most of those people also bear the name ‘Katsuki’.

“I don’t know what to do,” Yuuri admits, his voice so soft he doesn’t expect Phichit to hear him. “I think I need to get away from the rink. I need a different job.”

He should have listened to his father and gotten a business degree, but, as an athlete, sports science had seemed like the way to go. Now, he’s not sure what option that gives him outside of ice skating. He’s qualified to work at a gym, but no one in their right mind would hire Yuuri as a personal trainer after two years away from regular training. His swelling gut undermines his resume.

“You’re great with the younger kids at the rink,” Phichit points out. He pulls their folding step stool out from behind the trash can and steps up to bring the dinner plates out from the highest shelf. “You could probably get something in childcare. My cousin Preeda is out in New York working as a nanny, and she makes serious money just hanging out with a baby all day.”

“There’s a big difference between helping teenagers learn ice dance and changing diapers,” says Yuuri. Phichit is starting to fix himself a plate, so Yuuri levers his butt off the couch and goes into the kitchen to check out dinner.

There’s fragrant pink salmon, sauteed greens, carrots, and even a little rice. Yuuri hides a smile. The rice is not approved by the Detroit Skating Club’s nutritionist, but Yuuri’s no snitch. He and Phichit both tend to crave rice on bad days—the culinary equivalent of homesickness. He helps himself to a plate as Phichit goes to put his hamster back in the cage and settles in on the sofa with his dinner plate balanced on his knees.

“I’m serious, though,” Phichit says as Yuuri comes over to join him. He points at Yuuri with his fork for emphasis. “You should do the kid thing. Preeda’s bosses gave her a car for Christmas last year. A car! She doesn’t even have a license.”

Yuuri shakes his head. “I’ll think about it,” he says. It doesn’t count as a lie. He will think about it—just not very much.

-

With the exception of special circumstances, Yuuri calls home to check in on his family once every other week, on Tuesdays, at nine in the evening, Detroit time.

He flops down on his bed, stomach-down, and taps in the number from memory—the only number he has committed to memory. The phone rings once, and he waits for the answering click.

It rings again.

Yuuri frowns. The line never rings twice. His mama always answers on the first ring, eager and expecting Yuuri’s voice on the other end.

The phone rings again, and Yuuri pushes his glasses up his nose to check his wall calendar. It is, in fact, Tuesday. There’s nothing on his calendar noting a special event at home today, so why—

Click.

“Moshi moshi,” the voice is familiar, but deeper than the perky tone of his mother’s usual greeting.

“Mari-neechan?” Yuuri asks. He hasn’t heard her voice in… It’s probably been a year, wow. He didn’t realize so much time had passed. “Where’s Mama?”

“Mama and Papa went into town for a meeting,” Mari says. “It’s just me right now.”

“Oh.” Strange. Mama always lets Yuuri know if she won’t be home when he calls, so they can either reschedule or skip a week. The meeting must have come up suddenly.

“So,” Mari says. Behind her voice, Yuuri can hear a door slide shut, then the click-click of a cigarette lighter trying to catch. “Are you coming home yet?”

Yuuri winces. This is why he hasn’t spoken to his sister in a year. He’s never sure how to respond to this question, and unlike their mother, Mari refuses to pretend it doesn’t matter. It’s hard. Yuuri does miss his family very much, and he often gets nostalgic about the seaside village where he grew up, but going home feels like admitting defeat after all the time and money his parents put into his skating career.

“No, not yet,” Yuuri says at last. Trying to change the subject, he asks, “How are you doing?”

“I’ve been better,” Mari drawls. Her voice breaks off as she inhales deeply, and he can picture her in his mind, leaning up against the wall outside their home in a robe, a cigarette dangling from her lax fingers. “The meeting this morning—It’s with the bank.”

Yuuri’s hands clench around fistfuls of blanket. “Is everything okay?”

“Business hasn’t been great these last few years, you know. Tourism dropped off. Even during Golden Week, we got about half the customers we had last year.” Yuuri closes his eyes, as if doing so will shut out the bad news. “They don’t tell me much, but I think they’re considering selling the resort.”

“But then where will we live?” Yuuri exclaims. He can’t imagine his family anywhere but Yu-topia. It’s the only real home he’s ever known. Even as long as he’s been in Detroit now, Hasetsu has always been the definition of ‘home’ deep in his heart.

“I don’t know,” Mari responds. She sucks in a deep breath, and Yuuri matches her despite half a world between them. Their sighs are twins. “Yuuri… We could really use you here. If you want to keep trying to skate, you know we support you, but if you’re done…”

She trails off, but Yuuri knows how the sentence would end. Please, come home.

“I’m… I’m not ready yet,” Yuuri says, and he forces his fingers to uncurl their death grip on his bedspread. “But I’ll think about it, nee-chan. I’ll see what I can do to help, okay?”

Mari releases her breath in a gust across the phone speaker. “Okay,” she says. “Okay. Just do your best.”

The call is short. They have a few things to catch up on—their parents’ health, Yuuko, some local gossip, but Mari is never as involved in these stories as their mother is. When Yuuri hangs up the phone, he’s left feeling unsettled still.

He paces his bedroom, looking for something to do with his hands. Damn Mari. Well, not that. Yuuri stops to breathe, evaluating the clenched, tight sensation in his chest. He’s not angry, really, he’s just—

Something.

He flops back down on his bed and stares up at his wall. Victor Nikiforov’s placid, smiling face looks back at him. For the thousandth time, Yuuri considers Victor. Where must he be now? Did he simply give up, like Yuuri has? Would Victor Nikiforov have run home, tail tucked between his legs, and tried to beg his family for forgiveness?

Yuuri may never know the answer.

He rolls onto his side to avoid Victor’s unblinking blue eyes, and the back of his hand smacks against hard, cold plastic. Yuuri’s laptop is still buried in the covers, stashed away in case his mama wanted to Skype this time. Phichit’s earlier suggestion nags at his brain.

If Yuuri had a job—a real job, full-time, and away from the rink—he could make enough money to send more home. He wouldn’t have to consider leaving Detroit yet, or officially announcing his retirement. It wouldn’t solve his problems permanently, but it would buy him more time, more space. He could think things through.

Opening his laptop, he runs a search for “childcare jobs Detroit”. The top, sponsored link is a nanny agency called Hands & Hearts, and Yuuri clicks on the site.

Looking at the requirements they list, he still doesn’t feel like he’s qualified for this, but it’s not as bad as he’d expected. He’s apparently got some skills that are in pretty high demand—not just his coaching experience and degree, but CPR and first aid certification, fluency in two languages, and he can add his very limited Russian onto the list for good measure. He can’t imagine why anyone would want him watching their newborn considering he hasn’t even held an infant since Yuuko had her girls five years ago, but maybe that’s not a bad thing. If he got a part-time gig with an older kid, it would free him up to continue helping out at the rink while still giving him extra income.

The online application is thorough, and Yuuri’s surprised to find how late it’s gotten by the time he hits the submit button. If he wants to get any practice time at the rink before Celestino arrives in the morning, he should get to bed.

He strips down to his boxers and a t-shirt, snaps his laptop shut, and turns out the light.

Sleep doesn’t come easily. When he finally drops under, he dreams that he’s skating again, competing on far-off ice in front of a blur of strange, judgmental faces. He does the best he can, but he keeps forgetting his skills and he can’t recall any of his choreography for this season. He spins, and he spins, and he spins in a never-ending loop.

-

The rink is a mess the next day. Celestino’s decided to consider additional students this year as his younger ones prepare to change divisions. With the summer drawing to a close and a new competition season looming, prospectives are moving in and out of the rink, interviewing, observing the culture, and demonstrating their skills. To Yuuri’s horror, a few of them recognize him. As if he needed more reminders of his dark past.

All the chaos of new faces keeps him busy for much of the morning, and Yuuri’s even more eager than usual to escape when lunch time approaches. He walks to a cafe a few blocks away and grabs a salad, then cheats with a soda. In the booth, he checks his phone for missed messages as he eats, still hoping his parents called him back with good news.

He has a voicemail, which is his first clue that something bizarre is afoot. Who leaves voicemail anymore? Yuuri queues it up, presses play, and his eyebrows cling to his hairline.

Over the tinkling tones of elevator music, a prim-sounding woman informs him that his application for Hands & Hearts has been selected. She goes on to request that he please call back to schedule an interview with the agency as soon as possible.

It takes Yuuri a minute to even remember what application the voicemail is referring to. He hadn’t expected to hear back at all, much less so soon. He hits redial. When he hangs up a few minutes later, he has an address scratched out in drying ink on his palm and an interview set up in two days.

As soon as reality sinks in, Yuuri’s stomach does a triple flip. He pushes away the remaining half of his salad, wondering if he’s made a serious mistake. He hasn’t talked to Celestino or to Phichit about all this yet. What will the two of them do if Yuuri suddenly starts working elsewhere? What if his new job is across town, and he has to move? What if Celestino stops letting him stay in the athlete housing anyway, and Yuuri suddenly has to start paying rent?

It’s tempting to hit redial again. Something came up. Yuuri will have to reschedule. No, he’s not sure when—

But, he reminds himself, he doesn’t know the outcome yet. It’s an interview, that’s all. He probably won’t even get the job. Panicking now and cancelling would only stick him back where he started—wanting to help his parents, but stuck on how to do it.

Yuuri’s already the reason they’re doing poorly, with how much they spent on his skating all those years. He doesn’t need to contribute any more to their pain. The least he can do is see where this goes. After all, it can’t hurt to try something new—right?

-

Yuuri’s not sure what he expected from the offices of a nanny agency—maybe something bright and child-friendly—but the building Hands & Hearts occupies in downtown Detroit is a staid brown brick rectangle like all the others around it. A bell jingles when Yuuri pushes the door open, but it’s the liveliest thing in the room.

He walks into an office like any other. A receptionist at a faux mahogany desk takes down Yuuri’s name. On the tan wall behind her is a framed black and white photo of a baby’s hand gripping an adult’s finger. She nods Yuuri over to a row of three wooden chairs set against the opposite wall to await his appointment, then turns away from him, focusing her attention on the computer beside her.

There’s another person waiting in the chairs. He’s dressed in jeans and a hoodie, a beanie pulled down over his ears and a pair of big, dark sunglasses. He’s taken the center seat and has his legs primly crossed. Yuuri tries to avoid staring as he perches himself on the edge of one of the other chairs, hugging the folder with his resume against his chest. He can’t resist darting a few curious glances at the other man as he waits, though. He doesn’t look like he’s dressed for a job interview.

Maybe Yuuri is just overdressed. He tugs at the knot on the only tie he owns, feeling it press into his throat, and tucks his feet under his chair. Is a dress shirt and a tie too formal for child care? Maybe he should have worn his training clothes.

He’s still tangled in the wires of his own thoughts when one of the doors down the hall creaks open, and he hears the clack of high heels on hardwood. A woman peers out of the doorway at him, sizing him up from toe to tip.

“Yuuri Katsuki?” she asks, sounding resigned. When he nods, she adds, “I’m Lisa Ambrose. Come on back.”

Ms. Ambrose has long blonde hair with highlights of silver piled up on her head in a bun and wears the sort of tailored, dark skirt suit that Yuuri’s more used to seeing in the financial district. She’s slim and precise and gives off the air of a woman with little patience for error, and Yuuri hurries to follow her without dropping his folder on the way.

The conference room they meet in is just as sterile as the front office. Ms. Ambrose points Yuuri to a seat near the door, then proceeds to settle herself on the other side of the room, an ocean of dark wood conference table filling the gulf between them. Folding her hands on the table before her, she instructs Yuuri to begin by describing his experience at the rink.

Unsure of what she wants from this, Yuuri begins to talk aimlessly. He starts with his own career and inspiration, then expands, describing the role he plays at the rink with each age group and how involved he’s been, including the success of a few of the juniors he worked with in novice. At a certain point, he realizes that he’s begun to ramble. Though the interviewer had been taking notes when he began, she’s long since stopped, and Yuuri quickly wraps up his thought and snaps his mouth shut.

After a brief silence, Ms. Ambrose folds her hands on the desk. “You are aware, Mr. Katsuki, that what we do at Hands & Hearts is quite different from coaching teenaged athletes, correct? In many of our positions, you would be the primary caregiver for a young child for at least eight hours a day. You may be cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, changing diapers, and even helping with developmental tasks such as toilet training. Do you really think you’re suited for such a position?”

Yuuri swallows. He knows that interviews are meant to be about talking yourself up, but— “Maybe not,” he admits. “To be honest, I’m not sure. I’m willing to learn, though.”

Ms. Ambrose clicks her pen and scribbles something down again. Yuuri very much wishes he could read it.

“I’ll be frank with you, Mr. Katsuki,” she says as she finishes. “You are not the type of candidate we normally call for an interview at this agency. Hands & Hearts is an elite household help agency with locations in most major American cities, as well as London and Berlin. We serve a very particular clientele, and we expect both experience and refinement in our employees.”

She shuffles the papers on the table, stacking them together as Yuuri waits, speechless. She continues, “However, we have made an exception because of a very selective client who had a particular interest in your profile. I can’t say for certain what this family sees in your application, but the rest of your process will go like this: I will pass along your information to the client, and they will determine if we move forward or not.” She rises from the table and extends a stiff hand for him to shake. “We will let you know in the next two days.”

“Sure,” Yuuri says, going through the motions of standing, then taking the hand because he doesn’t know what else to do. He’s never had an interview end this way. It’s somehow even more uncomfortable than being on the wrong end of a microphone with a reporter he’s just met. “Sounds great. Uh. Thank you for your time.”

Ms. Ambrose sits back down and slides his resume into a folder. She doesn’t bother with walking him out. Yuuri finds his own way.

In the lobby, everything is exactly as he left it. The weird guy in the hoodie and sunglasses is still in the middle chair. The receptionist barely looks up from her computer screen. It has the strange energy of a liminal space, as if the room is always set up in this fashion. The strange man in the sunglasses is always there, waiting.

Stepping out onto the sidewalk is a relief. Up the street, a woman cusses loudly as she tries to force her child’s stroller over a crag of broken concrete and horns blare from the nearest intersection as a multitude of drivers each fight for their own right of way.

Yuuri closes the door to the office tightly behind him and exhales. The whole nanny plan was crazy to begin with. He knew when Phichit suggested this that it wouldn't work. Of course Yuuri isn’t qualified. At least now he doesn’t have to worry about how to break the news to Celestino. After that discussion, there’s no chance he’ll be hearing anything more from Hands & Hearts. He’ll go back to coaching for now, and keep looking into other options.

Chapter Text

The main problem Yuuri’s been having at the rink lately, aside from the feeling of Celestino’s eyes boring holes in his shoulders, is Tina Juarez.

Tina’s only just moved up to the junior level, but as a novice one of her programs had amassed a significant following on YouTube. Ever since then, Tina’s been far more interested in learning flashy tricks she can throw onto social media than more important things like off-ice training, edges, and spins.

Yuuri doesn’t blame her, really. She’s only thirteen. Of course a little fame went right to her head, and of course she doesn’t make the best decisions with that, but he wishes the other kids wouldn’t encourage her so much, or that her parents would do something to rein her in.

A couple days after Yuuri’s disastrous interview at the nanny agency, he’s coaching a group session with the younger juniors, going over the basics. On the ice, he demonstrates what he wants them to practice—a few strokes to build momentum, and then a simple change foot spin. Most of them can do this pretty well already, but it’s about getting them to that new level of precision they’ll need soon.

When he turns around, Yuuri finds the kids hopelessly distracted, clustered around Tina, and his heart drops into his stomach. Again. Now what?

Before Yuuri can ask, Tina skates off toward the opposite side of the rink. Sensing impending disaster, Yuuri races after her, though there’s not much he can do. She raises her foot to set up her jump, and Yuuri immediately realizes what she’s going for.

Never mind that the kid barely has a shaky double axel—apparently if you point a phone camera at her, she thinks she’s Ito Midori. Yuuri shouts out a warning right as she throws herself forward. She rotates once, twice, not even a full three rotations, much less the three and a half she’d need, and then her blade touches the ice.

Yuuri can see her ankle twist and fold in half even without his glasses on, her toe unprepared to hold her full weight, and he speeds up his strokes, dashing across the rink in time to catch her before her head smashes into the ice too.

“Are you okay?” he asks, already trying to haul her back up with a grip beneath her arms to test her ankle. “How much does it hurt?”

“It’s fine,” she says, but her voice is breathy and distracted, and she leans into him, avoiding putting weight on the foot.

As he watches, Tina rotates her ankle slowly, wincing at the first movement, but then her expression firms and she straightens away from him. “It’s fine,” she insists, determined. “It hardly hurts at all.”

God damned stubborn, rubber teenagers. “What were you thinking?” Yuuri demands, even though he knows the answer. The only thing she was thinking about was how many likes she’d get on Instagram if she landed it. She’s twice as bad as Phichit. “You could have seriously hurt yourself!”

And Tina has the gall to roll her eyes at Yuuri. She’s eight-five pounds of wiry muscle with a half-pound of hair gel slicking her dark curls back into a ballet dancer’s bun, and she puts her fists on her hips with all the authority of every thirteen year old who thinks they’re right.

“What do you know?” She mutters. “You’re not even a real coach. You’re just a washed-up nobody.”

Yuuri ought to know better than to let the words of a kid in junior high have any effect on him. Whether she likes it or not, he is the adult in the room. But, after the week he’s had, her phrasing stings.

He comes back to his senses about halfway down the rink. Turning to set his jump, he realizes he’s made a bad decision the same moment he knows it’s too late to stop. Yuuri leaps into the air, and all he can do is hope the ice will catch him gently.

His blade reunites with the ice, and the contact reverberates through his bones.

He did it.

It may be a little under-rotated, but no one is taking points away from him today, even if his landing wasn’t perfect and his free leg was sloppy. He’s too shaken by his own success to do anything but turn and skid to a stop.

“Yuuri!” Celestino’s booming voice rings out across the rink, and Yuuri cringes.

Stupid. He’s been stupid, and he knows it. It’s been months, if not longer, since the last time he trained the triple axel. It was dangerous, and he’s supposed to be the adult here. He ought to know better than to give in to taunts from a child.

He leaves the teenagers milling around the center of the rink and skates over to meet Celestino at the boards. The coach’s face is stern, and Yuuri knows he’s about to get the longest safety lecture of his life.

“What happened there?” Celestino asks as soon as Yuuri’s hands grasp the barrier between them.

“Sorry, sir,” Yuuri says, bowing his head—echoes of manners from home that he still can’t shake in these situations. “I was trying to show Tina— It got out of hand. I know better.”

Sighing, Celestino shakes his head, and Yuuri can read the disappointment in the drop of his shoulders. “It was dumb, risky,” Celestino says, and Yuuri nods along, “but… it didn’t look so bad.”

“Coach—”

“You know, Yuuri, your ankle has healed well. If you ever wanted to start training again—”

“Coach, please!” It comes out loud and forceful enough that some of the students and staff nearby stop talking, turning to see what would make Yuuri protest so loudly. He turns his face from them. He can’t consider skating again, and in the past two years he must have said as much to Celestino a hundred times.

It’s worse today. Skating might, distantly, mean prize money he could send home. It would be a way to sustain his parents, perhaps, but first it would mean new boots, paid ice time, Celestino’s coaching fees, entry fees, travel, costumes. It would mean Yuuri going to his parents, asking them for money again in the middle of everything, with payback far from a guarantee.

“I can’t.” Yuuri’s tone is clipped and to the point. It’s true. That’s all he can say. He can’t.

He also can’t face the ice again right now, or the juniors. He grabs his skate guards, nods to one of the other assistant coaches to step in, and escapes into the locker rooms as quickly as he can manage. He shouldn’t run away like this, but he’s not sure what else there is to do. Phichit is right, as usual. Yuuri shouldn’t stick around here any longer. He’s merely replaying the same mistakes over and over.

He picks up his phone, intending to text Phichit and ask to meet for an early lunch. The voicemail alert blinks up at him, and he taps it, hoping it’s nothing serious.

“Good morning, Mr. Katsuki,” a pleasant-sounding female voice rings out from the speaker. “This is Belinda, the receptionist at Hands & Hearts. I’m calling with good news—one of our clients is interested in hiring you!”

Yuuri freezes. Really? His own shock rings so loud in his head that he nearly misses the rest of the message.

“However, the arrangement in this case is unusual, so you’ll want to review the terms before you agree to anything. Please give us a call back for details at…” She rattles off a number, different from the one the voicemail came from, and Yuuri grabs a pen from his bag, scratching the digits into the palm of his hand for safekeeping.

He changes out of his practice gear in a whirlwind. He can't imagine going back out onto the ice again today. Instead, he packs his gear, forgetting entirely about Phichit, and rushes out of the rink without another word to Celestino or the staff.

Outside, he looks for a quiet corner—somewhere between the buildings where the wind won't catch his words and push them away from the phone. A short distance from the rink, he finds a bus stop with a glass shelter around it and drops onto the bench, dialing the agency back between crumpled chip packets and the stale smell of old cigarettes. The phone rings once, twice, and then the line clicks.

“Hands & Hearts,” says a familiar, dry voice on the other end. “This is Lisa Ambrose. How may I help you?”

Yuuri swallows down a stab of anxiety. He hadn't wanted to speak with this particular person again, but then—they wanted him right? Whatever Ambrose had thought of his interview, Yuuri has every reason to be calling back now.

“Hi,” he says. “This is Yuuri Katsuki. I got a call back about a position.”

“Ah, yes. Yuuri.” Ambrose still doesn't sound thrilled to hear from him, but she sucks in a little breath, and from there she's all business. “Before we begin, please understand that you are welcome to decline this offer. This particular position comes with some requirements that you may not have anticipated.”

“Sure,” Yuuri says, wondering how weird it could possibly be. The next sentence punches him in the solar plexus, knocking the breath from his lungs.

“The position is in Chicago.”

“But I interviewed in Detroit!” Yuuri knows he shouldn’t interrupt, especially not when Ambrose has already made her distaste for him so apparent, but can’t hold back his shock.

“Yes,” Ambrose says mildly. “I am aware. Nevertheless, this client resides in Chicago. They have a… very exacting set of requirements, as I mentioned. To fulfill their needs, we were forced to look outside the metro area; however, they have made it clear that they will cover all moving costs.

“The position is live-in, with a fully-furnished, separate suite, so you would not be required to find an apartment on your own. You also won’t be expected to cover any rent or utilities, and will take meals with the family. There is only one child in the house, who has just entered school part-time, so you will only be expected to watch them outside of school hours, and obviously there are none of the requirements that come with infant care.”

Huh. Yuuri chews his lip as he considers her words. Chicago is starting to sound better and better. Without rent and food costs to worry about, Yuuri would be able to send most of his salary back to his family, as well as stashing money away in savings for when he’s ready to leave. Aside from having to leave Phichit behind, he’s not seeing a catch so far.

“What you must understand is that this client is extremely private. If you do accept the position, you must live in the home. You will not be permitted to tell friends or family where you live, or who you work for. The client has a separate address where you can receive mail, but expects your utmost discretion to avoid any unwanted attention.”

Well, Yuuri thinks. There’s the catch, then. It’s certainly bizarre, and he’s not sure what to think of it. The client might be some kind of celebrity, or they could just be paranoid as hell.

“As a result of these particulars, this position pays quite well,” Ambrose says. Then, she drops a figure. Yuuri leans back against the wall of the bus stop for support.

The phone line goes silent as Ambrose waits on Yuuri’s response, and Yuuri struggles to form one. It’s… a lot of money. Yuuri had researched average nanny salaries in Detroit, and from that he’d been hoping for maybe $20,000 a year—probably less. He’d have needed to keep coaching at the rink to supplement his income. Hands & Hearts is offering him more than twice that, and with no bills.

“You can think it over,” Ambrose says, giving up on a response from Yuuri for the moment. Through the call, he can hear the tap-tap-tap of her pen hitting her desk. She probably has other things she’d rather be doing. “Feel free to take some time to consider if you think this is right for you, but let us know as soon as possible because we’ll need you to come in to sign your contract in person. If we don’t hear from you within a week, we’ll have to assume you’re not interested.”

“Okay,” Yuuri says. It comes out too weak, quiet, so he swallows and repeats, stronger. “Okay. I’ll need to think about it, but I’ll let you know.”

“See that you do,” Ambrose says. “Have a nice day.” Before Yuuri can wish her the same, she ends the call.

-

Yuuri lurks near the rink like a revenant, unsure of what to do with himself outside, but unwilling to go back in and come face to face with Celestino in the wake of the offer he’s just recieved. Instead, he winds up at a McDonald’s, mulling over his options while staring deep into the abyss of a McFlurry he shouldn’t be eating.

Eventually, lunchtime passes into afternoon, and the McDonald’s begins to fill with a slow stream of teenagers, fresh out of classes and scraping their pockets clean for french fry money. Yuuri takes that as his cue. He leaves his booth and walks to the bus stop to take the stuttering, trafficky path home.

On the bus, he rests his forehead on the window pane, watching the slow roll of the streets out the window. He wants to call home. Above all else now, he wants to talk to his mother, but it’s still too early in Japan. Soon, his parents will rise for the day, beginning the familiar predawn routine of readying food and fresh accommodations for a new day of guests—or so Yuuri can hope. Given what Mari told him, maybe they don’t even bother to prepare anymore.

Lost in his own thoughts, Yuuri almost misses his stop. He lurches to his feet as the bus inches past his building, pulling frantically at the cord overhead until the driver slams on the brakes, driving Yuuri’s hips into the hard plastic back of the seat ahead of his. Other passengers glare as he clutches his bag close and crab-walks past them. He can’t even pretend he’s sorry. He just wants to go home.

The apartment he shares with Phichit is still dead quiet as he twists his key in the lock. It won’t be for long. Senior practices will be wrapping up, and then Phichit will be back, illuminating the whole apartment with his easy grins and singing Taylor Swift into the handle of a butcher knife as he makes dinner.

Yuuri goes through the motions of putting away his things, ESPN2 on the TV in the background just to keep his mind occupied with something other than his problems. He’s been thinking about the job for the whole bus ride home already, and all it’s done is turn him in circles—better to put it aside and focus his attention elsewhere for now. He listens with half an ear to the grouchy commentators covering a bowling competition, of all things. Pausing behind the couch, he watches as a forty-something with a receding hairline that fades into a ponytail throws a ball down a lane, then jumps in the air, pumping his arms in triumph when he gets a strike. The commentators sound grudgingly pleased. Maybe Yuuri chose the wrong sport.

He has his phone out, halfway through typing How much do professional bowlers make? into Google, when the door swings open and Phichit dances through the opening, the long white chord from his earbuds dangling down the front of his black practice shirt.

When he sees Yuuri, he stops, tugging the headphones from his ears to drape around his neck, and Yuuri can hear a tiny, metallic rendition of Lady Gaga trickling out of the speakers. “Hey,” Phichit says, dropping his own equipment bag on the floor as he toes off his shoes. “You’re home early today.”

Yuuri knows full well that Phichit’s being kind by pretending he hasn’t heard. There’s no doubt that someone at the rink would have filled him in on what Yuuri did this morning, if not Celestino himself. Still, it’s good of him to give Yuuri plausible deniability.

“I heard back on that nanny job I applied for,” Yuuri tells him instead. Something of the dilemma he’s in must be clear on his face, because Phichit holds up a single finger in response.

“Wait one sec while I toss my filth into the laundry, then I want to hear all about it.”

Yuuri nods and puts the TV on mute while he waits for Phichit to return. On the screen, the same bowler from before is now scowling, pacing at the end of the lane. Bowling doesn’t seem like the type of sport where you can get away with crying after a poor performance. Maybe Yuuri wouldn’t be very well-suited to it after all.

“Okay!” Phichit claps his hands together and then flops down onto the couch, staring up at Yuuri with his arms crossed behind his head. “Now I’m ready to hear everything.”

Yuuri gives him a brief rundown of the call—Ambrose and her bad attitude, the perks, the weird rules, and then finally the real clincher of a detail for Phichit—the location.

When Yuuri finishes, there’s barely a single beat of silence before Phichit says, “You should take it.”

Yuuri blinks, taken aback by how easily Phichit made up his mind. The brown eyes looking up at Yuuri are solemn, his face entirely serious. “Did you miss what I just said?” Yuuri asks. “Chicago.”

“Chicago is a cool city.” Phichit shrugs, hands up. “It’s way cooler than Detroit. You’d have a ton of new opportunities there, you could still skate if you wanted, and I bet it pays better too.”

The number Ambrose had provided flashes in front of Yuuri’s eyes again. “Yeah,” he says simply. “But is it worth it if I get there and the family is totally insane?”

“You’re not trapped,” Phichit points out. “I mean, they probably won’t kill you immediately. There are much easier ways to lure a murder victim to your home—”

“Thanks for the reassurance,” Yuuri mutters.

“I’m just saying, there are! Craigslist, for example.” Phichit nods sagely. “But, meanwhile, you’ve been wanting to get away from the rink for a while now. If you take this, you can try out something new, and you won’t have to worry about rent or bills to do it!”

Phichit reaches up, taking Yuuri gently by the chin and guiding his face to make intense eye contact and lowers his voice. “If the family is super weird, I’ll come rescue you. I know people in Chicago.”

“Well, that’s terrifying,” Yuuri declares. “But appreciated.”

“I do my best,” Phichit says with a shrug, pulling his phone from his pocket now that he’s off the hook for serious conversations. “Anyway, you don’t have to listen to me. That’s just my take on it.”

“It helps.” Yuuri glances down at Phichit’s phone screen and checks the time. It’s nearly six already. Back in Hasetsu, his parents will no doubt be up for the day, sipping tea in the kitchen as they share a newspaper. “I’m going to go call home.”

“Tell Mama I said hi,” Phichit calls after him as Yuuri goes into his bedroom and closes the door.

This time, the phone in the onsen only rings once before Yuuri hears the click and his mother’s cheerful, “Moshi moshi.”

“Hi, Mama,” he murmurs into the phone, fighting to get the words out through his suddenly tight throat. Oh, he misses her right now. Hearing her excited, “Yuuri!” at the sound of his voice envelops him in the familiar feelings of home—the warmth of the oven, the smell of omelets and rice in the rice cooker, the healing waters of the hot springs. He wants to bury himself in those familiar comforts and forget about all the mess in his life.

With a captive audience on the line, his mother begins to wash him with a rain of upbeat chatter. She starts with an update on the last time she saw Minako-sensei, then glides directly into details about Yuuko’s triplets and a recent school performance they did. Next comes the neighbors, then immediate family, then distant relatives—great-aunts and cousins who live in far-flung cities, many of whom Yuuri has never actually met.

“Do you need us to send anything?” his mama asks, once the litany is complete. “Are you eating enough?”

“More than enough,” Yuuri reassures her. If he were any less active, he’d have blown up like a balloon by now. In the happy silence after, Yuuri finally gets a chance to dip his own toe in, testing the waters of the onsen for himself.

“Mama,” he starts quiet, but tries to keep his voice light, as if the conversation were any other, casual. “How is the onsen doing these days? Lots of tourists?”

“Oh, you know how it is.” Yuuri can picture her waving at the phone, and the wide smile on her face trying to cover the tension in her voice. “It comes and goes. But I’m sure we’ll have a wonderful fall and winter season, anyway. I just heard a report on the news the other day—”

And then she’s off again, talking on about recent stories that tout the health benefits of a good, hot soak.

It must be pretty bad. If they’d had a bad week or a good week, usually his mama wouldn’t hesitate to tell him, fussing over her guests and their picky, sometimes messy habits. If she won’t even talk about it—

“Yuuri? Yuuri!” His mama’s voice in his ear brings him back to the moment. He’s been quiet too long, thinking about the implications of the conversation.

“I’m here.” Yuuri presses the phone hard into his ear and falls back onto his bed, staring across the room at his figure skating posters, a mirror of his childhood bedroom back home. “I’m still here, Mama.”

Chapter Text

Yuuri manages to repress everything for much longer than he expected. The fact that his entire situation seems like a strange dream helps, and on the sheer, stupid power of disbelief, he manages to power through almost a month of packing, preparing, and even informing Celestino and the rest of the rink staff that he intends to leave.

To their credit, everyone has been really supportive of his move, but that reaction only made the experience feel even more unlikely. Real Celestino wouldn’t have simply patted Yuuri on the back and wished him luck—would he? Yuuri’s confident the answer is no. Ergo, the Celestino who embraces him to say goodbye is either a liar or an imposter.

It’s that same blissful disbelief which pushes Yuuri through his last few days in Detroit unaffected, aside from some trouble sleeping and a few strange, muddled dreams. The night before his train leaves for Chicago, his mind even throws up a classic, and Yuuri finds himself skating out to center ice, last to perform at the Olympics. The arena is freezing cold, and Yuuri is horrified to look down and realize that he’s naked. When he looks up in the stands, the figures are a faceless multitude, except for a smattering that are too familiar—his parents, Yuuko, Minako, a boy who had held his hand once in junior high, and of course, Victor Nikiforov. Staring down at Yuuri on the ice, Victor shakes his head, disappointed.

Yuuri sleeps fitfully after the dream and doesn’t fall into deep sleep until sometime after two in the morning. When his alarm goes off at six to catch his train, he hits snooze. He sleeps a wonderful fifteen extra minutes before waking in a panic to his Uber driver calling, complaining that Yuuri isn’t outside yet.

After that, it’s all a rush—his tickets, his bag, and his clothes thrown on in haste. Phichit is out of the apartment already, up bright and early for off-ice training, but he texts while Yuuri is still in the Uber en route to the Amtrak station. Good luck, it says. I’ll miss you. Let me know who I need to have killed if it comes to that.

Yuuri shakes his head, smiling down at the phone in his hand. I’ll miss you too.

Maybe it’s that text that finally brings home the truth of what he’s doing, or maybe it’s the moment that comes next, when he’s standing under an illuminated screen, watching the numbers flash to signal his train’s impending arrival. Whatever started it, Yuuri is helpless to stop the crash of reality as it crests over him like a tsunami. The dreamlike quality of his last few weeks shatters beneath its force, and the fog that once protected him pulls back.

He’s doing this. He’s going to Chicago to take a job, sight unseen, living with a total stranger. Why did he let Phichit convince him this was a good idea?

Yuuri boards the train when it arrives in a fugue state, shuffling along the aisle with the traffic, and drops into the first open window seat he finds. His new employer is covering all of Yuuri’s moving and travel costs, so they’d offered to put him on a flight and get him there quicker, but airplanes come equipped standard with a sickening sense of dread, forever attached to the habit of traveling for competitions. Yuuri has rarely been on a plane for pleasure.

The smooth, quiet rush of the train is comforting in comparison with the agony of flights, and the seats here are larger as well, allowing Yuuri to get up and walk or stretch his legs without worrying about turbulence. Unfortunately, in the restful silence of the quiet car, Yuuri’s thoughts descend, starving wolves that can smell fear in the air.

He’s probably making a huge mistake right now. His stomach clenches as the train lurches from the station, leaving behind everything Yuuri’s known for the past five years. He knows no one in Chicago, he has no experience in this field, and he has nothing with him but two suitcases full of clothing and a laptop.

He’s so screwed.

The conductor comes down the aisle just outside the station and takes Yuuri’s ticket, punching it and then tucking the slip into the spot above his seat. That’s it, then. This will be Yuuri’s home for the next five hours. He muffles a yawn in his shoulder, exhausted from the anxiety-induced insomnia of the night before, and then rests his forehead against the cool glass of the window, watching as the squat old homes of the city devolve into suburbs, then fields. If he weren’t so worried, he could catch some extra sleep, but he knows that’s unlikely. He puts on some music to watch the agriculture roll by outside.

Two songs in, his eyes fall closed.

Yuuri drifts for the rest of the train ride, waking up at last when the announcement comes that they’ve reached their destination. The other passengers break the silence of the quiet car, chatting amongst themselves or firing up their cell phones to call and check in on rides and family. Yuuri shuffles out of his seat with his backpack and follows the other passengers as they plod en masse into the station.

Inside the door, Yuuri stops short. Detroit’s train station is old in a crumbly, outdated sort of way—a relic of the sixties, never refinished—but Chicago’s Union Station is a masterpiece of age. The moment Yuuri steps inside and looks up at the ceiling with its paned glass windows and stylized reliefs, it feels like he’s stepped back in time to the earliest days of the 20th century. The station’s towering columns and bronze statues throw Yuuri right into a whole new reality. He’s certainly not in Detroit anymore.

Someone shoulders past him, jostling his bag, and he remembers he has things to do. He still needs to collect the two suitcases he checked, then find his way to… wherever it is he’s going. The agency assured him that someone would be coming to pick him up, but Yuuri still has no idea who that will be.

He finds the luggage counter first and presents his tags. Everything is ready and waiting for him, much quicker than he’s ever gotten baggage from an international flight, and he drags the two massive bags out into the central lobby behind him, scanning the crowd, not even sure what he’s looking for.

Near the door, Yuuri locks eyes with a piece of paper, his name scrawled across the page in chunky black letters, and slowly raises his gaze to the face of the man behind it. Huh. He seems normal enough on first glance, if a bit nondescript—brown hair, glasses, beard scruff. He’s wearing battered jeans and a plaid shirt with pearl snaps up the front. Yuuri’s main thought, seeing him, is that the man doesn’t look old enough to be the father of a child.

“Yu-u-ri?” the guy asks as Yuuri approaches him, badly battering the pronunciation. His name ought to have grounds to file charges for assault.

“Yes, that’s me.” Yuuri sets down one of his bags to get a hand free, sticking it out to shake. “It’s nice to finally meet you.” And then, because he still can’t stop himself when he’s nervous, he bows slightly. “I look forward to seeing your home.”

“Aw, naw, man,” the guy drawls. He doesn’t take Yuuri’s hand. “I’m not that guy, or whatever. I’m just, like, here to drive you over.”

“Oh.” Yuuri straightens up, biting his lip. Of course. Why would his mysterious employer come get him at a public train station? He squashes down his mortification at the mistake. “Sorry.”

“No worries,” the man says. He grabs the bag Yuuri abandoned and hauls it after him. “I’m Brant, by the way. Not that it matters. First time in Chicago?”

“Not quite. I came once before, for a weekend.” Yuuri has to stretch his legs to catch up as Brant takes off, rushing through the crowded station and out onto the street outside.

Given the look of Brant, Yuuri was not expecting the dark-tinted Lincoln that’s pulled up to the curb outside, wedged in among the bright yellow taxis. Brant pops the trunk and grabs Yuuri’s luggage, shoving everything into the huge compartment. Yuuri blinks up at the buildings towering around him in every direction, the sunlight reflecting from their gleaming surfaces down into the street below. It’s not as if he’s never seen a city—or even this city in particular—but the sight is another punch in the gut. He lives here now.

Maybe. If he’s not serial murdered.

“Are we good?” Brant’s voice tugs Yuuri back down from the clouds, and he nods, grabbing the handle for the back door. It unlocks loudly, and he crawls inside.

The interior of the vehicle is warm and dark, and the tinted windows are soothing. If Yuuri weren’t so nervous about where he’s going, he’d probably be excited about this brand new experience. Professional drivers and specially-hired luxury cars are things Yuuri never imagined would be part of his life, and yet here he is.

“You won’t see much out there,” Brant says, and Yuuri pries his eyes away from the window filled with unfamiliar streets and busy pedestrians to meet the driver’s gaze in the rearview mirror. “If you’re looking for the touristy stuff, we’re not going past it. Unless you want to, of course.” The implication is clear in his tone of voice—side-trips may cost extra.

“That’s fine,” Yuuri assures him. “We can go straight—” home? “—to the destination.”

Brant nods and adjusts the mirror as the traffic picks up again. Yuuri edges his body closer to the door, staring back out the window. He watches as the skyscrapers and hip restaurants along the river level off into urban neighborhoods, shopping districts, and schools, then transform again—more hip cafes and little venues, parks, and yoga studios pop out of freshly painted buildings with stylish, brightly-colored signs.

Soon, it’s all tree-lined, narrow streets and brick buildings in shades of brown and red. Most of the townhomes along the avenue look old, but through parted curtains he can see modern lighting and sleek designer furniture. Of course. With the salary he’s been offered, Yuuri expected wealth. Beyond that, he wasn’t sure what to expect at all. Phichit has been teasing him for the past week that Yuuri will be walled off in some gated mansion, but while the homes in the neighborhood are nice, they’re not ostentatious.

The Lincoln slows, then stops in the middle of a block, pulling over as close to the sidewalk as possible. Brant cuts the engine and hops out of the car without a word to Yuuri. By the time Yuuri reaches the sidewalk, both his suitcases are already stacked in the street.

“There you go,” Brant says, hands stuffed into his pockets. “The guy tipped me in advance, so you're good to go.”

“Thanks,” Yuuri says. He heaves his bags onto the sidewalk and looks around. All the houses look much the same, and he realizes he doesn't actually know the house number.

Brant is already back in the car, but he hasn't pulled away. Yuuri has to tap on the window to get his attention. “Uh,” he starts as the window slowly rolls downward. “Which… house?”

Shaking his head, Brant pulls something up on his phone and takes a quick look. “That one.” Brant nods out the window. “1815.”

“Right. Thanks.”

Brant rolls up the window and takes off, leaving Yuuri standing on the curb alone with his bags. 1815. Right.

It doesn’t look particularly different from the others around it. A few concrete steps lead up to a tiny porch, decorated by a single fern barely clinging to life in a plastic pot. The door is a dark forest green set in an otherwise unremarkable brown brick townhome. There are green shutters over all the street level windows, but they’re closed too tightly for Yuuri to get a glimpse of what’s inside.

He hauls his bags up the steps, making enough of a racket that he half expects the door to pop open without further effort, but it doesn’t. Standing on the stoop, he raises his fist to knock, then sees the little white button at the side of the door. He presses it.

Although he can’t hear a doorbell from outside, Yuuri does hear the barking. He grips the handle of his bag tighter. He likes dogs, but this one sounds a lot larger than his Vicchan was. There’s a scuffle on the other side of the door, and then it flies open.

Yuuri’s knocked back against the stair rail, a fluffy brown paw on each of his shoulders. He drops his bag when he stumbles, burying his fingers instead in the soft, curly hair of a brown poodle. For a moment, it looks just like—

“Makkachin,” a man’s voice tuts from inside the home. “That’s no way to greet your new friend. I taught you better manners than this.”

Yuuri hasn’t been hit by a dog, but a blizzard. That’s the only explanation for the way his body feels now—cold, shocked, and paralyzed. He knows that name. He knows that voice.

He pries his eyes from the dog’s face and raises them to the doorway.

Victor Nikiforov tilts his head, his silver hair falling over one eye as he gives Yuuri a cheerful smile. “Yuuri!” he declares, drawing out the vowels of his name into a song. “Welcome to your new home!”

For a brief moment, Yuuri entertains the thought that Brant drugged the water he’d handed Yuuri in the car, and now Yuuri is hallucinating, but the doggy claws digging into his shoulders beg to differ. This is the strangest possible version of reality.

Victor Nikiforov—the Victor Nikiforov—reaches out to pull the poodle off of Yuuri. Oblivious to the inner turmoil of the man on his porch, Victor sticks out his hand for Yuuri to shake, sliding right on to the rest of his introduction. “Thank you so much for agreeing to this contract. I know the circumstances are a bit unusual, but,” he breaks off his speech to shrug, “well, I prefer privacy. I hope you’ll understand.”

Yuuri doesn’t understand anything. The man standing in front of him should not be here. Yuuri should not be here. Victor’s hand is still hanging in the air, waiting for Yuuri to push past the mental block of Victor Nikiforov and take it. He makes a few false starts, his hand jerking and fluttering around his waist, before he finally manages to connect, palm to palm with his idol for the first time. Victor’s smile stretches. Yuuri’s head is a balloon, and only a slip of plastic tethers it to his shoulders.

“Come in, please,” Victor says, after the longest three seconds of physical contact in Yuuri’s life. “You can leave your bags by the door for now while I give you a tour.”

Yuuri trails him into the townhouse, feeling a strong kinship with Makkachin as she trots along in Victor’s wake. His mind is still rushing, trying to catch up with a million questions at once, and if Victor told him to sit on the floor and play dead right now, he’d probably do it without a second thought.

The entryway is dominated by a grand staircase leading up to a second level. Its bannisters are smooth from age and wear, and clearly original to the building. As he expected, the home has a polished appearance, with natural grain wood floors and matching steps. He’d estimate the townhouse must be at least a hundred years old, and Yuuri, who has watched more than his share of HGTV in hotel rooms through the years, notes that it still has many original features in this area, such as molding near the baseboards and an arched doorway through which Victor leads him into the next room.

“This is the living room,” Victor says, gesturing around him, “as well as the kitchen and dining area.” It’s all open, all remodeled in recent years, and the kitchen has the gleaming white and steel fixtures that Yuuri suspects must be Victor’s design taste, from what he recalls from years of obsessive fanboying. “There’s a formal dining room as well, on the other side of the stairs, but I keep it closed off. We never use it.”

Victor looks at Yuuri, waiting for questions, but Yuuri only nods dumbly. When it’s clear from Victor’s expression that isn’t enough, Yuuri fumbles for his tongue. “It’s very nice,” he says. It’s not a lie. The home is beautiful. The furniture looks expensive, but also cozy. There’s a plush rug on the floor in front of the leather sofa, and Yuuri spots a coloring book lying open on the coffee table beside a small pile of discarded crayons.

At the compliment, Victor beams. “Thank you, Yuuri,” he says. “I hope you find it comfortable as well. Are you ready to see the rest?”

Yuuri nods. In the entryway, Victor grabs the handle of one of his suitcases, and Yuuri scrambles to get the others before Victor can. He’s probably making an idiot of himself, but Victor continues to smile placidly.

“We’ll go up to the third floor before the second,” Victor pipes. “Your room is in the penthouse suite.”

As Victor ascends the stairs, Yuuri follows a few steps back, trying to look down at the smooth wooden steps beneath his feet. He makes the mistake of looking up only briefly, and is presented with a perfect view of exactly how well Victor can still fill out a pair of dress pants. Yuuri drops his eyes again and keeps them focused on the stairs. If he has to get more than one eyeful of Victor Nikiforov’s butt in real life today, he’ll probably pass out, and the second story steps are the worst place for that to happen.

He can only imagine the gleeful eulogy Phichit would give at his funeral if Yuuri died from a broken neck after staring too long into the sun.

On the third floor, Victor leads him through a set of double doors, and Yuuri finds himself in a picturesque little suite. There’s a futon with a television, a kitchenette in the corner, a table set up to serve as a desk on one end, and a twin size bed set back against the wall beneath a porthole-style window. Victor points to each of the two doors in the room in turn—closet, and bathroom.

Again, he turns back to Yuuri expectantly.

“It’s great,” Yuuri says, thrilled to get another flash of smile in response. “It’s uh… it’s actually nicer than where I was living in Detroit, because I had a roommate, and… yeah.”

“Wonderful,” Victor exclaims, as if Yuuri said something brilliant, rather than stumbling over his own lips like a teenager. “Of course you’re welcome to come and go as you please when you’re not working, provided you keep to the terms of our agreement and don’t tell anyone where you work.” Victor pauses, tapping one finger on his chin. It’s a gesture that Yuuri knows all too well from footage of Victor in practices—his thinking face as he plots out new choreography. “Unfortunately, that also means you won’t be able to invite anyone over, such as guests, or dates.”

“That’s fine. I don’t know anyone in Chicago yet anyway.” Victor’s face falls a little at that. Ouch. Now he thinks Yuuri is a sad sack with no friends. Already they’re off to a great start.

Yuuri stacks his luggage against a wall for the time being, and they move back down to the second floor, where Victor gestures over to the right, indicating a pair of closed doors set side by side.

“My bedroom and office are over here. If there’s ever an emergency that needs my attention, you can find me there, but I generally keep the rooms locked.” Victor’s smile fades as he turns to look Yuuri in the eye, his expression resolute. “My rooms are strictly off limits, no matter what Maia may tell you. It’s never been child-proofed, and she’s not allowed inside.”

There’s a steely cast to Victor’s eyes that Yuuri’s never seen outside of competitions. On the television screen, remote, it had always given Yuuri chills to see Victor’s ‘game face’ as he stepped on the ice. In person, it sets an icy hand to Yuuri’s spine that’s far from pleasant. Victor’s tone of voice isn’t at all threatening, but Yuuri can hear a hint of something hard as marble beneath the words.

He nods to confirm that he understands, and immediately Victor’s eyes are a merry lake blue once again. “If everything is still good, would you like to meet Maia?”

“Absolutely.”

“I’m sure the agency gave you at least some information,” Victor says, and Yuuri nods curtly. He got some information, sure, but not much. Thankfully, Victor takes his response as a cue to provide more detail.

“Maia has just started half-days at a nearby preschool, getting ready for kindergarten next year,” he begins, as if reciting a well-rehearsed speech. “She’ll be at her school from 8:30 in the morning until just after lunch. You’d be expected to take her to and from school. After you pick her up, you’ll play with her, see to her needs, take her to play dates, and so on. You’ll have some free time while she’s at school, and I’d appreciate if you tidy up any messes you notice when you can, but I also have housekeeping that stops in once a week.

“I’m home most of the day myself, but I’ll usually be in my office, unavailable. I also work outside the house for about three hours each day, but the timing of that can vary.” Victor pauses, his eyes meeting Yuuri’s again. “Is that what you expected?”

The agency hadn’t given him so many particulars, but it’s well in line with what Yuuri can do, so he nods again. He’s starting to feel like a pigeon, bobbing his head so much.

Victor leads him to the other side of the stairs, opposite the forbidden rooms, where a matching set of doors stand ajar. Through one, Yuuri can see soft, pale blue and gold furnishings, pink pillows, and a stocky white bookcase overflowing with colorful spines. Victor doesn’t explain, but it’s clearly a child’s bedroom.

The next door, he pushes open wide, and Yuuri follows him in. This is a playroom. While the rest of the house had seemed styled and window-dressed for appearances, this space overflows with toys—doll houses, riding toys, model furniture, building toys, a train track, and another bookshelf packed with just as many, if not more, books than Yuuri’s glimpsed in the bedroom next door.

Cross-legged in the middle of all of it is a small figure with dark, fine hair hanging loose and long. Her back is to the door, and small growls emit from her mouth as she swims a pair of plastic dinosaurs through the air, then smashes them together.

Victor winces, chuckling lightly. “I may have let her watch part of Jurassic World by accident the other night,” he admits. “Not approved television for a five year-old, but I thought she was asleep already. Maia,” Victor calls out. “Your new friend Yuuri is here to meet you.”

The little girl whips around, and Yuuri almost staggers back. She’s a beautiful child with a winning, heart-shaped little mouth. Yuuri had expected any child related to Victor to be endearing but, seeing her from behind, he hadn’t expected the familiar almond shape of her brown eyes.

“Is anything wrong?” Victor asks. His tone is even, but there’s steel beneath, warning Yuuri to choose what he says carefully.

“Oh, I just— I thought she’d look more like… you.” Yuuri hasn’t had all that much time to consider what Victor Nikiforov’s child might look like, but subconsciously, he had pictured some feminine version of Victor, struck in miniature, with the same pale hair and lapis eyes. Yuuri shoots a glance at Victor after he says it, hoping he hasn’t crossed some invisible line, but Victor only laughs lightly.

“I’ve been assured there is some family resemblance,” he says. The girl hops up, jogging over to tug on her father’s hand as he continues. “But yes, her mother was Japanese. Hence my interest in your application, actually. Russian, Polish, Spanish, Mandarin—all of these I can easily find a nanny for in Chicago, but I want Maia to know where she comes from, and that means both sides of her family.”

His explanation complete, Victor smiles down at the child still tugging on his hand. “Yes, what is it?”

“Вы говорите слишком много,” Maia says, pouting as she continues to tug Victor’s arm. “Он мой друг!” Her accent is flawless, as far as Yuuri can tell, but his vocabulary isn’t good enough to recognize most of the words.

Still, the Russian in her little piping voice reminds Yuuri of some of the younger novices at the Detroit rink, and he blurts out, “Does she skate?”

Victor’s smile stiffens, going hard and brittle around the edges. “Ah,” he says. “You do know who I am, then. I had wondered, seeing your work history. You taught lessons at a skating rink, correct?”

Technically, Yuuri was a junior coach, but it doesn’t seem worth correcting. If Victor’s happier thinking Yuuri taught four year-olds to shuffle around the ice while gripping pipe trainers, it doesn’t hurt anything to let him go on believing that. Those days are in the past now, anyway.

Looking back at Maia, Victor extricates his hand from her grip, murmuring again in Russian. The girl huffs and scuffs at the floral rug with her little sock-clad foot, but then goes back to her dinosaurs, flopping down on the floor.

“To answer your question directly, no, she’s never been skating.” Victor’s body language is relaxed, his thumbs hanging on his pants pockets as his shoulders slacken, but his eyes are snipers, and they’re aimed dead at Yuuri. “I want Maia to have a normal childhood, without the undue pressures of public attention. That’s why it’s absolutely imperative that we retain our privacy.” He flashes a smile that doesn’t dim the lasers in his eyes. “I’m sure you understand.”

“Absolutely,” Yuuri nods until it feels like he may transform into his new pigeon form at any moment. He stops.

“Excellent,” Victor says, his smile climbing to curl around his blue eyes. He waves over to Maia. “Why don’t you two spend some time getting to know each other, then? I’ll stay on the couch for the time being, but you can just pretend I’m not here!”

Yeah, Yuuri thinks as Victor sinks into the beige cushions of an overstuffed loveseat against the wall. Like that will ever happen.

He turns his back to Victor as he joins Maia on the rug, crossing his legs, and tries to ignore the feeling of attention crawling up his spine. “Hi,” he tells Maia, and then, remembering, “Kon'nichiwa. What are you playing?”

“Dino house,” Maia says. She points to a plastic brontosaurus, then a much smaller velociraptor, explaining, “This one’s the papa, and that one’s the baby.” She presses a garish neon tyrannosaurus into Yuuri’s hands. “You can be this one.”

It’s been a while since Yuuri played with toys, aside from occasionally fixing his video game figures after Phichit placed them in adult positions, but it can’t be that hard. If a five year-old can do it, then so can he. He waddles the t-rex back and forth across the rug to prove it. “Is this the mommy dino?”

“No,” Maia replies, in a tone of outrage. “That’s the uncle.” She balances the velociraptor on the daddy dinosaur’s neck, so it can be carried without hands, then adds flatly, “The mommy is dead.”

Yuuri tries not to wince. Of course. He can’t tell if the hot feeling on the back of his neck is a flush or if Victor’s eyes are literally burning through his skull. He shuffles his dinosaur around the train-patterned rug in shame.

-

Yuuri closes the door to his quarters and sighs, leaning back against the solid wood in relief. He’s exhausted. The travel is part of it, and the stress of finding out who his employer would be, but he’s also starting to think he underestimated how much work it would be to play with a kid all day. Today was only a few hours long, but it drained him. After the dinosaur house game, Maia had insisted on showing him each and every one of her toys, then she’d asked him to read her a book, and then she wanted to show him all of Makkachin’s tricks. When her bedtime had finally come along like a sweet reprieve, she’d begged for Yuuri to be included in that routine too.

She’s a good kid, as far as Yuuri can see. She doesn’t come across as spoiled, despite the circumstances, but holy hell, it’s all a lot to be dropped into.

Despite the burn of exhaustion suffusing his limbs, Yuuri glances from his luggage to his tiny bed, considering. He’s pretty sure if he sits down, he won’t want to get up again, and while the room is nice enough, it’s pretty sterile. Putting away some of his things might improve the atmosphere.

Yuuri slings his largest suitcase onto the bed, so he won’t be able to lie down until it’s empty, and unzips the lid. Lying flat at the top of the pile on a cushion of hardback books is his favorite poster. The smiling blue eyes of a much younger Victor Nikiforov stare up at him, his silver ponytail whipping around his face like a lasso as he spins.

What happened to you? Yuuri asks, looking at it. It’s a question he’s asked many times before, but now with a whole different meaning—no longer where are you? but now how did you get here? Before, Yuuri asked knowing that he’d probably never learn the answer. Now, that too has changed.

He can’t hang the poster, of course. There’s no point in having Phichit send the others, either. Victor doesn’t seem like he wants to acknowledge his figure skating career much, if at all. If he sees Yuuri’s room wallpapered in his face, well, Yuuri could be on the next train back to Michigan.

After stashing the poster away at the top of his closet, Yuuri begins to unpack his clothes, folding the items again and stowing them one by one. He ponders the situation as he goes through the familiar motions. To some extent, Victor’s disappearance does make sense now, even without details.

Victor’s girlfriend—wife? Had they been married in secret?—she must have died around when he stopped skating. Maia would have been just a baby then, probably not even a year old. Of course Victor wouldn’t have been able to devote hours to competition and training, leaving for days to fly for shows on other continents, all while parenting a baby on his own. But how did Yuuri never know there was a baby? It seems hard to imagine the skating forums, rabid as they could be, would miss something like Victor having a child with someone.

And that’s only the biggest mystery in all this. There are many more to follow, like why Chicago? Yuuri’s read probably every interview Victor ever gave. He knows Victor is close to his mother, and that the former Mrs. Nikiforov still lives in St. Petersburg. Why would he raise his child here, so far away from her grandmother, and without the support of his hometown?

Yuuri’s never given much thought to raising children, but it doesn’t take much thinking about it to know he’d want his parents around. He’d probably have moved back to Hasetsu, in that position, counting on the support of his mother, Minako, and the Nishigoris.

The more Yuuri learns, the more he wants to understand. Never, even in his most insane teenage fanfiction, could he have imagined meeting Victor this way. Then again, in his fantasies Victor always recognized him. Wait, aren’t you— Yuuri Katsuki? Japan’s Ace? I’m a huge fan! But that part was always wishful thinking. Yuuri was only beginning to transition to the senior level when Victor disappeared. There would be little reason for a twenty-three year old World Champion to know about some random Japanese junior.

Lost in thought, Yuuri manages to unpack his entire first suitcase by muscle memory alone. He doesn’t even notice he’s finished until he reaches in for the next thing and touches the vinyl lining at the bottom. He closes up that bag and stows it at the bottom of the closet. That’s more than enough work for one night.

Finally, Yuuri gives in to the weariness in his bones and sits down on the bed, running a hand across the tightly-made sheet. Without a task to focus on, the little apartment is suddenly very quiet and empty. There’s no sound of passing cars on the road, no pop music thrumming through the wall or laugh track background from the TV in Phichit’s room. Stowing his things away did little to improve the space, now that he can’t hang his favorite posters.

Now what?

He could go down stairs, use the big kitchen to make a snack or check out the streaming video selection in the living room. Victor has been more than clear that the space down there belongs to Yuuri too.

Yeah, right. Yuuri will just hang out in his pajamas eating late night cereal and watching infomercials with Victor Nikiforov.

Not happening.

He grabs his laptop and headphones from the bedside table and props some pillows up against the wall to lean back on. He can set up the wi-fi and just play some games online with Phichit and his internet friends for tonight. The mindless violence will distract him from both his surroundings and the hunger brewing in his stomach. Victor will have to go to sleep eventually… he hopes.

Deep in the pocket of his jeans, Yuuri finds the slip of paper Victor gave him with the wi-fi password. With halting fingers, he types it in—stammivicino.

Chapter Text

When Yuuri wakes up the next morning, he’s still in the weird little bedroom in Victor Nikiforov’s attic. He’s also still in his clothes from the day before, and his entire body feels as grubby and limp as his hair.

Frayed nerves and the unfamiliar creaks and groans of the old house had kept him up late into the night, and, even when he’d drifted off before the blue light of his laptop screen, he’d often jerked awake, startled by the creak of branches scraping over the roof above or the occasional thunk as the floorboards settled beneath him.

He’s going to need a lot of caffeine. But first, a shower.

Once he’s washed, combed, and dressed again in some of his nicer clothes, Yuuri makes his way downstairs carefully, his hand sliding along the smooth lacquer of the bannister.

The second floor is quiet. Victor’s doors are still closed tight, but Maia’s bedroom door stands slightly ajar. Peering through the gap, Yuuri can see an unmade twin bed with no child inside it, so he keeps going to the ground floor.

From the last landing on the stair, Yuuri can hear the pop of music and high-pitched, dissonant voices, so it’s no surprise when he rounds the doorway into the living room and sees Maia sitting cross-legged on the floor in front of the TV, her attention lasered in on cartoons. She’s wearing a glittery silver tulle skirt over black and white striped leggings and a baby blue shirt with a unicorn on it. Phichit would probably admire her style. It’s a shame Yuuri can’t show him pictures.

Victor is in the kitchen, and he beams as Yuuri stumbles into the room. “Ohayou, Yuuri,” Victor calls out. “Good morning! Say ‘good morning’ to Yuuri, Maia.”

“Доброе утро,” Maia mumbles, her eyes still focused on the television.

“Ohayou gozaimasu,” Yuuri responds. It’s way too early for anyone to be speaking three languages, in his opinion. He can only hope Victor doesn’t start to segue into French or German.

As he stumbles past Victor in search of tea, Yuuri pauses to glance at the counter. There are three matching plates on the dark grey granite, each with a small pile of scrambled eggs and some sausage, while Victor’s hands are busy peeling oranges. Yuuri looks up to find Victor watching him, still smiling.

“I made breakfast for all of us today. I hope you don’t mind.” Victor nods to the cabinet over Yuuri’s shoulder. “The tea canister is in that one. There’s also honey, if you need it.”

Yuuri mutters a thanks and begins to rummage around. Victor Nikiforov owns a mug that says “World’s Greatest Dad” with a picture of a poodle on it. This strange dream Yuuri wandered into is getting a bit too real. He almost trips over Makkachin, who is lying on the floor in front of the stove, and she stares up at him, affronted, as he whispers an apology.

“Breakfast, Maia!” Victor sings, somehow balancing three plates as he steps over to the dining table, despite having only two hands. Maia shuts off the cartoons without a word of protest and skips over to the table. Her fine, dark hair hangs down on either side of her face in two loose braids. Victor Nikiforov braids his daughter’s hair.

Yuuri finishes fixing his tea and trails after the dog to the empty chair on the other side of Maia’s booster seat. He settles in. The eggs Victor made for him are fluffy, a sunny shade of pale yellow. There’s no ketchup on the table.

“Did you sleep well, Yuuri?” Victor asks, pausing with a forkful of eggs and sausage in the air.

“Yes,” Yuuri lies. Then he shoves an orange slice in his mouth, hoping it will prevent further questions. It does, for a time.

There’s nothing objectively strange about a father and daughter enjoying a nice breakfast together before school. It’s sweet and domestic, and that’s precisely why it makes Yuuri so uncomfortable. He doesn’t belong here. He slips his left hand under the table and pinches the top of his knee. It stings, so he must not be living in one of his high school fanfictions, despite all appearances to the contrary.

A soft thump-thump-thump echoes beside him, where Maia is swinging her legs over the edge of her chair, drumming her little heels on one of the wooden legs. Victor gives her a Look, and the thumping stops. He clears his throat.

“Maia’s preschool is just up the road,” Victor says. “I can give you the address for GPS if you need it. She stays through lunch, but you’ll have to pick her up at 12:30.” He glances over at Maia, who is playing with the eggs on her plate, mashing them with her fork, and smiles fondly. “The school has a nap time after lunch, and Mashka doesn’t like to nap.”

Maia wrinkles her nose and stuffs a piece of sausage in her mouth. “Naps are boring,” she says through her mouthful.

“Don’t talk while you’re eating,” Victor says, firm but gentle. Watching Victor skate, Yuuri had never given much thought as to whether the man would make a good father, but the fact that he’s exactly that is somehow not surprising.

“What should we do after school?” Yuuri asks, more to distract himself from his own strange thoughts than anything else. “And during the day, while she’s there? Is there anything I need to know?”

Victor smiles, turning his attention back to Yuuri. “Good questions. In the morning, the day is yours. If there are chores around the house to be done, your help would be appreciated, but otherwise it’s up to you. After you pick Maia up, you’re free to do whatever you like together until two, so feel free to go explore the local parks or whatever you wish. If you spend money, let me know and I’ll reimburse, even if it’s just a few dollars for juice. Just please text me or call if for some reason you won’t be home by two.”

“Why two?”

“Sometimes I work from home,” Victor says, shrugging. “But often I leave in the morning and won’t return until then myself. I simply like to know where Maia is when I’m at home.”

Well, Yuuri can’t fault him for that. He hasn’t even been here a full twenty-four hours yet, but already he’s noticed how close the two are. It makes sense, if it’s only been the two of them for a while.

Maia’s fork clatters onto her plate as she hops down from her chair. “I’m full,” she declares. “Can Yuuri and I be excused?”

With a bemused quirk of his lips, Victor meets Yuuri’s eyes, then glances at his plate, which is still littered with a few bits of sausage and egg. “Did you ask Yuuri if he’s finished and wants to come play with you?”

Maia folds her arms, and her lips twist into a displeased pout. The expression slams into Yuuri like a truck. He’s seen the same look dozens of times before—it’s the same expression Victor always wore as he left the ice, any time his performance wasn’t quite what he desired. The mimic is so exact as to be a mirror.

“Yuuri,” the girl asks sweetly, moving her arms to clasp them behind her back, and Yuuri has to wonder now if she learned this expression from Victor too. “Come play with me?”

A quick glance across the table shows Victor still smiling placidly, and Yuuri nods. “Of course,” he says. He pushes back from the table and puts his chair back in place, then reaches for his dirty plate.

Victor raises his hand. “Don’t worry about dishes right now. I’ll put them in the wash. You two go get to know each other. Just make sure she’s back downstairs by 8:15, or you’ll never make it out the door on time.”

As soon as Yuuri turns to her, Maia dashes for the stairs, the thump of her feet on the wood like a drumbeat through the old house.

In her playroom, Maia introduces Yuuri to each of her dolls in turn. It’s a painstaking process, and after all that she moves along to the stuffed animals. Yuuri realizes, dazed, that he has a lot of names to learn. It’s worse than the first day of a new class at the rink—at least he’d only had a few kids to learn then, in contrast to Maia’s veritable mountain of fictional characters, each of which appears to have a massive family tree and a backstory worthy of a multiseason drama.

He’s barely scratched the surface of Maia’s treatise on the history of an ongoing war between her stuffed bears and her stuffed cats when Victor’s head pops into the doorway. Yuuri looks up, waiting for Victor to make a comment about the pile of plush languishing in Yuuri’s lap, but Victor vanishes again without a word. Yuuri shrugs it off, but a few minutes later, Victor returns.

Yuuri pushes back a stab of irritation and tries to focus on what Maia is saying instead. It’s his first day. He shouldn’t be surprised that Victor is checking in on him so much, but he really hopes it isn’t a pattern. It’s going to be hard enough to function, knowing Victor is in the same building as him, without the man constantly peeking over Yuuri’s shoulder.

Thankfully, on the third appearance, Victor’s check-in does have a point. “Eight-fifteen,” Victor declares. “Time for school.”

Maia scowls again, and Yuuri thinks she might whine or protest, but a raised eyebrow from Victor is enough to quiet whatever impulse was brewing there. She doesn’t raise a fuss as they all head downstairs, and she waits patiently on the little bench by the door while Victor ties her shoes for her, only briefly protesting, “I can do that myself!”

“I know you can,” Victor promises, planting a kiss at the top of her head. “You’re very good at it. I just wanted to do it for you this time.” He stands back up, facing Yuuri.

His smile is as staid as ever, like one of the unmoving Victors of Yuuri’s poster collection, but his hands are fluttering, nervous little birds, confused as to where they should go. “Be careful,” he says. There’s an air of desperation in the words, but also acceptance.

“Of course,” Yuuri promises. Even if Victor wasn’t involved, and even if this wasn’t Yuuri’s job now, he’d never let anything happen to Maia—or any child in his care.

Victor helps Maia shrug into her little backpack, and she and Yuuri head out the front door. They reach the sidewalk and Maia slips her hand into Yuuri’s, as he’s sure she’s done with her father on many days before. It makes Yuuri look back over his shoulder. Victor is still on the top step with Makkachin at his side, half in the door and half on the street, watching. Yuuri waves with his free hand.

Even when they reach the end of the block and turn toward the school, Yuuri can still make out the glinting silver of Victor’s hair at the doorstep of the brownstone.

The September morning still carries a light chill from the night before. Victor’s neighborhood is lined with small trees and carefully planned garden beds, and Yuuri spots a few other people on the street with children walking the same direction, mostly women in gym clothes pushing large strollers. Across the street, one woman looks particularly harried, her red hair in disarray as a small boy runs circles around her, chattering and pointing out every bit of trash or plant life on the sidewalk.

Yuuri squeezes Maia’s hand, and she looks up at him. “Do you know that boy over there?” he asks. She shakes her head, but doesn’t add anything. She’s so quiet. He wonders if she’s just shy, or if it’s something else. He hadn’t really noticed before now, because she’d been chatty enough with him when they played at home, but outside the house she’s definitely more reserved.

It’s even more obvious once they reach the school. The preschool Maia attends is a square little white brick building, but there’s a large fenced play yard out in front, separated into two different sides. One section has bright colored plastic toys meant for toddlers and very young children, while the other area has swings, slides, and a more typical park set-up. As they walk up the sidewalk in the middle, Maia lets go of Yuuri’s hand and runs over to the chain link fence, grabbing the metal rings with both hands as she peers through at the other kids on the main playground.

The air around the school yard is thick with the sounds of high-pitched squeals, laughter, and loud conversations as the voices of the kids playing outside all layer over each other, none of them old enough to know not to interrupt yet. Yuuri watches Maia’s head turn, following the path of another little girl with brown skin and dark, curly hair. She doesn’t call out.

“Good morning, Maia,” a calm, pleasant voice says. Yuuri glances over to find a woman standing on the school steps beside them, with pin-straight blonde hair, heavy mascara, and sensible shoes. “You look so cute today. Did you dress yourself?”

Maia nods. “Good morning,” she says, then turns to Yuuri. “You can go now.”

Ouch. He’s been dismissed.

The woman laughs and holds out her hand. “I’m Maia’s teacher this year, Miss Driscoll. You can call me Cathy, though.”

Yuuri takes her hand, nodding. “Yuuri. I just started as Maia’s… nanny, I guess.” He stumbles over it, but it’s the first time. He’d almost said coach.

“Ohhhhh.” Miss Driscoll’s smile brightens. “I heard Maia’s father let the school know there’d be someone new coming for her. I didn’t realize it was just a nanny.” The way her eyes drop to Yuuri’s shoes before climbing back to his face is anything but subtle. There’s a light in her eyes that Yuuri’s more than familiar with—the spark of competition.

Just a nanny, indeed. If Phichit were here, he’d be elbowing Yuuri in the ribs right now and calling the woman “thirsty.” Yuuri may be just the nanny, but he resolves right then that he won’t be calling this woman Cathy any time soon.

“Yes,” Yuuri says. “I’m sure you’ll be seeing me around a lot more from now on.” The teacher’s face barely twitches, but it’s obvious she’s disappointed. He wonders if she’s looked Victor up—is she a fan too, or does she only see him as an attractive single dad?

Either way, Yuuri releases her hand and waves goodbye to Maia. “Have a good day. I’ll see you after lunch.” Maia nods but doesn’t reply. Her teacher opens the door, and Maia trots into the school.

Somehow, the walk back to the brownstone feels longer than the walk to the school had. Although Yuuri and Maia hadn’t really spoken on the first walk, there’s still a difference between walking with someone and walking alone. Yuuri keeps a sedate pace, checking out the neighborhood. There’s a park nearby, with a fountain and a playground, and he keeps that in mind as a spot to take Maia after school.

There’s no need for him to hurry back to the brownstone. Victor had been clear that these next few hours are Yuuri’s, to do with as he wishes, but Yuuri himself isn’t sure what to do with them. He doesn’t have anything calling him back to the house, but he also has no idea where he might go instead. He walks past the house, circling the block, but everything is homes and apartments as far as he can see—no shops, no cafes. He checks his phone for the nearest library, but it’s another five blocks beyond the school, and the website says he’ll need mail from his new address to get a library card anyway. That might take a while.

The key Victor gave him to the house came with a little sterling Eiffel tower dangling from the keychain. It rattles against the door as Yuuri unlocks it, and Makkachin pushes her flat wet nose into the opening when Yuuri pushes inside.

A cold and quiet entryway greets him, aside from the click of Makka’s nails on the hardwoods. Yuuri peeks into the living area, but it’s empty, all the breakfast remnants already tidied away. Ascending the creaking stairs, Yuuri can hear quiet music coming from one of the closed doors on the second floor—piano, strings, but nothing he’s familiar with. Victor must be working from home today.

Yuuri continues up the stairs until he reaches his own room. The white walls envelop him. It still feels more like coming back to a hotel on vacation than it does coming “home.” He flops back onto his little twin bed and blinks up at a slight bulge in the ceiling, stained brown from an old leak.

He has no idea what to do with himself here.

-

It takes Yuuri a couple weeks, but his day starts to feel routine. He eats breakfast with the family, he takes Maia to school, and he fills the empty hours between drop-off and pick-up with chores, video games, and even jogs in the neighborhood with Makkachin.

He’s still not used to Victor, though. Yuuri’s become convinced the universe has it out for him in some way. There’s too much irony in the idea that Yuuri would leave Detroit to escape reminders of his failures in skating, only to wind up on the doorstep of the greatest (former) figure skater in the world. Even away from the rink, he’s still being haunted by his past, and the worst part of it is that he forgets sometimes. Yuuri spends most of his day either with Maia or on his own, with Victor either out of the house or shut up in his personal rooms, and Yuuri somehow manages at times to forget he’s even around.

Then, he’ll walk down stairs for a snack and bump into Victor in the kitchen, and the reality of it slaps him in the face all over again. He’s living with Victor Nikiforov.

It hits him the worst when the encounter is a surprise. After a couple weeks, Yuuri is used to one of two conditions occurring when he gets back from walking Maia to school: either Victor is locked in his room, or Victor is gone. Half the time, there’s no obvious sign as to which it will be.

So, it’s unexpected when Yuuri rounds the stone wall at the end of the porch one morning and nearly collides with Victor on the front steps.

He takes a quick step back and looks again. Victor is barely recognizable, dressed in workout clothes with a duffel bag slung over his shoulders. He’s wearing a baseball cap with a logo Yuuri doesn’t recognize, the bill pulled down to shadow his face. Only a few wisps of overgrown silver hair escape the cap at the sides, and dark sunglasses hide Victor’s eyes, but Yuuri would have to be blind to not recognize the familiar curve of his mouth.

Victor pauses for only a beat before brushing past Yuuri. He says, “Have a good day” as he hops down the steps, then he slides into the back seat of a black SUV parked on the street, and the car pulls away.

Where does he go? Yuuri wonders as the red tail lights of the vehicle flash at the end of the street. He hasn’t really thought about it before now. He has enough to worry about on his own, plus Maia. Victor said he worked from home or ran errands, but… Yuuri has no idea what Victor actually does.

He lets himself into the house and pauses inside the door to rub Makka’s ears as he thinks. “Does Victor work for the Russian mob?” he asks Makka. She stares up at him with sad brown eyes and slowly wags her tail. Yuuri snorts. He let Phichit play too many soap operas in their apartment, obviously. They’ve rotted his common sense.

The house is deathly silent as Yuuri kicks off his shoes by the door and pads into the living area. Maia left some art supplies scattered over the coffee table, and he tidies the mess. There’s an abandoned drawing of a fat brown blob—probably Makkachin—in the middle of a grassy plain with a big smiling sun overhead. Yuuri pins it to the fridge with the others.

It’s so quiet in the house. He’s not sure how long Victor will be gone, but he should have at least an hour. Maybe he can finally try out Victor’s giant flat screen without worrying the man himself will suddenly wander into the room and sit down.

Grabbing a Greek yogurt and a spoon, Yuuri flops down on the couch and reaches for the remote. He frowns, wriggling around in an effort to get comfortable. The sofa looks expensive, but the upholstery is stiff and unyielding beneath his back. He squirms around, wedging his butt into the seam between the cushions, then rolls onto his side. The change in positions does nothing, and he’s forced to sit up straight with his feet on the floor to avoid disappointment.

Given the size of the TV and how wealthy Victor seems to be in general, Yuuri had expected some sort of crazy advanced Smart TV with a million streaming services hooked up, but as he clicks through the menus, he blinks in disbelief. Victor, a millenial living in the year 2016, has cable. If he also has Netflix, Yuuri can’t find any trace of it being set up. He flips through the list of channels, but it’s the usual suspects—something on Food Network with Alton Brown, a Law and Order: SVU marathon, Storage Wars, and one of the less popular Fast & the Furious films. Everything else is utter garbage.

Yuuri puts the movie on in the background while he eats his yogurt, but it’s not really capturing his attention. No one is even in a car, and they all just keep talking to each other. Boring. Once he’s scraped the plastic container clean, he pops the spoon in his mouth and turns off the TV. It shouldn’t be that much of a shock that Victor’s living room sucks, in retrospect. The man rarely uses it. Yuuri’s only ever seen Maia watching the TV, and when Victor’s in the front room, he’s usually either busy in the kitchen or sitting on the floor with his daughter. Even Makka seems to prefer the floor over that couch.

After tossing his trash and washing his spoon, Yuuri decides to go back to his room anyway. At least his laptop has Netflix. He pads up the stairs, Makka trailing after him like a shadow since he’s the only one home to pet her, and stops on the second floor to peek in Maia’s rooms. The playroom is tidy, but there’s a blanket on the floor in her bedroom along with a couple pieces of clothing that didn’t make the hamper. Yuuri folds the blanket onto the bed and drops the dirty clothes in the laundry bin. It’s not full enough for a wash yet, so he leaves it.

Closing the door as he leaves, Yuuri’s eyes naturally fall on the two other doors across the stairs.

Victor’s rooms. Yuuri still hasn’t gotten so much as a glimpse inside. It’s like a strange form of slow torture to his fanboy side.

What has the man got in there? His trophies? His old costumes? What if he, too, has his walls covered in posters of other skaters?

What if he has posters of Yuuri?

Yuuri shakes his head, shaming himself for even momentarily considering that. Victor clearly had no idea Yuuri was a competitive skater when he was hired, and that makes sense. Victor had retired a world champion at a time when Yuuri was still a dime-a-dozen junior skater.

Hesitating at the steps, Yuuri looks at the two doors again, as if he might be able to see right through the wood if only he stares long enough. Victor is an Olympic gold medalist, and yet nowhere downstairs is there a single photo, newspaper clipping, or medal. Yuuri’s room back in Japan could double as a shrine to Victor Nikiforov’s career, but here in the man’s own home, there isn’t so much as a hint of what he achieved.

Just once, Yuuri wants to touch Olympic gold, even now that it can never be his. Victor said the room was off-limits, but… Surely he’ll never know the difference if Yuuri only looks for a minute?

Although he knows the house is empty, Yuuri still tiptoes across the floor, watching out for squeaky boards. He’s a child again, sneaking into the kitchen cabinet to search for the sweets he knows his mama hides on the top shelf.

He goes to the office first, almost jumping at the cold shock of the brass knob beneath his hand. He turns it slowly, so slowly—

It catches. Locked. Yuuri lets out a quick breath in frustration and walks a bit quicker to the bedroom door to try the same.

It’s latched as well.

Yuuri feels a stab of annoyance. Even though Victor hired him to watch his only child, he trusts Yuuri so little.

Then again… Yuuri shakes his head, letting his hand fall away from the doorknob. He did just prove that Victor’s right not to trust him. There are only two rooms in the house Yuuri isn’t welcome in, and he tried to sneak into both at the first chance he got. He turns to find Makkachin watching him, her big brown eyes deep and calm.

“If you could talk,” Yuuri asks her. “Would you give me some answers?” Makka wags her tail slowly, and her tongue flops out of her mouth. Yuuri shakes his head. “You’d just tattle on me, wouldn't you?” He reaches out and scritches her head. “You’re too good, girl.”

It’s strange, touching Makkachin and knowing Vicchan is gone. As a kid, he’d daydreamed that someday they’d get to play together, once Yuuri and Victor became friends. Now, Yuuri gets to pet and walk and clean up after the dog that inspired him to get his own poodle, but Vicchan will never get to see it.

He gives Makka a final pat and then climbs the stairs up to his own room. His laptop is out on the bed, and when he opens the top a red light flashes, angry. He must have forgotten to plug it in this morning. He puts it on the charger and takes out his phone while the computer slowly revives.

There’s a missed call and an unread message, and Yuuri’s stomach drops at the notification. Does Victor somehow know what he did? Yuuri chews his lip, his thumb hovering over the screen. He’d read online before he started that some families install hidden cameras to spy on their nannies. Yuuri’s never seen anything that looks like a hidden camera in the house, but it could still be there.

He opens the notification like ripping a band-aid and squints down at the screen, then releases the breath he was holding in a whoosh. The messages aren’t from Victor, but Phichit.

Let me know you aren’t murdered, the text says, and Yuuri rolls his eyes. Phichit knows full well that Yuuri’s not dead—not unless it’s his ghost who’s been watering Phichit’s crops in Stardew Valley.

Yuuri opens the recent calls, then hesitates with his finger hovering over Phichit’s name. It would be nice to hear his friend’s voice, but it’s also going to be a challenge. He’ll have to talk to Phichit without telling him about Victor. Yuuri knows Phichit far too well, and Phichit can sniff out a secret with more success than a trained police dog. If Yuuri gets evasive about his employer, Phichit is sure to pounce.

He decides to text back instead. Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. As soon as he hits send, the phone begins to vibrate in his hand. On autopilot, Yuuri accepts.

“I’m sorry,” Phichit says, sounding perky as ever through the phone speaker. “But if this is Yuuri’s kidnapper, I’m going to need proof of life.”

“I’ll send you a finger in the mail,” Yuuri replies. Accepting his fate, he flops down on his bed and props the phone up on his pillow. “What are you doing?”

“On my way to the gym for off-ice training.” Now that he says that, Yuuri can hear the way his breath puffs against the receiver and the whoosh of displaced air from passing cars on the street beside him. It gives Yuuri a pang of nostalgia he didn’t expect. Two weeks and already he’s homesick for Detroit. “What are you up to? Waist deep in diapers?”

“Maia’s five,” Yuuri points out. “Five year olds don’t wear diapers. But no, I’m on my break, I guess. She’s at preschool for the next few hours.”

“I told you these gigs were cushy,” Phichit says.

Yuuri rolls his eyes. “Cushy” is not the word he’d use. He enjoys Maia, and he can’t complain about having four hours to himself most mornings, but it’s still work, and he often finishes the day not just tired, but emotionally exhausted. “It’s more work that you think,” Yuuri says, and leaves it at that.

“How’s the family? Filthy rich, or just filthy?”

This is the part Yuuri wasn’t looking forward to. He can’t tell Phichit the truth, but he hasn’t prepared a lie. Deflection is probably the best outlet, mixed with a hint of truth. “Rich enough,” Yuuri says. “But not like, limo drivers and caviar rich.”

“What are they like?” Phichit asks.

Yuuri considers what to say. He settles on, “Nice.” Then, he adds, “The dad, he’s very involved. He’s out of the house or busy quite a bit, but every time he’s home, he’s with his daughter. Sometimes it feels like they don’t even need me, so I start to wonder… why I’m even here?”

“That sounds like good parenting to me. What’s the other parent like?”

“Just the one.” And it’s Victor fucking Nikiforov, Yuuri’s brain screams. God, he wants to tell Phichit. It’s the sort of gossip his friend would live for, and he knows that Phichit can keep his mouth shut—he’s been the sole witness to several of Yuuri’s drunken mistakes, and none of those have ever appeared on the figure skating blogs. But Victor had been pretty explicit about the whole privacy thing, and Yuuri already tried to violate his trust once today.

“Oooooh,” Phichit says. “Single dad! Is he hot?”

Yuuri didn’t know it was possible to hear someone wiggle their eyebrows through the phone. His face heats, and he rolls on his stomach to hide in his pillow, even though Phichit can’t see it. Phichit has no idea. “Yes,” he mutters into the fabric, then moves the phone away from his ear to deflect the high-pitched noise Phichit makes in response.

“Oh my god,” Phichit coos. “This is totally a 90’s sitcom. Or a romance novel.”

“Phichit, no. He’s my boss.” It’s good to talk about this, but they’re also starting to swerve off the road here. If he lets Phichit keep going, he’s going to ask questions Yuuri can’t answer. “Can we talk about something else? How’s training? How’s the rink?”

“I thought you were trying to get away from skating,” Phichit teases. Fat chance of that, Yuuri thinks. “It’s good. I’m trying to get a second quad, but I’m not landing anything reliably yet. Ciao-Ciao doesn’t think I’ll have it in time for the Grand Prix, but maybe for Worlds?” He breaks off on a sigh. “I hope.”

“You’ve got this,” Yuuri promises. He means it. Phichit’s already miles ahead of where anyone had expected a skater from Thailand to be. If anyone can continue to defy the odds and make those jumps, it’s Phichit. Yuuri’s only a little bit biased.

“You’ll have to come cheer me on at one of the events. I need all the support I can get with all the craziness coming up this year. That Russian junior is moving up, even though he’s only fifteen, and they say he’s got like, three quads already.” Phichit sighs. “How are any of us supposed to compete with a child throwing quads like they’re candy at Mardi Gras?”

Yuuri frowns. “What junior?” He never really watched the junior competitions, not unless a kid at his rink was competing and asked for his help. He can’t recall anyone on the Russian team standing out, after Victor.

“It’s another Yuri, actually—Yuri Plisetsky.” The name doesn’t ring a bell. Then, Phichit makes a startled noise into the phone. “That reminds me. I’m getting to the gym now, but Plisetsky did an interview the other day that I think you should see.” He laughs lightly, humorless. “For one thing, it’ll show you why I’m so intimidated by a child. I’ll text you a link.”

“Sounds good.” Yuuri flops back onto his back, blinking at the ceiling. “Good luck in training today.”

“Thanks. Enjoy your break from diapers or whatever it is you do now. And call me again soon, okay?” In the background, Yuuri can hear the clang of weights dropping against the mats as Phichit steps inside the gym. “Don’t make me harass you every time.”

“I will,” Yuuri vows.

He disconnects the call feeling… better. Not being able to tell Phichit the truth is frustrating, but it wasn’t as hard as he expected it to be. Maybe with time and trust, Victor will revise the rules, and Yuuri won’t need to worry about it so much.

The phone vibrates in his hand—the text message Phichit promised, with a YouTube link. Yuuri clicks it and turns the screen sideways, for a better view.

A blond boy with fierce green eyes fills the screen. He looks tiny—way too young to be competing in the senior Grand Prix series—but determined. The interview is in Russian, but some enterprising fan has translated it and added English captions.

It’s… fine. Plisetsky is terse, but comes off more as a moody teenager than a terrifying monster, as the interviewer filters through typical questions about things like training hours and choreography on his debut season programs.

“Many have wondered, how do you live up to Russian legends like Plushenko and Nikiforov?” The interviewer pries as they all do, pushing his microphone into the boy’s face. “Do you struggle, falling in the shadows of these men?”

Abruptly, color suffuses Plisetsky’s face, and his shoulders rise to meet his ears. His arm snaps out, and he pulls the microphone from the reporter’s hand. “Victor Nikiforov is dead,” he growls into the mic. “My goal this season is to shatter every record that person ever held, so no one will ever ask me about that has-been again.”

The interviewer stutters and fumbles to reclaim his mic, and Yuuri pauses the video. There’s only about a minute left, and he’s seen what Phichit intended.

That was intense, he texts Phichit. He set the bar high.

Yeah
He’s terrifying
Also, that interview spawned a bunch of new rumors online that Victor IS actually dead. So that’s fun.

That’s nothing new, Yuuri texts back. Those have been floating around the skating forums for a few years now, after Victor became such a recluse. When he’d retired, fans had expected him to start coaching, modeling, or something along those lines. The silence had been… disturbing. Victor’s rumored death wasn’t even that interesting, as far as conspiracy theories were concerned. Yuuri preferred the claim that Victor had never existed and was, in fact, a hologram, like the Hatsune Miku of figure skating.

Do you think it could be true?

Phichit’s question blinks up at Yuuri, stark text on a white screen.

No, he types back. Victor isn’t dead.

Of course, he can’t explain to Phichit why he remains so certain.

Chapter Text

It’s a grey early November morning, and Maia is especially quiet. The cold air hangs heavy all around them on the walk to school, muffling Yuuri like a scarf, but Maia’s small hand is warm in his own. She shuffles her feet on the sidewalk, kicking up the skeletons of leaves that have been dead for weeks, and says nothing.

Yuuri can’t blame her for being reticent today. He doesn’t need to read the barometer to know there’s a low pressure system hanging over the city—he feels it in his bones, and it makes him sleepy and slow, even after caffeine.

Only when they approach the school does Yuuri begin to suspect that something is afoot beyond the weather. As they reach the end of the sidewalk and get within sight of the other kids on the playground, Maia’s grip on his hand tightens, tugging at him when she plants her heels, balking like a mule.

“What’s wrong? Are you feeling sick?” Victor had done Maia’s hair this morning, carefully curling the strands into pretty ringlets that fall across her little shoulders, and beneath the burgundy wool beret she’s wearing, her face is solemn like a small adult as she shakes her head. Yuuri gets down, kneeling on the sidewalk so they’re at the same height, ignoring the scrape of concrete on the knees of his jeans.

“What’s up?” Yuuri prompts her, gently, once more. Quiet is normal, but something is off.

“I don’t want to go to school,” she whispers, her deep brown eyes full of sadness. “I want to stay with you today. Please?”

She’s always a polite kid, but like most five year-olds, usually needs prompting to remember to “ask nicely.” If she’s using ‘please’ on her own, it must be serious.

“Why don’t you want to go to school?” Yuuri asks. Maia is silent, and Yuuri chews his lip, thinking. “I can’t try to help if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”

But Maia only shrugs, and Yuuri squashes a stab of frustration. In the playground, the other kids are lining up to file inside. It’s time for the day to begin, and Yuuri glances at his phone. They’re two minutes late for drop-off already.

“If you’re not sick, you should go to school,” Yuuri says, remembering his parents’ lessons. Although he’d never been the sort to avoid class as a kid, Mari certainly had. Yuuri looked up to his big sister, but in retrospect she was half feral in a lot of ways, and she always believed she had better things to do than sit through hours of lessons. Though his parents were no disciplinarians, they’d often had to draw a hard line with their oldest on school attendance.

Maia still doesn’t answer, only looking down at the pavement under her feet and the scuffed toes of her little black boots, and Yuuri sighs. He stands back up and gives the girl a little push on her shoulder.

She walks with him to the door, but her eyes remain downcast, and when they reach the end of the sidewalk, she hesitates again. For a second, Yuuri thinks maybe she’ll say something this time.

He’s torn. He can tell something is off, but has no idea what it could be. He doesn’t want to force Maia to do something she doesn’t want to, but on the other hand—it’s school. Like eating her carrots at dinner, it’s something that’s good for her, even if she doesn’t understand that yet.

Without another word, Maia jogs up the steps, running for the front door, and leaves Yuuri behind, his voice falling flat as he calls out “Have a nice day!” at her disappearing beret.

It’s cold enough out that Yuuri’s fingers are beginning to go numb. He jams his hands in his jacket pockets as he walks and mentally questions his decision to move here. Chicago winter is coming soon, and though it’s not much different from Detroit, he’s heard some horror stories already. Winters in Chicago can be colder than Siberia, buried in feet of crisp lake effect snow, and he’s not sure he’s ready for that experience.

His first paychecks from Victor went almost entirely to his parents—either deposited straight in their accounts, or siphoned into the onsen via his sister—but now he has more freedom with his own money. He set some aside in savings and earmarked a bit more to supplement his wardrobe with heavier winter clothes, but for the first time since he moved, Yuuri’s finding himself with money left over even after all his costs are sorted.

It’s amazing the difference not having skating fees can make.

Simply because he can, Yuuri swerves onto a side street on his way back to the house. There’s a ritzy coffee shop he found a couple blocks over. It’s the sort of place he wouldn’t even have studied at during college, for fear they’d kick him out when he didn’t order anything more than water, but now that he’s getting paid and isn’t on an athlete’s diet, he can splurge on a four dollar coffee with caramel drizzle.

The coffee won’t last him as long as a pair of gloves would, but it does just as good of a job at warming his fingers and his belly besides. He even tips the baristas the extra dollar from his five without a twinge of loss.

Without the chill to distract him, the walk back to the townhouse is more pleasant, and Yuuri eyes the other homes in the neighborhood, wondering how much they cost. Do they look similar to Victor’s home on the interior? Most of them also look like they’ve been remodeled recently. He’s seen a few For Sale signs pop up since he moved in, but they never seem to stay up for long.

By the time Yuuri arrives back at the house, it’s pressing in on ten o’clock, and he’s not sure where that hour of his life flew off to. A few months ago, he would have been rushing around at this time of day, trying to balance training commitments with work and his studies. This the first time Yuuri has been able to live life at a sedate pace in years—possibly ever.

When he reaches the door, he finds it unlocked. That’s odd—Victor must be home still. Yuuri steps inside, shutting the door behind him, and nearly drops his fancy coffee when he turns and comes face to face with Victor’s bare chest.

“Ah, there you are,” Victor says—blithe, as though it’s an everyday occurrence for Yuuri to walk in the front door and find him half-dressed. His eyes fall on the cup in Yuuri’s hand and his shoulders drop, an action made very visible by the flex and turn of his prominent collarbones.

Yuuri averts his eyes and tries to take deep breaths, hoping it will make the heat in his cheeks fade more quickly. He’s seen Victor shirtless before, but that was in magazines, not in his living room. It’s very different. “Were you, uh— Were you looking for me?”

“Maia’s school called.”

Yuuri’s eyes snap back to Victor, impropriety be damned. “Is everything okay?” And seventy-five percent of Yuuri’s brain is definitely focused on concern about genuine risk to Maia, but the other twenty-five percent is nonetheless distracted by the fact that, five years after retirement, Victor Nikiforov still has abs many men would kill for. Or die for. Yuuri falls more into column two.

Victor shrugs into a pale pink button-down shirt, and Yuuri tries hard not to be visibly disappointed by that. “Her teacher wants me to come in for a parent-teacher conference during nap time, so I’ll be walking in with you at twelve.” Victor pauses, his fingers still lingering over the last few buttons, and frowns. “Do you have any idea what this is about?”

“Me?” Yuuri shakes his head no, then reconsiders. His stomach twists, remembering Maia’s hesitation on the sidewalk. “Oh no,” he says softly.

“What?” Victor’s hands drop. He dips his head, his teal blue eyes searching Yuuri’s face for hints. “What is it?”

Yuuri bites his lip. “Maia didn’t want to go to school this morning,” he admits. “She’s normally so good about it, but today she asked me to stay home instead, and I— I thought she just wanted to come home and play instead. I told her she needed to go unless she was sick.”

To Yuuri’s surprise, Victor’s mouth twitches—the ghost of a smile. “Oh, Yuuri,” he says. “Do you think I’m going to be upset with you about that?”

Yuuri shrugs, but relief loosens something in his chest. “I don’t know. It could be… I knew it wasn’t normal for Maia to try to get out of school. I should have listened.”

“No.” Victor shakes his head and finishes buttoning the shirt, leaving the last few open at the throat. “Most children don’t want to go to school every day, for no reason at all. I would have done the same thing.”

“Really?” Yuuri wants to ask about Victor, now. Did Victor also try to escape classrooms as a child? What about training? Yuuri can remember seeing videos of Victor in his novice days. Even as a child he was determined, already dedicated to a career that most novice skaters would never achieve. In retrospect, he can see how active Victor was as a teenager. That explosion of energy must have been hard to contain in a desk.

“Well,” Victor has the grace to look somewhat shame-faced. “I do tend to indulge her. I might have let her come home, actually. But your choice was probably the better one.”

A hand settles on Yuuri’s shoulder, warm and heavy and shocking. It’s only a moment, and then it’s gone, but Yuuri can still feel the imprint beneath his coat and shirt. Victor’s never touched him before.

“I’m going to get some work done in my office,” Victor says. Is it the morning light peeking through the windows, or does Victor look a bit pink? He jams the hand that had rested on Yuuri’s shoulder into the pocket of his jeans. “Knock if I’m not out by noon? Otherwise I may get wrapped up in something and forget.”

Yuuri tries to swallow the lump in his throat enough to reply. “Sure,” he says. “I’ll set an alarm.”

The feeling of Victor’s hand still looms on his shoulder even as Victor himself climbs the stairs alone.

As Yuuri continues to work here, he consistently unlocks new achievements in surrealism. Today’s trophy: walking side by side with Victor Nikiforov on a rainy autumn afternoon, sharing a single oversized black umbrella because Yuuri forgot his, on their way to pick up Victor’s daughter from school.

How has this become his life?

Due to the lousy weather, there are no other parents on the sidewalk this afternoon. Victor provides an auditory tour of the neighborhood as they go, occasionally pointing out houses where he happens to know the residents, or which street corners the ice cream carts will set up at during the summer.

“I probably wouldn’t have chosen this neighborhood to live in,” Victor muses, after pointing out the Little Free Library in the park, which Yuuri already takes advantage of regularly. “I prefer something closer to the action. But this is convenient to good schools and such.”

The comment strikes Yuuri off guard. “You didn’t choose to live here? I thought you owned the house.”

“I do. I do,” Victor assures him, flapping his hand in the air. “But I didn’t buy it. It was inherited.”

“Inherited from who?” Yuuri asks, but Victor doesn’t hear him, his attention caught by a tiny dog that runs up to the fence in someone’s front garden, yapping ferociously at both of them. To Yuuri’s horror, Victor barks back.

Never meet your idol, Yuuri thinks. Or you’ll find out he does a bad impersonation of a shih-tzu.

The school is quiet when they arrive. Lunch has just ended and nap time is taking its place, so the only noise in the building is the muffled sound of classical music, lullabies, or whale song emanating from different classrooms.

Ms. Driscoll meets them just inside the door with a close-lipped smile and one hand resting on Maia’s shoulder. As soon as Maia sees them, she tears away from the teacher and runs down the hall, ignoring her teacher’s protests to jump into Victor’s arms.

Victor holds her close, burying his face in her hair, and Maia’s little hands cling to his neck. It makes Yuuri’s heart ache. The two of them are so attached, but he’s never seen them velcro to one another quite this tightly.

“It’s good to see you again, Mr. Nikiforov,” Driscoll says. She sounds much too perky for someone who just finished lunch.

With a last squeeze, Victor lets go of Maia and stands. Driscoll has her hand out to greet him, but before Victor can reach out, Maia slides her hand into Victor’s instead. When she reaches out with the other hand to hold Yuuri’s as well, the teacher’s smile tightens.

“What can I do for you, Katie?” Victor asks, smiling down at his daughter. Yuuri has to bite his lip to keep from laughing. He’s not sure if Victor messed up the woman’s name on purpose or if he genuinely forgot it’s Cathy, but either way the startled look on the teacher’s face is classic.

To her credit, she recovers smoothly. “Why don’t we step into the office to talk? I don’t want to disturb any of the nappers.” Driscoll leads the way down the hall, her kitten heels clicking on the grey tile floors. The office she brings them to is simple—generic, kid-friendly posters on the walls and not much by way of personal touches. There’s a metal cabinet in the back that's overflowing with papers and files, and a corner of floor near it with a few small toys and books.

Victor leans over to stroke Maia’s hair. “Why don’t you go play, Myshka? We’re going to talk over here.”

Maia nods and skips off across the room as Victor and Yuuri settle into a pair of leather-padded wooden chairs and Driscoll sits on the other side of a nondescript IKEA desk, folding her arms over the top. She keeps shooting glances toward Yuuri, as if she isn’t convinced he belongs in this conversation.

There’s a nasty little imp on his shoulder that urges him to reach out and take Victor’s hand without Maia between them, just to see how Driscoll would react, but Yuuri bats the impulse away. He can’t blame the teacher if she has a bit of a crush on Victor, really—who wouldn’t? Besides, if he tried and Victor didn’t go along with the joke, it would open a whole new controversy.

“Has Maia said anything to either of you about friends at school?” The teacher asks. “Or about our holiday art projects?”

Victor and Yuuri both glance over at each other, conferring without words. Maia doesn’t usually talk much about school in the evenings, and she hasn’t said anything specific about the holidays. “No,” Victor answers for them.

“The children are making custom plates as a holiday gift for their families.” Ms. Driscoll smiles, leaning forward eagerly as she explains the project. “Each student gets a special piece of paper to draw on, and they create whatever they like. It’s really cute, and a lot of parents keep the plates to use each year.”

She sits back, folding her hands on top of the desk as her smile slips away. “When Maia completed her artwork, there were some… issues.”

Victor glances back over his shoulder to check on Maia’s reaction, but she’s quietly coloring at a small table in the corner, seemingly oblivious to their conversation. He lowers his voice anyway. “What sort of issues?”

“Maia’s quite a good little artist for her age, but when most of the children drew their families, it was…” Driscoll hesitates, then sets her shoulders and goes on, “It was noticeable to some of the other children that Maia only drew one parent and a dog. Braeden tried to be helpful by suggesting that Maia should also draw her mommy.” At the word, the temperature in the room drops ten degrees. Though Yuuri and Victor are seated a foot apart, Yuuri can feel him tense up.

“Maia got quite distressed,” the teacher continues, seemingly oblivious to the change in the air. “She raised her voice, struck Braeden on the arm, then began to cry. The two of them had to be separated.” Driscoll glances at Yuuri before turning her focus back to Victor. “Obviously it’s not my place to get involved in the situation, but you might want to talk to Maia about her mother more. She seems to be confused.”

“You’re right,” Victor says, in a voice like Siberia. “It’s not your place.”

And yet, Driscoll presses on. “I understand the topic may not be comfortable—”

“We will not be discussing Maia’s mother,” Victor says, rising abruptly from his chair. “Not today, not tomorrow, and not at any time going forward. My personal life is none of your business.” Yuuri quickly stands as well, in solidarity. The teacher looks so startled by his pronouncement that Yuuri almost feels sorry for her. She opens her mouth again, but before she can speak, Victor adds, “This is final.”

He crosses the room in a few short strides, leaving Yuuri briefly unsure where he fits, dithering by the desk. Victor holds a hand out to Maia, and she folds up her drawing, sticks it into the pocket of Victor’s grey slacks, and then slides her hand into his.

Victor turns back to Ms. Driscoll and nods for Yuuri to join him. “We’ll be leaving now,” he says. “Going forward, Carla, I’d suggest you spend a bit more time talking with your students about non-traditional families, or I’ll be speaking with Principal Hughes about any further issues we have with bullying.”

Driscoll looks pale, twisting her hands in front of her as she stands and nods. She starts toward the door, but Yuuri blocks her with a raised hand. “We’ll see ourselves out,” he says, “thanks.”

Victor shoots him a sharp look as they enter the hall, but the corner of his mouth twitches upward. For the first time since he started this job, Yuuri gets the distinct feeling that they’re operating as a team. He has Victor’s back—always—and Maia’s as well.

Heading out, Maia takes Yuuri’s hand again, so the three of them are bound together by this one little person in the center—a little person who, as they step outside, raises her head to look at Victor and asks, “Are you surprised?”

On the concrete steps, Victor stops, tilting his head toward her. “Surprised by what, Mashka?”

“My plate,” Maia scowls. “Ms. Driscoll spoiled it, and it was for your birthday.”

Slowly, Victor smiles. “Don’t worry. I’m sure I’ll still be very surprised. I haven’t actually seen it yet.” When Maia’s frown doesn’t dissipate, he glances up at Yuuri and adds, “Maybe Yuuri can help you make something else to go with the plate? Something that will still be a surprise.”

“Of course.” Yuuri squeezes the girl’s hand a little, encouraging. “We’ve still got loads of time to plan before Christmas.”

A shadow crosses Victor’s face, then just as quickly vanishes, and he’s back to the same smooth, chipper tone. “See? Plenty of time!” At that, Victor looks down at his watch, and his smile tightens. “Speaking of, I’m afraid I need to hurry back to take another meeting. Yuuri, can you take Maia somewhere to play for a bit?”

“You won’t come too?” Maia asks, but Victor only shakes his head sadly.

“Sorry, Mashka. Another time.” He reaches down and tousels her hair until she shrugs away, and he smiles. “I’ll see you both at home very soon. Have a good time in the park!” With a parting wave to them both, Victor strides off down the block.

There’s a park just around the corner, between the house and the school. Yuuri’s taken Maia there a few times before, but she never seemed to enjoy herself that much. In the lunch hour, the park is nearly deserted, with only a few young moms and nannies with strollers hanging around. Most of the kids out at this time of day are infants or toddlers being worn out for naps, and Maia’s never shown much interest in younger kids.

Once they’re through the gate, Maia dashes right by the playset and heads straight for the sandbox. Someone’s left a bunch of bright-colored plastic building toys unattended, and she immediately takes custody. Yuuri glances around to see if any of the other adults or kids seem upset by that, but no one is giving him the evil eye, so it must be okay.

Yuuri flops down cross-legged in the sand next to her. Often, with play, Yuuri struggles to connect with Maia’s imagination or make sense of her rules. It’s frustrating. He knows that as a kid, it all would have made perfect sense, but trying to reach for that is like banging against a locked door in his own head. However, when it comes to building things in the sand, Yuuri is a whiz.

If only there was a career to be found in digging moats and constructing tiny castles.

“How was school?” Yuuri asks, as he always does, keeping his tone light. He knows Maia probably won’t say anything about the incident, but it’s worth a try.

She shrugs. “We did colors today. Blue and red make purple, but I knew that. I’ve got paints. And Troy tried to invent a new color, but it just made black.” Maia peers up at Yuuri through her wispy bangs. “Why’s everything always make black?”

They chat about colors for a bit—art is always Maia’s favorite topic—and then lapse back into silence, other than tips on sand building. The castle is slowly coming together. It’s got a pair of wide, fat towers courtesy of the toys Maia found, and a dumpy-looking mound for a middle, but the moat has islands.

Yuuri’s looking around for some sticks or something to make a drawbridge, when Maia speaks up again. “Did you know my mommy?”

Yuuri freezes. Damn. Why did Victor have to leave them alone after that conversation? Yuuri has no idea what to say. “No.” He settles on keeping things simple. “I never met her.” He doesn’t even know her name, only that she was Japanese, and that she died. Yuuri spent a few solid hours scouring the old gossip blogs after moving in, but he’s never turned up so much as a whisper. “Do you remember her?”

Maia shakes her head. “I don’t think I knew her either.”

Ouch. That hurts.

How old was Maia when her mother died? Had Victor retired to raise his daughter, or was it only her mother’s death that prompted him to quit skating? Yuuri has even more questions than Maia, but no answers to give.

They build a masterful sand castle, and Yuuri takes a selfie of them with the completed structure in the background. In no time after they leave, some three year old tornado will probably blast through the park and kick their work to smithereens. It deserves a memorial. He hesitates over the photo, then texts it to not only Victor, but his mother, knowing it will make her smile. Technically it’s not violating his contract, right? It’s not like his mama knows who Yuuri is working for.

Yuuri’s phone beeps with an incoming message—it’s Victor, with a long string of heart-eyed emojis. Yuuri feels his cheeks heat and hides a smile. Maia looks like an angel in the photo, with her wide, dark eyes, and Victor’s a proud papa any chance he gets.

When they arrive back at the house, Maia kicks her shoes off and ditches her backpack by the door before running into the living room, skidding on the hardwoods in her little pink socks. It’s a few minutes past two, and Yuuri walks in expecting to find Victor already hovering in the foyer waiting for them, but the house is strangely silent.

Yuuri stoops to straighten Maia’s shoes and hang up her bag, then nearly drops the backpack in shock when a sudden burst of yelling explodes from upstairs. Victor is shouting at someone in Russian, loud enough to carry. It sounds harsh and angry, but then—that’s Russian. Yuuri’s own attempts to learn the language still haven’t progressed much beyond polite phrases and basic counting, so whatever Victor’s on about, it’s beyond Yuuri’s ability to understand.

Maia’s waiting in the doorway when he turns around, frowning up the staircase with one hand anchored on Makkachin’s back. “Who’s Papa yelling at?” she asks.

“I don’t know,” Yuuri admits. It’s tempting to ask her to translate, but then—god only knows what Victor could be saying. Some things are better off not coming from the mouths of babes. Instead, Yuuri goes to meet her, gently guiding her away with a hand on her shoulder. “Let’s not bother him right now. Do you want to watch some cartoons?”

Maia nods eagerly. She’s not obsessed with videos like some little kids Yuuri’s met, but once the TV is on, she glues herself to it like any other child. Yuuri turns on the big screen and finds Cartoon Network as she settles in cross-legged on the rug by her crayons. There’s an episode of Steven Universe on. It’s a rerun—Yuuri’s seen the whole series so far at Phichit’s urging—but it’s the one that reveals Garnet’s origins for the first time, which is still one of the best. Yuuri drifts into the kitchen, intending to put up the clean dishes, but soon he gets sucked into the show too.

When Victor comes downstairs, he finds Yuuri leaning on the counter, chin propped up in his hands, mouthing along with “Something Entirely New.” Yuuri pops up as Victor enters, flushing slightly at being caught, but Victor looks calm and collected as always, a soft navy cardigan draped over his crisp pink shirt. He smiles and bends to press a kiss at the peak of Maia’s head.

“How was the park?” he asks.

“Good,” Maia says, eyes still affixed to the television. Victor shoots Yuuri an amused look with a wry twist to his lips.

“It was pretty empty,” Yuuri offers. “We built the sand castle and that was about it.”

“And what a sand castle! Who knew you were such a fine architect, Yuuri?” Victor grins, leaning back against the kitchen counter beside him. Yuuri ducks his head to avoid Victor’s gaze. He knows the other man is only teasing—he’s always been a flirt in interviews—but it’s still difficult for Yuuri to juggle his long-term admiration of Victor while being the target of these comments. He’s working on it.

The cartoon breaks for commercial, and Maia looks back over her shoulder long enough to say, “I’m hungry,” before she gets sucked back in, lured by the lights and sounds of an advertisement for a new game.

Victor laughs softly and tilts his head to look at Yuuri. His eyes sparkle as he quietly says, “Children—so direct, hm?” as if he and Yuuri are sharing a private joke. Yuuri nods, but can’t get his tongue to work up a verbal response. Thankfully, Victor doesn’t notice, tapping a finger on the tip of his chin as he thinks. His amused look spreads to a slow grin. “Actually, I’m a bit hungry myself. I’m afraid I may have forgotten to eat lunch. Help me whip up a snack?”

“Sure,” Yuuri says. His mother’s voice nudges at the back of his skull, wanting to scold Victor for working too hard and not taking care of himself, but Yuuri doesn’t have much space to throw stones there.

He waits as Victor digs through the fridge for options, trying not to notice the way his hips sway as he hums along to the theme song playing in the living room during his search. Yuuri’s life is so cursed. Once again, he wonders who he pissed off to deserve a punishment like this one—trapped only a few feet away from his idol and teenage crush all day, every day.

Victor is a pretty good cook, which Yuuri had found surprising when he first moved in. While Yuuri fixes his own meals most of the time and often makes lunches and snacks for Maia, Victor frequently beats him to the punch.

He seems at home in the kitchen, a small smile playing over his lips as he arranges the ingredients on the counter and goes digging for utensils for both of them. It’s enough to prod at Yuuri’s curiosity.

“Who taught you to cook?” he asks.

Victor pauses, and his eyes empty for a moment, as if he’s not sure of the answer. Then, he shakes his head, returning to the moment as he passes Yuuri a bag of carrots and the peeler. “My mother, I guess,” Victor says, with a breathy laugh. “At least, she tried. I remember standing on a stool in the kitchen as a kid, watching her work, helping to crack eggs and mix flour. But then, as I got older, my interests shifted.

“I wasn’t much of a cook until Maia came along,” he admits with a little shrug. “I ate what the nutritionist said to eat and didn’t bother to experiment. Having someone else to feed changed all that.”

As Victor talks about Maia, his face softens, his hands careful as he lays out knives and cutting boards with reverence. Underneath it all, there’s a sadness. Yuuri wonders if Victor misses his mother, like Yuuri does, or if he’s thinking of someone else.

“My mama is a wonderful cook,” Yuuri says. “She taught me a lot, but… I get what you mean. I’ve never had much motivation to make food if it was just for me. There’s something different about making a meal you want to share.”

Victor’s smile is bright as he nods. “Yes, exactly.”

In the living room, Maia giggles as Lion appears on the TV screen. There’s something about a fluffy, bubblegum pink lion that no one can resist, apparently. Yuuri reaches out to trade his peeler for a knife, and his fingertips brush warm skin.

He pulls back quickly, flushed, and looks away, but not so quickly he doesn’t notice the matching rosy tinge on the bridge of Victor’s nose. “Ah,” Yuuri stutters. “Sorry. I’ll find another knife.”

If Victor replies, Yuuri can’t hear him—too distracted by the ghost sensation of Victor’s paper-thin skin still gracing his own fingers.

Chapter Text

Yuuri can’t help being even more aware of Maia than usual as they walk to school the following morning. After the conversation they had with her teacher, he’s on high alert for any signs that Maia is uncomfortable with her school or her classmates, but her mood this morning is bright. She hangs on Yuuri’s hand and kicks her legs out as she walks, crunching the crisp leaves under her boots. The wind has a sharp bite to it where it finds skin, but the sun is shining in a cloudless sky. It’s the kind of day that looks lovely until you open a window and feel the snap of cold on your face.

Maia does seem quieter and more subdued on the last half-block leading up to the school, but she doesn’t stop at any point, and she doesn’t beg Yuuri to stay home. If she did that again, he’d probably let her. He can picture himself bundling her up tighter in her bright red coat and the gold-striped, oversized scarf she borrowed from Victor. Yuuri would carry her all the way back at the slightest hint if he needed to, but she doesn’t ask, and he doesn’t offer.

Despite the strained meeting they had yesterday, Ms. Driscoll smiles brightly at Maia and waves as she trots up the sidewalk. “Good morning,” she chirps, then glances down at a watch. “You’re a few minutes early today! Do you want to go out on the playground with the others?”

Maia nods, and Driscoll opens the chain link gate to allow her inside. Her patent leather shoes tap on the blacktop as she runs in, and, after a pause to look around, Maia dashes over to a small cluster of four other girls.

Yuuri leans on the fence and watches with a smile as she approaches them, noting that the curly-haired little girl he noticed from his first day is in the group. His smile fades, though, as Maia’s shoulders slump. Another girl—petite, blonde, wearing a kitten sweater and no coat—is shaking her head. As Yuuri looks on from the sidelines, the girls close ranks, and Maia slinks away, alone, to sit on the ground beneath a tree.

A steady pain in his hands pulls Yuuri back to his own side of the fence. He’s gripping the fence post with both hands, and the wires have started to dig into his palms, along with the bitter cold of the metal nipping at his fingertips. He unclenches his hands and pulls back.

Beside him, Driscoll pops a whistle into her mouth and blows out a sharp burst. “Five minutes to inside time!” she yells.

Yuuri looks again at Maia, who’s now sitting cross-legged, picking at the grass around her and pulling apart the blades with her fingernails. It’s a strikingly familiar scene. Fifteen years ago, it could have been Yuuri doing the same thing, pulling up weeds in a schoolyard on his own.

He nods to Driscoll in acknowledgement and pulls his jacket more tightly closed as he turns back toward the townhouse. He should probably have worn a scarf too, but he hasn’t had his winter things shipped to Chicago just yet, and he didn’t feel right to borrow something of Victor’s.

Alone for the walk back, Yuuri can’t stop thinking of the way Maia slumped in defeat when the other girls turned her away. For Yuuri, it was never quite like that. No one ever made him feel he wasn’t wanted, or told him to leave, but the effect had been the same. He kept to himself, hesitant to even try from the beginning. Through his school years, the only other child he ever connected with was Yuuko, and they were in different grades.

He’d spent so much time alone in school. At the time, it had felt inevitable, but watching it happen now, with Maia, he wonders if there’s some way to intervene.

Thinking of friends inevitably leads Yuuri around to Phichit, which puts a smile back on Yuuri’s face. Phichit makes friends like breathing, never afraid to stick his neck out and put himself into the world. He’s considerate, but unapologetic about who he is. The first time they’d met, Phichit had basically told Yuuri they’d be best friends and, somehow, that had worked. Yuuri suspects magic.

He jams his hands into the pocket of his coat and fishes out his phone, pulling up Phichit’s contact with number fingers.

How do you make friends with other kids? Yuuri types out, then hits send before he can second-guess himself. Within seconds, his phone begins to ring.

“Are you having trouble making friends with children?” Phichit asks by way of greeting. In the background, Yuuri can hear the rattle of the ancient heating unit in their old apartment, and nostalgia stabs him in the gut. “You should be careful. Their parents might not approve.”

“No,” Yuuri sighs, rolling his eyes. “Obviously not. I was asking about Maia.” He takes a moment to summarize the situation for Phichit, generalizing the story as much as he can—the bullying, her quiet nature, and then the scene he witnessed on the playground this morning. Phichit listens quietly, aside from the clink of metal on metal as he puts dishes away.

“I want to help,” Yuuri explains, “but I’m not sure what to do. Making friends was never my forte.”

“You made me just fine.” Phichit pauses, then there’s a whirr as he turns on the sink disposal. “But okay, I get what you mean.” He hums to himself, considering the problem. “The trick to making friends as a kid is just finding something in common that you both really like, I think. I was one of those kids that was super into monkeys. I started a whole club at my school that was just for being really, really wild about monkeys. Shared obsession goes a long way. What kind of stuff is Maia really into?”

Yuuri takes a moment to think it over. “Art,” he says. “Drawing, coloring, or making bead jewelry. She likes jump rope a lot, but she’s not great at it. I know the thing with girls her age is Barbie and such, but she’s not as much into dolls as she is stuffed animals and dinosaurs.”

“A child after my own heart,” Phichit muses. “She sounds like a fun kid.”

“She is,” Yuuri says, with a pang in his chest. She is, but Yuuri hadn’t really thought before about how attached he’s gotten already. Somehow, talking about her like this drives it home. He’d miss her now, if he had to leave—Maia in particular, not just Victor or Chicago or having a job.

“Kids who get along well with adults can have trouble with other kids,” Phichit says, oblivious to Yuuri’s derailed train of thought. “The stuff that makes a kid likeable to a grown-up is different from what kids look for in friends, but it sounds like Maia has plenty to share with the others. The bead stuff is good. All kids love art and making things like that, I think. Maybe you guys can do something like that with her class?”

“Maybe,” Yuuri says. Up ahead, he can see the Nikiforovs’ dead plant still wilting on the porch and picks up the pace of his steps. “What sort of things?”

Phichit has a couple of suggestions, which he throws out as Yuuri fumbles the key in the lock, but none of it strikes Yuuri as super practical for a class of almost twenty preschoolers. But, what does Yuuri know? He’s clearly no expert on how to socialize. He takes a couple notes on Phichit’s ideas on the little pad of paper that Victor keeps by the refrigerator, then thanks Phichit for his help.

“Any time,” Phichit chirps. “Now—when do you get time off to come for a visit already? I miss your face.”

Yuuri can’t help smiling at that, trapping the phone against his ear with one shoulder as he caps the pen he was using. “Soon, I hope, but I don’t want to distract you in your big season.” Phichit scoffs, but Yuuri chooses to ignore him. “You drew the Cup of China next, right? When do you leave?”

“Wednesday!” Yuuri can hear the excitement threaded through his voice. “I made Ciao-Ciao schedule our tickets earlier for this year so I can have more time to adjust to the time zone.”

“That’s good.” Not that Phichit really needs it. He’s never had the issues that Yuuri does in terms of sleeping or finding energy to compete. Phichit is a perpetual motion machine when he gets to travel somewhere new. “If I don’t talk to you before then, good luck.”

“You better talk to me before then. And you better watch me skate too!”

“Of course,” Yuuri promises, even as he’s wincing, knowing that eleven hour time difference is going to hurt. They finish their last goodbyes so Phichit can head off to training, and Yuuri slips his phone back into his pocket, turning back to the fridge to hunt for a snack.

He finds Victor lurking beside the coffee pot, watching Yuuri with a curious tilt to his head, and almost jumps. How is a man Victor’s height so sneaky? Yuuri can’t even remember hearing him come down stairs.

“You know someone going to the Cup of China this year?” Victor asks.

Yuuri had seen Victor already this morning at breakfast. He’d wandered into the kitchen to find Victor in the midst of making French toast, his silver hair mussed from bed and dressed in nothing more than a pair of low-slung plaid pajama pants and a pair of threadbare, faded poodle slippers. It was an experience. Yuuri’s trying to take it as a good sign—Victor’s gotten comfortable having Yuuri in his home—but if it happens again, he might not survive.

Since then, Victor has thankfully gotten dressed. It’s not a gym day, apparently, because he’s wearing a pair of dark blue jeans and a pressed white shirt, unbuttoned to mid-chest. His feet on the dark hardwood floors are bare. Curiously, his toenails are painted purple.

It’s somehow worse than the pajamas.

Yuuri falls back into the present with a jolt when Victor tilts his head further, awaiting Yuuri’s answer. “Yeah,” he stammers. “Yes. Phichit Chulanont, from Thailand? He— um. He trained at the same rink where I worked in Detroit. We’re friends.”

He can’t say why he doesn’t tell Victor the full story—that they weren’t just friends, but roommates, or that Yuuri hadn’t only worked at the rink, but trained there himself in the past. Maybe he’s just too distracted by Victor’s surprise appearance, or captivated by the sparkling violet shade radiating off Victor’s toes. Either way, Yuuri doesn’t expand on the explanation, and Victor doesn’t press.

Recently, Yuuri’s beginning to catalog Victor’s smiles. There are many, he’s noticed. Some appear often and strike him as familiar—the banal friendliness of the face in Yuuri’s posters—while others pop up only in flashes, fleeting and remarkable, never before seen.

This smile is one of the more common ones, as Victor’s lips sport a wry twist, amusement gathering in the creases at the corners of his eyes. “I’d tell you to wish him luck from me,” Victor says. “But obviously…” He gestures around at the kitchen.

Yuuri gets his meaning. He’s still sworn to secrecy. “I won’t name names,” Yuuri promises. “But I’ll let him know ‘my employer’ is rooting for him.”

“You do that,” Victor says. His smile doesn’t fade as he finishes stirring his coffee, then retreats back upstairs without another word. Only after Yuuri hears the click of the office door closing does he let himself relax, slumping back against the kitchen counters.

Preoccupied with the question of how to help Maia, Yuuri’s few hours of freedom before pick-up fly by. It seems like it’s barely been an hour when the alarm on his phone goes off, screaming at him to get to the school. He leaps up from the sofa and runs into the kitchen, rolling up some lunch meat and cheese to stuff in his mouth since he forgot to eat a proper lunch.

As he slips on his shoes by the front door, Yuuri hears a soft whine and turns to see Makkachin sitting behind him, her tail thumping softly against the floor as she pants. Crap. He forgot to walk Makka too.

He grabs her leash from the hook by the door and clips it on her collar as she wiggles with excitement, dancing beneath his fingers. At least he can kill two birds with one stone by walking Makka over to the school as well.

“Okay, girl,” he says to the dog as he opens the front door. “Let’s go get Maia.” Hearing that, Makka’s ears perk up with attention. It’s the only warning Yuuri gets before she yanks him out the front door.

Despite a few potty breaks on the route, Yuuri makes record time getting to the school, with Makka practically towing him up the couple of small hills on the way. For something less than half Yuuri’s weight, she’s surprisingly strong. Even though he was running a few minutes late getting out the door, he winds up at the school a little early, and all the children are still out on the playground for their post-lunch recess.

A little boy with white-blond hair spots Yuuri before Maia does, and he shrieks out an alert cry of, “Doggy!” across the schoolyard. Within seconds, the fence is lined with little bodies, children’s hands squirming through the gaps in the chain link, trying to reach Makka’s fur.

Makkachin, of course, is overjoyed. She pants her doggy grin as her tail whips back and forth with excitement, even before any of the kids can reach her. In a rare show of confidence, Maia squirms her way through the other kids to reach up over the fence.

“Makkachin is my doggy,” she declares proudly, facing down the others with her hands fisted on her hips and a stern expression.

Most of the other kids take a step back at that. A single voice pipes up from the front—the little girl with the cloud of dark curls from before. “Can we pet her?” she asks, her brown eyes shooting back and forth between the dog and Maia.

Maia hesitates, turning to Yuuri for reassurance. “It’s up to you,” he says, and watches her eyes light up with a spark of delight before she turns back to her classmates.

“Yeah,” she says, folding her arms as she nods. “You can pet her if you want.”

The kids surge forward, and soon a hundred little fingers are buried in Makkachin’s fur. Makka is in heaven. She sits, head held high, and leans against the fence hard seeking more attention. On the other side, Maia holds court, explaining to anyone who’ll listen all of the important facts about Makkachin, including her age, breed, and favorite foods.

It’s a few minutes of controlled chaos before the teacher blows her whistle, ordering all of the children back inside. As Maia lines up with the others, Yuuri can hear her still chatting away with one of the other girls, telling a story about the time Makka swiped a peanut butter sandwich right out of Victor’s hand.

Yuuri stays outside, fondly rubbing Makkachin’s soft ears, until Maia comes skipping out the front doors a short time later. She flings herself at the dog, wrapping her skinny little arms around Makka’s neck. For a moment, it reminds Yuuri of the interview Victor had done as a junior, posed with his mouth split in a heart-shaped grin and both arms around a much younger Makka. It’s the article that inspired Yuuri himself to get a poodle, and he pushes away the stab of sadness that hits his heart at the memory of Vicchan.

“Good day at school?” he asks Maia.

She nods, rubbing her nose into Makkachin’s fur. “It is now.” After another squeeze to the ever-patient old doggo, Maia takes a step back, swiping at her face with the back of her hand and then rubbing it on her purple jeans before reaching for Yuuri’s free hand.

“Everyone really liked Makkachin,” Maia tells him as they set off back toward the townhouse. “Can she come pick me up every day? And drop me off too?”

Yuuri hums, considering it. “Maybe not every day.” Makka’s big, fluffy feet are like sponges. It’s a nightmare to walk her on rainy or muddy days, when it seems every bit of dirt on the block is magnetized to her fur. Yuuri’s not looking forward to walking her through snow banks in the next few months either, but when Maia’s face falls, he reconsiders.

“You could bring some Makka things to school with you,” he suggests. “We can print out some photos for you to put on your book covers. Then, you can still show Makkachin to your friends, even when she’s not there.”

Maia perks up at that, and Yuuri mentally pats himself on the back. He’s not the worst at this stuff after all.

“Can I bring the little Makka?” she asks Yuuri eagerly.

He has no idea what she means. “Little Makka?”

“The little Makka in Papa’s room,” Maia insists. “The soft one.” Her hands form a small shape in the air, something familiar—

Oh. Hadn’t Victor’s tissue box at competitions been made to look like Makkachin? That’s right. Yuuri hasn’t thought about that tissue box in years. Could that be what Maia means, in Victor’s room? Is that where all his skating things are hiding? Yuuri’s mind races. He wants to see it.

Maia tugs on his hand, reminding him that she’s still waiting for an answer. “Oh, maybe,” he says. “You’ll have to ask Papa for permission when we get home, since the little Makka is his.”

The little girl nods solemnly, then launches into a recounting of Makka’s visit to her school, nevermind that it just happened ten minutes ago and Yuuri was there too. He nods as she chatters on in excitement, but his head is still stuck in the keyhole of Victor’s bedroom. The longer he’s locked out, the more Yuuri itches to get inside.

Chapter Text

It’s still November for a few more days, but Chicago doesn’t seem to realize that. The air coming off of Lake Michigan is threaded with ice, and Yuuri wakes up one Saturday morning to find the little window in his room opaque with frost. Despite the cold outside, his room is warm enough that he threw off the comforter some time in the night—an advantage of living on the top floor. Lying in bed, he thinks back on the autumns he spent in Detroit, wearing hoodies to bed because the landlord for their old building didn’t think it was cold enough to turn on the heat yet, and he’s never been so convinced he made the right choice by moving here.

Yuuri slips out of bed and puts on his slippers because the hardwood floors still carry a chill, then he pushes the door open and pads downstairs. Victor’s doors are both closed as always, but Maia’s are open. There’s no sign of her when he peeks inside, and Yuuri checks the time on his phone.

8:30 already. He never sleeps this late anymore, but he clearly needed the rest. Even though he’s overdue for his morning caffeine, his head is clear, and he hums some bits and pieces of old program music as he continues down the steps.

On the first floor, Yuuri can hear the high-pitched ramble of Saturday morning cartoons. The air smells of rich coffee and a curious sweetness. Makkachin is stretched out on her belly at the base of the steps but scrambles to her feet, tail wagging, when Yuuri gets there, as if she had been waiting for him. She runs ahead into the living area, and Yuuri follows.

Victor’s in the kitchen, wearing a Kiss the Cook apron, and it gives Yuuri a brief, vicious flashback to Phichit in the same position. He looks up from the stove at the sound of Makka’s claws on the wood and, seeing Yuuri, he smiles.

“Good morning,” he says. “I hope you like pancakes. I don’t normally make sweets at breakfast, but—” Victor ducks his head, nose pink. “I had a craving.”

“I love pancakes,” Yuuri confesses. He can’t remember the last time he had them, either. He and Phichit had probably made them at some point in the last few years, but when they were both still training, it was hard to justify bread and sugar as a breakfast.

Victor flips a pancake over. He’s already got two ready and stacked together on a warm plate, covered in a tea towel. “Do we have any berries?” Yuuri asks, and Victor nods over to the fridge.

Maia is on the sofa, eyes affixed to the morning cartoons, so she doesn’t even look up when Yuuri detours over to say good morning and ruffle her hair. While Victor finishes the pancakes, Yuuri cuts up strawberries, sets out the butter, and warms some syrup in the microwave so everything will be ready. When Victor turns around with his plate of fresh, golden brown cakes, he smiles wide to find the rest of breakfast is ready to go.

They pull Maia away from the TV long enough to settle in to eat together. Once they’ve all savored the first few bites, Victor asks, “Did you have any plans today, Yuuri?”

He asks that every weekend. The answer has always been no, which makes Yuuri sound like a loser, but the logical part of Yuuri’s brain is grateful that Victor’s considerate about checking in. He shakes his head.

“I was thinking of taking Maia into downtown today to run some errands, maybe do a little shopping. There’s a German Christmas market every year in Daley Plaza with little shops and Santa and all that sort of thing.”

Right. Christmas is coming, and with it Victor’s birthday. Yuuri knows the date, but since Victor hasn’t mentioned it, he doesn’t either. Yuuri’s birthday passed in silence a few days ago with only a call from his family and some texts to memorialize it, so forcing Victor to acknowledge his own birthday would be pretty hypocritical.

“That sounds like fun,” Yuuri says, slicing into his stack of pancakes and grabbing a bite. He’s never sure what to do with these weekends, even with Victor and Maia in the house. All of his MMO characters have leveled up a lot in these past few months.

He finishes chewing and looks up, noticing that Victor is still watching him, his lips quirked in amusement. “I’m glad you’re liking the pancakes,” he says. “But the market—that was an invitation. Would you like to come with us?”

Oh. Yuuri can feel the seeds of a blush creeping up his cheeks. It hadn’t even occurred to him.

“Of course, I can understand if that feels like working on the weekend to you.” Victor’s brow furrows as he stabs at his breakfast. “I hadn’t thought of that, but I guess I could pay you extra if—”

“No,” Yuuri blurts out, rushing to interrupt him. “That’s not necessary. I’d love to go; it sounds like fun.”

Victor breaks into a full grin before turning to his daughter. “Yuuri’s coming with us to the market, Mashka! Isn’t that exciting?”

Maia stops mangling her pancakes long enough to look up at him. “Can Makka come too?”

“No,” Victor begins, but Maia’s already lost interest in the reason.

Maybe Yuuri should feel insulted, but he can’t help chuckling. Recently, it seems he’s fallen out of favor, like a toy that’s been outgrown. Ever since Makka started going with them on walks to and from school, Maia wants to take her dog everywhere. She couldn’t care less if Yuuri is there or not.

Yuuri smiles across the table at Victor, who shakes his head in exasperation, but smiles back just the same.

After breakfast, Yuuri has to rush to get ready. He hadn’t planned to go out for the day, but Victor and Maia are already dressed, so he’s behind schedule without meaning to be. Once he has his own coat and scarf on, he joins Victor by the door to help locate Maia’s favorite knit hat—the one with fuzzy little round ears sewn into the top. Although she’d just worn it to school the day before, it’s suddenly vanished from the coat closet. After an exhaustive search, it finally turns up in the bottom of her lunch bag.

Once they’re all fully bundled up against the wind, they set out to walk to Armitage station. Maia alternates between running ahead—excited by the prospect of both the market and the train to get there—and falling behind, her short legs straining to keep up. Yuuri hangs back, trying to bracket her between himself and Victor as much as he can.

The cold air stirred by a passing truck thrusts its icy fingers into the gaps in Yuuri’s scarf, and he pulls the wool closer. He feels like the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man in his big puffy coat, scarf, and low wool hat. He’s one layer from waddling. In contrast, Victor looks elegant as ever, walking ahead with a even pace, his dark pea coat open and swinging in the wind. Even Maia has unzipped her jacket by the time they reach the train station.

As soon as they’re on the platform, Yuuri wedges himself into the plexiglass shelter and slams the button to bask in the heater lights. Victor and Maia stay outside. “Aren’t you cold?” Yuuri hisses, but Victor only shrugs in response. Damn Russians.

As Yuuri watches them from his heated shelter, rubbing his hands together to keep his fingers alive, Victor reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out his battered baseball cap and a pair of dark, bug-eyed sunglasses. He goes from fashionable to ridiculous in a few seconds as he pushes them into place, and before Yuuri can ask him why, their train arrives with a screech of brakes.

The ride into downtown is blessedly short. Maia presses her face and hands to the window, delighted in the views as they zoom toward the city. They pass apartments and brownstones, and she eagerly rambles about the decorations and plants she can see on strangers’ decks. Seated next to her, Victor smiles indulgently, taking pictures and video on his phone for the whole trip.

Yuuri, across the aisle, wishes for headphones—not for himself, but for the teenager two seats behind him, who’s decided to watch music videos on his phone at full volume without any. Yuuri thinks wistfully of the crowded yet quiet trains back home. Maia would probably be thrilled to see a bullet train. He can look up videos for her sometime, but it’s a shame Yuuri will never be able to show her one in person. It’s a whole different experience to be there.

After a short walk, they arrive to find Daley Plaza transformed. The whole area is strung with lights, tinsel, and greenery, and it’s lined with little brown cabins like an old European village. The beauty of the squat buildings and candy-striped roofs is only enhanced by the towering Chicago skyscrapers and modern art overseeing it all, reminding Yuuri of where he is.

Energized, Maia tugs at Yuuri’s hand and at the hem of Victor’s coat, pointing around. “The tree, Papa! Oh, look, and Santa!”

Victor grins back at Yuuri, sharing his joy. “Shall we do those first? After, she may calm down enough for the booths.”

“Sure.” Yuuri has no stake in what they do. He’s still not entirely sure why he’s here on his day off, except that he’s got nothing better to do, but he shuts that little voice away as Maia tows them along to where Santa Claus sits on a gold and velvet throne, waiting for photos. No matter why he was invited, Yuuri decides to relax and try to enjoy the festival.

It’s early enough in the day still that the line for Santa isn’t very long. They take a spot behind a few families with strollers and infants and wait their turn. Yuuri has to hide a smile behind his hand as Victor pulls his phone out and starts taking pictures even before Maia reaches Santa’s lap. As a mother rushes forward to reclaim her crying toddler, Maia eagerly clambers into place.

Settling on Santa’s knee, she looks up at the actor and announces boldly, “I’ve been very good. I want a puppy for Christmas.”

Victor chokes. “Are you sure about that, Mashka? Santa may not be able to fit a puppy in his sleigh and go all the way around the world.”

“No,” Maia says, looking Santa directly in the eye, “nothing else. Just a puppy.”

With assurances from Santa that he’ll try, but may not be able to deliver on that particular wish, and after Victor has taken approximately 500 pictures, Maia hops down and takes off running toward the tree.

Yuuri’s never been one to celebrate Christmas. Phichit had no interest in it either, so they’d never bothered with decorating their apartment in Detroit. They’d usually spend the holiday training together, using Yuuri’s spare key to the rink, and cooked dinner at home since so few restaurants were open. In Japan, it was more of a couples’ holiday, and Yuuri had never dated anyone that long.

Looking up at Victor’s back, his silhouette framed by the huge tree, Yuuri feels his cheeks heat at the thought. Victor probably doesn’t realize that Christmas activities and festivals in Japan center around romantic relationships.

The tree is beautiful, though. Yuuri doesn’t need to care about Christmas to recognize that. The massive evergreen is hung with a million twinkling lights and a rainbow of baubles. A lot of the decorations are hand-made by local school kids, and the liberal use of glitter looks to be encouraged. The tree is so bright, it’s dizzying, and Yuuri blinks a few times to clear his head.

“Let me have your phone,” he suggests when he catches up with Victor. “I can take a picture of both of you in front of the tree that way.”

“Sure,” Victor says, handing it over. His home screen background is a photo of Maia, her little arms wound around Makkachin’s neck. Of course.

Yuuri raises the phone and waits for them to get into position, then snaps a few quick pictures. He takes a few steps forward, framing a closer shot, when he feels someone tap at his shoulder. He turns to find a petite Japanese woman with a shock of white hair beaming up at him.

“Why don’t you let me take a few for you?” she asks. “That way you can be in the picture with your family.”

“Oh. Oh! They’re not—”

“Yes, Yuuri,” Victor calls out, waving him over. “Come get in the picture!”

Resigned, Yuuri presses the phone into the old woman’s hands and jogs over. Together, he and Victor hoist Maia up, so she’s sitting on their shoulders, each of them holding onto one on her knees, and grin, waiting for the camera.

When the woman lowers the phone, Yuuri jogs over to reclaim it. “Thank you,” he says.

“Of course,” she replies, patting his arm gently. “You have a beautiful family. I took a lot of pictures of my family, but I was never in them. These days, I wish I had more photos of my own daughter with me at that age.”

Her smile is so sad, so wistful, that Yuuri can’t bear to correct her assumption. He thanks her again, then watches as she shuffles away.

Victor catches up and holds out his hands for the phone, thumbing through the photos as soon as Yuuri passes it over. “Ohhh,” he coos. “We look cute, Yuuri! My mama is going to love these.”

Glancing over his shoulder, Yuuri has to admit that they do look kind of cute, even if Yuuri is the odd man out in his marshmallow coat. He opens his mouth to ask for Victor to send him the pictures too, but then snaps it shut. There’s no point. His job with Victor is still a secret, so he can’t show them to anyone. Instead he smiles as Victor finishes reviewing the photos, deleting the couple he thinks aren’t personally flattering—though Yuuri thinks he looks good in all of them—and then puts the phone away.

“Alright,” Victor says, taking Maia’s hand once more. “Now that the most important things are done, let’s check out the shops!”

Yuuri trails after them, bemused by Victor’s enthusiasm. He’s almost like a kid himself as he tugs Maia around the little village. No sooner does he settle into one booth than he spots something lovely at the next, and they’re off again. Yuuri had felt a bit awkward after the photo situation, but the others’ enthusiasm is contagious, and he soon finds himself smiling, somehow being used as an assistant to carry several shopping bags stuffed with chocolates, hot roasted nuts, gingerbread, and delicate little blown glass ornaments.

Although he’s meant to be saving his money, a few of the bags are actually his. He couldn’t pass up the chance to buy his mother the beautiful blown glass butterfly, or walk away from the imported chocolate without getting Phichit a few Kinder Eggs.

They stop into a refreshment stand when Maia complains of the cold at last, and Victor buys a cup of hot chocolate for her and a spiked wassail for himself. With the money still in his hand, he turns to check on Yuuri.

“Do you want one?” Victor asks, gesturing to the steaming paper cup. “You’re not technically working today.” Yuuri can smell it from a few feet away—sweet and spicy, with the burn of alcohol lurking just beneath it. The scent is delicious and tempting

Yuuri raises his hands. “No, that’s okay. I— uh— I can’t always handle alcohol very well.” He can feel his face heat, thinking of the last time Phichit had talked him into drinking. He casts a furtive glance around them. The Christmas village is blessedly free of stripper poles, but there are a couple large, decorative candy canes near the entrance. Best not to risk it.

“Are you sure?” Victor taps a finger on the tip of his chin as he considers the booth menu. “There’s also tea and coffee, or you could get one of these without the bourbon.”

Yuuri steps closer, the scent of the wassail heating in big metal canisters drawing him in. “Um, maybe,” he relents “if there’s an alcohol-free one.” There is, and Victor happily shells out the six dollars for Yuuri to have it.

It seems like such a simple thing, but it’s remarkable how much a hot drink can fight back against the late autumn chill. Despite all his other bundling up, Yuuri forgot to wear gloves, so he cups both palms around the wassail as he sips it, letting it warm his fingers as well as heating him from the inside out.

When they reach the end of the market, Victor turns to Yuuri with a half-smile. “Yuuri, you still haven’t been here very long, have you? Did you visit the Bean yet?”

“Yeah. I came here on a long weekend a couple years ago with my roommate and we did a bunch of the tourist stuff.”

“Bean?” Maia cranes her neck around to stare at them in consternation. “What bean?”

“You’ve seen the Bean,” Victor says. “We went…” he pauses, tilting his head and waiting for the memories to fall into place, “well, I guess it’s been a couple years now. You might not remember it.”

“I want to see the bean!” Maia demands. Yuuri could have sworn her energy was flagging before, from all the walking, but she’s gotten a second wind now—or, more likely, the sugar from her hot cocoa is kicking in. “Is it a Christmas bean?”

“No,” says Yuuri. “It’s just a big shiny silver bean.” He and Victor exchange an amused look. How to explain The Bean to a five year-old? “I don’t mind going again if Maia wants to see it.” Maia responds with a noise somewhere around the pitch and volume of a dog whistle. He’ll take that as a yes.

Millenium Park is only a couple blocks away, and Maia keeps up her sugar rush the whole way, skipping ahead of them, then running back when Victor calls her. It lasts right up until they actually arrive at the edge of the park and Victor points ahead, gesturing to the gleaming silver surface of the so-called Cloud Gate in the distance.

“That’s it?” Maia wrinkles her nose, and Victor laughs. “It’s just a big… thing.”

“A bean,” Yuuri says. “Yes.” He turns to Victor, about to suggest that they go find food before heading home, when Maia’s voice pipes up again.

“What’s that?”

Yuuri follows the line of her arm to the tip of her pointer finger and stops. Between them and the Bean is a rink—small and crowded, but a rink nonetheless. Victor’s expression is frozen, his eyes unreadable.

Then he blinks and Yuuri watches as he pastes on a patient—and absolutely fake—smile for his daughter. “They’re ice skating,” he explains. “You put on special shoes, and then you can glide around on the ice, sort of like dancing.”

Maia stares at the rink, taking a few steps closer. “Can we do that?”

Yuuri puts a hand over his mouth. His insides are torn. He’s tempted to laugh at the absurd situation he’s in, but Victor does not look amused. It’s just too funny—Victor Nikiforov’s own daughter asking if he knows how to ice skate.

Despite Yuuri’s efforts, a giggle slips out, and Victor darts a glance at him, frowning. Seeing Yuuri’s face, the humor of the moment seems to reach him too, and he relaxes, grinning as he shakes his head. “Of course,” he tells Maia. “Would you like to try?”

Maia bounces on her toes so much that a verbal “yes” is unnecessary. Together, they cross the little plaza to the ticket stand and rent the crappy beginner boots—it’s that or hockey boots, and Yuuri’s actually never even tried the latter. They sit down on a bench nearby to change shoes. The rented boots smell like old leather, gym socks, and disinfectant, and they feel weird on Yuuri’s feet. Once he has them laced on, he rotates his ankles, testing them.

Victor finishes tying Maia’s, then begins to put his on, wrinkling his nose as he does. He meets Yuuri’s eyes again through the oversized sunglasses. “I can’t even remember the last time I skated with rented boots,” Victor confesses.

“Neither can I.” Yuuri hasn’t even set foot on the ice in nearly three months, and panic spikes in his gut. What if he’s forgotten how? As quick as it comes, he shoves that aside. It’s a ridiculous thought. He’s been skating since he was Maia’s age. No one loses twenty years of training in three months. Besides, it’s not like they’re going to be jumping. The boots are too worn and the ice too crowded to attempt anything challenging.

Yuuri watches Victor bend himself in half over the bench, yanking at the worn laces of his skates to tighten them as much as possible. His hair has grown out in the past two months, and little wisps of silver are escaping the back of his cap.

“You know,” Yuuri says, “that’s not a very good disguise. I can still see your hair. And once you start skating, anyone who was ever really your fan would know it’s you immediately.” Victor raises his head sharply, and Yuuri can feel himself blush. Why did he say anything?

“Really? Even in rented boots?” Victor’s lips quirk. “I think you have a lot of faith in me, Yuuri.”

He stands, putting a hand out to help Maia hop down onto her blades, and then offers the same to Yuuri. Yuuri doesn’t need the help, of course, but—he takes Victor’s hand anyway. Despite the chill and his lack of gloves, Victor’s palm is scorching compared to Yuuri’s frozen fingers.

Victor yanks him to his feet, and Yuuri stumbles, catching himself just before they collide. Yuuri’s close enough now that he can see the tiny freckles that dot the bridge of Victor’s nose. He’s never noticed those before.

“Besides,” Victor says, lips curled smugly around the words, “if my disguise is so terrible, how did it manage to fool you?”

“What—” Yuuri begins, but even as he starts to ask what Victor means, it hits him. The man in the waiting room at Hands & Hearts, who took the middle seat and lurked for Yuuri’s entire interview. The man in dark glasses and a baseball cap.

You,” Yuuri hisses, and Victor lets go of his hand.

“Me,” he confirms, still smiling.

Maia tugs on the edge of Victor’s coat again. “Helloooo,” she says. “Can we skate now?”

“Of course,” Victor says. He takes her hand again, and Yuuri takes the other side, the two of them helping her to wobble across the few feet of pavement before the edge of the ice.

Yuuri steps onto the rink first and wrinkles his nose. He turns in time to see Victor mirror the gesture and smiles, ducking his head. The ice is wet, pitted with little holes and scrapes from beginners who don’t understand how to use their toes. It’s nothing like competition ice—although Yuuri’s been to a few competitions that weren’t all that much better.

Maia almost immediately begins to topple, but Victor and Yuuri quickly catch her, returning her to the edge of her blades. “We’ll keep you up,” Yuuri promises. “Just hold on and watch how our feet move.”

They tow Maia around for a bit, her little arms stretched wide between them. She frowns in concentration, focused on watching and mimicking the adults, and Yuuri gets another stab of déjà vu—he’s seen that very expression on Victor’s face in training footage. Victor was right. They might not look alike on the surface, but they are very much related.

Maia’s no prodigy—she’s Victor’s daughter, not his clone, after all—but with two experienced teachers, she adapts quickly, well enough to switch from holding both their hands to trying to skate short distances on her own. She lands on her rump a few times, but they soon haul her to her feet and try again.

Victor grins, skating backwards on the inside edge of the rink, and towing Maia along behind him with both hands. He looks ridiculous, still graceful but also goofy with his wide, heart-shaped smile, mouthing the words to “All I Want for Christmas is You” playing over the rink speakers.

As a teenager, Yuuri had often dreamed of someday sharing the ice with Victor Nikiforov. This is not what he pictured, but—he smiles as Victor pauses to twirl Maia around—he can’t say he minds.

Watching them, Yuuri has a sudden need to goof off a little himself. The urge is spiced with a flash of his hidden competitive streak, a little voice in the back of his head nudging him with reminders that he is technically skating with a fellow competitor right now.

Moving to the edge so he can speed up his strokes, Yuuri glides past Victor and Maia, bending backwards as he passes with a little flourish. If there’s one move that Yuuri’s always been confident in, it’s his Ina Bauer.

With a spray of ice, he comes to a stop and looks back to see Victor’s lips tighten in a downright evil smile. “Oh,” Victor says. “Are we showing off now?”

And Yuuri was showing off—showing off in front of Victor Nikiforov—but he’s still not prepared for the moment Victor hands Maia off to him and speeds past.

They’re still in public. There are limits. And since Victor’s been out of competition for years, he probably shouldn’t be doing anything fancy at all, but Yuuri’s heart still seizes when he notices Victor gathering himself. Logic brain says it’s very much not possible, but Yuuri half expects him to throw out a quad flip like it’s nothing.

Instead, he gets a little waltz jump. It’s still very impressive for someone who’s been out of competition so long, and much more sensible for a crowded public rink and shoddy ice. Yuuri claps politely, pretending he’s not dying inside at having seen Victor jump on the same ice as himself, even if it was only in play.

As Victor rejoins him, Maia folds her arms, pouting. “I want to do that,” she declares, and Victor laughs.

“Maybe if we skate a few more times this winter, Yuuri or I will teach you,” he promises.

He says something else after that, but Yuuri doesn’t hear it. Over Victor’s shoulder, he can see a trio of teenage girls leaning up on the rink barrier. They’ve got pristine white skates in their hands, and they’re talking amongst themselves, but their heads are all turned toward Victor.

“Yuuri?” Victor’s voice calling his name brings Yuuri instantly back to the moment, and he finds Victor still smiling up at him, kneeling on the ice to zip Maia’s coat. “Did we bring Maia any gloves? I can’t remember if you grabbed some.”

“They’re not in my pockets,” Yuuri murmurs, and Victor tilts his head, noticing Yuuri’s distraction. One of the girls is pointing now. Victor has his back to the group, and kneeling like he is, they probably can’t see Maia through his broad shoulders, but—

“There are some girls over there by the gate,” Yuuri says quietly. “They’re staring at you.”

Victor’s smile vanishes in an instant. “By the gate? Is that the only exit?”

Yuuri shakes his head—it’s not the same gate they came through—and Victor climbs to his feet. He rustles in his pockets for a moment, then produces a wad of folded-up twenties. “Take Maia,” he says, “and go home.”

“What?” Yuuri knew Victor would want to know, but he didn’t expect to be told to leave. “What about the rentals—?”

“Leave them by the bench,” Victor answers in a tone that brooks no argument. He presses the cash into Yuuri’s limp hand. “Get out of here as quickly and quietly as you can and then take the nearest taxi. I’ll take care of the rest.”

“But I’m not ready to go,” Maia says. There’s a high edge of whining in her voice that Victor quickly shushes, but it’s all too much—the sugar, the excitement, and now the sudden departure all combine into a perfect storm. Maia’s face flushes, and her breathing chokes. As her eyes begin to well with fat, frustrated tears, Victor tries again to press the money into Yuuri’s hand.

“Just listen to Yuuri,” Victor says, stooping to give his daughter a quick hug even as she starts to sob. “Please. We can come back again another time, okay?”

Yuuri finally accepts the money and does as Victor said. Using the other gate, they return to the bench, and Yuuri strips them both of their skates. Maia’s arms are folded tight over her chest in protest at having to leave before she was ready. She’s a dead weight, and Yuuri can hear her cries rising in pitch, quickly veering toward a wail. He doesn’t even bother putting her shoes on, but hefts her onto his hip with her sock-clad feet still dangling by his leg as they rush to the nearest major street to hail a cab.

When Yuuri looks back toward the rink to check on the situation, Victor has already disappeared.

The cab ride home is relatively quiet. Once she’s stuck in the cab, Maia stares out the window the whole way, her arms folded, refusing to speak to Yuuri aside from occasional hiccuping sobs. Their cabbie, who tells Yuuri he has three daughters himself, gives her a wad of fast food napkins to wipe her face with, and she clings onto them as she huddles into the window, jerking away when Yuuri tries to smooth back her hair or prompt her to blow her nose.

Once her crying has quieted and her shakes subside, Yuuri uses the silence as an opportunity to fret. Should he not have left Victor alone back there? Was there some sort of danger? Yuuri can’t see much risk in a gaggle of teenage girls aside from brief inconvenience, but Victor certainly had reacted like they were a sign of the apocalypse. Yuuri flips his phone over in his hands, waiting for it to vibrate. Would Victor text him if something went wrong? Should Yuuri maybe try to call him, to provide him an excuse to break away from the girls?

In retrospect, it strikes Yuuri how completely Victor had disappeared these last five years. He’d always known Victor to be kind to his fans. He was famously accommodating when it came to signing autographs or posing for selfies—Yuuri had heard as much many times growing up, as a reminder for him to do the same. In the past five years, however, there’s been… nothing. Victor hadn’t just vanished from public events and competition, even his hashtag on Instagram had only been reposts of old pictures.

How could he have managed to hide so completely? Surely just an old hat and some sunglasses wasn’t enough.

The cab pulls up in front of the townhouse with a jolt, and Maia is out of the car as soon as the door locks disengage. Yuuri passes the taxi driver all the cash Victor gave him, knowing Victor won’t be expecting any change, and follows her up to the door. As soon as he opens the front door, Maia goes charging up the stairs, and Makka nearly bowls him over trying to get out.

After a brief struggle hauling a wriggling sixty pounds of fluff back inside, Yuuri finally manages to get the door shut. Makka whines softly, tilting her head at him, and Yuuri leans down to rub her ears.

“I know you want to go for a walk,” he tells her, “but Victor’s not home right now, and I can’t leave Maia inside alone.” Makkachin’s tail thumps on the floor in response, but her big brown eyes still look hopeful. Yuuri gives her another scritch and kicks his shoes off.

He doesn’t want to bother Maia, who is clearly still in a tiff and wants some space, but he also doesn’t want to retreat to his own room. He has to be accessible if Maia needs him, or if Victor comes home looking for him, so he flops down onto the couch to play games on his phone. That way, he’ll know right away if Victor texts him. He leans up against the side and stretches his legs out along the cushions, settling in.

Yuuri is only a few minutes into cleaning out his item stash in Pokemon Go when he hears the front door click, then the sound of Makka’s claws scrambling on the hardwoods. Victor swans into the house like nothing happened, his hat and sunglasses gone and his arms full of their forgotten shopping bags, and he bends to coo a greeting to his dog in French.

Yuuri sits up, swinging his feet back to the floor. “Everything okay?” he asks, watching as Victor hangs up his coat by the door.

“Of course. Where’s Maia?”

“Upstairs in her room.”

“Oh, good.” Victor rummages in the pockets of his coat and pulls out a couple things—a delicate porcelain ballerina statue, and then a small box of chocolates with a red ribbon tied around it. “I felt bad that she was so upset about leaving early,” he says sheepishly, “so I picked up a couple things.” As if they didn’t already have enough treats in their bags.

Walking into the living room, Victor holds out the chocolates. “Thank you, for getting her home so quickly.”

“You didn’t need to,” Yuuri says, but he’s already holding the box in both hands. He’d noticed these earlier, in one of the stalls. They’re expensive. “Thank you.”

He should just leave it at that. Yuuri knows better than to pry where he doesn’t belong. Still, as Victor turns and starts to climb the stairs, Yuuri sees his window of inquiry disappearing. He stands up.

“What went wrong at the rink? Why did those girls have you so spooked, anyway?”

The question hangs in the air and Victor pauses, three steps up. There’s a distinct moment where he says nothing, then he turns to Yuuri with a wide smile that doesn’t come within a foot of his eyes.

“Nothing, really,” he says, hands clenching and unclenching at his sides “nothing dangerous. I just don’t want Maia being crowded or pressured by strangers. She’s not part of autographs and selfies and all of those things that come with being a public figure. She’s only a child, after all. She should get to be a child.” A strange note slips into his voice as he speaks, edged with frustration and a hint of sadness.

Yuuri’s never heard Victor say anything negative about his own childhood, but the comment makes him wonder. He’s seen a few grainy videos of Victor’s novice years, but Victor was twice Maia’s age by then, already sparkling like a tiny diamond in the center of a sea of ice. Yuuri remembers his own years in Novices pretty fondly, and then the move to Juniors and his first breakdown on the ice, trembling under what felt like a million eyes and a whole new form of scrutiny.

He’s never once thought that Victor might have felt the same thing.

Chapter Text

Yuuri finds out that Phichit made it to the Grand Prix Final via a phone call that wakes him a few minutes before his alarm. He’d set an early reminder to get up and watch the final competition in Nagano, but slapped it on snooze when it chimed before sunrise and never got out of bed.

When he accepts the call, murmuring a fuzzy “Hello?” into the receiver, the first thing he hears is screaming. Eventually, Phichit calms down enough to get real words out in English, and Yuuri learns that Michele Crispino had fallen to fifth in the NHK Trophy. That means Phichit edges him out in points to secure a spot in the Final—the first skater from Thailand ever to achieve that honor.

“You have to come to my party,” Phichit declares. He’s wedged into a nook somewhere in the rink’s locker room to speak to Yuuri, and Yuuri can hear metal doors slamming and the echo of other voices in the background. “As soon as I can get invitations out, we’re celebrating, and I can’t have my best friend missing it!”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Yuuri promises. He can’t stop smiling. God. Phichit has worked so hard, and his love of skating really comes through in his programs. He deserves this more than anyone else Yuuri knows. Yuuri’s half-whispered “Congratulations” doesn’t do justice to the depth of his pride.

Phichit is right—he can’t miss the party.

Yuuri pops the question, so to speak, over breakfast. Victor has recently switched from full breakfasts to protein-laced green smoothies in the morning, but he still allows Maia and Yuuri their eggs and toast, sipping his juice resentfully as he watches them eat with hungry eyes.

“Would you mind if I took this weekend off?” Yuuri asks. There’s a bit of egg on the end of the fork he gestures with, and Victor focuses in on the dripping yolk with an expression not unlike the way Makkachin stares at pancakes. “I know it’s short notice, but I’d like to go back to Detroit for a couple days for a party.”

Yuuri pops the fork into his mouth to eliminate Victor’s distraction. It takes a beat of staring at Yuuri’s lips before he blinks his focus away. “Of course,” Victor says. “Your weekends are yours to plan, Yuuri. What’s the occasion?”

“Some good news,” Yuuri says, not wanting to get into the details of skating stuff, “reason to celebrate.”

Victor smiles. He reaches under the table absently to put a hand on Maia’s knee, moving by habit to stop her from kicking the table without a word uttered. “That’s excellent, then. Do you need help finding a short notice flight?”

“No, I was just going to take the train again.”

“What? No,” Victor picks up his smoothie, pointing at Yuuri with the stainless steel straw. “You’ll lose so much time taking the train. It was fine for moving here, but I must insist. If price is an object, I can pay—”

“No, no, no,” Yuuri interrupts. “I can pay. I just—”

“Let me help,” Victor insists, already whipping out his phone. “I know some people when it comes to booking last-minute trips. Even if you won’t let me pay for it, I can check in with them on flights—do you prefer O’Hare or Midway?”

“O’Hare,” Yuuri says without thinking, because who prefers Midway? As soon as the word is out of his mouth, Victor’s thumbs are working away, and Yuuri realizes that by saying that he did, in fact, agree to let Victor book him flights.

Oh well. It is easier than trying to figure them out himself.

It seems like before he knows it, Yuuri is on a plane. The week flashes by in a flurry of party preparations and packing, and he never even looks at his itinerary close enough to notice he’s booked in first class until he checks his boarding group at the gate. He definitely didn’t pay Victor back at the right rate for first class.

He can’t exactly complain about it, but the luxury is lost on him aside from getting to stretch his legs out. Chicago to Detroit is just a hop of a flight, barely an hour, and Yuuri gets too nervous on planes to think alcohol is a good idea, even if it is free. He reclines his seat, closes his eyes, and tries to doze for the duration of the flight. He blinks, and when he opens his eyes again, they’re descending.

The first thing Yuuri spots, as he drags his carry-on past the last line of security, is a giant sign with his name on it, and he’s not even surprised. It’s Phichit, and that’s how Phichit is. It doesn’t matter that Yuuri can find his own way back to the apartment or that it would be easier for both of them if Phichit didn’t come to the airport to meet him—Phichit has to be there to greet him at the gate.

“Yuuri,” Phichit yells, bouncing on his toes before surging forward. He drops his sign to wrap an arm around Yuuri’s neck. They don’t usually have a hugging sort of relationship, but sometimes exceptions are made. “Welcome home!”

“Thanks, Grand Prix Finalist,” Yuuri says, returning the gesture with a brief squeeze at Phichit’s waist. “Congratulations again!”

“I’m so glad you could make it.” Phichit grabs the handle of Yuuri’s suitcase, tugging it away before Yuuri can protest. “It wouldn’t be the same without you here. Everyone at the rink will be so excited to see you!”

Yuuri squashes a flare of panic. More people to lie to. Not for the first time, he questions if he should have come. Phichit would have been let down if Yuuri didn’t show, but now Yuuri is stuck here for two days with a bunch of people asking him about his new life in Chicago, and he won’t be able to tell any of them the full truth.

He keeps turning that thought over in his mind as they step out to the curb and Phichit hails a cab back into the city. With Phichit around, at least Yuuri never feels pressured to break silence—Phichit is happy to do that for him. The ride to the apartment is a constant stream of familiar, happy chatter as Phichit fills him in on what all their old mates at the rink have been up to in the past few months, as well as some healthy gossip from other international skaters Phichit saw at the Grand Prix events.

They’re a few blocks from their apartment when Phichit goes quiet for a beat, then asks, “Hey, do you remember Leo de la Iglesia?”

“Of course,” Yuuri says, letting his head fall back on the cushioned cab seat. Leo has been the one of the top men in the States for a couple years now, so he usually got seeded to Skate America along with at least one Detroit Skating Club member—most often, that was Phichit. Yuuri’s never followed his career closely, but knows he didn’t make the Final this year.

“So, did you know Leo changed coaches?”

Phichit’s voice sounds weird. Yuuri glances over at him, but finds his friend staring out the window, not meeting his eyes. “Yeah?” he prompts. “I didn’t.”

“Yeah,” Phichit says. “He moved to Ciao-Ciao, actually. They were finishing talks when you left for Chicago.”

“Good for him. That seems like a good fit.” Yuuri has a sneaking suspicion where this is going.

“It’s working well so far!” Phichit says. “But, you know, he came here around the same time you moved, so… Ciao-Ciao knew the apartment had an empty room, of course.” Phichit sneaks a glance at Yuuri from the corner of his eyes, checking Yuuri’s reaction. “He brought a really comfy futon to the living room when he moved in. If you can’t sleep in there, I could take it, though. You can have my room.”

“No,” Yuuri says. “No, the futon is fine.” He doesn’t add anything else. He doesn’t ask Phichit why Leo was never mentioned—not once, not in all their calls the last couple months. Yuuri knows the answer. He’s been replaced. Phichit may not have wanted him to feel that way, but it’s true. Yuuri’s room has a new master.

But it’s not like Yuuri has any right to be outraged over Phichit lying about who he lives with.

Yuuri’s first thought, walking back into the old apartment, is that is feels smaller than he remembered. His second thought is that it also seems messier. Phichit’s always been a pretty tidy person, and Yuuri is used to living in small spaces. Everything in his life—well, all the physical stuff—has a place where it fits, and Yuuri learned early in childhood to put things back when he’s through with them.

Leo’s belongings are more of a sprawl. There’s a Playstation controller left out on the futon, a couple zip wallets full of old CDs spilling across the kitchen table, and his Team USA jacket is hanging across the back of a chair.

“You can stow your bag in my room,” Phichit says. As Yuuri tows the suitcase into the hall, he sneaks a peek into the open door of his old room. No one’s inside at the moment, but even from just a glimpse he can tell it’s changed. All his posters of Victor have been replaced with leather-clad bands and basketball teams and—oddly enough—a big pastel poster for what looks like a Chinese historical drama.

Phichit’s room, at least, hasn’t changed a bit. Yuuri takes a moment to greet Phichit’s hamsters, as is proper, and the straightens back up from the cage. “Do you need any help cleaning up for the party,” he offers. He’s not a neat freak, but his fingers might be itching to pick up after Leo just a little.

“Oh! I’m not having it here,” Phichit says. “This place is way too small for a real party! We have to go over to the rink.” He glances at his phone, then types something out, thumbs flying. “Leo’s waiting for us there, actually. We had practice this morning together.”

There’s something stuck in Yuuri’s throat, even though he hasn’t eaten since the donut he scarfed at the airport. He swallows around it. “Great,” he says, not sure if this is jealousy or nerves about returning to his old rink. It might be a fifty-fifty split.

Detroit Skating Club is unchanged, and walking through the door slaps Yuuri in the face with familiarity. It may as well be six months ago, and Yuuri is here to work his shift. Celestino is over at the side of the ice, conferring with Leo, and they both look over at the sound of Phichit’s voice.

Yuuri can feel himself beginning to flush when Celestino sees him. He wouldn’t blame his old coach if he didn’t want Yuuri here, but Celestino only raises a hand in greeting, calling out a friendly, “Ciao, Yuuri! Welcome back!”

One thing is different: Yuuri hadn’t bothered to pack his skates for this trip. He tells Phichit this in an apologetic tone, as if it’s a big shame that he’s ruining Phichit’s plans for the afternoon. In reality, Yuuri had seen his skates in his closet when he packed. He knew Phichit might want them to skate together, and he’d hoped leaving them behind meant an excuse to avoid the rink. Now that he’s here anyway, at least the excuse will keep him off the ice.

“That’s okay!” Phichit proclaims, with the easy sort of grin that means he knows exactly what Yuuri’s done. “I found some of your old spares when I moving your boxes to storage. Luckily, I have them in my locker just in case.”

“Lucky,” Yuuri echoes flatly.

The boots Phichit found for him are worn, the leather grey and sticky in spots from where he repeatedly duct taped them to get a good fit. Slipping his feet back inside them is like stepping into a time machine. From the groves in the insole to the feel of the laces against his fingers, he remembers this pair. He’d last worn them two years ago, at the 2013 NHK Trophy. It had only been his second time being seeded to the Grand Prix events, and he’d gotten Bronze already at Skate Canada. If he’d been able to land on the podium once more, he’d have gone on to the final.

Instead, he’d twisted his ankle on a flubbed triple lutz in his short program. It wasn’t a career-ending injury, except that it was. Yuuri hadn’t competed at Japanese Nationals that year. Yuuri had never competed again.

He pulls himself from his own thoughts with some difficulty when Phichit helps him to his feet, flashing his friend a smile. He’s here for Phichit, to celebrate his achievement, not to get bogged down in the dark corners of his own disappointing career.

Leo greets them both with a wide grin and a wave when they reach the ice. He has his shaggy brown hair pulled back in a half ponytail and a pair of expensive ear buds dangling around his shoulders. “Hey, Yuuri,” he says. “I don’t think we’ve actually met before. Sorry I stole your room—and your roommate.”

“No problem,” Yuuri assures him, shaking his hand. “I feel sorry for you, actually.”

Yuuri,” Phichit says in feigned horror. He skates a quick circle around the two of them, blatantly showing off. “If you’re going to be like that, maybe you don’t deserve to skate on the same ice as a Grand Prix Finalist.”

I don’t, Yuuri thinks, but he knows better than to say that out loud. Phichit would give him so much shit. He starts to chase after Phichit, with Leo close behind him.

Very quickly, Yuuri finds himself grateful he’s been keeping up with some type of exercise in Chicago. Although he’s not in the shape he was before he left, much less competition conditioning, he can at least keep up with Leo well enough to not embarrass himself. The three of them wind up in a very unevenly matched impromptu game of tag, with Phichit quite literally skating circles around Yuuri and Leo.

After several minutes of chase, Leo stops, legs splayed and head down as he drifts to catch his breath. Yuuri pauses a few feet away, watching cautiously. Given that Leo is currently “It”, he’s not sure it isn’t a trap.

“I can’t believe,” Leo says, between laughing breaths, “that I’m actually skating with Yuuri Katsuki.”

“What?” Yuuri says. Surely he misheard.

“I’m like, a huge fan of yours, man,” Leo says, grinning widely. Yuuri can see how he and Phichit would get along. Leo has an easy friendliness about him. He’s one of those guys who’s just likeable right from the start. “I used to watch the dance elements you brought to your programs as a kid and it was like—that. That’s what I want to be doing.”

Yuuri can feel his cheeks beginning to burn. He’s not used to being told that anyone looks up to him. He’s still fumbling for words to reply to that when a shriek echoes off the rafters of the rink.

Yuuri! You’re back!

He turns around just in time for eighty-five pounds of wiry muscle to slam into him at ten miles per hour. He grabs hold, hanging on to avoid toppling over, and finds himself looking down at the wide brown eyes are perky ponytail of none other than Tina Juarez.

Before Yuuri can say a word, the two of them are surrounded as the other junior ladies race across the ice as well to welcome him back, peppering their former instructor with eager questions: Are you coming back? Are you here for good? Where are you at now? What’s Chicago like? Do you still skate? Are you dating anyone?

Yuuri fields the questions he can and tries to neatly avoid the less appropriate ones. The girls don’t seem to mind, thrilled to have him back even for a day. Soon, the pack has dissolved, each of them competing to show Yuuri their latest skills or how they’ve improved in the months since he left.

He watches them, leaning against the boards once more with Celestino, Phichit, and Leo a few feet away, and an absent smile lifts the corners of his mouth. Somehow, it had never occurred to him when he left that so many people would care.

More familiar faces pop in over the next half-hour—novices, assistant coaches, retired skaters from the area, and more, all there to celebrate together for Phichit’s grand achievement. There’s a cake, flavored with coconut and frosted blue, decorated with both the Thai flag and a whole family of plastic hamsters. The inscription reads Congratulations in both English and Thai, and Yuuri thinks for a moment he sees Phichit’s eyes well with tears as he clasps his hands together and poses with his friends under the Skating Club logo.

For the first time, it occurs to Yuuri that this could have been him. He’d always assumed his attempt in 2013 would end in failure. Even if he hadn’t been injured, he’d never expected to place high enough to move on to the Final that year, but now…

He and Phichit have always been pretty even in terms of technical skill. These days, Phichit’s quad toe is more reliable than Yuuri’s ever was, but he still struggles with his triple axel—the one advanced jump Yuuri could land reliably. Yuuri might not have made the podium at NHK that year, but if he hadn’t retired, he could have perhaps the next year, or… now.

He and Phichit might be celebrating together, in another timeline.

After the cake, there are more skating games, more tag, and a round of Marco Polo on the ice with one of Celestino’s spare headbands stolen for a blindfold. Eventually, someone produces a stash of confetti, and the party ends in a flurry—bits of colorful paper and glitter stuck to the ice, sure to give the Zamboni drivers headaches for weeks.

The party disperses a short time later and, exhausted, Yuuri opts to pay for Phichit, Leo, and himself to catch an Uber back, rather than dealing with public transit. Once in the door of the apartment, Yuuri and Phichit flop onto the futon, while Leo drops his bags by the door.

“I’m going to take a shower first,” Leo says, as if it isn’t an obvious excuse to leave Yuuri and Phichit alone. Still, Yuuri doesn’t mind.

With easy familiarity, Phichit passes Yuuri a controller and turns on the TV.

“So,” he says once the game finishes loading, “how’s Chicago?”

Ah. The interrogation begins.

“Good,” Yuuri answers, keeping his eyes fixed to the screen, where he’s busy sniping rampaging orcs like he never left. “It’s cold already, though.”

“How’s hot daddy?”

Yuuri pauses the game, turning to Phichit with an expression of disgust. “Please don’t call him that.”

Daddy,” Phichit repeats, over-enunciating the D’s.

Yuuri makes a distressed noise. If only Phichit knew, he… probably would be even worse. “Still there,” Yuuri answers. “Still hot.”

As he expected, Phichit is full of questions, while Yuuri, unfortunately, is short of answers. He wants to tell Phichit about his life. He would love to tell Phichit about the insane things that happen to him all the time, like one morning I got up and Victor Nikiforov was making French toast and canadian bacon in only his boxer-briefs, and his hair was sticking straight up on one side.

But he promised he wouldn’t. He signed a contract! Phichit’s prying is all for naught.

Well, he can throw Phichit one bone, he thinks. During a break in the game, he pulls out his phone. In his photos, there’s a special folder, just for pictures Yuuri can text to his mom. It’s his life in Chicago—the version with no Victor. Most of it is selfies around the neighborhood, pictures of his room, or shots featuring the back of Maia’s head. It’s a private, sanitized version of who Yuuri is now. He opens the folder and passes the phone to Phichit.

“Oohhh,” Phichit exclaims. “Finally, some delicious food.” He begins to thumb through the folder, making the occasional approving noise at ones he particularly likes. Yuuri watches over his shoulder, smiling faintly at this strange little slideshow.

A brown blob fills the screen, and Yuuri’s breath stops, the smile dropping from his face. He forgot there was a picture of Makkachin in the folder. There had been plenty of pictures of Makka alongside her master on his bedroom walls here, and Yuuri holds his breath to see if Phichit reacts.

But if Phichit finds anything remarkable about Yuuri living with a big brown poodle with a greying muzzle and a permanent puppy cut, he makes no comment. When he reaches the end of the folder and passes Yuuri’s phone back, his only verdict is, “Cute kid.”

“Yeah,” Yuuri says, “she is.”

They resume hunting orcs, and a few minutes later Yuuri hears the crack of a door opening in the hall. Leo emerges in a loose white tank top and basketball shorts, his long hair still dark and wet from the shower, and stretches his arms overhead to grab the door frame.

“What’s for dinner?” he asks Phichit with an easy grin.

“A coffin full of chicken nuggets,” Phichit responds, deadpan, “and eight pounds of apple pie.” As soon as he finishes saying it, Phichit dissolves into giggles, and Leo hides his head in his arms, snorting.

It takes Yuuri a moment to place why they find this so funny, but he doesn’t—it’s an in-joke. Phichit is referencing something that’s not meant for Yuuri at all.

More than anything else on the trip, it makes him feel left behind.

Phichit and Leo both take Sunday morning off from practice to hang out with Yuuri. They make breakfast together and destroy their friendships over Mario Kart, and Leo eagerly seeks out Yuuri’s opinion on some songs he’s already considering for his programs next season. Then, reluctantly, they escort Yuuri to the airport.

Yuuri hugs Phichit goodbye outside the security line, wishing him luck once more in the Final. He goes to shake Leo’s hand—and gets a hug there as well, sudden and firm. It’s nice. Yuuri feels a bit reluctant to leave, but also… not. Not as torn as he expected he’d be.

Even though Victor had given Yuuri his credit card, urging him to Uber back to the neighborhood when he got back into Chicago, Yuuri opts to take the El. After the flurry of parties and socialization and the general weirdness of being back in Detroit, he needs that extra time to slow down and decompress. Although he left Detroit early in the day, it’s dark out by the time his last train screeches to a halt.

As Yuuri emerges onto the platform at Armitage station and starts to tow his bag to the road, headphones in his ears playing piano and violin duets, it begins to snow.

It’s not much—tiny swirling flurries that Yuuri can only see when he stares up directly into the white-gold glow of the street lamps, but it’s the first snow Yuuri’s seen since he arrived in Chicago, and he pauses beneath the station to watch it drift down.

The streets in Victor’s neighborhood are quiet and empty, blinds pulled tight over windows lit from within. Most of the families inside probably don’t even realize yet that the first snow has just arrived, and Yuuri feels privileged to be outside in it. In a few months, he knows he’ll be sick and tired of it, but that doesn’t erase the magic of the first flakes of the winter.

At last Yuuri bumps his suitcase up the steps of the brownstone, the porch light shining a merry gold over his head as he fits his key in the latch. When the door opens, he’s greeted immediately with a soft boof as Makkachin rises from where she’d been lying in the entrance.

He pokes his head around the corner and finds Victor and Maia both seated at the table, eating dinner. Their heads whip around at the sound of the door closing, and Maia squeals, “Yuuri! You’re back!”

She launches herself from the table, her chair screeching as the legs drag across the hardwood floor, and catapults across the room to wrap her little arms tight around his waist, burying her face in his stomach. Yuuri reaches down, stroking his fingers through her baby-fine hair.

Victor rises from his seat as well and follows his daughter, smiling. “How was your trip?” he asks. “Did you eat dinner yet? I made extra, in case you were hungry.”

As he finishes, something seems to catch his eyes, and then Victor’s fingers are in Yuuri’s hair, brushing it back, tucking the longer strands back behind his ear.

Yuuri stops breathing.

Then Victor’s eyes focus again and those elegant fingers pull away, brushing at the fabric of Yuuri’s winter coat instead. Victor’s nose is pink. He smiles softly. “Sorry,” he says. “There was snow in your hair.”

“It’s snowing?” Maia gasps, and then Yuuri is forgotten as she races to the entry window to pull back the blinds, leaving the two men alone in the living room.

It’s suddenly very quiet, and Yuuri is very aware of how close Victor is still standing. There’s a weird energy in the air around them, and Yuuri has no idea what to do with that.

“Did you want any?” Victor asks, and Yuuri blinks.

“Any what?”

“Dinner.”

Oh. Of course. “Yes,” Yuuri says, ducking his head to hide his pinking cheeks. “Dinner would be great.”

“I’ll fix you a plate,” Victor says. His mouth parts in a heart-shaped grin and he hums a few bars of something to himself as he heads to the kitchen, but he stops a few feet away. “Oh, and Yuuri,” he adds, looking back, “welcome home.”

Dazzled by the blue of Victor’s eyes and his sweet, unselfconscious smile, Yuuri grasps at the straws of reality as Victor walks away. He’s right, and Yuuri can feel it swell in his chest. Detroit is the place he’d lived for five long years, and all of his family is still in Japan, but this— Maia, Makkachin, Yuuri’s little room in the attic—this is his home now.

Chapter Text

Yuuri watches the last day of the Barcelona Grand Prix Final on his laptop, curled up under the covers in his little bed with a wedge-shaped pillow propped up behind his back and his best gaming headset on. Despite a personal best in the Free Skate, Phichit finishes sixth. Yuuri would probably have been devastated if that happened to him, but Phichit reacts only with gratitude, inundating his social media with selfies taken at the monuments in Barcelona and tweeting out rambling messages expressing how honored he is to have made it at all.

Afterward, Celestino treats Phichit to some time off, and the two of them travel on from Spain to Italy, visiting Celestino’s hometown and his old rink before a whirlwind tour of the biggest destinations.

That leaves Yuuri with no one to text, no one to game with, only following Phichit’s shenanigans in Europe from a safe distance.

It’s actually very good for his sleep schedule. Apparently it is easier to get up in the morning when one doesn’t stay up past midnight in the glow of a laptop screen, frantically spamming the spacebar. Yuuri goes to bed early, and he even sleeps a bit late. His mother would be proud.

He sleeps right up until 8:15 that next Saturday after the Final. It’s a rare weekend where he knows he has to work—Maia is finally making enough friends to have her first-ever play date scheduled for the morning, and Yuuri will be the one dropping her off. The play date isn’t until nine, though, so he’s got plenty of time to get ready despite the extra sleep.

Rolling from the bed, Yuuri slips on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt from the bottom of his wardrobe, then frowns, tugging at the hem. He’s been neglecting his laundry, and he’s stuck with the bottom of the barrel—old ratty things that don’t really fit and items that might actually have been borrowed from Phichit. He wouldn’t wear any of it outside, but it should be fine for going downstairs and grabbing coffee.

He gives up on tugging the hem of his shirt down to cover his stomach and heads downstairs, pausing at the landing of the second floor. Maia’s bedroom door is shut, which means she’s still asleep. That’s unusual, but also good. It gives him a little time to drink his coffee while she gets dressed. He opens the door and pokes his head inside, speaking softly until she stirs from amid a pile of blankets and plush animals, raising her head and rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

Once he’s satisfied that Maia’s feet are on the floor, Yuuri pads downstairs. From the first floor landing, he can hear the sound of raised voices in the living room and groans internally. It’s too early for Victor to be watching TV in—what language is that? French?

This whole household understands entirely too many languages, and Yuuri can barely speak one before he’s had caffeine. He walks into the living area ready to say as much to Victor and stops in his tracks, the words dying unsaid on his lips.

They have a guest—a guest who has his hands thrown up in the air, rambling in French in a building crescendo and pacing in front of the couch, where Victor is reclining with the sort of stiff, straight smile that says he’s only biding his time. The guest isn’t just any irate man with a French accent, though. He’s someone Yuuri recognizes, from the curl of his short blond hair to the confident cock of his hips as he walks.

It feels like the wood floor has opened up and seized Yuuri by the ankles. He can’t move. Then the man turns to pace another lap and catches sight of him. He, too, freezes.

“Yuuri?” he exclaims, arms dropping to his sides.

Yuuri licks his lips. “Hi, Chris,” he says. He’s amazed the words come out audible. A door slams upstairs, and Yuuri flinches.

Victor sits up on the sofa, looking back and forth between the two men, his head tilted. He’s already dressed for the day in a teal tank top and black leggings that mold to his muscular thighs. “You two know each other?”

“We’re friends,” Yuuri says.

At the same time, Chris says, “We used to compete.”

Whoops. On the list of ways Yuuri might have guessed his dark past would be outed, “Two-time Grand Prix Final Champion Shows Up Unexpectedly At My House” was not at the top of the list. It wasn’t even on the list at all.

“Congratulations,” Yuuri says faintly, “by the way.”

“Merci.”

“Excuse me,” Victor interrupts, “but you used to compete together?” His tone is incredulous, and Yuuri can’t blame him. Most people would never peg Yuuri as a competitive skater—probably even including the men he’d skated with.

“Mostly in Juniors,” Yuuri says quickly, but Chris snorts, shaking his head.

“You’re always too modest. If you hadn’t been injured before the Final that year—well, I might only be a one time Grand Prix winner.”

“That’s an exaggeration,” Yuuri mutters, staring at the floor. He desperately wants to see the look on Victor’s face right now, but he also doesn’t.

“Oh,” Chris exclaims suddenly, and Yuuri glances up at him. The other man is staring at Yuuri in obvious appraisal, his eyes lingering on the gap where Yuuri’s shirt hem doesn’t meet the waist of his bicycle shorts.

Ohhhh,” Chris repeats, aiming a sly grin at Victor, “is this what’s taking you so long, then? The two of you—”

“Yuuri is Maia’s nanny,” Victor says. His voice is tight, coiled like a snake. Yuuri still can’t look at him.

“Yuuri Katsuki… is working as your nanny?”

Another door slams upstairs, and it’s like it snaps through something that was tethering Yuuri in this miserable place.

He straightens up, finding his voice again. “Speaking of which, we have a play date to get to this morning!” He meets Chris’s eyes, smiling. “Excuse me. It was good seeing you. We should catch up sometime.”

Before Chris can reply, Yuuri turns and practically runs up the stairs.

It’s only when he feels a headache start to form behind his eyes, two houses down from Maia’s playdate, that Yuuri realizes he completely forgot to pour himself any coffee.

The playdate is at another brownstone in their neighborhood, three blocks away. Victor had set it up while Yuuri was out of town for Phichit’s party, so he’s not sure what to expect when they get there. He doesn’t even know who the other kid is. He rings the bell while Maia bounces on her toes at his side, and they’re greeted moments later by a small girl in a frilly pink dress with pin-straight blonde hair.

She immediately grabs Maia’s hand, pulling her away from Yuuri; “Come on,” she says, “I want to show you my new Barbie!”

Yuuri’s left shifting awkwardly in the entrance as they thump up the curving stairs. The bannister is already wrapped in greenery, bows, and glittering lights in preparation for the coming holiday. Down the hall, he can see the towering form of an evergreen glinting in the sun that streams through the living room windows. Should he follow the girls upstairs? He takes a step forward, then second-guesses himself.

“Victor,” a woman’s voice echoes out from around another corner, “can I get you any—” Her head emerges from behind the drywall—short brown hair, not much makeup. She’s wearing an oversized t-shirt tucked into high-waisted jeans. She looks relaxed compared to most of the Type A moms Yuuri sees around the school and the neighborhood, and he can see why Victor might think their families would get along.

But, when she sees Yuuri, her smile flattens. “You’re not Victor,” she says.

“No, I’m Yuuri.” There’s no sign of recognition in her eyes. He hesitates, but she looks like she might toss him out the front door by his shirt collar if he doesn’t identify himself soon. “I’m Victor’s nanny.”

It’s never embarrassed him to say that. He knows most nannies in the area are either young women still in college or older immigrants, not men who already finished school, but he doesn’t let that bother him. A good job is a good job, and Yuuri enjoys it, plus he gets along well enough with the others nannies in the neighborhood. But something in the way Chris said it this morning, Yuuri Katsuki is your nanny—it doesn’t sit right.

It doesn’t sit right with this mother either.

“Oh,” she says flatly, “Victor didn’t mention he was just sending the nanny. I’m Rita. Charlotte is my daughter.”

“Nice to meet you,” Yuuri says. He starts to offer his hand, but Rita brushes past him to the stairs.

“There’s some snacks and juice in the fridge if the girls want anything,” she says, already climbing up to the second floor. “I’ll be in my study if you need help.”

Lovely, Yuuri thinks, watching her disappear. He runs into parents like that sometimes, people who react to hearing that he’s a nanny like he’s announced he has genital herpes. He tries to be understanding about it—a lot of parents set up these things hoping to make friends who are also parents, so they’re disappointed when they learn he’s “the help,” but it still feels gross, especially today.

He soothes his wounded soul by helping himself to the espresso machine on the kitchen counter, even though Rita conspicuously hadn’t invited him to. Then he goes upstairs and plays Barbies with the girls. Despite her mother, Charlotte is delighted to take in a strange man, and she imperiously assigns him to play as a small teddy bear who is, apparently, the only male toy in her bedroom.

Trying to puzzle out the constantly evolving rules and relationships in Charlotte and Maia’s game is almost enough to distract Yuuri from worrying about what lies ahead for him—almost. A churning, sinking sickness in his stomach serves as a bookmark for what happened this morning. Even though he’s put the story away for now, he knows that when he gets back home it will fall open to that page.

Will Victor be angry? Sad? What will he say? What will Yuuri say when he has to, once he no longer has an excuse to run away?

Something hard and pointed whaps Yuuri on the arm, and he looks up from the blank stare of the teddy bear clutched in his hands.

Charlotte shakes her Barbie at him. “I said Beary Goldwater doesn’t want to drive us to the mall! You need to say it.”

Yuuri wiggles the bear. “I don’t want to drive you to the mall,” he repeats numbly.

Charlotte jumps to her feet and grabs Maia’s hand again. “Come on, Maia. We’re running away! Beary is too mean.”

Yuuri waits a minute before chasing them down the hall. He needs to give them a fair head start.

Lunch time arrives faster than Yuuri had wanted it to, and when Rita comes out of her office to end the play date, she finds Yuuri stretched out on one end of the play room sofa with the girls on the other, singing along to “Let It Go”. She watches with amusement for a moment before announcing that it’s time for Maia to leave.

Through the girls’ crocodile tears, Yuuri helps Maia back into her winter coat and gloves as Rita watches, arms folded but smiling.

“You’re really good with her,” Rita says.

I know, Yuuri thinks, but he says, “Thank you.”

“It’s so hard to find good help around here.” Oh no. Yuuri knows where this is going, and he’s not at all surprised when she asks, “What does your current family pay, if you don’t mind me asking?”

Yuuri bites off a laugh. Normally, he doesn’t bother. For all their big talk, the parents who try to poach him away usually can’t actually afford to double his salar—Victor pays far too well. But, he still doesn’t know what he’s about to go home to. Maybe he needs a back-up plan.

So he takes Rita’s card—just in case—and hopes he won’t need it.

When they get back to the house, Maia runs through the door and dashes into the living room. Yuuri checks the entryway and the stairs as he puts their shoes and coats away, but there’s no sign of his suitcases. He lets out a breath of relief, but then his heart rate spikes as he hears Maia chattering away about her playdate in the next room, followed by the low tones of Victor’s voice responding.

Nevermind that it’s normal for Victor to be home at noon on Saturday, that he’s usually in the kitchen starting lunch for them anyway—Yuuri’s certain that Victor must be in there waiting for him.

He’s tempted to run straight up to his room, but he’d only be postponing the inevitable, and it wouldn’t be a great look in a grown man anyway.

Yuuri finishes straightening up the winter gear, perhaps a bit more slowly than necessary, and then slinks into the living area to meet his fate.

Victor’s in the same spot on the couch where he was sitting when Yuuri left, though Yuuri’s certain he probably moved at some point. There’s a water bottle sweating on the coffee table in front of him, and his tank top looks damp, so he’s probably been to the gym. Maia is on his lap, her back resting against his chest and her little legs dangling between his, and Victor nuzzles his cheek into her hair as she tells him about Charlotte, her house, and her toys.

When Yuuri walks in, Victor looks up at him and gives Maia a quick squeeze. “I’m glad you made a new friend, Mashka,” he says when she pauses for breath. “Yuuri and I are going to start getting lunch ready—why don’t you run upstairs and play?”

“Okay,” Maia says, hopping down.

Yuuri almost asks her not to go. Surely Victor wouldn’t fire Yuuri in front of his daughter.

As the sound of Maia’s feet fades up the stairs, Yuuri waits in the doorway. Victor’s expression is flat. It’s not overtly angry, but from someone who normally smiles as a front despite his feelings, the absence of even a false smile is alarming.

“Do you want to sit down?” he asks, patting the sofa beside him.

“I’d rather not.” It would be pointless if Yuuri simply had to get back up and leave a short time later.

Victor sighs, and his face collapses. His eyes are bright, brow furrowed as he steeples his hands in front of his lips. “Why didn’t you tell me you competed?” he asks. “Not just competed, but internationally ranked?”

Yuuri shifts his weight against the doorway, weighing what to say. He could point out that Victor had never asked—he had only assumed that Yuuri was nothing more than a childrens’ coach, and Yuuri, who rarely felt like he deserved to be anything more, had simply not corrected that assumption.

But Yuuri knows full well that a lie of omission is still a lie.

“The first day,” Yuuri begins, “when you found out I knew who you were, it was obvious you didn’t like that. You didn’t seem like you wanted to talk about skating, or acknowledge your career.” He pauses to shake his head. “Even when we went to the public rink, the way you reacted to those fans…

“I didn’t want to upset you,” he concludes. “I didn’t want you to make me leave. I didn’t come here knowing who you were or intending to lie, but it just… happened.” Yuuri ends with a shrug, defeated. He knows it’s not a strong defense.

Victor sighs, covering his face with his hands for a moment. When he raises his head, the wrinkles are still criss-crossing his brow, and Yuuri wants to reach out, to stroke back his hair like he would for Maia.

He can’t do that.

“I’m not upset,” Victor says, although his expression belays that. His mouth twists then, wry. “I feel like a bit of an idiot that I didn’t realize, or ask, but— Here we are.”

He rises from the sofa and dusts off the knees of his leggings where Maia’s white socks had left dots of lint, then meets Yuuri’s eyes again. “I need some time to think about this. For now, I’m going to shower and get changed—Chris and I were going to meet for dinner tonight, so I meant to ask you to babysit, but,” something flits over his face, gone before Yuuri can place it, “maybe you’d rather come with us, and you and Christophe could catch up as well? I can find another sitter.”

“No, no,” Yuuri raises his hands quickly, shaking his head. “I can babysit! That’s great. I mean—it’s fine! I didn’t have any plans tonight.”

Yuuri can label the expression on Victor’s face now—it’s relief. “Are you sure?”

“Completely,” says Yuuri. It might be nice to catch up with Chris, but Yuuri hasn’t actually seen him in almost five years, and they were never very close friends. Victor obviously has more of a relationship with the man, and after everything that’s happened, it might do Victor and Yuuri both good to spend a few hours apart.

Yuuri knows he made the right call when Victor smiles—small, but real, and says, “Thank you.”

“I’ll get started on lunch,” Yuuri replies, and he heads into the kitchen, freeing up the doorway for Victor to leave and get ready.

Yuuri ends up taking his own lunch to his room while Victor and Maia eat downstairs. He watches Netflix on his laptop between throwing longing glances at his phone. Victor’s going to go out with Chris. He’ll talk to Chris about Yuuri. He’ll work through his feelings about everything with a friendly ear to listen.

Who can Yuuri tell?

No one, he decides. No matter how he twists the problem in his mind, he can’t think of a way to phrase it to Phichit or his mother that they wouldn’t ask questions about Victor—questions Yuuri can’t answer.

He hides out in his room, not ashamed to do it now that the worst part is over, and tries to distract himself with weird British comedies and mobile games until Victor is ready to leave.

The nice thing about babysitting is there’s no pressure for him to keep Maia active and engaged. After dinner, they veg out on the sofa together in pajamas, eating graham crackers and frozen yogurt while they watch Toy Story—one of Yuuri’s childhood favorites, which Maia’s never seen before.

She falls asleep twenty minutes into the first sequel, which is a blessing, because Yuuri’s had too hard of a day to avoid tears in the “When She Loved Me” scene.

He can lift Maia’s limp weight like nothing, and she barely stirs, aside from a slight frown when he picks her up. Somewhere on the stairs, he thinks he sees a flash of brown eye, and when he looks down her lids are squeezed tightly closed, her little face screwed up in concentration.

Yuuri bites his lip, holding in a laugh. He can remember doing the same thing as a kid, when he’d fallen asleep somewhere else and his father had to carry him to bed—waking up, but then staying quiet and limp, faking sleep to enjoy those few extra minutes of feeling his dad’s arms around him, holding him tight even though Yuuri was old enough that he never got carried while awake.

He sets Maia down on her bed and pulls up a spare blanket from the foot, smoothing her hair back from her face, but doesn’t worry over tucking her in properly. She’s awake, so she can tuck herself under the other blankets after he leaves.

Back downstairs, he stretches out on the sofa and listens to the floorboards creak above him as Maia settles herself in. For babysitting, Yuuri likes to stay in the living room after Maia is in bed instead of retreating to his own space. He knows Victor will want to check in on how the night went once he gets home, and it’s easier if Yuuri makes himself accessible.

As he lies down on the sofa and opens the game folder on his phone, his battery is strong at sixty-three percent.

It’s flagging at twenty-five by the time he hears the key in the latch, and Makkachin jumps to her feet, tail wagging, from where she’d been stretched out in the entryway floor.

Victor slips in quietly. His hair is in disarray, his cheeks flushed, and his coat and scarf hang open despite the deep cold of mid-December. He greets Makkachin enthusiastically, but that’s not unusual.

It’s not until he reaches the living room, standing a few feet away, that Yuuri realizes he’s drunk. The telltale aroma of stale cigarettes, sharp sweat, and alcohol give Victor away as his scarf and coat both wind up on the floor instead of the coat rack. He dances into the room and sprawls onto the couch at Yuuri’s side, taking up far more than half the seat, until Yuuri is pressed against the arm rest and their knees are still touching.

“Good night?” Yuuri asks. He’s not sure if he should be amused or worried. In his months here, he’s never known Victor to have more to drink than a glass of wine with dinner.

Victor’s head falls back against the arm rest on his side, and he stretches his long legs out even further. The pose reminds Yuuri of one of the posters he’d had as a teenager—one he’d been far too embarrassed to hang on the wall.

“An excellent night,” Victor replies. “Chris and I have been friends since we were teenagers, you know.”

I know, Yuuri doesn’t say, because it’s especially weird now to admit how much he really knows about Victor.

But then Victor lifts up his head and looks at Yuuri, his blue eyes unfocused and an amused tilt to his mouth. “Oh,” he says, “I guess you do know, don’t you?”

Yuuri shouldn’t ask—he might not enjoy the answer—but he does anyway, “Did you talk about me?”

“Some,” Victor says. He’s not slurring his words, but he’s beginning to mumble a bit. He worms himself further into the couch cushions, comfortable in his ridiculous position in the way only a very drunk or very tired person could be. “I watched you skate.”

Yuuri’s heart seizes. “Where?” His biggest fear in the moment is that Victor is about to reveal that he’d watched Yuuri skate at some point in the past, seated in a vast crowd where Yuuri could never pick him out.

“Youtube,” Victor says, and Yuuri relaxes slightly. “Christophe wanted to dance, and I was sick of dancing, so I let him go alone and then I—” he gestures to his crotch, and it takes Yuuri a moment to realize he meant to point to his pocket and his phone, “Youtube.”

It’s an opportunity Yuuri had always wanted and yet dreaded. Victor’s watched him skate. He’s seen god knows which programs, and has probably watched Yuuri land on his ass, his face, twist his ankle, pop his lutz, and so on. Yuuri could now ask what Victor thought of it. He could get feedback from his skating idol.

But that feedback would be three whole years too late. And Yuuri’s more afraid of what Victor might say than he is curious. This time, he doesn’t ask the stupid question.

Instead, Yuuri gets up, tucking his phone back into his pocket. “Maia’s been asleep a couple hours,” he says, “so I’m gong to go get ready for—”

“Why did you quit?” Victor asks abruptly.

Yuuri doesn’t know how to answer that. He’s never been able to. It was a cluster of things, in the end, and maybe it all started two years earlier when Victor retired, or maybe it started when he twisted his ankle, or maybe it had been coming for years, from the moment Yuuri entered seniors and dropped from Junior World Champion to being ranked third nationally.

Before he can attempt to cobble together a response, Victor lifts his head and blinks at Yuuri, his expression distant and tinged with something longing. “Did you lose your inspiration?” he asks.

Yuuri never thought of it that way. It might be true.

Victor rolls out of his sprawl, tucking himself onto his side, legs curled up to fit on the couch, and nestles his face into the cushioned arm. For a second, Yuuri thinks he’s passed out already, and then Victor drawls out his name, muffled by the cushion, “Yuuuuuuri, I want to watch you dance someday. Can I?”

That question catches Yuuri off guard more than any of the others. “Why would you want that?” he asks.

Victor’s eyes are closed, his lips barely moving. He breathes a word that looks almost like beautiful. Yuuri waits a moment to see if there’s more, but there’s only the even rise and fall of Victor’s ribs as he sleeps.

Pulling a spare blanket from the hall closet, Yuuri drapes it over Victor, just as he’d done with Maia a few hours before. Victor’s silver hair is falling over his eyes, and Yuuri resists the temptation to smooth it back, pulling away to make sure Victor’s fully covered against the cold. Heat rises, and it’s always chilly on the first floor at night.

Then, Yuuri turns out the kitchen light and takes himself to bed too.

Chapter Text

Yuuri gets up the next morning to find Victor in the kitchen like it's any other day. He looks a little bleary-eyed as he nurses his coffee, looking at his morning smoothie with clear resentment, but otherwise he’s none the worse for wear despite his adventures with Chris. If not for the spare blanket now folded up over the back of the couch, Yuuri would think he dreamed the whole scenario.

Maia is seated at the table, her little legs swinging from the chair, humming “Jingle Bells” as she munches on a bowl of something rainbow-colored. Yuuri pats her on the head as he takes his own seat in front of another bowl. He stares into the depths of it in horrified fascination. He didn’t even know there was breakfast cereal in the house, much less Fruit Loops.

He can’t help looking at Victor then, expecting a joke or confirmation of some strange prank. Victor pinks in response, holding his coffee cup up to hide his face.

“You can make your own breakfast, if you’d rather,” Victor says. Oddly enough, it makes Yuuri feel better. Victor is a person, after all, and despite his effort to conceal it, people get hangovers.

“No, this is fine.” Yuuri reaches for the carton of milk at the center of the table and tries to hide his smile.

In the following days, Maia’s school lets out for the winter holiday, and Yuuri finds himself busier than usual, scrambling for activities the two of them can use to fill the days with anything other than television and indoor games. It snows again, and Yuuri finds a spot to take Maia sledding for the first time, but to his surprise, Victor declines to join them.

Yuuri can’t help noticing that he’s been seeing less of Victor since his past was revealed. He knows he has a tendency to overthink things, and to see signs of trouble where none exist, so he tries to force his brain to chalk it up to coincidence. Victor is busy. Yuuri’s schedule has changed because of the school break. The timing of their days no longer lines up.

But, he still has to wonder if trouble is lurking.

Yuuri blinks at the time on his laptop when Phichit signs off their game for the night, wishing him a Happy Christmas as he goes. It’s not Christmas yet—midnight is still almost an hour away, thank god. For a second, Yuuri thought he’d lost track of time, and he knows he’d regret that in the morning.

Thanks to all the crafts and projects she’s been doing at school since Thanksgiving, Maia has suddenly become very into Christmas this year, and Victor’s had to do a lot of last minute decorating to keep up. She’s sure to wake up early in the morning, and she’ll expect Yuuri to be there too, so he really ought to go to sleep soon.

If only he were sleepy. He shuts his computer and stretches out on the bed, extending himself until his toes brush the wall. He and Phichit had used the last few hours to raid a pretty prominent boss, and Yuuri’s heart is still beating with the rush of a tough battle and epic loot. If he goes to bed now, he’ll only lie awake in the dark, replaying the fight behind his eyelids.

A hot drink might help, and there’s chamomile tea in the cabinet downstairs, so Yuuri rolls off the bed, picking up his dirty mug from earlier in the night to rinse and reuse.

When he reaches the second floor landing, he spots a sliver of light spilling from the crack at the bottom of Maia’s door. She should have been asleep hours ago. He pauses, considering whether to check on her, when the light suddenly snaps off and he hears the thunk of her bed sliding into the wall as she dives back into it.

Yuuri smiles and continues down the steps. He’d rather not scold her for being excited, and with any luck she’ll fall asleep on her own now that she’s back in bed with the light out.

Most of the first floor is decked out with twinkling Christmas lights and faux greenery, and there’s a cool glow emanating from the living area. On the bottom step, Yuuri nearly slips and dies on a pile of fallen silver tinsel that escaped being hung on their little tree, and he curses. With a five year-old in charge of decorating, the whole house has become a minefield of bells, bows, and glitter.

He walks into the living room and stops in the door.

Victor is on the sofa, his knees up under his chin, balancing the plate of cookies Maia had left out for Santa. When he notices Yuuri, he smiles sheepishly around his mouthful and waves with the headless remains of a blue and violet snowman.

Yuuri grins. “You know Maia’s still awake, right? She’ll have a fit if she catches you eating those.”

“But they’re for Santa, and that’s me,” Victor mutters, one hand over his mouth to keep from spilling crumbs. He swallows, licking his lips. “She’s pretty determined to do the whole ‘Stay up and see Santa Claus’ thing, huh?”

“I guess so.” Yuuri shrugs. There are flecks of blue icing still hiding in the corners of Victor’s mouth, distracting. “You have some—” Yuuri gestures to his own mouth, and Victor’s tongue darts out. It’s no better than the icing was.

Victor pulls out his phone and turns on the camera, checking his face on the screen. He hums to himself, frowning. “We didn’t do Christmas much in my family, so this is all new for me. I feel like I missed a class on how to do holidays every time Maia corrects me.”

“Same here,” Yuuri admits. “But there are worse things the school could be indoctrinating her with than Santa Claus.”

Victor sighs and sets the plate of cookies back on the table, then gently pushes Makkachin’s face away as she immediately sticks her nose right beside the plate and snuffles at the treats. “I guess I should wait a little longer to do the Santa thing, to make sure she’s asleep.” He pats the sofa beside him and picks up the remote. “Care to join me? I bet there are weird Christmas specials on.”

“Only if we can watch one of the Hallmark ones,” Yuuri says, smiling. He puts his dirty cup on the counter, tea plans forgotten, and takes the empty seat on the couch. “I want to see a hard-boiled businesswoman learn how to love from a folksy man in a small town with a precocious child.”

“I’m sure that can be arranged,” Victor says.

Despite his promise, both Hallmark and Lifetime are a disappointment. For Christmas Eve itself, they’ve reverted to classic kids’ specials from the 1970s, and Yuuri is forced to admit with a shudder that he finds the claymation dolls creepy—something about their jerky movements reads as wrong to him.

“If you think those are bad,” Victor says, “remind me to show you some Soviet-era animation someday.” He shudders theatrically.

They end up on a local channel that’s playing It’s A Wonderful Life. Yuuri’s heard references to it for years, but even after five years in the States, he’s never bothered to sit down and watch it.

It’s actually… sort of good? It’s weird, and there are parts of the plot Yuuri doesn’t understand, cultural references from a bygone era that he can tell he’s missing out on, but the whole thing is strangely compelling, and he finds himself sucked in.

When George arrives in a world where he was never born and discovers with horror that his wife became a librarian, though, Yuuri has to laugh. He turns to Victor with a remark about it on the tip of his tongue, only to find that Victor has fallen asleep, slumping sideways on the cushions with his lips slightly parted, his hair tumbling unimpeded over his eyes.

Again, Yuuri is tempted to push that hair back. His fingers almost itch with it, and he scratches at the rough material of his jeans to distract himself. He doesn’t know if Victor is a light sleeper or not. If he reached out, that might wake him up—and then what?

Yuuri tries to get back into the plot of the movie, but it kind of sputters for him toward the end. The scene of George restored, running through the town and overjoyed, makes him smile too, but then Yuuri’s focus is broken as a warm weight lands on his shoulder.

Victor. He’s drifted over, slumping more in his sleep, and now his head is pillowed on Yuuri’s bicep, cookie-scented breath escaping his lips in soft, warm puffs.

As the film starts dealing with money and a million characters pour onto the screen, Yuuri finds himself totally confused. Who is who? Did he miss something? Did anyone actually punish the old man who started the whole mess for no good reason? Yuuri’s not sure how much of the ending has gone over his head for cultural reasons and how much is just… distraction.

The credits start and the channel jumps to commercial, the volume suddenly markedly louder than the ending of the film had been, and Victor wakes with a start, head jerking back as he blinks awake, looking around in confusion.

Yuuri can see the gears turning as Victor takes in exactly where his head has been resting, and he tries to control his flush as Victor draws back—not enough, not at all, they’re still entirely too close, and Victor’s bright blue eyes are still sleepy and heavy-lidded.

His eyelashes are even longer than Yuuri thought.

“I’m sorry,” Victor murmurs, still not pulling away. He’s staring into Yuuri’s eyes like he’s searching for something. “I didn’t mean to fall asleep on you. That was inappropriate, wasn’t it?”

“No,” Yuuri says quickly—maybe too quickly. “No. Nope! I mean, Santa has to sleep sometimes, right? I was thinking earlier that Maia will probably wake us up early tomorrow so it’s good that you… slept…”

Yuuri trails off, realizing he’s rambling at the same time he notices that Victor is no longer mining for answers in the black of Yuuri’s eyes. Instead, his gaze has dropped, lingering in the vicinity of his lower lip. Without thinking, Yuuri licks his lips, and Victor drifts a bit closer.

Alarm bells are sounding in Yuuri’s skull, and he gropes for something to say, to keep Victor from doing something he doesn’t mean just because he’s half asleep still and Yuuri is there.

“Do you want your present now?” Yuuri blurts out. “Or in the morning?”

Blinking, Victor draws back. “Present? Yuuri, you didn’t need to get me anything.”

“It’s something small,” Yuuri assures him. He takes the opportunity to slip away, over to the little potted fir they’d put up at the last minute. The tree leans slightly forward, because Maia and Victor both hung all the ornaments on the front. Yuuri pulls a brown paper-wrapped package from underneath.

“I didn’t have any wrapping paper in my room,” he admits as he offers Victor the box. “That’s why it’s so ugly.” All he had were shipping materials for sending things back home. He’d tried to draw some stars on the plain brown paper with Crayola marker, but the yellow doesn’t show up very well.

Victor turns the package over in his hands, smiling. “It’s great. Can I open it now?”

“Maia’s going to be too excited over her own gifts tomorrow to care about what we got.” Although Victor hadn’t gotten the puppy she’d begged Santa Claus for at the park, he’d shown Yuuri the closet where he’d hidden Maia’s Christmas gifts. For someone who didn’t normally do Christmas, he’d really gone the extra mile.

Victor rips into the paper with a vengeance, and the sound catches Makka’s attention, so she trots over, pulling at the wrapping with her teeth to assist. Victor lifts the lid on the box inside, then has to push Makkachin’s nose away. His face lights up, his mouth in a heart-shaped bow as he recognizes what’s inside.

“You noticed my slippers!” he exclaims, pulling the new ones out of the box. Yuuri smiles and nods. With the colder weather, Victor is always wearing the same pair of poodle slippers in the house—faded from brown to grey, with rips in the fabric along the soles. One of the dogs is even missing an eye, which Yuuri finds mildly disturbing.

Finding a new pair of the same shoes had actually been quite difficult, and he’d probably paid more than they were worth, but Victor doesn’t need to know all that. The smile on his face as he wiggles his toes into the new ones more than makes up for the effort and cost.

Victor shakes his feet around, making the cute little ears flop as Makka sits nearby, staring in rapt fascination. Yuuri has a sudden suspicion that the tears and missing bits on the old pair may not have come purely from Victor wearing them.

“Thank you,” Victor says, rising up from the sofa. For a moment, Yuuri thinks Victor might even hug him, and he holds his breath, but Victor walks past him into the kitchen and turns on the light.

“I know the standard gift for a nanny is a bonus check,” Victor says, smiling sheepishly, “but it’s sort of impersonal on its own, isn’t it? I may have gotten you a little something as well.”

Yuuri blinks, a combination of confusion and the sudden fluorescent brightness of the room, and takes the opportunity to put his old tea mug away in the dishwasher. He’s not going to make any more tonight after all.

Victor opens up the pantry door and pulls out the stool they use to reach the highest shelves. He comes back down with a book in his hands a moment later, bound in maroon leather, and Yuuri steps into the pantry to take it from him.

It’s not a book at all. It’s a photo album.

Each page Yuuri turns reveals more pictures—Yuuri with Makkachin, Maia and Victor, Yuuri walking Makka with Maia riding on his shoulders, Yuuri drinking tea on the sofa in his pajamas, his feet tucked up under himself. Yuuri never knew that most of these were being taken, and he’s usually not looking at the camera when he’s in the photo. The corners of the pages are also decorated like a scrapbook, with little drawings of the house and the four of them from Maia glued into the corners.

There are more pages at the back still blank, waiting to be completed, but the last photo makes Yuuri bite his lip for a moment. It’s the one from the Christmas market that the old lady took for them—Yuuri and Victor both smiling at the camera, with Maia hoisted up on both their shoulders.

“Do you like it?” Victor asks, and Yuuri’s surprised to hear his voice so quiet and uncertain.

“Of course. I love it.” Yuuri flips back to the beginning and starts again, taking in the little details on each page—the framing of the photos, the progression of Maia’s art. “But what about the privacy rule? I thought I wasn’t supposed to have photos.”

“That rule… It’s something I still need right now,” Victor says, “but not for too much longer. Someday, I hope, you’ll want to be able to share these memories.”

Yuuri nods and turns another page. Other than the Christmas photo, this section might be his favorite. On one side is a selfie of Maia and Victor, taken one afternoon when Maia decided to try her hand at doing makeup, their faces both splattered with color and shimmer like a Lisa Frank interpretation of a Picasso. On the facing page, Yuuri has his back turned to the camera, wearing shorts and a tank top and trying to wash mud off a very excited Makkachin in the guest room bathtub. Maia, perched on the closed lid of the toilet with a towel in her arms, is laughing as Yuuri gets splattered with a rain of soap suds. In the corner beneath that is a doodle of Makka covered in bubbles.

Yuuri definitely didn’t know this picture existed. He’s about to ask Victor why he even took it, when he hears Victor inhale sharply, then whisper, “Oh no.”

Yuuri follows the line of Victor’s throat with his eyes, tracing a path up to see what has Victor so concerned.

Mistletoe. It’s fake, cheap neon green plastic stuff with pearlescent berries, tied at the base with a red velvet bow. Victor had practically bought out a craft store when Maia suddenly insisted on decorating, and he’d brought home a plastic bag stuffed with about half a dozen of these. Most of them, Yuuri knows, ended up in Maia’s room, and she’s been collecting cheek kisses off them for a few days.

Yuuri had forgotten they put one in the pantry. Clearly, Victor had too.

“We don’t have to,” Yuuri says quickly, holding his photo book tight to his chest. “Maia won’t know if we don’t.” He can’t look at Victor. His cheeks are so hot, they’d probably set off a Geiger counter.

He can feel the air displace as Victor steps down from the stool to face him, and then Victor’s fingers are on his chin, tilting Yuuri’s face up toward the pantry light.

“I’ll know,” Victor says softly. He looks much like he did on the sofa, his eyelids heavy over strips of blue as he drifts closer. “Is it all right if I want to do it anyway, this time? It is Christmas, after all.”

The last bit comes out practically a whisper, which makes it perfectly fine when Yuuri whispers back, yes.

Victor’s thumb finds Yuuri’s mouth before his lips do, skimming softly against the sensitive skin of Yuuri’s lower lip. It’s nice, but Yuuri’s heart is pounding in his chest, and he already feels like he’s been waiting forever. He tilts his head up a bit more, leans in, and at last—at last—Victor kisses him.

His lips are soft, hesitant despite Yuuri’s permission. It’s nothing like what Yuuri had imagined, back when he used to imagine such things about Victor often. It’s like a teenager’s first kiss—then a second, then a third, all chaste and sweet but with the barest hint of tongue, just a bit there, flickering against Yuuri’s bottom lip in a teasing glimpse. He tilts his head, hoping for more, but feels Victor beginning to pull away instead.

When had Yuuri put his arm around Victor’s waist?

He pulls back, flushed, and feels marginally better when he notices the bridge of Victor’s nose shaded in a similar pink. At least he’s not the only one. Victor’s mouth is still parted, as if he’s on pause, waiting to continue, and Yuuri licks his lips without thinking.

Victor’s eyes dart down for a moment. He clears his throat. “It’s getting late,” he says. “I should finish up the Christmas stuff. Like you said—Maia will have us both up early in the morning.”

“I’m sure,” Yuuri says. For now, he’s going to ignore the screaming echoing around the back of his skull—the voice that squeals that he had kissed Victor, and the other voice that points out, deprecatingly, that he’d done it in a kitchen pantry.

“Do you want any help putting out the presents?” Yuuri asks, flipping off the pantry light as they both step back into the kitchen, then shutting the door. He tries to look casual, leaning up against the kitchen island, but as he does, a massive yawn overtakes him, stretching his mouth wide.

When he unscrews his eyes from the yawn, he finds Victor smiling at him crookedly. “I appreciate the offer, but you should get some sleep.” His lip quirks further, and he adds, “Your boss doesn’t pay you enough for this.”

Yuuri ducks his head in a vain attempt to hide his reaction to that. “Okay,” he promises. “I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

As Yuuri passes on his way out of the room, he feels Victor grab his free hand, lightly squeezing his fingers for just a moment, then it’s gone. “Good night,” Victor murmurs. He hasn’t stopped smiling at all since they left the pantry.

“Good night,” Yuuri answers, and then, in a whisper, “happy birthday.”

He didn’t know Victor’s smile could get any brighter than it already was.

One minute, it seems, Yuuri is down in the living room, saying his goodnights. The next, he’s up in his own room, carefully setting the new photo album down on the nightstand. He tumbles into the bed and stares up at the ceiling with his heart still rabbiting against his eardrums. Even if Yuuri had celebrated a thousand Christmases, he’s certain this would have to be the very best one.

Chapter Text

Yuuri wakes up in his little room on a bright January morning and rolls onto his back to stare up at the blank white ceiling. His first thought is Victor. It’s been Victor for a couple weeks now.

When he went to bed on Christmas, it was with his pulse thrumming loudly in his throat, excited and happy, but also unsure of exactly what was developing between them. Even now, he isn’t sure.

After all, it’s not like they’re going on dates or something. Victor hasn’t even mentioned that night to him, and Yuuri’s whole body locks up if he so much as considers bringing the subject up himself. He’d chalk the whole thing up to Christmas and mistletoe and the weird moods that can often strike when you’re up past midnight and your mind isn’t used to it.

Except that it’s not like there’s been nothing at all between them since that Christmas morning. There have definitely been… things. Things like Victor’s arm slung around Yuuri’s shoulder when they’re both sitting on the sofa, or Victor’s toes stroking Yuuri’s ankle beneath the dining room table at breakfast, or the way, sometimes, when Victor laughs at one of Yuuri’s remarks, the bridge of his nose goes a bit pink and his grin is just a little wider than it was before.

Closer to the realm of things Yuuri might be fully imagining, there are the times Yuuri catches Victor looking at him—just looking, for no reason, at times when they weren’t talking and Yuuri wasn’t doing anything particularly interesting. He’ll be sitting on the floor with Maia, playing on his phone, or lying on the sofa listening to music, and when he looks up, Victor is there. Watching. Yuuri doesn’t have words for the look he sees on Victor’s face in those moments. It never stays long enough for him to put a name on, but vanishes as soon as Victor sees that Yuuri has noticed him, replaced in a flash by the same smiles he always wears.

And then New Year's Eve happened. They’d stayed up together as Maia tried to make it to midnight for the first time to welcome in 2016. She’d faded long before the clock chimed, though, as Yuuri had expected she would.

He drank only two glasses of champagne, staggering them with three glasses of sparkling apple juice they’d purchased for Maia, but played the alcohol up for an excuse. At midnight, he’d gathered his nerves, taken Victor by the collar, and pulled him into a kiss as Maia and Makkachin slept in a pile on the couch at their backs.

Thinking of that kiss, Yuuri feels Victor’s phantom fingers scratch across his scalp once more, cradling the back of his head to pull him even closer. Victor, too, tasted of champagne and apples. Yuuri’s been tattooed by these weeks, forever altered by these few, bright moments.

But outside of those? Nothing.

Yuuri sighs, rolling onto his side. It’s a mystery he won’t be solving by lying in bed all morning. He grabs his phone from where it’s been plugged in on his bedside table, propped up on top of the photo album that started all this, and checks the time. His alarm hasn’t gone off yet, but he’s only a few minutes early.

The winter holiday is officially over, and Maia starts back at preschool today. There are only a few more months before she’s officially a kindergartener, but Victor and Yuuri also still haven’t discussed what that will mean for Yuuri, when Maia starts doing full day school.

It’s another bridge to cross when they come to it.

Yuuri rolls from the bed and gets dressed for the January freeze, pulling on the new, soft sweater his family sent for his birthday. He wasn't sure about the sweater when it first arrived—the pattern was busier than he’d normally pick for himself—but then when he’d worn it out the next day, Victor had immediately complimented it, brushing his hand across Yuuri’s shoulders to feel the fabric. It might be Yuuri’s new favorite shirt now.

On the second floor, he finds Maia’s door still closed and checks the time again. It’s a couple minutes past seven, and she’d usually be up by now for school, but all the extra late bedtimes over the holiday must have messed with her schedule.

Yuuri cracks the door open and peers inside. Sure enough, she’s still in bed, curled up under a mountain of fluffy goose down comforter. The floor next to her is littered with the stuffed animals she insists on sleeping with nightly, only to toss them away as she tosses restlessly in her bed. Yuuri stoops to pick a few of them up on his way over, then strokes Maia’s hair back from her cheeks until she stirs, peering up at him through slitted brown eyes.

“Morning, Mashka,” Yuuri says. “Back to school today, so you need to get up now.”

Maia yawns, stretching, and rubs her eyes, but sits up quickly enough. “I’m going to take Patty in today?” she asks. Yuuri nods. Patty is what Maia decided to call the big Makkachin-looking plush that Santa brought her. It’s about as big as the real thing, and Yuuri has no idea where Maia got the name from.

After Christmas, she’d wanted to bring in all her new toys to show to her classmates, but Yuuri and Victor managed to talk her down to just the stuffed dog.

“Get dressed and brush your teeth,” he reminds her, “and then we’ll get Patty and Makkachin ready for school.”

Yuuri tries not to think about how he’s going to tote both an actual poodle and a fake one on foot, in the snow, all the way to the preschool. His coaches always said he was very creative. Hopefully he’s going to prove them right.

Once Maia’s on her feet, Yuuri leaves her to get ready and goes downstairs. The air on the first floor already smells of coffee, and Yuuri can hear Victor humming snatches of—something? It sounds familiar, but he can’t put a finger on it.

“Good morning,” Yuuri says as he enters the living area.

Victor, in the kitchen as expected, looks up from the plastic containers he’s juggling with a wide smile. “Good morning, Yuuri. Is my myshka up yet? Did she mention a preference for her lunch?”

“Just woke her up. She was more interested in making sure Patty still gets to go to school too.” They share a smile briefly as Yuuri edges past him, opening the fridge to check for breakfast options.

He spots eggs and imagines delicious, cheesy omelets, and his mind is made up. He grabs the carton, along with the milk, and starts in. Usually, Victor makes breakfast, just because he gets up before Yuuri, but Yuuri’s occasional forays into cooking for everyone have been greeted with much enthusiasm.

Omelets were one of the first things his mother taught him to make before he left Japan, and he’s practiced enough that he doesn’t need to pay attention to the process. He slips into a familiar routine, watching as the shape of the egg slowly forms in the pan.

Yuuri nearly tears the egg base when he feels something glide along his back, although he only jumps a little. Victor doesn’t seem to notice, tracing the length of Yuuri’s spine through his sweater before his hands come to rest at the top of Yuuri’s hips, right where his waistband meets the hem.

“I love omelets,” Victor sighs. His breath tickles the back of Yuuri’s neck as he speaks, and Yuuri shivers. That, Victor definitely notices.

Yuuri doesn’t move, eyes still fixed on the stove as Victor presses into his back, closer, then nuzzles the curling hair at the base of Yuuri’s neck before dropping a kiss there.

For something so chaste, it’s electric—a current passes from his lips to heat Yuuri’s blood, and his eyes fall closed. Then, he remembers the eggs, and they fly open again. Victor seems unaware of the turmoil he’s causing between Yuuri’s body and mind, but he can’t be—can he? It can’t be an accident, the way his lips move to Yuuri’s shoulder, or the way his fingers creep up under the sweater, swiping the warm skin just above Yuuri’s waistband.

Taking a calculated risk, Yuuri leans back into Victor in return, tilting his head back a bit, offering Victor the line of his throat.

Maia’s feet thump against the wooden stairs with all the force and welcome of a door to door missionary. Within three beats of her feet on the steps, Yuuri is abruptly cold, and Victor is back at the other kitchen counter.

The logic part of Yuuri’s brain is aware that Maia walking in on something could be awkward. Of course Victor doesn’t want her to know something’s going on between them. Of course he doesn’t want her to ask questions about—whatever this is. But Yuuri still can’t help wondering if that’s all it is. Is it merely a weird situation? Or is this about Yuuri in particular?

Something pops in the pan in front of him, and Yuuri realizes he’s forgotten to flip the omelet. He scrapes it out with the spatula and folds it, only to find the other side a crisp woody brown. Well, that one will have to be his. He can’t possibly serve a failure to Victor, and Maia won’t eat it if it’s not perfectly yellow. Yuuri scowls as he finishes cooking breakfast, knowing that burned eggs await him.

At the breakfast table, Victor exclaims with joy over his eggs, smiling as Yuuri slides into his own seat, and that salves some of the wound—at least until Yuuri takes his first bite of crunchy, carbon-flavored cheese omelet.

“I’m going to be out today,” Victor announces midway through the meal. “I’m afraid I won’t be back by two this time, so feel free to find something to do that will keep you both out later than usual.”

“Okay,” Yuuri says, and he pulls up the weather forecast on his phone while he’s thinking about it. If the day isn’t totally sub-zero, they might be able to pop by the park for a minute. He frowns when he reads the report. It’s freezing out all day, and besides that— “The weather is calling for snow this afternoon,” he tells Victor, “quite a lot of it, in fact, starting around five.”

Victor shudders. “The only thing worse than rush hour traffic is rush hour in a snow storm. All right, then. I’ll try to get away as early as I can, but I don’t know how long this will take. I’ll message you if I get held up.”

Yuuri nods at that and then spreads more ketchup on his eggs to cover the taste.

Maia has plenty of energy on their walk in, in spite of the cold. She carries her plushie the whole way, only sometimes dragging its paws and tail through the snow as Yuuri tries not to worry about it getting damp and dirty. It’s that or try to manage both the plush and the actual standard poodle himself.

At least Maia’s in a good mood. Her situation at school has improved a lot since she began connecting with the other kids over Makkachin. She’s still no social butterfly, but she has a few little friends inviting her on play dates, and that’s encouraging. When she moves into kindergarten, she’ll already have people she knows in her class.

Once Yuuri gets her dropped off, he walks Makka back home. He calls out to Victor when he steps inside, stomping the snow out of the crevices in his shoes, but no one answers. Victor must have already caught a ride to whatever business he has planned for the day.

Yuuri doesn’t bother taking his boots off, just lets Makkachin loose and heads right back out the door. He walks back up the hill, past the school, to the library. He’s finally been granted a library card over the holiday break, with Victor providing proof of address for that purpose, and Yuuri’s already getting a lot of use out of it. In addition to checking out some recent books, he’s started using the library internet to look into GRE study guides. There are a lot of universities around Chicago, after all. If he’s staying in the area, he might want to sign up for some classes. His parents certainly wouldn’t complain if he came back home with a Masters in Business.

He spends a few quiet hours in the warm glow of the library, and by the time Maia’s school day ends, he’s walking out with a folder full of college applications info and a code for a digital study guide he can check out on his laptop.

Yuuri calls out again when he gets home with Maia, but there’s still no answer besides the click of Makkachin’s nails on the hardwood. He checks his phone—on silent since the library—and finds a recent text that simply reads No escape so far. Not sure when I’ll be home. Don’t wait for me!

Pulling back the curtains by the front entrance, Yuuri peers outside. The sky is blanketed in heavy grey clouds, as it has been since noon. The air on their walk home was thick and oppressive, signaling a storm, and Yuuri hasn’t seen so much as a crow or a squirrel in the neighborhood. Outside of foolish humans, everything in Chicago knows better than to leave a warm shelter today.

Yuuri texts Victor back with an approving emoji. There’s no point in trying to go out to the park or store with the weather like this, so he and Maia settle into an indoor routine of play. They have a reading break around three over apple slices and peanut butter, and Yuuri checks his phone again. He’s trying not to look too often, but he can’t help it. The weather forecast has raised the snow prediction from “four to six inches” to simply “six plus.” When he turns on the local channel, the news is already warning of congestion on the major roads as people try to beat the storm home, and it’s interspersing the traffic cameras with footage of grocery stores, their shelves emptied of bread and bottled water.

His phone is silent.

It remains silent when the snow flurries begin outside, after which he gives up on engaging Maia in educational play and turns on cartoons instead. As they watch an old episode of The Powerpuff Girls, Maia kneels by the coffee table and draws a landscape. There’s a snow-Makka next to the regular Makka, and crooked versions of Victor, Yuuri, and Maia all hold hands through their mittens. Yuuri keeps the phone on the coffee table and eyes it when the screen lights up at every spam email notification, but there’s nothing from Victor.

Cartoons roll into the evening news, and Yuuri starts dinner. Since he’s still meant to be introducing Maia to her mother’s culture, he goes with something Japanese that he knows well and makes yakisoba. It’s complex enough to require his attention, but not as involved as making a full meal with one of his mama’s recipes, much as he’d love to eat katsudon right now. Victor hasn’t been much for carbs lately, but Yuuri makes enough for leftovers, just in case.

The snow picks up outside as they eat, the wind pushing the skeletal boughs of the trees so they claw against the side of the house. What started as tiny specks of ice turns into fat white blobs, sticking to every surface they touch. Yuuri eats his dinner with one hand. Under the table, he holds his phone against his leg with the other.

Maia picks at her food, shooting glances out the living room windows between bites. “Where’s Papa?” she finally asks—it’s amazing she didn’t pry earlier.

I have no idea, Yuuri thinks, but he can’t tell a kid that. Instead, he only says, “He mentioned he might be home late tonight. I may have to tuck you in.”

Maia is listless, but thankfully doesn’t protest too much. After dinner, Yuuri has to bundle her back up and take her outside while he tries to walk Makkachin one last time. The snowflakes stick to Yuuri’s glasses, nearly blinding him, and Makka strains at the leash and shakes her paws with each step. There are already a few inches of snow on the ground, and the plow passed up their street not long ago, pushing little banks of grey slush up onto the edges of the sidewalk. After they toddle back to the house, the first thing Yuuri does is take his phone from his pocket.

No new messages. No missed calls.

There’s a feeling taking root in the pit of Yuuri’s stomach that calls to mind years upon years of disastrous competitions, turbulent flights, and nights spent staring at the ceiling more than he sleeps. He’s trying to hold it together for Maia, and restrains himself from pacing the living room or frantically calling around. If he calls Victor now, he knows it’ll probably turn out he’s just up the street, and then Yuuri will look like an idiot for worrying.

He types out a text to Phichit: someone has to be missing for 24 hours before you report it, right? But then he deletes it, unsent. He puts on a movie for Maia, because he can’t focus enough to do better than that, but an hour into it he still couldn’t say what the plot is. There’s a cat, and a very young Ellen Page, and that’s all he knows. His eyes are out the window. His phone, on vibrate, is clutched in both hands on his lap.

Nine PM comes along, and Maia needs to be in bed regardless of what’s going on. She’s not asleep on the sofa yet, but she’s drooping, and Yuuri knows he soon won’t be able to shift her at all, so he helps her upstairs and watches as she gets ready for bed.

From the second floor window, all Yuuri can see is white, white, white. He tucks Maia in and promises her that when she opens her eyes in the morning, her Papa will be right down stairs waiting.

He can only hope he’s telling the truth.

Once Maia’s settled in, Yuuri abandons his pretense at staying calm. He pulls back the curtains on all the windows in the living area so he can see the street, and he paces. From the entryway, he walks to the far end of the kitchen, then back. He sets a kettle to boil for tea, then paces again until it whistles. While his tea steeps in the mug curled between his hands, Yuuri stands at the window and watches the road outside.

It’s dark out, and quiet, and he can only see in little polkadot patches illuminated by the working street lamps. Hours have passed since the last plow came through this neighborhood, and a couple inches of fresh snow have blanketed the pavement since Yuuri walked Makkachin. There are a few sets of shallow tire tracks from cars, already partly filled in by the snow, but no headlights, no cars on the road right now.

Chicago knows how to deal with snow, Yuuri reminds himself as he steps back from the window. They get a ton of it every winter, even more than Detroit. The drivers here can handle it, and Victor’s from Russia, not Arizona. He knows what he’s doing.

It does nothing to soothe his nerves.

Yuuri puts his tea on the counter and pulls out his phone again, flipping it from hand to hand, then opening his messages. Nothing from Victor, still. He taps Phichit instead, typing out a quick and dirty explanation of what’s going on.

His phone vibrates a moment later. Can’t talk right now, at karaoke with Leo. Have you tried calling your boss? Do that before you start calling hospitals.

Yuuri gnaws on his lip, considering it. He never uses Victor’s number outside of Maia-related emergencies, but Victor’s been known to text Yuuri pictures of cute dogs and other things not strictly work-related. That means Yuuri can do the same, right?

Before he can second-guess himself, Yuuri pulls up Victor’s contact and hits dial, then speaker. The phone rings, and rings, and rings.

On the fifth ring, he finally taps end. Well, that certainly had the opposite of the intended effect. He feels queasy and too warm despite the cold seeping through the double-paned glass when he rests his forehead on the window. There’s no movement on the street aside from the fall of snow. It’s silent.

And then he hears it—the sirens.

They’re distant, muffled, but the wail sends Yuuri’s pulse racing. He’s breathing too quickly now, and can hear his own shallow panting as his breath fogs the glass. He breaks away from the window and wraps his arms tight around himself, squeezing his eyes shut.

He tries to slow his breaths and focus on concrete things. He opens his eyes and sees the sofa. He feels his own rib cage beneath his skin, still rising and falling with each gulp of air he takes. He hears—the sirens still, and that’s not the best option, but it’s what he has. Yuuri focuses on the sound and racks his brain. Someone had told him, once, that police, ambulances, and fire trucks all have different sirens, and they can be identified by the slight differences in the sound. Yuuri tries to analyze the pattern of the one he can hear, but he can’t place what the difference is. He has no idea how to actually tell whether it’s an ambulance or not.

While he’s still focusing on sounds, Yuuri hears another—the click of a key in the lock. Makkachin scrambles to her feet from where she’d laid out like a bearskin rug, and Yuuri rushes to join her. He catches his hand on the doorway molding, swinging forward with the momentum as the front door blows open and Victor pushes inside, his long wool coat fluttering in the ghost of the winter storm, and he shoves the door closed.

Yuuri takes him in, searching head to toe for any sign that something is wrong. Victor unwinds his favorite blue scarf, uncovering a crooked smile and wind-burned cheeks.

“Sorry I ran so late,” he says. “I lost my phone in the Uber this morning, and you know it’s a whole thing. It’s not like with a taxi company, where they have a Lost and Found.” He unbuttons his coat and hangs it up before turning to look at Yuuri, whole and unharmed. “Was everything okay here?”

Victor’s blue eyes are warm, his smile fond, and he’s fine. He’s perfectly okay. He just left his stupid phone in the back seat of a stranger’s car, and Yuuri could—

Yuuri steps into the entrance and then his fingers curl around the collar of Victor’s shirt, and he tugs Victor down, until Yuuri’s half-chewed lips meet Victor’s cold and chapped ones, and it doesn’t matter that it’s not ideal. Victor’s cheeks are like ice when Yuuri reaches for his face, and then he gasps, and his hands are in Yuuri’s hair, cupping the back of his head as he crowds them both back, stumbling until Yuuri’s shoulders meet the wall and there’s nowhere else to go.

Their previous kisses had been almost chaste, only a hint of the possibilities underlying the movement of their lips, but this time has no such pretense. Yuuri clutches at Victor, pulling him closer even though they’re already chest to chest, hip to hip. Victor tilts his head, tongue shameless and hot between Yuuri’s lips, and Yuuri—moans, one hand still tugging at the back of Victor’s neck, the other already clawing at the buttons on his shirt.

Yuuri’s desperation is tinged with relief, grateful that Victor is safe and home and available, but Victor’s hands are just as desperate, gliding down Yuuri’s back to venture beneath the waistband of his jeans. Yuuri nips at his mouth, and Victor whimpers.

It’s not enough, and Yuuri doesn’t know that it ever will be. He wants to hear Victor make that sound a hundred times, or a thousand, and there’s no doubt in his mind from every inch of Victor’s response that Victor wants that too.

It’s Victor who pulls back, resting his forehead on Yuuri’s and panting for breath. Without the distraction of his mouth, Yuuri manages to get Victor’s shirt up enough to find skin, and Victor’s next inhale stutters.

“I’d love to continue this if you want,” Victor breathes, “but we should probably move out of the doorway.”

Yuuri’s head hits the wall when he feels Victor’s fingers skate across his bare chest—when had Victor gotten his shirt up? He tries to make his brain work through the haze of slick lips grazing his throat.

“Sofa?” he ventures. Victor nips at his neck and Yuuri makes a high-pitched sound, until Victor covers his mouth with two fingers.

“Too risky still,” Victor murmurs. This close, Yuuri can see the bursts of other colors that make up the blue of his eyes, which seem darker than usual, the blue swallowed by black. “Upstairs?”

“Yes,” Yuuri gasps, then immediately regrets it when Victor pulls back. Of course, to get upstairs they have to move. He can’t expect Victor to just carry him up to the third floor, but his heated skin is crying out at the loss of contact. He takes Victor’s hand, lets the other man pull him up the steps on the strength of that single bond.

The space growing between them gives Yuuri enough room to get some blood back to his brain, and he stops on the second floor landing, pulling Victor to a halt as well.

“My bed,” Yuuri says, “it’s—well—it’s not very big—”

Victor smiles wide and closes the distance between them. He drops a kiss at the tip of Yuuri’s nose and brushes his hair back behind one ear. “Don’t worry about that. We’ll go to my room.”

The next time he pulls on Yuuri’s hand, Yuuri goes easily, still eager but surprised. Victor’s room? But they’re already outside the door, and Victor fumbles at the lock with a key in his pocket, and then it swings open. Yuuri has a split second to take in a dark room, the outline of a four poster bed visible against the dim light of a single snow-covered window, and then Victor’s hands are back on his hips, pulling Yuuri into the room, and he can’t think of anything but the sweet slide of Victor’s lips on his, Victor’s hands on his waist, and the press of overheated skin as they come back together, shirts quickly pushed open or pulled off.

It’s so dark, Yuuri can’t see more than a few inches past the tip of his nose, but what more could he need when he won’t let Victor get any further away from him than that. It’s been ages since the last time Yuuri was with someone, and he has to imagine that for Victor it may have been longer. Victor drops back onto the bed and pulls Yuuri with him, still tightly wound together. He kisses like he’s been lost in the desert for days, or like he’s just returned from war, like a drowning man who needs Yuuri’s breath to survive. It’s addictive.

Yuuri makes a soft noise of protest when Victor pulls back enough to progress south, detouring to drop kisses along Yuuri’s shoulders and chest. He arches into every touch, one hand cupping the back of Victor’s head, the other anchoring himself on satiny sheets.

“Beautiful,” Victor breathes as he kisses a line along Yuuri’s stomach, and Yuuri nearly jumps out of his skin at the word, which reverberates in the silent room. “My Yuuri, you’re so—”

Fingers tightening in Victor’s hair, Yuuri hauls him up, back into a kiss that swallows up whatever was coming next, because no matter what that was going to be, Yuuri isn’t ready for it. He’s only grateful for the darkness that means Victor can’t see him flush at the feeling of gentle hands cupping his face, as Victor asks, “Can I—?”

And Yuuri cuts him off with, “Yes,” because that’s the answer no matter what he’s asking.

They lose clothes between kisses that stretch on so long it’s hard to believe they have time for anything else. There’s no sound in the bedroom but the ones they create between them. Even the radiator against the wall is silent and cold, but when Yuuri reaches for Victor’s face, he finds it damp with sweat. In the dim grey light that filters through the window, Victor doesn’t look real—a silvery creature of starlight and spirit spilling out on the bed above Yuuri, a dream, a fantasy.

He feels real, though. He feels very real, and Yuuri can’t help thinking as Victor moves against him, his fingers twined with Yuuri’s, his other hand tracing the most sensitive parts of Yuuri’s body, that he’s going to have this entire night etched into his skin for the rest of his life.

After, when they’re curled together beneath the comforter, sweat drying slowly on their cooling bodies, Victor drops one last kiss in the hollow of Yuuri’s clavicle and whispers, “Thank you.”

Yuuri wants to ask what he means—what could Victor possibly be thanking him for tonight? But his eyes are already heavy and aching with sleep, and Victor’s hair smells of lavender and mint, so Yuuri only nuzzles in closer, tightens his grip on Victor’s warmth, and lets himself fall into a more peaceful darkness.

Chapter Text

The soft light of a grey winter morning is slanting its way through the gaps in dark wood blinds when Yuuri wakes up the next day. He blinks and frowns, disoriented. His windows don’t have blinds. He shifts in the bed, stretching out, and his muscles all protest at once. He flings his arm out as far as he can and still can’t find the edge of the mattress, and that’s when it all clicks back into place: the snow storm, Victor, the entryway, and why Yuuri’s lower body feels like he spent an hour jumping triple loops.

He sits up, eyes immediately darting to the other half of the king bed. It’s empty, the only evidence of a second person being a divot in the other pillow graced by a few stray silver hairs. Victor is gone.

Yuuri slides over to the edge of the bed to stand and spots a piece of paper on the nightstand, a pen lying diagonal across the blurry writing. He picks the paper up, holding it so it brushes the tip of his nose in order to read without his glasses.

Good morning, Yuuri!

I hope you slept well. Sorry for not being here, but I didn’t want to wake you. I’ve gone downstairs to make breakfast. If you aren’t up in time, I’ll take Maia to school, so don’t worry about that. Feel free to go back to sleep, and we’ll talk when I get back.

Yours,
Victor

Yuuri’s eyes linger on the word yours for a minute, then he puts the paper back where he found it. He has no idea what time it is, and Victor doesn’t seem to have a clock nearby, so Yuuri slips off the bed to go looking for his things.

His pants and shirt are draped across an antique chair that’s clearly used more for clothes than for sitting, and his phone and glasses rest on the seat. Yuuri’s face heats. This is absolutely not where he left any of his stuff last night, and now he can picture Victor tiptoeing through the room this morning—possibly still naked himself—picking up Yuuri’s clothes and laying them out with such care.

Yuuri slides his glasses back into place and checks the time on his phone as he pulls his jeans from the night before back on, sans underwear. At least this will be the shortest walk of shame he’s ever taken, from the second floor to the third.

It’s after eight, and he suppresses the immediate flash of panic that lights up his chest at that. Victor will have already left with Maia according to the note, so Yuuri doesn’t need to worry about running late, but his brain is trained to see that time and start setting off emergency sirens. His phone battery is barely clinging to life at fifteen percent, since he didn’t charge it all night. He slips the phone into one back pocket and shoves his wadded up underwear into the other, then pulls on his t-shirt, tugging it down in the back to cover his pockets even though no one will be around to catch sight of the blue boxers sticking out. He turns toward the door, then stops.

The light from the windows bounces off a dresser mirror, then catches, flashing, on a wall of gold.

Yuuri hadn’t noticed it before, fumbling for this things, but with his glasses on it’s unmissable. The entire back wall of Victor’s bedroom is festooned with medals—some silver, some bronze, but also gold after gold. Yuuri lets go of the door knob and walks over for a closer look, tracing the familiar shapes with his eyes.

He recognizes some of these by the outline of the medal itself, or a distinctive ribbon—including Victor’s first Olympic gold, the one from Torino. On the wall beside it, there’s even a framed photo of seventeen year-old Victor on top of the podium, waving. His long silver hair is up in a ponytail, draped forward over the shoulder of his iconic ruffled green costume. He looks beautiful, but even more than that, he looks happy.

Walking along the wall, Yuuri pauses at each new medal or photograph, smiling to himself. It’s like a museum of Victor, and the teenage fanboy inside Yuuri is dying a little at all the rare content, although he knows how ridiculous that is in the face of last night—but he’ll scream into a pillow about that later.

At the end of the row of medals is a trophy case, wood-framed with glass walls and shelves. Built-in lighting highlights each level with its own little aura. The first trophy at Yuuri’s eyeline is from one of Victor’s first placings ever, back in his novice years. It’s silver, but Yuuri’s sure Victor must have been thrilled with that at the time. There’s an unframed photo propped up in front of it, but it’s not what Yuuri expected, and his smile falls victim to a swirl of confusion.

The photo shows a woman, Japanese, with her dark hair cut into a flattering shoulder-length bob. She’s wearing a pale blue blouse over a long grey pleated skirt, and the pink-wrapped, squinting bundle in her arms must be Maia.

Maia’s mother. Yuuri examines her, tracing her features. She has kind eyes, and she’s glowing as she cradles her daughter, radiating love from the crinkles at the corners of her eyes, to her bright smile, to the first, close hold she has on the infant. They must have just returned from the hospital—baby Maia still has that squishy, red-faced newborn look.

Yuuri looks over at the next trophy, Victor’s first gold from Junior Nationals, and another photo in front of it. It’s the woman again, sitting on the same playroom floor where Yuuri now spends his afternoons. Infant Maia lies beside her in a footed onesie, streamed out on her stomach and face down. Her little feet are a blur of motion. The woman’s hair is pulled back into a little tail, and she’s in pajamas herself, grinning proudly at the camera with one hand resting on the baby’s lower back.

Another trophy, and another photo of Maia with her mother, then another, then another. Every trophy is paired with a picture—baby Maia and her mother at the zoo, baby Maia dressed up as a pumpkin, propped up in a soup pot by her mother’s delicate hands, one finger encircled in a thin band of gold. Over and over, Yuuri takes in the image of this smiling woman lit in gold, and his heart begins to sink into his stomach.

Who is she? He knows, of course, but only in the most general terms. One of the pictures has her wearing a shirt with a DePaul University logo—did she attend classes there? Was she kind? Did she have a job, or hobbies? What did she study? Had she and Victor been married when she became pregnant, or only dating? Yuuri doesn’t even know her name still.

At the center of the trophy case, one photo in particular stands out. It’s not just the woman and Maia this time—Victor is in the picture this time too. The whole family is posed on the front porch of the brownstone, and Victor has his arm around the woman’s slim shoulders. Rather than facing the camera, his head is turned. Looking down at the woman and infant beside him, Victor is lit from within, his smile heart-shaped as he beams at his family brighter than he had on the Olympic podium.

Without conscious decision to do so, Yuuri examines the woman again and again, looking for clues to who she truly was. Are they alike in some way? She’s fit, but she isn’t built like a skater that Yuuri can see. He doesn’t see any sign that she’s a gamer, or an anxious mess. In every photo, she looks well-dressed, organized, smiling and happy. Yuuri traces her features once more, wondering if, perhaps they look alike—but no, the only similarity he can see between them is that they’re both Japanese.

Is that why Victor likes him? Does Yuuri’s face—or his culture—remind Victor of the person he lost?

It’s been five years since Victor retired, five years since this woman—whoever she was—died, and this display in Victor’s room makes one thing abruptly obvious to Yuuri: Victor has never moved on.

Yuuri steps back until his knees meet the bed, then he sits down hard, eyes still focused on the trophy case.

Five years, and Victor still doesn’t speak her name. Five years, and he still hides from the public like a hermit crab curling up in his spiral shell. He doesn’t talk about her to his daughter’s teacher, to Yuuri, even to their child, who has no memory of her to hold onto. He keeps a shrine to her in his bedroom, and then he locks everyone else out.

It dawns on Yuuri that he’s been incredibly naive these last few months. In the same way he put his glasses on and then noticed the wall of medals, he looks at the trophies now in a new light, and his vision clears. All these months of building tension, the little touches and fond looks, and yet Victor has never asked him on a date. He’s never spoken words of affection to Yuuri. He’s never opened up to Yuuri about—anything. He’d kept this entire part of his life locked away and hidden, just as he’d hidden any sign of his relationship with Yuuri from Maia since they kissed.

Victor doesn’t want to date Yuuri. He can’t. He’s just another rich, bored father having an affair with his nanny. The only difference is that the woman he’s cheating on happens to be dead. It doesn’t matter. If that’s where his heart is, then it can never belong to Yuuri.

And—God—he’s still Yuuri’s boss.

Yuuri buries his face in his hands as it all slips into place. He expects to feel tears, but doesn’t. His body is cold, and not from the January air. He’s made an enormous mistake.

Jumping up, Yuuri flees the room, leaving the once-forbidden door standing wide open as he dashes up the stairs. His duffel bag is out on the coffee table in his room, stuffed with library books he planned to return after dropping Maia off today. He dumps them on the floor and goes to the closet, grabbing an arm-full of clothes. There’s no room in his head for a plan, only an overwhelming need to get out, to make some space between himself and the whole situation so he can think. Later, he’ll realize he grabbed four pairs of socks but only one change of underwear.

With enough in the bag for a couple days, Yuuri zips it closed and walks out, his phone clutched in one hand. He’ll text Victor when he gets to a hotel or something. He just needs a break. There’s nothing stopping him from taking a weekend to think, to call Phichit, to call his mother, and damn the contract right now.

From the second floor landing, Yuuri hears the front door click open, and he freezes on the steps. Below, he can see Victor stomping the snow off his shoes, hanging up his coat on the rack. He turns to the stairs, sees Yuuri above him, and smiles.

Now Yuuri wants to cry. He’d love to cry. His eyes ache, but nothing happens.

“Good morning,” Victor says as he takes off his shoes. “Sorry you had to wake up alone, but—” his eyes fall onto the bag slung across Yuuri’s body and he pauses. “Oh, don’t go to the library right now. They’re not even open until ten. Let’s talk first; have you had breakfast yet?”

Yuuri shakes his head and pulls his bag closer, wrapping his arms around it. “This isn’t for the library,” he says. Victor is looking up at him, expectant, and there’s no way to get around it. It’s not as if he can just walk out the door with Victor watching. So, Yuuri says it: “I need to go. Last night— I think there’s been a mistake.”

Victor’s smile drops. He steps toward the stairs, but Yuuri raises a hand, stopping him in his tracks. “Please,” Yuuri continues. “I’m not sure I can do this right now. There’s a lot to think about here, and I can’t just… go on watching Maia after all this, being your employee.”

“If you need to quit, you can quit,” Victor says. His eyes are giving Makkachin’s doleful expressions a run for their money. “I can find another nanny, if that’s the issue. You’re more important than— Let’s not do this on the stairs. Come sit down in the living room.” He holds out his hand, palm up to help Yuuri down the last few steps.

Yuuri swallows. He’d been so sure a few minutes ago, hadn’t he? Where had all his steely resolve gone, between the third floor and the first? With Victor looking up at him like this, so smart and handsome with his casual grace, it gets harder and harder to say no. But, Yuuri reminds himself, the issue is bigger than Victor being his boss. There’s so much more to it than that.

“I’ll stay,” Yuuri says finally, “if we talk about one particular thing.”

Victor tosses his hair back from his eyes, forcing a tight smile. “Name it.”

“You need to tell me about Maia’s mother.”

Yuuri watches as even the false smile drifts from Victor’s face and his shoulders tense. The silence stretches on, and Yuuri prompts him again. “What was her name? How did you meet? What made you give up skating?”

As Yuuri continues to press his questions, Victor only turns away, refusing to meet Yuuri’s eyes. Something like anger settles in Yuuri’s chest, and he walks down the stairs to meet Victor at the entrance. “Well?” he demands. “Will you answer me?”

Victor is still staring at the ground. Something catches light, streaming down his cheek, and Yuuri can feel his hands tremble as he reaches out to touch. Victor’s skin is so soft beneath his fingers. “Just tell me her name,” Yuuri says, and he hadn’t to plead for this, but he can’t stop now. “Tell me her name, and I’ll come back.”

Victor raises his head at last, and his blue eyes are filled with tears. “I can’t—” he chokes out, breaking to swallow thick tears. “I can’t force you to stay, but please...”

Not even that, Yuuri thinks. He can’t give even an inch to me. He’s dazed at first, then the same cold feeling from the bedroom washes through him once more.

“I’m sorry I can’t provide a full two weeks’ notice,” Yuuri says. He bows stiffly, eyes on the floor, and clutches his bag tighter to his chest. “I’ll make arrangements to send for the rest of my things.”

And still, Victor only nods. Beneath his stiff formality, Yuuri’s hands are shaking, but what can he do? To stay now would be the height of stupidity, when it’s clear Victor’s desires lie elsewhere. Five years, and Victor can’t even speak the woman’s name. If only he would stop. If only he would tell Yuuri the truth.

But nothing comes, and Yuuri steps past him, reaching for the door.

“What do I tell Maia?” Victor asks, voice thick with… something.

Yuuri winces, but tries not to let the hurt show. Maia. He won’t even get to say goodbye if he walks out now, but he can’t possibly stay until she gets home. The longer he’s here, the more his weak resolve will wear away.

“Tell her whatever you like,” he says, forcing the words out over the sound of his own heart breaking in his ears. “I’d recommend the truth, if you can manage it this time.”

With that, he yanks open the door and steps outside. It’s brisk, and another storm is already rolling in on the heels of the last one. The icy wind whips the heavy door from Yuuri’s hand, and it slams behind him.

Yuuri shoulders his duffel bag higher and starts off down the icy sidewalk toward the El. As he walks, his eyes finally catch up with his heart, and tears begin to fall in rivulets down his cheeks, freezing on his skin within seconds. He fumbles his phone from his pocket, nearly dropping it into a snow bank. Twelve percent battery—it should be enough. He scrolls through his contacts and presses dial.

“Phichit?” he chokes out when the other end picks up. “I— I need some help.”

Chapter Text

The following week is a blur. Thank god for Phichit, who stepped in to help organize tickets and schedules to get Yuuri safely back to Detroit when Yuuri’s mind couldn’t handle the details. Phichit and Leo both greet Yuuri at the train station like he’s arrived on vacation rather than carrying a single bag of sad belongings and looking like a three week-old zombie.

He sleeps on their sofa. He eats. He sleeps again. Yuuri hates the way Phichit looks at him through all this—knowing and pitying at the same time. He’s watched Yuuri fall apart before, so the beat of his collapse is familiar.

Phichit knows the shape of what happened to Yuuri, but not the specifics. If he pressed, asked, demanded the truth, Yuuri knows he’d crumble like a house of cards, but Phichit doesn’t force the issue. He takes in the basic facts of Yuuri’s heartbreak, and he lets Yuuri’s resistance to the rest stand. He trusts Yuuri to tell him—someday.

Although Leo still tries to talk Yuuri into karaoke or skating or runs in the park, Yuuri declines every invitation. He leaves the apartment only when he runs out of boxed mac and cheese or frozen pizza. When Phichit and Leo offer Yuuri their own, nutritionist-approved dinners, he takes the food, but then he inevitably heats up a pizza after. It’s the only thing he knows how to do. His chest is a yawning void, but at least his stomach is full.

At the end of the week, they both accompany him in the taxi when he departs for the airport, even though Yuuri never asked them to. He still only has the one bag, but Victor is meant to be shipping the rest of his things to the Detroit rink soon, and Phichit has arranged with Celestino to store it all until Yuuri decides if he’s coming back to the States or staying in Hasetsu.

They pull up to the international departure gate, and Phichit squeezes his hand. “Tell your mom I said hi,” he reminds Yuuri. “And call me, like, all the time, okay? Don’t worry about the time difference. You can wake me up any time you need to.”

Yuuri gives him a smile, knowing it’s weak and watery. He doesn’t deserve Phichit.

“And don’t talk bad about yourself,” Phichit adds, jabbing Yuuri in the sternum with one finger, “Not even in your head. I can still hear you!”

“Thanks, Phichit,” Yuuri says, leaning over the seat to hug his friend. He doesn’t know Leo well still, but he gives the other boy a pat on the shoulder as well, and adds, “You, too.” Leo tried. It’s not his fault Yuuri is a sad sack.

He extricates himself from the car with more promises to call and text and otherwise message often, and gets into the airport and through security with half an hour to spare.

Yuuri spends the time before his flight boards walking the terminal. Because the tickets were a last-minute purchase, they’d devoured most of Yuuri’s savings. They’re a Frankenstein monster of four different airlines and four close connections, which means he’s about to spend an entire day or more on airplanes, dashing from one time zone to the next. He needs to walk around while he still can.

He paces, tossing his phone from hand to hand awkwardly. By one of the gates, he hears a little girl’s voice cry out behind him and stops, turning—but it’s only a family of strangers. A blonde child of about three has dropped her travel pillow, and when her dad stoops to pick it up for her she crams her whole hand into her mouth to self-soothe. Yuuri glances down at his phone.

Victor hasn’t texted him, hasn’t called. The arrangements for Yuuri’s things were all made with extreme professionalism via Hands & Hearts. Yuuri’s not sure if he’s impressed or disappointed. He hasn’t blocked Victor’s number, though he did delete their old messages. He was hurting himself, looking back on them.

Yuuri’s first flight calls for boarding, breaking him from his thoughts. He switches his phone into airplane mode and sticks it in his back pocket to start leg one of a long journey.

-

The last thing Yuuri expects to see as he disembarks at the train station is an enormous pink banner with his name on it. For a moment, he’s merely startled, then mortified. He scurries toward it, batting it down with his hands to reveal—

Minako-sensei?”

“Welcome home, Yuuri!” Minako shouts loud enough for passers-by to pause, glancing over. His old ballet teacher is looking as cheery and spry as ever, and she launches directly into catching him up on all the latest Hasetsu news—most of which he heard from his mother in the previous weeks, but because of the bar, Minako also has some juicy details his mama would have missed out on.

The flood of information finally stems as they climb into Minako’s car, and she looks at the sad bag in his lap sharply. “Is that all you brought with you? How long are you planning to stay?”

Yuuri holds his bag closer, looking down at his feet. “I’m not sure yet,” he admits. “I need to decide what I’m going to do. I have some old things in my room at home if I need more clothes, though.”

The car is quiet as they trundle along the narrow roads from the train station, aside from an unfamiliar girl group playing on the radio. Yuuri stares out the window in disbelief. He’s been gone for five years, and yet it looks like nothing has changed. The streets are the same. The sea is the same. As they get further into town, he notices some dark windows and overgrown gardens—signs of the ones who have left, or died without any descendants to take over care of their homes, but the buildings are still standing.

Even Yuuri’s old grade school is right where it’s always been, with the same aging sports equipment in its yard. He might as well be eighteen again, on his way to the airport to leave for Detroit, a mantra in his head to try his hardest and become a great figure skater, like his idol.

So much has changed since then, even if the village doesn’t show it.

At last, they pull up in front of the familiar signs for Yu-Topia Katsuki. Although Yuuri knows the business hasn’t been doing well, he can see where that hasn’t stopped his father from showering it in love. The hedges are all neatly trimmed, and the sign is freshly-painted. This, too, looks at it always has—and it makes Yuuri smile a little.

Minako throws the car into park and turns to Yuuri, looking him up and down again. He shifts under her exacting gaze, grateful for the duffel across his lap. It wouldn’t be unlike Minako to comment on any weight Yuuri’s gained, even now that he isn’t competing, but if she has thoughts on his body, she keeps them to herself.

“Before we go inside,” she says, “I wanted to let you know that you’re welcome at my place, and in my classes, anytime you like.” Her hands tighten on the steering wheel, and she adds, “And even if you’ve given up skating for good, I know Ice Castle would be thrilled to see you too.”

The thought of skating again right now is almost physically painful. The last time Yuuri was on the ice was to celebrate Phichit’s making the Grand Prix Final, and the time before that—Victor, Maia, shoddy rented skates and soft grey sunlight—

No, he’s not ready to walk in there yet, to see the old banners and photos with his name on them, or to trace the same ice where he used to memorize Victor’s routines with his friends.

“I’ll remember,” he tells Minako, who is still waiting on an answer, and leaves it at that.

She goes into the onsen with him, calling out as they come through the door, “Hiroko-chan! Guess who’s here!”

Yuuri hears the thump-thump-thump of sock-clad feet on the wood floors, and then his mother skids into the entryway, her round face split wide by a smile. “Yuuri!” she squeals, stopping just shy of touching him. “Welcome home! Are you hungry? I made your favorite katsudon, just in case.”

Opening his mouth to answer, Yuuri finds himself instead blinking back tears. It’s so good to see her in person, not just on a screen. He gives into instinct, stepping forward to give her a brief, stiff one-armed hug. The top of her head barely reaches his armpit. When did his mother get so short? Some time in the five years since Yuuri last came home, his mother’s hair has gained a few grey streaks, and he himself apparently gained a few centimeters. Despite how the town seemed to him passing though, things have indeed changed.

He pulls back from the hug, swallowing to clear his throat. “Thanks, Mama,” he says. “I’ll definitely have some after I put my bag away.”

Hiroko reaches up, ruffling his overgrown hair and tutting at the length, and Yuuri puts on a smile for her before ducking out to stow his things. As he leaves the public area, he can still hear her excited chatter as she and Minako catch each other up on the latest again.

The fourth stair groans when Yuuri puts his weight on it, just as it always has. It’s funny to think he’s getting nostalgia over a creaky old step, but that’s where he is these days. A noisy stair isn’t just a noisy stair anymore, it’s tiptoeing over the spot as he creeps down at night to look for a snack his coach wouldn’t want him to have, or tripping on that step as Mari chases him through the house with a slug on a stick, or watching a young Vicchan scramble, trying so hard to heave his little body after Yuuri when each wooden step is taller than he is.

Yuuri pushes open the door to his old bedroom and stops, arrested in the doorway.

The posters. He’d forgotten about the posters.

His childhood bedroom is plastered with the face of the very man Yuuri came here to get away from, and a shout wells up in his chest, trapped there by propriety. He wants to slam the door closed and leave. He wants to run in and rip them all down.

He drops his bag on the floor and steps back into the hall, closing his eyes. He takes a deep breath, then another, waiting for his knee-jerk emotions to fade back to something manageable.

Once the screaming in his mind has quieted, Yuuri opens his eyes again—that face, everywhere, and now it calls to mind—Victor’s artless, crooked smiles in the morning; Victor’s rumpled shirts and confused expression after falling asleep on the sofa; Victor, in the pantry, looking down at Yuuri with bright blue eyes beneath the sprig of plastic mistletoe.

Victor’s mouth hanging open as he gasps, face flushed and lower lip swollen from biting kisses. His hair sticks to the sides of his face, damp with sweat, as he reaches down to twine his fingers with Yuuri’s—

Yuuri snaps his eyes shut again. Damn.

“Yuuri?”

He turns away from the door to find the voice. His sister leans against the wall outside the old banquet room that’s served primarily as storage for as long as Yuuri can remember. Her once-platinum hair has grown out wild and fading, which should look stupid, but with it all pushed back into a halo around her head, it makes her resemble the lion he knows her to be.

“Hi, Mari-neechan,” Yuuri greets her. Before, he’d been a bit apprehensive about seeing his sister, but in the face of his bedroom, he sags with relief at the distraction. “How are you?”

“Better than you, I think.” She frowns, folding her arms. That’s Mari—always straight and to the point. “You look like you just saw a ghost. Did you visit the shrine already?”

Vicchan. It makes sense that Mari would assume that’s why he’s upset, but Yuuri isn’t ready to add that to his pile of problems yet. He shakes his head. “I’ll go by after dinner.”

“Sure.” Mari’s fingers tap on her own arm, restless. He’s probably caught her in the middle of doing chores.

Glancing back at his closed bedroom door, an idea occurs to him. “Actually, nee-chan, can you do me a favor?”

Mari looks dubious, and her confusion only grows deeper as Yuuri explains to her what he needs. “You want me to take down all of them?” she asks, incredulous.

Yuuri nods. “All of them.”

“What the hell happened to you in America?” Mari asks. Her tone is joking, but he can tell by the glint in her eyes that she means it. She wants an answer.

Yuuri still doesn’t have one he can give. In the heat of leaving, he’d thought he could stand to break his promise, rip his contract in half, and tell the whole world what Victor Nikiforov has done, but in the cold light of reality, it hasn’t been so easy. The contract exists for one reason Yuuri still cares about very much: protecting Maia. And, Yuuri had promised. If he breaks his vow so easily, he won’t be much better than the man who hurt him.

Rather than give his sister the response she wants, Yuuri slips a folded up twenty-dollar bill from his jeans pocket and holds it out. “I can pay you for you time.”

Mari glances from the money, back to Yuuri’s face, then down again. She shoves his hand aside. “Ah, hell,” she sighs. “Give me a minute to make space for it all in the storage.”

Chapter Text

Yuuri’s first few days back home are a rehash of Phichit’s sofa, but with a new view from the window. He spends most of his time in his bedroom, rolled into a nest of blankets that smell like the same detergent his mother has always used. He dozes at all hours—a light, unsatisfying sleep that throws his internal clock even further out of whack than the jetlag has. Sometimes, he wakes to find his pillow damp beneath his cheek, but he’s never aware of crying. He emerges to eat at times when no one else will be awake, seeking out leftovers marked for him in the fridge and devouring them cold in the kitchen without even sitting down, because anything more than that would be too complicated.

If he sees anyone at all, it’s Mari, and then only in passing. In the wee hours of the morning, he sometimes spies the red flash of a lit cigarette out on their porch, but she never invites him to join her, and Yuuri doesn’t go out.

It’s his own bedroom walls that finally break him open. He wakes up from one of his hours-long naps in the deep darkness of four AM and finds himself staring at the wall beside his bed. For the first time since his early childhood, it’s blank. There had always been cartoons and drawings, photos of his family, and then finally the skating posters—at first, many different skaters he admired, then later, only Victor. But after Mari took all the old posters down on the first day, he’d put up nothing to replace them. Now, that’s its own sort of reminder. His bedroom in Victor’s house had blank walls too.

This time, Yuuri can do something about it.

He rolls from the bed and excavates a plastic storage bin from his closet. It’s full of magazines and collectibles he’s held onto since childhood. Some of them are skating-related—a few with too-familiar blue eyes peering out from the covers—but there are others too. Yuuri tears open the packages, ripping out pages: a poster for a movie he’d seen several times in high school, photos of a band he saw in concert with Mari on a trip to Kumamoto, and images of other Japanese skaters he’d looked up to as a child, before Victor had to glide into his life.

Placing them on the walls, he covers the pale spots where Victor’s posters had once been, using the same holes and sticky residue for his new decorations. When he runs out of magazine posters, he opens up his computer and prints out photos—some shots of Phichit at practice in Detroit, a selfie he took with Phichit and Leo at Phichit’s Grand Prix party, and even old family vacation pictures.

Looking for more options, he comes across a picture Mari sent him of Vicchan, running outside and chasing seagulls on the beach. It was taken just a few weeks before the little dog died, and Yuuri prints that one out too.

But the photo of Vicchan isn’t to put up on the wall. Setting it aside, Yuuri gets dressed in old training pants, a white t-shirt, and his last Team Japan jacket. It’s the closest thing to real clothes that he’s worn in days. With the photo in hand, he walks down the hall and over to the Katsuki family shrine.

Despite his promise to Mari when he arrived, he hasn’t managed to step inside this room since his return. He pauses at the threshold to bow, then places the new photo next to the other one his mama put up, little Yuuri smiling and hugging his puppy on the day he first brought Vicchan home.

“Sorry,” Yuuri whispers in the silence, his breath stirring the rising smoke from incense and a few guttering candles. “It’s probably my fault. I could have come home three years ago, and then maybe you wouldn’t—” he clenches his hands into fists at his sides. “But I’m too much of a coward to even quit skating in a definitive way. You deserved better, Vicchan.”

There’s no answer, no sign that anything heard him aside from the wind, but down the hallway he hears the clank of steel and porcelain—his mother, up and preparing breakfast for the family already. Yuuri glances at his phone and finds it’s after six.

He’s spent enough time wallowing. Yuuri stands, bowing to the shrine again, and says, “Goodbye, Vicchan. You were a good dog.”

For once, Yuuri doesn’t return to his bedroom. He heads for the front door, where he finds his shoes still waiting for him in a cubby and laces them on.

“Yuuri?” his mother calls out, sounding surprised, and Yuuri waves back, but doesn’t explain. If he stays in any longer, he’ll lose motivation and end up back in bed.

Instead, Yuuri runs. He has no goal or destination in mind. He’s not training for anything or trying to shed weight. He runs because he enjoys it, because it’s his quickest route to sunlight and crisp sea air, because it feels like the closest thing to an answer he has right now. The act of running makes an open space in his head where his thoughts are no longer a jumbled mess, clambering over each other for attention. There’s only his breath, and the ache of his muscles, and the thump of his feet as they strike the sidewalk.

The sky is just beginning to lighten when Yuuri leaves his house. He runs parallel to the sea for as long as he can, watching the clouds turn from grey to cotton-candy pink, and the fishermen readying their poles for the first catch of the day. The old men on the bridges call out to him, recognizing Yuuri despite his years away, and he waves good morning to them, but doesn’t slow. There will be time later to catch up.

In town, the commuters are just beginning to stir, waking their children and making their breakfasts. An old woman in a baby blue robe, her silver hair up in curlers, stands in a front garden with a cigarette dangling from her mouth, pouring food into a long line of bowls for the local stray cats.

It’s all achingly familiar and, for the first time since he left Chicago, Yuuri feels something positive stirring in his chest—affection, maybe even love. Hasetsu has been good to him, even when Yuuri gave it nothing in return.

He hopes someday he can change that.

Today, he ends his jog by knocking on one door in particular that he knows better than most. When no one answers at first, he tries again—louder.

A moment later, the door cracks open, and Minako sticks her head out, bleary-eyed and blinking. Her hair is down, pushed back with the eye mask she was wearing overnight, but aside from her pursed lips and pinched expression, she doesn’t look surprised to see him.

She doesn’t even ask why he’s come. Instead, she grabs her key off a rack by the door and presses it into his hands. “You’re old enough to let yourself in,” she says. “I’ll be over once I’m dressed and have tea—do you want a cup?”

Yuuri nods, and Minako shuts the door in his face.

The ballet studio, like the town, is unchanged. There are a few new photos on the wall of students who have graduated since Yuuri left, but not as many as he would have hoped. Like many smaller towns in Japan, Hasetsu is hemorrhaging its young people.

Yuuri begins to warm up and stretch, and, true to her word, Minako appears a few minutes later. Now, her hair is up in a bun, and she’s traded her robe for a leotard and tights.

She watches Yuuri for a moment, then asks, “When was your last dance lesson?”

“Um. Probably three years ago?” After his ankle injury, he’d started yoga as part of his physical therapy, and he’d kept that up in Detroit, as well as a brief fling with pole dancing—which he will not be telling Minako about—but he never went back to ballet after he quit skating competitively.

Minako nods. “Okay, then. We’ll start by putting you through some basics.”

What follows is… much more grueling than Yuuri expected. He’d thought he was in pretty good shape. He felt good after his run, with his blood pumping again, reminding him that he’s still here. But ballet uses different muscles, and within half an hour Minako’s “basics” have him stooped over and panting.

The torture finally stops when there’s a tap on the studio door. Two small girls press their faces to the glass, their mother hovering behind. Yuuri vaguely recognizes the mom—she was in his class in junior high. It’s crazy to think she has a three year-old and a four year-old already.

She bows to Yuuri as the girls run inside, making a beeline for Minako as the older one chatters away about their week. Minako looks up at Yuuri over their little heads and gives him a lopsided smile.

“Sorry for the interruption,” she says. “You could come back later, or…”

“Or what?” Yuuri prompts as the girls’ mother—Yuki? Yuna?—makes her exit, no doubt grateful for an hour of peace to do her shopping in the morning.

“Hiroko said you were working with kids in the States. I was thinking, if you needed something to keep you busy here—,” Minako hesitates, looking away. It’s not like her at all. “I can’t really afford to pay you.”

Ah. It’s so formal. Minako must have taken Yuuri to a hundred competitions as a kid. She probably gave him months—if not years—of unpaid studio time and private lessons. The idea that he might turn down her job offer on the basis of pay is laughable.

He doesn’t laugh. “What do you need help with?” he asks, and Minako smiles before issuing her first round of orders.

-

Having a job helps a lot. Yuuri still has too much down time, and he spends far more hours than he’d like to admit playing games or hiding out in his room pretending to play games, but he has better distractions now, things that can take his mind off Chicago.

After a run through the village, he can let himself into Minako’s for dance class to get moving in the mornings. The rest of the day, he alternates between assisting with Minako’s classes and helping out at Yu-Topia. It’s strange, being able to do both at once while still having free time. When he was a kid, the onsen was always bustling with visitors, and Minako’s ballet school kept her busy most of the day. Now, Minako keeps only a few small classes, and the onsen gets more locals for meals than it does tourists.

In fact, Minako’s most well-populated class isn’t for children—it’s a movement class for the elderly, helping to keep the aging population of Hasetsu spry. It’s a brilliant idea, and Yuuri enjoys teaching it, but he always goes home feeling emotionally bruised after, from the weight of becoming every old woman’s grandson for an hour.

A week into February, the only place in town Yuuri still hasn’t visited yet is the Ice Castle.

He knows he should. His parents have mentioned it over dinner multiple times, pointing out that his friend Yuuko and her husband now work there, and if only Yuuri would stop by, they could catch up and he could skate. Minako, too, brings it up often, and Yuuri does his best to brush her off politely each time.

It’s not that he doesn’t want to see Yuuko. It’s just that he’s not ready to touch the ice again, especially not there, in the very building where he first saw Victor skate, a place where he and Yuuko once spent hours memorizing routines and bonding over magazine interviews. For him, that ice is haunted.

So he sticks to his routine—dancing with Minako, helping his mom, running errands, and trying not to think about anything that might remotely remind him of Victor Nikiforov. As far as Yuuri is concerned, his mind is the old banquet room in Yu-Topia. All of the Victor-related things are stacked neatly in a box and shuffled into a corner. He has no plans to ever open it.

Yuuri’s standing in the market one sunny afternoon, a shopping list in one hand and a container of panko in the other. He knows his mother is particular about brands for some things, but the list here only says “panko.” He looks at the box again. It definitely doesn’t look familiar, but it’s the only brand the store seems to be carrying, so he’s second-guessing himself, wondering if he should risk buying what might be the wrong brand.

“The manufacturer changed the label recently,” a man’s voice says from over Yuuri’s shoulder. “It’s the same brand they’ve always sold, but a different logo.”

Yuuri turns around to thank the stranger and finds himself staring at a squared jaw he knows all too well. “Oh, Nishigori. Hello.”

“Good afternoon, Yuuri.” One of Nishigori’s caterpillar eyebrows makes a break for his hairline. “Imagine running into you here.”

Yuuri glances down. Nishigori’s shopping basket is full of produce, sweets, and very little else.

“I’m just getting a few things for my mom,” Yuuri explains. “How are Yuuko and the girls?”

“Would you like to know?” Yuuri blinks. Nishigori’s eyes are narrow as he folds his arms across his broad chest. “It’s just, we heard you were in town two weeks ago. Yuuko has really been looking forward to seeing you, but—no phone call? No visit? I thought for certain we’d see you at the rink.”

“Sorry…” Yuuri begins. He doesn’t have an excuse prepared, and the truth simply won’t do. Before he can think something up, though, Nishigori’s broad hand has encircled his bicep, and the man starts to pull Yuuri toward the checkout counter. “What—?”

“I’m not letting you get away from me so easy,” Nishigori says gruffly. Before Yuuri can protest, he sets Yuuri’s grocery items on the counter with his own and pulls out his wallet. “As a husband, it’s my job to keep my wife and children happy. Yuuko sent me out with a shopping list, but she won’t mind me bringing you home as well.”

“Now?”

“Now. Your food will keep.”

Yuuri knows the road to the Nishigori’s house nearly as well as he knows his own. Although it was out of his way, he’d often stopped by Yuuko’s before school in the mornings so they could walk in together. After the triplets were born, Yuuko’s parents had moved into an apartment, downsizing so that Yuuko’s young family could have more space.

From outside, the home is immaculate. It looks even nicer than it had when they were teenagers, with a newly-painted fence in front and well-trimmed hedges. Yuuri follows Nishigori up the peaceful gravel path to the front door.

Standing on the porch, he can already hear yelling. Nishigori turns to him with a grin. “Kids,” he says, shrugging.

“Kids,” Yuuri echoes.

The triplets are… a lot. Yuuri had worried that being around three five year-old girls would be painful, that they’d remind him too much of Maia, but within seconds of walking through the door he has one triplet attached to each leg, and he nearly folds under the barrage of questions about—mostly—skating. The boisterous Axel, Lutz, and Loop would have positively steamrolled his quiet, shy Maia.

A few minutes later, Yuuko appears from the kitchen, and her face lights up the moment she sees him. Yuuri feels himself brighten too. He almost forgot how much he loves her, even with her hands still encased in a pair of bright blue rubber gloves, with caked-on egg mixture clinging to her apron. When she reaches for his hand, she still smells like peach blossoms and ice.

In the end, Yuuri helps Yuuko in the kitchen while Nishigori wrangles the triplets. They work mostly in companionable silence, preparing oyakodon, and make only occasional small talk, covering their parents’ health, the girls’ schooling, and so on.

It’s not until they’re seated at the table, the girls dueling one another with chopsticks and arguing over whether one got more egg than the other two, that Yuuri sees Yuuko and Nishigori exchange a meaningful glance.

“What?” Yuuri asks, and they both have the grace to look caught. They’re not fooling him.

“Well,” Yuuko starts, “it’s just that when I saw your mother a few months ago, she mentioned you’d been coaching children in Detroit?”

Assistant coaching,” Yuuri corrects, “sort of. It was barely even official. Celestino only took pity on me because I needed money to buy books for school.”

“I see,” Yuuko says, shooting a look at her husband.

“You know, Ice Castle is still fairly popular around here,” Nishigori continues. “It’s not what it was when the three of us were kids, of course, but Yuuko and I have been trying some new things, offering some more free skate times—”

“That sounds nice. Good for you.” Yuuri pointedly focuses his attention on his food. He’s not liking where this is headed. He puts his chopsticks down, his stomach flipping over too much to accept food.

One of the triplets—Lutz, he thinks—brazenly steals half the egg from his bowl.

“I heard you’ve been part-timing at Minako’s, too,” Yuuko says, and Yuuri nods, not looking up from his rapidly-vanishing food.

“Yuuri.” That’s Nishigori, and his deep voice is enough to pull Yuuri out of his avoidance. He looks up to find his friends smiling at him from across the table, patience radiating from their expressions. “We’re trying to offer you a job here.”

Yuuri opens his mouth, but Yuuko interrupts. “It’s only part-time too, so you could still help at home or with Minako, but we can pay you hourly for any lessons you give—”

“—and if you start coaching anyone privately, we can take a cut of your coaching fees,” Nishigori adds, his grin turning wolfish.

“Surely you can find someone more worth it,” Yuuri says, but Yuuko shakes her head, ponytail bobbing.

“Yuuri, you’re the most popular skater who’s ever come out of this prefecture. You were the top skater in Japan when you quit.” She slams her hands on the table, startling her girls into silence for a brief moment. “You’re a three-time Junior Worlds medalist!”

Yuuri flushes and glances back down at his food. The rest of his egg is missing, and possibly some chicken. “If you really think it will be good for business—”

Yuuri.” Nishigori repeats in a warning tone, and Yuuri meets his eyes dead on.

“—then, yes. I’ll do it.”

-

Going back to Ice Castle isn’t as bad as Yuuri thought it would be, mostly because he’s not going there to skate. Of course, he wears skates to teach. He gets on the ice. He demonstrates movement, and guides his students’ little bodies into position, but he doesn’t come to skate in the same way he used to. He arrives for his lessons, he teaches, and then he leaves to go back home or over to Minako’s.

Some of his students at Ice Castle are the same kids he teaches ballet to, and Yuuko swears up and down that’s Yuuri’s influence on the community, but he’s dubious. Ice skating and ballet are an obvious parallel. It was Minako who prompted him to do both—she probably instructs her other students the same way.

There are new children at Ice Castle, though—kids who travel in from other towns nearby, youngsters living with their grandparents, and a few older students as well. There’s even a pair of novice ice dancers who seem promising, likely to be well-ranked when they age into juniors. And then, of course, there are the triplets—in his lessons, in his life, and seemingly in his space constantly when he’s at the rink.

Already, Yuuko has had to confiscate their phones multiple times for taking surreptitious video of Yuuri giving lessons and popping them up on YouTube. Thankfully, their channel has at most eight subscribers, but it’s still extremely weird to find out your friends’ kids are uploading videos of you with such catchy titles as “former figure skater Katsuki Yuuri eats four onigiri—FAT???” and “Katsuki Yuuri tells you you did a good job today on loop for one hour.”

At least there’s no audience for such weird stuff. And, now that Yuuri’s sort of juggling three jobs, he definitely doesn’t have time to feel depressed. There’s no free time left in his day to think about Victor Nikiforov and his stupid unbuttoned shirts and disgustingly cute daughter and perfect hair, except of course for that last hour of the day—the hour Yuuri spends each night staring at his ceiling, pondering exactly that.

The world’s smallest snowball pelts Yuuri in the back of his neck and warms instantly beneath his collar, dripping down the back of his shirt. He spins around on the ice to find—nothing. The boards are empty, save for one mother who arrived a few minutes early to get her child from lessons.

Yuuri hears a faint giggle echo through the quiet rink. The triplets. They must have found where the zamboni dumped some shaved ice. Yuuri gathers himself to yell out at the girls, to pull them from hiding, and then he hears Yuuko screech.

Troublesome triplets forgotten, Yuuri stops only to tell his students to practice basics, nodding to the solitary mother on watch, before racing for the exit. He clips on his skate guards and rushes to the front desk quick as he can with skates still laced on. He rounds the corner already panting from the effort.

“Yuu-chan,” he gasps, “are you okay?”

Behind the desk, Yuuko has both her hands clasped over her face. Her ears, visible from beneath her ponytail, are red to the tips. Yuuri reaches out, but his fingers have barely touched her wrist when she drops her hands, slamming them down on the desk. Her eyes are full of tears, but her mouth is split wider than he’s seen her smile in ages.

“Yuuri,” she squeals, “Victor is coming back! He’s going to compete again!”

Chapter Text

It’s as if the past five years never happened, at least as far as the news media is concerned. The day Victor announces his return to skating, all the biggest skating forums go dark, their servers unable to handle the load of posts and views suddenly streaming into the sites. Reddit’s figure skating community goes on lockdown, all the mods sick of deleting another Nikiforov post every few minutes, and the megathread they throw up instead hits 2,000 comments in the first couple hours and never looks back.

Even Yuuri’s local TV news channel covers it, and not just in the sports segment. He finds this out the hard way when he walks into the dining room with a tray of katsudon for guests and nearly upends all the food onto the onsen floor. Victor’s face looms large in full color on the screen at the front of the room.

Victor doesn’t look any different. It’s only been a couple weeks, but Yuuri feels he’s aged a year in that time. Somehow, he’d expected Victor to match.

But Victor beams at the camera, clear-skinned and carefree, as Yuuri shuttles around to serve all the guests as quickly as he can and tries not to look too closely. Still, he can’t help glancing over his shoulder now and then, nor can he shut his ears off. Mooroka is conducting the interview, and over the customers’ mutterings of thanks, Yuuri can hear him asking, “Do you have a theme for your first season back?”

Love,” Victor flips his hair back from his eyes with a toss of his head and and answers straight down the barrel of the camera. “Daisuki da yo.”

Yuuri sets down the last bowl of food, grabs the remote from the old man holding it, and switches off the television.

“Hey!” Saito-san exclaims. “I was watching that.”

“It’s bad for your digestion to watch TV while eating,” Yuuri retorts. He flees the room as Saito-san fumbles to reclaim the remote.

In his bedroom, Yuuri changes into his dance clothes in a hurry. He leaves his phone on the charger. Even though he already went for a long run this morning, he runs all the way to Minako’s, and when she closes down the bar for the night several hours later, she finds the lights in the studio still on. Inside, Yuuri gasps for air, his top dark with sweat, still dancing as if he’s locked in a fierce competition with his own reflection on the mirrored wall.

-

Yuuri’s head hurts like a bad hangover the next morning—a throbbing deep in his skull that rejects any hints of light or suggestion of movement. For the first time since he put his new posters up on the wall, Yuuri doesn’t get up to run. He turns off his alarm, cocoons himself deeper in his bed, and goes back to sleep.

He wakes, a few hours later, to the sound of the Hamtaro theme song pipping out of his phone speakers. He gropes around to make it stop and hits accept.

As soon as the call connects, he hears Phichit crooning, “Yuuuuuri! Good morning! Did I wake you up?”

“Only a little,” Yuuri grumbles. He puts the phone on speaker and sets it on his chest, then pushes his glasses onto his face and stares up at the ceiling. There are still a smattering of tiny star-shaped stickers up there. They used to glow in the dark, but they’re long worn out now.

“How’s everything back home?” Phichit prods. “We’ve barely spoken since you got there, even though you promised. You better not have just been wallowing in your bed this whole time.”

Phichit knows him too well. “No, actually. Sorry I didn’t call, but I’ve been really busy.” He explains to Phichit about Minako’s studio and the lessons he’s giving at Ice Castle, drifting at times as he talks about quiet life in his hometown.

Yuuri turns his head to look at the wall and smiles. “I can see you,” he tells Phichit.

“What? Did you hack the rink cameras or something? That’s so creepy; I’m flattered.” Phichit’s voice is threaded with delight.

“No.” Yuuri laughs. “There’s a picture of you on my wall now. A few of them, actually.”

“Then I’m even more honored. I can’t believe I get to share space in your room with Victor Nikiforov. Soon, I even get to share ice with him! I will duel him for your heart.”

Yuuri’s silence in response to that is probably too telling. He doesn’t know what to say. He still hasn’t told Phichit the whole truth. Although he’s gotten out of his contract with Hands & Hearts, he can’t bring himself to break the verbal agreement he made with Victor to keep Maia safe.

“Yuuri. Yuuuuri? Yuuri!” Phichit’s voice snaps him back into the present.

“What? I dozed off for a minute.”

“I asked if you’re excited about Victor coming back! But, of course you are—don’t try to pretend you aren’t. I lived with you for three years. I’ve seen the obsession in action.”

Yuuri bites his lip, holding back a groan. He’d barely gotten away from Yuuko before being badgered with questions yesterday. Minako had made a snide remark when she popped into the studio. Even his father had stopped to ask Yuuri about his “good-looking foreigner” last night. He’s sick and tired of hearing about Victor. Forever.

“Is that the only reason you called me?” Yuuri snaps. “You don’t want to know how I’m doing; you just want to gossip.”

“What?” Phichit sounds distressed. “Yuuri, no! Of course not. I just… thought you’d be happy about this.”

The phone goes silent long enough for shame to punch Yuuri in the solar plexus. Phichit is his best friend—one of his only friends. He couldn’t have known how Yuuri would react, given that Yuuri has been lying to him for months.

“Sorry I lashed out,” Yuuri says quietly. “I was up really late last night, and now I have a headache. I didn’t mean to jump on you. How’s practice?”

Phichit snags the olive branch and takes off running, catching Yuuri up on his jump progress, the antics of the junior ladies’ squad, and Celestino’s failed attempt at sporting a man-bun.

“It sounds like you’ve been working really hard,” Yuuri says when Phichit finishes detailing his recent training. “I bet you snag two spots for Thailand in next year’s World’s.”

“Ahhhh, that would be amazing,” Phichit says. Yuuri can hear his smile through the phone. “There are some older juniors now who are really promising! It would be awesome if I could bring one with me. It’s always more fun to go with a friend.”

“You’ll have Leo this year.”

“True.” Phichit goes quiet for a moment, then Yuuri hears a door slam on his end. “Wait. Wait wait wait—Yuuri! I just had the best idea!”

Yuuri smiles. Phichit’s excitement is always contagious. “What’s that? And before you start this again—no, I don’t think Ciao-Ciao will let you wear a giant hamster head in your exhibition.”

“You should come to World’s this year to support me! We can all hang out and do tourist things together.”

“Isn’t World’s in Boston in this year?” Yuuri frowns at the ceiling. “I just left America—you want me to fly all the way back for a weekend?”

“Pleeeaaaase?” Phichit’s puppy-dog eyes don’t work through audio, thank god. “It would be so much fun. And, hey! Victor will be there.”

Yuuri’s eyes dart to the window, checking for a draft that would explain the chill he just got. “What? He came back this week, and he’s going straight to World’s?”

“No, but he’s competing at the Russia Cup Final next week, and the Russian Fed has said they’ll use those results to determine who goes on the World’s team. You know Victor’s got to make it, even after five years away.”

Yuuri doesn’t know what to say to that.

Phichit takes his silence as an excuse to keep talking. “I know you always regretted that you missed your window to see Victor skate in person. Well, here’s your chance! Come to Boston to support me and you’ll get to see him for sure.”

But Yuuri has seen Victor skate in person, hasn’t he?—slow on rented boots in a half-thawed rink, grinning at Yuuri from beneath the brim of his stupid baseball cap, towing his bright-eyed daughter along behind him to the tune of Mariah Carey Christmas songs.

“Well?” Phichit prompts.

“I wish everyone would stop talking to me about Victor Nikiforov,” Yuuri mutters. “He’s not the only thing going on in my life.”

“Wha—” is all Phichit manages to get out, before Yuuri disconnects the call.

-

In the evenings, Yuuri’s started teaching a few novices. Word has spread quickly to the surrounding towns that Katsuki Yuuri is now coaching at Hasetsu Ice Castle, and eager parents are towing their children in by train the moment school lets out. Much as Yuuri had doubted them, it appears Yuuko and Takeshi were right to believe in his draw as an instructor. From the ice dancing pair he’d had before, the number of novices at the rink has ballooned to seven—and the new ones are all singles skaters.

That means Yuuri—Yuuri—is now responsible for teaching ideal jump techniques, something he’d usually left to Celestino to handle back in Detroit. It’s a good thing most of his students have other coaches as backup. If they were all depending on him alone, he’d have a heart attack.

The kids are still wobbly on their double axels, but the boys will all need triples soon if they want to continue on through juniors and beyond, and there’s one girl in the class with strong eyes and gritted teeth who Yuuri suspects wants that triple too. Axels, he can handle.

They spend most of an hour on them one afternoon, and at the end Yuuri’s thighs feel like hamburger, though emotionally he feels more stable than he has since Victor’s announcement. Right. He still hasn’t been skating much outside of demonstrations during lessons, but if he’s going to be teaching jumps from now on, he should probably work on getting his own back. As his students leave for the evening, dispersing from the rink to the locker rooms, Yuuri hangs behind.

He practices figures and edges at first, rehashes old step sequences until his blood is pumping like it’s the morning of a competition. Then, he circles the rink, building up speed. He steels himself on the turn and sets up. Start off easy. He goes for the triple toe loop and—pops it. It’s a double. Yuuri winces as he slows. The toe loop used to be his only quad, and now he might not even be able to do triples. Stupid. He can’t possibly do right by his students if he can’t even do the work himself.

Yuuri leaves the ice, slipping off his boots and setting them up to dry in the office. He can hear voices in the lobby and—music? It sounds vaguely familiar, though he can only hear some of the notes through the wall.

He steps out into the front entryway and finds his novice students crowded around a bubble-faced old television, along with Yuuko and the triplets. On the screen—tiny and a bit blurred by age and poor film quality—is Yuuri.

That’s why the music sounded so familiar. It’s Lohengrin,his Lohengrin, complete with that horrifying little skirt and the weird bondagey elements he now views with great regret. The tiny Yuuri on the screen jumps—triple axel—and lands flawlessly, his free leg sweeping out behind him before launching into his step sequence. A quiet murmur rises from the students watching.

It’s… good. Yuuri’s never watched himself like this. Sure, he’s seen video of his old programs, but it was always while he was still doing them, or right after. He was always watching for the flaws, searching for the things he could perform better next time. Never before has he sat down and simply watched himself move across the ice, or noticed the joy and freedom in the lines of his own body. In a spiral, his arms and legs splay out straight like unfolding wings, and Yuuri feels a sympathetic stretch in his muscles.

If this boy came into Ice Castle today and asked Yuuri to coach him, Yuuri would be thrilled. There’s no question that the skater he’s watching has promise. He moves beautifully, not just on beat with the music, but performing it from the expression on his face to the extension of his arms. His jumps are shaky, yes. He touches the ice a few times, but his posture is breathtaking and sharp.

Yuuri blinks and realizes his eyes are wet. He’s not crying, not exactly, but—he’s sad. It’s disappointing, watching this. With new eyes, Yuuri can see himself as a young man who had both drive and talent and then… gave it all away.

The Yuuri on the TV finishes his program and bows, and the video tape in the old VCR jumps and fizzles, then the view changes. On a different rink, Victor Nikiforov glides out onto the ice in his Lilac Fairy costume, his long silver hair floating along behind him. He’s so beautiful it’s unreal, and the smile on his face—glowing, genuine, and so familiar—makes Yuuri’s chest ache. He feels his hand twitch at his side, unconsciously reaching.

One of Yuuri’s students gasps, just as struck by this vision as Yuuri himself was in this same room so many years past. That long-ago Yuuri could never have imagined where he’d be today, what he might have had, or what he might have allowed to slip away from him.

Yuuri pats the triplets on their small heads, gives Yuuko a tremulous smile, and then leaves for the day before she can ask what that look on his face means. At home, he finds his mama soft and warm in the kitchen and buries his face in her hair while she swats his hands away from the stove with a dish towel.

His life has changed so much in just six months. Later that night, he sits down to a dinner of katsudon in his family’s home. He bats away his sister’s chopsticks as she tries to steal pork from his bowl, and he watches his parents beaming at one another, holding hands under the table like they haven’t been married for thirty years. This isn’t where he thought he would be at twenty-four, not at all. It’s not anything like he’d imagined when he was twelve, or sixteen, or even twenty, and maybe it’s not even where he really wants to be right now. But, as choices go, he can’t say now that he regrets any of the ones that lead him back here.

Chapter Text

“Yuuri!” Mari’s fist pounds on his bedroom door, and for a minute Yuuri, brain still fuzzy from sleep, thinks he’s back in junior high. He opens his eyes, sees his new posters and photos staring down at him, and remembers where and when he is once more. Reality sucks. Junior high would be better.

If only he could jump back to when he was twelve and do it all again, he would change… something. He’s still too sleepy to decide exactly what it would be. The bad things have all lead, in some way, to an experience he enjoyed.

“Yuuri, get out of bed and come help me shovel snow! It’s nearly lunchtime!”

Snow? Yuuri scoots to the edge of his bed and pulls back the window shade. Sure enough—the outside of the onsen is blanketed in glistening white. A storm must have rolled through overnight, but right now the sun is out, reflecting off the heavy mounds and burnishing them gold.

He wonders how much snow they have in Chicago right now. Hopefully Maia’s new nanny will know about that dog park a few blocks east of the house, with the nice little hill for sledding.

“Yuuri!” Mari calls again. The doorknob rattles.

“I hear you!” Yuuri answers, throwing off his blankets. “I’ll be out in a minute—I need to get dressed.”

“You do that,” she mutters, barely audible through the door. Sisters.

Yuuri rolls from the bed and puts on a couple layers of winter clothes. He’s glad he bought new things while he was in the States, because the items hanging in his closet here are long past fitting him. To his surprise, most are perfectly fine around his waist, but it seems he grew a few centimeters since he was eighteen, and the pants all climb his ankles. It would be fine in the summer, if he cuffed them, but for tromping through snow banks, it isn’t ideal.

A glance at his phone tells him it’s February sixteenth, and there’s a text from Yuuko that says do you want to come over and watch together? He doesn’t need to ask to know what she means. Victor must be skating today. Yuuri puts the phone in his back pocket and leaves the message on read.

Downstairs, he’s trying to force his foot into an old snow boot when he hears his mother call out to him from the kitchen. “Good morning, Yuuri! Mari’s outside helping your father with the snow. Could you come give me a hand in here with the customers?”

Happily, Yuuri abandons his boots. Mari might have wanted an extra set of hands outside, but given the choice he’d much rather stay in the kitchen beside a warm oven on a snowy day.

He passes through the dining room on his way to the kitchen and waves at Minako, who is seated among the old men and grandsons that make up most of the “lunch rush” at Yu-Topia. She fits right in.

His mother greets him at the door with a smile and a cup of tea already poured for him. Her round face is flushed from the heat of the stove, and her hair frizzes out in the steam, haloing her with light. She looks perfect.

“Thank you, Mama,” he murmurs and takes a sip of the tea. It’s the same type she’s always made, and it punches him in the gut with nostalgia. He had her slip some in a care package to Detroit once, but he could never get the timing and temperature of his brew just right. He’d wound up throwing most of the tin away, frustrated at his inability to replicate this exact flavor.

“Lots of orders today,” Hiroko says, humming happily. She already has three pots on the stove and a rice cooker chugging away on the counter. “Can you do vegetables?”

Yuuri nods. At the work table, everything is already laid out for him. It’s like being fourteen again, and he doesn’t mind it a bit. He slips into the old wooden chair, picks up the knife and goes to work.

“Oh, have you seen Tanaka-san since you got back to town?” His mother asks after a few moments of quiet cooking sounds.

“No, why?” Yuuri knows what’s coming, and he smiles.

“Ahh. Well, Minako talked to Hina-chan down at the store, and apparently she said…”

Yuuri tunes most of it out. He doesn’t care who broke up with whom or why. All he wants is the toasty kitchen and the pleasant sound of his mother’s voice as she rambles on. The simple, repetitive motion of peeling and chopping lulls Yuuri into a kind of peace, and for once in the past few weeks, he doesn’t feel like his mind is running in a thousand directions at once.

“By the way, Yuuri,” Hiroko says, her tone soft over the tap of her spoon against the metal saucepan, “when you’re ready to talk about your own heartbreak, I’m here to listen.”

Yuuri pauses, mid-carrot. “Mama? What— What do you mean?”

His mother isn’t looking at him, but there’s a slight smile on her lips as she stares down into the pot of miso broth. “I know you, Yuuri. When you’re sad or stressed, you’re like your mama—you eat. But since you’ve come home, you’ve been getting thinner, so I think… I think maybe you lost someone who was feeding you before.”

The carrot on his cutting board isn’t going anywhere, but Yuuri stares it down like he expects it to escape. He hadn’t considered this traditional Japanese view, but Victor actually had been feeding Yuuri, hadn’t he? Yuuri had made his own lunch, but unless they made food together, breakfast and dinner had often been Victor’s handiwork. On occasion, even Yuuri’s lunch had really been from Victor, as he’d leave leftovers specially portioned out for Yuuri in the fridge, along with a post-it with Yuuri’s name on it.

He’s not sure what to do with this realization. He lets it sit for a moment, marinating like one of the chicken cutlets in their refrigerator, and then remembers his mother is expecting a response. Yuuri licks his lips, trying to gather his scattered thoughts back into a cohesive whole.

“I still have a lot to think about,” he says slowly, and his mama nods along, still smiling. “I want to tell you about it, though. As soon as I can. When I’m ready, you’ll be the first to know, Mama. I promise.”

Hiroko’s smile widens, and she pauses her cooking to touch the back of his hand. “That sounds perfect,” she says, and then they each go back to their own silent task.

Mari pops in a moment later, making a disgusted noise at the sight of Yuuri cosy in the kitchen as she dusts the snow off her bulky marshmallow coat. “I see how it is. Baby brother still gets the cushy jobs, huh?”

“Do you want to trade?” It’s not that Yuuri minds shoveling snow with his dad. He can be generous.

“What?” Mari scoffs. “After all the hardest part is already done outside? No, thank you. You can serve all the dirty old men today.”

Hiroko smiles indulgently, shaking her head at their rehearsed back and forth, and begins setting trays for the guests. “Yuuri, go out and tidy up the dining room before I bring the food out, please.”

“Yes, Mama.”

Yuuri grabs the cleaning bin by the door and goes out to the dining room with it set against his waist, ready to clean up any empty bottles or plates. As soon as he comes through the doorway, Minako calls out to him.

“Yuuri, tell your mama to release you!” She has the TV remote in her hand and an empty green glass beer bottle on the table beside her. He knows she’s not drunk—it’s too early for that, and her tolerance is too high, but she’s putting on a bit of an act to cajole him. She flips the channel on the little television, and the camera pans across an empty rink. “Come watch with me, like the old days.”

She’s also being intentionally obtuse. Yuuri turns his back on the screen and picks up her empty bottle instead. “I’m busy working right now,” he says. “Do you want another?”

“I want you to come sit with me,” Minako insists, tugging at the hem of his shirt.

Yuuri pulls away. “Not now.” He moves over to the other tables, keeping his back to the TV.

“She always monopolizes the TV,” one of the old men at the next table mutters as Yuuri gathers his empty cup. “How does she always manage to get the remote away from me?”

“She distracts you with her wiles,” another man responds. Yuuri shakes his head. More likely Minako distracts them simply by existing in the same room.

He bends to pick up a dirty plate and freezes at the sound of a familiar voice. Victor again. Yuuri ran halfway across the world, and still the man is haunting him. It’s tempting to drop the bin and leave the room, but his mother is lingering in the doorway with trays, counting on Yuuri to help her with the customers. He keeps working.

Despite his best efforts to block it out, he can still hear the TV behind him. As they wait for the first warm-up group to start, the network is playing more of the same interview with Mooroka-san that Yuuri heard a few days prior.

“Your theme this year is love,” Mooroka says, sounding passionate as ever. “Does this mean you have someone special you’re thinking of for your programs?”

“Yes,” Victor says, “my free program is dedicated to my myshka, my darling girl.”

“And the short program?” Though Yuuri can’t see it, he can picture Mooroka’s eager face, his microphone thrust into Victor’s space.

“To the other half of my heart—the man who owns me,” Victor answers quietly, “body and soul.”

The gasp after those words is so loud, Yuuri’s not sure if it came from the television or from his own lips.

“Yuuri?” He looks up to find Minako has twisted to check on him over her shoulder. Her expression, so open minutes ago, is now clouded with concern. There’s a small plate on the floor at Yuuri’s feet, spinning, and he didn’t even realize he’d dropped it. “Are you okay?”

Maybe he says something logical; maybe he makes a proper excuse for his behavior, but afterward, looking back, he can’t remember what he said. All he can remember is the sound of his own breath in his ears as he takes the stairs two at a time, runs into his room, and yanks his laptop off the charger hard enough to pull the plug from the wall.

He flops onto the bed and opens the laptop, pulling up YouTube. It’s been a few years, but obsessively searching the internet for footage of Victor’s programs is one of those skillsets that can’t get rusty. Yuuri knows all the tricks of naming and tagging, and in a few minutes he’s found footage from a preview of the programs that Victor released on social media, carefully hidden away from the eyes and ears of those who would claim copyright.

In true Victor fashion, the musical selection alone is surprising. Both his programs are different arrangements of the same song, entitled On Love. The short program is Eros, where his free is called Agape.

It’s the short program that might—possibly—be meant for Yuuri, but he can’t handle watching that just yet. It could be anything. It could be devastating. He clicks on the free program first.

As it’s a preview, Victor isn’t yet in costume, but Yuuri can envision what his final design for this might be from his movements alone. Victor’s face is raised, hands clasped as if in prayer, then his arms sweep back, wing-like behind him, and Yuuri sees—white, gauze, feathers. He’s angelic. He’s blessed, and Yuuri can understand how this relates to his love of Maia. There’s a purity in both the music and Victor’s performance, an adoration of what must be a miracle. It’s suffused with a love that’s beyond reproach, devotion in each of Victor’s steps.

When the song ends, Yuuri finds his hand is clutching at the loose material of his shirt, over his heart. He has to take a moment to gather himself before moving on to the next video. Has Maia has seen Agape yet? He wonders what she thinks of it, remembering her own hesitant little feet sliding on the ice at Millenium Park.

The short program video awaits in his seach history. He knows this may be painful. Butterflies beat a whirlwind in his stomach, like competition nerves even though he’s not the one skating. He has no idea what to expect, but then, that’s Victor, isn’t it? More than anything else, Victor continues to surprise him.

Steeling himself, Yuuri clicks play on the next video.

From the first ringing notes, he’s fascinated. It sounds like a completely different song, even knowing the base composition is the same. No wonder Victor was able to use the same music twice.

Victor looks directly at the camera. He winks, tosses back his hair, and Yuuri’s face ignites.

This—this is the program Yuuri thought might actually be about him? It’s laughable. Victor’s performance is pure, confident seduction. He leads with his hips through the steps, twisting, his fingers ghosting along his own torso and arms like a lover. Yuuri’s never been confident or seductive in his life. This can’t possibly be Yuuri.

But it’s not Victor, either. At least, it’s not a version of Victor that Yuuri recognizes. Victor may have had a playboy reputation once, but that wasn’t the man Yuuri met in Chicago. The real Victor is... affectionate, playful, devoted, even a bit silly at times. The real Victor works hard above all else, then throws himself without reserve into time with the few people he truly cares about. He’s hardly out seducing every available beauty in town. The whole time Yuuri lived there, the only person he ever slept with was—

“Beautiful. My Yuuri, you’re so—”

Maybe Yuuri was wrong to think Victor was talking about him. Eros doesn’t feel like Yuuri—how could it possibly be the way Victor sees him? But then, who else could it be? Yuuri hasn’t been gone long enough for Victor to find someone new, to build a whole program about them. He must have started choreographing months ago, at least in—

Oh. December. Before that, even? But, they hadn’t even kissed yet.

The program ends, Victor wraps his arms around his body, and Yuuri is left stunned, staring blankly at his computer screen. He’s still trying desperately to intergrate what he’s just seen with his own version of reality. He and Victor had only one night together, and of course Yuuri had found it memorable. Even when he tries not to, he thinks of that night; even when it makes him ache with need, alone in his small room here, he can’t shut out that replay.

But, to consider that Victor might think of him in the same way… It’s beyond Yuuri’s ability to digest.

YouTube’s autoplay pulls up another video, and Yuuri blinks at the tumbnail. It’s a press conference, and Victor stands in a tailored suit at the center of a raised platform, a microphone in front of him. The video’s title is Victor Nikiforov finally opens up about sudden retirement. Yuuri lets it play.

He can’t see the reporters in the room. The video cuts in mid-conference, with a stir of shifting weights and quiet voices in the nondescript room as a woman stands up off camera and asks, “Victor, for many years now skating fans have been asking—whatever happened to Victor Nikiforov? With your return to competition, will we finally have an answer to that question?”

Victor’s smile drops away, his face impassive. At his side, Yakov Feltsman places a hand on his shoulder, and they lean together, whispering out of range of the mics. Yuuri knows what comes next—the deflection, the sideways glances he’s seen a dozen times when Victor’s past was brought up in some way in Chicago.

Finishing the brief conference with his coach, Victor folds his hands on the podium and leans into the mic. “This is a very difficult for me to speak about still,” he begins. Yuuri’s fingers clench on his bed sheets. “Not only to speak in public, but even with my friends and those I hold dear.”

He looks directly into the camera and licks his lips, then begins, “Five years ago, I lost my father in a tragic accident. It was— It was a collision, in Chicago.” There’s a quiet murmur in the room, quickly silenced. Victor waits for it to die down before continuing. “Not only had I lost my father far too early, but his wife was in the passenger seat at the time. Her name was… Shiori.” He pauses there. The camera is too far away for Yuuri to see why. “She was never like a mother to me, but she was a beautiful and loving person who I very much considered a friend, as well as a family member.”

“Miraculously, strapped in safely in the back seat, my half-sister survived the crash.”

The room erupts, and despite the serious topic, Yuuri can see the twitch of Victor’s lips on the camera. He still loves getting to surprise an audience.

“Her name is Maia,” Victor says, once the furor has subsided. “She was only a few months old at the time. I know you probably expect me next to say that I had to make a hard decision that day, but the truth is that I didn’t. My father and Shiori were both gone in an instant. Maia was as orphan—” He cuts off, choking on emotion, and turns his head for a moment to regain his footing. Looking back, Victor once again stares down the barrel of the camera. “As soon as I heard, there was no decision to make at all. In my opinion, there was only ever one choice.”

“Obviously, it wasn’t feasible to continue my training and competition schedule while raising an infant.” He glances over at his coach beside him. Feltsman looks impassive and grumpy as ever, but Victor smiles at him fondly. “I’m lucky to have a coach who understood what I was doing, and who supported both my time off and my comeback, even if he didn’t like it.”

Another voice—another reporter—breaks in: “Why come back now? Why come back at all?”

“It was always the plan,” Victor says. “Maia is five now. She’s in preschool, and she’ll be starting kindergarten soon. I was able to hire help to fill in some gaps while I trained, and now that Maia’s older it’s possible to explain to her what I’m doing, as well as why I’m going to spend a little time away on occasion.”

Victor stops speaking for a moment, and another reporter starts to ask a question, but Victor cuts him off with a single raised finger. “I’m not quite done yet. I’m thinking of what to say.”

The press room respects that, waiting in silence until Victor lowers his finger and refocuses on the camera. “Even though I had always planned to return, recently I started to second-guess that idea. Even as I began to escalate my training, I was struggling to find inspiration, and to reignite the love I once had for skating. All that changed in the past few months.” He flashes a smile at the camera, but Yuuri, who has seen months of variation in Victor’s smiles, knows a fake when he sees it. It’s a smile that covers meters of sadness.

“Recently, I found my inspiration again. I don’t love skating in the same way I did as a child, but I love it in a new way all together, with an entirely new meaning. Although I tried for so long, I realize now that I can’t hide myself—or Maia—from the world forever.” He bows his head, folding his hands before the microphone, and adds in a lower tone, “In life, when you find things or people that you love, you have to hang onto them, because— Because if you let the time you have with them slip away, they might not be waiting for you when you return.”

There’s a beat of silence after that, and then a clamor as all the journalists in the room vie for attention. Yakov Feltsman cuts them off, clapping a protective hand on Victor’s shoulder. “I’m afraid that’s all we have for today,” he says.

The video cuts out.

Yuuri presses pause before the next video—a retrospective on Victor’s career set to Taylor Swift—can begin to autoplay. He sits on the bed and stares at the unmoving screen, processing Victor’s words.

For nearly a month now, Yuuri has been hiding from Victor, nursing his broken heart and certain that their burgeoning relationship was nothing but a sham built on a lie. Now, Yuuri feels like a big, steaming sack of hot human garbage.

Victor isn’t blameless, of course. Yuuri had asked him to talk about Maia’s mother. Others had asked before him. There had been an abudance of opportunities for Victor to open up and correct Yuuri’s misapprehensions. Victor had lied, or at least he avoided telling the truth.

And the woman in the photos—Shiori—just a friend? Yuuri closes his eyes, trying to picture what he’d seen in the room once again: Shiori and Maia, Shiori and Maia, Shiori and Maia with Victor, who was staring adoringly down at—not his girlfriend or his wife.

His sister. And behind the camera in all of those images, Victor’s father, Sergei Nikiforov, a man Yuuri knows little about except that, while Victor’s mother attended all his competitions in Russia, his father did not.

The photos in his bedroom had never been about Maia’s mother. They were pictures of Maia. Maia, Victor’s little sister, and the one person for whom Victor willingly gave up years of his career and possibly his dreams.

Maia, who Yuuri had abandoned. He’d left her behind without so much as a goodbye, which is even worse than leaving Victor, and at the time it had seemed like the only thing to do, but now... He’s always known Maia was first in Victor’s heart. After Yuuri’s walked out on her, how could he ever expect Victor to forgive him?

Does he want Victor to forgive him?

Yuuri turns his feelings over like a glass bauble in his hands, looking for the cracks. He can’t deny that Victor cares for him any longer—or, cared for him. There’s simply too much piling up, between the programs, Victor’s comments, and the way he spoke in that press conference: Recently, I found my inspiration again. I don’t love skating in the same way I did as a child, but I love it in a new way all together, with an entirely new meaning.

Months ago, Yuuri had stumbled into Victor’s home, his life, and eventually his bed. It was all pointing in the same direction, and even the little negative voice always lurking in Yuuri’s head couldn’t drown the evidence out entirely.

Daisuki da yo, Victor had said in the Mooroka interview, staring into the camera, and at the time Yuuri thought it was a ploy, a tease to his Japanese fans in general, meant for Japanese-language media, but what if— What if that was—

Yuuri isn’t ready to consider that too deeply. He knocks the thought away before it can blossom and overwhelm him. He needs a distraction, because he has no idea what to do next.

Just in time, someone pounds on the wall outside Yuuri’s door. “Heyyy,” Mari calls up at him. “Are you going to just serve lunch and then leave all the dishes to me? Come down and help!”

Any port in a storm, even if the port is dishes. Yuuri takes what Victor said and shoves it down deep, saving it for later. He hasn’t had lunch yet, or even breakfast, really. No decisions can possibly be made on an empty stomach.

Chapter Text

After putting away an extra-large katsudon, Yuuri marinates in the choices before him, phone in hand. He knows if he tells Phichit what’s happening—the whole truth, at last—his friend will say something like, “Talk to him, you idiot.” But, since Yuuri arrived in Japan, he’s had Victor’s number blocked. To go from that to calling him up, especially in the middle of Victor’s first competition in five years, feels a lot like jumping off a cliff with his eyes closed.

 

One step at a time. He unblocks Victor’s number, then stares down at his phone, the blank message history speaking volumes about where they stand.

The short program should be finished. Jackie Wong’s Twitter informs Yuuri that Victor has, in fact, ended the day in first place. He calls it “a triumphant comeback.” Yuuri expected no less. He waits, unable to push himself to that next step, but hoping for a miracle.

When an hour passes and no text message comes through, no call, Yuuri expects to feel numb. He expects to be defeated, overwhelmed, lost as he has been too often these past few—years, really. Instead, his next thought is I should watch the programs again.

He may as well be thirteen years old, huddled in his twin bed in Hasetsu with his computer on his lap. He watches both programs all the way through once, then starts over from the beginning of the short, pausing to note things along the way. Though it’s only been a couple hours, enterprising fans have posted footage from today’s short program already—a more complete, higher quality version of Eros for Yuuri to analyze. He tries to pull his feelings out of it, focusing on its quality as a competitive performance.

The competition version is even more intense than the preview, though not flawless. Victor’s footwork here really snaps, and what had been a triple salchow in the preview is now a quad, even if he did two-foot the landing. There are still triples in there that Yuuri knows Victor can upgrade, still room for him to increase the difficulty of this layout for World’s, and a familiar excitement pushes at Yuuri’s chest.

No matter what’s happened, at his core he still feels that thrill in realizing that Victor Nikiforov is going to win Worlds. There’s no doubt in his mind. No one can beat Victor.

Yuuri glances down at the time. His afternoon classes at Ice Castle are set to begin in about an hour, and Yuuko likely isn’t at the rink yet, but these days, Yuuri has his own key. He throws off his blankets and gets dressed quickly. On his way out, he grabs the bag with his skates in it, stuffs his laptop in the side pocket, and runs the whole way to the rink.

It’s a good day for a run. The air is so cold, Yuuri can see his own breath echo out in white puffs, but the sun hangs gold in a clear blue sky above him, a reminder of the warm spring days soon to come. Even the seagulls sound excited now, cheering his feet as they soar above him in the crisp February air.

Ice Castle is locked and dark when Yuuri arrives, just as he expected. He lets himself in and turns on half the overhead lights; the little tendrils of darkness that linger around the edges of the rink help to quiet his mind. After pulling on his skates, he steps onto the ice and sets up his laptop on the boards. His browser is still open to YouTube, and he pulls up the preview of the free program. Once again, Yuuri presses play.

When Yuuko finally arrives, she finds him sprawled out on his back on the ice, panting for breath. Rinkside, his laptop emits the tinny, restrained notes of Agape on repeat.

Yuuko must know what he’s doing— after all, it had been her idea, that first time all those years ago—but she doesn’t comment, and she doesn’t ask questions about his choice. She simply calls out, “Good afternoon, Yuuri! Did you have a good practice?” as she turns on the rest of the lights.

Yuuri raises his hand in a brief wave. He may have pushed himself too hard. He still has children to teach, and now he’ll have to do it on a bruised hip and fatigued muscles.

And yet, all he can think is that he wants to go again.

-

The men’s free program for Cup of Russia begins a little after noon the next day. Normally, Yuuri would run home to help with lunch service, or stop by Minako’s to grab a quick meal before ballet, but today he stays at Ice Castle. He and Yuuko watch the footage from yesterday together first. They sit side by side like kids again, rapt as Victor—clad in dark blue edged with black and embroidered with silver-threaded designs—skates to Eros in competition for the first time.

Even though Yuuri watched it five times yesterday alone, he can’t look away. It’s brilliant. It’s sexy. He’s pretty sure Yuuko is having a stroke next to him. Yuuri can’t connect this program to himself, but he can still appreciate it. He keeps his mouth shut as Yuuko fans herself after the song ends, making inarticulate, high-pitched noises. If he told her, there’s no way she’d believe him.

They switch to the livestream after, catching it right in time to see Georgi Popovich hang his head in the Kiss and Cry as Victor takes to the ice. In Yuuri’s admittedly biased opinion, Georgi hadn’t had much chance to begin with, but he clearly had a rough day judging by the score. The skaters beneath Victor would need him to really fall apart to have even a glimmer of hope of getting Russia’s third World’s spot.

Shimmering in silver and white, Victor’s attitude bears little resemblance to a man about to fall apart. He doesn’t even look nervous. There’s a slight, cocky lift to his mouth that his competitors probably find infuriating.

It’s one of the sexiest things Yuuri’s ever seen.

Agape in competition is even more beautiful that the preview. The elevated jumps make Victor look like he’s soaring, and though the performance gets a little rough toward the end—fatigue; Yuuri knows it too well—it’s still incredible.

Victor wins, because of course he does. His only real competition was the little Russian monster Phichit had warned Yuuri about, Yuri Plisetsky. The kid had scored well, taking a solid silver, but he’s no match for Victor Nikiforov, not even a version shaking off five years of rust. Yuuri feels a little bad for the teenager, though Plisetsky scowls and stomps at the podium, not taking his second place like a good sport. Victor is a lot to be compared to.

Bare hours later, the Russian Fed announces their Worlds team; they’d obviously had a plan in mind that only a real tragedy could have shaken. Going to Boston would be Georgi Popovich, who’d placed third, Yuri Plisetsky, and the returning champion—Victor Nikiforov.

“Of course,” Yuuko says, sounding satisfied. Then she glances up at the clock and leaps to her feet. “Ahhhh, how did it get so late? I got distracted!”

She races off, Yuuri nodding absently at her vanishing back. He’s replaying the conversation he’d had with Phichit about World's, the invitation. He’s sure it still stands, and that Phichit would be happy to see him at a moment’s notice. But, would Victor?

Yuuri is torn. He lies awake in his room later that night, staring at where his posters used to be and wondering. What does he think would happen, if he went? What does he want to happen?

Well, it’s obvious. He wants to see Victor. He wants a chance to win Victor’s esteem back, but simply sending a text to say “hi” after months of silence doesn’t feel like enough, not after Victor wore his heart on his sleeve to the press. Victor’s done more than enough for Yuuri, and after what Yuuri did to him—and to Maia—a simple “I’m sorry” from 10,000 miles away isn’t going to cut it.

Plus, Yuuri is still Victor’s biggest fan at heart. He’d be lying (again) if he pretended he didn’t want a chance to finally see his idol compete in person.

Whispering harshly over all of Yuuri’s desires is another voice, the voice that never seems to leave. Victor doesn’t want to see you, it says, drowning out the others. You’d only ruin his big day by being there.

Yuuri lies awake for hours, turning it over, and solves nothing. He blinks, and it’s five in the morning. Outside, the sun is just peeking over the horizon, and Yuuri rolls from the bed and puts on his running shoes. He grabs his skates and his key on the way out the door.

Just as Yuuri can’t trap his feelings for Victor away into tidy boxes in the old banquet room anymore, he also can’t say why he keeps practicing Victor’s programs. He did need to practice more, in general, to help with his coaching, but it would be easier to fall back on his own old programs, or to use exercises he’d learned with Celestino. Instead, he skates Agape. He falls. He gets back up. He goes again.

The program Victor skated at Cup of Russia yesterday is far beyond Yuuri’s current abilities, but it’s easy enough to downgrade—the step sequence is well within his wheelhouse, and the jump layout isn’t bad. He drops everything down to doubles, except for a triple toe loop. It’s not about the jumps. Yuuri isn’t competing; he’s just skating.

He freezes in the finishing position for the sixth time this morning and pants for breath, staring up at the rafters where they outline a blurred pattern beyond his clasped hands. There’s a brief moment at the end of this, every time, where Yuuri feels something like a connection. His heart pounds in his ears, but the music soars over it, and he thinks of Victor, somewhere else, skating this program too.

The competition is over. Is Victor back in Chicago already, or did he pause in Russia to visit his mother? Does he ever bring Maia with him to the rink? When he practices this pose, does he think of her each and every time?

Yuuri thinks he must, because Yuuri thinks of her too: Maia, and Victor, and the home they had once built between them.

An echo of applause shatters Yuuri’s reverie this time. “Yuuri!” Yuuko cheers from rinkside, bouncing up and down on her toes. “So cool!”

“Thanks,” Yuuri says, flushing slightly. His childhood crush on Yuuko is long dead, but he can never kill off the instinct to preen under her attention. He skates over to the boards and grabs the water bottle she passes over to him with a nod of thanks.

“How long have you been practicing that?” she asks. “Didn’t it just premiere the other day?”

“Yeah,” Yuuri says. “Pretty much— Pretty much since then.” He ducks his head, smiling as Yuuko claps her hands to her mouth.

“Ahhh, I wish I saw the whole thing! I only caught the end—too busy chasing after the girls.” Yuuko leans in, alarmingly close, and lowers her voice to a whisper though they’re the only ones in the rink as she asks, “Did you learn the other program too?”

Flustered, Yuuri looks away. “No, no just the free, but…” He’s tired, bone-tired from a full day of emotional conflict on top of his practice. He’s done this run-through over and over already, and he should be sick of it for the day already, but this is Yuuko, so he has to offer: “I could run through it again, if you want to see the whole thing?”

Yuuko makes the sort of high-pitched noise that would start Vicchan barking if he were still here as she bounces up and down on her toes. “Really? Are you sure?”

“Yeah, of course.” Yuuko’s excitement is always so infectious; her reaction is like a soak in the onsen, lifting the soreness from Yuuri’s legs and giving him a second wind. He skates back out to center ice with renewed vigor and nods at Yuuko to start the music again.

Maia, he thinks, as he sweeps his arms back. This is the best I can do for you right now. Please forgive me.

-

Yuuri wakes the next morning to the sound of his phone ringing. It’s the default ring, not one he’s specially programmed in, so he slaps at his phone, trying to forward the telemarketer to voice mail.

It goes silent, and Yuuri flops back into his pillow. He has no early morning classes today, and he’s sore all over from how much extra work he did the day before. He has no plans to get out of bed until it’s time to help prepare lunch, and he’s just beginning to drift back to sleep when the phone starts up again.

Groaning, Yuuri grabs for it, tilting to see the screen. The notifications show several missed calls already, apparently having all come in while he was on Do Not Disturb overnight. Nishigori, the current call says, and Yuuri’s stomach clenches. Takeshi is never the one to call him, and his first thought is that something’s happened to Yuuko.

“Hello?” he croaks into the phone, thumbing it onto speaker.

“Yuuri.” Nishigori sighs, relief overwhelming the edge of nerves Yuuri can still detect in his voice. “I’m so sorry.”

“Sorry for what?” A million possibilities flicker through his mind, beginning with the reasonable and quickly escalating to the ridiculous. Yuuko’s never even been on an airplane, so there’s definitely no reason she would have been on one that crashed into the Pacific ocean.

“I forgot to tell Yuuko that I gave the girls my phone to play games with yesterday. They recorded your practice at the rink. It’s… It’s all over the internet.”

“What.” Nishigori’s statements aren’t even processing. Phones. Practice. Triplets. Had the triplets been at the rink yesterday? Sure, Yuuri had seen them, but not until later, when he started lessons. When had they come in?

“Yuuri? Are you okay?” Nishigori’s voice is thick with concern.

“I think so,” Yuuri says faintly.

He sits up in bed and pulls his laptop over from where it was charging against the wall. Every messenger service he’s ever used has notifications on it. There’s an email from Ciao-Ciao in his inbox, flagged as important. He opens that, scanning over the words in the message but not truly reading. At the bottom is a YouTube link, which he clicks.

Yuuri Katsuki tries to skate Victor Nikiforov’s Agape

And there he is, center rink on a shaky, somewhat pixelated video. He can hear the girls whispering amongst themselves behind the camera. The video has thousands of views already—tens of thousands. Fifteen seconds in, he hits pause.

He doesn’t need to see any more.

“Yuuri?” Nishigori’s getting loud—probably not the first time he’s called Yuuri’s name. “Yuuri, is everything alright?”

“Yeah,” Yuuri says. It feels like someone else is speaking through his mouth. “I’m fine. I’ll talk to you later, okay? Tell Yuuko I said hi.” He hangs up before Nishigori can respond to that and stares across the room at the photos taped to his closet door.

Tens of thousands of views. Someone must have sent it to Victor.

What would he think? Would Yuuri skating Maia’s program make him smile, or would it upset him? Certainly, he couldn’t think much of Yuuri’s technical interpretation, no matter the multitude of feelings Yuuri had put into the steps.

Yuuri picks up his phone and checks his notifications. It’s the usual suspects: Yuuko, Minako, Celestino again, and of course Phichit. There’s an unfamiliar number mixed into the texts, but it’s obvious from the typing style and the message that it must be Leo.

Nothing from Victor’s number. Yuuri opens Instagram and Twitter, checks Victor’s profiles there for the first time in ages, but the most recent posts are just photos of the Russia Cup Final podium and generic “thanks for your support” messages to fans.

On the Instagram post, the first visible comments are all about Yuuri’s video. There are definitely links, but there are no replies from Victor himself so far.

What Yuuri needs is a distraction. All he’s done since he arrived in Hasetsu is distract himself, in one way or another, but today his options are limited. Ice Castle means Yuuko, and he can’t deal with more apologies in person right now. Running to the studio would mean visiting Minako, and if the number of alerts on his phone is any indication, not only does Minako know about the video, but half the village knows as well. Even just going out into the onsen, he’ll risk running into someone who’s seen it.

So Yuuri goes to the one place left to him, the one place that will give him some privacy this time of year, as well as space to think. He goes to the beach.

It’s deserted, as he expected. No one wants to go out to the seaside in February. It’s still much too chilly, and the crisp air worms its way under the gaps in Yuuri’s clothes and makes him shake. He sits down on the low rock wall, facing the waves, and watches the steel blue water reach for the shore.

The view is more than quiet—it’s desolate. He buries the toes of his shoes in the sand and wonders why it feels like something is missing. Out here, he could be the last man alive, staring down the apocalypse.

Against the backdrop of the vast ocean, Yuuri sits and ignores the rattling vibrate of messages pouring into his phone. He doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of the video, only Victor. He rubs his hands together, trying to breathe warmth back into his fingers. What he wants from Victor is…

He wants to apologize. That’s the most important thing. It shouldn’t have taken him so long to decide on that, but that need had gotten all caught up in the other things he could want from Victor, and he’d overlooked the basic. Even if Victor never forgives him, Yuuri knows that he needs to say it. If he doesn’t, he’ll spend the rest of his life regretting that he didn’t take the chance.

His phone is finally quiet, and Yuuri fishes it from his pocket. The list of messages beneath Victor’s name is still blank, though Yuuri can picture those old threads of check-ins, good mornings, and cute dog photos, long-deleted. He could type out a text, keep it simple, I’m sorry, and then it would be done. Or, he could press dial, sit here on the beach with compounding knots in his stomach, listening to the rings and hoping that despite everything Victor would still answer. No response at all would be worse than anger. At least anger would have passion behind it.

Instead, Yuuri’s fingers find Phichit’s name. There are missed messages about the video, of course, but Yuuri scrolls past those, typing out something new.

Any chance you still want me at World's with you? He hits send before he can second-guess himself.

Phichit texts back immediately, !!!!! and then Yuuri’s phone starts ringing in his hand.

“I’m not going to kick a gift horse in the teeth,” Phichit says quickly when Yuuri picks up, “so I’m not going to ask why you want to come now. I’m just going to pretend it’s for me. But boy, you better believe I have some questions.”

Yuuri smiles, running a hand over his icy cheeks. No matter what, Phichit can make him laugh. “I might have some answers,” he admits. “Is there any chance I’d still be able to come cheer you on?”

“Can you do a split?”

“Of course.” Probably. He hasn’t practiced it in a while.

“Hmmm…” Yuuri hears keys clacking in the background, then it stops. “Well, it looks like the all-event tickets have been sold out for a while—” of course they have “—but I think I might have a few tricks up my sleeve for my own personal cheerleader.”

“What kind of tricks?” Yuuri asks. Hopefully nothing that involves nudity this time.

“I know a guy who knows a guy,” Phichit says cryptically. He makes it sound like he’s got a mafia connection or something. Yuuri doesn’t ask questions, but he has faith Phichit can make it work. Phichit is the king of making things work when they shouldn’t.

“Let me check around,” Phichit says. “I’ll text you in a couple days and let you know how it looks. You start shopping for those plane tickets.”

“You’re the best,” Yuuri says, feeling some fraction of the weight on him lift.

“I expect to be hearing those answers,” Phichit replies. “Some time before I pick you up at the airport, please.”

“You will,” Yuuri vows. He’ll have to tell his mother first. He did promise her he would, and if he’s going to Boston then it seems like it’s past time for people to know. He thinks of the photo book Victor gave him, gathering dust in the bottom of one of his storage boxes in Detroit, and his hands clench on his knees.

When the call with Phichit ends, Yuuri doesn’t put down his phone. His fingers linger in his contacts, and on impulse he pulls up a number that’s gone unused for years.

Congratulations on winning Euros, he types out, then hits send. Immediately an icon appears, notifying him that Chris is typing a reply. Yuuri waits, watching for the text bubble to appear.

What do you think you’re doing?

Yuuri’s heart sinks. The typing icon appears again.

I saw that video you posted
I won’t let you hurt him again

Biting his lip, Yuuri hesitates. Even in text, Chris doesn’t sound happy. But he’s the only one who might be able to help Yuuri out with this.

Did Victor see?

A checkmark tells Yuuri the message has been seen. He waits on the sea wall, phone in his hand, until the sun peaks above him and his alarm beeps, reminding him that there’s a lunch to be served at the onsen, but Chris never replies.

Chapter Text

Yuuri’s never been to Boston before, so he wasn’t anticipating the sheer size of Logan Airport. He’s passed through larger hubs on far less sleep, but it’s always nerve-racking to disembark somewhere new. The terminal is a chaos of lights and voices, people with thick accents in a variety of languages rushing from one gate to the next, intercom announcements for delayed flights, and crying children.

Keeping his eyes fixed toward the ceiling, Yuuri follows the signs that will lead him down to the baggage claim with his duffel bag hugged against his chest like an infant. As soon as the wheels of his plane touched the runway, Yuuri had powered his phone back on to find a text from Phichit saying, See you soon ;).

When he arrives at the baggage area, Yuuri looks for Phichit first, scanning the milling crowd for that familiar mop of black hair, and half expecting it to be next to a giant poster of his own face or something.

It’s likely to take a few minutes before the flight disgorges his bag, but oddly enough, Yuuri doesn’t see Phichit anywhere. He pulls out his phone to check again. His flight is on time, and Phichit is usually punctual. There’s no obvious reason why he might not be here yet.

A claxon sounds on one of the baggage belts, and Yuuri glances over to see his flight number on the screen above it. He can get his stuff first; that will give Phichit a bit longer to show up.

Yuuri turns, heading toward the belt, when he hears a voice behind him call out his name.

“Ciao, Yuuri!”

Oh no. He knew he’d likely see Celestino around this week, but Yuuri had only expected Phichit at the airport, maybe with Leo. He hasn’t emotionally prepared himself to see his old coach yet. Yuuri freezes, and a big hand claps down on his shoulder.

“Didn’t you see me waving?” Celestino asks.

Yuuri turns, pasting on a smile, and ducks his head. “No, Coach. Sorry. I was looking for Phichit.”

Celestino looks utterly unchanged, which is crazy. Even though it’s only been a few months, Yuuri feels like Detroit was a whole different world. Somehow, he’d expected Celestino to show that difference as well, but no. Ciao-Ciao looks like himself, smartly dressed in a simple white shirt with khaki pants and a tan trenchcoat, his long hair pulled back in a ponytail and winglike brows climbing for his hairline.

He grins wide and pats Yuuri’s shoulder again. “Phichit wanted to come,” he says, “but I made him stay back and rest before his big day. Besides, I wanted to see you!”

“Really?” No matter how many times Ciao-Ciao greets him like this, Yuuri keeps expecting coldness or resentment over his departure. Despite everything, his old coach is nothing but welcoming.

“Of course! I was quite surprised when Phichit told me you wanted to come.” Somehow, his eyebrows climb higher. “And when I saw your video.”

The video. It always comes back to that video.

“Oh look,” Yuuri says, “there’s my luggage!” He steps toward the carousel to grab his battered blue suitcase, grateful for the distraction, but Celestino reaches around him to pull it off first, and Yuuri’s forced to watch as Celestino takes off toward the double doors to the terminal, dragging all of Yuuri’s belongings in his wake.

Yuuri hustles to keep up, chasing his things through the parking garage while trying to insist he can carry them himself. Ciao-Ciao doesn’t seem to be listening.

As usual, he’s opted to rent a car, despite that being wholly unnecessary at most competitions. It’s yellow this time, a shade reminiscent of school bus, and slung low to the ground. The trunk of the coupe is so tiny that Celestino has to shove at Yuuri’s small bag to force it inside. Good thing Yuuri didn’t bring anything breakable. He slinks around to the passenger seat and gets in, accepting his fate.

Celestino slams the trunk and then slides into the driver’s seat. When he turns the key, the stereo comes on blasting bright, bubbly K-pop, and Yuuri buries his face in his hands. He’s heard the juniors at the rink theorize that Phichit was the one to get Celestino into sugary pop music, but Yuuri was in Detroit long before Phichit arrived, and he knows the truth—Ciao-Ciao was always like this.

For the first few minutes, as Celestino navigates the tight turns and strange traffic patterns required to leave Logan airport, the stereo volume stays up, excusing Yuuri from any obligation to make awkward small talk, but eventually they reach the highway and Celestino reaches out to turn the music down.

“You know I have to ask,” Celestino says, and Yuuri’s stomach sinks down to his ankles, “after that video, and then this trip—Are you planning to compete again?”

Yuuri stares down at the floorboard of the rental car, toeing the unusually pristine mat with his tattered sneakers. “No,” he says quietly. It’s not something he’s ever really considered. He’s not even sure it would be possible at this point.

Before he’d moved in with Victor, Yuuri had lost his love for skating. He thinks maybe he’s found it again no; there’s passion, joy, and solace in the time he spends on the ice in Hasetsu. But still he hasn’t been bitten by that drive to test his skills against others, the spirit of competition that pushed him to keep trying even when he fell in front of crowds of thousands. Whatever spark for that he felt before, he thinks it’s gone for good.

Celestino hums. “That’s a shame,” he says. “That video was some of the best skating you’ve done in years, even with the downgraded jumps and shaky landings, but, if that’s what you want, you know I’ll never force you to do something else, Yuuri.”

And the fact is, Yuuri did know that, as much as he always feared otherwise. Celestino has never, in all their years working together, done anything that might force Yuuri out of his comfort zone. Not knowing how to say all that, Yuuri simply says, “Thank you.” Then he tries not to wince as Ciao-Ciao cranks the music back up for the rest of their drive to the hotel.

Because Yuuri came at the last minute, and because he’s ostensibly here to support Phichit, he’s been booked into Phichit’s room. Celestino passes him the key when they get to the hotel, points Yuuri toward the elevators, and then disappears somewhere, off to do whatever it is he’s into when he’s not coaching. Yuuri prefers to remain ignorant of what that is.

The hotel room is quiet and empty when Yuuri gets there, aside from some of Phichit’s things spread across one of the beds, and he double-checks the time. It’s a bit after six in the evening, and the short program starts tomorrow. Phichit is probably grabbing an early dinner before he comes back for the night.

After being on flights most of a day, Yuuri is bone-weary and feels disgusting. Something about airplanes always makes him feel like a trash heap by the time he lands. It’s tempting to fall into the nearest bed and pass out until morning, but he’ll survive the weekend better if he pushes through and goes to sleep at a more normal time. Instead, he ditches his bags and then his clothes and hops into the shower to sluice off the airplane smells.

When Yuuri emerges a few minutes later in clean boxers, a towel draped over his shoulders, Phichit is perched on the bed with his phone aimed at the bathroom door.

What are you doing?” Yuuri lunges forward, grabbing for the phone, but Phichit rolls out of his grasp.

“Snapchat,” he answers, laughing as he dances back when Yuuri bats at his hands again. “Okay, okay. I’ll turn it off.” He tucks the phone into the back pocket of his jeans and slings an arm around Yuuri’s neck. “Hey! Welcome back, stranger.”

“Thanks,” Yuuri huffs. He ducks his head to rest on Phichit’s shoulder, then takes that opportunity to snag his phone before jumping away. Phichit’s passcode is always his current Personal Best short program score—but unfortunately, the phone unlocks to a blank screen.

“I sent it already,” Phichit says, smirking as he snatches the phone back.

“To who?”

Everyone.” He drops back onto the bed closest to the door, and Yuuri takes that as Phichit placing his claim, so he unzips his bag onto the other bed, digging out fresh pajama pants and a t-shirt for the night.

“How are you feeling?” Phichit asks. He’s stretched out on his stomach, half watching Yuuri get dressed but mostly texting, thumbs flying across the screen. “What’s the plan, and how can I help?”

—and how can I help? This is why Yuuri loves Phichit. No hesitation. Telling Phichit the truth over FaceTime a couple weeks ago had been awkward, owing mostly to how long Yuuri had avoided saying anything, but Phichit had neatly sliced through Yuuri’s embarrassment by screeching, I knew that dog looked familiar, congratulating Yuuri on his success, and then threatening to have Victor killed, all within the space of two breaths.

“Step one in the plan was getting tickets,” Yuuri says, ticking off points on his fingers. “Step two: I am here, in Boston, where Victor also is. Step three is…” he gestures around the room, shrugging, then finishes, “and somehow this weekend I bump into him in a hallway or something, tell him I’m sorry before he can avoid me, and then run all the way back here to die inside.”

“Cool. Very cool.” Phichit flops onto his back. “I’m always up for the part of this plan where I hold your hand while you cry and/or hold your hair while you throw up, but if you’re accepting constructive criticism I think maybe you could be more efficient with this one.”

“How so?”

“Well, for starters, you might need an actual plan on how and when to approach the man, rather than leaving it up to fates to thrust you into the same hallway.” Phichit gestures toward the hotel room door with the hand currently holding his phone. “You’re in the competition hotel. Victor is in the same building right now—I overheard him talking to Chris during our practice block, planning to meet up at the bar by the pool tonight. If you wait around for something to happen, that just gives you an excuse to leave when nothing happens.”

Yuuri collapses onto his bed, burying his face between two overstuffed white pillows. “I’m not ready to think about the fact that we’re in the same building right now,” he groans, feeling his face heat even as his hands go ice cold and clammy. “Oh no. Phichit, I’m not ready for this at all.”

“Too bad.” A pillow lands on the back of Yuuri’s head with a whump. “You’re stuck here now, and it might be the only chance you’ll get. Have you tried texting him to meet up? Or, I could sneak around tomorrow between groups and find out stealth-like what room he’s in.” Phichit sounds entirely too gleeful about that last idea.

“You’re probably right about the plan,” Yuuri admits. He rolls onto his side and throws the pillow back at Phichit, who catches it with both hands. “I’m just not sure when is a good time to talk to him. We’re at the World Championships. What if I say something and upset him in the middle of the competition, and he gets so distracted that he pops all his jumps, or he hurts himself?” Yuuri covers his face, thinking about it. “I’d never forgive myself.”

“Yeah,” Phichit says quietly. “But what if you never say anything? Would you forgive yourself then?”

Yuuri drops his hands to blink up at the hotel room ceiling, unsure of how to answer that question.

A rapping at the door interrupts his train of thought, and Phichit rolls from the bed to answer. “You better not have put your room service on my bill while I was out,” he grouses.

Yuuri hears the door open, then unexpected silence. He glances over to check, and finds Phichit frozen, the door half open, staring up at a stone-faced Victor Nikiforov.

And Yuuri could kick himself that the first thing he notices is that Victor looks good—a little tired, maybe, and his hair is still wet from a shower, but he’s handsome as ever, sleekly dressed in a pale blue shirt that complements his eyes and tailored black slacks. He gives Phichit half a smile and adjusts his shirt cuffs.

“Hello. I don’t believe we’ve officially met, but I’m looking for—” He cuts off when Yuuri stands up, staring over Phichit’s shoulder.

“You know what?” Phichit says, “We’ll meet later.” He throws Yuuri a glance, eyebrows raised in an unspoken is this okay? and Yuuri nods curtly. Phichit stops only to grab his phone off the nightstand, then he slips past Victor and vanishes down the hall to find somewhere else to be.

As soon as he’s gone, Yuuri’s stomach twists. He should have asked him to stay—but no, that wouldn’t have been fun for anyone, not that this is going to be a fun conversation in any universe.

“Can I come in?” Victor asks, and then Yuuri realizes that Victor has been hovering in the door of the room like a vampire, unable to cross the threshold without Yuuri’s permission.

Yuuri nods and steps back. He licks his lips, but the only words he can find on his tongue are, “How did you know I was here?”

Victor’s cheeks color, and his lips twitch upward at the corners. “Funny story, I guess: I was at the pool with Chris when he suddenly got a Snapchat message with a picture of you. I saw who sent it before he managed to close it.”

From the flush across Victor’s nose, Yuuri can guess what picture that was. He bites back a groan. He still wants Phichit to come back to the room, but now it’s so Yuuri can smother him with a pillow.

They stand, each on their opposite sides of the room, and neither of them says a word. A gulf between them widens, filled with silence, memory, and cheap hotel carpet, and Yuuri struggles to find some way to begin filling that gap. He’d planned to simply blurt I’m sorry and go from there, but now that Victor is looking at him with eyes like a winter sea, it doesn’t feel like enough.

“I’m sorry—” Yuuri begins anyway.

But Victor interrupts, “I saw your video.”

The video, the video—Yuuri is either going to ban the triplets from his lessons or buy them all ice cream when he gets back. Which it will be depends on what happens next.

“I never meant for that to be public,” Yuuri explains. “Please don’t think it was— anything. I never intended for you to see it; I was only practicing.” He trails off, as Victor’s expression doesn’t so much as twitch. He’s a statue, and Yuuri is throwing himself against his feet.

“Interesting choice of practice,” Victor says mildly. Then he sighs, reaching up to push his hair back out of his face. “I’ve known you were a beautiful skater for a while now, but I keep wondering if perhaps you’re also a talented actor. Watching your performance, I could almost believe you truly connected with the music.”

“I have,” Yuuri says. It comes out more fierce and defensive than he’d intended, and he draws back, raising a hand to his lips. “Maia is important to me, even if I— I know you might not believe me.” He ducks his head, unable to watch Victor’s eyes as he says the next part. “After I left you both like that, I don’t blame you. I misunderstood the situation, and I— I never meant to hurt you both again.”

He forces the last bit out in a rush, and without thinking about it, bends, bowing stiffly. The only sound in the room is the growl and rattle of a heating unit as it clicks on beneath the window.

Fingertips hesitate at the tip of Yuuri’s chin, and he jerks upright, wide-eyed. He hadn’t sensed Victor moving, and the last thing he expected to come of that apology was touch. His skin is tingling, seared where Victor’s fingers grazed.

With only inches between them, Yuuri revises his opinions in an instant. He’d thought Victor looked a little tired, but from this angle he can see the powdery sheen of concealer filling in the dark hollows beneath his eyes, a dusting of foundation lightening his prominent cheekbones. Etched on Victor’s face are all the same little signs of suffering Yuuri can see in his own mirror.

“Can we sit?” Victor murmurs, and Yuuri nods, following him. Victor perches on the edge of one bed and Yuuri on the other, hands on his knees.

He watches, chewing his lip, as Victor takes a deep breath, briefly closing his eyes. When he opens them again, he looks at Yuuri more directly than he has since he walked in. Yuuri hadn’t noticed the invisible wall between them, but now it's fallen, or at least thinned, and the difference is palpable in the air.

“I have to take some responsibility for what happened,” Victor says quietly. Yuuri opens his mouth to protest, but Victor cuts him off with a firm, “No. No, I’m not going to let you claim it’s all on you. I’m the one who decided to hide things, even within my own home. I didn’t want you to see… I didn’t want anyone to see—”

He cuts himself off, swallowing, and tucks the hair that’s fallen into his face back again. “I’ve read enough parenting books to know this is a cliche thing to say, but in my case, it’s true: my parents’ divorce was my fault.

“They had both supported my skating as a child, but when the time came to move from Novice to Junior level, and to compete internationally, my father became uncomfortable.” His lips tilt into a wry smile as he inclines his head. “In retrospect, I can understand why. He wanted me to take a step back, whereas my mother thought I should continue. She began to shop for an elite coach to take me on. They were both stubborn, and they fought, and then finally, they split.”

“And your father moved to America?” Yuuri asks. He’s fascinated, though he shouldn’t be. Things he’s wondered about for years are clicking into place, bits of a torn image reassembled with clear tape.

“Not immediately, but he had no reason to stay.” Victor shakes his head. “I resented him. I loved skating, and he wanted me to quit. After he left, I told him to stop coming to my competitions if he hated them so much. Eventually, I stopped talking to him entirely. He sent messages sometimes, cards and gifts, so I noticed when he moved, but by my first senior season, we hadn’t spoken in years. Although he reached out, I never accepted the gesture.

“And then… Shiori contacted me.” He swallows visibly, turning his face from Yuuri to look at a cheap print of Boston Harbor hung on the white hotel wall. “It was before they got married. She wanted to talk, wanted to meet me. Her first email to me was so bubbly, with these lovely photos from their vacations together and I— I was totally charmed.”

Victor pauses and turns back to Yuuri. “I never had many friends, you know?” He laughs a little before Yuuri can even respond. “Well, of course you do. You skated at that age too.”

“Not to the degree you did,” Yuuri protests. He thinks of Yuuko and Mari, Nishirhori, Minako, and later Phichit, and adds, “And… I’m beginning to realize, lately, that I have a lot more friends than I thought I did.”

Smiling, Victor says, “I can see that. For me, Shiori became the only friend I had who wasn’t a competitor or an employee. We met, and then began to talk more often. By the time the wedding came around, I was there in person.

“She was the glue that helped me start to repair my relationship with my dad. When she told me that she was pregnant, I—” Victor chokes on the words, pausing to push the heels of his hands into his eyes. Yuuri wants to reach out, instinct to offer comfort tugging at his hands, but he grips his own knees harder, fingers digging coin-shaped bruises into the soft spots around the bone. “I was so happy,” Victor finally finishes. “So proud. I went for a visit as soon as I could after Maia was born, and it was the happiest I’ve ever been. I thought we’d have years together—forever. I thought things would only get better between the four of us after that.”

Yuuri doesn’t need Victor to continue to know what happened next, the way that dream turned to ashes. He covered that well enough in his interview. “I saw your press conference,” Yuuri says, and he can almost feel the relief that emanates from Victor, realizing he won’t need to tell that story again.

“I hoped you might,” Victor says. “What happened to my father and Shiori, it changed me. The shock of that, and then raising Maia on top of it, forced me to become someone else, and that person felt very distant from Victor Nikiforov, Figure Skater. I didn’t want the world to see the reality of that.

“I knew my father would hate it if Maia got dragged into my limelight, so together we hid. It got to be such a habit to hide that I never noticed when the time came to stop.” His lips twitch, a mockery of a smile. “That time probably came years before you arrived, really.”

Yuuri doesn’t know what to say to this—Thank you?

You’re welcome?

I know.

I’m so sorry, again.

Daisuki da yo.

“What do we do now?” Yuuri asks at last, when Victor’s silent presence in the room becomes too much.

Shrugging, Victor answers, “We go forward. When I leave here, I’m going to go to my room and FaceTime Maia. Then, I’m going to go to bed early, and tomorrow night I’m going to skate in the World Championships at least once more. After that, I have no idea.”

“Oh good,” Yuuri hears himself say faintly. “We’re on the same page, then.”

The space between them feels a little less vast now, a little less terrifying, but it’s still there, strange and uncomfortable. At least, Yuuri thinks, Victor doesn’t have any idea what he’s doing here either. That in itself is helpful—Yuuri isn’t fumbling in the dark alone.

Victor stands up and flashes Yuuri a movie star smile, a bedroom poster smile, the kind Yuuri now knows has nothing to do with real happiness and everything to do with here’s the mask. Don’t look past this.

“A commemorative photo?” Victor asks, holding up his phone. At Yuuri’s baffled look, he explains, “I want to send it to Mashka’s new nanny, to show her. Maia asked me all this week if I would be seeing you, since you went ‘away’ and now I was going ‘away’ too.”

That news stabs Yuuri right in the chest, sharp and radiating. There’s a nasty voice at the ready in his mind, already whispering about how he’d hurt Maia when he left. He knows he’ll hear it again later, when he lies down for the night in his cold hotel bed.

But he answers, “Of course!” with the same type of faux-chipper facade that makes Victor give him a sharp, suspicious look.

Victor steps closer for the picture. He holds out the camera, and his other arm slings over Yuuri’s shoulders, warm and heavy. Yuuri stiffens, afraid he’ll betray himself by leaning in if he doesn’t, and then it’s over. Victor’s arm withdraws, and he steps away.

“Thanks,” he says, showing Yuuri the phone with the picture. The Yuuri on the screen is wide-eyed. Victor looks perfect as ever. “I’ll need to head back now, before Maia calls. You’ll be at the competition tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah,” Yuuri says. “I’ll be cheering for you.”

Another fake smile. “I’ll see you then.”

And just like that, it’s over. Victor leaves and Yuuri’s alone in an empty hotel room. He got his apology out, and he feels relieved and also tired, though part of that is jet lag. Everything is still so messy that he can’t even begin to untangle it. He falls backwards onto the bed and checks his own phone.

There’s a text from Phichit that says, let me know when you guys are done making puppy eyes at each other, and I’ll come back with ice cream and/or a shovel.

Yuuri smiles at Phichit’s loyalty, then texts back, ice cream, yes. He’s at World’s, recovering from a broken heart, and he doesn’t have to skate; he’s going to eat whatever his heart desires.

 

“You did great,” Yuuri insists as Phichit hops off the ice to join him in the Kiss and Cry.

When Phichit had told him that arrangements were made for Yuuri’s last-minute arrival, he hadn’t mentioned Yuuri was being classified as an Assistant Coach. Yuuri hadn’t realized until Celestino handed him a lanyard and a badge. He’d tried to argue at first—he in no way deserves this—but he’s not complaining now, when he gets to sit side by side with his best friend, offering very real support as they all wait for Phichit’s scores to come in.

The short program had gone well. Phichit’s triple axel was a hair underrotated, but Yuuri’s already reassuring him that they can work on that tomorrow and get it on par before the program that will really count. His quad toe was great, and Phichit looked like he was having fun the whole time, which pulled the audience in. His energy always made him an obvious crowd favorite.

Phichit poses with a hamster plushie someone threw onto the ice, then slings his arms over Yuuri and Celestino both for a photographer, grinning wide even as he struggles to catch his breath through his teeth.

The monitors flash, and Yuuri holds his breath for the score. 87.52—it’s not a season’s best, but it’s good, and Yuuri reaches over to squeeze Phichit’s knee.

Phichit nods, satisfied, and flashes a peace sign to the camera again before standing up to gather his things. “Come on,” he says. “I want to get out of this costume so I can watch the rest.” He passes the stuffed hamster and a bouquet to Yuuri. “Can you take those up to our seats for me? I’ll come join you later.”

Yuuri agrees and navigates around the edge of the rink to find their section. There’s still one more skater in Phichit’s group—Otabek Altin, of Kazakhstan. Yuuri isn’t really familiar with him, but he’s heard good things from Phichit. The two of them had been in juniors together, but Altin is something of a late bloomer and only started finding his stride as an adult. Yuuri is looking forward to the chance to see what he can do.

Yuuri’s been avoiding the major competitions for long enough now that all the programs are new to him. For once, he hasn’t seen every choreographic routine a thousand times, and he doesn’t have to look at the competitors as his rivals; he can just enjoy the skill and passion on display for what they are.

After a strong skate from Altin, sugary pop music thumps out over the speakers and the Zamboni trundles out to resurface for the final group. All through the stands, spectators rise from their seats to use the time for restroom breaks or snacks—or just to dance in front of their chairs.

Phichit slides into the seat beside Yuuri two songs in. “Did I miss anything?” he asks, pulling his stuffed hamster from Yuuri and hugging it to his chest.

“Just Altin,” Yuuri says. “He did well. I don’t remember the exact score—a couple points below you. Also, I’m pretty sure one of the groups across from us made a fan banner for the Zamboni.”

Phichit squints across the ice and grins. “They have. Excellent. At least someone here appreciates the true world champion of figure skating.”

The Zamboni rumbles off the ice a few long minutes later. As the music changes, the final group skates out for introduction. Yuuri has actually heard of everyone in this group—Chris, of course, and little Yuri Plisetsky, plus the Canadian JJ Leroy and Korean Lee Seung-gil, and then the man of the hour himself: Victor.

Victor drew the first spot of the final group, which is good news for Yuuri—he won’t have to suffer long, worrying about how Victor is going to do. He’s not sure if the draw is good for Victor himself, though. Having studied his idol’s early career so thoroughly, Yuuri knows Victor has always been motivated by competition. Seeing other skaters perform well brings out the fire in him, driving him to the top. Going first means that Victor won’t really know how the rest of his group is going to do, or what kind of score he needs to move past them.

After warm-up, the others file off the ice, leaving Victor alone by the exit, silver head bent to confer with Coach Feltsman. Yuuri chews his lip, watching. He’s almost as nervous as he would be if he were the one on the ice. In a way, he will be out there—Victor’s short is Eros. It’s a reflection of Yuuri, even if Yuuri still doesn’t connect to it in that way.

As Victor leaves the boards to take his place at center ice, Yuuri is only one of a sea of voices screaming encouragement. He hopes, somehow, that Victor hears him anyway.

The final Eros costume is breathtaking—black and white swirled across Victor’s torso and legs like yin and yang, both rendered iridescent in different ways. The white glimmers like an opal. The black seeps like an oil slick.

On the overhead monitors, Yuuri can see Victor pause in his starting position and take a shuddering breath, and his heart sinks into his stomach. He hasn’t seen Victor take stock like this in years, but there’s no doubt about it: Victor is nervous.

The opening notes ring out, and Victor begins to move, but— Something is wrong.

Yuuri has watched this program on YouTube half a dozen times, and he knows the first part of this choreography goes in the other direction. Somehow, Victor has it backwards.

Yuuri can hear the crowd give a singular gasp a moment later, when what was meant to be a quad salchow comes out as a triple. Yuuri slaps his hands over his eyes, but peeks through his fingers.

You don’t get to the top being shaken by small mistakes, though. After the missed jump, Victor recovers. He rights his choreography in time for his combo, and he lands the other jumps according to his layout. It’s good. It would be a great performance for anyone who wasn’t Victor Nikiforov. But, with that popped salchow and a few minor errors stacking up, he’s left points on the table, and in this field there’s little room for mistakes.

“Poor guy,” Phichit says, as the music snaps to a halt. “It must be hard coming back on a world stage after such a long time away.”

“Yeah,” Yuuri says quietly. He has a feeling it’s more than just nerves, though, and more than being rusty. Yuuri holds his tongue and hugs himself, waiting attentively as Victor joins his coach in the Kiss and Cry, smiling broad (and fake) for the camera. The Makkachin tissue box is back at his side, and Yuuri smiles at the familiar plush face despite everything else.

The monitors flash, and a murmur lights up the crowd. Victor, who rarely failed to crack 100 in the short during his senior career, has scored an 89.86. He hasn’t even reached ninety.

In the Kiss and Cry, Victor’s eyes briefly widen. It’s the only hint he gives that he’s just as surprised and disappointed as the audience, and then he’s smiling blandly again, shrugging, wiggling his fingers and blowing kisses to the cameras.

Yuuri stays in the stands, watching the others, but he barely pays attention to the actual programs. Instead, he replays Victor’s performance over and over in his head.

What had gone wrong? How could he have made such a drastic mistake in his own choreography? Yuuri can’t help worrying that it’s somehow his fault. He was afraid this might happen, if he came to World’s. He hadn’t wanted to talk to Victor yet. He’d known that it would risk distracting him the night before a major competition—and hadn’t Victor already looked like he wasn’t sleeping?

When the final scores go up, and the audience members start to file out of the arena, Yuuri stays in his seat, gnawing at his lower lip. Victor’s finished the short program in fourth, his score falling beneath Yuri Plisetsky, Chris, and Lee Seung-gil.

Phichit, who is sitting in sixth currently, is electrified. He’s already all over social media, posting ecstatic thank-yous in every group he can and texting Leo about dinner plans to celebrate the end of the first night. When he sees the look on Yuuri’s face, he pauses and puts his phone down.

“Yuuri?” Phichit prompts, “are you okay? You don’t have to come to dinner tonight if you’re not feeling up to it.”

“It’s not that,” Yuuri says. “It’s just— Victor’s in fourth.Fourth.”

“Yeah.” Phichit is still just looking at him, his face impassive. “What about it?”

Not knowing how else to say it, Yuuri blurts out what he knows to be the truth, “It’s all my fault.” He lowers his eyes, staring at the scuffed concrete floor of the stands beneath his feet. “I selfishly wanted to talk to him, but I distracted him right before the competition. He didn’t do his best, and it’s because of me.”

“Honestly,” Phichit says, “don’t think so highly of yourself.” Yuuri looks up sharply at that, and Phichit shrugs. “You know I’m usually the person telling you to think more of yourself, but today wasn’t your fault at all. I know how you think of him, but Victor isn’t actually the god of ice skating. He’s not always perfect. Remember 2010 Rostelecom?”

Yuuri winces. Unfortunately, he does. He basically had nightmares for years about Victor having a reprise of that disastrous short program. It was a miracle he managed to crawl back up to fourth place and make the Final that year.

Once Yuuri nods, Phichit continues, “Victor is creeping up on thirty, and he’s been retired for five years. He was going to make mistakes this season whether you spoke to him or not, and on top of that he was the one who came over yesterday looking for you.”

Yuuri stares at Phichit, dumbfounded, until Phichit elbows him. “Tell me I’m right,” he says.

“You’re right,” Yuuri admits quietly, slumping in defeat.

“Of course I am.” Phichit nods, satisfied, and then angles his phone to show Yuuri the last text from Leo. “Now which sounds better to you for dinner, burgers or hot pot?”

Chapter Text

Yuuri wakes up far too early the next morning and groans at the bathroom light spilling across his hotel bed.

“Good morning to you, too, sunshine,” Phichit jokes. “You didn’t even drink last night—why are you so grumpy?”

“Jet lag,” Yuuri mutters, but he knows that isn’t true. His sleep patterns have been a mess ever since he left Chicago, between the days he never left bed and the other days when he was up before sunrise. He may not have been indulging in alcohol last night the way Ciao-Ciao was, but after returning to the hotel he’d lain awake, long after Phichit had begun to softly snore. Yuuri couldn’t stop his brain from humming through the event of the previous day, replaying both his conversation with Victor and the other man’s short program and fretting over the little mistakes he could now see in both.

It’s way too early for him to be up after a night like that. His eyes ache. He jams a pillow over his face to protect them.

“Can you hear me through the feathers?” Phichit asks, and Yuuri nods, pillow moving along with his head. “Good. I have to go to morning practice, but I’ll be out around lunch time. Come meet me at the arena and we’ll go do some sight-seeing.”

Yuuri responds by sticking his thumb up into the air, and he assumes Phichit got the signal since he hears the door open and close a few minutes later. He tries to go back to sleep when the room settles into silence, and he drifts off here and there, but it’s another fitful sleep. He keeps jerking himself awake to check the clock, only to find he’s slept a mere ten or fifteen minutes.

After several rounds of that, he gives up. It’s past nine, and his stomach is grumbling, though it likely still expects dinner and not breakfast. Boston in March—even late March—still tends toward chilly weather alongside the early spring rain and snow melt, so after a quick shower Yuuri prepares for the worst in jeans, waterproof boots, and a hooded sweatshirt pulled over his t-shirt.

By the time he gets down to the lobby, free breakfast is over, so he grabs a coffee and buys a protein bar at the convenience shop, charging it to Phichit’s room. Knowing Phichit, they’ll go somewhere nice for lunch, so Yuuri will get plenty to eat later. With his caffeine in hand, he heads out the front door to check out the street view.

The weather is nicer than he expected—already warming up where the sun isn’t blocked by buildings, and not a cloud in sight. By mid-afternoon, he might not need his hoodie. The city is busy and bustling, although rush hour is over. The streets are full of the sounds of honking, cars with the windows down blaring music, and people on the sidewalks with earbuds in, shoulders up as they hurry past one another. Tall buildings loom in the distance, silver against the blue sky, but what Yuuri can see of the roadway is twisting and chaotic, and he has no idea where he’s going. It’s a good place to get lost.

“You looking for something?” The hotel porter asks, stubbing out a cigarette against the stone wall. “I can give you directions.”

“I need to waste some time,” Yuuri says. “Which direction should I walk from here?”

The man nods to the right and points with his crumpled cigarette butt before flicking it into a half-empty cup of what was once ice coffee. “Boston Common’s about a mile that direction. It’s the only green space this part of the city, so once you get nearby, you can’t miss it. Nice day to be outside, walking around I think.”

Yuuri thanks the porter and digs a couple wrinkled bills from his pocket as a tip, then heads off in the direction of the park.

Most of the streets along his route are narrow, the sidewalks cracked and broken. Other pedestrians walk with their heads down, not meeting strangers’ eyes. Yuuri hasn’t brought any headphones on his walk, so he listens to the overlapping sounds of others’ phone conversations, a mishmash of languages and volumes.

He’s not expecting it when the street suddenly opens up and there, ahead of him, is a wide expanse of green. Now that he’s out of the shadow of buildings, the sunlight is quickly warming him. He can still see patches of hardened grey slush lying here and there in shady spots—remnants of the winter freeze that haven’t melted just yet—but for the most part the park is green, and new, tender shoots are poking their heads up out of the flower beds.

It will be cherry blossom season in Hasetsu soon. Yuuri looks at the little green buds on the trees in Boston and wonders if he’ll make it back in time.

“Well, this is a coincidence.” A familiar voice interrupts Yuuri’s musings, and he turns to see Victor standing hipshot behind him. He’s dressed in black leggings and a soft grey and blue sleeveless top that says Ice Daddy, which is horrifying and Yuuri would like to pretend he didn’t see that right now, please. Thankfully, Yuuri has a lot of other options for where to look, from the deep-V of his exposed chest to his well-defined biceps.

Maybe Yuuri likes the shirt after all. “Good morning,” he says, face heating as he realizes he still hasn’t spoken. “Shouldn’t you be at practice?”

Victor pulls a pair of teal earbuds from his ears and winds the cord around his hand. “Yakov managed to bribe us into an evening practice at another rink tonight, so I won’t have to compete for time with the others. I decided to start with a run instead. I’d invite you to join me, but—” He pauses, lowering his gaze to Yuuri’s jeans.

“Yeah, I’m not really dressed to run today.” He probably wouldn’t be able to keep up with Victor anyway. That would be mortifying. “I’m supposed to be meeting Phichit to go sight-seeing.”

They settle into silence. Yuuri’s conscious of the quiet between them, but it doesn’t feel stilted. Warm sunshine spills over him, gathering in the folds of his hoodie. Beyond the sounds of cars and city, he can hear birds chirping and the happy shrieks of children on a playground nearby. What may be the world’s chubbiest squirrel appears and runs right between their feet, utterly fearless.

“Look, I’m going to go for a walk around the park,” Victor says with a slight quirk of his lips, “would you like to join me?”

Yuuri would love to join him, but— “You don’t have to invite me. I know it might still be… awkward.”

But Victor waves that away with a single elegant hand. “We’re both adults. We’re both here. Wouldn’t it be more awkward if we avoided each other?” Victor pauses, pursing his lips in thought, then slowly smiles. “How about this: the park is Switzerland, as they say. As long as we’re in here, there’s no talking about the past.”

“Okay,” Yuuri agrees. “I think I can handle that.” If anything is in Yuuri’s wheelhouse these days, it’s stubbornly ignoring a problem and hoping it goes away on its own.

At Victor’s nod, they continue up the path, winding their way further into the park. It’s no Central Park—there are no forested areas, and it’s nowhere near as massive—but it’s a nice space, and well-maintained. It’s improved significantly by the fact that the weather is so lovely, and the park seems to be more popular than Yuuri might have expected for a Thursday morning. It must be one of the first nice spring days this year. He’s seen a similar phenomenon happen in Detroit, or even back home—an unusual number of people suddenly call in “sick” to their work as soon as the sun comes out to melt the snow.

Further into the park, there’s a pond near a playground with a few small statues of frogs. Stands around the edges show where it might have been an outdoor skating rink a few weeks ago, but the weather is too warm now, and the ice is slush where it isn’t yet water. Thank god. Skating together on an outdoor rink—if Victor even wanted to—would come far too close to breaking their agreement about acknowledging the past.

Through the park, beyond an intervening street, Yuuri can see another, larger pond, which he points out to Victor. They work their way around the edges of the Commons and cross the street. Something catches Victor’s eye, and his stride quickens.

Yuuri has to jog to catch him, and when he arrives, he finds Victor examining a line of bronze duck statues set into the ground. Victor glances up at Yuuri through his hair, flashing a grin. “Make way for ducklings!” he says.

“What?” Yuuri looks around, but the only ducks he can see right now are the bronze ones.

“No, it’s a childrens’ book,” Victor says, chuckling. He stoops to rub the adult duck’s polished head. “Maia has two copies. My mother gave her one in Russian and one in English.”

“Really?” Yuuri can’t recall ever reading it with Maia when he was there. She’d been very into the Pigeon books and probably had all of those. They’d worked their way through the whole series two or three times.

Victor has a wistful smile on his face, looking past Yuuri rather than at him. “I don’t think she has much interest in it yet, but I used to read it to her a lot as a baby. It was actually one of my favorites, and there’s a statue to match this one at a park in Moscow.” He pats the duck fondly on the head once more before standing. “My mama took me to see them once, when I was about Maia’s age. I don’t remember it well, but there’s a photo somewhere of me sitting on Mrs. Mallard’s back.”

Yuuri tries to picture it, but he’s never seen any photos of Victor when he was that young. “I’d love to see that sometime.”

To his surprise, Victor winks. “Maybe someday. It’s a bit embarrassing, though. I had a bowl cut.”

Unsure what to say to that revelation, Yuuri follows Victor into the park in stunned silence. A bowl cut.

It’s too early in the spring for the gardens to be blooming, but they still make a loop of the pond, admiring the scenery. It must be nice in the summer. It’s probably quite colorful, once the ground warms up a little more. The temperature has risen enough now that Yuuri finds himself stifling. He pushes up the sleeves on his hoodie, then takes it off entirely as they pass the area with swan boats all in a row.

“Do you think they’ll start the boat rental soon?” Victor asks, eying the line of curve-necked shapes. “We could come back in a couple days.”

“Uh—” Yuuri stutters. Victor wants to come back and rent a swan—with him? “I’m not sure. I think it’s supposed to rain.”

Victor makes a mournful noise and keeps walking. It’s really remarkable how often he forces Yuuri to ask himself, What the hell is going on?

They cross the street again, back to the other side of the first park, and Yuuri grasps for straws to start a conversation. “Have you been here before?” he asks. “It’s my first time in Boston.”

“Really?” Yuuri isn’t sure why Victor sounds so shocked. Yuuri had rarely left Detroit aside from competitions and a couple brief vacations with Phichit, up until he moved to Chicago. “I’ve been to Boston a few times. I’ve even gone for runs in this park before! But I guess I never stopped to really look at it.” Victor taps his chin, thinking. “You know, Maia has grown so fast. I think in some ways it slows me down. I want to stop more often, appreciate the things I wouldn’t have noticed when my whole life was only skating. Does that make sense?”

“I think so.” Yuuri looks down at the sidewalk. His boots are leaving damp, dark tracks on the concrete from tromping through the muddy grass nearby. “I moved back home, and I see so many things there every day that are… I’ve seen them a hundred times, but it’s like I never really looked before.”

“Yes,” Victor says. “I think we’re on the same page.”

All too soon, they’re back at the park entrance. Yuuri digs through his pockets, pulling out his phone to check the time. An alert pops up when he presses the button: 3 missed calls. Those, plus enough texts that the app isn’t bothering to give him a number.

Hey I’m out of practice
Where you at?
Yuuri!
Did someone dump you in the harbor?
Call me back when you get these I guess :(

Poor Phichit. It’s a few minutes past noon already—where did the time go? Yuuri starts to press redial, then glances over at Victor, who is bent to examine a flower bed at the base of a statue. If he overheard Yuuri talking about him, that could get awkward fast.

So, Yuuri texts back instead. Sorry. Went for a walk and ran into Victor???

As soon as he hit send, the phone vibrates in his hand. The response just says, ?????????

It’s all good. We’ve been talking.

GOOD. DON’T STOP. FORGET ABOUT ME. GO WITH VICTOR.

what about lunch?

There’s a longer delay this time, then, I’ll go get lunch with Chris instead. :)

A few feet away, Victor’s phone chirps. He stares down at the screen for a moment, frowning, and sighs. “Well, it seems my lunch plans just got canceled.”

Phichit is a sly genius. “Mine did too, actually.”

Victor’s face breaks into a slow smile, lips parted to flash teeth. “Oh! Then it seems I have you for the day now.”

You could have me forever, Yuuri thinks, but it’s much too soon to say it. He should wait at least forty-eight hours after they’ve made up. Probably. Still…

Yuuri knows they have some pathways to rebuild between them, if they’re ever going to have anything like a friendship, much less something more. In Chicago, their relationship had been such a blur—slow as chocolate syrup at first, but then fast, careening out of control until they flew straight off a cliff. Just like today, Yuuri had often found himself wondering, What the hell is going on?

He’s not going to let that happen again.

“Victor,” he begins, hesitating at first. When Victor turns his focus on him, Yuuri nearly freezes, nerve fading under the bright attention of those blue eyes, but beneath that, Victor’s tight smile rings false. Yuuri’s courage floods back, and he straightens himself.

“Now that we’re leaving the park, the truce is over, right?”

Victor’s expression flickers—a hint of stiff sadness that spurs Yuuri on. “Right. Unless you want to take an extension? We could say, no talking about the past until after lunch.”

“That’s not what I want at all,” Yuuri says, shaking his head. “What I want is—” despite his commitment, he still falters for a second, then plows on, “—what I want is to ask you out to lunch!”

Victor’s eyes are wide, lips parted in surprise, but Yuuri isn’t finished. He’s tired of leaving things up to chance, letting it go unspoken and unclear. “I mean, as a date,” he declares. “This is a lunch date. If you still want to go?”

It takes a second, but Victor blinks, and his smile stretches. The tightness fades, and little lines of pleasure appear at the corners of his lips and eyes as he relaxes. “I think I’d like to try that. Very much.”

“Oh. Good,” Yuuri says. His face is warm again, and not just from the spring sunlight, but hopefully it’s not too obvious. He starts to walk, picking a direction that seems to have food without much plan, and Victor’s longer stride quickly catches up.

Side by side, they wander down a wide, brick-paved street lined with restaurants in search of lunch. They find, then discard first sushi (“I live in Japan right now,” Yuuri says blandly) and then Mexican (“I don’t even want to think about how far we are from the border” - Victor). Eventually they wind up at that grand staple of Americans who can’t decide where to eat: the Irish Pub, and Victor watches with obvious longing in his eyes as Yuuri devours two planks of fried fish and a small tin bucket filled with french fries.

“Are you sure you don’t want some?” Yuuri waves a fry, not quite under Victor’s nose, but close enough to make him flinch.

“No, it’s fine.” Victor’s fork collides with his salad plate, the sound ringing. He’s probably stabbed it with enough force to be eating bits of ceramics on the next bite.

Yuuri puts a fry on the edge of his plate. Victor gives it a look that would put Makkachin to shame. “I have to compete.”

“One fry.”

“Yakov will kill me if he smells oil on my breath.”

One.

Victor eats it. Then, he polishes off the last few left on Yuuri’s plate after finishing his own salad, one at a time, as if Yuuri won’t notice them vanishing.

“What should we do next?” Yuuri asks, deliberately staring off across the pub at a framed four-leaf clover, giving Victor plausible deniability to cover the last fry with extra salt. “Phichit was planning all the sight-seeing for me, so I have no idea what’s around here.”

“You didn’t put much thought into this date, did you?” Victor teases before popping the last fry into his mouth. He wipes his fingers on Yuuri’s napkin, and then pulls out his phone to search for attractions.

Yuuri watches, picking at his dry lips with his teeth. Now that they’re in the same city again, it’s much easier than he expected to fall back into old patterns—teasing one another, chatting over food. It’s as if none of the troubles these past two months ever happened, and Yuuri can’t help but wonder how things might have panned out if he’d listened to Victor that morning, stayed in Chicago—

But there’s no point in letting the “what ifs” catch him now. He didn’t listen. Victor kept his secrets. And certain parts of these past months—working with Minako and Yuuko, seeing his family, skating at Ice Castle again—Yuuri wouldn’t trade those experiences away for anything, not even if it meant more time with Victor and Maia. If he’d stayed in Chicago, avoiding his family even longer, he’d have a whole different set of problems now.

“Most of the tourist attractions nearby are American history things,” Victor muses, still scrolling through his phone, “mostly related to names I barely remember learning about, if at all. Art museum, maybe; baseball,” he pauses to wrinkle his nose, then perks up. “Oh! The aquarium— I’ve heard that’s good.”

“I could do an aquarium. How far is it?”

“Half a mile or so.” Victor grins. “Maia’s very into whales recently. They don’t have any at this aquarium—thankfully—but I bet they have some nice toys in the gift shop.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Yuuri agrees. When the bill comes, they scuffle briefly, since technically the date was Yuuri’s idea, but Yuuri relents and allows Victor to pay when he insists. It doesn’t take much persuading—despite his two part-time gigs at home, most of the money in Yuuri’s bank account is still savings from Chicago, so he’ll take a financial break where he can get it.

At the aquarium, they each buy their own ticket. While Victor is finishing his transaction, Yuuri slips away behind the booth to watch a pair of harbor seals in an outdoor enclosure bob up and down like buoys. He takes a photo with his phone, then sets it as his background. When Victor joins him a moment later, he hums happily, watching the seals float by.

“They remind me of Makkachin,” Victor says, and Yuuri looks at the animals again, considering.

“The coat color is similar, and the eyes, but I think these guys are a lot lazier than Makka.” Yuuri opens his brochure, glancing through the visual guide on the inside. “This says there are sea lions too.”

“Perfect!” Victor exclaims, stuffing his own ticket into the back pocket of his jeans and making for the doors. “Time to get Makkachin a little brother or sister after all.”

Yuuri’s pretty sure he’s joking, but not certain enough to let him run off without Yuuri around to keep an eye out.

As soon as he steps in the door, the face with the smell of dead fish slaps Yuuri across the face. It’s not a promising smell in an aquarium, but he quickly discovers the reason for it: the whole first floor is dominated with open-air enclosures for multiple species of small penguins.

It’s easy enough to spot Victor. On a weekday afternoon, the aquarium is remarkably empty. A few small school groups are milling around—blobs of squealing children in matching t-shirts pursued by harried adults. Victor, with his height and his silver hair, looks like a unicorn dropped into a herd of shetland ponies. He’s leaning up against the side of the enclosures, taking bursts of photos on his phone as the little penguins dart through the water.

Yuuri’s never given much thought to penguins before, but in person they’re fascinating—cute, but slow on land, almost clumsy-looking. Then, they hop into the water and whoosh they dart around, smooth, like little black and white arrows. Leaning beside Victor, Yuuri searches his brain for something to say about the birds, but the only thing he really knows about penguins is that they can be gay, and some of the same-sex pairs have even raised chicks together. Yuuri considers bringing this up, then discards it. He has a feeling that Victor already knows.

“Shall we go up?” Victor nods to the ramp that begins nearby, and Yuuri pauses to look around before agreeing. There doesn’t seem to be much else on this floor aside from the penguins and a gift shop, which they’ll have to leave for last.

They climb the ramp steadily side by side, pausing for a moment to let a group of school kids go running by, then again to admire the mounted skeleton of a small whale hanging from the ceiling. As they reach the center of the room, Yuuri sucks in a breath.

“Wow.” Victor’s hushed exclamation expresses multitudes. The entire central column of the building is a tank, bright blue and faintly illuminated from within. Inside, Yuuri can see fish swimming in schools, or peeking out from between mounds of plants and living coral. The ramp leading up to the next floor twists slowly around the tank, each step framing a new window into a massive watery world.

“Does it go all the way up to the top?” Yuuri leans into one of the ledges, pressing his cheek to the cool glass as he tilts his head up. All he can see is a vast expanse of blue, mountainous corals and darting fish, with no obvious ceiling. A movement catches his eye, and Yuuri gasps at the sight of a huge green eel, his pointed jaw opening and closing where he rests, curled inside a jagged hole in the rock.

A camera shutter clicks, and Yuuri pulls back from the window, spinning to look, but Victor’s phone is in his hand, hanging innocently at his side. “I guess we’ll just have to go all the way up and find out,” he says, with an excited grin that mirrors Yuuri’s own.

It’s a slow climb. Every few steps brings a new glass panel, and with it a new glimpse into the center tank. They hardly even bother to leave to explore the outer parts of the floor, too fascinated by the main attraction. The fish, sharks, and other creatures inside have stratified as they would in the wild, and between that and their perpetual motion, Yuuri finds he never gets the same view twice, even in panels side by side.

They stop at one particular section for Victor to take a selfie in front of the tank, and Yuuri climbs in close on the next ledge over, entranced by a strange, boxy little fish with spots and horns like a cartoon alien.

Yuuri feels a tug at his sleeve, then a hand, tight and warm around his own. “Yuuri, you’ll miss it—quick!” Victor hisses, pulling Yuuri over to the next window.

Gliding slowly past them is a huge sea turtle. Her ageless eyes, round and deep, blink calmly as she floats by, fins barely stirring the water around her as she dips low, descending down to a deeper part of the aquarium. Yuuri holds his breath and watches her shell as it grows smaller beneath his feet. He’s never seen a sea turtle that size up close before.

It’s not until he and Victor break apart to continue up the ramp that Yuuri notices Victor never let go of his hand.

After stops to visit the sea lions, cuttlefish, and octopus, and to stick their hands into a freezing cold simulated tide pool, they finally reach the very top of the tank. As they’re arriving, an employee is just finishing up an educational session, answering a few questions from kids about feeding, sharks, and the sea turtle (whose name is, apparently, Myrtle). Victor seems a bit disappointed that they missed the presentation, but his mood recovers quickly as they rest their hands on the rim (and if their pinky fingers brush a little, surely that’s just because of a kid jostling them to get past) and stare down into the tank.

“I’m glad we did this,” Victor says. When Yuuri glances over at him, he’s still looking into the water with his hands clasped, tracing the movement of the small fishing darting along the surface. The blue light of the tank dances reflections across his skin, making his silver hair glow a serene pale turquoise. “After we talked the other night, I wasn’t sure when we’d get a chance to see one another again.”

“I hadn’t even considered what would happen after we talked,” Yuuri admits. “I came here hoping to see you, but— I didn’t really think past that.”

Victor’s lips curl, and he turns to Yuuri with a genuine smile, the kind of peace in his eyes that Yuuri knows from home but never sees in interviews. “I guess we’re both not the best at thinking things through. When I decided to compete again, I thought—”

Whatever Victor thought, it’s interrupted by the buzz of his phone, vibrating in his pocket. He pulls it out and lights up like a supernova. “Do you mind?” he asks, showing Yuuri where Maia’s name and photo appear in the FaceTime request.

“As long as you don’t mind me being here.”

Victor does pause for a second—and Yuuri’s not going to pretend that doesn’t hurt—but then says, “Well, she already knows you’re here.What harm could it do?” He accepts the call, and Maia’s face appears on the screen. Victor’s grin widens immediately at the sight of her round, baby-fat cheeks. “Myshka,” he croons. “Hello, hello. Is it phone time already?”

“No,” Maia admits, squirming. “I got impatient. Who’s that? Dyada Yakov?” She wriggles, craning to see beyond the edge of the phone. When Victor tilts the phone to show her, Yuuri is still trying to hide a smile behind his hand at the thought of Grandpa Yakov, and then Maia squeals, “Yuuri!”

“Hello, Maia. Are you being a good girl for Makkachin?” Yuuri’s heart gives a twinge, looking at her little face on the screen. It’s only been a couple months, but he recognizes the purple shirt she’s wearing. It’s dotted with little pink hearts, and it’s also much tighter along her chest and shoulders than it was the last time he saw her in it. She’s growing without him.

“Makka’s not in charge of me,” Maia declares, arms folding across her chest. “I’m the boss of her.” Her stubborn frown falters, and she chews her lip a bit. “Yuuri, when are you coming home?”

Shit. Before Yuuri can try to answer, Victor swoops the phone away, angling it high to show the top of the tank to Maia, asking, “Look—can you see where we are right now?” Yuuri can’t decide if he’s relieved or annoyed at the rescue. He’s not sure how he’d respond to Maia’s question, but maybe he’d like to try.

Victor continues to move slowly around the tank with the phone, showing Maia all the fish and the coral reef. They talk for several minutes, and it’s clear that Victor is stretching the time somewhat, hoping Myrtle the sea turtle will surface for Maia to see, but no turtle appears, and then another big school group reaches the top, filing into spots around the edge of the tank for another presentation.

“I think I need to hang up now, Mashka,” Victor says, shoulders slumping as he returns to lean against the glass by Yuuri. “Some other people need to use this area to talk now.”

“Okay,” Maia says faintly. Yuuri can see her picking at the carpet where she’s sitting. “Okay, I guess. When are you coming home, Papa?”

“Soon. Just a few more days.” Something flickers over Victor’s face—something unfamiliar, but which looks a lot like pain. “I’ll bring you back lots of presents.”

“And a gold medal?” Maia asks eagerly.

Victor’s expression, again, falters before he forces a smile, strained and shaking. “You know, baby, I’ve been— I’ve—”

Yuuri can’t watch this. He wraps his hand around Victor’s on the phone, turning the screen so Maia can see him instead. “Yes,” Yuuri says, vehement. When he glances at Victor, his silver eyebrows are raised in surprise. “Of course he is. Victor—your papa—he always wins the gold.”

“Really?” Maia’s eyes are wide.

Victor smiles, tossing his hair back from his eyes like it’s a press interview, and then winks. “Of course; just for you. Will you kiss my medal, when I bring it home?”

Maia wrinkles her nose, exclaiming, “Why would I do that?” and she sounds so outraged that Victor and Yuuri both have to chuckle at her insistence.

“Nevermind. We’re going to hang up now, okay? Be good for Anita, and maybe tomorrow you can stay up and watch me win the medal. I’ll talk to you again at bedtime, baby.”

“Bye, Papa,” Maia says, and then her eyes dart over, “Bye, Yuuri! Call me again!” The call ends.

Yuuri drops his hand away, where he was still helping Victor hold the phone, and turns to face Victor. He’s expecting annoyance, irritation, maybe outright anger, but Victor only looks perplexed by what just happened.

“Don’t make a liar of me,” Yuuri says, raising a finger to Victor in warning. It’s not quite playful— his tone is too serious. “I know you can do this. I told Maia you would win because you will. Whatever happened yesterday, whatever went wrong with the short, that’s all behind you now. You have to bring home gold tomorrow by proving your love for Maia with your free skate, okay?”

A sly smile curling his lips, Victor nods. His eyes are bright with determination, and something else—something Yuuri’s never seen before, when Victor wasn’t on the ice.

Chapter Text

Yuuri doesn’t sit in the Kiss and Cry with Phichit the next day, but he’s still there at his side, holding a few of his gifts and his jacket as the final scores for his free program come in. He skated well, with no major mistakes, and Yuuri couldn’t be prouder. Phichit is sitting in second place right now, just below Otabek Altin, who had a truly dynamite free skate, but there are still five skaters left to compete, and anything could happen. Yuuri clutches Phichit’s jacket closer to his chest, his blood rushing in his ears as if he were skating next himself.

Out on the ice, JJ Leroy trips on his combo and doesn’t get his second jump off in time. “Ouch,” Phichit mutters, watching the rink as Yuuri passes him his jacket and water bottle. “That’s going to hurt him for sure.”

“Hmm… not surprised,” Yuuri murmurs. Leroy is flashy, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of substance from what Yuuri’s seen so far.

Phichit pulls on his jacket and grabs a drink, then tousels the sweat out of his shaggy black hair with a towel. “Do you want to watch the rest from here, or go back up to our seats?”

Yuuri glances over at the curtain that conceals the back passages of the rink. Victor is probably just on the other side now, waiting for the right moment when Leroy’s program ends. Phichit is right—Yuuri shouldn’t blame himself if Victor has a bad day, but it still feels wrong for him to wait around and see Victor like this, moments before he steps onto the ice. It’s bad luck, like seeing a bride dressed before her wedding.

“Let’s go sit in the stands,” Yuuri says, and Phichit leads the way along the edge of the rink, over to their seats.

“Oh,” Phichit exclaims as they shuffle down the aisle, “by the way, one of the Japanese men is looking for you—the younger one, the blond—Minami? He found out I knew you somehow and was milking me for dirty details after the morning practice.”

“He was asking about me?”

“Yeah. What you’re doing back in Japan, who you’re coaching, that sort of thing.” Phichit drops into his seat with a smirk. “His coach didn’t look too happy about the line of questioning.”

“You’re imagining things,” Yuuri scoffs.

“Am I?” Phichit asks, but Yuuri doesn’t have time to explain. Down in the Kiss and Cry, Leroy’s parents are rubbing his shoulders as he slumps over the score that was just announced. Yuuri can see Phichit straighten next to him, trying his hardest not to look pleased when JJ’s score edges in just under his own.

Yuuri leans in to nudge Phichit with his shoulder, speaking sotto voce. “No chance Thailand won’t have two spots for next year now.” Phichit’s ears go ruddy at the tips. Yuuri would love to tease him more about that, but things are happening below. The crowd roars. Victor Nikiforov has just stepped out onto the ice.

The music hasn’t even started yet and Yuuri’s heart is already hammering against the inside of his rib cage. If Victor can make a big comeback in the free skate, he still has a good chance at reclaiming that gold medal. It wouldn’t be the first time he pulled something like this off, and fourth wouldn’t even be the lowest spot he’s crawled back from. Much as Yuuri is fretting over what’s going to happen, he’s also vibrating with excitement, leg bouncing up and down and rattling his seat. These are his favorite days in figure skating—the triumphant moments when someone comes back from the brink of a defeat.

He knows Victor as a competitor, and he knows Victor now too. The close competition is like kerosene on a match for him, and he’ll happily immolate himself completely if it means snagging his victory.

Thankfully, Victor isn’t skating on an injury this time. His knees and ankles are sound, his back is straight, and as he takes his place at center ice, clad in a cascade of sparkling, feather-like sky blue, the camera overhead shows a man with silver locks covering eyes of blue flame. He seems confident. Yuuri doesn’t think it’s an act.

Still, he holds his breath as the piano echoes through the arena.

He doesn’t exhale until Victor approaches the first jumping pass—his signature quad flip. If he lands it, it will say a lot about how Victor is really feeling today.

He takes the leap with both arms up over his head.

Yuuri cries out, fists punching his own thighs in elation, and he doesn’t even notice that he’s done it until his legs begin to throb after. There can be no doubt that Victor is on fire today. He’s back, and he’s not just retreading a beautiful program that Yuuri knows as well as his own name—he’s giving everything he has to it, his step sequences crisp, his free leg straight on the landings, and both arms extended over his head on each and every jump.

It’s the kind of program that proves again that Victor is a competitor who can always surprise his fans. It’s going to go down in history, legendary—and Yuuri is watching it in person.

As the song ends and Victor freezes, arms raised in prayer, the crowd in the arena is silent for a beat. Then, they roar. Plush poodles and blue roses rain onto the ice as Victor exits, waving to the crowd, and even without a close-up on the camera, Yuuri can see that he’s beaming. He should be.

“Holy shit,” Phichit whispers. He’s clutching Yuuri’s arm hard enough to bruise, and Yuuri only now realizes he probably has been for at least half the program. When Phichit turns to face him, his grin mirrors Yuuri’s own. “Holy shit,” he exclaims, louder. “Yuuri, we saw that!”

“We did!” Yuuri can’t begin to fit the thousand joys he feels into his words. As a fan, as himself, as whatever he is to Victor these days, Yuuri feels elated, triumphant. There’s no question that the scores are going to be good. The only question is how good.

Victor’s made it to the Kiss and Cry now, and he’s waving a plush Makkachin at the camera—not the tissue box, but a much larger one someone must have thrown down. Maia will be thrilled when he drags that thing home. On the bench beside him, Yakov Feltsman’s face is impassive, but Yuuri has a feeling he won’t be able to maintain that charade for long.

At last, the screen changes. 221.58 Another roar echoes through the crowd, and Yuuri’s sure he’s screaming too, but he can’t hear himself over the rest. It’s not just a firm lead; it’s a new free skate world record. Yuuri’s not surprised to reach up and find tears in his eyes.

Prove your love to Maia in the free, Yuuri had told him, and no one who witnessed today could possibly question if Victor managed it.

When the furor finally calms and Victor leaves the K&C, poor Lee Seung-gil has to follow him. Yuuri doesn’t know Lee, but he almost feels bad for him. He would, if he could feel anything beyond soaring elation.

“Well, that’s it, then,” a girl seated in front of them says, speaking to a companion. As she turns her head, Yuuri recognizes her with a jolt. He hasn’t seen Sara Crispino in years, but remembers her well from his own international competitions. Of course she’s here too. “There’s no way Chris, Seung-gil, or Yuri will be able to top that.”

For a moment, Yuuri’s confused as to why Sara’s talking about him. The red-haired girl in the Team Russian jacket shakes her head. “You don’t know Yuri Plisetsky,” she warns; “that kitten really is a tiger when he has to be. He has it in him to match that score. The only question is will he?”

“Do you want to bet dinner on it?” Phichit cuts in, and both girls turn around.

Seeing them, Sara’s face lights up. “Yuuri! Oh my god—how are you? You never keep in touch.” She pouts, and the red-head gives her a strange look. Whatever that means, Sara straightens up when she notices. “Oh! Yuuri, you probably don’t know Mila, do you? Mila Babicheva, meet Yuuri Katsuki.”

A sly smile spreads across Mila’s face as she offers her hand. “So you’re Yuuri, huh? It’s nice to finally put a face to the name. I’ve been hearing a lot about you, lately.”

Yuuri’s tempted to ask why Sara would have been talking about him, but Phichit edges back in with, “So, about that dinner I mentioned—?”

On the ice below them, Lee performs with near-flawless precision. But precision, planning, and technical aptitude simply aren’t enough to keep up with Victor’s score. He takes second place, for now, and looks satisfied with it.

As Chris takes his position next, Yuuri winces, imagining what must be going on in his head at this moment. Chris is an incredible skater, and he’s also the sort of person who knows his own strengths well. He’s consistent and compelling. He knows what he’s doing, and he doesn’t take risks on jumps he can’t land with a high degree of accuracy. All of that is why he’s won the Grand Prix Final twice in Victor’s absence—but it’s not nearly enough to compete with Victor’s technical score.

Chris’s program is clean. It’s beautiful. Any other season, it might be enough for gold. Today, it isn’t. Seung-gil drops to third as Chris accepts his score with a smile, blowing a kiss to the cameras.

That leaves only Yuri Plisetsky.

In front of them, Mila sucks in air through her teeth. “Here we go,” she mutters.

Yuuri hasn’t actually watched Plisetsky skate before, since he left the short program early. The boy is good, and Yuuri can see now why Phichit was so intimidated by him. Still tiny, he uses his size to his advantage in speed and rotations, and he has the incredible flexibility of a teenager, his legs like rubber bands that he snaps easily up over his head. A minute into his program, his only jump so far is a triple axel.

“Ohhhh,” Mila gasps, “he’s rearranged the elements. He moved all his jumps to the back half. He knows Victor’s got him.”

Yuuri scoots to the edge of his seat, watching carefully. Plisetsky’s first quad is a toe loop in combination with a triple salchow. He lands that well enough, but Yuuri’s practiced eye detects a bit of a wobble in his blade. Plisetsky’s arms are stiff in what little choreography remains.

“He’s getting tired,” someone says, and when Mila turns to look at him, Yuuri realizes he was the one speaking. “He’s barely holding it together,” he explains. “He’s got the skill, but his stamina is—”

Arms up over his head, Yuri pops his quad salchow. It’s a single. There’s a gasp in the crowd, and Yuuri’s shoulders slump as the tension releases. Plisetsky still has some chance—he came in with a comfortable lead over Victor from the short—but without a perfect program, it’s going to be difficult. Yuuri expected to feel relieved if Plisetsky made a mistake, but instead he’s… oddly disappointed? Some part of him had been enjoying how close the competition was. He’d hoped Plisetsky could give Victor a real challenge. Maybe the kid just isn’t there yet, but— maybe someday.

When the music ends, Plisetsky falls to his knees, his fist slamming into the ice, and Yuuri feels it like a punch to the chest. He knows that despair so well—the ache of giving a program everything you had, and yet knowing you could have done it better.

In the Kiss and Cry, Yakov Feltsman puts a hand on the boy’s shoulder when the scores come in, and Plisetsky presses the heels of his hands to his eyes. He shrugs off his coach’s arm as all his hopes drop. He’ll take home silver this year, though Yuuri’s increasingly sure his gold will come another time.

“I’m surprised you’re not already texting,” Phichit says, turning to Yuuri and waggling his eyebrows. “Don’t you have someone to congratulate?”

Yuuri smiles. “I’ll tell him soon.” He points down by the rink, where a crowd of cameras has swarmed their phoenix of a world champion and his coach. “Looks like he might be busy for a while.”

“Well, in the meantime,” Sara says, turning in her seat, “I believe Miss Babicheva here owes us all dinner, and possibly champagne.”

-

Victor ends up being busy for longer than “a while.” Yuuri texts him congratulations after all, and he gets a string of emojis in return, but Victor’s schedule as a new champion is too crowded to meet up. He spends the next day bouncing from one appearance to the next, and the Russian network even has him in their commentary booth during the ladies’ free, where he proceeds to talk more about his dog than the actual performances for two hours. It’s delightful. Yuuri needs to learn more Russian.

They run into each other in passing the next morning, both coincidentally grabbing coffee at the hotel cafe at the same time. Victor looks tired still, his hair in disarray and his shirt wrinkled, as if he slept in his clothes and only rolled out of bed minutes before.

“Good morning,” he murmurs, smiling as he passes Yuuri the carafe of milk. His voice is rough around the edges, overworn from a heavy interview schedule. Their hands meet on the handle for a brief, warm second.

“Morning. Any plans for the day?” Yuuri asks, trying for casual. He wants to sit down and talk to Victor, now that the competition is over. Tomorrow afternoon, he’ll be on a flight back to Japan, and even though they polished some of the rougher edges in the past few days, Yuuri isn’t sure what that means in the end. It would be too easy to slip back into silence on opposite ends of the world.

Victor’s expression goes tight around the eyes. “Many, unfortunately, but I should have a reprieve once the exhibition is over. Will you be there?”

“Of course.” Phichit had finished sixth, but his ability to entertain the crowd makes him an obvious choice for exhibition skates. This year, his gala piece is set to “Uptown Funk”, and it had been a huge hit after the Grand Prix Final in December. Yuuri’s supposedly viral video pales in comparison to the attention Phichir can garner online.

“Vitya!” Yakov Feltsman barks across the lobby. He’s up by the front doors, a square face sandwiched between a large hat and an oversized black trench coat. “We need to move! Socializing later.”

“Yes, Coach,” Victor calls, but then he turns back to Yuuri, ducking his head in close. His blue eyes are sparkling, enhancing his slow smile. “Make sure you get a good view for my performance today, Yuuri. I want you to watch closely.”

Swallowing, Yuuri nods, and Victor draws back to jog off after his coach.

Yuuri takes a sip of his coffee and makes a face. He forgot to add the milk, after all.

Helping Phichit get ready for the gala and pick an outfit for the banquet keeps Yuuri busy enough for the next few hours. There are shirts to iron and group practices to attend. If there’s one thing Yuuri doesn’t miss about skating (and there are many things, actually), the last-minute group choreography is high on his list. It’s all rush and worry to perfect something that gets performed only once, then promptly forget it all over again. And yet, every gala or ice show has at least one big group thing. Ridiculous.

Practices overlap lunch and Yuuri loses track of time. At the last minute, he’s running back to the hotel to get food not just for himself, but Phichit and Celestino as well. There’s no time for breaks, and there’s certainly no time to talk to Victor. He even misses Victor’s gala practice, running errands between the rink and the hotel. When he gets back with salads, dripping wet from the rain outside and freezing where the cold air from the ice slaps him, he finds a catering table set up behind the stands, all the skaters and coaches in a line to be fed.

Phichit waves to him with the hand not holding a fork and has the grace to look ashamed. “Sorry! We didn’t know.” Something in the way Celestino looks away makes Yuuri think that’s not true, but he has no evidence, and besides, what reason could they have to keep him out of the practices?

The gala itself goes off without a hitch, aside from a few popped jumps in programs (where, thankfully, it doesn’t matter) and a minor sound issue with the first few announcements. Since Yuuri is considered part of Celestino’s team, he gets the best seats in the house: right up by the boards, milling around with the other teams as the skaters take turns showing off their personalities along with their best skills. He spots Victor behind the stands at one point, but Yuuri is on a run to get kinesthetic tape from the locker rooms for Phichit, so they only have time for a brief smile and wave—Yuuri’s on an errand, and Victor appears to be on a video call with whoever is watching Maia back in Chicago. Whatever he’s saying to her, his Russian is too thick and fast for Yuuri to make sense of, but it seems important. Yuuri will have to check, later, to make sure Maia is okay.

Victor’s exhibition program is last, and as he steps out onto the ice, Yuuri feels that flutter of excitement once more. Although he’d spoiled himself for Victor’s competition programs, there had been no gala at the Cup of Russia. Whatever Victor plans to do today, this is the world debut. Yuuri clutches the boards in front of him tightly as Victor glides out to center ice. He’s not wearing a real costume this time, only his all-black practice gear. A black sweater of some sort is tied around his waist, and it flutters behind him like a skirt as he takes position.

The music begins, and Yuuri looks away, confused. He glances up at the sound booth, expecting to see frantic gestures and scowling, perhaps even Yakov Feltsman, taking the steps two at a time to yell at the hapless sound engineers, but no—everyone working is impassive. In the stands, Yuuri sees audience members turning to one another, frowning. At least he’s not the only person noticing.

Why is Victor skating to Eros again?

Yuuri looks back to the ice and stops, breath catching as Victor glides—backwards. It’s the same mistake he made in the short, reversing his choreography, but as he stretches into the first jumping pass, Yuuri reconsiders.

It’s not a mistake, now.

The choreography, it’s not the same. Yuuri’s watched the Eros video enough that, even though he chose to practice Agape, he could probably do this one as well. Eros is sexy, confident. It’s the playboy, sweeping into town to seduce, leaving devastation in his wake. This version, it’s different. Pining. The movements are delicate, with swishing hips and elegant arms, the patterns enhanced by the swing of the not-skirt tied around Victor’s waist.

Yuuri bites his lip, eyes widening as it sinks in what Victor has done. This Eros is a mirror, the other half in a matched set—one, the seducer, and the other, the seduced. Eros isn’t a singles program: it’s a pair skate, and Victor reaches out again and again in the dance, waiting for his lover to join him.

Pain shooting up his arm causes Yuuri to pull back, realizing he’s gripping the boards too tight, but he can’t look away from the display on the ice. Even though the world is watching, he knows this is for him alone. He can’t join Victor on the ice today, but Victor’s doing more than making Yuuri a program right now: he’s making a space out there, a spot where Yuuri would fit at his side.

“What are you going to do?” Phichit asks as the song ends. Yuuri had forgotten his friend was still standing beside him. He has no conscious plan until that moment, but when Phichit asks, the answer seems obvious.

“I’m going to run.”

Phichit grins, his eyes flashing gold. “I won’t stop you.”

Victor skates a victory lap for the crowd before gliding toward the exit to join the rest of the skaters for the finale. As promised, Yuuri breaks into a run. The exit isn’t far away, and he can hear Phichit behind him, calling out. Yuuri knows it’s not for him. Phichit is running interference, as always.

He pushes through the coaches, officials, and other skaters in his way, dashing for the doorway. A boy with a flash of blond and red hair calls out Yuuri’s name as Yuuri shoves past him and hops a bench, but he can apologize to whoever that was later. He reaches the exit just as Victor arrives, catching himself on the boards. Victor looks up from the floor and, seeing Yuuri there, beams like the sun rising to kiss the city skyline.

“Yuuri,” he begins, “did you—”

The rest is cut off. Yuuri throws himself at Victor, as he feels he must have been doing since the day he first stood on that little porch in Chicago, and Victor catches him—just like Yuuri knew he would. Wrapped up in each other, they fall back toward the ice, and Yuuri catches the rest of Victor’s question with his lips.

Around them, Yuuri can hear shouts, screams. The crowd in the stands is exploding, and so is Yuuri’s heart, pounding away in his ears as he cradles the back of Victor’s head with one hand, the other cupping Victor’s cheek. Around his waist, Victor’s arms tighten, and as Yuuri starts to pull away he raises his head, darting in for one more too-brief kiss.

“So, you liked it, then,” Victor says, laughter threaded in his voice and dancing in his blue eyes. There are little clumps in his mascara. Yuuri misses his silver lashes.

“You’re brilliant.” They’re so close, their noses brush when he speaks. Somehow that delicate touch, more than the very public kiss, is the thing that makes Yuuri’s cheeks go red. He wants to tell Victor everything right now, secrets and joys spilling from his lips like sweet wine overflowing a glass, but then someone else’s hand wraps around Yuuri’s upper arm—then another on the other arm.

They’re pulled apart, and Yuuri finds himself hauled away from Victor’s arms, up into the hands of two stone-faced men in grey security uniforms. Of course. Over their shoulders, as they drag him away, Yuuri can see Phichit standing on his toes, mouthing, I’m sorry. Still high from everything that’s just happened, Yuuri feels no regret at all.

-

It later turns out that getting arrested by event security is mortifying. Yuuri didn’t think anything could make him regret kissing Victor ever again, but this comes close. The guards are extremely suspicious of Yuuri, even as he tries to explain the whole story, who he is, and why he has an Assistant Coach badge when he is not, in fact, working for Celestino.

Apparently not everyone watching the scene could tell what was happening was a very mutual kiss, and the security guards had been called by people standing nearby who thought Yuuri was a crazed fan attacking the world champion.

That’s closer to true than Yuuri is comfortable with, actually.

After far too many minutes of sitting in a hard-backed chair in the security office for a painful interview, staring at the blank white walls and the ticking hands of a large clock overhead, one of the two guards gets up and vanishes through the door, leaving Yuuri alone with his colleague, who silently stares. The clock clicks through each second. The security guard watches Yuuri with narrow eyes and thin lips pressed in a line.

When the other guard returns, he nods to Yuuri. “Okay, you can leave.”

“Wait—really?” It doesn’t seem right. All that effort, and they’re just letting him go?

“Someone vouched for you.” The guard gestures toward the door, a shooing motion that makes it clear he wants Yuuri out of his sight. “Get out of here so I can take my smoke break, man.”

Yuuri’s not going to wait around to see if he changes his mind. He gets up and scurries for the door.

Outside, waiting for him, is Yakov Feltsman.

Yuuri wants to go back in.

“There you are,” Coach Feltsman grouches. “About time. Stupid boys, all of you—kissing and running, crying over each other, not listening to reason.” He puts his shoulders up. In his oversized coat, it makes him look like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. “Come along, anyway. You’ll miss the banquet.”

Yuuri hesitates, and Yakov’s gaze sharpens. “Are you going to run away again?”

“No,” Yuuri exclaims, hurrying after him. “No, sir. I’m coming.”

“Good.” Yakov grunts. Once Yuuri catches up to him, he matches his pace. It’s clear he doesn’t just mean to release Yuuri, but to retrieve him.

Yuuri’s still in jeans and a sweater from the gala. “I’m not dressed—” he starts to explain, but Yakov cuts him off.

“Your friend got your suit. I have it for you. You can change in the bathroom.” He glances over, and Yuuri isn’t sure what to make of it. The man is so stoic. “Don’t you think you’ve made Vitya wait for you long enough?”

The question makes Yuuri wince. He knows full well that Yakov doesn’t only mean the banquet today. Yuuri’s been in Japan for months. Even before that, he knows Victor was waiting for him, waiting for Yuuri to get on the same page, waiting for Yuuri to see what was under his nose, just one floor beneath him in the very same house. Now, they’re in the same place again at last, and for once it seems they’re on the same footing as well.

They have a lot to catch up on, and not nearly enough time to do it. Yuuri nods, then verbalizes, “Yes. I guess I have.”

“Good.” Yakov claps a hand on Yuuri’s shoulder as they walk, hard enough that Yuuri exhales a little oof. “If you run again, I won’t let him go after you this time. I’ll go after you instead.”

It’s oblique, but it doesn’t need to be any clearer. Yuuri gets the message. Minako would probably give Victor the same speech, in Yakov’s position. Yuuko would try, probably, before her composure dissolved and she begged for an autograph. “Yes, sir,” Yuuri says, swallowing. They make the rest of the walk to the banquet venue in silence.

When they reach the bathroom where Yuuri’s clothes are apparently waiting, Yakov gives him a gentle shove toward the door. He can already hear voices and music streaming down the hall from the ballroom, and his heart flutters. He made it, but the weekend is nearly over. He feels like Cinderella before the ball, knowing that in a short time the clock will strike midnight and the spell will break.

Yuuri finds his suit hanging on the back of the bathroom door. Oddly enough, his usual baby blue tie is missing, replaced by one in a deeper shade with an iridescent sheen like snake scales. He winds it around his hand, smiling at the play of colors. He has a feeling Yakov didn’t pick this one out.

He changes in the stall quickly and hangs his casual clothes back in the garment bag, making sure there’s nothing valuable left in the pockets in case of trouble. Whoever had grabbed his things, while fetching him a new tie, had also forgotten to get his dress shoes, so he’s forced to crouch down and pull his Converse back on to finish it out.

Stepping out of the stall, Yuuri catches his reflection in the mirror on the opposite wall and pauses, considering. It’s not a bad look, actually. The new tie helps make his generic suit look a bit more interesting, and the shoes barely show. He wrinkles his nose, stepping closer to the mirror. His hair’s a disaster. He must have been scrunching at it in the security office when he was worrying, and the wind and humidity on the walk over didn’t help.

Yuuri slips off his glasses and turns on both faucets on the sink. He bends to splash some water on his face, then continues the motion, running his hands up to slick his hair back from his eyes. Maybe it’ll dry in some semblance of style.

The bathroom door creaks, then hits the wall with a thunk, and Yuuri fumbles to find his glasses on the wet counter. “Sorry,” he says to whoever just entered, “I’m nearly finished, and then I’ll get out of your way.”

“You’d better,” the stranger snaps. Confused, Yuuri puts his glasses back on. He turns to find he’s being watched—by none other than Yuri Plisetsky. The teenager has his arms folded across his slim chest, scowling fiercely. His silver medal is draped around his neck and hangs nearly to his waistband.

“You’re not un-retiring too, are you?” he asks. “There’s no room at the top for more than one Yuri, or for more than one old man.”

Yuuri’s answered this question a hundred times to Ciao-Ciao. His usual response is on the tip of his tongue, but this time he stops to really consider it. Victor is older, he’s been gone longer, and yet he’s made a comeback—successful enough to be crowned World Champion once again. Yuuri really could return to competitive skating, if he wanted to.

Does he want to? He thinks immediately of Kobayashi and Tanaka, the novice ice dancers he’s been training since he arrived in Hasetsu, as well as the other kids who have recently joined the rink, flocking in and bringing new life to his hometown. As much as Yuuri hadn’t believed he could draw a crowd, Nishigori was right—the rumor that Yuuri is coaching has pulled people into Hasetsu. And Yuuri likes teaching, loves watching the kids develop and improve. There are parts of competing he misses, sure, but enough to give up what he’s doing now? Enough to put himself through months of grueling training for half a hope of a comeback, when there are so many talented young skaters like Plisetsky rising through the ranks now?

“No,” Yuuri says. He’s speaking mostly to himself at first, then blinks and swallows, remembering Plisetsky is watching him. “No, I don’t want to compete again.” For the first time, he really means it. He knows what he wants—coaching, making katsudon with his mama, teaching ballet with Minako, the triplets, Maia, Victor. Yuuri smiles, and Yuri looks at him like he’s losing his mind.

The boy finally gets control over his face again, snapping his mouth shut and scowling. “Well, good,” he declares, leveling a finger at Yuuri’s chest, “because you’re not going to have time to compete anyway, when you’re coaching me!”

-

Yuuri stumbles from the bathroom in a daze, making his way to the banquet on autopilot. A waitress in a pressed white shirt passes him with a tray, and Yuuri grabs a glass from it without checking to see what it is first. He drains it, and is pleasantly surprised to discover it’s a halfway decent champagne.

“Ah, Katsuki!” Someone exclaims behind him. A hand grips his shoulder, and Yuuri turns into the tug to find Christophe Giacometti, his blond curls tousled in a very deliberate manner. He wears formalwear well, and has the smirk of someone who knows it. “What are you doing?”

Well, I think I just agreed to coach a child I’ve never met before, Yuuri thinks, but—no, that still sounds fake. Plisetsky will never get Yakov Feltsman to agree to let him move to Japan. It’s best not to mention any of that.

“I was looking for Victor,” Yuuri says instead. “Have you seen him around yet? Congratulations on the bronze, by the way. You deserve it.”

“Thank you.” Chris raises the champagne glass in his hand slightly, a brief toast. His other hand still rests on Yuuri’s shoulder. “I believe our returning champion is schmoozing somewhere nearby—but don’t rush off now.” His grip on Yuuri’s shoulder tightens, as if Yuuri might try to escape. In contrast to that, Chris tilts his head and smiles brightly. “We have so much to catch up on, after all!”

“Ah, sure.” Yuuri glances away, trying to check for Victor without turning his head, but he can’t spot him anywhere in his eye line. Plisetsky is slinking in through the double doors behind Chris. His green eyes meet Yuuri’s, but then he turns, skulking around the perimeter of the ballroom. No help there.

“I’ll admit, I’m a little confused by everything going on,” Chris says. “Last time I saw you, you were playing house with Victor and helping to raise his daughter. Then, the next thing I hear about you is when my best friend calls me in tears because you ran off.”

Yuuri grimaces. He’s already been feeling guilty about what he did to Victor for months, but he hadn’t really considered how it might look from another perspective. Before he can apologize or utter a word in explanation, Chris continues.

“And then suddenly you’re all over the internet, skating a tribute to Maia, and now you’re in Boston out of nowhere, kissing him on live television, and…” Chris’s smile is stiff, his teeth showing in a manner that verges more on aggression than pleasure. “If you can excuse my question, I must ask: what the fuck, Yuuri?

Yuuri can’t help wincing at that version of events. It’s all technically true, after all. “I made a lot of mistakes,” he admits. “I did. I thought I understood what was happening at the time, but I wasn’t even seeing half the picture.” He pauses long enough to grab another glass of champagne from a waiter. He’s going to need it, and he uses the first sip to gather himself emotionally. “I’m not going to say I haven’t been stupid, but… we’re talking.” Yuuri shakes his head, laughing a little at himself. “Maybe we should have been doing that more to begin with.”

Chris’s mask of a smile has been discarded. His expression is even, and his eyes are sharp as needles. “Far be it from me to claim Victor hasn’t made his own mistakes,” he says, “but I’m not convinced that this should be one of them.” On the word ‘this’ Christophe’s eyes drop, and there’s no question what he’s referring to.

There are half a dozen ways Yuuri could react in this instant. He squashes the first, knee-jerk voice that says Yes, he’s right. You’re a mistake. Behind that is a burble of indignance, a stab of irritation, and Yuuri grabs for that instead. It straightens his back and lifts his gaze to meet Chris’s on even ground.

“And who are you to tell Victor he can’t or shouldn’t have me?” Yuuri tilts his head and lets a little more confidence show when Chris’s brows knit together in response. “How much distance do you have from your mistakes?”

At the second question, Chris flushes. It’s slight—he has a lot of practice in hiding reactions like this—but Yuuri knows him well enough to still remember the curly-haired little lamb with big doe eyes from his first few Juniors competitions. They may not have talked in a few years, but when it comes to ill-advised romantic decisions, Yuuri knows that Chris’s glass house is particularly large and well-appointed.

Chris seems to consider Yuuri’s words, then chuckles, shaking off the tension around them with a toss of his head. He releases his grip on Yuuri’s arm and raises his champagne flute again in salute. “Fair enough,” Chris says. “You have me. Simply keep in mind, going forward, that Victor has many friends here.” He leans in, lowering his voice slightly, and adds, “And I, for one, have a powerful high kick at my disposal.”

“I’ll—uh—I’ll take that under advisement.”

Chris’s smile is the glint of a newly-sharpened blade under arena lights, and then he turns his head from Yuuri, exclaiming with apparent joy at the sight of a petite brunette skater Yuuri doesn’t recognize. Yuuri takes the opportunity to make his escape.

Glancing around the ballroom, he finally catches a glimpse of Victor, silver hair falling to obscure his eyes as he bends to speak with an older man seated at a table near the front. Yuuri smiles and finishes his champagne, discarding the glass on a nearby table full of ice dancers. One of the ladies pulls out a chair, inviting him to sit down with her, but Yuuri declines politely and sets off in pursuit of his target.

He makes it two tables closer before someone else catches his arm.

“Yuuri! There you are!” It’s Leo, all wide smiles and warm brown eyes. He pinches the sleeve of Yuuri’s jacket and tugs him closer. “Do you need a drink? Someone gave me one, but I don’t do alcohol—here.”

Now there’s another champagne stem in Yuuri’s hand, but he doesn’t protest, just takes a sip as Leo pulls him over to where Phichit is waiting with another, smaller boy whose floppy brown hair makes him look even younger than he already is.

“Look who I found,” Leo sings. “It’s the talk of the town. Yuuri, you surprised the audience more than Otabek Altin’s criminal underscoring. What’s next—Disneyland?”

“What?” The brown-haired boy blinks at Leo, frowning.

“It’s this old thing. They used to ask American football players— You know what? Nevermind. I need to introduce you guys.” Leo releases Yuuri only to sling his arm around the shoulders of the other boy instead, nudging him forward toward Yuuri. “Yuuri Katsuki, this is my best friend, Guang Hong Ji. Guang Hong skates for China, and he’s a big fan of yours.”

Ji flushes across the bridge of his nose and ducks his head, hissing, “Leo—”

“What? You’re hardly the only one. There are enough Yuuri admirers in this room to start a fan club.”

Yuuri tunes them out a bit, meeting Phichit’s eyes over their bent heads. Phichit shrugs, and they share a smile. “What’s with everyone this weekend?” Yuuri mutters, sidling closer to Phichit so the other two won’t overhear him. “Suddenly all these people are paying attention to me.”

“You mean, aside from the part where you made a viral video, kissed the world champion, and had a student medal at Junior World’s last week?”

Yuuri blinks. Most of those he knew about, but— “Wait, what student? None of my students are Juniors yet.” His best pupils at Ice Castle are still ten and twelve years old.

Phichit stares at him, then slowly shakes his head. “Tina Juarez got bronze last week. Did you seriously not know?”

“No.” Yuuri chews his lip. “I don’t usually watch the Junior competitions unless I know someone I’m teaching will be there. Besides, Tina is Celestino’s student.”

“She said ‘hi’ to you from the Kiss and Cry.” Yuuri stares. Phichit’s voice rises. “She thanked you by name for coaching her on her axel in the press conference!”

“Oh. I guess certain things—” like Yuri Plisetsky, whose demands Phichit hasn’t heard about yet “— make more sense now. Uh, thank you for telling me?” Phichit is shaking his head again, but Yuuri is used to that.

He slides his gaze past his friend, craning his neck to look for his target again. Victor has left the table he was at before, but only to move to the next one. Yuuri recognizes both Plisetsky’s blonde bob and Mila’s red curls at some of the other seats—probably the Team Russia table.

“Yuuri?” He whips his attention back at the sound of Leo’s voice. Leo has a phone in his hand now, and he’s waving Phichit closer with the other. “Come on! We should all take a commemorative photo together.”

“Maybe you should try Yuuri again later,” Phichit says, because Phichit is an angel when he’s not torturing Yuuri emotionally himself. “He’s clearly got somewhere else he’d like to be.” Then he waggles his eyebrows, because he’s still a bit evil when it counts.

“Oh.” Leo droops a little, but Ji looks like someone just yanked a rug out from under him. Minako’s stern reminder from childhood echos in Yuuri’s head, Victor Nikiforov always makes time for his fans!

“It’s okay,” Yuuri finds himself saying. He drains the champagne and scoots in closer, wedging himself between Phichit and Ji. “I can take a quick photo.”

So there’s a photo of all of them together, but then another because Leo closed his eyes, and then one of only Yuuri and Phichit together, and then another with Yuuri and Ji, and then somehow Yuuri is the one who winds up with the phone pressed into his hands, taking several shots of Phichit and Leo in back to back poses, the same way he and Phichit used to pose together after competitions for Phichit’s Instagram.

Yuuri laughs when Leo climbs on Phichit’s shoulders by standing on one of the white cloth-covered tables and leaping. He can see Celestino watching from a few tables away, looking like he’s about to start pulling his hair out from stress, and he glances over to see if Victor’s noticed too.

But Victor isn’t at the Russian table anymore. Georgi Popovich has taken the seat he was in before, and is lying half on the table, reaching for the arm of a woman with her face turned away.

“Yuuri, do you think you could lift Phichit?” Leo asks, and Yuuri knows for a fact that he can, but he’s losing interest in playing with the others.

“Sorry,” he says, passing the phone back to Leo. “I need to go find somebody right now. Send me anything that turns out good, okay?”

Without waiting for an answer, Yuuri walks away. He’s scanning the room, turning his head so fast he starts to feel dizzy—or is that the champagne? How many has he had so far? Did he drink one when he talked to Chris, or was that two? He still can’t see Victor anywhere, and he’s tugging at the hem of his blazer, fussing over himself out of habit.

He’s starting to wonder if Victor might have left—maybe he needed to phone Maia?—when someone taps him on the shoulder.

Yuuri turns and falls straight into dazzling blue eyes. Victor smiles, and Yuuri mentally shakes himself, realizing he’s staring. He’s never come across a version of Victor he didn’t think was gorgeous, but something about this—the slim, tailored three-piece grey suit that brings out the blue in his eyes, and the flash of the gold medal draped around his neck—it’s all too much for Yuuri’s brain to take in at once.

“I was going to rescue you,” Victor says, “but you made your own escape before I got the chance. Champagne?” He raises two glasses, one in each hand, and Yuuri takes one mutely. He probably shouldn’t. Just moments ago he was wondering if he’d already had too much, and his head is swimming, but he thinks that’s not the alcohol. It’s just Victor.

“I’m sure you’ll have more chances to rescue me,” Yuuri says. He raises the champagne to his lips. It tastes better—sweeter, colder, and more crisp than his first glass—and he wonders if they bring out the good stuff for the champion.

“Is that a promise?”

Yuuri looks down, feeling his face heat. Maybe that was presumptuous of him in the midst of everything, but on a scale from one to “Kissing someone on live international television” it seems like a pretty mild offense.

He’s been looking for Victor since the moment security pulled him away, but now that he’s actually here, now they can finally talk, Yuuri is… nervous. His heart is racing so much it feels like his pulse must be visible, fluttering in his throat. There are a hundred things he’d like to say to Victor, but he can’t seem to move any of them along the runway from his brain to his tongue.

Buying time, he raises his champagne to his lips again. Victor mirrors him, silently smiling, and Yuuri takes a bigger drink than he’d planned, struggling not to choke at the sudden burn.

The DJ is playing “Shut Up and Dance” and a few familiar faces have taken the song at its word—Phichit, Leo, and Ji are all on the cleared floor space near the front of the room, and while Yuuri watches, Chris tosses back his champagne and joins them, pulling Phichit into a twirl.

“Dance with me, Victor?” Yuuri asks. Maybe a little friendly dancing will give him time to get his brain and tongue working in tandem again. He takes his last sip of champagne and extends his hand, and Victor’s smile broadens, his eyes crinkling at the corners.

“Of course, if you think you can keep up with me.” Victor winks. “Let me finish my drink first.”

Unlike Yuuri, he takes his time, watching the antics of the others already on the dance floor and shaking his head each time Christophe lifts Leo overhead or Phichit attempts to twerk. Between sips of champagne, his eyes always shift back to Yuuri, as if he’s checking to make sure he’s still there. Yuuri can’t imagine anywhere else he’d rather be right now, other than on the dance floor.

Victor tilts his head back, the column of his throat bobbing as he swallows the last of his champagne and discards the empty flute on a nearby table as the song fades out, replaced by something slower. Other skaters drift away from the dance floor when Walk the Moon is replaced by Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud”, though a few sponsors, ice dancers, and pair skaters remain for the change of mood.

“Still up for that dance?” Victor asks, offering his hand, and Yuuri nods. It may not be what he’d planned for, but it still gives them something to do.

With their fingers intertwined, Victor pulls Yuuri up to the front of the room. His hand is firm on Yuuri’s waist, then the small of his back as they turn to face each other. Yuuri steps in closer, falling into Victor’s lead without forethought.

It’s a good thing he’s had so much training at dance. He’s not sure he could manage this if he had to think about the steps right now. They’re swaying, much like the other couples around them, not moving all that much, and yet Yuuri’s head is spinning. He’s warm and floating, and again he’s not sure if it’s the effects of the champagne taking hold or just—this. The warm comfort of Victor’s hand on his waist, his own face inches away from where he might lay his head on Victor’s shoulder, and the soft little sounds of Victor humming along to the song as they dance are all conspiring to make Yuuri feel like it’s two in the morning and he’s closing the bar down after dancing all night.

He wants to really fold himself into Victor, lay his head down and let Victor hold him up for just a moment, but Yuuri can still feel shifts in the air around them from others dancing nearby, and somehow doing that feels even more revealing than kissing Victor in front of a few thousand strangers.

Instead, he pulls one hand from Victor’s shoulders to gently tug the medal hanging from his neck. “Congratulations, world champion,” he says, flushing when his voice comes out low and more sultry than he’d intended. “Your performance of Agape was perfect. No one would doubt your feelings after seeing that.”

“I should hope not.” Victor’s fingers press into the space beneath Yuuri’s ribs, as if he needs a reminder of where they are. “But I think I prefer your version. Without needing to worry about points and technical scoring, you devoted so much more emotion to the program than I could. When I watched that for the first time—” his smile falters as he sucks in a breath through his teeth. “It was like you made a solo into a duet.”

Victor’s smile returns, a flash of teeth, and he bends his head, bringing their faces so close together that his breath tickles Yuuri’s cheek when he speaks—soft, like he’s sharing a secret, “If not for Maia, I might have packed a bag and chased you all the way to Japan after seeing that.”

Yuuri can’t imagine that would have gone well. If Victor had shown up in Hasetsu, he might have dropped dead on the spot—or, at least, fainted, fallen into the onsen, and then drowned.

But these past few weeks, Victor has been there anyway. He’s been haunting Yuuri, trailing him through the hallways of his home and out onto the streets. When Yuuri goes for runs, he imagines Victor and Makka running at his side. When he goes to the rink, he wonders if Victor would like it, or if he’d bring Maia to skate on the same ice where Yuuri once laced up his first rented boots. As Yuuri stands alone on the beach, watching the gulls circle overhead, he thinks about what Victor might say if he were there too—would Hasetsu be like a whole other world for him? Or would it come to feel like home to Victor too?

“You could visit,” Yuuri says. He ducks his head, staring at the medal on Victor’s chest to avoid seeing his face when he speaks. “I mean, if you still wanted to, now that the season’s over. My family owns a hot springs resort, and I’ve been teaching skating nearby—”

“I know.” Yuuri has to look up at that, and Victor’s lips are quirked in amusement. “After you left… I know how to use Google, Yuuri.” Of course he does. Stupid. “But that sounds wonderful, actually. I’d love to visit your family’s hot springs.”

“Really?” Is it that easy? Could it ever be?

“Maia has a couple more months of school, of course, so we can’t come yet, but maybe in June or July—Would that be okay, if I bring Maia?” Victor’s forehead wrinkles slightly, just between his brows. “If I’m going all the way to Japan for a while, I wouldn’t want to leave her with a sitter, although I suppose I could take her to St. Petersburg first, leave her with Yakov and Lilia—”

“Where was Shiori from?” The question springs from Yuuri’s mind to his lips with no thought between, and he stops so completely when he hears himself ask it that it’s only Victor’s grip on his body that drags him into the next steps of their dance.

Victor’s eyes widen, but then a slow smile stretches his lips. Yuuri’s heart skips a beat. He’s only ever seen Victor look at Maia with that expression.

“Kyoto,” Victor says, and the smile never falters. His eyes are warm, and his hold on Yuuri’s waist relaxes slightly. “You know, I haven’t really thought about it in years, but she loved growing up there. She spoke about it often, and I think her younger sister still lives in the city. Is Hasetsu near Kyoto?”

“Not at all,” Yuuri admits, shaking his head, “but Japan is much smaller than Russia or America. It’s doable, if you’d like to go, and I know some great restaurants in the city… if you don’t mind me tagging along, that is.” It’s Shiori’s family, after all, and Yuuri would hate to presume.

But Victor only wraps his arms tighter around Yuuri, pulling him close as possible. The song changes again, back to pop, and other skaters return to the floor, but neither of them pulls away, and Yuuri at last gives in to his instincts and lays his head down on Victor’s shoulder, closing his eyes to concentrate on the warm, dizzing way they sway together.

“I would love that,” Victor murmurs into his ear over the thrum of music and laughter all around them. “It sounds like a perfect date.”

And it is.