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At a Time Like This

Chapter Text

   

          The lights in the skating arena went out an instant before the ground shuddered. The sound that filled the space – the shaking of the high walls, the clanking of metal and light fixtures, the screams and shouts rising from the early practice competitors and staff – was the opposite of the celebration of a crowd, which was what Victor Nikiforov was used to hearing in these spaces.

            He bumped against the wall of the rink, dimly felt the rubbery safety covering, dimly registered the difficulty he was having keeping his balance on the ice. Dull lights came on somewhere faraway, nothing like the glaring overhead lights or the exhibition spotlights he was used to. These lights barely made it to the the ice on which he stood, and a fine tremor began working its way through him. Something was very wrong. He wanted to press both hands on the ice to reassure himself he was still in the rink but couldn’t make himself peel them off the wall.

            “Idiot,” an angry voice hissed as a small body crashed into his side. Yuri Plisetsky glared up at him, green eyes wide and dark, his white and red warm up jacket zipped up to his chin. “Get off the ice.”

            “We just began,” Victor heard himself protest. They had early ice time. They had to practice. There was a competition.

            Yuri blinked, then his anger doubled and he hissed, “Get off the ice, old man!”

            “Victor,” Yakov’s voice snapped, deep and urgent and finally penetrating the weird haze in his mind. His coach stood in front of him, on the other side of the rink wall, his expression harder than usual.

            “Yakov, what’s going on?”

            “Come off the ice,” Yakov said, gently despite that expression.

            He hadn’t answered the questions, Victor realized, following the instruction. He found his way to the gate under the insistent pressure of Yuri’s small hand on the middle of his back. He stepped onto the carpet, reached for Yakov to hand him his skate guards before Yuri pushed more insistently, moving him forward. He turned, looking for the kiss and cry, but that area was dark. The arena was dark.

            “What’s happening?” he asked again. Yuri muttered something to his right while Yakov simply took hold of his left and marched them all through a jumble of chairs and discarded bags and water bottles. Yuri stumbled over something and Victor grabbed hold of his elbow and held him up. Weirdly, Yuri didn’t pull his arm away.

            “Why did the lights go out?” Victor asked as they reached the tunnel that led to the skaters’ green room. They had just come through this tunnel, hadn’t they?   

            An event employee stood there, holding the heavy, dark curtain open on one side, talking into a walkie talkie. The tunnel was dark. Yakov pulled, and Victor balked, not wanting to walk into deeper darkness. This was not how a practice day before a competition went. Yuri pressed up against his side, their arms still intertwined.

            “Victor,” Yakov barked. Victor blinked at him. What was he doing wrong, to earn that sound?

            Another rumble sounded outside the building. The ground shuddered again. A sharp crack sounded behind them and Victor flinched, turning back. Was the ice breaking?

            “Come on,” Yakov ordered, close to his ear. “It’s safer away from the rink.”

            That didn’t sound right. The rink was always safe.

            Yakov tugged him into the darkness. Yuri’s hand tightened on his forearm as they both shuffled forward, the bare blades of their skates landing too hard, skidding too easily on the hard flooring. Victor’s breaths became labored. He had to work to get air in and out, and all he managed were short little gasps. He felt light-headed. He was shaking, the muscles of his back and shoulders bunched and contracting uncontrollably. What was going on?

            His exhale of relief was loud as they reached the end of the tunnel. The warmup area was dimly lit by four small, yellowish lights evenly spaced high on the walls. Had he ever noticed those before? Why was it so dark?

            Four skaters bunched together against the fall wall, near the locker room. Someone was crying. Someone was sobbing steadily. High-pitched voices bounced around the room. People on phones. Skaters. Coaches. A pair of officials, arms crossed, heads leaned together as they argued quietly. A woman with a clipboard, her walkie talkie spewing out barked words and static at irregular intervals.

            Victor wanted Makkachin. He looked around, as though his dog would be nearby.

            “Come on.” Yakov tugged him forward again, guiding him roughly toward a bench. “Change out of your skates.”

            “We need to practice,” Victor protested. Didn’t he understand. The short programs were tomorrow.

            Yakov finally focused on him. He frowned.

            “Victor, there has been…there has been some kind of accident. Practice is cancelled.”

            “But the short programs-”

            “Practice is cancelled. For everyone.”

            “But-”

            “Put your damn shoes on, old man.” Yuri dropped his bag on his feet and glared down at him, fists on his waist. “What is wrong with you?”

            The rumble started again and someone screamed. Victor’s pulse skipped a pair of beats and his breath fluttered uncomfortably in his chest. Yakov’s hand landed on his shoulder, heavy and solid. Victor grabbed hold of it, fingers digging in.

            “Put your shoes on, Vitya,” his coach said, squeezing before he let go of him. “I’m going to find out what’s going on.”

            He walked away, and Victor had to try three times to find the ends of his laces.

 

***

 

            A large building under construction had collapsed somewhere in the city. The building had interrupted power lines. A nearby transformer had exploded. Something else related to the electrical system had exploded. There was nothing wrong with the skating arena itself but practice was cancelled. They didn’t know about the competition yet. This is what the staff told Yakov and Yakov told Victor and Yuri. Victor didn’t understand.

            The building was still dark, and it was getting colder. Makkachin wasn’t there. It was like a bad dream. Except for the voice.

            A voice was speaking softly to his left. Not Russian. Not English. Japanese, maybe? A voice that was gentle and soft, sometimes lightly humorous. When it paused it wasn’t moving on to other things, other distractions. It just waited, and then it responded. Gently, softly. The speaker was soothing someone and being soothed in return.

            Victor found his phone in the outside pocket of his bag and woke it. Notifications from Instagram and Twitter. No missed calls. No texts.

            “Mila is safe,” Yakov said.

            “She was in the shower,” Yuri said, a little too gleefully. “Fell on her ass when the lights went out.”

            Victor glanced at him. The younger skater hammered away on his phone. He paused. The screen lit his face beneath the hood of the sweatshirt he’d pulled on underneath his warmup jacket. Yuri smirked, and started swiping.

            “She is putting on makeup in the dark. She looks like the clown from IT.”

            “If the Italians can’t restore order, a team will come to fetch us,” Yakov said.

            “Why can’t they come now?” Victor asked. He was shivering still, and the heat of Yakov’s hand where he kept putting it on his shoulder was doing nothing to warm him.

            “It is not a terrorist attack. The Italians have locked the roads down for emergency vehicles and downed power lines.”

            “A terrorist attack?” Victor asks. They had trained for that. He hadn’t paid much attention. It was such a distant, displeasing concept. Russia would send a team to extract them if they ended up in a city during an attack. He’d registered that and dismissed the possibility.

            “Not a terrorist attack,” Yuri drawled. “Just a normal emergency. Keep up.”

            None of this made sense. He was supposed to skate today. Skate. Nap. Eat lightly. Maybe do some sightseeing. Torino was pretty but small. He’d been here before. Practice. Stretch. Hydrate. Visualize. Perform.

            That was how every competition began for the last thirteen years. Instead he was in a windowless room, and he could feel the ceiling pressing down on him. His body ached from tension. He kept scrolling through pictures of Makkachin without seeing them, and kept having to start over. His eyes felt dry and hot at the same time. He was afraid, he realized, and he couldn’t make it stop. Usually, if he wanted something, he just worked harder until he achieved it. Or he bought it. Or he made Yakov work it out for him.

            “Hey Phichit,” the voice said. “I’m fine. I’m fine.”

            Victor turned, drawn by the recognizable words in accented English. A young man leaned back against the wall, his black pants and black jacket making him nearly indistinguishable from the darkness beyond. There were no lights on the far side of the room and Victor wondered why he was standing there. He was black-haired, with clear, dusky skin and glasses that hid his eyes from Victor. He wore shoes, not skates, but he must have been a skater. He was lean, and the lines of his body were somehow light, as if gravity did not have a firm grip on him. His head was inclined, his hair falling over his forehead, but his phone lit his face and Victor saw his smile. It was a lovely smile.

            “Yes, it’s quite strange. There was some kind of accident nearby that caused the power to go out.”

            There was an accident. It caused the power to go out.

            “No, I’m fine. It’s alright. We’re all fine. I am…I was in the early practice. We’re gathered in the warmup room now. No, don’t worry. It’s nothing to worry about. I’m safe.”

            It was nothing to worry about. They were safe.

            “Hmm. We’ll probably go back to the hotel. I don’t know if it has power. At least it’s daytime. It will be light out.”

            They would go back to the hotel. It was light outside. They weren’t going to be left in this darkness.

            “I’ll probably just wait in the lobby? I don’t want to carry my bag up nineteen flights of stairs. I can’t believe I got up on time for the first shuttle only for this to happen. All I wanted to do was sleep.” The voice – the young man – laughed quietly. His head rose. His lips tilted up. He was quite lovely. “No, I would still be sleeping!”

            He sounded like he loved the idea of sleep. Victor felt a smile forming inside of him.

            “Yes, well. Since I’m not practicing, now I’m starving.” He laughed again. “Phichit, even if they have power, I can’t eat McDonalds before my short program.”

            He was a competitor, this lovely man with his gentle voice and easy calm. He was a competitor at the senior level in the Grand Prix. He wasn’t with a partner, which meant he was Victor’s competitor. Victor turned to ask Yakov, but he was across the room speaking with the officials. He elbowed Yuri.

            “What?”

            “Who is that?” He tilted his head to his left. Yuri blinked at him, leaned forward to peer around him, then scowled.

            “Fucking Yuri Two.”

            “What?”

            “Japanese Yuuri, who spells his name wrong with two ‘u’s. Katsuki Yuuri.” Yuri’s scowl intensified. “You’ve skated against him for like two years, Victor.”

            Victor’s head whipped around. The man – Yuuri – had taken a few steps away from the wall. He rolled his shoulders and twisted slightly, stretching his back. Victor sat up straight and arched his own back a little. The rest of the peculiar tension went away.

            “Yeah,” Katsuki Yuuri said. “Mari called right away. I talked to her and to mom for a bit. They just wanted to make sure I’m-” He shrugged, and this time it wasn’t a stretch. “You know how it is.”

            Yakov came back, slapping his gloves in his hand. “We’re going back to the hotel. The shuttles are being allowed through.”

            “No team of commandoes to rescue us?” Yuri asked, and Victor couldn’t tell if his sarcasm is hiding disappointment or relief.

            “No. Get your things. Be ready.” Yakov paused, and it was a thoughtful pause. “Victor?”

            “Yes?”

            “Will you be ready?”

            Victor nodded. He was feeling more like himself even if this day was completely out of control. “Of course.”

            Yakov went back to the officials. Other coaches and staff were huddled around them now. Victor turned back to his left, to Katsuki Yuuri. Who was gone.

            He stood abruptly, spun and banged his shin on the bench.

            “Oi!” Yuri stood too. “What are you doing?”

            “Get your things ready,” Victor said, finally spying Yuuri on the far side of the room, beneath one of the wan lights, crouched beside his own bag. A woman was crouched beside him. Her long, dark hair hung over her face but she was definitely talking to the Japanese skater. Yuuri turned to her. He adjusted his glasses, and Victor could all but sense the earnest attention he gave the woman, the care that rolled off of him. How had he never seen this man before, never noticed his gentle but sure presence?

            The woman moved, all but lunging, and Yuuri wrapped one arm around her in response to her sudden hug. His other hand went to the floor, fingers tented, steadying them both. The woman’s voice carried, shrill and fast, and Yuuri’s low response was barely audible but Victor could feel it all the way across the room, a warm stroke to his senses.

            “Get your shit together, old man,” Yuri growled, and Victor started digging through his bag, pulling things out while putting his skates in. He found what he was looking for and zipped the bag up before standing again.

            The room filled with movement. Staff with flashlights arrived. Everyone else was milling about, gathering their things and speaking more loudly, excitedly. Yakov gestured then over.

            “We’re in the first group,” Yakov said. “There are two shuttles.”

            He continued to talk. Victor scanned the room. Katsuki Yuuri was frowning down at his phone. He looked up, dark eyes rounded with concern, before he grabbed the handle of his rolling bag and approached an official. Whatever the man said flustered Yuuri. One hand clenched around the handle. The other rose to pluck at the zipper of his warmup jacket. The official turned away to address the Czech skaters, leaving Yuuri alone. Wait, why was he alone? Where was his coach? His choreographer? The rest of his national team? Surely he was not here all alone, in the middle of an emergency?

            Victor dimly heard Yuri yelling at him but didn’t realize he’d crossed the room until he was standing beside Katsuki Yuuri. The other skater was a few inches shorter and of a more delicate build.

            “We’re returning to the hotel.” Victor heard himself sounding like he was making an announcement. Yuuri glanced up and startled. Victor smiled at him. He wanted to assure Yuuri like he had assured the people he’d been speaking to, the way he’d assured Victor even though Victor was only overhearing him. Yuuri’s brown eyes – a rich color tinged like port wine – went impossibly wider. His mouth fell open but nothing came out. “Come on.”

            He took Yuuri’s arm, slowing only when the skater tripped over his pivoting bag, and all but dragged him back.

            Yakov was scowling. Yuri’s shoulders were up and his eyes arched like a cat hissing in human form.

            “Victor.” Yakov asked, more a warning than a question.

            “I-I’m in the second group,” Yuuri mumbled. From the corner of his eye, Victor could see the red flush spreading across his face.

            “He’s coming with us,” Victor said.

            “Victor, this is already arranged.”

            “He’s coming with us.”

            Yakov’s jaw set. Victor’s smile hardened. Yuri snarled. Yuuri tried to slide away, but Victor kept a firm grip on him.

            Yuuri was calm and sweet, and he shouldn’t be left alone. Victor knew he was not himself this morning, but he was pretty sure he shouldn’t be without Yuuri either, not at a time like this.

Chapter Text

            He sat in the window seat of a small shuttle bus, the seat firm and covered in an unappealing gray plastic fur, as the quiet winter city rolled by outside. Victor Nikiforov sat next to him, between him and the aisle, and Yuuri had no idea what was going on.

            He’d felt unsettled last night and asked for a schedule change so that he could practice early. Coach Celestino had been out drinking when the confirmation come through, and Yuuri knew not to expect him until later in the morning. A building collapsed somewhere nearby, causing a minor local seismic event and taking out part of the power grid. Yuuri is from Japan. He’d drilled for earthquakes since he was old enough to walk, had practiced at school and at home – at the inn, they had a duty to their guests to ensure their safety – so many times he could respond in his sleep, and this wasn’t even that bad. It wasn’t even an earthquake. The lights had just gone out and the building had been rattled a little.

            His sister had called, worried which she tried to pass off as casual concern, so he’d talked to her and his mom until they were both satisfied. Then Phichit had called because, despite it being the middle of the night, he was awake and monitoring All the Social Media. Mila Babicheva had posted about trying to put her makeup on in the dark and laughed about the “poor boys” being trapped in a darkened arena. The “boys” of course had been Coach Feltsman, Yuri Plisetsky, and Yuuri’s lifelong idol Victor Nikiforov. Phichit had reasoned that, if those boys had been trapped in the arena, then his BFF Yuuri had been trapped right alongside him. Yuuri had noticed the Russian team, of course. It was almost impossible not to notice Victor Nikiforov. He was energetic, graceful and powerful, and so, so beautiful.

            But it was morning, and morning was not Yuuri’s most attentive time. He’d been taking off his skate guards when the lights went out, so he’d put them back on and retreated to the green room before the staff had organized to bring everyone else off the ice. Including Victor Nikiforov, who he had eventually realized was sitting quite close to him in the dim room after he’d gotten off the phone. Tt had been a little chaotic and pretty dark, and Yuuri had been focused on calming his family and best friend – and then Sara Crispino who was being hounded relentlessly by her brother, who was threatening to run from the hotel to rescue her – that he hadn’t thought much about being in the same room as Victor. Not that it was the first time. They’d skated at the same events twice in the last two years, but Yuuri hadn’t had the nerve to do anything but watch him from afar. And he hadn’t earned the opportunity to be closer to him.

            And then Victor had grabbed hold of him and declared that he – Katsuki Yuuri, a dime a dozen skater who could barely land a quad in competition – was coming with him. With them, Yuuri corrected in his mind. Coming with them, the first group of skaters returning to the hotel. He’d probably felt bad for him. Everyone else was with a coach or choreographer or partner. Yuuri was the only one who’d been desperate enough to sneak off for an early practice with nobody to support him. And Victor was so kind that he had noticed. And now Yuuri was embarrassed and also almost vibrating with excitement.

            “This is a strange turn of events,” Victor said in a quieter version of the voice Yuuri has heard a hundred times in interviews, and Yuuri flinched, looking at him and then away. “I’ve never had a practice cancelled due to a disaster.”

            “Oh,” Yuuri said, realizing he wasn’t commenting on Yuuri’s inner turmoil. “Yes, it’s very unusual.”

            Victor was facing him, and Yuuri was desperate to keep talking to him. Biting his lip, he risked a glance. Victor’s eyes were very blue, even the one half-covered by a wave of silver hair. Yuuri wanted to brush it away, but that would be very – what was the word? – oh yeah, forward. And also WEIRD. That was definitely the other word. Plus, he wasn’t sure he could take the intensity of both of those eyes looking at him. He reached for a topic.

            “Were you on the ice?” he asked.

            Victor frowned. Across the aisle, Yuri Plisetsky glared daggers from the other side of the intimidating bulk that was legendary coach Yakov Feltsman. Yuuri shrank back, keeping Victor’s broad shoulders between him and them.

            “Yes, I’d just…” Victor shook his head. “I was on the ice. It was disorienting. I didn’t understand that practice was cancelled.”

            “You wanted to keep skating?” Yuuri smiled at that. Of course the living legend would want to keep going, even in a darkened rink with the ground shaking around them. He was an unstoppable force of nature.

            Victor smiled back at him. Not a big, for-the-fans smile. A private smile. Yuuri felt his face heat. He turned toward the window, then leaned closer to it to watch an ambulance race by. The shuttle route had taken them out from between cramped buildings. In the distance, a cloud of dust and what might be dark smoke hovered menacingly over the ground. Two tall cranes hung over the mess, but he didn’t know enough about to cranes to know whether they should look like that.

            He felt Victor move beside him, leaning closer so that he was see as well. Victor made a noise that sounded like he was trying to soothe a hurt, and Yuuri swallowed.

            “I hope nobody was hurt,” he said.

            “It was early,” Victor murmured beside his ear, and his pulse idiotically sped up. Victor’s voice was so familiar, so stamped all over his years of adoration and longing, but to hear it this close, lilting and caught in the small space between the tall, awful seats and Victor’s own body is…indescribable. “Italians usually begin the day a little later.”

            “That’s one of my favorite things about Italy,” Yuuri said matter-of-factly.

            “You are not a morning person, Yuuri?” Victor sounded amused, and Yuuri turned…to find his face only inches away. He almost passed out. He almost combusted.

            “Uhhhh. Not really.”

            “What is your perfect morning?” Victor asked, not moving away, so Yuuri put his back against the cold of the window. Because otherwise he might have done something so ridiculous there wasn’t a name for it (kiss, kiss Victor Nikiforov was the name of it).

            “A late one,” Yuuri said. “Waking late, without an alarm. Coffee and breakfast while my roommate catches me up on All the Gossip. Maybe second breakfast. Then finding a quiet patch of ice.”

            “Second breakfast? Like a hobbit?” Victor laughed and Yuuri laughed as well, confused. His idol was a nerd? The most beautiful man in the world thought he was funny?

            “What’s your perfect morning then?” Yuuri asked

            Victor tilted his head, thinking. “Definitely an early start.”

            “Ugh.” Yuuri mocked rolling his eyes.

            “I like to watch the sun rise,” Victor protested.

            “A morning person and a romantic?” Yuuri said, then almost swallowed his own tongue when he realized how he sounded, like he was teasing. Like he was some kind of confident playboy type boy.

            “Of course. What is life without romance?” Victor said, sounding so very Russian.

            “So, you wake before dawn to marvel at the glory of the sunrise. Then what?”

            Victor shrugged one shoulder. His gaze stretched out past Yuuri, but not as if he was looking at anything in particular. “I run with my dog. Eat something. Have a solid practice session.”

            It didn’t sound like a perfect morning. It sounded like a routine morning. And it sounded…lonely.

            “Victor,” Yuuri started, not sure where he was going. That crystalline blue gaze returned to him and he had to suck in a breath.

            The bus jerked to a halt and they both reached to brace themselves. Somehow Victor’s hand covered Yuuri’s on the back of the seat in front of them. Victor’s hand was larger than his, his fingers long and shapely, like beautiful words in human form. He always moved like poetry, rhythm and rhyme. He felt like it as well, perfect, pleasing. Yuuri was glad he’d taken that breath, because he couldn’t seem to force another one.

            “We’ve arrived,” Yakov barked from the other side of the aisle in heavily accented English. Yuuri jerked, and Victor leaned back as well, turning his head toward his coach, and revealing Yuri Plisetsky in all his fuming glory.

            They disembarked, and there was a scramble of reuniting teams and skating officials, misappropriated skate bags, and Michele Crispino rocketing out of the hotel with a frankly terrifying scream, to grab his sister and carry her away. Coach Celestino marched out, the Japanese team official at his back, and grabbed hold of Yuuri, questioning him and clapping him on the shoulders and taking his bag and bringing both him and the bag into the lobby. The lights were on, which was good. The lobby is full of people looking for information and guests who’ve checked out but can’t go to the airport because it’s been temporarily shutdown for a safety check. In the midst of the crowd and the noise, Yuuri had to check all his pockets three times before he found his phone and hotel key, and by the time he was oriented and Celestino has backed away a few steps, Victor was nowhere to be found.

            Which…was normal. It was the correct way for the universe to behave, unlike the last twenty minutes or so. They were not rink mates. They were not on the same national team. They were not friends. Victor Nikiforov not being with Yuuri Katsuki was the one thing that followed the established pattern of life that Yuuri has lived until this morning. So why, as he followed Celestino into the stairwell – the elevators being full – did he suddenly feel like something was missing?

Chapter Text

           The lobby and conference rooms had been taken over by officials and coaches, and several city leaders who were somehow even more dramatic than the skaters bemoaning the disruption. The hotel hallways rang with questions and protests, and even Yuuri’s phone was blowing up with texts and calls from skaters who weren’t at this competition wondering what would happen if the skating arena didn’t open immediately. The pair skaters are scheduled to begin in four hours. The men’s short programs followed. Yuuri paced a hole in the carpet of his room, pausing to stretch before getting distracted again.

            Eventually Phichit, king of the internet and keeper of all of Yuuri’s most shameful secrets – including that his anxiety doesn’t ebb and flow but grows and grows if he can’t head it off – found a public ice rink for him. Sneaking out a side door, he took the city bus there, standing up with his skates in a backpack at his feet, staring at an empty plastic bucket of a seat and thinking of the time and space he’d shared with Victor Nikiforov. He’d always wanted to skate on the same ice as Victor, to earn a place near him. And sure, sometimes he’d thought of doing other things with Victor. Talking to him. Making him laugh. Sharing things with him. Food. Their hands touching as they each reached to pet a dog. Of course it would be a poodle. Both their bodies under a blanket on the couch while watching a movie WHAT IN THE HELL WAS HE THINKING?

            Yuuri signaled his stop and stepped off the bus, shaking his head at himself. How in the world was he having domestic fantasies about an actual skating god while the competition – in which he was about to skate in front of said god – was about to start? He was stiff and nervous, and wildly distracted. That was nowhere near the mental state he needed to be in to skate decently. And he wanted to. He wanted to skate better than decently. He wanted to make Victor notice him, not as a pathetic loner to be scooped up and coddled until he could be handed off to his coach. He wanted to show Victor something…something that made him want to watch Yuuri again. More. The way that Yuuri yearned to see every minute of Victor on ice. The way that he craved it.

            And that, somehow, was even more of a fantasy. Victor Nikiforov wasn’t suddenly going to start paying attention to him just because they’d left an ice rink together. He really had to stop watching rom coms with Phichit.

            He found the door to the ice rink and fumbled through his translation app competently enough to buy himself some ice time. The rink was older, scuffed, some of the padding on the top of the wall worn away. It was a little dim and the bleachers were mismatched but it was welcoming. It felt like Ice Castle in Hasetsu, and a calm fell over him the second he stepped onto the ice.

            A little over an hour later, having run through his step sequences twice then the full program with marked jumps once, he looked up to measure his distance from the two other daytime skaters who’d been practicing small spins and pretending not to watch him, when the Russian team arrived.

            They immediately commandeered the space and the other skaters fell back along the wall to watch them in awe. The young guy at the front desk even followed them in, obviously recognizing them. Yuuri continued to skate, earbuds in, trying to calm the sudden pounding of his pulse that had nothing to do with his lowkey workout. Mila took to the ice almost as soon as she dropped her things, leaving the men arguing. Or, Yakov and Yuri were arguing, and Victor crossed his arms and interjected occasionally.

            After a few laps, Mila approached him.

            “Katsuki Yuuri, right?” she asked.

            “Yes. Mila Babicheva?” he asked, cringing with certainty that he was butchering her name. She didn’t seem offended.

            “Yes. You were in the arena when all that stuff happened?”

            He nodded. Mila was always very social. They’d spoken before, superficially, around events. She probably didn’t remember. During his first year in seniors, in Finland, Sara had brought Mila along to a wine bar. Mila had flirted and aimed joyfully barbed comments at everyone in the group with a sparkle in her eye. Yuuri had gone back to the hotel when they migrated to a club, worried about himself being, well, himself and ruining any chance he had of gaining the respect of the other skaters. They wouldn’t want to hear the kid fresh out of juniors ramble on about his favorite anime, or suddenly take his clothes off and start climbing lampposts. Damn his father’s outrageous drinking genes!

            “Was it scary?” Mila asked, studiously ignoring her team as they glided by. Yuri was red in the face, shoulders hunched. Victor’s back was to them but Yuuri thought he looked tense.

            “It was surprising,” Yuuri said, shaking his head. “It was under control pretty quickly.”

            “Huh.” They skated another half lap. Mila’s arms waved around her as she moved in echo of twists and flares. “Want to do a triple axel with me?”

            “Like a pair skate?”

            “Or I can lift you,” Mila teased. “I lift Yuri Plisetsky all the time. He loves it.”

            “I’m sure he does.” Yuuri laughed at the idea. Like a cat loved being dropped in water.

            “Good,” she said, clapping. “I’ll lengthen my entry to match your stride. Sara said you do it with her when you’re at the same competitions.”

            Sara Crispino kept threatening to unleash a quad on him, which he expected any day. He just hoped he could actually land it when she made him do it. Then again, he and Phichit synchronized sometimes. Except Phichit didn’t want to stick to jumps. He wanted to play pair skaters, and somehow Yuuri was always the woman, and Phichit was always trying to pick him up and throw it. Which Celestino had prohibited to the point that he had posted laminated signs around the rink that explicitly stated, “Throwing Yuuri is forbidden and will result in immediate deportment.”

            “Come on,” she said. He scanned the ice ahead of them and tried to remember Mila’s style. All of Yakov’s students jumped well. He didn’t take on students that couldn’t handle high point elements. She was powerful and landed steadily if a little forcefully. Not that he was one to criticize. He landed…inconsistently. On a good day.

            “A double,” he said, raising a hand when she began to protest. “You’ve barely warmed up.”

            They sped up, him following her lead and moving toward the center of the rink to give her space in the corridor along the wall. It was odd to coordinate with someone he hadn’t skated with, but they began their entry at the same time, arms moving. For an instant he had to remember that he wasn’t aiming for a triple and then he watched her as his body went through the same motions: lengthening, leaning, and taking off.

            Mila went high – it was a simple jump for her even if she’d only begun warming up. He landed softly, maintaining the pose for a long moment to at least end the jump in synch with her. It wasn’t like there was another sequence to move into. Mila laughed when she saw him, raising her hand for a fist bump, while someone outside the rink squealed and a smattering of applause made its way to them. Yuuri grinned at his feet.

            “There,” she said wickedly, “now maybe they’ll pay attention.”

            Startled, he followed her gaze to the side, where Victor had glided onto the ice, upright in a black t-shirt over black pants, heading toward them. Behind him, Yuri was tearing off his hoodie and skate guards.

            “You used me to challenge them?” he asked, his face heating.

            “It is more like a bribe. Thank you for your help.” She shot off, darting around Victor to launch herself at Yuri Plisetsky.

            “Yuuri,” Victor said. He was smiling. He was radiant. His silvery hair waved softly like he was in a shampoo commercial. Yuuri swallowed.

            “Hi Victor.”

            “I didn’t know you would be here. I wish you had said!”

            “Why? How-”

            “You should give me your number. That way we can keep in touch. This whole competition has become so chaotic.”

            Victor turned until he was beside Yuuri, then skated slowly, expectantly. Oh. Were they doing this? Was this a thing they did now, skating together and chatting like…good friends? No, like two participants in the same event thrown together in this strange space outside of the normal routine.

            Victor scanned the people around the edge of the rink. “Where is your coach?”

            “Back at the hotel, dealing with the officials and the changes.”

            “He just sent you here? Alone?” Victor sounded scandalized.

            “He has two other skaters performing besides me,” Yuuri said, feeling the need to defend his coach. He asked a lot of Celestino, more than a professional skater should. “My friend in Detroit Googled found the rink. I needed…I wanted some ice time. After practice was cancelled. I was…restless.”

            “Ah. That I understand.” Victor’s eyes narrowed slightly. “That sounds like a good friend.”

            Yuuri huffed out a laugh. Phichit would die if he knew Victor Nikiforov was talking about him. “He is.”

            “I wish we could just perform,” Victor groaned. “I don’t like all this waiting. The arguing over timing and order or, worse, postponement. What does any of it matter? Why can’t we just get on with it?”

            Of course he would think that. Victor had the second highest degree of difficulty in the competition and it wasn’t to try to pull enough points to make the podium. He would not only perform every move perfectly, he’d do so in a way that would take your breath away. When Yuuri went into a program rattled, he was aware of every deduction almost before they happened.

            “Do you remember when we first started, Yuuri? When there were so many movements to remember and the sequences felt so long? When you could not worry about points or what your rivals were doing because you were simply trying to get to the end of program? And that was all that mattered?”

            “Yes.” The word burst out of Yuuri. It did not happen for him often. Unlike Victor, he was still learning, and often worrying, and when he tried to do both at once he failed, miserably and painfully. But when he managed to lose himself…

            “Right before the seasons starts,” Yuuri said, “that’s when I can feel that way. I have the programs, but they’re in parts and they won’t come together just because I’m ambitious. The jumps don’t know the spins, and the transitions and steps exist on their own. And every time I get to skate, I’m learning the tipping points and the moments where each move is a response to the last. Like breathing. An inhale, it fills you, an exhale, you release it.”

            He smiled wistfully, looked up, and almost fell down. Victor’s full attention was on him. Not a radiant, made-for-TV smile or a polite listening face. His blue eyes were a little wide and intent. His lips were parted. Heat rose immediately to Yuuri’s face. Did he really just tell a five-time world champion, whose body created poetry, whose programs flowed like water, what it felt like to skate well? He had gone temporarily insane. He had been nostalgic for Hasetsu and Victor was so nice to talk to him, and he had said the dumbest thing possible. He jerked his head to the side, looking for the nearest door or deep hole to throw himself into. But he didn’t get the chance.

            “I know what you mean,” Victor murmured, barely audible over the cut of blades across the ice. He put his hand on Yuuri’s shoulder, softly, and leaned down to whisper, fervently, “I know exactly what you mean.”

Chapter Text

            All that commotion, and the short programs were only starting four hours late. The first group of skaters left the ice, popping on their skate guards and zipping their jackets. Victor hovered beside Yakov as his coach muttered to Yuri. This was Yuri’s second year in seniors, and he’d blown the world away last year. Then he’d grown several inches and lost some of that precious flexibility that had given him an edge over other competitors. He would be the last skater of the first group.

            Victor tapped Yuri’s hand and nodded to him, trying to encourage him and show him how much he believed in him with a look. Yuri didn’t thank him, which would be nice, or snarl, which would be reassuring. He nodded back, eyes all over the place and sucking air through an open mouth while Yakov continued to drone on. It was a comforting noise to Victor, and it seemed to finally be getting through to Yuri, whose eyes narrowed with an almost predatory focus.

            “Get out of here, old man,” Yuri finally growled. Victor winked at him, waved to the fans screaming his name, and strutted down the passageway, or as much of a strut as he could manage in skates. The trick was to shorten your stride. Otherwise you looked like a stomping penguin.

            The other skaters, and various coaches and support staff, filled the warm up space. He glanced at the bench he’d been parked on earlier in the morning and turned his back on it. There was no point in dwelling on it. He stretched, jogged and jumped, idly watching the other skaters do the same. Yuri’s music started and Coach Nina came to stand beside him while he windmilled his arms, opening his shoulders as he watched the performance on the TV.

            “You’re warmed up?” she asked

            “I thought I would try something new and go out cold. What do you think? Good idea or great idea?”

            “Don’t be a smartass.”

            “I wouldn’t dare!” He smiled sweetly. “Not any more than you would choose to condescend to a seasoned skater in the prime of his career.”

            “It’s called coaching. Yakov’s off with the boy wonder. Someone needs to make sure your head is in the game.”

            “Hey, remember when you tried pairs skating with Georgi and you fell on him and he cried because you’d ‘ruined his beautiful face’?’

            “Victor.” Her red-painted lips turned down at the edges.

            “Remember when you threw a glass of wine on Eben and dumped him in front of the Chinese contingent because Alena said she saw him making out with another woman but he was taking a picture of himself kissing a cardboard cut out of you?”

            “Victor!”

            “Remember-”

            “You are such an asshole.” She yelled at him before remembering where they were and quieting. Her eyes narrowed to slits. “I don’t know how Yakov puts up with you. Just…make sure you’re focused.”

            “Thanks, Coach!” He said in English, grinning and waving at her with his fingers while she stomped off.

            Nina had still been skating when Victor had joined the national team. She’d retired shortly thereafter. Her performances had scored well but rarely been memorable. She had been brought in by the Federation after Russia’s medal count had fallen off and the coaching staff had mostly been fired, Yakov excepted. Victor was still medaling, and Georgi had been making a good showing. Mila had only joined the national team, small and fiery and an absolute menace off the ice. Victor had grown up with the other coaches and choreographers. He’d liked them. Nina had tried to get him to ignore steps and transitions and focus only on jumps. Four quads, no flow. It had sounded like a prison sentence, not a performance.

            Twisting, Victor realized someone stood beside him. His mood lifted. Katsuki Yuuri. Where had he been hiding? He opened his mouth to greet him, then closed it. Yuuri had earbuds in. He was idly moving through a sequence, on his toes, his slim hips pivoting, fingers winding delicately through the air. Like a ribbon of water in sneakers, and all with one eye on the screen as he watched Yuri skate.

            The younger skater was winding up his performance. He moved to the edge of the rink and picked up speed. His final combination was a triple flip, triple toe. It was difficult, and Yuri omitted his more intricate footwork as he moved into it. He was tired. Victor crossed his arms, his face impassive. Yuri crunched the first landing and grimaced as he shoved himself into the second jump. Beside Victor, Katsuki Yuuri stiffened, leaning back, his entire body sympathetic to Yuri’s fight to stick the toe. The tension was so pronounced that Victor had to release a breath when Yuuri finally relaxed.

            On the screen, Yuri moved into his final spin. It was slow. He held on, stood, and raised his arms in a flourish, gasping like a fish. By the time the Trophee de France arrived, all the elements would be mastered. Like breathing in, like breathing out. Smiling, Victor turned to continue that conversation with Yuuri but he had vanished again. How could he keep hiding in such a small space? Victor paced the space, even checked the locker room, arranging his hair while half-expecting Yuuri to pop out of a locker or cabinet.

            An official called the second group together, and Victor – usually at the head of the line – loitered until the others had lined up in the chute. Yuuri came last, his black jacket unzipped, his blue-rimmed glasses missing.

            “Ah, there you are,” Victor said. Yuuri’s eyes widened in surprise. Victor tilted his head and gave him a little grin. “Are you going to watch me skate, Yuuri?”

            “Of course.” As if it was a certainty, an absolute.

            Victor’s grin slipped. Oh. He exaggerated a sigh. “Because you’re hoping I’ll slip up so you can pass me by?”

            Yuuri looked around as though Victor was talking to someone else even though he was the last in line, then shook his head, still endearingly earnest. “Of course not.”

            He ducked his head suddenly and shoved a hand through his hair. He’d apparently attempted to gel it back but now it was sticking out on one side and flat on the other.

            “Where are your people?” Victor asked, reaching up. “How can they let you go out like this?”

            His fingers threaded through Yuuri’s hair, moving slowly, arranging as he went. It was fine, soft. He would need far more gel, and perhaps spray, to keep it back with product alone. A bitten-off noise snagged his attention and he looked into Yuuri’s eyes. Wine dark, pupils blown wide in the dim space. A flush spread across Yuuri’s cheeks, and Victor’s mouth abruptly went dry. A cheer went up behind him – Yuri’s score being announced – but it seemed distant, some far away event while he and Yuuri were here alone in the dark.

            “Uhm, Victor?” Yuuri asked, and Victor realized his hands were still in the other man’s hair. He drew them away and back to his sides, slowly.

            “That’s better,” he said, trying to sound and appear appreciative but not…not too appreciative. “You look good.”

            Yuuri’s eyes went impossibly wider and his head jerked to the side, exposing the strong, elegant lines of his neck. Yuuri’s outfit was dark, with a banded collar notched at his throat. Victor swayed closer, becoming aware of shuffling and movement behind him, the familiar sounds of competition arriving.

            “Victor,” Yuuri said again, his voice quiet but firm, “will you watch me?”

            “Of course.” His voice was barely above a whisper, the sound swallowed by the other skaters moving across the hard floor. He turned to follow, shoulders straightening and chin rising habitually. Yakov spotted him and nodded. Victor nodded back, following familiar steps. All of his attention was on the feeling of Yuuri moving behind him as they emerged into the bright lights of the rink.

Chapter Text

            “Focus on your steps,” Celestino said. “And your spins. You’ve got those. You’re great at those.”

            Yuuri nodded and took a sip of water.

            “Everyone in the first group downgraded their jumps, because of the delay.”

            “What?” Yuuri asked, only half-listening as the other skaters gliding by behind him.

            Celestino’s impressive eyebrows rose. “Because of the delay this morning. They are focusing on their core elements. Or they’re saving their energy for the freeskate tomorrow since there won’t be as much time as usual between the performances.”

            “Oh.”

            “Yuuri.” His coach looked him over, then nodded when he got his attention. “This has been a rough day. Let’s aim for the basics. There’s no reason to overexert here. Keep the quad sal in your opener but do a triple toe on the back end. With everyone else rearranging, you won’t be at a disadvantage on points.”

            “Yes.”

            “Don’t lean too far back with your spread eagle. That’s your toughest entry. Make sure you’re well balanced.”

            “Yes.”

            But he was at a disadvantage with points. His short program was designed around elements he had mastered. It did not push him, because he and Celestino had agreed it was better to start safe and save difficult elements for the freeskate. Celestino had never directly said that, if Yuuri screwed up his short program he was all but guaranteed to bomb on his longer program. He’d never said it but they both knew what happened when he started unraveling.

            Yuuri slid his skates back and forth, nerves making it impossible to stay still. His blades carved grooves in the ice.

            “If you need to, just skate into your combinations,” Celestino continued, taking Yuuri’s water bottle. “A few intricate steps won’t win you more points than full rotations so don’t worry about them.”

            “Yes.”

            Victor wasn’t going to tone down his performance. Yuuri knew that with absolute certainty. Victor, who was only minorly irritated by the delay. Victor, who had been so casual the few times Yuuri had snuck peeks at him while warming up. Victor, who was so utterly unphased by the disruption and the competition itself that he’d been idly playful before their group had taken the ice. And Yuuri had had the good luck – late because he’d been nervous and waited too long to change into his skates – to be close enough to have that playfulness turned on him. It had been like the sun had come out for him and him alone. He could still feel the glide of Victor’s hands in his hair.

            Victor.

            He had asked Victor Nikiforov to watch him. WHAT???

            Yuuri crouched, hands gripping the wall, head down as he forced himself to breathe and not throw up. In, out. In, out. His heart pounded. The rink announcer was calling an end to the practice session.

            “That’s right, Yuuri.” Celestino’s voice boomed down from above him. “Focus. You know this program. You’ve got this. Just stick to the basics.”

            “Yes.”

            Yuuri stood. He felt every tooth of the zipper pulling apart as he removed his jacket. He blew his nose, and felt every fiber of the tissue against his fingers. He rolled his head on his neck. Every vertebra rotated. Each individual muscle contracted and released.

            “Okay,” Celestino said as the last skater in the group went through the gate and it shut, leaving Yuuri alone on the ice. “Buona fortuna, Yuuri. What are you going to do?”

            “Yes,” Yuuri said, pushing away from the wall as the announcer said his name in the midst of a stream of Italian. He skated across the slices and divots other skaters had left in the ice, including the living legend, his idol, Victor Nikiforov.

            He assumed his starting position, chin up, eyes toward the ceiling, one hand over the other in front of his chest, fingers splayed. Victor Nikiforov had leaned toward him, blue eyes narrowed intently, and agreed to watch him. It was a dream come true. His heart thumped painfully hard before settling into a fast, steady rhythm. His music started. He closed his eyes and swallowed.

            And then he moved, his head dropping and swinging to the left, his shoulders and arms following. He bolted through his program. He knew he was moving too fast, knew he launched himself too hard into his first quad, knew immediately that it wasn’t going to be his only attempt at a quad. He hit the flying sit too fast, momentum pushing him across the ice as he spun, and nearly dropped out of the spin as he rose into the next element of the combination. He leaned too far back on his spread eagle and hit the triple axel off axis. He fought his way out of it, hands clenched at his waist to keep from touching down, preserving the points.

            He felt almost angry as he moved into his last step sequence, slicing through it instead of floating, but the energy inside of him was aggressive and he couldn’t seem to slow down. His theme this year was ambition, which he’d liked all summer, until he’d actually had to declare the word aloud and then back it up with his skating.

            What was ambition to Yuuri?

            Daring to enter competitions. Daring to profess that he was a professional figure skater. Daring to ask audiences to pay attention to him. Daring to strive for a gold medal even though he still didn’t dare say that he wanted to win it.

            Daring to ask Victor to watch him? That hadn’t been something he’d wanted, a mere ambition. That had felt…essential. It was a need.

            He crossed the rink, aiming for his quad toe. Celestino’s voice told him to settle down and skate plainly. He shook it off. He dipped low into every shift of his legs, reveled in the full extension of his arms, each spread and curl of his fingers, and he barely had time to set up the jump. He felt his edge hit wrong, slammed hard on his hands and shoved straight back up to move into his final spin combination.

            The music ended and he was left panting, one hand raised, still in the performance for a split second before the audience surged with applause. Startled, he pulled his hand back and pushed himself around two wide circles as he struggled to get enough air in and find the center of the rink. He bowed, bowed in the other direction, bowed a third time in a general acknowledgement of the crowd’s enthusiasm as he headed for the gate, then half-fell into Celestino’s grip. His own skate guards jabbed into his stomach when he wasn’t quick enough to grab them.

            “Meraviglioso!” Celestino praised, one big hand on his back as he ushered him to the kiss and cry. Yuuri dropped hard onto the bench, still sucking air, his vision fuzzy until Celestino handed him his glasses. And that’s when he saw Victor Nikiforov turned toward him, his silver hair shining in the lights, his smile nearly as bright. He raised his hands and clapped. For Yuuri. Before he stepped back behind a wall, out of sight.

            “That was outstanding, Yuuri!” Celestino helped him push an arm into his jacket, then shoved a bottle and towel into his hands. “Nothing like we talked about, but outstanding. You do that tomorrow and, well…we’ll talk of that later.”

            He scored 97.1, a personal best. Which was great. After a while he was finally able to breathe again. Which was necessary. He drank more water, wiped the endless sweat off his face, then found a quiet place where he could wrap his arms around himself and watch as Victor skated. While he’d been flattered – stunned even when he’d done it – Victor hadn’t needed to ask. Yuuri always watched him.

            The grace of his arms, the curl of his hands. The power and surety of his jumps, decorated with precise steps and flares at the end, showcasing how easy they were for Victor. The elegance of his transitions and exactness of his spins was hypnotic. The reigning world champion was not toning down his performance because of the disruption. Not only that, he was enjoying it. For an instant, eyes still downturned as he rose from a spin then turned away from the camera to set up another jump, he smiled. In the warm up room, in the midst of the other skaters chattering away as they watched, Yuuri shivered. Victor scored 101.7 and took it in stride, smiling indulgently at the cameras while answering questions.

            Oh god.

            Yuuri looked at the passageway to the rink. Victor would be coming back here.

            He speed-walked to the first shuttle, his wheeled bag squeaking in protest of his speed, Celestino following at a distance as he bid lengthy good-byes to officials and other coaches. He got into the first elevator and kept his eyes on the floor as he rode up to his room. He pulled off his costume, hung it with some care although one arm was inside out, and got into the shower. The water hit his back and shoulders, and finally ran hot through his hair. He grabbed a washcloth off a stack and screamed into it. He wanted to keep shouting. He wanted to cry and laugh. He wanted to run straight out of the shower, through the streets of Torino, back to the rink to ask Victor what he had thought. But he also didn’t think he could handle the answer.

            He’d touched down, stepped out, fallen, barreled through moves that deserved lightness and flow. There had been nothing worth smiling about in his performance. Wrapped in towels, he sank onto the side of the bed, more spent than exhausted.

            His phone rang, an intrusion it took him a moment to comprehend. He fumbled the phone out of his bag, then stared at it. The number was familiar. The name was welcome.

            “Moshi-mosh.”

            “My bunny!” Minako cried before laughing. “You did so well!”

            Yuuri grinned. “Thank you very much for watching, Minako-sensei.”

            “I will always watch my bunny skating.” It was around two in the morning in Japan. His former ballet instructor had been drinking. But she had also been watching him. “First competition of the season. This is a sign of good things to come. You did so well!”

            “Thank you.”

            “I haven’t seen you that energetic in months. What did it? Were you nostalgic for the old times? Oh, you should return and dance, Yuuri. You would be a blessing to this studio.”

            Yuuri shook his head, ran his own fingers through his hair, and shivered.

            “One day.”

            “Yuuri.” She sounded suddenly serious, nearly sober. “You should be happy. This is one of those happy times.”

            “I am,” he said, twisting the edge of the towel between his fingers. “I am happy.”

            “But?”

            “But I still have the free skate tomorrow, and this may have been a fluke, so…”

            “Tell me,” she said, and he heard glass clinking on her end. “Tell me what you will do tomorrow. Walk me through it, how you will perform.”

            Minako had been a professional, a prima ballerina. She had not wanted to merely be good. When she said she was the best, she believed it. And everybody who saw her perform believed it as well. Yuuri could not be best, not with Christophe Giacometti and Yuri Plisetsky when he managed to align his body and his program, and with Victor Nikiforov in existence. He could not be best with this theme. It felt wrong, already, a single skate into the season. Ambition was a concept, a theory. It did not feel like something he could, or should, embody.

            “You saw my long program,” he said.

            Minako snorted, something she would never had done sober. “I fixed half of that program for you.” Sometimes she knew she was the best a little bit too much.

            “Yes. Thank you. And I love it.”

            “Right.”

            He hesitated, not wanting to sound critical. And he didn’t want to sound too bold.

            “What do you want to do tomorrow?” Minako asked, and he could hear her focused frown.

            Seconds passed. Words stuck and stacked up somewhere between his brain and his mouth.

            “Yuuri-kun?”

            He straightened. She only called him that when she was instructing him, and he knew better than to ignore her when she was in teaching mode. “I want to be lighter.”

            “Lighter…on your feet?”

            “Lighter than air. So light that it looks like gravity has to work to hold me down. I want to flow. I want to burn. I want to…I want to show my passion.”

            “Oh Yuuri,” Minako said, thickly.

            “But I can’t! How can I put anything together that anyone will recognize as passion? What will it matter if I can’t land my jumps? What will it matter, all the things I feel, if I fail in the showing of it?”

            He turned away from the phone even though she couldn’t see him. He should have known it would not stop her.

            “No,” Minako snapped. “You have it wrong. You are not writing the word for someone to read. You are not reciting a definition or drawing a symbol. You are painting your story, what passion is to you. That is what you will show. That is what will affect the audience. How is affects the audience is not for the performer to decide. Everyone is different, everyone’s passion is different. But if you are genuine, you will make them feel. That is the greatest height you can achieve as a performer. To make someone else feel.”

            Excitement caught him around the throat. He did not want to personify ambition. He wanted to show the world his ambition, his passion, to share it.

            “If you are serious about this, I will help you.”

            Was he? “I am.”

            “Okay. But, Yuuri…” Minako’s exhale hitched briefly. “What is different since this summer? What brought on this desire?”

            He thought of world champion Victor Nikiforov raising his hands to applaud Katsuki Yuuri, of all people. He thought of brilliant blue eyes and quiet words, of a moment of understanding on the ice and a private smile in an intimate space. He thought about earning more words, inspiring those smiles.

            “I just need to.”

Chapter Text

            “Start with the flip,” Yakov said.

            “Ooh, Yakov. Putting it all out there in the opening? How nontraditional.”

            “You don’t have your normal rest. This is not Worlds.” Yakov looked around for Yuri, then leaned close and said, “There is no need to push your body, not with these competitors. Start with your flip. Change the first combination to a quad-triple, and end with the triple axel.”

            “So many changes.” He tugged at the lapel of his costume, arranged the aiguillettes on his shoulder to lay correctly, then looked past them at the corridor in which Katsuki Yuuri was warming up. “However will I remember them all?”

            “Vitya,” Yakov barked, grabbing one of those aiguillettes and tugging him down, “what has gotten into you?”

            “I am inspired, Yakov. You’ve been saying I needed to find a spark.” He raised his hands in a flourish. “Well, here I am, sparking. Just for you.”

            “This is not inspiration, Victor,” Yakov ground out.

            “What’s the difference?”

            “How will you skate?”

            “With a flip, a quad-triple, and a resplendent triple axel at the end.” He gave a belabored sigh. “Don’t worry, oh coach of mine. I can still follow your instructions.”

            “You have not followed my instructions since you were sixteen.”

            “I have followed most of them.”

            “Hmmph.”

            “Some of them.”

            “Victor!”

            Victor turned, smile in place, to address the two skating vloggers who’d been granted backstage access and a five minute interview. One was tall and slender, with black hair hanging in two braids from beneath a knitted hat she wore indoors. The other was small, with blonde curls and ruddy cheeks. She looked like she was about to explode, which she promptly did.

            “What happened yesterday? Was it difficult to skate after that accident?”

            “How do you feel about going for your sixth Worlds gold?”

            “And your sixth Grand Prix gold?”

            “Are you concerned about your age-“

            “How did you feel about your skate yesterday? Your scores were nowhere near a personal best.”

            “Are you worried about Yuri Plisetsky? After taking second to you in the Grand Prix finals during his senior debut, he has struggled to perform consistently.”

            “Stephane Lambiel retired at twenty-five. You’re three years older than that. Are you worried about your body breaking down?”

            Victor raised both hands placatingly, still smiling despite the fact that none of these questions was the least bit interesting.

            “Please, let me give you some answers before we run out of time.”

            “Of course, Vic- Mr. Nikiforov.”

            “To start, Yuri Plisetsky is evolving, which is the most essential thing a skater can do. The creativity in his programs this season is startling, though-” He raised a hand again when the blonde vlogger inhaled in preparation for another onslaught. “-his coach will of course hold him back so that he peaks just before finale. But you will want to keep watching him this season.”

            “But you’re certain he will make the finals?”

            Victor smiled, raising an eyebrow. “You have better questions than that, surely. Go on, ask something about me.”

            “Uh…” The taller girl blinked repeatedly, then shook her head. “How do you feel about defending the gold medal a fifth time.”

            Victor tapped his finger against his lips, thinking. Thinking and watching Coach Cialdini grab Yuuri’s shoulder to get his attention. Somber, Yuuri nodded and followed him around the corner. He hadn’t looked in Victor’s direction once since he’d arrived. This was unacceptable. Victor was going to have to fix it.

            “I don’t consider it a defense, not really. What’s won is won. That is the past. Every medal – every competition – is a new opportunity. A fresh start. Of course,” he leaned down, conspiratorially, “I don’t intend to let anyone else take it easily.”

            “So you feel like you are in good shape this season?”

            “Are you implying that I am out of shape?” Victor gasped, pressing a hand to his chest. “Have I somehow become…only above average?”

            “No, no, no, no!”

            “That’s not what she said! That’s not what she said!”

            Victor let them flounder for a moment, then tossed his head and winked. “Thank you for your time. Best of luck on your post. I must apologize, but it is time for me to warm up.”

            He posed for a flurry of selfies with them, then signaled their chaperone to see them out. He hadn’t slept as much as he should have. It had taken thirty minutes to download two photos of Makkachin from his dogsitter. Thirty minutes! The hotel wi-fi had apparently been taken down along with the building that had collapsed. After that, he had tried to find videos of a certain Japanese skater performing. The halting and buffering had made him want to throw his phone. Idly, he wondered if that forty-four minutes of frustration was how Yuri Plisetsky felt all the time. No wonder the younger skater’s screens were always cracked and Victor had so many shoe prints on his coats. He’d finally managed to watch a single free skate from the middle of the season, from Skate America or Skate Canada. He wasn’t sure. Victor’s Grand Prix placements had all been in Europe last year. It had been…okay. No, that was being generous.

            It was as if each element of the program had been written on a separate card and someone had dropped the cards, scooped them up, and given them to Yuuri who had gamely tried to perform them out of order. The combination spins were overdone, stagnating the flow of his sequences. The jumps were interruptions rather than statements, and he did not seem confident in any of them.

            He did not think Yuuri choreographed his own programs. Yuuri had been so impatient during his short program yesterday that Victor hadn’t been able to look away for a second. He’d held his breath as Yuuri’s step sequence had led right to the edge of his second jump. It was daring, almost dangerous. The video had been bland, superficial. Also the judges had deducted points from a jump that he had landed off-balance but complete, which was so unfair! Victor had never heard of such a thing! He wanted to find Yuuri and tell him that an injustice had been done.

            Except Yuuri’s people had realized they’d been neglecting him. Today they surrounded him: his lumbering coach, a bright-eyed American boy who kept popping his chewing gum, and a middle-aged woman who might have been a choreographer or Federation official. Or a stranger who had hitched a ride with the coach and student, her interactions with Yuuri were so brief and impersonal.

            “You’re not even paying attention,” Yuri Plisetsky growled when Victor almost tripped over him as he continued his search. “What, the rest of us are too far beneath you?”

            “Of course not.” Beneath all that anger there was…more anger. But, somewhere beneath that, Yuri was young and insecure and frustrated. And talented, so damn talented that sometimes Victor saw himself in Yuri, and sometimes he saw someone who might even be greater. He smiled gently down at Yuri. For all that Yuri had grown over the last year, he was still petite. “Lower than me, yes. But not beneath me.”

            Yuri swiped at him. Victor neatly sidestepped and used his longer reach to ruffle the Angry Kitten’s hair. Coach Nina moved between them before Yuri could start yelling, a sure sign that he was nervous.

            “You,” she said to Victor, “go run.”

            “You,” she said to Yuri, “once more through your opening sequence.”

            Still smiling, Victor jogged around the room. Unlike yesterday, today was following the familiar pattern. His program moved in his mind, each element directly leading to, complimenting or contrasting against the next, the music swirling around them. He greeted Coach Cialdini as he passed him and gave the American kid a thumbs up. Arthur, he thought. Maybe his name was Arthur? Cia Bin nodded to Victor as he high-kneed through a passage, massive headphones somehow staying on his head. By the time Victor had made his third circuit of the room, he was concerned. Yuuri had disappeared again, and again nobody had noticed but him.

            The call for the first skater came. Victor changed into his skates, touched up his makeup – his porcelain complexion turning bland under the glare of the ice was the bane of his existence – and fixed his hair. By the time he emerged from the bathroom, five more skaters had gone. Yuri went next, Yakov and Coach Nina following him out. Victor windmilled his arms, considering his entrances to the rearranged jumps.

            Finally Yuuri came around the corner and Victor did a double take. His jacket was still zipped up, his black earbuds were still in place. But his head was high, his hair was back, and his eyes…his eyes were fierce, focused somewhere else and, wherever that was, Victor wanted to go with him. Yuuri stopped beside him, facing the tunnel. He glanced at the printout posted on the wall, the handy country flags showing the order for those who didn’t read the Roman alphabet. Did Yuuri read it? He spoke English well, and Victor thought he’d seen that Yuuri attended university in America.

            He tilted his head, about to ask, when the other skater looked up at him. And, well, wow. That intensity in those deep dark eyes, the determination in those slashed eyebrows, it did things to Victor. Things! His gaze dropped to Yuuri’s mouth and, in a fit of delightful madness, his hand dropped to the pocket of his jacket.

            “Your lips are chapped,” he said.

            Yuuri frowned, looking past him, maybe not even hearing him over his music. But he didn’t say “I don’t care” or “I prefer them like this” or “I know but, for heaven’s sake Victor Nikiforov, don’t do anything about it”.

            So Victor had to unscrew the cap of his lip balm, slide his finger through the decadent elixir and smooth it across the softness of Yuuri’s lips. Yuuri’s gaze flicked to his face, and Victor stilled with his hand halfway back to his side. Was that too much? Or…not enough?

            “Thanks,” Yuuri said, removing his jacket and handing it to the silent woman who appeared at his side. His free skate costume was a suit, but unlike Victor’s military cut with its bold colors and flirtatiously lowcut neckline, it was dark, tailored to Yuuri’s slim body, and covered in tiny crystals that rippled when Yuuri moved.

            “Beautiful,” Victor murmured.

            Yuuri straightened his cuffs, smoothed a hand down the flat expanse of his stomach, and removed his earbuds. The woman took those too. He bowed to her, lowered his head like he was marching onto a battlefield, and started down the tunnel to the rink.

            Victor followed, gravitating toward Yakov and Yuri. The Angry Kitten was panting but not snarling, so he must have skated well.

            “You’re ready, Vitya?” Yakov asked, squeezing his shoulders.

            “Yes.” He tore his eyes away from Yuuri as he skated an impatient lap.

            “Feeling good?”

            “I am, yes.” The lip balm was a solid weight against his right side.

            “And how are you going to skate?”

            “I remember, oh coach of mine.” He grinned at his absolute treasure of a coach. How wise of him to have insisted that Victor fly to Italy to skate this little Cup. “I’m feeling very good today, Yakov.”

            Yuuri’s music began, but Victor’s mind was moving to his own program. Still, he smiled down at his skates. He heard the slash on the ice, then the audience lit up. A jump landed. He jogged a little in place, making sure he was warm. Applause began, earnest but not enthusiastic. A combination spin, maybe too slow? He bent to one side, counted to a half minute, then bent the other way. Another slash, then murmurs and a smattering of applause. A bad jump, but not a fall. Beside him, Yakov grunted. Victor looked up, half his attention on his own music, his own moves. On the ice Yuuri moved through a step sequence on the far side of the ice. His arms swam, they lilted, they floated, and his blades barely touched the ice before he lifted into the next step. Oh.

            Yuri Plisetsky stepped away from the wall, leaning forward, his hand rising so that he could chew on the end of his sleeve. They’d never fully been able to break him of that habit. Yuuri reached the end of the ice and skated into the turn. Still in the peak of the turn, he stretched out and leaned into the most elegant Ina Bauer Victor had seen in years. He sailed past them, arms extended, head so far back Victor could only see the smooth lines of his throat. His figure disappeared behind other spectators and Victor leaned to the side to watch Yuuri step through a transition, turn, reverse, and plant himself on his outside edge.

            “Is that a-” Yuri began, shaking his head.

            “Too late,” Yakov muttered.

            Yuuri landed the quad lutz, his free leg flailing high, his entire body fighting to hold it, and as he turned, Victor saw the smile light up his flushed face.

            “So late in the second half.” Yuri wheeled on Yakov. “Why did you make me downgrade my jumps?”

            “Too late in the program,” Yakov countered, crossing his arms and making like an immovable object. He turned his gaze to Victor. “Don’t you get any ideas.”

            “Moi?” Victor pulled off his jacket as Yuuri finished, one arm stretched down toward the ice, his head turned to mirror it.

            He rolled his shoulders back, summoned his music to his mind, stepped onto the ice, and promptly disposed of all the instructions Yakov had given him. Yuuri had not held back despite the limited rest, and how could Victor Nikiforov ignore a challenge like that?

*

            Yuuri was shaking. He stiffly skated the last few steps to the line the official had pointed out, turned, and accepted the bouquet of flowers. Victor Nikiforov stood two feet away, holding the Trophy Cup and a bouquet of blue roses. They must have had them flown in especially when they heard they would be blessed by his attendance as a competitor.

            Victor had done something to him before the competition. Yuuri had been in his own head, working out the integration of new moves into his step sequence. It was all he’d been able to put together in the early hours of the morning after he’d talked with Minako. He’d been so intent that he had registered Victor but not been overwhelmed by him. Then Victor had touched him, touched the mouth that was on his face, and it had been so unbelievable that he had rejected it as real. Surely it was a delusion. A hallucination for one. Probably Victor wasn’t even at the competition and he’d imagined each of their conversations and those touches. He’d been so intent on not accepting what had happened and on the new moves – just twenty seconds of the program – that he’d forgotten to change his jumps like he and Celestino had discussed. So somehow he had ended up with second place.

            Yuri Plisetsky skated out to accept the third place bouquet, shooting daggers at Yuuri and whoever it was who had won. Obviously it wasn’t Victor Nikiforov, because that would be absurd. Yuuri stared down at his skates. Then he looked at the skates next to him, black with gold blades. Only one active skater wore those. Hysterical laughter bubbled up in his chest and he swallowed it down.

            “How about a photo,” the winning skater said, and Yuuri yelped as a strong arm encircled his shoulders, pulling him close.

            “This competition doesn’t even mean anything,” Yuri growled from his other side. “It’s only a practice run.”

            Yuuri chanced a glance up, at a strong jaw and bowing lips. At sparkling blue eyes and flowing silver hair. It used to be longer. He still kind of wanted to touch it. Victor’s eyes met Yuuri’s. His smile grew.

            “Congratulations, Yuuri.”

            “Congratulations, Victor,” he wheezed out. He bowed, somehow tangling his flowers with Victor’s.

            Yuri Plisetsky rolled his eyes. “You two are useless. Morons.”

            “Don’t be like that, Yura!” Victor squeezed them in tighter and they all turned toward the photographers calling to them.

            “I cannot wait for the Grand Prix to begin,” Victor said through his teeth. “Yuuri, are you ready for a challenge?”

            Considering that Yuuri had qualified for the Grand Prix series only twice before and had never made it to the finals, the answer was no. But… He and Victor were assigned different events. He knew that because he had checked Victor’s assignments before his own. The only way he was going to be able to skate on the same ice as Victor this year would be by making it to the finals.

            Victor’s arm was around Yuuri’s shoulder. He was talking to him. He had touched his lips, which was at least second base (maybe third?) in Yuuri’s estimation. And while Victor was obviously just bored and playful, Yuuri didn’t care. He was going to ride this delusion until someone had him committed for skate-induced insanity. He raised an eyebrow and cocked his head. Victor’s eyes widened fractionally.

            Yuuri smirked (while dying a little bit inside – it was so embarrassing). “Are you?”

Chapter Text

SKATE AMERICA

           Victor Nikiforov loved Las Vegas. It was bright and loud, and the pool was usually tolerable even in wintertime (even if sometimes the hotel staff didn’t want to let him in it because it was “closed for the season”) and the restaurants and shops were amazing! He had not been there in years, and the Strip seemed to stretch even farther, rise even high, gleam even brighter.

            Of course, in the last few years Las Vegas had also added a professional hockey team. And, where there was a professional hockey team there were – inevitably – Russian hockey players. With the winter Olympics just over a year away, and three of the Golden Knights intended for the national team, Team Russia had organized a photo shoot of its skaters – figure and hockey. Sometimes those things went fine. Sometimes.

            Victor smiled blandly at Goncharov, the elder statesman of the hockey players, a grizzled enforcer who is missing three to five of his front teeth (Victor did not want to look too closely), while he growled away at Yakov rather than Victor, who was the de facto leader of the Russian skating team. Unless that title would make him the elder statesman of the skaters, in which case no thank you, he politely declined.

            The other two players were young, both well-built, broad-shouldered. Kovalev was leaner, with gleaming golden hair that fell into a perfect curl over one eye. The other – Zolin – was stout and black-haired with a buzz cut and an impressively black beard. He had eyes like a pitbull. Kovalev had twice offered to show them around town, which was friendly enough, and the pitbull was at least quiet. Victor wished they would head for the exit and the cars ready to take them to some restaurant where they can pretend to eat and toast each other so that he can get this over with and have some actual fun. They had another photo shoot the day after the competition, on the ice. Someone would probably insist he skate with a hockey stick and make it look like he was serious. He was not looking forward to it.

            “What the fuck?” Yuri hissed beside him, audible over the never-ending jangle of slot machines. “What the actual fuck?”

            Victor followed his glare to Kovalev, who was bounding away from them and toward a slim male in jeans and a black jacket, stuffing papers into a backpack. Wait! That was Yuuri.

            Which Kovalev confirmed a second later when he yelled, “Katsuki-sama!” as he bore down on the Japanese skater. Victor didn’t know what he expected. Yuuri was not supposed to be here today, which he knew because he had specifically asked Yuuri when he was arriving and Yuuri had specifically told him tomorrow, which he knew for certain because he had checked the answer three times, trying to mentally rearrange time zones so that it actually meant today. If anything, he expected Yuuri to be startled or flustered, but instead he raised a hand to wave at the giant, charging blonde, then allowed himself to be hugged. And he hugged the moron (as Yuri Plisetsky would say and was, currently, saying) back. It was a light pat on the back, but Victor was abruptly unhappy with the situation.

            Why hadn’t Yuuri told him he would be here? Why was he touching strange Russian men? Why was he wearing what look like battered work boots? Why was Yuri Plisetsky suddenly standing between the skater and the hockey player like a disapproving chaperone? Why was Yakov grabbing Victor by the shoulder and bodily turning him around?

            “What?” Victor asked.

            Yakov and the grizzled hockey player both glared at him.

            “It’s time to go.” Yakov’s tone said he was repeating himself. Yakov didn’t like to repeat himself. It must be very sad for him.

            “Pay attention to your coach,” Goncharov added, and that was simply too much.

            “Pay attention to your players,” Victor responded, then looked away as though bored when the man – who got paid to rough up people on skates – clenched his jaw.

            But he called for his players, and Yuri Plisetsky dragged a grinning Kovalev back as they made their way to the exit. Yuuri was gone.

            Yuri had his hoodie up and Victor swore he could hear him hissing “so embarrassing” from beneath it.

            “What’s embarrassing?” Victor asked, peering between banks of slot machines, trying to catch a glimpse of Yuuri.

            “He’s going to think all Russians are big morons.”

            “He will not. He knows us, after all.”

            Yuri gave him a baleful glare.

            “So.” Victor turned to Kovalev and asked in a sing-song voice. “How do you know our Yuuri?”

            “We were just introduced,” Yuri growled. “You were there.”

            “Not you. The other one.”

            Kovalev beamed at him, and Victor frowned because THAT WAS HIS MOVE. “Oh, Katsuki-sama saved my life, back when I was coming up with the Red Wings in Detroit.”

            “He’s a figure skater,” Zolin grunted. “What could he possibly do?”

            That one would have been better off staying silent.

            “He is the reason I am still in the NHL! He is a saint!”

            Victor did not disagree, but he did not like this man knowing about it, or talking about it, or grabbing onto Yuuri and hugging him. In public of all places. Activating his own hi-def smile, Victor threw an arm around the hockey player’s ample shoulders. Did Yuuri like big shoulders?

            “Tell me more.”

            “Well, you know how Yuuri is proficient in parkour?”

            “Of course.” Victor ignored the elbow Yuri jabbed into his side.

            “When I first moved to Detroit, I didn’t know the area but I wanted to be near the practice rink and ended up at an apartment building that was not so nice. My place had a water leak, and the front door kept sticking closed. Yuuri and Phichit lived there, but their apartment was nice. I mean, the door opened and closed like normal. That kind of nice.”

            Victor made a note to himself to investigate this Phichit person. Was that Yuuri’s girlfriend? His brother? A live-in tutor? A butler?

            “One day, in the spring – the building would creak and groan and settle with the change in temperature – the door stuck so badly that I pulled the doorknob off when I tried to open it. Luckily, because it was warm, I had left a window open.”

            They all climbed into a waiting SUV, Yuri grumbling as he had to climb over the seats into the back. Zolin went with him and the grumbling went suddenly silent.

            “You lived on the ground floor?”

            “No, I lived on the fifth floor.”

            “How did the window help?”

            “Yuuri lived on the third floor. We knew each other a little bit from the rink.” Kovalev grinned as he buckled his seatbelt. “We were headed to an away game and I needed to get to the airport. The building superintendent was notoriously slow. So I went to the guys and asked if they had any tools. They didn’t. But they were drunk and, when I mentioned the window, Phichit jumped up and yelled, ‘do the thing!’, which I did not understand at first. But then Yuuri climbed out of their kitchen window, scaled the side of the building, and broke out of my apartment so that I could get my things. I got a hat trick in the first game of that series!”

            Victor stared, wondering if the man was making this up. Maybe he was a big Russian moron.

            “You got Yuuri drunk and made him climb a building from the outside?”

            “No.” Kovalev nodded as though Victor’s confusion was understandable. “He was already drunk. It was the end of the quarter. They were playing a drinking game with hamsters and tubes.”

            “They were feeding alcohol to the hamsters?” Yuri demanded angrily from the backseat while Victor translated the word to Russian on his phone and came up with a picture of a beady-eyed, nose-forward rodent.

            “No, no. The hamsters were wearing little vests with numbers on them. The tubes were a…like a structure for learning and exploring?”

            “Enrichment,” Zolin volunteered with a heavy accent. “An enrichment environment.”

            “Yes, exactly so.”

            “Okay. But back to the drunken scaling of walls. That’s…” Victor spread his hands. “That’s dangerous.”

            Kovalev nodded, contrite. “It’s true, it’s true. I didn’t expect him to go out the window. I didn’t even know a man could squeeze through such a small space, even though Yuuri is very fit. After that, not only did I never ask him for such a thing again. Several times I had to pull him off of railings and walls. Only in the spring and summer though.”

            “Is it too cold to climb in the winter?” Yuri asked, begrudgingly interested.

            “Maybe.” Kovalev grinned at both of them. “He doesn’t drink during competition season.”

            “I see.” This was a side that Victor had not expected. Yuuri had been calm and soothing. He had been impatient and interesting on the ice. That he could also be impulsive made Victor want to see him even more. Which reminded him… “Where was Yuuri going today?”

            “A raptor sanctuary.”

            “Are you talking about the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park?” Yuri asked, his voice going a little high. “The ones that hunt in packs?”

            Victor tilted his head. “Las Vegas now has dinosaurs?”

            “No, no. Raptors? You know, like…” Kovalev spread his ample arms and fanned them up and down.

            “Birds of prey,” Zolin added. “There is a recovery center near here for injured animals.” When everyone turned to look at him, he crossed his arms and faced the window. “I keep up on my surroundings.”

            “Why would he be visiting birds of prey?” Was Yuuri observing them for inspiration? Was he going to add feathers to his costumes the way that Yuri kept trying to dress like a jungle cat?

            “Because he’s going to be a veterinarian,” Kovalev stated. “He said the birds are to make up for an incomplete lab from last quarter. Birds aren’t really his thing. He is a dog person.” From the back, Yuri scoffed. Internally, Victor broke out into a smile. Lovely, interesting and a dog person! Vkusno!

            “One time Phichit decided the hamsters needed fresh air and put them on the little balcony, and some very rowdy pigeons-”

            “We’re here,” Yakov thundered from the front seat, “everybody get out and, for the love of god, stop talking nonsense!”

Chapter Text

          Yuuri ran. He ran past the showgirls with their long lashes and red smiles, past the street musicians and human statues, and older women shoving pamphlets with half-nude girls on them at anyone who passed them. He ran past the fountains of the Bellagio, wondering how many Ocean’s 11 selfies Phichit would take in front of them before the week was up, past the massive columns and sculptures of Caesar’s Palace. He turned and ran alongside a row of parked limousines, the drivers leaned against their cars while they waited and chatted, then checked the map on his phone before veering back toward the Las Vegas Strip. Celestino had warned him to stay near the crowds so he didn’t get lost, and Phichit had so helpfully added that if he went too far off the Strip he would be kidnapped and sold because he was beautiful and exotic, then Celestino would have to “Liam Neeson him”.

            Yuuri didn’t feel beautiful. He felt hot and heavy. He’d had a couple of stress-eating binges in the last two weeks, mostly because he had to take a class in the fall quarter to keep on his degree path and, while his professor was being very accommodating, it was still molecular freaking biology.

            Which, somehow, was not as difficult as trying to polish his new programs in time for his first Grand Prix event. He had spilled his guts to Minako and, on that day, knew what he wanted to build. But it wasn’t happening. He’d replaced twenty seconds in the second half of his free skate and thirty seconds and a spin combination in the first half. He had run his short program thirteen different ways and none of them felt right. None of them felt like the him he was trying to convey. His transitions and entrances were reused from prior programs. His spins felt slow. His jumps were…still awful.

            Maybe that was him after all. His career to date had been underwhelming. A few times he had pulled himself together at opportune moments – at Nationals one year, at Four Continents the next – so he’d qualified for the Grand Prix series twice. But what did that mean? The skaters around him had mastered new jumps, new moves, become more consistent. He was stronger. He had landed new jumps…in practice. The ice still called to him, but skating was not what it used to be. It was more about what he wasn’t than what he was.

            Maybe it didn’t matter anymore. He was never going to be a skater of Victor Nikiforov’s caliber. He was never going to explode like Chris Giacometti or Yuri Plisetsky. Maybe it was time to consider…

            Yuuri’s slowed as he neared the long, winding drive leading up to his hotel. It was crowded. Really crowded. A throng of people was walking right down the ramp, with no regard for the taxis and cars trying to pull in. Red and blue lights flashed. He pulled his earbuds out, the music replaced by loud conversations and the wail of sirens. Stepping to the side, his gaze traveled up the giant, curving glass towers. Had there been a fire? Some emergency?

            “Yuuri!”

            Yuuri blinked, looking around even though he knew who had said his name. because only one person said his name like that. Victor Nikiforov waved to him. The desert breeze ruffled his platinum hair as he slid between people and came to a stop a few inches away. Yuuri made a squeaking sound, and hoped Victor didn’t hear it over the bustle.

            “Can you believe this?” Victor asked, his blue eyes bright and all over Yuuri, who fought the urge to sink into himself. He was sweaty inside his black t-shirt, and knew he was probably red from his run and his hair was a mess. Victor wore a stylish blue-gray sweatshirt that looked like it had come off a sport mannequin.

            “Come,” Victor said, shepherding him into the flow of people and back down the ramp. “Let’s find somewhere else to wait.”

            “Wait for what? What’s going on?”

            “A bomb threat, they said. The alarms were quite loud. How did you not hear?”

            “I was out for a run.”

            “A run? This late?”

            “It helps me to think.”

            They turned onto Las Vegas Boulevard, the crowd still thick around them.

            “You think too much.”

            “I…what?”

            “I can tell.” Victor angled them toward an escalator which led to a pedestrian bridge. It was marginally less crowded. “In your performances. Overthinking.”

            “You watch my performances?” A strong breeze could have knocked Yuuri over.

            “I watched them after Torino. There is a pattern. You flub your jumps because you are thinking about the mistake you made before, entering your spins without precision because you are thinking of the fall on the jump.”

            Yuuri’s face began to heat, a flush that had nothing to do with exertion and everything to do with mortification spreading across it.

            Victor faced him, looking down at him even though they were standing on the same step on the escalator. “What do you think about before you begin your skates?”

            Victor was so disgusted with his performance in Torino that he had sought out his other performances, watched them, then waited to ambush Yuuri so that he could tell him how bad they were. Which Yuuri knew. He knew that his mind took off without him, that it betrayed him, and then he let everyone down. Including, now, Victor. His idol. The most perfect man to ever take to the ice. Forget a breeze. Yuuri was about to throw himself off the escalator.

            “Yuuri?”

            The escalator ended and Yuuri accelerated off the end of it, moving as fast as he could through the throng of people, half of them stopping to gape at sights and performers. He should have known that Victor wouldn’t let him go, that he would be relentless. He always was.

            “Yuuri?” The other man’s hand landed on his shoulder and squeezed, and Yuuri jerked to a stop at the contact. Victor guided him into a rounded alcove. The bridge was still crowded, but there was a little space here. “What’s the matter? Don’t worry. The thing at the hotel is probably just a prank.”

            “I-I’m sorry.”

            “For what?”

            “I’m sorry.” Yuuri chanced a glance at Victor. He was frowning slightly, but it looked more like confusion than disgust. He was probably confused by the fact that anyone could be as disappointing as Yuuri. “I’m sorry you had to see all of that.”

            “About your performances?” Victor shook his head, perplexed. “I’m trying to understand. You can land three quads. You can spin in both directions. And in Torino, you were so light. Your sequences were-”

            “I’m weak.”

            “What?”

            “Mentally, I am weak. I can do those things, sometimes. But the thinking…”

            Victor leaned on the stone half wall beside Yuuri, resting his chin on his hand, “What goes through your mind when you begin a skate?”

            “It’s not…” Yuuri looked away, at the flashing neon and red taillights of gridlocked cars, the deep sidewalks packed with people. Night had fallen but it was still bright out. Bright and busy and lively. He focused on a squad of street dancers across the boulevard. “It’s not what I think about. It’s how I do it. My mind just…goes. It repeats. When I fall, I keep feeling it. Over and over. It doesn’t matter that I have moved on. I feel the bad edge, the slip, the crash. I feel it during the next jump.”

            “It’s like this when you start your skate?”

            “You know how they say you see your life flash before your eyes when you’re dying?”

            “Sure.”

            “It’s like that. But it’s every mistake I’ve ever made. All the ones I’ve made, and some I haven’t, but I know they’re possible. That they’re waiting for me. I try to focus on my program, on the music, on my training. But that’s what’s there, at the front of my mind.”

            “But Yuuri,” Victor prostested, “in Torino you were-”

            “I didn’t think.” He wasn’t about to tell Victor what had been on his mind in the place of his regular anxiety. “For a moment I was just able to skate.”

            The street performers were in a staged breakdancing battle. One was heavy, muscular, wearing Zubaz pants. The other was slender, in a red Michael Jackson thriller jacket. They moved like they didn’t have a care in the world, like the pops and spins and freezes were what they were born to do. Yuuri exhaled heavily. He didn’t want to look at Victor, didn’t want to see the expression on his face when he realized what a mess Yuuri was, when he walked away.

            In the weeks since Torino, Yuuri had imagined wildly elaborate scenarios of the next encounter with Victor, hoping to continue his delusion. None had involved him wearing rumpled sweats while Victor grilled him on his worst tendencies. Wearily, he raised his eyes.

            “Yuuri, you’re not weak. Nobody thinks that. You’re one of the top skaters in the world. And you can…” Victor faced away, looking down the street of neon lights. “You can inspire feelings that no other skater can. That’s not weakness. I did not mean what I said as a criticism. I just…I want to know how or what I can do to see more. More of those moments of yours.”

            “Why do you care?”

            Victor shifted his weight. His finger tapped at his lips. The corner of his mouth quirked downwards.

            “I have been doing this for a long time. At first I couldn’t get enough of other skaters. My idols, the stars of the shows, skaters I’d competed against. But they retired. Or moved on. Or plateaued, skating the same program in a slightly different order. Even slick new transitions or stylish programs are forgettable. But there are a few things that are still exciting. One phenomenal skate where everything comes together. It’s captivating, inspiring. Anyone can master a jump or pick a song that makes the audience want to clap and sing along. But few skaters create something more between the elements. You do that.”

            Yuuri blinked wet eyes against the dry desert wind. That was what he had always thought of Victor. He was talented, of course, a genius. But his body and soul seemed to harmonize when he was on the ice, sharing his emotions with the audience. And, when he watched him, Yuuri felt like he was seeing something beyond a trained body and a performance. To think that Victor sought the same thing, that he saw even a glimpse of it in Yuuri…

            It was too much to bear, but at the same time it sent something sharp through the center of him. It was like a kinship. Victor sought this because, even though he created poetry, he also needed it from others.

            The crowd continued to surge past, and Victor stood between Yuuri and all those people. It was as if, by his very presence, he had created a pause in the world. If anyone was capable of such a thing, Victor was. Yuuri took a breath and let it out slowly. He thought, really thought, about Victor’s question.

            “I had a lot of help when I started,” he said slowly, piecing the words together. “A teacher, Minako-sensei. Yuuko, who first taught me how to skate. I shared everything with them. We worked on my programs together, in the dance studio and the rink, before I had a coach or choreographer. When I started competing, I would think of them when I took the ice. I would think of performing with them and, later, after I left home, for them. That helped, to dim the thoughts.”

            “Do you think of them still?”

            Yuuri shook his head. Not for a long time. Not since his skating had stagnated.

            “But it helps to think of someone? I like that. It is like a dedication.”

            Yuuri’s phone buzzed, and Victor raised his at the same time.

            “Ah! It looks like that was a false alarm.”

            “We’d better get back.” Phichit and Celestino had texted, Phichit repeatedly, and with an increasing number of emojis.

            “Of course.” Victor turned, then paused. His voice was light as he said, “Yuuri, why didn’t you tell me you arrived today?”

            “You didn’t ask.”

            Victor startled slightly and Yuuri thought back to their text conversation, which he had basically memorized. Victor had sent fifteen messages wishing him luck, then sending him links to various Vegas entertainment attractions. He hadn’t suggested they meet, which Yuuri had hoped for but wasn’t about to suggest himself. Victor’s last question had been phrased oddly.

            “You asked when I would be accessible.”

            “Oh, right.” Victor waited for Yuuri to precede him onto the downward escalator. He stood on the step above him and gazed out over the Strip, like a handsome lord surveying his lands. He looked calm, confident, and not the least bit uncomfortable with the conversation they’d just had. So maybe Victor hadn’t asked Yuuri to meet, but he had found him. And he knew about his shortcomings and still wanted to talk to him. Something fundamental settled inside of Yuuri at that realization.

            “So.” The escalator ended and Victor fell into step beside him. “What did you do today?”

            “I went to a bird sanctuary. It’s for school. I missed a lab last quarter because of skating, and I had until December to make it up. The flight was short so I had time.”

            “Birds like…raptors?” Victor asked with a focused intensity that Yuuri didn’t think birds warranted.

            “Yes. Although, I didn’t spend much time with those. I accompanied a veterinarian conducting health checks. With Vegas being so-” He gestured at three showgirls in red, the plumage of their costumes rippling around them (and the plumage of their costumes being almost the full extent of their costumes) “-a lot of people here have exotic pets. But they don’t always keep them. I mostly handled peacocks and parrots.”

            “I love parrots! So beautiful. And so smart! For a week, Yuri kept showing us a video of a parrot caught singing along with death metal. The music was not to my taste, but the parrot was so expressive, I honestly found myself moved.”

            Yuuri laughed, swept up by Victor’s enthusiasm. He breathed deeply and felt, for the first time in a long time, a little bit lighter.

Chapter Text

           Victor was a one-man Russian press machine, standing outside of the waiting are with a sea of cameras, lights and microphones in his face. From the small room where Yuuri warmed up before the short program, he could hear the smooth lilt of Victor’s voice and the occasional rise in tone which was inevitably followed by laughter.

            He was performing, as much as he did on the ice, drawing all eyes to him, delighting the reporters with teasing and a few considered statements that would inevitably become pull quotes. Is that why he’d come to an event he wasn’t assigned to, to be the charming face of Russian skating?

            Yuuri faced himself in the mirror. His hair was gelled back, his face slightly flushed from the warmup skate. Victor’s voice faded, a steady melody that still sparked an undercurrent of excitement in him. He liked spending time with Victor, liked that sometimes when they spoke Victor’s voice fell or halted or turned nasally with irritation. It was…genuine. It was different than what he gave to the press, or even really showed around the rink other than when he was ensconced with his team.

            Yuuri smiled, a fond smile that felt foreign on his face and out of place with his severe costume. It was pretty plain, black with a notch in the banded collar, textures stitched across the chest to mimic the cut of a suit but they’d ended up slightly diagonal, and the silver sequin accents were too low, ending up on his right hip. The translucent black sleeves billowed from the shoulders to just below the elbow, where they tightened. To make him look bigger, the designer had said, more powerful. Masculine, she had said like that was a good thing, in keeping with his theme of ambition. As if a little fabric would make him appear imposing. Yuuri liked the way the sleeves swung and trailed lightly when his arms were extended. Like the feel of water rippling around you in the ocean.

            Recovering his phone from his pocket, he changed to his performance music and raised his arms to his starting position. He tilted his head up. Then he dropped his chin and swung to the left, raising his arms higher than usual, bending his elbows slightly to soften the angle and allow the fabric to caress him as he moved. It felt…right.

            Restarting the music, he assumed the pose again. In the mirror, the sequins reflected the light and, on a whim, he cocked his hip to the side. Head up, then down, he swept to the left, the movement of his lower body bigger now, more dramatic. He repeated it twice more, arms lighter, his costume following and flowing around him. He moved on to his step sequence, winding through it in the slightly cramped space, one eye on the others warming up. Then there were fewer of them and Celestino appeared, raising a hand to get his attention. Yuuri removed his earbuds, the music continuing in his head, the feel of soft touches shivering across his arms.

            “Ready?” Celestino asked.

            “Ready.”

            He took to the ice, thought of Minako watching from home and smiled to himself. She would get a kick out of this. He thought of Victor, watching, one elegant finger pressed against his lips. A little thrill went through him. He cocked his hip and raised his head. The music began and he threw himself into it. He liked the new position of his arms, liked it so much that at one point he turned his hands palm upward, his fingers almost coyly beckoning as he exited his quad toe. Panting, he smiled at the false confidence of the gesture, but the audience seemed to like it. It felt right, too. He held himself together through the final spin sequence and rose upright. Rather than throwing his arms wide with fists clenched in the champion power pose he and Celestino had worked out, he let them drift open – an airy move contrasting with the strength it took for the rest of his body to fight off the momentum of the last spin and come to a stop. With a flourish, he turned his palms upward.

            Phichit’s triumphant yell began an instant before the crowd started to cheer. He felt effervescent, so much energy flowing through him that he could have moved directly into his free skate. This…this was one of those moments he’d told Victor about. Except it hadn’t been one moment. It had been almost the entire performance.

            Celestino clapped him on the back, booming praise as he handed him his skate guards. Phichit came flying out of the seating area to hug him and shake him, and wail his delight in three, maybe four languages. Chuckling, Yuuri followed Celestino to the kiss and cry. Behind the bench, fans leaned toward him, calling his name. He waved to them, startled by another round of applause. He looked around for Victor, but of course he wasn’t with the other skaters since he wasn’t competing. Pulling on his jacket, he leaned forward, peering toward the tunnel. Victor stood out with his height and his light hair. His back was to Yuuri, his coach Yakov beside him, all but forming a human shield between the kiss and cry and Yuri Plisetsky, the last skater.

            Slightly disappointed – he’d wanted to see Victor’s reaction – he sipped water and toweled sweat from his face. His scores came up and the audience screamed again. Squinting, he made out a 3. 93? His shoulders sagged. The skate had felt so good.

            “One oh three,” Celestino yelled, pulling Yuuri against his chest. “One oh three. You broke it! I’m so proud of you!”

            Yuuri stared at him for a minute before it sank in. 103. 103.1 to be precise. His first short program to score over the 100-point mark. Yuuri bowed, one hand pressed to his chest, thanking the TV, the fans behind him, and the air around him in general. Amazing.

            He stood, to wave once more, and found himself caught in a laserbeam glare from Yuri Plisetsky. The Russian skater’s mouth was actually stretched into a snarl before he took to the ice, his body like a dart as he skated toward the center of the rink. Startled, Yuuri looked toward Coach Yakov, who merely nodded at him, then toward Victor, who had both hands raised into fists as he jumped up and down, his smile so wide it actually became heart-shaped. Yuuri’s own heart gave a little flutter as he grinned back.

            Plisetsky’s skate was so precise, so unrelenting, that Yuuri and Phichit actually grabbed hold of one another when the younger skater exited his quad toe and skated toward the camera.

            “He’s ferocious,” Phichit whispered.

            “So intense. I wonder what’s gotten into him?” Yuuri had seen Yuri Plisetsky’s intensity before. When he had debuted in the senior division, he’d regarded every competitor as a thing to be kicked to the side and stomped on. He had cornered Yuuri once after a particularly bad performance and yelled at him. Yuuri had been shocked, and this – the petite skater fifty yards away in the middle of his performance – was somehow scarier.

            Yuuri did his time with the media, stumbling over his words when he tried to describe his performance without sounding like he was bragging. Phichit’s enthusiasm next to him took a little of the attention off of him, and Celestino stepped in to provide their plans for the rest of the season – stronger jumps, peaking at finals. Thinking about either of those things sapped his energy and Yuuri slipped into the locker room, dragging his bag with him. He was first at the end of the short program. That was unfamiliar.

            He looked up at the sound of slamming metal and shouted Russian, jumping when Emil Nekola bumped into him as they both peered toward the door. Yuri Plisetsky was shouting at Coach Yakov, whom Yuuri had seen and heard shouting from clear across a rink before, but now he only nodded in response, his iron jaw tight. Phichit jumped the bench to put his back against the row of lockers. His phone was in his hand.

            “Don’t,” Yuuri cautioned. “Don’t film this.”

            “I’m not suicidal. What the hell is going on?”

            The door opened again and Victor entered, dodging Yuri’s flailing elbow as he edged into the room. Yakov muttered something and Victor’s unusually tight expression morphed into determination. Turning, he smiled toward the room since nobody was even pretending not to watch.

            “Friends,” he said, spreading his hands wide, “so good to see you all here. If you wouldn’t mind, please gather round.”

            The bomb threat to the hotel been called in by fans of Yuri Plisetsky, several of the self-proclaimed “Yuri’s Angels”. The Russian team had been informed before leaving the hotel but, at some point directly after the competition, the news had leaked. And now the reporters were foaming at the mouth.

            “You don’t want to go out there,” Leo de la Iglesia advised when he arrived, visibly frazzled which was saying a lot as he was one of the most laid back people in professional skating.

            “Oh my god,” Phichit moaned, “I can’t believe we live in this locker room now. It’s only my second night in Vegas! I wanted gambling, not the smell of socks!”

            Yakov corralled Yuri in a corner, and the shouts were reduced to the occasional growled profanity. Yuuri changed and was debating climbing into a locker and napping until the free skate when Victor dropped onto the bench behind him. It was the least graceful he’d ever seen the man move, but it made sense. While Yuuri had been elated less than an hour ago, he was now vibrating with nerves, overwhelmed by the negative attention, and he only had to witness this debacle, not be part of it.

            “How’s it going?” Yuuri asked.

            Victor blew out a breath. “Yakov wants to send me out as a distraction and sneak Yuri out, but since the only exit leads directly past the reporters, that seems unlikely to work.”

            “But you’re so charming, Victor,” Phichit said, his voice somewhere near awe.

            “Why, thank you.” Victor flashed a smile. “Phichit, was it?”

            “Ohmygodyes, it was. Is. I is Phichit.”

            Yuri Plisetsky started shouting again, and Yuuri felt a headache climbing up from the tension in his neck. He needed to stretch, and eat, and not be in the pressure cooker of the arena anymore. Frowning, he picked up his jacket. He’d reverted to wearing a heavy university logo jacket in Detroit since it had gotten cold and he’d forgotten to switch to the Japanese team jacket before the trip. That had earned him a stern but polite lecture from the team official. But it was still his jacket, not his nation’s.

            “You could dress him as someone else,” he said, digging through his bag until he found a knitted winter hat. He raised them toward Victor. “We’re close in height and build. I already did my interviews.”

            “I could go out with him,” Phichit volunteered. “Stay in between them. They’re used to seeing me and Yuuri together. They won’t even look twice.”

            “It is not the worst idea I have heard tonight,” Yakov said from behind them, his sudden appearance and ominous accent causing Phichit to gasp and Yuuri to squeak.

            “I still say we blow a hole in this wall,” Yuri snapped from around the corner. “It will work, and it will be satisfying.”

            “You will dress as the Japanese skater and go out with the Thai skater. Go directly toward the bus. Coach Nina will meet you. I will go out and give the press an exclusive interview on the matter. That should be enough for the moment.” Yakov turned to Victor. “You stay in here for some time. I’ll let them believe you’re consoling Yuri.”

            “I don’t need consolation from that has-been!”

            “Yurotchka! Get over here and dress. We’ve inconvenienced the others enough.”

            Yuri stomped around the corner. He wore a black lycra shirt and black leggings, and Yuuri thought he looked thinner than he’d been last season. Of course, with the difficulty of his programs, he probably been training like crazy. He handed his jacket and hat to the Russian, turning away so that he wouldn’t have to see the other skater’s face. Plisetsky had told him in no uncertain terms that he despised him. But this entire business was tiring and Yuuri had to get out of this small, stuffy room.

            “You look good,” Leo said to Yuri’s angry grunt.

            “Very convincing,” Phichit breathed, obviously restraining himself from taking a picture, because once he secured a picture he was physically unable to not post them, and even he knew this wasn’t the time for it. Yuuri glanced at the Russian boy. He’d slumped his shoulders, rounded his back, and seemed to almost disappear beside Phichit, who was actually shorter than both of them.

            Is that what he looked like, Yuuri wondered, like he was hiding from life itself? Was that how everyone else saw him? Standing straighter, he reached for his jacket, but of course it was no longer there. He’d have to go out with nothing between him and the world but his long-sleeve shirt. He looked down, saw his arms all but wrapped around himself. Oh, shit. They saw him that way because that’s how he was.

            A shoulder bumped against him and Yuuri stepped to the side, trying to get out of the way of whoever wanted into their locker, but it followed. He glanced up, saw Victor.

            “Your skate was great,” he murmured. “What were you thinking about?”

            Still caught up in the realization that the real him, the one everyone saw, was nothing like how he’d felt on the ice, he stammered, “M-mostly just hoping that everyone who saw it felt something.”

            Huffing impatiently, Victor grabbed him around the shoulders, pulling him close. “Of course! Everyone, anyone who saw that performance had to have felt great watching you.”

            Yuuri hummed noncommittally. Victor’s eyes were very blue and very close. He leaned to the side until Victor let go. He shivered.           

            “What’s the matter?” Victor asked. “Are you cold?”

            Digging through Yuri Plisetsky’s bag, he shoved aside the Russian national jacket with a frown. Obviously Yuuri couldn’t wear something so conspicuous. Victor held up a leopard print hoodie. The ends of the sleeves were frayed. Yuuri raised both hands defensively.

            “Yuri would kill me if I tried to wear that!”

            “Probably.” Victor stood and opened his jacket. It took Yuuri a moment – and Victor holding his own sweater out to him – to comprehend what was happening.

            “I couldn’t,” he said, staring at the white t-shirt Victor more. Or rather, the contours he could see through the thin fabric. His face began to heat. Did the room get smaller? Everything felt so close.

            “Please.” Victor brushed his hair back from his face and grinned. “I insist.”

            “No, really. I can’t. It will be too big on me. The press will notice, and at least someone will realize there are two Katsuki Yuuris running around.”

            “Oh. Of course.” Victor folded the sweater over his arm and pulled it tight against his stomach. He seemed disappointed? He probably regretted coming on this trip at all. Or maybe Yuuri was seeing things that weren’t there, because a moment later Victor was shoving his phone under Yuuri’s nose and listing off dozens of places he wanted to go after the free skate tomorrow.

            “I know it’s cheesy,” he said, “after all, I’ve been to the Eiffel Tower ten times. But I want to go to the Paris. And The Venetian. Do you know that Matteo Ortolani says he prefers it to the real Venezia. Amazing!”

            “That’s funny.” Yuuri watched the Russians at the door, completing the final touches of their scheme. Phichit stood amongst them, practically vibrating.

            “Mila insists we go to Hakkasan although I’ve heard the Morpheus is better.”

            “It’s more intimate.” Yuuri gave Phichit an encouraging thumbs up and his roommate gave a complicated series of gestures back.

            “Intimate?” Victor’s voice brightened. “How so?”

            “Smaller. Separate dance floors. Great dance surfaces.”

            Yakov headed out finally, leaving Phichit and Yuri huddled at the door, open a crack as they watched. As soon as they left Yuuri could escape, if he could find someone to help cover him.

            “Do you like to dance, Yuuri?”

            “Of course.”

            Seung-gil was still here. He never spent much time with the press and they didn’t seem inclined to change that. But he was smaller than Yuuri, which would make hiding behind him difficult. Maybe Emil was still around. The Czech was more lanky than broad, and he was nice so maybe he wouldn’t mind helping Yuuri. For all he knew, Seung-gil would break his silence to reveal Yuuri to the press in an attempt to make him panic so he’d screw up his free skate. That seemed like the sort of thing he would consider acceptable in his weirdly Machiavellian way.

            “It’s settled then,” Victor said, grabbing his shoulders. Startled, Yuuri looked up. “Dinner tomorrow after the free skate, once you climb off the podium of course, then Hakkasan – just for an hour or so – and then we’ll go to the Morpheus.”

            Off the podium. Of course Victor would want to celebrate with the winners and it was nice – generous, even – that he expected Yuuri to be among them. His short program had been good, but he’d already started thinking about all the ways he could bomb the free skate. Yuri and Emil’s difficulties were well above his, and the way Phichit was hitting every note of his performances, the podium seemed a longshot at best.

            Emil rounded the bank of lockers, cheerfully waving his good-bye. Yuuri grabbed his bag.

            “Yuuri,” Victor said, nearly whining, “where are you going?”

            “I have to go before someone figures out what’s happening.” He had to get out of the building and away from the press, with their lights and the piercing black eyes of the cameras, and all those questions. English fled him when they started asking questions. Hell, Japanese sometimes abandoned him as well.

            “But what about dancing?”

            “Sure.”

            “Hockey players will not be welcome.”

            Yuuri blinked. “Okay.”

            Victor beamed at him but Yuuri was already running for the exit. “Perfect! Maybe some shopping beforehand. And Paris. And The Venetian! But definitely dancing.”

Chapter Text

            “I was terrified,” Phichit said as they settled into their hotel room for the night, “just walking beside Yuri Plisetsky. I could see the waves of fury emanating from him.”

            “Are you surprised? That’s a shitty thing to do in someone else’s name. And Yuri begins each day angry. He might not even have an upper threshold for anger.”

            “He skated well, though. Maybe he skates better angry. Like how you skate better when a new bakery opens up down the street.”

            “Oh my god.” Yuuri closed his eyes, remembering the smell of the bakery. “That gruyere and kale scone was unbelievable.”

            “What was unbelievable was how it made you a better skater.”

            “If I did everything right I didn’t have to do it again. I could get to the scone faster.”

            “But then you’d just sneak back and skate again after class.”

            Yuuri ran a hand over his mouth. He was salivating a little bit. Dieting during competition season was the worst, and whoever had scheduled Skate America in Las Vegas – the city of buffets and 5-star restaurants – was a sadist.

            “Victor Nikiforov is better looking than his posters,” Phichit said.

            Blue eyes and a soft smile replaced scones in Yuuri’s mind. “Yeah.”

            “Like, whoa. That much better looking.”

            “Wait until you see him on the ice.”

            “I saw him from two feet away in a stinky locker room and it may have changed my life.” Phichit flopped on the bed and took a selfie. “I take better selfies though. His pictures are all of his dog.”

            “Makkachin.” Yuuri smiled. “She’s so cute.”

            “You know who else is cute?” Phichit said, jumping to stand on his bed.

            “You?”

            “Yeah, me. So let’s talk about me, and how amazing I’m going to be tomorrow. You’re so going down, by the way, Mr. Number One. And then let’s talk about all the drinks and debauchery we’re going to indulge in tomorrow.”

            They talked about clubs and the increasingly bizarre cocktails Phichit was determined to consume even though some of them didn’t sound like they were fit for human consumption. Phichit asked Yuuri to walk through his new movements, then went through a series of his own, complete with small jumps, until someone banged on the wall and yelled at them to be quiet. It was late when they turned the lights out, Phichit curled around his travel hamster pillow.

            Yuuri thought about the next day. Anxiety crawled through him. He was in first place. That should have meant that the pressure wasn’t as great, that he had a cushion. He simply had to stay calm enough to have a good skate but still, the pressure seemed to come from both within and without, squeezing him between them. He rolled onto his back, opened his mouth to breath. And thought of Victor, in a club, dancing. Thought about his grace in the noise of the music and the press of bodies, his cool complexion in the dim lighting, the long lines of his body. He thought about them dancing, which nearly startled a gasp out of him, and ended up screwing his eyes shut and shoving his face into the pillow.

*

            His nerves were in full force by the warmup skate. He took a break from his laps, sipping water, while Celestino droned through his instructions and the rink announcers droned through their listing of the skaters’ achievements. He could do this. Victor Nikiforov had taken the time to tell him that he was musical, that he expected him to be good.

            Oh god, he had expectations of Yuuri.

            Anxiety twisted through his nerves and he pushed off and began circling the rink, habitually going through footwork on his right foot, then his left. Phichit skated up to Celestino and Yuuri swept past them. Phichit deserved Celestino’s attention today. Yuuri’s was an old problem, and he could deal with it. He put his head down, concentrated on his breathing. Victor was at this event, again, which was amazing. He had talked to Yuuri again. And he would watch him again today. He had hoped for more Victor, and he was getting it.

            Yuuri passed his coach again, returned Phichit’s fistbump and kept moving, stretching his arms out and twisting in a small echo of his program. His pulse elevated, even and steady. He didn’t know how this had happened, why this kept happening. But if he could keep Victor’s eyes on him, if he could entertain him for a little bit longer, that would mean everything to him.

            Checking to make sure the other skaters were clear, he picked up speed, setting up for a practice jump. If he had a good free skate, he could talk to Victor about it afterwards. He could tell him…he could tell him that he’d thought of him before he began the skate. Maybe that would please Victor.

            Like a dedication.

            Leo de Iglesia landed a jump in front of him and circled toward the middle of the rink, leaving a clear lane, and Yuuri turned, skating backwards as he set up a simple entrance to a triple axel. His head snapped backward and all the air punched out of him.

 

            He was on the ice.

 

            He’d flubbed the jump?

 

            No.

 

            A dark lump sat on the ice near him. Yuuri squinted. It was the young Canadian kid, debuting this year. He was sitting up. Yuuri was not. His arms didn’t seem to want to work. His legs were splayed. What was wrong with him? His vision blinked in and out.

            Black, white ice.

            Black, white ice.

            Black, red ice.

            His ears rang. His head felt heavy. He tasted blood.

            Snow flew in his face and he couldn’t summon the coordination to block it, then Phichit’s little texting gloves were pressed to the ice and his face was next to Yuuri’s and his wide, dark eyes filled Yuuri’s field of vision. He looked scared.

            “Are you okay?” he asked.

            Phichit’s voice came out breathless and too high as he screeched, “Yuuri, are you okay?”

            Rolling onto his side, he pushed until he was upright. Sitting, that was the word. Hands touched his head, neck and arms. Then he was standing.

            “We’re in the way,” he said.

            But the other skaters were at the far end of the ice, circling, their backs to him.

            A man in a blue uniform wrapped an arm around him, balancing him as he basically pushed Yuuri across the ice on his skates. Celestino was there, saying things, saying things to Phichit too.

            “It’s okay, Phichit.” Yuuri tilted toward his best friend, whose hands were clasped in front of his chest, whose eyes were still wide. “Go on. Go on and skate.”

            “I’ll skate for us both, Yuuri!” Phichit declared, but his voice sounded thin.

            And that didn’t make sense. They were both assigned to…to…to whatever this event was and then he was sitting on a plastic chair in a small room with elliptical trainers and stability balls off to the side. He was off the ice, at a competition. He was supposed to be on the ice.

            “I need to be on the ice.”

            “You need to hold on for a few minutes. That was quite a collision.”

            He looked for Celestino, wanting to ask how much time he has. But the room was empty. He went to stand and the medic firmly held him down.

            “Your coach will be here in a few minutes. Let me do my job until then, okay?”

            “Okay.”

            “Do you remember what happened?”

            “I was setting up for a jump and ran into a skater, the Canadian kid.”

            “More like he ran into you.” The medic dabbed something against the side of his head and it stung, dimly. “Do you have a headache?”

            “No.”

            “Does your stomach feel upset, like you might need to vomit?”

            No more than it usually did before competing. “No.”

            “Did you lose consciousness out there? Black out for a second?”

            Black, red ice. Yuuri reached toward his mouth. It felt weird. He still tasted blood. The medic caught his hand.

            “Your lips is split. Can you try not to touch it until I get to it?”

            “Okay.” He wrapped his hands together. His back felt tight. He needed to keep warming up. If he stiffened up, his performance would suffer.

            “Did you lose consciousness?”

            Through the fog and the adrenaline spike, an alarm bell sounded in Yuuri’s mind. This was a concussion test. The medic was trying to keep him off the ice. “No.”

            Celestino arrived, shoving through the door, big and uncharacteristically shaken.

            The medic was working on his lip now, blue gloves and white gauze moving in Yuuri’s peripheral vision as he evaluated his coach’s expression. He’d never seen this particular look before. Worry, something else, but also a firming of his mouth. Regret, that was the something else.

            He was going to shut him down, Yuuri could see it coming as surely as he hadn’t seen the other skater coming on the ice. Celestino knew that Yuuri was weak. He overthinks and doesn’t adjust quickly enough when he screws up, and he screw up a lot. But this wasn’t like that. This wasn't his own mind twisting up and dragging him down. He was just hurt. It was only a collision. Yuuri fell all the time.

            He needed to get on the ice.

            He held still while the medic glued and bandaged and cleaned away some blood. He answered questions while the medic shined a light in his eyes and held a pen far away and then closer. The pungent antiseptic made his eyes sting. He had to work to keep from bouncing his leg. The medic, frowning, finally stood up and wrapped a bandage around his head. It seemed like overkill. He wasn’t hurt that badly.

            “Okay,” the medic said, turning away to clean up his stuff, “talk to your coach.”

            Yuuri stood. It was disturbingly difficult. Gingerly he walked to Celestino. He wasn’t wearing skate guards and there was a heavy rubber matting on the floor.

            “How are you feeling?” Celestino asked

            “I’m okay. How is Phichit? Is he able to focus?”

            Celestino’s dramatic eyebrows rose in surprise, but he nodded. “He’s okay. Too fired up, probably. That was a hard hit at a bad angle. You didn’t have any time to brace yourself.”

            “I’m aware.” Yuuri tried to smile. The pain in his lip made itself known. “I need to warm up.”

            “Yuuri, we need to get you to the hospital. You might have a concussion.”

            “I don’t.” He turned to the medic, who raised his hands.

            “It’s inconclusive without a scan.”

            “I need to warm up.”

            “Yuuri, listen to me. That was a hard hit. The way your head snapped back.” Celestino took a deep breath. “I can’t-”

            “Not your call.” Adrenaline still coursing through him, Yuuri leaned forward. “I need to warm up so that I can skate. I need to skate so that I can make the podium. I need to make the podium so that I can make finals. It looked bad. I’m not pretending it didn’t feel bad. But I’m okay.”

            “Yuuri.”

            “I need to warm up.” He set his jaw, saw Celestino do the same. His coach looked past him, and Yuuri could tell from the softening of his face that the medic wasn’t going to help him. Energy filled him, streaking through his limbs, heating his extremities.

            “I can’t disqualify him medically,” the paramedic said.

            Celestino’s lips pressed together, but he nodded once, sharply.

            The medic went through the door first, then Yuuri, then Celestino. Phichit and Yuri Plisetsky were the only skaters still in the waiting area. Weirdly, Russia’s assistant coach was with Phichit, who was moving sideways through his footwork. Plisetsky, his light blond hair braided back, startled when he saw Yuuri reflected in the mirror. He turned, but Yuuri was also turning, away from the mirror. He put his earbuds in, closed his eyes, and started his music. He didn’t have long enough for a proper warm up.

            He moved slowly into his routine. He could feel the collision now, on his left knee and elbow, the abraded palm of his right hand. But he was energetic. He still felt strong. He still wanted this so much he could taste it on the other side of the blood from his lip.

            Celestino’s hand on his shoulder, Phichit went first. Yuuri gave him a thumbs up. The audience clapped and applauded throughout his entire program. Yuri Plisetsky didn’t look at him as he went, Yakov right behind him. Starting to sweat, Yuuri removed his jacket. He practiced jumps, completing three rotations from a standing position. His head began to throb. He was first in the short program which made him last in the freeskate. Adrenaline only lasted so long before it receded. As Yuuri took to the ice, his hands began to shake. He thought of Victor, watching him. He could do this.

            It was the longest four minutes of his life.

Chapter Text

           The day had consisted almost entirely of outbursts, hushed discussions and sneaking glances. Victor was tired of it all. He wished he had brought Makkachin so that he could hide behind her floofy fur and pull her ears up to cover his own so he didn’t have to hear about the ridiculous threat from those ridiculous fans anymore. All the furtive sneaking around and having to remember to be discreet – constantly being reminded to be discreet, because why is he supposed to be quiet when the press already knows what happened – was nearly unbearable. And then there was Yuri, chewing constantly on his sleeve or his lower lip, with dark blue smudges sunken into the tender skin beneath his eyes.

            He was still a boy, and had always been reactive. This was unbearable too, that people who professed to being fans did this to him. Victor was tempted to defy Yakov’s orders and speak to the press about it, but really he’d be speaking to those so-called fans because, honestly, how could anyone say they loved Yura and do this to him?

            There was a commotion behind them on the rink, and they all – it had become an instinct since last night – moved farther away from the noise. Victor put himself between Yuri and the rink, while Yakov leaned low, maintaining eye contact, talking through instructions. Yuri nodded, but he was barely listening. Eventually he pulled his jacket off and headed for the ice for the final minutes of warm up.

            “Maybe Lilia should talk to him?” he suggested to Yakov but Yuri heard him.

            The boy spun around, glaring “What for?”

            “She’s your teacher but she is outside of this,” Victor said. “Sometimes it is good to hear from the people outside of the current problem, for perspective. She believes in you. She will get you focused on what’s important.”

            “Believed,” Yuri said. “Believed in me. What am I to her now?”

            “What are you talking about?”

            Yuri raised his arms, gestured at his legs. “I’m not her prima anymore. I’m too large, too uncoordinated. What use does she have for a body like this?”

            “She cares about you, Yuri.”

            “Sure, as a person.” He all but spit the word. “But I’m not worth her time to train anymore, am I? She doesn’t even come to watch me skate.”

            He jetted onto the ice, and it was a good thing there were only a few skaters left. He didn’t look like he was going to stop for anyone.

            “That’s not true is it?” Victor asked. He had talked with Lilia in the last few weeks but couldn’t recall if it was at the rink. Yakov sigh turned into a grumble.

            “When she instructs him, he stops eating. He tries to be the boy he was two years ago. She doesn’t want him to hurt himself, so she stays away.”

            “I thought he’d gotten better?”

            “He has been better since Tokyo, mostly.”

            Victor pressed a hand to his forehead before straightening. He raised his chin and planted a smile on his face, waving to a few fans who had gathered in the seats nearest them, waving homemade signs. At least one of them needed to look like they weren’t falling apart.

            On the ice, Yuri jumped a quad triple combination, one hand raised on the second jump, something he had specifically been told to refrain from until finals. The audience’s response was tepid and he seemed to take it personally, sneering as he rounded the end and threw himself into footwork.

            Glancing at Yakov, Victor leaned his chin in his palm on the edge of the rink. “How do you stand it, Yakov? The mood swings. All that teenage rebellion?”

            Yakov Feltsman tipped his head back and laughed. And laughed. And laughed.

            “I know that is not directed at me,” Victor said, but he was pleased to have provided the distraction. “I’ll be back in a few minutes. I need some air.”

            He headed for the front of the arena. It was clear and sunny when they had left the hotel this morning but they went from the hotel to the tinted car to the enclosure of the arena. He raised his face to the sun. It was already cold in St. Petersburg. Normally winter didn’t bother him, but it felt like it came more quickly lately. Yakov had restricted them to their rooms last night, a limitation the likes of which Victor hadn’t had inflicted on him in over a decade.

            The competition atmosphere was exciting to Victor but since he was not competing he had nowhere to put that energy. He would go out tonight. That was absolutely imperative. Especially after being under house arrest last night. And Yuuri would be there, which was nice to look forward to. Very nice.

            He signed a few autographs and spoke to fans who stopped in their hurry into the arena to seek him out. He returned as the Thai skater finished his program to enthusiastic applause, paused to speak to familiar coaching staff and officials as made his way to the skaters seating area. Several were standing, whistling and clapping for Phichit. Yuuri’s rinkmate and roommate, Victor remembered.

            His score came up, 182.63, and Phichit jumped out of his seat, bouncing on his skates, Coach Cialdini half hugging him, half keeping him from falling over. It must have been the skate of his career. He made an emphatic heart gesture with his hands then repeated it and, oddly, that made the audience cheer again.

            Which probably made Yuri furious as he circled the ice on his way to the center to begin his program. For all the ways he bucked tradition – giving monosyllabic answers to reporters, ducking out on entire press conferences, and actively, vocally disrespecting his peers – he was surprisingly rigid about “respecting the ice”.

            But he didn’t sneer. He simply circled again, arms loose at his sides, until the applause died down. Then he took his position. And began one of the clunkiest programs Victor had ever seen him perform. He was slow into his first jump and double-footed the landing, then bolted out of it, clearly angry with himself. The remainder was too fast or too slow, his footwork especially problematic.

            Sighing, Victor left the seating and headed down rinkside. Yuri would be in a foul mood after the skate. Yakov would be in a fouler mood. The press, vulturous as they were this week, would use the poor skate to poke at the fan story until they got something juicy. Someone needed to keep a level head and do damage control. Ducking past the cameras, he went to the far side of the kiss and cry to wait, almost cringing at the dressing down Yakov was about to deliver.

            But he didn’t. The coach sat upright and silent, very close to Yuri on the bench. Yuri, who wasn’t snarling or slouching or throwing his hands up. Yuri, who panted and leaned forward, not watching his highlights on the screen but staring past it, out at the ice. Concerned, Victor turned.

            Katsuki Yuuri was on the ice, skating a slow circle, and something was wrong. Coach Cialdini stood the side of the rink, arms crossed, expression turbulent. Unusually, Phichit was beside him rather than in the waiting area with the finished skaters, and he had both hands pressed to his mouth. Yuri’s scores were announced, to distant applause.

            “What’s going on?” Victor asked, grabbing Coach Nina.

            “Another skater ran into him during the warm up.” She shook her head, lips pressed tightly together.

            Yuuri assumed his starting position, a lone, small figure on that glaring expanse of ice. A dull-colored bandage was wrapped around his head, making his hair stick out, but that was not the worst thing. He was pale. Ashen, that was the word. Even his lips looked bloodless, except for what appeared to be a red gash on the bottom one.

            “He shouldn’t be out there,” Victor whispered urgently. Nina nodded. Victor started for the gate. Someone needed to do something about this. Yakov grabbed him before he’d taken two steps. “Yakov, he shouldn’t be out there.”

            His coach glanced at the rink and grimaced. “I know.”

            The music started and Victor didn’t even want to look. He did. Yuuri was on the ice. He couldn’t not look. He knew the movements, the tilt like gravity was pulling Yuuri into the performance, the stretch of the arms. Yuuri was a little stiff, but he moved with assurance, his lips pressed tightly together, his eyes intent. Maybe the injury was not that bad. He was hastily bandaged, that was all.

            Yuuri set up his quad salchow. Four complete rotations. And he fell. He was up in an instant, building speed again, movements and steps even crisper than before. He crossed the ice, gifting the row of judges with sweet steps and flaring hands, and set up his second jump. He underrotated and landed hard on his right wrist. Victor started to feel sick. He leaned toward the gate again, and Yakov put his arm around his back and pushed him.

            “Let’s go to the waiting area.”

            Victor let himself be guided. “He shouldn’t be out there.”

            “He wanted to skate.”

            He rushed to the TV. Someone had turned the volume down now that all the skaters are out. “He shouldn’t be. His coach should have-”

            “Celestino wouldn’t have let him skate unless he had insisted.”

            “Fuck that.” He winced at the next deduction, when Yuuri popped out of the second triple in a combination after the first jump had been okay. His short step sequence was flat but he threw himself into a camel spin and it was clean and balanced and fast.

            The footwork that followed was torturous. The motions were there but his head was tilted oddly. His eyes seemed to be staring a long ways away. His mouth was tight, his eyes narrow. It was not the cocky, hungry look the program called for. It was pure heart, his determination alone carrying Yuuri forward while his body was giving out on him.

            He dropped into a sit spin, rose into a layback and maintained it instead of moving into the Biellmann. He pushed out of it, head down as he demanded more speed of himself, and executed a triple axel. He landed it smoothly. He didn’t seem to notice, forcing himself around the ice, through those intricate steps that most skaters could not do on their very best day. The sequence ended and his legs went wide as he bent back into the Ina Bauer. The first time Victor saw him do it, he couldn’t believe how far he arched, how lightly he seemed to glide. Now his head barely even tilted back, then he all but wrenched himself upright.

            “Yakov,” Victor said, because someone should be doing something about it.

            Yuuri fell on his next jump, and the audience went nearly silent as he forced himself back to his feet, head hanging for a moment before he pushed off, resuming the show.

            “I have to get back to Yuri.” Yakov squeezed his arm. “Don’t let him see you like this. Don’t let anyone.”

            “N-no. Of course not.” Victor looked around. Two staffers were at the other TV, their backs to him.

            Yuuri finished his final spin sequence and came to a stop, arms wide before he dropped them like he couldn’t keep them up. He blinked, mouth open to breathe. There was barely any color in his face even now, after such a performance. No, not performance. A battle. He had fought for every step, every rotation, fought the ice and gravity and himself. Victor’s stomach was still clenched. He had seen terrible falls, collisions, washout programs that left the skater in tears. He had been in bad falls. He had skated sick and injured. He had never been so disturbed in his life. Yuuri staggered as he bowed, and Victor turned away from the television.

            He breathed in and out. His chest felt tight, bruised even though he hadn’t been injured. Steps and voices sounded in the tunnel, as skaters and teams returned from the ice. Victor straightened. He turned. He smiled at the first skaters.

*

Phichit forgot his wallet, then his blazer, then something he referred to as his “good luck charm” and which Yuuri was fairly sure was a condom. Judging by the knocking on the door, this time he’d forgotten his room key.

            Groaning, blinking himself out of the doze he’d fallen into, Yuuri shoved to his feet and shuffled to the door. He switched his ice pack to his other hand and opened the door, bracing himself for another dose of apologetic enthusiasm. He’d told Phichit to enjoy himself, and asked Leo to make sure he did.

            It wasn’t Phichit or Leo.

            “Hi.” Victor Nikiforov looked back at him, his eyes bright and blue, his smile wide. He wore a pale blue shirt that stretched across his broad shoulders, and slim black slacks. His black shoes gleamed. His thin black belt had a silver buckle displaying a designer logo that Yuuri recognized but couldn’t name. Victor was dressed for going out, and he was so beautiful that it was difficult to keep looking at him. He kind of hoped he could find a poster of this particular look though because, wow.

            Yuuri wore sweats and an old t-shirt. He’d showered but the bandage had left weird adhesive bits in his hair and it stuck out all over. The little energy he’d been metering out over the night left him and he sagged.

            “Oh.”

            “Oh?” Victor’s smile fell off.

            “Uh. No, I mean… I-I can’t go dancing tonight, Victor. Sorry. I had…I had an accident today.” He swallowed, turning away. He was glad Victor hadn’t watched. Yuuri had nearly fallen getting off the ice. He had fallen, on almost every jump. Everything else had been a blur, but there was no way it hadn’t sucked as well. He’d finished in fourth place, no doubt solely due to the judge’s pity.

            “I know.”

            “You saw?” Yuuri gritted his teeth, refusing to raise his eyes.

            “Not the collision, but your performance.”

            “Oh.” Water dripped out of his icepack onto the floor. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

            “What? No. No, no. You were so brave. So strong. I can’t believe what you were able to do.”

            “It’s not…I wasn’t-”

            “To…to wring beauty out of your skate even though that happened. Despite it happening.”

            Warmth filled Yuuri. Gratitude. Victor had watched him and had come here to tell him that. It was…it was such a kindness. “You think so?”

            “I do.” Victor tilted his head, peering at Yuuri’s face, the cut in his hairline which had been glued closed, and the cut on his lip held together with a butterfly bandage. He grimaced sympathetically. “However, if I were your coach, I absolutely would not have allowed you to set foot on the ice.”

            “I…kind of insisted.”

            “I would have physically restrained you.”

            Yuuri laughed softly. “Then I wish you were my coach.” He shifted his weight and grimaced. “I feel like I was run over by a truck.”

            “Don’t worry.” Victor gently set a hand on his shoulder. “You’ll feel worse tomorrow.”

            Yuuri laughed openly, then winced and pushed a knuckle against his lip.

            “Sorry,” Victor murmured, hands fluttering, fingertips brushing his jaw and chin. “Sorry.”

            “It’s okay. I appreciate the reverse pep talk. And I am sorry I can’t go out. Your plans sounded like fun.”

            “Go out? Of course you are not going out. You are recovering from your truck incident.” Victor leaned down and picked up a silvery shopping bag by the handles. “I brought food for you. And ibuprofen. And-” He plucked a Ziploc bag out with his fingertips. It appeared to be full of other Ziploc bags, with something dark and disturbing in the middle. “-a liniment Yakov brews especially for his skaters. I’ll keep you company if you’re up for it. I have heard you must have someone with you at all times after a concussion.”

            “I don’t actually have a concussion. Celestino took me to the hospital afterwards.”

            “Well, concussion watch then. In case it arrives later.”

            It was all so much that Yuuri could only focus on the liniment. “Will that make me forget all my troubles?”

            “No, that is what vodka is for. This will smell terrible and ruin your wardrobe but your bruises will fade more quickly.”

            Yuuri smiled carefully. He backed up, opening the door more widely. “Would you like to come in?”

Chapter Text

           Phichit’s bed was covered in more things than should be able to fit in a suitcase, including a plush hamster pillow and an upended makeup case, the contents of which were strewn everywhere. How many liquid eyeliners did one small Thai man need? The single chair at the desk was wet from a discarded ice pack that had leaked, so Victor ended up perched beside Yuuri on his bed. He tried not to move much, not wanting to jostle him, but it was difficult. Yuuri half reclined on a pile of pillows, his arm bent across his body with an ice pack wrapped in a towel around it, and he was saying the most interesting things. Like that he had started skating because of Victor (!). And that he also liked dogs and was getting a biology degree. And that his family owned a little inn with a hot spring near the ocean, which sounded amazing!

            Yuuri wanted to see all of Victor’s pictures of Makkachin and was so appreciative of them that Victor had even shown him the ones where he didn’t look that good, like when he was moping on the couch on an off-day and Makkachin was the only bright thing around. And then he’d nervously shown Yuuri the pictures of Makkachin surrounding him with his toys after he’d had arthroscopic surgery on a torn hip labrum. He didn’t tell Yuuri about the injury of course and nothing was obvious in the photos. He’d skated Nationals and Worlds with the tear and a couple of horrific steroid injections, and told the press he was going to focus on ballet refresher training before the next season, because nobody would dare ask to film something in Lilia Baranovskaya’s studio and he’d been able to keep pictures of himself on crutches and painful rehabilitation away from the press.

            “You skated your Harmony program after that,” Yuuri said, pointing at the date. He smiled fondly as he swiped to the next photo. “I’d never seen anything so beautiful in my life.”

            Victor’s heart skipped a beat. Yuuri made a delighted noise when he saw the next picture. Victor’s heart skipped another beat. It was possible he was developing a condition.

            “Makkachin has a plushie of you?”

            “He did.” Victor gazed at Yuuri’s smiling mouth, the red swell of his cut lip and the dramatic white stripe of the bandage across it. “He lost Victor toy privileges when he tore the stuffing out of it.”

            Yuuri raised his head, his warm eyes sparkling as he handed the phone back. “Stuffing is very bad for dogs, no matter what the dog toy people say.”

            “Never mind the stuffing. It was very bad for me, to discover my favorite person in the world had torn me apart while I slept.” Victor pressed a hand to his chest. “I was traumatized!”

            He regretted phrasing it that way. Yuri always mocked him for talking about Makka like he was a person even though Yuri talked about all cats like they were people, and Makka was Victor’s favorite person.

            Yuuri laughed through his nose. “I’ll bet it was. When I was young my…my dog tore up one of my favorite posters.” He smiled gently. His eyes drifted closed. “I cried.”

            “Was it a poster of you?”

            Yuuri cracked an eye and frowned. “Why would I have a poster of myself?”

            “Why not?”

            “There was no such thing when I was younger.”

            “What a shame.” He’d bet that younger Yuuri was cute.

            “I thought of you before I skated.”

            Victor froze. Yuuri was so still that he couldn’t be sure he’d actually spoken, but then he rearranged himself, sinking deeper into the pillows, grimacing a little as he did so.

            “You did?”

            “Yeah, I thought…” He shook his head, mussing his hair even more. “I thought about dedicating it to you. I mean, before the accident.”

            Victor swallowed, unable to speak. Not that Yuuri was waiting for an answer. His body relaxed all at once, letting go of the tension that pain had wound around him.

            Katsuki Yuuri was very lovely. He was still unusually pale, with bruise-dark circles under his eyes and actual bruising around his right temple and cheekbone. But his skin was enticingly smooth, his hair raven dark. And soft, Victor remembered. He reached out, hesitated, then smoothed it off of Yuuri’s forehead.

            Yuuri’s chest rose and fell steadily. His lips parted slightly. Victor eased his glasses off, watching for a reaction, then removed the towel and ice pack from Yuuri’s arm and set them on the nightstand. The arm of his sweatshirt had been pulled up, and while Yuuri’s arm was reddened from the cold, it didn’t look too swollen. The bruising was limited, green-bluish rather than black. Victor had feared a fracture, the fall had been that hard, the angle putting all that momentum and all of Yuuri’s weight on his hand. But Yuuri was strong, resilient. Victor didn’t think it had even occurred to him not to finish his program, not to get back up. It would have been an honor to have such a performance dedicated to him.

            The room was small and warm, dim, lit only by the golden lights twinkling between the heavy drapes. It was also very quiet. This had been a trying day, full of nerves and shocks. Victor couldn’t be blamed if he sank a little lower against the pillows, if he let his own eyelids droop, if he fell asleep to the sound of Yuuri breathing next to him.

*

He awoke to a scream, startling upright. The light came on in the short hallway. A hand caught his flailing right arm and eased it down as Yuuri pushed himself up on his elbow.

            “Phichit, why?” He didn’t sound the least bit surprised.

            The younger skater sprinted into the room, the door slamming behind him.

            “I have to change my shirt,” he shouted. “I spilled four feet of daiquiri on it.”

            “And my shot of tequila.” The long-haired American skater meandered in after him, then they both froze. Phichit’s phone rose like a quickdraw in a Western movie and the flash went off.

            “Phichit,” Yuuri groaned, shielding his eyes. “No.”

            “Phichit yes! What are you doing?”

            “Sleeping. Change your shirt and go.”

            “You can’t tell me what to do. I’m a gold medalist now.”

            “Victor,” Yuuri murmured, and a thrill went through Victor at hearing his name spoken in that sleep-roughened voice. “You have more gold medals. Tell him to change his shirt and go.”

            Victor cleared his throat. He chanced a glance down at Yuuri. His eyes didn’t appear to be open. Apparently this was a normal Phichit thing.

            “You also have more gold medals, yes?”

            “Yes, but that’s…” Yuuri shook his head, then sighed. But his roommate was already tearing his shirt off. A flurry of aquamarine feathers came with it, floating around the room. He had red lipstick marks on his stomach…low on his stomach. Victor looked at the American skater – Leo, he thought – who grinned and shook his head.

            “It’s Vegas, man.”

            “And what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” Phichit declared as his head poked out of a new shirt he hadn’t bothered unbuttoning. He snapped another picture, but Yuuri’s hands were already covering his face. “Except for that. That, I’m getting evidence of.”

            He ran down the hallway, Leo following. The light turned off. The door slammed – open, this time – then closed with a click. Leaving the two of them behind in silence. Victor swallowed. He’d told himself that he was only going to stay for a little while, to make sure Yuuri didn’t need anything. (He’d hoped that the other man would have woken at some point and whispered to him to stay, but that made no sense. Yuuri hadn’t expressed an attraction toward him, and he was hurt, which made Victor’s fantasy selfish and unrealistic. But it was his fantasy, and he was keeping it.)

            “Get up,” Yuuri said.

            Victor’s heart plummeted.

            Of course, Yuuri might not have wanted him there. He had ignored that possibility. Mechanically, he stood, smoothed down his shirt and ran a hand through his hair. This was fine. It was normal even. It wasn’t a rejection. It was simply rational. He just needed to find his phone and-

            “Lay down.”

            “What?”

            He turned back to the bed. Yuuri had pulled the duvet and sheet back. He patted the space where Victor had been, and yawned.

            “Lay back down.”

            “Are you…are you sure?”

            “Please, Victor. I’m tired.”

            As if in a dream, Victor eased onto the bed. As soon as his head touched the pillow, Yuuri rose up over him. Victor’s eyes went wide. His hands clutched the sheet. Yuuri leaned against him and tucked the other side of the duvet snuggly under his shoulder and arm. He fell back on his side with a pained groan. His hand landed on Victor’s arm.

            “Good-night, Victor.”

            Yuuri wanted him to stay. Yuuri had tucked him into bed, concerned about Victor being comfortable and warm. It was so tender, as if he were treasured. Victor’s heart, which had been beating away since Phichit had barged in, then began to thump with abandon when Yuuri had leaned over him, settled into a sweet, high pulse.

            Wow.

*

Phichit returned a little before eight a.m., carrying his shoes in a yellow plastic bag. His rolled up pantlegs were wet at the bottom. His eyes were bloodshot. One tail was torn clean off the bottom of his shirt. He smelled like cigar smoke, alcohol and a mélange of perfume and cologne he did not wear.

            “Best. Night. Ever,” he said, falling backward onto his bed and immediately beginning to snore.

            Victor had left about forty minutes before, slipping out from beneath the covers and the warmth that had built between them. He’d knelt to whisper to Yuuri that he had an early shoot. With guns? That didn’t seem right, but Yuuri had been too tired to remember the English words to ask about it. Victor had tied up a new ice pack for Yuuri’s wrist. Yuuri held it pressed against his wrist, not feeling the cold. Victor. Nikiforov. Who had spent the night sleeping beside him. He could still smell Victor’s cologne on the sheets, the pillow, on him. He pressed a hand to his chest, trying to still the flutter there.

            “Best night ever.”

Chapter Text

Paris

 

           Yuri Plisetsky was irate. Yakov had dragged him to Paris for the “experience”, as if winning silver at the Grand Prix final in his senior debut and two event golds in two years – more than most professional skaters would see in their entire mediocre careers – wasn’t enough experience.

            But it wasn’t, compared to Victor.

            Nothing was ever enough, compared to Victor.

            And the worst, the absolute worst thing about it, was that he didn’t even hate Victor. Sure Victor was a complete idiot, so invested in “representing” the Russian Skating Federation and the sport of figure skating that he lived a cardboard cutout life. Sometimes it was more like he was a representation of a person than an actual human being. But he was a great skater.

            Which was so unfair.

            And now he was obsessed with Katsuki Yuuri, the one other senior male skater Yuri sometimes found interesting. But only sometimes. The rest of the time, Katsuki grated at Yuri, a splinter that he only noticed when it pained him. Because the Japanese skater sucked, so often and so painfully that it absolutely, fully, catastrophically enraged Yuri. What kind of asshole had that kind of talent and musicality inside of him and didn’t bring it when he competed against Yuri? Insulting!

            But he could almost understand it. While Victor was barely a three-dimensional human, with soundbites for thoughts and success in his bones, Katsuki was raw, an exposed wire, a glass heart. He bruised too easily. Sometimes all it took were a few words. Sometimes those words don’t even have to be spoken aloud. Yuri had seen it, by accident. Sure, he’d sort of been following Katsuki Yuuri the first time, intending to demand an explanation of a weightless transition from a spin into a jump. But he’d gone around the corner and, instead of finding Yuuri cooling down or selecting the best photo from his short program to post, he’d found him hunched over and hyperventilating. He’d backed away, hesitantly standing watch until Yuuri’s lumbering coach had finally found him and calmed him down. Coach Cialdini hadn’t seemed surprised to find his skater in that condition.

            And maybe the second time he’d lingered at the sink in the bathroom as Yuuri rushed blindly past him into a stall because somehow he could tell it wasn’t because the other skater had a bad stomach. The sobbing gasps that started almost immediately had been too much, and Yuri’d ended up kicking the door, trying to break him loose from the hold of whatever it was that melted him down from the inside out.

            When he’d heard about the collision in Las Vegas and rushed into the training area, he’d expected to find the man collapsed, inconsolable. Instead, through the heavy glass of the door, Yuri had watched him demand to skate while blood was still running down his face. He’d barely been able to balance on one leg as he’d attempted to warm up. Yuri had been sure he’d fall and hurt himself even worse, that a bad freeskate at Skate America would be the last time the Japanese Ace took the ice in a competition. He’d been about sick with nerves, something he hadn’t felt since his debut season, and which he’d never felt over someone else.

            Katsuki Yuuri had thrown every single last ounce of effort in his body into that skate. It hadn’t been good, but somehow it had been amazing. Yuri had been shaken. For all his anxiety and instability, Yuuri was stronger than him. He wanted to know why.

            Yakov and Nina were with Nina’s pair skaters. Victor was meeting with sponsors or an ice show producer, someone who wanted to attach his face to something of theirs. Yuri was in the lobby of the competition hotel, beside a grotesque rack of pastel clothes outside the gift shop. He’d been headed for a side door, but the Canadian team had come in through it and he was fairly certain he would commit actual murder – it couldn’t be considered manslaughter because he’d thought repeatedly and in detail of ending both JJ (for obvious reasons) and Scottie (that shitty new skater who’d crossed the ice at Skate America to accept a present from a damn fan and laid Katsuki Yuuri out while he was, for once, in the zone) – if either of them spoke to him. That was probably not the type of experience Yakov wanted him to be getting.

            They planted themselves in the middle of the lobby and JJ loudly greeted a reporter and camera guy. They were probably making a documentary about the worst contemporary skater in seniors and his dipshit protégé. Their coach – who was JJ’s dad for god’s sake (was there anything more pathetic?) – pointed toward the elevator doors then stepped back. The camera guy positioned himself, juggling the handheld light and his camera. The doors opened and Katsuki Yuuri stepped out, all his attention on the phone in his hand. JJ stage-whispered at them all to be quiet and Yuri’s eyes narrowed. This wasn’t the world’s worst documentary. This was an ambush.

            Pushing off, he strode across the lobby, wrapped his arm around Other Yuuri’s, and hustled him down the hall toward the back exit.

            “Wha-” Yuuri blinked owlishly at him, tripping alongside as he was pulled. “Yuri?”

            “Keep walking.”

            “Why?”

            “That fucking Canadian is trying to apologize to you.”

            “Th-that’s, uh, nice?”

            “He brought a camera crew, to catch you reacting to the apology. There are reporters in that bar, and skating vloggers. What’s the expression? Shooting fish in a barrel? You’re the fish.”

            Yuuri blinked again, then understanding filled those brown eyes with horror. He sped up until Yuri had to jog to keep up, and they pushed through the doors and hit the street almost at a run.

            “Why?” Yuuri whispered, half-panicked. “Why would they do that?”

            “Have you met them?”

            “Only JJ.”

            “JJ once poured a bucket of ice over a bathroom stall to punk his former coach, and gave the man a hernia.”

            “Oh, ew.”

            “JJ once pissed into the luggage compartment of the shuttle bus to impress a girl.”

            “What about that is impressive?”

            “Nothing. It’s disgusting. But it shows how his brain works.” They turned a corner, still walking fast. “JJ once bragged about turning ‘JJ Style’ into a sex move.”

            “Like, with the bodies shaped like the letters? Where do they intersect?”

            “No, with the finger moves.”

            Yuuri half-crossed his arms, looking down at his own fingers somehow making JJ’s signature stance look elegant. “Where did he put the fingers?”

            “I didn’t fucking ask, Katsuki. And that’s not the point. What I’m saying is that he’s an asshole. Assholes don’t make apologies, they only make things worse. I probably saved your life. You’re welcome.”

            “Thank you. Oh, we’re here.” Katsuki backtracked and pulled open a door. Yuri went inside, lifting his head to inhale the sweet and buttery scent of a bakery.

            “Caffeine,” he growled.

            “Let me buy you a coffee,” Yuuri said as they were drawn toward the bright and well-stocked pastry counter.

            Yuri halted. “You don’t need to buy me a fucking coffee.”

            “Tea then?”

            “What the hell? Don’t buy me anything.”

            “As a thank you. For saving me from that not-apology.”

            Yuri frowned. He hadn’t meant to spend time with Katsuki. He just hadn’t wanted JJ to win. But his mouth was watering. He only got one caffeinated drink a day, so it was essential that it was damn good, and this place smelled good.

            “Yuuri!” A woman wrapped herself around Katsuki. Yuri raised his leg, ready to kick her off. Fans could be so invasive. “We had a bet. I thought you wouldn’t be out of bed yet. Minako won!”

            “Ah, sorry Yuuko.” He waved over her head and Yuri leaned back to peer at another woman sitting ramrod-straight at a table, teapot, dishes and cutlery all arranged like it was staged. They were both dark-haired, fair-skinned, and smiling.

            The woman let go of Yuuri and turned. Her dark eyes went wide.

            “Ah, Yuuko this is Yuri Plisetsky. Yuri, this is Yuuko, my friend from home. We grew up together. That is Minako-sensei, my ballet instructor. Would…would you like to join us?”

            Yuri didn’t have time for tea parties, but he did have time to interrogate childhood friends. Because that’s where the best dirt was. He’d once met Georgi’s childhood next door neighbor by chance, and had learned no fewer than seven things that could make Georgi cry.

            “Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked the one called Yuuko because her eyes were still big and she seemed to be breathing rapidly through her o-shaped lips.

            “I’m so sorry,” she said with a quick, stilted bow that he had absolutely seen Katsuki pull before. “It’s just that my girls and I are such big fans of yours.”

            Somehow they were taking off their coats and arranging themselves around the table even though Yuri hadn’t exactly agreed to join them. Plotted to, but not agreed. There was an important distinction. Katsuki slid onto the bench seat toward the wall and Yuri sat on the outside, Yuuko opposite him. Minako greeted him politely if a little coolly before flinging her long hair over her angular shoulder and launching a monologue at Yuuri in Japanese that came out sounding half like criticism and half like dramatic outrage.

            Minako was tall, angular. The bone structure in her face, the heavy makeup on a casual outing, and the strong tendons in her neck were familiar to him. She had to be a dancer. Dimly, he remembered hearing that when Katsuki first began his international competitions he’d traveled with his ballet instructor rather than a coach. He couldn’t imagine Lilia dropping everything to escort Yuri when he’d been a little kid. She barely acknowledged him now after stamping her name all over him for an entire season. At that sour thought, he faced Yuuko. Information time. First, he had to gain her trust.

            “Are you all part of the fan club?” he asked.

            “No.” She assembled cups and saucers, and used a fork to cut ornate little desserts into four equal parts. “My girls say Yuri’s Angels are too focused on the superficial, when they should be focused on your skating.”

            Normally Yuri would throw down over any insult to his fanbase, even though certain members had humiliated him in Vegas, and others made his downtime hell on occasion, but this was a valid criticism and one he himself often lamented. When he could be bothered to care.

            “How many kids?” The fastest way to disarm someone who’d mentioned their children first was to pretend to be interested in the kids. He’d seen Victor do it countless times, and it was a sacrifice he was willing to make to learn what made Katsuki tick.

            “Three.”

            “How old are they?”

            “Seven.”

            He waited for a moment, then his eyebrows rose. “All of them?”

            “Yes.”

            Yuri did the math. Was that even possible?

            “They were triplets,” Katsuki said, shoving a phone at Yuri to show him a younger, plumper – oi, such a piglet! – Yuuri with tiny, identical girls, one wrapped around his neck and one in each arm. They were on the ice at a rink. “Axel, Lutz and Loop.”

            Despite himself, Yuri smiled. You’d have to be dead not to think that was adorable.

            “Yuuko stopped competing when they were born.”

            “You skated?” he asked, surprised, then braced himself for her to yell. Just because she was mom-shaped now didn’t mean she wouldn’t be mad at him for pointing it out.

            “Not in competitions, not like Yuuri. At local competitions, one regional event.”

            “You could have.” There was a depth to Yuuri’s tone. Nostalgia, regret.

            Yuuko just smiled and shook her head. “It was too much.”

            Yuri’s stomach sank, and irritation boiled up around it. He’d heard that before. “The kid ruined my body.” “The kid stole my figure.” “How can I practice? The kid is too demanding.” He’d heard exactly that before. He measured the distance to the door.

            “They were too cute,” Yuuko continued. “Too precious. I didn’t want to miss a moment with them.”

            “Her husband used to have to take the babies for a drive so she would sleep,” Minako chimed in, her English easier to understand. She elbowed her friend gently. “If any one of them was around, or she could hear them, she’d have to be with them.”

            “Then they started crawling,” Yuuri added. “And it took both of them to keep the girls contained.

            “Then running. Then skating!”

            “They skate?” Six clumsy legs on knife shoes sounded dangerous.

            “I don’t think I could keep them off the ice if I tried. Taka…my husband and I run the local ice rink. It’s not as if I am away from skating. Axel and Lutz are already choreographing programs. Loop isn’t as much of a skater. I do not think she will continue.” But she didn’t sound disappointed, like there was more to her life than the rink. “She’s more of a-”

            “Tyrant,” Minako said.

            “She prefers to evaluate-”

            “Judge and condemn.”

            “-skaters than skate herself.”

            “Yeah,” Yuri asked, not sure how to deal with someone who didn’t roll their eyes and call their children brats. Surely this woman had something bad to say. “How does she score me?”

            Yuuko looked up, thinking, then raised a finger. Minako snorted out a laugh at what must have been an impression of the daughter.

            “Plisetsky’s PCS scores are commensurate to ambitious for his skillset.” A second finger joined the first. “Plisetsky’s balance of execution and innovation blow the competition away. Seriously, everyone else? So boring.” Third finger. “His costumes are perfect though the music is often too traditional, with the exception of Into the Madness.”

            She leaned toward Minako and asked something in Japanese.

            “Ah.” Minako nodded, translating. “That was quite risqué. She almost couldn’t let the girls watch it. They were only five.”

            A lot of people had trouble with that program, but it was his policy never to apologize for it. “Sorry.”

            Yuuko smiled warmly and raised a fourth finger. “Plisetsky was robbed in Helsinki. All three agreed it was a crime.”

            “What about Victor?” Loop probably thought his costumes and his stupid music were both perfect.

            She darted a look at Yuuri before busying herself with pouring tea.

            “I’ve already heard it all,” Yuuri said, handing out the plates. “And received the emails, and the texts. I know exactly what they think of the rest of us. I have multiple lists of Uncle Yuuri’s areas for improvement. Ranked. By category.”

            Now he wanted to know. He wanted to know badly. Clearly Loop was objective if her Uncle Yuuri got torn down.

            “She thinks that Victor is too strategic.”

            “What does that mean?”

            “Do you want something else?” Yuuko asked, frowning at his untouched plate.

            “This is fine.” He scooped up a pastry, surprised that it was savory rather than sweet. “It’s good. Thanks. But what does she mean about strategic?”

            “It means she thinks he only skates to win.”

            Yuri shook his head. “Everyone skates to win.”

            Yuuko snuck another glance at Yuuri, but he was bent over his teacup, almost suspiciously intent on it.

            “Because of his ranking, he often goes last in a competition.” Yuuko selected her words carefully. “She believes he changes the difficulty of his program, mid-skate, based on how the other skaters performed. She thinks he only does the minimum needed to secure the win.”

            Yuri’s jaw dropped. Not because it wasn’t possible. He’d seen it. Yakov had praised Victor for doing it. He’d told Yuri to aspire to it. But he’d never heard commentators speculate on it. They were never surprised when Victor won, even if it was only by hundredths of a point. They expected him to win, but they didn’t seem to realize how intentional he was about it.

            He leaned forward, serious. “I think your daughter might be a genius.”

            “I know.” She asked Yuuri something in Japanese and he laughed and nodded before turning to Yuri.

            “One time Loop posted a competition analysis on a forum. A sports editor somehow tracked down the family’s phone number. Yuuko had to tell him he couldn’t offer Loop a job as a columnist because she was down for a nap.”

            “She was six,” Yuuko said, scandalized.

*

            Later, Yuri would decide the tea party had been a failure. He hadn’t learned anything useful about Katsuki Yuuri, only that his favorite food was a pork cutlet bowl, which had caused his sister to nickname him Katsudon. And that his friends were warm and so inviting that somehow Yuri had agreed to meet up with them later while the competitors were practicing. They were so nice that he wasn’t even mad about it, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about that.

            He did try to rub the experience in Victor’s face later, telling him that he was going to hang out with Yuuri and his friends.

            “That’s so nice, Yuri. I’m glad you get along with them.”

            Nothing! Did the man not know how to be upset over his obsession’s friends preferring Yuri? He tried a different tack.

            “Yeah, well I think he has a crush on his friend Yuuko. They skated together when they were kids. Yuuko was older and bigger, so sometimes she lifted him.”

            Victor barely looked up from his bed where he was watching videos of his own dog. Videos he’d filmed, and been there for. What could be so interesting? It wasn’t like Makkachin was a cat. “I bet they were so cute!”

            Had he lost interest? Of course Victor was over Katsudon already. He’d probably instinctively realized that someone that genuine would never be interested in a shell person like Victor, someone who was so detached from his own programs that he reduced the difficulty if he didn’t have to put any more effort in to win. That lack of passion make Yuri want to punch him. Better yet…

            He shoved the older man with his foot, leaving a shoe print of the trousers of his stupid three-piece suit (what the hell century did Victor think this was!?) and eliciting a satisfactory grunt.

            “Why so mean, Yuri?” Victor finally looked up, rolling onto his side to face him. “Oh, do you want to hear about my ice show this summer? It’s going to have a royal theme. Guess who will play the king?”

            “Is it about the French revolution?”

            “I don’t think so. I could get you in as a prince. Or maybe a court jester? How do you feel about a hat with little bells on it?”

            Yuri lunged and Victor rolled backwards off the bed to escape him.

            “So mean, Yuri!”

Chapter Text

            Usually Paris was exciting. Fashion! Shopping! New deals with sponsors!

 

            Usually Paris was entertaining. Beautiful people! Wonderful soirees!

 

            Victor had even been to a party today, after having next summer’s ice show concept presented to him and inking a sponsorship deal with a luxury jewelry and watch company. He extended his arm until his sleeve fell back, unveiling the heavy gold watch with the obsidian face. It was new. It was shiny. It was even gold!

            His arm fell, waking the phone propped against his pillow and showing him the words that had hammered misery into his heart for hours.

 

            Yuuri

It’s okay that you’re busy. Another time. :)

 

            He could see the smile on Yuuri’s face. Not a perfectly round yellow emoji on Yuuri’s face. That would be weird. But a small, forgiving smile. An understanding smile. After Victor had gotten him to agree to meet him in the afternoon, then postponed and postponed and postponed, restless in a conference room while his team applauded themselves and revised contracts and restless in the private room at the restaurant while they poured champagne to celebrate. He had been about to send his fourth “Just one more hour!!!!” message when Yuuri had sent this.

            It wasn’t a mean message, and Victor understood it. He totally understood it. Yuuri’s friends had flown in from Japan. Of course he would want to spend time with them. He should spend time with them. But…

            He didn’t like it.

            And he didn’t like this strange messaging app that he had to use for Yuuri because something about his American phone plan meant texts were slow to reach him when he was overseas. Victor couldn’t tell if he was on the app right now or if he was awake. All it told him was that Yuuri had been active today, which yes, obviously he knew!

            And now he knew some of what he had been doing, because Yura (so lucky!!!) had spent the afternoon with Yuuri and his lovely friends while Victor had smiled over a glass of champagne he hadn’t even been drinking.

            With a groan he flopped over on the bed, covering his eyes with his forearm. Why? Why did this day have to go this way?

            It was okay, he told himself. He would see Yuuri tomorrow for the short program. He would get to see him skate. Maybe he would be able to apply lip balm for him. Sitting up, he eyed his coat, which he needed to hang up, and his shoes, which were still on his feet and he should probably take off before going to sleep. His costumes hung in the closet in garment bags. His toiletries were in the bathroom. The clock showed nine fifteen p.m. He should change his clothes, stretch, hydrate, then get ready for bed. Just like every night before a competition. He had already gone two weeks without seeing Katsuki Yuuri. What was one more night?

            Grabbing his phone, he stabbed out a message.

 

            Victor

I’M SO SORRY. THE MEETINGS WERE OUT OF CONTROL. I MISSED YOU. I HOPE YOUR DAY WENT WELL.I hope your day went well.

 

            Standing, he shook out his coat and hung it, then scrutinized his shoes, considering polishing them. Maybe polishing them would make tomorrow come faster, like in that fairy tale with the thing and the kitchen and the small guy. The elf. Or was he a fairy? It had to be a fairy, right, it was a fairy tale after all. There was a tradesman? And maybe a curse? He didn’t want to be cursed.

            His phone pinged.

            Dropping his shoe, he snatched it up. Yuuri had sent a pin. No response, simply a pin on a map. Victor turned it this way and that. Was this a code? Was it an angry pin, Yuuri sending him directions to a terrible place because he was mad that Victor had strung him along?

            No, it was a park a few blocks from the hotel. Shoving his shoes back on, jamming his arms into the sleeves of his coat, Victor went. The walk was quick, and brisk. A cold breeze lashed at him when he stepped out from between buildings. An open area in the darkened park had been decorated with a small, tented stage and a skating rink with temporary, wooden walls. A slender man in a heavy coat stood alone at the side of the rink, his glasses reflecting the small, glittering lights wrapped around the tall, leafless trees. It was like a place from a fairy tale. The good kind of tale. Not the cursed kind.

            “I didn’t bring my skates,” Victor said.

            Yuuri turned, his nose and ears red from the chill. His eyebrows rose, then his lips spread in a smile, soft and slow.

            “What are you doing here?”

            Victor raises his phone. “You sent me a map.”

            “Oh! I meant to send a link, of what I saw today. A local skating group put on an exhibition.” He tilted his head, confusion in his wine-tinged eyes. “Wait, you saw a map, so you just followed it?”

            “It was like a treasure hunt!” Victor stopped beside Yuuri, angling to block the wind with his back. “Was it a good show?”

            “It was pretty.” Yuuri spoke dreamily, turning back to the rink, as if still seeing it in his mind. “Kids were skating. A pair did Swan Lake. They even did a couple of lifts. The small kids performed Dance of the Little Swans. They had feathered hats and costumes. Two of them fell and brought down the others. They had to stop the music while they got untangled. It was great. Then a girl skated to Notte Stellata. She might have been twelve. She was very talented.”

            “You like that song?” It was barely a question. The song was pretty, melodious, lifting the heart as the lyrics soared, breaking it a little bit with the longing of the minor notes. Yuuri would be devastating if he skated to it.

            “It feels simple.” Yuuri raised his arm, twisting it elegantly at the wrist, unfolding his fingers until his palm faced up, bare to the light and the cold. “But it’s so big, so full.”

            Victor took a shallow breath in response to the private smile that rose on Yuuri’s face. A dark line crossed his lower lip, the scar from his fall not yet gone. Yuuri was like that, like the song. Quiet, but full. Victor had not known that passion could be quiet. It had never felt like that for him. But Yuuri wasn’t like Victor, or Chris, or Yakov, or Yuri, or Georgi, or so many other skaters who threw or shouted themselves at the audience. The others would never stand in the cold at the side of a rink, enjoying skating even after the performance had ended. Yuuri’s passion was not an obvious thing but it was there, inside of him, always burning.

            “I am sorry I missed it.”

            Turning to him, the lower part of his face partially swaddled in his scarf, Yuuri raised his other hand. Against the red of his cold-touched fingers, the white feather he held stood in stark contrast. He offered it to Victor almost shyly. And Victor took it, almost shyly.

            “A commemorative souvenir?” Victor asked.

            Yuuri huffed out a laugh. “Sure.”

            “Then there was a treasure at the end of this map after all.”

            A blast of wind buffeted them and Yuuri shivered. “We should get back.”

            “I hear we have to skate tomorrow.”

            “Hmm. I heard that, too.”

            “Are you ready for it?” They headed for the hotel, side by side, hands deep in their pockets, the feather weightless inside the curled protection of Victor’s fingers.

            “I guess,” Yuuri said, frowning. “Half of our luggage didn’t arrive from Detroit. Katie and Aaron’s skates and costumes.”

            “Who are they?”
            “Pair skaters. Celestino’s students.”

            “You train with them?”

            Yuuri nodded, running a hand through his hair from where the wind had mussed it. “They moved to Detroit two years ago. Katie and I were in juniors at the same time, so I knew her a little already. Aaron is older.”

            “Did your bags arrive?”

            “Yes. I was lucky.” Yuuri peeked up at Victor, face straight except for the too-bright sparkle in his warm brown eyes. “Are you ready for it?”

            Victor made a show of tilting his head back and forth as though unsure. “I’m a little nervous.”          

            “There there.” Yuuri patted his arm. “Just watch out for flying Canadians during the warmup, and you should be okay.”

            “That’s very comforting. Thank-”

            “If you try your best, you’ll probably make the top ten.”

            “Yuuri! You wound me!” Victor clutched at his chest, staggering as they reached the revolving door to the hotel lobby. Yuuri pushed through it, laughing at Victor over his shoulder. Victor wanted to kiss him.

            He stopped cold, still outside the hotel, while Yuuri spun through the glass door into the brightly lit lobby.

            He wanted to kiss him.

            Yuuri turned and peered at him through the distorting glass. He raised both hands in a silent question.

            “I want to kiss you,” Victor said in a rush. Inside the building, Yuuri shook his head, pointing toward his ear. It was adorable. He was adorable. This had not been an awful day at all. In fact-

            “Ça ne me dérange pas.”

            Victor whirled to find himself staring down at a hunched crone – man or woman, he honestly could not tell – dressed head to toe in rust-colored knit. The specter grinned at him in a lecherous, partially toothless manner.

            “Pardon. Je ne vous parlais pas.” He pushed the revolving door so hard the back of it clipped his heel as he escaped into the hotel.

*

            Victor arrived at the sports arena early. He had two interview appointments which he needed to take his time with. One was for a website that one of his sponsors advertised on heavily. Their public relations department had sent him a list of talking points. The other was with an interviewer who’d complained about Victor blowing her off when he’d mixed up times on his calendar. She was still calling Yakov about it, which meant Yakov was still yelling at Victor about it.

            Unfortunately, the staging area was filled with distress. Victor had trouble with people in distress. He wasn’t sure quite what to do with them except suggest they stop being distressed? He kept to the periphery of the room, hoping to edge past to get a coffee before his first meeting. Coach Cialdini and several officials were with a male skater, trying to calm him down. The pair skaters were performing this morning, but his female counterpart wasn’t with him.

            The skater lamented a damaged skate. This had to be be Yuuri’s rinkmate, with the lost luggage. Evan or something. It must have arrived in a bad state. A pair of stiff, pristine skates lay on the bench beside him. Victor grimaced. It was painful, even dangerous, to perform on new skates.

            “They’re working on your boots,” Cialdini soothed. “They’ll be ready.”

            “They won’t. They won’t! Katie is just back from injury. This is the last thing she needs!”

            “You not being warmed up is the last thing she needs. Get moving. The boots will be ready.”

            “Celestino, if we can’t warm up together on the ice, she’s going to be nervous. If she’s nervous, we’re going to-”

            “Don’t worry.” Cialdini grabbed the man by the shoulders and forced eye contact until he stilled. “Yuuri is with her. The officials okayed it. Now, you need to get warm so you can be ready the second they fix that blade.”

            Victor stopped mid-step. The reporter he was meant to meet spotted him from the hall outside the staging area. He waved. Victor waved back.

            “Ah, David. So good to see you. Give me just five minutes, please.” Without waiting for a response, he rushed toward the rink.

            He all but collided with the low wall. Chris Giacometti, leaned on it, straightened at the rattling thud. Then he smiled and thumped him on the back before pulling him closer.

            “Victor, you got here just in time.”

            “Why are you here so early?”

            “That German skater. Hans. Unbelievable lower body strength.” He kissed his fingertips. Across the ice, a tall, broad-shouldered man with short brown hair missed a step. Impatient, Victor’s gaze left him, seeking a familiar form. Ah.

            Yuuri, in a warmup jacket, spun across the ice in a series of rapid, compact twizzles. A blond female skater in a bright red skirt moved with him. They ended the sequence and she went through a series of motions, marking a more complex passage, then slowed and began talking fast and gesticulating emphatically.

            Nodding, Yuuri kicked off and moved through a series of steps before dropping into a low gliding lunge. His shoulders were back, his arms almost sleepy at his sides. It was a bit dispassionate. Straightening, he circled back to her. Around them, other couples performed lifts and synchronized steps. Was Yuuri going to do that? Victor knew his rinkmates’ routines. He ran through sequences alongside them, especially Yuri, but he’d never skated with someone, never touched someone on practice ice other than to correct their form.

            Gliding alongside the blond, listening intently, Yuuri reached up and stuck one side of his collar between his teeth, then slowly unzipped his warmup jacket with the same hand. Victor swallowed.

            Chris nudged him. “Are you ready for this?”

            “Ready for what?”

            “Katsuki Yuuri. He’s one of our competitors if you don’t know him. He’s working with one of the women.”

            “I know him.” He was the last person Victor had spoken to last night, and the first one he had thought of when he’d woken.

            Yuuri tossed his jacket over the edge of the rink and circled to the center. The woman removed her jacket as well. The entire back and one side of her costume were cut out, leaving nothing but a thin mesh backing the color of her skin. She skated close to Yuuri and turned her back to him. He pulled her body flush against his.

            A jolt went through Victor. “What is he doing?”

            “Warming her up, it would appear. Lucky girl.”

            The woman leaned her head back until it rested on Yuuri’s shoulder. Her hair draped down the tight black sleeve of his shirt, a stimulating contrast. Yuuri stared down at her, stared down at her with interest, stared down at her with possessive interest. Victor grabbed the side of the rink.

            His arm snaked across her chest, one hand rising to cup her face. Her red lips moved, a countdown. He swore that her lower lip brushed his thumb. Victor swallowed a noise.

            On “one”, Yuuri pushed her away. She did an artistic ragdoll then swiveled to chase after him as he moved away. Their motions were synchronized but contrasting, the woman leaning forward, grasping, Yuuri crisply evading her, but there were exaggerated shifts of his hips, his shoulders. He leaned forward then snapped away.

            He was seducing her, even as he wouldn’t allow her to touch him. Victor’s face felt hot then cold. She reached again and, this time, he grabbed her, one hand across the back of her neck. They held there for a beat before he swung her around, the movement incomplete. A marker for something more dramatic. They broke apart, mirroring each other in a rapid staccato step sequence. Their arms shot down, and Yuuri dropped into that glide he’d practiced before. And the woman – THIS IMPERTINENT WOMAN – wrapped herself around him from behind, all grasping arms and bare legs and so much red and skin.

            Victor had to blink a few times, opening his eyes again to find them facing each other in a taut lunge, both their back legs straight and inches off the ground, before they slid upright, using each others’ bodies for leverage. Their gazes burned. The tension was outrageous. Victor felt a little light-headed.

            They broke apart and the woman went through a complicated sequence before launching into a double axel. Victor could barely even pay attention. Yuuri skated after her, giving a wide berth to another pair as they passed in a swirl of synchronized spins. The woman landed and skated toward him, breathing hard, smiling. Victor made an incoherent sound of protest.

            Someone shouted behind him and he nearly leapt off his feet when Celestino’s distressed skater tossed his guards to the side and raced onto the ice. The woman clapped, then she threw her arms around Yuuri and kissed him on the cheek before joining her partner.

            “Pair skating, so sensual,” Chris purred beside him. “I have always wanted to try it. The only thing better than skating is sensual skating.”

            “Your skates are always sensual,” Victor responded, but it was a pat response, part of this routine flirtation that had begun so many years ago that it was as habitual with Chris as saying hello to anyone else.

            “I still think, mon cher,” Chris said, leaning close, “we would make beautiful music on the ice. I’m available once again. I assume you still are as well?”

            Yuuri headed for the gate, his head up, one hip cocked in front of the other. The persona he had adopted, the arrogant fire of carnal temptation, was gone. But he still had it within him. Like so many other things, so many surprising things. Victor’s breath left him in a rush.

            “Sorry,” he said, shaking his head to clear it and turning to Chris, “what were you saying?”

Chapter Text

           Victor was a distraction. He was bright and loud, filling every space he entered, carrying other distractions in his wake. He simultaneously pulled Yuuri’s attention and made him want to shield himself from him. But his presence was also, oddly, helpful. Whatever he was doing, Victor was fully in that moment, whether it was on the ice, gliding through his almost unbelievably short warmup preparations, dealing with the press, or wandering over from whatever event he’d no doubt been the center of attention of, to walk with Yuuri back to the hotel in the cold dark of night. His presence made Yuuri more aware of the present, which he had never been good at.

            Yuuri had looked up to the skater for years, admired his icy perfection and towering talent for half his life, wanted to be like him so much that he had performed almost his entire junior career in homage to Victor. But he was older now, with mature skills, maybe not smart but wise enough to realize that he hadn’t ever really come close to Victor. Not as a skater.

            But the biggest surprise of all, after having watched hours of interviews, was that there was so much more to Victor than what he shared with the wider world. Victor the man was warm kindness and radiating enthusiasm, and it was easy to be swept along by that. Yuuri wanted to be swept along by it, to pretend that Victor paid attention to him out of interest and not only because they happened to be at the same place at the same time. They had competed at the same events twice before, and Victor hadn’t spared him a glance. Yuuri had been part of the background at two of Victor’s gold-medal winning performances, which was fitting even if it stung to realize. But Yuuri’s distress in Torino had made him visible to Victor, and then of course there was the debacle in Las Vegas. Victor probably considered Yuuri a victim of circumstance who needed to be watched out for, since he couldn’t manage to take care of himself on his own. That is probably why he had searched for Yuuri last night after the map mistake, to make sure he hadn’t been kidnapped or something. Still, it had been nice.

            Yuuri didn’t want nice today. Victor had been mobbed by reporters, then by skaters wanting their moments and selfies with him. Christophe Giacometti and his coach were all but planted at his side, Chris’s deep voice a constant rumble around Victor’s quicker, lighter comments. Yuuri turned his back, his music loud as he deepened his stretch along the wall. He was a fan of Victor’s skating, he always would be. But he didn’t want today to be about fandom. The world loved Victor on the ice. Chris, JJ and Cao Bin could compete with him, at times. Yuri Plisetsky had, pushing Victor to another record-setting performance at the Grand Prix Final two years ago, if Loop’s assessment was correct.

            It seemed cold, calculating, to be able to change a program during a competition when other skaters were hot. Then again, Yuuri supposed he did that as well. Or tried. He just wasn’t a genius like Victor so he couldn’t pull it off. He wanted to do it here, though, wanted to be the one to push Victor while he was visible to him. The idea of triggering Victor’s competitive side sent a little thrill through him. It didn’t eliminate his anxiety, but it rose over the top of it.

            The last skater in the first group, he left the warmup area with Michele Crispino, waiting in the tunnel while Mickey skated, not wanting to see Victor before he took the ice. He hadn’t asked him to watch this time, but he hoped that he might. Celestino wished him luck and clapped him on the back as he took the ice.

            Light, he told himself, breathing out a slow breath. Light with his arms, light on his landings. Yuri Plisetsky was in the audience, his hood down under his white and red Russian jacket. He almost thought Yuri nodded at him, but then the boy’s scowl flattened out his face and Yuuri’s gaze bounced away him. Katie, sitting with Aaron a row behind Plisetsky, waved. Her red sleeve flapped free from her jacket and Yuuri swallowed. He’d practiced with them both before, in Detroit, when they were all sweaty and frustrated and wearing layers of clothing. Before the emotional part of their program had been refined.

            Celestino had called him in early to help today, which had been fine because he’d been restless and about to start really worrying so the distraction was welcome. It was different to skate their routine like it was real, like he was embodying a cold, domineering lover. Katie used to flirt with him in juniors, which he’d responded to with strategic hiding. Her pursuit in practice had felt more desperate. She’d asked him to go for it, said she needed that to prepare. So he had touched her like Aaron touched her, and tried to evade and convincingly entice her, and he could see why their push-and-pull routine was getting such high scores. It engaged the audience, and it was engaging to perform as well.

            Yuuri took his starting position. Light, he thought. Not nice today. Push and pull, friction and release. He looked to the ceiling and splayed his fingers over his chest. You’re going to beat me, Victor Nikiforov, but you’re going to have to work for it.

            He crunched the landing on his opening jump, but tightened up to keep from touching down, snapping his arms out as though he’d conquered it. There had been some illusion in Katie’s performance. Maybe he could have a little, too. His footwork was fast, crisp, toe picks digging in on his twirls, maybe a little arrogant as he swept through it.

            Arrogance wasn’t him, and the abrupt realization cost him as he overrotated his triple toe and nearly stepped out of it. Irritated, he focused on the flying sit spin, and maybe it was from warming up for so long through the pair skaters’ programs but he felt extra flexible and rose out of it into a Biellman, knowing from the pressure and the rotations that he hadn’t lost nearly as much speed as usual. It felt good. And maybe a little of that earlier arrogance returned as he moved into a long and deep spread eagle, then launched into his triple axel. He loved the jump. When he landed it well, it felt so perfect. If he’d been in Detroit, Phichit would have been screaming over this one. And somehow have ten photos of it.

            Fighting off a grin, he cocked his head as he started the second step sequence. His footwork continued right to the edge of the quad toe and he had to throw himself into it with almost no momentum, somehow pulling through all the rotations and sticking the landing before his final spin combination. He bent nearly flat, then rose out of it, arms and hands winding upward, the pressure at that speed crushing the air from his lungs. The audience began applauding before he’d finished, snapping to a stop, arms winging out to his sides, head up as he panted for air.

            “Another personal best,” Celestino rumbled, hugging him from the side. Yuuri nodded, bowing to his coach, then the camera and the audience. 103.3. The judges had docked his jumps but his performance scores were excellent. 103.3 was still nowhere near Victor’s potential score. Leaving Celestino to talk to reporters about his plans for the rest of the season, he headed for the back. He needed to do something about his jumps. He could increase his technical difficult to infinity and it wouldn’t matter if he couldn’t land anything.

            “What was that about?” JJ said, from his power pose in the center of the tunnel. “Don’t tell me you’re trying to be like that guy now? We don’t need any more like him.”

            Yuuri followed his gaze toward Chris, starting his program to the wail of a saxophone. He squinted. Celestino still had his glasses. “Swiss?”

            “No, sexy.”

            Yuuri tilted his head. “You thought I was sexy?”

            “No!” JJ’s power pose withered.

            “Ah, Yuuri, that was so good! Your footwork was amazing!” Victor grabbed both his shoulders and squeezed them, beaming down at him. Yuuri couldn’t quite meet his gaze, afraid that he’d see his failed challenge written in Yuuri’s eyes.

            “Thank you.”

            “Huh, figures,” JJ said, too loud but not quite mean enough to sound insulting. “You’re always raving about Giacometti’s performances.”

            Chris was working overtime on the ice. Sensual. Arrogant. Why didn’t he feel awkward doing that in public? Maybe because it was close to his actual personality. It probably felt natural to him. He had a cutout on one hip of his costume and Yuuri couldn’t figure out the shape. Or the purpose. Yuuri had stopped wearing v-neck costumes in juniors because he hated having to shave his chest. Did Chris have to shave that spot? Did he shave the other side, to maintain symmetry?

            Victor shrugged. “What’s not to like? He’s good, DJ.”

            “My name is JJ. Jean-Jacques Leroy.”

            “Oh, so it is!” Utterly unapologetic, Victor turned his back on the Canadian skater, hopping lightly to stay warm. “You moved differently out there today than in Vegas, Yuuri.”

            “I felt different than in Vegas.” Yuuri was squinting. He was concerned that the cutout looked like a two-headed arrow pointing to both the front and the back of Chris’s, uh, of Chris. Did he know it looked like that? Had nobody told him?

            “Do you like that?” Victor asked as Chris completed a pelvic thrust, despite the fact that it wouldn’t yield additional points. Victor had stopped hopping.

            “It’s…definitely a strong stylistic statement.”

            “Do you like his style?”

            “I mean, he scores well with it.” Yuuri drank from his pink lemonade flavored water. He preferred the tangerine flavor.

            “Would you skate like that?”

            Would he skate like? Like what? Like, all sexy and unashamed about it, flaunting his desires, writhing his body in front of the audience? Yuuri’s eyes went wide. The lemonade went down a suddenly tight throat. The flush that had died after his exertion spread across his face and down his neck. WHY WAS VICTOR ASKING HIM SUCH THINGS.

            “Would you?” Yuuri asked in a scandalized whisper.

            They stared at each other. Victor’s blue eyes darted around, then he began to blush too, the color violent against his pale complexion.

            “I don’t understand the question,” Victor said in a rush.

            “It’s your question.”

            “What?”

            “Were you…joking?”

            “Yes!” Victor straightened, pressing his hand to his chest in an overblown gesture of relief. “I was joking. Of course.”

            “Victor!” Yakov growled from the gate. “It’s time.”

Chapter Text

            He spent the evening with Minako and Yuuko, and felt balanced. Not relaxed, like he might if he’d been with them in Hasetsu, but balanced. With the girls filling her life, Yuuko rarely traveled. With the time difference, they texted after big competitions but no longer talked during them. She reminded him of when they first began skating, when she kindly taught him and he – amazingly – improved almost weekly. He’d thought that, if he kept going, surely one day he would be as good as Victor. That Victor would gift him one of those warm smiles he always gave the other medalists on the podium, even when the older ones only nodded back or when the ones his age wouldn’t quite look him in the eye.

            But Yuuri’s improvements had slowed, then backtracked or sometimes skittered sideways for months at a time. He’d learned the quad lutz from the star of an ice show when he’d been a backup skater for three weeks one summer, but still fumbled the salchow despite hours of drilling with Celestino. He’d had to work and work to make it to the senior level. There was no magical, meteoric rise like Victor, blasting through a pantheon of his heroes, rocketing away from his contemporaries. He wondered if Victor had ever been startled by his own ascent.

            Yuuri jumped again, completing his spins and landing well. His reflection was blurry in the mirror of the dim side room beneath the arena. He took another pass through of his second step sequence, pulling up where his spin would start, then headed into the main room to put his skates on.

            An arm fell heavily over his shoulders, jostling him a little. When he went to pull away, disturbed by the interruption, the hand tightened on his shoulder, pulling his earbuds out of his ears. The excited buzz of the room hit him all at once. The sight of Victor’s arms, graceful, lilting, disappeared down a corridor at the opposite side of the room as he warmed up.

            JJ grinned down at Yuuri, all white teeth and hard blue eyes. “Come on, Katsuki. Let the kid apologize.”

            “JJ, not now please.”

            “It’s eating at him. You’re more senior. Be the bigger man, too.”

            “Be the kinder man, the more generous man? Like you, JJ?”

            JJ’s grin broadened as he accepted the compliment despite Yuuri not meaning it that way. “Yeah.”

            The official gave a five minute notice to the second group.

            “If I turn around is there going to be a camera in my face?”

            JJ grimaced. “That was my mom’s idea. No, no camera. Come on, man. He feels awful.”

            Guilty, Yuuri turned. He couldn’t imagine having caused such a scene during his senior debut. At least that was one thing he’d managed not to get wrong that year. JJ beckoned his Canadian teammate, Scottie Chan, toward him. The poor kid looked like he wanted to melt through the floor. His face was blotchy from nerves and red from exertion. He’d skated in the first group, and it didn’t look like his performance had gone well.

            “I’m so sorry,” he said immediately. He was short, with dark blond hair and freckles. If he’d been Yuuri’s rinkmate, he would have ruffled his hair.

            “It was an accident.”

            “Yeah, but…it was bad.” Scottie winced at the dark scar on his lip. Yuuri could not wait for it to heal up. In Detroit everyone at school had asked if he’d been in a fight. One of the hockey players had asked if he needed to go beat someone up for Yuuri, which was sweet? But really violent?

            “It only looked bad.” Yuuri smiled gently. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about it.”

            “But what if you miss your chance at the final because of it?”

            “Ha!” JJ slapped Yuuri on the back and pulled him in for another unwelcome hug. “Senior skaters don’t let a little thing like that stop them. You’ll figure this out soon enough, young’en. All it does is sort the stars from the herd.”

            Yuuri glanced up at movement in the corridor, but instead of Victor it was Yuri Plisetsky, crossing the room like a blond missile made of snarling teeth and piercing eyes. JJ jerked back, and an ornament on his costume tugged at Yuuri’s, twisting them toward each other. Scottie, wise beyond his ears, fell back. Yuri kept advancing, and JJ reached up, twisting and tugging until they were free of each other.

            “Hey Plisetsky,” he muttered as he jumped a bench and retreated toward his parents.

            “Yuri,” Yuuri said, leaning past the angry Russian for his skates, “let him go.”

            “What was he doing to you?”

            “Nothing. Letting his teammate apologize.”

            Yuri looked around for cameras then, apparently less homicidal if not satisfied, crossed his arms. Yuuri sat to lace his skates up.

            “Thank you for your concern,” Yuuri said toward his skates, biting off a smile when the younger skater growled.

            “I’m not concerned. I don’t even care.” He stomped a few steps away, then threw over his shoulder, “Davai. It means good luck, or whatever.”

            “Thank you. Or whatever.”

            “Asshole.” He stomped fully away, heading through the tunnel to the rink, practically hissing when an official made him show his laminate before allowing him out.

            Satisfied with his laces, Yuuri assembled with the second group. He changed his music to his program piece and tried to follow Minako’s advice and sink into it. Victor stood at the front of the group, his white team jacket vivid, his chin up as he gazed over the rink. The crowd around the tunnel wasn’t watching the skater on the ice. They were leaning over the wall toward him, like flowers bending toward the sun. Yuuri understood the impulse, but he wondered how Victor could stand it. Or maybe he didn’t notice it, maybe all those people were simply window dressing in the story of his life.

            He kept his head down during his warmup skate, except for his slightly heightened vigilance to the other skaters. The sting of the collision hadn’t fully retreated yet. He met Victor’s gaze once, after landing a triple toe, double toe combination. The glance was brief but electric, as was the touch when Victor brushed his elbow and told him good luck on his way to the back.

            Celestino had to remind him to remove his gloves then his earbuds before heading out for his freeskate. But the music was with him before it began to play over the speakers. He moved, feeling light, feeling electric. His quad salchow turned into a triple. He’d entered it too lightly, without enough thrust, but the landing was light as well and he rolled immediately into his next moves. He had to slow himself during his footwork , dipping lower into his twists and clipping higher on his small leaps, to keep pace with the music. It had felt so fast when he’d first started practicing this program. Now, not so much.

            He landed his triple flip, arching as he glided out of it. Yuuko said it was prettier that way, and it was only a little more work harder to stay balanced. His camel spin was fast, straight. He reached back and pulled his skate into a V, and there was a sudden shift in the atmosphere. Startled, he exited a rotation too soon, arms rising as he’d practiced hundreds of times, brow furrowed as he tried to see…

            His costume was tearing, a seam coming loose along his right shoulder. The jacket cinched at his waist, but the rest of it was suddenly all wrong, the collar tight on one side of his neck, cold air entering, his left sleeve going slack.

            He crossed the ice. He could see the audience, blurry without his glasses, make out specific shapes that mean Coach, Competitor, Cameraman, Official. So many people were watching.

            It was only two and a half more minutes. He could make it. Desperate, he flared, twisted, backskated across the rink, like he could outrun his bad luck. Picking up speed, he launched into his triple axel, arms extra tight as if that would hold the threads together. It didn’t. The force and the landing tore the seam more. He held the landing position for a long time, right arm stretched out, left leg straight behind him for balance as he scrambled to pinch the fabric between two fingers. He just needed to hold on for a few minutes more.

            Celestino’s worried face flashed past him as he moved into his next sequence. He spun, rose, gritted his teeth and leaned into the Ina Bauer. He felt the fabric flapping against his arm, and arched further, not wanting to see the damage. His muscles protested. He maintained it until the last safe second.

            He was holding on by a thread, literally, as he transitioned into his quad lutz. The pressure and pull of the fabric was happening in all the wrong places. Just one element, just one jump. His shoulder and half his arm felt uncovered. He planted, pulled his arms in tightly, and took off. The sleeve jerked from between his fingers on the landing. Pushing away from the jump, he all but threw himself into his final pose. And turned, to face the damage, to see how badly he was exposed.

            The sleeve hung limp, the frayed end dragging on the ice. Somehow the collar and lapel of his suit remained intact. His chest was covered at least. And… the audience was applauding. So he hadn’t offended them too badly. The rink announcer said his name and Yuuri raised his head and hands in response. The sleeve hung like a warning beside him.

            International competition. Average skater. This wardrobe malfunction would likely be the most attention he got all season. He found the shapes of Minako and Yuuko in the stands, and could imagine the looks on their faces, half grimace and half shrug. Head down, he skated off the ice.

            Celestino and a staffer fussed over him at the kiss and cry. An official told him he wouldn’t receive a deduction for the incomplete costume, and he stammered out a thanks. He hadn’t even considered that. Celestino, pleased, pointed things out on the replay and Yuuri leaned forward to watch it on the screen.

            “There, look at that form. You got such great velocity with your arms so tight. Solid landing. Solid, Yuuri!”

            “Huh.”

            He extracted his glasses from Celestino’s coat pocket and watched the rest of the replay on the larger screen over the rink. Usually he didn’t, but he honestly wasn’t really sure what he’d done.

            He didn’t look panicked, which was the most surprising thing. He looked intent, almost angry. So maybe there was some illusion to his performances.

            “We’ll try to get it mended as soon as we return to Detroit,” Celestino said, “to be ready in time for the final. If it is not salvageable, what do you want to do?”

            It would be expensive to commission another costume, especially on a rush basis. It wasn’t worth it. “I’ll use one from last year.”

            His score came up. It was good for him...very good. His surprised elation faded quickly. If he made it to finals. This competition had the most difficult lineup of the series. Victor. Chris. JJ. They were all yet to skate, and all with higher starting points.

            Then there were Yuri Plisetsky, and Emil Nekola, who had already medaled in their first events. They could climb higher still. And Otabek Altin was, unusually, assigned to the last two events of the series and had yet to skate. The bloggers who’d managed to watch him practice had raved about his new programs.

            Yuuri followed Celestino away from the rink, cooling down with his back to the TV. He heard the applause, heard a few disappointed or sympathetic groans as well. He couldn’t help but watch when Victor went out though. His face was raised at an angle, the sharpness of his jaw directly in the camera’s line. His blue eyes seemed brighter than usual.

            Victor did something weird on his first combination, popping the triple into a double, and Yuuri’s hands grabbed hold of each other to stop him from grabbing the screen and shaking it. He wasn’t hurt, was he?

            Every move after went as it should. He moved like he should. His upper body motions were even a little more lively than in Torino. Victor ended his performance, arms down, palms open toward the camera, one long leg crossed behind the other. Yuuri would recognize his silhouette anywhere, in any pose, in any costume, even without the beautiful long hair he used to have.

            Celestino clapped him on the back and Yuuri frowned up at his coach.

            “Why do you look so happy?”

            “Better question, Yuuri. Why don’t you look happier?” His coach pointed toward the screen and Yuuri’s mouth dropped open.

            “Oh!”

            Victor took the gold. JJ took bronze. And, somehow, Yuuri managed silver.

            He all but vibrated on his way to the podium, grinning when Victor smiled down at him as they shook hands.

            “I’m so proud of you, Yuuri!”

            “A-arigato gozaimasu, Victor. I’m so proud of you, too.” Victor’s eyes widened, a laugh startling out of him as Yuuri stepped up beside him, shaking his head at saying such a thing to the LONGEST RUNNING WORLD CHAMPION IN FIGURE SKATING HISTORY. “I mean, congratulations.”

            “No, I’m keeping your pride,” Victor said with a wink. “It’s worth more.”

            Yuuri blushed, turning to face the crowd which was still applauding. It wasn't for him of course, not with Victor right next to him. But the high was still extraordinary, unbelievable. At home, Phichit was probably shrieking the neighbors out of the building and downloading photos as fast as the media could upload them.

            The cameras flashed and, in between trying to correctly angle himself toward them and not squint or frown or fall off the podium, he snuck another glance at Victor. He gifted his perfect smile to each camera in turn, then glanced down at Yuuri and the publicity shot smile slipped into an almost conspiratorial smirk.

            The high faded as soon as Yuuri stepped off the podium, while Victor glided away into the sea of reporters.

            There were still two events and almost a month to go before Yuuri would know if he would skate again in this Grand Prix series. Victor’s hand rose, idly dangling his gold medal, the lights making it gleam, and Yuuri turned to leave the ice. Before he would know if he had earned a place next to Victor again.

Chapter Text

            Victor could not believe what was happening to Yuuri. He wondered if he had been hexed, if he crossed paths with one of those bad elves. Or maybe a witch?

            “Let go,” Yuri snarled from beneath the hands Victor had wrapped into the soft hood of the younger skater’s sweatshirt.

            “I’m so nervous for him!”

            “He’s fine! Unlike you, Katsudon’s got guts!”

            “What did you call him?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Yakov, let me have my phone?”

            “No.”

            “I need to find out how to reverse a curse.”

            “No.”

            “Yakov, this is life or death!”

            “It is a costume, Victor.”

            “Don John,” he called to the side. The Canadian skater was with his parent-coaches. They were very indulgent with him. Surely they let him have his phone. “Let me borrow your phone!”

            “It’s Jean-Jacques!”

            “Yes, that is what I said. I need to look something up. Do you mind?” Like how to save a lovely Japanese figure skater from bad luck. Or how to wrap a lovely Japanese figure skater in bubble wrap.

            DJ turned his back. His father-coach blinked at Victor over his shoulder. No phone was forthcoming. So unhelpful, this team-family!

            He watched Yuuri, holding his own hand now that Yuri had disappeared with his comforting hoodie. But Yuuri was skating well, as if he didn’t even notice. His footwork was precise. His jumps were crisper than Victor had seen them. And the bend and arch of his body and his arms, all that movement that few skaters managed to make look halfway decent let alone fluid and natural, somehow they were enhanced by the flutter of the fabric, by the tantalizing glimpses of smooth skin beneath. Victor leaned forward.

            Yakov prodded his side. “Keep moving, stay warm.”

            “I have to watch this.”

            “What has gotten into you, Vitya? I could not get you to care who you were skating against at the beginning of the season. Or last season, for that matter. Now I cannot get you to focus on yourself, your most favorite subject.”

            Yuuri finished. He raised his hands. The entire sleeve hung by a thread at the cuff. With a shake of his head, he gathered it into his hand and skated off.

            Yuuri was so resilient. Victor didn’t know if he could have been. He had strained seams, torn them while taking costumes off. He’d never had to skate with his adornment shredding away from him. It would have been such a distraction. Distraction had never been his problem on the ice.

            Chris and the Canadian skater went next, Chris’s obvious pleasure with his own provocative choreography making him sloppy. The Canadian landed seventy percent of his jumps. It was not a terrible rate at that level of difficulty, but there was no artistry in between. No matter how much his music made the audience applaud, his program was more an exhibition of jumps than figure skating.

            Victor took the ice. His theme was Four Seasons, starting with winter so that he could joke to the press about how, in Russia, everything started with winter. And also so that the back end of his programs included the less intense seasons, spring and fall. His programs were front-loaded, only three jumps and a combination in the second half between the two of them. For the last few years Victor had designed his programs to minimize the impact on his bad hip joint. While irritating to work around, it was intuitive to choreograph programs with high point values which maximized his skills and the ninety-five percent of his body which still obeyed him. The current points configuration was established as Victor began his career. They complimented one another.

            He began, frozen in his dramatic pose through the first seven seconds of the music. The audience held their collective breath, as they were meant to. Theoretically, so long as the point structure didn’t change and his body didn’t give out, he could remain on top forever. So long as his tendons didn’t shred like Yuuri’s costume.

            He entered his first jump, a quad toe-triple toe. The memory of Yuuri’s bare arm entered his mind, unbidden. He popped the second jump, turning it into a double. The image of Yakov’s red and scowling face entered his mind, also unbidden. He liked that image less.

            Afterwards Yuuri stood beside him, with his silver medal over his dark outfit held together by safety pins. His delight was infectious, his charm warm and almost bashful. It was tremendously cute. The suit he wore to the banquet was also cute, for a twelve-year old student. Honestly, where were the people who were supposed to take care of him? Had he slipped their hold somehow?

            He was quiet at the banquet, somber again as he bowed and stood stiffly for a few photos after the bland meal. He spoke with Michele Crispino for a short while. Chris had been watching him, and Victor saw when he decided to make a move. Chris had been drinking before he arrived, and there was something particularly wicked in his expression until he got stopped by JJ and his protégé. So helpful, those Canadians.

            Slipping away after a flurry of photographs with preciously stammering junior skaters and the gold medal-winning German pair skaters – that earned him a glare from Coach Nina – Victor hurried his way to Yuuri.

            “I must congratulate you on your performance, Yuuri,” he said, plucking a bottle of water from a tray.

            “You already did, Victor. But thank you.” He smiled sweetly. “And congratulations to you, again, as well.”

            “Do you have many sponsors here?”

            “Uh, no. Not in France. In Japan mostly. In America sometimes. Do…do you?”

            “As many as in Russia, I think.”

            “That sounds tiring.”

            “I find it quite exciting!” he heard himself say. Yuuri nodded, but the corner of his mouth turned down.

            A woman waved, someone from the bank he did advertisements for. Something about gold and prosperity and investments maybe? He couldn’t remember. She dragged a young woman who looked like a smaller, very bored version of herself, in her wake. Another conversation with someone who cared nothing for skating. Or, worse, someone trying to set him up with their daughter.

            “Excuse me,” Victor said, squaring his shoulders. “Duty calls.”

            Yuuri nodded and immediately backed away. After this they should do something, which he would tell Yuuri as soon as they both had another break. At the two-hour mark, he scanned the room.

            Yuuri was gone.

            Resigned, he smiled more brightly. Twenty minutes later, his phone started to buzz in his pocket. He was with the head salesman from the jeweler, who wouldn’t let go of Victor’s hand as he tried to show off his watch to everyone in the room. Everyone who remained or was somewhat sober. From the bar Chris winked at him, waving, his phone in hand. It had probably been him calling, wanting to go out clubbing. He looked at where Yuuri had been. A club wasn’t his first choice, but it was a diversion. There was no Makkachin to greet him in his hotel room tonight.

            A half hour later he finally got a chance to check his phone without being rude. The texts were from Yuri, who had left earlier with a backward wave that featured an unusually prominent middle finger, telling him and Yakov not to wait up. He hadn’t said where he was going. Victor couldn’t remember if he had asked.

 

Yuri

            Victor.

            Victor!

            VICTOR

            I NEED HELP.

 

            Yuri never asked for help. Ever.

 

Victor

            Where are you?

            Yura?

           

            He called. It rang, then went to a short voicemail. He called again, and again as he hurried out of the ballroom. No answer. He called Mila.

            “Victor! Gold again! Congrats!”

            “Thank you. Mila, you can track Yuri, right?”

            “What?”

            “On your phone. You can track him, his location?”

            “His phone, yes.” She laughed. “After he threw it at that lamp post and missed, and his phone went off the bridge and onto the back of a truck. We had to-”

            “Good. Can you track it now? Find out where he is. Send the location to my phone.”

            “Victor, is he-?”

            Victor asked the valet to call him a cab. “Just send it. I will find him.”

Chapter Text

            Minako was deep in her nostalgia. Certain cities did it to her, and since she had first accompanied Yuuri and later come to root for him at most of his major competitions, he had seen it before. Yuuko certainly had not, judging by how wide her eyes had been for the past hour. Yurio – somehow he had been given that name during the day? – hadn’t of course.

            Minako could be dramatic. And loud. She could also be a little scary. Some of her nostalgic moments were full of tenderness and beauty – her first solo dance, her first starring role in a running show. But some of them were pure, unadulterated crazypants. He’d seen it once before, in Toronto three years ago, when she had run into a former rival.

            There had been an argument, then a challenge. Yuuri had tentatively tried to extract Minako only to find himself pulled into the fight.

            It had been a massacre.

            Not unlike tonight. The bar was filled with elevated voices, shouting over the loud music. Alcohol fumed the air. Beside him, Yurio panted, his blond hair tumbling loose from the hairtie Yuuko had given him, his chest heaving inside his t-shirt. His trademark hoodie and jacket had long since been discarded.

            “They’re cheating,” he growled. “They already got to select the weapons of choice in the first two rounds. Why do they get to decide the last one?”

            “An accomplished dancer cannot and will not be hindered by an unfamiliar style,” Minako declared from her stance on top of their table. “It does not matter what they throw at us, we will punish them with our superior talent and they will drown in a bucket of their own arrogance.”

            “That’s why,” Yuuri said with a sigh.

            Across the room, Minako’s blond rival pirouetted menacingly.

            “How did you even learn how to breakdance?” Yurio hissed at Yuuri, an incredulous sort of awe tinging his anger. “And how the hell are you so strong?”

            Yuuri shrugged. “How did you learn to do grand jetes on a bartop?”

            From the outside, this bar had been innocuous. It was in the basement of an old stone building, the green door the only notable thing about it. There was no sign. Minako had said she used to hang out here when she danced in Paris. She hadn’t said it would be full of enemies.

            But Yuuri had had a lot to drink, and there was something refreshing about competing for something other than a medal. And, besides, a voice inside his head said, he never had to see these people again so it didn’t matter what he did. That voice sounded suspiciously like Phichit every time they wandered past a karaoke place. Or a pub with a mechanical bull. Or a strip club with a good pole.

            “For you, Katsuki-san and Plisetsky-san!” Two rival students, young women with tight dancers’ buns and dramatic red lips each held out a shot of sickly greenish liquor. Their eyes were full of mischief, beneath the winged eyeliner.

            “Thank you so much!” Yuuri grabbed both while Yurio recoiled in horror.

            “Best of luck on the final challenge,” one said while the other snickered behind her hand.

            The final challenge was to teach the next person who walked in the door to dance. Ducking Minako’s pointed toe as she pirouetted in anger, Yuuri tossed back both the shots. He coughed.

            “What was that?” Yuri asked.

            “Absinthe, I think.”

            “They’re trying to get you drunk.”

            “They have succeeded.”

            “And they’re obviously calling in a ringer.” Yuri stabbed his finger toward the turned backs, faces lit by the screens of cell phones.

            “We don’t have all night!” Minako declared imperiously.

            “Very well.” Her rival was a little too smug. They had definitely called in another dancer to help them win this round.

            Her face was as beautiful and angular as Minako’s, but her honey blond hair tumbled in ringlets around her face, making her look like an evil cherub. She extended an elegant arm toward the door. “As you are the guests, you will go first. You must create a beautiful dance with the first customer who walks through this door. If you can.”

            The floor cleared, dancers pulling tables and chairs back to create a strip of space between the bar and the door. The bartender hastily ran along it with a wide mop. Just because they were in a fearsome duel, there was no reason for anyone to slip and get hurt.

            “You know you don’t actually have to do this,” Yurio said under his breath. But, despite having had ample opportunity to do so himself, Yurio hadn’t run from the challenge either. Yuuri thought he might be enjoying himself, in an angry way.

            Yuuri looked up at Minako, regal atop the table, her spine ramrod straight. He shoved himself upright, swaying a little before he matched his spine to hers. She had taught him how to dance, and sent him to the rink to work out his excess energy and nerves, introducing him to the ice and Yuuko, which filled a need inside of him he hadn’t known existed.

            She had fixed his hair and done his makeup, matched costumes to his performances after he’d ignorantly insisted he could skate competitions in sweats, and flown around the world to support him. This wasn’t about him. It was about her pride and dedication. He would honor that.

            “I absolutely do.”

            A man by the one window in the bar shouted that someone was coming. Yuuri took up position at the end of the strip of bare floor and raised his chin.

            The door opened.

            On a burst of cold air, Victor stepped inside.

            The bar fell silent, the music abruptly cut off. Yuuri’s breath caught in his throat.

            “Shit,” Yurio groaned. “I forgot I called him.”

            “Why did you call him?”
            “To dazzle them with his face and use all that disgusting charm to stop this foolishness before it got out of hand. Obviously he didn’t answer in time.”

            Victor surveyed the bar, relief lighting his face when he found Yurio, then he did a double-take at Yuuri. His expression hardened.

            “He’s not going to do it.” Yurio scowled and crossed his arms. “He’s too straightlaced. This doesn’t fit with his image.”

            Yuuri wasn’t quite sure what that image was supposed to be but Victor could do anything he wanted. This wasn’t about Yuuri and it wasn’t about Yurio. The music started up, a guitar and sweet violin starting up a tango, a bass and drum joining in an almost marching rhythm as Yuuri started across the floor.

            Victor stood almost frozen inside the door. This must be a strange sight to him, a swarm of drunken, antagonized dancers, Minako and her rival twin pillars atop their opposing tables, Yurio and Yuuri flushed and disheveled. Who knew what message Yurio had left him? But it didn’t matter. Yuuri had to draw him in. They had to win this competition.

            “Will you dance with me?”

            The look on Victor’s face was indecipherable. No, it was familiar, just unexpected on Victor. It was uncertainty. But Victor didn’t have to be uncertain about this situation. Yuuri knew what he was doing. He would take care of him here. He could even, he thought, make it fun.

            “It’s a competition. A dance off.” He raised his hand, inviting Victor, beckoning him. “Yuri has done what he can. But I must, for the pride and honor of my people, ask you to dance with me. You’re the only one who can possibly help, Victor. Will you fight with me?”

            His blue eyes sparked. He reached in return. His hand was cold in Yuuri’s as he moved toward him.

            “For pride and honor then,” Victor said through a growing smile, “I will dance with you.”

            Yuuri’s entire face lit up. It was better than being on the podium with him today. His hand settled against Victor’s lower back, and a thrill sizzled through him as he pulled Victor flush against his own body.

            “It’s a tango, ballroom style,” he murmured in Victor’s ear. “I’ll lead. All you have to do is stay close to me.”

            They danced, slowly at first, three steps and a slide. Change in direction. And that was all it took, Victor all but intuiting the next steps, flowing into variations almost as quickly as Yuuri introduced them. Their fingers laced together. The muscles in Victor’s back rolled beneath his hand. The symphony of their brushing bodies was all motion and speed, lean friction. Victor never took his eyes off him, even when he began laughing, the sound as surprising as the rest of him, like he couldn’t quite get enough air in.

            They turned and Victor shifted, sliding sideways, and Yuuri had only an instant to adjust to the improvised dip. His fingers slid around the back of Victor’s neck. His other hand reached back to brace the long, extended leg. And Victor’s hand was hot against his back, despite the light touch, all he needed to balance himself.

            “Be careful, Victor!”

            He laughed again. “I trust you, Yuuri!”

            The music changed abruptly, into the staccato rhythm of a flamenco.

            “Cheating!” Yurio shouted from the sidelines.

            The rival dancers began clapping along. Grinning, they broke apart, improvising steps and arm movements. Victor was stiffer, all long, precise lines, while Yuuri shot through a series of rapid steps. He’d only ever learned Minako’s way of dancing the flamenco, which he knew was feminine from the twist and sway of the hips. But it felt right, Victor’s movements a masculine counterpoint.

            And they must have been competent enough, because the other dancers piled onto the floor, dancing along with and around them. With that, Minako declared victory and her rival bowed in an exaggerated display of defeat. Victor came back to Yuuri, still laughing.

            “I’ve never danced like that.” He pulled his jacket off and loosened his tie, staring in delight at all the other dancers whirling around them. “I wasn’t sure I could.”

            “Of course you can, Victor. You can do anything.” Yuuri poured them both glasses of water, which they barely had a chance to raise to their lips before the congratulatory shots began arriving at their table.

            “Yuuri!” Yuuko’s hands gripped his shoulders and they grinned at each other before she stole a glance at Victor as he spoke with Yurio. “I can’t believe you danced with him!”

            “I can’t believe it either.”

            “I’m so…” She shook her head before pulling him into a hug. “I’m so happy to see you happy.”

            “And I’m happy to be happy?”

            Laughing, she let him go. “I’m going back to the hotel. I’m too old for all this excitement, and the girls expect a call when they get home from school.”

            “Do you need me to go with you?”

            She shook her head. “Yurio’s accompanying me. Stay. Enjoy yourself.”

            He turned back to the table. Three of the rival students were enthralled by Victor’s immaculate French, among his other immaculate attributes. The shot glasses were all empty.

            With a grin, Victor offered his hand. “Another dance, Yuuri?”

*

            In hindsight, it may not have been the best idea to dance for two hours after a freeskate, while being showered with drinks from their vanquished foes. Slumped in the taxi, Victor’s head drooped on his shoulder, Yuuri watched a darkened Paris slide by. He had gone out after competitions. With others on his national team. With Katie and Aaron. With Phichit and some of his many friends. With Christophe Giacometti and the Crispinos one night in Munich which had earned him the worst hangover of his life. He had never enjoyed himself as much as he had tonight. He had never, ever, enjoyed himself as much as he had tonight. Victor was more, of everything, than he had ever imagined.

            They neared thethe hotel. Yuuri shook Victor, whispering his name until he woke with a soft, surprised expression. His chest clenched when that look turned in his direction. Victor stretched, narrowing his eyes when he saw the front of the hotel. There was movement inside the still-lit hotel bar, not surprising considering it was the event hotel and all the competitions were done performing. Victor straightened Yuuri’s collar.

            “We need to pull ourselves together. There will be fans and competitors in the bar. Maybe press still.” He fixed his tie. “How do I look?”

            Yuuri brushed Victor’s fine, silver hair into place with his fingers, then patted the lapel of his suit. “Tolerable, I guess.”

            “Yuuri!” Laughing, Victor pulled him out of the taxi.

            They separated in the lobby, both attempting to look composed, but the straight lines on the marble floor betrayed them. Yuuri shuffled his steps to keep from obviously swaying. Victor glided silkily in his dress shoes

            “Are you trying to skate in shoes?” Yuuri whispered.

            “It’s fine. I skate better when I’m drunk.”

            “There is no way that’s true.”

            “I’m Russian.” As if that was an explanation.

            They made it to the elevator. Victor executed a perfect 180 degree pivot and raised his hands with a flourish to straighten his gloves. Only he was wearing Yuuri’s gloves because he had arrived without gloves and a coat, and they were knit rather than leather. One finger poked right through the end of the glove. Victor’s eyes widened in horrified disbelief. The door closed and they fell into each other, laughing and barely holding each other up.

            “I’m so tired,” Victor complained against Yuuri’s neck, “but I don’t want this night to end.”

            “Sleep,” Yuuri responded.

            “I want to see your medal.”

            “You have your own, Victor.” Victor’s arm wound around his shoulders. His silver hair brushed against Yuuri’s cheek. “And yours is gold.”

            “I want to see yours, Yuuri.”

            The doors opened and they stumbled out, weaving in the haze of alcohol and exhaustion, navigating the unfamiliar center of gravity their entwined bodies made.

            The key card was slippery and it took Yuuri a moment to grasp and orient it, to slide it into the door.

            “I want to see your medal, Yuuri.” Victor was too loud and Yuuri shushed him – also loudly – and pushed the door open with his foot.

            “I know.”

            They lurched through the doorway, bouncing off the walls of the short hallway to the foot of the bed. Yuuri turned and eased Victor down onto it. Victor’s hands fell to his knees. His broad shoulders relaxed as he blinked languidly up at Yuuri. He looked around and his gaze became more focused. Then he looked up in surprise.

            “This isn’t my room.”

            Yuuri giggled. “No, it’s mine. I thought you wanted to see my medal?”

            Victor straightened, all attention. “Oh, I do!”

            It made no sense. Victor had seen dozens of medals. Maybe it had just been a while since he saw a silver one up close. Last year, at the European championships, Yuuri thought. He crouched over his already-packed suitcase, digging around to find the box. He hadn’t anticipated things happening this way, but he had expected to be out late and it was always better to have less to do in the morning before a flight.

            He stood, suddenly nervous. Tonight had been beyond special, in a realm beyond unbelievable. He didn’t want Victor to remember that Yuuri was with him by accident, because Yuri Plisetsky had called him, not because they’d made plans together. Yuuri was only a silver medalist, and only at this event. It wasn’t a regular occurrence. But it was a medal, and Victor had asked to see it, so it must count for something. He carefully removed the medal, setting the box down on the desk. It was cool and heavy in his hands. Swallowing, he turned.

            Victor was laying on the bed, his feet still on the floor, his head tilted to the side, one hand flat against his chest. His eyes were closed and his chest rose and fell in slow, even movements. He was beautiful, dramatic, even asleep.

            Yuuri was tired, too. His lower body felt like lead after the freeskate and the dancing. But it was impossible to contemplate sleeping when Victor was in the same room.

            “Victor,” he said quietly, sitting beside him. Tentatively he reached out and covered Victor’s hand with his own, shaking gently. “Victor?”

            Eyes still closed, Victor responded by turning, curling his body around Yuuri’s. Yuuri’s heart climbed into his throat. The jolt of the contact, even after dancing, sizzled along his nerves. There was no way Victor meant to fall asleep in his room, and Yuuri didn’t want him to be mad when he woke up.

            “Victor.” He shook his shoulder, then shook it more firmly. Victor made an incoherent noise. “You need to wake up.”

            “No, thank you,” he said, enunciating clearly before a small snore escaped him. His hair slid down to cover his face.

            Yuuri pressed a hand to his aching chest. It was so endearing, how unfailingly polite he was. He brushed Victor’s hair back from his face and leaned close to speak into his ear. “Victor, you need to go to your room.”

            Inhaling sharply, glaring up through one squinting eye, Victor groaned. Then both his eyes opened. “Yuuri?”

            “Yes.”

            “Yuuri…” He looked around, but he didn’t seem to be registering much. Then his gaze returned to Yuuri’s face and his eyebrows lifted in an almost childlike expression of hope. “Can I sleep here?”

            Yes.

            Yes, please.

            The freeskate was demanding, Victor’s more demanding than most. And he was a morning person with lots of responsibilities. And he probably wasn’t used to drinking much during the competition season. Victor had probably woken hours before Yuuri. He was just tired, or he wouldn’t be asking.

            “Okay, but you can’t sleep in your suit.”

            Victor was already in motion, rolling and jerking back and forth as he extricated himself from the jacket. His fingers fumbled the buttons of his vest, then fell away in dismay until Yuuri reached out to assist him. Victor tilted his head back when Yuuri moved up to unknot the tie. The silk was hot from Victor’s body, and he was glad that Victor was slack and sleepy so he didn’t notice the way Yuuri’s fingers shook. The silk whispered as he pulled it through Victor’s collar.

            “Can you do the rest?” he asked. His hands were clammy as he stood, turning his back. “I-I’m going to get ready for bed.”

            Victor made an agreeable if not affirmative sound, and Yuri pulled shorts and a t-shirt from his bag and escaped to the bathroom. He put his back against the door and sucked in a breath. He should call Yuri Plisetsky and ask him to come and recover his rinkmate. But Yurio would be mean about it, which would be cruel to Victor in this state. He splashed water on his face, brushed his teeth and changed. Then he tidied up the bathroom. Then flipped all the light switches until he found a low setting that would serve as a nightlight in case Victor had to get up during the night. He grabbed two bottles of water from the counter, centered himself like he was about to perform, and went back into the bedroom.

            Victor’s clothes hung from the back of the chair. He was stretched out on the bed, one arm hanging off the side, a very, very small pair of black underwear the only clothing on his glorious, otherwise naked body. The bottles fell to the floor as Yuuri’s hands snapped up to cover his mouth. He was going to hyperventilate. He was going to pass out. He was going to wake up and discover he has been in a coma for five years and this is all a dream. He was going to… His eyes wandered the length of Victor’s body before turning to his own feet.

            He couldn’t ogle an unconscious man, no matter how much various parts of his body were screaming at him to do so. And he couldn’t ogle this man for another second if he wanted to sleep at all tonight.

            Which brought him to the other problem he hadn’t yet considered. There was one bed in the room. It was a double, the same size he slept in alone in Detroit. Where he usually took up the entire thing.

            Gathering up the water bottles, he felt around on the wall until he hit the switches and turned the lights off. His own inebriation and fatigue made themselves known as he stumbled around in the darkness, depositing a bottle of water near Victor, then setting one on the other side of the bed along with his phone and glasses. On his side of the bed. A side of the bed only existed if you shared the bed with another person.

            Something flopped around in his chest, probably his heart. This was a comfortable bed, with a plush duvet and decent pillows. He slept well in it his first night, and tossed and turned his second but at least he did so comfortably. Now he eased onto it like it was made of broken glass and razor blades. Even without his glasses, he could still see parts of Victor’s body from the tiny amount of light leaking under the door and through the curtains – the stark contrast of black and porcelain. He had to get Victor under the covers.

            He took a calming breath and tugged at the duvet. Victor was on top of it, a solid anchor. He tugged again and Victor muttered something in Russian.

            “Victor,” he whispered, sounding frantic. “Let me lift this blanket up.”

            “I’d rather not.” Victor almost sounded cheerful and Yuuri pressed a hand over his eyes. How could he be so adorable when he looked like that?

            “Please. Victor, you need to get under the covers. I would like to get under the covers.”

            “Yuuri?” Victor dragged the syllables out, and that did something new to Yuuri’s already overworked heart. It felt like sugar was crystallizing inside of him.

            “Yes, Victor. Can you just…”

            “What do you need, Yuuri?”

            More pressure. More sweet crystals. “Can you please lift up so that I can move these and cover us up?”

            Victor sat up abruptly and Yuuri pulled the duvet down. To his hips. The material was warm from Victor’s body heat. Yuuri was going to die. He never expected to die in Paris.

            “Okay, good. Now if you-”

            Victor flopped back, then raised his lower body off the bed. Which was a solution, but not the one Yuuri had hoped for. Because he hadn’t known it was a thing. Or he would have prayed for it daily and nightly since he was thirteen years old. Victor Nikiforov was stretched out beside him, his thighs flexing as he raised his torso and hips off the bed. Biting off a strangled sound, Yuuri reached out and shimmied the duvet the rest of the way out from under Victor. His arms brushed Victor’s body. It was agony and ecstasy, in equal, ridiculous measures.

            “Okay,” he breathed out, and Victor dropped into the bed, rolling toward the dip Yuuri made in it. He threw an arm around Yuuri’s waist while Yuuri stared at the wall and tried to envision every benign thing he had encountered in his life. Street signs. Trash cans. Wood shavings for hamster cages. Eggshells. Popsicle sticks. Socks that went into the washing machine in pairs and came out as singles.

            “Sleep?” Victor asked, slurring the word.

            Right. He had woken a sleeping man to make him do something. He had better do the thing.

            He rolled the blanket up over them both, not that he needed it since his entire body was flushed, making sure that Victor was covered. Then, gingerly, he laid back. His head made contact with the pillow. He carefully lowered his left arm since Victor was close to his left side, his arm still across Yuuri’s middle.

            “Better?” Victor asked, inches from his ear.

            “Yes. Better.” Yuuri swallowed, felt his face contort as he tried to reconcile himself to this turn of events. His perpetual worry asserted itself in a familiar form. “What time do you need to wake up, Victor?”

            “Ten,” he murmured confidently.

            “What times is your flight?”

            “Ten.”

            Reaching over, Yuuri grabbed his phone and set the alarm for seven, to be sure. Seven was really soon. He rolled back. Victor curled against his side, his breath warm against Yuuri’s shoulder.

            “You won’t hate me will you, Yuuri?”

            “It’s okay. I have to get up soon, too.”

            “Not for that.”

            Puzzled, Yuuri looked at him. But his eyes were closed, all that incandescent blue hidden away. “Why, did you do something wrong?”

            Victor nuzzled against Yuuri’s shoulder. “I try not to.”

            “Then why would I hate you?”

            “I don’t know,” Victor whispered. “I don’t know why it happens.”

            Hesitant – he wasn’t sure where this was coming from or if Victor even knew what he was saying – Yuuri slid his hand under the duvet and covered Victor’s hand. “Victor, I won’t hate you. Ever. I wouldn’t even know how. Okay?”

            “Mhmm.”

            “Better?”

            “Better.”

Chapter Text

            The reporter caught Victor in the hotel lobby. By her count he had owed her an interview for two events. Her cameraman sighed at her insistent call, stepping out of the check-out line and setting up his equipment. He was in too much of a hurry to put up a light stand, for which Victor was grateful. He was very hungover. Two other reporters hovered nearby while she asked about his performance and who he wished to face in the finals. The questions were so mundane she could have just taken his answers from yesterday’s press time. They had not changed overnight.

            “You’ve been head to head with Switzerland’s Giacometti for several years now,” she said, jabbing the microphone toward his face. “He seems to think this will be his year.”

            “Chris’s jumps are astounding this year. His quad lutz may get better at every event. And his programs are always so energetic. It would be sad not to see him at the Grand Prix finals.”

            “But you are not worried about him as a threat?”

            “Anything can happen,” Victor said, spreading his hands as though things were out of his control. His tone is carefully modulated to indicate otherwise.

            Yakov signalled from the door. Their car had arrived. He was not looking forward to the flight. In fact, thinking about it made him slightly ill.

            “And what about Katsuki Yuuri?”

            “What about him?” he asked through a smile frozen by surprise. He thought about Yuuri often, but had never been asked about him.

            “His season has been marred by problems, but he has twice now squeaked through to the medal stand. It could be his first final, and the first time he skates without injury.” She smiled like she enjoyed the troubles that had beset Yuuri. “Or a wardrobe malfunction.”

            “It is unbelievable what he has had to deal with this season.”

            “You’ve been seen chatting with him. Rumor is you’re worried about Japan’s up-and-coming talent, so you’ve been scouting him. What do you think of him?”

            What did Victor think? That Yuuri moved like a devil and an angel on the dancefloor. That he could all but hear Yuuri’s heart beat while he was fighting through adversity. That, when Yuuri leaned across him in the darkness of a hotel room to make sure he was covered, he felt treasured. There were no words that would capture that and Yuuri wouldn’t want him to tell the press anyway. He was modest, almost shy. And while the media should be paying attention to him, Victor didn’t want to be the one to turn them in Yuuri’s direction. He resorted to the least controversial thing he could think of.

            “He’s nice.”

*

            Victor meandered through the park, the leash slack in his hand, Makkachin bounding around him, never more than a few steps away. He’d slept on the flight and felt better. He’d picked Makkachin up from the boarder and felt much better. He couldn’t talk to Yuuri, who was still in the air – he was tracking Yuuri’s second flight and it was taking forever to cross the Atlantic Ocean – so he told Makkachin about his week. Like he always did when he got home.

            “We danced all night. You should see the way he moves.” Makka panted up at him. Victor frowned. “Well, not all his moves. You’re too young and innocent for those hips.”

            He sat on a bench and gave her a treat.

            “And this morning. We had to wake up early. Painfully early. He was still drunk and mostly asleep. He was trying to be helpful.” Victor laughed. “But he kept handing me things that were not mine. I almost left with his phone and one of his shoes, and a water glass from the hotel. It would have been the cutest thing in the world if I didn’t have such a bad headache.”

            Makka jumped up, getting mud on his pants. He wrapped his arms around her and gazed out over the park. It was late and it was cold, but a handful of people were walking together, hand in hand. The images of Yuuri smiling up at him, from the podium and the dance floor, and smiling down at him through Victor’s tired haze later in the early hours of the morning, filled his mind. His hand twitched, wanting to take the hand reaching for him in his memories.

            “You’ll like him, Makka. You’ll like him so much. I know it.”

*

            He woke the next morning to Yuuri’s response to a selfie he’d taken with Makka. Makka had wanted to lick his face and it had taken a few minutes to get one where he looked good and not like he’d covered his cheek with peanut butter. His nose and the tips of his ears were a little red.

 

            Yuuri

You both look so happy! How was your flight?

 

            The weird app said that he was active.  Victor hit the call button, then sat up hurriedly and ran a hand through his hair. He was sleep-rumpled and probably had creases from the sheets on his face. But the app didn’t have video functionality. It had been difficult enough to figure out how to attach the photo.

            “Good morning,” Katsuki Yuuri said into his ear, and Victor was smiling before the first syllable was complete.

            “Good evening, Yuuri. Were you able to sleep? I was worried you wouldn’t wake up for your flight. When I left. In the morning.” He couldn’t remember if they had parted this morning or yesterday morning. Yuuri was flying for something like twenty hours and he was not sure if that meant Yuuri was talking to him from tomorrow.

            “A little, on the second flight. You didn’t…”

            “I didn’t what?”

            “You didn’t happen to leave with my hat, did you?”

            “Can you describe the hat?” He hadn’t left with anything of Yuuri’s, despite him having tried to give Victor several things. It hadn’t occurred to him. He should have. He wouldn’t have taken his phone. That would have caused problems. But an item of clothing? Next time he was definitely taking a shirt or something.

            “It’s a winter hat. Wool. It has a little leather square on it with a shape like a wave?”

            “It is dark blue?”

            “Yes, it is.”

            He sounds so excited that Victor took a few seconds to let the anticipation build before saying, “I don’t have it.”

            “Then how do you know it’s blue?”

            “You like blue. No, I don’t have it. I wish I did.”

            “Hmm. I probably just put it somewhere safe, and I’ll find it in a year.”

            Victor smiled. He pulled the blanket over his shoulder and rearranged the phone against his ear. “Does this happen a lot, where you put something somewhere safe and never see it again?”

            “I definitely find most things within a year. Almost everything within two years.”

            “What’s the strangest thing you’ve found?”

            “Hmm. Not the strangest, but the most unfortunate was when I bought all kinds of chocolate bars. It was on my first trip to Germany.” There was a muffled rustling before Yuuri’s voice returned. “For my sister. But I put them in a sock. Then I put the sock in a shoe, because I thought that would keep them from breaking on the flight.”

            “But, sadly, your sister doesn’t like the taste of shoe chocolate?”

            “We never found out. It was summer. I threw my shoes in the closet when I got home then spent the rest of the summer at the beach and the rink. And then I opened the closet and found out that the ants had come. My sister was so angry. They liked shoe chocolate. A lot.”

            He sounded equal parts awed and disgusted, and Victor laughed. “It sounds like the ants were the only real winners here.”

            “They weren’t winning when my mom got after them,” Yuuri said ominously.

            “I saw a picture of your mom, with you at a junior competition.”

            “You did?”

            “On your skater wiki page. She looks like she laughs a lot. And you! So cute, with those chubby cheeks. Such a little piggy!”

            “Oh. Yeah.”

            “What is that sound?” Victor asked when the muffled rusting happened again. He hoped it was the sound of Yuuri in bed, like him.

            “Sorry. I was covering the phone while I yawned.”

            “It’s late there?”

            “Eleven p.m. I think. Five a.m. Paris time. My phone just told me that.”

            “It’s seven here in Saint Petersburg. In the morning. It’s not quite light out yet.” Victor listened to Yuuri’s soft sound of agreement. He’d heard that sound before, in the dark of a hotel room, heard something similar murmured beside his ear, cutting through the noise of the dancer’s bar. He sat up, energized. “I liked dancing with you, Yuuri.”

            “I-I liked dancing with you too, Victor.”

            “Why don’t you dance like you skate? You were so bold, it was exhilarating!” The phone was quiet for a long moment. Victor glanced at the screen, but they were still connected. “Yuuri?”

            “What?”

            “Why don’t you? You could design a program like your tango. Or you wouldn’t even have to. Although the music would be perfect for your complicated footwork. Why don’t you?”

            “Why don’t I what?”

            “Skate like you danced.” There was another moment of silence and Victor began to suspect that Yuuri didn’t understand what he was saying. “It was very beautiful, I mean.”

            “It’s easy with a good partner.”

            Victor flopped back against the pillow, reliving that evening. “I think we made the dancers jealous.”

            “Several of them did specifically say they wished they could have been me during the tango.”

            “Oh, did they?” Victor asked, preening. “Such good taste they had. Too bad for them.”

            Another muffled rustling.

            “You need to go to sleep, Yuuri.”

            “Yeah. Yeah.” There was a heavy pause, and Victor focused on the phone, anticipating Yuuri’s next words. “Thank you for calling, Victor.”

            Not quite what he had wanted, but still nice. “Sweet dreams.”

            He wanted to wake up like this every morning, to Yuuri’s voice telling sweet stories. He wanted to know what it would be like, to be filled up with more and more memories like Paris.

Chapter Text

            Their old neighbor Kovie emailed Phichit and Yuuri the photos that had been released in a Russian magazine to build anticipation for the Olympics. Kovie and two of his hockey teammates, and Victor and Yuri Plisetsky, all wore tailored black suits with pristine white shirts and thin black ties. They were arrayed around a long, dark wood dining table, surrounded by wrought iron chandeliers and sconces. Victor sat at the head of the table in a high-backed chair, regal, austerely beautiful, and utterly, calmly confident. Like he could command an ocean to stop moving, and it would. Yurio’s glare was frigid and the hockey players were downright menacing. Even Kovie, his hair gelled back, looked severe.

            Russia’s Frozen Powerhouse, the headline said. Victor’s icy stare was unwavering. Yuuri closed the email.

            He fell on his first jump in practice. And on his second. On the third failed attempt, Celestino told him to switch to practice strokes.

 

*

 

            Victor

Good morning! Look at this sunshine (winter in St. Petersburg is usually all rain)!

 

            The bright sunlight filtered through morning mist covering a tree-lined park. It lit Victor’s light hair, brightened the crystal blue of his eye. He smiled at the camera, half hidden behind Makkachin, who looked like she was smiling as well. Yuuri kept his phone awake for the better part of five minutes, tracing the outline of Victor’s face, the way his jacket pulled tight against the shoulder of the arm that held the phone, the elegant bends of his fingers where they entwined with the dog’s fur. The aggressive confidence of the magazine spread wasn’t apparent, but it wasn’t entirely missing either. Victor was assured, beautiful, overflowing with life.

            Yuuri couldn’t think of a response, not anything he could form into words.

            He returned to the ice that evening, as the rink was closing, allowed to skate so long as he remembered to turn out the lights and ensure the locked door closed behind him when he left, which he always did. This was his favorite time. It was quiet, the sound of his own blades all but inaudible to him after so many years. Even after an hour, plus his earlier practice and lingering jetlag, he still felt restless. He took the bus home, dropped his things in the apartment, and went for a run, his breath puffing in the cold, night air.

 

*

 

            Celestino ordered his second martini, then rearranged the papers that Yuuri handed him on the table. He nodded, dark eyes skating over the lists and lines. Around them, the small pub bustled, busy with after-hours regulars and a local dinner crowd. It was close enough to campus that a few of the tables were filled with students. Yuuri didn’t recognize any of them but then he hadn’t made many friends outside his major.

            “This can all be done, of course. We will need to arrange a jump clinic for you.” Celestino leaned back, stroking his chin as he considered the program changes Yuuri had sketched out. “Tobin might be available in the summer.”

            “I don’t want to wait for summer.” Beneath the table, Yuuri’s hands twisted damply around each other.

            “It would be better to wait to design a new program. You don’t want too much in your head at once.”

            Celestino’s drink arrived, and he smiled broadly at the waitress before she departed.

            “It isn’t new.” Yuuri pointed toward the step sequences, both the spins in the short program.

            Celestino’s eyes narrowed. “You’re doing well this season, Yuuri.”

            A bronze and a silver. No guarantee he was even going to make it to the Final.

            “I know that the wait is making you nervous. But the answer is not to reinvent your programs mid-season. The answer is to focus on the basics, really master your elements. Your odds of making the Grand Prix Final are very good this season. And, even if you don’t, you have Nationals and maybe even Worlds waiting for you. Focus on those, and we can build next season afterwards. Okay?”

            Celestino drank off half his martini. Yuuri’s heart beat rapidly, filling his chest with an uncomfortable, fluttery feeling.

            “Coach, if I make the Final this year, these programs will need to be more difficult. I can add more jumps in the second half, increase-”

            “Yuuri, listen.” Celestino leaned forward, his heavy eyebrows drawing down. “You are doing well this year. I’m very proud of you. But let’s focus on the basics.”

            “I need more than basics at the Final.”

            Victor’s voice drifted through his head. “Why aren’t you like that on the ice?”

            “Yuuri is…nice.” He’d seen the interview from Paris after he returned home. Victor had effusively praised other skaters, their performances and unique elements. It had stung, hearing the single word he warranted. But it was not untrue. Victor skated at the highest level the sport had ever seen. He had invented new levels, surprised Yuuri over and over. Yuuri might have been assigned to the same events, but he was not skating with Victor.

            “Yes, yes. I know,” Celestino chided. “But listen. You have done this before, where you have tried to pay attention to too many things at once. It is…distraction. Do not listen to what others are saying. Do not look too closely at what others are doing. Stay off of social media. That’s all speculation and posturing. Focus on what you are capable of doing-”

            “I-I am capable of more.”

            “It takes time to master elements. Months! We are mid-season. This is not the time to learn new elements. Let us focus on the performance aspect. That is where your points lie.”

            “But...” Yuuri gestured toward the papers, seeing the ambition of the new moves, the combinations, jumps he had barely landed in practice. It was a lot. It looked almost ridiculous now, drawn out so surely in his own hand. 

            Celestino sighed gustily. “Yuuri, I don’t want you to set yourself up for disappointment.”

            Yuuri lowered his chin, “For failure, you mean.”

            “That is not what I mean. I have watched you skate for years. I have watched you improve for years. I know what you are capable of. But I also know… You are more methodical than most. Skate this program this season. The one we designed, the one you know. We will work on your plan for next season. You can fall and get back up. I have never seen someone so resilient. But disappointment is hard, for you. Let’s avoid that this season. There will be time to think about all this next year.”

            Even if he made the GPF, his program would not get him higher than fifth place, barring a catastrophic breakdown by another skater. And that would happen only if Yuuri skated perfectly, which was far from guaranteed. The Japanese Skating Federation would celebrate him during Nationals, simply because their stronger male skaters had retired over the last few years and the rising stars were still young. He was a weak knot in a proud line of superb skaters.

            If he waited until next year to increase his difficulty, he would only be keeping up. The sport evolved each season. Victor would unveil a spectacular new sequence. Yurio would undoubtedly be stronger. And a new wave of skaters would be arriving fresh from juniors. Could he ask his mother and father, his sister and Yuuko and Nishigori, Minako-sensei – all working to support him – to give him another year? He had yet to repay them for any of what they had done.

            Could he face the JSF again in Nagano, hear the cautious expectation in the officials’ voices? Could he stand to pose alongside Mori Yukiko, their top female skater, who had both a Grand Prix Final gold medal and a Worlds gold medal? She was always gracious, but he could not help but feel like a fraud who tarnished her image just by being close to her.

            “I have two decades of experience,” Celestino said, setting down his empty glass. “I have coached dozens of skaters. You have learned from me, but I have also learned from you. Trust me. Be patient. This will be best. You will see.”

            “Why aren’t you like that on the ice?”

            “Yuuri is…nice.”

            “Thank you, Coach.” Yuuri bowed, and collected those papers. The words and figures blurred on the page.

            He had to put everything he had on the ice this year. Because, if he didn’t make the GPF this year, he would not deserve a next year. Victor was not wrong, not to notice his skating. The realization fell like a stone into the pit of his stomach. It hurt to think about. But it made him angry as well. He wanted more. He should be thinking about stepping aside, to allow another skater a chance to exceed him. But, selfishly, he still wanted to skate. Even now his legs were restless, needing to move.

            There had always been more inside him than he had the nerve or skill to show on the ice. If he got this chance – if by some miracle he made it to the Final – he wanted to deserve to be there. Not to qualify and come in last. He wanted to show everyone what it meant to him to be at that level. He wanted to know that he belonged.

            On the bus ride home, he deleted all the social media and messaging apps off his phone. Celestino was right about distractions. He pulled up his calendar, marking out time for study, skating, and conditioning. He reinstalled a nutrition tracker. His heart in his throat, he sent an email to Mateo Navarro. The retired Spanish skater had taught him his first quad – the difficult lutz – when Yuuri had the opportunity to perform in his ice show a few years ago. He was a spectacular jumper and a patient, intuitive instructor. Yuuri could not afford to wait until next season. He could not wait for one of Celestino’s friends to be available. So he would ask for more help and he would try to be worthy of it, for this, his last season.

Chapter Text

Moscow, Russia

 

           Victor stared at his phone, willing it to produce what he wanted. Yuuri hadn’t texted or called, for over two weeks. Victor had made Mila and Yuri download the weird app to ensure they could see that he was active on it. They saw him. They received his messages. Katsuki Yuuri had been inactive for two weeks and three days. It didn’t make sense.

            They had something, he and Yuuri. He knew they had something. He liked the something they had!

            “Why won’t he call me, Yuri?” Victor moaned from where he stretched across a weight bench.

            Yuri lunged, dumbbells in his hands, in front of the mirror of the weight room. “I don’t care.”

            “You know him, Yura.”

            “I really don’t.”

            “You hung out with him. You breakdanced with him!”

            “He breakdanced. I was an innocent bystander, roped into a stupid dance off.”

            “Why won’t-”

            Yuri growled. “You were probably an asshole to him and he decided not to talk to you anymore because he was smart.”

            “I was not! I would never!”

            “Oh yeah? What did you say?”

            “I told him good evening. I asked if he had slept on his flight. I told him I had not taken his missing hat, even though I wished I had. I did not tell him that last part. He told me a story about his sister and chocolate and bugs.” Victor thought, then smiled. “I told him I’d enjoyed dancing with him. He said that he enjoyed dancing with me, too, and that he thought all of the dancers were jealous of us. Then he became tired and I – in a very and endearing manner – suggested he get some sleep.”

            Yuri’s green eyes narrowed. “What did you say about his story?”

            “His what?”

            Yuri rolled his eyes. “About the sister and the bugs. What did you say?”

            “Oh. Mmm.” He pressed a finger to his lips. “He mentioned his mom killing the bugs, and I said his mom looked like a very happy person. Oh! And that I’d seen a picture of him with her when he was younger.”

            “Uh huh.”

            “He was so cute when he was younger. Yura, you should have seen him. So tiny, with these adorable cheeks.”

            “Uh huh. What did you say about the cheeks?”

            “That they were cute. And that…that he looked like a little piggy.”

            “Right. And when you told him you liked dancing with him, what did you say after that?”

            “What? Nothing. Just…” Something squirmed inside of Victor. He’d been worried at that point, hadn’t he? “That he should skate like he danced. That it was so beautiful. You saw him. So assured, so smooth, so fun!”

            “You told him he was fat and that he should skate better. Is that all?”

            “No!”

            “Victor, you never say anything nice to anyone. If you’re forced to, you follow it with criticism. Or you do that fake smile thing to show that you didn’t really mean it and that they were stupid for believing you.”

            Victor sat up. “I don’t!”

            “MILA,” Yuri screamed.

            “WHAT?” she screamed back from across the room.

            “What was the first nice thing Victor said to you?”

            “Oh! I’d just arrived at the rink, fourteen years old and filled with awe and terror. Little old me, from a faraway village, in beautiful Saint Petersburg-”

            “Get to the point, woman.”

            “Superstar Victor Nikiforov said that I was very pretty, which should help with the judges because I skated like a train that didn’t know which track it was supposed to follow.” Mila’s voice turned frighteningly sweet toward the end.

            Victor shook his head, standing up and pacing. “That doesn’t mean I did that to Yuuri. He understood what I was saying.”

            “It’s not your fault that you have to cut someone down any time you’re nice to them,” Yuri said condescendingly. “It’s how Yakov trained you. You don’t know any different.”

            “That’s not-”

            “Oh,” Mila threw in. “And then during that interview you praised your precious sex god Chris to the sky and back. Ooh, his jumps! Ooh, his form! Ooh, I can’t wait to see him again, such a sexy Swiss. Then you said Katsuki Yuuri was nice. Nice.”

            “Nothing about his skating. You dissed him to the press, then told him he was fat and that he should skate better.” Yuri racked his weights and turned around, crossing his arms. “Katsudon isn’t like you, oh mighty, impervious champion. He is an actual human and has actual human feelings.”

            Victor understood how Yakov coached, how Yakov had coached him since he was twelve years old. He built his skaters by first, and repeatedly, breaking them down. Eventually Victor recognized that he was exceeding Yakov’s training regularly, and the cuts stopped hurting. He hardly even noticed them now. He had never noticed himself doing that, and he would have noticed. Wouldn’t he?

            “I do that?” he asked slowly. “I say something nice then-”

            “Shatter them,” Mila said. Yuri had wandered away and was either too far to hear or no longer wanted to talk about it. “Why do you think Yuri stopped asking your opinion and barks at you when you so much as look in his direction? No matter how well he has performed, you always make it hurt.”

            “One hour until dinner,” Yakov shouted into the room. “We are meeting with the Skating Federation. Victor, get showered and changed immediately. Under no circumstances are you to call your dog-sitter and lose track of time!”

            “Makka came with me, Yakov! Do you want to come to my room and see her?”

            “No. One hour! No excuses!”

            The door slammed behind their coach. Victor sat heavily on the bench. Yuri looked down his narrow nose at Victor, and it wasn’t just anger in his expression.

            “It’s no wonder he hates you, Victor.”

            “Yuuri doesn’t hate me.” He wouldn’t. He wouldn’t know how.

            Victor stared down at his phone, the dull red icon beside Yuuri’s name. Two weeks and three days.

*

Rostelecom Cup - Freeskate

 

            Victor felt it, the hitch in the joint of his hip, the startling flare of pain. He raised his arms, turned on his left leg, and continued his program as it transitioned from summer to autumn. The music became more spare, with the occasional minor note. He completed the movements on autopilot, gentling his landings to limit the jarring, transitioning out of his spins the instant the requisite rotations were complete. Autumn called for a mournful expression, and it was not difficult to supply.

            He hugged Yakov as he left the ice, startling the man into pulling back. “What are you doing, Vitya?”

            “It tore again,” he whispered through the smile he’d kept in place.

            “Are you sure?” Yakov grunted. “Just get through the next hour. I’ll arrange for a doctor. It’s a good thing we are in Moscow.”

            The wait for his scores stretched, the low, hard bench making it impossible to get comfortable. There was a grueling moment when he stood, the adrenaline of the performance worn off, when he thought his smile might slip. And another when he took the single high step onto the medal stand, the spotlight harsh in his face. Winning was a momentary reprieve, the applause, the artful curve of the gold medal warming in his hand as his anthem played for him.

            Yakov intervened during the press conference, keeping it short, which was a relief and not only because of his hip. Yuri had won silver and Otabek Altin bronze, and an almost electric tension snapped between the two of them for all they avoided looking at each other. When Victor pulled them both in for a celebratory hug during photos, he’d been afraid that Yuri was going to bolt. Or kick him with his skates still on.

            He made it back to his room and sank onto the end of the bed while Makka bounced around his knees and boofed quietly. Mila had taken her out and Makka now thought it was hotel play time.

            “You know we get in trouble when we fetch in the hotel room. The neighbors do not like it, nor do the lamps. Or the television.”

            Makka stilled when someone knocked on the door. With a grimace, Victor pushed himself to his feet. Yakov stood outside, with a Russian Skating Federal official and what was presumably the doctor. They all came in, making the suite feel overcrowded. The doctor was allergic to dogs and Makka had to go out on the balcony, where she scratched and whined while Victor was prodded and twisted as they tested range of motion and strength. While the doctor asked what it felt like and what his pain level was.

            It felt like a partially torn hip labrum. The pain level was low now but it would hurt and grate while he skated. It was almost like a performance from the three of them. They all knew what it was. But they still wanted to go through the motions. The official stood against the wall, arms crossed.

            “Can he still skate?” she asked.

            “He skated in two events the last time,” Yakov said. “We’ll need imaging to confirm the extent of the tear.”

            “A second tear may be worse.” She looked Victor up and down, like she was trying to determine the value remaining in his body. Then she pushed away from the wall. “Get the imaging. Do not tell anyone. We’ll decide options after we see what we’re working with.”

            She and the doctor left while Victor recovered Makka, who was shivering.

            “We’ll go to the clinic in the morning,” Yakov said, running a hand over his nearly bald head. “You must not tell anyone, Victor. If you have trouble moving, we will find a way to get you out of the hotel without anyone seeing.”

            “Okay.” Victor dropped onto the bed. Makka flopped across his lap.

            “We will get through the Grand Prix Final. We will get through Worlds. We will get you to another title in each. Nobody has ever come close to this many consecutive golds. You will be unreachable. If surgery is required, we’ll arrange it immediately afterward so there will be time to prepare for the Olympics. We have done this before, Vitya. We can do it again.”

            “’We’,” Victor repeated.

            “Victor, this is happening to all of us. It is not only about you. You know this.” Yakov donned his hat and picked up his coat. “Remember. Not a word.”

            “I remember. Have a great night, Yakov. Congrats on the gold medal! Such a good coaching job today!”

            “Vitya.”

            “Goodnight, Yakov.”

            When the door closed, he rolled over until Makka rearranged herself for him to hold. His hip ached, but no more than the rest of his legs after such a performance. He should get some ice, and probably some dinner. But he wasn’t hungry yet, and his phone didn’t provide the usual distraction. It was all the regular messages, the repetitive media and fan speculation.

            “Did it again, huh? Can’t wait to see you at finals!”

            What Can’t Victor Nikiforov Do?

            “Why do you even bother if you don’t break your own record? Jk!”

            What’s Next for Victor Nikiforov?

 

            What was next?

            He could envision the stretch of days to come. Hiding his true state behind blasé soundbites for the press, fans and – worse – the other skaters. The deep grind in his joint where there should only be supple movement. The restlessness of being shut inside for weeks while he recovered from surgery. The lost strength, the lost flexibility, neither of which would fully return. Having to rebuild himself all over again.

            It was exhausting to think about. Out of habit, not even bothering to hope, he tapped the weird icon for the weird messaging app. Then he sat up.

 

            Yuuri

            Victor, are you okay

            ???

            I hope you’re okay. Victor.

 

            The time stamp showed he’d sent the messages during Victor’s program. Then there was a break of nearly an hour, enough time for the scores to be announced, the red carpet to be rolled out, the medals to be handed out, and his anthem to be played.

 

            Yuuri

            I’m sorry for the earlier messages. You’re fine of course. I thought I saw something that wasn’t there. It was a beautiful skate. Flawless QF!!! But of course you know that.

            You were very beautiful tonight.

 

            He hit the call button. And then, shaking his head, realized what time it must be in Detroit.

            “Victor, hi.” Yuuri didn’t sound like he was asleep. He sounded urgent.

            Victor felt urgent. “Hello, Yuuri.”

            “I’m sorry for those messages.”

            “The messages you sent tonight after disappearing for weeks?” He’d meant for it to be light, a tease, but then remembered what Yuri and Mila had said and held his breath, hoping Yuuri wouldn’t hang up on him.

            “Yes. Uhm, I’m sorry about that too. I got…busy.”

            Busy. Maybe there was a simple answer to this. Victor fiddled with Makka’s collar.     “And what have you been busy with?”

            “Working on my programs, to increase the PCS difficulty.”

            “You…what?”

             “The difficulty is too low for them to be…useful. I’m working on changing that.” Yuuri sighed. “I’m not at my best when I’m failing every day in practice. I didn’t want you to see me like that.”

            That didn’t make sense. Practice was meant to be grueling when first learning a program or altering it. Yuuri had skated long enough to know that…but he had also told Victor that he got anxious and overthought. Victor had thought him very brave to reveal that. It hadn’t occurred to him, after feeling the way Yuuri made him feel, that Yuuri wouldn’t be comfortable with him.

            “Maybe you don’t need to change.”

            “The rankings say otherwise.”

            “Ah, but…the rankings are not everything.” Victor almost smacked himself upside the head. Easy for him to say, with his standings. “We should talk about this. We can talk at the Final! I will fly in a day early-”

            “Victor.”

            “-or stay another day after.”

            “Victor. That’s, uh…that’s very generous. But I haven’t qualified.”

            “You will though. You’ll qualify.”

            A noncommittal noise.

            “Or I could come to Detroit?” he offered.

            A burst of laughter escaped Yuuri. “I’m sure your coach would tie you down before allowing that. The Final is in three weeks for you.”

            For him. Not for them. Victor wanted something for them.

            “I could help you, if you wanted. I could help with technique, maybe? Or cheer you from the sidelines? Or if you just want to talk…”

            “I’m sure you’re too busy for all that, Victor.”

            He wouldn’t be. His practices would be shortened for the rest of the season. He would probably have to go to physical therapy, but it wouldn’t make up for the ice time he wouldn’t be having.

            He wanted to tell Yuuri that he had time for him. He wanted to tell him why. He wanted to tell him that he would have time even without this.

            Smiling, even though Yuuri couldn’t see him, he asked, “What did you think you saw? Why did you ask if I was injured?”

            “Oh, I don’t… It was nothing.”

            “Did I perform so badly you thought I had to be hurt?”

            “No, no! Of course not. I was just…the livestream must have rendered badly.”

            “What did you think had happened? A sprain? A fracture? Was I shot by an arrow during my triple axel?”

            “No, Victor. There was no arrow.” He huffed out a laugh. “It just…for a moment it looked like…I thought that you were guarding your left side. Low. Leaning into it. An ankle, or a quad cramp, that you were softening… It was just the camera angle, I’m sure.”

            Victor’s mouth fell open. None of the commentators had mentioned anything out of the ordinary. Yakov, who watched for every possible flaw, had not even suspected he’d been hurt. Yuuri had seen that, seen what he had been hiding, from a low-resolution live feed thousands of miles away.

            “I’ll have to ask them to change the camera angles,” he heard himself say. “Or the lens type, maybe. Perhaps it is my costume. The velvet of the pants could have been rubbed in the wrong direction.”

            Yuuri laughed quietly. “I’m sure that’s what it was.”

            “Were you worried about me?” Victor asked before shaking his head. He shouldn’t be carrying on like this. It just…Yuuri knew. He knew him. “I’m just glad that everyone watching the livestream didn’t see the same glitches. The outcry would have been horrendous. I’d have had to fake an injury then miraculously recover from it just to quell the internet buzz.”

            After a moment of quiet, Yuuri said, emphatically, “Well, if you were hurt, then I’d wish I were there.”

            Victor had to close his eyes. This was…too much. “Why?”

            “To…help you. Like you helped me at Skate America.”

            “I didn’t do anything in Vegas.”

            “You didn’t have to do anything. You stayed with me. That was what I needed, at a time like that.”

            Victor’s chest went tight, pressure building inside of it.

            “And I could…run errands? Or cook. I could cook for you.”

            Victor recovered enough to speak, even if his voice sounded thick even to his own ears. He couldn’t say what he wanted to say, so he sighed gustily, aiming for light-hearted teasing. His heart felt anything but light.

            “I hope you cook well, because if I were hurt I would want a French flamiche and okroshka.”

            “Oh.”

            A moment passed.

            “Yuuri?”

            “I’m looking them up. In the soup…”

            “Okroshka.”

            “Okroshka.” His Japanese accent added vowels between the consonants. Victor pressed a hand to his chest. “Are those kabu? I mean, what’s the English… Are those turnips?”

            Victor had to look that up in Russian. “No.” He translated another Russian word on his phone. “Radish. Sometimes they are added and sometimes they are not.”

            “Which do you prefer?”

            “I’ve only had it without.”

            “Hmm. I guess I could try it both ways.”

            Victor smiled. His entire body was one big smile. Makkachin stood up on the bed, tail wagging.

            “Are you sure? They’re very specific dishes.”

            “I was brought up in an inn with a restaurant. I know how to cook.” He sounded almost impatient. Yuuri was never immodest. He must have really known how to cook, which Victor found delightful.

            “I didn’t think you would answer,” Victor heard himself say, his tone still light but the words tore out of another spot inside of him that had been hurting.

            “What do you mean?”

            “When I called. Because you hadn’t been responding on the messenger. I thought I was just going to be sending pictures of Makka into the void forever.” Victor covered his own eyes.

            “I’m sorry.” There was a sound of rustling, and Victor imagined Yuuri tugging at his clothes, pulling his sleeves down over his hands.

            “It doesn’t-”

            “No, I’m sorry. I should have.”

            “Can I ask you one thing?”

            “Of course.”

            Victor’s heart thudded in his chest. He wasn’t sure he had ever been this nervous.

            “If you find you are not…if you are not going to talk to me again, will you tell me so? So that I don’t worry?”

            “I won’t tell you that.”

            Oh.

            “I won’t tell you because it won’t happen again.” Yuuri’s voice was forceful for a moment, then it softened with uncertainty. “I can send you my phone number, if you like. I’m not the best at responding, but it works better when I’m here. And you would have it, if you wanted to send more pictures.”

            “Okay!”

            The app pinged with a notification. A phone number with a United States prefix. He gripped his phone tightly, saving the contact before it disappeared.

            “I have to go to class now,” Yuuri said.

            “Oh, of course!” Victor sat up, scrambling. There were a number of things he wanted to say, but this conversation felt fragile. Or maybe that was just him. “Thank you, for watching me.”

            “Thank you for telling me. That you are okay.”

            “Well, if I were hurt then I would want you here, and I would want you to make that dish for me, both ways.” The smile left him. “So it’s a good thing we don’t have to worry about that.”

            The line was silent for a moment before Yuuri said, quietly, “I would want to be there too.”

Chapter Text

             Every morning was a fresh, new opportunity to explore more of the wonders of the world and, better yet, take selfies with them. Phichit yawned as he wandered toward the kitchen in boxers, a t-shirt and his hamster slippers. Yuuri was asleep at the kitchen table, his books and notes open, his glasses askew on his face. He had a picture of Victor Nikiforov up on his laptop. It was a domestic shot rather than a performance still, of Victor on a couch with his poodle, his chin resting on his hand.

            “Hi Phichit,” the picture said.

            “Hi Victor.” With a start, Phichit slammed back against the refrigerator, his hand pressed to his rapidly-beating heart. ”Whaaaaaaa?”

            “Shhh.” Victor raised a long, slim finger over his lips. “We were talking. He fell asleep.”

            Heart in his throat, Phichit dropped into the other chair at the table. “And you’re…watching him sleep?”

            “I thought he might wake back up.”

            “Have you met this child of slumber? He will not wake back up. Watch this.” He framed his hands around his mouth.

            “No, don’t.”

            “Yuuri. Yuuri! YUURI.”

            “Phichit, no,” Yuuri mumbled, not opening his eyes.

            On the laptop, Victor covered his mouth to hide his laughter. He sounded like he was hyperventilating, but those steely blue eyes were weirdly soft. Phichit hadn’t known Victor Nikiforov was capable of soft. He’d seen him on TV, of course, and around the rink and warm up areas during the couple events they’d both been assigned. Victor radiated and attracted – cool competence, polished charisma. On the ice, every aspect of his performance was mastered to the finest detail, and still he looked effortless.

            Phichit knew that Yuuri had been talking with Victor and he had a couple of VERY INTERESTING photos on his phone from Las Vegas which Yuuri had insisted was just Victor feeling sorry for him. Phichit hadn’t been able to dispute it on account of his drunken blackout and three-day hangover, and he hadn’t been able to post them on Insta due to Yuuri having snapped a lot of blackmail-worthy pics of Phichit the next morning (which was a very non-Yuuri thing to do!) but he’d suspected his roomate was hiding something. Because he was very private and, more importantly, a terrible liar.

            And now, finally, Phichit had the opportunity to test a hypothesis.

            “So, what are you up to today, Victor?” he asked. “Do you have practice?”

            Victor uncovered his mouth to speak.

            “Rest day,” Yuuri mumbled. He stirred a little, folding both his hands beneath his cheek and turning his face toward the screen a little more.

            Victor’s eyes went even softer. It was a like steel-jawed supermodel had opened the door to a room full of puppies. Phichit discreetly raised his phone over the edge of the table and took a picture. He hid it before Victor could see.

            “Yuuri,” he said, “get up and go to bed. You have to be at practice in a couple hours.”

            Nothing but a soft snore. Phichit raised his eyebrows expectantly toward the laptop.

            “Yuuri,” Victor murmured, that cultured voice low and smooth, “I think you’ve studied enough for now. Why don’t you go to bed?”

            “Come with me, Victor,” Yuuri mumbled.

            Phichit bit his lips around a shriek and looked away, as though he was very interested in something else and could not possibly have heard that. In his sleep, his precious son was a PLAYBOY. Victor made a sound that was apparently the Russian equivalent of cooing.

            “Yuuri,” he whispered, his voice strained, “go to bed.”

            With a lurch, Yuuri stood, shoving his glasses even more askew on his face and stumbling off toward his room. Phichit tilted his head to watch the rambling journey down the hall. Through the doorway, he watched Yuuri faceplant on his bed, feet hanging off the end, and go still.

            “Mission accomplished.” Phichit was impressed despite himself. He’d once yelled directly into Yuuri’s face that the apartment was on fire – the words were supported by the apartment filling with smoke – and Yuuri had only pulled a blanket over his head.

            “Does he often stay up all night to study?”

            “Not often. Sometimes at the end of the quarter or when he has a big project due.”

            “He does this on top of practice?”

            “Yeah, he does his early practice, then eats and studies before his second practice. And now he studies some more after that.”

            “A second full practice? How long is he training each day?”

            “Eight or nine hours.”

            Victor’s eyes weren’t soft anymore. “That’s too much. Why would he do that? Is Celestino pushing him?”

            If he hadn’t seen this interaction, if he hadn’t known about Yuuri-softened Victor, Phichit would have changed the subject. His best friend didn’t need his personal business made public. But, armed with knowledge and a keen sense of mischief, Phichit said, “Celestino doesn’t approve of Yuuri altering the program at this stage. He does Celestino’s practice in the morning.”

            “And the changes we’re working on later in the day?” Victor leaned forward, blue eyes piercing. “These moves are not easy. He is doing all our jumps when he is already tired?”

            “You’ve never trained with Yuuri, or anyone like him I take it? He always puts in a lot of hours.”

            “But why?”

            “Because he has to master the moves. Then get comfortable with them. Then he has to keep practicing them until he believes he can do them.”

            “But he can do them. What more is there to know?”

            “Yuuri has to know. His standards are different than ours. Or, than mine. And probably yours. I’m not saying you and I are the same. I mean, similar, in that we’re different from Yuuri. The same on paper maybe?”

            Victor opened his mouth then closed it. He sat back and gazed away, brow furrowed.

            “I see.”

            Phichit hoped he did.

            “Is he eating?”

            Phichit laughed. “That’s never a problem with Yuuri. Unless he’s so anxious that he’s overeating.”

            “Is he overeating now?”

            “He’s been very strict with his diet. Do you know how much brown rice and chicken breast we go through in this apartment daily? Tons, tons of it.” Tears formed in his eyes. “He hasn’t made curry in weeks. Or katsudon…”

            “Phichit?”

            The tears evaporated. “Yeah, what’s up?”

            Victor had leaned forward. His gaze was steady on the camera. Phichit swallowed. It was…really intense. He wondered how Yuuri could stand it, although Yuuri could be intense, in his own way. Like when he really wanted something. Or when Phichit talked him into riding a mechanical bull.

            “Will you try to get him to take care of himself? For me?”

            Something warm went through Phichit’s chest, like when one of his hamsters came to him when he called even if he had been calling for a different one.

            “I always look out for him.” 

            Victor’s eyes narrowed before he blinked as though surprised at himself. He nodded.           

            “Good. I’m…I’m glad he has you.”

            Did Phichit dare? Would Yuuri kill him if he found out? Maybe it didn’t even matter. After all, this actual skating god was watching Yuuri sleep like it was the only thing he wanted to do. He genuinely cared for Yuuri.

            “I’m glad he has you now too, Victor.”

            The god’s smile was disarmingly sweet. Phichit snuck another burst of photos before ending the call.

Chapter Text

            The mens events at the NHK Trophy finished in Tokyo, Japan with Phichit Chalunont standing on the podium holding up a silver medal. His smile outshone even the spotlight’s reflection off of the metal and glass. For the first time, he had qualified for the Grand Prix Final. Afterwards he called Yuuri and screamed wordlessly into the phone for a good twenty seconds before hanging up. It was his way of congratulating them both.

            Because, amazingly, Yuuri had also qualified. He’d squeaked into a distant sixth place behind Victor, Phichit, Yuri Plisetsky, Chris Giacometti and Otabek Altin. Victor’s congratulatory text arrived while Yuuri refreshed the browser on his phone, struggling to accept the announcement was real. He video-called the second Yuuri responded.

            “Yuuri, why are you awake? It’s nearly three in the morning for you.”

            “I was watching Phichit skate.” And he hadn’t been able to fall asleep, knowing that the finalists would be announced when the free skate ended.

            “Well you should be asleep, but I’m glad you are not because I wanted to be the first to congratulate you. Congratulations, Yuuri! I’m so proud of you!” Victor’s smile filled the screen, so bright in Yuuri’s darkened room that he had to squint. “You qualified! This is not a surprise of course. But still, I cannot wait to see your programs in person!”

            Yuuri squirmed beneath his comforter and adjusted his glasses against the screen glare. “You’ve already seen them.”

            “Not like they will be. And you only ever show me small pieces on the new elements at a time. You leave me in such suspense!”

            “Well…” Yuuri swallowed the instinct to deflect Victor’s enthusiasm. Doing that only made him more persistent, his praise more effusive. “Thank you. I would like you to see them.”

            “Do you know what else I saw?” Victor’s head tipped down in what Yuuri had come to learn was his “serious” face. It usually happened when Yuuri was frustrated while practicing. “Phichit posted a photo on Instagram.”

            Why would that be unusual? “He does that about a hundred times a day.”

            “It was of you. Four days ago.”

            “Before he left for Tokyo?” Yuuri tried to remember doing something embarrassing before Phichit left. There had been an incident with hamster Arther and trying to fit him into a Sherlock Holmes hat…

            Victor’s finger swiped across the screen and the image froze as he read: “Here lies Katsuki Yuuri, the first man to die of studying for a Molecular Biology final. Hashtag RIP.” He swiped back. “You were asleep on the couch.”

            “I’m sorry. I’m sure it was taken from a hideous angle.”

            “No hideous, exhausted. You were covered in note cards and ice packs.”

            “It’s…” Yuuri gestured, too tired to explain better. “Multi-tasking.”

            “Are you going to take days off before the competition?”

            “I can’t.”

            “Rest is a part of training, Yuuri.”

            “I can’t. I mean…I just can’t. I’ve qualified now, so I have to get better. Be better.”

            Victor was quiet for a moment. “How about an exercise instead then?”

            “I honestly don’t think I can get out of bed right now, Victor.”

            “Yuuri, I would not ask you to. It’s not that kind of exercise. Just listen.”

            Victor repositioned himself, leaning forward. The phone was slightly lower than before, and Yuuri focused on the generous bow of his lips as he spoke.

            “It’s our rest day, Yuuri. We have taken it because of course we deserve it and of course it is nice to take a break, to move through the world outside the rink. You see?” Victor raised an eyebrow expectantly. Yuuri nodded, still perplexed.

            “Good. So, we would start the day with coffee, then maybe a champagne and caviar brunch. It is a luxurious sort of rest day. And then go sightseeing here in Saint Petersburg. The Winter Palace and the square. The Trinity Bridge is very elegant. We have many statues – hopefully you enjoy horses – and palaces. Cathedrals. Theaters. Peterhof is very impressive when the fountains are flowing, maybe not this time of year. And we will have to indulge in the restaurants. What is a day off without wonderful food? We will go to Tsar at first, to introduce you to traditional Russian food. Though, honestly, I don’t eat there often. Davidov is very elegant. Service at the Beau Rivage will bring a tear to your eye, it is so precise. Like its own performance. So, you see? That is our rest day.”

            “Oh.” Yuuri swallowed. “That sounds…spectacular.”

            “Indeed it would be!” Victor grinned. The screen blurred as he raised his hands. “So, for our rest day in Detroit, what do we do?”

            “We…here?”

            “Of course. I have never been to Detroit. You will have to show me around, introduce me to what you like.”

            “Oh. Uhm…we could go to the rink-”

             Victor laughed, then chided. “Rest day, Yuuri. You understand the concept? Rest, relaxation? Ingulgence?”

            “Right.” Yuuri sat up and adjusted his glasses. “Do you prefer coffee or tea?”

            “Coffee.”

            “How do you like it?”

            “Sweet, no cream.”

            “Okay. So we…” He glanced up, feeling weird about using the word, like he was taking liberties. Victor nodded encouragingly. “We would wake late, just in time to make it to a bakery before they sold out of pastries. I would have tea and a ham, cheddar and chive scone. You would have a pastry with vanilla bean cream and raspberries, to complement your coffee.”

            “Delicious! I like this day already, Yuuri.”

             “The bakery is in an area with small shops. Art, antiques and, uhm, organic clothing. I don’t really know what that is, but the displays are nice and it always smells a little bit like wool and citrus. We could walk around, window shopping while we ate.”

            “Delightful!”

            “And then…we could go to the lake. Lake Eerie is one of the Great Lakes, and standing on the shore feels like standing on the edge of the sea. It’s not frozen over yet. We could walk along it. There’s a wide path. Large trees, even though most of the leaves are gone. It’s surrounded by big, jagged rocks. To protect the shoreline. When it’s stormy, the waves break over the rocks so you have to be careful. Uh…we have to be careful. We would take Makkachin of course. Part of the park is dog friendly. Does she like water?”

            “Of course. She’s a poodle.”

            Yuuri smiled at the thought of Makka playing in the water. “Okay. Then we would come home I guess, to warm up. Maybe play video games or watch a movie.”

            “I’ve never played video games. You could teach me.”

            “You’ve never?” Yuuri tilted his head.

            “I didn’t have time. Yuri showed me one, but he made it so that I was chased by monsters, and it was so dark. Very scary. I had to sleep with all the lights on that night.”

            Yuuri laughed. “The monsters from the games can’t get you, Victor.”

            Victor looked disconcertingly unconvinced.

            “Okay, no video games. We could watch a movie instead. What do you like?”

            “I like Cinema Paradiso. Amelie. Dirty Dancing. Die Hard. The Hobbit. I think I would like to go to New Zealand to see the hobbits. I’ve never had a competition there.”

            “To see where they filmed The Hobbit?”

            “Yes, the hobbits. In their shire.”

            Yuuri rubbed his eyes. He was so tired it sounded like Victor thought the movie was a documentary about hobbits.

            “Go on, Yuuri. What’s next?”

            “Uhm… I would probably make dinner.”

            “You would make us dinner?” The screen blurred again as Victor moved.

            “Yeah, I mean. Detroit has good restaurants, too. I don’t really know them, but we could try them. Celestino would know. I mostly cook at home.”

            “That sounds wonderful.” Victor’s chin rested on his hand. “You should do that then.”

            “What would you-”

            The door beside Victor slammed open, followed by the slash of a leg. The camera fell abruptly, overwhelmed by the barrage of an angry, teen Russian. Yuuri knew that voice.

            “Yurio, don’t kick Victor,” Yuuri said.

            The phone shifted again as Yurio picked it up and glared at it.

            “He is moping in the janitor’s closet and I HAD TO STOP MY PRACTICE TO FETCH HIM. I AM NOT AN ERRAND BOY.”

            “Don’t. Kick. Victor.” Yuri had been susceptible to Minako so Yuuri sank all the hauteur he’d ever learned in a dance studio into his voice. Yurio’s jaw clenched, then he tossed the phone to Victor.

            “Fine,” he yelled after it. “Don’t keep him from practice then. It is INCONVENIENT TO SERIOUS ATHLETES.”

            “You were doing so well in practice,” Victor called out. “Sublime footwork today!”

            The door slammed on his last words, while the phone twisted around as he righted it.

            “Victor,” Yuuri asked, when the movement stopped, “are you skipping practice, in a closet?”

            “It is a not a closet. It is a small office with no windows, for cleaning professionals.” He said this as though it made sense. “I was just about to return.”

            “Uh huh.”

            Victor’s eyes gleamed. “You made Yuri back down.”

            “He’s not unreasonable.”

            “He is the reason for the word unreasonable. That voice you used.” Victor feigned a shiver. “You could freeze the entire length of the Neya River with that.”

            “Not right now I can’t. I’m so tired.” Yuuri tipped over and pulled his glasses off. “Go practice, Victor. Thank you for calling.”

            “Go to sleep, Yuuri. Thank you for the wonderful day off.”

*

            Yuuri woke at noon. Since Celestino was in Tokyo with Phichit, he wouldn’t get in trouble for arriving late at the rink, and since Phichit was in Tokyo with Celestino, he didn’t have to worry about being woken up by a hundred and thirty pounds of enthusiasm with a camera attached to the end of his arm.

            He shuffled into the kitchen and looked at his notes spread out all over the table and his skate bag propped against the wall. Rather than picking up either, he grabbed his jacket and sneakers. He bought a bagel and tea and walked around his neighborhood, looking at the Christmas decorations in the storefronts and on front porches. He took several buses to the lakefront and stepped out into the chill air. He looked at the space beside him, the place Victor would have occupied if he were here, standing between Yuuri and the cold breeze like he had in Paris when he’d found Yuuri at the ice rink. A pang went through him, and he rubbed his chest to ease to hollow ache.

            It was not the same as being with someone, nothing like experiencing it with Victor, but it felt nice to breathe and walk with nothing weighing him down and nothing he had to chase after for a few hours.

Chapter Text

            Yuuri waved good-bye to Celestino and Phichit, and Aaron and Katie, as they giddily packed themselves and their luggage into the airport shuttle van. Minako texted him as her flight left Japan, and he wished her safe travels. He woke at six the next morning to take the first part of his Molecular Biology final, an accommodation from the professor and department. The second part was postponed until his return, which stretched his nerves that much further but his professor was already irritated with him. He didn’t consider “a little ice skating” an acceptable reason to miss classes or the final exam he was so proud of.

            He left for the airport at midnight, in the same shuttle van his rinkmates and coach had taken the day before and, after a delay, took off at around three a.m. Covered in his coat and an eye mask, he expected to fall asleep immediately. Instead, images of RNA streamed through his head, followed by thoughts of lysogenic cycles and phages. By the time he’d woken his laptop and added to his study notes, he was wide awake again. The sun rose outside the ice-dotted window and his mind continued to whirl. Protein sequences, step sequences, all the things he had to do, all the standards he had to meet, over the next few days.

            He was groggy during the layover in Schiphol but made himself walk, stretch, hydrate and eat something that wasn’t fast food despite the allure of French fries with frietsaus. Mmmm frietsaus. The sun was starting to set when they landed in Helsinki even though the pilot assured them it was only late afternoon. The terminal felt too bright and his legs too heavy – and maybe too short? walking was taking forever – as he made his way through customs and the baggage claim. As he neared the exit, he saw a dog on the other side of the partition. Pulling down his mask, he smiled. It was a standard poodle, soft, not shaved but well groomed. The dog trotted up to the glass. Yuuri frowned. The dog looked a lot like… Raising his head he saw Victor, who smiled and waved with a gloved hand.

            He didn’t have time to wonder what Victor was doing there. The feeling of relief, of pure sparking happiness, at seeing him again was enough to make Yuuri start running. Victor and Makkachin mirrored him on the other side of the glass. They met steps outside of security, their momentum carrying them into each other. Victor gripped his shoulders to stop them from falling over.

            “What are you doing here?” Yuuri asked, his sleepy heart suddenly beating so hard he felt dizzy.

            “I didn’t want to wait to see you. Your final exam went well?”

            Somehow he had forgotten what Victor looked like, even though he saw him almost every day now, had seen him frozen on posters and skating on TV for years. His skin was pale but it pinkened delicately when he was cold or exerting. The delicate flush spread across his cheeks and nose now. His eyelashes were thick but almost translucent, not darkened like Yuuri had always seen them for competitions. His eyes were blue like the shallows of the ocean, and vibrant, full of emotion even when he schooled his expressions, which was often. His lips were wide and full, centered by the perfect dip of a cupid’s bow.

            He was larger than he appeared on the ice, solid, broad in the shoulders in a way few skaters were. When he turned his head to acknowledge another passenger – a fan, from their enthusiasm – hailing him, his profile was the shockingly perfect angle of a heroic statue or old Hollywood star.

            It was difficult to match this Victor to the odd-hour calls when he would stop mid-complaint about grounds in his coffee or how it was hot during a photo shoot to coo and laugh over Makkachin. And then send Yuuri four pictures of whatever it was that had made him laugh. And it didn’t make sense for this person to be the one Yuuri turned to when he was so mad at himself that he was almost in tears, because even when Victor was too impatient to listen, he wasn’t dismissive.

            And Victor smelled good, beneath the bright, light notes of his cologne. And that cupid’s bow, right at Yuuri’s eye level, was so tempting.

            “Sorry,” Victor said, shaking his head at himself as he turned back from the fan, now smiling as he hurried off. “So, your final went well? I tried to look up the subjects, but then I had to open a dictionary tab to look up the subjects, and then I had to open a translation tab for the dictionary and that’s when I realized this was a search I might never be able to finish. I can’t believe you are studying something so complex. It is like you have two professional careers. It is very impressive.”

            Yuuri, melting, said, “Yeah, I finished part one. I’ll have to do the second half when I return. But I think I did okay. I hope.”

            “I’m so glad.” Makkachin bumped against their legs and they both reached down to pat her. “I can’t believe you had to do that. You look exhausted. Did you sleep on the flight?”

            “I’m fine. You wanted dinner, right? The place you mentioned? Reindeer and stones?”

            “Olo. The oysters were on stones. Actually, many things were served on stones. Hot and cold. The reindeer was plated. Come.” Victor ushered him toward a distant door. “I have a car service. Makkachin prefers to walk, but when we cannot walk we take a service rather than a taxi.”

            The car was sleek and black, and inside the seats were buttery soft and heated. The window was down to let Makka sniff at the cool, clean air, putting Victor in the middle seat. His long legs angled toward Yuuri.

            “Were you able to practice today?” Yuuri asked. “How’s the ice?”
            “Superb. Scandinavia is a little like Russia. There is no excuse for poor ice conditions. It is an older arena, but immaculately well kept. I saw Phichit today.”

            “Yeah?” Yuuri tipped his head back against the seat and smiled fondly. “He’s doing so well. You’ve never seen someone grow so much during a season.”

            “Oh, I believe I have.”

            Victor’s smile was small and almost smug. The passing lights caught on his hair, his eyes, the tailored lines of his trench coat. Yuuri reached out and ran his fingers along the collar.

            “It’s soft,” he murmured. “I wondered if it would be soft.”

            “It’s cashmere. Are you cold? Do you want to wear it?”

            “But then you’ll be cold.”

            “I’m not sure if you noticed, but I am Russian.”

            “You complained that your practice rink was too cold last Thursday. You wore a fur hat over your warm up jacket.”        

            He fell asleep in the car, lulled by the soft rocking and Victor’s story of Yurio’s travel woes. Yurio was cursed by middle seats despite obsessively booking early. When Yuuri woke, blearily, at the hotel, it was to his bags already lined up outside the car, the driver standing beside them holding Makkachin’s leash. Victor’s blue eyes were close, and clear, and smiling.

            “Come on, Sleeping Beauty. Or did you want me to carry you inside?”

            “No, I’ll walk.”

            There was a long line at check-in. Yuuri stared at it glumly.

            “Do you want to check in later?”

            “What?”

            Victor chuckled. “Wow. I think you need a nap before making any big decisions.”

            Yuuri nodded, peering around like he might find a flat surface out of the way.

            “You can’t sleep in the lobby, Yuuri.”

            “No, I can.”

            “Well, you shouldn’t.”

            Victor pulled him into the elevator. He somehow now had his suitcase as well as Makka’s leash, and Yuuri wanted to argue that he could take something but there was a language barrier in his brain, and his legs were so heavy that standing was taking most of his effort and almost all of his focus. Victor let him into his room, and even though it was a generic hotel room, Yuuri woke enough to recognize it as Victor’s. His matching luggage was stacked against the wall, his costumes and suits hung in the closet. Two hardcover books sat, bookmarks sticking out of them, on the table by the window. A hint of his cologne spiced the air.

            “Thank you,” Yuuri mumbled as he simultaneously wormed out of his coat and shoes, drank the cold bottle of water Victor handed him, and laid down. Yuuri sat up suddenly. “The restaurant!”

            “It will be there later, child of slumber.” Victor wasn’t quite laughing at him, but it was close.

            Yuuri flopped back. “You don’t have to stay. I’m sure you have other things to do, other people stuffs.”

            “This event is busy. Today was already busy. It’s nice to relax for an evening.”

            “I’ll probably snore.”

            “It will be more relaxing to be around you snoring than around others, I’m sure. I’ll just stay until you fall asleep.”

            “So like ten seconds then?” He pulled the comforter over himself.

            Makkachin jumped up and turned around twice before flopping on Yuuri’s legs. Victor settled beside Yuuri, the bed dipping with his weight, and toyed with the dog’s ears.

            “I wanted to try that restaurant with you,” Yuuri managed around a yawn. “Sorry.”

            “It’s more important for you to rest.” Victor eased his glasses off and brushed his hair back from his face. Yuuri’s eyes fluttered closed.

            “You sound like a coach.” He tried to stay awake. He made it about eleven seconds.

*

            He woke to an empty room. The other bed was made. He vaguely remembered Victor talking to him during the night, and laughing, and whispering at Makkachin to be quiet. He remembered somewhat more clearly holding the warm arm that settled over him. It was now a little after seven a.m. He should have told Victor that he didn’t nap so much as pass out. He’d slept for twelve hours and he still felt like a zombie.

            He should probably check into his own room. He didn’t want to take advantage, despite Victor’s text message telling him to treat the room as his own and that he would be back after walking Makka. The lobby seemed far away, and Yuuri didn’t like the idea of leaving before Victor returned. He also didn’t like the idea of seeing him in this condition, rumpled, with ungodly morning breath.

            He showered, brushed his teeth, repacked his suitcase, and sat back down on the bed. His eyes were gritty and his head ached dully. He just felt like a fresher zombie. Who had invented jetlag, and why had they inflicted it upon the world? He fell back, pulled his glasses into his hand and closed his eyes. Just for a minute.

            The alarm clock went off. Then the alarm on his phone. Then the phone rang with a wakeup call. The door opened while Yuuri was trying to speak three languages to an automated courtesy call to make it stop talking and stretching precariously off the bed to pull the clock close enough to disable it.

            “Good morning, Yuuri!” Victor greeted brightly.

            “Glasses,” Yuuri muttered in warning as Victor dropped onto the bed beside him, surrounded by enticing smells. Makka sat at Victor’s feet, fixated on the paper bag he held.

            “Ah. Here.” Victor handed the glasses to Yuuri, who jammed them on. “And here is coffee. And food. There is a place around the corner that makes the most wonderful breakfast sandwiches. You didn’t get dinner last night.”

            Yuuri finally hit enough buttons to stop the blaring alarm. He swiped his phone silent. He dragged himself into a seated position and managed to unwind the landline cord from around the clock and hang that up. Then hang it up again the right way. He took the paper cup of coffee pushed into one hand, and a foil-wrapped sandwich in the other. Food. Food was good. Food would help.

            “Thank you.” Tilting to the side, he kissed Victor on the cheek. It felt nice and, when Victor turned toward him, that cupid’s bow that had teased him from a distance for weeks was right there. It would probably feel nice to kiss that as well, so he did.

            A hot drip of coffee leaked onto the back of his hand as he tried to shove the pile of pillows back with his elbow so he could sit flat. Hissing, he set the cup on the nightstand. He felt more tired than when he first woke up, which he was pretty sure wasn’t how consciousness was supposed to progress. He shouldn’t have let himself fall back asleep. Blinking blearily at the sandwich, he tried to figure out how to unwrap the foil. It was hot, too, and with his luck he was going to get a steam burn on top of the coffee burn. It was probably better to wait before he did anything. Before he made any big decisions, like Victor had said last night. Victor was uncharacteristically quiet beside him. Had he asked a question and Yuuri missed it?

            “What?” he asked, turning and peering up at him.

            “You kissed me.”

            “What?”

            Victor’s eyes were wide and round. His voice was barely audible. “You kissed me.”

            “No, I hung the phone up.” He pointed to the hunk of pale plastic on the nightstand.

            “Then you kissed me.”

            Blood was rushing to Yuuri’s face and, with it, awareness. He was awake now. Wide awake. He had, in fact, in a soft, sleepy, domestic fit of barely-awakeness kissed Victor.

            “O-on your cheek,” he said, but instantly his gaze fell to Victor’s mouth, to that tantalizing dip, the edges of his upper lip.

            The lip which had joined the rest of Victor’s mouth as it formed a surprised “o”. And that was tempting as well. Yuuri leaned toward him before he could stop himself. And he needed to stop. Because Victor was his friend, and it didn’t matter that sometimes Yuuri thought about his lips for hours at a time. Victor was naturally touchy, that was all, but he wasn’t attracted to Yuuri. He couldn’t be. It wouldn’t make sense. Victor liked being around him specifically because Yuuri didn’t want anything from him, and maybe because of that one time they’d had fun dancing.

            “Sorry.”

            “You’re sorry?”

            And now he sounded angry.

            Something unpleasant jolted through Yuuri. He stood abruptly, circling the bed. Victor’s head swiveled to keep him in his line of sight, probably so he could avoid another weird, accidental sneak attack.

            “Sorry. That was. Accident. Wasn’t awake.”

            “And…if you had been awake?”

            He didn’t know what to say. He didn’t know what to do. He looked down at Makkachin, who was looking back at him with a worried expression and, oh god, he had kissed a man against his will in front of his dog! His heart tried to pound and sink at the same time, and he felt like he was going to be sick.

            “I would not. Have done. That.” Each word was an undertaking in and of itself. Heat pressed against the back of his eyes. “And you don’t have to worry about it happening again.”

            Grabbing his bag, he ran.

Chapter Text

            Yuuri was hiding from Victor. Victor could not blame him because he hadn’t made himself clear when Yuuri had kissed him. He had not been able to make anything of himself because he had been so enraptured by coming home to find Yuuri still there like a daydream realized that adding a kiss on top of that had overwhelmed him.

            He had thought about kissing Yuuri. He had thought about it often and sometimes in elaborate detail, like so:

  1. They are walking together on the beach. A sudden gust of wind comes up, shearing salt water off the top of a cresting wave and sending it toward them. (Makkachin is safely exploring driftwood higher up the beach, so the salt doesn’t get in her eyes) Yuuri turns and presses his face into Victor, who wraps him in his arms. Yes, it is somewhat heroic. After the gust subsides Yuuri raises his head, those port wine eyes sparkling. He thanks Victor for protecting him then laughs. Victor kisses him, tasting the ocean and laughter and Yuuri.
  2. They are forced into a skate-off against bombastic rivals with sinister origins for the fate of the world. Victor and Yuuri skate their hearts out. Together on the ice they are so beautiful and passionate that the rivals melt into slush and have to be scooped up with shovels. Or possibly Zambonied away. Ecstatic at saving humanity and dogs, they skate toward each other, meeting at center ice. The spotlight dims so it is like they are the only two people in the world. Victor presses his hand to the small of Yuuri’s back, gliding him the last few inches until their bodies meet. Yuuri touches his cheek. His eyes are full of excitement. They kiss.
  3. Victor is home on a rest day. He is swiping through lists of things to do in Saint Petersburg. He has done all the worthwhile things as well as a few of the less than worthwhile things, and nothing is exciting him. There is a knock on his door. Heavily – gravity is very strong on rest days – he pushes himself up from the couch and goes to answer it, expecting the doorman with a package. It is not the doorman. It is Yuuri. His hair is wild. His eyes are bright. He says that he could not stand being away from Victor for a minute longer. Victor feels the same, and it feels good to tell Yuuri this. They kiss.
  4. They are in a dance-off in an underground bar in Paris, surrounded by drunken dancers, but Yuuri is the most intoxicating person there. He invites Victor to tango, then wraps his arms around him. They kiss.

 

            He should have kissed him in Paris. He should have kissed him at the airport. He had held back because sometimes Victor got overly enthusiastic and scared people away. Or they got bored when they realized that there wasn’t much to Victor off the ice. He had learned it was safer not to ask too much of anyone. So, while he had wanted to kiss Yuuri, he had also been okay with only taking what Yuuri was willing to give. It was more than enough, really.

            He had not expected that Yuuri would kiss him. And it had been perfect. Or, it would have been if Victor had recovered in time to form the words that would have kept Yuuri from bolting.

            Yuuri needed to know something in order to believe it. Phichit had told him that and, once he’d heard it, Victor had been able to see it. Yuuri didn’t rely on faith or hope. He needed to know, absolutely, and required proof that met his standards. Solid. Irrefutable. Undeniable. He had made a small, pleased noise when he’d kissed Victor. And he’d been about to kiss Victor again before catching himself, when Victor’s stunned wonder forced him to question his belief. Victor had to prove to Yuuri the kiss was right, but he had to catch him first. This required the element of surprise. This required the opposite of subtlety. Victor excelled at both these things.

*

            He caught Yuuri on the bus to the arena. He sat toward the back, his black team jacket zipped all the way up and his earbuds in. He was leaned against the window, his head resting on his hand. His eyes were dark and distant. His hair was soft and loose around his face. Victor dropped into the seat next to him and Yuuri jerked, wincing and shaking his hand.

            “I have to ask you and I don’t want you to think about it. I want you to just answer.”

            Yuuri pulled his earbuds out. “Victor, what?”

            “I…are you responding to my question or did you not hear my question?”

            “What question?”

            “I just want you to answer. Don’t think, just answer.”

            “What did you ask?”

            “I haven’t yet.”

            Yuuri’s brows drew down in something like irritation. He focused that irritation on Victor. Perfect. He required his undivided attention for this.

            “If you knew I wanted you to kiss me, would you kiss me again?”

            Those dark brows drew down more sharply. His blush was immediate. Yuuri turned away.

            “That’s not nice, Victor.”

            His shoulders hunched as his entire body gravitated away from Victor even though there was nowhere to go in the small space. He had already started thinking. The bus was filling up. Other teams and skaters were heading toward the back. If there was an audience, Yuuri would never answer. He was stubborn like that.

            “Yuuri.”

            “I didn’t think you-”

            “No, Yuuri. If you knew.” He covered the fist Yuuri had wrapped tightly around his earbuds, whispering, trying to keep this between them. “If you knew I wanted you to kiss me, would you kiss me again? Would you want to?” His voice broke on the last word and Yuuri turned toward him with something like horrified wonder on his face.

            “If-”

            “If you knew that I want to kiss you. That I want you to kiss me.” Oh, he thought he understood Yuuri in that moment. Victor hoped, but he didn’t know what he was going to say.

            “Oi, geezer,” Yuri snapped, landing hard in the seat in front of him. “You forgot your skate bag. Think you’re so damned talented you can win gold without your skates?”

            “I’ll get it later.” He didn’t take his eyes off of Yuuri’s. He was afraid that, if he looked away, if he let go, he was going to lose him. It was quite distressing.

            “I already got it, loser. You owe me.”

            “I do, Yura. Thank you.”

            He wanted to hold Yuuri’s hand and touch his face and kiss him to show him, to make him understand. But he didn’t want to push, so he held still despite the roaring urgency inside of him, the unhealthy hammering of his pulse.

            “If I knew,” Yuuri whispered, like he was shaping new words in a foreign language. Victor nodded, not trusting himself to speak, but hoping, hoping, hoping.

            Yuuri pulled his hand out from under Victor’s and the shock, the loss of that contact, that tether, tore into Victor. And then his hand was on Victor’s jaw, searing heat and a weird little assembly of wires and rubber nubs that feel like an alien who had learned how to tickle, and Yuuri was leaning towards him, eyes glimmering, and Victor leaned down, meeting him halfway.

            His lips were soft, his hands were urgent, and it took everything inside of Victor to touch lightly when all he wanted to do was pull Yuuri tight against him.

            “Classy,” Yuri muttered without heat.

            The bus lurched forward and Yuuri broke loose and turned away. His blush was so intense that the back of his neck and the one ear Victor could see flamed red. His hand slid down and gripped Victor’s tightly, pulling it to rest on his thigh.

            And all Victor could do was smile.

*

            Victor held his hand until they neared the front of the bus, then turned back as if to check on him. Yuuri nodded, and Victor let go and strode through the gauntlet of fans barely restrained by the ropes once they caught sight of him.

            Fans. Coaches. The final event. It all seemed like an abstract concept, even though Yuuri was clearly there, in the midst of it. And he had to skate today, and soon. Celestino grabbed him, questioning him on his rest and energy level. Good, all good. Phichit dashed up and hugged him, biting back a scream, before dashing away again.

            Yuuri began his warm-up and stretch, his mind all over the place, not filled with thoughts so much as a buzz like electricity. The pops and snaps made it impossible to form a coherent thought about what he was supposed to be doing, but habit carried him along. Victor tasted a little bit like vanilla, and it took Yuuri five minutes to realize it was his lip balm, which Yuuri had tasted before. Months ago. When they met. But he had never tasted it on Victor.

            Victor, who now stalked into the warm-up area, leaving behind a swarm of reporters. His head was up, his shoulders back, his smile... Yuuri halted mid-step. He’d seen that smile for years. It used to be different, when Victor was younger. Yuuri thought it had changed as he’d matured, and then it looked different because he’d cut his hair. But that wasn’t it. His smile as he warmed up, while other skaters and coaches circled him, was a fixed expression rather than an emotional response. Like Yuuri’s habitual warm-up, something one did before a competition.

            “Are you feeling okay, Yuuri-kun?” a quiet voice inquired in Japanese. One of the JSK officials had stopped beside him. Her brow was furrowed in concern.

            “Yes, I’m fine.”

            She nodded but continued to watch him and guilt gnawed at Yuuri. Of course she was concerned. He was distracted, on top of being an inconsistent performer, and – unusually – he was all his country had on the men’s seniors circuit this season.

            He bowed. “Thank you for your concern.”

            “Skates, Yuuri,” Celestino reminded him, and Yuuri jumped to grab them.

            He waited in the back at the tunnel, the other skaters arrayed in front of him, nervous energy rippling among them. Victor – Victor Nikiforov – stood at the front, in the center, the glare from the rink outlining his silhouette. Yuuri’s pulse picked up as the official prepped the group to take the ice. The audience began to applaud, and the skaters ahead of him began to move. Taking a deep breath, he followed them onto the ice.

            He stumbled the landing on his practice triple flip, which brought him plummeting back to reality. Would Victor still want to kiss him if he blew this skate? Or the free skate? If he left the ice after this season? Yuuri kept moving but passed up the chance to do another jump when he had the space. It didn’t feel right.

            If he missed a jump in practice he was more likely to miss it on during the program. Missed jumps. Botched spins. Choppy transitions. Tripping in his footwork. His breaths started to come fast and shallow.

            The other skaters continued around him. Jumps, to the audience’s delight. Flamboyant footwork. Inevitably his gaze found Victor across the ice at the straight stretch. He couldn’t see him clearly, mostly the shape of him, but he would recognize it anywhere. Those long, powerful legs and golden skates moved through footwork. Yuuri bit his lip. Vicror really shouldn’t have been dipping so low, twisting so tightly with his injury…  Yuuri almost stopped on the ice. Otabek powered around him, so close that Yuuri’s hair ruffled. Victor was skating his steps, Yuuri’s steps, from his first sequence. He was skating his steps, and he was doing it wrong. He was too stiff, his chin too high, his shoulders too open. Victor’s trademark style was being seen, presenting not only his soaring talent but his beauty.

            Victor jumped, his quad flip, at one end of the rink, and Yuuri rounded the rink at the far end. That part of his sequence wasn’t about being on display, it was about moving forward. It was about dodging the grasping hands that would pull you back down if you didn’t fight them. He sped up into the stretch and moved a little away from the wall. His shoulders softened, his abdomen tightened. He dropped into the first dip, then slid his skates together and pushed both feet off the ice, twisting and landing on a single toe pick, his other leg sliding back. The move was precarious. It looked like he could fall because it was so close to being a fall, but he arched back and pulled his wavering arms against his sides, turning into the last few steps. There was a smattering of applause. He didn’t jump at the curve, marked his flying sit, and began his second sequence on the other stretch. Victor was skating toward him on the opposite side of the rink.

            When Yuuri lifted his arms, Victor did the same. He sliced through the rapid sequence, arched into the wide arm twizzles, slung himself around the twists and skips, reached the curve and took one, two, three strides and launched into a quad toe. He landed low but his legs were steady and his arms were elongated and soft. The audience erupted and he straightened to see Victor rising from his own landing on the other side of the ice.

            He was beaming, not the fixed smile from before. Even Yuuri could see it across that distance. His smile could power the entire arena. Yuuri lowered his head. He stuck the collar of his jacket between his teeth to keep from smiling so obviously, and unzipped it. He tossed it to Celestino as he passed, and glanced up once more for Victor. Who arrived at his side while Yuuri was still searching.

            His voice was a little high as he leaned close. “Your steps are so difficult, Yuuri! These next few days will be so much fun.”

Chapter Text

            It dawned on Yuuri that Victor had arranged for them to meet up before their events because he wouldn’t have time after that. He hadn’t stated that, but he’d been insistent that they meet before the short program, even when Yuuri told him he’d only be arriving the day before. Victor was the first five-time Grand Prix gold medalist and, in a couple days, would likely be the first six-time gold medalist. He was mobbed by fans, staff and skaters alike. The GPF was the biggest event Yuuri had ever competed in and he kept finding himself stopping and staring around, like this was his first professional event all over again. It wasn’t. He’d competed on large stages for almost three years now. He knew many of the other skaters, the coaches and staff, some of the reporters even. But with the juniors and seniors combined there were more skaters, more fans, and bigger sponsors. And a whole array of side events like photo shoots, fan meet-and-greets, and national team gatherings. He’d made the finals as a junior, but he’d been so nervous and focused on his skating that he hadn’t really been aware of much else.

            Victor had been there, too, at the senior level. He’d taken gold with his contrasting Obsidian and Diamond programs. But Yuuri only remembered seeing the programs and the medal ceremony on TV a week later.

            The off-ice attention had always been difficult for him – more than a distraction, it felt like an imposition, like someone tearing through a wall he’d thought he could rely on – and he was glad he wasn’t very recognizable. He didn’t know how Victor could stand it, though every time he saw him he looked cool and engaged, like it not only didn’t bother him but he liked it. In a way it was familiar, the posture, expressions, and gestures similar to what he’d seen on TV. But they didn’t belong to the Victor that Yuuri had come to know over the last two months. Yuuri found himself watching his own behavior, how he stood, how he must have appeared, especially compared to Victor, or Chris who flirted with all the reporters, or Phichit who charmed and ended up gaining all of them as followers on his social media accounts.

            Yuuri was decidedly not cool or collected, not sexy, not vivacious. Victor – who had hundreds if not thousands of people trying to catch his eye and a moment of his time – had set time aside for him and he’d slept through it. Which made him wonder…a lot of things. Like why Victor had first talked to him at all. And why he continued to make time to talk to him. And why he wanted Yuuri of all people to kiss him. That question made Yuuri want to hide under a blanket, maybe under the bed as well. Almost as much as it made him want to kiss Victor again.

*         

            “How are you doing, Yuuri?” Victor asked at practice the next morning. He put one foot up on the bench where Yuuri was sitting, his skate on his raised knee as he fiddled with the laces. “Did you get enough sleep? Was it noisy on your floor?”

            Victor had his back to the room and, without even looking, Yuuri could tell that about five people already wanted his attention. He wore his white and red team jacket over a darker red shirt and black leggings and, standing, he towered over Yuuri. Yuuri sat up straighter and tried not to look like he’d been thinking about Victor’s mouth all morning. It didn’t help when Victor pressed a finger to his lips.

            Swallowing, Yuuri said, “It was quiet. I wasn’t all that tired.”

            “Because you slept forever when you first arrived. I feared for you, Yuuri. I thought I would have to call a doctor to see if you were in a coma, or the army to rouse you to skate.”

            “I don’t think that’s part of the army’s job.”

            “No other force could have managed it.” Victor grinned, untying his laces again.

            “Is there something wrong with your skate?” That was concerning. While the gold blades and the Russian flag on the heel were customized, the skates were well worn. Breaking in new boots was uncomfortable. During competition it could be dangerous.

            “No.” Victor sighed as if disappointed. “I needed an excuse to sneak a moment with you.”

            Yuuri faltered.

            “The GPF is a really big deal for you, isn’t it? I mean, I know it is. Obviously it’s important. You’re important. I’m sorry I was…dramatic. Before.” Yuuri adjusted his glasses, working hard to ignore Victor’s people glaring at him. “I didn’t mean to be a distraction.”

            Victor dropped to sit, straddling the bench, leaning over his skate.

            “You weren’t a distraction, Yuuri. Or if you were it was the kind of distraction I like.” He poked Yuuri’s leg with the guarded blade, seemingly oblivious even when a woman called his name. “But this is your first final. That’s a bigger deal. Do you need anything? I can give you advice, and I’ve been working on my pep talks. Mila says I need fewer metaphors, but I think I use the right amount.”

            Yuuri couldn’t help but smile. “Thank you. I will let you know when I need a metaphor. I’m sure it will be any minute now.”

            “Okay.”

            Blue eyes met his for a long moment. He should have felt cold. Victor’s eyes were icy, brimming with forceful confidence since he was mostly in his Living Legend mode. Instead, Yuuri felt nothing but warmth from him.

            “Okay.”

            Yakov growled his name. Victor’s mouth twitched. Then he stood, his skate swinging from his hand.

            “Excuse me. Duty calls.”

            And Yuuri’s duty was to practice. Victor was right. This was his first Final and he needed to focus. He jogged and jumped, including joining Phichit with his single jump rope for about thirty seconds before they got tangled and almost fell over, drawing Celestino’s exasperation and order to separate.

            “You can’t deport us when we aren’t in the United States,” Phichit said.

            “I could have your visa withdrawn.”

            “Mid-competition?” Phichit gasped. “So cruel, Ciao Ciao!”

            “Stretch, both of you. But not near each other. Your ice time is in a few minutes.”

            They changed into skates and took to the ice. Already warm, Yuuri stroked along, lunging low, crossing over to fluidly stretch the outsides of his thighs. Chris’s music was playing and he was skating to it in the tightest pair of bootcut leggings Yuuri had ever seen. His shirt was cropped a little short, too, showing off tanned abs during his jumps and the wrenching twists of his choreography.

            Victor and Yuri stepped onto the ice almost in unison, Victor’s head inclined toward the younger skater though Yuri didn’t say more than a few words before rocketing away. Yuuri had to work not to just slide to a halt and stare. Victor had removed his warm up jacket and his dark red shirt clung lovingly to his shoulders, to his waist. His strides were powerful, every angle of his body strong and elegant.

            “You never get used to seeing him, do you?” Chris asked as he glided up beside Yuuri. He was flushed, perspiring, his green eyes all but glowing. Yuuri sped up so he could watch Victor around him.

            “No.”

            “I’ve known him for years, you know. He took me under his wing, as they say, before I’d even debuted in seniors.”

            “I know, Chris. You talked about it for half a season.”

            Chris’s hand pressed to his back, then wandered lower. “He might be willing to do the same for you, if you ask nicely.”

            “Chris, we’ve talked about this.”

            Chris leaned close. His voice dropped half an octave. “About what, my dear Yuuri?”

            “About you not trying to touch my ass all the time. I thought you’d finally gotten over it.”

            “Oh, was I? Oops.”

            “Chris.” Victor came to such a hard stop, flinging ice, that Chris and Yuuri almost fell as they separated to skate around him. “Shouldn’t you be cooling down after that invigorating performance?”

            “I should! Thank you for the reminder.” Grinning, Chris skated away, undulating a little more than necessary.

            “Sorry about that,” Yuuri said, biting the corner of his lip. “Chris has always been…handsy.”

            “I know. Why do you think I started wearing long coats around the rink?”

            “Because you were cold?”

            “No, Yuuri.” Victor angled his hand around his mouth as though telling a secret. “To protect my innocence.”

            Yuuri almost choked on a laugh as the rink announcer said Victor’s name, indicating his ice time. With a wink, Victor turned and skated toward center ice. Applause lit up around the rink from the spectators gathered to watch the practice. When his music began, Victor skated in circles for a bit, eyes on the ice, thoughtful, body rocking in an echo of the moves that aligned with the notes every now and again. He worked through his choreography and a little of his footwork. He jumped his triple axel, then a quad salchow, drifted where he would spin during his performance. He took his signature flip high and landed so softly that Yuuri made an involuntary sound of surprise.

            Even with only teasing bits of his program on display, the audience went wild. Other skaters had stopped to applaud his jumps. He looked solid, unstoppable. Yuuri wondered how the skaters who competed against him regularly ever thought they could beat him. He left the ice shortly after Yuri Plisetsky’s music began. He gripped the side of the boards as he stepped over the threshold and leaned against a barrier while he pulled his guards on. Yuuri put his head down and skated. He thought he’d seen Victor guarding during his short program, for all that he’d skated it perfectly, and wondered if his anxiety had extended to worrying about others in addition to himself.

            He practiced transitions, cautious around the other skaters until it was his turn. He ran through his entire program, jumping triples instead of quads until the end. He touched down on his quad lutz, and jumped it six more times, landing four, before Celestino signaled to him to stop.

            “You’ve got this,” Celestino said. “I’ve never seen you so focused. Just keep that mindset, okay? Quiet day, quiet night, then tomorrow will go smoothly.”

            “Yes, Coach.”

            He showered and changed in the locker room, then rushed to make the bus back to the hotel for a luncheon with his national team. Yuuri barely had a chance to wish Yukiko Mori luck before she had to leave to warm up. He ended up having lunch with officials and junior skater Kenjirou Minami, who he became a little worried about when the younger skater kept gasping and clutching his chest every time Yuuri talked to him.

 

            Victor

 The coffee in this conference room is horrendous. It’s not even hot.

 

Do you think it’s left from a prior event?

 

Can you be poisoned by old coffee?

 

            Yuuri

Can you ask for fresh coffee?

 

            Victor

Nina brought me an espresso. It’s full of cream and very bitter. It’s like drinking a cow that ate a cigarette butt.

 

            Yuuri

Gross. Don’t finish it.

 

            Victor

Too late.

 

That poor cow.

 

            In the early evening, Yuuri joined Minako in the stands for the ladies short skate. Not even a minute into Yukiko-san’s program, they both had tears in their eyes. Her triple axel was towering, exquisite, perfectly landed. She ended in first place by a five-point margin. Katie and Aaron skated their flirtatious short program, driving the audience to their feet, and the pairs skate ended with them in second place by a tenth of a point.

 

            Victor

Finally! Found some decent coffee. I can’t even hear the other people in this room over how good it tastes. I’ll bring some to you!

 

            Yuuri

Victor, it’s almost 8 p.m.

 

            Victor

I think I drank too much coffee.

 

I’m never going to sleep again.

*

            Phichit brought dinner to Yuuri’s room, joining him and Minako for their prescribed quiet night.

            “So I couldn’t help but notice,” Phichit said, talking down to Yuuri who was stretching on the floor, “that Victor Nikiforov was skating your steps.”

            Weirdly, that was exactly what Yuuri had been thinking about, and thinking about it was making him restless.

            “I saw that, too,” Minako said, dishing food onto paper plates. “Was he trying to show you up, intimidate you? I thought he had more class than that.”

            “Pffft.” Phichit stole a chip from her plate. “He can’t show Yuuri up if he’s not skating as well as Yuuri. Anyway, you should probably know that they have a special relationship.”

            “Huh?” Minako poked Yuuri with perfectly pointed toes. “What’s so special about it?”

            “The text constantly. They video chat almost every day.”

            “You talk to Victor Nikiforov? You talk to him? What’s this about? Are you best friends now?”

            “Yuuri is my best friend.”

            “Are you gossiping about other skaters?” Minako demanded. “Teaching him Japanese? What’s happening?”

            Yuuri sat up. He had to tell someone. The pressure inside of him, the momentousness of it, was too much. He looked down at his hands. “I kissed him.”

            Stunned silence.

            “You what,” Phichit screeched. “Then what happened???”

            “I ran away.”

            “Is this why you checked into your room from my room?” Minako asked.

            “Is this why you hid in my bed and closed all the curtains before running off to Minako’s room?” Phichit asked.

            “Wait, when did this happen?”

            Yuuri’s face burned. “The morning before the short program. I’d just woken up. I was-”

            “Zombie Yuuri,” Phichit finished, but he had an odd look on his face. It wasn’t the excited, joyful look he’d been wearing all week.

            Minako mentally ran the timeline. “When you woke up… I thought you stayed with Phichit that night. Where did you wake up, Yuuri?”

            “In his room. He picked me up from the airport.”

            Two pairs of eyebrows rocketed toward the ceiling.

            “Is THAT why Victor was skating your steps?” Phichit asked, awed. “You drew him into the palm of your hand with a sleepover and a zombie kiss?”

            “You still do the sequence better,” Minako sniffed.

            “He wasn’t actually trying. He was trying to get me to focus.”

            Phichit jumped out of his chair and leaned over Yuuri. “Tell me everything.”

            “This is private.”

            “This is NEWS. I want details!”

            “No.” Yuuri straightened his glasses, raised his chin and looked down his nose at both of them even though they stood over him. “It’s private.”

            “Oh,” Phichit said, eyes gleaming, “you mean it’s serious.”

            Minako leaned forward, her voice frigid. “I had better be the maid of honor.”

            “Best man,” Phichit added.

            Yuuri exhaled heavily, as though very put out. “I’ll discuss it with Victor.”

            Minako gasped. Phichit started cackling, then Yuuri cracked, then Minako dissolved into tears beside them.

            “Oh, Yuuri, my son. This is the actual best.”

*

            Victor had managed to steal fewer than five minutes to talk to Yuuri before obligation had pulled him back. And now Yuuri was with Phichit. He’d seen footage – a fan’s cell phone recording posted on Youtube – after Yuri’s collision in Las Vegas. Even though he was competing and should have been concerned only with himself, Phichit had flown across the ice and been the first to reach Yuuri. Then he had told the press that his gold medal-winning performance was dedicated to his friend. Victor hadn’t even known Yuuri was hurt until later. He didn’t like that Phichit had been there for him and Victor hadn’t.

            Yuuri veered from his jogging path to bump his shoulder against the other man’s, not looking up to confirm afterwards that it was welcome. Because he knew. Even now sometimes Yuuri was quiet or snuck glances at him like he wasn’t sure of Victor. Yuuri wouldn’t have run from Phichit after a simple kiss. He would have stayed and talked to him. What if Phichit was in love with Yuuri? He was cute. They lived together. Sometimes Phichit walked around their apartment in his underwear and hamster slippers. Victor had accidentally seen it on video calls. What if Phichit dressed like that because he was trying to seduce Yuuri?

            “Victor, what are you staring at?”

            “Hmm?” Victor wrenched his gaze away from Yuuri toward Chris, stretched into a split beside him. Chris raised his hands defensively. Victor narrowed his eyes at the posture. “Why are you doing that?”

            “You’re glaring daggers at me. What am I supposed to do?”

            “The daggers aren’t for you.” Victor switched the leg he was stretching.

            Chris followed his gaze, his face twisting in confusion. “You’re mad at Katsuki?”

            “I’m not mad at Yuuri.”

            “At…Phichit? I didn’t know it was possible to be mad at Phichit Chalunont. He is genuinely very sweet.”

            “Too sweet for his own good,” Victor said in a low voice.

            “Does this have something to do with you skating Katsuki’s footwork yesterday?” Chris moved into a butterfly stretch. He leaned forward and winked up at Victor. “What did it take for him to get you to skate his steps?”

            Victor shook his head impatiently. “He was nervous.”

            “That’s all? Mon cher, Yuuri is always nervous. You should have seen him in juniors. My god, a bundle of anxiety before every competition. Of course, being generous, I offered to help him blow off some steam.”

            “You what?”

             “You know.” Chris shrugged. “He was so cute back then. Those big, soulful eyes. That pert-”

            “Chris, stop. That’s enough.”

            Chris sat back gracelessly. “Oh.”

            “Oh what?”

            “I thought you were doing Katsuki’s steps because you felt sorry for him.”

            “Why would I feel sorry for him?”

            “Because of this tragedy of a season he’s having. The collision at Skate America. I was surprised he didn’t withdraw from the Trophee de Paris. Then that awful costume failure.”

            “Both times he got back up, he finished. He has two medals. What’s tragic about that?”

            “Hmm.”

            “What is all of this ‘oh’ing and and ‘hmm’ing?”

            Phichit tossed his jump rope over Yuuri’s head and they began jumping together. Facing in the same direction. Close together. Yuuri giggled. Giggled! Victor squeezed a foam roller so tightly it popped out of his hands and flew away.

            Chris gasped. “You don’t feel sorry for him. You like him!”

            “I don’t…I don’t like him.”

            “No? So you’re glaring at his best friend like you want to drag Yuuri away from him why?”

            “I mean it is not a mere liking.”

            “Not with that look on your face it is not. You are jealous, my friend. Intensely jealous.”  Chris leaned closer, lowering his voice. “Are you about to have a torrid affair with a rival? This is delicious. Now you are making me jealous.”

            “That is not… No. That’s…it’s not like that.”

            “No? So what? You’re going to court him, ask his coach for his hand in marriage?”

            “I wouldn’t ask Cialdini. I would fly to Hasetsu and meet his parents first. And his sister, Mari. She is very important to him.”

            “Victor, we’ve known each other for almost ten years.”

            “Sure.”

            “What’s my sister’s name?”

            Victor thought for a moment. “Lina?”

            “Eric. I have a brother, not a sister.”

            “That a trick question. How was I to know you don’t have a secret sister named Lina of whom you’ve never spoken?”

            Yuuri and Phichit became entangled in the jump rope. Phichit grabbed Yuuri around the waist to keep him from falling. Victor stood up. He felt hot, and there was an unfamiliar tension in his shoulders.

            It was possible Victor was experiencing jealousy, intensely. It was possible he was now envisioning scenarios in which he asked Katsuki Yuuri to marry him. He would bring thoughtful gifts to his mother and father. He would be humble but charming. He would learn Japanese first, obviously. He would get their blessing, then sweep Yuuri off his feet. It would be very romantic and possibly quite dramatic.

            Coach Cialdini separated Yuuri and Phichit and stood between them, glowering. Victor had never appreciated the man as much as in that moment.

            Chris grabbed his shoulder and shook him. “I’d better be the best man.”

*

            “Are you sleepy yet?” Yuuri asked while Victor grinned, holding the phone to his ear with both hands. “You’re not still drinking coffee are you?”

            “No. But I honestly think I might not sleep until I return to Russia.”

            “Hmm.”

            “Are you sleepy?”

            “No.” There was an edge to Yuuri’s answer, and Victor focused on it.

            “Are you nervous about tomorrow?”

            “Of course. But…that’s not all.” The edge deepened. It was practically a precipice. Victor couldn’t help leaning over it.

            “No?” He drew the word out.

            “Would…would it be okay if I came to see you? Just for a minute.”

            Victor nodded at the phone before remembering Yuuri couldn’t see him.

            “Yes. Oh, wait. No. I mean…I’d like that. But I have a situation?”

            “That’s okay,” Yuuri said quickly. “Never mind.”

            “No, I have a security situation.”

            “What? Are you okay?”

            “Yes, yes I’m okay in my room. There are some fans. There are something like thirty fans in the five rooms across the hall from mine and by the elevator. Every time I leave or someone comes out, they form a gauntlet in the hallway.”

            “That’s…creepy.”

            “Yes. Security is patrolling. I think there is someone posted at the elevator right now. It seems rude to have them removed. But I could. Or I could come down?”

            “Will they follow you?”

            “Probably. I could take Makka for a walk first. Maybe I could lose them, like a car chase in the movies, and come to see you?”

            “Does Makka like going out on the balcony?”

            He was disappointed that Yuuri had changed subjects, but of course who would want to deal with such things? Yuri’s Angels were worse than his fans had been in a long time, but sometimes the more zealous ones made a nuisance of themselves.

            “Yes. She thinks it’s a game.” Victor went to the sliding door. Makka immediately jumped off the bed and nosed at it. “The objective is to let her out, then let her in, then let her out again.”

            “Will you let her out now?”

            Victor slid the door open. The poodle went out and stuck her nose through the bars, sniffing at Helsinki.

            “I can see her.”

            “What, from your room?” Victor hovered in the doorway, keeping the heat at his back, as he surveyed the other side of the L-shaped hotel.

            “From my balcony. I’m a couple floors below you.”

            Victor looked over the edge. In the dim light, he saw Yuuri, elbow propped on his balcony railing, head tilted to the side. Victor waved before backing away rapidly.

            “Are you afraid of heights?” Yuuri asked.

            “I am not afraid. I just prefer many other things to heights. Most things.” Victor laughed. “Seeing you down there, I feel like a princess locked in a tower. Would that make you my white knight?”

            “Yuuri?”

            He looked at the phone. His home screen looked back at him. The call had dropped. Makka whined, pushing her head against the narrow bars.

            “Makka, no. Come back inside.”

            A hand grasped the bar in front of the poodle, followed by Yuuri’s head and shoulders as they rose. Dropping his phone, Victor rushed forward to grab him.

            “No, Victor. I’ll lose my grip. Back up.”

            He slammed himself back against the glass, Makka’s collar clutched in his hands. Yuuri swung a leg up, rolled over the railing, and landed nimbly on the balls of his feet. Grinning sheepishly, he stood up, lean and dark against the backdrop of nighttime Helsinki.

            “Yuuri,” Victor breathed, his heart pounding, “that’s dangerous.”

            He flushed red, then raised one slim shoulder in a shrug. “I wanted a goodnight kiss.”

            Romantic. Dramatic. Victor melted.

            They came together, Yuuri’s lips cool and hands cold. Victor kissed him until he was warm again, grasped both his hands and pulled them against his own chest. He tried to pull Yuuri into his room, but Yuuri pulled back.

            He was flushed, his eyes wide, his lips swollen.

            “I’m supposed to have a quiet night.”

            “Scaling buildings is quiet but coming inside is not?”

            “If I come inside, I don’t think it’s going to stay quiet.” Yuuri shook his head, half-dazed. “Also there’s something I’m supposed to do maybe?”

            Yuuri’s gaze was on Victor’s mouth, and Victor was having trouble thinking. Or thinking rationally. He was having all sorts of thoughts. But somewhere, in the corner of his mind, an alarm was blaring. He was skating tomorrow. That was the something Yuuri needed to do. Oh! And Victor was skating tomorrow as well. They both needed to focus and rest.

            “We both need to focus and rest,” he said.

            “Right.” Yuuri grabbed him and pulled him in for another kiss, and Victor’s arms wrapped around him when he meant to push him away (he had no intention of pushing him away).

            “Okay,” Victor said as they broke apart minutes later, Yuuri backed against the cold stone balcony wall, Victor leaning into him. “We’re professionals.”

            “Mhmm.”

            “This has been very nice, but in the interests of professionalism we must now separate.”

            “Okay,” Yuuri whispered, nuzzling against his jaw.

            Victor clutched him, pressing their foreheads together. Port wine eyes glimmered in the darkness between them.

            “Come inside quietly. I’ll open the door quietly. You can make a break for the elevator, but quietly. They might not notice you.”

            Yuuri stilled.

            “What?” Victor asked, pulling back so he could see him.

            “I-I didn’t bring a room key.”

            “You’re not going back over that railing.”

            “It’s fine. Actually, make sure you lock your balcony door. It’s really easy to climb this building. But…” Yuuri shoved his hair back from his forehead and that absolutely did not help Victor want to let go of him. “I should go before I get cold and stiffen up.”

            “Fine, but I can’t watch this. Call me the second you get home.”

            “Okay.” Yuuri laughed, mouth wide, his eyes arched up. He was beautiful, joyous, unguarded in a way Victor didn’t recall ever having seen him. His chest clenched.

            “Goodnight, Victor. Sleep well.”

            “Goodnight, Yuuri. Please be safe.”

            Victor hid behind his hand as Yuuri began his descent. He held his breath until his phone rang. Yuuri’s voice was playful and assured in his ear.

            “I called to tell you I got home safely.”

            “Good.” Victor grinned. “But I changed my mind. I want another kiss.”

            “Victor!”

Chapter Text

            The arena rumbled with applause after Phichit’s performance. Stuffed hamsters sailed onto the ice alongside red cellophane-wrapped roses. Yuuri waited outside the rink. He adjusted his costume again, tugging at the neck and cuffs. It was from last year’s program, pulled out of his closet after the seamstress had looked at the damage from Paris and deemed it irreparable. A seam rubbed against the underside of his arm. The diagonal slashes of blue and white fabric along his chest were too bright and it took effort to ignore them during his spins. It was slightly too tight in the thighs, strained by the muscle he’d added drilling jumps.

            Phichit glided off the ice. Yuuri pulled him tight for a quick, proud hug. All but vibrating, Phichit fiercely wished him luck. He’d landed all his jumps and the audience had responded. He would score well. Following a skater who’d drawn the audience into their rhythm was difficult. Sometimes they were slow to offer their enthusiasm to the next performer, especially when the performances were different. Phichit’s program reflected him. It was bright and lively, fun to watch even if Phichit was still working to develop his difficulty.

            Yuuri wasn’t the same kind of showman. Phichit drew them in with his smiles and energy. Victor commanded attention with his technical precision and towering jumps. But he also did it with his choreography, revealing the depth and extent of his physical beauty, a seamless, ongoing revelation in between all that power. Watching him skate was like falling in love, over and over again.

            Celestino gripped Yuuri’s shoulder. “Stay focused, Yuuri. You’re in a good place. This is your stronger program. Stick to the basics. Land your jumps. That’s where the points are. Don’t fixate on the complex entries. You can do this.”

            Yuuri nodded. They shook hands before Celestino followed Phichit to the kiss and cry. Young girls in blue and white costumes swarmed, clearing the last of the flowers and stuffed animals. Yuuri stepped onto the ice. His pulse beat high and steady.

            He skated wide circles, speeding up, feeling his blades against the ice, the strength and steadiness in his legs. His program wasn’t as bright as Phichit’s. He wasn’t as powerful as Otabek, as flamboyant as Chris, as graceful and relentless as Yuri, and he didn’t dominate the arena and everybody inside of it like Victor.

            But his program was his, and it finally – at the end of this Grand Prix season – felt like he owned it. It was the most difficult he’d ever skated, the complexity of his spins and footwork now complemented by jumps rather than interrupted by them. He didn’t have to have all the elements the other skaters did. He simply had to skate his style, the moved he had decided on and Phichit and Celestino, Victor and Matteo Navarro, had helped him refine. He would reveal to the audience his personal ambition that he had finally found confidence in this season.

            At center ice he pulled at his collar one more time to settle it, and let his arms hang at his sides. He breathed in. He breathed out. He lowered his head and closed his eyes.

            The music streamed out of the speakers high above. Yuuri tilted his head to the left. He opened his eyes and let his arms drift after. He kicked off, limbs light. He turned, moved through a series of steps, and launched into his opening quad, landing the salchow a little low but balanced. Energy coursed through him as he transitioned into his first sequence. His steps were quick and crisp, his body poised, his arms fluid and graceful. The judges blurred past. He raised an eyebrow and grinned in their direction. Here I am. This is me. He got height on his hop and twist, speed with his wide-arm twizzles. He danced directly into the next jump, launched, pulled tight, and landed solidly. Applause as the audience responded. Phichit hadn’t taken them from Yuuri; he’d primed them for him.

            He leapt into his camel, torso straight, arms long and hands clasped behind him, before dropping into the next element of his combination spin. He rose out of it and crossed the ice, riding the music, his strokes long, his upper body twisting and lilting. Even his expression felt light.

            He set up for his quad toe, triple toe, increased from a triple-triple he’d done all season. The seconds were ticking down to the second half of his program and his energy was still rising. The more difficult jumps in the second half would bring him higher scores. Medal territory scores. Matteo had patiently drilled him for the last two weeks over Skype. He set up, took an extra half second to breathe, gathered himself and launched. Four revolutions and he bent his leg, preparing for the force of the landing.

            The music died.

            He jolted against the ice, the slice of the blade echoing through the silent arena before the audience gasped. He launched into his triple, underrotated and had to wrench his body around to keep from touching down. Faces flashed past, indistinct. He’d gotten turned around. Where was Celestino? He couldn’t hear anything over the dismayed burble of the audience.

            Finally he identified his coach, waving and shouting from between two camera rigs.

            “Yuuri! Stop! We’ve called for an interruption! Stop!”

            He crossed the ice, his mind reeling from abandoning his skate mid-program, and banged up against the boards, his toe and knee hitting hard. His heart was beating too rapidly for the sudden stop. Dots danced in his vision for a few seconds as he sucked air.

            “What’s happening?”

            Celestino was shouting at a group of people clumped where they shouldn’t be. Two Japanese officials were there, ISU people, the referee. Yuuri squinted, looking up at the big screen over center ice now showing nothing but vacant ice.

            “My music, Celestino.”

            “Yes, yes,” Celestino growled, “hold on.”

            Yuuri looked toward the kiss and cry, empty. He looked toward the tunnel. The next skater hovered on the edge of the darkness. He couldn’t quite tell who it was. His heart thundered, making his head light. Was this a dream?

            His national officials spoke to him in Japanese, Celestino in English. The officials were reviewing his music to determine whether it was a problem with the disk he provided or the system.

            “There’s a backup,” he said, frantic. There would be deductions the longer the delay went on. He always brought a disk and an MP3 player. Getting the music wrong had been an anxiety of his since he started skating. “I gave them a backup.”

            Nobody responded, hunched around a laptop. Three people wore headphones. A technician tapped at buttons. A pop song blared over the speakers for an instant, and Yuuri flinched.

            “That’s not mine. That’s not my music. Celestino?”

            “Skate, Yuuri. Stay warm. We’ll get this sorted. It will be quick.”

            He pushed away from the boards, uncertain. What if his music never came back? The first few strokes were slow. His circulation was slowing down as blood pooled in his legs. He felt awkward, uncoordinated.

            He felt every gaze on him. Critics, supporters. Each of them dug into him. Concerned murmuring whirled around him, punctuated by irate spikes from the audience. Laughter. Someone shouted his name and he winced. He circled the ice, the pressure of dissatisfaction bearing down on him from every direction. Three long quiet minutes passed, and every second he felt more and more disoriented, distant even though he was still physically on the ice.

            Celestino called for him.

            “It was the system,” his coach said, ducking his head to catch Yuuri’s eye. “Yuuri, look at me. Listen. The playback got interrupted. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

            “You can start again,” the referee said, “since you were in the first half. Clean slate.”

            “Start from the beginning?” Yuuri stared at him. The referee was a big man with a trimmed black beard. He’d never seen him before. The Japanese officials asked more questions, their voices strained with displeasure and disappointment. Yuuri averted his eyes. His chest felt tight.

            Celestino grabbed him, squeezing his shoulder. “Listen, Yuuri. Listen to me. Forget this happened. It will not count against you. The sooner you start over, the better it will be. Okay, Yuuri? Fresh start. Skate like we practiced. Focus.”

             He’d skated for a minute and forty-six seconds, completed all of his first half jumps. Then paused for nearly four minutes.

            He looped around the ice. The audience roused, but it wasn’t a tone he’d ever heard before. It sounded like pity. He tried to ignore it, to separate himself from it.

            From the beginning, again. He went to the center ice, set his blades beside the marks he’d already sketched in the ice. Sweat dripped in his eyes. His breaths were short and shallow. He stared down at the ice, not wanting to close his eyes.

            Every bad thing he’d ever worried about rushed through his mind. The ice would melt beneath his feet. The roof would crumble down on him. Someone would crash into him. This awful costume, already grating against his skin, would tear off. He would fall.

            He fell.

            He fell on his opening quad and pushed himself up woodenly. Landed the next jump. He stomach turned, bile rising in his throat, as he lined up the quad-triple combination again. Both landings were off balance and he desperately fought through them. The music continued this time, and he moved into the second half of his program on autopilot. It didn’t feel like he was actually skating, despite the strain on his body.

            His improvements – all those moves he’d lovingly inserted into his program – felt harsh, disjointed. He sucked air as he moved through his final steps. He popped the triple and turned it into a double. He barely landed the quad loop and could only force a single afterwards. Somehow he managed to hold onto his quad lutz. The center of the ice was miles away and he kept it in sight, afraid it would float away from him, as he ground through his final sequence.

            The music ended. He dropped his arms, barely able to raise his head. His legs burned. Heat pressed against the back of his eyes. Black dots stabbed at his vision as he worked to get enough oxygen to stay upright. The rest of the world was a noisy, unwelcome blur.

            Here I am. This is me. It was like a bad joke. On the ice, Yuuri was always alone. But he’d never felt this far away from everyone before.

            Everything he’d wanted his season…it wasn’t meant to be.

Chapter Text

            The ISU and Japanese officials faced off beside the gate. Coach Cialdini was there as well. Yuuri was still on the ice, his head low, all but shuddering with each labored breath. Victor had no idea how he was even standing after that. Celestino should be calling to him, taking the burden off him by giving him easy guidance to follow.

            Victor had heard the music drop out and his stomach had dropped along with it. They should have immediately restarted him before his jump or rescheduled him entirely. Instead they’d forced him to wait several minutes before sending him back out to begin the entire program over. Victor had never seen such a thing. It was beyond amateur. He wouldn’t have been able to complete his full free skate after something like that, but he wouldn’t have had to. His people would have sorted it for him immediately, letting him stay in his performance mindset. He could not imagine being left on the ice for that long, in front of the audience.

            “That isn’t right.”

            “What, they should hold up the rest of the competition?” Yakov said, arms crossed. “You, Yura? The other men? The pairs skaters and dancers and ladies? Disrupt everyone to accommodate one person?”

            “It’s not an accommodation. It is fixing what they did wrong. Their audio system failed him. This is-”

            “The Japanese Skating Federation will file a protest with the Union,” Yakov snapped. “They will sort it out.”

            “We should do something, too.”

            “Victor, you need to get this boy out of your system. Your infatuation is becoming a problem.”

            “Oh? Is there a medal beyond gold that I have failed to secure for you? No?”

            Yakov’s jaw tightened. His face reddened as he leaned close and growled through gritted teeth. “Do what you need to with him and move on. Focus on what is truly important, Victor. Your career. Between that and this boy, only one will last. Only one will mean anything. That is how it always goes. You know this. Stop wasting your time. Concentrate your energy on yourself, on your performance.”

            His career. His career had been the most important thing to him since he discovered his talent – and the response to his talent – twenty years ago. He had always loved translating the images in his mind to movements on the ice. He had always loved winning. He loved hearing the audience scream, and seeing people light up when they recognized him. He loved traveling the world and experiencing the finest it had to offer. That was his life. It was an extraordinary life because of his exceptional career. And maybe he was greedy, but it still wasn’t enough.

            The camera panned to Yuuri now standing in the kiss and cry, hands clasped in front of him, not particularly focused on anything. He wasn’t shouting. He wasn’t crying. Celestino touched his elbow and Yuuri turned to listen, then nodded once before turning away again. You’d never have guessed that he’d just fought a brutal battle under grueling circumstances. His face was pale against the black of his jacket, the flush of exertion extinguished. He looked politely disinterested, almost bored, as if he was waiting because he had to but, inside, he was already gone.

            Victor knew that feeling.

            “Victor.”

            Yakov had been with him for years. He listened to him when he wanted to, reduced him to a dull roar in the periphery of his hearing when he didn’t. He couldn’t recall not wanting to hear him, not wanting him around before.

            “You’re distracting me from my preparations, Yakov.”

            Yuri, who had been practicing down a corridor, passed through the room, herded by Coach Nina. He frowned as he looked around, the mood odd enough to pull him from his pre-skate focus. Removing an earbud, he looked at Victor, who shook his head. Yuri couldn’t do anything about it. He shouldn’t worry about it.

            Yakov returned when it was Victor’s time. Striding past his coach, Victor saluted the audience. He stepped onto the ice that Yuuri had been trapped on just minutes before. And he set that from his mind. That disinterested expression on Yuuri’s face, which displayed emotions so immediately, so intensely…he set that aside, too. Victor raised his arms, and applause washed over him. He positioned himself at center ice, raising his face to the lights. On the ice, no matter what was happening to him, he had always been able to perform.

            He soared through every jump and gliding through each spin and transition, creating his own ecstasy and thrilling the audience. His leg nearly buckled when he stepped off the ice. He came within a point and a half of breaking his standing record. Yuri elevated his program and won silver. Chris took bronze. Phichit and Otabek tied for fourth, putting Katsuki Yuuri in fifth. The judges had even docked him for going over his time, an insult for the sake of the insult since his score was so far removed from the other skaters.

            Yuuri’s bag was gone when Victor returned from the rink. He looked for him anyway. Yuuri could hide in plain sight when he wanted to. Surely Victor would catch a glimpse of raven dark hair, a bit of blue from the frame of his glasses, the specific curve of his shoulder or bend of his leg. He could tell him that this hadn’t been his fault, in the spirit of sportsmanship. He could wish him luck on his next competition. Attachments didn’t last. They disrupted, distracted and hurt. And this thing with Yuuri… It was infatuation. There was no other explanation for how often his thoughts were drawn to him. It was distraction. Yakov was right. He should detach himself before it got to the point of hurting.

            “The Thai Association is filing a protest,” Phichit murmured, frowning at his phone.

            “I asked, too. The Swiss will inquire into the decision.” Chris shrugged, his dark eyebrows pulled down. “It’s a strong statement for them. They don’t like to raise a fuss.”

            If the other skaters were pushing for an inquiry, it would be natural for Victor to join them. He turned to find Yakov and Coach Nina conferring in low tones.

            “You have to ask the Federation to file a protest,” he said.

            “I will not.”

            “Yakov. That could have been Yuri. That could have been me.”

            Nina scoffed. “They wouldn’t have dared do that to either of you.”

            “All the more reason for Russia to join the others in protest, to support equitable treatment. The others are doing it.”

            “You and Yura are my skaters, Vitya. You are my only concern.”

            “Yakov.”

            “Everyone is skating with challenges this far into the season.” Yakov’s gaze dropped meaningfully to Victor’s hands on his hips. “It is up to the skater to overcome them. Katsuki has never been a strong jumper. He is an average skater at best.”

            “Yakov, you saw how well he started. If he’d been able to continue-”

            Nina’s hands flew up in exasperation. “What’s the difference, Victor? Honestly, grow up. What’s done is done. Accept your win with dignity. You know what they’ve planned at the banquet this evening. It’s all about you. You love it when things are all about you.”

*

            The question came up during the press conference of course, from a French reporter. Was Katsuki treated fairly, at this, his first Grand Prix Final? It took everything Victor had not to let his shoulders slump. Yuuri’s first Final, and this is how it had gone. What must be going through his mind? Victor steeled himself, not sure what he was going to say but needing to say something. Yuuri needed to know this hadn’t been his failing, that this score was not a reflection of his skill or potential. He needed to know that the other skaters didn’t agree with how he’d been treated. How to say that without upsetting the Union, the Federation and his team?

            Yuri Plisetsky leaned toward the microphone.

            “You should be talking to the ISU, shouldn’t you? If you have questions about the fairness of the decision, of whether it’s good sportsmanship to let defects in the sound system impact skaters and scores, wouldn’t they be the ones to ask?” He slammed a fist on the table, startling everyone except Victor, who was used to the violent outbursts. “Next question.”

            Victor stared at him, too awed to maintain his smile. Yuri had never voluntarily answered a question that wasn’t explicitly directed at him.

*

            “Medalists cannot question the results,” Nina chided afterwards. Yuri had his hood up over his earbuds. Even if he hadn’t, he was shoving his things into his bag so forcefully he probably couldn’t hear her. “It’s tacky. It’s not as if that Japanese skater could have touched your score anyway. The results are what they are. Think of the future.”

            Victor nodded, neatly packing his own bag. “The future is important. Yura, did I ever tell you about the time Nina suggested we make a baby together after she retired from competition? In order to power Russia’s skating future. Isn’t that what you said, Nina?”

            “Victor!” Her face turned an unhealthy shade of red.

            “No, wait. I remember.” Victor smiled sharply. Yuri’s eyes went wide. He could hear, when he wanted to. “It was so that you would be the mother of Russia’s skating future. I wouldn’t even have to bother myself with the child, if I remember correctly. Which was sensible. I was only eighteen after all. That’s so you, Nina. Always preparing for the future.”

            Nina stomped away in a huff and Victor felt a sliver of petty satisfaction.

            “How exactly did she think the two of you were going to make a kid?” Yuri asked with a horrified scowl.

            “I did not ask for details. Are you ready to go?”

*

            He had enough time to walk Makkachin briefly, and shower and ice for a few minutes. The fans on his floor were out, which was a relief. There was no frantic scurrying behind their doors as he walked the hallway, no giggling gauntlet to navigate. He turned his phone over in his hands. He’d cleared the normal notifications plus the additional media alerts on his sixth consecutive win and retirement speculation, the congratulatory messages. There were no messages from Yuuri, which was a relief really.

            Yuuri wouldn’t dance with him tonight. He wouldn’t scale the building to kiss Victor on his balcony. If he lived a hundred years, Victor would never forget those moments. This was how things always went with him. He met someone. He fell toward them. They were lively. They were interested. The sex was great, although he and Yuuri hadn’t quite made it there yet. Then they grew irritated at Victor, at his forgetfulness, at his schedule which did not have room to accommodate others, at his focus, his competitiveness. It would be worse for Yuuri, a fellow skater. A rival, even. He probably wouldn’t be able to look at Victor without being reminded of how badly this, his first final, had gone for him. He would resent Victor because of it. He probably already did.

            Victor should entomb those wonderful moments in his memory and move forward, prepare his next program, his next season. It wasn’t as if they could grow a relationship, not with the distance between them. It would be better to end things now, before Victor saw Yuuri start to turn from him.

            Decided, he dialed. The call went immediately to voicemail. Yuuri’s greeting was short and sounded almost startled. It was so precious that Victor had to cover his eyes even though he was alone. He disconnected without leaving a message. He couldn’t break things off over the phone. Yuuri didn’t deserve that and Victor wasn’t heartless. Tomorrow, then, before they went their separate ways. It would be better for both of them, in the end. It was the responsible thing to do, really.

            He didn’t expect him at the banquet. Yuri Plisetsky made a surprised sound and Victor turned to see Yuuri arriving, surrounded by the Japanese team. He wore a dull suit that somehow managed to render his extraordinary physique shapeless (honestly, why did nobody take care of him?). Celestino clapped him on the shoulder, his voice booming but words indistinguishable through the din of the crowded room. Victor didn’t see Yuuri answer, but he bowed to his coach and went to the table with his team. Russia’s table was across the room.

            Phichit darted to him and the two leaned close and talked. Phichit’s dark eyes were all over Yuuri’s face, and Yuuri kept touching his arm even though he wasn’t the touchy type. Victor started moving that way. He did not desire to make a public spectacle. He simply wanted to check on him. It wouldn’t be strange for Victor to check on him, especially because they’d become close. It would be friendly gesture, that’s all.

            Music started, and the public address system squealed for a moment, halting all conversation. Gritting his teeth, Victor turned toward the stage where one of the officials, a tall, thin man with very little hair was welcoming all of the skaters, teams and sponsors. Yakov was glaring at Victor and Nina was gesturing frantically. He retraced his steps to the Russian table. He sank into his seat, head high, smile fixed, and joined the room in watching the tribute to Victor Nikiforov: Genius; Hero of the Sport; and – now – Six-Time Grand Prix Gold Medalist.

            His stomach turned uneasily. He fought the restlessness of his body.

            “This is an epic feat,” the man said, “unrivaled in the sport.”

            He went on, but each time the booming superlatives paused the room filled with the speculative murmurs Victor had started hearing a few years ago.

            Will Victor finally retire after this season?

            Who even cares, of course he won.

            Next year I’ll beat him.

            It’s not even a surprise anymore.

            The lights dimmed as a highlight video played. His biggest moments, his most sensational surprises, all of his Grand Prix wins. That exceptional career of his. He remembered the moments, but the dizzying emotions that had swept through him at the time felt…diluted. The letdown that usually seeped through him a couple days after he returned home to his quiet routine off the ice hit him as he walked to the stage, cued by a flowery introduction.

            He dreaded seeing resentment, jealousy, or – worse – apathy on Yuuri’s face, but he couldn’t help but look at him. Yuuri’s head was tilted back as he watched the highlights on a screen mounted high on the wall beside the stage. On the video, Victor rose out of a low spin, his arms unfolding to shed momentum. Yuuri’s mouth dropped into a perfect “o”, as though he was surprised by a performance Victor was certain he’d already seen.

            Looking away, Victor delivered his speech. He thanked the Union, the Federation, his coach, rinkmates and competitors. He’d given similar speeches at other events in prior seasons. The words had sometimes felt hollow but they had never before felt bitter in his mouth.

            Around the room, wine glasses and champagne flutes rose in his direction, the critical eyes and speculative sneers muted for the moment. He raised his medal in return and beamed at the crowd.

            “I have enjoyed this journey with everyone and cannot wait for what comes next. Thank you.”

            Yuuri stood for the ovation, and something uncomfortable fluttered in Victor’s chest. He really ought to check on him. But by the time Victor made it halfway through the swarm of handshakes and pats on the back, Yuuri’s seat was empty. Of course. Victor straightened his tie and ran a hand down his waistcoat. He smiled at the next well-wisher.

            “We’re so proud of you,” an official gushed at him, so tipsy he stumbled against Victor. His hands pawed before Victor stepped back, putting distance between then. “A triumph! Again, I mean. Six triumphs! Always triumphant.”

            “Thank you. That’s very kind of you to say.”

            “And don’t worry.” The official leaned too close, his breath sourly sweet. “We excused that Katsuki fellow from the Gala. You won’t have to worry about the press asking about him tomorrow.”

            A jolt went through Victor. “You…what?”

            “It was an unfortunate business but shouldn’t distract from your exhibition skate. The Gala is meant to celebrate the event, so of course it’s all about The Victor Nikiforov! Outstanding.”

            He absolutely had to check on him.

            “Would you please excuse me?”

*

            The elevator opened on Yuuri’s floor and Victor nearly collided with Yuri Plisetsky and a younger Japanese skater with a dyed red flare atop his chestnut hair. Yuri’s arms were crossed in defiance. The junior skater’s fists were clenched. His jaw dropped when he saw Victor.

            “Already done celebrating yourself? You usually roll around in that shit for hours.” Yuri’s glare subsided a bit. “He’s not here.”

            “Where did he go?”

            “You’re also looking for Yuuri-kun?” the junior skater asked.

            Victor searched his memory. “You’re…Kenjirou?”

            “VictorNikiforovOhWowYesIAmKenjirouMinamiOhWow.”

            Yuri rolled his eyes. “He won’t tell me where he went.”

            “Will you tell me?” Victor tilted his head and smirked.

            Minami opened his mouth but all that came out was a squeak. He was turning an alarming shade of red.

            “Minami?”

            “Breathe, dumbass.” Yuri jabbed the kid with the toe of his shoe. It was a gentle prod, as Yuri’s kicks went.

            Minami sucked in a breath. “Yuuri-kun said he was going out, s-sightseeing. He said I should stay with the team to celebrate.”

            “You took the bronze in the junior final,” Victor said. “That’s very well done. You should be celebrating. What are you doing here instead?”

            “Victor Nikiforov well done wow,” Minami said in a rush. Then he shook his head. “Yuuri-kun isn’t himself tonight.”

            “No?”

            “No. I-I didn’t want him to be alone after what happened.” Minami’s gaze flickered from Yuri to Victor then dropped to the floor. But he didn’t sound embarrassed or intimidated. His voice was emphatic, a crisp denunciation. “After what they did to him during the free skate.”

            Victor went out, walking past streets of restaurants and bars, the holiday night market. Yuuri wasn’t at the shops. He wasn’t at the temporary ice rink, where Victor had optimistically hoped to find him. Maybe Victor should look up Finnish ballet bars. He just needed to check on him. It didn’t matter that Yuuri wouldn’t want to see him. As his junior teammate had said, he shouldn’t be alone. Not after what had happened to him today, after the additional punishment the Union had heaped on him. Passing by a choir of singers in between large fire pits giving off heat and a pleasant smoky scent, he caught a glint of blue, the curve of a shoulder in a heavy coat. Victor said his name, barely audible over the singing.

            Yuuri turned, frowning. He blinked owlishly, then circled around a family watching the singing and crossed the space between them.

            “Victor.” He raised his arms and Victor stared dumbly at them until they were wrapped around his shoulders. “Hi.”

            Startled, Victor hugged him back. “Yuuri?”

            “Are you…” Yuuri looked around him. “Who are you with?”

            “What?”

            “Who are you out with?” Yuuri backed away, and Victor leaned toward him before pulling himself together. “I don’t want to bring your celebration down.”

            “You’re not, I assure you.”

            “I’m afraid I’m not very good company right now.” Yuuri shook his head and looked away. “I’m sorry.”

            “Don’t be sorry. I didn’t feel like celebrating tonight.”

            “You should. You won the season. Six consecutive GPFs. It’s extraordinary. Your skate was very beautiful. Your sit spin, that salchow-triple toe. Your entire second choreography sequence. I felt… You were very beautiful.”

            “With everything happening, you watched me skate?”

            “Of course.” Yuuri dipped his head and looked at him over the top of his glasses. The firelight reflected in his eyes as they roamed Victor’s face. “I always watch you, Victor.”

            A tender pang went through Victor. He’d meant to check on him. To keep his distance, to break things off or to give Yuuri the opportunity to. He’d worried Yuuri would be too shaken to handle it. He didn’t seem shaken. Maybe he was still in shock and hadn't reflected on the events of the day.

            “Yuuri,” he asked, “how are you feeling?”

            “I keep thinking, if I’d performed better in Las Vegas, if I’d avoided the crash, if I’d checked my costume…if I’d placed higher, or even lower in the short program, this wouldn’t have happened.”

            “It’s not your fault.”

            “I know! I’m not blaming myself for the music or for performing badly afterwards. The delay was too long. But so many things could have gone differently. Yuri could have started the season stronger. Phichit might not have mastered his quad jumps this season. JJ could have kept it together in Canada. You could have gotten hurt.” His gaze dropped to Victor’s left leg before rising, seeking something in the distance. His voice was tight with an emotion Victor had heard before when Yuuri had a bad practice. “A thousand things could have gone differently, and I could have finished my skate the way I began it.”

            “You’re…angry?”

            “I’m angry. I just…” His eyes lit, fired with determination. “I wanted to show everyone my final program. I wanted to show you.”

            “I wanted to see it!” The words burst out of Victor, loosening the tightness that had gripped his chest all evening. They weren’t what he was expected to say. They weren’t what he was obligated to say. But they were what he felt. “I wanted to see you.”

            “I’m going to do better.” Yuuri’s eyebrows rose in a determined arch. “I’m going to find a way to perform so that nobody can look away.”

            Inspiration sang through Victor. How had he ever thought he could give this up? “How can I help?”

            Yuuri laughed. “Critique me? Look at me as a competitor-”

            “I do.”

            Yuuri’s mouth twitched, but it was with irony not resentment. “Like an actual threat, Victor. Not just someone else on the ice.”

            “Hmm.”

            “Yeah.”

            Victor pressed a finger to his lip. “I wouldn’t go easy on you.”

            “I wouldn’t want you to. I can take it.”

            Victor grinned and Yuuri grinned back, fierce. Victor wanted to do this. He wanted to be with Yuuri, to share things with him, to push him and see what he could do. He wanted Yuuri to understand what he was capable of. The fire inside him sparked an answering flame inside of Victor. Yuuri wasn’t disinterested. He wasn’t resentful. He had suffered a catastrophic loss today and his reaction was to fight harder. Victor’s heart pounded with exhilaration. He loved it.

            Then Yuuri’s expression faltered. “I mean, if you have time. You’re busy.”

            How often had Victor had to cut a call short or been unavailable for hours? Often. There was still the time difference, his own demanding schedule. Two things that could not be overcome by good intentions. Victor had a thought, a series of movements expanding through his mind with the inspiration of new choreography. It felt natural. It felt exciting. He didn’t have to talk himself into it.

            “I expect to have more free time soon.”

            “I don’t want to get in the way.” Yuuri’s confidence was slipping, his gaze sliding away, that fire banking.

            Victor touched his chin, lifted his head so Yuuri was meeting his gaze. His port wine eyes went wide. His lips parted in surprise and, oh, Victor couldn’t help it. He slid his thumb against Yuuri’s lower lip.

            “You will not be in the way. I want to see what you can do.” He dropped the pitch of his voice, dragging the words out. “Are you willing to show me?”

            Yuuri stepped into him. Their legs brushed. Victor felt heat against his thumb, and everything inside of him thrilled at it.

            “Whatever you want to see, I want to show you.”

            Victor lowered his head, slid his hand to cup and hold Yuuri’s jaw, and kissed him. At least, he thought he was doing the kissing. But Yuuri got one hand on his nape and the other on his hand, and he tilted Victor’s head, pressing them closer together. They fell against each other, sharing a hunger that could only be satisfied by the other.

            Victor shivered when they broke apart. He was breathing fast. His face felt hot. And the rest of him was pure hunger. Yuuri’s fingers stroked the skin of his wrist. He shivered again, and this time he couldn’t stop.

            “Victor, you’re freezing.”

            He was wearing a suit under a designer trench coat suited to the temperatures in the rink, not Helsinki on a winter night. His feet were freezing inside his thin-soled dress shoes.

            “I’m fine.” He took a step back and slipped on the ice before catching himself. His hip joint ground roughly. Victor blinked through the pain.

            “And you’re slipping everywhere.”

            “Yuuri, I don’t know if you’re aware of this but I am an ice skater. A professional one.”

            Yuuri laughed. “Yes, but you’re underdressed and this is not a controlled surface.”

            “I’m fine. It’s nothing! Come, I want to spend more time with you. Let’s look around.”

            He took a step and jerked to a stop. Yuuri had one hand around his tie and the other on his phone. He pulled him down so they were eye to eye. Yuuri was looking at his mouth, bare centimeters from his own. Victor’s full body shivers ceased instantly.

            “Victor,” Yuuri said in a low voice, his gaze rising to meet Victor’s. “You don’t have to pretend.”

            “I like being with you.”

            “And I like being with you. But you don’t have to…to hurt yourself for me. Here, I’ve ordered a car. It’s three minutes away. We have to go to that corner.” He smoothed Victor’s tie then tugged on his hand, smiling encouragingly, playfully.

            Entranced, Victor followed.

Chapter Text

Yuuri woke to Makka’s gentle whining, to Victor’s warmth against his back and his arm around his chest. He showered while Victor walked Makka, then half-heartedly packed while scrolling through social media. Victor returned, wearing a fuchsia gift shop baseball cap over his black designer sunglasses.

            “Is that…a disguise?” Yuuri asked.

            Victor pulled the hat and glasses off with a flourish. His nose and cheeks were rosy from the cold. “It’s good, right? Nobody recognized me!”

            Yuuri looked at Makkachin, who tilted her head as though she, too, did not understand.

            “You’re walking your own dog, Victor.”

            “The hotel gave me a key to the service elevator so I was able to slip out the back. And I think the gauntlet of fans on my floor were still sleeping. That might have helped. A little.”

            “Only a little?”

            “Obviously, it was mostly this cunning disguise.”

            Yuuri grinned and Victor smiled back, his entire face lighting up. He was so beautiful it should have been difficult to look at him. It wasn’t. Yuuri loved watching him, loved when Victor’s attention was on him. He had left the banquet because he was in no mood to be there, among people, but also because he couldn’t stand to see Victor bestowing his attention on everyone else. On anyone else. Which was selfish, oh so selfish. He should have been better than that. He wasn’t.

            Victor had, unbelievably, come looking for Yuuri while the entire figure skating world had been throwing a party to celebrate him and his staggering new record. Yuuri had to live up to that dedication. He had to find a way to show Victor what he meant to him.

            Victor flopped on the bed, then reached out with slender fingers and turned Yuuri’s phone to look at a short clip playing on repeat.

            “Are you watching my skate?”

            “I was catching up on the news.” He had absolutely searched Victor’s name, hoping to find better pictures or stills at different angles from yesterday. “You’re the headline from yesterday.”

            “Only yesterday?” Victor teased.

            Yuuri lay beside him and reached for his phone. Victor slid it farther away, continuing to scroll. He paused on a still of himself on the podium, his chin up and eyes raised as though he was gazing at something that mortals couldn’t see. The future maybe, or the Platonic ideals of beauty and grace. Under the bright lights, he appeared made of porcelain or stone, a statue rather than a man.

            “Your skate was beautiful.” Yuuri said, gazing at Victor’s profile. He wasn’t porcelain this morning. His platinum hair was mussed. The dark circles beneath his eyes were almost blue beneath his pale skin.

            “It was for you. I thought, after what happened, that I could give you something perfect. Even if it did not make you feel better, maybe it would be nice to see.” Victor’s mouth twisted. “That’s not a very good gift, is it?”

            “I loved it.”

            Victor raised his head, blue eyes bright with surprise. “Yeah?”

            “Yeah.”

            He reached for Victor or Victor reached for him. Victor pulled him close and Yuuri slid his fingers into the neck of his shirt to feel him. Their lips pressed softly together, their bodies buzzing with the awareness of how close they were even though they were barely touching.

            Victor shifted closer, and Yuuri’s alarm started going off. The phone rang at the same time, their insurance that they wouldn’t oversleep after not going to bed until they were nearly catatonic with exhaustion. After he had been uninvited to the Gala, Yuuri had changed his ticket to fly home a day early. As usual, the timing was terrible.

            They managed to ignore the sounds for a half a minute. Then Makkachin sighed heavily from the floor and they ended up laughing. Victor sat up, using all that easy strength to pull Yuuri around until he straddled his lap.

            Yuuri leaned toward the nightstand, and Victor leaned with him, holding him securely as he turned hung up the phone then twisted to turn off his alarm. Yuuri’s knees tightened against Victor’s hips and they both went still.

            Flinching, Yuuri scrambled back. “Your hip!”

            “It’s fine.” Then Victor shook his head, his hair flopping over his eye. “How did you know it’s my hip that’s hurt?”

            “I watch you, Victor.” He flushed a little, as if that admission was somehow more intimate than sitting in the other man’s lap.

            “Lots of people watch me.”

            “And I-I skate your programs.” Yuuri lowered his chin. He felt a blush start across his cheeks as the admission tumbled out of him. “When I get frustrated or I need a break, I skate your programs. I figured it out from how you adjusted certain moves. To protect your left hip, right?”

            “When you get frustrated, you skate my programs?” Victor asked, as though he had misheard Yuuri.

            “Not all the way through.” He absolutely attempted them from start to finish, including the quad flip, which had an even more terrifying entry than the lutz. “Usually.”

            “You skate my gold medal programs when you’re having a bad day at the rink?”

            “I don’t land all the jumps.”

            Victor sounded baffled. “Is it…helpful?”

            “It makes me-” The blush burned as it climbed down his neck and up to the tips of his ears.

            “Yuuri,” Victor said, in an authoritative tone, “what does it make you?”

            He was going to actually catch on fire. “It makes me feel closer to you.”

            Victor was silent and Yuuri wanted to slide onto the floor and drag the comforter over himself. It was such a sappy thing to say. He chanced a glance at Victor and was met with wide, sparkling eyes. Victor’s mouth was pressed into a tiny line. He looked like he was trying not to cry.

            “Victor?”

            “Yuuri, that’s-” He clutched Yuuri against him, squeezing a groan out of him. Yuuri had fallen a lot the day before and was sore in a dozen places. But he couldn’t push Victor away when he turned to whisper in Yuuri’s ear, “That’s the loveliest thing I’ve ever heard.”

            “You don’t think it’s creepy?”

            “I think it’s sweet and romantic and wonderful. I want to see.”

            Yuuri smiled against his neck. “I’ll show you sometime.”

            “I cannot wait.” His hold relaxed slightly though, if anything, he drew closer. “It’s a torn labrum. I need to take time off, to get it repaired.”

            Yuuri sat back. Somehow, knowing the actual diagnosis made it even worse. He couldn’t imagine what Victor had been going through, skating with that. His discomfort had not shown on his face, and it didn’t now. But it had to hurt.

            “Good. I’d hate for it to get worse.”

            “It might take some time.” With Yuuri out of the way, Makkachin claimed her spot between Victor’s knees. He played with her ears. “Before I can skate again. I mean, I heal very quickly. It’s probably not even that bad a tear.”

            Nobody liked being off the ice. Victor was probably worse than most. “It only matters that you aren’t in pain. That it heals properly, fully.”

            Victor glanced up before returning to scratching Makka’s neck. “The surgery is very quick. I’ll begin rehabilitation straightaway. I’ll be up and running in no time. It’s nothing to worry about, really.”

            Yuuri slid his hand into Makka’s fur. His hand bumped Victor’s, which stilled.

            “Did you think that would matter to me,” Yuuri asked gently, “if you weren’t skating?”

            Victor shook his head. Yuuri touched his arm, trying to catch his eye.

            “It would matter to a lot of people.” Victor spoke each word clearly, as though working to keep his tone mild.

            Victor was the face of figure skating. He transcended the sport. Yuuri didn’t understand what the problem was. Victor needed to be healthy. Everyone had to understand that. But “everyone” was a lot of people in Victor’s world, people who might have different priorities. Yuuri was regularly swamped by pressure and he didn’t face anything like the expectations Victor lived under. He also didn’t think that, with his unreliable record, anyone saw Yuuri as a product rather than a person. Anger made him sit up straighter.

            “Is someone pressuring you to skate with this injury? Are you being forced to perform against your will?”

            Victor drew back, startled. Maybe because Yuuri basically yelled those questions at him. Then he threw his head back and laughed. The sound was delightful, but also confusing? Makka jumped up on his knees and barked with excitement.

            “Victor?”

            “No, Yuuri.” Still laughing, Victor wiped his eyes. “I am not an imperiled heroine. Nobody is forcing me to do anything against my will.”

            “Sorry, that was a stupid question.”

            “Not stupid!”

            “Very stupid.”

            “You’re so angry, on my behalf. I like it! Tell me more about your fears that I am woefully mistreated. Tell me how you think I should be treated instead.”

            “I just mean that skating is only one part of you.”

            “Will it involve lots of pampering?”

            “And I can’t pretend to know what it means to you, at your level, but I know that you are more than only your skating.”

            “I want an on-call manicurist. And for my M&M’s to be separated by color. I will only drink water bottled in Fiji, that has been blessed by a hairless monk. Yell something angry about me again.”

            “You don’t get to turn into a diva, Victor. Also, I don’t think it’s normal to like someone getting angry.”

            Victor shook his hair back from his face. “I’m Victor Nikiforov. I am not meant to be normal.”

*

            Victor stood at the wall of windows, watching Yuuri’s airplane take off through the thin morning light. He had not liked driving with him to the airport and seeing him off, though it had been nice to hold him, to have Yuuri’s arms wrap tight around his waist, to see his unhappiness at their parting mirrored in Yuuri’s face, though he probably thought he was hiding it. As the plane disappeared through the low layer of clouds, Victor took a steadying breath. He felt as though part of him was missing. It was the same part of him that had been empty for a long time – vacant – but now there was a name and a face, a soft voice that disguised fiery resolution, that fit in that place. Already he hated being apart, but it would be okay because Victor had things to do.

            He sent his luggage down to the lobby with a bellhop, and Makkachin out for a walk with Emmi, the local dogwalker who had been looking after her while Victor was performing, along with a generous accompaniment of treats. It would be better for Makkachin to get some exercise before their flight. Also, she didn’t need to see this.

            Victor exited his room, taking his time and making some noise. Behind the other doors on the floor, he heard scrambling and cries of excitement. He made it to the elevator before those doors opened, fans spilling out with their phones raised. One carried a sign with his name on it, covered in gold glitter. Two dark-haired men wore pink v-neck shirts that said I Heart Victor Nikiforov. That shirt would have looked great on Yuuri, but his plans did not include stopping to ask them where they’d gotten them.

            He raised a hand and waved, smiling a heart-shaped smile. “Hi!”

            Someone screamed. Farther back, someone swooned. His elevator doors began to close, and pandemonium broke out as half of them raced for the elevator button and the other half launched themselves into the stairwell.

            He exited the elevator into the lobby, still beaming. The ISU official he’d been looking for – the drunken fellow who’d leaned on him the night before – was waiting, as Victor had requested. He looked hungover, which was quite pleasing to see.

            “Gerwin!” Victor shouted.

            The man flinched, visibly recoiling before gathering himself and marching forward. Around him the lobby was abuzz, fans coming and going in preparation for the Gala, more people checking out, including several sports journalists. They drifted toward Victor, drawn by the promise of a sound bite. He always did try to oblige the press.

            “Victor,” Gerwin muttered, “shouldn’t you be at the rehearsal?”

            “If only.” Victor sighed, looking away. (He had positioned himself beside the window for better lighting.) “Unfortunately I won’t be able to attend tonight. I won’t be able to perform. You’ll have to replace me. I’d suggest Yuri Plisetsky and Otabek Altin. They’re quite explosive when contrasted against each other, which would pique the audience’s interest. Of course if they aren’t available, Chris Giacometti and Phichit Chalunont both put on tremendous shows. Up to you. It’s just a couple of advisable suggestions from a casual fan.”

            “Wh-what do you mean you can’t perform?”

            Gerwin’s pasty face glistened aggressively. The reporters, who had surreptitiously been circling all but lunged for Victor. Somehow they were all accompanied by cameramen now. He turned to face them, a picture of contrition.      

            “Unfortunately, I’ve suffered a tear in a joint. I’ve tried to skate through it, for several competitions now, and I’ve been moderately successful.” He felt very successful about understating his medals and GPF gold streak. “But the pain is too much. The danger that, if I continue to skate in this condition I might suffer irreparable harm, is too great. I will be consulting with my physicians to figure out how best to repair it and to heal.”

            As Victor paused to take a breath (and allow the impact to take hold in the hearts of his audience), the reporters began calling out questions. Gerwin just stood there, gaping. And Victor’s fans flooded out of the elevator and stairwell, a horde of pink and glitter gold. He really did have the best fans.

            “With regrets, I must announce the suspension of my skating career, starting with my exhibition skate at the Gala tonight.”

            Nearly every head in the check-out line turned in unison. One of his fans dropped to his knees and pounded his fists on the marble floor, which even Victor thought was a little over the top. Several began wailing, which was appropriate, joined by Gerwin as he raised his phone and pleaded with someone for help. Across the lobby, Yakov stood in the doorway, hat dusted with snow, face grim.

            “I really must thank the ISU and the Russian Skating Federation,” Victor said, going off the script he’d concocted for himself, “for their care, concern and unwavering support. I love skating. And I would have continued to push on, no matter what was thrown at me. But because the ISU and our Federation are so committed to the wellbeing of every skater, it made this decision easy for me.”

            Gerwin turned green.

            Yakov turned red.

            And Victor sailed out the door, taking Makka’s leash from Emmi and climbing into the car with his luggage, bound for the airport and a day full of exciting new possibilities.

Chapter Text

Yuri

 

            They were practicing the stupid group spectacle for the Gala, where all the skaters had to dance together like a poorly-matched boy band and pretend they loved it. Then the winners would skate an artsy program or statement piece. This part of the big events was on Yuri’s Most Hated list. Even when he won and got to do an exhibition skate, which netted him a nice bonus fee, he hated this part. It didn’t belong in a competition. Nobody make hockey teams pair up and dance together after they played.

            He didn’t know the other skaters, who had all formed cliques over the years. Normally he’d hang out near Victor, which was annoying because he’d rope Yuri into stupid things like jump-offs (that the audience or other skaters would always declare Victor winner of), or Katsudon, which was fine because Katsudon barely spoke (although he was the quickest of the men to pick up the dance moves, so Yuri could watch him rather than the instructor).

            Victor hadn’t even shown up yet even though he was doing an exhibition skate and, weirdly, Katsudon wasn’t here either. Yuri had checked twice, including looking around and under things since Yuuri could hide just about anywhere. Unable to stand it anymore, Yuri skated around Giacometti and stopped beside Phichit.

            “Where’s your friend?”

            Startled, Phichit looked around like he wasn’t sure Yuri was talking to him. “What friend?”

            “Your BFF. Pork cutlet boy.”

            Phichit laughed, then sobered abruptly. “Oh. He’s not coming.”

            “Why not?” Sure, yesterday had sucked for him in ways that defied description. Yuri still saw red when he let himself think about it. But Katsudon should have been here, with them, his fellow skaters. He deserved to be here.

            “Uh…” Phichit looked away, repeating one of the dance moves even though the others had moved on.

            “I heard the union asked him to back out,” Chris murmured, leaning toward them. “Because they didn’t want to distract from the celebration.”

            Phichit’s head bowed, which was confirmation. Yuri’s mouth fell open, but he couldn’t even force expletives out. Wha? How? Wha?

            “Gentlemen,” the instructor called, “if we could have all your attention, please. We’re just doing one more pass then you’ll have a break.”

            Yuri spun toward him, a snarl forming. He didn’t have a chance to unleash it though, because the junior skaters at the side of the rink started shouting and waving toward their teammates. What the hell was going on?

            Phichit whipped a phone out and ninja’d his way to the trending clip. Chris and Yuri grouped around him. It was a press conference, in the hotel lobby, starring Victor and a shell-shocked ISU official. Ugh, how was it possible that Victor required so much attention that he had called his own press conferences?

            And then he started dropping bombs.

            He was quitting skating. That was ridiculous. He was at the top of his stupid career.

            He was injured. When the hell had that happened? Sure he’d been slacking off since Rostelecom, but…

            And then he dropped the big one, in the form of a backhanded compliment to both the ISU and the Federation doled out with that fake smile of his. Even Yuri cringed at the fallout that was going to come from this. But his words…

            …so committed to the wellbeing of every skater

            …made this decision easy for me

            Oh. OH. This wasn’t about Victor. This was about what they’d done to Yuuri.

            Phichit covered his mouth. He looked like he was about to cry. Chris smiled as though it pained him, then sighed loudly.

            “That romantic fool. Now who am I going to skate against?”

            Yuri skated backwards, away from the group. He felt kind of nauseated and kind of dizzy. There was no way Victor was faking an injury. He wouldn’t admit to an actual weakness let alone invent one. Which meant that he’d been able and willing to skate injured for weeks. Until this crap had happened to Yuuri. And then, what? The most selfish man on Earth had thrown his career away for Katsuki? The hero of international figure skating had spit in the face of the institutions that supported him, for Katsuki?

            Yuri bumped up against the boards. He leaned back, holding on with both hands. His heart was beating too fast. He wanted to talk to Yakov, and he didn’t want to be anywhere near Yakov right now. He didn’t want to go anywhere near the Russian team right now. It would be chaos, and a lot of anger. Yuri had seen Victor and Katsudon flirting, dancing and generally being foolish and intolerably sweet at each other. But he’d never thought that Victor would actually act on it. It was the one thing they had in common. Victor always put his career first, before anything and anyone, just like Yuri.

            Inevitably, Yuri’s gaze rose and sought Otabek. He stood a little apart from the clustered skaters, head bowed as he watched the video on his coach’s phone. From across the rink, Yuri couldn’t see his reaction, not that it would have been obvious. Otabek wasn’t ostentatious with his emotions. And he respected the distance Yuri had put between them last year, when Yuri had decided he needed to give up distractions in order to improve. When he had decided he needed to listen only to his team in order to stay healthy. When he had decided that winning was more important than having friends or people he could talk to or people that he wanted to talk to.

            Otabek looked up then, his dark gaze piercing. He pushed off toward Yuri before catching himself. But he didn’t look away, asking without asking if Yuri wanted him there.

            He did. He always did.

            But he’d created the distance and nastily enforced it enough times that it was still shocking that Otabek could stand to be anywhere near him.

            “Yuri!” Coach Nina called. Yuri’s heart sank, but it wasn’t like he could get away from the hag.

            “What?”

            She stomped around the rink, and he considered skating farther away just to make her chase him, but she would already be pissed and he – unfortunately – was the only one around for her to take it out on.

            “You’re going to skate the exhibition in Victor’s place.”

            “Why?”

            “Because Russia needs to be represented and you placed second. It’s fitting.”

            He could think of nothing he wanted to do less.

            “Do Welcome to the Madness with the Kazakh. We’ll find something for the costume.”

            “No!”

            Nina’s teeth bared between red lips. “You will skate this damn routine and you will look good doing it. We need something spectacular to cover up this stink. Don’t try to follow Victor’s example. You don’t have the currency that he did, Yura.”

            An official in a blue blazer scurried up behind Nina.

            “Ma’am, it’s not going to work. Altin said he’s too fatigued for a full skate. We’ll move on to the other finalists.”

            Nina muttered a string of curses as she stormed away. Yuri rubbed his arms. He wanted off the ice, away from everyone.

            “If you want to do it, I will.” Otabek. Beside him. “You didn’t look like you wanted to.”

            He didn’t turn to face him. “I don’t.”

            “Okay. Are you alright?”

            “Yes.” No. “I yelled at him for slacking off. After Rostelecom. Like, ten times. He was missing practices, showing up late. I think that’s when he got hurt.”

            “You didn’t know?”

            “They… It happened once before. They covered it up. He had surgery at a private clinic, then they hid him at Lilia’s house to recover. I only found out because I was training under her and he wandered when he got restless.”

            Yuri glanced up. Otabek stood beside him, his gaze on the bleachers.

            “You shouldn’t feel bad that you didn’t know.”

            “How could I have known? He never told me! Yakov never said anything either.”

            Otabek shrugged.

            “I kicked him.” Katsudon had told him to stop doing that. Had he known? Would Victor have told the Japanese skater he’d only met a few months ago and not Yuri? “And I said really awful things to him.”

            “I think maybe Victor keeps a lot of things to himself.”

            Yuri wanted to say something sharp, about how this was Victor’s fault, all Victor’s fault! But it wasn’t Victor’s fault that he didn’t trust Yuri. Yuri didn’t trust anyone. Everyone was a rival or had their own agenda. He’d always had to protect himself, put himself first, because nobody else would.

            He had wanted Victor out of his way for years. He’d never expected that Victor wouldn’t be there. He’d wanted Katsuki to step up for years. He’d never expected that, when he tried, every bad thing that could happen on the ice, short of career-ending injury, would hit him all at once. He’d never expected that he’d meet his best friend then push him away in the name of his career. He’d said awful things to Otabek as well, hoping that he’d yell back and storm off. Then it would be his fault that they weren’t talking. Partly his fault. Sorta his fault.

            He’d never even raised his voice.

            Yuri pulled himself together, like he was about to attempt a big jump. His heart beat in his throat.

            “Hey,” he said, “why don’t we dance a cheesy dance in front of an audience that only wants to see the Living Legend Victor Nikiforov, then go somewhere away from the arena?”

            “Sounds good. Except for the dance part.”

            “I heard it’s required.”

            The corner of Otabek’s lip quirked. “I heard that, too.”

            They skated back to the loosely assembled group, everyone clearly distracted, the moves they’d been learning all morning forgotten. Phichit glided in to Yuri’s right in the line. With a resigned sigh, Otabek formed up to his left. Chris skated in front of him, partially obscuring him from the instructor.

*

Chris

 

            “So, you’ve broken the Internet, several thousand hearts, and the majority of the ISU staff,” Chris said. He’d skated his exhibition, then taken advantage of the hotel’s spa and sauna. He lounged now, his tan skin flushed – in an open robe – on his bed, with Victor up on Skype.

            “What do you mean?” Victor asked. He was walking outside. It was dark in Saint Petersburg. His breath plumed the air.

            Chris laughed. “Have you forgotten the bombs you dropped this morning? One, two, three…and the last one was an actual mic drop?”

            “Oh, that.” The camera lowered and shifted as Victor did something with his fluffy dog. “They’ll get over it.”

            He sounded distracted. He sounded disinterested. Victor had never been disinterested in his own career. Chris rolled onto his stomach, repositioning the phone so it showed more of his face than his body.

            “Did you seriously quit skating to chase after Yuuri?”

            “Chase after? No.”

            “Then you’ve already caught him?”

            “We haven’t talked yet. He’s still flying.”

            “You haven’t talked about what? Whether you’re exclusive, or which china pattern to pick out for your pending nuptials? If you’re into an open arrangement, I can make myself available for a threesome.”

            “About stepping back from skating.”

            Chris sat up. “You didn’t tell Yuuri that you suspended your skating career?”

            Victor’s tone was light but his expression was carefully guarded. “It’ll be fine.”

            “Victor, Yuuri’s a worrier. He’s going to think this is because of him.”

            “Why would he think that? It’s my injury.”

            “Because you said, in no uncertain terms, on camera, that their treatment of him brought you to this decision.”

            “What’s wrong with that? Nice people put other people before themselves.”

            “Sure, but Victor you aren’t nice.”

            “Chris! I am so nice!”

            “You are ambitious, competitive, too hot for words, charming, and sometimes witheringly savage. But you are not nice. You need to talk to him and let him know that he didn’t tear you from the skating world. He’ll feel so guilty.”

            Victor laughed. “But that sounds so romantic! There I was, a poor, lost soul waiting to be rescued. And Yuuri climbed my tower to free me.”

            “I’ll bet he climbed your tower.” Chris winked.

            “He did. It was amazing. I’ve never before felt like I did when he did it. I was stunned!”

            “I…what?” What was this Chris was feeling? Was he…scandalized? Is this what being scandalized felt like? He wanted to pull the collar of his robe together. He thought he might be considering blushing. “When did this happen? Also, details please?”

            “When we first arrived in Helsinki. Chris, he is so strong. You wouldn’t believe it. I didn’t even know he was going to do it, then there he was, his face appearing below me.”

            Chris sputtered. “Yuuri?”

            “Apparently he does it around Detroit all the time. Even the Russian hockey players there know about it, he’s that famous for it!”

            “Yuuri is known all around Detroit for giving magnificent head?”

            “Chris!” Victor’s blue eyes went wide with shock. “What are you talking about?”

            “What are you talking about?”

            “Yuuri climbing from the balcony of his hotel room to the balcony of my hotel room.”

            “Oh, he literally climbed your tower.”

            “You need to get your head out of the gutter. This act of yours is too much. It’s turning you into an actual pervert.”

            “Consider me chastened.” Chris shook his head. What was this world coming to when men literally climbed each other’s towers? He glanced at the sliding glass doors to his own balcony. Where could he get a man who would do that for him? “Victor, you need to talk to Yuuri. I’ve never seen you act like this over anyone. You have to check in with your partner, to make sure they are comfortable. You have to check in with yourself, to make sure you are being true to yourself.”

            “Right! Great advice!”

            “Take this seriously, my friend. If you want the relationship to last, you have to put in the work.”

            “Love isn’t meant to be work, Chris.”

            “You watch too many fairy tales. Anything worth having takes work. Be open. Be open to him. Don’t be jealous when Yuuri does Yuuri things. He doesn’t even know he’s doing them half the time.”

            “What do you mean? What do I have to be jealous of? Does he have a secret lover? Is he married? Does he have children?” Victor’s voice took on a desperate, whining quality. “Are his children cute? I’ll bet they’re so cute! Am I a homewrecker? Am I about to be a wicked stepfather?”

            Chris considered what to say. Victor was all heart eyes when it came to Yuuri, but – despite the tower-climbing incident – he didn’t think he knew the Japanese skater very well. Chris had been there during some of Yuuri’s formative years in juniors and, more importantly, during some of Yuuri’s most drunken nights. When THINGS happened.

            “I mean you should talk to him. Avoid any misunderstandings.”

*

            Victor

I miss you already! The world shouldn’t be this big. It’s too much space in between us. Call me when you land. It’s not a big deal, but don’t talk to anyone or look at anything – especially not any news. 

*

Yuuri

 

            “Yuuri!” Victor sounded ecstatic, as if he hadn’t expected Yuuri to call after sending him that cryptic message minutes after Yuuri had put his phone on airplane mode. It made Yuuri smile, hearing his name spoken like that, hearing Victor say his name like that.

            “Hi, Victor. I wasn’t sure you would be awake.”

            “I am. It’s not that late. My flight was okay. Makkachin thought it was a little too bouncy. She wouldn’t even eat her treats until we were home. I felt terrible.”

            “You moved your flight up.”

            “Oh, so I did.”

            Yuuri waited a moment, standing on the moving escalator taking him toward baggage claim. He’d thought his phone had broken when he turned it back on. It had buzzed nonstop for three minutes. It had been so overwhelming, he’d called Phichit to ask what had happened since he wasn’t sure where to start on the voicemails, emails, missed calls, messages and notifications. Victor hummed softly on the other end of the call, like he was his own hold music. Victor had happened, it turned out. And now he was behaving oddly.

            “I saw the clip,” Yuuri said, his chest tightening for the tenth time in ten minutes. “You suspended your career.”

            “Oh. Yes. That happened.”

            “Did your hip feel worse today, or did you just decide this was for the best?”

            “It’s for the best. The sooner I have the surgery, the sooner I don’t have to think about it. Worry is so draining.”

            “Okay.” He felt muzzy from the long flight, sore from yesterday’s falls, heartbroken that Victor Nikiforov wouldn’t be skating anymore, but glad that Victor was taking care of himself. “I heard what you said at the end.”

            “That was about you. For you.”

            “Th-thank you. It meant a lot to hear it.” His face flamed. He adjusted his glasses.

            “Your National competition is in two weeks.”

            “Yes, in fifteen days.”

            “When do you fly out for Saitama?”

            “In ten days, I think. I’ll fly into Tokyo.”

            “Should I meet you in Detroit, to fly together, or should we meet in Japan?”

            Yuuri’s brain stopped functioning.

            “The flight to Tokyo isn’t that bad,” Victor went on, as if his press conference was no longer on his mind, and as if this was the sort of conversation they were meant to have. “How long is it for you?”

            “F-fifteen hours or so. Victor?”

            “I might have to just meet you there, Yuuri.” Victor sounded contrite. “Tokyo is only about thirteen hours from here. I don’t know why they don’t have a direct flight. That would be so convenient.”

            “You…you want to come to Nationals? To Japanese Nationals?” Yuuri lunged for his suitcase, and dragged it off the belt one-handed.

            “I want to watch you skate. Are you skating an event before that? Ooh, is it in Las Vegas? We could actually go out this time. What was that dance club you said was good?”

            “No, no, there’s nothing before Nationals. Victor, are you sure? When will you have surgery?”

            “I’m supposed to wait for the inflammation to die down. Apparently competing is not a low impact exercise.”

            “Of course it’s not. Victor…”

            “Do you have someone else meeting you there?”

            “I don’t know. My sister. Minako. Probably not Yuuko, after she went to Paris.” He winced at that. She’d flown so far, using the one international trip she would get to take for years, to watch him perform so poorly.

            “Oh! That’s all?”

            “Celestino will be going with Phichit to Bangkok, since he’s less experienced.”

            “Uh-huh.” Victor managed to put a lot of disapproval into that sound. “But that is all? Nobody else?”

            “Are you expecting someone else?”

            “I’m just wondering! I want to know everything about your home! I’m starting to study Japanese. And customs. It’s such a formal culture. I love it! You don’t have any children I don’t know about, do you Yuuri? And I have a list of places I want to see, but they are mostly in and around Tokyo. Does that travel make sense from the arena?”

            Yuuri shook his head at the barrage of questions and tangents. “Yes, it makes sense. They’re basically connected, and if you’re thinking of tourist places then it’s best to think of Tokyo as interconnected towns or neighborhoods. Each is a little different. Did you ask if I have children?”

            “Yes, I did. I don’t have any children myself.”

            Yuuri wanted to say that he basically was a child himself, so it was impossible for him to have children. Or that he’d never been with a woman, which also – as far as he knew, scientifically – made it impossible for him to have children. Instead, he just shook his head and began wheeling his bag toward the exit.

            “No, Victor. I don’t have children. Are you watching a movie about a secret family or something?”

            Victor gasped. “How do you know about those?”
            “Phichit makes me watch Lifetime movies about scandalous secrets. He says it’s research into the American psyche.”

            “What have you learned about the American psyche?”

            “Not much. Just… don’t trust blond men named Brad.”

Chapter Text

            Victor Nikiforov was not skating anymore.

            Yuuri finished the second half of his Molecular Biology final. He got an A.

            Victor was not skating anymore. The Japanese Skating Federation put together a video call to talk about the ISU’s decision on the delay and full program restart. They accepted the results under the condition that the ISU would formalize rules to prevent it happening again, to anybody else. Tired of even thinking about it, Yuuri agreed. They talked about the upcoming Winter Olympics, about watching skaters through the next few competitions before determining their selections. Nationals, Four Continents, Worlds, the next GPF season. They didn’t guarantee him a spot and, while they were too polite to mention it, he could think of at least three other Japanese male skaters they would have the same conversation with. This selection was not based solely on rankings. Japan wanted their best and brightest to represent the nation, not someone who had wandered into the standings during a lull in competitors. He thanked them for their consideration. Victor was not skating anymore.

            He reviewed his spring quarter schedule – two classes, most of which could be completed online – and scheduled his final class in the summer quarter. He would graduate after that, off-cycle, not that he needed to walk in a graduation ceremony.

            He and Phichit practiced hard. There was no time for bakery runs or helping Phichit with his jump-scare videos with the ratty old hamster suit he’d gotten from a oddly-themed (giant vermin) children’s playland when it went out of business. Phichit had few rivals for his national competition, but he wanted to put on a spectacularly fun show for his country. Celestino was pushing him to amplify his program for Worlds and in preparation for the next Grand Prix season. Yuuri continued to practice, no longer hiding anything, feeling like a raw nerve every time he stepped on the ice. Celestino gave him pointers and suggestions at practice but did not talk to him about his extra ice time or much of anything else. When Yuuri said he didn’t need to accompany him to Nationals, Celestino didn’t argue. They both knew their relationship wouldn’t continue past this season. Victor was not skating anymore.

            Yuuri had told Victor there was more to him than skating. He had meant it. But he hadn’t considered what it would mean for himself, going to the rink, to practice, making travel plans for his next competition, knowing that Victor was not skating anymore. He thought he might be mourning, for the performances Victor would not deliver, for the way he used to absorb every nuance of Victor’s style and signature moves then rush out to attempt to copy them. So much of his career was because of Victor, even before he knew him.

            And yet, Victor was still there for him. And he was still a genius, still enthusiastic about specific technical details, still rhapsodic about the beauty of favorite routines or music or costumes. Still bored easily, following the strangest or silliest tangents like a car veering off the road.

            Yuuri’s jumps had gotten steadily worse after the GPF. He’d fallen so often he was stamped with bruises, and woke gasping at night when he rolled in the wrong direction. He kept practicing jumps. He kept falling.

            “It’s not physical,” Victor said, matter-of-factly, over the phone.

            “How do you know?” Yuuri sat on the edge of his bed, the hand not holding the phone clenched in a fist. He was freshly-showered and already sweating just from talking about his problem.

            “Are you injured?” Victor didn’t wait for his response, which they both knew as “no”. “You’re physically capable of jumping. What’s in your mind when you jump?”

            “My position. The blade. It’s always a bad angle of the blade. I’m off on my angles. I can’t seem to get it back.”

            “Hmm.”

            “What?”

            “I don’t know how to respond to that. I don’t worry about the blade. That is gravity’s job.”

            “What do you mean? If the blade lands wrong, it’s all over.”

            “Remember when we danced in Paris.”

            His shoulders unclenched, just a bit. He inclined his head, as if he could get closer to Victor through his voice. “Of course.”

            “Were you worried about falling?”

            “No.”

            “About tripping?”

            “No.”

            “Not even with me there, graceless, a bumbling burden…”

            “Victor.” Yuuri rolled his eyes.

            “Why do you worry about falling on the ice if you do not worry about falling on the dance floor? You are as proficient at skating as dancing.”

            “No-”

            “Yes. Listen to me, Yuuri.” He was forceful, almost impatient. “I know about figure skating things. I have a reputation for it even. You can look me up on the Internet.”

            Victor’s wiki page was, in fact, an open tab on his browser. Yuuri reached toward his desk and closed the tab.

            “Is it because it hurts to fall on the ice?”

            It did hurt, but that didn’t stop him from jumping. “No.”

            “I leaned back and your body moved into the exact position necessary to brace me into a dip. On instinct. You could have done it in the dark. You could have done it in your sleep. It’s the same on the ice.”

            “This isn’t a pair skate.”

            Victor made a sound low in his throat. “We would be devastating in a pair skate. Nobody will ever allow it. It would break too many hearts, end too many promising careers.”

            Yuuri snorted.

            “Your knee takes the brunt of the force on the landing. The ankle and foot do as well, various ligaments and tendons. But the knee is the key. You’ve been taught to be careful of it to prevent injury. But that is a basic concept, something that can go to the background now. You should be thinking about how to maximize every body part, the way you maximize every centimeter of your body in your step sequences. Your knee is your landing. Don’t worry about your blade. It will be there.”

            “Worry about my knee instead?”

            “Focus on your knee. There is no need to worry. You do it already sometimes, on your axel.”

            “But that’s because my position in the air, my angle, is good.” It was only three and a half rotations. The problem happened on the quads.

            “And when your position is not as good, your knee will give you the opportunity to correct. Do you worry about your knees when you dance, during a jete?”

            “No. Did you know how to do this when you began doing quads?”

            “No, I fell a lot. Like everybody. This came from experience. Gravity is equal for everyone. The knee is the opportunity. Don’t jump tomorrow. Practice the other elements of your programs, the way you like to skate them. Don’t do jumps for the rest of the week if you don’t want to.”

            “Hmm.” He sounded skeptical but he was not automatically denying Victor’s words. He was thinking about what their meaning would feel like if it were true, what it would look like. Victor always looked so effortless. His jumps had the same angles and force, the same rotations. But it was as if he was already in position when he landed, as if he had decided to land at four rotations rather than struggling to make it that far.

            “Now, tell me about your day? What is happening in Hamsterland?”

            “A beautiful man told me something very interesting.”

            “About what?” Victor asked sharply. Yuuri was startled into laughing, and Victor caught on. “Oh. I see. And is he very beautiful, this man?”

            Yuuri covered his face. “The most beautiful I’ve ever seen.”

*

            Yuuri returned to the rink that night. He skated the short from Victor’s Harmony program from a few years ago, stretching it out by skating figures the length of the ice and back in between the sequences and spins. He loved the program. He had yet to watch the free skate without crying, but there was a combination spin at the end of the short that had always bothered him. Not the spins themselves. They were gorgeous. Victor was gorgeous performing them. But it felt stagnant to Yuuri, two combination spins at the end of the program, like standing in place. He substituted it with a languid hydroblade, his bruised muscles protesting as he pushed up out of it.

            He skated the program again, warmer now, opening with a double flip in place of Victor’s quad, a triple axel rather than the second quad. Victor ended with a triple lutz, triple toe combination. Yuuri skated a full lap before setting up. He looked down at his knee. He looked down the ice. He turned, skating backwards, positioning himself, changing the height of his awareness. He pushed off his outside edge, launched a quad lutz, and landed it. He wobbled. He did not fall.

            Victor was not skating anymore. But his skating was still inside of Yuuri.

Chapter Text

The day before the Japanese National short program, Yuuri was scheduled for four interviews, including two staged “informal” segments that would end up on Japanese variety shows, and a public practice. He would have cringed his way through the antics and foolish questions, but he wasn’t paying attention because Victor’s flight had been delayed and Minako and Mari were going to fetch him later. Victor had met Minako already, at almost her most dramatic (if they’d lost the dance-off in Paris, she would have reached an entire new level). But Mari could be intense. Not more intense than the pressures Victor had faced for over ten years as an international star maybe, but intense in a different way. It wasn’t the things Mari said. It was the tone she used.

            So he went through the silly games alongside his fellow national skaters with a faraway look on his face and apologetic smiles that didn’t reach his eyes each time he was redirected. He was in Japan. Home. Surrounded by spotlights and fans, and massive banners showing images of him so idealized he hardly recognized himself. Celebrating him seemed false, a mistake someone forgot to correct and everyone was too polite to say anything about. The interviewers smiled and asked questions. The fans smiled and requested photos. And Yuuri’s string of failures throughout the Grand Prix Series ran on repeat in the background of his mind.

            He struggled not to fidget from atop the uncomfortable, too-tall stool they’d placed him on for his final interview, mumbling brief answers even as the interviewer asked more and more pointed questions. As if he, an average skater during a badly-performed season would start dropping dirt, as Phichit would say.

            “And what are your thoughts on Victor Nikiforov leaving the sport?” the reporter asked. Yuuri, who had been examining the backs of his hands, looked up sharply.

            “He is suspending his skating while dealing with an injury,” Yuuri corrected, “not leaving the sport.”

            The reporter’s mouth twitched as he sensed drama. He leaned forward. “Of course, of course. But the way he did it, so abruptly, and with nothing like an apology… In past interviews you’ve said that Victor Nikiforov is an influence of yours, Katuski-san. Do you still consider him an idol, after that?”

            Normally he would stammer a non-answer until the reporter moved on, but this was too important. He was asking about Victor, who had been on Yuuri’s mind all day. Victor, who Yuuri could feel growing closer as he flew toward Tokyo. It took him a moment to find the words.

            “Victor is still an influence. In many aspects, not only with his skating. He is a student of the sport, of technique, conditioning, music, costumes, every component of the performance. He is and, maybe for a long time has been, its greatest visionary.”

            The reporter’s smirk wavered. “But what he did, that was disrespectful to the sport, don’t you think? Won’t this tarnish his legacy?”

            “Disrespectful? No.” Yuuri’s eyes narrowed as he held the reporter’s gaze. “It might, in fact, be the opposite. Everything Victor has done has been out of love. For the sport. For fans. For his fellow skaters. He has given so much of himself to everyone, always. I looked up to Victor for years, from a distance, but now that I know him in some small way, I cannot help but view him through a lens of love in return. To not accept his choice to take care of himself, that would be disrespectful. These…forgetful criticisms cannot tarnish his legacy.”

*

            Yuuri finally escaped the gauntlet of press and all but ran to the café. His glasses fogged up as he came through the door, and he had to pull the end of his shirt out from beneath his jacket to clean them. They were at a table in the corner, Minako and Mari arguing over the arrangement of small sandwiches and slices of cake, pastries and daifuku. Yuuri’s shoulders relaxed for the first time all day. Victor was there. He wore his travel clothes, a worn suede jacket over a Henley shirt and stretchy slacks. He leaned over the table, gleefully un-arranging the plates to snap photos.

            “Yuuri!” Victor stood, waving at Yuuri.

            The other patrons remained a respectful distance away, but every head in the café – from the cashier to the diners to the baker leaning on the pass-through window – was turned in Victor’s direction. This café was near the skating rink and the town was full of fans. Of course they would recognize Victor. And now most of them were looking at Yuuri. A woman muttered as Yuuri passed her table, and her companions ducked their heads to giggle. Yuuri’s face heated.

            “We got your favorites,” Mari said, glancing between him and Victor while Yuuri glanced between her and Victor.

            Their eyes met and Mari’s half-lidded. She shrugged, meaning that she didn’t disapprove of Victor. And Victor didn’t appear to have suffered any ill effects. He was still here, for one, and not crying or pale with fear, both common reactions to time spent with Mari.

            “These are adorable, Yuuri.” He held up a plate of fancy petit fours, eyes bright. “We have to try them all. Should we order more?”

            “Yuuri will have to be careful,” Minako advised, pouring tea. “He has to compete and the last thing he needs is to weigh himself down before the short program.”

            “But they are so cute!” Victor held up a tiny, pastel-frosted cake. His blue eyes glittered as he leaned toward Yuuri. “And so small, hardly a bite.”

            The sweet frosting touched Yuuri’s lips. Victor inclined his head. Silvery hair slid to cover one mischievous eye. “You should have the first one, Yuuri. My treat. An apology, for being so tardy.”

            “It’s okay,” Yuuri murmured against the cake. His heart thudded in his chest. Victor had been flirtatious before. When they danced, in a club where nobody knew them, or nobody knew Yuuri anyway. When they were alone, in one hotel room among hundreds. He could feel Mari’s stare on the side of his face, sense the hands pressed over mouths and the phones rising to take pictures throughout the café.

            Pictures of Victor Nikiforov feeding Katsuki Yuuri a piece of cake. Victor, who the skating community wanted back on the ice no matter what it did to him. Victor, who was not providing medical updates and so nobody knew that he was taking time off on doctor’s orders rather than goofing off. And Katsuki Yuuri, who had missed the GPF medal stand by the largest point differential in a decade. Yuuri, who would skate in front of a generous, supportive, very expectant crowd tomorrow. If he fell, if he failed…the press would be merciless to Victor. Reeling back, Yuuri plucked the cake out of Victor’s hand and set it back on the plate.

            “Thank you,” he muttered, blushing. “But I really should eat lightly today.”

            “So responsible. But no fun.” Victor sighed. A whine crept into his voice. “Do you think they have protein shakes and electrolyte water here?”

            “I’ll stick to tea.” Yuuri gratefully wrapped his hands around the cup Minako pushed toward him. He’d forgotten his gloves during practice this morning, and the walk over had been chilly as well.

            Minako launched into her assessment (no doubt fed by Loop) of the junior skaters, and of course Yukiko Mori who was going for her fourth consecutive gold at Nationals. Mari chimed in with her admiration, and Victor was effusive. About Yukiko-chan, and the food, and the tea, and Makkachin, and Saint Petersburg. He had a list of sights he wanted to see, stores he wanted to shop at, and restaurants he wanted to try for breakfast, lunch, dinner and lots of meals in between. Every so often, he bumped Yuuri when he gestured. Or he laughed and his leg slid alongside the bench seat. Yuuri pulled his limbs closer to his body, tension coiling around him as he snuck glances at the people around them. Their curiosity felt like a physical force.

            “I have to get to practice,” he said, standing abruptly. Minako made an offended sound.

            “You already had practice,” Victor protested. “I was sorry to miss it.”

            “I...that was public practice. For show, for the cameras. I need to actually practice.”

            “But it’s late. You shouldn’t push yourself before tomorrow.” Victor reached for him.

            Around them, the other patrons shifted, leaning to listen in, shifting to get a better angle to watch them. Yuuri stepped away from the table and bowed.

            “I’ll see you later.”

            “For dinner!” Victor called after him. “There are so many exciting restaurants!”

*

            Yuuri didn’t return for dinner. He confirmed with the officials that he could practice late, in a closed setting, after the pair skaters finished, and texted Mari so she could tell the others. He put in his earbuds and laced up his skates. He looked up, at the space where Celestino would have loomed over him, arms crossed, confident grin in place. His coach wasn’t there of course. There were scuff marks on the wall where something had bumped against it, or a piece of furniture had been moved. A few of the younger skaters were still around, grinning brilliantly, giddy with nervous energy. Two workmen were fixing a railing between the stands and the rink. Metal squealed and scraped as Yuuri took to the ice.

            The stands were empty and, bit by bit, the lights over them went off. Yuuri skated until he was warm. He practiced his step sequences and spins, for both his short and free skate programs. That’s where his points were, Celestino’s voice reminded him. He practiced his jumps, focused on his knee. He wobbled several landings. Not good enough. His earbuds died. Once, his blade went out from under him so badly that he almost smacked his head on the ice when he fell. He pushed back up.

            He went through his jumps again, from sharp entrance through upright landing. He sweated. The pleasant hum of his muscles gave way to constant burn. It still wasn’t good enough. He skated figures, waiting for a second wind.

            “Yuuri!”

            Disoriented, Yuuri looked up. The arena was dark except for two big lights over the ice. Victor stood at the side of the boards, where Celestino normally waited, in his camel trenchcoat and dark scarf. What was he… Guilt poked at the underside of Yuuri’s ribs. Victor had come all this way to spend time with him. He raised a gloved hand, waving Yuuri over.

            Yuuri glided to the boards and looked up at him, somber, expectant.

            “That seems good for tonight,” Victor said briskly, twisting his gloves between his hands. “Practice is early tomorrow. Do you want to get your things?”

            Yuuri’s bag leaned against the far wall. Everyone else was gone. It wasn’t a good idea to wear himself out before a competition, no matter what his jittery body wanted. He needed to stretch and hydrate, to eat and to rest. He wanted to keep skating. Until he got everything perfect, or was too tired to go on. Whichever came first.

            But, for all the anticipation that had burned in him today while he waited for Victor, he had been avoiding him. Which wasn’t fair. Or nice. Or anything that Victor deserved.

            “Okay.”

            Victor stuck to his side as he wheeled his bag out through the door, then pressed a hand to his back to direct him toward a waiting car. The driver acknowledged them politely then turned away. The inside smelled of leather, and a little bit of food and sakè.

            “Did you come straight from the restaurant?” Yuuri asked, tracing a seam on the seat with his finger. His stomach cramped with hunger. He wanted to tell the driver to take him to a fast food place, but of course he shouldn’t do that. It would feel good for a minute, then make him feel awful tomorrow.

            “We had the most exquisite sashimi,” Victor raved. “And sakè. I have to tell you – and I say this as a Russian – Minako intimidates me. I’m not sure she recognizes a difference between sakè and water.”

            “She will. In the morning.”

            “I wish you’d been with us…” Victor went on, describing the shops they’d visited, the souvenirs he’d bought for his rinkmates, and the whiskey tasting menu they’d indulged in before dinner.

            Yuuri nodded, murmuring acknowledgements. But he couldn’t focus. He needed to work on the entrance to his second quad, tighten that up. And make sure he hit the flying sit at the right angle so he didn’t lose momentum correcting himself. His body twitched and bent reflexively, echoing the positions he’d need to focus on. Perfection. His Federation hoped for it. The people who wanted to see Victor skating, who were used to his stellar performances, would be satisfied by nothing less.

            He turned his head when Victor’s subject matter changed.

            “Your flying sit is okay,” Victor said, “but you need to lean your upper body back a few degrees farther to rise into the combination. If you want to maintain your speed. And if you want the element of surprise with your triple axel, the spread eagle must be more languid. Not in precision, in attitude. As if you’re only aware of the slice of that arc, and have no intention on doing anything afterwards. The next step could just be that, a step. A hop. Maybe you would glide to a stop. Nobody can tell, you are broadcasting nothing. Instead it is the entrance to your jump. It’s tricky, that attitude expressed in your body and your expression while building up that much force.”

            Yuuri held his gaze, but Victor didn’t go on.

            “What else?” Yuuri asked, hungry for more pointers, more critiques, more opportunities to make himself better.

            Victor frowned, studying him. “Why are you so nervous, Yuuri? This is the weakest set of competitors you’ve faced all year.”

            He shook his head, then sighed, his chin dropping. “Because of this season. Because of…everything. If I perform flawlessly, then maybe I can survive another-”

            “It doesn’t matter.”

            Yuuri flinched, hurt darting through him. “It’s my career, and I know that it hasn’t been a notable career, but this is my last chance-”

            “That is not what I’m saying. You matter, of course you do. But what has happened does not matter. Each of those things was beyond belief, but this is a fresh start. Those disasters have not followed you here. It only matters what you want to do tomorrow. This is the opportunity to show the world your program, finally. It is unusual to be given a chance to surprise everyone at the end of the season. It is a gift.”

            “I don’t care about showing them. I want to show you. And you’re here, and I’m still not…” Yuuri huffed out a breath.

            Victor unbuckled his seatbelt and slid across the seat. Yuuri turned.

            “Victor.”

            He touched his chin, raises Yuuri’s face until his eyes had to rise as well. Victor wasn’t smiling. His eyes were narrowed, mirroring Yuuri’s expression.

            “Then show me what you want to show me.” He leaned infinitesimally closer. “Show me your favorite version of your program. I want to see what you enjoy best.”

            “I don’t know if I can. It hasn't come together right.”

            “You can’t figure out what you like best? You have too many favorite elements, favorite options?”

            Yuuri shook his head at the teasing.

            “I’m here, Yuuri.” Victor’s fingers against his chin kept him from turning away and hiding his face. “I’m here for you. I think you know what you like. I think you have the exact picture, the exact feel of it in your mind.”

            The moves slid through his mind, crisp, light, exultant. The scent of Victor surrounded him, his bright cologne against the warmth of his skin. Yuuri took a breath and held it for a moment before releasing it.

            “There,” Victor said, the corners of his lips turning up, his eyes gleaming. “There it is. I can see it in your eyes. That, whatever is in your mind right now, that’s what I want to see.”

            Yuuri’s resolve hardened. He raised his head, separating himself from Victor’s fingers, and wrapped his own hand around the back of Victor’s neck, thrilling at the heat of him and the surprised jolt that went through the other man.

            “I’ll show you, Victor. Don’t take your eyes off me.”

Chapter Text

            “But when Lilia found out,” Victor said, waving to another shrieking fan while pushing away an intrusive flag from the walkway so that it didn’t bump Yuuri, “she was livid. I don’t even know why! She loves that jam as much as I do.”

            “Mhmm.”

            “She introduced me to it.” He slid his arm around Yuuri’s shoulders and steered him around a batch of junior skaters mugging for the camera in front of the logo. “Maybe she didn’t love finding it stuck all over her favorite leotards.”

            “Mhmm.”

            Yuuri nodded as Victor spoke. He hummed and murmured at regular intervals. The black collar of his jacket was zipped up and he’d raised his chin over it. His hair was combed back and Minako had added some very fetching contouring to his makeup. His body vibrated with contained energy and his eyes were intensely focused. Victor wished Yuuri would look at him, or smile at his funny story. But he also didn’t want to distract him. Yuuri had slept heavily after his late practice then awoken early. He’d prepared intently, with none of the charming, sleepy bumbling that usually characterized him in the morning.

            “Yuuri.”

            Yuuri walked another few steps before turning, like it had taken that long for the sound of his name to penetrate the private world he lived in today. And now all that focus was aimed at Victor, who smiled reflexively, then swallowed and plucked at his gloves.

            “What, Victor?”

            Victor gestured at the ropes marking the competitors’ area, and the official eyeing him with confusion, knowing who Victor was but also seeing that he didn’t have access to the area that was far more familiar to him than the spectators’ area.

            Yuuri frowned, and somehow even that was intense. He stepped to the side, out of the way of the other skaters transitioning from the waiting area, watching each of them sidelong. His focus wavered, uncertainty creeping in. Victor seized Yuuri’s hand over the velvet ropes. He squeezed, and smiled encouragingly.

            “You’ve worked so hard. You’ve got this. You’ll be great.”

            Yuuri nodded.

            “I’ll be right here, watching.”

            Yuuri nodded again.

            An official began announcing the men’s group. Anticipation filled Victor, like it did during every competition. He wanted to move, to burn off some of this excess energy. But this wasn’t his competition.

            Music began. The audience applauded. Yuuri’s hand squeezed his, and Victor looked down in time to see Yuuri’s pale, bare hand slide away from his gloved one.

            His heart caught in his throat for a moment as Yuuri disappeared into the assembly of skaters. Their coaches and trainers surrounded them, all of them except for Yuuri. Alone, again he was alone out there. He shouldn’t be alone. Victor’s hand fell against the rope. It was such a weak impediment. He could just step over it, stay with Yuuri, talk to him to keep him focused until it was his turn. He shifted his weight before turning away, raking a hand through his hair. Even Victor couldn’t be forgiven for crashing another skating federation’s nationals.

            He managed not to scowl, but his smile was forced enough that the fans who’d been watching him didn’t call his name or fling themselves in his path. He found his seat, mostly because Mari was lounging at the top of the stairs and gestured for him to follow her. They had good seats, in the front row, nearly in the middle of the rink. It felt miles away from the ice. He didn’t want to sit, not with the familiar air of competition running electric through him. He didn’t want to sit here while Yuuri was down there. Yuuri stood a little to the side of the other skaters, bouncing back and forth.

            “Nervous,” Minako said.

            Mari hummed agreement, sounding so much like Yuuri that Victor did a double-take at her. “He’s not even wearing his earbuds.”

            “He can’t wear them during warm-ups,” Victor said. “For the safety of the skaters.”

            “He always wears them before,” Mari murmured.

            “Or has Celestino in his ear.”

            Mari sniffed. “The music might be better.”

            Yuuri barely looked up as he was introduced for the six-minute warm up. His arms rose then he inclined his head, but it was clear he was focused elsewhere. He was thinking too much. He needed a little distraction, of the right kind, to find the right kind of focus. Focus, not fixation. Victor should write these things down to tell Yuuri later.

            He was slow to warm up, working one leg then the other as the others began jumping or spinning. But each time he looped past, he looked more present, all that energy distilling into that moment. He picked up speed. Victor forced himself to breathe evenly. Yuuri turned, stepped, and landed a quad salchow. He glided through a step sequence, light, fluid. Then just skated, his shoulders and arms moving a little, his hips loose. But he didn’t try another jump. Was he tired? Had he practiced too long yesterday, too late? Victor should have gone for him earlier. Mari and Minako said he always kept to himself before a competition, so Victor had tried to shop and sample, tried to make a good impression on Mari even though he had no idea what she thought of him.

            Yuuri left the rink in the middle of the pack. Coaches and staff moved around, obscuring him. When Victor caught sight of him again their eyes locked, Yuuri’s dark and utterly there. Just for a second. A thrill of anticipation went through Victor. Minako and Mari, who had been murmuring together, quieted abruptly, then Minako sighed as Yuuri disappeared down the hallway.

            Victor tried to focus, he really did. He respected his competitors, and while many of Japan’s top skaters had not yet debuted as seniors, he should be paying attention. He caught a few nice moves, a couple of fun, splashy programs, and one phenomenal music pairing. One of the kids moved a little bit like Tatsuki Machida, and might be exciting in a couple of years.

            Yuuri stepped onto the ice. He kicked off with speed, and Victor wasn’t the only one who leaned forward as he sped past. His head was up and he swung his arms, then turned and stepped into a triple flip, triple toe combination with virtually no set up. The audience burst with startled applause and Yuuri seemed to remember himself and rein it in. But as he circled again, his shoulders and arms floated loose over strong legs. Simple moves out of sequence, but his body and expression were already in the performance. Yuuri was impatient, all that intention and energy contained in his slim, graceful, powerful form drawing the audience to him. Yuuri wasn’t flashy. He didn’t schmooze or flirt. His charm rose from his talent as much as how reserved he was. When he did give himself over to the performance, to the audience, it was a rare and beguiling thing.

            The last skater’s scores were read. As the applause died down, Yuuri’s name was announced. He looked up, his eyes narrowed as he raised both arms to acknowledge the audience. To invite them into what he was about to do. They loved it. Minako covered her lips to hold in what looked like a scream. Mari slid to the edge of her seat.

            He slid to a stop at mid-ice, took a single deep breath, and positioned himself. His head tilted back, exposing a hint of pale throat over the notch of his black collar. His hands crossed over the center of his chest, fingers rigid. He closed his eyes.

            The first strokes of his music rose. His head lowered and swept to the left, his shoulders and arms following with the weightlessness of smoke. Only after he began to skate did he open his eyes, a man waking inside of a dream. He glided, light but sure, clever twists disguising his turns as he set up for his quad salchow. Victor held his breath at the launch but knew immediately that Yuuri would land it beautifully. Softly. Like he could have kept spinning forever and had only stopped because he’d decided to. As though gravity didn’t have a firm hold on him.

            “Beautiful,” Victor murmured.

            Yuuri crossed the ice in a dazzling series of steps. The lithe twists setting up his combination were effortless, natural. He’d barely touched down on the triple flip before he threw himself into a triple toe with the same height and speed. He landed solidly, legs at precise angles. The fabric of his costume rippled around the graceful rise of his arms. Victor was lost to the speed of Yuuri’s final step sequence, transfixed by his spins, delighted with the final quad. This, this is what Yuuri had been working for, what he had tried over and over to show to the world.

            Yuuri rose from his final spin. His arms extended as he shed momentum and came to a stop on the dying notes of the music. For an instant he was still, Victor was still, and the audience was still. And then they erupted, the audience with screams and cheers, Victor jumping out of his seat, sort of hugging Minako and kind of being punched (accidentally, he hoped) by Mari. Yuuri stood on the ice, flushed, blinking slowly as he looked around. A small smile winged across his lips. Not of triumph. Of contentedness.

            Victor’s chest clenched. He wanted to be down there. He wanted to be at the gate, waiting for Yuuri. No, that was too far away. He wanted to be on the ice with him, holding him. Now.

            It was nearly an hour before he got close enough to touch him.

            They waited at the end of a metal chute as the skaters began streaming out of the arena, along with a hundred other fans. Victor considered that. Yes, he was a fan of Katsuki Yuuri. That was accurate. But he was with Yuuri’s lifelong teacher and his sister. Did that almost make him family as well, not in a related sort of way, but in an intimate closeness kind of way? Would Yuuri want to hug Mari first, then Minako, then him? Or all three at once? Or was he intruding somehow on what should be a family affair? He had no idea. He’d navigated fans, of course, and recognized a few by sight, they’d been following him to competitions for so long. But it wasn’t as if he had to think about who he was hugging in what order after a competition.

            “I did great right?” Yuuri asked, beaming, his entire face alight and suddenly in front of them.

            Victor grabbed him and picked him up. He spun him around, wrapped in Yuuri’s responding arms and surprised laughter.

            “So great! A hundred and seven! You were phenomenal, so beautiful!” He set him down, overwhelmed by the sparkling eyes and unselfconscious smile. This was Yuuri being happy. For how often they had been together, talking or dancing or competing, he couldn’t remember seeing Yuuri like this. And Victor was happy in return, happy for him. He wanted to see him like this again. He wanted to make him like this.

            Minako pulled him away, wrapping him in her arms and flinging him around at the same time. Mari bumped a shoulder against him, grinning crookedly. She tilted her head and whispered something in his ear and Yuuri laughed, his cheeks turning red.

            Yuuri signed autographs and somehow managed not to accept anything the fans tried to hand him even as he shyly thanked them. They stayed up too late, everyone too excited to sleep until Mari finally pulled Minako out of their room. Yuuri was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. He murmured complaints as Victor, too excited to sleep, pulled him closer.

            Victor was happy seeing Yuuri happy. But he wasn’t happy being apart from him. It wasn’t as if he could have entered the Japanese Nationals, and it wasn’t as if he could return to skating this season. Even if he decided to postpone his surgery, which the intermittent pain said was not a good idea, he wasn’t sure he would be allowed. It was not acceptable that he couldn’t accompany Yuuri to the warm-up area, or sit with him at the kiss and cry. He could ask Yakov to pull some strings for him, or maybe someone at the Federation? They were irritated with him, but that was a momentary thing. They’d get over it.

            Victor laid his head beside Yuuri’s, breathing in the scent of his shampoo, pleased that he would get to see Yuuri the next morning after he slept on wet hair. Pleased that he would be the first thing he saw when he woke.

            The morning did not go according to plan.

*

            Victor woke groggily, face buried in the pillow, hand stretched out across an empty bed. Yuuri whispered urgently from around the hallway. Victor sat up. The sheets fell to his lap. The room was cool against his bare chest. He arranged his hair, and tried to open his eyes all the way. Apparently Yuuri woke early on performance days, while Victor usually tried to sleep until the last possible moment. Fixing a sleepy smile in place, he waited for Yuuri to return. Instead he heard the jangle of the chair lock, then the door slamming as Yuuri left the room.

            Scrambling out of bed, Victor began pulling on clothes. Was this a new aspect of Yuuri’s anxiety? Was he running away before his free skate? Did Victor need to brush his teeth before chasing him down? Yes, yes he did. That actually needed to happen before anything else. Just in case he needed to kiss Yuuri to calm him down.

            He’d just set his toothbrush down when Yuuri rushed back into the room and past the open bathroom door.

            “Victor!”

            “Here, Yuuri.”

            Yuuri spun. His eyes were bright and wide. “Victor!” He held a large envelope out.

            “Where did you run off to? What is this?”

            “It’s…I hope you will accept it.”

            Victor reached into the envelope. His fingers brushed a cool, slick surface.. Laminates. Access, to the event. Feelings moved through him too quickly to identify or name.

            “What does this say?” he asked, his throat tight. Something was crossed out and handwritten onto the pass.

            “It’s…” Yuuri opened his mouth, closed it, then shook his head. “It’s just so you can be rinkside. If you want.”

            Of course he wanted! But Yuuri had done so well with his short program, without Victor there (which seemed very unfair, but he had to acknowledge it). “Will I be a distraction?”

            “Maybe for the others.”

            “Ah, a competitive advantage then. That’s strategic thinking, Yuuri.” He laughed, but Yuuri looked sticken, staring at the laminate like he was going to snatch it back. Victor wrapped a hand around it, abruptly panicked. “I mean, of course that’s not what you’re thinking. And I won’t…I won’t be a distraction. I will keep out of the way. You’ll hardly know I’m there.”

            Which was a lie, sort of. He wouldn’t try, but he would be a distraction. After his announcement, showing up in a handwritten role here would cause a stir. If he were anyone else he might be able to blend in, get away with it. But he was himself, in the wake of his own actions. He’d already been tagged in twenty or thirty posts speculating at his presence in Japan. Yakov had sent him a screaming text demanding to know what he was doing there, which Victor was devotedly ignoring.

            Did he have something plain to wear? He had packed to impress, to attract, to keep Yuuri’s attention on him even though, of course, he was supposed to be in the background, supporting Yuuri. He’d miscalculated this entire trip. Chris would laugh at him if he called. He had told Victor to check in with Yuuri. Victor supposed he could wear his exercise clothes. Or go shopping for something else?

            Yuuri was turning away.

            “Or…what do you want me to do, Yuuri?”

            “I want you there with me, Victor.” His eyes were dark, his expression vehement. Victor’s breath caught a little. If Yuuri could maintain this state, this focus, through his free skate, he was going to be phenomenal. And that was Victor’s purpose now. To keep this going, to feed this fire.

            Victor grinned. He took Yuuri’s hand in his. “Very well. I will be with you.”

Chapter Text

          Yuuri scraped his palm trying to open his bottle of water. Across the room, Victor laughed, raising his hands as he gestured for the skaters, coaches and staff mobbing him to arrange themselves in an orderly fashion. Yuuri banged his shin against the end of a bench. He’d felt stiff at the start of the earlier practice and kept his warm-up jacket on and now he was too hot. His jacket zipper caught on the fabric of his costume and he tried to work it loose. He was going to tear the fabric. His costume would unravel. If part of his costume touched the ice, points would be deducted. His hands began to shake. If it tore during a jump the distraction would make him fall. It would be Paris all over again.

            Yuuri swallowed. His eyes shifted away, away from everyone turned like flowers toward Victor’s sun, away from that singsong voice Victor used when talking to the press. He turned his music up until his earbuds almost hurt and headed to the dead end of an L-shaped corridor. Yuuri cleared his throat which threatened to constrict with every beat of his too-fast pulse.

            He had to focus. He’d skated a good short program. He had a chance to make up for this season of failure. His program music played through once. Yuuri closed his eyes and started the piece over. He swayed, shoulders and arms moving with the memory of long hours of practice, as the piano notes entered and moved through him. Through him and back out again. Frustrated, he sank to the worn, gray carpet. Pulling his knees close to his chest, he tried to breathe and feel the song. Feel what it meant to move to it.

            All he felt was nerves, cold and jittery.

            Victor was here. Victor was here watching him and being watched by others and, not that anyone had asked him, but they knew he was here with Yuuri. Which meant that his failure would-

            Brown leather shoes stepped into Yuuri’s field of vision. Yuuri’s costume stretched uncomfortably across his back, dug creases into his thighs. Victor slid down the wall to sit beside him. Yuuri’s heart thudded. He was used to underperforming in his home country. He wasn’t used to doing it in front of Victor, who was being mobbed like he was Japan’s sweetheart, like Yukiko Mori was being mobbed. Yuuri’s fans tended to be a little more…lukewarm.

            Victor tapped Yuuri’s arm with something, and he turned to look. The laminates, the access badges he’d had to ask four officials to get for Victor. He pulled out one earbud.

            “One of the junior skaters told me what this says,” Victor murmured.

            “It’s an access badge, to get you rinkside.”

            “Not the printed part. The handwritten part.”

            “Oh.” Yuuri plucked at the fabric caught in his zipper.

            “I am emotional support, for the skater.” There was a smile in Victor’s voice. “Skaters usually get family members or sports psychologists designated as members of their team.”

            “It was all I could think of to get you back here.”

            “I feel like I am not doing a very good job.” Victor’s voice fell.

            “You are. Or…you don’t have to do anything. It was only a way to get you here. I mean, I want you here. But I don’t…there are no expectations.”

            “You’re hiding in the corner, a bundle of nerves, not warming up properly.”

            “It’s-“

            “People will think I’m not supportive.”

            “They won’t think badly of you. I’m always like this.”

            “I’ve never seen you like this, Yuuri.” It was almost a question.

            “I’m usually like this. Nobody here will blame you for…”  For Yuuri not skating well. Would they?

            Yuuri raised his head, his eyes narrow. Victor was smiling down at the access pass. While sitting on the hard, dusty floor. With his injury.

            “Up.” Yuuri said urgently, jumping to his feet and grabbing his arm.

            “Yuuri! So much manhandling!” Victor rose fluidly, leaning close as he reached his full height. “If you wanted to find a dark corner and put your hands on me, you only had to ask.”

            “I-I…that’s not. That’s not what I’m-”

            Victor reached up. He stroked his cheek, then let his hand slide down to the side of Yuuri’s neck. Yuuri’s pulse raced, to a different beat.

            An official came around the corner, absolutely unsurprised to find Yuuri there, though he blinked at Victor. Yuuri jumped away from him.

            “Three minutes until the warm-up, Katuski-san.”

            Face hot, Yuuri thanked him before trying to glare at Victor. Who grinned down at him, wholly unrepentant, though his hands were now clasped together in front of him.

            “That’s not funny, Victor.”

            “I am not trying to be funny. I am trying to be supportive, emotionally.”

            “Emotional support usually doesn’t include touching.”
            Victor tossed a hand dismissively. “Maybe it’s Russian thing.”

            “I don’t think it is. I think it’s a distracting thing.”

            “Some things you should be distracted from.” Victor reached down, his long, nimble fingers working the fabric loose from Yuuri’s jacket zipper. He slid the zipper down until the sides of Yuuri’s jacket parted, then ran it back up. Yuuri tipped his head back to keep him chin away from the metal teeth. Victor slid his fingers through Yuuri’s hair, fixing strands, settling them away from his face. It felt so intimate, the closest he’d ever felt to somebody. But familiar, too, not terrifying. Nice, even.

            This was Victor’s version of support, complete with teasing and flirting and that innate grace that wasn’t even an act.

            “I-I have to put my skates on.”

             Victor leaned close. His breath ghosted over Yuuri’s ear. “Of course. And you must hurry. I cannot wait to see you skate your program, Yuuri.”

*

            The six-minute warm-up passed in a blur. Yuuri waved to the crowd when his name was announced. He landed two jumps. He skated through the stiffness that had plagued him since he’d woken from a fitful night’s sleep.

            He jogged, his program piece on repeat while he waited for his turn. The younger skaters went, one by one, until he was the last in the warm-up area. Every time Yuuri looked up, Victor’s eyes were on him. The other skater nodded encouragingly, warmly. He lifted a brow almost impatiently when Yuuri checked the clock for the fourth time in a minute.

            “I will watch the clock for you, Yuuri. Focus on yourself.” Victor didn’t say anything else, and he didn’t speak to the other coaches or skaters anymore, his long finger pressed against his lips more often than not.

            Victor tapped his shoulder when it was time, then followed him into the tunnel to await his call. An official stood between them and the light and audience, his back broad inside a navy blue suit.

            Yuuri removed his jacket. Victor took it, hanging it neatly over his arm. He removed his glasses and folded them, and Victor carefully slid them into the pocket of his trenchcoat. It was strange, being here with him rather than Celestino, but also not strange. The music continued. Yuuri bounced on his skates, his arms lifting and opening, his head turning and core tightening as his body replayed his free skate once again. The arena shook with applause for the final skater before him. Yuuri removed his ear buds. He sucked in air, forced himself to hold his breath to the count of five, and released it through his teeth. His pulse pounded high and hard.

            Almost lunging, he turned to Victor, gripping his hands. Victor’s eyes widened, his pupils blown wide and dark in the dim light. With his skates on, Yuuri was nearly the same height. Urgently, Yuuri kissed him. Victor’s lips parted beneath his on a gasp and Yuuri would have smiled if he wasn’t overflowing with nerves.

            He was going to skate his program. He was going to skate it for himself, and he was going to skate it for Victor.

            All those other people wanted his time and attention, and Victor gave it to them with smiles, winks and that voice that wasn’t really him. He gave it to them because they demanded it and he was generous or used to it, or a little of both, but he wasn’t here for them. He was here for Yuuri.

            Yuuri strode to the side of the rink, blinking until his eyes got used to the glare, subliminally counting to keep his breathing even. He smoothed his costume and removed his skate guards, and Victor’s hand was there to receive them. Yuuri’s lips were pressed too tightly together to really smile, but he hoped that Victor could see his gratitude in his eyes. Victor smiled. His chin dipped down. He touched Yuuri’s arm with his free hand.

            “Show me, Yuuri.”

            Like he knew what Yuuri was thinking. Nodding, Yuuri pushed onto the ice. His blades hissed across the ice as he circled tightly, impatient. The crowd slid past him, a faceless blur. He raised his arms and head in acknowledgement of his name, and the sound of the crowd washed past him.

            There was a moment of silence, just him and the ice. Then the music began on the sound system. It resonated inside of him. His head and shoulders tilted, and his arms rose as he kicked off.

            He skated through each moment where his program had fallen apart before, through pain and exhaustion dragging him down, through his costume shredding around his body, through the music cutting out and abandoning him to desperate silence. He skated the movements that he’d added, the jumps he’d drilled with Matteo and Victor, the choreography that he and Minako had argued and sweated and laughed over.

            He skated through his disappointment and frustration, and focused on the position of his knee which secured every landing for him. He skated his desire and his passion, and a little bit of his fear. He skated his hope and his gratitude and his joy. He skated in time with every note, and the transitions were fluid. Like breathing in, like breathing out.

            He landed his quad lutz and rose out of it to riotous applause. The final notes of the piece continued in his head, inaudible over the audience, and Yuuri’s body hummed as he moved into his ending position. And stilled.

            The audience was screaming. He could feel the cheering in the bones of his chest. Sucking air, he lowered his head and blinked. His body and costume were intact.

            He had done it.

            Turning, he spotted Victor standing at the gate, radiant.

            Something joyous burst inside of Yuuri, the relief of success. He skated toward him. Victor opened his arms and Yuuri skated into them, tripping over the edge but Victor caught him and held him up. Picked him up, spun him around. His blue eyes sparkled.

            He sat with him in the kiss and cry. Yuuri stared at the screens showing his highlights. He frowned, noticing errors, places he could improve. Victor grabbed his hand, smiling at him.

            “It was a beautiful skate, Yuuri. That was a beautiful jump. Your combination…” He shook his head, his eyes full of the words that he couldn’t form, which was saying something for Victor.

            Yuuri’s skate was dedicated to Victor, and Victor’s eyes said that he knew it.

             Yuuri softened and smiled back.

            The audience erupted and they both startled, heads snapping toward the monitor. The numbers didn’t make sense, until the announcer read them off.

            “Katsuki Yuuri has broken 300 points. For the first time in his career, Katsuki Yuuri has broken 300 points with this massive free skate program!”

Chapter Text

            They had lunch together the next day in a quiet café, murmuring together. Victor talked about sightseeing. Notifications popped up on his phone relentlessly even though he wasn’t paying attention. It wasn’t like Victor to ignore his phone – if nothing else, he was always chatting with Chris or arguing mildly with an infuriated Yurio – but Yuuri wasn’t complaining.

            “You’ll have surgery on Thursday?” Yuuri asked.

            “Probably. Maybe Friday.”

            “You don’t know?”

            Victor smiled. “Why are you more nervous than me?”

            “I’m worried about you.”

            Victor’s smile softened into an unbearably sweet, unbearably attractive expression. He'd never seen this one on TV. “Yuuri. You don’t have to be. It’s fine. I’ve already done it once, I told you.”

            “I know. I just wish…” He wished he could be with Victor in Saint Petersburg. He could help, or cook for him, or run errands… Anything to be there, to be sure he was okay. They were both flying out today, Yuuri in a couple of hours and Victor in the evening. Flying apart, in different directions. They had flown away from each other from other cities throughout the season, but this felt different. It felt worse. A little flurry of panic fluttered in Yuuri's chest.

            “Your winter break from university is short, Yuuri. And you’re spending time with your family for the first time in years. What kind of monster would I be to ask you to miss that? What kind of monster would they take me for?”

            “They wouldn’t think badly of you.”

            “No? Your sister has already accused me of being ‘trivially materialistic’ and ‘flighty’.”

            “That doesn’t mean she doesn’t like you.”

            “What does she say about people she doesn’t like?”

            Yuuri grimaced. “I can’t say.”

            “Too obscene?”

            “Too…menacing. It’s not even what she says. It’s the tone she uses.”

            Victor laughed.

            A couple of fans who had been hovering nearby politely approached the table, congratulating him and asked for a photo, which Victor took for them with their phone. Then they asked for one with all four of them which the waitress took for them. After they’d gone, Yuuri shoved his glasses back on. He tried to remember to take them off for fan photos. Otherwise they complained about not recognizing him later on social media. They sat again. Victor reached out and plucked Yuuri’s glasses off his nose and over his ears.

            “Hey!”

            “A moment.” He cleaned the lenses on the tail of his shirt, then leaned across the table and slid them back on.

            “There.”

            “Thank you. Victor…”

            Yuuri stared through his freshly cleaned lenses at Victor until Victor reached forward and grabbed his hand.

            “I will miss you too, Yuuri.”

*

            Victor sat at the bar in the airport restaurant, chewing on a red drink straw and idly scrolling his phone. Or, scrolling through pictures of Yuuri on his phone. Yuuri covering his face that morning as Victor tried to take a selfie of them both, his hair mussed against the pillow. Yuuri last night after dinner and several drinks, his winter coat sliding off one slim shoulder as he tugged Victor forward to show him something down the dark street lined with delicious-smelling food stalls. Yuuri on the podium, smiling that rare, uninhibited smile that lit up his entire face. Yuuri with the women’s champion, Yukiko Mori, both of them holding up their gold medals for the cameras, Yuuri’s entire body deferential toward her despite being several inches taller and a gold medalist himself. Honestly! Someone needed to teach him to be more confident in himself.

            A familiar name came to him through the din of clinking dishware and overhead announcements out in the boarding area. Yuuri’s name, which he had heard over speakers and from fans all week. The highlights of his free skate were replaying on the TV over the bar. He arched back into his Biellmann, and Victor’s breath caught. He jumped his quad toe and Victor nearly came out of his seat, his entire body poised to follow the same trajectory. He was breathtaking, powerful, elegant. There was a tiny glitch during the transition of his combination spin. He was slightly off angle as he lined up for a quad toe. The camera cut to a sideline reporter and Victor twisted his straw across his napkin, spinning it between his fingers. If Celestino were a better coach, or if Yuuri believed in himself, he could be exceptional.

            Another name caught Victor’s attention, and this time he raised his head in confusion. It was his name. Spoken by a voice behind the camera that was focused on Yuuri, who sat on a high stool, looking tired. But as the reporter’s question came to an end, Yuuri’s head came up, his jaw tightening, his eyes darkening. Victor gaped, and then he scrambled.

            “What? Sorry.” He got the bartender’s attention. “What’s he saying? There, on the TV?”

            “That’s Katsuki Yuuri.”

            “I know. Yes, I know. Thank you. What is he saying?”

            Yuuri spoke emphatically, his words coming out crisply though not loudly. The bartender leaned back to gaze up at the screen, his face emotionless as he listened, nodding along every few words.

            “He is talking about a man named Victor. He is saying that this man – this Victor – is a lover.”

            Victor emitted an involuntary sound, his body the human equivalent of an exclamation point.

            “A lover of the sport. Katsuki-san is an ice skater, a figure skater. This Victor may also be an ice skater.”

            Oh. His self-punctuation vanished. “Ah, yes. I have heard of him.”

            “This Victor is in love with the sport. He takes care of fans. He takes care of ice skaters. He is…err…he gives his love. To all. He gives himself, to all. Katsuki-san admired him, this Victor. But from far away? He admired him from far away. But is not far away now. And he…he…”

            “He what?”

            “Now that he knows him, he loves him. Yuuri loves him, with all the love this Victor has given. And…I think he talks to the reporter now. The reporter must not disrespect him. He must not criticize him. But…if he does criticize him, that will not take from his reputation. This Victor’s reputation.” The TV cut to a commercial and the bartender turned back to Victor. “He must be very important to Katsuki-san. Katsuki-san does not get mad. That is not how he is.”

            “No. No, he is not.”

            “This Victor must be very important to him.”

            “I…do you think so?”

            The bartender nodded sagely. “Can I get you another drink?”

            “No. No, thank you. I need to catch a flight.”

*

            Victor stood at his gate, reading the screen for the fourth time. Boarding would begin in five minutes. He looked at the various airline logos at other gates. He looked at the departure schedule he’d pulled up on his phone, for a flight leaving early the next morning.

            Yuuri needed confidence. Yuuri needed that last small push that would make him believe he could be brilliant. It could come from anyone, from anywhere.

            This Victor was important to him. This Victor gave himself to everyone, to the sport and to fans. To his country and his Federation. To his coaches and teammates. And they all gave him something in return. Admiration, attention, competition, jealousy, expectation, inspiration, criticism, encouragement. Yuuri gave him something else. Victor set a smile and approached the gate agents. Yuuri was not going to get what he needed from someone else. He was going to get it from this Victor.

Chapter Text

Yuuri was out, picking up some thing or dropping some things off. His father and mother disagreed on what he was doing and Mari hadn’t seemed like it mattered. He was out and would be out for awhile. Which meant that, after changing his flight and booking another, after spending a nearly sleepless night at an airport hotel, alone but for the incessant buzz of his phone, Victor had to wait.

            He was not great at waiting.

            Luckily, Yuuri’s childhood home was also a charmingly quaint business, well-stocked with beer and sakè, and a delightful hot springs surrounded by manicured greenery and smooth, warm rocks. It was quite relaxing. Victor had not always been great at relaxing either, but it was difficult not to let his eyelids droop and to sink lower in the water. He smiled to himself. Once he was done, he’d shower and put on his gray suit. He’d fix his hair, currently fuzzy around his face from the heat and humidity, and greet Yuuri as he returned – likely flushed from the cold – and he would tell him… No, he would stand and extend his hand to him, like an offering, like an invitation. Yuuri would be surprised, maybe even startled. He would have to be very direct, to make sure Yuuri understood his invitation.

            A door slammed somewhere inside the otherwise placid establishment. Victor ignored it, working through a visualization like he did with all routines. If you wanted to win, you had to know what you were going to do. He would be dressed immaculately. He would stand, he would extend-

            Yuuri sprinted out of the dressing room and skidded to a stop on the wet rock. His winter coat was askew. His eyes were big as saucers. Okay, so not how Victor had planned this in head. But he had Yuuri’s undivided attention. He’d also had a few drinks. Inspired, Victor stood – water dripping down his entirely unclothed body – and offered his hand.

            “Yuuri, I’m here to be your coach.”

            He winked. Yuuri’s entire body jerked.

            “You’re here for me?”

            “Yes of course.”

            “For me?”

            As if there was anyone else in Hasetsu that Victor knew, other than Mari and Minako, and now Yuuri’s parents. And, this hot spring is nice. He would gladly come here for this. Victor tilted his head, grinning, waiting for the next part of his visualization exercise to happen, when Yuuri came to him and took his hand, when he smiled up at him.             “Yuuri.”

            Yuuri’s face closed down. It was an odd expression on Yuuri, who was always so expressive. He looked almost angry? Indifferent? Disappointed?

            He turned and headed for the door, then paused, not quite looking back at Victor as he said through gritted teeth, “Why don’t you get dressed, and we’ll talk.”

            “Of course.” A challenge. Victor enjoyed challenges. If the invitation to be coached by Victor Nikiforov wasn’t enough (clearly Yuuri didn’t grasp what was happening), he would make sure that Yuuri understood all that he was offering.  He waded, seductively he thought, through the waist-deep water. He wrapped a towel low on his hips and followed Yuuri into the changing room. A robe and slippers were laid out. Three other men were chatting jovially as they changed into or out of robes. Yuuri went to the far door, his back still to Victor. Missing all of the teasing seductiveness Victor was emitting.

            “I’ll wait for you outside.”

            What was that tone? This wasn’t going how Victor imagined. He rinsed off quickly, then spent a moment trying to fix his hair – now it was all flat – and arrange his robe, but it was sticking to the parts of him that he hadn’t dried well enough. He pulled the top of the robe apart to reveal a bit more of his pectoral muscles. There.

            Buoyed, he left the changing room. Yuuri stood several steps down the hallway. He’d removed his coat and wore a faded blue t-shirt. It looked like he’d run his hands through his hair. Maybe pulling at it. Out of…delight? He glanced at Victor out of the corner of his eye and his shoulders hunched slightly.

            “Follow me, please,” he said, and Victor had the sudden suspicion that Yuuri was going to lead him to the front door, see him through it, and close it behind him. Maybe this was too much to do without first discussing it. Maybe Yuuri only wanted him when they were both on the road, during the season. That was a thing. Victor knew that was a thing because he’d been part of that sort of thing in the past. He did not like that idea.

            “Yuuri?”

            “Just…come on, Victor.”

            Victor followed him down the hall and up the stairs, thinking carefully of what his next move should be. Failure was never part of his visualization exercises. Yuuri led him down another hallway and slid a door open. Stepping aside he gestured Victor through. At least they were still inside. Victor turned, ready to state his case, or apologize? What did Yuuri want?

            Yuuri closed the door and looked up at him, eyes deep and somber in the dim room.

            “Victor.”

            “Yuuri-”

            “You’re here.”

            And then he was being kissed. Yuuri’s arms were around his neck, his lean body was pressed against Victor’s, and he was kissing him back and trying to figure out how to keep them both upright.

            “Oh!” Yuuri pulled away, but his hand went to Victor’s hip and it was hot through the thin robe. “Are you alright? I didn’t even think.”

            “I’m fine.” Better. “The best. You looked so mad downstairs. I was afraid-”

            “Victor.” Yuuri sounded frustrated again, but his eyes sparkled as they found Victor’s. “I can’t kiss you in the onsen. What would the guests think?”

            “They would be so impressed by our passionate display that they would feel only admiration. Maybe envy as well.”

            “This was your plan?” Yuuri stepped close to him, very close. Victor was radiating heat from the water, and Yuuri’s body was reflecting it right back at him. “To surprise me and overwhelm me with passion?”

            His hand rose to Victor’s chest, parting the sides of the robe. His port wine eyes, rimmed by those thick black lashes, dipped. “Your skin turns rosy when you get hot, did you know that?”

            Yuuri touched him, and Victor was certain he was turning rosy all over the place, but he couldn’t check because he couldn’t take his eyes off of Yuuri, so serious and so focused. Yuuri, who raised his head, tipping his chin back so that – despite their height difference – he was peering down at Victor as he examined his expression. He frowned.

            “Or…am I wrong?”

            “I didn’t come here to seduce you. I didn’t intend to be wet when I saw you. Or naked. It was an accident? Your sister said you would be gone for awhile and your father suggested I try out the hot spring?” Victor almost bit his own tongue. Why was he saying this, rather than claiming this happy accident and seeing where it went? Stupid, Victor!

            “Ah.” Yuuri drew the syllable out.

            Then he tipped forward, nuzzling Victor’s neck. Victor gasped, clutching him like they were both about to fall even though Yuuri was firmly balanced. Yuuri huffed a laugh against his skin, all warm heat when he was already nearly feverish.

            “Then maybe I’ll get to seduce you?”

            Oh God. Victor’s eyes slid closed.

            “Katsudon!” The voice was low with warning, but wow was it also LOUD, even through the door.

            Victor jumped. Yuuri froze.

            “You did not forget that you are cooking tonight, right? Cooking Christmas dinner? For your beloved family? That you have not visited in years? Your selfish guest isn’t keeping you from that, right?”

            “It’s Mari,” Yuuri whispered, urgently.

            “It’s Christmas,” Victor whispered back, just as urgently. “I didn’t bring any presents!”

            “It’s only dinner. We only have a dinner.” Yuuri kissed him quickly. “Take your time getting ready, but I have to go. I’m sorry, I wish-”

            Wished they could shut the door on the rest of the world and, most importantly, terrifying Mari? Yes, Victor did too. However, he was not selfish.

            “No, of course. Go. It’s absolutely fine.”

            “I’ll be downstairs. Whenever you’re ready.” Uncertainty had replaced that sensual confidence in Yuuri’s expression. It was, perhaps, more familiar. But not more welcome.

            “Sure, of course. I just need to-” find some substantial pants “-fix my hair.”

            “Okay. I-I’m glad you’re here.” Yuuri leaned up and kissed him, then ran off down the long hallway.

            And Victor did NOT grab him and pull him back because he was not selfish. He was, in fact, quite magnanimous. Right? he asked the room. Twenty different photos of his face looked back at him.

            “Huh,” he said, hands going to his hips as he turned slowly to survey…himself. Lots of himself. It was like a bedroom made of Victors. He reached out to touch one of the pictures. It was from a exhibit in Switzerland. He’d loved that costume.

            “Maybe I got it wrong,” a voice intoned lowly from the doorway. Victor jumped and spun toward it. Mari pushed his wheeled white suitcase into the room, the clothes he’d removed in the locker room folded neatly atop it. “Not selfish. Self-centered.”

            “We.” Victor pressed a finger to his lips to collect himself. “I am not self-centered. It is not like I put all these posters on these walls. My bedroom is not covered with images of myself.”

            He had two pictures of himself in his room, which was a completely normal amount. He’d Googled it. And, oh God, this was Yuuri’s bedroom. Yuuri had slept in that small bed against the window. He’d sat at that small desk in that chair. He’d read these books and manga. He’d used that startlingly complicated calculator for…calculations. He’d dumped that pile of laundry on the floor. And he’d surrounded himself with two dozen pictures of Victor. Victor’s chest tightened.

            Mari pulled a pack of cigarettes out and bumped it against the heel of her hand.

            “You said you’re here to help him, to coach him. I’ll take you at your word.”

            “Thank you.” Victor pressed a hand to his chest. He was, after all, definitely magnanimous and NOT selfish.

            “But if you hurt him. Or if you make him feel worse. Or get his hopes up then leave him to deal with the pieces…you will regret it every single second of every single day, for the rest of your life.”

            Victor’s eyes went wide. If they could have, the two-dimensional eyes on the walls would have widened as well. Mari stuck the cigarette between her teeth. She looked him up and down, her eyes a lot like Yuuri’s, if Yuuri’s were dread-inducing and full of menace.

            “Dinner will be in an hour. But take your time fixing your hair.”

            Victor straightened. “What’s wrong with it?”

            Mari’s dark eyes roamed the top of his head. Then she shrugged. “Nothing, I guess.”

Chapter Text

Their little family dinner had gotten a little crowded and more than a little loud when Yuuko, Nishigori and the kids dropped by (alerted by Minako, who was fueled by wine). Eventually, Yuuri and Victor escaped the hail of questions and sly glances and went out to walk Vicchan. Vicchan’s little nails clicked along the pavement, accompanied by the click of Victor’s phone as he took a picture every few steps. Yuuri felt like he was floating, like he was living through the longest, most vivid dream of his life.

            He should have been crawling into bed. He’d woken early to bake with his mother, then delivered the baked goods to friends around town, making small talk and accepting their comments on his skating, trying to remember the names of old classmates and new children. He’d come home to the wonder of Victor there. In his home. Also naked and proposing things? Then he’d run away in a delirious haze to cook dinner. Now he was full of katsudon and cake, warm and cozy inside of his coat, while Victor made soft puppy dog eyes at Vicchan, actual puppy dog. It was all so wonderful and unexpected. It had to be a dream.

            “Yuuuuuri.” Click, click, click. “He’s soooooo small. If Makkachin had a puppy, or a baby brother! Oh, look at you, Vicchan. You’re doing so well!”

            Vicchan all but pranced under the attention, his floofy ears and tail bouncing around the little blue sweater he wore. Mari had offhandedly tossed it to Yuuri the first time he’d walked his dog after arriving home, but he was pretty sure she’d had it made for the miniature poodle. There were no itchy tags in it, and a white snowflake was knitted across the back.

            “It must be dreadful to have to be away from him for so long.” Victor’s shoulder bumped into Yuuri’s. He’d had a lot to drink, but he’d also bumped into Yuuri constantly throughout the night. Or brushed against him. Or leaned on him. Yuuri swallowed, rubbing the hand that wasn’t holding Vicchan’s leash against his pant leg. “I miss Makkachin so much. Her dogsitter bought her all kinds of Christmas treats, so I’m sure she isn’t missing me at all.”

            Victor’s tone was so despondent that Yuuri wrapped an arm around his. “I’m sure she misses you, Victor. How could she not?”

            “I’m sorry I didn’t bring Christmas presents,” Victor went on. “I kind of forgot. About Christmas. Being a thing?”

            Yuuri hunched. “I’m sorry I didn’t have a birthday present to give you.”

            Victor laughed. “You didn’t even know I was coming. How could you have?”

            They walked a little farther, stopping on the bridge over the river that turned into a trickle as it ran to the ocean. The smell of the beach, where the water met the land, was strong even in the cold. Victor unwrapped their arms and leaned against the metal railing, the occasional gust of wind rippling through his hair. Yuuri sank farther into his warm coat. The old winter boots he’d dug out of a closet were stiff and rubbed against the bruises on his feet. Another sensation ached inside his mind, a worry – which was familiar – about an unfamiliar subject.

            “You didn’t have to pretend,” he made himself say, “about coaching or whatever. You could have just said that you…th-that you wanted to see me.”

            “I did want to see you. But I’m not pretending.” Victor turned toward him. The streetlight brightened his blue eyes and heightened the flush on his cheeks.

            Yuuri pushed his glasses up his nose. “What?”

            Vicchan nosed at Yuuri’s leg, and it took him a moment to gather himself enough to reach down and pick him up.

            “Work with me, Yuuri.” Victor reached out to pet Vicchan. He leaned lower on the railing, his voice going soft and a little nasally. “I want to see you skate every day. I want to win gold win you.”

            Just like that, like it was that easy. And maybe it was. Yuuri was better. He was better with Victor, because of Victor. But a gold medal at Nationals wasn’t the same as a gold medal against a full competition.

            “I don’t…”

            “I do.” Victor squeezed his hand.  “I do think you can. I know you can. I want to see it.” He draped his arms around Yuuri’s shoulders, hanging heavily though he was careful not to squish Vicchan between them. “Work with me, Yuuri.”

            “Victor…”

            “This is the opportunity of a lifetime. You will be my most important student!”

            “You don’t have other students.”

            “You will be my best student. But also my worst, I suppose? We’ll have to work on that, but don’t worry. I have plans.”

            It would be so easy to say yes, to get wrapped up in Victor’s fantasy. But it was just that, wasn’t it? Victor was out of sorts. The Russian Nationals were tomorrow, and normally Victor would be preparing to skate, preparing to win. But he was at loose ends with his injury, all that energy needing to be directed somewhere and, for whatever reason, Yuuri was the target. Which he was grateful for. Which he…loved. But this wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real.

            “Victor, I can’t.” Yuuri backed up, Vicchan trying to burrow into his scarf as the wind washed over him. Yuuri focused on him. If he looked at Victor, he’d be swept up and give in. Besides, there were real reasons this couldn’t happen. “I couldn’t. I couldn’t…your career is too important. Your next program, next season. The upcoming Olympics-”

            “Just until Worlds,” Victor rushed out. Yuuri wavered, raising his eyes. “I can’t skate competitively until next season anyway.”

            “Your hip…”

            “The surgery is simply postponed. So we’ll have Four Continents, then Worlds. We’ll make the announcement immediately. Do you have any other competitions scheduled? You shouldn’t, probably. You have the stamina for it, but it’s already a crowded schedule. Oh, I’ve got an idea for-”

            “But not postponed until after Worlds.”

            Victor hesitated. Yuuri scanned his expression, and a new emotion resolved inside of him.

            “Victor, I can’t be the thing that keeps you from returning to skating. I won’t be.”

            “You are not.” Victor waved his objection away, an artificially sweet smile on his face. Yuuri had come to recognize it as an expression of distaste or disapproval. “I’ll get it done.”

            “Before Four Continents.”

            Victor stared out the water. He huffed out a laugh. “Yuuri, you’re so demanding. Your championship is very soon. We need to be together, day and night, to fix your routine. It is important. Don’t think that just because you took gold at Nationals you don’t need to work.”

            Okay, that stung, but at least Victor was making sense now. It was an honest assessment. If Victor was still proposing this, while thinking straight, Yuuri couldn’t say no. But he also couldn’t give in. Victor would bowl him over and keep right on going.

            Yuuri straightened. “Before Four Continents.”

            “Fine, fine. It’s in Seoul this year, right? It will be fine.”

            “And we won’t announce you are coaching until Worlds.”

            “Yuuri-”

            “Because you need to focus on your recovery first and foremost. If you’re stable enough to make it to Seoul, that will be…beyond wonderful. But I don’t want you rushing and hurting yourself worse.” Yuuri could feel the intensity of his expression and the rising volume of his voice, could see it in Victor’s surprise. “And because, if we’re going to do this, we’re going to announce it on the biggest stage in the figure skating world. Well, the biggest stage outside of the Olympics.”

            Victor’s eyes went soft and round. “So much drama. So much passion. Yuuri, I love it! Now, let’s go home!”

            “Are you cold?”

            “No, but I want to lie in bed with you while you explain what you love best about all those posters of me in your bedroom.”

            Victor beamed. Yuuri’s steps ground to a halt. He had FORGOTTEN. And Victor had SEEN.

            Victor leaned close, his breath hot against Yuuri’s ear. “Each. And. Every. One. It might take hours.”

            Yuuri swallowed. That was fine. Because this was just a dream.

            …or a nightmare.

Chapter Text

            “I don’t love you any less,” Victor said, turning carefully to face his partner across the expanse of his bed. Between them, on his laptop, Yuuri was frozen, his head lifting as he rose out of a spin, his arms rising like – if Victor let the video run – he would take flight. Victor was supposed to be noting places for improvements. He’d watched this transition four times in a row. “I just…Yuuri is new. Everything about him is new. He knows so much about me and I am trying to learn as much as I can about him, and every single thing I learn… It makes me… I am not sure how to describe it. He takes my breath away, every day. I have never felt anything like it. And maybe you and I won’t be together as much…”

            Victor faced the screen, but his gaze was somewhere else, in the past and the future simultaneously.

            “That’s not true. I will be with you more.” Saying it aloud startled him even though he knew it to be true. “I will be with you more. And this does not have to do with Yuuri. I don’t want to be parted from you anymore. But I don’t want to be away from him either. You understand, don’t you?”

            He turned his head to gauge his companion’s reaction.

            Makkachin raised her paw then slapped it down on his notebook, again.

            “I need to finish my notes, Makka.”

            She rolled onto her back, ears flopping back, paws dangling adorably.

            “You are very distracting. Yuuri will wake up soon. I want my notes to be waiting for him. I can’t be there with him, which is awful.” He gestured toward his hated crutches, leaned against the wall beside the bed. “All I can do is send pointers and encouragement.”

            Makka sneezed.

            “Are you even listening to me?”

            The poodle rolled over and sprang to the floor. Her nails clicked across the hardwood, then she boofed softly as a key jangled in the lock.

            “Oy, Victor! Damn it, dog!”

            Victor was certain he had never given Yuri Plisetsky a key to his apartment, and yet Yuri had one. He did not come over very often but, when he did, he never called first. He just walked in. Or stomped in, like he was doing now.

            Yuri’s blond head poked around the corner of Victor’s bedroom door. His expression was customarily sour, but his hand was light on Makkachin’s head.

            “You dead or what?”

            “I’m not dead. Why are you here?”

            “I need my earbuds. Oy, dog!”

            Makka jumped up, pushing him with her paws.

            “Will you take her out for a quick walk? It’s been awhile.”

            “I’m not your butler, old man!”

            “Please?”

            “Fine, but only if you put a shirt on. Have some dignity!”

            “I am always dignified.” Victor waited until Yuri had snapped on Makka’s leash and the door had closed behind them. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and pushed himself up. The surgery had been relatively minor. Arthroscopic, requiring minimal debriding, which was apparently a good thing. His doctors had talked about his phenomenal physique and reminded him of how quickly he had recovered last time. He might not even need a hip replacement in the future.

            He pulled a comfortable Henley on, hid his wince when he positioned the crutches – no amount of maneuvering made them comfortable to use – and took himself into the kitchen to start some tea.

            The door opened a second time to a jangle of keys, a kick, a grunt, and Makka bouncing delightedly across the floor, tracking mud and dragging her leash. Yuri dropped a large cardboard box on the kitchen island, tipping over a precarious stack of boxes, padded envelopes and letters.

            “What’s this?” Victor asked, glancing at the various bags and containers. It smelled delicious.

            “Lilia sent it. Food for an invalid who doesn’t know how to cook, she said. You’re welcome for carrying it all the way up here while managing your furry maniac. Why is your lift broken?”

            Victor shrugged. “It happens.” It had been plaguing him since he’d returned from the hospital. The doorman had stopped answering calls from his apartment after Victor asked him to take Makka two or three or seven times. “Why didn’t you bring it up when you first got here?”

            “It would have been a waste of effort if you’d been dead. Or gone again,” he said with a sniff. He started rooting through the pockets of Victor’s jackets, hanging on the rack.

            “What is it you’re looking for again, Yurio?”

            “My earbuds.”

            “Which earbuds?”

            “The black and white leopard print Bluetooth earbuds you admired so much, Victor.”

            He had no memory of such a thing. “Have you checked your backpack?”

            “Have you checked whether you’re an idiot?”

            “Or that pigsty you call a room?

            “Like yours wouldn’t be the same if you didn’t have a housekeeper.”

            “Hmm.”

            A fine layer of dust coated the apartment. It had been there when he had returned from Japan. It would remain for awhile as he had cancelled his housekeeper until he was recovered. It wouldn’t do for someone to see him like this. Someone who hadn’t snuck a copy of his key, that was.

            Victor made tea and settled gingerly onto a stool, to the soundtrack of Yuri’s angry scavenging. With Lilia’s food arranged around him, Yuri’s occasional shouted question, and Makka’s face on his knee so he could pet her without leaning, the apartment almost felt like a home.

            Victor smiled. Not a home like Hasetsu had felt. The Katsuki family had buzzed delightfully around each other, a hive of warmth and noise. Their few guests, who almost never seemed to leave, had been treated like extended family. Toshiya, Yuuri’s father, told stories and jokes, and occasionally broke out in song. Yuuri’s mother Hiroko smiled and chatted, refilling glasses and disappearing into the kitchen for an hour at a time, only to emerge with a new, delicious meal. Victor couldn’t believe how well she cooked, the pictures of pudgy young Yuuri around family space testament to her skill. Mari sauntered about, moving slowly but never quite resting as she tended to the changing rooms and hot springs, worked the cash register and phone, and oversaw deliveries and pick-ups. Toshiya and Hiroko checked on Victor constantly. Did he need something to drink? Surely he must try another dish. Had he heard the latest gossip? And even though he did not actually know the people of Hasetsu, hearing about their small trials and triumphs was not an imposition. He did not have to put on a face to listen, or prepare a response for his audience. The Katsukis told him in order to share a moment of laughter or commiseration with him. And everywhere, pestered by Mari to help with the men’s changing room, or helping Hiroko in the kitchen, or worrying over his notes and skating footage at the small desk in his bedroom, was Yuuri. With Victor. At home.

            “What are you doing?” Yuri asked warily.

            Victor blinked. He held his mug below his mouth. He’d been holding it there for a few minutes as he reminisced. He set it down and pushed a second mug across the counter.

            “Have some tea.”

            Yuri reached for it, hesitating before picking it up. He inhaled the aroma, his green eyes half-lidding, then set it back on the counter.

            “Already hit your caffeine quota for the day?” Victor asked.

            “Caffeine quote. Calorie quota. Reps. Rest days.” Yuri’s scowl was fierce as he cut himself off. “Not that any of this matters to you anymore.”

            Victor shrugged. “To be honest, I did not pay much attention to it when I should have.”

            “Because you didn’t have to? Because you won even when you didn’t show up for practice, when you didn’t watch your diet, when you ignored your trainers? Guess what, Victor? I don’t want to hear about it. Did you throw them away?”

            “Throw what away?”

            Yuri’s slender jaw clenched and he ground out through closed teeth, “My earbuds.”

            Victor spread his hands. “I honestly don’t think they are here.”

            “You took them from me on the plane flying to Helsinki. You’d forgotten yours. Did you lose them, leave them in Japan maybe?” Yuri was looking everywhere but at him, his teeth grinding.

            “Ah.” Victor levered himself up and maneuvered his crutches around Makkachin. Yuri stared at them like they were venomous snakes. Or reminders of the hazards of skating, the single second it could take to sideline an athlete. Ah well, he was young. If he got hurt, he had years to continue skating.

            Victor made his way to the bathroom and unzipped the small side pocket of his shaving kit. The earbuds rolled out into his hand. Carefully, he gripped them around the handle of the crutch and made his way back to the kitchen.

            “Here.” He held them out across the island. “I put them in my shaving kit to make sure I didn’t lose them, so I could return them to you. But then I forgot. Sorry.”

            Yuri reached for them, and reflexively Victor closed his hand again.

            “Damn it, Victor.”

            “I’m sorry I didn’t give them back to you in Helsinki. I’m sorry, too, for what I left you with there. When I made my announcement. It must have been very confusing, or upsetting…”

            “Or bullshit.” Yuri snatched the buds, practically scraping them out of Victor’s palm. “It was selfish of you but that’s nothing new. It was wrong. You aren’t supposed to bow out gracefully. And you aren’t supposed to throw a fit over your boyfriend and storm off. You’re supposed to skate against me and lose.”

            Victor blinked. He’d thought Yuri would be upset that he’d had to deal with the expectations of the Federation, or with the press.

            “You’re not mad that-”

            “Oh no, I’m mad about all of it, Victor.” Color lit high on his cheekbones. “ALL of it. You dropped your mic and left all of us to pick up the pieces. You skipped Russian Nationals, where you should have at least made heroic, injured appearance to pretend to support your rinkmates, but you didn’t. Instead you had the fucking balls to show up at Japanese Nationals? Which is RIDICULOUS, you know. Katsuki can’t handle you or your over-the-top bullshit, the press following you around. It’ll crush him. You burned your bridge behind you, and you’re going to ruin him, too. Or maybe you won’t even wait for that. He’s, what? A distraction while you’re hurt? Has to be, right? Katsuki’s not shiny enough for the great Victor Nikiforov.”

            “Yura.”

            “Save it, Victor. Save your stupid smile and your fake sympathy. Save pretending you’re older or wiser. You don’t know anything. You’ve never followed the rules, but this time I’m making a rule for you. You don’t get to bow out without facing me for real. You’re going to return to skating, and I’m going to beat you.”

            “I’m sorry.”

            Yuri glared.

            “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you when I got hurt. I’m sorry I didn’t stay to handle the Federation and…all of them. I’m sorry I did not come back to watch you skate in Nationals. You skated beautifully, powerfully.”

            Yuri rolled his eyes.

            “Don’t pretend you watched.”

            “Yuuri streamed it. He said he always watches Russian Nationals.”

            He scoffed. “Sure, when you’re skating.”

            “He had recordings of you from your final year in juniors. In Nagano. You wore that powder blue suit. He said every kid in Japan had the same bowl haircut when they were little. We watched it while we waited for the livestream to buffer.”

            “Don’t pretend-”

            “You didn’t sleep well the night before your short. You were too stiff on your axel and over-rotated your triple flip. But you corrected. Your spins were flawless, despite how tired you were. The judges scored you too high in your free skate.”

            Yuri stared at him.

            “You skated beautifully, powerfully.” Victor raised his hands again. He offered a tired smile. “I am sorry I did not return your earbuds. I am sorry I left but I felt like the pressure and distractions would be less if I wasn’t around you, drawing attention.”

            Yuri was silent for a moment then he said, his voice low and rough, “Okay.”

            “If you want to beat me, you will have to increase the difficulty of your programs.”

            “I don’t take suggestions from men who cannot walk on their own.” The words were harsh but the anger had subsided. It was a start.

            “Do you want to stay for dinner? I cannot possibly eat all this food you so helpfully carried up.”

            “Fine.” Yuri busied himself with straightening the packages that had slid along the island. “What is all this? Did you do a bunch of online shopping while on pain meds?”

            “Stuff from sponsors, I guess.” Victor maneuvered around the kitchen, gathering spoons and bowls.

            “You have Japanese sponsors now?” Yuri huffed.

            “What?”

            “Or wait.” Yuri was squinting at the package. “Why would Katsudon mail something to you? Weren’t you with him?”

            Victor threw his crutches to the side. “Give me that box!”