They went out as a group after the competition and took over one of the private rooms at a local restaurant. The smell of spices in the air and the heat from the kitchen stoves had them all shedding their coats, scarves, and gloves. They sat down together to laugh and relive the excitement of the night.
Lost somewhere in the middle, Yuuri was quiet as he watched them all.
Victor had made him wear his medal, and whenever Yuuri tried to take it off or hide it, Victor only pulled it out again (with great ceremony) and readjusted it until it was prominently displayed on his chest.
“My Yuuri will be having champagne,” Victor called to the waiter. “He’s celebrating tonight.”
At the far end of the table, Guang-Hong and Leo appeared deep in conversation while their coaches tried to make small talk without the benefit of a translator. Yakov was missing, but they’d convinced Georgi to come along. Christophe had his arm around him and was telling him in no uncertain terms that he was pathetic and needed to get over the girl already. Georgi wept openly into his napkin while Phichit snapped a few covert pictures with his phone.
The set of Yuuri’s mouth softened into a private smile as Victor squeezed his knee beneath the table. His hands were bare, free from the gloves he so often wore when they were together on the rink, and the heat of his palm burned straight through the denim of Yuuri’s jeans. He slipped his own hand beneath the table and found Victor’s. Hidden from sight, their fingers began to flirt and play. A secret conversation all their own that needed no words.
Yuuri was aware that at some point—a moment in time he couldn’t quite place—Victor had become his boyfriend.
There wasn’t a single instant when it happened. It was a slow awareness, as if Victor had silently been asking the question for months now, and Yuuri had been giving him the answer a little more with each passing day.
Even though they had never sat down and put an official label on their relationship, such things felt unnecessary when every meeting of their eyes was a confirmation of all they’d come to mean to each other. The nature of their relationship was simply understood, not just by them but by everyone else as well.
Yuuri shook his head in warning at Phichit, who was grinning like an idiot as he took a picture of his new favorite couple. Soon Yuuri was fighting a grin of his own, even as he begged his friend to stop.
After half a glass of champagne, exhaustion hit Yuuri hard. Not only was it the lack of sleep, but tonight’s performance and everything that preceded it had drained him, both physically and emotionally. He soon found himself nodding off. When Victor noticed, he slipped an arm around Yuuri’s shoulders.
Yuuri was too tired to feel self-conscious as he snuggled up to Victor. He dozed in and out of sleep, partially aware of the noisy restaurant but lulled by Victor’s warmth and the protective weight of his arm around him. He smelled like champagne and fresh winter ice.
Somewhere in the back of Yuuri’s sleep-addled mind, he heard Christophe say, “Victor, that’s what you get for keeping the poor boy awake all night, every night.”
(Which was an insinuation Yuuri didn’t understand until hours later when he was brushing his teeth in the hotel bathroom. Once he figured it out, he gasped with such dismay that he nearly swallowed his toothbrush.)
Victor only chuckled and called back across the table, “Just wait until you see my Yuuri skate when he’s had a proper night of sleep.”
All in all, it was a wonderful night, full of good-natured rivalry, laughter, and friendship. Their conversation carried on long into the night until one by one, people began to rise from the table and bid the group goodnight and good luck at the next competition.
At the feel of Victor’s lips brushing along his hairline, Yuuri stirred and opened his eyes.
“The restaurant is closing.” Victor held Yuuri’s glasses out. “Let’s get you back to the hotel.”
Yuuri nodded and took his glasses, wondering all the while when they’d been removed from his face. He thought he’d fallen asleep wearing them. His legs and body felt stiff as he rose from the table, and Victor watched with patient fondness as Yuuri struggled to get his head and arms through the correct holes in his windbreaker.
“Here, let me help you with that,” Victor said—then proceeded to ignore the fact that Yuuri’s arm was stuck in the sleeve. Victor just pulled the silver medal out from beneath Yuuri’s windbreaker so that it was again proudly displayed for everyone to see. “Perfect!”
While the remainder of the group gathered to say goodbye outside the front doors of the restaurant, Yuuri briefly excused himself to visit the wash room before they left. He splashed cold water onto his face in the hopes that it would help him stay awake for the walk back to the hotel.
He straightened and squinted at his reflection in the mirror, but even after he put his glasses on, he couldn’t decide if he looked different or not. He certainly felt changed.
He’d been kissed for the first time tonight. He had a boyfriend. Who was Victor Nikiforov, of all people.
The thought brought a soft (and frankly, amazed) smile to his face. He shut off the water and reached for a towel to dry his hands.
The smile, however, soon faded when he spotted the silver medal resting on his chest. Grumbling, he stuffed it back into the front of his windbreaker and joined the others outside the restaurant. The night manager locked the doors behind him.
Outside, the air was bitterly cold with little flakes of ice that melted when they landed on his cheeks. Hazy halos of light encircled the street lamps in the distance, and fog blurred everything beyond that. The temperature was dropping rapidly.
Phichit was waiting for him, standing a few paces away from where Victor and Celestino were having a conversation. Yuuri’s breath froze in the air before him as he hurried over to his friend.
“They’re talking about you,” Phichit said, nodding his head in the direction of their coaches. “Victor asked him for advice.”
Yuuri zipped up his windbreaker as high as it would go and lamented its failure to adequately hide his embarrassment from the world. He still felt bad about leaving Celestino’s mentorship, even though it had been the right thing to do. He had been a good coach and had always believed Yuuri was capable of more than he delivered. Celestino had been one of the more vocal supporters for Yuuri after tonight’s performance, proud of him even though he was the coach of another competitor. That had meant a lot.
But what was Celestino saying to Victor now? Uncomfortable that people were talking about him, Yuuri stuffed his hands into his pockets and kicked at the ground with the toe of his sneaker.
“How is Victor doing as a coach?” Phichit asked, keeping his voice low so no one else would hear. “We all know he’s a great skater, but things seemed tense for you today.”
“You’ve seen me like that before,” Yuuri said.
“I don’t know. It was different this time. I’ve seen you nervous, but when you got on the ice, you seemed more . . . centered. Your free skate really was amazing, Yuuri.”
Yuuri flushed. He never knew what to do with compliments, so he just said, “I’ll be sure to watch yours online soon, but I heard the cheering all the way down in the parking garage. You literally shook China.”
Phichit grinned and said, “Let’s both practice hard so we can win this thing together, okay?”
As they shook on it, Victor and Celestino both laughed and grasped hands as well. Not long after, the two pairs wished each other safe travels and parted ways. Victor hooked an arm around Yuuri’s neck and tugged him close for the walk back to the hotel.
“Are you cold?” Victor said. His gloved hand slid up and down the length of Yuuri’s arm. “We need to get you a warmer coat before Russia.”
“I’m . . . .” Yuuri trailed off and swallowed. “No. I’m not cold.”
Because really. What sane person could concentrate on being cold when Victor Nikiforov was touching them?
“Mmm, that’s too bad,” Victor all but purred in his ear. “Russians know many creative ways of keeping the body warm.”
His breath smelled not unpleasantly of alcohol, but miraculously, he wasn’t drunk. Only relaxed and devoid of inhibitions, which was nothing out of the ordinary. All the same, Yuuri felt dazed by Victor’s forwardness. He had always been a shameless flirt, but his words now carried weight. Once, Yuuri might have thought he was only teasing or trying to get a reaction out of him. Now he could only assume Victor might be serious.
“W-What did Celestino say to you?” Yuuri stammered. “Phichit-kun said you asked him for advice.”
Victor sighed and tilted his face up toward the sky, as if he liked the feel of the frigid breeze on his face. “I don’t mean this in a bad way, Yuuri, but sometimes I don’t know what to do with you. As your coach, I mean. And that’s my failing; not yours. I don’t ever want my inexperience to affect you or your skating. So yes, I asked Celestino for advice, but he only told me what I already knew. That you have the talent to change the sport of skating forever. It’s getting you to believe it that’s the problem.”
They walked half a block in silence while Yuuri pondered what Victor had said. It wasn’t anything groundbreaking. Celestino and Victor had both said similar things to Yuuri before, even though the words almost always fell on deaf ears.
But what stood out to him the most was that Victor was finally getting it. How many times had Yuuri tried to explain his mental struggles, only to have Victor wave his concerns away as if it was an easy problem to overcome?
Tonight, he had seen for himself it wasn’t that simple. It was one thing to know Yuuri had problems with anxiety and another to witness it attack him firsthand. Seeing Yuuri like that had wiped the smile right off Victor’s ever-smiling face, sobered him up, and brought out a protective side of him that was entirely unexpected.
“I’m sorry about earlier,” Yuuri said. “For yelling at you and making everything so stressful. I don’t know why I get so nervous. I wish I could control it when it happens.”
Victor’s arm tightened around him. “Did it happen like that at the Grand Prix Final last year?”
“Do you know what triggers it? You were fine yesterday.”
“Well, last year, you triggered it. Well. You and Vicchan.”
“I’ve always looked up to you, and I was about to skate on the same ice as you for the first time. I didn’t want you to see me fail, and that’s exactly what happened. It’s like I have the power to bring my worst fears to life.”
Victor stopped dead in his tracks and turned Yuuri around to face him. Gentle but firm hands gripped his upper arms. “Look at me. You did not fail. Do you think your friends failed tonight? Guang-Hong or Leo? Their scores were almost the same as yours last year.”
Yuuri’s face burned. Of course he didn’t think that.
“Do you have any idea how talented you are?” Victor continued. “I watched you skate last year. I remembered you because of the way you moved your body with the music. You were nervous, but not even that could fully distract from your charm. You even made Yurio anxious. I wanted to take a picture with you and talk with you afterward because you sparked something in me I haven’t felt in a long time. You might call it a failure, but that’s not what I saw at all. Now look at the difference in you tonight. By my count, you missed just as many jumps as last year, but you were happy with your performance tonight. That is the difference between a failure and a win. It has nothing to do with your score.”
As Victor spoke, Yuuri found himself getting emotional again. He was not yet entirely healed after the nightmare of last year and dropped his gaze before tears could fill his eyes. He was exhausted, and Victor’s words were difficult to hear, even though every syllable was very much needed.
Gloved hands squeezed his arms. “What is it, my Yuuri?”
Yuuri shivered and closed his eyes when Victor called him his. “You’re the best coach I’ve ever had.”
He meant it. He’d had wiser ones, sure, but never anyone who loved and believed in him this much.
Victor drew in a slow breath, and when he released it, it became apparent he’d been holding himself tense. Then he smiled, and the sight of it warmed Yuuri up from within. “I’m trying,” Victor said. “No matter what, I promise I will always stand by you.” He said the words almost reverently, like they meant something more to him than what was just on the surface.
Their foreheads came together, and they lingered there for a long moment, simply enjoying the peace after such a stressful night. Victor’s scent and proximity washed over Yuuri’s weary mind and soothed away any remaining tension.
It wasn’t long before something else took its place, right around the time Victor placed a single hand on Yuuri’s hip.
He felt warm and strangely unsolidified in the base of his abdomen, and without thinking, he reached up and gripped the lapels of Victor’s coat. Their bodies moved closer to one another as if drawn there by gravity.
He didn’t know what he was asking for. It frightened him at the same time that it filled his chest with a hopeful unfurling like the wings of birds.
Victor tilted his head and nuzzled the side of Yuuri’s face, bathing his skin with the heat of his breath. Fingertips brushed his face, coaxing his chin just a bit higher, and then he felt the gentle pressure of Victor’s lips on his mouth.
It was a brief kiss. Just a brush of the lips, really, followed by the fluttering of eyelashes that parted to stare.
Victor was still silently asking questions with his actions. Is this okay? Do you want more?
The level of Yuuri’s chin dropped a degree, and he wet his lips. He was trembling inside.
“No?” Victor asked softly. His thumb stroked Yuuri’s cheekbone.
“We should get back to the hotel,” Yuuri said.
His voice sounded strange, even to his own ears. It wasn’t that he wanted this moment to end. Quite the opposite, in fact. But he had now shared his first two kisses with the rest of the world. Whatever was about to happen next . . . he wanted that all for himself.
And so he looked Victor directly in the eyes and said without an ounce of self-consciousness, “If we’re going to do this, I want to be alone with you. There are too many people out here.”
He let go of Victor’s coat, stepped out of his embrace, and began walking toward their hotel with renewed focus. He didn’t know what awaited him there, but he knew he was never going to be the same afterward.
Victor caught up with him a moment later, wearing a smug, self-satisfied smile he could barely contain. “Now wait just a second.” He reached out to catch Yuuri’s arm. “You and I still have a serious problem we need to work out before we take another step. I hope you know I’m very disappointed in you as my student right now.”
Yuuri turned and blinked at Victor in confusion. His censuring words didn’t match the mischievous grin on his face. “What . . . ?”
“Well, I just noticed you’re not wearing your medal where everyone can see it,” Victor said. “Really, Yuuri. I thought we talked about this.”
As he hooked a finger around the ribbon of Yuuri’s medal and tugged it out of his windbreaker, Victor waved at a trio of passersby on the other side of the street and shouted at the top of his lungs, “Hey, look at my Yuuri! He won a medal tonight!”
To be continued