“How’s the mutt, anyway?” As they strolled along the sidewalk together, Yurio kicked an icy branch out of his path and watched it skitter away. “Isn’t that why Victor ditched you here alone?”
Yuuri hugged the paper bag of pirozhki to his chest and stared straight ahead, where the lights of the Star Hotel could be seen a few blocks away. The Rostelecom Cup was over, and he had qualified for the Grand Prix Final, just as he had sought out to do. Soon it would be time to pack his bags and go home . . . yet Yuuri found he wasn’t sure how he felt about that.
A pang of guilt nudged his heart when he thought about Victor. He’d called no less than a dozen times throughout the day, and Yuuri hadn’t answered once. He had, however, listened to the voicemails and responded by text message.
I’m so glad Makkachin is okay. I miss you, too. Talk to you soon.
“Makkachin had a rough night,” Yuuri replied, “but they expect him to make a full recovery with some—”
“Listen,” Yurio said, cutting in. “We’ve only got a few weeks left until the Grand Prix Final. I’m going to beat you there so badly, your eyeballs are going to be bruised just from witnessing it. But if you’re not standing just below me on that podium, I’m going to beat the rest of you up, too. JJ ranks third or lower. Behind us. Got it, katsudon?”
“I guess I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
“You think? You tell Victor he’s going too easy on you. Tell him to knock it off and get serious. He always does this. He gets too confident and doesn’t prepare because he’s always been the best.” Yurio buried his hands in his jacket pockets and hung his head. A small rock went flying ahead of them, kicked by his foot. “He hasn’t had to fight like us.”
Yuuri remembered the lecture he’d received from Yakov after his Free Skate. He’d said Victor had never practiced for a missed jump either. “You really think he’s going easy on me?”
“Huh? Look, I’m sending you my daily training schedule. If you don’t mimic it, you’re an idiot. You need to rehearse at least three variations of your Free Skate. Choose which to use based on current standings and how tired you are. You need at least one that pushes you beyond your limits. You’ve seriously never heard this before?”
“Um.” Victor often switched up the jumps on Yuuri but had never driven this kind of regimented planning into him. Not even Celestino had pushed for three variations. That was crazy.
“Your coach sucks,” Yurio said. “Are you going to answer that or what?”
Yuuri’s phone was ringing again, the vibrations loud enough to hear, even with the nearby swoosh of traffic on the snowy street beside them. He slid one hand into his coat pocket and declined the call without looking to see who it was.
“There’s my grandpa,” Yurio said. Sure enough, a ratty old car had pulled up about a block ahead of them. “I gotta run. You tell Victor what I said, katsudon. He forgets things and doesn’t plan ahead. That means you have to do it for him. Push him to push you.”
The very idea made Yuuri dizzy. For the last month, Victor had been working him so hard, Yuuri lived with near constant blisters on his feet. But if he was serious about winning gold, it would be unwise to ignore Yurio’s advice. Especially when it had also come from Yakov, someone Victor held in the highest regard. “Thanks for the birthday present. Tell your grandpa his katsudon is just as amazing as my mom’s.”
“Right?” Yurio waved and skipped off with a grin.
The flight back to Japan was dead silent except for the ever-present hum of the engines. As Yuuri gazed out of the window at the lights of passing cities below, he was all too aware of the empty seat beside him. If Victor really did return to Russia after the Grand Prix Final, that empty seat would become a normal occurrence.
In placing fourth at the Rostelecom Cup, Yuuri hadn’t earned a medal. And of course, because his brain liked to kick him when he was down, that meant Victor’s words from the last competition in China wouldn’t stop echoing in his mind.
If you mess up this Free Skate and miss the podium, I’ll take responsibility by resigning as your coach.
It was stupid. There wasn’t any point to worrying about such things. Yuuri knew that in his heart. When Victor had said that, he had only been trying to snap Yuuri out of a moment of panic. He hadn’t meant it seriously and most likely didn’t intend to resign as Yuuri’s coach now, even though he had messed up his Free Skate badly enough to miss the podium.
Still, the fear remained. Because sooner or later, it was going to happen. Victor couldn’t be his coach forever. Not when Yuuri was already planning to retire.
And what would happen to them then?
He honestly didn’t have any idea. Victor didn’t often talk about what he wanted. Not about anything serious, at least. He had never once answered any question about whether or not he intended to return to the ice one day. He sometimes spoke about Russia in a wistful tone. It was obvious he missed it. If Victor returned to skating, it was likely to be under Yakov’s tutelage. That meant he would leave Japan.
Yuuri hated the idea. He wanted Victor to stay by his side forever . . . but he also knew how selfish that was. Victor must have hopes and dreams of his own. He also had another home, and Yuuri couldn’t honestly say he loved him if he ignored all of that.
Whatever happened, he knew he had to make the weeks before the Grand Prix Final count. They might very well be the last ones he spent with Victor. Once Yuuri retired, it would never be like this again, with hours of Victor’s devoted attention on the ice. Living with each other. Sharing every meal, as well as a bed.
When the lights flickered on in the cabin of the plane and the pilot’s voice came over the speakers to announce their descent, Yuuri realized he had been staring out of the window for hours. It probably would have been smarter to get some sleep while he could. It was dark outside, the hour well after midnight, and Yuuri’s trip still wasn’t over. After they landed in Fukuoka, there was still a long train ride home to Hasetsu, and he doubted he would be able to sleep then either. But that was okay. He still had a lot of thinking to do.
Soon the wheels of the plane were touching down on the runway, and it was time to gather his things and inch along the aisle toward the door. Yuuri kept his head down, lost in his thoughts, barely noticing anything or anyone around him. Other people were the last thing on his mind.
But when he finally made it off the plane and turned the corner into the airport terminal, the familiar sound of a dog barking pulled him out of his head. He looked up and saw Makkachin standing with his paws against the glass window in front of him.
Yuuri stopped breathing. He searched until he found another face in the crowd. The one he wanted to see more than any other in the entire world.
Then he started running.
As Victor and Yuuri walked together to the baggage claim area with Makkachin happily trotting beside them, they found it almost impossible to stop hugging each other. A single day apart was a day too long.
Victor had his arm around Yuuri’s shoulders, lips pressed to his hair, while Yuuri hugged Victor around his middle. They walked like that, perfectly in step, not giving a damn who might be bothered by the public display of intimacy. The last time they’d been in this airport, they were much more private, but Yuuri now found he didn’t care what other people thought. He had his Victor back, and the rest of the world was just going to have to deal with it.
While they waited for the bags to arrive, they stood in an embrace with Yuuri’s head tucked beneath Victor’s chin. There was nothing else like this. Victor’s warmth. His scent and presence. Yuuri was finally home, and it had nothing to do with being in Japan.
He shivered and hugged Victor tighter. No one but him could say his name like that.
“Why wouldn’t you answer my calls?”
After a hesitant pause, Yuuri said, “I texted you back.”
“That’s not the same as hearing your voice.” Victor dragged his lips along Yuuri’s hairline. “Were you angry I wasn’t there?”
“No. That wasn’t your fault, and I’m so relieved Makkachin is okay.”
But even as the words were coming out of his mouth, it occurred to Yuuri how tired Victor sounded, and it didn’t take much guessing to figure out why. Not with Makkachin there, miraculously alive, no doubt because Victor had been at his side every waking hour to take care of him.
Yuuri wasn’t the only one who had gone through something taxing on his own.
“I guess you probably needed someone to talk to through all of that,” Yuuri said. He pulled away from the embrace and looked up at Victor so that he would know Yuuri meant what he was about to say. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking. It’s just . . . I had so much going on in my head, and you know it takes me a while to sort through it all. And when I finally figured it out, what I wanted to say to you wasn’t meant for a phone conversation. But I still should have picked up. I’m really sorry.”
Victor gave a slight nod, enough to let Yuuri know he understood and wasn’t upset. “I’m here now. What did you want to talk about?”
Yuuri held his gaze for a beat before looking away. While he adjusted the shoulder strap of his backpack, he said, “Not here. Have you seen the luggage yet?” He turned toward the baggage carrousel, which was sparsely littered with suitcases. Most of the bags had already been claimed, and only a few stragglers remained.
“Oh, was I supposed to be watching?” Victor slipped his hands into the pockets of his coat with a sweet but tired smile. “Sorry. I was a little distracted, but there’s no rush. I had the train tickets moved to tomorrow and got us a room nearby for the night. Does that sound okay?”
It was more than okay. Yuuri didn’t want to be in Hasetsu yet, where his family would pounce on him with a million questions. He wanted to be alone with Victor. Grateful for the opportunity, Yuuri returned the smile and nodded.
Once they located the luggage, they walked hand in hand through the snow toward the hotel, which was only a short distance from the airport. Again Yuuri became aware that they were broadcasting their relationship publicly in a way they never had before. Something had shifted between them when Yuuri stepped off that plane and into Victor’s arms. It wasn’t an easy thing to put into words.
“There wasn’t much available for a last-minute booking,” Victor explained when they arrived at the door of their hotel room. He slid the key into the lock. “It’s a little small but comfortable enough. And there just might be a surprise inside.”
Puzzled by that last statement, Yuuri lingered in the doorway even after Victor went inside, set the bags down in the darkness, and turned on the lamp beside the bed. Makkachin brushed against Yuuri’s legs as he scampered ahead of him through the door.
Yuuri drew in a shaky breath. His throat was suddenly aching with emotion—because there was a hand-drawn sign hanging on the wall that read, in colorful letters, Happy Birthday, Yuri!!!
It had been made with construction paper and crayons, and it had tiny little handprints all over it, no doubt decorated by Yuko’s triplets. As Yuuri stepped inside the room, he accidentally kicked a balloon out of his path. There were about a dozen of them on the ground, scattered here and there. Victor must have snuck them on the train deflated, then blown them up when he got here.
That wasn’t all. There was a blanket on the ground in front of the bed, close to the frosty window, spread out like it was meant for a picnic. There, Yuuri saw a present waiting for him, all wrapped up in golden paper and nestled in a bed of silver confetti. Beside it was a bouquet of crimson roses that filled the room with a fresh fragrance. Makkachin was doing little circles on the blanket before settling down beside the presents to wait for someone to join him.
After removing his coat and scarf, Victor took Yuuri’s hand and guided him over to the blanket. “Sit here. There aren’t any chairs, so I had to make do.”
The room was indeed small, with little more than a bed and a bathroom, but Yuuri had never seen anything more perfect. He shed off his own coat and scarf as well, and as he sat down next to Makkachin, Victor went about the room lighting little tealight candles that had been placed here and there. He turned off the lamp when he was done, and the room darkened into a soft, flickering glow.
Everything looked golden in this light, including Victor. His features were warm and gilded as he pulled out a cupcake from a small bag. Yuuri immediately recognized it as his mom’s baking. There was a candle in the middle of it, and as Victor brought the flame of the lighter to the wick, he said, “It got a little smooshed on the train. Don’t tell your mother.”
Yuuri released his breath in a half-laugh, half-something else. He wasn’t crying, but he was close.
Victor carried the cupcake over, shielding the flame from the breeze with his hand, and kneeled on the ground in front of Yuuri. Then he started to sing Happy Birthday in softly accented Japanese, and Yuuri was soon getting so emotional, he had to press the back of his hand to his mouth to help him hold it in. Victor’s Japanese rendition of the song wasn’t without flaws, but Yuuri loved every mispronunciation and misplaced emphasis on certain syllables.
“How was that?” Victor said when he was done. “Takeshi taught me last week. I’ve been practicing.”
That explained why he’d called Yuuri “little piggy” in the song instead of his actual name. Yuuri dropped his hand away from his mouth, revealing his smile. “Perfect.”
“Go ahead.” Victor held the cupcake out. “Make a wish.”
Even though he tried to maintain it, Yuuri’s smile soon became strained. His eyes were shining with tears—because there was only one thing he wanted.
“Hey,” Victor said with a wink. “You already have that. Make another one. But don’t tell me what it is, or it won’t come true.”
Makkachin began to sniff and lick his chops, his attention fixed on the cupcake.
“Don’t even think about it,” Victor told him. “Haven’t you gotten into enough trouble already?”
Yuuri laughed, and as he held the dog safely back, he leaned forward and blew out the candle.
He knew it was probably a wasted wish. Like Victor said, Yuuri already had what he wanted. It was kneeling right in front of him, holding out a birthday cake. But that didn’t mean this would last forever. That was what Yuuri wished for: more time.
They sampled a little icing off each other’s fingers before setting the cupcake aside for later, securely out of reach where Makkachin couldn’t get to it.
After Yuuri licked the remaining sweetness from his finger, he said, “Twenty-three started off as a pretty rough year . . . but it turned out to be the best one yet. Thanks to you.”
“Let’s make your twenty-fourth year even better than the last,” Victor said. “Starting with something gold and shiny, hmm?”
Yuuri stilled and looked up at him. Victor had been kneeling in front of him this entire time, but it wasn’t until that moment that his stance made Yuuri think of something else. Especially after their conversation at the airport.
Even Victor seemed to realize what he’d said and how it must have sounded. He laughed at himself and said, “Well, I just walked right into that one, didn’t I? What I meant is. . . .”
“I know what you meant,” Yuuri said, laughing as well. “I want to win gold at the Grand Prix Final, too.”
“And you’re going to.” Grinning, Victor picked up the present from the blanket and held it out for Yuuri to take. “Open it. It’s not a ring, but it is something I’ve been working on for weeks. Everyone at home pitched in and helped me put it together.”
Again, Victor had referred to Hasetsu as home. Yuuri would never get tired of that. Happiness resounded in his heart as he carefully opened up the golden paper. Inside was a large book, professionally bound and obviously expensive, with gold-leaf writing and a picture of Yuuri in his Free Skate outfit on the front. The title of the book was: Yuri on Ice.
Yuuri looked up at Victor, questions in his eyes.
“Open it,” Victor said again.
The first few pages held pictures of Yuuri as a boy, one of them from the first day he’d ever put on a pair of skates. As he flipped through the pages, he realized that someone had dug up the photographic history of his entire skating career, and Victor had put it all in this book.
Tears filled Yuuri’s eyes—because this book represented exactly what his Free Skate was about. Yuri on Ice was his story. Victor had put that title on the front on purpose.
Alongside the pictures of him as a boy was a letter from Yuko with colorful commentary scribbled into the margins by Takeshi and the triplets. Yuko had written about how they used to skate together as kids and listed out all his local accomplishments. Her handwriting had been scanned in professionally into dark gold ink. Whoever had constructed this book had done a beautiful job. It was a work of art.
“Do you like it?” Victor asked.
As Yuuri met his eyes, he was practically beaming with happiness. “I love it.”
Next was a letter from Minako-sensei beside a picture of her and Yuuri posing with his first trophy. There were photos of him in dance class—an awkward teenager, a little on the heavy side but still light on his feet—followed by letters from his family. There were even ones from Phichit and Coach Celestino, who had written things about Yuuri he felt he barely deserved.
He turned the page and saw a picture of himself and Victor at the Hot Springs on Ice face-off, right after he’d beaten Yurio to the prize. Yuuri laughed at how stiff and wide-eyed he looked as he stood on the podium alongside Victor. That night had fulfilled a goal he’d had for years. He’d asked his idol Victor Nikoforov to watch him skate at a competition, and he had said yes. Yuuri would never forget how that felt.
The photos that followed were all from this year. Of long practices at the Ice Castle and the competitions leading up to the Grand Prix Final. There was a letter from newscaster Morooka, who had followed his career for some time now, and another from Minami, which proclaimed in boldface letters that they would skate against each other again one day. But mostly, those last few pages were filled with Yuuri and his coach, who was an ever-present fixture in his life at that point.
This book might have been about Yuuri’s skating career, but as he saw his own body language change in every picture with Victor, he realized it was also a chronicling of him falling in love.
Near the end, there was a letter from Victor with his famous signature scribbled at the bottom. Yuuri had just started to read when Victor reached out to turn the page.
“Why don’t you save that one for when you’re alone?” Victor suggested with a wink. “Preferably after the Final.”
There was only one page left in the book, and it was plain except for the words Grand Prix Final written in gold at the top. Beneath it was a place for a picture . . . and the sight of that blank space drove a lump into Yuuri’s throat.
It was suddenly difficult to talk. The book felt heavy in his hands.
He’d had all of this wonderful support throughout his career—people who had cheered him on for more than a decade—and he had almost let them down in Moscow.
“What if I hadn’t made it to the Final?” Yuuri whispered. He almost couldn’t make his lips form the words. “Were you going to rip this page out?”
He didn’t understand. This book had required a great deal of thought and planning. Victor had designed this page and ordered it from a professional printer long before he knew what would happen in Moscow.
Victor chuckled softly. “You were always going to make it, Yuuri. I knew that before I even stepped foot in Japan all those months ago.”
Yuuri squeezed his eyes shut. How?
Oh, no. It was coming. Everything he’d pushed down in Russia. All the reasons he hadn’t picked up the phone when Victor had called. It would have only made Yuuri more vulnerable to this.
Not here. Not now.
“Yuuri.” Victor’s hands closed around his where they gripped the book. “What just happened? Are you crying?”
Yuuri shook his head, even as he turned his face away and swiped at the tear that had streaked down his cheek. “No?” And then he let out a breathy laugh because who was he kidding? He was definitely crying.
Victor watched him, eyes wide, his thumb stroking the top of the hand Yuuri hadn’t pulled away to wipe his face. He said nothing, instead choosing to wait.
It only took Yuuri a few more seconds, but he was able to get a handle on himself and stuff everything down again. He gave his face a final swipe, hung his head, and placed his hand back within Victor’s.
“Gomen nasai,” he whispered.
It wasn’t often he spoke to Victor in Japanese, but sometimes the English language just didn’t cut it. There was a subtlety there in Yuuri’s apology that couldn’t be expressed another way.
“For what?” Victor said. “Crying?”
Yuuri shook his head again. “I messed up.”
It was the same thing he’d said to his mom on the phone after he’d failed at the last Grand Prix Final, only he couldn’t hang up this call. This was exactly why he hadn’t picked up the phone in Moscow. He knew once he heard the safety of Victor’s voice, this was all going to come out, and then he’d be crying alone in the bathroom again. Yuuri had tried so hard to be strong.
Victor was still watching him without speaking, his brow held tense. He wasn’t following Yuuri’s meaning.
“My Free Skate,” Yuuri clarified. “I couldn’t do it. I wanted to prove to everyone I could . . . without you there.” He trailed off and wished he could reverse time and take back everything that had just come out of his mouth. God, he felt stupid.
“But you did do it without me,” Victor said.
Yuuri turned his eyes up at Victor and waited for him to say more. At that moment, he didn’t need his boyfriend or best friend, even though Victor was both to him. Yuuri needed his coach to remind him what he was fighting for—the person who understood exactly how hard he had worked for this and what it would mean if he failed.
“Can I show you something?” Victor said instead.
He came to sit beside Yuuri on the blanket and put his arm around him. Makkachin rested his chin on Yuuri’s thigh while Victor held his phone out in front of them so they could both see the screen.
Yuuri soon found himself tensing up. He had a good idea what Victor was about to make him watch, and he did not want to see the video of his Free Skate from Moscow. He was going to have to watch it eventually. Victor always made him do analysis on his performances, but did it have to be tonight, when he was still feeling so raw?
But to his surprise, that wasn’t what Victor showed him.
Instead, he pulled up the viral video the triplets had posted to the internet months ago—the one that had gotten Victor’s attention in the first place. Yuuri stared down at himself on the screen, not knowing what to think. He was heavier back then and looked frumpy in his sweats, but that wasn’t the distracting part. This younger Yuuri looked sad.
Yuuri barely recognized himself. This wasn’t what he felt like at all—even now, so soon after crying. “I don’t understand.”
“Watch,” Victor said. “This part right here. Can’t you hear it?”
In the video, Yuuri had drawn close to the camera. “Hear what?”
Yuuri frowned. There was no audio on the video. Yuuri had skated Victor’s routine in silence, and the only sound that could be heard was the slap of his skates on the ice.
“Do you remember the reason I wanted to be your coach?” Victor said. “Because of this. You skate like your body is creating music. You made me hear what wasn’t there.”
“But there’s nothing. I don’t hear anything.”
“Could you hear it in your head when you were skating?”
Yuuri tried to remember. He had always skated Victor’s routine without music. He didn’t need it because he’d watched videos of the performance so many times in order to learn the movements, he’d committed the orchestration to memory as well. “Yes.”
Victor started to hum softly, and the familiar melody sparked something within Yuuri. It took him back. Drew him deeper into what he was watching and reminded him of what he’d felt that night. Suddenly, he was able to hear the lyrics. The pleading tenor. The swell of wind instruments and strings. On the video, Yuuri smiled, arms outstretched, and implored the viewer to join him.
Victor’s lips spread into an adoring smile. “Now if anyone says they can’t hear that, I don’t believe them. You did this on your own, Yuuri. Without me. Without the help of any coach actually, which is something I can’t even boast myself. If you’re wondering how I knew you would make it to the Grand Prix Final, this is the reason. You already knew how to pick yourself up and keep fighting alone. Now I want you to watch something else.”
He pulled up the video of Yuuri’s Free Skate from the Rostelecom Cup, and Yuuri started squirming immediately.
“Listen,” Victor said, a mild reproach in his tone. He started the video before Yuuri could protest and muted the sound as if to contradict his own command.
Yuuri’s posture slumped. He really didn’t need to watch this. He remembered all too well exactly how he had felt on that ice. Already defeated before he had even begun.
But to his surprise, when the Yuuri on the video lifted his face in the first pose, that defeat was not written all over it. As he began to skate to the music, he looked a bit downcast but not nearly as much as in the video of last spring. This Yuuri was more refined and mature. His posture was straight, and even when he missed his jumps, the panic he had felt didn’t show in his expression. He kept going.
“Tell me what you were thinking here,” Victor said.
“I was worried about missing the combo at the beginning. I was trying to figure out how to add another one later. That’s why I did a combo at the end instead of the quad flip. I knew I needed the points.”
“So in other words, you were still fighting. You weren’t giving up.”
Yuuri hesitated before he replied. “Yes.”
Victor’s arm tightened around Yuuri’s shoulders, pulling him a little closer. Their heads rested together as the video stretched into the second half. This was always the strongest part of Yuuri’s performance—the step sequence. As they watched, both of them quiet and engrossed, Victor said, “You realize I’m playing this without sound, don’t you?”
Yuuri blinked. He had noticed at the beginning, but then he’d forgotten. He could still hear the music in his head, clear as day.
“Told you so,” Victor said with a flash of a grin. By the video ended, he was beaming, pleased with what he had just seen for reasons Yuuri couldn’t figure out. “Well? How did that make you feel?”
Besides awkward and self-conscious?
Yuuri rubbed the back of his neck. “I guess I’ve improved since last spring. That was more polished than the first video.”
“Yes. And what else?”
“I don’t know. It’s not as bad as I thought it would be.”
“But what did you feel?”
Yuuri let out a sigh. Victor wasn’t going to let this go until he gave an honest answer. Well, if he really wanted to know how mentally weak Yuuri was, then he was about to find out.
“I felt like I was missing half of myself,” Yuuri said, “and I hated it. But I could still hear your voice in my head, and I didn’t want other people to think I was going to let everything you taught me go to waste. That’s why I didn’t give up and kept fighting to the end.”
Victor turned his phone off and set it aside on the blanket. “Yuuri, what I’m trying to show you is just that. You already know how to fight by yourself. You’ve been doing that for most of your career, but that can only take you so far. I think this entire year has been about something different. Something more difficult, which is learning how to let others fight alongside you. Everyone in that book, for example. Including me.”
Yuuri didn’t respond. He wasn’t sure what Victor was going to say next, but he knew he needed to hear it.
“In Moscow, you proved again that you can do it alone,” Victor continued. “You got the job done. Did you crumble to pieces because I wasn’t there with you? No. You were poised and calm, far more than you were in China when I was actually there. Yes, there is still room to improve, but that’s what life is. That’s why we keep working. But I disagree when you say half of yourself was missing during your Free Skate. You are still a whole person without me, Yuuri, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t stronger together. That’s what love is.”
Silence fell between them.
It was a lot to think about, and Yuuri wasn’t sure he fully understood yet. But he knew it was probably the most important thing anyone had ever said to him.
He reached out and took Victor’s hand into his own. “You’re getting better at the crying thing.”
Victor smiled, eyes glittering in the candlelight. “Yeah, well . . . I’m still not convinced just kissing you is a bad idea either.”
Even Yuuri had to laugh at that. And it felt good to allow himself to smile and let all the disappointment he’d felt in Russia fall away. There was a tug at his hand and that was all it took to get Yuuri up on his knees and wrapping his arms around Victor’s neck for a hug. Disturbed by their movements, Makkachin let out a quiet woof and went to lay down on the other side of the blanket.
Yuuri hugged Victor for a long time. He hadn’t gotten this at the end of his Free Skate, and he’d needed it badly. No one else could make him feel like this.
“Well done, Yuuri,” Victor said. “I’m proud of you for fighting. Let’s do it together next time, okay?”
Yuuri squeezed him tighter. “Hai.”
“But you know. . .” Victor’s tone suddenly sounded a bit put out. It was the voice he reserved for his post-competition lectures. “I still haven’t gotten a kiss yet. Really, Yuuri. I came all this way. Brought you cake and everything. And not even one little peck or—”
Yuuri drew back, put his hands on Victor’s face, and guided it up so he could stare down at him. Leaning in, he kissed Victor on the mouth several times—slow and sweet—each one lingering a bit longer than the last.
“That’s better,” Victor grumbled between kisses. “But feel free to keep making it up to me.”
Yuuri closed his eyes and kissed him again, letting him feel a flick of tongue this time. When they parted, he said, “Thank you. For all of this. For my book and for coming tonight.”
For coming to Japan in the first place.
“You’re welcome, Yuuri. Happy birthday.”
Victor tipped his chin up, silently asking for another kiss, and Yuuri met it without hesitation.
They both needed this and took their time savoring it. Victor’s hands came to rest on Yuuri’s waist and brought a flood of warmth with them. Yuuri was soon feeling a quiet stirring of desire. He drew back from the kiss and stroked Victor’s face with both hands. He looked unusually vulnerable tonight. His hair was a mess, and his outfit seemed like an afterthought. Victor didn’t look like his normal self at all.
“You look so tired,” Yuuri said. “Have you slept at all since you left Russia?”
A rueful smile. “A little. You?”
“A little.” Yuuri returned the smile briefly but then it fell away. His mouth felt suddenly dry. He kissed Victor again—slower this time—and the stirring of desire grew stronger within him. “Do you want to stop?”
Victor’s eyes were dark in the dimly lit room. “I’m never too tired for this. I missed you, Yuuri. I can sleep later.”
Yuuri sank down fully onto his lap and opened his mouth up to Victor’s kisses. Their tongues met in a mutual dance. They touched each other—Yuuri’s fingers exploring the contours of Victor’s jawline while Victor was busy committing the curves of Yuuri’s waist and hips to memory.
There was something different about this kiss. Something that made them pause from time to time and search each other’s eyes. Maybe it was because of how tired they both were. But they were completely in each other’s space, their mouths and bodies relaxed. Breathing the same air. One kiss blurring seamlessly into the next.
Yuuri’s palm slid down onto Victor’s chest and came to rest over his heart. He pulled away, and as he met Victor’s eyes, Yuuri felt absolutely calm for the first time. Gone was the fluttering nervousness that so often accompanied these trysts. He felt centered. Aware of several things. The beat of Victor’s heart beneath his palm, quicker than normal. The rise and fall of his eyelashes as he blinked up at Yuuri in the candlelight. The feel of hands on his hips. Strong. Fortifying.
Could Victor feel it, too—that something had changed?
This time when they kissed, Yuuri’s body began to move. His hips rocked back and forth, an almost imperceptible motion—though judging from the little gasp of pleasure Victor released, he perceived it just fine.
It was that sound that made up Yuuri’s mind. He wanted to hear Victor make it again.
Yuuri pulled himself free from Victor’s grasp and got to his feet, then offered his hand to soothe the look of uncertainty away from Victor’s face. He brought Victor to the bed and guided him to sit down on the edge to wait while Yuuri went to his luggage to retrieve a few items.
He could feel Victor watching him, eyes wide and a little vulnerable. He didn’t understand what Yuuri was doing.
Once he found what he was looking for, Yuuri straightened and returned to where Victor was sitting. Yuuri stood tall before him and dropped two condoms onto the comforter beside Victor’s thigh. A small bottle of lubricant joined them a second later.
Victor looked up at him, his expression indecipherable.
“What do you want, Victor?” Yuuri asked in a quiet voice. “You’ve never told me that.”
Or anything else.
About Russia. His career. What he really wanted out of his relationship with Yuuri. Victor was either keeping it all to himself, or he hadn’t even given it much thought.
“I want you to have no regrets,” Victor said.
“No,” Yuuri said. “What do you want? I’m not the only one that matters here.”
Victor stared at him for another long moment—and then he smiled, sweeter than Yuuri had ever seen.
His arms went around Yuuri’s middle, and Victor pressed his face there against the softness of his belly. Yuuri shivered when he felt the heat of Victor’s breath seep through the fabric of his shirt. Neither of them said anything for some time. Yuuri ran his fingers through fine, silvery hair and waited.
In time, Victor’s hands moved to slide Yuuri’s shirt up a few inches, and then his mouth was touching bare skin. Lips scorching hot with just a hint of tongue between them. Yuuri’s mouth fell open. Just like that, his legs began to shake.
Victor moved again, this time to dip his tongue into the groove of Yuuri’s belly button.
Yuuri’s head fell back, eyes closing. It was by far the most sensuous thing he’d ever felt in his life.
Victor got to his feet and straightened until he was at his full height. Yuuri looked up at him, never more aware that Victor was a larger person than him. Taller. Heavier with muscle and broader in the shoulders. But instead of feeling intimidated by these things, Yuuri felt protected by them. The way Victor was looking at him made Yuuri want to melt into his arms.
“What I want is your trust,” Victor said. “With your mind, heart, and body. Without that, we’re both going to regret this.”
“But . . . I do trust you. More than anyone.”
It was true. Yuuri had never let anyone else this close.
“That doesn’t mean it’s your full trust,” Victor said.
Yuuri lowered his chin as he thought about it. It made sense. As much as he already did trust Victor, it wasn’t absolute. There was a limit to it. Yuuri didn’t trust Victor not to break his heart and leave him behind after his retirement. But what would happen if he let go of that fear and allowed himself to freefall? Even if just for a little while.
It would crush you.
If Yuuri gave away his full trust and Victor left him anyway, it would devastate him. That was why Yuuri was still holding him at arm’s length. But wasn’t that going to happen anyway if Victor left? If Yuuri was already going to be in pain, did it matter how deep it ran?
Just do it. You already know the worst thing that could happen. Being with him now is worth it.
Yuuri’s body relaxed within Victor’s hands. “Okay.” He looked up, brown eyes meeting blue. “I’ll trust you.”
Victor smiled, the sight of it more tender than any kiss. “Okay.”
They took it slow, with featherlight kisses that felt like the first few days of their relationship and gradually deepened into something new.
It wasn’t perfect. There were a few stumbles and jitters as their fingers worked at buttons and pushed clothing aside. Moments when Yuuri had to remind himself to trust. But once he had the heat of Victor’s skin sliding beneath his hands, he felt comforted. More sure of himself. Reminded of what he wanted.
Soon they were on the bed, clean sheets beneath them, the top blanket cast aside. The little tealights had started to burn out all around the room, leaving them in darkness except for the moonlight coming through the frosty window.
Stripped of clothing as well as many other burdens he’d been carrying for too long in his heart, Yuuri let out a slow breath as Victor’s fingers penetrated him for the first time.
Both of them were naked and hard, the tip of Yuuri’s penis wet with saliva. He was on his back, an open bottle of lubricant on the mattress beside him, and Victor was on his knees. He braced himself with a single hand and watched Yuuri’s face carefully for discomfort.
Yuuri had his hand pressed over Victor’s heart, and he was putting pressure on it, silently asking him to take it slow. But as the fingers moved inside of him, Yuuri’s mind began to fall prey to the rhythm. The outward push of his hand lessened, and Victor was able to lean in and kiss him.
“That’s it, baby,” Victor whispered. “This should never hurt.” He kissed Yuuri’s cheek. The corner of his mouth. The tip of his nose. “Do you like the way it feels?”
Yuuri wet his lips and nodded. He was panting now.
Though he wasn’t fully in the moment yet, he wasn’t lying. He did like the way it felt. The push and pull created a friction he hadn’t even known he needed.
Victor changed the angle of his fingers, and Yuuri felt something altogether different. A warm rush of pleasure that made a new wetness bead at the tip of his cock. When he let out a cry, Victor smiled and sat back on his heels. With one hand still busy between Yuuri’s legs, he used his other to reach for something else.
Yuuri stopped him, grabbing Victor’s wrist with both hands. “T-too much.”
Victor chuckled quietly but complied by letting go of Yuuri’s cock. “All right. We’ll worry about that later.”
Yuuri let out a barely audible whimper as the fingers slipped out of him. Trembling all over, he pushed his hair out of his face and watched Victor tear open one of the foil condom wrappers. After he rolled it onto himself, he looked down at Yuuri through the fall of his bangs.
And all Yuuri could think was, Oh, my God.
Because he wasn’t dreaming. This was actually about to happen.
“Switch places with me.” Victor put his hands on Yuuri’s thighs and squeezed. Two of his fingers felt hotter and wetter than the others. “I think you’ll feel more in control that way.”
They rearranged themselves, Victor doing most of the guiding and Yuuri following his lead. They ended up with Victor sitting with his back propped against the headboard and Yuuri straddling his lap. He wasn’t sure if he liked this. He felt more exposed in this position, and it wasn’t how he had imagined his first time would be—with Victor over him, his hands cradling the back of Yuuri’s head as he thrust into him.
Victor’s fingers had found him again—three this time instead of two—and the feel of them in this position was different. Not as deep, though he was now opened wider. And Victor was right. Yuuri did have more control this way. He could rise up onto his knees when the sensation got to be too much, and he could also quicken the pace when he wanted more.
“Kiss me,” Victor said.
And that made it much easier to concentrate on the slowly building rhythm. Victor pulled Yuuri close—one hand on the small of his back and the other doing unspeakable things—and their lips didn’t part again for a long time. Yuuri was finally getting into it. His knees slid on the sheets, spreading wider. As he began to move, his cock moved as well, rubbing against the hard muscles of Victor’s stomach.
Oh. He liked that.
“Does it hurt at all?” Victor asked.
“No. It’s good.”
“Let’s give it a try, then. We’ll stop if you don’t like it.”
Victor used even more lubricant on himself, even though Yuuri already felt slick and open, and soon he was lined up. But though Victor thrust his hips upward, applying pressure to Yuuri’s entrance, it was up to Yuuri to lower himself down. Victor helped him, one hand on Yuuri’s hip, long fingers wrapped all the way around to his ass, the other grasping his own cock to keep it from popping out of place.
Bit by bit, Yuuri pushed himself down against the building pressure.
“That’s right,” Victor said. “Let me in.”
And then it happened. Yuuri felt himself open up . . . felt the unmistakable fullness that followed. There was a pinch as his muscles protested and stretched, but that lasted only a second before he was taking in the head of Victor’s cock.
Yuuri froze there for a good half minute, trying to acquaint himself with the feel of real penetration. Victor watched him, gently rocking his hips upward, not going too deep yet. Just the rub of the tip inside to create a little friction. Soon, Yuuri’s breathing began to slow and deepen. Coaxed by Victor’s hands and the sweetness of his voice, saying things that were felt more than heard, Yuuri lowered himself down until Victor was fully within him. A moan escaped his lips and disturbed the quiet of the room.
When Yuuri opened his eyes, he knew his expression was as naked as his body . . . and some of the things Victor had said to him earlier began to make more sense. This was why he had asked for Yuuri’s trust. It was why he had held back before now and only let Victor in so far. As their bodies joined into one and pure sensation ripped away his ability to think straight, Yuuri felt exposed in a way he’d never been before.
He was unable to hide a single thing he was feeling inside. Not his pleasure nor his nervousness. All of his insecurities and deepest desires were written there for Victor to see—and Yuuri had never let another person see that much before.
This wasn’t just about the penetration of his physical body. It was about his heart, too. About letting Victor in. Letting go and trusting him with everything Yuuri felt he had to hide. His perceived failures. His need for this physical release. His imperfect body and inexperience. The fear of somehow losing the person he loved most.
Victor took it all in with a quiet shhh meant to soothe. Then he said, “Yuuri, you’re beautiful.”
Something inside of him broke.
It needed to. It had been there too long.
Yuuri pushed every bad thought out of his mind and concentrated on the physical. On the sound of his lover’s voice, the warmth of hands on his body, the push and pull of a cock inside him. Victor was nuzzling the side of his face as they moved their bodies together, but Yuuri turned his head to offer his mouth instead. His sexuality had begun to manifest itself in a way he’d never let it before. He drifted along the waves of sensation and tapped into a rhythm that was pure instinct. Music only the two of them could hear.
He barely noticed that Victor was coming to pieces beneath him until he heard a breathless laugh and opened his eyes. “I’m not going to last long like this,” Victor said, smiling up at him, cheeks flushed. “You always were the one with the stamina.”
“Can we lie on the bed, then?” Yuuri’s voice was calmer than he expected. Gentle and loving—because he saw that Victor’s heart was exposed to him, too, along with a few insecurities he hadn’t expected to be entrusted with. “I want you on top of me.”
One of Victor’s arms slid around his waist, while the other hand came to cushion the back of Yuuri’s head. Victor lowered him down onto the mattress, still inside of him. Yuuri gasped when the angle changed and allowed Victor to sink deeper. It felt amazing. So did the feel of having a body on top of him. Yuuri wrapped his legs around Victor and pulled him in for a kiss that never seemed to end. Victor’s hips began to move in earnest.
There in that tiny hotel room, they made love for the first time. It seemed to go on for long while before Victor’s pace faltered and slowed. All the same, he sounded a little embarrassed when he whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m trying to make it last.”
“It’s okay,” Yuuri said. “I want you to do it.”
Victor let out a gasp of relief and thrust into him hard and fast. By the fifth stroke, he was coming, and he kept moving even as the waves carried his mind away.
Yuuri watched in amazement as Victor’s face transformed. The tension and release. The color burning high on his cheeks. Yuuri had never seen this part before. Victor’s face had always been hidden from him the two other times he had achieved an orgasm in his presence, and it was beyond beautiful to see him exposed like that. Yuuri’s favorite part, by far.
When it was over, Victor tried to keep his weight from crushing the body beneath him but soon found his knees and arms too shaky to offer reliable support. He sat back on his heels and pushed his hair out of his face, looking pleasantly exhausted, like he was about to embark on the best night of sleep in his life. He removed the condom and discarded it in the small wastebasket near the bed.
Once he got his breathing under control, he dropped a kiss on Yuuri’s knee and smiled down at him rather mischievously.
“What?” Yuuri asked, his self-consciousness flooding back. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Well.” Victor kissed Yuuri’s leg a bit further down this time. On the petal-soft skin of his inner thigh. “It’s just that I noticed earlier that you got two condoms out . . . and we’ve only used one.” His smile widened as his fingers spread out over both of Yuuri’s knees, guiding them apart. “Just wondering if you noticed that, too.”
Yuuri blushed hard, then impossibly harder when he felt Victor’s breath tickle his belly. “I didn’t . . . you don’t have to—”
And then he stopped talking because Victor was licking up the length of Yuuri’s cock where it rested on his stomach.
Victor took Yuuri fully into his mouth then, gripped him at the base, and began to move his head.
Yuuri found himself gaping at the ceiling in absolute shock. Victor had done this to him once before—briefly when he was helping Yuuri out of his clothes, just a wicked swirl of his tongue followed by a quick suck—but the wet heat of his mouth was no less astonishing than the first time.
There was nothing for Yuuri to do but press the heels of his hands to his eyelids and feel.
By the time Victor pulled back and gave the tip a kiss, Yuuri was seeing lights zigzag and explode before his closed eyes. His pulse thrummed in his ears. He’d never been so hard in his life. Surely Victor could taste it.
The sound of foil tearing open roused his attention. He pulled his hands away from his eyes just in time to greet Victor’s smoldering stare as he rolled a condom onto Yuuri’s length. Victor smiled, reached for the lubricant, and then used it on himself. He didn’t need as much preparation as Yuuri had. Just a quick stretch and a little slickness spread around.
There was a pause after Victor straddled him—long enough for Yuuri to voice any protests he might have. He could tell Victor was listening for it, staring hard into his eyes for any sign of a No. Of course, he wouldn’t do this without consent. Yuuri knew that, just as he knew he wasn’t going to refuse him. He wanted this moment badly, even though he could scarcely believe it was real.
He nodded once, silently giving the go ahead, and only then did Victor proceed.
“It’s been a while,” he said, pressing his palm flat against Yuuri’s lower abdomen. “Go easy on me, okay?”
Then it was happening. Yuuri understood the mechanics of it but was completely unprepared for the reality, particularly the relative ease at which Victor was able to sink down onto him. It took less than ten seconds from tip to root. Once he was fully seated, Victor placed both hands on Yuuri’s chest and began to ride. His own cock was half-hard and bobbing before him, already spent but still alert.
Yuuri could only stare up at him in mute amazement—not only because of the unfamiliar feel of a warm body clenching around him but also because of the sight of Victor himself. He looked absolutely comfortable and free. Like having Yuuri fill him up was a joy. Something he’d been craving, too. Yuuri wondered if it could be like that for him as well.
Victor’s eyes had drifted shut while he opened himself up on Yuuri’s cock. His fingers trailed down Yuuri’s abdomen to the soft curls at the join of his thighs. “I bet you want to get on top of me, don’t you?” Victor was already wearing a knowing smile when he opened his eyes to see what the response would be.
Yuuri nodded, slow but sure. That was exactly what he wanted.
They switched positions, this time with Yuuri doing the guiding. Soon Victor’s head was on the pillow, and Yuuri had pulled the comforter over them. They snuggled together in the warmth, with Victor’s thighs tightening around Yuuri’s hips, and they kissed until their lips ached.
Yuuri took him that way . . . and savored every sigh and gasp that rose up from his lover.
Victor was perfectly soft and open beneath him, every bit as beautiful as any woman. Feminine and masculine all at once. Yuuri had once thought it might feel awkward or unnatural to take charge like this—especially with Victor, who was so strong and confident—but it wasn’t at all. Yuuri’s body already knew how to make love. He just had to let it happen.
When Yuuri spilled inside of him, Victor’s fingers were on his face, and he was whispering something melodic in Russian. Yuuri had no idea what it was, but the way Victor said it made the meaning clear enough. His thrusts slowing, Yuuri settled down on top of Victor and kissed his forehead with all the tenderness in his heart. “I love you, too,” he whispered back in Japanese.
Later, after they’d cleaned up and were preparing for bed, Yuuri found himself distracted by his reflection in the bathroom mirror while he rinsed his toothbrush. He angled his chin up. Turned his face to one side, then the other.
Did he look different this time?
Because he’d actually done it. He’d lost his virginity twice that night. Once with Victor inside of him and again inside of Victor. Wasn’t that kind of thing supposed to change a person forever?
But no. He found his reflection in the mirror looked remarkably the same. His hair might be a bit messier than usual and that was definitely a hickey on his neck . . . but he was still the same Yuuri.
“Everything okay?” Victor said as he entered the bathroom with his own toothbrush in hand.
Yuuri nodded and dried his mouth with a towel before he responded. “It’s stupid, but I was just wondering if I looked any different than before.” He laughed at himself a little, embarrassed but trusting Victor enough to know he wouldn’t make fun of him. “But that’s ridiculous. Of course, I don’t. I’m still the same person I was before.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Victor came up behind him and kissed Yuuri’s bare shoulder before resting his chin on it. Arms encircled his waist as two sets of eyes focused on the reflection in front of them. “I see two people in the mirror now.”
Yuuri felt something click into place inside of him. A little lock he hadn’t even been aware of until now.
He was done. This was it. This was what he wanted forever.
Placing his hands over Victors arms, Yuuri nuzzled his head and said, “Oh.”
To be continued.