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Winter Song

Chapter Text

The Barcelona sun glittered like a diamond between Victor’s outstretched fingers.

It was early morning, the hour just after sunrise, and the air was chilly and smelled of briny seawater. It was a comforting smell—refreshing and nostalgic—but another familiar scent radiated up from the blue peacoat Victor had borrowed from his fiancé. Yuuri’s scent. Clean and warm. Wearing his coat was like being wrapped up in his arms. However, Victor had chosen to walk alone that morning. His lover’s scent was all that accompanied him.

Well. That and the feel of him.

Victor’s body ached all over, inside and out, as only the best kind of sex could do to a person. It was a pleasant ache that could be felt anew with every breath, step, and sigh. Last night’s lovemaking would not be easy to forget. He could feel the ghost of Yuuri’s mouth on his skin. See his sweet, bright-eyed smile in his mind. Hear the impassioned sounds he’d made echoed in the breeze.

A smile shone in Victor’s eyes for a moment but didn’t touch his lips.

His heart felt strange in his chest, like it wasn’t properly seated and was beating out of time. He had a lot on his mind that morning.

Although the beauty of Spain was every bit as breathtaking as the last time he had competed here, the sound of waves crashing and seagulls calling to each other had carried his mind thousands of miles away. He was thinking about Hasetsu. About Yuuri. Victor’s engagement ring shone bright on the hand he had stretched out in front of him.

He loved his ring. Yuuri had given it to him, and Victor would wear it every day for the rest of his life. But in making a solid commitment about their future together, he had given up some things . . . and that was going to take time to process.

The problem wasn’t Yuuri. Victor could not be happier with their relationship. They were so good together, and the bliss of last night only proved that more. Every time Victor thought about how far they’d come and how deep their connection now ran, he got so happy and excited that he wanted to start running. The future no doubt had more surprises in store.

No, the problem wasn’t his Yuuri. It was what to do about everything else.

From the very beginning, when Victor first made the decision to travel to Japan to become a coach, he had planned to return to competitive skating after the Grand Prix Final. He’d set out on this journey with the intention of regaining his motivation to keep going by helping to motivate someone else. Yuuri, who had also lost his way. It was a win-win situation for them both, and it had worked. Yuuri was thriving . . . and so was Victor.

He missed the ice. Missed skating and competing with his peers. It excited him again, and he often found himself distracted by ideas for new routines or choreography, just like when he was younger. It would be the perfect time to announce his intention to return and devote himself to preparing for the World Championship in the spring.

But Victor also wasn’t ready to stop being Yuuri’s coach.

He had hidden this struggle ever since the Rostelecom Cup. Being separated from Yuuri during a competition had not been a positive experience for either of them. Even knowing Yakov was there to support him hadn’t helped. No one knew Yuuri like Victor did. The idea of another coach someday taking Yuuri on as a student did not sit well with Victor at all.

And that . . . complicated matters.

He had already been having doubts for a while—he hadn’t expected to find someone so important to him in Japan—but when he’d left Yuuri behind at the Rostelecom Cup by himself, it had been a wake-up call. If that was what it was going to be like if they split up professionally, then Victor wasn’t interested. It had forced him to come to a decision.

While waiting for Yuuri’s flight to arrive at the Fukuoka airport, Victor had made up his mind to stay on as a coach and again delay his return to skating. He’d spent that time thinking of ways he could better help Yuuri prepare for the Grand Prix Final and beyond. When Yuuri had stepped off that plane and formally requested that Victor take care of him until his retirement, there was nothing to do but smile in response. Because of course, he would.

It had been a relief to hear Yuuri wanted their professional relationship to continue just as much as Victor did. But considering Yuuri’s age, that meant they still had years to go as coach and student . . . and Victor wasn’t getting any younger. In making that promise, his own return to skating was pushed far into the future. Too far. Victor would be in no shape to compete if he waited years to make his comeback. Retirement seemed like the only sensible option.

He’d been quietly grieving for his career ever since that night.

It hadn’t been too distracting in Hasetsu, but here in Barcelona, the ache in his heart bothered him a good deal. It was going to be so strange not competing at the Grand Prix Final tonight. He’d dominated this competition for half a decade. Mentoring Yuuri had been one of the most fulfilling experiences of Victor’s life—it was an honor to be here as his coach—but he would be lying if he said the loss of his skating career wasn’t a blow.

This was why he had left Yuuri sleeping in the hotel room earlier that morning and decided to go on this walk by himself. Victor didn’t want Yuuri to see him struggling with the weight of his choices. This needed to be done in private.

All the same, the problem bothered Victor enough that his mind searched for solutions. He would be Yuuri’s coach. That much was set in stone and not up for debate. But Victor couldn’t help but wonder if there was a way he could do that and keep skating at the same time.

How would it even work?

If he did decide to compete again, he would want to return to Russia to train under Yakov, who was the only coach he considered an option. Would Yuuri be willing to come with him? That was a lot to ask someone for, but maybe he would like the idea. He had lived abroad before, after all, and seemed to enjoy their international travels.

Assuming Yuuri would be willing to relocate, Victor could coach him when Yakov was busy with his other students. It would be a demanding task but not impossible. And he was Victor Nikiforov, after all. He met challenging situations with a smile and a wink. If hard work would ensure Yuuri’s training didn’t suffer for the sake of his own, then that was exactly what Victor was prepared to do.

But what about competitions? Would any overlap, requiring Yuuri to be there without a coach? And when (not if) both he and Yuuri made it to the World Championship, would Victor be able to properly support Yuuri as a coach and prepare himself to take the ice as a competitor at the same time?

What if Yuuri simply didn’t like the idea? Yakov would no doubt have a few things to say about it.

It was a complicated problem that would require more thought. Victor wasn’t yet confident that it would work, but even if he could find a feasible solution, this was not the place to talk to Yuuri about it. He needed to focus on the immediate task in front of him and shouldn’t be worrying about anything except his upcoming performance. If Victor wanted to keep skating, then this was his problem to solve.

Except that his thoughts on the matter were rudely interrupted.

Victor’s eyes went wide—because someone had snuck up behind him and kicked him hard in the back.

Then six more kicks followed in quick succession.

Ah. Yurio.

Even before Victor turned to look, he knew exactly who it was. He’d seen Yurio’s face last night at the restaurant after Christophe had pointed out the engagement rings. Phichit had jumped to a hasty conclusion that required clarification—no, they weren’t married, but they were engaged—but that did not seem to appease Yurio in the slightest.

He was a smart kid. Very observant of others. He knew the implications of those rings, even though everyone else at the table hadn’t yet made the mental leap that marriage meant Victor was likely going to retire from skating for good. It was a stretch to think he could be Yuuri’s coach, competitor, and husband at the same time. Out of the two of them, Victor was the more logical choice to retire because he was several years older and had already taken a step back.

And Yurio hated people who retired.

He was a fearsome fighter and took it as a personal affront when others weren’t willing to fight, too. It didn’t matter which one of them stepped down. If Victor or Yuuri both weren’t on the ice with him, Yurio was going to be pissed off about it.

He’d been hyperaware of Victor’s attachment to Yuuri from the beginning because he viewed it as a threat. He wasn’t jealous of the romance, and his anger had little to do with disliking Yuuri as a person. No, it was Victor that Yurio was upset with because he was the one who chose to step down. Leaving skating was the ultimate sin in his mind.

If he had really wanted Victor to be his coach, Yurio could have requested to train under him in Japan alongside Yuuri. But no, Yurio had wanted Victor back in Russia from the beginning because Yuuri wasn’t there for him to get attached to. Then there was the added bonus of luring Victor back under Yakov’s tutelage . . . and back on the ice.

Yuri Plisetsky was a very, very smart kid.

“Victor Nikiforov is dead,” Yurio proclaimed, venom dripping from every word.

He was also a bit of a brat.

Victor turned slowly and fixed him in place with a quiet look of warning. The Ice Tiger of Russia would do well to remember who put Russian figure skating on the map.

Because Victor Nikiforov was most assuredly not dead.

Not until he said he was.

Yuuri woke to an empty hotel room.

He sensed he was alone even before his eyelashes fluttered and parted to look around. There was a stillness in the air that told him Victor was gone.

Dust motes floated overhead, set aglow by the morning light streaming in through the large, uncovered windows. The angle of the sun suggested it was still early enough that he should just shut his eyes again and burrow back down under the covers. But without Victor there, he felt unsettled. Yuuri turned his head to gaze at the empty bed beside him.

He was aware of parts of his body that normally went unnoticed. There was an ache in his thigh muscles and lower abdomen . . . as well as deeper inside. The memory of what inspired that ache was enough to make him forget how to blink for a few seconds.

Will you please do it hard? Don’t hold back. I promise I’ll tell you if it’s too much.

Yuuri let out a whimper.

Had that really happened last night, or had he just dreamed up Victor pounding into him from behind with such power that Yuuri’s ass still felt heated and spanked pink? He was pretty sure he wouldn’t be able to feel his pulse in his nether regions if it was just a dream. But even as he blushed over the memories—each one making him burn a little hotter than the last—he also found himself fighting a smile.

As if sex with Victor wasn’t already amazing enough, last night had been mind-blowing. Cathartic. A release of both pressure and inhibition. He hadn’t even known it was possible to come that hard. . .

Nor had he previously understood the true meaning of embarrassment until Victor called down to the hotel staff afterward and cheerfully asked them to bring up a set of clean sheets because theirs were now too soiled to sleep on. Oh, and could they bring an extra set just in case they decided to have another round? Muchas gracias, Hotel Prince!

Sex without condoms was more complicated than Yuuri had realized.

Victor certainly seemed to like it, but Yuuri was . . . undecided. He still felt wet inside, even though they’d showered before going to bed. It wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. Just different. Something he needed to wrap his mind around.

Having Victor come inside him had been incredibly intimate. Even the sex itself—bare flesh against flesh—had been so much more personal than anything they’d experienced before. It wasn’t the physicality of it that bothered Yuuri. It was the emotional impact. He hadn’t realized until Victor suggested they stop using condoms how much he liked that little barrier of safety between them.

This wasn’t about the condom itself but what it represented. Protection. Just that tiny bit of emotional space separating them.

Yuuri might be comfortable with the physical side of sex now, having learned to trust Victor fully with his body, but sometimes the mental connection got a little intense. He wondered if Victor had noticed that Yuuri kept avoiding his eyes last night? Probably not. Either they hadn’t been facing each other, or Yuuri had his eyes closed.

Nothing was wrong. He’d loved every second of it and would do it again in a heartbeat. But ever since he’d first lost his virginity to Victor, Yuuri had remembered that frightening moment of vulnerability he’d experienced when he’d been penetrated for the first time. Victor had been so sweet to him, coaxing him through the panic with both words and touch, but Yuuri still hadn’t liked feeling exposed like that.

This was the part of sex he wasn’t fully comfortable with yet. Having everything exposed for someone else to see and scrutinize. Even Victor, whom he trusted more than anyone. Only a few times last night did Yuuri let that deep emotional connection start to take hold, but when it got too intense, he went in for a kiss before he truly began to fall into the depths of Victor’s eyes.

What was wrong with him? Sex shouldn’t be this complicated. Other people probably didn’t have this problem.

This was the first barrier in their sexual relationship Yuuri wasn’t sure he was going to be able to get past. The absence of condoms, he could live with. But when Victor wanted him to open his eyes and stare. . . ?

Yuuri blew out a breath to get his bangs out of his face.

Where was Victor anyway?

The room held little touches of his presence here and there, like the scent of his shampoo on the pillow. The clothes he’d changed into after last night’s shower were neatly folded and placed atop his suitcase. Victor’s black overcoat was still there by the door, but Yuuri’s smaller blue coat wasn’t. Had he grabbed the wrong one?

It wasn’t the first time Victor had disappeared without a word. Yuuri understood the importance of alone time better than anyone and would never begrudge him that, but he also didn’t like that he had to rely on Instagram to tell him where his boyfriend was.

He started to reach for his phone, but when his ring caught the morning light and winked at him, he forgot what he was doing. He found himself just staring at it instead.

Because he’d remembered that Victor wasn’t his boyfriend anymore. He was Yuuri’s fiancé.


Oh. Wow.

He placed a hand over his mouth as emotion overwhelmed him. His fingers were cold against his overheated face, and his heart felt ready to beat out of his chest. He wasn’t sure if it was panic or excitement was making it difficult to breathe, but it was probably both.

He’d felt just like this the night Victor had slept under the same roof as him for the first time, all those months ago in Hasetsu. It had taken Yuuri several hours of tossing and turning to work through the surprise and panic and come to the realization that his heart was pounding because he was happy.

Surely he was happy now . . . right?

Most likely, yes. But apparently his brain wanted him to have a proper freak-out session first before he would be allowed to enjoy anything. Maybe it was good Victor wasn’t around to see him getting this out of his system.

Drawing in a shaky breath, Yuuri rolled onto his back and held his hand out in front of him so that he could see the golden ring. Without his glasses on, he had to squint to make out the details, but even in his mind, the idea of married life was something hazy and indistinct.

It wasn’t that the thought of spending forever with Victor was unwelcome in anyway. Yuuri loved him so much, he couldn’t think straight sometimes. It was just . . . a lot to take in. Especially when he’d feared their future held something else.

Even now, wearing an engagement ring, there was still a stubborn part of his brain that was whispering in his ear: You need to let him go. You’re holding him back.

When he had bought Victor’s ring, Yuuri truly had meant it as a token of good luck and a way of expressing his thanks. It was a gift. Not a request. He knew the Grand Prix Final would be a crossroads for them, and Victor would return to Russia once Yuuri announced his retirement. He’d tried so hard to be at peace with that—because even though his heart was breaking, it was the right thing to do.

But who was he kidding? Yuuri had known exactly what that ring implied. The words had been on his lips when he’d slid it onto Victor’s finger.

After the Grand Prix Final, please stay with me forever. Don’t leave me behind when you go.

But Yuuri never did say it. He truly had let Victor go in his heart and could only hope he’d want Yuuri to come with him.

He hadn’t expected the second ring.

There was a sudden fluttering high in his chest, and a hopeful smile spread across Yuuri’s face before he knew what was happening.

There it was. The flood of joy coming to drown out the anxiety.

Because he was engaged.

To Victor Nikiforov.

Yuuri let his hand fall back to the bed, closed his eyes, and imagined what it would be like to be married. He had never dared assume he’d be asked to come to Russia . . . but if he was, he supposed they’d live in Saint Petersburg because that was where Victor’s coach was. He’d want to be near Yakov to train under him.

Victor had an apartment there, and Yuuri even knew what it looked like because it had been featured in magazines before. It had modern furnishings and very much suited Victor’s sophisticated style. Even with the industrial fixtures, there was something beautifully ethereal about the place, like it was a sliver of frozen time. Yuuri pictured them both there—laughing and preparing meals in the kitchen, bathing together in the clawfoot bathtub, making love in the bedroom with sunlight all around them.

And that could be his life forever. A beautiful thought. Like stepping into a photograph.

The only price was his retirement.

Yuuri opened his eyes and stared straight ahead at the blurry ceiling.

It was an unexpectedly painful thought. He’d made the decision to retire months ago, but sometimes when he thought about it, sadness weighed heavily in his heart, so much that it hurt to breathe. The date in question had always seemed far away, but it was upon him now. He was going to miss this. Even as difficult as it was and how often he was rewarded with nothing but failure, Yuuri had dedicated his life to skating. Not only that, but it was a special bond he shared with Victor.

Come to think of it, would they even have anything in common after Yuuri announced his . . . ?

He blew out another breath and squeezed his eyes shut, hoping to banish the unwelcome thought.

His brain liked to do that. Chip away at his dreams with doubt.

Just because he was retiring didn’t mean he had to give Victor up. In fact, it would make it easier to stay with him. But it still made Yuuri sad to know this was his final competition. He wanted to keep doing this with Victor forever, but he’d already made up his mind. Victor wouldn’t feel like he was free to make his own decision about returning to the ice competitively if Yuuri wanted to keep skating as well.

Stepping down was the right thing to do. Victor had given him enough. It was Yuuri’s turn.

They really needed to talk about this. It was time. He’d put it off long enough. But first, there was the small matter of winning the Grand Prix Final to deal with.

Piece of cake.

Yuuri couldn’t help but laugh at the impossible hole he’d dug himself into. It wasn’t like he’d declared on national television that he’d win the Grand Prix Final or anything. And he certainly hadn’t promised his family, friends, and coach over and over again that he would be the one standing victorious at the top of that podium. And last night at dinner, Victor had in no way implied that they would only get married after Yuuri won a gold medal.

No. Not a bit of pressure riding on him tonight.

With a groan, Yuuri rolled onto his stomach and buried his face in the pillow.

By the time Victor returned to the hotel grounds, there was no small amount of guilt troubling his heart.

Yurio had done what he could to rile him up. He’d said awful things he probably didn’t mean just to get a reaction . . . and it had worked.

Victor normally had a good handle on his temper. He might get angry from time to time, but he prided himself on responding with a cool head. Cheerfully, if he could manage it. But not today. Not with Yurio. Victor had grabbed his chin and was barely able to keep his hand from shaking while Yurio continued to run his mouth off.

Victor hadn’t hurt him, but he certainly shouldn’t have put a hand on him at all. He was an adult in the company of a teenager and should have set a better example with his own behavior. He would have to find Yurio later and apologize.

And then Victor needed to get a better handle on his emotions, or it was going to happen again.

What was wrong with him today anyway? He never acted like this. Perhaps the retirement thing was bothering him more than he realized.

When he neared the doors of the hotel lobby, a familiar face caught his eye. It was Yuuri’s sister, Mari. She was wearing sunglasses and leaning against a column outside of the hotel near a cigarette bin. She had one lit and held between her fingers, and she raised it in greeting when she spotted Victor.

At once, he put on a bright smile and lifted a hand in her direction. “Hi!”

It was a planned meeting. Mari had texted him while he was out on his walk and asked to talk to him alone. Hearing from her wasn’t a surprise. When their engagement had been announced last night, he’d seen the pointed gaze aimed in his direction. Yuuri was Mari’s little brother, her one and only sibling, and she was the sole Katsuki family representative here in Spain. It was natural for her to have questions for her brother’s fiancé.

Victor liked Mari. She was a hard worker, dedicated to her family, and supportive of Yuuri. As much as Victor loved and respected Yuuri’s parents, he knew where the real strength in their family was found. Mari was the cornerstone.

The problem was that he and Mari had never been able to converse easily. Her English wasn’t bad, but she wasn’t as fluent as Yuuri or Minako, who’d both traveled internationally for their careers. Meanwhile, Mari was working long hours at home to keep the family onsen afloat and hadn’t had as much time to work on her foreign language skills. That didn’t mean she wasn’t smart as a whip.

They spoke on a regular basis in broken English and in the simple Japanese phrases Victor had learned. They could wish each other good morning and make small talk, but beyond that, their conversations never had much depth.

As Victor approached, he saw that Mari wore a cautiously neutral expression. She wasn’t hostile by any means, but he could tell what was coming. She stabbed out her cigarette in the bin, grabbed one of two styrofoam cups of coffee from the ledge of the column, and held it out to him.

He thanked her for it in Japanese, and when he took a sip, he found she’d remembered exactly how he liked it. No milk but a generous spoonful of sugar. It was a promising start to what could very well be an awkward conversation. She’d extended politeness to him before anything else.

“Look,” Mari said in English.

She held out her phone, and Victor saw a Japanese/English translation website on the screen. He nodded, indicating he understood she meant to use it to help them talk.

She typed something into the phone and showed it to Victor. The translation wasn’t perfect, but he was able to get the gist of what she was asking him. Did you speak with my parents before you asked my brother to marry you?

“Yes,” Victor said. He set the coffee back on the ledge and typed into the translator, I received their blessing the morning we left for Barcelona.

Perhaps it was overly optimistic to call it a blessing. Yuuri’s mother had been very pleased, but Victor wasn’t convinced his father completely understood. He’d just patted Victor on the shoulder with his usual smile, wished him safe travels, and wandered off into the kitchen in search of breakfast. He could only hope Yuuri’s mother had cleared up any confusion.

Mari processed this information and looked relieved. “They did not say,” she replied in accented English. “Yuuri is my otouto.” She put her hand to her heart. “Only one.”

Another nod from Victor. “I know. You love him.”

“I love him,” Mari confirmed. The words were a little heated, as if she wanted to do the talking, and it was time for Victor to listen.

He smiled and hoped his silence would urge her to continue. It pleased him that Yuuri had family who cared about him this much.

“Yuuri is my otouto,” she said again. “You know what this means?”

“He’s your brother.”

Little brother,” she corrected. “You are little brother, too.”

Victor’s brows drew together in the middle. Her English made perfect sense, but he wasn’t following her meaning.

Mari huffed out a sigh, typed something into the translator, and then held the results out for him to read. If you marry my brother, you will become my brother through marriage. I will be your sister. Idiot.

Victor started to laugh . . . but his smile instead turned hopeful. This wasn’t the direction he’d thought this conversation was going. As if Yuuri himself wasn’t already treasure enough, Mari was trying to tell Victor he was also gaining a new family. Somehow that hadn’t sunk in yet. He looked up at Mari, expression soft. “Hai. I understand.”

“You love Yuuri?” she asked.

“I do, Mari. I love him very much.”

Her expression softened as well, but then she shook her head. The message she typed into the translator said: I’ve never seen my brother this happy before. You may call me sister now.

Another unexpected gift. Victor wondered if she realized how much having a family meant to him. “Mari-Neechan?” he guessed. That was what Yuuri called her.

Mari scowled, one of her eyebrows inching higher than the other. “Neesan. I’m bigger.”

Victor laughed. Yuuri didn’t use that formal of an honorific with his older sister, but Victor supposed it was fair that he was on probation pending further review. He bowed in respect to her. “Mari-Neesan.”

She looked pleased by this, but a hint of sadness shone in her eyes when she said, “Will you go to Russia?”

It wasn’t the complete question she wanted to ask, but it was easy enough to guess the rest. She was asking if Victor meant to take Yuuri to Russia to live with him after they were married. Victor held out his hand for her phone. Into the translator, he typed: I don’t know what will happen. We haven’t talked about any future plans yet. The competition has been our focus.

After she read his message, Mari sighed and typed a response. Be careful. My brother is near-sighted. Don’t be surprised if he already has plans you don’t know about.

Victor puzzled over the words before nodding to show he understood . . . even though he really didn’t. That was an odd thing to say. Had the translator gotten it right?

“Talk to Yuuri,” she said.

“After the Grand Prix Final,” Victor promised. “I will.”

Mari smiled and handed him his coffee again. She then grabbed her own cup, which had been resting beside Victor’s on the ledge, and held it up for a toast. After he touched the styrofoam rim of his cup to hers, they leaned against the column—brother and sister by agreement if not yet officially by marriage—and sipped their coffee together.

Yuuri was only just contemplating getting out of bed when he heard someone unlocking the hotel room door. Sitting up, he reached for his glasses and put them on in time to see Victor entering the room, a cup of coffee in one hand and a bottle of water held within the crook of the same arm.

“Oh, good,” Victor said as the door shut behind him. “I was hoping you’d be awake.”

Even with windblown hair and the wrong coat on, he still looked perfect, like he’d just walked off a Paris runway. He appeared to be in a very good mood and was smiling all over—from the wide spread of his mouth to his sparkling blue eyes. Even his posture was welcoming.

It was almost enough to pull Yuuri’s mood in a more positive direction as well. He always felt better when Victor was there. He had a way of making problems seem laughably simple—though he didn’t always understand an attitude change alone didn’t make those problems miraculously disappear.

“Vicchan.” Yuuri smiled and found himself blushing a little as he recalled all the things they’d done to each other last night. “You’re wearing my coat.”

When he heard his nickname, Victor’s eyes lit up even more than they already were. He really did seem to like being called that. It somehow felt far more intimate spoken here in a domestic setting than it was when Yuuri said it during sex. He would have to call Victor that more often.

“Well, it smells like my fiancé, you see,” Victor said. “My coat doesn’t, so the choice was obvious.”

Yuuri’s smile stretched wider. The sweetness of Victor’s words and the sight of a golden ring shining on his hand were almost enough to quell the tight bundle of nerves in Yuuri’s stomach . . . but not quite. His anxiety over the looming Grand Prix Final performance was still winning out.

As Victor unwound his olive-green scarf from his neck, he walked around to Yuuri’s side of the bed near the window. There, Victor tossed the scarf aside and held out the bottle of water he’d brought from downstairs, which was gratefully accepted. He then leaned down for a kiss.

Yuuri put a hand on Victor’s cheek and let his eyes drift shut. Even though the tip of his nose was pink and cold from the outside air, Victor’s mouth was so warm. His kiss tasted pleasantly of coffee and sugar.

After they parted, Victor said, “Good morning, my love.” He looked hazy and beautiful with the morning light streaming in through the window behind him. It was hard to believe he was real. “I heard the seagulls before the sun rose and couldn’t resist a walk. I would have woken you, but I figured you needed your rest.”

Yuuri’s blush deepened, both from the heat of the kiss and his fiancé’s words. Two words in particular. He liked the way they sounded, softened by the melodic timbre of Victor’s voice. They hummed in Yuuri’s mind in a very pleasing way. After he drank a few sips of water to wet his throat, he found he couldn’t help but confess exactly how much he’d like being called that. “That’s . . . a nice nickname.”

“What . . . ‘my love’?” With a gentle laugh, Victor placed his coffee cup on the window ledge and sat down beside Yuuri on the bed. “Funny you should say that. Do me a favor, and take off your ring.”

Yuuri frowned as he screwed the cap back onto the bottle of water and set it aside. He didn’t want to take his ring off. Ever.

“There’s something engraved on the inside,” Victor explained. “I was going to let you find it on your own, but this is better. Trust me.”

Oh. Now curious, Yuuri removed his ring and peered down at the inner rim, turning it in his fingers until he found the lettering. There, written in beautiful cursive English, were the words: On my love.

The connotation was immediately understood. It was the theme Yuuri had chosen for his skating season, one he’d shared with Victor many months ago when they were just beginning to open up to each other. And now to have those same words engraved on an engagement ring, it held another layer of meaning. Victor had put a ring on his love.

“I think that’s a very fitting endearment for you.” Victor took the ring from Yuuri and slid it back onto his finger where it belonged. Afterward, he brought Yuuri’s hand to his lips and held it there for a long kiss. “Perfect, actually.”

Yuuri suddenly had trouble sitting still. Throat aching with emotion, he got up on his knees in the bed and was hugging Victor before he could stop himself. He didn’t say anything at first. Just shut his eyes and squeezed. There were too many feelings welling up inside him to deal with all at once. Love. Gratitude. Anxiety. Dread.

Please help me, Victor. I need your strength today.

“Thank you,” Yuuri whispered because he didn’t trust himself to say anything else.

“Mmm.” Victor’s palm worked slowly up the length of Yuuri’s back. “You’re welcome, my love.”

“But I didn’t get your ring engraved.”

“Later. Much later. Actually, I’m afraid you’re going to have to knock me unconscious to get this ring off my finger. I’m rather attached to it now.”

Yuuri hugged Victor even tighter and rubbed his mouth against the solid strength of his shoulder. The hotel room was getting brighter. They were going to have to get out of bed soon and dress for the morning practice session at the arena, but all Yuuri wanted to do was hide here in the safety of his fiancé’s arms until tomorrow.

And it made him feel disappointed in himself.

An entire year had gone by since his abysmal failure at the last Grand Prix Final. Yuuri would have hoped his mental weakness would be a thing of the past by now—or at least quieted by the knowledge that he had so much love and support around him. But apparently an engagement ring from Victor Nikiforov was not a miracle cure for Yuuri’s anxiety. If he wanted to overcome this and face today with dignity, he was going to have to learn to silence his mind on his own.

“Is everything all right?” Victor asked quietly. His palm was now rubbing little circles in the center of Yuuri’s back. “Your heart is beating so fast.”

Yuuri allowed himself only another second to savor the comfort of Victor’s embrace before he drew back and let his arms fall away. “Don’t take this the wrong way . . . because I appreciate your support at competitions so much. But today at the arena, can you let me stand on my own? I want you there at my side like you always are, but I just . . . after last year, I need to. . .”

Victor’s eyes had narrowed while he listened to Yuuri’s struggle to find the right words. All of them sounded too harsh in his mind, and it wasn’t like he was trying to reprimand Victor for being so supportive of him.

“You don’t want me to coddle you,” Victor guessed.

Yuuri drew in a deep breath, and let it out slowly. A nod.

“I understand. I never liked that either.” Victor placed his hand on top of Yuuri’s. “You know all you have to do is hug me if you need help.”

The words inspired a smile from Yuuri that was surprisingly genuine, considering how nervous he felt. It was tempting to throw his arms back around Victor’s neck and ask for help right then and there, but Yuuri disciplined the urge. Instead, he lifted his chin and said, “I’m going to win tonight. I’m going to place first in the Short Program rankings.”

The Grand Prix Final is my last chance. There won’t be another.

“Just what I like to hear.” Victor squeezed Yuuri’s hand again—but then leaned in with a hint of steel glinting in his arctic blue eyes. “Now say it like you mean it.”

Yuuri blinked in surprise before realizing Victor was right. The words were lacking conviction. There was a part of Yuuri that still didn’t believe beating J.J. was possible, but he couldn’t let even a hint of doubt weigh him down today or he really was going to lose.

Determination hardened Yuuri’s expression, and when he spoke again, the words were so full of confidence that they were quiet. After all, there was no need to shout something that was simply a fact. “That gold medal is mine.”

A smile tugged at one corner of Victor’s mouth. He was pleased with whatever he saw in Yuuri’s face. “Now that’s much better.”

To be continued.