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Winter Song

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The two of them stayed in bed, indulging in each other longer than Yuuri probably should have allowed. After all, he did have a birthday celebration to get underway, but he hadn’t anticipated how distracted he might become by Victor’s hands.

Or his body . . . or his mouth.

Dear God, his mouth.

“Victor. . . ” Yuuri craned his head back to give Victor more room to work and let out a sigh of contentment at the feel of him. Warm and hard, cool and soft, and everything in between. “What time is it?”

Victor made a noncommittal sound and continued what he was doing.

He had Yuuri pinned to the center of the mattress, thighs spread and Victor’s beautiful fingers wrapped around his wrists, holding them down above either side of Yuuri’s head. Victor had him trapped, but it didn’t feel that way. Not at all. Yuuri knew Victor would do anything he wanted at that moment, if he were to ask. (Except maybe answer his question about the time, but Yuuri couldn’t fault him for that. He’d already forgotten why he’d asked.)

As Victor opened his mouth against Yuuri’s throat, his fingers moved gently against his wrists, caressing the delicate skin there. Yuuri’s thoughts blurred into pleasure. There wasn’t a hint of tension to be found in his body. Were Victor to let go of his wrists, Yuuri’s arms would still be left in place, unable (or perhaps unwilling) to move.

He licked his lips and whispered, “You could keep doing that . . . if you want.”

With a quiet chuckle that was felt more than heard, Victor dropped feather-light kisses on the underside of Yuuri’s jaw—warm at first, but then the wetness cooled on Yuuri’s skin, inspiring a delicious shiver to rocket up his body. He smiled and nuzzled against Victor, who had pressed his face into Yuuri’s neck.

For a long moment, they just rested there in the gentle pressure where their bodies were touching, with Victor’s breath tickling Yuuri’s skin and Yuuri’s thighs closing in ever so slightly against Victor’s hips. It was like they were hugging—like they were wrapped up tight in each other’s arms—even though physically they weren’t. The pads of Victor’s thumbs continued to trace circles on the insides of Yuuri’s wrists, whisper soft.

Outside their little cocoon of comfort, the world was still spinning, even though time had ceased to mean anything. The sound of city traffic hummed in the air, rising up from the streets below the apartment window, and as the sunlight peeked out from behind a cloud, it brightened the dark veil over Yuuri’s closed eyes. Though his inner-clock was not yet acclimated to this new country, something told him it was getting late.

He shifted and opened his eyes. There were goosebumps on his bare skin—everywhere except the places Victor was touching him—making him even less willing to get out of bed. Most of their clothing had been cast outside the covers. Yuuri was naked except for his underwear and socks, while Victor was wearing only his pants. Their bare stomachs moved in and out, their breaths synchronized in a near-perfect give-and-take.

Yuuri’s eyes slid to the mirror positioned on the wall to the left of the bed and took a moment to appreciate the gorgeous line of Victor’s body. His strong back dipped down into a trim waistline, but more distracting than that was the sight of Yuuri’s own body pinned willingly beneath all that beauty and perfection. If only he had more time to stare. “Weren’t we supposed to go to the rink this afternoon?” he asked, even though he really didn’t want to.

“Rink?” Victor’s response sounded very far away, drifting in the airy stillness overhead.

“We’re supposed to go meet Yurio and the others, remember? You told me earlier. They’re coming over for dinner.”


Victor definitely wasn’t listening.

With his well-kissed lips spreading into a grin, Yuuri freed one of his arms from the tenderness of Victor’s touch. “Vitya. . .” Yuuri murmured, his fingertips coming to tease the freshly-cut hair at the base of Victor’s head. It was cool to the touch and very soft, but the skin beneath was a blunt heat against the pads of Yuuri’s fingers. “It’s time to get up.”

Victor let out a sound of pure submission and all but collapsed on top of him. “Oh, my God. Yuuri, that feels so good. . .”

Though Yuuri’s eyes widened when he felt the full brunt of Victor’s weight on top of him, he didn’t protest or seek to get more comfortable. As Yuuri continued to pet him, Victor had gone boneless, and there was something so vulnerable about him in that moment that Yuuri felt a strumming against his heartstrings, followed by a nudge of guilt.

It wasn’t anything that could have been helped, but Victor had problems with tension and headaches whenever he went too long without being touched. Cuddling with Makkachin used to get him by during his bachelor years, but he hadn’t had his beloved dog or fiancé with him these last two lonely weeks in Russia. Then there was the added pressure of having to prepare for Nationals in such a short period of time. Victor’s shoulders, neck, and back were a mess of knots as a result. Even after the spa treatment and massage that Yuuri had gifted to Victor on Christmas Day, it was obvious that he was still holding on to some serious tension.

He pressed his face deeper into the side of Yuuri’s neck and said, “Please don’t stop.”

“Shhh, just relax.” Yuuri curled his fingers, gently scraping his nails against Victor’s scalp. “I’m not going anywhere.”

It was strange . . . but moments like these, when he was focused on taking care of Victor’s needs, made Yuuri feel even more loved and in love than he did at other times. More than when they kissed. More than when Victor smiled at him the way he didn’t smile at anyone else.

As he massaged the tension out of his lover’s body, Yuuri wondered why that was?

This whole year, Victor had been trying to teach Yuuri that he was surrounded by love, but this was somehow a deeper lesson than either one of them had expected to learn. If there was anything more powerful than finally accepting that he was worth being loved whether he was wearing a gold medal or not, it was coming to understand that another human being wanted to feel his love in return. More than that, Victor needed it. Seeing him so content to soak it in was the best feeling in the world, somehow even more satisfying than receiving love himself.

It filled Yuuri with amazement that Victor would open himself up like this with barely any prompting. For so long, he had kept his own needs quiet, choosing instead to focus on Yuuri’s alone. When had that changed? When had Victor felt comfortable enough to let it all balance out?

He had to, Yuuri realized. Victor wouldn’t have been able to keep skating if he didn’t let me support him the way he’s always supported me.

Yuuri pressed a kiss to Victor’s hair and said, “You’re really exhausted, aren’t you? I can feel how tired you are . . . how hard you’ve been working. . .”

Victor only hummed in response. His eyes were closed, his eyelashes resting long and lovely against his cheeks.

“You’re amazing, you know that?” Yuuri nuzzled the top of Victor’s head between kisses. “No one else in the world could have won that gold medal the way you did.”

A brief tension pulled at Victor’s face. The corners of his mouth tugged downward, and his eyes were sad as they opened and stared into nothing. “That was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Yuuri, I was so scared I was going to fail.”

Victor was still scared. Yuuri could feel it in his body, and it wasn’t difficult to understand why. It was going to be near impossible for Victor to be a coach and competitor at the same time. Yuuri had lost a considerable amount of sleep over the uncertainty himself.

“If you were doing this alone, you’d probably be in some serious trouble.” Yuuri paused long enough to kiss the little knot of tension between Victor’s eyebrows. “Good thing you’re not fighting by yourself anymore.”

Victor shifted and looked up at him.

“I’m here now,” Yuuri continued. “And so is Yakov and Yurio and everyone else. We’re going to figure it out, okay? One step at a time.”

Victor’s eyes were a clear, bottomless blue as they searched his. “Even if I do fail and place last in every competition for the rest of my life, I don’t care anymore. Winning a gold medal has never felt as good as skating with you.”

Yuuri’s fingers trembled as they ran through Victor’s hair, combing it away from his face. The unexpected compliment had left him shaken inside. “What was it that you wrote in my birthday book letter?” Yuuri said. “‘The real reward is in the journey.’”

“Yakov used to say that to me all the time, but I think trying to teach you the same thing was what helped me understand it and put it into practice for myself. I think that’s why Yakov finally stopped giving me such a hard time about trying to skate and coach next season.”

“He sees that you’re inspired again.”

Victor gave a little nod and smiled to himself. Then, in the blink of an eye, it vanished. Frowning, he pushed himself up onto his elbows and said, “Hey, what time is it? I think we were supposed to be at the rink an hour or two ago.”

Yuuri resisted the urge to roll his eyes and instead pressed his lips into an amused smirk. “We should probably get up, but I can’t move if you don’t move first.”

A wicked gleam surfaced in Victor’s eyes. He rolled his hips, rubbing himself suggestively against Yuuri in the process. When Victor’s efforts were rewarded with a gasp of surprised pleasure from Yuuri, followed by a burning blush at how shamelessly his body had responded, Victor laughed and leaned in to kiss him.

Closing his eyes, Yuuri moaned softly at the feel of Victor’s tongue teasing the seam of his lips. But after only a few seconds of opening up to indulge in those sweet kisses, Yuuri turned his face away. “Victor,” he said, pouting.

“We’re already late,” Victor said, his hand coming to guide Yuuri’s face back again. “What does another hour or six really matter?”

Victor,” Yuuri said again. Or at least, he tried to. Victor was kissing him, so what Yuuri actually said was closer to “Mmffmmrr.”

A buzz sounded at the front door.

Makkachin—who had been napping at the foot of the bed—popped his head up and let out a woof to alert his master. Jumping to the floor, his collar jingled as he trotted into the living room, a cloud of dog hair sailing into the air behind him.

“That’s the security desk downstairs,” Victor said. “Wonder what they want? I’m not expecting any visitors.”

“Hmm, maybe there’s a delivery for you.” Yuuri tucked Victor’s long bangs behind his ear, where they stayed for only a second before falling back into his face. “A birthday present, maybe. I wonder who could have sent it?”

Victor shifted his attention back to Yuuri, suspicion drawing his brows together in the middle. Then his eyes lit up as realization washed over him. “A birthday present from you? A birthday present for me, from you?”

Yuuri laughed and shrugged, trying to look innocent . . . but not really trying that hard. Victor’s childlike excitement was far too adorable not to encourage.

With a grin that seemed to burst forth from within, Victor threw back the covers and jumped out of bed. He lifted both arms high overhead for a stretch and said, “Oh, I feel so much better! I haven’t felt this rested in weeks.”

Half-listening, Yuuri found himself distracted by Victor’s bare chest and stomach, every inch of it more capable of slackening Yuuri’s jaw than the last. Victor’s pants were barely resisting the pull of gravity by hanging on to the enticing jut of his hips.

Glasses. Yuuri really needed to put on his glasses.

He retrieved them off the nightstand and slid them onto his face, just in time to be blessed by the sight of Victor bending over to grab a discarded piece of clothing off the floor. “Hey,” Yuuri said, smiling shyly as he sat up in bed. “That’s my shirt.”

Victor had left his own shirt on the ground and had chosen Yuuri’s black t-shirt instead. “Is it?” With a sly wink, Victor pulled it on.

Yuuri’s already slackened jaw sagged ever lower. The t-shirt was too small for Victor. It hugged his broad shoulders, showed off his biceps and chest muscles, and gathered attractively on his well-developed stomach. Dazed, Yuuri turned his face up when Victor approached and leaned down to kiss him.

“Love you,” Victor said.

Yuuri tilted his chin up a bit higher, silently requesting a second kiss. “Love you,” he said after he received it. Then he was burying his face in a pillow to hide his blush while Victor went into the living room to see about his birthday present.

Good grief. That shirt had never looked that good on Yuuri.

“Would you like some tea, my love?” Victor called from the other room. “Or I could make some coffee if you’re still feeling jetlagged.”

Yuuri lowered the pillow and blew out a breath. “Tea, please,” he called back. “Be there in a minute.” Getting to his feet, he combed his bangs back and looked around on the floor for his sweatpants.

In the living room, he could hear Victor speaking in Russian and could only assume he was calling downstairs to the security desk through some kind of intercom system.

Hopefully it really was a delivery. About time, too. The side of Yuuri’s mouth tugged into a smile. He’d been working on his plans for Victor’s birthday for weeks and was pleased things were finally starting to happen.

Once Yuuri located his pants, he quickly pulled them on. His goosebumps were worse than ever. Though the heater was running, there were so many windows in the apartment that it was difficult to eliminate the feel of winter entirely. Yuuri liked it, though. It gave the place an airy feeling and made him want to snuggle up with Victor and take turns sipping from a steaming cup of tea.

Since Victor had stolen his t-shirt, Yuuri was left to find something else to wear. He grabbed Victor’s Henley off the floor and blushed while he considered it. Before he could second-guess himself, he pulled it on and smoothed it into place. It was too big for him, and he had to push up the sleeves so that they wouldn’t fall past his wrists. The V of the Henley drooped low on his chest, but once he buttoned it all the way up, he was more comfortable with the fit.

The scent that clung to the material made him feel a little drunk. It was like being wrapped up in Victor himself—in his scent and implausibly, even the lingering ghost of his warmth. Yuuri hadn’t realized how intimate it would be just to wear something that had been on Victor’s body not long ago. It made him feel warm and cozy, like Victor was hugging him.

Smiling softly, Yuuri put his own arms around himself and hugged the shirt back.

He found Victor in the kitchen, heating up some water in an electric kettle. “Are you dressed?” Victor asked. “The doorman is going to bring up a delivery soon. I guess it was delivered while we were napping. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Yuuri lied. When he was close enough, he went up on his toes so that he could kiss Victor’s cheek. “Is that the tea my mom sent you for your birthday?”

On the counter, Victor had laid out the antique tea set Hiroko had passed down to him, and he was in the process of doling out a carefully measured serving of the tea. “Mm-hmm. It’s my favorite.”

While he watched, Yuuri wrapped his arms around Victor’s waist and leaned against him. “How do you say tea in Russian?”


When Yuuri repeated the word, Victor hummed in approval. They went back and forth while the water came to a boil, with Victor teaching him other words—like teacup, spoon, and kettle—and then pausing to let Yuuri repeat the word in turn. Victor offered gentle correction when his pronunciation wasn’t quite right, but his tone became more teasing the longer the lesson went on.

“What?” Yuuri asked, getting self-conscious. “Are you laughing at me?”

“Not at all.” Victor dropped a kiss onto Yuuri’s bare shoulder where the shirt was sagging. “Just enjoying the sound of your accent in my mother tongue . . . almost as much as I love seeing you in my shirt.”

As Yuuri’s face started to warm, there was a knock at the front door. Victor grinned and branded a blazing hot kiss to the side of Yuuri’s neck before he went to answer it. “That hickey I left on your neck isn’t half-bad to look at either,” he called over his shoulder.

Yuuri clamped a hand over his neck and hissed, “They’re going to hear you.”

Laughing, Victor opened the front door and greeted the doorman, who passed over a large vase of flowers that had been delivered downstairs. Though Victor remembered to thank the man and give him a tip for his trouble, his smile had vanished, replaced instead with a look of hushed astonishment.

Yuuri smiled as he covertly watched Victor’s reaction from the kitchen. Victor often bought Yuuri flowers, using just about any excuse he could come up with to gift them to him. Competitions, his birthday, and sometimes even when they went out on a simple weeknight date after practice. Victor also had roses waiting in the car at the airport when he’d picked Yuuri up earlier that day.

While Yuuri enjoyed the flowers because they were a gift from someone he loved, a part of him had always wondered why Victor loved buying them so much.

It was Yuuri’s mother who had given him insight into the answer. “It’s one of Vicchan’s love languages,” Hiroko had told Yuuri one night back in Hasetsu. “You have your own way of giving affection, but if you want to show Victor a special gesture, consider speaking to him in his language. Buy him flowers, and see for yourself how happy it makes him.”

So that’s what Yuuri had done.

Letting the door close behind him, Victor carried over the large vase of soft blue and purple hydrangeas to the kitchen counter and set them beside the lavender roses he had brought Yuuri earlier that day. Yuuri didn’t know much about flowers—just that they were ridiculously overpriced—but even he was pleased by how nice these looked. Of course, this was just the first of many presents today, but Victor didn’t know that yet.

“Did you send these?” Victor asked, eyes flickering up at Yuuri, his expression still compromised by surprise.

“Is there a card?” Yuuri hinted.

Victor’s cheeks had gone rosy. The color of the flowers flattered his complexion, and Yuuri couldn’t help but admire Victor’s beauty as he plucked a small, white envelope from within the flower arrangement.

While Victor stared down at it, Yuuri came over to stand beside him. The little card inside the envelope didn’t specifically state that the flowers were from Yuuri, so he figured he’d clear up any confusion. “This isn’t your whole present,” Yuuri explained. “Just the beginning of your birthday celebration.”

Victor was still gazing at the envelope, even as his arm went around Yuuri’s waist to pull him closer. “But you already gave me a present. And my birthday was two days ago.”

“No, I’m pretty sure today is your birthday.” Yuuri smiled up at him, and when he finally caught Victor’s full attention, he winked. “At least, this year it is.”

“I don’t know what to say. Thank you, Yuuri. They’re beautiful.”

“So are you,” Yuuri said softly, his eyes scanning every lovely inch of his fiancé’s face.

Victor’s blush deepened. It always surprised Yuuri how much compliments like that seemed to have a deep impact on Victor, who had to know already that he was nice to look at. But it never failed, when Yuuri told Victor he was beautiful, it was like his opinion was the only one that mattered.

Yuuri leaned up to kiss Victor on the mouth, then tapped the envelope in his hands. “You’ll see more of these notes today, so keep an eye out for them. I’m going to go get dressed for the rink while the tea steeps, okay?”

After Yuuri slipped away, Victor called out after him. “You don’t have to take off my shirt, you know. I don’t mind if you wear it.”

Turning to face Victor mid-stride, Yuuri smiled but then spun back around to hurry into the bedroom without saying anything. He was pleased enough to feel the need to duck his head down to hide his blush.

The truth was, he didn’t think he had the mental fortitude to just stand there while Victor read the note that came with the flowers. It was stupid, really. The note barely said anything at all. Just a few words written inside that he’d wanted to tell Victor for a long time.

To my Victor – you inspire me.

That’s all it said. Hardly a sonnet or some grand gesture of love, but it was the truth.

Yuuri had a difficult time expressing how he felt, especially when it came to using words. It just didn’t come naturally to him to be outgoing with his affection. With Victor, the affection rose up out of Yuuri with surprising ease, but he still had to fight the urge to hide it. He was doing better, ever encouraged by Victor’s beautiful reactions to any gesture of love he received, and Yuuri had gained a considerable amount of confidence as a result.

But of course, this note was just the first of several. Yuuri had more to say to his fiancé. Victor would receive five separate envelopes from Yuuri today, each with a different message.

However, just because he’d had enough courage to write them did not mean Yuuri was the type of person who could just stand there while they were read. Already, he was inwardly cringing and worrying about what Victor would think. If he teased Yuuri about the note, he was pretty sure he was going to feel self-conscious about it forever.

Trying to distract himself from his nerves, Yuuri went into the bathroom to splash cold water on his face, which banished the final traces of fatigue after his long plane ride last night. He then returned to the bedroom to change out of his sweatpants and into something nicer to wear to the rink. He wanted to make a good first impression with his new rink-mates.

Victor entered the walk-in closet less than a minute after him and touched Yuuri’s waist as he passed.

When Yuuri felt brave enough to steal a glance, he saw that Victor seemed to be lit up from within. It wasn’t just his mouth that was smiling. His whole countenance hinted at just how loved and special he felt at that moment. He glowed with it.

“How did you know I like hydrangeas?” Victor asked as he pulled a sweater off a hanger. “I don’t think I ever told you that.”

It wasn’t just hydrangeas that Victor liked. He loved roses, peonies, orchids and many other flowers as well, though he gravitated to the ones that were cooler in tone. Blues, purples, white, and occasionally a touch of the softest pink. In fact, the first thing that had come out of his mouth when they’d started talking about planning a wedding was that he wanted loads of flowers.

Did he think Yuuri hadn’t noticed?

“You didn’t have to tell me,” Yuuri said. “They just looked like you.”

Even those simple words seemed to please Victor greatly. As he pulled the sweater over the t-shirt he was already wearing—the one that was stolen and two sizes too small—Victor was practically radiating happiness.

Figuring out one of his partner’s love languages was kind of amazing. Yuuri made a mental note to send his mother a thank-you card. Maybe she’d like to receive some flowers, too.

They decided to travel to the rink on foot, which was only a pleasant ten-minute walk from the apartment. Late December in St. Petersburg was cold enough that it was difficult to think at times, and the sun made only the briefest of appearances through the heavy winter clouds. Yuuri felt optimistic and excited nonetheless.

It was hard not to, when Victor was in such a good mood. He looked far more rested than he had when he’d surprised Yuuri at the Moscow airport.

They took Makkachin down the street to a little park that he loved, where his excited barks soon faded into a look of focused determination. He set about sniffing around almost frantically. It was as if he had realized his scent had faded from his territory, so he hurried about, peeing on every tree, fence, and landmark he could find.

Yuuri and Victor stood side-by-side as they watched, both smiling fondly at the dog. Neither of them felt the need to talk much. The silence was filled by the sounds of the city and the breeze blowing through the icy branches of trees.

In time, Yuuri smiled up at Victor and bumped shoulders with him. “Hey, after Makkachin is done, can we make a quick stop? I need to pick something up.”

“Sure. What do you need?”

“I have the shop’s address on my phone. It should be on the way to the rink, if I looked at the map right.”

He held out his phone to show Victor, who looked a little puzzled by Yuuri’s evasion of his question. “That’s just around the corner,” Victor confirmed. “What kind of shop is it?”

“You’ll find out.”

“Yuuri . . . why do I get the feeling you’re plotting something?”

“Who?” Yuuri pointed at his chest, blinking innocently. “Me?”

Somehow, it was more fun not to try very hard to hide anything. Victor’s quiet growl made Yuuri feel all warm and fluttery inside. Grinning, he again bumped up against Victor and encouraged him in the direction of the park’s exit. Makkachin came bounding after them, tail wagging and not a drop of pee left inside him.

He trotted proudly at Victor’s side all the way to the shop, which was just a short distance away. Though Yuuri had trouble reading the Cyrillic on the signs, he knew they’d found the right place just by seeing the grand floral arrangements in the windows. He imagined that on a warmer day, the doors might be open with buckets of flowers arranged on the sidewalk out front.

It was a quaint little flower shop that Mila had helped Yuuri find. She’d also helped arrange this second surprise for Victor, and she had texted Yuuri earlier to let him know she’d confirmed everything was ready.

“I think this is it,” Yuuri said as he reached for the door.

“What . . . do you need here?” Victor asked slowly.

“Let’s see what they have for us.” Yuuri held the door open for Victor, who stepped inside wearing a look of hesitant surprise.

The young man behind the counter took one look at them and lit up with recognition. He started speaking in Russian and addressed Victor by name. Mila had clearly told him who to look for. (It certainly didn’t hurt that Victor was famous.)

Still hanging back by the door with Makkachin, Yuuri held up his phone and snapped a picture of the florist handing Victor a bouquet of lilacs that was tied with a satin ribbon. Victor was speechless and looked like he didn’t know why he was holding the flowers at all. He blinked at the florist, who continued speaking to him in Russian. Yuuri imagined the young man was assuring Victor that yes, the flowers really were for him, and yes, they were already paid for.

There was another envelope carefully nestled between the flowers, and Yuuri felt a pang of nervousness when Victor pulled it out. Unable to stand there while he read it, Yuuri thanked the florist with a nod and slipped out of the shop. Outside, he tried his best to relax. The frigid air felt good on his overheated cheeks.

He wondered how Victor would feel about the note. Would the words mean as much to him as they had meant to Yuuri when he’d written them?

To my Vicchan – you are kind.

Just a few short sentences, but they had taken Yuuri a long time to write. It was hard to boil down so many feelings into mere words. But that nickname was special to him. And Victor’s kindness, which he had gifted so generously to Yuuri from the beginning, was something he’d never be able to repay. Not with a million bouquets of flowers.

He wanted Victor to know how much his kindness had touched his life. Would he understand that, just from those six words? Surely not. Surely his eyes had glazed right over them because of how plain they were.

The little bells on the door jingled when it opened. As Victor stepped out of the shop and joined him on the sidewalk, Yuuri’s insecurity melted into love.

Victor was so pleased with the flowers that he had them hugged to his chest. His expression was softened with the most beautiful smile, and he was looking at Yuuri like he was the source of it all. “Yuuri, this is too much,” he said, though his happiness made it clear that it really wasn’t too much at all. Victor was loving every second of being spoiled. “You already gave me flowers today.”

“Yeah, but those are back at the apartment,” Yuuri explained. “You needed some to walk around with. How else will other people know today’s your birthday?”

“I love lilacs. They smell amazing!” As they fell into step together and set their path in the direction of the rink, Victor slipped the love note into the front lapel pocket of his coat, near his heart. “Is there an overall message with these little notes, or are you just trying to make me fall for you harder than I already have?”

“I just wanted you to know why.”

“Why what?”

Yuuri only smiled in response.

St. Petersburg was incredibly beautiful, with towering old architecture mixed with sophisticated newer constructions, as well as everything in between.

While they walked along the river, which wound through the city like a ribbon, Victor wasn’t able to answer too many of Yuuri’s questions about the landmarks they passed. Instead, he mostly talked about the places Makkachin loved to visit. Other than that, Victor seemed just as bewildered and curious about the city as Yuuri was.

It struck Yuuri that the way Victor looked at St. Petersburg was very similar to the way Yuuri once viewed Hasetsu. There were some unpleasant memories associated with this city for Victor—too many lonely days and nights with only Makkachin and ice skating there to keep him company—and from prior conversations, Yuuri knew depression was at the root of it. He understood the way the fog of unhappiness could blind someone to what was all around him.

But now, Victor seemed to view the city as a place he could share with a loved one, and it excited him greatly that Yuuri was now here to experience it with him. Victor spoke of festivals and events that he’d never taken the time to attend before and made Yuuri promise they could go together.

Up ahead was Victor’s home rink, which had the Russian flag displayed over the large, columned entrance. It was a mammoth structure that housed some of the greatest athletes in the world, a fact that both excited and terrified Yuuri. He’d wanted to come here for a good portion of his life, but Yakov Feltsman’s training camps were far too expensive for Yuuri’s family to afford. To find himself here now, alongside Victor Nikiforov himself, was more than Yuuri had ever hoped for. This moment was truly a dream come true.

“It’s bigger than it looks in pictures,” Yuuri said, lagging a few steps behind. “A lot bigger.”

Victor must have heard the nervousness in his voice because he chuckled and said, “Relax. Everyone’s been looking forward to seeing you.”

As they climbed the icy steps of the building, Yuuri spotted Mila and Georgi standing just outside the doors. It looked like they were enjoying an afternoon break. Mila sipped a hot beverage while Georgi was finishing up an apple.

When she spotted them, Mila nudged Georgi and threw up a hand in greeting. “Yuuri! Welcome to Russia!”

Yuuri was a little embarrassed but pleased with the warm welcome. The four of them lingered there on the steps for a few minutes, chatting about Yuuri’s journey and what he thought of St. Petersburg so far.

When Mila found out that Victor had chartered a private plane for the sole purpose of seeing Yuuri a few hours earlier than scheduled, she laughed and said, “Oh, Victor. You’re so thirsty. God bless.”

“I think it’s romantic,” said Georgi, who was turning out to be much more of a sensitive soul than Yuuri had ever suspected. Everyone who had witnessed Georgi Popovich’s skating knew he had a flair for the dramatic, but Yuuri had never been exposed to this sweeter, more romantic side of him. With a wistful sigh, Georgi added, “Maybe I should fly my Nadia on a private jet to our next date.”

“Didn’t . . . she break up with you?” Mila said, her tone bewildered. “Like a week ago?”

“Oh, she’s just playing hard to get,” Georgi said. “That’s what women do when they want you to get serious about pursuing them. They break up with you to give you the opportunity to prove your devotion.”

“Um. . .” Victor tapped a finger to his lips. “I’m not sure if that’s, um . . .”

“No, Georgi.” Mila shook her head back and forth, her red curls moving against her cheeks. “Bad. No.”

“But Victor chased his love all the way to Japan,” Georgi pointed out. “If it worked for him, then—”

No, Georgi.” Mila shook her head even harder.

“Yuuri invited me to Japan,” Victor clarified. “There’s a difference.” When Yuuri looked over at him, eyebrows raised, Victor said, “You invited me, even if you don’t remember it. Stop giving me that look.”

Georgi heaved a great sigh. “How can I show her what we could have if she won’t listen? She’s my One. My Forever. I feel it in the depths of my soul.”

“Maybe try feeling some restraint in the depths of your soul,” Mila said, “or you’re going to scare her off the same way you did Anya.”

Georgi’s lower lip started quivering. (Actually quivering. Yuuri hadn’t even known that was a real thing people did.) “Do not speak to me of the dead.”

Rolling her eyes, Mila said something disparaging in Russian that made Victor’s laughter ring out, bright and carefree. It echoed off the pillars of the building.

Though Yuuri’s shyness and unfamiliarity with his new rink-mates inspired him to keep quiet during this exchange, he found himself smiling nonetheless as he watched them. Throughout his career, he’d always been incredibly intimidated by the Russian team, what with their talent, good looks, and unflinching confidence. But like Victor, they were much more personable and friendly than Yuuri could have imagined.

All the same, he had little doubt that his new rink-mates were going to test the limits of his self-confidence during his time here in St. Petersburg. It was going to be difficult to feel comfortable skating here when there were so many unfamiliar eyes on him. But then again, Yuuri had once felt that way around Victor.

“Who are the flowers for?” Georgi asked Victor mournfully.

“They’re mine,” Victor said, hugging the lilacs to his chest. “From Yuuri for my birthday! Aren’t they amazing?”

Georgi’s head hung lower. “No one got me flowers for my birthday. . .”

Mila and Victor must have been used to hearing things like this from Georgi because they acted like he hadn’t said anything at all. Instead, they started talking about the flower shop surprise, which Mila had helped arrange with the shop owner.

Yuuri felt a little bad for Georgi. Mila had mentioned to Yuuri in text messages that Georgi’s birthday was yesterday, which was the day after Victor’s, and how Georgi felt that even his birthday was in Victor’s shadow. The plan was to celebrate both birthdays at dinner tonight, since Georgi and Victor had been occupied with Russian Nationals and traveling on the actual days.

“Oh, I almost forgot,” Mila said, her face lighting up with sudden glee. “You both have to help us. We’ve been playing a prank on Yuri since this morning.”

Like magic, her words pulled Georgi out of his gloomy thoughts. “Our Yuri,” he clarified. “Not yours.”

“The little kitten is just so pure,” Mila said. “It’s almost too easy.”

“We’ve even got Yakov playing along,” Georgi said.

Victor laughed. “Yakov’s in on it? This should be good.”

“We’ve been telling our Yuri that you and your Yuuri aren’t in a romantic relationship,” Georgi explained, “and that he’s misunderstood everything this entire time. Victor, it’s hilarious.”

“He’s so angry,” Mila added with glee.

“But surely, he doesn’t believe you,” Victor said. “He’s seen Yuuri and I together many times.”

“Of course, he doesn’t believe us.” Mila bounced on her heels while she spoke. “That’s what makes it so funny.”

“Yakov had him going good this morning,” Georgi said. “Yuri wasn’t buying it at all when it was just the two of us teasing him, but once Yakov joined in, you could see Yuri really starting to panic and doubt himself.”

“You two have to keep it going,” Mila said. “But it’s important not to change anything about your behavior. The more you flirt and act like a couple, the better to confuse him.”

With a grin, Victor looked at Yuuri. “Should we help them?”

Please, Yuuri,” Mila said, hands clasped in front of her.

Well, if he’d wanted a chance to bond with his new rink-mates, now was the perfect opportunity. . .

Smiling, Yuuri gave them a little shrug. “Seems like a waste of a good prank not to.”

They went into the building together as a group, with Mila leading the way and Georgi and Victor following just behind her. Yuuri was doing a decent job of keeping up until he got a good look at the place. Then he stopped walking and started gaping instead, his chin lifting higher and higher by the second.

The place was enormous, with huge windows that flooded the great room with light. Giant flags and banners removed all doubt that this was Russian territory. The fresh smell of ice cooled Yuuri’s lungs as he breathed in, eliciting a shiver.

There were quite a few people on and around the rink—young, bright-eyed students, as well as retired competitors coaching them from the sidelines. The rink itself was Olympic-sized, but it seemed somehow bigger. Perhaps it was because the room that housed it was so vast and open. Every shout and slap of skates on the ice seemed to echo a dozen times.

“Like what you see?” Victor asked. He had stopped to wait for Yuuri with a knowing smirk on his handsome face. He knew his home rink was impressive.

“It makes the Ice Castle look like a tiny, dark cave,” Yuuri said. “How could you even stand it there after having all this?”

“Excuse me,” Victor said, feigning offense. “I have very fond memories of that tiny, dark cave. I’d call it my home rink again in a heartbeat, but that doesn’t mean we can’t build some new memories here.”

He extended his hand to Yuuri, who took it and followed Victor further inside. There, they saw Yakov standing near the barrier of the rink, giving instruction to Yuri Plisetsky, who was on the ice and struggling to get his sweaty hair into a tighter ponytail. The hair at the nape of his neck was still too short to stay up.

When Yurio spotted them, his eyes went wide, and he drew a great deal of oxygen into his lungs, which he then used to yell across the building. “OY, VICTOR. KATSUDON. I WANNA TALK TO YOU.”

Yurio pushed away from the barrier and skated over to the opening of the rink. Once he slid a pair of guards onto his skates, he marched straight up to his rink-mates. “Did you get to him?” Yurio said in Mila’s face, then turned to address Yuuri. Jabbing a finger in Mila and Georgi’s direction, Yurio said, “Did they get to you?

Yuuri lifted both hands in surrender, laughing nervously. “Er . . . hi, Yurio. It’s good to see y—”

“Look,” Yurio said, cutting in. “Baba Ganoush and Vanilla Ice here have been trying to convince me all day that you and Victor aren’t completely gay for each other. And I’m not stupid, okay? Admit it. You and Captain Forehead are a thing.”

“I . . . um . . .” In his periphery, Yuuri could see Mila and Georgi stifling their laughter behind bitten lips. It was going to be hard to keep a straight face, but Yuuri had a lot of practice with pranks. He and Phichit used to play them on each other constantly in Detroit. “Hang on,” Yuuri said. “You think Victor and I are . . . ?” He pointed back and forth between himself and Victor and lifted his eyebrows.

“Wait, I’m confused,” Victor said. “Who’s Captain Forehead?”

“Yurio, Victor and I are just friends,” Yuuri said. “I mean . . . it’s even a stretch to call us that. He’s my coach. Getting involved with him would be so unprofessional.”

Victor had slipped an arm around Yuuri’s middle during this speech, fingers curling possessively over his hipbone. “So unprofessional,” he purred. “Can you imagine?”

Yurio looked like he was about to pull his hair out. “Are you freaking kidding me? You two kissed on television!”

“Allegedly,” Mila interjected.

“Where’s the proof?” Georgi said.

Victor sighed and shrugged, as if the whole thing was out of his control. “People see what they want to see, I guess.”

“You’re both wearing matching wedding rings,” Yurio said, undeterred.

“Well, they were actually meant to be good luck charms for the Grand Prix Final,” Yuuri said with a self-depreciating laugh. “They didn’t even work.”

“They worked at Nationals, though!” Victor sang. “My Yuuri won gold at last!”

“You pair-skated together,” Yurio said. “And what about you two kissing in those paparazzi pictures, huh? I was standing right there. What about that?”

Yuuri smirked and looked at Victor. That was going to be a hard one to explain.

But Victor just waved off the accusation with a laugh. “Oh, that was just a publicity stunt. We needed to give Yuuri a boost in the media.”

Yurio’s anger faded into a look that was somewhere between disbelief and concern. “Listen . . . are you two hiding your relationship because you’re worried I might judge you or something? Because that’s not going to happen. I mean, sure—I might throw up in my mouth every time I look at you, but if anyone else ever gives you a hard time, I’ll make them wish they were never born.”

“Thanks, Yurio,” Victor said, his smile heartfelt. “I appreciate that.”

“So you’re admitting it, then,” Yurio said. “You’re gay.”

“I never said I wasn’t. No one’s denying that. But seriously, Yuuri and I make it a point to keep things professional between us.” Victor hugged Yuuri closer to his side and said, “Don’t we, sweetpea?”

Completely professional,” Yuuri said, leaning into him. “Hey, coach—do you have any lip balm? My lips are feeling really chapped.”

“Oh, my Yuuri, I’m so sorry for not noticing. Here. . .” Victor pulled a jar of balm out of his pocket with a flourish and proceeded to apply a generous coating to Yuuri’s mouth. “You haven’t had anyone to hydrate these lips for two long weeks, have you? My poor, neglected student. . .”

“Mmm, you’re the only one who does it right.” Yuuri rubbed his lips together and smiled up at Victor with all the love in his heart. “Thanks, coach.”

Yurio looked back and forth between the two of them before storming off, muttering, “I fucking hate you both.”

Georgi and Mila were practically turning purple from trying to hold their laughter in, but they managed to wait until Yurio was out of hearing range before they let it all spill out. Victor hooked an arm around Yuuri’s neck and murmured in his ear, “Well done.”

Yakov had wandered over in the middle of all this wearing his usual scowl, and when Yuuri noticed him, he immediately went quiet. Yakov nodded a silent greeting before turning his attention to Mila and Georgi. “Your break ended ten minutes ago. I thought you wanted to leave early today?”

Both skaters tossed apologies over their shoulders and went to put their things down so that they could finish up practice.

“And who said you could take the whole day off?” Yakov said to Victor. “What is this you’re wearing? You’re not dressed to skate.”

“I took eight months off and won a gold medal after two weeks of practice,” Victor said. “I don’t think one more day will kill me.”

“Maybe not . . . but I might be tempted to.” Yakov turned to Yuuri. “And what about you? Where are your skates?”

“Um. . .” Yuuri could feel his body temperature creeping up beneath his coat. Was he supposed to come here prepared to skate today? Why hadn’t Victor told him? This was a horrible way to make a first impression at a new rink. “I, uh . . .”

“He’s just teasing you, Yuuri,” Victor said, tightening his arm around Yuuri’s shoulders. “Breathe.”

Yakov’s expression hadn’t changed, but when he spoke again, his tone was milder. “Today, you rest from travel. Tomorrow morning, bright and early, you come here and skate, yes?”

Yuuri stood up a little straighter. “Y-yes, sir. Thank you.”

“And we’ll work on that shit you seem to think is a Salchow,” Yakov said.

Yuuri deflated a degree. “Yes, sir.”

Yakov covertly glanced behind his shoulder, where Yurio could be seen doing furious laps around the rink, and jerked his chin in the young skater’s direction. “You kept the joke going with the Ice Kitten?”

A wicked gleam flashed in Victor’s eyes, his lips curling into a smile. “I told him the paparazzi pictures were a publicity stunt.”

“Heh,” Yakov said. “Heh heh. Back to work now.” He tapped Victor’s arm and gestured toward Yuuri. “Feed this boy something Russian. He needs to build strength if he wants to survive on this rink.”

The words made Yuuri go rigid with fear.

“You’re coming to dinner tonight, right?” Victor called as Yakov walked away. “You and Lilia?”

The older man gave a slight nod before returning his attention to Mila and Georgi, who were taking too long lacing their skates back up. While Yakov started shouting orders at them, Yuuri glanced up at Victor, who looked incredibly pleased that Yakov had accepted his invitation. The events of the last year had driven a huge wedge between the two of them that had lasted for months and months, so it was a relief to see them communicating again. Yuuri knew that Yakov was more than just a coach to Victor. He was like a father to him.

Why would he say that?” Yuuri asked. “That I’m not going to survive?”

“Because he likes you. If he didn’t, he’d just pretend you weren’t here.” Victor was gingerly touching his own hairline as he spoke. “Hey, who was Yurio talking about earlier? Captain Forehead or something. . .”

Filled with sudden panic, Yuuri smiled tightly in response. “Hmm?” he said and wandered off in the direction of the rink, pretending like he hadn’t heard the question so that he wouldn’t have to answer it.

Victor and Yuuri hung around for another hour or so until Yakov took pity on them all and dismissed his team from practice. After Georgi, Mila, and Yurio cleaned themselves up in the locker rooms, they left the rink and went together as a group to a food market to pick up supplies for dinner.

“Who are the flowers for, Victor?” Yurio said, his tone revealing he was still just as annoyed as earlier. He was lagging behind the rest of the group and wearing a sullen expression, his hands jammed into his team jacket to keep them warm. “You bought them for katsudon, didn’t you?”

“Actually, it’s the other way around,” Victor said. “Yuuri bought them for me.”

Yurio’s glare shifted to Yuuri. “Sounds like something a boyfriend would do.”

“Oh, Yuuri’s definitely not my boyfriend,” Victor said, laughing. “That, I can promise you.”

Which was true. He and Yuuri had shed that label and graduated to “fiancés” when they’d come to the agreement that marriage was in their future. Even without an official proposal, they knew they were getting married one day.

Victor still had his arm around Yuuri. The sweet scent of the lilacs enveloped them in their own little world where it was springtime, when all around them was the bitter cold of a Russian winter. Yuuri felt warm with happiness . . . even though Yurio was making gagging noises behind them.

The others teased Yurio all the way to the market, which was located across the street from Victor’s apartment building. By the time they reached their destination, the young skater was smoldering with fury, and Yuuri was feeling a bit guilty for taking part in the prank. There was only so far he could push things like this before giving in.

They left Makkachin secured outside the market and went inside for a quick shopping trip. There, Yuuri stepped out from beneath the comfort of Victor’s arm and joined Yurio on the hunt for supplies for tonight’s dinner. Georgi and Mila disappeared down one of the aisles together. They had all agreed to make different dishes that they could share. Yuuri’s personal plan was to make Victor and Georgi a pair of birthday cakes, and his mother had sent him to Russia armed with a family recipe, which he pulled up on his phone and showed to Yurio.

“Doesn’t look too hard,” Yurio muttered as he scanned the instructions. “You sure this recipe doesn’t suck?”

“It’s from my mom,” Yuuri said.

“Hmm. I guess it’s probably okay, then.”

Victor followed them with the cart, watching fondly while Yurio helped Yuuri find the items on his checklist. Some of the ingredients were easy enough to identify just by looking at them, but he needed Yurio’s help reading the Cyrillic on the labels. Together, they found almost everything on the list—flour, sugar, eggs, oil, vanilla extract. Yuuri checked off each ingredient on his phone once it was placed in the cart.

“What are you two planning to make tonight?” Victor said. “Looks like something sweet.”

“None of your damn business,” Yurio said. “Hey, geezer. What kind of baking pans do you have at your apartment?”

“That depends. What are you planning to bake?”

Tsch. Nice try.” Turning to Yuuri, Yurio said, “He probably doesn’t remember half of what he has in his own damn kitchen anyway. If he doesn’t own the right pans, I’ll get Lilia to bring something over. What’s next on your list?”

“Um, let’s see.” Yuuri blinked down at his phone. “Do you think they sell birthday candles here? We need to get enough for both Victor and Georgi.”

“Those are a few aisles over, but I doubt they sell them in packs that big. Hey, can we get the trick candles that keep relighting themselves again and again, no matter how many times you blow them out?”

“Sure. Why not?”

Yurio brightened, instantly cheered by the prospect of revenge. “Haha, yes!”

Yuuri smiled as he watched the teenager skip off down the aisle in search of candles, and then he glanced back at his future husband, who was eyeing the groceries in the cart with a smug expression. “You’re making me a birthday cake, aren’t you?” Victor guessed.

“I’m making Georgi a cake,” Yuuri said. “You’ll have to be on your best behavior if you want one, too.”

Victor’s smugness faded into bewilderment. “Georgi? Why does he get a cake?”

“What do you mean? Yesterday was his birthday.”

“Really. . . ?”

Yuuri closed his eyes and took a deep breath. Oh, Victor, he thought.

They met up with Mila and Georgi some time after that. The two of them had filled another cart with ingredients for a sizeable family dinner—meat, vegetables, bread, appetizers, and wine. “Where did the Ice Kitten go?” Mila asked, looking around for Yurio and not finding him.

It was a good question that Yuuri had been wondering the answer to himself. Yurio had been gone way too long to just be getting birthday candles.

“I sent him on a little errand,” Victor said. Winking at Yuuri, he added, “You’re not the only one who has a surprise in store for tonight.”

In time, Yurio returned with the birthday candles, as well as some meat wrapped in paper, a box of bread crumbs, and rice. He snuck bottles of saké, soy sauce, and mirin into the cart when Yuuri wasn’t looking, but he spotted them when they were paying for the groceries at the front.

Yuuri frowned, confused by what he was seeing. Those were the ingredients for katsudon.

But . . . weren’t they going to have a traditional Russian dinner? Why would Victor want a Japanese dish on the menu? Maybe he was trying to make Yuuri feel more at home, but Victor knew better than anyone that he wasn’t allowed to eat katsudon on his current diet. . .

Then Yuuri remembered. Yes, he was allowed to eat it.

He’d won a gold medal last night.

Victor might not remember half his promises or that Georgi Popovich’s birthday took place the day after his own, but he had remembered a promise he’d made to Yuuri many months ago. They were going to eat katsudon together tonight.

Yuuri looked at Victor, hopeful surprise written all over his face. Oh. He hadn’t expected that.

“Pretend you didn’t figure it out,” Victor said, “and I’ll pretend I don’t know about the cake.”

“What cake?” Yuuri teased.

The clerk at the front of the store was an older woman with plump, rosy cheeks and an apron tied around her waist. From behind the counter, she pulled out a bouquet of soft pink peonies and held them out to Victor, who just blinked at her in confusion until he finally figured out that they were a gift meant for him.

Yuuri glanced at Mila, who grinned back. She had snuck off while they were shopping to talk to the clerk about giving Victor the flowers. “Thank you,” Yuuri mouthed silently to her.

While the clerk bagged up the groceries, Victor just stood there in stunned silence with the flowers in his arms. He had two bouquets now, and the gentle pink of the peonies matched the color of his cheeks while he retrieved a small white envelope from among the blossoms.

This one said: To my Vitya – you are beautiful.

And Yuuri had absolutely nowhere to run while Victor read those words.

He stood there, sweating and squirming and praying none of the other skaters would see what he’d written. Thankfully, after Victor read the note, he folded it up carefully within his hand and brought it to his heart. He was silent for a long moment and didn’t hear when the clerk told them in Russian to have a nice day. (Yuuri, on the other hand, was quite proud of himself for understanding what she’d said.)

Even after they left the market, Victor was quiet. If he had looked pleased or flustered after Yuuri’s first two notes, this third one had seemingly left Victor shaken.

“Are you okay?” Yuuri asked when they had a moment alone together.

Victor had his nose buried in the peonies but looked up at the question. His gaze came to rest on Yuuri’s hands, which were busy untying Makkachin’s leash from an iron fence in front of the market. “I just don’t understand,” Victor said quietly.

“What do you mean?”

“You already bought me the most beautiful flowers. No one’s ever. . . I’ve never had someone. . .” Victor trailed off, as if unable to properly phrase what he wanted to say.

“Well, you didn’t have any pink flowers yet,” Yuuri pointed out. “How will people know it’s your birthday if you don’t have a bouquet of pink flowers to walk around with?”

With Makkachin’s leash in hand, Yuuri straightened and moved closer to Victor, who now had actual tears glittering in his eyes. The others were waiting for them, but Yuuri couldn’t help but give Victor a hug, right there in the middle of the sidewalk. It was a little awkward, with Victor’s arms filled with flowers, a bag of groceries sitting on the ground at their feet, and Makkachin jumping up to paw at them like he wanted a hug, too.

“Baby, this is the best birthday I’ve ever had,” Victor whispered, leaning his body into Yuuri’s. “But I still don’t understand. Why are you so sweet to me?”

“Haven’t you been paying attention to my notes?” Yuuri smiled and gave him a final squeeze. “Come on. Your birthday is just getting started, and I’m hungry for some katsudon and cake.”

Wearing a scowl that vacated the sidewalks in front of them, Yurio led the way back to the apartment while the others followed behind with their arms laden with grocery bags. All except Victor, that is, who was carrying too many flowers to make room for anything else. He hugged them to his chest and smiled so brightly that the now-absent sun in the wintery sky went unmissed. Already, it was getting dark outside.

When they arrived, they went upstairs to Victor’s apartment and dumped all the groceries on the counters. Makkachin kept getting tangled up underfoot, almost tripping people with his leash again and again. He was excited to see so many familiar faces, especially Yurio’s.

Unfortunately, Yurio had never forgiven Makkachin for not being a cat and refused to give him anything more than a reluctant scratch behind the ear. “Victor, get your smelly dog out of the kitchen. We’ve got work to do.”

“You wouldn’t kick your cat out of the kitchen if she was here,” Mila teased. “You’d probably wrap her around your neck and wear her like a stole.”

“Yeah, well, my cat doesn’t smell like dog. Now, move. I need to preheat the oven.”

It was at that point that Yurio took charge of the kitchen and started issuing orders. While he tied an apron around his waist, he assigned everyone a job and gave them hell if they didn’t snap to it. He ordered Georgi to start chopping vegetables while Mila set about searing a roast on the stove, which would soon go in the oven. Yuuri got started on the cake recipe while Yurio measured out ingredients for the dough of his grandpa’s famous pirozhki.

“Why can’t I help?” asked Victor, who had been banished to the outskirts of the kitchen.

“Because you don’t know how to follow instructions,” Yurio said. “You always think you know best and do everything your way, no matter what anyone else tells you.”

Victor considered this for a moment. “And that’s a bad thing?”

With a scathing look, Yurio said, “Go clean the bathroom or something.”

Into the oven went the roast, nestled in a bed of carrots, onions, and parsley, and doused with a generous splash of kvass. It was a beloved family recipe that had been passed down from Mila’s grandmother, to her father, and then to Mila herself. With that taken care of, she started cleaning up the mess while Yuuri ransacked the kitchen cabinets on the hunt for a cake pan.

Georgi heaved sigh after wistful sigh as he watched Victor arrange his newest flowers in vases. There were already two other bouquets on display—the hydrangeas from earlier, as well as the lavender roses that Victor had given to Yuuri at the airport. The apartment was starting to look like a flower shop.

“Oy, katsudon,” Yurio said. “What’s that on your neck?”

Eyes widening, Yuuri slapped a hand over the hickey Victor had given him when they were in bed together. A winter coat and scarf had kept it covered throughout most of the day, but Yuuri had shed all those extra layers when they’d arrived at the apartment. Now he was dressed in an oversized button-down sweater that he’d borrowed from Victor’s side of the closet, and he was still wearing the beige Henley beneath that.

Yuuri had forgotten about the hickey. “Um. . .”

“Is that a bruise?” Yurio said, clearly not recognizing the mark for what it was. “You fall or something?”

Standing over by the stove, Mila started sniggering under her breath.

“Kind of?” Yuuri said. “I slipped earlier in the shower.”

This wasn’t a lie. Victor’s fancy shower had all but assaulted him earlier that day. It was a little funny, though. Yurio had finally spotted clear evidence of Victor and Yuuri’s relationship but hadn’t figured it out yet.

“You fell in the shower and landed on your neck?” Yurio scoffed. “What a loser. Hey, Victor. We can’t find a cake pan. Do you own one or not?”

Before Victor could offer a response, a buzz at the door distracted him. “Hang on,” he said and walked over to the intercom panel that was located on the wall beside the front door. Someone from the security desk downstairs was calling again.

Yuuri peeked over the kitchen counter to watch.

Even as he smiled to himself, knowing Victor was about to receive yet another birthday surprise, Yuuri felt a stab of nervousness right in the center of his heart. All of these gifts were headed in a specific direction, and as much as Yuuri had mentally prepared himself for tonight, he suddenly felt like it was all happening too fast.

Deep breaths, he told himself. You can do this.

I think. . .

Abandoning his search for the cake pan, Yuuri fled to the bathroom instead. There, he rifled through Victor’s drawers until he found some concealer, which he then used to hide the hickey on his neck.

From the bathroom, he heard when the front door of the apartment opened. Then came the muffled sound of Mila’s voice. “Victor, they’re beautiful!” she gushed. “Set them down over here. Yuri, move that cutting board to make room on the counter.”

Victor had received his fourth flower delivery, then.

Yuuri had given him white orchids this time, a flower Victor had confessed his admiration for more than once. He loved the way the elegant blossoms dripped down from the artfully-curved stems. Yuuri had specifically ordered them to come with the roots still potted so that Victor could keep them long after the other birthday flowers had withered.

Enclosed with the orchids, the fourth note said: To my Vitenka – you make me happy.

Were Victor’s reaction to the first three notes anything less than amazing, Yuuri might never have come out of that bathroom again. There was a part of him that could not believe he’d had the courage to say or give any of this to Victor . . . but he had. Yuuri had little doubt that he was in for a life-long struggle with his own insecurities, but Victor wasn’t one of those insecurities anymore. Yuuri loved him, and he knew Victor was going to react beautifully to the flowers and note because he loved Yuuri, too.

That’s how it always was with Victor. When Yuuri opened up, Victor met him where he was. Enthusiastically. That was part of the joy of their relationship.

As Yuuri’s eyes locked onto his own reflection in the mirror, he was filled with a strange confidence that calmed him. “You can do this,” he told himself again—this time, with conviction.

Now that he’d gotten a better handle on his nerves, he was curious what Victor thought of the orchids. Yuuri opened the door but came to a sudden stop, one hand still resting on the handle. He blinked, his lips parting in anticipation.

Victor had come into the hallway, a small white envelope held in one hand, and was walking in the direction of the bathroom wearing a look that could have made all the water in the pipes explode into steam.

And he wasn’t slowing down.

“V-Victor?” Yuuri asked.

That’s all he managed to get out before Victor put both hands on Yuuri’s shoulders and guided him backwards into the bathroom. The door closed behind them, ensuring their privacy. As Yuuri gazed up at his fiancé, silent questions in his eyes, Victor answered him only by drawing him in for a long kiss.

Surprised, Yuuri resisted for only the briefest of moments before he closed his eyes and gave in. A soft moan slipped out between kisses, and his arms went around Victor’s neck, pulling him closer. Yuuri hadn’t even known how badly he needed to be kissed until it was happening. It felt amazing, like being wrapped in a warm blanket after a long day spent outside in the cold.

As they kissed, they forgot about their guests, who were still in the other room of the apartment. They forgot about dinner and everything else, for that matter. All Yuuri wanted anymore was the heat of Victor’s mouth and the gentle pressure of his hands. It was impossible to live without such things anymore, as vital to his continued existence as food or oxygen.

Victor backed them up against the bathroom counter, his hands moving from Yuuri’s hips to his ass, and then lifted him up to sit on top of it. Whatever decorations or toiletries Victor kept on the counter fell over and clattered to the white marble, disturbed by their movements. Neither one of them noticed. Yuuri spread his thighs, dragged his hands down the gorgeous, masculine contours of Victor’s neck to his chest, and gripped handfuls of his sweater to make sure he didn’t go anywhere.

They made out until their lips were red and swollen, and their pants had grown uncomfortably tight. Only then did they draw back to gasp for air, search each other’s eyes, and go in for just a little bit more. Just one more kiss before they had to return to reality. . .

Even then, after the heat of the encounter calmed to a simmer, they stayed there with Yuuri seated on the counter and Victor held between his thighs. With their faces pressed to each other’s shoulders, they hugged, tighter and tighter until something deeply satisfying seemed to click into place. It was then that they finally relaxed.

“I take it you liked the flowers?” Yuuri guessed. He could feel his pulse in his lips, as well as against the zipper of his pants. Good thing he was wearing a long sweater.

“That would be an understatement.” Victor rubbed his face against Yuuri’s shoulder and gave him another squeeze. “Would it be rude to ask our guests if we could postpone dinner to tomorrow? Or maybe the day after that. Or what about after New Years?”


“Because that’s how long I plan to have you naked in our bed.”

Blushing, Yuuri drew back and said, “No. It’s your birthday. We’re having this dinner tonight.” When Victor opened his mouth to protest, Yuuri clamped a hand on top of it. “Then, after I give you your present, you can have me.”

Victor moved Yuuri’s hand off his mouth. “What do you mean, after you give me my present? You’ve been giving me presents all day.”

“I already told you, the flowers aren’t all of it.”

“Yuuri. . .”


“What kind of present? Tell me what it is! You know how much I hate waiting. . .”

“Oh, you do not. You’re loving every second of this, and you know it.” With a teasing smile, Yuuri gave Victor one last peck on the lips and pushed against his chest to indicate his desire to get down from the counter.

As requested, Victor backed up but kept his hands on Yuuri’s waist until he was safely on the ground again. “I can’t even have one little hint? Is it big? Small? Does it bark or meow?”

“It’s not flowers,” Yuuri said. “There’s your hint. Come on. The others are probably wondering where we went.”

Victor opened the bathroom door and was about to lead the way back to the kitchen when he stopped in his tracks, almost causing Yuuri to bump into him from behind.

Yurio had jumped into the doorway. “Ah hah!” he declared, jabbing a finger at Victor’s face. “Caught you red-handed.”

“Oh, hey there, Yurio,” Victor said. “Did you need to use the bathroom?”

No. What were you two doing in there all alone, huh?”

“Yuuri was just helping me straighten up. You told me to clean the bathroom earlier, remember? See? I do know how to follow instructions.”

Yurio got up on his tippy-toes so that he could see past Victor’s shoulder into the bathroom. There, Yuuri smiled nervously back as he straightened the items they’d knocked over on the countertops. They were going to have to be more careful when and where they chose to get physical with each other.

Since it really did look like Yuuri was cleaning, Yurio’s triumphant smile faded into something else. If Yuuri had to put a name to the emotion, he might suspect Yurio was getting frustrated by all the teasing. He knew people were lying to him, and it was starting to hurt his feelings.

Victor ruffled Yurio’s hair as he walked past him into the apartment. “Bathroom’s all yours, kiddo.”

“I don’t have to use the stupid bathroom,” Yurio yelled at Victor’s back. “And I’m not a kid!” He reared around to level Yuuri with a glare—like how dare he not get caught making out with Victor—and said, “Do you want to make this cake or not? I’m not doing everything by myself.”

“Yeah, sorry,” Yuuri said. “Let’s go finish up. Hey . . . Yurio? You know we’re just teasing you, right?”

Yurio hesitated mid-turn, still glaring. He waited for Yuuri to explain what he meant.

“Victor and I,” Yuuri said. “You’re right about us. We’re together.”

“Together, like you’re a couple? Like you love each other and stuff?”

“Yes. Don’t tell the others I told you. But yes.”

Maybe he shouldn’t have ruined the prank, but Yuuri couldn’t help it.

There was something in Yurio that made Yuuri want to show him what it felt like to truly be included in a group. A little joke was harmless, but the last thing he wanted to do was make Yurio feel like he was on the outside. A well-meant joke was supposed to make someone feel like part of the group—not separated from it.

Like magic, Yurio’s aggression melted into a tiny smile. “Cool,” he said. “But I swear, katsudon, if either you or Victor threaten to quit skating again because you’re too busy getting married or adopting puppies or whatever, I’m going to kick both your asses. That’s bullshit.”

“Don’t worry,” Yuuri said. “Victor and I aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future.”

“Good. Make sure it stays that way.”

Just as Yurio started to walk away, Yuuri called after him, “We could keep it going, you know.”

Yurio paused and lifted an eyebrow, cautious but still listening.

“The joke, I mean,” Yuuri said. “No one else knows that you know the truth about my relationship with Victor. We can use that.”

“We?” Yurio asked. “Like, the two of us teaming up to play a prank on everyone else?”

Yuuri smiled, pleased that he had the opportunity to teach his young friend what it felt like to be part of something. “Exactly. We Yuri’s have to stick together.”

As Victor went out into the living room, he tucked Yuuri’s note into his pocket and smiled to himself.

His Yuuri had certainly spoiled him today. There were flowers everywhere Victor looked—on tables in the living room, by the front door, and on the counter in the kitchen. They made the apartment seem to come alive, whereas before, it had always felt so still. Like a photograph with no one in it.

Victor had spent many lonely nights in this place, with nothing to break the silence except his phone and no energy to cook a meal just for himself. What was the point? But it didn’t feel like that anymore. Tonight, the apartment was buzzing with activity, filled with the voices of people and the smell of good food. Makkachin was finally home again, and Yuuri would hopefully soon settle in and feel like this was his home as well. However, it wasn’t just the two of them that Victor now felt warming up the apartment.

These past two weeks, having returned to St. Petersburg after spending nearly a year with someone else’s family, Victor had come to realize that he had a family of his own waiting for him in Russia. He always had.

There were his rink-mates, whom Victor had always held at arm’s length when he was so bogged down with depression. They’d welcomed him back into the fold like no time had passed at all, and more than once, they remarked that Victor seemed like a different person now. He was softer around the edges—more genuine and fun—and it was nice to have someone care enough about him to notice those changes.

And then there was Yakov. . .

Victor’s relationship with his coach was complicated, and he supposed it always had been, though he had only just figured that out in the past year. As it turned out, there was a huge difference between how Victor had once perceived his relationship with Yakov and the reality of what it actually was.

Before he went to Japan, Victor hadn’t acknowledged in his heart that Yakov was anything more to him than a figure skating coach. Victor had broken off their relationship like it was nothing but a business transaction, but he couldn’t just dismiss the person, who for all intents and purposes, had spent the last twenty years being a father-figure to him.

That’s why Yakov had been so angry with him for so long . . . because Victor had treated him like an employee instead of family. He could see now how wrong it had been to just leave like that, when all he had to do was involve Yakov in the discussion.

They’d since had several long talks now that Victor had returned to St. Petersburg, and he’d had the chance to explain to Yakov how uninspired and unhappy he had been. Victor would have retired from skating entirely if he hadn’t taken that break, so it was really the only option. While Yakov still had strong opinions of his own that often differed from Victor’s, the fact that they were talking about it had made all the difference in their relationship. It didn’t matter if they disagreed, but it did matter that they were still a family afterward. Now that Victor had acknowledged Yakov’s place in his life as far more significant than that of a coach, the two of them were doing just fine, arguments and all.

Being with Yuuri’s family in Hasetsu had been wonderful. They’d accepted Victor like he and Yuuri were already married, but what made Victor especially happy was that he could now give Yuuri the exact same thing. A second family, this one Russian. Victor’s family would soon be Yuuri’s, too. He just knew they were going to love him.

Victor went to pour himself a glass of wine and chat with Mila and Georgi, who were laying out appetizers for everyone to enjoy before dinner. Yurio and Yuuri eventually rejoined them in the kitchen, and their amused smiles and quiet conversation left Victor wondering what they were talking about with such secrecy.

Since there were no cake pans anywhere to be found in the apartment—to be honest, Victor wasn’t even sure what a cake pan looked like or why everyone seemed to think he owned one—Yurio texted Lilia to request that she bring a few over. Yuuri then abandoned the unmixed cake ingredients on the counter and instead started to help Yurio with the pirozhki, which Victor had asked him to stuff with katsudon in honor of Yuuri’s gold medal.

“Hey coach,” Yuuri said as he sprinkled flour on the pirozhki dough so that it would be easier to roll out. “I know we have practice tomorrow, but do you think it’s okay if I drink tonight?”

At once, Victor’s face lit up with a megawatt smile. Yuuri wanted to drink? That was rare. And wonderful. “Of course, you can. We’re celebrating. Would you like a glass of wine?”

“Yes, please.” Yuuri glanced up at him and winked. There was a bit of white flour on his left cheek. “Thanks, coach.”

Just when Victor was starting to wonder why Yuuri kept calling him ‘coach,’ he remembered that they were still playing a prank on Yurio. Amused, Victor poured another glass of wine and cuddled up extra close to Yuuri as he handed it over. “Here’s your drink, my sweet little katsudon, whom I have nothing more than a professional relationship with that in no way involves kissing or snuggles.”

Yuuri took the wine and a deep breath at the same time. “Really subtle. . .” he said quietly to Victor.

“You know, I’m actually glad to hear you two aren’t dating,” Yurio said.

As Victor turned his attention to the Ice Kitten, his smile became slightly strained. Sure, the prank had been a good laugh so far, but why would Yurio say something like that? Victor and Yuuri were perfect together, and everyone should see that and agree.

“Why do you say that?” Victor asked, fighting the urge to get huffy with him.

“Well, these two guys were asking about Yuuri earlier today at the rink,” Yurio said. “I guess one of them was interested or something. He wanted to know if I could introduce them.”

The glass of wine started trembling in Victor’s hand. “Oh, yeah? What guy are we talking about, exactly?”

Mila turned and said, “Yeah, who is he, Yuri?”

“I can’t remember his name,” Yurio said, “but I think he’s a coach. He was with one of the ice dancers, who’s a lot younger. Closer to my age. The other guy is in his thirties, I think, or maybe he just looked older because he’s got his shit together, you know? Really well-dressed. Obviously rich. The kind of guy you know has a great family and education. Hey, is thirty too old for you, katsudon?”

Yuuri opened his mouth to reply but then shut it a moment later. He looked up at Victor and said, “Um . . . I guess it depends on the person?”

Victor set his wine glass down on the counter a little too hard and glared at Yuuri, who shrugged helplessly back.

And okay. Victor understood that Yuuri was just trying to keep the prank going with Yurio, and that he didn’t really want to run away with Mr. Well-Dressed-Obviously-Rich-Coach-Man, who probably wasn’t that good of a coach anyway and definitely not as well-dressed as Yurio seemed to think. (Because honestly. Yurio thought loud animal prints were the height of fashion, which meant this guy was probably dressed head-to-toe in clashing leopard and tiger print athletic wear.)

There was nothing for Victor to worry about. No need to feel insecure. Yuuri loved him and only him, and he definitely wasn’t into animal print.

“I can probably get you his phone number,” Yurio said. “I told him you weren’t available because I thought you and Victor were a thing. He’ll be relieved to hear you’re actually—”

“Yuuri is not available,” Victor declared, loud enough to send a hush through the room. “He’s mine, and I’m his. We’re in love, and we’ve been in love for months and months. So you can tell this guy to keep his phone number to himself, or I will be the one returning it to him, along with an invitation to our wedding.”

There was a long moment of stunned silence.

Mila was the first one to move, putting her hand over her mouth to stifle her laughter, while Georgi leaned against her for support, his shoulders moving as he snickered. Victor watched as Yuuri’s entire face pulled upward into a tentative smile. He looked more amused than embarrassed by Victor’s declaration.

“That’s a good idea, right?” Victor asked him. “Not too aggressive, but still sending him a clear message? We could sit him in the front row so he can have a good view of us exchanging our vows.”

Mila and Georgi sputtered into laughter. Even Yuuri was chuckling silently now. His brown eyes shifted to Yurio, who was smirking at Victor in triumph.

“What?” Victor said. “Why does everyone think that’s so funny?”

“I think Yuri’s teasing you, Victor,” Georgi said.

Mila nudged Yurio’s shoulder and said, “I’m kind of impressed. You got Victor to confess and everything.”

Yurio was so pleased by his victory that he didn’t even shove Mila away from him. Victor blinked at them all, still puzzled.

“I used reverse psychology on you,” Yurio explained with no small amount of conceit. “Get it now?”

“You mean . . . there’s no ice-dancer-coach trying to take my Yuuri away from me?” Victor said slowly.

Yuuri had come up alongside Victor and linked arms with him, as if to give him an ally in that moment. “Like that would ever happen,” Yuuri said under his breath.

Victor looked down at his Yuuri, heart fluttering with love. “Okay, that was actually a pretty good prank,” Victor admitted. “You got me, Yurio. Congratulations.”

The funniest part was that Yurio was in the best mood after that.

As he continued to lead the charge in the kitchen, his sullenness had vanished, and he actually joined conversations for once, especially with Yuuri. Victor had never seen the kid so optimistic. Every time he wondered what had inspired this transformation, his eyes shifted suspiciously to Yuuri, who again and again found ways to subtly include Yurio in what was going on and make him feel like he was part of it.

Victor mentally patted himself on the back for having incredible taste in men. With each passing day, Yuuri was finding newer and newer ways to reinvent the word ‘perfect.’

It was Yurio and Yuuri that made the katsudon together, with Yurio explaining what his grandfather had taught him and Yuuri commenting that it was very close to what his mother did. They met somewhere in the middle, using a mix of techniques from both families.

When the katsudon-stuffed-pirozhki came out of the oven, they smelled so incredible that they all spoiled their dinner right then and there. Standing around the still-warm oven, they devoured the pirozhki, setting two aside for Yakov and Lilia to enjoy when they arrived for dinner.

“Katsudon is just so good,” Yuuri lamented between bites. He looked close to weeping from sheer happiness alone. “Why does it have to be so good?”

“To inspire you to win more gold medals,” Victor said. “Hey, Yuuri . . . is this technically still katsudon we’re eating if it’s not served in a bowl?”

“What are you talking about?” Yurio snapped.

“Well, ‘don’ means ‘bowl’ in Japanese, right? So this would technically just be pork katsu and rice stuffed in a—”

“The pirozhok is the bowl,” Yurio said, cutting him off. “Trust me. It’s katsudon. Right, katsudon?”

“I have no idea what either of you are saying,” Yuuri said, eyes closed as if he was in the process of ascending to heaven.

Laughing, Victor slipped his arm around his Yuuri’s shoulders. “You’re having a moment, aren’t you?”

Mmmmph” was Yuuri’s heartfelt reply.

By the time the roast came out of the oven, Yakov and Lilia had arrived at the apartment. The mingling scents of Chanel N°5 and hard alcohol hovered around them.

Victor felt a little nervous when he went to take their coats and welcome them inside. Yakov hadn’t been to his apartment in years, his aversion no doubt the result of an argument they’d had a long time ago when Victor had moved out of Yakov and Lilia’s house and into a place of his own.

“You came,” Victor said, still unable to shake the surprise.

“Nice of you to notice.” Yakov handed Victor a bottle of his favorite vodka. “Pour me a glass of that, would you? Lilia’s in a mood.”


“Because I’m in a mood.”

After Victor fetched Yakov a drink, the older man seemed to relax. With one hand buried in his pocket, he went off by himself into the living room to inspect Victor’s furnishings, looking like he neither approved nor disapproved of what he saw. Makkachin came to hover near Yakov’s feet, tail wagging, until he reluctantly offered the dog a pat on the head.

Meanwhile, Lilia had gone into the kitchen with a large bag in hand. Sniffing her nose at the mess of flour and egg shells on the counter, she said, “You used the lemon zest in the batter like I suggested? Georgi and Victor both like lemon.”

Victor brightened, touched by her thoughtfulness. She remembered.

“Yes, we added it,” Yurio said. “Did you bring the pans?”

From the bag, Lilia brought out several circular cake pans, which she handed over to Yurio only after getting him to promise they would be cleaned properly and returned to her the next day. “We need to coat them in oil and flour so the cakes won’t stick,” Lilia said to Yurio, rolling up the sleeves of her exquisite silk blouse. “Let me show you.”

“Is the rest of the stuff in the bag?” Yurio asked her. After she gave a curt nod, Yurio turned to Yuuri, who had just finished stirring the cake batter and was eyeing Lilia like he was scared to death of her. “I asked her to bring all the stuff you mailed me last week so the geezer wouldn’t see it,” Yurio explained. “The rest got delivered to the house this morning. It should be in there, too.”

Accepting the bag from Lilia, Yuuri glanced at the contents before closing it up tight. “Thank you both for your help. I’ll go hide everything.”

Listening from the outskirts of the kitchen, Victor frowned at them. What were they up to?

He followed Yuuri out of the kitchen and past the living room, where Victor caught up with him at the door of the bedroom. There, Yuuri finally spun around and said, “Hi. Do you need something?”

Undeterred, Victor leaned against the doorjamb and smiled. “What’s in the bag?”

“Gee, let me think,” Yuuri said, blowing his bangs out of his eyes. “It’s your birthday, and I haven’t given you your present yet. Whatever could this thing be that I’m trying to hide?”

Victor’s smile widened into a grin.

“Do you need anything else from the bedroom tonight?” Yuuri asked. “Go get it now because I’m officially kicking you out. And I better not catch you peeking either.”

“I won’t peek,” Victor promised. “I’ll be too busy making eyes at you.”

“Smooth,” Yuuri said. After receiving a kiss, he went into the bedroom and closed the door behind him.

By the time the cakes were ready to go into the oven, Mila’s roast had just come out. The smell was incredible, and they all gathered together in the kitchen to wait for it to be carved.

While Yakov was sharpening one of Victor’s knives, which hadn’t been used in a long time, he spoke to Yurio in Russian about the proper technique for slicing up a roast. “Against the grain,” Yakov instructed. “Never with it. You should like that, knowing you.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Yurio said. “Hurry up. I’m starving.”

“Yuri Plisetsky,” Lilia said, prompting Yurio’s shoulders to go tense. “Those are not the manners of the refined young man I know you to be.”

The whole scene reminded Victor of the past, when it used to be him being taught by Yakov and scolded by Lilia. Victor chuckled, charmed by the memory, and hugged his Yuuri a little closer. “He actually came,” Victor murmured, his lips near Yuuri’s ear.

Yuuri glanced up and gave him a soft, knowing smile, seeming to understand without being told that Victor was talking about Yakov. Resting a hand over Victor’s heart, Yuuri said, “He came.”

The apartment wasn’t big enough for a formal dining table, so dinner was a casual affair that night. They ate wherever they could find a place to stand or sit, though Yuuri outright rejected the invitation to eat his dinner while seated on Victor’s lap.

(“Maybe later,” Yuuri told Victor in a whisper that got him more than a little worked up.)

It was a good night, filled with laughter, delicious food, and wine. While Victor washed dishes, Lilia helped Yuuri and Yurio decorate the cakes with icing made from confectioners’ sugar, water, lemon zest, and vanilla. Yuuri had a nice conversation with her about his dancing experience and tutelage under Minako-sensei, whose career Lilia was familiar with.

In the living room, Mila and Georgi were explaining to an amused Yakov how Yurio had masterfully turned their prank around on Victor. Makkachin trotted from person to person, waiting for someone to drop something he could gobble up. More than once, Victor spotted Yurio slipping the dog covert bites of food, even though Makkachin still hadn’t miraculously turned into a cat to better please the tastes of the Ice Kitten.

Soon, it was time to light the birthday candles, and they all gathered around the kitchen counter.

Yuuri hugged Victor around the waist while the group sang to him and Georgi. Out of everyone else in the room, Yuuri had the most beautiful voice. Clear and sweet. (Not that Victor was biased or anything.) Someone had taught Yuuri the words in Russian, and Victor rewarded him for a job well done with a kiss on the rosy tip of his nose.

There were two identical cakes, each one made with two layers, and there was no room to write anyone’s name with icing because Yurio had covered every available inch of the surfaces with candles. Dozens of them, far more than were necessary.

“I’m not that old,” Georgi said, clearly affronted.

“Neither am I,” Victor added under his breath.

“Sure, you are,” Yurio said cheerfully. “Make a wish.”

After Victor closed his eyes and wished for Yuuri to tie with him for gold at the World Championship, he was ready to blow his candles out, but he stopped when Georgi burst into noisy tears beside him. There was no need to ask what was wrong. He was crying about Nadia again. Or maybe Anya. Victor couldn’t keep up with Georgi’s women anymore.

“Birthday candles, hear my cry,” Georgi said, weeping openly. “Bring her back to me.”

But when he blew his candles out with great ceremony, every single one of them sparked back to life again. Georgi looked upon his failure with horror, as if it meant his wish would never come true.

Victor tried to blow his out as well, but they also relit themselves. Trick candles, he realized and looked up at Yurio with a smirk.

“Ha!” Yurio said. “Good luck with that wish.”

“Oh, I’m not worried,” Victor assured him. “I never needed a birthday wish to help me win the World Championship before.”

Like a blown-out flame, Yurio’s smile winked out of existence. He still wasn’t over Victor beating him at Nationals.

When they finally got the trick candles extinguished, they sliced up both cakes and enjoyed them with some freshly-brewed coffee. Victor excused himself to call Hiroko-san so that he could thank her for sending the recipe for his cake. When he got her on the line, he told her that Yuuri and Yurio had done it justice. It was a brief but pleasant conversation, shortened only because of the language barrier. Hiroko was still in the process of learning English, and Victor’s knowledge of Japanese was also limited.

(Though, admittedly, that Japanese for Dummies book Mari-Neechan had given him for his birthday had really come in handy. He asked Hiroko to put Mari on the phone so he could tell her thank you, too.)

By the time he hung up, he found the others had pitched in to finish tidying up the kitchen. It was getting late, and Victor suspected their guests would soon be reaching for their coats and shuffling towards the front door.

As it turned out, he was mistaken.

“Is it time?” Mila asked.

Everyone looked to Yuuri, who blushed and gave a shy little nod. Then their attention shifted to Victor, who as usual, had no idea what was going on. “Time for what?” he asked.

When Yakov and Georgi pulled Victor away from the party and guided him into the bedroom, he felt confused and a little off-balance. “I’m not supposed to be in here,” Victor said. “Yuuri made me promise I wouldn’t peek.”

“I’m pretty sure he just gave you permission,” Georgi assured him.

What Victor saw waiting for him in his bedroom both pleased and puzzled him. There, on the bed, was another bouquet of flowers. Blue roses this time, with a small envelope nestled in the leaves. It matched the other envelopes he’d received earlier that day.

Yuuri, Victor thought, affection humming in his heart. Blue roses were his absolute favorite. Had he ever told Yuuri that? Victor couldn’t remember.

Beside the flowers, Yuuri had laid out what at first appeared to be one of Victor’s suits, but upon closer inspection, he realized he’d never seen it before. There was a white dress shirt, a silk tie, a pair of suspenders, gray pants, and a matching button-down vest. The only thing missing was a suit jacket to go on top, and its absence made the whole outfit more seem casual than something he would normally wear.

Victor frowned as he picked up the dress shirt, which was softer and more delicate than the shirts he typically paired with his suits. “These tags are vintage,” he murmured to himself.

So were the shoes. They were also waiting for him on the bed—a pair of comfortable but stylish vintage leather shoes that would match the outfit well. Again, not his normal style, but there was something about them that made him smile. They were the type of shoes he might wear out on an epic night on the town. Maybe to a jazz club or out for some impromptu dancing in the rain.

Yuuri, what are you up to?

Since Yuuri wasn’t around to ask, Victor looked up at Yakov and Georgi with questions in his eyes.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Yakov said. “Get dressed.”

They shooed Victor off to his walk-in closet so that he could change his clothes in privacy. There, he stripped off what he was wearing and put on the outfit that Yuuri had apparently picked out for him.

Age had softened the cotton of the vintage shirt, making it very comfortable, and though the pants were a little more high-waisted than he normally preferred, when he glanced at himself in the mirror, Victor could see the look Yuuri was going for. It was a little mobster or perhaps old Hollywood. Either way, it was fun to dress up in something so different than the norm. Victor pulled up the suspenders and smiled at his reflection as he chose a matching belt. Once he had the necktie perfectly knotted and the vest buttoned up, he went back into the bedroom.

Yakov took one look at him and said, “Too formal. Georgi, help me roll up his sleeves.”

“Too formal for what?” Victor asked.

Neither of them answered. Together, they undid the buttons of his sleeves and rolled them up to his elbows. Then Yakov started adjusting Victor’s necktie, loosening it up a bit. (They never had been able to agree on the best way to knot a tie.)

The strangest feeling came over Victor in those moments . . . like he was getting ready for his wedding or something. Maybe it was because Yakov was there, like the father of the groom making sure his son didn’t choose stupid socks—and maybe because Georgi was there, too. Victor had known him for so many years that it was a given that he’d be in the wedding party. Only Christophe was missing. He would definitely be there, too. And maybe Yurio and Mila, looking gorgeous in a suit.

But that was a silly thought to have. Victor knew he and Yuuri weren’t getting married tonight. (At least, he hoped they weren’t because as great as this outfit was, it was not what he’d had in mind for their big day.)

Maybe Yuuri was just planning to take him out on a date. A club, perhaps.

Yakov and Georgi continued to fuss over him for a good five or ten minutes longer than necessary, leaving Victor with the impression that they were stalling for time. Yakov shined the shoes on his sleeve before handing them over to Victor to put on, while Georgi very carefully sculpted Victor’s bangs into the perfect position.

After a spritz of fragrance and a final inspection, Yakov nodded in stern approval. “You’ll do,” he said.

It was the nicest thing Yakov had said to Victor since the 2014 Winter Olympics, when he’d broken his own world record for the third time.

“Did you read the card that came with the roses?” Georgi said. “I’m supposed to make sure you read it.”

“Oh, right.” Victor went over to the bed, smiled again when he took note of the roses, and felt the thumping of his heart as he retrieved the little white envelope. It was the fifth one he’d received today, and the other four had been so perfect that Victor was almost afraid to read this one. (Surely it couldn’t get any better than Yuuri calling him ‘my Vitenka.’ Where had Yuuri even learned that?)

Victor slid the note out of the envelope and quietly read the words Yuuri had written him.

And okay. So maybe he was wrong. No, he was absolutely wrong. Because there really was something better than Yuuri calling Victor those other nicknames from before. And there was also something better than being told he was beautiful and kind and so many other amazing things.

In his last note, Yuuri had written: To my best friend – I love you.

Victor blinked at the words, stunned. Was that . . . true?

Did Yuuri really think of Victor as his best friend?

Victor had long-since considered Yuuri to be his best friend, but he hadn’t thought Yuuri felt the same way. Sure, they were lovers and planned to spend the rest of their lives together, but Victor had always assumed Phichit was Yuuri’s best friend. Not him.

Lowering the note, Victor felt a little lost inside. Not because anything was wrong, but because for the life of him, he could not figure out what he had ever done that would inspire Yuuri to write down those seven words, seal them in an envelope, and give them to Victor alongside his favorite flowers.

“What does it say?” Georgi asked.

Victor couldn’t even answer him, so he just held the note out for his friend to see for himself.

After reading it, Georgi sighed and said, “What’s it like to have someone love you this much?”

“You’ll find out, Georgi,” Yakov said, giving Victor’s vest one final adjustment and smoothing it into place on his shoulders. “If it can happen for this hopeless old bachelor, it can happen for you, too.”

When Victor came out of the bedroom, he saw that the lights in the living room and kitchen had been turned off.

It wasn’t dark, though. At first, he thought it was candlelight that had given the room such a lovely golden glow, but then he realized someone had put up white twinkle lights all over the place—around the windows and laid on top of the counters in the kitchen.

The sofa had been pushed to the side, leaving a large open space in the living room, but everyone had gathered near the kitchen instead. There, Yurio was helping Yuuri pair his phone to a Bluetooth speaker that hadn’t been there fifteen minutes ago.

Yuuri glanced up at Victor and smiled, dozens of little twinkle lights reflected in his eyes like stars.

He had changed clothes as well and was dressed all in black—a dress shirt with the sleeves rolled up and the top button undone, suspenders, and black pants to match. His shoes had a distinct shine to them in the dimly lit room. He’d slicked back his dark hair but left his glasses on. Paired with his dark eyes, arched brows, and the curves of his body, Yuuri looked stunning. Literally. Victor was too dazed to do anything more than stare at him.

But the best thing of all was still Yuuri’s smile. It warmed the whole room up, even as snow drifted silently past the living room windows.

Yakov and Georgi had left Victor standing there all by himself, instead going to join the others near the kitchen. There, Mila and Georgi pulled out their phones and held them up like they were taking pictures or video. Beside them, Yurio had his arms crossed over his chest and was smirking at Victor with a look that said, Just you wait and see what’s about to happen. And don’t you ever forget that I helped.

“Yuuri?” Victor asked, his voice timid. He was even more confused than before.

Yuuri walked over to take Victor by the hand and draw him to the very center of the living room. “Nice outfit,” Yuuri said.

Victor’s eyes moved down Yuuri’s body and back up again. “I could say the same about you.” In a quieter voice only Yuuri could hear, he said, “What’s this all about?”

The hand that held Victor’s was trembling slightly. Yuuri was nervous. Considering they had a whole room of people watching them, it was understandable.

“I want to ask you something,” Yuuri said.

Victor had no idea why, but he started trembling. Things began to feel very surreal. Like they were standing somewhere else together. Alone on the beach or maybe on the top of some high building. With snow falling from the sky, and impossibly, stars coming out to sparkle all around them at the same time.

“In your Free Skate. . .” Yuuri began. “The one you said was dedicated to me . . .”

When Yuuri trailed off and lowered his gaze, Victor squeezed his hand to encourage him to continue. They hadn’t really had a chance to talk much about Victor’s Free Skate, which was essentially a love song choreographed just for his future husband. Yuuri had shied away from the subject more than once, and Victor had figured that was just a result of bashfulness. He had to know Victor had been dancing just for him.

But why was Yuuri choosing to bring it up now, with everyone watching them?

“You went down on one knee during your performance,” Yuuri said, looking up again. The words hung in the air for a moment. Then he added softly, “Were you proposing to me?”

Victor stared at him for a long moment, absolutely amazed by what he was seeing and hearing. Was that really his Yuuri standing there, looking so strong and calm while Victor was the one about to fall apart?

He was getting emotional without really understanding why. Something was happening—something life-altering—but he was afraid to put a name to it. “Yuuri, I’ve been proposing to you in my own way every single day for a long time now. Probably longer than you realize. And I don’t plan to stop, even after I’ve made you mine.”

The sweetest smile spread across Yuuri’s face. “Will you ask me now?”

Victor was truly failing to keep his composure now. He could hardly stand still.

Could he really say the words, right here in front of everyone?

So much of their relationship was built on communicating with each other in ways other than words. A lot of that was rooted in insecurity, with Yuuri not trusting himself to be worth loving and Victor hungrily grabbing for whatever he could get. (Because he didn’t trust himself to be worth loving either.)

The truth was, there was still a part of Victor that didn’t believe Yuuri wanted to marry him. In Barcelona, when Yuuri had given him that ring and called it a good luck charm, Victor had declared them engaged when neither one of them had asked the other person about marriage. And afterward, it had never felt right, even though Yuuri had gone along with the idea of a future wedding.

Though Victor tried not to let it bother him, the lack of an actual proposal still nagged at him. Why hadn’t he just gotten down on one knee and asked the question? He could have done it anywhere. On the steps of that cathedral or alone in their hotel room. He could have even proposed this morning when he’d surprised Yuuri at the airport, and it would have been perfect. A thousand other perfect moments passed them by every day.

Victor wanted Yuuri to be his husband more than anything, but even now, part of him was afraid Yuuri might say no. But that was ridiculous. Why would Yuuri orchestrate this entire night if he was going to refuse him? Why would he write Victor all those beautiful notes that had so perfectly led up to this moment if he planned on saying anything other than a resounding Yes?

Still holding Yuuri’s hand, Victor went down on one knee and took a moment to compose himself.

When he was ready, he said, “Yuuri, I love you so much that it scares me. Sometimes I think I hold onto you too tightly. Tighter than I really have to. I guess we’ve both had to learn how to trust each other this year.”

After they exchanged a little laugh, Victor squeezed Yuuri’s hand, his thumb rubbing at the golden ring on his finger. They quieted, giving in to the reverence of the moment.

“I don’t want to be alone anymore,” Victor said quietly. It was one of the most honest things he’d ever said to Yuuri . . . or anyone else, for that matter.

“I know,” Yuuri said. “I’m here.”

A welcome feeling of peace flooded through Victor until there was no trace of fear left in him. “I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. You are the most amazing man I’ve ever met. The most beautiful. The most inspiring. Yuuri, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you marry me?”

Yuuri’s eyes were now sparkling with tears, but his calm smile remained fixed in place. “I thought you’d never ask.”

“Say yes,” Victor pleaded. “I want to hear you say it.”

“Yes,” Yuuri said without hesitation, his voice confident and clear.

Shooting up from his kneeling position, Victor’s arms went around his fiancé. He hugged him so tightly that Yuuri’s toes left the ground. There was a swell of vocal reactions from the kitchen, and Victor remembered then that they weren’t alone. His coach and rink-mates were witnessing this moment, as were the cameras on their phones.

And it amazed Victor, to be honest. Had his Yuuri really planned this moment and purposefully brought people here to share it with them? He could scarcely believe it.

Victor’s heart soared with happiness, even as Yuuri pushed gently against him, silently asking to be released. “Hey,” Yuuri said with a smile. His toes had just touched back down on the floor. “We’re not done, you know.”

And then, stepping back and taking Victor’s hand into his own, Yuuri went down on one knee in front of him.

Instantly, Victor burst into tears.

He couldn’t help it. Even before the tears had a chance to really start flowing, his breaths were coming out in little sobs. “Oh, my God,” he said. “Yuuri. . .”

Everything was just so perfect. The scent of flowers in the air, the little lights twinkling in the background, his friends and family standing close by, and Yuuri looking so handsome and sure of himself. And he was looking at Victor like that. It was almost too much for his heart to handle.

“Victor, I promise you,” Yuuri began, which was enough to make Victor fall to pieces all over again. “As long as you want me, I will never leave you. And even if you don’t want me, I will never stop loving you. Isshou kimi no soba ni isasete kudasai.”

“What does that mean?” Victor asked, so choked-up that he could barely speak.

In contrast, Yuuri’s face was dry and full of confidence as he said, “It means, ‘Please let me be by your side forever.’”

Victor swiped at his tears, unable to contain his joy. “Wow.”

“Say yes.” Yuuri’s thumb rubbed a slow path across Victor’s ring. “I want to hear you say it, too.”

Launching himself into Yuuri’s arms, Victor gave him exactly the answer he was looking for.

After they toasted their engagement with a bottle of champagne that Yakov had brought for the occasion, the others slipped on their coats, accepted doggie bags of cake, and said goodnight to Victor and Yuuri.

Perhaps they’d gotten the hint that the two lovebirds wanted to be alone after officially getting engaged, or maybe Yuuri had already informed them that the party would end immediately after the proposal. Either way, Victor and Yuuri couldn’t seem to keep their hands off each other. Even before their guests were gone, the two of them kept sneaking off to steal a few kisses or just hold each other for a minute or two. It wasn’t until Yurio started threatening to literally throw up right in front of them that they concentrated on seeing their guests to the door.

Alone at last, Victor drew his fiancé in for yet another hug. He couldn’t seem to get enough of them. “We’re getting married,” he said, rocking Yuuri back and forth.

“We are. But before we do. . .” Drawing back, Yuuri’s fingers curled around Victor’s necktie, laying claim to it. “Would you like your birthday present now, Mr. Nikiforov?”

Victor’s eyes widened a degree. He looked around at all the flowers, the lights, and the remains of the wonderful birthday party Yuuri had thrown for him. Then there was his new outfit, the ring on his finger, and the love of his life standing in his arms. “You’re not serious,” Victor said.

“I’m very serious.” Pulling on Victor’s tie, Yuuri placed a feather-light kiss on his fiancé’s cheek near his mouth. “You didn’t think any of that just now was your present, did you?”

“But. . .”

“Come on. I had you put on this suit for a reason.” Yuuri started walking backwards towards the open living room, smiling flirtatiously up at Victor as he pulled him along. “Don’t you want to know what it is?”

“Are we dressed up because we’re going somewhere?” Victor said. “It has to be close to midnight by now. Nothing will be open.”

“No, your present is right here in this apartment.”

Victor liked the sound of that. “Would my birthday present happen to be dressed all in black and looking like he needs a good seeing-to in our bed?”

“Hmm, maybe later. But no, that’s not it either.”

“I’m out of guesses, then.”

Still gripping Victor’s tie in one hand, Yuuri pulled his phone out of his pocket with the other. He pushed a few buttons, then tossed his phone aside, where it landed safely on the couch cushions. Behind them, a soft jazz melody started playing from the Bluetooth speaker on the kitchen counter.

“Do you remember that conversation we had in Barcelona?” Yuuri asked. “When we were cuddled in bed and imagining our life together, here in St. Petersburg?”

Victor remembered. It was after that awful fight they’d had about Yuuri retiring. They’d taken a shower together, and then Yuuri had held Victor in his arms in bed and talked to him about what their future might look like in St. Petersburg. They’d imagined it out loud together—waking up each morning in this apartment, cooking meals, going on walks with Makkachin. They’d done many of those things already today, in fact.

“I do remember,” Victor said softly. He wore the beginnings of a smile because he was starting to understand where Yuuri was going with this. The gentle sway of the music playing in the background gave it away.

“One of the things we talked about was dancing together,” Yuuri said. “That’s what I want to give you for your birthday. Our first dance on our first night, living together in our first apartment.”

“You forgot that it’s also our first night being officially engaged,” Victor said. They moved closer to each other, already swaying to the music. His hand came to rest on Yuuri’s hip. “God, you look gorgeous tonight. Just when I think I can’t fall for you any harder than I already have. . .”

More confident than Victor had ever seen him, Yuuri let the necktie slip from his grasp as he stepped back. He held out his hand to Victor and asked, “May I have this dance?”

To be concluded.