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In Sochi, Viktor nearly gets into a duel for the honor of carrying Yuuri Katsuki back to his hotel room. He’s already managed to fend off Chris when Celestino suddenly stands in his path, eyes zeroing in on where Viktor has an arm around Yuuri’s waist.

“Don’t worry!” he tells Celestino with a bright smile, “I was just thinking about retiring for the night anyway.” Celestino gives him a doubtful look, but Viktor’s smile is implacable, only brightening by degrees the longer the stalemate goes on. “Fellow skaters should look out for each other, right?”

Celestino’s smile grows strained. “The gold medalist shouldn’t leave so soon, should he? Yuuri and I have an early flight tomorrow, so I’ll take him back to his room before heading to bed myself.” Then, perhaps seeing the way Viktor tightens his hold on Yuuri, Celestino reluctantly concedes, “I just need to make the rounds one last time. If it’s no inconvenience, could you keep an eye on him for ten more minutes?”

“Not at all!” Viktor says, already maneuvering Yuuri to a chair.

As Celestino leaves, he throws Viktor a wary look as though he thinks Viktor will disappear with Yuuri and do something unsavory. Viktor would be offended, except there’s no question that Yuuri is incredibly vulnerable in this state.

It takes a bit of work to keep Yuuri from falling off his chair as Viktor drags another one next to it. Barely conscious—barely coherent—and listing all over the place, Yuuri doesn’t aid in the process in the slightest.

“There, there,” Viktor says, finally collapsing in the chair next to Yuuri and allowing him to lean against his shoulder. “Let’s get this tie off your head, okay?” Someone already wrangled Yuuri back into his pants, but his tie is still wrapped around his head. Viktor tugs it off, making a mess of Yuuri’s sweaty hair.

Yuuri tilts his head up, squinting blearily at Viktor. Flushed red, his face is hot to the touch. He pushes his cheek against Viktor’s fingers, humming happily and mumbling something in Japanese. It’s not an attractive look, not really, but for Viktor, it’s somehow impossibly endearing.

Viktor gets the urge to smooth back Yuuri’s hair, so he does.

“Ah,” Yuuri says. Viktor can’t tell if it’s a word or a sound, but he repeats it back to Yuuri when Yuuri takes Viktor’s hand and presses the back of it to his forehead. “Cold,” Yuuri slurs in English. “Feels good.”

Without hesitation, Viktor presses his other hand to Yuuri’s face and gets another happy sigh. If only he had a third hand. If only he had four hands, he’d be pressing them all against Yuuri’s cheeks right now. Unfortunately, Viktor only has two hands, so he makes do with what he has, cupping Yuuri’s face with one and smoothing down his hair with the other.

This isn’t like him. Any of his rink mates, Yakov, Lilia, would be able to say that unhesitatingly. Viktor offers fleeting encouragement—easy things to part with, a pat on the shoulder, a handshake, a smile—but he doesn’t linger. Doesn’t stare and stare, unable to tear his eyes away. Doesn’t touch people gently, hands fighting the slightest tremor. Doesn’t allow other people to press themselves against him all while he’s already afraid, already dreading, already grieving for when they’ll leave.

“Viktor,” Yuuri says, listing forward. “Tired.”

“Okay,” Viktor says. “Sleep.” He watches Yuuri’s eyes drift close and the way Yuuri goes still, mouth half-open and already wet with a hint of drool.

Am I that lonely? Viktor asks himself despite knowing the answer.

It must be more than that. It has to be. Loneliness compels you to get a dog, not wipe drool from the corner of a stranger’s mouth with your own thumb.

True to his word, Celestino comes back ten minutes later on the dot, and Viktor bites back a protest when Celestino shakes Yuuri awake. “Let him sleep,” he doesn’t say, even though his heart clenches at the sight of Yuuri wincing at the bright lights of the banquet hall.

 

*

 

Viktor puts Sochi down to the drinking and the post-competition high that he hasn’t gotten since maybe the second time he won gold at the Grand Prix Final in the senior division. There’s certainly no repeat incidents, no strange urges to fuss over Yuuri in all the weeks he’s been staying at Yu-topia. Urges to touch—which can be forgiven, considering Viktor’s circumstances—but no urges to fuss.

That lasts right up until Viktor spots people washing each other’s back in the—he’s not sure there’s a name for the section where they wash up before soaking in the hot spring. Washrooms? He’ll have to ask Yuuri.

Right after he asks Yuuri a much more pressing question.

“Shall I wash your back?” Viktor’s lucky that he remembers at the last moment to phrase it more as a statement than a request—though it’s not like Yuuri would notice, with the way his eyes skitter to the corner, all the hallmarks of a wobbling baby deer.

Oh no, Viktor thinks, shoving down the stray image of Yuuri swaddled in the softest, fluffiest blanket known to man- and deer-kind.

Yuuri spots the two middle-aged men chatting amicably as one washes the other’s back, stares for a long moment, and then slowly slides his eyes back to Viktor—or sort-of-Viktor. He keeps his gaze firmly on Viktor’s right shoulder as he nods before handing Viktor the sponge and turning around.

“Ugh,” Yuri says, inching away from them.

“I can wash your back next, Yurio!” The smile and tone comes automatically, like muscle memory.

Ugh,” Yuri says again, more vehement, before quickly pouring water over himself and stomping off.

“Ah.” Yuuri looks over his shoulder, eyebrows pinched with worry. “He’s going to slip and fall, walking like that.”

Viktor is too busy being rendered speechless by the curve of Yuuri’s spine to say anything. Lightly, he touches a fingertip to the base of Yuuri’s neck. He hears Yuuri inhale sharply—he can see the movement too, the way Yuuri’s sides tighten—but Yuuri doesn’t say anything. There are other people in the washroom, buckets clicking against the tiles, water splashing, faucets creaking. The sounds are both jarringly loud and distantly muted.

Swallowing, Viktor drags his fingertip down, following the bumps of Yuuri’s spine.

Yuuri’s back twitches straighter and straighter as he struggles not to squirm. Quick gasps and exhalations punctuate his breathing. Faint tremors run under his skin.

Viktor,” Yuuri says, two flustered, punctuated syllables.

Viktor splays his shaking hand against Yuuri’s back in an apology, fingertips brushing against a yellowing bruise. Then, unable to help himself, he pinches Yuuri’s side.

Jerking forward, Yuuri squeaks and claps his hands over his mouth. It’s the heat that’s turned Yuuri’s skin pink, Viktor knows, but he thinks it gets just a shade rosier.

It’s—a lot.

As a favor to them both, Viktor takes the bucket and dumps water over Yuuri’s head. He plasters on his smile and tries not to feel like he’s slowly drifting into insanity, but his head is full of white noise and all he can think about is massaging the edges of that bruise, where the yellow-green feathers out.

Oh no, Viktor thinks again, mechanically scrubbing Yuuri’s back with the sponge. He stares at his hand like it’s somehow betrayed him. Oh no.

 

*

 

Viktor blames it on Yuuri. It’s probably not a newly discovered instinct on Viktor’s part so much as an innate ability on Yuuri’s part. Something about Yuuri makes people want to take care of him. That’s it. That’s all it is.

Probably.

It’s not like Viktor’s the only victim here—he’s seen the way people in Yuuri’s life close rank around him, forming a shield. Close enough to protect him, but far enough that they can’t be pushed away.

Huh. Maybe there is something wrong with Viktor for brazenly stepping past them all to reach Yuuri.

 

*

 

It takes Yuuri, towel around his neck to collect the wet from his hair, and Makkachin to lay waste to Viktor’s self-control. With Yuri back in Russia and therefore no longer a third presence in the room constantly fake gagging, Viktor’s back to navigating the churning waters of Yuuri’s charm by himself.

Makkachin’s instant adoration of Yuuri meant this was inevitable anyway, so the real surprise is that it hasn’t happened before: Viktor standing in the doorway like a voyeur as Yuuri grooms Makkachin.

Viktor scrambles for the English words to explain how poodles should be groomed, his possessive overprotective instincts for his dearest companion surging forward without being summoned, but they fizzle on his tongue once he sees Yuuri pick up a spray bottle.

Yuuri uses his native language when talking to Makkachin, so Viktor doesn’t know what he’s saying, but the tone is universal. It’s all too easy to imagine what Yuuri is saying—Viktor has many memories of doing the same thing himself. The routine of it all, spraying conditioner on small sections of fur before gently picking through it with a brush, helped him regather himself. Absently describing his day, sketching out his worries, showering Makkachin with well-earned praise and compliments.

In the middle of that soft litany, Viktor hears his name. Yuuri says it with a frown, a pout, quickly followed a rueful laugh. It lights him up, and it lights something in Viktor too.

He’s looming over Yuuri before he knows it.

“Yuuri,” Viktor says. He says Yuuri’s name excessively, lingering over the vowels.

It’s lucky for Viktor that Yuuri’s rare questioning of his actions never seriously want an answer because Viktor doesn’t know what he’d say. “Your hair is wet and you’re brushing my dog and I think I might not actually have any impulse control”?

He does though—say that first bit out loud.

“Your hair is still wet. Let me help you.”

Yuuri startles, shooting Viktor a sheepish look.

“It’s alright,” Victor says with a wink. “Makkachin can keep secrets. I’m sure whatever you said about me was extremely flattering.” That earns a snort from Yuuri.

Viktor settles behind Yuuri, legs bracketing him. The small lamp casts an orange glow, but Yuuri’s hair stays ink black. Viktor uses the towel first, sliding it off Yuuri’s shoulders. It’s a little damp, more wet in the places where it caught dripping water. Without warning, he scrubs at Yuuri’s hair, laughing when Yuuri fights him back and his hair has become wild.

“Sorry, sorry,” Viktor says, gasping with laughter. “It was just the quickest way.”

Without looking at Viktor, Yuuri says to Makkachin, “Viktor is a terrible person, isn’t he?” Almost as if in agreement, Makkachin licks Yuuri’s fingers.

“I’ll make it up to you,” Viktor promises, resuming their earlier position and taking up the comb.

They’re quiet but for their humming: refrains from Yuuri’s free skate music that gets passed back and forth between them.

Time passes with Viktor running the comb through Yuuri’s hair—it’s unnecessary. There are no tangles for him to work out, and soon he abandons the comb and switches to using his fingers. Yuuri must notice, but he keeps grooming Makkachin without comment.

“Say, Yuuri,” Viktor begins, tucking his chin on Yuuri’s shoulder. “How did you know the way poodles should be groomed?”

Yuuri sets the brush down and cradles Makkachin’s head with his hands, turning him this way and that. “I had a poodle once,” Yuuri confesses. “His name was Vicchan.”

“Vicchan,” Viktor repeats. That’s what Hiroko calls him. “Am I named after your dog or was your dog named after me?”

Makkachin used to get more excited during grooming sessions, bouncing to his favorite blanket before rolling around and preening under Viktor’s hands. He’s docile with Yuuri now, but no less pleased.

“Vicchan was named after you,” Yuuri says quietly, rubbing Makkachin’s ears. “He looked just like Makkachin, except smaller.”

It’s a sobering reminder for Viktor of how lucky he is to still have Makkachin, of how little time is left.

“Yuuri.” Yuuri. Yuuri. Yuuri. “I’m flattered.”

Gray in Makkachin’s muzzle and at the base of his ears. Stairs take coaxing sometimes. Sometimes Viktor carries him up the stairs, sometimes Yuuri. The appetite has yet to wane, but Viktor still finds himself fussing—did Makkachin seem a little less enthusiastic about his food today? Maybe it was stale? It took him a whole three minutes longer to finish it.

Viktor has had dogs before Makkachin. To him, everything looks like a sign.

This is how Viktor knows Vicchan was Yuuri’s first and only dog: he trembles, and shakes, and the next time he manages to breathe in, it’s with a hiccuping sob. Cheek to cheek, the tears almost feel like Viktor’s own. Salt in his mouth, Viktor slides his hands down Yuuri’s arms so that they are pressed together, beginning and ending and beginning again. Legs, arms, hands, cheeks.

Is this enough, Viktor wonders, to shelter Yuuri from both himself and the world? These impulses are still so new and so strange and so heady; Viktor has no right answers. He’s not even sure that he’s asking the right questions to start with. A world of difference exists, Viktor knows, between how do I protect him and does he need to be protected.

Makkachin, with his big brown eyes staring at Viktor, offers no suggestions. So Viktor acts on want, and need, and whatever that fluttering thing propelling his impulses is—he turns his head, presses the first soft kiss against the tear-stained corner of Yuuri’s eye, and coaxes him into turning around.

Yuuri scrambles to his feet, eyes wide and shocked.

“I’m sorry,” Viktor blurts, helpless, hands already reaching out for Yuuri, “I didn’t mean to—”

To what?

Yuuri hastily rubs the tears from his eyes, but it doesn’t stop him from looking wild, skittish. He takes a step back, ready to flee.

Don’t go. Viktor doesn’t know how to beg yet.

How did they get here? Where did Viktor take a wrong turn?

“It’s”—Yuuri’s eyes flick to Makkachin and back to Viktor—“it’s alright,” he says, distant, and then turns on his heel and leaves.

“It’s alright,” Viktor repeats to himself, dropping his hands into Makkachin’s fur. By now he—thinks, hopes, believes—he knows Yuuri well enough to take the words for truth. Yuuri doesn’t forgive without meaning it.

 

*

 

Viktor takes forgiveness as permission. It starts slow, and then escalates. Bidding Yuuri to drink water, ushering him to bed, smoothing down his hair, rubbing away the bruises that dot his skin from falling on the ice. He can’t stop himself or the way he keeps track of Yuuri minute by minute. Wherever there is room for Viktor—and sometimes even when there isn’t—he slots himself into Yuuri’s space and frets.

One day, Yuuri forgets to put on his gloves (or more likely, is a little slower to put them on than usual), and Viktor, always prepared to perform impossible feats, teleports across the rink to snatch them up from the bench.

“Yuuri,” he says, turning around with a bright smile, “come here.”

Obedient—habitually obedient, pushing himself across the ice before he even fully processes what Viktor is saying, here on the ice quicker to move and slower to question—Yuuri slides up against the boards, a confused frown on his face.

“Yes?” Yuuri says, blinking at Viktor.

It’s ridiculous, the giddy feeling that bubbles up in Viktor.

“You forgot your gloves,” Viktor says, fighting to keep himself from sounding too eager.

“Oh.” Yuuri looks at the back of his hands like he doesn’t recognize them. “I…did? I did. Um.” It hasn’t been two minutes since Yuuri stepped onto the ice. He even still has his glasses on. “I’ll go put them on right now.”

“No need! I have them right here.” Beaming, Viktor holds out one—empty—hand. Yuuri stares at it like it might explode or, at the least, magically contain a pair of gloves instead of air.

It doesn’t take Yuuri long to read Viktor’s cues, not anymore. He looks up at Viktor through his dark lashes and holds out his hand.

Yuuri has ordinary hands. Fingernails clipped to uneven stubs. Hangnails. Pale fingers brushed at the edges with pink. Turned over, Viktor can see where the skin has turned rough with dryness. They’re ordinary hands, but for Viktor they’re the stuff of fantasies.

How clever, how kind, how strong. That day on the beach, when Viktor offered his hand and Yuuri took it.

Maybe one day Viktor will teach him how to have indulgences. He’ll start with hand cream, dabbing it at Yuuri’s wrist like now, before carefully working it down his palm, to the webbing between his fingers, all the way to the cracked nail beds at the tip of each finger.

Or maybe not, because then how would Viktor be able to enjoy moments like these?

Taking care of Yuuri in small ways like this, knowing that no one else has ever been allowed this close because Yuuri had said as much himself, admitted to putting deliberate distance between himself and others. Yuuri’s first, and Viktor’s first too because he has never—not once in the long, cold years that he can scarcely believe ever characterized his life with how much he burns now—had such impulses before.

Viktor has never had to look himself in the eye and figure out where the line goes between want and need, and then where, in that tumultuous mix, desire is supposed to fit.

“I mean it,” Viktor says as he carefully slides the glove on, “when I say the way you skate inspires me.” It’s important that Yuuri understands and accepts this, but Yuuri remains quiet as Viktor goes through the whole process again for his other hand. “You don’t believe me?”

Yuuri glides backward across the ice. Sunlight settles over him, illuminating a slant in his expression that has been appearing more and more. “If that’s true”—it is, it is, it is—“then watch me.”

 

*

 

Here: Viktor on his knees.

There: Yuuri breathing roughly, sweaty, pushed past the limits of even his stamina. He hisses when Viktor pulls his skates off, toes flexing.

Their positions, Yuuri above and Viktor below, echoes their dance at the banquet in Sochi. Wrapping a hand around Yuuri’s ankle, Viktor wonders if Yuuri is remembering it too. He presses the thumb of his other hand into the arch of Yuuri’s foot. Turns his ankle inside, then outside, patiently waiting for Yuuri to relax each time he tenses in pain.

Ice skating is merciless, but so is everything under the sun that is beautiful. They’ve chosen a sport that demands grace, that mimics flight, that glitters even while it breaks their bones. For that split second of weightlessness, they’d sacrifice their feet. Their knees. Their legs.

“You pushed too hard today.” Viktor is a hypocrite. Yuuri knows this, and Yuuri is a far better student than Viktor ever was, so he says nothing.

Viktor doesn’t dare to do too much, only running through his own post-workout massage—the desperate hands of someone past the brink of exhaustion but unable to move beyond the stiff pain. They have experts for a reason, and the last thing Viktor wants is to ruin Yuuri’s perfect feet by pressing too hard in the wrong place.

A soft sigh. Viktor waits for Yuuri to defend his behavior in practice. Instead, Yuuri says: “That feels good.”

He must—

He must be thinking about the banquet. There’s no doubt, no question. Viktor remembers wishing that he had four hands. An absurd, impossible wish.

But here, this is something he can do: “We’ll add foot massages to your training regime, yes?”

Yuuri, flushed from exertion and embarrassment, clamps his mouth shut on a protest when Viktor takes his other foot in hand.

 

*

 

Viktor applies salve to Yuuri’s lips with his finger, lingering a little too long on the curve of his bottom lip.

 

*

 

Viktor takes Yuuri’s glasses from him and cleans them—mid-walk, mid-sentence, mid-dinner. Whenever he can’t stop himself, which is all the time.

 

*

 

Viktor holds doors open for Yuuri, shelters him under a shared umbrella against the summer rain, learns from Hiroko how to cut apple slices into bunny shapes and feeds them to Yuuri by hand, waits with a towel ready to dry Yuuri’s sweat after a session at Minako’s studio, opens water bottles before handing them over.

 

*

 

“Viktor,” Yuuri says one day as Viktor is zipping up his jacket, “what are you doing?”

The drag of the zipper goes slow, slow. Up past his waistline, his stomach, his sternum, all the way to the smooth hollow of his throat.

What is Viktor doing?

(Admiring how Yuuri looks warm and prepared for the for the chill of the ice.)

Viktor still has the zipper tab between his thumb and forefinger. His knuckles brush the underside of Yuuri’s jaw.

“Taking care of you.”

 

*

 

And then this:

Viktor finds Yuuri in the locker room, leaning back on his hands on the bench, skates pulled on and laces undone.

“Is something wrong?” It’s rare for Yuuri to take so long in getting ready, and Viktor expected him to be warming up in the rink ten minutes ago, not sitting here staring at his feet. He’s worried for a moment—Yuuri’s moods are quicksilver, impossible to predict and always lurking—but then he sees the tips of Yuuri’s ears turn red.

“My”—Yuuri coughs to clear his throat—“my skates. They’re untied.”

Oh.

 

*

 

This:

Tucking a tear-stained Yuuri into bed, whispering soft praise and reassurance until the words blend together and all that comes out of him are wordless sounds, pitched low to comfort.

“Sorry,” Yuuri says, scrubbing at his face. Post-attack, he looks stretched thin. Smudged. Almost intangible at the edges.

Viktor takes his hand, tucks it back underneath the blanket. “There’s nothing to be sorry for.”

Grimacing, Yuuri rolls over.

The walls of Yuuri’s bedroom are bare, but Viktor sees half-torn edges of tape leftover from the posters that used to cover them. The plastic catches the light, brightening from different angles like revealing a secret in pieces. There’s a framed picture of Viktor on the desk. Yuuri must have noticed it already, but still chose to leave it in its place. Maybe he thought Viktor would never step past his threshold, maybe he believed it would never come to this: Viktor, real and warm, in the room that bore witness to his burgeoning love for skating.

“Viktor.” Yuuri has rolled back over, blanket pulled all the way up past his nose. He won’t look Viktor in the eye. “Comfort me more.”

Yuuri’s forehead is hot to the touch. “Of course,” Viktor says, stroking his hair. “As much as you want.”

 

*

 

This:

“I wonder what it’d be like,” Yuuri says idly, waiting for Viktor to catch his breath before they go back to running through his short program, “to be the one to hold you.”

 

*

 

Viktor thinks he gets it now. The fluttery thing that rises up his throat whenever he looks at Yuuri. The itch under his skin, the tension in his hands, the urges.

Yuuri, letting him in. Yuuri, relaxing under his touch. Yuuri, opening his arms in invitation. Yuuri, always surprising him. Yuuri Yuuri Yuuri. Viktor came to Hasetsu chasing the comet tail of adrenaline and—yes, he can name it now—love.