46. What if I told you I’ve been in love with you since we were kids.
When Victor had first received the invitation from the Tsarevich, he’d had half a mind to decline.
But then Yakov had scolded him, telling Victor would be insolent at best and dangerous at worst. Victor couldn’t deny that, knowing Friedrich as well as he did. Ever since they were teenagers, Victor guiding the would-be Tsar around the ice, Friedrich had always made his temper known. Victor had often found him unpleasant at times in their youth, the callous way he would treat his servants rankling Victor’s sensitivities.
Once Victor’s coaching had ended when Friedrich entered the political sphere at eighteen, Victor had swallowed his distaste, taken the money he’d been granted and fled further West into the continent. Never in the last decade did Victor think the Tsarevich’s reach would stretch as far as Vienna, but here was Victor being proven unfortunately wrong.
Victor bowed to the doorman at the Hotel Imperial, handing his invitation over with a careful flick of the wrist. The doorman nodded, calling over an escort to bring Victor to what was no doubt going to be one of the more grand ballrooms. Friedrich always had a taste for fine things, even by royal standards. If the Tsar ever did die, (which looked unlikely, as the codger seemed intent of living forever), Friedrich would likely bankrupt Russia in a week.
Not that Victor cared, mind.
Victor followed his escort up the Royal Staircase, adjusting the buttons of his shirt from where the white cuffs sat below the sleeves of his black tailcoat. When Victor had first suggested a short jacket, preferring the more daring fashion of it, Yakov had nearly thrown the kettle he’d been boiling at the time at Victor’s head. While it had definitely been worth it to rile Yakov up, Victor knew that he’d do better to try and emulate the Russian aesthetic. Like a good countryman.
The escort took Victor’s overcoat, bowing low and opening the door to the ballroom for him. As expected, Victor was at first blinded by the grandness of it. Gilded walls, like the palaces of home and ornate chandeliers dripping glass and sparkling light across the room. There was chatter and music, and the smell of wine.
‘Victor Nikiforov!’ the escort announced to the room, Victor just biting his lip in time to stop a sigh of resignation.
The ballroom was full of what was undeniably an almost exclusively Russian crowd. Victor recognised some of the faces from his own readings and the papers- bankers and politicians, the odd ballerina. Russia must be empty, Victor thought to himself, taking a glass of champagne from a passing waiter.
‘Victor!’ A voice boomed and Victor pushed his hair from his face, preparing himself.
‘Your highness,’ Victor said in familiar Russian as Friedrich approached, bowing low. Friedrich was reflecting almost as much as the chandelier above him, Imperial military jacket bespeckled in shining brass buttons and gleaming medals that sat proudly against his chest. Knowing Friedrich, he was probably wearing them in the prayer of a war.
‘Oh, Victor!’ Friedrich said, grabbing Victor by the shoulders and shoving him upright. ‘Don’t be so formal. I couldn’t have that, dear friend.’
Victor blinked, truly surprised at being called dear. ‘Then what shall you have me call you?’
‘Nothing unpleasant,’ Friedrich replied with a wink, dark eyes hooded beneath his thick eyebrows. He had grown a beard in the last ten years, shaven square and elegant like his father’s. He had not grown much over the last ten years, only brushing Victor’s nose. Victor inclined his head.
‘I would never dream of it,’ Victor said with an easy grin, toasting his glass to Friedrich. Friedrich beamed from behind his beard, clapping Victor so hard on the back it had him choke on his sip of champagne. Hiding his cough, Victor let himself be led into the crowd.
‘Everyone, you must know who this is!’ Friedrich announced to a group of rather impressive looking men and women. Dressed in their finery and regarding Victor in his modest tailcoat with mild interest. ‘Victor Nikiforov, the ice dancer!’
‘Oh yes,’ a portly man said, nodding his red face in Victor’s direction. ‘I’ve heard of you. You have that- how do you say- ice show? Is that it?’
Victor rolled his shoulders. ‘Yes, I do. But only during the winter season, naturally. Otherwise, I spend my time with the ballet.’
‘A waste!’ a woman with blonde hair said, leaning into her husband’s side like what Victor had said almost had her swoon with misfortune. ‘To have such talent lost to the continent. I’ve seen your shows. The Bolshoi would be happy to have you.’
‘Victor was never one for patriotism,’ Friedrich said, giving Victor another strong pat on the back. Victor was rather getting the impression that Friedrich wanted Victor to be hunched over as often as possible, perhaps to make Friedrich appear taller. ‘Fled the old country the moment you were free to, didn’t you, my friend?’
‘Call it wanderlust,’ Victor said airily, taking another sip of champagne before he said something he’d regret.
‘I’d say it was lust of a sort,’ Friedrich said crudely and Victor coughed into his champagne, embarrassed. ‘You were always one to follow a pretty face!’
Victor didn’t know what to say to that, glancing around their company for some inclination of what to do. The other men laughed while their wives smiled benignly, which really only further Victor’s discomfort. He did not appreciate being laughed at.
‘Speaking of such, I must introduce you to someone,’ Friedrich said, taking Victor’s arm again and leading him down the ballroom. Victor smiled to those who nodded to him as they passed, guests bending low to Friedrich who paid them no attention. ‘I must say I didn’t even know you were here in Vienna. Ignorant, on my part, I know. But thankfully, my betrothed knew of your show and insisted we attend. He has quite an interest in skating, you see.’
‘I see,’ Victor replied, not really listening as he finished off his champagne. Then, Victor realised what Friedrich had said to him and stopped so suddenly, he nearly toppled them both to the ground. ‘Forgive me, but did you say your betrothed?’
Friedrich looked at Victor with great amusement. ‘I am a twenty-eight year old man, Victor. Did you think me incapable of finding one?’
‘No… No, of course not,’ Victor said, dazed. His mind was racing and Victor looked over Friedrich’s shoulder, paying far more attention to the people around them. ‘I knew you had an arrangement.’
‘A rather fortunate one, as it has proven to be,’ Friedrich said, puffing out his medaled chest. Victor was certain the flute in his hand would break, he was gripping the stem so tightly. Friedrich seemed not to notice Victor’s anxiety, starting to walk again. ‘He’s quite the beauty, though I’m sure you’ve heard already. Japan performed well in that regard. They must be awfully interested.’
Victor was barely listening, following Friedrich like he were dreaming. Victor felt weightless, without an anchor. His thoughts were running ahead of him, all the imagined fantasies he’d indulged in as a young man rushing down him in a wave of nostalgia that his heart reeling.
They were almost to the end of the ballroom, towards the large windows that led to the balcony overlooking the street. And through the fine chiffon curtains, Victor saw a figure.
The man was wearing what had to be the Japanese fashion, similar to what he had the first time Victor had met him as children. Shimmering satin of a deep, blood red with embroidered black and white spirals that crept up the carefully folded fabric like rose vines. He turned when Friedrich approached, dark eyes catching the golden light of the ballroom and Victor felt time stop around him.
The years had been exceptionally kind to Yuuri. He had grown tall, though not as tall as Victor, and his frame willowy. Like a dancer, Victor thought as Yuuri’s slim arms came together in front of the thick, silk belt that bound his ensemble together. The dark hair Victor remembered seemed a tad longer, combed back over Yuuri’s head quite fashionably.
And though Yuuri’s face was not as round as Victor remembered it being as a child, his eyes were just as warm. Like firewood embers, earth-brown and catching like flint in the light.
‘Victor,’ Friedrich said, holding a hand out towards Yuuri like he were a particularly fine piece of art. Not that Victor would disagree with such an assessment, as it were. In heavily accented English, Friedrich introduced; ‘This is my fiancé, Yuuri Katsuki.’
Yuuri smiled when he met Victor’s eyes. It was a small thing, just the barest curl of his full lips and then Yuuri was bending low, his arms in front of him.
‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Victor,’ Yuuri said in English so elegant, it was almost without accent to Victor’s ear. As he straightened back up, Victor was still frozen, all manners and protocol slipping from his mind entirely. Yuuri titled his head, dark eyes burnt gold from the light around them.
‘I think you have him quite stunned,’ Friedrich said and Yuuri looked away, his cheeks colouring. Friedrich laughed and it broke Victor from his reverie, looking to the Tsarevich in a panic. ‘Oh, do not trouble yourself, my friend. Even the court quite forgets the look of their own shoes when they see him.’
‘You are too kind, Your Highness,’ Yuuri said blithely, almost sounding rehearsed to Victor’s ear. He doubted Friedrich’s English was strong enough to pick it up, however. Friedrich stepped over to Yuuri, but Victor noted Yuuri’s slight shift. The way his hips angled slightly away.
‘What is the use of you if I can’t inspire jealousy?’ Friedrich asked, touching Yuuri’s elbow. Victor looked down, unable to stop himself. He saw the satin of Yuuri’s robe bunch, Friedrich was gripping so tight. ‘Yuuri insisted we see your show and once I recognised you, I simply had to invite you to our gathering. Only Russia’s finest, I assure you.’
‘I’m honoured,’ Victor said truthfully, looking to Yuuri’s face. Yuuri glanced up at him from beneath his dark lashes, cheeks still pink. ‘If I have ever done anything you found engaging, then I would consider myself achieved.’
‘Such flattery!’ Friedrich cried, releasing Yuuri and stepping away. He patted Victor’s shoulder again. When he spoke, it was in Russian, Yuuri’s face going blank at the sound of it; ‘I trust with such a sweet tongue you can keep Yuuri entertained while I meet with the General?’
Victor could only nod, not trusting himself to speak. Friedrich smiled at the both of them, before stepping back into the ballroom. Victor stayed where he was, too afraid even to move. Yuuri glanced up at him, a true smile breaking across his beautiful features.
‘Hello, again, Victor.’
‘Yuuri,’ Victor said, grinning before he could stop himself. ‘I wish I had the words, but I don’t.’
Victor walked up to Yuuri, impropriety abundant in his boldness but Victor found himself uncaring. Yuuri looked up at him, smiling so widely now his teeth were flashing between his lips. Victor reached out with his free hand, taking Yuuri’s own by the fingers. He raised it up, pressing the chilled skin to his lips.
‘I’m afraid I don’t have any gloves to offer you this time,’ Victor said, words kissed to Yuuri’s fingers. Yuuri was watching him, smile faltering only slightly.
‘You cut your hair,’ Yuuri said, hand slipping out of Victor’s grip. For a moment, Victor thought Yuuri might reach up to touch the careful sweep Victor retained over his left side, but then Yuuri’s hand was gone entirely. ‘It suits you well.’
Victor laughed. ‘You remember my hair?’
‘I remember all of you,’ Yuuri replied, before his eyes went wide. He stepped back, hands tight down at his sides. ‘Forgive me, that was untoward.’
‘It’s flattering to know you’ve thought of me,’ Victor said honestly and Yuuri blushed, turning to face the street from the balcony wall. Victor walked up beside him, his hand brushing against the silken edge of his robe. ‘I’ve thought of you as well. More often than I’m sure is proper for me to admit. Seeing you again is… Like something from a dream.’
Yuuri went nearly as red as his robe, blinking up at Victor with such shock that Victor was sure he’d overstepped. He was just about apologise when Yuuri laughed quietly, pushing a stray hair behind his ear.
‘You’re a skilled flatterer. No wonder you dance so well.’
‘It is truth,’ Victor said earnestly, placing his empty champagne flute down on the balcony wall. He watched Yuuri, careful not to push. ‘I find myself wondering if you kept the gloves I gave you. If you ever tried skating. If you ever think of me. To know at least one of those things for certain is more than I could ever have imagined all these years.’
Yuuri said nothing to that, eyes back down on the street below. Victor saw Yuuri tug on his lip with his teeth, almost like he were concentrating. Perhaps on the carriages that were making their way through the snow that lay across the cobbles.
‘Tell me, Yuuri,’ Victor said, trying to charm and stepping back to appreciate Yuuri’s dress once again. ‘Are you actively seeking a poetic death of cold? Every time I meet you, you seem intent on standing out in the snow.’
‘I must confess a secret,’ Yuuri said, looking up with a bashful nervousness. Yuuri inclined his head behind them. ‘I don’t care much for these political parties. I don’t really perform well with an audience, despite what His Highness says. I’d rather be out here alone and cold, than warm and with those people.’
Victor laughed, charmed as he had been at seventeen. ‘I certainly can’t blame you for that. I ran from the whole country. But I can tell you a secret, so you don’t feel too bad for it. Might be a dreadful secret though.’
Yuuri smiled, eyes coy. ‘I’m sure I could pardon you.’
Victor stepped closer, waiting for Yuuri to meet his eye. He watched Yuuri’s face, traced the lines of the cheeks Victor remembered and the lips he’d dreamed of.
‘What if I told you that I have been in love with you since we were children?’ Victor asked, voice low with an emotion too dangerous to name. Yuuri looked at Victor, his brown eyes round.
‘Then I would say you were a fool,’ Yuuri replied, breathless and it put a fire in Victor’s heart. ‘Who says such things?’
‘Fools, I’m told,’ Victor teased back, cautious but not adverse to the tension that gathered between them. It reminded him of the thunderous clouds that would roll over Vienna in the autumn time, promising split skies and flooding rain. Yuuri looked as devastating as a storm.
‘Or liars,’ Yuuri said, voice suddenly cold. He stepped away from Victor, hands before him again in perfect posture. He stood tall, regarding Victor warily. ‘It was good to see you again, Victor.’
Before Victor could say anything else, Yuuri turned and headed back into the ballroom, leaving Victor standing in the snow, wondering if he’d ever misstepped so badly before in his life.