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2016

Until the 2016 Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, Yuri Plisetsky has never had to say the words “we’re just friends” in his life.

It’s obvious why. It’s not something that would’ve come up. You have to have friends in the first place before nosy people with no lives can assume they’re more than that, and if there’s one thing Yuri’s committed to besides skating, it’s avoiding making friends at all costs.

And yet by the end of the 2016 Grand Prix Final in Barcelona, he’s had to say “we’re just friends” so many times he’s going to throttle the next person who makes him, even if he’s on a live, internationally-streaming broadcast when it happens.

“I think you’re overreacting,” Victor says to him after the short program, and Yuri says, “I think you can go and fuck yourself,” and Yakov barks “Yuri!” because they’re all still right by the kiss and cry and within earshot of at least a dozen reporters avidly listening to their conversation.

Yuri is not overreacting. He’s been fielding a nonstop barrage of horrifying commentary about a relationship he’s not in from strangers on and off the internet for almost twenty-four hours, in the middle of a competition, so no, he is not.

They have the Yuri’s Angels to thank for this entire fucking situation, of course.

It’s their fault there are now a million identical blurry photos of Otabek’s motorcycle speeding off with Yuri on the back of it pasted all over Twitter and Instagram with horrifying all-caps captions. They haven’t let up since the day before the short program.

It’s their fault, but it’s Yuri’s fault too, or the bike’s fault, or the stupid Barcelona cobblestones’ fault, because they’d gone over a particularly bumpy section of street on the main road and Yuri had almost fallen off the back. He’d instinctively grabbed hold of the back of Otabek’s jacket as an anchor.

“You’re okay,” Otabek had called back to him over the sound of the engine and the wind rushing past, as if somehow sensing the paralyzing horror that had washed over Yuri at having overstepped such a simple boundary so quickly. “It’s safer if you hold on anyway.”

So Yuri had held on. Otabek was right; it did feel safe.

That’s the photo that caused the worst of it, the long shot taken by someone on the street. Yuri hadn’t thought how it would look, him on the back of a motorcycle with his arms around Otabek’s waist, because of how completely separate how it looked is from how it was.

He’s been in the public eye since he was ten years old, so it’s not like he isn’t used to media attention. He’s just not used to it being like this, “like this” meaning suddenly having to answer the same stupid question one million times a day.

“We’re just friends,” Yuri snaps at Victor when Victor corners him after dinner the night before the free program, seizes Yuri by the shoulders, and asks in a dramatic stage whisper if he needs to have words with Otabek about his intentions. “Don’t be stupid, and get your hands off me before I call the police.”

“We’re just friends,” Otabek tells his sister much more patiently when she calls on their way back to the hotel because the four-hour time difference between Barcelona and Almaty evidently isn’t enough to keep her from having seen the headlines before going to sleep.

“We’re just friends,” Yuri snarls at the reporter from some trashy American news site who has the nerve to ask him slyly about the nature of his relationship with Otabek Altin right after the kiss and cry on the last day of competition.

He gets as far as, “And you can mind your own fu--” before it’s Lilia’s turn to yell “Yuri!” and hastily send him off to change out of his skates while Yakov swoops in to do damage control to the familiar tunes of “he’s still young” and “the stress of the competition, you understand.”

Yuri has hell to pay for the egregious media faux pas later, but it’s totally worth it.

“We’re just friends,” they both have to say a million times after Yuri’s surprise exhibition skate and, well, okay, he should’ve seen that one coming.

Yuri comes up with the final-hour revision in less than five minutes, next to a cheering stadium of fans, out of thin air and nothing but the force of combined panic at Victor ruining his debut and adrenaline at the prospect of one-upping stupid Victor and stupid Katsuki, for once.

He’s feeling reckless and alive and maybe in the back of his mind he knows having Otabek come out onto the ice with him isn’t going to be without fallout but in the moment he couldn’t care less.

It quickly becomes a shared joke ([7:45] Beka: Did you see Instagram? Apparently we’re doing a couple’s skate at Worlds. Costume thoughts? [7:55] Yura: Disco cowboys [7:57] Beka: Done.), and despite Yuri’s fears at the beginning, Otabek genuinely, somehow, honest-to-god doesn’t seem to care.

The thing is, Yuri still does. He cares a lot. He gets used to it, but used to isn’t comfortable, and he can roll his eyes and joke about it with Otabek but he still bristles every time the seemingly inevitable question is asked by someone else.

No one but Otabek seems to get why having to answer it over and over bothers him so much. Victor even goes so far as to throw a weeklong sulkfest after his repeated insistence that Yuri’s being irrational isn’t received well by Yuri or, surprisingly, by Katsuki, who’s annoyingly persistent about being on Yuri’s side throughout the whole ordeal even though Yuri reiterates many, many times that he doesn’t want him there.

Yuri doesn’t explain to Victor because he’s being too annoying, but there are three main reasons.

The first one he’ll tell anyone who asks, loudly and repeatedly, because it’s both true and obvious: that he shouldn’t have to clarify anything to anyone because it’s not their fucking business.

It’s not anyone’s, but especially not a thousand creepy fans’, and especially not when they haven’t stopped tagging the two of them into comments like “anyone else think its fucked up theyre dating when yuri-plisetsky is only 15? otabek-altin u should be ashamed of urself” on Instagram ever since they first started spending time together.

The second reason only lasts the four days of the 2016 GPF, and he only tells Otabek (or, he deliberately avoids telling Otabek and Otabek works it out on his own anyway): he’s afraid every time it happens, every time someone asks, will be the last straw.

Everyone knows Otabek doesn’t socialize with other skaters, and everyone knows he keeps his personal life private. As a direct result of him violating the first rule, the second suddenly becomes impossible.

There’s a straightforward, obvious solution to this, and directly after the photos had exploded online Yuri was a mess of agitated, nervous energy waiting for Otabek to fucking realize it and call an end to the whole friendship experiment. To decide being friends with Yuri couldn’t possibly be worth the hassle.

But he didn’t, somehow, and somehow, Yuri stops worrying about it.

And then there’s the third reason. That one he won’t tell anyone, not even Otabek, because it’s too personal and too embarrassing. It’s about his loathing for the stupid but situationally necessary distinction of “just.”

Just friends.

Like friends isn’t enough, isn’t important; like Otabek Altin choosing Yuri of all people to be friends with isn’t anything. Isn’t everything.

Like standing at the edge of the rink with Otabek before his exhibition -- feeling more like himself than he ever has before a performance -- and having Otabek agree to come onto the ice with him doesn’t shake apart what’s left of Yuri’s life before and begin to build a new one around that moment.

Yuri got on the motorbike. Otabek goes out onto the ice.

Everything’s different, after that.

2019

“He’s just my friend, Grandpa,” Yuri says groggily into the phone at six thirty in the morning the day of the 2019 GPF free skate, buried beneath several feet of comforter.

He’s still under the covers because it’s six thirty in the morning. It’s six thirty in the morning because his grandfather has either miscalculated or ignored the time difference between Milan and Moscow and is showing exactly zero remorse about it.

Yuri absolutely cannot believe how unfair this is, on a competition day no less. “How many times do I--” he protests, voice sleep-raspy, and is interrupted. He tries again. “I’m not taking a tone! I’m just saying--”

He trails off in a groan of frustration as his grandfather continues to talk over him in rapidfire Russian.

Yuri resigns himself to being awake fifteen minutes earlier than necessary and drags himself out of the deep burrow he’s made of his bedclothes, blinking in the early morning light streaming in through the hotel room windows.

The curtains had been drawn when he fell asleep, but now they’re pushed open all the way to reveal the smoggy city skyline. It’s bright enough, even this early, that he wants to hiss and retreat back under the covers.

Otabek -- who is of course responsible for letting the frankly horrifying amount of sunlight into the room -- appears in the bathroom doorway, toothbrush in his mouth and brows furrowed.

It’s not hard to guess why he looks worried. The last time Yuri’s got a call from his grandfather at an odd hour, almost a year ago, it was because he was in the hospital.

Yuri waves him off blearily. His grandfather is, judging by his lung capacity, entirely fine. Yuri, on the other hand, is going to die unless he gets coffee immediately.

He struggles his way to a seated position, cross-legged in the wreck of sheets, and twists his hair up into a messy bun one-handed while he continues to try and make sense of what his grandfather is saying.

The gist of it is painfully obvious, but the reason for an early-morning revival of this particular line of questioning is what’s proving difficult to pin down. Yuri’s had to have this conversation with him before, humiliatingly, but that was forever ago and he’d thought (prayed) they were done with it.

“Grandpa,” he interjects when there’s a pause for breath on the other end of the line, “I have to get ready for practice. Free skate is t--okay, okay, I know you know!” He rubs at his eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but I promise, for the millionth time, we’re not together. It’s not like that.”

As he says it his eyes go automatically to Otabek, still visible through the open bathroom door. He’s leaning over to spit toothpaste into the sink, the muscles of his back working under his t-shirt.

Yuri’s acutely aware that Otabek can hear every word of his half of the conversation. Even though they’re both so familiar with the basic script of it by now they could probably recite both parts on cue, Yuri still feels his face warm up as he sees Otabek’s lips quirk up in his reflection.

Getting this from strangers is one thing. Coming from his grandfather it’s just embarrassing, and there’s no need for them both to be suffering through it yet again at oh-fuck-it’s-so-early in the morning.

Otabek’s eyes meet his in the mirror. Feeling inexplicably caught, Yuri looks away hastily. “Grandpa, I really have to go,” he says. “I’ll call you after the podium, I promise.”

Once he’s finally managed to extricate himself from the call, Yuri groans with as much feeling as he can muster and throws himself down onto his stomach on the unmade bed, opening Twitter on his phone.

He only has to scroll for about five seconds before finding what he’s looking for.

He doesn’t recognize the picture, but he can tell it was taken right after the short program yesterday. By someone in the stands, probably, because it has the grainy quality of a zoomed in cell phone pic.

Yuri must have just come off the ice: in the photo he’s leaned up against the outer edge of the rink in his spangly silver-and-black costume, the new one with the significant mesh cut-outs at the shoulder blades and hips he’d had to fight Lilia tooth and nail for.

He remembers what had happened next. One of the white roses from his crown had come loose and tumbled to the ground while he was putting on his skate guards one-handed, the huge yellow cat plush stuffed under his other arm hindering any potential assistance.

Otabek had skated directly before Yuri in the group one lineup, and was kneeling down next to him by the bench with a jacket pulled over his own costume, rummaging through his duffel for water. He had amusedly picked the rose up and handed it back.

That’s what had happened. What it looks like, with none of that context and Otabek’s bag hidden out of frame behind the railing of the rink, is Otabek down on one knee, offering Yuri a flower.

It looks -- well. Yuri was there and he knows that it was nothing, and it still looks like something. It makes his chest constrict oddly in a way he can’t explain, looking at it.

At least Yuri’s grandfather calling to demand if he was engaged at six thirty in the morning makes slightly more sense now.

So do the texts from Phichit (Congrats!!!!!! PS you canNOT have a fancier wedding than Victor and yuuri or Victor will die), Mila (You’ve seen right? Text me when you’ve seen), and Victor (YURIO CALL ME IMMEDIATELY!!!!!!) that Yuri opens next, received at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., and 4:15 a.m., respectively.

“Fuck me,” Yuri says with feeling.

Otabek finishes brushing his teeth and comes to see what Yuri’s swearing about. He flops down on the bed next to Yuri, stretched out on his back, and Yuri passes the phone over wordlessly and buries his face in the covers.

There’s a beat of silence, and then Otabek says thoughtfully, “That’s unlucky, even for us.”

If anything, he sounds more impressed than bothered. Yuri genuinely doesn’t understand how he can be so chill all of the time. Like, yes, okay, they’ve had to deal with this shit on the regular for years now, but even so he thinks an engagement rumor is a pretty dramatic escalation of the status quo.

He pulls the comforter over his face, saying loudly, “I can’t believe they think I would say yes without a ring, I have standards,” and Otabek huffs a laugh and tugs it back with the calm reminder, “Your entourage is going to be here any minute.”

Sure enough, he’s only just finished saying it when there’s a brisk knock on the door.

Yuri groans. He takes a moment to lament his entire life before dragging himself up in his sleep leggings and loose t-shirt to go let in Lilia and her terrifying wheeling bag full of makeup and hair products.

He has significantly more creative control over his own programs, after that first unsanctioned EX in Barcelona, but Lilia still usually does his styling for the simple reason that most of the time, Yuri can’t be bothered.

Now that he can skate how he wants, he finds he doesn’t mind so much being done up in the braids and long lashes her preferred aesthetic for him favors. As long as it’s only some of the time.

“Not up yet?” Lilia says with a disdainful sniff on her way past, which is her way of saying good morning.

Yuri doesn’t miss the way her piercing glance lingers on Otabek, stretched out on the bed clearly marked as Yuri’s by the stuffed cat and the jumble of clothes he hadn’t bothered to shove off the edge before falling asleep, among which his blue and white team jacket is easily identifiable.

“You’re early,” Yuri says loudly before Lilia can say anything, just in case she’s also been checking skating blogs before seven in the morning. “I need coffee.”

“You have four minutes,” she says. “Wash your face.”

Yuri throws his hands up. “It’ll take at least ten to call down for coffee,” he protests.

“If you were staying with us, you could already have coffee,” Lilia says with a breathtaking lack of sympathy. “Wash your face.”

“I’d rather die than stay with you,” Yuri says for the hundredth time, and goes to wash his face.

*****

See you in Canada, he had texted Otabek as soon as the Grand Prix assignments were posted in 2017.

If he’d been refreshing the site page with extra fervor for half an hour before the listings actually went up, so what, he was just impatient to know his schedule, not to mention how many times he was going to have to suffer seeing JJ’s stupid face that year.

Otabek had answered within minutes.

Need a roommate?

Yuri couldn’t tell if it was a question or an invitation. He thought, with an unexpected burst of wild happiness, maybe it was both.

God yes, he’d sent back without hesitation. He was sick to the teeth of staying with Lilia and Yakov, who were doing a poorer job than ever of pretending they weren’t sleeping together again. Thoughts of things he might have almost walked in on haunt him.

So he and Otabek roomed together in Ontario for Skate Canada in November, the first time they had been in the same city or even the same country since the Barcelona GPF after months of infuriatingly non-overlapping competition schedules. Yuri had won silver and Otabek had beaten him out for gold.

They’d gone out for what was ostensibly dinner (but was really just a lot of drinks) with the other skaters, after, and hadn’t talked to anyone but each other the entire time. Being the only one Otabek paid attention to, apart from polite but brief responses to questions the others directed at him, was a heady thing.

Yuri knew he was special. He’d broken world records before he was sixteen years old, so he knew. But he’d never felt special like this before. Winning had never been a person, before.

No one had ever picked him, before.

They had already fallen into the habit of texting and talking on Skype and sending each other photos of random everyday stuff on Snapchat regularly, but they didn’t see each other again until that December for the 2017 Final in Portugal.

Otabek’s mother called the morning of the free skate to tell him his sister had been in a car accident and was in stable condition but staying for observation in the hospital, and he stayed just long enough to skate his program -- the least perfect program Yuri had ever seen from him -- and flew home immediately afterwards.

Otabek didn’t place. Yuri won silver again, losing gold to Victor by an infuriating eighth of a point, and called Otabek right after he got off the podium.

Then they were both in Taipei in March for Worlds, and Yuri got violently sick with no warning in the middle of the night before the short program and stayed up until three in the morning throwing up.

Otabek had woken up around midnight and come to bring him water. He sat quietly with Yuri on the bathroom floor, leaned up against the damp glass door of the shower, for hours, despite Yuri’s half-delirious, very loud protestations that he was being an idiot.

Yuri still scraped a third place win the next day. Otabek took second, which was good because, as Yuri had told him with all the vehemence he could muster in between bouts of nausea the night before, “If you don’t place because of this I will kill you.”

After that they didn’t need to check in with each other beforehand: whenever they were in the same city, they would be staying together. It was a given. None of the others even bothered including them in pre-competition “nhk room arrangements aka please don’t make me room with chris again you guys!!!!!” group messages anymore.

Yuri hadn’t expected it to be easy.

Friendship, that is. He didn’t expect it to be easy because he’s not used to anything coming easily, without having to fight for it.

But it hadn’t been hard at all. Talking to other people was annoying, a lot of the time, but talking to Otabek never was. Spending time with him was simple, and it immediately became something Yuri looked forward to the way he did few other things.

Days with Otabek were suddenly his favorite days, between those long stretches of time spent in different rinks, on different continents, hours and time zones and hundreds of miles apart.

He and Otabek never forget that they’re competitors, and it would be a lie to say it doesn’t matter, but it doesn’t matter the way Yuri thought it would. It doesn’t ruin things the way he thought it would.

Neither, to his shock, do the gossip blogs and the fans. After the complete frenzy following the Barcelona exhibition dies down, dealing with them becomes more manageable. For a given value of manageable, anyway.

The motorcycle photos and resulting headlines from that first GPF had divided the Yuri’s Angels into two distinct camps immediately: one, the ones who decided to show their support for a relationship that didn’t exist by making gross comments on all of Yuri’s social media posts; and two, the ones who decided to show their vehement disapproval of a relationship that didn’t exist by making gross comments on all of Yuri’s social media posts.

They’ve continued in the same way, with very little variation, for three fucking years.

Otabek only avoids the same treatment because all his accounts are private, which Yuri won’t even consider but sometimes wishes he could, considering the things he’s had to read with his own two eyes.

Still, it’s been three years and the two of them spending time together has (gradually) become less of a novelty in the public eye.

It still feels like a novelty to Yuri, though, sometimes. Sometimes he’s struck by it all over again.

They’ll be walking through the downtown of one of a dozen cities where neither of them speaks the language, bundled up against the cold, and he’ll make some snarky throwaway comment about Victor or the weather or their hotel, and Otabek will laugh.

He’ll laugh and Yuri will completely forget what he was going to say next because he’s caught by it, by how amazing it is, that he’s the one who gets to make Otabek laugh.

It’s like being momentarily blinded by the sun; just that startling and that bright.

Or he’ll be sitting cross-legged on the back of the parked motorcycle, scrolling Instagram and waiting for Otabek to come back with coffee because he’s known Yuri’s order by heart for months now, and it’s all so very normal that if he thinks about it Yuri’s breath will suddenly be snatched away by how normal it is.

How accustomed he is to Otabek being in his life, when it’s still so unlikely. Otabek who, until Barcelona, kept to himself and barely talked to anyone.

Yuri sometimes can’t believe how lucky he is, to be the one Otabek made an exception for.

*****

For the second time in four years, Yuri takes gold at the GPF.

For the third time in four years, even though the post-GPF banquet doesn’t let out until almost one in the morning and everyone’s already at least halfway to drunk, Mila and Phichit manage to convince everyone to go out to a club afterwards.

But because the universe seems to have decided the engagement rumor just wasn’t bad enough, getting out of the hotel turns out to be more difficult than expected.

“Tell me you pulled JJ’s stupid head off for me,” Yuri says, stomping towards Otabek down the alleyway next to the hotel twenty minutes after they’d separated, once he’s finally managed to get back down to street level and out of the hotel unmolested.

Otabek unhitches himself from where he’s leaned up against his bike and shakes his head. He holds the spare helmet out to Yuri.

“I told him it wasn’t a nice thing to do,” he says calmly.

The Yuri’s Angels had been camped out in the lobby when they came down, and JJ had also, unfortunately, been in the lobby, and when JJ spotted them he had grinned and cupped his hands around his mouth to yell, “Yo, loverboys, over here a sec!” in his stupid loud carrying voice. Yuri had barely gotten back to the elevator in time.

Yuri accepts the helmet from Otabek and stares at him expectantly, waiting for the “and then I kicked him in the shins until he cried” or at the very least “and then I threatened his person extensively” that he knows must be forthcoming. He had to hide behind an ice machine on the eleventh floor for ten fucking minutes. He needs retribution.

When it doesn’t come, he says incredulously, “That’s it? He knows it wasn’t a nice thing to do!”

Otabek just shrugs and circles around the bike to the street side. Yuri follows him, putting his face near Otabek’s face in an attempt to make him understand the gravity of the situation. “You know that was the point, right? You know he’s a bad person, right?”

Otabek sighs and holds still long enough to give Yuri a level, patient look. “He’s worried about his ankle. It’s how he copes.”

JJ had landed the last quad flip of his free program that afternoon not-quite-cleanly, one hand grazing the ice, and the self-satisfied smirk had faltered for just a second in between hitting his final pose and making his way to the edge of the rink.

Every skater there could tell he’d landed wrong the second he did it. Not badly wrong, not career-ending wrong, but just enough that his face was white from pain by the time he got to the kiss and cry.

Yuri hadn’t been interested in navigating the horde of admirers and reporters who’d immediately swamped JJ, but he’d overheard the EMTs saying it was a hairline fracture on his way past to change.

Yuri feels a twinge of guilt, and stamps on it hard. “I don’t care how he copes,” he snaps. “I just had to run down seven flights of stairs to keep from having my hair sold on eBay. I’m going to murder him.”

“I didn’t say he was right,” Otabek says, with a faint quirk of his lips. That’s all it takes, and Yuri can’t even pretend to be mad at him anymore. “But I’m glad they didn’t get your hair.”

“Speaking of.” Yuri hangs his helmet over one of the handlebars and tugs impatiently at the pins keeping his hair in its complicated fishtail arrangement, wincing when they pull too hard. “Help me, I can’t stand these stupid braids one more second.”

The hairstyle is one of Lilia’s most elaborate thus far, and the braids have been digging into his scalp for hours before, during, and after the competition. But it’s almost worth it for how nice it feels to have them taken out.

Otabek’s used to this drill by now. He waits for Yuri to sit down on the bike in front of him -- Yuri’s a full two inches taller now, or was last time he had to get measured for a physical a month ago, when he’d sent Otabek a semi-blurry snap of his chart with just a :/ as a caption -- and then patiently starts to undo all of the interlacing plaits.

“I think Lilia’s mourning her lost career as a hairdresser for the Hunger Games,” Yuri says, earning him an amused huff of acknowledgment from Otabek. “I can’t believe it even looks good anymore.”

“You know it does,” Otabek says mildly, calling the bluff.

Yuri clicks his tongue, feeling a smile tug at the edges of his mouth. He feels warm and loose-limbed from the banquet champagne. “Well, obviously.”

After Otabek finishes untwining each braid he runs his fingers through the freed section of Yuri’s hair, slow and even, to untangle it. He’s much kinder about it than Lilia; he takes his time and makes sure not to pull too hard to avoid making Yuri hiss involuntarily through his teeth.

He should tell Otabek to hurry up -- they’re late as it is, and who even knows how long they have before the Angels hunt them down again -- but Otabek’s hands feel so nice in his hair he can’t quite bring himself to.

Yuri’s not a terribly tactile person, which means being around Victor regularly is something of a horror show, but having his hair combed out is incredibly soothing. Anyway, it’s different when it’s Otabek. He doesn’t mind the same way.

“It’s getting long,” Otabek comments while he works.

It’s neither a compliment nor a critique, like so many things Otabek says, and not for the first time Yuri wishes he could see inside his head. Does he like it long? Does he think Yuri should cut it?

The next second Yuri forcibly banishes that line of questioning. He feels his face warm up and he’s immensely grateful for the dark, and for the fact that he’s facing away from Otabek.

What’s wrong with him? Why the hell would it matter what Otabek thinks of Yuri’s hair, as if he would even care either way? He blames the generous flask of something cinnamon flavored and burning Phichit had shared with him in the elevator on the way up from the banquet for making him even think something so stupid.

Yuri realizes belatedly that he hasn’t responded for several seconds and says quickly, “I want to cut it, because it gets in the way, but Lilia said it would be a crime, so, whatever.” He shrugs one shoulder and the loosened hair spills over it, soft and sweat-damp. “Done?”

Otabek’s hands had stilled, but now Yuri feels them smooth back through his hair, combing out the tangles one last time, blunt nails grazing Yuri’s scalp. He fights a shiver. After a few seconds have passed with no answer, Yuri glances back over his shoulder.

Otabek’s hands leave Yuri’s head. “You’re set,” he says, and his tone is slightly odd but he’s backlit by the streetlamp, haloed, and what little Yuri can see of his expression gives nothing away. He doesn’t say anything else as he sits down on the bike and waits for Yuri to wrap his arms around his waist.

But when he asks, “Ready?” over one shoulder, he sounds normal again, and Yuri thinks he must’ve imagined it.

Yuri rests his head against Otabek’s back and closes his eyes. “Ready.”

*****

Between the multiple flutes of champagne at the banquet, Phichit’s flask, and the shots of something-or-other Mila shoves at him as soon as they finally join the others at the huge corner booth they’d commandeered at some club in the Navigli district, by around 3 a.m. Yuri is having a slight bit of trouble maintaining his balance.

He is not drunk. He has absolute control over his actions. He just feels like sitting down for a while, and that’s why he flops down in the booth, sweaty from dancing, and refuses to get up again despite Mila’s wheedling.

Not because he can’t stand up, just because he doesn’t feel like standing up, which he had explained loudly to an amused Otabek when he’d left to get them water ten minutes ago.

Phichit is out on the dancefloor taking selfies with Victor and Yuuri, since not even it’s-official-this-time-he-promises retirement, as it turns out, will keep Victor from a post-GPF party, especially not one where his husband medaled in bronze.

Leo and Guang-Hong have filled in the space Phichit left between them like magnets pulled together, Guang-Hong dozing with his head on Leo’s shoulder while Leo does something on his phone one-handed, the other toying idly with Guang-Hong’s hair.

Mila and Sara had gone off to dance a while ago, Seung-gil had left almost as soon as they’d all arrived (which, as Sara had pointed out hopefully, was progress: it was the first year he’d come at all), and JJ and Isabella are somewhere that isn’t here, which is the extent of how much Yuri cares where they are.

“What is this supposed to say?” Leo asks, holding his phone up so Guang-Hong can see but careful not to move enough to dislodge him from his shoulder. Guang-Hong opens one eye to peer at the screen.

“Oh, stupid Autocorrect,” he sighs and lets his eyelids flutter shut again. “‘Radishes.’”

“Are you two texting each other?” Yuri asks in disbelief, dragging himself up from where he’s slumped over the tabletop and staring at them. He has to blink for a minute to reorient himself, because everything had slid alarmingly sideways with the sudden movement. “That’s disgusting. You’re disgusting.”

“Are you texting Otabek?” Leo asks, eyebrows raised and expression smug, as if that is in any way the same thing.

Yuri doesn’t want to give him the satisfaction of thinking he’s right, though, so he exits out of his messages immediately and lies, “No.”

Leo’s phone makes a sound like ducks quacking. He checks it and announces, “Phichit’s coming back to the table,” two seconds before Phichit comes back to the table.

He squishes in right next to Guang-Hong despite most of the booth being empty. Yuri has no idea how he has found himself surrounded by this many people who do not understand personal space. It’s a waking nightmare.

Leo beams at Phichit, and Guang-Hong smiles warmly without opening his eyes. It’s the way Victor and Yuuri are with each other, too; always acting like they haven’t seen each other for ten years when it’s barely been ten minutes.

Leo and Guang-Hong hadn’t even been competing in the Final, this year. They’d just come to spend time with Phichit and cheer him on, since they aren’t all often in the same place either and Yuri knows from Phichit (via Victor, via Yuuri) that it’s hard for them. Yuri can understand that much, at least.

Now they automatically reshape themselves to include Phichit again, Guang-Hong sliding a sleepy arm around his waist and Leo’s free hand finding Phichit’s on the table. They look more like themselves, all together, than they do individually.

For some reason the whole thing makes something in Yuri’s chest twist painfully, and he looks away.

He looks around for Otabek, as a distraction and out of habit. Yuri’s usually looking for Otabek, in whatever room or airport or rink they’re both in. It’s why his gaze finds him so quickly now, despite the dim club lighting and the crowd.

He must’ve been intercepted coming back to the table -- he’s standing on the edge of the dance floor with Mila, hands up in a gesture of surrender while she tugs on the front of his jacket, laughing. As Yuri watches, he shakes his head with a small smile. She says something Yuri can’t hear and holds out one hand.

After a long, long second, Otabek takes it and allows her to pull him forward into the clump of dancers. It’s house music, some techno bass-heavy song with minimal lyrics. The kind you dance to close together.

Yuri feels much more sober, suddenly.

Mila’s with Sara, and Yuri knows knows that. Everyone does, except for Sara’s brother, probably. Yuri doesn’t actually know for sure because he doesn’t care enough about Mickey Crispino to ask him if he is really honest-to-God enough of an idiot that he believes that his sister and the girl she posts sunset kissing photos with on Instagram are just good friends.

But the thing is, Yuri also knows that Mila had a crush on Otabek, when they first met. And he knows what Otabek looks like. It’s not like he’s an idiot, he knows. He shouldn’t be surprised that other people have noticed too.

He tells himself they’re just dancing. And even if they weren’t, it shouldn’t feel like this, like a punch to the gut, there’s no reason it should feel like this. But it does. It does, anyway.

She touches his arm, laughing at something he’s said or something she has, body angled in towards his to talk over the music, or maybe for a different reason, and Yuri genuinely wants to throw up now.

With typical horrible timing, JJ drops heavily into the booth next to Yuri, startling him enough that he turns to glare instead. JJ’s graceful enough that he doesn’t quite manage to make the movement look clumsy even with the temporary plastic boot on his injured foot.

He smells like too much body spray, which definitely doesn’t help with the nausea.

“What’s the matter, Tinkerbell?” he asks, winking as he jerks his chin towards Mila and Otabek. “Don’t like people touching your things?”

Yuri doesn’t know what JJ’s talking about and his thoughts are too swimmy to figure it out, but his tone makes him bristle automatically. “You’re an idiot, and you make no sense,” he snaps. “And don’t call me that, asshole, I’m barely two inches shorter than you and you know it.”

JJ’s grin confirms that he does.

Even the tabloids have stopped calling Yuri the Russian Fairy after his horrible growth spurt two years ago, the one that almost cost him his signature Biellmann and necessitated painfully re-learning every basic move he’d ever done without thinking, but god forbid JJ pass up one single opportunity to be annoying.

“Aw, cheer up, Plisetsky. I’ll keep you company.” JJ nudges one shoulder against Yuri’s, and Yuri slides further down the booth to get away from him. “How would that possibly cheer me up?” he asks loudly.

Almost against his will, his gaze is pulled back to the dancefloor. He can’t stop looking at Mila and Otabek, at how close they are, closer still as Otabek leans in to say something in her ear over the thudding music. They move easily together, naturally. They look like they fit.

Yuri remembers the first time he had gone to a club with Otabek, except he hadn’t even gone with Otabek because Otabek hadn’t wanted him to come. He’d said Yuri was too young.

That’s how it feels now, watching them dance. Like he’s a child. It makes something hot and painful constrict his lungs.

He tears his gaze away from the two of them and JJ is staring at him. Like, staring.

“What?” Yuri snaps, feeling flustered and not sure why. It’s not like he’s doing anything wrong. “What the hell are you looking at?”

JJ’s gaze goes from Yuri, to Otabek, out on the dancefloor, and back. He looks like he’s trying to figure out an unsolvable puzzle. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he says, slowly.

What?” Yuri demands.

“You’re not? This whole time, I thought he was lying,” JJ says, like he’s making any sort of sense at all. “But you’re really not, are you?”

He doesn’t look confused anymore, he looks shocked. Yuri’s never seen him shocked. It would be much more satisfying if he knew what was happening.

Yuri slams his palms flat on the table hard enough that Leo yelps and the many, many glasses covering its surface clink together menacingly. “Oh for God’s sake, what are you talking about?”

“Oh good, he’s yelling,” Isabella says before JJ can answer, sliding into the booth on JJ’s other side and setting two beers down in front of them.

She climbs directly into JJ’s lap -- because apparently no one here but Yuri can see that there are honest to God miles of empty space in the booth -- and leans up to press her lips to his cheek. “Sweetheart, you know better.”

“You don’t know it’s my fault he’s yelling,” JJ says, his tone going soft and indulgent the way it always does when he talks to his wife. “He yells all the time.”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” Yuri says loudly, horrified by absolutely everything that is happening. “And can you two get a room?”

“We’re married, this is incredibly wholesome,” JJ points out, and Isabella kisses his nose. Yuri makes his retching sound as loud as possible. He absolutely cannot believe he is surrounded by this sort of behavior at every turn, all the time. It’s unbelievably unfair.

“You’re grouchier than normal, even for you,” Isabella observes, peeling at the label on her beer with one scarlet fingernail. Yuri doesn’t dignify that with a response.

JJ whispers something in her ear and Yuri definitely catches Otabek’s name, along with his own. Isabella arches one brow, pulling back so she can give JJ a look. “Obviously,” she says. “I told you that.”

Yuri is about to yell “what” again, but is distracted by JJ sliding one of the beers over to Yuri. “Here,” he says. “Seems like you need this more than me.”

“I’m fine, you’re an idiot,” Yuri says aggressively, but he snatches it up anyway. Even though he doesn’t even like beer, he still takes a huge gulp of it in an attempt to distract himself from whatever may or may not be happening on the dancefloor.

He’s not clear on how things progress from there, except that conversation turns to skating and JJ mentions something about how Yuri used to be able to do a move “when he was younger” in the most condescending tone imaginable and Yuri says that excuse the fuck out of him, he can still do that.

Things get a little fuzzy but it ends up with him standing up, wobbly, on the squashy booth seat to demonstrate an arabesque (perfectly, thank you very much) and almost decapitating a startled Leo in the process.

“Yurio, what are you doing?”

Victor appears on the opposite side of the table with glitter in his hair and Yuuri in tow behind him. He seems to be doing his best approximation of a stern expression, which would maybe be more convincing if he still had on all of the clothing he’d come in with.

“It should be obvious,” Yuri says disdainfully, lowering his extended leg. He exhales in a puff to get his unruly hair out of his face. He tries hard to focus. He’s seeing two of Victor, and he hates both of them. “Do you even dance?”

“I think it’s time you go to bed,” both Victors say. They extend a hand -- two hands? -- imperiously. “Come on, Yuuri and I will take you.”

“Good thing you’re not the boss of me,” Yuri retorts. “And you’re not taking me anywhere, asshole.”

He drops back into his seat and misjudges the available space so he ends up sitting accidentally half-on JJ, who lets out a startled laugh and puts a hand at the small of Yuri’s back to steady him. Isabella starts giggling uncontrollably. Yuri knows he should move, but it seems like a lot of effort.

“You two should know better,” Victor says to JJ and Isabella, extremely sanctimoniously for someone only half-wearing a shirt in public.

“Seriously?” JJ asks, laughing again. His steadying hand leaves Yuri’s back and turns into an arm slung around Yuri’s shoulders, a gesture which he allows and even appreciates since it’s clearly a display of solidarity against Victor, his enemy, who is as usual trying to ruin his life. “Know better than to what? Let an eighteen-year-old drink at a club?”

Isabella’s only contribution is a derisive snort of agreement as she tucks herself up under JJ’s other arm, yawning.

It’s a weird dilemma, because he hates JJ and Isabella, he definitely does, but he also hates Victor telling him what to do, and so now he’s stuck deciding which is the lesser of two evils.

Victor makes an indignant huffing sound. “Someone has to look out for him!” he says, as if Yuri isn’t right there and obviously capable of taking care of himself, once he remembers how to stand and things.

That decides it. Somehow, against all laws of God and nature, Victor is the Greater Evil.

“I’m fine,” Yuri says, and lets his head loll back against the booth. “I am amazing, actually,” he tells the ceiling, when lifting it again proves too challenging. “I won a gold medal today, in case you forgot.”

“You’re so drunk,” Phichit says fondly. “I’m going to get Otabek.”

He looks like he’s going to get up, and Yuri struggles to sit up. He opens his mouth to say no without fully knowing why, but then neither of those things happens because Mila and Otabek choose that moment to come back to the table on their own.

“You should consider switching to pairs,” Yuri hears Mila saying as they get closer, laughing. “You’d be good at it.”

“I’m going to bed,” Yuri announces loudly over whatever Otabek says back, struggling to his feet and beginning the daunting task of navigating his way out of the booth past the many limbs stretched out in and across it. The floor keeps tipping to one side or the other without warning, which isn’t helping.

Guang-Hong is full on sleeping in Leo’s lap now, and he murmurs something and frowns when Yuri accidentally jostles him on his way past.

Yuri trips climbing out over Phichit, but doesn’t fall because Otabek -- who Yuri hadn’t seen come around the table -- is right there.

He puts his hands on Yuri’s waist to steady him, fingers warm on the strip of skin where Yuri’s shirt has ridden up. “You okay?” he asks, quietly, so the others won’t hear if Yuri doesn’t want them to.

Yuri makes fleeting eye contact and mumbles, “I’m fine. Going to bed.” He has to fight the sleepy, drunken impulse to lean into Otabek. He leans away instead, putting a hand on the edge of the table to keep from falling.

It doesn’t feel right. Nothing about any of this feels right; it’s like something’s been knocked off balance and he desperately wants to fix it but doesn’t know how.

“I’ll come with you,” Otabek says.

“No,” Yuri says. It comes out more aggressively than he means it to, and Otabek gives him a searching look. It’s not the way Yuri normally talks to Otabek, even when they’re in a fight. They’re not fighting now, so Yuri’s not sure why he’s being so defensive. He can’t seem to stop himself.

Yuri looks at Mila, who’s flushed from dancing and smiling at him like everything is fine, and it’s not but he can’t even explain why it’s not. Her dress is sequined, and all of her shimmers in the colored overhead lighting. He wonders if Otabek thinks she’s pretty.

“I don’t--I’m fine,” he says, trying and failing to make it sound less harsh, more convincing. “Phichit’s going to take me.”

“We were just headed out,” Phichit says gamely, without hesitating, and Yuri thinks he’s never in his life been so grateful to anyone. Phichit sets about extracting himself from the tangle of Leo and Guang-Hong, pressing a brief kiss to each of their heads, and Otabek just keeps staring at Yuri like he’s trying to figure him out.

“You’re sure?” he asks. His concern reads clearly in his eyes, and Yuri finds he can’t really look at him as he mumbles, “I’m sure.”

“Okay,” Otabek says after a pause, and steps back out of his space. “Here, take this,” he says to Phichit, digging something out of his jeans pocket. “He won’t have his.”

It’s the keycard to their room, Yuri realizes. Otabek’s right; he doesn’t have his. Yuri never bothers to keep track of his own because he’s always with Otabek and he knows Otabek will have one.

“I’ll be up soon,” Otabek says, to him not to Phichit, and Yuri just nods and keeps not looking at him and wonders just what exactly the fuck is wrong with him.

*****

“I’m worried about you,” Phichit tells him frankly twenty minutes later, once he’s gotten Yuri in and out of an Uber, in and out of an elevator, and down the long carpeted hallway of the twelfth floor to the correct hotel room. He even manages to unlock the room door while still keeping Yuri upright.

It’s annoying because Yuri has long since decided “upright” is stupid and he would much rather sit down on the couches in the lobby, or in the elevator, or on the squishy carpet of the hallway floor, except Phichit won’t fucking let him.

“What happened back there?” Phichit asks.

After taking a moment to remember what Phichit’s talking about -- the club, the dancing, Mila and Otabek -- Yuri mutters something noncommittal and Phichit sighs. He flicks on the lightswitch and nudges the door closed behind them with one foot. “How much did you have to drink?”

Yuri makes a vague twirly hand gesture and thinks hard before answering definitively, “Some.”

Phichit rolls his eyes. “Okay, ice tiger,” he says, sounding less worried and more amused. “Let’s get you into bed.”

He maneuvers Yuri into the room and nudges him forward until he collapses onto his bed on his stomach, rolling over onto his back with difficulty. The room reorients itself several times without warning in the process, and Yuri groans and flings an arm up to cover his eyes to make it stop.

The bed dips slightly under Phichit’s weight as he sits on the edge of it, pulling Yuri’s feet into his lap. He starts to undo Yuri’s shoes. Yuri almost doesn’t let him, but he can’t really think of a reason not to and he is tired of wearing shoes.

“You’re sure you’re okay?” Phichit asks, after a moment of silence. He tugs one of Yuri’s boots off and drops it to the carpet with a dull thud.

“M fine,” Yuri says, and then, because he suspects from the answering pause that Phichit is unconvinced, he says it again, dragging the syllables out to be deliberately annoying. “I’mmm fiiine.”

“Yuri,” Phichit says gently, unlacing Yuri’s other boot. “Don’t kick me, but...have you considered just telling him? I know it wouldn’t be easy, but it might be easier than…” he gestures vaguely, forehead creasing sadly. “Well, than this.”

“Telling who what?” Yuri asks, flopping his arms out to either side. Why isn’t anyone making sense tonight? The ceiling is spinning above him, and he lets his eyes slide shut.

When he opens them again and manages, with a great effort, to focus on Phichit, Phichit is staring at him like he’s grown antlers. “Telling Otabek? That you’re in love with him?”

He doesn’t know what he’d expected, but it definitely wasn’t that. It’s so completely out of the blue it startles a loud laugh out of Yuri.

It takes two tries but he manages to push himself up on his elbows. “Don’t be ridiculous, you’re so stupid,” he says. “Do you know how stupid you sound? You know all that bullshit online isn’t true. What, you believe we’re engaged too?”

“Forget I said anything,” Phichit says, shaking his head.

“I will not, it’s the funniest thing I’ve ever heard,” Yuri says. He giggles, collapsing back again. “Where’s my phone? I need to call my fiancé Otabek and tell him I love h--”

The words die on his tongue, and Yuri’s eyes fly open. It feels like all the air’s been punched out of his chest.

He’d meant it to be mocking, to make Phichit hear how completely ridiculous it is. He’d meant it to be funny. But hearing himself say it out loud isn’t funny. It’s not funny at all.

Panic prickles in his throat, cutting through the thick haze of alcohol, and he struggles up to a seated position. Phichit’s got a hand on his shoulder and is saying something to him in a calming voice but Yuri can’t even hear it, can’t listen, because there’s nothing in the world anyone can say that will calm him down right now.

It feels like the solid ground has been yanked out from under him. Like the world’s crashing down around him. It’s impossible, it’s laughable, the idea that this could have happened without him realizing.

It’s impossible, but the second he says he’s in love with Otabek, he knows it’s true.

“Oh my god,” he says thickly, and his voice sounds odd to his own ears. His head is filling with a dull roaring. He’s in love with Otabek. He’s in love with Otabek. “I’m--”

“Yuri?” Phichit says, looking more worried by the second.

Yuri’s stomach lurches violently. “I’m going to be sick,” he says, and lunges for the bathroom.

Phichit refuses to leave while Yuri’s throwing up. He insists on holding Yuri’s hair back and won’t consent to go until Yuri’s peeled himself up off the bathroom tiles and rolled back into bed, exhausted and alcohol-soaked and utterly fucking miserable.

He can’t believe this is happening.

Or rather, he can’t believe that it’s already happened, and he’s only just now realized.

Rifling through his own memories, try as he might he can’t go back and assign a time or place or date to when it started.

There must have been a moment. When everything changed, whether or not he knew it. There must have been, but it’s impossible to find now. The full-color truth of it is already saturating a slideshow of black and white mental images and he can’t remember what they looked like before.

Yuri’s not sure when he first loved Otabek, because now that he knows, it’s like it was always there. A thousand confusing moments he’d dismissed or overlooked at the time, now clarified. Blank spaces on a map filling in faster than he can chart them.

When was it? he wonders, staring up at the dark ceiling. It doesn’t matter, but it does. When did it happen? How can he not know? Was it the motorcycle ride? The park? The dinner? Did it happen the very first minute, somehow, or was it one of a million afterwards?

It could’ve been the night they met. It could’ve been the night after, the night before his exhibition skate in Barcelona, down at the rink at two in the morning, Yuri’s hair spilling out of its messy half-ponytail as his chest heaved with suppressed exertion.

He’d just finished running through the newly planned last-minute program for the fifth time in a row.

They weren’t supposed to be down at the performance rink, but Yuri’s gold medal and combined abilities to bluff and yell, along with a (forged) note from Lilia, had convinced the bored night shift guard to let them in.

Otabek was sitting on the rink wall in street clothes, jacket stripped off and hung over the side. He leaned over to pause the song blaring through the vast, echoey room from his phone speakers. It had been looping for most of the past hour. Yuri had never heard it before that night, but he already knew it by heart.

“Well?” Yuri demanded, once he’d caught his breath. He planted one hand on his hip, not moving from where he’d skated to a stop in the middle of the rink. He didn’t have to raise his voice; in the absence of seats filled with cheering fans and the constant interjections of commentators, a speaking voice carried easily.

“You know it’s good,” Otabek said. He paused. “It’s amazing, actually. You still haven’t nailed a clean landing after the splits, but you will.”

Yuri raised one eyebrow. He swiped at sweat trickling into his eyes, impatient. “You sound sure.”

That won him a small smile. It had felt like that, like winning, even then. “Don’t start doubting yourself now.” Otabek checked the time on his phone. “You should get some sleep, though, if you want to be able to skate it tomorrow.”

“Speak for yourself,” Yuri said. It wasn’t flippant. It was true. He knew he was good enough to skate on three hours of sleep. He’d skated on less.

“I don’t have to skate it tomorrow,” Otabek reminded him.

Yuri made a well obviously face. “But you think it’s good?” he asked bluntly, because he wanted a straight answer and he knew Otabek would give him one.

“I think it’s good,” Otabek said, the corners of his mouth ticking up further and making something warm settle in Yuri’s chest.

“And,” he added, shrugging on his jacket again, “I think I should enjoy my last few hours, because Yakov Feltsman and Lilia Baranovskaya are going to skin me alive tomorrow when they realize I had something to do with this.”

It could’ve been then.

It could’ve been the next day, when they were whispering frantically to each other rinkside as Victor and Yuuri did their surprise pairs exhibition skate, enthralling the audience and just fucking completely ruining all of Yuri’s careful plans.

Otabek’s head was bent close to his so they wouldn’t be overheard, their foreheads almost touching, and Yuri hadn’t even been aware of that new proximity but then again maybe he had been, after all. Maybe he was always aware of it.

“And you know what you’re supposed to do?” he had asked. Everything had taken on a too-bright quality from adrenaline. “We don’t have time to run through it.”

Otabek’s smile was brief, but it was grounding. “My part’s easy.”

Demonstratively, in the barely-there space between them, hidden from the crowd behind the rink wall, Otabek folded the fingers of his gloved left hand into a gun and aimed it at Yuri, right at his heart.

Yuri’s heart, which was beating far too wildly for the situation. As if Otabek was really standing in front of him with a gun, about to pull the trigger.

As if Yuri was going to let him.

Yuri exhaled. “You’ll know when,” he’d said. And Otabek did.

It could have been then. It could have been later. It could have been the first fucking time Yuri saw him across a ballet studio when he was ten years old. It doesn’t matter, really.

The end result’s the same: he’s in love with his best friend, and it’s the end of the world.

*****

Yuri wakes up feeling like death. His mouth is sandpaper and his head is pounding. It’s like someone is stabbing him repeatedly in the temple with an ice pick. He considers just staying there without moving, possibly forever or until he dies, but then his phone chirps with a flight reminder and he realizes he’s overslept.

He’s disoriented when he unearths himself from the blankets and the wall is on the wrong side of him. Then he rolls over and looks across at his own empty bed, and realizes after a moment of total confusion that he must’ve fallen asleep in the wrong one last night.

Yuri sits up slowly, and with a good deal of regret. He rubs at his eyes blearily. His eyelashes are mascara-glued together because he’d never washed off his performance makeup from yesterday, and day-old eyeliner leaves black smudges behind on his hand.

The bathroom door opens and Otabek comes out, shirtless and toweling his hair dry, and last night’s revelation -- temporarily forgotten in the blur of horrendously painful hangover -- slams into Yuri like a ton of bricks.

He doesn’t know how he forgot for even a moment, but now he hears it with every overloud beat of his heart: I love you. I love you. I love you.

“Hi,” Otabek says, tossing the towel onto his (Yuri’s) bed. He picks his glasses up off the nightstand and puts them on -- they’re both flying out today, and he doesn’t like flying in his contacts. He’s almost impossibly handsome in his glasses. Yuri thinks he might throw up after all.

“Hi,” he manages, once he unsticks his tongue from the roof of his mouth. It sounds like he hasn’t spoken in a year.

His phone pings from somewhere on the floor, and then again several more times in rapid succession, and Yuri flops over the side of the bed with a groan to grab it, bringing it up to his face so he can squint at the screen. It’s too bright, and the contents take a moment to register.

When they do, he asks raspily, “Why do I have two hundred angry messages from JJ’s fanclub?”

“Check Phichit’s Instagram,” Otabek advises as he kneels down to pick through his suitcase for a clean shirt.

With a good deal of trepidation, Yuri does.

There are a bunch of photos from last night: a semi-out-of-focus shot of Mila and Sara giving peace signs at the bar with their arms slung around each other’s waists, a blurry group photo of everyone, a selfie of Phichit dancing with Victor and Yuuri.

“I don’t see what,” Yuri starts, and then stops because the next photo is JJ in the booth, with one arm around Isabella and one around Yuri, grinning like an idiot. Isabella’s kissing JJ’s cheek and Yuri has his head tipped back against JJ’s arm to glare at the camera. Yuri doesn’t even remember the photo being taken.

“You can probably imagine how it’s been cropped,” Otabek says, and Yuri blinks without comprehending and then feels sheer horror wash over him as he connects the dots between what Otabek’s saying and the angry gist of the comments still appearing on his phone by the second.

No,” he says, looking from the photo to Otabek and back, and Otabek’s mouth goes into a sympathetic twist before he says, “Yes.”

Yuri suddenly finds the energy to pick up his pillow and scream into it.

“There is no God,” he says, voice muffled by the fabric. He is absolutely never, under any circumstances, drinking alcohol again. He’s also positive this is JJ’s fault somehow.

When he lowers the pillow Otabek is standing there, having mercifully put on a shirt and produced advil tablets and a glass of water from somewhere. “I’m assuming you’re not feeling your best this morning?”

“I want to die,” Yuri says with deep feeling. He takes the bottle of advil and sets about trying to open it.

“You were really upset last night,” Otabek says. His expression is serious. It utterly demolishes the feeble hope Yuri had been clinging to that maybe everything that had happened at the club had somehow escaped his notice.

Otabek sits down on the bed next to Yuri. Again, Yuri has to work not to give into the irresistible urge to lean into him. It’s like fighting gravity. He doesn’t know how he didn’t realize before.

He doesn’t know how he didn’t realize a lot of things before.

“Did Phichit tell you I was upset?” Yuri asks. He keeps his attention fixed deliberately on the uncooperative bottle, twisting the cap around and around to no avail. He takes back every nice thing he’s ever thought about Phichit. He hates Phichit with a blinding passion.

“No,” Otabek says patiently, “Phichit said you were fine. He wouldn’t talk about it. I know you weren’t fine, which is why I brought it up.”

He’s looking at him with genuine concern. So much so it’s almost painful. Otabek, his best friend.

Otabek, who he’s in love with.

“It was nothing,” Yuri mumbles. He finally succeeds in wrenching the cap off and tips four of the tablets into his hand, taking the medicine along with a big gulp of water. He almost chokes on it, but manages to swallow. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Just, you know, too much to drink.”

The lie is clumsy, uncomfortable in his mouth. He doesn’t lie to Otabek. He never has.

Yuri throws off the covers and makes to get up, but Otabek catches his hand.

“Yura.” He rubs his thumb over Yuri’s palm, a soothing gesture. It’s unbearable. It makes Yuri want to tear all his skin off. “You don’t have to talk about it. But did something happen? Did I do something?”

I realized I’m in love with you. I’m in love with you.

For a wild, insane moment Yuri imagines opening his mouth and blurting that out. Imagines the pity that would flicker across Otabek’s face. How he would be kind about it, courteous as he let Yuri down. How Yuri wouldn’t possibly survive it.

He jerks his hand away instead. It hurts to do it. He thinks it would hurt worse not to.

“I said I’m fine,” he says, and hates how obvious it is that he’s not telling the truth, again. He doesn’t sound fine at all. He sounds like his life’s collapsing around him. It is. “Nothing happened.”

He gets to his feet so that Otabek can’t see his expression, since he has no idea what it even looks like right now. He doubts “convincing poker face” is on the list of feasible options.

“Okay,” Otabek says evenly. He doesn’t move from his seat on the bed behind him. Yuri can tell he doesn’t believe him. “You’re fine.”

“I need to pack,” Yuri mutters, and goes down on his knees to drag the exploded mess of his clothes back into his bag. “My flight’s in an hour.”

He doesn’t even look at what he’s packing, doesn’t bother with folding, just stuffs everything within reach into his open suitcase until he runs out of things. He might’ve packed the hotel bedsheets for all he’s paying attention.

He avoids eye contact while he walks past Otabek to get his stuff out of the shower and then back. He tosses the toiletry bottles on top of the pile of clothes too violently and and they roll off to every side. One disappears under the bed, and Yuri lets out a noise of pure frustration and crouches down to retrieve it.

“Careful. Keep this up and everyone’s going to think the engagement’s off,” Otabek remarks from where he’s lacing up his boots on the edge of his bed. He says it lightly; it’s obviously meant as a joke. Maybe a peace offering of sorts, an attempt to move forward through the minefield left behind in the wake of the awkward conversation, the obvious lie.

Yuri smacks his suitcase shut and stands up. He turns, balling his hands up into fists so tight his nails cut into his palms. All of the things he’s trying so desperately not to say are roiling too close to the surface now, threatening to spill out. He can feel panic clawing its way up his throat. He needs to calm down, but he hasn’t been within a mile of calm in over twenty-four hours.

“It’s not fucking funny,” he says, too loudly.

The silence that follows is terrible.

It’s not that they’ve never had an argument before. Yuri snaps at everyone, especially when he’s stressed and especially around competitions, and since those are the only times he sees Otabek, it’s pretty much inevitable.

This is different, though. Normally, Otabek is mostly unfazed. He knows Yuri well enough to know the pattern, to know when to expect it.

It’s horribly clear, from the expression on his face now, that he didn’t expect this at all. Why would he? Yuri’s only smashed apart his own world, not Otabek’s. Otabek doesn’t know anything’s changed.

“When did it stop being funny?” Otabek asks, after several painful seconds slip past. “It was yesterday. It was to both of us, Yura.”

He’s still using the familiar nickname, and it’s too much, in these circumstances, too much when he’s looking at Yuri with confusion and concern, like he’s something fragile, something to be felt sorry for. “I thought--”

“Forget it,” Yuri says. He zips his bag up with a violent flourish. “I’m hungover, I don’t even know what I’m saying. I just don’t want to talk about this right now.”

Yuri knows he’s not being fair, knows Otabek’s right, that he’s the one who’s desperately clung to the safety of it being a joke between them, this whole time. He’d done it without even realizing. If it was a joke, he didn’t have to face it. If it was a joke, it didn’t have to ruin everything.

He knows he’s not being fair, but he doesn’t think he has fair in him right now.

“Yuri, please,” Otabek tries, still sounding so horribly surprised by Yuri being horrible, and Yuri repeats, almost hysterical, “I said I don’t want to talk about it.”

He grabs the jacket nearest him and pulls it on with angry, jerking motions. Unfortunately, it turns out to be Otabek’s, and he strips it off again just as quickly, flushed, and casts about until he spies leopard print peeking out from underneath a pillow.

“It’s not like you to run away,” Otabek says.

Yuri stops midstep, feeling the words hit him like a physical blow. He can hear the challenge beneath. He can hear the hurt, too, and that’s much worse.

“Can’t you just tell me what’s wrong?” Otabek asks in a softer voice from behind him.

“I can’t,” Yuri starts, shaking his head fiercely. The idea of actually saying it, of giving voice to the words, letting them out into the world to ruin everything, is too horrible to fathom. He just needs time to think, to figure out what the hell to do about this, and Otabek isn’t giving him a chance.

He grabs his suitcase. “I can’t,” he says again, more aggressively, because it can come out weak or it can come out angry and he’ll choose the same one every time. “I have to go. I’m going to miss my flight. I’m--I’ll talk to you later, I’ll text you. I’m...sorry.”

He makes the mistake of looking back over his shoulder when he’s in the doorway. He doesn’t want to but he can’t not. He feels like a compass being pulled to polar north.

The variations in Otabek’s expressions are normally pretty minute. He’s good at keeping what he’s feeling to himself when he wants to, and he usually does.

But Yuri meets his eyes now, in the fraction of a second before the door closes between them, and for the first time in three years he sees Otabek Altin look lost.

The heavy door slams so hard, he feels something inside him break.

*****

Isabella’s getting on the elevator in the lobby when Yuri’s getting off it, and he’s not paying attention to where he’s going and she’s got her head bent rummaging through her purse so he literally runs right into her.

“Oh,” he says, startled. He’s so wrapped up in his own panicked thoughts that it takes him a minute to pull himself out of them to recall where he is. Then he does, and also why exactly seeing Isabella is humiliating right now, and feels his face heat up right on cue. “Oh. I, uh--”

“Sweetheart, I’ve been with JJ since we were sixteen years old,” she says before he can say anything else, giving his shoulder a pat. “I’m used to being cropped out of photos.”

“Oh,” Yuri says again, eloquently. He feels even more embarrassed as the implication of that casual statement sinks in. It had never once in three years occurred to him to think how the fans might have made her life difficult, too.

Isabella either doesn’t notice or isn’t fazed by his discomfort -- she only makes a triumphant sound as she unearths her sunglasses and then looks up to say, “JJ’s checking us out now, make sure you get your sweater back from him before you go. See you at Worlds?”

Yuri considers telling her that he’d rather die, but to his own shock and mild dismay he finds he doesn’t actually mean it. “See you,” he says finally, and then, with no small amount of trepidation, “Why does JJ have my sweater?”

“You took it off last night and seemed...disinclined to put it back on,” Isabella says brightly, and glides past him into the elevator. Yuri is almost grateful that between the hangover and the absolute mess he’s maybe just made of his entire life, he’s way too out of it to be properly horrified by that.

“Good to see you’re not dead,” JJ says cheerfully when Yuri joins him at the front desk. He’s actually wearing his sunglasses indoors, and Yuri waits for the customary wave of loathing to wash over him and is annoyed and perplexed when it doesn’t come.

“Don’t stand so close to me,” he mutters, jerking his hood up higher to obscure his face. He absolutely cannot deal with JJ this morning, on top of everything else. “I don’t want to get killed by a mob.”

JJ whistles. “I could say the same to you,” he says, sliding his phone across the counter to Yuri so he can see the screen, which is full of incoming angry Instagram notifications just like Yuri’s. “The Angels are not happy with me. But then, some of them are rooting for me? It’s kind of scary.”

Yuri has less than zero sympathy. “Welcome to my entire life for the past five years,” he snaps, and shoves the phone back to JJ without reading any of the messages. He doesn’t think he could stomach it right now. “At least you aren’t being called a homewrecker in eight languages. Do you have my sweater?”

JJ unzips his duffel and pulls Yuri’s sweater out. Even though there are much bigger things to worry about, Yuri’s relieved. It’s a McQueen.

“No wonder you’re like that all the time,” JJ says, clearly still talking about the Angels. He pushes his sunglasses up onto his head. Yuri can tell JJ’s looking at him, and deliberately doesn’t meet his eyes while he stuffs his sweater into his backpack.

“Sorry if I made it worse,” JJ adds, after a moment’s pause. His tone is the least grating Yuri’s ever heard it, which is disconcerting enough that Yuri looks up, but JJ’s already frowning back down at the hotel charge breakdown he’d been signing when Yuri walked up.

“Where are they, anyway?” he asks, daring a look around. The couches where the Angels had been camped out last night are empty. The whole lobby is actually suspiciously quiet.

“Oh, I told hotel security I felt endangered by their presence,” JJ says. He taps the pen he’s holding against the counter. “They made them leave twenty minutes ago.”

Yuri snorts. The receptionist finishes what she was doing on the phone and asks his name, which he gives her, and then when she walks away again he says scathingly, “You felt in danger from a bunch of sixteen year olds?”

JJ looks at him oddly. “No. I just know you hate them, and it seemed like your night was bad enough.” He shrugs, and then winces and adjusts his weight off of his bad foot. “Anyway, I figured after siccing them on you yesterday I kind of owed you one. I didn’t--” he gestures vaguely, then sighs and says succinctly, “It was shitty.”

Yuri’s already haywire emotions are a snarl he can’t work out. He stares at JJ like he’s never seen him before. JJ had gotten security to kick out the Angels just for Yuri? JJ is apologizing for his terrible behavior?

“But you hate me,” he says suspiciously.

JJ laughs. Actually laughs. “No, Plisetsky, you hate me,” he says, grinning like he’s delighted, like Yuri hating him doesn’t faze him in the slightest. “I actually like you.”

“Oh,” Yuri says, because it’s all he seems to be able to say this morning. He tucks his hands back into his jacket pockets because he’s not sure what to do with them. He feels he should say something else, but he’s not sure what.

“Anyway, I’m sorry about yesterday,” JJ says, and waves a hand. “The pre-drinks part. The drinks part was fun, even if it did damage your rep. I had no idea. I mean, I knew but I didn’t know. You and Otabek are like, sacred to them. It’s wild.”

You and Otabek. Bile rises in Yuri’s throat without warning.

In the elevator, he’d managed to pull all the scattered pieces of himself back together and hold them there tightly, long enough to get downstairs. He thought he could make it. He just had to keep it together until he could get out of the hotel, and onto his plane, and after that...well, he’d deal with that later.

But then JJ says “you and Otabek,” and just like that Yuri can feel everything fall apart. The clumsy life raft he’d assembled to stay afloat collapses and he’s right back where he was. Drowning.

He can’t get the look on Otabek’s face, right before he’d slammed the door, out of his head. It replays over and over and over again. Hurt, and shocked, and more upset than Yuri had ever seen him.

Because of Yuri. Because Yuri’s ruined everything. He’d been trying so desperately not to, and he’d just gone ahead and done it a different way.

Nausea rolls over him again.

“Yuri, are you--” JJ starts, setting down his pen and looking worried. Yuri doesn’t wait to hear the question. He barely even registers that JJ’s talking.

He bolts for the bathroom, leaving his bags behind and his checkout form on the counter, unsigned.

There’s no one else in there, mercifully, and Yuri shuts himself into a stall and leans back against the wall of it, eyes shut tight, breathing hard. He doesn’t throw up this time, though.

Everything from this morning and everything from last night and everything he hasn’t acknowledged for three years, all of it crashes in on him at once and it’s too much. He can’t bear it. He has to let it out somehow.

It’s like the emotional release after finishing a program, except Yuri’s never had it happen not on the ice.

His legs buckle and he sinks to the floor, knees drawn up to his chest, and then he’s sobbing, gasping for air, everything a blur of color and noise pressing in on him. He buries his face in his hands and cries.

He’s not sure how much later it is that he comes back to himself enough to be aware of shoes squeaking on the damp tile, and then the familiar trundling of his own rolling suitcase. He can see the person’s feet beneath the stall door as both luggage and bearer come to a stop outside it.

He recognizes the plain black sneakers with the fading blue stripes. “Go away,” he says, and it comes out ragged. It’s painfully obvious he’s been crying.

He doesn’t want to talk to Yuuri right now. He doesn’t much want to talk to Yuuri ever, but especially not now.

He doesn’t miss the painfully obvious irony of the situation, and knows that Yuuri must have noticed it too, the fact that Yuri’s the one breaking down in a bathroom stall this time. If he wanted, he could take this once-in-a-lifetime chance to lord it over him.

But of course, Yuuri wouldn’t, wouldn’t even think of it. It’s how they’re different. “Are you okay, Yurio?” he asks without a trace of anything but sincerity. “Can I help?”

“No,” Yuri grates out. “Leave me alone.”

The main bathroom door swings open again and someone’s pushing Yuuri aside, ankle boots clacking on the tiled floor. A Louis Vuitton duffel lands next to his bag with a soft thud. Yuri can smell Mila’s familiar overpoweringly flowery perfume. “Yurochka,” she says softly on the other side of the stall. “Let me in?”

He doesn’t want to let her in, but he knows she won’t leave until she gets her way.

When Yuri eventually manages to stand up and push the stall door open, Victor’s there too, standing with Yuuri, and Yuri should be horrified to have even more of an audience but right now he can’t bring himself to care. It’s not as if it’s surprising, that he’d be where Yuuri is. It’s not even surprising that Mila’s here too.

They’re all meant to be flying back to St. Petersburg together, before they part ways again in a week. They must have wondered why Yuri wasn’t in the lobby at the time they’d agreed to meet.

Mila takes his hand and leads him over to the sink, wordlessly. She runs a paper towel under the tap and starts cleaning Yuri’s face. He can see in the mirrors that tears have streaked faint black trails down his cheeks, since it’s been over twenty-four hours now and he still hasn’t washed off the mascara Lilia painstakingly put on him the morning before the free skate.

It was only yesterday, but it feels like a million years ago, somehow.

Feeling oddly detached from everything that’s happening, he lets Mila dab gently at his eyes and nose to clean him up. The cool water feels good. His eyes are red and puffy from crying.

“What happened?” Victor asks into the silence. Yuri supposes he should at least be impressed it took him a solid two minutes to say something. “Is it to do with Otabek?”

Yuri flinches involuntarily, but Victor goes on talking. “It seemed like you were fighting last night, and now he’s not with you, which is unusual because he’s always with you--”

“For once in your life, shut up, Victor,” someone says, and Yuri’s idly wondering how he’s managed to throw his voice so impressively before realizing that it was Mila. She’s stopped and is glaring at Victor with a vehemence that surprises Yuri.

Victor opens his mouth to say something else, looking wounded, but then the bathroom door swings open again.

Yuri’s not sure how he knows who it is this time, but he knows. Before he looks up, he knows.

It’s Otabek, with JJ visible over his left shoulder. JJ must have gone to go get him from upstairs, or maybe Otabek came down and JJ told him where Yuri was. Either way, Yuri was wrong before; he really and truly does hate him. Nothing nice JJ has ever done could make up for this.

His eyes meet Otabek’s past all the others in the now-crowded space of the hotel bathroom, and Yuri’s roughly jerked back into the present moment. It’s painful. Like being lanced through the heart.

He doesn’t expect the closing of ranks when it happens, Mila shifting protectively in front of him and Yuuri stepping to the side, as if to block Yuri from Otabek’s view. Yuri can’t think of anything worse in the world than Otabek seeing him like this, right now, and with a shock dulled by misery he realizes Yuuri knows that too, and is trying to help.

Victor beams and claps his hands together as he hurries forward, saying loudly into the awful silence, “Poor Yurio has a bad case of food poisoning! I think it must’ve been the shrimp from last night, because I didn’t have any and neither did Mila! Yuuri did, and he was feeling a little under the weather too. Did you have any shrimp, Otabek? It’s terrible, really, they looked so delicious--”

As he talks, he herds them both back out of the doorway, talking over Otabek’s startled objection, and shuts the door firmly behind him.

Yuri feels almost weak with relief. Then the humiliation at being caught crying slides back into misery as the reality of the situation sinks in yet again. He turns away from the mirrors, leaning back against the row of sinks.

“I’m going to be right outside,” Yuuri says quietly, and Mila nods. He squeezes Yuri’s shoulder on the way past, and Yuri’s tired enough or grateful enough that he doesn’t even slap his hand away.

Mila pushes herself up to sit on the counter next to him and stays there, silently, rubbing his back in small, comforting circles while he tries to pull himself together enough to walk out of this bathroom. One of the taps is dripping and that’s the only sound for a while; faint, regular plinks of water on porcelain. It’s oddly soothing.

“Why are you here?” he demands hoarsely after a few minutes, swiping a sleeve over his eyes where he can feel tears forming again.

“I saw JJ in the lobby and he said you were in here.”

“No,” Yuri says. He feels the beginning of anger coiling in his chest and welcomes it because it’s so much less unbearable than everything else he’s feeling. “No, you don’t get it. I mean, this, it’s -- it’s my fault, I ruined everything, why are you being nice to me?”

“Can you tell me what happened?” Mila asks. Her voice is soft, kind. He doesn’t deserve her kindness. He was horrible to her last night and he’s been horrible to Yuuri from the minute he met him and he doesn’t understand why either of them would possibly be helping him now.

“I just said, I ruined everything, why aren’t you listening to me?” Yuri jerks away from her. “I’m the one who fucked up!”

“I’m sure you didn’t--”

“You don’t know how mad at you I was last night,” he interrupts. “If you did you wouldn’t be here, you wouldn’t be on my side. You shouldn’t be on my side!”

She steps forward and he steps back again, but then the wall’s behind him and he has nowhere left to go. Mila wraps her arms around him, tight, resting her chin on his shoulder.

He almost shoves her off. He tenses all over with the readiness to do it. But then all of that anger rushes right out of him as quickly as it came. He sinks into the hug instead, feeling fresh tears well up and burying his face in her hair to hide them.

“I think that’s what being friends means, Yurochka,” she murmurs. She doesn’t let go of him. “Being on your side anyway.”

*****

[11:07] Beka: Please talk to me.

[12:23] Beka: I don’t know what happened, and I won’t push it, but I’ll meet you halfway. When you decide you want to talk about it, I’ll be here.

*****

Yuri misses his flight back to St. Petersburg. Because Mila insists on staying with him in the H2C Hotel bathroom until he’s able to calm down enough to leave, so does she.

She gets them on the next one, at three o’clock. It’s their luck the man behind the Aeroflot counter is readily charmed by Mila’s fluttering eyelashes and low-cut shirt.

The plane’s still boarding and Yuri’s staring out the frost-speckled window at the airport without really seeing it. “Did you know?” he asks.

Mila shifts in the seat next to him, magazine rustling as she sets it down in her lap. “How you felt?” she asks, and he nods woodenly.

After a moment, she says, “Yes.”

Yuri closes his eyes, rests his head against the cold glass. “You could’ve fucking told me,” he says.

*****

Yuri hadn’t prepared for how it would feel, to not have Otabek in his life. It’s miserable. It’s like missing a fucking limb.

He somehow hadn’t realized how often they talked before until now, now that he goes to send a snap of a stray cat or a message about a funny thing he’d overheard Yakov yelling at the rink or some random thought every five minutes and then remembers he can’t.

Or, he could. He could, if he called. He could, if he explained himself.

He almost calls, finger poised over Otabek’s name in his phone, more times than he can count. And every time he chickens out before he can do it; because if he calls, he’ll need to tell Otabek what had happened. And he can’t possibly tell Otabek what had happened. Not now, not ever.

He just needs time, he keeps telling himself. Time to think of an excuse, a reason, something other than the truth to explain away that disastrous fight. But he keeps trying, and he keeps coming up short.

*****

He realizes the second night he’s back in his and Mila’s apartment that he took Otabek’s sweatshirt with him by mistake. He’s unpacking almost as messily as he’d packed; dragging out clothing and tossing it away haphazardly in search of his hairbrush.

Puma, still pointedly standoffish the way she is for the first couple days every time he has to board her, finishes stalking around his messy room and comes to step on his luggage. He tsks and lifts her back out, and then goes very still as he sees the familiar black sweatshirt all his rifling has brought to the top.

It’s pretty nondescript, as clothes go. It wouldn’t stand out at all, if not for the fact that Yuri doesn’t own a black sweatshirt.

Having been told she can’t be in his suitcase, Puma decides that there is absolutely nowhere else acceptable to lie down and starts complaining loudly, squirming in his grip.

Yuri puts her down so she can curl up in the mess of his dirty clothes and sits back, pulling the clumsily folded sweatshirt with him into his lap. He stares down at it for so long his vision blurs.

When he lifts it to his face, the soft fabric smells faintly of the shampoo they both use and the woodsy aftershave only Otabek does. His chest aches.

It’s too pathetic if he wears it, he tells himself. Even though no one, including Otabek, would ever know, it’s too pathetic.

He leaves the sweatshirt on the floor with his luggage. He finds his brush and mercilessly drags the tangles out of his hair. He brushes his teeth and sets his alarms for the next morning and gets into bed.

He lies there for fifteen minutes before getting up again.

It’s cold, and the heating in their shitty apartment hasn’t kicked in yet. That’s what he tells himself as he retrieves the sweatshirt in the dark and pulls it over his head before curling back up in bed. It’s only because it’s cold.

The first time he’d worn this sweatshirt had been by the ocean in Barcelona, past midnight. He’d been fifteen years old and it had been much too big then, the sleeves pushed up around his elbows so they didn’t swallow his hands.

It fits perfectly now.

*****

He sleepwalks through the week, and then post-GPF practice is over and they have a week’s vacation time before training for the European Championships and then Worlds, after, starts up again in earnest.

Yuri thinks Yakov actually looks relieved to see him go. He’s been screaming at Yuri all week to snap out of it: Yuri’s runthroughs of his new short program have been technically perfect, but anyone watching can tell there’s no soul in his performance. It’s dismal. He doesn’t remember the last time skating felt like a chore.

His flight to Moscow is at two. Yuuri and Victor are going to the airport too, so they can fly to Hosetsu for the week, and they insist on giving Yuri a ride. They also insist on accompanying him through security, to go get coffee, to the bathroom, and then to his gate, even though theirs is on the complete other side of the airport.

By the time they finally consent to leave him at gate 32A, after gifting him a neck pillow (Yuuri) and a box of weird Korean skincare “to properly moisturize on the plane” (Victor), Yuri is ready to scream.

Or he would, if he had the energy for it. As it is, he’s barely slept in days.

“You can text if you need anything,” Yuuri says for the dozenth time, and Yuri says waspishly, “I’m going to Moscow, I go there all the time, what do you think I am possibly going to need?”

“I don’t know,” Yuuri says, as kindly unflappable as ever. “I just wanted you to know you have the option.”

“Yurochka,” Victor says, and Yuri stops glaring at Yuuri in favor of glaring at Victor, more annoyed than he would have thought it was even possible to be while this exhausted.

“What’s taking you so long?” he snaps, pulling his headphones back down around his neck. “Are you leaving or aren’t you?”

Yuuri and Victor exchange a look -- the way they do where they know what the other means without saying anything, which Yuri finds unspeakably irritating -- and Yuuri nods and takes the handle of Victor’s rolling bag, hiking his backpack higher on one shoulder and trundling off away down the concourse hallway.

Victor sits down again in the seat across from Yuri. “I want to say something to you before I go, without you getting angry with me,” he says, expression open.

“Your odds are much better if you don’t talk to me,” Yuri says. When Victor just turns a pleading, puppydog expression on him, he growls in exasperation and throws his hands up. “Fine! Whatever! I can’t stop you!”

“I love you, Yuri,” Victor starts, with absolute sincerity, and Yuri hisses, “My God,” because it’s immediately even worse than he’d thought. He slouches further in his seat, looking sharply around to make sure no one is paying attention to the spectacle that Victor is causing.

Victor tips his head to one side, regarding him thoughtfully. Really thoughtful, not the faux-pensive look he puts on for his photoshoots. “I’ve known you for nearly half your life, do you realize that?”

“Lucky me,” Yuri mumbles. He stuffs his hands into his jacket pockets.

“And in all that time,” Victor says, refusing to take the bait, “I have never known you not to go after what you want. Not once. You are ruthless and single-minded when you want to win. It’s what makes you such a formidable competitor.”

Yuri glares at him more, because he doesn’t need to hear obvious things he already knows and he’s starting to have a bad feeling about this. “Do you have a point?”

“My point is, you know what you want,” Victor says. His gaze is unwavering. “So why aren’t you fighting for him?”

Yuri recoils like Victor’s reached across the row and slapped him. He bristles all over. He can’t believe that Victor, even Victor, would bring this up here and now.

Even though this is his gate, he seriously considers getting up and leaving. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snaps. “So shut up about it.”

Victor tips his head to one side. “You don’t think so? I do.”

“You don’t,” Yuri repeats stubbornly.

“I’ve known you for nearly half your life,” Victor says again, and Yuri sits upright and snaps, “I get it, for God’s sake, do you need new batteries?”

Victor stares him down. “That’s how I know you were so lonely before you met him,” he says. Not cruelly, just like he’s stating a fact. “I’ve seen you when you’re not with him and I’ve seen you when you are, and there’s no comparison. You’re so unhappy now, not talking to him, anyone could see that.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Yuri says again, shaking his head violently, but he’s horrified at how weak it sounds this time. He can feel a suspicious prickling at the corners of his eyes.

“You deserve to be happy, Yuri,” Victor says, more softly. “You deserve it so much. Why won’t you give yourself a chance?”

Yuri means to tell Victor to fuck off, to mind his own goddamn business for once in his self-absorbed life and leave him alone.

He means to.

So he isn’t at all prepared for what actually bursts out of his mouth to be, “Don’t you get it? I can’t risk it. I can’t lose him, I can’t.”

Victor leans forward, brow furrowed. “Why would you lose him?”

“My God!” Yuri rages. “You’re so stupid! I know people are always throwing themselves at you so it’s probably a hard concept to understand, but people don’t always feel the same about each other. I can’t--I won’t put that on him. He doesn’t want it.”

“You won’t know until you ask.”

“I do know,” Yuri says fiercely. “I can’t -- it doesn’t matter to me how I have him, okay? You don’t get it. So what if I love him, he doesn’t have to love me, he just can’t hate me.”

“He won’t hate you,” Victor says.

Yuri just shakes his head tightly, staring down at the floor. His cheeks are hot. He hadn’t meant to admit that much. Not to anyone, but definitely not to Victor, of all people.

“I have to go to our gate,” Victor says after a moment. “For what it’s worth, I mean it. I don’t think he could ever hate you. But if all you want is to stay friends, nothing else, don’t you think you should try and fix whatever happened before it’s too late?”

“Do you think it’s too late?” Yuri asks as Victor stands up. The words spill out before he can stop them, and he hates himself a little.

Victor beams down at him. “When it comes to Otabek, and you? Yurochka, I think you would have to wait a very long time for it to be too late.”

*****

Yuri’s still sitting at his gate half an hour later, listening to the flight announcements over the intercom counting down the time until his plane boards in half-hour increments, when he realizes what he needs to do.

Victor, of all the apocalyptically world-ending revelations, was right.

Yuri’s been so afraid of ruining everything by telling the truth that he hadn’t thought enough about how he might ruin it by saying nothing at all. He has to do something, and at this point there’s only one thing he can think of.

He calls his grandfather to tell him he doesn’t need to come to the airport to pick him up because there’s been a change of plans, and he’ll explain later but he promises he’s fine, and he’ll see him in a few days. He bullies the desk agent into switching his flight, even though his other was nonrefundable and the last-minute ticket to Almaty takes up more of his savings than he can really spare.

What he doesn’t do is call Otabek to ask if he can come, because he’s afraid of the answer. It’s not fair of him, again, and he doesn’t care. No matter what Victor said, Yuri can’t drown out the insistent voice at the back of his mind that’s saying it’s already too late, that Otabek won’t want to see him.

So Yuri doesn’t call, because he doesn’t want to give him the option of saying no.

*****

His cab driver from Almaty International asks in English if he knows Otabek Altin, and for several seconds Yuri wonders whether his life is such an extreme sham that total strangers now know he’s in love with Otabek because it’s literally written on his face somehow?

Then the driver indicates his skates, clearly visible sticking out of his unzipped backpack where Yuri had been rummaging for his chapstick.

“My granddaughter follows the skating,” the driver says cheerfully. He taps the plastic-and-glitter ornament swinging from the rearview mirror, on which a teenage girl’s smiling face is visible. “Has all Otabek Altin’s posters! He is from here, you know?”

“I know,” Yuri says.

“You are a skater, too! Russian, yes?”

Yuri almost asks sarcastically if it’s the team jacket or the accent that gives him away, but the driver’s being nice and his granddaughter likes Otabek and so he swallows the mean response and just says, “Yes. Russian.”

The cabbie switches to Russian to ask his name and then chuckles to himself as he tells Yuri he’s not going to be able to remember that, and will he write it down? “I’ll tell my Aliya, I’m sure she will know you, she will be so excited.”

Yuri gamely consents to the autograph, and then the photo at the curb once his luggage is unloaded, and he even feels himself smiling as the cab pulls away, one arm waving enthusiastically at him out the window.

Then he remembers what’s facing him, and the smile fades. He takes a deep breath, and turns to go inside.

*****

The rink looks like every rink Yuri’s ever been in, although it’s been awhile since he was in one without Yakov yelling something or Victor singing obnoxiously to himself (or to Yuuri) in the background. It’s a nice change.

Otabek’s coach Tatyana is in jeans and street shoes, standing by the edge of the ice. She notices him immediately when the door closes behind him.

“This rink is not open to the public!” she calls, pushing off the rail. “It’s closed for private--ah,” she breaks off as she recognizes him. The world of elite figure skaters isn’t that big, and they’ve seen each other at competitions for years.

Behind her, Yuri sees Otabek out on the ice. He hadn’t looked up when she yelled -- his concentration, as ever, is absolute, and some random passerby accidentally trespassing on private practice wouldn’t be enough to break it.

Tatyana walks over to where Yuri’s standing by the door and folds her arms over her chest, giving him a long, considering look. “You’re here for Otabek?” she asks, a question that’s not a question, looking dryly amused now.

She doesn’t wait for him to answer before turning around with a swish of her high ponytail, gesturing for him to come with her. “Fine, maybe you’ll help. He’s not been on form all week.”

Yuri follows without comment. He’s shocked to hear it. Otabek’s never not on form. His stomach flips, and he can’t tell if it’s from nerves or hope. Is Otabek not skating well because of what happened in Milan?

Because of him?

“He’ll be done in a few minutes,” Tatyana says, interrupting his musings. “Coffee?”

He says no but she gets him coffee anyway, and then shows him to the bleachers to sit. She doesn’t try to make small talk with him, which he appreciates, just goes back to the rink edge to yell to Otabek that he’s stepping out of his triple loop. Yuri stays put, holding the warm styrofoam cup in both hands and watching avidly.

Because they only ever see each other for events they’re both competing in, Yuri is always too occupied with his own practice to pay attention to Otabek’s. He watches him during performances when he can, of course, but that’s different.

He doesn’t get to watch him going through a routine like this, in plain black sweats and a t-shirt, the only sounds blades on ice, the quiet chatter of the rink’s other skaters sitting higher up in the stands, and the occasional carrying instruction from Tatyana.

Most of Otabek’s routines are as familiar to Yuri as his own. This one, the bones of a short program for Worlds, is new. And as he runs through it, Yuri can see easily that Tatyana was right -- he’s not on form.

Otabek’s mesmerizing to watch, he always has been. Even an unpolished program radiates the power and determination he’s made his trademark. But something’s off. It’s not just that he’s stepping out of the jump (although he is). There’s something missing from his performance that has nothing to do with technical mistakes.

It occurs to Yuri that maybe this is what it’s been like for the others, watching him skate all week. No wonder Yakov kept yelling.

Tatyana waits until Otabek finishes his routine fully and has come to a stop in the middle of the rink, wiping sweat out of his eyes with the hem of his t-shirt, to call, “That’s enough for today, Otabek. Oh, and you have a special delivery from Russia!”

Otabek’s focus is intense and single-minded when he’s skating. He wouldn’t have noticed what was happening when he was mid-routine, but now that it’s over his head comes up immediately.

Yuri’s not sure how he knows what Tatyana means, or if he does, but even though she’s the one who’d yelled Otabek looks right past her, gaze scanning the stands instead. Yuri, no longer distracted by the sight of Otabek on the ice, remembers he’s so nervous his hands are shaking too hard to drink his coffee.

Yuri can tell the exact second Otabek sees him. He can see the exhale from across the rink.

Yuri sets the untouched coffee aside. Like he’s being pulled by magnets, he descends the steps and crosses the short distance to the edge of the ice.

Otabek, being on skates and therefore much quicker, is already there waiting for him at the dividing line where rink meets linoleum.

Neither of them says anything right away.

The sight of Otabek is so good. Yuri can’t stop looking at him, at the line of his nose and the curve of his mouth and the slant of his dark eyebrows; little, previously unremarkable things he’d already memorized three years ago.

He’s gone longer without seeing Otabek, of course. Much longer. Months longer. But this separation was different. He thinks maybe, from the expression on Otabek’s face, from the way his gaze travels intently over Yuri’s, he feels the same way.

“I was wondering where this went,” Otabek says first, after several seconds. His hair is sweat-damp. He reaches out to tap the sleeve of of his own black hoodie, the one Yuri’s wearing. The one he’s been wearing every night for a week. “I missed it.”

I missed it, he says. His dark eyes are steady on Yuri’s, and Yuri hears something else.

“You said to let you know when I was ready to talk,” Yuri says. He shrugs, tries to make it look careless as he scuffs the heel of one shoe against the ground. “Harder from different countries.”

“I said I’d meet you halfway,” Otabek reminds him, resting his elbows on the wall of the rink. “And I meant, text me back. Call me. You didn’t have to come all the way here.”

He doesn’t look upset about it, though, and his voice is as warm as his eyes, and Yuri knows he’s made the right choice.

He can’t even believe how nice it is just to be talking to Otabek again, how overwhelmingly right it feels. The crushing weight that’s been on his shoulders the past week has already all but lifted. He still loves him, of course. There’s no fixing that. But for the first time he feels like it might not be the end of everything.

“Yes, I did,” Yuri says, and forces himself not to look away. He swallows. “I’m--”

“I know,” Otabek says. An acknowledgment, not a dismissal. He looks at Yuri a moment longer, and then asks, “Hand me my skate guards?”

Yuri casts around for a second before he spots the blue guards on the ground and hands them over. Otabek puts them on and walks over to the nearby bench to sit down and start unlacing his skates.

“You just got in?” Otabek asks.

“Oh, no, you know,” Yuri says. “I know a lot of people in Almaty, so this was my last stop.”

He sees the curve of Otabek’s smile, even though his head is bent.

“Where are you staying?” he asks next, in a conversational tone, and Yuri is brought up short. “I don’t know,” he says, blinking. “I just decided to come here this afternoon.”

“I’m teasing,” Otabek says. He finishes with the skates and stands up, running a hand through his sweaty hair. “You can stay with me. You have stuff?” Yuri nods. “I’ll call us an Uber and come get the bike later.”

The ten-minute ride from the rink to Otabek’s apartment building is quiet. By mutual silent agreement, neither of them seems to want to bring up the spectre of the last week in the cramped backseat of a stranger’s hybrid car, where the radio is faintly playing 80s hits and it smells like stale french fries.

“So, do you want to talk about it now, or later?” Otabek asks on the doorstep of his apartment, turning his keys over in his hands, and Yuri’s far-fetched, selfish hope of being completely off the hook dissolves.

“I won’t push you, like I said before,” Otabek says, and he sounds tired. “But Yura, you do owe me an explanation.”

“I know I do,” Yuri says, which is true, and then, “I’ll explain,” which is a desperate lie, because he can’t possibly. “I promise.” He bites his lip. “But not tonight, okay? It’s just...with everything, today, I’ve been up for like twenty hours.”

It’s a lot to ask, on top of everything he’s already done. He waits with bated breath on the lower step to see if Otabek will accept terms Yuri has no right to set.

Otabek’s gaze is measured, assessing. “Tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow. I promise.”

Yuri could kick himself. He’s promised twice in under a minute, and doesn’t for the life of him know how he’s going to keep that promise.

“Okay,” Otabek says, and nods once. “Tomorrow.”

“My roommate’s not happy,” he adds in an undertone as he unlocks the door. “With either of us. As a warning. Be nice.”

The first thing the young woman sitting at the kitchen table with pencils stuck through her messy bun greets them with is a truly impressive glare over a stack of textbooks.

The second is a curt, “For future reference, the least you could do is let me know more than half an hour in advance that your boyfriend’s coming to visit,” directed at Otabek.

Otabek had mentioned while they were waiting for the car in the chilly winter air outside the rink that because his family lived too far away for convenient access to the rink and because of housing costs, he’s been rooming with a dancer friend of a friend who takes classes at the university at night.

“Yuri, this is Stephanie,” Otabek says, before Yuri can go flame red at the word boyfriend. “Stephanie, Yuri. And he’s just a friend.” Otabek hangs his keys up on a hook by the door. “I really am sorry, like I said, but until half an hour ago I didn’t know either.”

Stephanie slants a skeptical look at Yuri. “What about you? You didn’t know you were flying to a different country until half an hour ago?”

“About six hours ago, actually,” Yuri says, and sees Otabek smile out of the corner of his eye as he turns away to shrug off his coat.

“Okay, whatever,” Stephanie mutters, scraping back her chair. “I’ll get my stuff out of the way.”

A fluffy grey cat pokes its head around an open doorway down the hall, alerted by the sound of voices, and Yuri demands, eyes going wide, “You have a cat?”

He drops his suitcase onto the floor and crouches down, all awkwardness with Otabek’s roommate temporarily forgotten in favor of the extremely important task of coaxing the cat to him.

“He’s Stephanie’s,” Otabek says. “So I timeshare a cat, sort of.”

“That’s Bear. He doesn’t like...most people,” Stephanie says, eyebrows shooting up as the cat saunters over to butt his head against Yuri’s outstretched hand. “Usually.”

“Sounds familiar,” Yuri hears Otabek say dryly as he picks up Yuri’s suitcase and deposits it onto the ground next to the door. “Yura, I’m going to make up the couch for you.”

Yuri looks up to see Stephanie paused in clearing pens and textbooks off the table, watching him with significantly less distaste now that the grey cat is contentedly kneading his leg and purring.

“I am sorry,” he says awkwardly. He’s not used to saying it. “For not giving notice. It’s not Otabek’s fault. I didn’t tell him I was coming.”

“It’s fine,” she says, and she still looks annoyed but her expression has softened. “I mean, yeah, some warning would’ve been nice, but it’s his apartment too. He can have...people...over if he wants.”

She puts an especially unsubtle emphasis on the word “people,” and Yuri feels his face warm up and looks hastily back down at Bear, who is now biting at the frayed threads at the knee of Yuri’s jeans, still purring.

“This isn’t a cloister,” Yuri hears her say to Otabek on her way past him, arms full of loose papers and highlighters. “Your boyfriend can stay in your room.”

Yuri dares a glance up at Otabek. He’s not looking at Yuri. “We’re just friends,” he says to Stephanie. “Like I said.”

*****

Otabek comes out into the living room while Yuri’s sitting cross-legged on the couch scrolling Instagram, hair damp from the shower.

He lingers in the doorway to the hall, looking strangely uncomfortable in his own space. “Do you need anything?” he asks, tone pitched low because it’s past ten and neither of them wants to test the limits of Stephanie’s already frayed patience.

“No,” Yuri says, setting his phone down. “Thank you.”

He wonders but can’t possibly ask if Otabek is feeling at a loss for the same reason he is; if he’s also realized that this is the first time they’ve ever stayed in the same place when they haven’t slept in the same room.

He almost suggests it on wild impulse, but abandons the thought just as quickly. Before, maybe he could’ve. Now he doesn’t trust the words to come out right.

“Let me know if you do,” Otabek says. In the soft light of the room, he looks beautiful, the sharp lines of him smudged like charcoal. Yuri’s chest aches. “I’ll be up for a while.”

Yuri waits until he hears his bedroom door close, and then flops onto the couch on his stomach, burying his face in his borrowed pillow.

In less than twelve hours, he has to give Otabek an explanation for storming out of a hotel room and breaking down crying in a hotel bathroom, and the explanation absolutely cannot be “well, Phichit told me I was in love with you and I realized he was right.”

He’d thought about it for hours in the airport and for hours on the plane, to say nothing of the time spent wracking his brain the past week. He still has nothing.

It occurs to him that maybe coming here was a mistake, but he can’t even halfheartedly make himself believe it. It had felt like he’d left pieces of himself behind in Milan. Now he has them back, he can’t even imagine surrendering them again.

He can’t run from this anymore. He has to think of something. He has to.

He’s already changed for bed and is setting an alarm for the next morning when an Instagram notification pops up: phichit+chu has posted a video.

Idly, Yuri opens the video. It’s probably part of a routine, and he’s curious what Phichit’s been working on.

He’s right: it’s a practice video, shot somewhat shakily from rinkside. He stops trying to figure out what the hell he’s going to tell Otabek in the morning when he’s fifteen seconds in.

Yuri leaps off the couch and hurries down the hallway to twist the knob and push Otabek’s door open without knocking. He’d said he was staying up, and it isn’t that late.

Otabek is reading -- he’s shirtless in bed, sitting up against the headboard, haloed in the warm dim light from a bedside lamp. Yuri’s gaze catches on the hard planes of his chest for just a second too long before he’s able to drag his eyes up to Otabek’s face.

Otabek straightens up, sets his book aside. “Is something wrong?”

Yes,” Yuri says emphatically, remembering the dire situation at hand. “Phichit has four quads in his new program.”

What?” Otabek sits bolt upright. Yuri’s already climbing into the double bed with him, tucking himself up into the spot next to Otabek, who slides one of his pillows over so Yuri can lean back against it.

They watch the video once in complete silence, and when it finishes Otabek says, “Again,” and this time the shaky footage of Phichit’s new routine is punctuated with his soft hmms and exclamations.

“I can’t believe it,” Yuri says, starkly admiring. “That asshole. He didn’t say anything in Milan!”

He regrets mentioning Milan as soon as the words are out of his mouth, but Otabek doesn’t seem to notice. He looks deep in thought. “It’s going to be an interesting next season,” he says at last.

“You should talk,” Yuri says. He shifts slightly, turning his head on the pillow so he can look over at Otabek. “Your new program looked good.”

“No, it didn’t,” Otabek says. “You know it didn’t.”

“Just because you had a shitty day doesn’t mean the program isn’t good,” Yuri argues. “And what sort of attitude is that, going into training for Worlds? It’s--”

“I missed you,” Otabek tells him. The words are quiet, steady, impossible to doubt. Yuri stops talking. A lump forms in his throat.

It was implied, of course. He had been able to guess, from the way Otabek reacted to seeing him at the rink, that the week without talking to each other hadn’t been any easier for him.

But even so, it’s something else to hear it confirmed. To know that Yuri wasn’t alone in feeling as at a loss as he had. The past several days, it had felt like most of him had been carved out and missing Otabek was all that was left.

“I missed you too,” he says. He’s careful not to let the whole truth of it into his voice. It would give away too much. He doesn’t dare let Otabek hear how much he means it.

He clears his throat. “One more time?” he asks.

“One more,” Otabek agrees, and they both settle back against the headboard, watching the tiny screen, while Yuri presses play again.

*****

Yuri comes back to consciousness slowly. It takes him several disoriented seconds to realize where he is.

Where he is, which is in Kazakhstan, in Otabek’s apartment. More specifically, in Otabek’s bed.

Otabek’s bed, which Otabek is currently in.

Yuri stays very, very still. He had fallen asleep on top of the covers, he’s pretty sure, but at some point during the night he must’ve wrestled himself partially under them. He and Otabek are turned in toward each other like closed parentheses, faces inches apart and knees barely touching. His phone is on top of the blanket between them.

Otabek’s still asleep, lashes long and dark and mouth slightly parted. Yuri forgets how to breathe.

It’s obvious what he needs to do. He needs to leave, to get up and tiptoe back out into the living room and pretend he’d gone back there last night and never fallen asleep by accident here in his best friend’s bed, because he can feel how dangerously close he is to doing something stupid.

So far, miraculously, he hasn’t wrecked anything. He has to get up out of this bed, surrounded by the clean, comforting smell of Otabek’s soap and the warmth from his body, before he does.

He has to, but he doesn’t.

He can’t. Not if this is the closest he’ll ever get to finding out what it’s like to wake up with Otabek. To really wake up with him, not in separate beds in a competition hotel room but like this. Like it means something.

He just needs to feel it for another few moments. He knows he’ll never have it for real, but he can have this. Just for another minute. It’s greedy and it’s self-destructive and the worst part is that he doesn’t care.

Otabek opens his eyes, and Yuri’s heart trips, misses a beat.

He doesn’t have the time or wherewithal to cover. He knows that everything he feels is written all over his face. Panic plucks at the edges of his still-sleepy consciousness. Days of losing sleep agonizing over what to tell Otabek, and it’s all going to be for nothing.

Otabek blinks at him. His eyes are dark and his hair mussed from sleep. He looks beautiful. He looks caught. There’s something in his expression Yuri has never seen before, or maybe seen but never noticed.

It hits him in a moment of piercing clarity.

He’s been so fixated on the picture in front of him that he hadn’t stepped back to realize he was only looking at one corner of it, all this time. All the missing pieces from the past week, the past month, the past three years, slide into place, and Yuri understands.

Finally, finally, he understands.

“Oh,” he breathes, awestruck. The air between them alters in between one second and the next, turns heavy and charged with something new.

The world reshapes itself around him, narrows to the soft, surprised inhalation Otabek makes at whatever he sees on Yuri’s face. To Otabek’s eyes, dropping to Yuri’s mouth and lingering.

At Yuri’s exhibition skate, they hadn’t had time to practice Otabek’s part of it beforehand. They’d just agreed what to do and then done it, perfectly, wordlessly, each knowing exactly when and how the other was going to move.

It’s like that now, again.

It’s like one shared movement, it’s like pairs skating, because Yuri leans in and Otabek is already there to meet him halfway, going up on one elbow and pushing his fingers through Yuri’s loose hair and finally, softly, pressing their mouths together.

It’s a kiss, they’re kissing, Otabek is kissing him, and the impossible, beautiful truth of it -- the simple fact of Otabek’s lips against his -- shocks Yuri into stillness for the barest of seconds before the circuits of his brain rewire and he kisses back.

Yuri thinks his heart might pound right out of his chest. Otabek’s five o’clock shadow scratches delightfully over Yuri’s skin when he tips Yuri’s head back to deepen the angle of the kiss, lighting up a million nerve endings Yuri didn’t know he had.

He pulls back gasping, levering himself up on one arm to put a few inches of space between them. It’s too much, all at once. He can’t seem to catch his breath.

“Sorry, I’m,” he starts, blushing all over, and doesn’t even know how to finish the thought, but Otabek says hoarsely, “I know,” and when Yuri looks back at him he can tell he does. He looks every bit as dazed as Yuri feels.

Otabek shifts out from underneath Yuri, carefully, so that he’s sitting up against the headboard instead, and holds his arms out. Yuri follows, untangling himself from the sheets and climbing into his lap without hesitating.

It’s cold in the small room without the blankets on, but Yuri feels like he’s burning wherever Otabek touches him; the slow exploratory slide of his hands down Yuri’s sides, the strong, solid warmth of his body underneath Yuri’s.

Yuri rests his palm over Otabek’s heart, moves it up and up until his fingers brush over the line of Otabek’s clavicle, thumb resting just at the hollow of his throat. Yuri marvels at it, at the feeling of Otabek’s bare skin under his. At being allowed to touch in this new, intimate way.

He watches with fascination as Otabek’s eyes -- not wavering from his for one second -- darken a fraction. Yuri can feel his heartbeat thudding beneath his splayed fingers.

Otabek covers Yuri’s hand with his own, laces their fingers together. Slowly, deliberately, he pulls their joined hands up and presses his lips to Yuri’s palm. Yuri’s breath catches in his throat at the tenderness of the gesture, contrasted with the scorching promise in Otabek’s eyes.

Yuri feels the same way, he thinks. Caught between desperate wanting and quiet reverence.

There’s too much fabric still between them, so Yuri leans back to pull his sweatshirt (Otabek’s sweatshirt) impatiently over his head. It gets stuck midway and he hears the huff of Otabek’s laugh before he helps, tugging it up and off and throwing it aside.

He pushes Yuri’s messy hair back off his face, threading his fingers through it. There’s something in his expression, in his steadily growing smile, something Yuri recognizes at once because he’s sure it must be mirrored in his own: awe. That this is really happening. That it’s real.

Otabek leans up to press a soft, lingering kiss to the top of his cheekbone. Yuri makes a small involuntary sound in response. He tilts his chin in an unspoken invitation, eyes sliding closed, and lets Otabek brush his lips over his jaw, his nose, his cheek, and then achingly slowly over his mouth.

Yuri can feel that he’s trembling and can’t seem to stop. He’s too overwhelmed with sensation. He keeps forgetting to breathe, with Otabek touching him.

His eyes flicker open and he chases Otabek’s mouth when he leans back, grabbing greedy handfuls of Otabek’s sleep-messy hair and pressing himself as close as he can possibly get. He follows the barely-there kiss with a real one, deep and then deeper still. He bites down on Otabek’s bottom lip by accident and then -- when that elicits a gasp -- harder, on purpose.

Yuri’s not sure how long they kiss for this time. He gets lost in it, the slow messy slide of lips and brushing of tongues and soft, increasingly desperate noises. When they next break apart for air they’re both breathing heavily. Otabek’s eyes are darker than Yuri’s ever seen them. Yuri feels dizzy. He feels elated.

They’re both hard. It’s impossible to miss, in their sleep clothes.

When he slides a hand under the waistband of Otabek’s sweats Otabek sits up, abruptly, and his hands come to rest on Yuri’s hips so as not to dislodge him from his lap. “Yura,” he says breathlessly, and Yuri doesn’t know if it’s a warning or a question but it’s definitely not a protest and so either way he deems it irrelevant.

The knowledge that neither of them has ever done this before, not with anyone, is there in the heavy air between them. Everything that means, for better or for worse. The tension of it draws out, and then snaps.

Yuri wets his bottom lip in concentration, watches Otabek’s eyes track the movement, and wraps his fingers around Otabek’s cock.

The effect is immediate and mesmerizing. Otabek makes a sound low in his throat and his eyes fall shut, lips parted. “Yura,” he says again, voice gone rough.

Otabek’s said his name a million times, probably. To call him over, to dryly admonish him, to cheer him on. He’s never said it like this before. This time it sounds like prayer.

Yuri, for once in his life, has no idea what he’s doing. All he knows is he can’t stop doing it for anything in the world. So he treats it the way he would anything else he didn’t know how to do -- he ignores the increasingly distant fear of messing up and just does it. Strokes Otabek the way he would himself, slow and firm at first and then faster.

Otabek’s forehead tips forward to rest in the crook of Yuri’s neck. His hands leave Yuri’s waist so he can wrap his arms around him instead, pulling him still closer. Yuri can feel his thighs trembling underneath him. Can feel Otabek’s breath warm on his skin, hitching with every stroke of Yuri’s hand around him, bringing him closer to the edge.

He’s quiet about it when he spills over Yuri’s hand, coming apart with soft gasps and a low, wrenching groan that makes Yuri’s blood run hot because it’s the best sound he’s ever heard, and he’s the one who made it happen. He’s the one who’s made Otabek’s face look the way it does when he looks up, flushed and dark-eyed and dazed.

They stay like that for a long moment, until Otabek’s breathing returns to normal and his arms around Yuri loosen slightly, letting him sit back. Yuri wrinkles his nose and wipes his hand off on the sheets, and takes a minute to realize that Otabek’s shaking beneath him is from quiet laughter now.

“It’s gross!” Yuri protests.

“Mm,” Otabek says, still laughing.

He doesn’t give any warning before he moves, spilling Yuri out of his lap and pressing him down into the rumpled sheets. He fits his body against Yuri’s slowly, luxuriantly, like they have all the time in the world. Touches his lips to the side of Yuri’s throat, where his pulse is running wild.

Yuri turns his head to the side to let him. He’d let him do anything, probably, which should be a terrifying thought and somehow isn’t.

He can barely think straight with how much he wants. He hadn’t bothered to actually sit down and consider, after last week’s revelation, everything that might go along with it. All the other things, physical things, he might want. He guesses the average person probably would have. He’s never been that.

Anyway, he’s definitely thinking about it now. His brain is shorting out with how much he’s thinking about it. He can feel everywhere Otabek’s touched him and, acutely, everywhere he hasn’t yet.

“Please,” he says, openly desperate, and feels the curve of Otabek’s smile against the skin of his shoulder. “I can’t believe you just said please,” he murmurs, and Yuri’s not so far gone that he doesn’t try to knee him in the side.

Otabek levers himself up and off Yuri, kneels on the bed in between Yuri’s legs. Yuri stays where he’d been put: legs splayed on either side of Otabek’s body, one drawn up towards him and the other tipped out to the side. He pushes himself up on his elbows to watch him, torn between desire and a strange sort of nervousness at the unknown.

He lifts his hips so Otabek can pull his leggings off one leg, then the other. He tosses those aside too, and Yuri is left only in the loose t-shirt he sleeps in. Otabek presses a kiss to his bare knee, and Yuri shivers.

“Can I,” Otabek starts, and Yuri interrupts at once to say impatiently, “Yes,” and Otabek says, “You don’t know what I was going to ask,” sounding more amused than ever even with his voice still deliciously rough.

Yuri makes a whining sound because Otabek is trying to murder him and collapses back onto the sheets dramatically. “Can you just take it as a blanket invitation?”

“Okay,” Otabek says simply. He lowers his head and takes Yuri into his mouth, and Yuri cries out before he can stop himself, arching off the bed violently enough that he almost dislodges Otabek in the process.

Otabek presses his hips back down with one hand flat on his abdomen, the other curved around Yuri’s hip. Yuri shivers, and can’t stop shivering. The heat and suction of Otabek’s mouth is like nothing he’s ever felt. It feels so good he can’t stop making noises he’s sure he’ll be embarrassed of later, gasps and hitching moans.

He reaches blindly above his head for the bedframe, a pillow, something to hold onto. He feels like he’s coming apart at the seams, and it’s so good but it’s almost too much. He needs something to ground him.

Then Otabek takes hold of his other hand where it’s gripping the sheets, tangling their fingers together instead. It’s like an anchor, and Yuri clings to it. He can feel his breathing growing shallower as the pleasure builds, as he loses track of where Otabek ends and he begins.

“Beka, I’m going to,” Yuri says, and it doesn’t even sound like his own voice.

Otabek makes a humming noise and pulls off, replacing his lips with his hand and jacking Yuri off fast and just this side of rough. Yuri has to stuff his fist into his mouth to stifle a cry when he comes, and Otabek just strokes him through it, murmuring indistinct words of praise.

It takes a minute to come back to himself, to reassemble all his scattered brain cells and remember how to form words and thoughts and things, and while he does Otabek lies back down next to him and pulls the sheet up over both of them. Yuri squirms back into his arms at once.

“Well,” Otabek says after a few seconds pass in silence, lips quirking up. His hair’s a wreck where Yuri’s grabbed at it, and his mouth is red.

“Well,” Yuri agrees. He feels helpless, happy laughter bubble up in his chest. He’s not sure he can move any of his limbs yet, and he’s pretty sure he’s blushing now. He’d be embarrassed about it if it was anyone else but Otabek. “I did say I would explain what happened in Milan.”

“You did,” Otabek agrees. He brushes Yuri’s sweaty hair out of his face, so tenderly Yuri’s already overworked heart skips a beat.

“Okay,” Yuri says, and swallows hard. “So what happened is,” he starts, and shuffles mentally through a variety of clumsily-phrased confessions and explanations before settling on, “It turns out I love you.”

“That’s lucky,” Otabek says, slow and quiet like he’s marvelling at it. “Because I love you too.”

All the air rushes out of Yuri’s lungs. He hadn’t realized, when saying it, how unprepared he was to hear it back. “You do?”

“Of course I do,” Otabek says, blinking. His tone is such that it implies he’s somehow fucking surprised Yuri doesn’t already know this. Like loving Yuri is a quantifiable fact anyone would be able to look up with Otabek’s skating stats next to his height and weight and age.

“I actually thought maybe you had realized, and were angry with me,” Otabek says. He traces his fingertips lightly over the dip of Yuri’s hipbone, forward and back, making him shiver. “That’s what I was worried this past week was.”

“It wasn’t!” Yuri says, horrified enough that he sits up, and Otabek says, eyes bright with amusement, “I gathered.”

“I had no idea,” Yuri admits. He sits tangled in the sheets for a moment, pondering this new truth he’s been handed, turning it over in his brain like a magpie with a shiny thing. Finally he settles back down in the curve of Otabek’s arm.

“I thought you would think it was ridiculous,” he says after a moment’s silence. “That’s what happened last week. That’s why I panicked.”

Otabek shakes his head. “You’re the best thing that has ever happened to me,” he says. “I can’t believe you didn’t know.”

How was I supposed to know?” Yuri demands, smacking the flat of his palm against Otabek’s chest. “You never said!”

“Yura,” Otabek says. The amount of warmth coloring the two syllables makes Yuri blush. Otabek curls a strand of Yuri’s loose hair around one finger, looking impossibly fond. “Everyone knew. I thought, if you wanted to see it, it would’ve been obvious. And if you didn’t see it, then you didn’t want to.”

“But that’s not true!”

Otabek raises one eyebrow. “I know that now.”

“But,” Yuri says, because something terrible has occurred to him, “What if I never had?”

“Hadn’t realized?” Otabek asks, and at Yuri’s nod, “Then, you didn’t.”

Yuri pushes himself up on his elbows on Otabek’s chest, eliciting a lazy murmur of discomfort, and resists the temporary urge to strangle him. “Are you fucking with me? You mean you would have just let us both suffer? Forever?”

“Suffer?” Otabek frowns, pronouncing the word like it’s distasteful. “Being friends with you wasn’t suffering.”

“You know what I mean!” Yuri says, much too scandalized to have patience for semantics. “You felt this way...all this time….how could you not say anything! I could have realized so much sooner! We wasted so much time!”

“Do you really believe that?” Otabek asks.

Yuri thinks of staying up late talking in a dozen hotel rooms over the past three years. Of going out to dinner in hole-in-the-wall cafes to avoid attention. Of wishing each other luck privately before every competition. Of getting up with Otabek and falling asleep with him, so many times in so many different cities.

“No,” he says grudgingly, because no, he doesn’t believe all that was time wasted, not at all, but he still feels his point is not being acknowledged to the extent that it deserves. “Of course not. But the sex, Beka. We could have been doing that.”

Otabek’s laugh gets muffled in Yuri’s hair.

*****

“When did you know?” Yuri asks later, when he’s sitting on the kitchen counter eating dry cereal out of the box and watching Otabek make the eggs Yuri was too hungry and impatient to wait for.

“That I loved you?”

Yuri nods.

Otabek looks over. “The first day I saw you,” he says, and even if Yuri didn’t already know he wouldn’t lie there’s no doubting the sincerity in his voice. His eyes travel over Yuri’s face like he’s following a familiar, beloved route on a map.

“But why me?” Yuri asks. It’s not the first time he’s asked it, and if Otabek also remembers that -- if he, too, is thinking of a Barcelona sunset and a park high above the city, he doesn’t let on. “You could have chosen anyone.”

“No I couldn’t,” Otabek says. He reaches past Yuri to grab a clove of garlic, then picks up a spatula and moves the eggs around in the sizzling frying pan. “I never had a choice. Loving you was like...breathing. That simple.”

Yuri’s entirely unable to control his blush, and he pretends to be extremely busy with the cereal. Otabek keeps saying things like that, so casually, and Yuri just completely doesn’t know how to deal with it.

“You know you’re beautiful,” Otabek says. He glances over at Yuri again, lips curving up. “You’re more than that. You’re magnetic to watch, always have been. I’ve never been able to take my eyes off of you. I’ve never wanted to.”

He gets down plates from a cupboard. When he turns back, leaning back on his hands against the counter, his expression is more serious. “I love you, Yura. Whatever you want that to mean, I’m happy with.”

It’s not a question, but it sort of is, also. Yuri’s been so busy asking Otabek all these things, he hasn’t offered up any of his own answers yet. And yet, even the hypothetical implication that Yuri might not want everything Otabek is willing to give him seems laughable.

He thinks about how it felt the first day they’d met, really met: the realization that Otabek had not only remembered him for five years, but had sought him out. That’s what this feels like, too.

It strikes him as impossibly right that Otabek is the first person he’s ever kissed. Yuri sees absolutely no good reason that he shouldn’t be the last.

“I already pictured myself spending the rest of my life with you,” Yuri says slowly, because Otabek is watching him, waiting patiently for him to say something. “I didn’t realize until recently. I have for a long time, I think. When I thought of the future, it was always you and me. It’s just -- different now, but also not. Does that make sense?”

“Yes,” Otabek says, with a slowly growing smile. It’s the best thing Yuri’s ever seen. “Perfectly.”

*****

“I’ll see you in February,” Otabek reminds him in the living room at eight a.m. on Monday, while Yuri stuffs the last of his things into his backpack and zips it up.

“Not soon enough,” Yuri says. He’s been in a black mood all morning at the prospect of having to leave Otabek and go back to stupid Russia and stupid training, even though he knows his time would be better spent taking advantage of the last few hours they have together for a while. “No,” Otabek agrees, waiting until Yuri straightens up and then pulling his hood up for him. He traces his fingertips over Yuri’s jawline before stepping back and looking around. “Do you have everything? Did you check my room?”

“I have everything,” Yuri says, and Otabek says, “Okay,” and picks up the studded backpack, slinging it over his shoulder. He holds out a hand. “Our Uber should be downstairs in six minutes.”

Yuri fiddles with the strings of his sweatshirt, and doesn’t take Otabek’s outstretched hand.“Aren’t you going to kiss me goodbye?” he asks.

“I was planning to at the airport, when I’m actually saying goodbye to you.” But the corners of Otabek’s mouth are curving up and he’s already leaning up to kiss him. He cups Yuri’s face gently between both hands and kisses him slow and lingering and just a little bit filthy.

Yuri melts against him, just like he does every time. It’s only been a few days, but it already feels familiar. Like a concept of home that hasn’t existed for Yuri for years.

He wonders how long it’ll be before he can kiss Otabek without having his breath taken away by it. He thinks, based on experience, it’ll probably be a while.

They had sent out a group text yesterday morning, with the photo of Otabek pressing his lips to Yuri’s cheek they’d taken on the street outside Otabek’s apartment at sunset the night before, and the message surprise bitches.

(Mila had called almost immediately, and her screaming had been loud enough, even through the phone, that Otabek had leaned out of the shower to check that everything was okay.)

They’d been considerably less flippant about telling their families -- Yuri’s grandfather over the phone yesterday afternoon, and Otabek’s mother and sister in person over dinner at their house the same night.

They’re not making a public statement just yet. It’s inevitable, but Yuri’s fine with waiting until then. He isn’t inclined to do anything to reward the press after they’ve done their best to make their lives hell for years, and Otabek had agreed.

The refrigerator door opens, and Yuri and Otabek break apart. “Sorry,” Stephanie says, wincing. “I tried to be quiet. Bear’s going to eat me if I don’t feed him.” From where he’s bundled in her arms, Bear yowls loudly in assent.

“It’s fine,” Otabek assures her. “We’re just about to head out, anyway.”

“You’re leaving already?” Stephanie asks, looking surprised. She sets the cat down on the kitchen counter. “I know I made a scene, but that’s just because exams make me a bad person. You can really stay for longer.”

“I have to get back,” Yuri says. He crouches down to pet Bear, who hops down from the counter and allows it but meows expectantly as if Yuri might provide breakfast, and is very put out when he doesn’t. Yuri straightens up again. “We both have practice.”

Otabek’s phone chimes to announce that the Uber is outside, and he unlocks the door, pulling it open and letting wintry sunlight spill in, along with a gust of cold air. Yuri shivers automatically at the change in temperature.

“Right,” Stephanie says, stifling a yawn. “Well, it was nice to meet you. I’m glad you’re Otabek’s boyfriend. Despite you eating all of my Lucky Charms without asking, because you were apparently raised by wolves.”

Yuri should probably apologize, but he’s too stuck on the word “boyfriend.” It’s the first time he’s heard it out loud. Or at least, the first time it’s been true. He can’t stop the stupid, happy smile that spreads over his face.

“Sorry, I forgot, you’re just friends,” Stephanie says, deadpan, as she turns to start rummaging through the fridge.

Yuri looks at Otabek, and Otabek is already looking at him. He holds his hand out again, and this time Yuri takes it.

“We’re friends,” Otabek says. He doesn’t take his eyes off Yuri, who feels impossibly warm, suddenly. There’s so much conveyed in the glance, everything they’ve talked about and everything they haven’t had a chance to, yet. “We were never just anything.”