The first time it happened, it started out as an accident, turned quickly into a joke. Otabek had been visiting St. Petersburg for the first time, following Yuri into Lilia's house and trying to hide a smile at the way Yuri had been talking a mile a minute every since Otabek had cut the motorcycle's engine. Yuri had spent two days in a state of suspended anxiety while Otabek was traveling, worried that he'd get lost, have an accident, hate St. Petersburg, and now that Otabek had arrived safely, the bubble of anxiety lodged in his chest had finally popped in a rush of relief.
"Lilia's not here right now," Yuri said as they were taking off their shoes, "but she'll murder us if we wear our shoes in on the hardwood, and you know Japan's like that too? Even when It was freezing we just walked around in our socks and then if you have a hole in your sock it's embarrassing if you go inside someplace and have to take them off. Anyway, we can go get food if you're hungry. Or are you tired? If you need a nap or a shower, that's fine, my room's this way…oh!"
Yuri stopped too suddenly, making Otabek walk into him with a far bit of momentum since he'd been trotting to keep up with Yuri's quick pace, and the two of them slid half a meter in their socks across the hardwood.
"Pffft, sorry," Yuri apologized, realizing how Otabek hadn't gotten a word in since they came in the door. A faint blush dusting his cheeks (fucking fair complexion). "…I can't even remember what I was going to tell you."
"It's fine," Otabek said, clearly amused but doing his best to keep a straight face. "It figures you'd even skate in here."
"It is like that!" Yuri exclaimed, taking a few steps to gain speed and then gliding through a slow spin. "I think she just had them waxed or something." He came back the other way but misjudged his spacing and slid into Otabek's chest with a thump. "Sorry."
Lips twitching, Otabek set down his rucksack, nudging it against the wall with his foot before offering one hand to Yuri. "Maybe pairs would be safer?"
"Pairs!" Yuri snickered. He let Otabek spin him around, chest to back, and settle one of his large hands on the curve of Yuri's waist, warm through Yuri's T-shirt. "All right, but no death drops."
"I would never," Otabek replied, deadpan.
Because of the ridiculous size of Lilia's rooms, hardwood sock pairs was a surprisingly doable sport for two medal-winning figure skaters. Sure, you couldn't build up that much momentum, but after a couple tries to get the hang of it they could skate forward in tandem and at the end of their slide, Otabek swung Yuri out in a wide circle and yanked to draw him back, like a yo-yo with a ponytail. On the third successful spin, Otabek grabbed Yuri by the waist without warning and did an entirely respectable lift. Yuri made a noise halfway between a laugh and an indignant squeak, and Otabek laughed so hard he lost his footing. He fell hard onto his ass, Yuri landing on his chest in a painful tangle of knees and elbows.
"Sorry," Otabek panted, but when Yuri pushed back his mussed tangle of hair, his cheeks were pink and his eyes were bright with trouble.
"Again," Yuri demanded, already scrambling up. "I can totally stick that landing."
Nobody who knew the two of them would have been surprised that after half an hour they had the first half of a routine which definitely had enough technical elements to earn at least a bronze in the Socked Pairs Grand Prix, and they were working on starting the second half with a death drop after all, despite Otabek's entirely sensible protests.
"It's a required element," Yuri informed him as if he'd been doing pairs all his life instead of about 40 minutes. "Don't be a baby, it's all momentum and wrist strength."
They would have made it too, Otabek's hand tight on Yuri's wrist, Yuri's socked feet slipping easily out from under him while Otabek turned, except that Lilia chose that exact moment to demand from the doorway, "WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU ARE DOING?!"
They only broke one lamp. Otabek swore afterwards it was all the lamps, every lamp Lilia owned or ever would own, but it was only one and it was an ugly lamp anyway and they bought her a new one the next day and Lilia liked Otabek just fine after that. For years afterwards, Otabek would blush faintly if somebody so much as said the word 'lamp' and Yuri delighted in buying him the most ridiculous socks he could find for any occasion that could possibly necessitate a present. He was pretty sure the other skaters thought it was some kind of masturbation joke, but neither Yuri nor Otabek cared to explain themselves.
And if the two of them were alone in a place with an open, slick floor, it would only take a minute or two for one of them to toe off his shoes and hold his hand out to the other. They barely ever made it past the death drop, but it didn't matter. It was a thing just between the two of them, and that was fine by them.
The year he turned 20, Yuri spent the entire season trying to figure out why everything felt so lackluster. He wasn't injured, the Grand Prix competition was made of perfectly acceptable opponents, he'd designed his Free program himself…something felt off no matter what he did. He felt restless, itchy, and nothing made it better, not even wearing his sixth Grand Prix gold. When the reporters asked him about his plans for next season, Yuri opened his mouth but no sound came out. Was this what Victor had felt like before his year off? He could have asked directly, but instead he asked to come stay in Hasetsu for a few weeks, still trying to work it out for himself.
"You're bored," Victor said on the third day after Yuri had arrived. He sounded sympathetic and a little bit sad, like he didn't want to be breaking this news to Yuri.
Yuri lifted one eye from where his cheek was flat on the low table to glare at Victor. "Hah? You make it sound like I have a terminal disease."
"It's worse. If it were a disease, you'd die of it eventually." Victor looked down at him fondly, as if Yuri were still the gawky 15-year-old who only knew how to ask for help by cursing and scratching. Victor reached down to smooth some of Yuri's hair back from his face, and Yuri regretted growing out of that stage. "Ah, Yurachka. When was the last time something thrilled you?"
Yuri closed his eyes and thought. He thought about Otabek's fingers wrapped tight around his wrist, his feet sliding out from under him, the crash of Lilia's lamp. When he opened his eyes, Victor was watching him with a slight smile, two fingers tapping against his chin.
"Your smile is terrifying," Victor said, "so whatever you're thinking about must be the right idea."
Yuri spent an agonizing few days working up to asking Otabek. The idea of it was so clear in his head, so tantalizing, that if Otabek said no Yuri felt like he might throw himself off the ninja house's roof. He wished he could ask in person, but Almaty was just too far and Yuri could never wait that long. He barely made it to Skype night as it was.
"Pairs," he blurted as soon as Otabek's face filled his laptop's screen. "Let's do pairs."
Otabek raised an eyebrow. "Sock pairs?"
"Skate pairs. Next season, skate…" Yuri's chest constricted and he had to draw a painful breath to get any more words out. "Beka, I want to skate pairs. With you. Please say yes or I'll die."
There was a pause of maybe a minute while Otabek examined Yuri's face thoughtfully, and Yuri's stomach drew up in a nauseating, anxious knot, tighter and tighter the longer Otabek said nothing.
Otabek's face relaxed and he nodded, as if he'd seen what he needed to. "I suppose someone needs to keep you from killing yourself, and you can't do a death drop by yourself."
For a second it didn't sink in, and then a manic glee lit up in the center of Yuri's chest like a miniature sun. "Are you sure?" he asked, effusive in offering Otabek an out once he was sure Otabek wouldn't take it. "If you don't want to give up your season…" It hung in the air, unspoken, how neither was sure how many more seasons Otabek might have left. "You don't have to, for me."
"My coach is having a baby in three weeks," Otabek said. Yuri cocked his head, because it sounded an awful lot like Otabek had just changed the subject, and Otabek never did that. "And she's just been put on full bed rest. Is there any possibility Victor would agree to me coming to Hasetsu for training? On a trial basis at first, of course."
Yuri grinned so widely it probably didn't even fit across the Skype window. "YES, of course! Get here right now, when can you be here, tomorrow? Why aren't you on a plane yet?!"
"I do not think tomorrow is reasonable, even for you, botam," Otabek said, but his eyes were slightly to the left of Yuri's face on the screen, already scanning flight times and prices. "Perhaps by Friday, I think."
"I know you just called me your little camel, you asshole," Yuri accused. Otabek did not look repentant, grinning broadly as his focus shifted back to Yuri properly. "I'm gonna call you my zolotse on national television and then my fans will come and murder you."
Otabek laughed out loud. "If we can earn a gold between us, then gold will be a perfectly appropriate pet name for you to call me, won't it?"
Yuri didn't sleep a wink that night, staring at the ceiling and thinking about Otabek's hand tight around his wrist and warm against his hip. He skated in a haze of distraction and the Nishigori triplets had enough material for a bloopers video after two days. By Friday he was such a mess that Victor offered to drive to the airport because Yuri couldn't be trusted alone on public transport, and Yuri spent the entire trip bouncing his leg up and down like he had a nervous condition.
"They're going to call security on you," Victor remarked inside the airport as Yuri fidgeted and paced just at the edge of the arrivals waiting area. "Although to be honest it seems more like you are the bomb and not so much that you're carrying one."
"Shut up!" Yuri snapped. "Ugh, this is taking forever! He texted that he landed like a hundred years ag—BEKA!"
Otabek stepped slightly to the side, as much as he could in the narrow hallway exiting security, so that when Yuri barreled into him for a flying tackle hug, at least he wouldn't knock down several other travelers. Yuri had come out just a bit taller at the end of his last growth spurt, but Otabek still hugged him as if Yuri were the smaller one, strong and tight. This time he even leaned back to heft Yuri in the air for a second, like he might swing him into a lift at any second, and Yuri made a breathless, high-pitched noise.
"Ah, I've put a leak in you somewhere," Otabek said, setting Yuri down and making a show of looking for the puncture. Yuri kneed him sharply in the side of the thigh, hands busy still clutching Otabek's shoulders. "Hello, Victor. You didn't have to come just to pick me up."
"Welcome back," Victor said, as if Otabek visited all the time. He nudged Yuri to the side so that he could shake Otabek's hand. "And it's more for the safety of everyone else on public transportation than for your convenience." Victor glanced to the side, mouth a twist of amusement as the rest of the people in the Japanese airport stared pointedly on their way by at Yuri clinging so tightly to Otabek. "Come on, let's get back to the car. I told Yuuri I'd pick him up from the rink on the way home."
The Ice Castle was nearly as familiar to Yuri as the rink in St. Petersburg by this point, and he tugged Otabek inside officiously, still chattering nonstop the same way as he had been in the car the entire way there. He saw Otabek and Victor's exchange of amused glances, but that didn't stop him.
Inside, Yuuri was on the ice with his class of beginners, a flock of four elementary-aged girls and one boy whose expression was fixed perpetually in an understandable sulk. They were just wrapping up when Yuri, Otabek, and Victor arrived, Yuuri telling them seriously about cooling down and stretching properly. His lecture was interrupted by the girls' squeals and pointing; he looked over his shoulder with fond exasperation to smile hello at Victor.
Yuri didn't understand all of the babble of excited pleading which arose at the sight of Victor, but he did catch "Katsuki-sensei," and blew his bangs out of his face with a little puff of amusement.
"They want to see us skate," Yuuri called across the ice to Victor. "But I told them you don't even have your skates!" It was clearly meant for Victor to agree so that Yuuri could shoo the students off home; Yuri muffled a laugh when Victor called brightly that he'd just go borrow a pair, wait not one second!
Leaning on the barrier beside Otabek, Yuri watched Victor and Yuuri do a few laps together to warm Victor up. They hadn't even bothered to turn on any music, but they were still disgustingly in sync, Victor's arm relaxed across Yuuri's back and down his hip. On the third lap, Yuuri took Victor's hand and spun him out, then back again, reversing their positions so that he was in 'male' position, easing Victor back into a dip with his hand firm between Victor's shoulder blades. Victor looked perfectly at ease in Yuuri's hands, perfectly confident.
Yuri wanted to feel just like that, burned for it. He was ready to burn down all of Europe to feel that peaceful even for three seconds.
"Do you think we can do it?" Otabek asked, quietly enough that no one but Yuri could possibly hear him. Yuri shook his head.
"I really want to," he said. Otabek nodded, as if that were good enough for him.
They watched in quiet, companionable silence as Victor and Yuuri finished their pair skate with a showy flourish on center ice, bowing to the clapping and cheering of Yuuri's students. Once Yuuri was shooing the students out to undo their skates, Victor skated over to Yuri and Otabek, stopping with a hiss of his skates just in front of them and folding his arms.
"Now, suppose you tell me what this plan of yours is that has this one lit up like a firework, hmm?" Victor asked. Yuuri told him. Victor didn't reject the idea out of hand. Later, Yuuri and Yakov would both blame him for everything since he could have stopped the insanity right at the source and didn't.
Not that anyone ever expected better of Victor, much less Yuri.
"But how are you going to get them to let you skate together?" Yuuri asked at dinner that night, having calmed down once he realized that yelling at either his husband or ex-rival was not going to make them see sense. He gestured a little twirl in the air with his chopsticks. "Somehow I think just saying please isn't going to get you permission to be the first ISU male-male pairs team."
"Would you go to court to have it mandated?" Victor asked, although the downturn at the corners of his mouth said he wasn't happy with the concept. "You may have to."
"Actually, I have a different idea," Yuri said, calmly enough that the two older men looked at each other with raised eyebrows before looking back at him. "What? I'm twenty, I can have an adult idea once in a while. Get over yourselves."
Yuri's idea, put simply, was the long con.
It was a long season all the way around, for all of them. Victor taught them everything he knew about pair skating, which wasn't much from a competitive standpoint, in about two weeks, and after that they were on their own to go back to St. Petersburg to try and find themselves a real coach who would humor their insanity. Lilia refused point blank and Yakov yelled a lot, but he was no expert either. They spent a tense few weeks asking and being rejected while simultaneously moving Otabek to St. Petersburg, not to mention choosing music and choreography for their free programs for the current season.
"I think you should stop leading with the sock story," Otabek said with a frown after their fourth rejection.
"Never," Yuri sniffed. "If they can't handle the sock story, they definitely can't handle the rest of my plan." Otabek muttered something that sounded like he couldn't handle the plan either, and then took a long sip of tea when Yuri glared at him.
In a way the time they were stalled was a blessing because it forced Yuri to sort out the bulk of his free skate. When they at long last found a real pairs instructor, he was already mentally finished with the process and all that was left was to practice his choreography. That was for the best, since after that his head was full of nothing but pairs.
Learning to skate pairs was exhilarating and infuriating. They were risking injury and overstrain from practicing too long, but Yuri struggled to care about it in any real sense. The only reason it was working at all was because both of them were world-class skaters in their own right, but that amount of experience was something of a double-edged sword. In the first month especially, Yuri stormed off the ice at least twice a week, furious with himself for not being able to pick something up in a couple tries. On the other hand, the hardest thing for most pairs to learn, their coach said continuously, was trust, trust deep enough to let another person swing you like a rag doll across the ice or toss you through the air like a frisbee.
They had way more trust than they had time, that was for sure. And while Yuri trusted Otabek without question, more than once the trouble was Otabek trusting himself.
"Just throw me already!" Yuri snapped as Otabek slid to a stop, hands still locked around Yuri's waist from the lift. Yuri wriggled, and Otabek let him slide to the ground. Their coach kept her distance for a moment, having learned that sometimes if she gave them a minute they would shout it out on their own. "What's the problem?!"
"Nothing," Otabek said, shaking his head. He tried to draw back, but Yuri grabbed a handful of Otabek's T-shirt and twisted it tight around his fist.
"Don't nothing me!" Yuri snarled. "You've backed off the throw twice and we don't have time for this!"
"Sorry." Otabek's clenched jaw said he was not sorry.
"Don't tell me you're sorry!" Yuri kicked the ice hard enough that his toe pick sank in with a thwuck. "Tell me what your problem is!"
"The problem is I nearly cracked your skull open yesterday!" Otabek shouted, making Yuri freeze. It wasn't so much Otabek's volume or anger, as the memory of Yuri's feet slipping out from under him and the boards slamming against his back, driving all the air out of his lungs for five seconds that felt like a year.
But that was yesterday, and today Yuri could breathe, so he took one slow breath and then another, until the tense set of Otabek's shoulders eased. "It was my fault, yesterday. I know that doesn't make you less scared, but it's either trust me or we quit, you know? I can stick it, I know it. Come on, Beka, last week during the death drop you sliced off a centimeter of my ponytail with your skate and that didn't scare you at all."
"It did, actually, it just…" Otabek's mouth twitched at the memory. "Your face was so funny when you saw."
"Hilarious," Yuri said with a roll of his eyes. Then his mouth curled up in a smirk. "Can you imagine Lilia's face if she had seen that?" Otabek snorted, setting Yuri off snickering.
"Ten till midnight!" their coach called, meaning get a move on. Yuri held out his hand and Otabek took it, squeezing Yuri's fingers tight for a second before nodding. They went again, and again, and on the third try Yuri finally stuck it, wobbling through a toe loop. It wasn't beautiful, but it was something. Enough to start building on.
Everything was barely by the skin of their teeth the whole season. By chance they were assigned none of the same events, which worked well within their plan, but turned their practice schedule into a staggered mess. Both of them had to score highly enough to end up in the Grand Prix, despite short programs which commentators and fans alike found puzzling.
There was nothing technically wrong with the shorts, either of them, but more than one reporter commented hesitantly that they seemed unfinished, somehow lacking. Yuri shrugged it off when asked about it in interviews, indicating with his eyebrows alone that it wasn't his problem if people couldn't understand his artistic vision, and it wasn't like Otabek ever spent a lot of time explaining his feelings either. If they lost a few points for presentation here or there, well, they would just have to make it up in technical points, and the free was worth so many more points anyway. Yuri made it through Russia and Canada without too many snags, and Otabek pulled a hard-earned bronze in France.
It came down to Otabek's placement in Beijing. He needed to medal to make it to the final, and depending on the scores even bronze might not have been enough. Yuri spent both days white-knuckling his chair in the stands, waiting for scores to be announced and hating the fact that there was no reason for him to be on the kiss and cry. Otabek's free was the last one, and when it finally came up as second place behind JJ by less than ten points, Yuri leapt to his feet and yelled so loudly that all the people around him jumped. Otabek had only looked up from the kiss and cry, relief obvious in every line of his face even from a distance, and given Yuri a thumbs-up.
The Grand Prix itself was almost anti-climactic after all of that. Otabek was second after the shorts but touched down during a triple and muffed a combination in the free, dropping him to fourth. Yuri, by contrast, flush with endorphins and the nearness of the finish line, sailed through both rounds with such grace and precision that nobody gave half a damn about his artistic vision.
It wasn't enough. It wasn't the goal. Gold was nice, but it was nothing compared to the moment when they called his name over the loudspeaker for his gala skate and Yuri stepped out onto the ice with Otabek's hand firmly gripped in his. The arena was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop as they took their positions at center ice, but the two of them were unfazed, waiting patiently for Yuri's chosen music to start. Get over it, he thought, impatient to start. You've seen Victor and Katsudon skate together plenty enough times.
He forgot all of it when the music started. All that mattered was Otabek's hand on his waist, his grip tight on the death drop and the hard line of his muscles when Yuri slid up his side into the lift. All that mattered was that everybody finally understood that their shorts weren't incomplete or lacking, they were just two halves of a pairs routine that nobody had seen put together publicly.
They'd had to change some elements to make them into singles choreography, but to anybody with an eye, it was plain as day that they made so much more sense together. Realization spread through the audience in irregular waves, but Yuri didn't have any sense of that until much later, curled up in Otabek's hotel room and watching the replay, both of them snickering at people's faces, almost drunk with exhaustion.
In the moment, all Yuri cared about was the ice under his feet and the heat of Otabek's skin through his costume, and the perfect moment of flight between Otabek's hands releasing him and his blades cutting back into the ice.
It ended with Yuri draped over Otabek's hand, so boneless and relaxed that his cornrowed hair was brushing the ice, flushed and breathless with delight. Above him, haloed by the arena ceiling lights, Otabek's face was just as flushed as he grinned down at Yuri. They'd done it, after everything, they'd done it.
When asked this year, inevitably, about his plans for next year, for a split second Yuri's voice stuck in his throat. But then Otabek pressed his fingers more deeply into Yuri's hip, only a small increase in pressure, and Yuri found his voice.
"We want to compete in pairs next season," Yuri said, somehow keeping his voice even when his heart was skipping crazily in his chest. "We know it's irregular, but there's nothing we can do except for to ask the ISU to consider modernizing their rules to make that a reality. To show that we're serious, both Otabek and I will be retiring from singles competitions starting now. If we can't register as a pair then," Yuri took a deep breath, "then you won't see us on the ice next year."
The wave of horrified gasps was so satisfying, Yuri thought. No wonder Victor had to retire like three times for it to stick.
"You're insane," Otabek told him later, the laptop shut and both of them on their backs, immobile from exhaustion. The light was still on, but Yuri didn't care. Otabek's arm was warm under Yuri's neck, and both of them smelled like the same hotel soap, except for Yuri's girly apple shampoo.
"You love it." Yuri yawned. "How long do you think it'll take for them to decide? To tell us?"
"No idea." There was a minute of peaceful silence.
"Are you scared?" Yuri asked more quietly. "If we can't ever skate again, will you forgive me?"
"I can skate with you any time I want. There's nothing to forgive." Otabek's fingers brushed the outside of Yuri's shoulder. "You know, I saw a ballroom down there. Not set up for anything. This time of night it's surely deserted. Must be the size of a whole rink. Hardwood's nice, I suppose, but now marble…"
"Otabek Altin!" Yuri sat up, every limb protesting the movement, but he was grinning, toes curled in excitement inside his socks. Still flat on the bed, Otabek grinned back. "Marble! You sure know how to show a guy a classy time."
"Classy, that's us," Otabek said, deadpan, eyes drifting up to Yuri's bangs in a lopsided palm tree.
The marble was freezing under Yuri's pink leopard socks and the room was dim, but there was more than enough light coming in the sweeping windows from the streetlights. Shoes toed off by the doorway, Otabek tugged Yuri across the floor in a test spin, and Yuri let his head tip back. There was a chandelier above them bigger than Victor's car, glittering with gold and crystals.
"Watch the lifts," Yuri advised. The floor was slick enough for Otabek to pull him into a turn as if Yuri weighed nothing. "I don't think we can afford to replace that lamp."
"You watch it." Otabek tilted his head back to see, chuckling softly. "As I recall it, you broke the lamp, apat."
"What's that one mean?" Yuri let Otabek spin him out, getting almost two rotations out of it before he slid to a stop. He pirouetted lazily to make it a triple, stretching up to en pointe for a second before gravity pulled him back down.
"My disaster," Otabek answered, grinning slyly. "My little catastrophe." Yuri laughed, letting Otabek catch him easily. He still made the same breathless noise of glee when Otabek lifted him suddenly, socked fleet slipping dangerously under both of their weight.
"Jerk." They teetered just on the brink of toppling, but Otabek righted them with the momentum of swinging Yuri down. The landing jarred his teeth a little, but Yuri kept his feet, grinning triumphantly. Holding tight Otabek's hand tight in his own, it was easy to stop thinking about all of it, the ISU, their next season, their careers, to think about nothing but the slick floor under them and whether the death drop went before or after the third lift.
Sooner rather than later they would either wear out, legs already exhausted, or be discovered by the staff, but until then it was only them. Yuri had been afraid in the back of his mind that once they showed every one their pair skate, it would somehow become less their own. But here in the dark it was still the same, still a thing that passed between them without words, that only the two of them understood.
If it was between the two of them, then that was fine by them.