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His Grace the Archduke Yuri Plisetsky wins the Ballistic Grand Tournament in his debut year, at the age of fifteen.

Things go downhill from there.


"How does sixteen feel?"

Sixteen feels the same as fifteen, so far, but Yuri goes with, "Feels like I'm going to beat you by an even wider margin this year, commoner."

Yuuri just smiles at him and pulls ahead, the asshole. They're almost back at the entrance to the training complex, having done two laps around it, and Yuri's lungs are beginning to feel thick and achy. Mila, one of nature's sprinters, is still a way behind them; Georgi sprained his ankle last week and is grimly stuck doing upper body weights until the physio clears him.

Victor is inside. His whole face lights up when they enter, even though it's been fifteen minutes at most since he last saw Yuuri.

"My Yuuri has such good stamina," he crows, digging a suggestive elbow into Yakov's side.

Yakov goes a beetroot shade. Yuri wishes his oversexed irritant of a cousin would stop riling up Yuri's coach just because he no longer has to suffer any of the consequences.

Sure enough: "Yuri!" Yakov roars. "Stretch well today. We're going to work on your basket pose. You're still sloppy coming out of it."

Yuri throws a filthy look at Victor--who now has his arms around Yuuri and is nuzzling his hair, dear God--and goes to stretch. He meant what he said. Only 0.1 points separated them at the Grand Tournament where Yuri made his glorious debut, won gold, and was overshadowed completely by Victor Nikiforov's scandalous romance with the ballister he unearthed and coached into brilliance. Next time, Yuri is going to beat Yuuri Katsuki by a margin so large as to be inarguable.

After that morning's training session, Yuri emerges from the shower to find a summons from Queen Inessa flashing on his tablet. He heads towards the royal apartments, mystified; judging by past experience, he doesn't think she's going to give him a birthday present.

The queen waves him into her study, and Yuri bows.

"Yuri," she says. "Many happy returns."

"Thank you, ma'am."

"Have a seat," she says. Yuri does so with rising curiosity. "This seemed," the queen says, "an opportune time to tell you that we are currently negotiating a contract for your betrothal."

Yuri's legs and back are aching, and part of his mind is still turning the opening bars of his new music over and over, trying out different variations of arm movements. He takes careful hold of the seat cushion. He replays the words and tries to make sense of them.

He says, "My what?"

"Your betrothal. To Duke Otabek Altin of Almatu. I believe you've met the young man, he's--"

"The queen's brother," Yuri says, blank.

His aunt nods. "Queen Inzhu contacted me directly, to suggest a marriage between our families. I'm sure I don't have to tell you how important this relationship is, especially given how unstable things have been between us--and on Almatu itself--since the war. And we need to show good faith in strengthening ties with our allies through this kind of arrangement, because…"

The queen gives an elegant shrug, and Yuri swallows against rapidly rising rage. He knows where that sentence would have ended. Because Victor. Because the Crown Prince has charmed and swept and wriggled his way to the age of twenty-eight without getting married or even engaged, before falling harder than a meteor strike for an upstart barefoot nobody from Chinzei.

And now Yuri's the one who has to pay for it.

"We did suggest a match with the Duchess Babicheva, to begin with," the queen says.

"You--you offered me as a second choice?" Yuri splutters, one indignity overtaking another.

His aunt smiles. "Duke Otabek is old enough to be married now, if he wanted, though he's a few years off the traditional age. Our agent thought the family wanted it to be sooner rather than later. We thought that was the point of the Almatuuns approaching us in the first place, and why Otabek had finally started attending ballistic events on the galactic level, when he's let his military duties take priority before now. We suggested Mila, because we thought he might want someone closer in age."

"Oh," says Yuri, trying to think through the ongoing flare of what the fucking fuck. "He--he turned her down?"

Queen Inessa gives him a look, somewhere between indulgent and patronising, which says: you don't really understand how these things work, do you? Yuri digs his fingernails into his palm, seething.

She says, "That would be shockingly rude. No, we never made an outright offer that could be turned down. There were discussions. The Almatuun ambassador let it be known that Duke Otabek is in no hurry. Which means there are advantages, on both sides, to a long engagement. The alliance is honoured with as little inconvenience to those involved as possible." She pauses, still eyeing Yuri as if waiting for him to catch up. "But an engagement between two people of age that dawdles on indefinitely can start to weaken, rather than strengthen, the alliance. It implies...an ambivalence."

"Right. I see. You can get five whole years out of me, then," Yuri snaps.

He feels queasy at the idea of strangers calmly discussing these things as though haggling over the price of potatoes. At the same time he can't help remembering Otabek at the banquet after the last Grand Tournament. The way he weighed Yuri's gold medal in his hand when Yuri passed it over to be admired. The small, startling smile as he handed it back.

Yuri's stomach churns again. His heart is going fast. His tongue races away, acidic. "That's it? You've decided? Happy birthday, here's the rest of your life?"

"You're young," his aunt says, placatory. "You don't have to think about the actual prospect of marriage for, as you said, five years yet."

"Don't talk to me like I'm a fucking child."

Yuri heaves a breath into his frozen ribcage as a pause like a black hole reminds him exactly who he's speaking to.

Yuri has always resented Victor for the tepid relationship the prince maintains with his parents: at least he has parents, at least they're here, can't Victor put in a bit of fucking effort and appreciate what he has? But Yuri has a scrap of grudging sympathy for Victor now. You can't argue properly with a crown.

Queen Inessa says, coolly, "Very well, Yuri. Let's talk like adults. When Alexandra and her husband died, you and your grandfather came to us, and we offered you a choice. You were a child, but you spoke up for yourself then. And you chose ballisting."

She pauses, clearly expectant. Yuri swallows, and nods.

The queen goes on, "We accepted the responsibility for your care, your training. We took you in as a full member of our household, with everything that entailed. And you said that you would do whatever it took. In order to become the champion you wanted to be."

That hits home. Yuri feels around his neck the phantom weight of his gold medal; and, even heavier, his plans to win more. He remembers being tiny, clinging to his grandfather's hand, so determined to fly like Victor, to be better than Victor one day.

He chose. He'd choose the same thing again.

He hates this, he absolutely hates it, having his fate decided for him. But he lowers his head and shoulders, fighting the tension.

"Yes, ma'am."

The queen's tone softens. "This betrothal will be very useful. You're a better match than a Almatuun noble at a remove from the succession could have reasonably expected: close in line to the Nevan throne, and the reigning ballistic champion."

She's trying to pay him a compliment. Yuri is not in the mood to be flattered.

"Can we keep it quiet? Not publicly announce it?" But even as he says it, the queen's eyebrows are rising. Yuri waves a hand and grits his teeth. "No. No, that would defeat the purpose. I get it."

Queen Inessa picks up from her desk a tablet with the red casing of a high security setting, and holds it out flat in Yuri's direction.

"This is for your formal agreement. We'll need it again on the finalised version of the contract. You can meet with the palace lawyers; they'll explain the terms."

Yuri's sure that will be exquisitely boring. He doesn't give a flying fuck about the terms. They won't change the fact that this is happening.

Yuri takes a breath. Steels himself. Then, in a single determined motion, he sets his palm flat against the tablet, and waits for the pulse of light.


The press release goes out the afternoon of the same day. Yuri goes to sweat out his emotions in one of the older practice spheres and then sits high up in one corner of the arena, scrolling through his messages and all the reactions on social media, pretending that he isn't hiding.

Mila finds him there.

"Go on," Yuri snarls. "Make all the jokes you want."

"Well, not if you're taking all the fun out of it." She takes a seat next to him. "Happy birthday. My gift to you is telling you in advance about the surprise party Victor is going to throw for you tonight."

"I hate surprises," Yuri says. His fingers tighten white around his tablet.

"Yuuri tried to talk him out of it," Mila says, "but you know Victor--by the time he told anyone, he'd already arranged everything."

"If he turns it into an engagement party as well, I will rip his fucking hair out in silver fucking chunks."

"Where did you get that mouth," Mila says primly, as if she doesn't express her frustration with difficult spins by yelling motherfucker in soprano tones.

Yuri makes a very rude gesture at her and hugs his knees with a sigh.

Mila moves closer. She knows him well enough that she doesn't try to put an arm around him, at least.

"You had to know this was going to happen," she says.

Yuri spits, "But not now."

He doesn't say, because of how pathetic it sounds in his head: I've never kissed anyone, and now I'm engaged.

It's not like he particularly wants to kiss anyone, but now he doesn't even have the option. Not unless he wants to mortally offend the entire principality of Almatu.

"That's the agreement," Mila says. "We get the luxury and the fame, and we get to do what we love, and in exchange, we give up parts of ourselves. To be looked at. And to be politically useful."

Yuri glares at her. "Yeah? When is it going to be you giving yourself up, then?"

Mila has kissed lots of people. Mila has done a lot more than that, and has tried to shower Yuri with details about it while he covered his ears and yelled.

She shrugs. "It will be, one day. I've always known it could be me being called in for that chat. When it happens, it'll happen." She pauses. "Just think, they could have offered the Almatuuns Georgi."

There's a pause while they consider that: Georgi's latest love affair and its crash-and-burn aftermath, the tabloid pictures of him standing outside Anya's house playing the balalaika--terribly--and denuding roses of their petals while tears ran down his cheeks. Yuri tries to imagine Georgi's dramatic intensity next to Otabek's stolid gravity, and his brain recoils.

"Oh God," he says.

Mila laughs. "Right? Disaster."

"Victor doesn't have to bow and wait to be traded," Yuri says, vicious. "Victor gets everything he wants."

"No," Mila says. "Victor ran off and gave most of himself away when we weren't looking."

"It's not fucking fair!"

"No," says Mila again.

After a moment she says, "At least he's a ballister? And a good one, too. I thought you two got on all right at the GT."

"We did," Yuri says tightly. "That's--that's not the point."

Mila reaches out and ruffles his hair, which she knows he hates.

"It might have to be, Yurochka," she says gently.


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

So.

I don't know what to say?

WHAT. THE FUCK.


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

I am sorry. I did not ask for this to happen.


Yuri lies with his shoulders jammed into a corner of the couch and his legs kicked up sideways, folding himself at the hips so that his ankles rest together on the seat back. If Yakov could see him, Yuri would get a scolding about twisting his back into knots, but Yakov isn't here, and anyway, Yuri is in the mood to do exactly what authority figures don't want. He's the one listening to his own tendons like a symphony, attuned for the discordant note. He knows what his body can take.

He taps his fingers against his tablet, picturing Otabek being sat down by his sister Queen Inzhu and told about the contract, just as Yuri was told. Otabek being just as horrified as Yuri was.

Yuri is a good match, he's a fucking prize; he's an amazing ballister, the first debut men's champion in history. Only child of Princess Alexandra, the king's sister, who everyone said was the most beautiful woman on Neva. He's driven, he's talented, he's royalty and he's fucking gorgeous.

Otabek didn't ask for this. Obviously. Otabek doesn't want to marry him.

And now any time either of them are in the tabloids the other will be mentioned, and they'll be expected to appear together, dance together, pose together, at all of the other tournaments and functions and expos, and--

Yuri's fingers hover over the screen, which shows an empty reply to Otabek's last message. He should be able to do this. He and Otabek are friends.

But no, they aren't. Not yet. A few conversations at the Grand Tournament, a few messages since then. What are they supposed to do now? Pick up the conversation they were having about how terrible JJ's dancing was, or the one about costume choices for their routines next season, as if nothing has changed?

The first potential friend that Yuri's had in years, and now it's all been ruined because fucking Victor had to go and fall in fucking love.

Yuri throws his tablet at the wall. It falls to the floor with a crack like lightning in the screen.

"Fuck," he yells.

He doesn't feel any better.


A year and a half later, Victor and Yuuri get married.

There's no way it was ever going to be anything less than an event of epic proportions. By now, the planet has settled into the huge story the media has built around it: the fairytale romance of the prince and the commoner.

Victor, for reasons unknown, gets it into his head that Yuri should be an integral part of this monstrosity.

"You could read something!" he says.

"Why the fuck would I want to do that?" Yuri says.

Victor's eyes go sorrowful. Yuuri puts a hand on Victor's arm and says, "Victor, leave Yuri alone. If he doesn't want to be involved at all, we have to respect that."

Yuri bristles at the implication that he doesn't care at least a tiny bit. He somehow ends up agreeing that being responsible for the rings would not be unbearable, as long as nobody expects him to say anything, and only realises later that he has been manipulated. Victor has no chance at all of being the driving force in this marriage.

On the day, Yuuri looks less out of place than Yuri expected, in his elaborate wedding suit. He and Victor walk onto the dais together and their matching outfits catch the lights, which have no doubt been artfully placed to do just that. Yuuri's suit is midnight blue, Victor's purple and black. Both jackets are scattered with spider-eye and the accents are silver: laces in the small of the back and a pair of delicate fingerless gloves for Yuuri, a classical necktie and the edging to the skirts that explode from the waist of the jacket, for Victor.

Yuuri's hair is not quite slicked back, but curling off his forehead with a few strands falling down to touch his glasses.

"Oh," says Mila, standing beside Yuri, in an odd, cross voice. "Their feet," and she shoves a tissue into a strategic position in order to save her mascara.

Both Yuuri and Victor are barefoot. Which is--stupid, probably something they came up with while staring into one another's eyes across a pillow.

The front of Yuri's face is hot and he feels something that's similar to irritation, but not quite the same. He closes his hand around the rings, in his pocket, but they're too small to grasp with any kind of satisfying force.

"Twenty says Victor's the first one to cry," he says.

"No bet," says Mila.

Yuuri, having realised he was never going to avoid the size of a royal wedding, has instead won his battles in terms of the ceremony's length (short) and whether Victor will invest him with a title, as is traditional (absolutely not). In the end it's one of the quickest, simplest weddings Yuri has ever attended, for a value of simple that involves a few thousand people.

Phichit reads aloud a passage from a book, which is surprisingly funny. Yuuri and Victor give short speeches about how much they mean to one another and the power of love and other such nonsense. Victor starts crying. Yuuri starts crying.

"For the love of God," Yuri mutters. Mila elbows him in the ribs.

Despite the tears, Victor looks like he's going to go supernova with happiness. Yuri steps up onto the dais with the rings, and they exchange them with yet more sniffling and moon-eyed staring. Yuri, who had been looking forward to the end of Victor obnoxiously flashing his engagement ring at everyone, resigns himself to at least another year of Victor doing exactly the same thing with his wedding ring.

The celebrant says, "You may now kiss--"

And Yuuri, mouth curling into something nearly scandalous, grabs the heir to the Nevan throne by the tie and drags him into a kiss that is probably not suitable to be viewed by children. Victor bends Yuuri back over his arm, kissing back with just as much exhibitionism and joy, and both of them are breathing through parted lips by the time they break apart.

That pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the day.

Yuri stands in the short line of Nevan royals greeting everyone who passes through the door into the ballroom where the reception is being held: a strange, futile buffer of protocol. The reception has barely begun and it's already a riot of music, drink and laughter.

"Yuri!" shouts a voice.

Yuri glances to where a yellow head is bouncing, further down in the queue, waving at--not him. This happens often enough in the palace that Yuri is slowly resigning himself to the utility of nicknames, though he can't see why everyone doesn't just use Katsuki. Yuri was here first, after all.

The Yuuri in question leans back to peer over Victor's shoulder, grins, and returns the wave. His Serene Highness Kenjiro Minami is a tiny ball of energy, obsessed with Yuuri's ballisting to what Yuri feels is an undignified extent, and since this year's Grand Tournament the two of them have been friends. Which is a relief, diplomatically speaking. Even Yuri knows that the Chinzeian royal family could have raised several objections, if they'd chosen to, to Victor and Yuuri's politically useless match.

The person in front of Yuri clears their throat. Yuri pulls his attention away from Minami and back to--

"Your Grace," Otabek says.

Yuri hesitates for only a moment. He extends his hand, directing the angle of his wrist like vengeance. "Your Grace."

Otabek bows and his lips touch Yuri's fingertips, right over the nails. It feels like a whisper, like barely anything at all. For a long, turbulent moment, Yuri would like to rake those nails across Otabek's calm face.

Yuri and Otabek haven't exchanged messages at all since their betrothal was finalised. They saw one another at this year's Grand Tournament--where Yuri successfully defended his title, edging ahead of JJ's silver and Yuuri's bronze--and they exchanged greetings with the most excruciatingly awkward eye contact of Yuri's life, but they didn't talk, and Otabek left before the banquet.

Otabek moves on, with a deeper bow, to greet King Dmitri.

It's a disorganised kind of party, at the grooms' insistence. Food circulates on trays and people eat and drink as they please. The dancing never really stops, though it pauses whenever someone gets it into their head to do a speech; like when Victor stands up, hand laced through Yuuri's as though it will take surgical intervention to separate them, and tells the story of Yuuri's proposal. Most people in the room must be hearing it for the tenth time, at least, but everyone still cheers and hoots the whole way through.

Yuuri, pink and beaming, looks like he's about to drag Victor away to the gravidity pods right this moment so they can romantically swab one another's cheeks and get started on the hordes of children they no doubt plan to brew up.

Yuri doesn't care about romance. He doesn't. But the fact that Victor got some absurd gesture with rings after which he cried (according to Yuuri) and picked Yuuri up and twirled him (according to Victor)--and Yuri got we are negotiating a contract and a tablet saying Plisetsky, Yuri Pavlovitch in a clinical voice as Yuri put his hand down to be scanned…

Yuri reaches for the nearest glass, not caring whose it is, and drains it. He's still half a year shy of eighteen, but this is a wedding and nobody's going to question him. The wine is cold and tart and goes down easily.

"Your fiancé looks sharp, Duke Yurio," says Mari Katsuki, seated next to him.

This is the first time in a while she's looked up from demolishing a plate of food. Yuri glances at her, alert for any mockery, but Yuuri's sister is eyeing the dancefloor with her chin in her hand and an appreciative gleam in her eyes. Yuri follows her gaze.

Otabek is dancing with Mila. Against the scarlet of her dress he looks like an eagle's shadow, all in black, with a narrow white scarf draped around his shoulders in Almatuun style, one end dangling in front and one behind. He looks like he couldn't be bothered dressing up, and also like nobody else should have bothered, if they could have looked like this instead. Sharp is a good word for it.

"Yuri! Come and dance!"

Yuri nearly bites the tip of his tongue in his haste to suppress the curses trying to escape, as a vision in gleaming lavender comes between him and the dancefloor.

"JJ."

"Enjoy the ceremony? Good, wasn't it? Did I tell you about the symphony I'm commissioning for my wedding?"

Yuri tilts his head back, the better to look down his nose. "Where's Isabella? I don't blame her if she doesn't want to be seen with you."

His interactions with JJ have become marginally more bearable since he learned that the king of Vilmarie treats this kind of thing as a wonderful joke, and seems impervious to insult. Sure enough, JJ smiles and perches on the edge of the table, reaching out to pick at some blue sugar flowers.

"She's presenting at a symposium, back home."

Comtesse Isabella is a terrible ballister but a brilliant mathematician, and--in Yuri's opinion, formed two minutes after meeting her at the last Grand Tournament banquet--far too good for JJ.

"Excuse me," says Otabek's flat voice.

JJ shifts sideways by a few inches, nearly knocking over a water jug. "Hey! Here's someone who's prepared to have some fun! You'll keep dancing, right?"

"Yes," Otabek says. He's looking at Yuri. He stretches out his hand, palm upwards. "Would you like to dance?"

There's no possibility of refusal. In fact, there probably would have been gossip if Otabek hadn't made the offer at some point. Yuri can feel several pairs of eyes on him. He stands, wipes his mouth delicately, and moves around the table to put his hand in Otabek's so that he can be pulled out into the centre of the floor.

Once they're surrounded by people, Yuri says, stiff, "I didn't need rescuing."

"It wasn't your safety I was worried about," Otabek says.

Yuri's mouth gives a grudging twitch. "Another minute and I might have dumped my drink on him," he allows.

Otabek nods, accepting the truth of that, and they dance for a while in silence. Otabek's shoulders are broader, Yuri thinks, than they used to be. His eyes have an amber tint to them in this light, and the line of his undercut is fresh and exact. He dances with the smooth athleticism of a lifelong ballister, trusting that Yuri can keep up.

The emotion present in his ballisting, though, is missing here. It's like dancing with a graceful automaton. Yuri is bored with it.

He pushes the pace past the music, forcing Otabek to be the one keeping up with him. Yuri will take any emotion he can needle out of the man; irritation would be fine. Violence would be fine, though it would look terrible in the media and Yuri's under no illusions that Otabek wouldn't wipe the floor with him in an actual fight.

At least it would be real.

"Did you want to lead?" Otabek says politely.

Yuri bares his teeth. "I thought I already was."

All the warning Yuri gets is a tightening of Otabek's fingers around his. With an abrupt flick of the wrist, Otabek spins him out, then pulls him in again, and the sudden closeness of him, the firm hand at Yuri's waist, is--something new. Like a hiccup. Like an unfamiliar muscle in Yuri jerking itself awake.

Yuri flattens his free hand over Otabek's, which is not correct; Yuri looks right into those brown eyes and thinks, loud as he can over the sudden thud of his heart: I fucking dare you.

The music ends.

Otabek pulls his hand clear and steps back immediately, respectfully. "Thank you for the dance," he says, and bows.

Yuri glances at where Yuuri and Victor are dancing nearby, still swaying a little and laughing, wrapped up in one another.

"You're welcome," Yuri says, with just as little expression.

Otabek dances with Sala. Then with Victor. Then with Mari, who has a lot more enthusiasm than coordination.

Yuri goes and drags Georgi into dancing with him for a couple of songs, for the sake of not looking entirely antisocial, then avoids eye contact with anyone who might want him to dance more. He keeps finding himself looking at Yuuri and Victor, or else the line of sight between them when they're apart, which might as well glow like a gold string.

What Yuri would have said, if forced at gunpoint to speak at this wedding, is that he never knew his cousin was unhappy. Or whatever it is that's not an opposite but an absence. He would have said that Crown Prince Victor, smiling star in the ballistic firmament, was happy, more or less, for the first twenty-seven years of his life.

He knows the difference now.

Yuri steals some mercy-spirit from another table. He slips out of the ballroom and walks through the palace grounds, through the dim and lukewarm night, to the training complex. The planet's shadow carves out a black shape from the brilliance of the rings, but it's still not dark. It's never actually dark, not at this distance from the poles on a ringed planet. The single night Yuri spent in Hasetsu was both eerie and incredible; he slipped out of the boarding house and went to stand outside in it, a midnight like chilled ink, the darkness almost something he could feel with his skin.

He sips from the bottle at regular intervals. The taste is not a taste at all, but a jumble of precise sensations. Coming out of a spin sequence too fast. Inhaling snow. The deep bronze colour of the mercy-spirit itself, like medals, like Otabek's unreadable eyes. All of this sits in his stomach, sending tendrils into his blood.

The silent brilliance of the lights springing to life in the training complex makes him flinch and shade his eyes for a moment. Yuri removes his jacket, his shoes and socks, and loosens his clothing. He pulls a wrist remote from the shelves near the hatch, and puts it on. He didn't bring slip-grips, but he could go and find some spare pairs in one of the lockers.

Yuri is drunk enough, and angry enough, that he doesn't.

"Fuck it," he says to the sphere, which soars smoothly above his head. "It can't be that hard. Katsuki does it every day."

Ten minutes later he is face-to-face with the fact that he is not Yuuri Katsuki: a fact which most days he is happy about, but which today, increasingly, feels like coals dragged over his skin. Yuri grits his teeth and keeps trying, because that's who he is, that's what he has--he keeps trying, and trying, until he's perfect. He goes for a double-footed landing, and twists, but his reflexes are dull and he's pressing too hard. When he launches off again, he's got barely any speed, and he becalms himself close to the centre of the sphere.

Yuri's shoulders are shaking. He floats, turning sluggishly.

He presses the heels of his hands into his eyes and screams a short hard bird-screech of a scream. It takes a while for all of the far-off vibrations of echo to fade.

"Katsuki said you might be here."

Yuri jerks his hands down and twists himself midair. Otabek is sitting in the front row, leaning forward, elbows on his knees.

"Go. Away," Yuri snarls.

"I will if you want," Otabek says. Then, "Your feet are bleeding."

Most of Yuri's anger escaped with the scream. He's lacquered himself with its dregs, but there's nothing beneath, and he feels both lost and tired. He dials down the anti-grav and lets himself fall to the base of the sphere, and he accepts Otabek's shoulder to lean on when he climbs down through the hatch.

"Shoes?" Otabek says, but he's looking dubiously at Yuri's feet.

Now that he's standing on them, the pain is starting to reach Yuri's awareness, even through the alcohol. He looks down at the bleeding scrapes and presses his lips together. He doesn't like the idea of pulling anything on over that; fuck, he's going to be useless for days, Yakov will be livid.

"It's fine, I'll just--go barefoot--" and Yuri starts to laugh, bitter.

Otabek says nothing, but his mouth is curving when Yuri looks up. "Come on," he says, steering Yuri towards the seats until Yuri, managing with steely effort not to wince, steps up onto one of them. Otabek stands in front of him, presenting Yuri with his back.

"I'd rather walk," Yuri says, when it clicks.

"No, you wouldn't." Otabek glances over his shoulder and raises his eyebrows. "This is a simple solution. Or I could carry you. In my arms."

"Try that and I'll dig your eyes out of their sockets," Yuri says tiredly.

He succumbs to the inevitable, looping his arms around Otabek's neck; Otabek hoists Yuri with hands under his thighs, then adjusts, Otabek's arms forming a rigid frame for Yuri's legs to lie in.

"Relax," Otabek says, as they make their way out of the complex.

"Relax?" Yuri snaps. "We'd better not run into any reporters. I can see the story now. Duke Yurio gets legless drunk at Crown Prince's wedding--"

"Yurio?"

"Tabloid nickname. Don't you have any? No, you're too serious to be in the tabloids. You're a war hero."

"Beka," Otabek says, after a few moments of silence in which Yuri manages to feel ashamed of himself. "It's what my sisters call me."

"--legless drunk at the Crown Prince's wedding, had to be carried home like a child by his fiancé, Duke Beka--ugh, that sounds terrible--of Almatu."

"Fiancé," Otabek says. His voice is slow and deep, oceanic, lapping at the word's edges. "I haven't heard you say it out loud before."

"I'm hardly going to throw it around it like Victor does."

"Thank God," says Otabek. And then, to Yuri's shock, he slips into a remarkably good approximation of Victor's most breathless and showy tones. "I'm here with my fiancé. Have you met my fiancé, Yuuri Katsuki? Of course I hope everyone does well, but my fiancé is going to win."

Yuri breaks into gulps of laughter. He rests his cheek against Otabek's shoulder and shakes with it. "He's going to be fucking insufferable now that it's husband."

"You're the one who has to live with them."

"I'll keep you updated."

Yuri had been drawn into the sardonic ease of this, the rhythm of their back and forth. Now Otabek is quiet: a break in the rhythm. Yuri grips his own wrist more tightly, feeling his tendons bow with the pressure, and hopes Otabek doesn't glance down.

Finally:

"I would like that," Otabek says.


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

Do your PR people care about things like approval ratings? There's a woman called Natalia whose job it is to sit me down once a month and shout at me about what some online poll says about how likeable I am and whether or not I'm properly representing the Nevan people. She doesn't even RUN the polls, they're from GOSSIP SITES and could be HACKED for all I know, but God forbid we do something sensible like IGNORE THE FUCKING THINGS.

Victor and Yuuri probably don't get these talks. I know because Natalia keeps comparing my numbers to theirs, and THEY are PERFECT DARLINGS who can DO NO WRONG. They did a performance at a charity event last week--the footage probably made it to your end of the galaxy, it's been run here NON STOP ever since. Pair ballisting. Apparently they're going to drag it back into fashion. I can't think of anything more nauseating.

Anyway, Georgi's numbers go up and down like a fucking satellite shuttle so Natalia's usually too busy cleaning up his disasters to interfere much in my life. Sometimes she glues me to a charitable cause, or sends me to an animal shelter so that someone can take pictures of me with rescued kittens trying to climb my leg like I'm some kind of fucking tree.

That one was all right. You can see the picture if you like. It's attached.

But I wish they'd just look at my ballisting and leave everything else the hell alone.

-yuri


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

You could look at it this way: a public with time to spare caring about which animal shelters the royal family visits is at least a sign of a stable monarchy. Most of the polls here are official ones. They are asking whether Kanysh is more or less qualified to lead the planet than the chief of his army. Or the head of another family. Or whether we should even have a single ceremonial head of the principality, given how many of our states are at war with one another at any given time.

I'm not worth talking about. And I'm glad.

That cat is doing a good job of climbing into your pocket. Have you considered the possibility that it was a hired assassin?

- Otabek


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

If Nika were an assassin then I'd be dead already, she's had ample opportunity what with living in my apartment in the palace for nine days. Yeah. I adopted a cat. Natalia was VERY HAPPY. I think that should keep her off my back for a while.

And you're a fucking liar: I read enough gushing articles about you, just after we were betrothed. I know what people think of you, Commander Altin. HEROIC. BRAVE. DEVOTED. Ringing any bells?

At least have the guts to own your need for approval, like the rest of us do.

You wanted updates on the Victor and Katsuki show, so here goes: if I hear the words 'I love you' any more times I will come out in a FUCKING RASH. I finally snapped at training and bet them they couldn't got a week without saying it, and Victor got some fucking spray paint and wrote it on one of the training spheres in letters taller than I am. And then he stood there beaming like a SMUG MORON while Katsuki blinked and went all soppy and GOD IT WAS UNBEARABLE.

I told Victor it was cheating. He told me that sometimes you have to cheat a little, to get what you want.

He still owes me the fucking money.

-yuri


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

You should know better than to believe everything you read in the tabloids. Yurio.

And you are only going to wear yourself out, or possibly burst a blood vessel, trying to change Victor's behaviour. Which seems to just be Victor's personality.

Limit your exposure, perhaps? My little sister Anara is fifteen and discovering passive-aggression. I am taking a lot of long rides on my flyer. Sometimes I even take it all the way up into the mountains north of Medeu, and spend the night at a cabin there. It's very isolated, very quiet. The closest village is Sarlyk which is the size of my hand. Maybe fifty people. Nobody bothers me. And by the time I return to the city I have remembered that I love my sister.

- Otabek


FROM: CGIAC@SUI [ch.45203vExt]
TO: [multiple recipients]

Hello! Everyone! HELLO.

I'm sure this will be everywhere soon but I thought I'd give you lot, my BOSOM FRIENDS AND TREASURED RIVALS, the news first. And also give you the chance to earn some pocket money if you feel compelled to leak it to the press, I suppose? Who's hard up? Seung Gil, my man, you could use it to buy yourself some facial expressions that don't scream DEATH IS COMING FOR US ALL.

The news, my flock of sensuous pigeons, is that I am officially OFF THE MARKET. Victor, I see you weeping into your elegant hands over there. Console yourself with the thought that it was your own nuptials which inspired me! and gave me hope!

Long story short, we've eloped, we're ecstatically happy, here's a picture of our devilishly handsome faces in the moments after the I DOs, sorry about the groping, someone cover Minami's innocent eyes for me because I'm too far away to do it myself. So far married sex is just the same as unmarried sex except now we have an excuse to do it SIX times a day instead of FIVE because that's the honeymoon life, baby.

Ciao for now,

Chris


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

OK SO WE HAVE TO TALK ABOUT THIS NOW.

What the hell. WHAT THE HELL???

At first I thought I didn't recognise the guy in the photo but I DO, it's his FUCKING PA. Which means they've managed to keep this under wraps for YEARS. Chris!! CHRISTOPHE GIACOMETTI, MOST OBVIOUS MAN IN THREE GALAXIES, who's spent the last five years proposing to EVERYONE IN FUCKING SIGHT oh actually you know what, I see it now. Fuck, that's clever. I didn't think Chris had that many brain cells.

-yuri


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

Perhaps it was not Christophe's brain cells driving that particular strategy.

- Otabek


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

I've had the WORST FUCKING MORNING.

I always hoped that growing would happen slowly enough that I would adjust as I went, you know? I train every day. But this past week has been a DISASTER, suddenly everything's closer than I thought it was, I've got less room to get my elements in, and too much momentum. I fucking HATE IT. I keep slamming into the barrier like I haven't in years.

Why couldn't my growth spurt have waited until AFTER the Grand Tournament??

-yuri


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

I remember that. For three months I was the worst ballister that had ever existed. Or at least that was how it felt at the time.

You'll be fine. You're not the type to let something like this get in your way, I think.

So. Some news. I will have to wait until next year to show you my routine. The fighting's started up again in East Daluosi. My unit is being deployed to the border for peacekeeping, and there is no way I will make it to Hakata for the Grand Tournament. I'm sorry. I was looking forward to competing.

At least it will give me time to master another quad.

- Otabek


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

Oh. Well, obviously you must go and bash rioting people's skulls together or whatever undignified thing it is you do when you're in uniform.

Don't get yourself killed. Think of your tax-paying citizens. State funerals are expensive.

Besides, I look terrible in black.

-yuri


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

I will be careful. But I think you are lying about how you look in black.

- Otabek


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

So. That's the GT over with for another year, and GOOD FUCKING RIDDANCE. I don't know if you get broadcasts, off in the wilds of wherever the fuck you are, but in case you managed to miss my HUMILIATION: I got bronze, we're never speaking of it again.

Phichit picked up the silver, and Katsuki apparently still has time to be sneakily better than everyone else despite all the hours he spends staring into Victor's eyes, because he walked off with the gold that should have been MINE. Victor won five tournaments in a row and I've only managed TWO.

Want to bet which of them cried? DING DING, YOU'RE WRONG, IT WAS FUCKING BOTH OF THEM. I haven't seen Victor look that proud since his stupid dog learned to balance pirozhki on her nose.

-yuri


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

I apologise that it has been a long time between messages. My unit was caught in an ambush and I was evacuated by medi-shuttle and spent a few days in the hospital--and before you ask, it was nothing. Just a precaution. Some scrapes. As instructed I have remained alive.

In a stroke of good luck, the hospital was showing almost nothing but footage from the Grand Tournament. Tell Duchess Mila congratulations on her silver.

The ring-transfer sequence in the second half of your routine was very good. I could never do a layout like that, even when I was twelve. Sometimes I wonder what your spine is made of.

Your hair is so long now. I like it.

- Otabek


There's been some kind of electrical wiring disaster in one wing of the palace, and it's still an hour away from being fixed. Yuri suspects JJ arranged it on purpose to give him a sunburn, but nobody else seems to mind; the Nevan delegation makes itself comfortable outside, on the grass, and people bring them cold drinks and some kind of fluffy ice-based dessert that tastes sweet and lemony.

Yuri can see fountains in the distance, and hedge mazes. He shoots off a quick message to Otabek regarding the likelihood that JJ's palace garden contains topiary in the shape of his own head. The expo, like the Grand Tournament, rotates through the four major planetary capitals, and this year it's on Vilmarie, so they all get to be subjected to JJ's idea of landscape gardening.

"Summer in Bizard!" Victor says. "One of my favourite seasons in one of my favourite places! You'll love it, Yuuri."

"I'm already nostalgic for winter in Bizard," says Yuuri. "It's so hot!"

"Please God will both of you resist the urge to remove your shirts," says Yuri, not looking up from his tablet.

"JJ promised there'd be enough champagne with dinner to drown an elephant," Yuuri says, "so no promises."

Yuri's head jerks up. Yuuri looks back at him, wide-eyed, lips barely twitching. Yuri scowls at him; Yuuri turns to his husband, instead, picking up Victor's hand and tangling their fingers together before kissing Victor's ring.

"Take me to the beach," Yuuri says.

Victor sways into him, looking as charmed and puppyish as he always does when Yuuri snaps his fingers for the joy of watching Victor jump. It infuriates Yuri that he can't work out if the future Prince Consort is doing it on purpose or not.

"Of course we'll go to the beach! We'll go tomorrow morning, before the official lunch. You should see the colour of the sand here, Yuuri."

"I'd rather look at you than look at the sand," says Yuuri, and Victor's face goes even more ridiculous and he pulls Yuuri all the way close, kissing him like they were only married yesterday.

"You are deliberately tormenting me," Yuri growls.

Yuuri laughs and presses another kiss to Victor's neck, because he is a fucking dick.

Yuri rubs his hands over his eyes, defeated, and looks in the opposite direction. The opposite direction contains an enormous hologram of JJ, spinning in place atop a pedestal.

"Welcome to the Ballistic Expo!" it booms, and strikes a pose.

Yuri physically recoils.

"Incoming," says Sasha sharply, behind them. There's a general shifting to attention of their security staff as a dull noise turns into the steady whine of a flyer, sleekly black and silver, which glares in the sunlight as it pulls to a halt in front of them.

"Hands in view," Sasha snaps.

"Oh, it's Otabek!" says Victor. "Hi!"

Yuri's already on his feet, waving a hand at the guards. "It's fine. Hello. Are you wearing leather in this heat, do you have a death wish?"

"This is a rescue," Otabek says. "No arguments."

Yuri catches the helmet Otabek tosses at him, and feels his face twitch into a smile. "No arguments."

The flyer isn't quiet, but it's not loud enough to prohibit conversation. The air whips past them as they leave the palace grounds and merge quickly onto a larger road. It's almost unpleasantly warm, pressed up against the sun-hot leather of Otabek's back, but Yuri can feel the muscles in his arms and shoulders beginning to relax despite his brain calling up hundreds of unhelpful scenarios involving trees and shuttle-trucks.

"You brought this with you from Medeu?" he says.

"I miss it when I'm offworld," Otabek says. "And you can't get this model on Vilmarie."

"There's no protection on this thing at all."

"Thus the leather," Otabek says. "Which death wish would you prefer me to have?"

"Shut up," Yuri mutters, pressing his face briefly into Otabek's shoulder. "I'm serious. You're not worried you'll crash one day?"

"I'll take my chances."

Otabek sounds amused, and it hits home for Yuri, quite abruptly, that Otabek spends a lot of time being shot at. That he's a soldier first and a ballister second. For a long time Yuri thought that to be as good as Otabek, as good as any of them who compete at this level, you couldn't be anything but single-minded. Surely Victor was only allowed to neglect his duties for so long because the king and queen understood that.

But it's not true of Yuuri; and, annoyingly, it can hardly be true of JJ, who--personality aside--is by all reports a popular and competent ruler.

Yuri has nightmares about breaking his ankle, about his nerves dying inch by inch and leaving his fingers weakly trembling ruins. He wonders what Otabek's nightmares are.

But that doesn't feel like a question he can ask. Not yet. They've been messaging non-stop for a year, and interacting in person feels more comfortable already, but Otabek is still Otabek, who wears distance in a way that discourages pushing too hard against it. And Yuri is still used to existing in the orbit of his own ambitions and letting nothing else drag him off course.

He tightens his arms around Otabek's waist and tilts his neck to look over Otabek's shoulder. The helmet has a visor so transparent Yuri stops noticing it after the first few seconds. They take a sharp right turn and then, suddenly, they're alongside the ocean, speeding above the edge of a roadway that runs straight and flat behind the grass curving down to the indigo-blue sand.

"Tell me if you want to stop anywhere," Otabek says. "We'll be back in time for you to go and practice before the dinner. And if we crash, I promise to only damage one of your limbs. Which one can you do without, do you think? You should tell me so I know which way to steer."

Yuri is startled enough by the sudden reappearance of Otabek's sense of humour that he takes a moment to react. Otabek's teasing has a mean edge to it that Yuri, who doesn't usually like being laughed at, finds himself enjoying. It feels--not intimate, exactly, but private. Something not shared with many people.

He releases one of his hands just enough to make a rude gesture, and waits until Otabek laughs before he drops it. The smell of Otabek's jacket is taking on a salty edge from the breeze. Sunlight sparkles on the water as though the three moons have flung down handfuls of glitter to float there.

"No, this is fine," Yuri says. "We can just ride."


As the reigning women's champion, Princess Sala opens the Ballistic Expo. She wears an electric violet costume with white lace spilling out over the skirt, and the lights catch on the distinctive glow of crystal-thread. Sala can't manage as many difficult elements as some of the other female seniors, but she's a beautiful ballister, and always shoots ahead on presentation. She's perfectly suited to expo performances.

Most ballisters love the expo: no judges, no required number of elements, no need to attempt anything you're halfway to mastering. No losers. No winners.

Yuri keeps a mental scorecard in his head anyway, or what's the fucking point?

He's last on the program, the closing bracket to Sala's opening, and he knows his choreography's still rough, but at least he can improvise over the worst parts. Yakov wants him to try it out before an audience before they tighten it down for the Grand Tournament.

Yuri is planning to debut a new costume at the tournament, but today he's wearing shimmering smartsilk pants and a top from a few years ago, which fits more tightly than it used to. It's a brilliant thing of red-on-red, with bursts of rubies and bloodstones. He carried it here wrapped in web-paper and folded around a small porcelain cat figurine which was his mother's, and which he's been using for that purpose since his very first tournament. Secrets for safety: a superstition as old as the sport itself.

Yuri leans forward in his seat, when Otabek enters the sphere and lifts an arm to acknowledge the crowd. He puts his fingers in his mouth and whistles, a trick his grandfather taught him. The piercing sound fills his section of the arena.

Otabek can't have known where the whistle came from, but he still looks right at Yuri in the next moment. Otabek touches two fingers to his lips and then crouches to press them to the barrier in the gesture of dedication. His costume is a deep velvety green with paler green embroidery in complex, blocky patterns like stylised vines, with emeralds nestling in between. His music is stately, more old-fashioned than what most people would use at an expo, where the point is to be as flashy and fun as possible.

Flash, Yuri thinks, would look odd on Otabek.

It's been almost two years since Yuri saw Otabek ballist in person, and the improvement is obvious. Each movement is stronger, the transitions crisper. Not quite balletic, but clean. Like the diagrams that Yakov made Yuri pore over and memorise, when he was small: a motion sketched out with simple lines, stripped down to its fundamentals.

The music builds and builds, the stately strings layering and gliding around one another, until the sound is enormous. It demands, and Otabek delivers. He finishes with a fiendish series of static moves from the black ring at the very top of the sphere, backflips and twists and sweeps, and Yuri's neck aches in sympathy at the amount of practice and control it must take to perform at that speed without ever moving out of grabbing distance of the ring.

Yuri whistles again, at the end of it, and claps until the clapping fades entirely.

The gala dinner that night is held on the main lawns of the palace, to take advantage of the weather; tables have been set up and the area flooded with lights, with yet more holograms dancing and writhing in abstract shapes like eternal fireworks. None of them are of JJ, Yuri is happy to see.

"I see you're keeping your colour scheme consistent, Yurio," says Victor, as they walk out of the huge glass doors and into the gardens. "Those are awe-inspiringly hideous."

Yuri is wearing clinging pants in a tiger-skin pattern of black and red, and Victor is, as usual, wrong.

"Fuck you, I look amazing," Yuri says.

Victor beams at him and swans off to drape his arms over Yuuri, who's talking to JJ's parents. The Queen Mother is using a cane, now, but she looks bright-eyed and just as enchanted by Yuuri Katsuki as everyone else who meets him.

Yuri goes in search of a drink. There's no sign of food yet beyond tiny mouthfuls of things on even tinier toast, but there are bottles of champagne and wine and the lethal pale blue depth-spirit on every table.

This can't end well, Yuri thinks, but he downs half his glass anyway. He dodges the huddle of Vilmariean girls gazing up at Prince Leo wearing smitten expressions, and finds a convenient shadow near where the musicians are playing.

"I can see that growth spurt now," Otabek says.

Yuri turns around to face him.

Otabek is right. Face-to-face, it's more obvious than it had been on the flyer. They're close enough in height that their eyes are level; they'd need a formal measurement to work out who is actually the taller. Yuri doesn't know yet how he feels about that.

"You're going to dance with me," he says, setting his glass down on the corner of the musicians' dais.

"I am?"

"Don't be a shit, Otabek," Yuri says, and Otabek smiles.

Not many people are dancing yet, there's no obvious floor for it, but Yuri's committed now; it's this or wait for Otabek to ask him, and Yuri won't back down now that he has some semblance of the upper hand. So people will be looking at them. Yuri's getting used to that.

What he wasn't counting on is the fact that this time, it's excruciating from the first touch of Otabek's hand against his. Yuri's body wakes up, immediate and impatient, and the feeling is no longer unfamiliar. Yuri could put a lot of labels to it, now. Most of them would be obscene.

He lets himself stare at Otabek's mouth for a count of three, then lifts his gaze and keeps it there. His body is disciplined. It can clamour all it wants. Yuri can ignore this as easily as he can ignore blisters on his palms.

"I liked your routine today," he says.

"Are you going to tell me what was wrong with it?"

Yuri flashes a smile; he's smarter than he used to be. He can't be manipulated that easily.

"Yes. Your leg position during the quad flip is messy, and your layouts are weak. You need to work on your flexibility."

"Do I," says Otabek, low.

Yuri nearly misses the next step, heat flooding his chest, and shoots Otabek an annoyed look. He gets nothing but composure in return.

"I read about Duchess Mila's engagement," Otabek says, and Yuri accepts this pivot in conversation, letting his own voice drop in return, pulling out every gossip story he's got. At first he's distracting himself from his perfect view of Otabek's fucking mouth, but after a while he relaxes into the shameless pleasure of knowing everyone else's business.

At the end of the dance they pull to a halt and then, appearing between one moment and the next, there's a smile on Otabek's face that Yuri has never seen before. It's transformative, and appallingly attractive. It pulls hard at something in Yuri's chest. Half of Yuri wants to surge forward and quench the worst of his feelings by biting at that smile and pushing Otabek into whatever surface is convenient. Or inconvenient.

The other half of him is still aware of the distance Otabek has kept between them; the crushing impersonality of Otabek's courtesy. No way in hell is Yuri going to throw himself at Otabek and be gently pushed aside. Especially not in public.

He's the one to step back first, even as his whole body tingles in a sulk of need.

Otabek rolls his shoulders, still smiling, and says, "Another song?"

Yuri doesn't say, Are you doing this on fucking purpose?

He smiles back, forcing it to look easy. "Maybe later."


Yuri wakes with the sheets tangled around his legs and the room already stuffy and warm, a yellowish cave with the light coming through the curtains. He dresses and realises that he's awake earlier than everyone else in the Nevan delegation. Unsurprisingly. Both Yuuri and Victor were cheerfully deep into the champagne last night, Mila will sleep all morning if she hasn't got practice, and Yuri is fairly sure Georgi never came back to his own bed.

He spends a while getting lost in a series of corridors full of royal portraits before a guard finally points him towards one of the smaller dining rooms, where he joins Guang-Hong and Phichit in drinking coffee over ice and flicking through pictures from the night before.

"I wasn't imagining it," Yuri says. "They did get up on the table."

"Yep," says Phichit, fingers moving rapidly as he sends the picture in question to...everyone they know, it seems. There's no total nudity involved, thank God, but various pieces of Victor's and Yuuri's outfits are perilously unbuttoned.

"Someone's going to have to keep these morons away from the bar at JJ's wedding next year," says Yuri. "They just encourage each other."

"Vilmariean champagne is so good though," says Guang-Hong wistfully, zooming in on a picture of himself collapsed giggling across Leo's lap. "Any idea when you and Otabek will set a date, Yuri?"

"No," Yuri says.

"No rush, I guess," says Phichit. "At least Otabek stayed around for the party this time! We asked if he wanted to come to the beach with us later, but he's heading back to Almatu this morning."

"He's leaving already?" Yuri says.

Guang-Hong gives him a curious look. Probably he thinks Yuri should know this, about his own fiancé. Yuri should.

After another ten minute detour which somehow lands him in the wine cellars, Yuri locates first the wing where Otabek's party was staying--already being cleaned by the palace staff--and then the underground walkway which leads to the shuttle bay. Otabek is shaking JJ's hand and bowing over Isabella's; Yuri plants himself near the doorway on the far wall, one leg crossed over the other, and waits for them to leave before he approaches.

"Hey," he calls, not caring how sharp he sounds.

Otabek's smile, at the sight of him, looks genuine. "I didn't know if you were awake."

"This is bullshit, we've barely had time to hang out. Stay another day," Yuri says.

"I can't."

"You mean you won't."

Otabek looks at him for a long moment. Yuri tries to find something useful in his eyes, and thinks he sees them soften.

"Thanks for coming to see me off," Otabek says.

That seems to be all Yuri is going to get. Yuri extends his hand, determined to win the courtesy game this time, and Otabek takes it. Instead of bending over it, though, he steps close and leans in, tilting his head in clear warning, aiming for a formal kiss on the cheek.

Well, that's something, Yuri thinks, followed immediately by: no, it's not.

Yuri turns his face at the last moment, so that Otabek's mouth lands clumsily on his. Otabek jerks back, dropping Yuri's hand, and blinks at him; Yuri glares defiance.

Before Yuri can brace himself or take a breath, Otabek is kissing him properly, mouth dragging sweetly and carefully over Yuri's, his hands cupping Yuri's face with an excruciating gentleness that becomes, after a moment, something firmer and more sure. The kiss is still mostly chaste, but there's so much emotion behind it that Yuri feels frozen to the spot, for all that he wanted this. Invited this.

Just as he gathers himself to respond, letting his mouth part eagerly so that a slight brush of Otabek's tongue can find the warm insides of his lips, sending desire spinning down in hot rivers through Yuri's body... Otabek lets him go.

"I'll see you at the Grand Tournament, Your Grace."

Yuri feels like he's been shot into orbit. He tries to bring awareness back into his toes, into his fingers, and by the time he finds them again Otabek is already walking away towards the shuttle ramp.

"What the fuck," Yuri hisses.

Otabek doesn't stop, or turn around, but just before he disappears he raises a single hand in what could be a wave.


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

I'm forced to conclude that formal address is some kind of weird turn-on for you because I'm PRETTY SURE you're allowed to use my actual name by now.

-yuri. that's a hint.


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

My parents raised me to err on the side of politeness.

- Otabek


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

That was your idea of ERRING, was it? I think you can do better than that.

That's a hint too.

News from here: not a lot. Nika ate one of Georgi's absurd tropical fish and he sulked about it for two days. Katsuki continues to be Natalia's favourite person in this or any other universe, because he's announced that he and Minami are setting up a fund to have the Ice Castle on Hasetsu properly restored, and then have a ballisting academy established there, with scholarships for young people from anywhere in the galaxy. I'm sure it'll be good for the local economy in that tiny colony of his. It can console him when I snatch the title back from his undeserving hands.

-yuri


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

You sound very confident. Normally I wouldn't dream of shattering that confidence, but I have to tell you, my routine is a lot more difficult than the one I did at the expo, and I'm managing it consistently without any mistakes. It's good. I think it's good.

Don't worry, I will still let you have the silver.

I was going to wear the same costume, but my father recently found an old costume of my mother's and sent it to me. The tailor fell passionately in love with some of its panels: gold thread on sky blue. She pulled the whole thing apart to make something I can wear.

There's also a headpiece that goes with it. Gold wire and clusters of pearls. But it's designed to be woven through a hairstyle, and unlike some people, I do not have hair that probably requires as much loving care as any hypothetical cats some people might own.

- Otabek


FROM: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]
TO: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]

Fuck off, you said you liked my hair.


FROM: OTABA.DUX [ch.kz56770]
TO: AD.YURIP [ch.3811vSec]

I do like it. When I am in Nienschanz I would like to see what it looks like out of the braids.


Yuri stares at his tablet. Behind him, his raised leg wobbles, and he lets it sweep down to the ground with a sigh. He throws himself onto the bedspread, rolls onto his back, and keeps staring.

I do like it.

Yuri has been growing his hair out since his debut: part superstition, part simply because he enjoys the way it looks. At first he kept it loose and simple, but there was a rush of stories gleefully comparing him to a younger version of Victor, so he started braiding it elaborately instead. Now he's known for it, like he's known for animal prints and unfashionably flat boots, and pants which cling to his long legs.

He taps the tablet against his chin, making himself think about all the horrible examples that have been made of royals who were unwise about what they sent and to whom. But they're using channels that are as secure as they can be made, and Yuri trusts Otabek.

"Fuck," he mutters. "All right."

He spends five minutes taking pictures and finally chooses one that he took over his shoulder, in the mirror. His hair is brushed out, falling straight as architecture nearly to his waist in a sheet of pale gold. On either side of it the bare skin of his shoulders is visible, as are the slimly defined muscles in the arm raised to take the picture.

Underneath he writes: When you're here, you can run your hands through it, if you want.

Yuri pauses for a moment, blood surging in his face. But he remembers the taste of Otabek's mouth, and presses send.

Then he lies back with his arm flung firmly over his eyes and burns with embarrassment and arousal until his tablet chimes.

Otabek's written only:

Yes.



The routine Yuri prepares for the Grand Tournament in Nienschanz is exactly what he wants it to be. The story it's telling is the story of a seduction, but nothing like the kind of thing that Christophe would do. Subtle, sweet. Not a boast but an invitation.

Yuuri comes up to him after his final practice, fingers pressed over his lips. "I couldn't take my eyes off you, Yurio! That was incredible!"

Yuri loses the fight against his pleased smile. He never stops being amazed at the difference between this earnest man with the glasses and the messy hair and the weakness for deep-fried food, and the creature who taught himself ballisting from nothing. Who still does it with a kind of aching, iron-steady grace that none of them can emulate.

"It could be better," he says.

Yuuri grins and glances at Yakov. "It could always be better," he says, a terrible imitation of Yakov's growl, and then breaks into laughter.

Sometimes, in moments when he's caught unawares, Yuri understands exactly why Victor decided that he'd rather have Yuuri Katsuki than be King of Neva, and told his parents so.

Yuri is still very, very glad nobody decided to test that ultimatum.

"Yours certainly could, commoner," Yuri says with deliberate rudeness.

Still laughing, Yuuri wraps his arms around Yuri's shoulders and squeezes him before Yuri can escape. He's still taller than Yuri, and Victor is taller than both of them. Some things are too much to hope for.

Yuri's plan for the banquet after the tournament is also one of seduction, though this one is a lot more direct. It involves a perfunctory public appearance before dragging Otabek somewhere private and tearing to expensive shreds whatever masterpiece of monochrome tailoring Otabek chooses to wear this time. Yuri has been a ball of need for weeks; he's jerked off more times than he cares to count, thinking about Otabek's hands in his hair, Otabek's mouth on his dick. Yuri is finally going to experience some of the perks of being engaged, given that he can't go around merrily sleeping with anyone who's willing, like Mila used to when she was single--and besides, it turns out Yuri doesn't want anyone as much as he wants his fiancé. Which would be fine, except that his fiancé is on the other side of the star system.

Most of the time.

On the morning of the day the Almatuun delegation is due to arrive, Yuri braids the top half of his hair along his scalp in twin swirls that then drape down over the lower half, which he leaves loose. He has a carefully-chosen outfit ready to go, but he's also got too much nervous energy to burn off, so he throws on workout gear and goes for a run in the palace grounds before halting outside the training complex and putting himself through a punishing series of stretches. The morning air is cold in his lungs, reddening his fingertips and numbing his ears.

"Yuri!" comes a call.

Yuri looks up to see Yuuri half-jogging towards him, along with Phichit, who arrived three days ago so that Yuuri could take him on some sort of food tour of Nienschanz before the tournament begins. Makkachin is at their heels.

"Yuri." This is the first time Yuri has seen Phichit look serious. It doesn't suit his face at all.

"What is it?"

Yuuri says, "There's been a coup in Medeu."


From his correspondence with Otabek, Yuri was aware that Almatu is an unstable planet at the best of times: always a few states at war, a few factions competing uneasily in the shadow of the current monarchy. Regimes tend to change violently when they change at all.

Yuri knew this, he just didn't know it. Not until now.

He refreshes and refreshes his messages, teeth gritted, while Phichit tells him exactly why that's a futile endeavour. One of the first things the militia did was take over the communications centres and remotely disable the main satellites. News out of the capital is sparse and contradictory. The king's been taken prisoner, maybe the queen as well. There's no clear information about the rest of the royal family.

"If they had enough warning, they'll have gone into hiding," Phichit says.

"And if not?" Yuri demands. He wants to fling himself at the worst case scenario like a bed of pins, hoping it will puncture him and let this awful, churning panic seep away.

Phichit reaches out a comforting hand; Yuri jerks away from it. Phichit says, "I'm going to see how much more I can find out," casts a final look at Yuuri, and leaves the room.

Yuuri says quietly, "I'm sorry. I know I can't help, but…can I help?"

Yuri says, "You can go and get Victor."

What Yuri really wants to do is demand to see his aunt and uncle, but they'll be getting their own briefing, and he already knows what they'd say. No rash actions. Yuri is still high enough in the succession that he can't be allowed to run off into an active war zone. What if he got captured? Taken hostage? Queen Inessa would say sternly, Think of your own principality, Yuri, and that would be the end of it.

At age sixteen, Yuri swallowed his resentment and did what was best for the Planetary Principality of Neva, for his family, for the right to keep doing the thing he loved best in the universe.

They're the ones who grafted Otabek into his life in the first place. They'll just have to deal with what Yuri is prepared to do to keep him there.

Now, at almost nineteen, Yuri goes to his rooms to throw a few things into a bag, and then goes to find his cousin Victor.

Yuuri is already there, the two of them sitting with heads bent over Yuuri's tablet.

"You snuck offplanet," Yuri says. "When you were running off to coach this one. And I know the two of you have done it since."

"You snuck offplanet to follow me," Victor starts, but Yuri cuts in with, "No, Phichit took me," which is all the explanation needed. Nobody sneaks like Phichit.

"You want to go to Medeu," Yuuri says.

"Yuri." Victor's eyes are wide and serious. "It's dangerous. Not to mention you'll miss the tournament."

"Fuck the Grand Tournament," Yuri snarls. "I'm going to find my fiancé. You can help me or not help me, I'm going anyway."

Victor says, "Come on, be serious," and Yuri almost laughs in his face. "You've got no experience with this sort of thing. It's a huge city, and if Otabek got out early enough, it's the whole planet. Do you even have a plan? Any idea of where to go?"

"Yes," Yuri says.

Yuri looks at Yuuri, his most likely source of support, but Victor's the one who sets his shoulders and says, "Then you'll need to take some guards. At least two--don't argue, Yurio. You can't do this by yourself. Actually, I should come with you."

"You should not," says Yuuri. "Victor! If we all go missing at once, it'll be obvious. We'll say that Yuri's unwell. Maybe dusk-fever? It's contagious enough to explain why nobody can see him."

Victor throws his hands up, dramatic. "Fine! We'll stay. Do you think--" with an eyebrow raised at Yuuri, who nods and says, "Sasha, yes, and Kiril. They won't run to Sofia until afterwards."

Yuri waits until Victor has disappeared to charm or bully the Royal Guard into playing escort in the aftermath of a foreign coup without notifying Their Majesties about it. Then he pulls a large pair of scissors out of his bag and holds them out in Yuuri's direction.

Yuuri's eyes widen. "Yuri?"

"It's too distinctive. Can you--Victor would just make a big deal of it. Please."

Yuuri doesn't say anything. He takes the scissors and nods.

Yuri has never been so glad for his cousin's kind, anxious husband and his easy understanding, his core of solid iron. Yuuri doesn't ask if he's sure or if he's ready, both of which would have an answer of no. He just grabs Yuri's hair and twists it gently into a rope, sets the scissors to the nape of Yuri's neck, and cuts.


The town of Salbyk is larger than Yuri's hand, but not by much. It's a huddle of buildings in the snow, with paths barely a single person wide. There are yellow lights in the windows and honest-to-God smoke coming out of chimneys, which Yuri thought was something long ago abandoned to history and stories. It has the feel of a place secure in the fact that a regime change in the city won't alter the day-to-day lives of its inhabitants to a significant degree.

Yuri knocks on doors and spins the best story he can, asking about a cabin nearby, something tucked away in the woods. He has on his side a decent version of the Almatuun accent, an outfit consisting of warm, bulky, shapeless clothes, and the fact that nobody in their right mind would expect to see the Archduke Plisetsky of Neva here.

After nine houses, he rejoins the guards in the shadow of a tiny hunched building that might be a temple or church. His boots are leaking, his toes already wet and cold.

"Your Grace?" says Kiril softly.

Victor's guard Sasha looks like what he is, which is someone who knows fifteen ways to kill a man; Kiril looks like a librarian, and is probably even deadlier. Yuri is already planning to steal Kiril for his own detail at the first opportunity.

"I've got it," Yuri says. "Past the last fence we take the path north, left at the fork, keep going."

"For how long?" Sasha is frowning at Yuri's hands; Yuri stops rubbing them together, and makes fists by his side instead.

"Until we get there," Yuri says.

It takes nearly forty minutes. The cabin is larger than Yuri expected, closed-up and dark, the doors and windows all locked. But Sasha sweeps a beam of light over the area and Yuri can see the pattern of flyer-wake in the snow.

He bashes his fists on the front door, hearing the thump of it echo back from the white-blanket world behind him. "Otabek," he shouts. "You'd better be inside, and you'd better open the fucking door. If I had to come to this speck of dust town on your stupid planet and you're not here, I'm going to hunt you to the end of the fucking galaxy so I can throw our betrothal contract in your face."

Nothing happens for a long time.

"We could try breaking in the back door, Your Grace," says Sasha.

Yuri takes a deep breath, glad for once that he's had so much practice transmuting other emotions into anger. His eyes prickle. He gives another painful thump on the door.

"Fuck," he snarls.

A sudden flare of light fills the lower level of the cabin. There's the beep of a biolock, which sounds very out of place, and then a tall girl who looks about sixteen opens the door. She has Otabek's straight dark brows and a glare on her like a laser cannon.

"Let him in, Anara," says a voice from inside. Yuri's heart collapses and expands all at once.

"Beka," the girl protests, but Yuri's already pushing her aside and stepping into the cabin. Straightening up from a crouch in front of a small boy, who Yuri recognises from pictures as Crown Prince Kanat, is Otabek. He looks pale and startled.

"Yuri," Otabek says.

Yuri had the words all lined up. This is a rescue. Maybe with a bit of an ironic twist to it, or a clever quirk of his brows.

But there's blood on Otabek's shirt and on his cheek, a piece of cloth tied tight around one of his arms, and Yuri's never seen him look like this, with emotions crossing his face one after another like wirelight projections.

Yuri strides across the cabin, pauses only for long enough to be sure that he's not going to grab Otabek somewhere that will cause more bleeding, and kisses him.

It's ungainly, and Yuri is never ungainly. He feels hot and close to tears with relief and directionless fury; all of his smooth plans go up in the flame of it, leaving only the need to have Otabek close, to taste him, to feel the hardness of his teeth and the softness of his lips, for him to be alive and breathing and here.

"God," he says, "fucking God," and buries his face in Otabek's neck, waiting for it to burn out.

Otabek's arm is around his waist and his other hand is at the back of Yuri's head, holding him close, not even flinching at the press of Yuri's cold face against his warm skin. Then he tugs, gently, until Yuri lifts his face to look at him.

"Yuri," Otabek says. "What happened to your hair?"

"I don't even want to think about it," Yuri says. His hair is short and choppy around his jaw. He kisses Otabek again. "Right. You're coming with me."

"Excuse me," says Anara, with an admirable amount of huffiness, but Yuri wasn't talking to her.

"You're coming home with me and I am finally getting laid, and then we're getting married because I'm officially over this stupid fucking long engagement, no matter how politically convenient it is. And after that we can come back here and retake your capital, if you like."

"I don't think you've got the authority to declare war," says Anara.

Otabek is looking at Yuri strangely. Maybe he didn't hear the important part of that.

"Marry me," Yuri demands.

Otabek's face transforms with his smile.

"Yes," Otabek says.


Yuri flicks back and forth on his tablet between news sites and messages from Phichit and Christophe. There's nothing new. The king of Almatu is still imprisoned in his own capital, but Queen Inzhu escaped in time, and found her way offplanet. She's in Ticino now and should be arriving in Nienschanz tomorrow, along with Chris and his husband, to be reunited with her son and her siblings.

Otabek walks back into the bedroom with a towel around his waist and a bottle of juice in his hand.

"I had to go for a walk to find this," he says. "How many embedded reporters does this palace have?"

"Seven. And nobody will care," Yuri says. "Victor announced that they've chosen baby names, yesterday, everyone's still obsessed with that."

Otabek takes a long drink of the juice and then recaps the bottle and tosses it to Yuri. He removes the towel before climbing back into bed, Yuri is pleased to see.

"I can't believe Victor is going to have kids soon."

Yuri says, flat, "I am completely fucking unsurprised."

Victor, who's never done anything halfway in his life, actually wanted to go for triplets; Yuuri spent some time chatting with his friend Yuuko, came away looking haunted, and firmly vetoed that idea. Two was the compromise.

There's still months and months to wait before two bundles of lab-cultured cells grow themselves into a prince and princess, but the tabloids went fucking nuts when it was announced, and nobody cared at all when the Archduke Plisetsky--soon to be comfortably two spots further down the line of succession--turned nineteen. Victor was far too distracted wandering endlessly past the gravidity room, beaming at the twinned heartbeats on the pod monitor, to throw any surprise parties. Yuri had a quiet morning at training and did two perfect quad flips in a row, spent the afternoon riding in the winery region with Otabek, and told the kitchens to make pirozhki for dinner. And after dinner Otabek held him down on the bed and sucked him off with such slow, maddening thoroughness that Yuri accidentally kicked his fiancé in the ribs--twice--and then fell apart, panting and disjointed and whited out with pleasure.

It was a good day.

Today's been a good day too, and Yuri is not at all resigned to the best parts of it being behind them. The ends of Otabek's hair are beaded with water, as though he tried to keep his head out of the spray and was not entirely successful.

Yuri takes another mouthful of the juice before setting the bottle aside. It's some kind of mix. He can taste apples.

"I'm going to try harder to keep up with Katsuki when we go running," he says. "I'm going to beat him. You can build stamina."

"Your stamina is fine."

Yuri rolls onto his elbow and puts a considering hand on Otabek's bare knee. "That's not the point. It could be better."

"I'm not complaining," Otabek says. "But three weeks ago we had kissed exactly three times, and now I think there have been more orgasms in this room than in a full year of my life. Has anyone ever explained exponentials to you?"

"I don't think my maths tutors had sex in mind."

"They are not sustainable," Otabek says. "Is my point."

"I wonder if we've set a record?" Yuri says, pleased at the thought. Then he remembers that the universe contains Victor and Yuuri, and also Christophe, and nods with annoyed agreement when Otabek says, "I doubt it."

"Are you saying you think we should have taken things more slowly?" Yuri asks.

Otabek gives a small smile. "No."

"Good. That's a stupid fucking idea. We've been engaged for three years," Yuri says, "how much more slowly do you want?"

"I see," says Otabek. Weirdly, Yuri is still more confident about when he's being gently mocked in Otabek's messages than when Otabek is speaking aloud, but he can hear it right now. "All of this is making up for lost time."

Yuri sits up and leans over to press a kiss, long and filthy and apple-scented, to Otabek's mouth. Otabek doesn't moan, exactly, but there's a hitch in his breath that's almost a vocalisation, and Yuri is already addicted to it.

Yuri says, "I should have just jumped you the day we met in person."

Otabek presses a finger to the centre of Yuri's chest, where a medal might lie. "Three years," he says.

Yuri waits. Otabek's mouth is half-open, like he's not finished with that sentence, but nothing else comes out of it.

"What?"

Otabek's throat moves. His eyes are soft and thoughtful when he looks at Yuri. He says, "I think my sister decided to arrange my betrothal after I came back from the Grand Tournament that year, actually talking about someone I'd met. She told Kanysh's agent to hold out for the Nevans to suggest you. She didn't ask me, but she thought you were--something I wanted."

Yuri says, curious, "Was I?"

Otabek goes a slow, dull red.

"Fuck," Yuri says, and attacks.


"How many does that make?" Yuri asks later, collapsing into the pillow. He's sweaty, out of breath, and triumphant.

"I'm not actually keeping a tally," Otabek says.

"I might start one," Yuri says. "And then print it out, screw it into a ball and shove it up Chris's ass."

Otabek snorts a laugh and buries his hand in Yuri's hair, which--as Yuri suspected--feels incredible, like the first slide of aching muscles into warm water. Yuri is going to lock Otabek up and never let him do anything else. His fingers on Yuri's scalp are a miracle; Yuri arches into it, shameless, and Otabek increases the pressure.

"I can't believe I have to grow it out again," Yuri says. "Do you know how long that took?"

"You don't have to."

"Shut up. Of--oh, fuck, keep doing that--of course I'm going to."

Otabek says--firmly, as if he thinks Yuri might not believe him--"You are beautiful. Either way."

Yuri feels his face heat. He still has the urge to strike out, when he feels like this. He has to hold very still while he gets it under control; while he's motionless, Otabek smiles, seemingly pleased with Yuri's pink-faced silence, and trails his fingers down Yuri's neck, then shifts down in the bed to kiss Yuri's stomach with an open mouth.

Now it's Yuri's turn to slide his fingers along Otabek's scalp, lingering with fascinated pleasure at the transition from the heavy sweep of hair to the prickly-soft texture of the buzzed part. Yuri teases at it with his fingernails and closes his eyes, tight, against the feeling that Otabek has opened the skin of his chest like a book and found what's burning there beneath.

Otabek's hand goes lower, stroking lightly over Yuri's soft cock; not with enough force to be uncomfortable, really, but Yuri winces anyway at the sensation.

"That's, um. Optimistic of you."

Otabek smiles, kisses Yuri's navel again, then pulls away. Yuri rolls onto his stomach and rests his cheek on his folded arms.

"I want you," Otabek says. "I've wanted you for so long."

Yuri doesn't know what to say to that either. Otabek's voice is somehow all the more devastating for how simply he says these things: like laws of the universe, essential truths. Warmth spills through Yuri--nothing as urgent as desire, but still a feeling he'd like to chase.

"I didn't know," he says. "I mean, I thought, but I didn't--"

"I didn't think I was hiding it."

"Fuck off," Yuri says, incredulous. "You danced with me like the world would end if our bodies got closer than a foot apart. Then you kissed me, and only because I kind of--made you do it, first. And then you ran off to your own planet without talking about it."

"I didn't know you wanted me until you kissed me on Vilmarie. And the number of times you complained about Victor and Yuuri and public displays…" Otabek shrugs. "That's something we agree on, I think. An engagement is political. It happens in public. Real things, between people, happen in private. Emotions happen in private. That's how I was raised."

"Some kinds of emotions, anyway," Yuri says. He's very comfortable, draped over the pillow. Otabek's hand is now making slow, flat circles on his shoulders, over his spine. He lets his eyes drift half-closed to enjoy it.

His eyes snap open again when he hears the sound of a tablet camera.

"What are you doing?"

Otabek, with a curl to his mouth that hovers between abashed and entranced, holds the tablet where Yuri can see. Yuri looks at the photo: at the deep pink marks on his lower back, linear and unmistakeable. He didn't feel a thing at the time. The only thing he feels now, as lingering evidence that fifteen minutes ago he was riding Otabek into the bed, is a deeper and more intimate ache.

"My skin's always done that," he says with a tiny shrug. "It'll fade in a few hours. When I was first learning to ballist, my wrists and ankles looked like I'd been tied up, from all the places where I'd scraped against the rings."

A pause.

"What?" Yuri says.

Otabek says, "Tied up?"

Yuri rolls his eyes through his blush.

Otabek runs his fingers over the marks. Yuri feels nothing but warmth, sauntering on the edge of pain but not close to crossing it. Yuri might not do anything as stupid as scraping the skin off his feet, these days, but he knows when to push his body and how to ignore it. Which pains mean damage and which don't.

He looks again at the photo. The floral welt of his own skin. He exhales unsteadily.

"Delete it."

Otabek looks at his tablet, then at Yuri. His expression doesn't change.

Yuri flushes and bites out, "You want to see it again, you can see the real thing."

Otabek deletes the picture with purposeful jabs, and sets the tablet aside. He draws Yuri close and sucks over his collarbone, long and leisurely and hard. Yuri makes a soft sound, the sudden stab of pleasure turning him dizzy, and jerks against Otabek's hip. The mark left when Otabek pulls away is like a dark planet, a dust cloud, red and purple and fuzzy at the edges.

"Hm," Otabek says. He presses down on the mark once, hard, with his finger.

Yuri's skin stretches over bone there with no flesh in between, and Yuri can still feel the pressure for a few long heartbeats when Otabek has lifted his finger away. It feels like an unlocking, as though Otabek's fingerprint gives him access to strange pathways of command, making Yuri's body attuned to his even as it softens into rest.

They lie on their sides facing one another, after that, one of Yuri's feet tucked between Otabek's calves. Yuri's hair falls into his face, the ends of it tickling his cheeks and neck, unfamiliar. He pushes it out of his eyes in order to see more clearly the things that are close: the flecks in Otabek's eyes, both gold and bronze. The slight swollen glory of Otabek's mouth. A scar, more a change in texture than in colour, which wraps in an uneven crescent around Otabek's bicep.

Yuri reaches out and his fingers hover over the scar, questioning. He waits for Otabek's nod before he touches it.

"What was this?"

"It was nothing. The ambush."

Yuri narrows his eyes. "One of your scrapes."

"Yes."

Yuri memorises the length and the shape of the scar with his fingertips. He once saw Yuuri map out every ring in a sphere with his eyes closed, and he understands that urge. To know something that well and therefore own it completely.

Tomorrow the celebrant will tell them they can kiss, and Otabek will deliver exactly the right amount of pressure and length for both propriety and public opinion, and nobody will bend anyone backwards or yank on anyone's tie. But Yuri will feel the throb of the mark on his collarbone, the phantom lines of Otabek's fingernails on his back, and he'll know. They'll know.

Mila told him, years ago, that their job was to be politically useful. Yuri knows by now how to be a champion, an ornament, a collection of accomplishments. He will always be a ballister; he will always want to win. Otabek makes him want to be something more, as well.

"After tomorrow," he says. "After. You want to retake Medeu."

Otabek nods. "Inzhu would do it single-handedly, if she had to. You'll like her, Yuri. And she'll like you."

Yuri takes a breath and says, "I'm coming with you."

He waits for the objection, and none comes. He spills his follow-up into Otabek's silence anyway.

"I was serious. What I said in the cabin. The alliance holds, after tomorrow it'll be cemented, and I had to sit through every fucking word of that betrothal contract. Neva has to come to your family's aid. And I know ballisting isn't the same as war--"

"The way you do it," Otabek says, "it comes close. The look in your eyes. Like you'd lead armies, if you could, and annihilate anything in your way."

Yuri's breath stops and hums, ridiculously pleased, in his throat. He runs his thumb over the seam of Otabek's mouth and catches it in an invisible divot, a dimple that he doesn't want anyone else to see.

"But no," Otabek adds. "Ballisting isn't the same as war."

Yuri says, "Then teach me," and holds his gaze.

Otabek shifts his upper body, freeing both of his arms, and reaches out. And then Otabek is kissing Yuri, that soft and deadly serious kiss with his hands on Yuri's cheeks. It's the only vow that Yuri needs. Fuck the ceremony. They should sign the paperwork and be damned to the rest of it.

"Yuri," Otabek says, drawing back. His eyes are hot and dark, adoring. "I--"

"No," says Yuri. "If we turn into Victor and Katsuki, I will kill you and then myself. I will join forces with your enemies. I will leave you and marry JJ."

Otabek nods and kisses Yuri again, rolling onto him, pressing Yuri down into the bed and leaving light but incessant kisses everywhere: eyelids and forehead and neck and lips. Fire follows the touch of his mouth, and Yuri is pink and helpless by the time he's done. Otabek moves his lips in silent words against Yuri's sternum, then lifts his head to pin Yuri with his gaze. He looks, in his calm way, smug.

"Fuck you, that's cheating," Yuri says weakly.

"Sometimes, you have to cheat a little," Otabek says, "to get what you want."