Yuri stares at Otabek over coffee the morning after the Worlds gala at age twenty-two, unable to quite understand the words “I'm retiring” even though Otabek said them in Russian, heart beating loudly in his ears like he's about to start skating a program.
“No, you're not,” he finally says, which is probably a mistake, but is better than “Fuck you.” People who think Yuri says everything he's thinking clearly don't know him very well.
Otabek, after seven years of friendship, knows him well enough to know what he isn't saying, which is why he sits there in silence for a few moments before finally saying, in the same patient tone as before, “I'm retiring.”
“That's stupid,” says Yuri, and he knows it's unkind, but he can't temper it, just comes out with something worse instead. “You're only twenty-five. Viktor was almost twenty-nine.”
“I'm not Viktor.” Every time Yuri makes Otabek say those words (and it's been three now) he sounds frosty, as close as he ever gets to being mad at Yuri. “And I'm tired. I never quite recovered from that break last season, and I've done as well as I'm ever going to do. Especially with you competing.”
“What, you want me to lose?”
There's a long enough silence for Yuri to think of all the ways that was insulting, all the ways he's fucking this conversation up. “I'm three years older than you,” Otabek finally says. “You always knew that I'd retire before you.”
Somehow, stupidly, Yuri's never thought about Otabek retiring at all. He's thought about the yawning chasm of his own future, but never about Otabek leaving the sport even though he's one of the rare skaters who has a life outside it. Yuri's going to go out in a blaze of glory long after his prime, because he can't stand the thought of leaving anything left undone, but Otabek … Otabek, it seems, has an exit plan. “Why didn't you tell me before this?”
“I wanted it to not be true. But I fell on a triple toe loop and barely recovered, and I won't let the world watch me get worse.” He pauses. “I've been preparing for most of the season. In case. But I knew you'd hate it, knowing all that time.”
Yuri thinks about living these past few months counting down the competitions he had left with Otabek, wondering what comes next, and he hates it both ways, but he can't blame Otabek for keeping it from him either. “I'm never going to forgive you for retiring before JJ,” he says, half serious.
“It's not like you'll never see me again.”
“But I won't get to skate with you.”
“Not in competitions, no.”
Yuri never knows what he's feeling until he's too late to control the consequences. He doesn't know he's angry until he's already snapped, doesn't know he's afraid until it chokes his air off. And now, when he's suddenly learning that Otabek is going to be less a part of his life, he's learning something else too. He's in love with Otabek, and he has a horrible feeling that it's something he should have known for a while. “How do you … feel about it?”
Otabek raises his eyebrows. “Are you okay?”
He has to turn the conversation around, because he can't talk about this now. Not when Otabek is leaving, not when the knowledge and the thought of retirement already have him on edge. “No, you're leaving me alone with JJ and all these children and also apparently I'm a shitty friend.”
“I didn't tell you because I didn't want you to start treating this season like it's different. I wanted it the same.”
Yuri knows he loves Otabek because he can see, now, how nervous Otabek is, and instead of pushing like he always fucking does with everyone else, he backs off. “That's done now. Things are going to change.”
“I know,” says Otabek, and goes back to drinking his coffee and waiting for Yuri to provide the conversation.
That's harder than usual, with so much on his mind, but Otabek doesn't seem to mind the awkward silences.
He always invites Otabek, but this is the first time he's come. Yuri meets him at the train station two weeks into his visit already feeling unsettled, because when he said he was going to pick him up, Minami grinned at him and Viktor and Yuuri smiled in a way that made his stomach drop, more at each other than at him. Shit, has he always been obvious? How can he be obvious when he didn't know himself?
It makes him wonder how he acts that makes it so obvious, and makes him self-conscious when he sees Otabek walking off the train looking like he always does, like he hasn't been traveling for a day. He greets him with a hug anyway, but he knows there's something off.
Otabek knows too, because halfway back to the inn, he stops walking. “Are you always this wound up when you're on vacation?”
“I just want you to like it here,” he says, which is at least true.
“I'll like it here if it doesn't look like you hate it. Has Viktor done something?”
What hasn't Viktor done, over the years? They've always been too much alike and too different, and Yuri's at least smart enough that he's never said yes to one of Viktor's offers to coach him and let Yakov retire. “He's talking about making me and Minami skate the same program and giving it to whichever one of us is better.”
Otabek looks mildly horrified, which mostly means he frowns a little and starts walking again. “This is why I never come for training camp with you.”
“It's not training camp, it's vacation.”
“That's worse.” Yuri can't dispute that. He knows that in a few years he has a reckoning coming, and Otabek's retirement only reminds him of that more sharply. The physical doesn't matter so much—his joints already ache when they shouldn't—but someday he's going to have to look off the ice and find something there. Maybe he should learn to DJ. “We'll sit on a beach sometime when I'm here.”
Yuri wrinkles his nose. “A beach? Do you even like beaches?”
Otabek shrugs. “I don't know. We'll have to see.”
Instead, he sits with a book in the stands while Yuri practices, and then listens as Yuri ruthlessly critiques Minami, himself, and anyone else good enough to bother critiquing before he skates out again.
He never gives advice, even when people ask for it, which they do—Minami asks him about a jump entry, Viktor and Yuuri both prod him a little, but he always shrugs, shakes his head, goes back to his book.
“Why keep going to the rink if you're just going to sit there and watch?” Yuri asks after a few days of this. “You could stay at the onsen, or you could come out and skate with us, or offer some advice. Three Worlds silvers and a hell of a lot of 4C golds qualifies you for that.”
Otabek shrugs. “I don't want to coach. And I don't want to skate with people who are preparing for competition, I'm not ready to yet.”
“So why do you come?”
Otabek puts his hands in his pockets, shrugs again. “Why do you think?”
That silences Yuri, and he starts wondering a few things, but he doesn't have the courage to say them. If Otabek isn't ready to skate with competitive skaters again, he's probably not ready to commit to a competitive skater either. If that's even something he wants.
And Yuri doesn't want to retire, doesn't know how to retire, wonders if sometimes his heart is going to stop beating the last time he steps off competition ice, but for the first time, he wonders if maybe sometime he'll want to.
Viktor frowns at him. “There was a press conference, some statements, conversations with Yakov and Yuuri, that kind of thing. You aren't thinking of it, are you?”
“No. Not for a long time. And that's not what I mean and you know it.” Viktor hums unhelpfully, and Yuri tries to marshal his thoughts together. “You didn't have anything off the ice. Before you met Yuuri, did you think about retiring?”
“I knew I'd have to. My body was giving out on me. But it scared me. And it's not the same for you. You have us, here. And you have Otabek.”
Yuri likes Almaty. Could he stay there forever? Find something to do off the ice like Otabek, only go to a rink to skate a few old programs, relive his glory days? “I still don't know how to do it.”
“Well, you don't have to do it yet. You don't have to do it until you know how to do it, actually.”
“You think you're so smart,” says Yuri, and storms off to the kitchen to help Otabek chop things for dinner. Chopping things, he's discovered, is the only satisfying part of making dinner.
Otabek raises his eyebrows when he gets there, a silent question that means he overheard at least a few words of that, and Yuri just shrugs. He can't talk about it yet. Even if Otabek loves him too, it's not that easy, especially now that they're not guaranteed at least a few days a year together.
Like always, Otabek lets him decide, goes back to helping Hiroko cook and pushes over a few vegetables for Yuri to chop.
Yuri groans, because Yuuri's the last person he wants to talk to about this. Yuuri would have retired probably fourteen separate times if it weren't for the efforts of Yuri, and Viktor, and Phichit, and at least ten other people. “Viktor can't keep a secret.”
“Everyone retires for different reasons. Usually it's because our bodies give out. Or because we're out of inspiration. Or because we're tired of never being the best. And eventually, you'll have a reason.”
“What do I do then?”
Skaters become coaches, choreographers, officials, commentators, a hundred other things. Yuri is suited for none of it, and everyone he knows knows it, including Yuuri. “You could try Viktor's method and follow Otabek home and stay until something occurs to you,” he finally says, because sometimes he's not terrible.
Though, on reflection, that's terrible advice in different ways. “Does everyone know?” Humiliating, if so, but he suspects it's true.
“I'm not sure Otabek does,” Yuuri offers, but that's no help. Otabek is the one person Yuri always wants to know his feelings, even when they're embarrassing.
“Either way, I'm not going to start coaching him. It's not like you and Viktor.”
“I know. But maybe he'd help you figure out what you want.”
He wants Otabek. That's a foundation to start from, but it can't be the only thing he knows. Retirement is years away, but Otabek is only three years older, and skaters he's known his whole career are retiring. He can't be left with a broken leg and no prospects in five years, so he needs to start thinking now. And maybe that thinking needs to involve Otabek, if he can just bring himself to talk about it.
When he's finished trying not to be a sore loser, Yuri leaves Ice Castle Hasetsu behind and walks down to the beach, where it's cloudy enough that he doesn't have to worry too much about sunscreen.
Otabek finds him within fifteen minutes, but Yuri wouldn't have expected anything different. He just waits for Otabek to sit down next to him and for once decides to see what Otabek has to say, if he'll speak first. “You're tying yourself up in knots over something,” he finally says. “But I can't tell if you were before I got here, or if it has to do with me.”
“Both,” Yuri says after a few seconds of weighing his options.
There's a long silence, or maybe it just feels long, a few waves crashing on the shore. “Viktor and Yuuri—”
“Why can't they keep their damn mouths shut? What did they say to you?”
“That you're worrying about retirement. Are you?”
“Partly. It's not happening yet, but you made me think about it.”
A few more waves reach the shore. “What, then?”
Yuri closes his eyes. “I love you. And I think maybe you love me, but you just retired. You don't want to deal with a competitive skater's schedule. And I can't train in Almaty, and we won't even see each other at competitions anymore, and I've got the shittiest timing. You always know what I'm feeling. You couldn't have told me before?”
To his surprise, Otabek laughs, and Yuri immediately opens his eyes, mouth open and ready to tell Otabek just what he thinks of his insensitive reaction, but Otabek is smiling at him, the wide one that Yuri sees so rarely. “Yura, really? You think you'll tell me that and we'll wait around unhappy for five years because I'm too selfish to want to travel a little?”
“Excuse you, ten.”
“Of course, ten,” Otabek says, very seriously, but with that smile still tugging on his mouth. “And of course I wasn't going to tell you that you love me. I'm your friend, not psychic. I hoped, but I didn't know.”
“I'm not Viktor. I'm not going to drop skating.”
“You think I don't know that? The way I see it … St. Petersburg has more recording studios than Almaty. And I wouldn't want to leave home forever, I have plans for it, but I could travel there often, and maybe in ten years when you do retire, you'd consider it.”
That seems dizzyingly far in the future, in the part of it that's still unknown and terrifying, but maybe something is known now. Maybe two things: a place, and a person. The person, Yuri decides, is the more important part. “So that's it? I tell you I love you and you're changing all your plans for me?”
Otabek raises an eyebrow. “Does that sound like me? These were already my plans. I just hadn't told you yet because you were already worried about me retiring. I thought I'd tell you about this trip, but you seemed strange, and I thought I might have to change my plans and stay in Almaty.”
Yuri punches him in the arm, because he can't quite process all of that, the way Otabek planned what Viktor did impulsively, because of course he did. He wouldn't be himself otherwise. “Idiot. If you'd told me that when you told me you were retiring I would have been a lot less worried.”
“Your own fault for thinking me having more free time would mean I'd see less of you.”
This time, Yuri kisses him, because it only now occurs to him that he can do that instead of yelling at Otabek when he wants him to shut up and because it seems like if they're talking about the future, about having one, they should at least kiss while they're doing it. Otabek leans into the kiss, lets Yuri lead the same way he lets him lead conversations. “You don't talk, you know?” he says when they pull apart. “You need to work on that. We could have been doing this for years, probably. I would have figured it out pretty fast if you'd told me. Or kissed me.”
Otabek shrugs, the same as always. “I don't regret it.” Any of it, he probably means. Retiring, planning to move to St. Petersburg, not telling Yuri that he loves him until after all of that. “But sure. I'll talk if you do.”
About feelings, probably, but also about the terrifying future, about what comes when he's done skating, probably in less than ten years no matter what they both say. But he has a person, now, and maybe a place. He can start from there.