When his flight arrives from Barcelona, his grandfather is the one to pick him up at Pulkovo.
"Always knew you could do it," he says, pulling Yuri tighter into his arms. To those that did not know him, Nikolai Plisetsky would appear a stern and serious man, but his eyes soften now and he wears a proud glow that Yuri knows that he is the source of.
This alone is worth everything.
"Of course," Yuri answers but it's not cutting and irreverent, the way he would say it if it was Viktor or Katsuki or someone else he was talking to. It's subdued, as if stating a quiet inevitability, an acceptance and conclusion hard-earned.
On the drive home, he looks out the car window at the houses, the trees and power-lines, the fresh coat of snow. He tips his head against the cool glass and closes his eyes.
The truth is that he did not in fact think that he could do it -- knew that he had to, that it was the only way he would live with himself, but those were two very different things.
At the end of his free skate, he had come apart at the seams a little, and it was just--everything. He couldn't name it.
It had felt like his life entire, in flashes, in a blur, alternating patches of dark and light and he had dropped to his knees.
After such rigorous discipline over each breath and inch of movement, he'd had absolutely no control over his body when he shook, sobbed openly on the ice, felt like he could have bled all over it in the moment and have been just fine because it had been over.
He had hated that it had been over. He had been so glad that it had been over. He had wanted to do it all over again. He had never wanted to do it again. He had wanted it to go on forever.
Within moments, of course, he had gathered himself and had been immaculate once again for the medal ceremony.
Still, it hadn't hit him. Not fully. Not then.
"Do you love it?"
Yuri has been asked this more times than he can remember, at various points by Yakov, Viktor, his other rinkmates, once and only once by Lilia, and even once by Katsuki.
Quite frankly, he's lost count because, quite frankly, it was irrelevant.
He'd had no shame in telling them as much.
He was good at it. More than good at it.
Gifted and naturally talented, they called him.
A prodigy, they called him.
The Next Nikiforov, they called him, and now it makes him gag to think that the comparison had made him almost starry-eyed once.
(He cuts himself some slack though. Viktor had been the brightest star, not just in the country but the world, a supernova impossible to miss, to tune out, no matter how tight you shut your eyes to block out the light. And back then, he hadn't even been trying.)
He didn't want to be the next anyone.
"Yurochka, you really must love the ice," his grandfather had said with great mirth once, when Yuri had been less than half his current age and still tripping more often than not but still, every time, getting back up.
Yuri remembers grumbling something about hating everything and skating being stupid, but when his grandfather had offered to take him home from the rink, he had refused.
He was a quick learner and, in no time, he could balance, spin, jump, soar.
Even when he had been too young to fully understand it, he'd thought: what kind of fool would throw away this kind of aptitude?
Not him surely. No, he would take it and make it his own.
After all, he prided himself in having Nikolai Plisetsky's blood in his veins and saw Nikolai Plisetsky's life before his eyes.
He knew better early on than to take anything for granted.
He would never admit this out loud and, half the time, he hates that he remembers every moment of it as well as he does, but the memory is still burned into his brain.
The first time he saw Viktor Nikiforov on the ice, the thought of surpassing him had far from taken root, and he could possibly have just settled for watching him indefinitely.
Four millimeters of steel versus the ice and infinite, effortless grace, the way the spotlight followed him, yellow then fuchsia, as he spun and bent and soared from one end of the rink to another.
It had been like watching water, fluid, seamless.
Yuri cannot ever forget it if he tried.
In his first week back, he holds off on reaching out to Otabek.
He isn't even consciously aware that he's doing it, biding his time, why and for what, he does not know.
Somewhere in between the exhibition gala and the banquet, they had finally exchanged numbers.
(The banquet this year had been fortunately uneventful although there were a lot of cameras, a lot of announcements and administrators and he almost wondered if they'd tightened the regulations and banned pole-dancing after the previous year's fiasco.
He'd spent most of it trying not to scream through his teeth as the fiftieth person harped about Viktor's return and was still recovering from the very literal as well as metaphorical headache induced by the gala earlier.
His own performance was well received but, like everyone, he hadn't seen the duet coming. That, added on top of Viktor's announcement to return, was honestly too much and he didn't know or want to know what to do with any of it or why it felt like it tugged him in seven separate directions so he chose the easy route and did nothing.
Katsuki not being a pathetic quitter was the unexpected silver lining.
He and Otabek had skipped out early and just rode in silence around the city for some time. After all the noise and the fervor, it was precisely the thing he had needed without being able to put it into words.
"Where do you want to go?" Otabek had asked, his voice endlessly warm. "Winner gets to pick."
Yuri's arms had tightened around his back. "Anywhere."
They'd settled for a park outside of the city, ended up sitting, stargazing, talking about a little bit of everything and nothing at all. When they got to talking about their hopes for Worlds, Yuri had said, low, "Next time, you're gonna be there beside me," not a question, not a request, no room for argument.
It had made Otabek laugh. "Or else, huh?"
Yuri had grinned in response, unrepentant. "Or else.")
(It hadn't hit him, not through the bike roaring its way through the streets of Barcelona, not through the rooftop or the teashop or their respective short and free programs.
It hadn't struck him after the banquet or even at the airport, when he had hugged Otabek, stiffly at first, and then not so much when he found himself curling tighter into his hold.
There had been a soft laugh by his ear and, "See you next time, Champion."
He'd knocked a fist against Otabek's shoulder, and even then, it had felt like a bit of an out of body experience, the whole wild fucking ride of a Grand Prix Series, like it had been happening to someone else, and he was just the fifth business, never mind the cameras, the newsprint, this boy or the gold.)
On the seventh day, he finally gives up:
Oh good, you're alive
you've been stalking my ig - you know i'm alive
You keep posting pictures of your cat
stalking my cat then
Okay so you got me
And so it goes on, not every day at first, but every other at least.
He learns a lot as well as a result, about Otabek and about himself.
He discovers that Otabek is fundamentally opposed to emojis outside the :) and (: range and yet, Yuri feels certain that he can perfectly envision the look on his face when he texts.
He discovers that Otabek has a gigantic family which celebrates his return for his first three weeks back nonstop regardless of his medal-less state and the thought of this warms Yuri more than a little. He also learns that Otabek takes his bike everywhere that he feasibly can, has a strange obsession with cafes that serve various kids of black teas, as well as has a strange obsession with Beethoven.
Yuri also discovers that, well, it's nice, having a semblance of a constant of sorts.
His phone gets a folder for pictures of Almaty and Yuri sends his own, some of his cat, some of daily nonsensical things: clouds from his window, latte art on his drink from a cafe, street graffiti and idiosyncratic statues and other nooks and crannies of Piter that he thinks Otabek would appreciate and may have missed out on or been too young to remember when he was last here as Yakov's student.
When training picks up pace again, they both have less and less free time on their hands. They're usually far too spent to do much more than crash when they get home, snatching the hours of sleep until the next early morning. Still, there are staccato threads in the in-between--quick hellos and how was your days and exhausteds and goodnights.
They call a few times here and there, and the first time is a bit stilted but once they start talking about constructing their upcoming routines for Worlds, it's as comfortable as ever. The three-hour time difference isn't the worst but Yuri feels guilty keeping Otabek awake and finds himself checking his phone first thing in the morning and last thing at night -- or well, even more so than he was doing before at any rate.
One day, almost out of the blue, he throws a dart at the universe and starts the phone conversation with:
"Do you love it?" And then adds in a rush, "Skating. The ice."
If Otabek is at all thrown off, his voice doesn't demonstrate it in the least. "Of course," he says, as if Yuri has asked a perfectly reasonable question of a professional, internationally renowned skater.
"What do you mean, 'of course'?"
"I mean the dictionary definition: yes, I do. A lot. But Yuri...why all of a sudden?"
"Look, I know this probably sounds dumb."
"No it doesn't. I don't know. I just figured, would I really be doing this to my body, to my life, if I didn't? I don't think i would."
"How did you know?"
Otabek pauses here at length. "It's hard to explain but I suppose I wanted to keep doing it against all odds. And there were a hell of a lot of odds against me."
Yuri sighs, collapses backwards on his bed from a sitting position. The odds were always a mess and it was always relative, but Yuri figures that in many ways he has lucked out over the years. His grandfather had saved the money but it had helped that he'd known Yakov personally as well through an old family friend. It had helped that the sport had a wealth of history here.
"I wasn't someone who was born to be a star," Otabek continues. "I wasn't naturally talented."
"Don't say that," and Yuri doesn't know why when he hears it, he himself can feel the physical pang of the wrongness of it.
"I'm serious," he laughs, self-deprecating. "I was no Viktor Nikiforov or JJ--"
"Beka!" Yuri cuts him off, outraged, thinking of the podium in Barcelona and fights the urge to hurl something across his room. "You're ten times--"
"No, listen--what I mean is that it wasn't easy. I hated it at times. It was frustrating and I screwed up over and over, but I wanted it so badly in spite of everything. Figured that's how I knew."
And Yuri supposes this is what sets them apart. Yuri has screwed up this or that at times, has needed others to help him because he's known he can only do so much alone, and has had the distinguished likes of Yakov and Lilia and yes, even good-for-nothing-Viktor in his life to step in and bail him out. Moreover, for him, the physicality had come easy--or easier than it had ought to. He has known this and though he hasn't care much for public humility, he cannot pretend he isn't who he is, where he is, because of everything he has on his side.
Ultimately, he hasn't been cornered in the same way that Otabek describes. He wonders if that had been the case, maybe he would have understood it better.
Even so, the thought terrifies him a little even as it makes him appreciate Otabek's dedication infinitely more.
Katsuki and Viktor continue to be as obnoxious as ever and, strangely enough, Viktor being back in Piter is something that's taking more getting used to than Katsuki's presence.
He's distracted for starters, out of shape, completely off his A-game and not taking any of his training as seriously as he should. Yuri thinks all this should only make it easier to forget that once, this man had been the reason Yuri had ever stepped on to the ice. But no.
It's an insult to everything including Yuri's memory of him.
Being his rink-mate again does certainly have training perks. Yuri gets pointers and instruction on the fly like he once used to but it's also a little unbearable in ways that has nothing to with his season away chasing Katsuki.
Or perhaps everything to do with it.
For someone who is still refusing to deal with his own blackhole of feelings about the sport, Yuri has never fully imagined a life outside skating.
Realistically, he knows it exists, and that it must. Surely, people have it. Even with the circle he's aware of, most are occupied with petty relationship drama here and there. Beyond this, he knows that Phichit volunteers extensively locally and fucking JJ has a band and also just got married. He knows that fucking Viktor is sooner or later going to get married and leave skating forever and this is not the difficult part. The difficult part is that he is going to do all of this and be fucking content with it.
Maybe it's the five Grand Prix golds that do it to you. It sure as hell can't be some drunk-ass boy sobbing all over your chest after tanking his own performance, Yuri wonders bitterly, even as he knows this full well to be the case, and hates the way it makes him feel and still, for the life of him, doesn't know why.
Logically, he knows that fortunately, he himself isn't stupidly in love with Viktor -- the thought of which alone is ew, gross, so there really shouldn't be a reason why this nags at him the way it does, why it has since that first fateful banquet, and why the gnawing got worse in Hasetsu and finally peaked after the Barcelona exhibition gala.
He doesn't realize that he has subconsciously let some of his bitterness slip to Otabek in another call until Otabek just says simply:
"You put him on a pedestal and now you're dealing with reality."
"Who?" Yuri snorts, suddenly and completely aware that Otabek has hit the nail on the head but continuing to reach for denial, "Viktor!?"
"Yes, Viktor. I mean he's Viktor Nikiforov. We all grew up watching him and wanting to be him."
"Or bang him, in some unfortunate cases," Yuri gags. "For the record, I did not want to be him."
"Well, you did name your cat after him."
"Shut up--that's not--"
Otabek laughs finally but it's not the least bit condescending, just warm like always. "I'm just saying that a part of you likely thought that he could do no wrong and just be everything -- rather the only thing -- you wanted him to be: an invincible skating legend. Except, turned out that he was just human. Just fallible and human and in love."
For a long time, it had been hard to think of Viktor as just anything but Yuri sighs into his receiver as Vitenka curls up on top of his stomach and Yuri scratches behind his ears, asking himself what was he even thinking and maybe it wasn't too late to change the cat's name.
"It's stupid," Yuri says, feeling sullen and petulant about everything in the world.
"Which part of it?" Otabek doesn't pick on him for any of it--which is stupid for different reasons--and just sounds a little amused.
"All of it. Being human. Being in love."
"I don't know, Yura," he says, sounding endlessly fond, and Yuri finds it a whole other level of stupid, the way his stomach twists at the sudden drop in Otabek's voice. "Doesn't sound all that terrible."
"Is that what you want as well?" Yuri asks, unthinking, feeling oddly protective of something he cannot place.
"Would it make you lose all respect for me if I said yes? I don't know. Maybe one day. I thought it was what a lot of people wanted."
"I just--never thought about it," Yuri admits, honest, weary. "It seems like so much fucking work."
He can hear Otabek's grin through his words when he says, "I hear it's supposedly worth it."
And Yuri cannot help but groan over-dramatically, "Don't listen to their lies, Beka! You're all the voice of reason I've got left in this mad world!"
Slowly and uncertainly, Yuri learns to tolerate this new Viktor whom he reasons he is now stuck with anyway so he may as well make lemonade or however that saying goes.
Katsuki is far less annoying than Viktor half the time anyway, which is a small blessing. He is also actually in top form and working his ass off so Yuri can at least take him more seriously and maintain some small amount of respect for that.
He's going through some pictures Otabek has sent him on his phone when Katsuki gasps behind his shoulder, leaving Yuri's thumb frozen on the screen featuring a particularly stunning shot of Tian Shan.
"That's beautiful! Where is it?"
Yuri has half a mind to tell him off for creeping over his shoulder but decides against it.
"Ski resort near Almaty," he says, noncommittal.
"Ah! Otabek then? He seems like a good friend."
This alone aggravates Yuri inexplicably but, then again, he has been in different variations of aggravated for unknown reasons for so long by now that he's sort of exhausted by the whole sentiment altogether.
"He is," Yuri says curtly, leaves it at that.
He hasn't actually talked about Otabek with either Katsuki or Viktor, or barely anyone really, outside brief mentions to his grandfather. He's brought up bits and pieces from the different skaters' programs at Barcelona with Yakov and Lilia but that didn't really say much. He's also bristled quietly through Mila swooning a little every time Yuri's phone buzzed, asking if it was "that hot Kazakh boy"?
He knows that their meeting in Barcelona was obnoxiously publicized all over every social media platform, and that the two of them hadn't made a secret of cheering each other on before their respective performances, or seeking each other out for company at the banquet when Giacometti and a few others had imbibed too much alcohol and gotten raucous.
Most of the Russian team had witnessed their embrace at the airport but airports were made for leaving and it hadn't been something wildly outrageous in a sea of people saying goodbyes, and no one had said anything. Part of him suspected that the collective silence may have been deliberate but he preferred to go on assuming no one thought much of any of it, would continue to keep it that way, keep it to himself and for himself, and not let the limelight and all the idiocy around him taint this one goddamned good thing he had going right now.
By the time Europeans roll around, Lilia has broken him in well and good, and together, they have crafted a relentless step sequence for his short program which is a wholly different beast than Agape. He has mastered most of the footwork, as grueling and expansive as it is, and he tries to decidedly not think of how this particular quad combo is finally going to be the thing that breaks his ankle and ends his career prematurely. His freeskate is slightly more gentle, less loaded with high complexity jumps and more decadent with respect to presentation.
(In the back of his mind, he still knows full well that it's only a matter of time until his body betrays him completely.
Already, it's starting to.
Still, he is who he is and not willing to relinquish anything without a fight to the bitter end.)
And so, as the days blur together in a string of practice and pain with intermittent sleepy texts on his phone, Team Russia heads to Europeans.
Yuri fatigues earlier than he'd expected but makes it on to the podium by the skin of his teeth.
Giacometti surprises everyone with gold and Viktor narrowly beats Yuri to silver.
On one hand, Yuri scowls through the entire video footage of the medal ceremony because honestly, he cannot believe this shit.
At the same time, another part of him feels freshly lit with a match and battle-ready.
Otabek congratulates him by text and he acknowledges it quickly before flying out of Ostrava and throws himself back into practice less than ten hours after the wheels land on the runway at Pulkovo, jet-lag be damned.
The Four Continents follow shortly after and Yuri can swear he is almost more nervous watching them than he has been during his own competition at the Europeans but, at the very least, it's a near thing.
Yuri has heard everything about Otabek's programs but this is his first time seeing them live, or as close to live as possible without being there in the flesh, which is a fact that he is still immensely bitter about.
He swears that he will die before he forgives Lilia for choosing this of all weeks in his entire fucking life to be the one where she schedules his training with one of her top-tier ex-ballerina friends who has choreographed for the likes of Plushenko.
("The choice is yours," she had told him mildly, not understanding that this was far worse than selling his soul.
It wasn't really a choice at all.
He had told himself that he would not give anyone a reason, that he would get through it without batting a lash, even if this was bordering on inhumane. Part of him wonders however if it was a test. He wouldn't put it past the hag.
He had told himself he would pointedly compartmentalize the part of him that was brutally jealous of Viktor who got to be there in person, cheering Katsuki on. He would pointedly compartmentalize everything, grit his teeth, and acquiesce.
Besides, he'd promised Otabek that he would bring his best to Worlds and, for that, this was necessary.)
While Otabek's short program had been on-point, Yuri is convinced that he is going to die of a heart attack waiting for Otabek's free skate. His grandfather had agreed to having lunch with him in front of the TV due to the time difference.
When it is finally his turn to go up, Yuri can't keep himself from grinning, can hardly sit still, and finds himself leaping to his feet at the end of it without realizing his body has moved out of its own accord.
Yuri's feet are banged up and bandaged beyond recognition and he can feel the burn from nailing all his quads in practice this morning all the way up his spine but forgets all of it in this moment.
"Your friend is talented," his grandfather says.
Yuri beams, breathless. "Isn't he?"
It still doesn't hit him.
Phichit, Katsuki and Otabek take the Four Continents at Gangneung, in that exact order. Yuri still feels that Otabek was robbed of gold with his performance being what it was but this is still a better outcome than Barcelona so he will take what he can get.
Otabek sends him a shot of his medal, acknowledging Yuri's congratulatory text an hour or so after the medal ceremony, probably once the reporters have cut him some slack.
Are we gonna fight over bronze at Worlds now?
i dont fight for less than gold, altin!
You're on, Plisetsky :)
The picture Otabek sends him is too much of a close-up that Yuri can't tell where it was taken although he's willing to bet on it being the locker room with Otabek being as private as he is. It doesn't feature his face, just a bit of his neck, some of the ribbon, the medal itself and his team jacket opened only to the point right below the bronze, his hand still on the zipper.
It makes no sense really -- because they've been talking all this time but haven't physically shared the same space since Barcelona, which simultaneously feels like yesterday and another lifetime ago -- that Yuri suddenly misses him so fiercely that it nearly knocks the wind out of him.
With less than a month to Worlds, he gets a text one Thursday morning:
KC 135. 20:40 Pulkovo - think you could come get me tomorrow?
To say that Yuri loses his shit would be a gross understatement. He's a whirlwind in his room, moving and tossing and shoving this and that everywhere, creating mostly an even bigger mess than before, until his grandfather stands by the doorway and asks, "What on earth?"
"He's coming!" Yuri says, in between throwing things into boxes. "Tomorrow!" And then taking them out again. "Everything is a mess!" And then throwing them back in. "I'll go get groceries." And then groaning, pulling at his own hair. "Can you make something? I'll help! I think he likes fish?"
"Yuri, calm down."
"Tomorrow! He's going to be here! In person! Tomorrow!!!!"
His grandfather shakes his head, his face tinged with amusement and sympathy. "I'll figure out the food. You can...work on this."
It takes him two and a half hours to make his room look less like a disaster zone and somewhat habitable and then he lays on the floor and absently scratches behind Vitenka's ears and tries to keep his nerves at bay.
He's a competitive athlete, for fuck's sake. Having a friend visit from overseas should be nothing in the face of a rink full of thousands of people expecting him to fail on a regular basis.
His sleep is all weird and uneven, fidgety in a way he hasn't been before competitions in some time.
He gets himself out of practice early the next morning after making half-assed excuses to Yakov. Fortunately, Lilia had left town to attend a family wedding this weekend.
Back at home, he helps his grandfather prepare the fish, and they make some vegetable piroshky, and a small batch of sweetened poppyseed ones for dessert.
Yuri makes it to the terminal early and hangs out with the hood of his jacket pulled low over his eyes, periodically checking his phone and the monitors for any delays or alerts.
When the screen overhead indicates the arrival of the Air Astana flight in question, he turns his attention back to the phone to even out his stupid racing heart, browses the ESPN page and flicks through half a dozen inquiring messages from Viktor, not paying much attention to the content beyond registering question marks and confused looking emojis.
Another message pops up:
At least let us know if you want to join?
He doesn't even check for context. He doesn't know and doesn't care. He would much gladly take spending as little time as possible with them as is but with Otabek as part of the equation, it isn't even up for debate.
It's here that a voice cuts him out of his thoughts with a simple, "Hey."
And Yuri's grabbing a fistful of jacket, black, leather. Idiot, he thinks. This isn't Kazakhstan. You're gonna freeze to death.
He becomes fully aware he's likely crushing Otabek with his arms around him a few moments into it, except Otabek doesn't seem to mind or complain a bit and returns the hug warmly.
"Thanks for the head notice," Yuri mumbles into his jacket, wry, using every excuse possible to breathe him in.
"Thought you'd appreciate the surprise. Thought wrong maybe?"
"Not wrong," Yuri says to him, almost forceful, and then tips his head up to get a proper look at him, finally, finally, finally, and he takes the sight of him in.
It hits him some minutes later that they're still holding on to one another in the middle of a crowded gate, and Yuri drags himself out of his daze and they head towards baggage claim and then towards the taxis. Yuri rambles throughout the ride back with Otabek's presence beside him, solid and grounding.
The dinner is fortunately a success with Otabek.
More importantly, Otabek is a huge success with his grandfather.
Objectively, Yuri thinks this makes sense.
They are two of his favourite people so, of course, he wants them to get along.
Initially, Yuri had reasoned with himself that he wouldn't bring Otabek to practice except Otabek is only here for two and a half days and Yuri really, really wants to show him his rink. He settles for taking him there before and after the rush of people.
They open the rink a little after dawn and Otabek visibly marvels at it.
"Maybe," says Yuri, almost unthinkingly, almost, "I can ask Yakov and Lilia if you can train a bit up here for the next season?"
Otabek chuckles. "We're competitors, Yuri."
"So? Viktor Nikiforov happens to be coaching and also generally fucking his competition. This would be nothing."
"And then what," Otabek grins, "we get matching rings too?"
Yuri feels his face grow hot. "Screw you," he says, turning away. "That's not--"
"I know, I know," Otabek laughs. It's a good sound, Yuri's favourite, really. His eyes crinkle at the corners. No phone or Skype calls ever did this justice. "Even if I did humour the thought, I'm hoping to spend a little more time in Almaty first. After that, who knows."
"Something to think about," Yuri still can't look him in the eye, "if you want. I'm not just messing around."
"I know you're not. It's a kind and tempting offer."
They both turn to the sound of the door opening and it's--Katsuki and Viktor.
Yuri wants to bang his head against the ice. Clearly, he hadn't come early enough.
"Otabek Altin!" says Katsuki.
Just as Viktor simultaneously bursts out with, "Wow! No wonder you didn't want to spend time with us."
"Shut up," Yuri hisses, now wishes he could bury himself somehow magically under the ice, as Viktor laughs and laughs.
Katsuki and Otabek make polite small talk and compliment one another once again on their Four Continents programs.
Just as Viktor starts to turn to Otabek and open his mouth, Yuri grabs Otabek by the wrist and preempts with, "And we're leaving!"
Mila texts Yuri later in the evening in all angry caps.
YOU BROUGHT OTABEK ALTIN TO THE RINK TODAY??????
glad to see you remembered 'hot kazakh boy' actually has a name
mila calm your shit
TO THE RINK
HOW LONG IS HE HERE
WHEN IS HE LEAVING
WHY WOULDN'T YOU TELL ME
A RE YOU IGNORING MEEEE????????
In the mean time, they hop on to the metro and Yuri takes him to parks and bridges, to town squares and cafes and takes a hundred or so pictures of him next to this or that and a decent number of semi-blurry selfies with the both of them because he's either laughing or fidgeting or otherwise unable to stay still through most of them with Otabek standing or sitting as close to him as he is.
There's a few generic scenery shots he uploads. Then there's one of Otabek next to the Lions Bridge that he adores and has to show the whole goddamned world.
(There's one that's his favourite, which he keeps for himself: Blue Bridge in the background, taken by Otabek, who's holding out the camera with both hands as his arms bracket around Yuri's frame.)
Later, long after the sun goes down, they make it back to the rink, which is predictably (fortunately) empty at this hour.
"I want to show you my freeskate," Yuri tells him. "You've seen it already on TV for Europeans but I've changed it a bit, upped the complexity for the components score. It was supposedly too easy before."
"Piece of cake, I bet," Otabek says dryly. "Let's see it then. It's been some time since I've seen you skate in person."
Yuri's grin widens. He's missed the feeling of Otabek's eyes on him as he skates in person, if he's being perfectly honest.
It's not much later that he realizes he's missed watching Otabek too, feels light and a little giddy when Otabek lands his final Salchow, showing off the tweaks he's made in his own free program.
They spend the rest of the evening talking about what else they can potentially up in their own programs and each other's, about programs from the past, ones they want to do in the future as they skate gentle laps around the rink.
They start off side by side but then at one point, Yuri takes him by both hands and pulls him along, backwards for Yuri, forwards for Otabek and they go in a long, slow circle around the rink. It occurs to Yuri, almost dangerously, that he could very easily entertain the thought of carrying on like this forever.
When they come to a halt, it's at the rink entrance, and more of a crash than anything. It wasn't entirely well-thought out because Yuri got distracted somewhere along the way enough to lose track of his surroundings, which is something he's only now wrapping his head around, checked against the rink wall. For a moment, they’re a vertical heap of laughter with Otabek close, so close, in his space. He taps the tip of Yuri's nose with a thumb.
"It's bright red like a tomato."
His fingers fan out, hovering less than an inch from Yuri's face. A slight shift of movement and they catch a few strands of Yuri's hair that slipped out from their pins earlier and now frame his face.
Yuri doesn't think before he turns towards the touch, practically leans into it, and Otabek's fingers brush his face, reach from cheekbone to jawbone.
Neither of them moves -- hardly even breathes -- and for the life of him, Yuri cannot take his eyes off of Otabek's mouth.
It hits him then and there, suddenly, all at once, like a fucking avalanche.
Yuri thinks he might drop to his knees, feel his legs give out like that time after his free skate in Barcelona except he's grabbing on tight to Otabek's shoulder and Otabek has an arm bracing himself against the wall at Yuri's back, which may as well be the only thing holding Yuri up.
His first thought is: Fuck.
What he says is: "I'm gonna kick your ass in Helsinki, Altin."
Otabek grins slow, with his stupid, perfect mouth, whispers close to Yuri’s lips in a way that Yuri can swear on his own burgeoning career is completely and agonizingly deliberate: "Bring it, Plisetsky," before he pushes off and away.
The next morning, as Otabek is leaving, Yuri feels inexplicably aggravated, but a small part of him is also almost relieved. He thinks he's starting to realize that the longer Otabek stays, the harder it's going to be to let him go. He isn't used to wanting someone around all the time. The flip side is that having him here is messing with every remaining bit of Yuri's rational thinking. Yes, it makes him want to skate his heart out, but also makes him want more than that.
What he hates most possibly is the fact that he is starting to see Viktor dumbass Nikoforov's life choices in something of a new light.
No, he's not about to fuck off to Almaty for a season and start coaching anyone or create a media circus because he has his self-respect to maintain and a long career ahead, thank you very much. But on the abysmal flip side is the fact that Otabek gives good hugs, holds on to him like no one has ever held on to him and he doesn't actually care for anyone else to hold him this way. He does this now before the security checkpoint and the gates, holds Yuri like he has never needed the gold or any tangible marker to feel validated (holds him like something worth holding on to forever).
"See you in Helsinki, Yura."
Yuri doesn't even have the gusto to keep up with their little haphazard game.
"Text me when you land."
And when Otabek's stupid leather jacket disappears behind the security gates, Yuri shuts his eyes tight and tries to breathe.
Right, he remembers, tries to clear his head.
With only weeks to go before Worlds, Yuri's birthday is a small, quiet affair at the rink and an an even smaller and quieter one at home after with his grandfather and him having dinner together.
Otabek had left him a present with explicit instructions to not open it before. It turned out to be a leopard print scarf for him with a matching collar for Vitekna.
His grandfather had chucked out loud when Yuri had shown him the set and made an offhand remark about the two cats in his home.
Viktor seeks him out away from the ice just days before they fly out to Helsinki.
"Yurio," he chirps, sitting next to Yuri, joining him in looking out at the water from Yelagin, "we're so proud of you, you know?"
"Despite fucking disgusting popular opinion," Yuri deadpans, "You're not actually my parent."
"And despite your personal opinion," Viktor's voice dips a few octaves, "we're on the same team."
"This isn't a team sport," Yuri snaps back.
"Same flag then." Viktor has always been good at curbing his exasperation but it bleeds out a little now. "Would you settle for brothers in arms?"
For better or worse, Yuri has no patience for any of it. "Get to the point."
"No matter what happens, just don't lose sight of--"
"Nope," Yuri stands up, cuts him off, snaps a picture of the lion statue beside him and sends it to Otabek. "I don't take advice from you."
"Yuri," he says, then shakes his head. "Sorry. I know you can more than handle it on your own."
"I couldn't stand you, you know?"
Viktor laughs, self-deprecating. "Well I did leave rather abruptly and wasn't a very good mentor. It was unfair and selfish. I can own that."
You're giving yourself too much credit, he wants to say but bites his tongue and holds it back. Yuri is sixteen and well past caring. Enough people in his life had left or died or otherwise disappeared. Logically, Viktor didn't hold a candle to half of it. The irrational part of him still holds on to the anger the way he holds on to the image of Viktor Nikiforov on the ice, an old spell in the back of his head, an old fire at the backs of his heels.
There's something about the way Viktor looks at him now, like he sees through all of it, which makes Yuri say, "I couldn't stand you because you were everything everyone wanted me to be." It's not the entire truth but the entire truth hasn't found its way to words yet so this will have to do.
"You're so much more than that," Viktor says without missing a beat. The lack of hesitation in it hits Yuri harder than it should.
It's easier to forget that while they are and will always be two very different people, Viktor has lived and breathed so much of this already, years and years of it. In a way, their public images are something like timelapsed funhouse-mirror versions of one another. He cannot stand the effortless intimacy with which Viktor approaches his own life, and the effortless empathy he has for Yuri's.
And yet, it is what it is and they are who they are.
While it feels like another era now ever since Katsuki appeared, Yuri remembers the Viktor from before, a soul sold to the ice, a sea of gold and loneliness. If you had cut him then, he would have bled nothing but the sport itself, had consisted so long of nothing but the sport itself.
"Back in Barcelona," Yuri says, "I wanted to wipe clean everyone's memory of you. Everyone's including my own."
"And you did," Viktor says, eyes bright like the sunlit water behind him. "It wasn't just watching Katsuki Yuuri that inspired me to return. You were absolutely the best you'd ever been."
Yuri still can't stand the look on his face. It's far too raw. He says then, quickly, "My best is even better now so you better watch your back."
For once in his goddamned life, Viktor does not belittle him and he does not laugh.
He holds out his hand, like a truce, like an offering, like a new beginning, as equals. "I promise to do my best."
Yuri takes it.
Sometimes when his grandfather used to fall asleep in front of the TV on the couch, Yuri would just plop down beside him and sit there, listen to him breathe slow, in and out.
Sometimes, he would snore and his whole body would move with it, like a bear's, Yuri would tell him, when he was half his age.
He remembers being smaller and letting himself sway along with it, curled up on top of his grandfather's stomach sometimes or against his side, laughing at the sound, at the movement. It would wake the man up sometimes and he would mutter sleepily about Yuri's ability to make himself comfortable anywhere and everywhere. Except, that had been the place it had been the most comfortable, his favorite place really.
(He's well aware that his grandfather is getting older and older and now that Yuri is spending less and less time at home, every time he does come back, he sees the passage of time hit them both harder.
Yuri finds himself trying to stretch out the smallest of moments whenever he can. Nevermind that Nikolai Plisetsky is going to live forever. It is obviously the only reality Yuri is willing to accept. Still, it's a battle of sorts, leaving him every time.)
While Yuri always wished he was above pre-competition anxiety, counting his grandfather's slow, even breathing, in and out, as he slept, had always helped temper his heart.
He does this now, on the night before his flight.
In the morning, his grandfather will be the one driving him to the airport but in the moment, there is just this.
They arrive two days before the start of Worlds.
While Viktor and Katsuki go traipsing around town (having offered him to join, which he didn't even grace with a response), he sulks in his hotel room for no good reason until his phone screen lights up.
You should have landed and settled in by now?
little while ago
I'm going out for a ride
how do you hustle bikes so fast everywhere anyway?
Old habits. Come with?
They slide into a tiny cafe in Kallio and sink into the corner of a giant couch where Yuri tucks himself against Otabek's side and sips on his latte.
Otabek has gotten some fancy Guatemalan dark roast, no cream or sugar, and while Yuri normally isn't into black coffee, it smells heavenly enough to tempt him into swapping drinks for a second.
It's easy, all of this. It's easy and effortless if he doesn't think about it.
He listens intently as Otabek tells him about his nightmare of a delayed flight and customs and immigration holding back his luggage, and if he had been a hockey player or something, they might have known who he was and cut him some slack but who even knew some skater from Kazakhstan so like hell he was gonna pull that card.
Yuri is paying attention, mostly, but also a drifting a little because of the sound of his voice.
"You know I would have raised hell if you hadn't made it through."
Otabek says, "I'm sure you would have been terrifying," and then just laughs and laughs.
Yuri wants to win Worlds. He really, really wants to win worlds and kick Viktor and Katsuki's asses in front of the whole world in the process. He also wants Otabek beside him on the podium as he does all of this but like, right now, with his head on Otabek's shoulder and the gentle rumble of his laughter surrounding him, and the scent of dark Guatemalan roast intermingled with the trace of whatever killer cologne Otabek's sporting right now filling up his lungs, Yuri can almost forget that he's about to deliver the most grueling skate of his life.
Otabek shifts, wraps an arm around him and pulls out his phone to show him some more pictures from the Four Continents and his trips around the cities. Yuri nestles against him and goes on pretending like his heart isn't going a mile a minute, like he has in fact been doing this forever rather than just wanting to keep on doing this forever.
Yuri Plisetsky Loses His Shit: Round 725129835 Within the Same Calendar Year is going to be what the Helsinki Worlds are going to be known as, he's almost certain of it.
The day and half between the short and the free programs passes in a blur of dodging media and a sea of faces. He holes himself up in his room for a bit after Katsuki tops the short program score with Viktor taking second and himself coming third, half a point behind Viktor.
The next day, he stretches and goes over his music and feels a little sick to his stomach. He barely checks the news or his messages and lets Finnish soaps play in the background as he plays mindless, repetitive games on his phone to make the time pass.
On the morning of the free skate, he has breakfast with Otabek, who placed fifth after the short. They both hold off on the caffeine, barely eat or speak and mostly share companionable space as a matching set of nerves.
They wish each other luck before parting ways, and Yuri wants to--he doesn't know what he wants, likely, a lot of things, even if some of them right now feel irreconcilable.
Yuri skates his fucking heart and soul out and nails every jump, every move and then some. He catches the sight of Otabek on his feet in applause afterwards but the arena seems to be spinning, or maybe that's just his head. He doesn't crumple the way he did in Barcelona but it takes him a solid few minutes afterwards and Yakov squeezing his shoulder to get his head on straight afterwards. He is currently in first but that means literally nothing with three more contestants to go.
Viktor is next and Viktor is good, might even be better. No, is definitely better.
His skate is third to last and his scores are the source of much suspense right up until they appear, showing Yuri beating him by two entire points, making Yuri clap his hand over his mouth so hard his jaw nearly rattles.
Katsuki skates after, with his new jazz piece for the season all polished up and he is admittedly a sight to behold but his final quad lands off-balance and costs him, leaving him just shy of matching Viktor's final score.
Last up is Otabek, and Yuri's heart leaps a mile a minute with every time he launches into the air and Yuri finds that he exhales only after he has secured his landings.
He has polished his program to the point where it is richer and more complex than the version Yuri remembers from the Four Continents and even the version he'd shown Yuri during his visit.
By the first half, it becomes apparent that Otabek is gliding on the ice like it's an extension of himself, like he is music and rhythm and poetry incarnate.
He's stronger, Yuri notes, has developed more stamina. He increases the rotations on more of his jumps and saves them for later in his program. He clinches every last one of his many combos and Yuri is on his feet even before it ends, knows in his bones what this means even before the final score and rankings appear.
He can't bring himself to be at all embarrassed when he beams through his tears as Otabek Altin is announced as winning his first World Figure Skating Championship gold.
The medal ceremony is a loud affair and surreal in at least six separate ways but Yuri can't find a single thing to be unhappy about. He pulls Otabek into a quick, fierce hug and there's not much time or room for more before their coaches and then the press whisks them away.
Once the crowd dies down and the cameras calm down out and most of the people filter out, Yuri calls his grandfather and then proceeds to blow up Otabek's phone until he finally gets a hold of his whereabouts, leading him back to the hotel, where he finds Otabek standing by a quiet part of the hotel's restaurant balcony, seemingly trying to keep up with the messages from his family.
He picks up a call and Yuri wonders if it's got to be his mother with the way he's talking to her, all soft laughter through the exhaustion and at one point, his voice breaks a little. Yuri has been standing, watching him, but here, feels that this moment might not be his to witness and that he should probably leave him in peace with his loved ones giving him all his long-overdue and well-deserved wishes. Except, this is also when Otabek's eyes meet his and he motions him with a hand to join him. He switches the call to speaker and says, "I'm putting Yuri on, анасы. Say hello."
And this is how he finds himself talking to Otabek's mother in half-Russian with bits and pieces of broken Kazakh that Otabek helps translate and decode, for nearly twenty minutes, ten of which she spends in tears, five of which Yuri himself thinks he might spend in tears and during which Otabek is most definitely in tears and it's all still sort of infectious anyway.
"She'd asked about you earlier and figured since you were here and all. Sorry, I roped you into it."
"She seems lovely. Don't be sorry," says Yuri, still reeling a little, from everything the night has been, if he's being honest.
Otabek closes his eyes and nods slow. "She is. They all are. They're also the only reason I've made it this far."
Yuri can't help but want to snap a shot of Otabek's profile with the way his face is lit by the hotel's fluorescent lighting, looking out at the city. He'd want to show it to the world, is already thinking up tags: #goldongold.
He toys with the idea a moment, thinks he should restrain himself, but eventually gives in.
Otabek shakes his head. "I see I've got my own traveling photographer now."
"Careful," Yuri grins, "I'm expensive."
"I thought we were friends," Otabek mock-sighs.
And Yuri doesn't know what to say to that. Of course, they're friends. Except, he's never had a gauge for what friendship is or isn't, which makes this--complicated.
"So how does it feel," Yuri says instead, "World Champion and Gold Medalist Otabek Altin?"
"In a word: surreal. And what about you, Grand Prix Gold Medalist and World Silver Medalist Yuri Plisetsky?" Otabek mirrors.
"It was fun," Yuri says, a little breathless, "watching everyone. Watching you. It's been one of the best years I've had."
"Me too." Otabek is quiet a moment and then finally says, "For what it's worth, I think you really do love it. Might always have, but looking at you now, I don't doubt it for a moment."
And Yuri figures there's a time and place to pick his battles and there's no point in fighting the feeling. He thinks he can more than live with the way the ice feels when Otabek is on it, in front of him, beside him, making Yuri want to be on it, just on it, and be enough to be worthy and on par with this boy who is so worthy. He never thought he would be okay with second best but here he is, more than okay, realized he wouldn't want this night to have gone any other way.
(Besides, he just officially beat his childhood hero at literally his own game, and so, he figures he's allowed to cut himself some slack.)
"The next Grand Prix is around the horizon," he says. "And if not there, I'm gonna get you back in Pyeongchang. Winter games, Altin. Stay sharp."
"I look forward to it," Otabek says with such heartfelt sincerity that it is, quite frankly, too much for Yuri's little heart to hold.
Without further fanfare, before either Otabek has a chance to speak further or he himself has a chance to think and sabotage this immaculate night, Yuri leans forward and kisses him quick.
Turns out that it is precisely the right thing to do given the way it is returned wholeheartedly, with Otabek's hand framing his neck, then reaching up into his hair, probably dislodging his carefully pinned braids, which is at the moment the least of Yuri's concerns.
The deep, dark, guilty secret that Yuri Plisetsky has harboured and might not ever be ready to admit is that he would actually really like the prospect of performing a pair-piece with Otabek Altin one day.
Conveniently or inconveniently enough, however you want to frame it, they had no time or opportunity to prepare for such a thing so the running joke they had going in its place is what eventually becomes their combined exhibition gala skate: a dance-off.
Or well, a skate-off.
It's a mash up of half a dozen high energy tracks and a complete and utter crowd-pleaser. It gets the entirety of Hartwall Arena on its feet. There's a baseline of roaring applause with bursts of cheering and the sounds of their names as they take their respective turns.
The entire thing is more or less a work of improvisation but the bit that they don't plan for at all is that somewhere along the way, they just start dancing in tune with one another, simultaneous and spontaneous, become oblivious of the audience, of the world. It's beyond exhilarating and, for a moment, all the noise around them is completely drowned out until they finish in a state of breathlessness and laughter, holding each other up until they reorient themselves to where they are.
Yuri wants to kiss him and this is possibly becoming a constant sort of problem. He holds himself back, but just barely.
He's becoming increasingly aware that he's turning into his worst nightmare ie. Viktor fucking lovesick Nikiforov, but the even more terrifying thing is that it hardly even fazes him anymore.
In any case, Instagram explodes and the entire app crashes for the next eight hours after the gala.
They skip out part-way through the banquet once again, ride out into the city and wind up on the ferry to Suomenlinna.
"So about being fallible and human and very much in love," Otabek says, as they look out together into the darkening Baltic, "are we still feeling unforgiving about it all?"
Yuri closes his eyes and leans back into Otabek, who stands behind him, solid and grounding. "About the first two, yes. After all, I have a reputation to maintain."
Otabek chuckles soft, close to his ear. "I think I can work with that."