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Once Bitten

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"We're rivals," Georgi says on the first day. He narrows his ice-cold eyes and glares at Victor. "Destined rivals." He takes a step in so he'll look more intimidating and bumps against his roller bag.

Victor smiles and tosses his hair. "What was your name again?"

Georgi's fists clench and he feels the blood rush to his face. They've skated at the same competitions, even shared the podium at one. They've both been to this training camp before. "Georgi Popovich," he says. "I'll make you remember. When I defeat you."

"You take the bed by the door." Victor sits down on the other bed and bounces up and down. "These mattresses are terrible."

+

"Let's sneak out," Victor says on the second day. The second night, really, just after curfew, half an hour before lights out.

"We're supposed to stay in our rooms," Georgi says. What he wants to say is: Did you see me skate today? Did you see how strong I am?

"The coaches have a secret stash of liquor." Victor lounges back against the wall, cross-legged on his bed. "I know they're getting drunk every night."

"We're not supposed to drink either." Georgi can hear the strident edge in his voice and he wants to slap himself. "Anyhow, won't they be drinking from it right now?"

"Okay, Rules." Victor stretches and slides off the bed. He's added a foam topper and a silk duvet cover and his side of the room is filled with all his fancy things. "We'll go before breakfast, when they're all hung over."

Sometimes Georgi wants to hit Victor and right now it's one of those times. But instead he just watches Victor brush out his long hair, stroke after stroke, and remembers how it streamed out behind him this afternoon on the ice.

+

On the third day, Victor is already gone when Georgi wakes up. On his way to breakfast, Georgi runs into some boys he knows.

"You're rooming with that stuck-up Victor?" one of them says. He punches Georgi on the arm. "I heard he brought his own bed."

"He has a lot of stuff," Georgi says and shrugs. "Do you think we'll have to run the track again?"

They ramble into breakfast together, complaining about the work and the accommodations and how hard it is to get into the girls dormitory. As they eat, Georgi looks around at the coaches, scrutinizing them for signs of all-night drinking.

And there is Victor, sitting across from Yakov Feltsman, his coach. The coach Georgi is supposed to be impressing this week, so he'll take Georgi on too. Feltsman does look like he's got a headache but that's probably just Victor.

"I hear the coaches get drunk every night," Georgi says. "Let's try and find their stash."

+

Georgi falls on the fourth day. They're supposed to be practising the elements of their mini-programs for the last day. But he tries a triple Lutz. He's only been landing the triple Salchow well for a few months. But he needs more. More if he's going to move up.

He picks himself up and brushes the sheen of ice off his thighs. He tries again: pushes off, off-balance, spills again, banging his knee.

When he gets to his feet, red-faced and angry with himself, there's Victor watching him, head tipped to one side, hair coming loose from his ponytail. Half a smile on his frustrating face, like he's laughing at Georgi, but won't make the effort to do it out loud.

Georgi narrows his eyes and lifts his chin because he won't be laughed at. "Don't you have medals to polish?"

Victor does laugh now. "So you do break the rules." He turns and skates away.

Georgi is going to turn his back, but he watches instead as Victor gains momentum, pushes off, rotates. Lands a triple Lutz. So gracefully that Georgi only feels shining admiration for a moment, before the resentment dulls it.

"Like that," Victor calls, bragging. Like the only reason it wasn't a quad is that he didn't want to make the effort. "Shift your weight when you launch." He does the jump again and Georgi watches, trying to see what Victor means.

But when Georgi jumps, he can't see it. He can't feel it. And he falls again. A coach comes over and yells at him for screwing around and taking risks.

Georgi looks across the ice. Victor is still watching but at least he isn't laughing. Georgi turns his back and goes to talk with his friends.

That night, when Georgi gets back to their room half an hour before curfew, Victor is already there, lying on his bed, headphones on and his feet up on the wall.

Georgi turns away from Victor and pulls off his shirt to stuff into his laundry bag. He hears Victor move behind him but ignores him. He's had enough of Victor for the day.

Then he freezes. Victor is behind him, right behind him. Some kind of intimidation technique? Should Georgi spin around and do his eye-narrowing thing? Should he act like nothing is happening? Back into Victor to shove him away?

And while he's trying to decide, Victor puts his hands on Georgi's hips. "Shift your weight. This way." And he turns Georgi's body, like they're still on the ice, and Georgi lets it happen. "Lean in. Twist."

Georgi leans in. Victor's hair falls across Georgi's shoulder and it tickles against his bare skin. He twists.

Victor steps away. "You probably won't get it, though."

Fuck off, Georgi wants to say but it sticks in his throat. He gets ready for bed and doesn't look at Victor.

+

"We think we found the stash," Georgi says on the fifth day, sliding in beside Victor and speaking in an undertone as a coach rants at them. "We're going after dinner, while the coaches are in their meeting."

"I'm shocked, Rules," Victor says. His hair is pulled back in a loose knot. One of the pins is working loose, nearly ready to fall down the back of Victor's long neck. He turns to Georgi and tips his head to the side.

Georgi turns away, watching the coach wave her hands as she berates them. "Come along. Or don't. Whatever." He moves away, into the corner where his friends are already whispering about their plan.

After dinner, he makes them wait, but Victor doesn't show. He'd probably ruin everything, anyway: talk too loudly, wander off halfway through, tell Georgi he's doing this wrong too.

They liberate a bottle, just barely making it out before they're caught, and cram themselves into a back corridor, passing it around and laughing, half-choking as they swallow.

Georgi is tired of it suddenly and he stands up, touching the wall to make sure it's still there. He's still got the bottle in his hand and his friends grab at it as he lurches off but they only make the effort to swear at him as he goes.

By the time he gets to the room, bottle cunningly hidden under his jacket, he's wide awake. Perfectly balanced. Smooth and graceful. "I'll land the Lutz," he says.

When Victor pulls off his headphones, Georgi presents him with the bottle, still a good third full. Victor's eyes widen, like they're going to widen when Georgi wins every gold medal, and he grins. Victor's hair is loose, spilling over his shoulders.

"I'll do it now," Georgi says. "Come and watch me."

Victor tips the bottle back. He coughs, just like the rest of them. Wipes his mouth with his long fingers. And he laughs.

"Don't fucking laugh at me." Georgi grabs at the bottle but Victor holds it out of his reach.

"You are druuuuunk," Victor says and takes another drink.

"Give it." Georgi kneels down on Victor's bed and tries again to snatch the bottle away.

"I don't care how you feel tomorrow." Victor passes it to Georgi.

Georgi sits with his back against the wall, side by side with Victor. He stares at the bottle, but he doesn't drink. "I'll land it."

"You bite your nails?" Victor takes Georgi by the wrist and examines his fingers. Victor's nails are perfect, of course. Carefully shaped, white tipped, gleaming in the light.

Georgi has tried to stop. But when he wakes up in the middle of the night and his brain is racing, he chews on them, bites his cuticles, tells himself he's going to be a champion. "You should see how many bottles they have," he says.

Victor drops Georgi's hand and stands. He holds out his hand and Georgi passes him the bottle. Victor drinks, then puts it down on the bureau. "What happened to the stopper?" He goes to his case, one of his many cases, and takes out a bag.

"They'll never know this one is gone." Georgi holds up both his hands and looks at his fingers. They look normal. Just not fancy.

Victor sits down by Georgi and takes his hand again. Georgi can't figure out why Victor keeps wanting to hold his hand. They're not skating in the park. "Here," Victor says and starts to file Georgi's nails.

Georgi just watches him. There's hardly anything to file, he's bitten all the nails down to the quick. But Victor smooths them out, squares them a little. His fingers are warm on Georgi's hands and the motion of the file is soothing.

Then Victor gets out a bottle of polish. It's pale pink and smells a bit like the vodka Georgi has been drinking. "Hold still," Victor says and carefully paints it on, three smooth strokes over each nail, shaking his hair back between each one. But it keeps falling forward, over his shoulder.

Georgi likes the way the polish looks, shining on each finger. He holds one hand up to admire it while Victor finishes the other. "It's pretty," he says.

Victor laughs again but Georgi doesn't feel like hitting him this time. He feels like leaning in so Victor's hair brushes the side of his face. And he does. It's hard to tell because of the polish in the air, but he thinks Victor's hair smells like apples, crisp and sweet. At least there was an apple on one of the bottles in Victor's shower basket.

"Don't smudge them." Victor catches Georgi by both wrists, holding his hands in the air. "You have to wait twenty minutes."

Georgi wonders if Victor is going to hold his wrists for twenty minutes. They're side by side on Victor's bed, pressed close together at the thigh, twisted at the waist, arms up like they're dancing. He sees Victor's headphones lying on the bed, snaking back to his music player. "What kind of music do you like?" he asks.

Victor leans in closer and raises their arms higher, above their heads. He shakes his hair back again and Georgi wonders if he should grow his own hair out so he can flip it back so dramatically. He wonders if Victor practices the flip in front of a mirror. If Victor wears contacts or if his eyes really are that colour.

"Do you wear contacts?" Georgi says.

Victor kisses him on the mouth.

Georgi blinks and in the half second it takes him to close and open his eyes, Victor's mouth is gone again. The sensations reach Georgi more slowly, like thunder after lightning. The damp warmth of Victor's lips. The brush of Victor's hair against Georgi's face. The shiver that runs down Georgi's spine.

While he's still registering all of it, Victor kisses him again.

Georgi has kissed girls before. Well, one girl, a few times. And it was a bit like this. That nervous, jangly feeling in the pit of his stomach and the jolt that's next door to fear. Not quite good the first time but better the next.

And this time there is the spin of his head, or maybe the room, and Victor's hands on his wrists are all that's keeping him from whirling away.

Georgi leans in and kisses Victor back, once, twice, their mouths sliding together and apart again. Victor is better at this than Georgi's girlfriend was, than Georgi is right now, of course he is. Georgi's resentment flares but he's also so turned on. He can't help it so rolls up to his knees and straddles Victor's thighs, like he saw some of his friends do while they were hanging out one weekend.

Victor drops Georgi's hands but he doesn't stop kissing him so Georgi stays where he is and presses his palms against the wall behind him so he won't smudge the polish.

They're kissing deeper now, Victor's tongue flicking into Georgi's mouth. Georgi tries to concentrate and learn what Victor does. How he moves his lips, how he uses his tongue, how his hands slide down Georgi's back until his fingers touch bare skin at Georgi's waist.

"Don't open your mouth so wide," Victor says against the corner of Georgi's lips. He pulls away a strand of hair that's caught between them.

"Don't tell me what to do," Georgi says but he follows anyway and Victor is right, it's better. They kiss and kiss and kiss, spinning around with the room, and it isn't until Victor starts to kiss his throat that Georgi opens his eyes and wonders if his nail polish is still too wet to touch Victor's hair. If he quite dares to do it, even if he can.

Victor shifts and leans forward, pressing them together. Georgi leans in too and his dick – so fucking hard right now – brushes up against Victor's.

Georgi jumps back. He's still across Victor's legs, feeling like someone slapped his face, shocked, skin burning. He rubs his mouth on the back of his hand.

Victor looks shocked too, his mouth still open and his chest rising with his breath. But after a few moments, he flips his hair back. "Let the polish dry a few more minutes." He moves his legs and Georgi climbs off the bed. Victor stands too and picks up his shower basket. He leaves without another word, off to brush the taste of Georgi out of his mouth before bed.

The room is still spinning and Georgi sits down on his own bed. He rubs his mouth again. He doesn't touch his dick, even though it wouldn't take much right now.

On the floor beside his bed, there's a pin from Victor's hair. Georgi picks it up, carefully.

The polish on his index finger smudges.

+

On the sixth day, Georgi keeps his head under the blanket until Victor leaves the room and he's late for breakfast. His head is a little thick but otherwise, he's fine. He doesn't know why his father always makes such a big deal about being hungover.

In the cafeteria, his friends are making noise, banging their cutlery on their trays, and he sits down at the end of the table.

He doesn't look at Victor, can't look at Victor, but he knows where he's sitting. That bright spot in Georgi's peripheral vision, across the cafeteria. And then he does look. But Victor isn't looking back.

+

In the afternoon, Georgi waits until their coach isn't looking. Then he tries the Lutz again. It feels good, but he falls. Falls again. When he picks himself up, Victor is stopped across the ice, watching him.

Georgi is going to turn his back. But Victor turns his first, skating away, then — a triple Lutz.

Fuck Victor. Georgi clenches his teeth. Balls his hands into fists. He's not wearing gloves and he can feel the polish slick against his palms. He turns his back too.

He tries the jump one more time. He still falls.

+

Georgi avoids going back to their room until a few minutes before curfew. When he opens the door, Victor doesn't look over. He's on his back again, feet up on the wall, headphones on. Hair in a braid and he's chewing on the end of it.

Well, Georgi isn't looking over either. He grabs his toothbrush. And his pyjamas.

When he gets back from the bathroom, Victor is in bed, face to the wall, braid coiling on the pillow behind him. Georgi turns off the light and gets under his covers.

And then he thinks about it. He can't help it any more. Victor's mouth on his mouth. Victor's hands on his skin. Victor's maybe-apple-scented hair brushing his face. Georgi turns over so he's facing the wall too.

Why did Victor kiss him? Laugh at him? File his nails and tell him how to lean his body for the Lutz? Why did Georgi let him? Why is Victor even at the camp to begin with?

Georgi can't help thinking about that too. They're not learning anything here that Victor doesn't already know. And even if Georgi is the second best in their group – and he is – the gap is still wide enough to make him bite his nails and lie awake at night.

Victor's bed creaks. He must be rolling over. Onto his back, his other side. Maybe he's looking over now, at Georgi.

Georgi rolls over. He runs his thumbs over his nails, back and forth, so smooth. And he whispers, "Good night."

He has time for one long breath. Then he watches, through the dim light that filters through the crack under the door, as Victor gets up and crosses the narrow divide and stands beside Georgi's bed.

One more breath. Then Georgi pulls him down. They hardly take a moment to settle, just kiss and grab, Victor half off the edge before Georgi drags him further on. Kissing, kissing, hands on each other's faces, arms, backs, rolling on the narrow bed.

This time, Georgi presses closer, his dick hard against Victor's hip, grinding in. Victor crawls on top of him, stretched full out and heavy, the blankets still between them, and they rock together, hips angling so they're rubbing against each other, not even kissing any more, just breathing in each other's ears, Georgi's fingers slipping over Victor's braided hair.

It's so much better than Georgi's own hand.

It doesn't take long for either of them. Then they lie there, sticky and collapsed, until Georgi wonders what's supposed to happen next. His arm is going to sleep but he doesn't want to lose Victor's lax weight on top of him.

Victor moves and Georgi lets his hands drop away. They're done. But Victor lifts the covers and slides in beside Georgi, turning out towards the room.

Georgi bites his lip. Waits far too long. Then snakes his arm around Victor's chest. Victor settles closer, just a little. And Georgi lies awake in his wet pyjamas long after Victor is asleep. But he doesn't bite his nails.

+

Georgi wakes up first, Victor's ankle hooked over his calf, and the melancholy feeling of the last day of camp in his gut. He eases out of bed and down to the showers, wrapping the robe his mother made him pack around him to hide the stain on his pyjamas.

When he leaves the shower stall, towel around his waist and clothes bundled under his arm, he spots Victor's robe hanging outside another stall. As he passes, he brushes it with his fingers; soft ivory silk, so unlike the navy terry cloth of his own. Behind the curtain, the water is running, Victor is humming something soft and tuneless.

Even if he weren't at a camp with people all around, Georgi wouldn't have the nerve to pull the curtain aside. To look at Victor, to step under the water with him. To pull him close without the blankets in between.

He hurries to dress before Victor gets back to the room. At breakfast, he sits where he can't see him. And through the morning, he works hard, focusing, only a small part of his mind working out where Victor is in the weight room, the gym, the studio, so he can not look.

But he wants to.

And then he doesn't have a choice. In the afternoon, they are skating their mini-programs. They aren't supposed to wear costumes, but everyone at least primps a bit. So after lunch, Georgi heads to the room to primp and to pack.

Victor is already there. He's all in white, a sleek outfit that just barely qualifies as sportswear. He's pushed a band into his hair and he's putting on make-up, tightlining one eye with a pencil. He looks up when the door opens and their eyes meet in the mirror.

Georgi's stomach drops and he wants to cross the room, bend down and kiss Victor, touch his cheek, take his hand. Instead, he turns his back to change. His outfit is black, not as nice as Victor's, but he thinks it suits him. He looks sophisticated.

He uses the mirror on the wall, not as fancy as Victor's lighted mirror, and strokes on eyeliner and mascara. Any more and the coaches will call him on it. He sneaks glances at Victor brushing out his hair and wonders what it would feel like to do that for him.

"Are you going to try it?" Victor asks.

Georgi turns and stares. Is he that obvious?

"The triple Lutz." Victor catches the sides of his hair back in a clip.

Georgi still hasn't landed it once. He needs his program to look good. He needs to look good. He can't fall. "Of course," he says. "You'll see."

"It's too late for more pointers." Victor turns back to the mirror. A loop of hair is wrapped out of the clip, sticking up.

"Victor," Georgi starts. Then he goes over and undoes Victor's hair clip. He takes the comb from the table and smooths the hair back, soft under his fingers, clipping it neatly.

Victor doesn't move or speak. He looks down at the table, all his products in a row.

"Why are you at this camp?" Georgi says. He puts down the comb. "I don't understand."

Victor shrugs. He starts putting everything away. "Yakov said I had to."

"Okay," Georgi says. He packs his own things, thinking about the triple Lutz. Just the Lutz.

Just the Lutz.

+

When it's Georgi's turn, he's not nervous. He knows all his elements, he's been practising all week. The critique will be harsh but that's why they're here.

He's not nervous. But his heart is thumping and his cheeks are hot, even in the cold. He glides out onto the ice and begins, trying to remember all the advice he's gotten, all the ways he can be better.

He decides to stick to the plan, skate what he's good at. Impress the coaches. You're strong, show them you're strong.

But as he skates, he catches a bright spot in his peripheral vision, and he doesn't even think, just makes the change, leans his body, pushes off for the triple Lutz. He rotates through, it's enough, he can feel it, and he lands, it's there. But he over-balances and touches down, one pink-tipped hand on the ice and a sinking in his stomach.

Off the ice, his friends grab his shoulders. You didn't fall, they tell him. But not falling isn't the same as landing tall. Not falling isn't enough to be the best.

And then the bright spot moves and Victor is skating.

He's last, of course, and that's a good thing because if Victor skated first, all their hearts would break. Georgi thinks his might be breaking now, with envy and despair and so much longing.

And then Victor does it, fucking does it, a triple Lutz so effortless and beautiful, it's got to be directed at Georgi. Got to be.

Georgi wants to turn away but he can't stop watching. He can't stop the churning in his guts. The throbbing in his head. He realises he's chewing on his finger and he clenches his hands up so he can't any more.

He keeps them clenched through the critiques, even his own. He can hardly hear the coaches's voices. They sound so far away. And there's no bright spot in his vision; Victor isn't even in the room.

They spill out into the hallway, jostling each other on the way to an early supper, before they all leave for home. And there is Victor, waiting.

Georgi is going to pass him by, but he's caught, whatever Victor wants, Georgi has to know what it is. So he stops, narrows his eyes, and waits for Victor to laugh at him.

Victor holds out his hand. "You're almost there."

Georgi looks at Victor's face, looks properly for the first time today. It doesn't seem like Victor is laughing at him. So he takes Victor's hand and they shake.

In Georgi's bag is his brand new mobile phone and a list of of his friends's numbers to program into the contacts on the train. He wants to ask for Victor's number too. But he doesn't know what they'd even say to each other.

So he nods at Victor and lets go of his hand and, quickly, presses a kiss onto his cheek. Then he walks away, blinking until the spot in his peripheral vision is gone.

+

Not this season, Feltsman tells Georgi's parents. But maybe next.

So Georgi stays home and trains hard for the fall. It takes until August, but he lands the triple Lutz cleanly, nine times out of ten.

There's a girl at his rink with dark hair and a crooked smile. When she smiles at Georgi, his knees weaken. One day, she takes his hand and they find a dark corner and kiss, not quite good the first time but better the next.

Her hair smells like flowers.