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Upside Down

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His feet tapped the concrete lightly, the soft rustling of his clothing and the slap of his skin on the ground the only sound that broke the blissful silence around him.  Eyes drifting down, Victor traced a curving line down the back of his skull and along his neck, dropping his hand on his collarbone as it slid woefully to his side.  He stopped, frowning to himself before turning to the windows behind him, the rooms behind them dark.  Victor’s piercing blue eyes gazed back at him, reflected clearly on their surface.  That would do.

Running a hand haphazardly through the piecy, white-blond fringe that teased at his cheekbones, Victor padded closer to the window, looking intently at himself as he replicated the arm movement with more deliberation on its placement. Again, starting lower this time… no, that didn’t create enough space near his ribs.  Absentmindedly, he moved his legs to a rhythm no one heard, slim calves bulking with lean muscle as he pointed his toes.

With a sigh, he rested his weight heavily onto a single hip.  He glanced at himself in the window, sullen eyes traveling up the length of his frame.  They took careful consideration of his faults; a divot in his calf muscle that had appeared after he was laid up from a broken knee, the uneven muscle mass close to his hips, the mole that nestled itself near his too-prominent ribs under his right arm.  Eventually, they rested on his lips, the top one dipping down in the middle just a bit too far, giving him a perpetual hint of a smile.  

Victor had stared at the darkened ceiling in his room for over an hour before he gave up on sleep and gone on a search for a place to practice.  The pool had seemed a quiet enough spot.  Rehearsing was something useful he could do with his time, and it would get the tension out of his legs.  It wasn’t unusual for Victor to feel restless before a competition (and he frequently got in trouble for oversleeping)--he relished the opportunity to share his work with others, and that excitement could make sleeping difficult.  But tonight felt different somehow.  The jitters he felt weren’t motivated from any sense of joy.  It was something more… empty.

A sigh escaped him as he tucked his face into the crook of his shoulder to wipe at his forehead, sweat prickling his skin despite the cool December air.  He hated practicing excessively, particularly the night before he was supposed to be performing, and the Grand Prix Final was a mere 12 hours away; he subscribed to the theory that there was an exact number of times you could perform something perfectly before your brain numbed and started to make mistakes for the sake of doing something different.  It was hard to deny that such logic would apply to his own career as well, and with his potential fifth consecutive win in as many years looming ahead of him, Victor felt stagnant.  He was nearly 30, and the oldest skater on the ice.  His age had never bothered him previously; each year he gained only added more experience for him to draw from as a performer (though said experience was mostly limited to an endless cycle of rehearsal and travel).  The word “retirement” flickered in the back of his mind, an eventual certainty that filled him with dread.  He had spent most of his life on the ice.  What exactly was he supposed to do with his life after something like this?  He had heard of some fast food chains in America having waiters on roller skates.  Maybe that would be fun.

A chuckle escaped him at the thought, despite his unusually somber mood.  At least he could say he had a plan now.  He sighed again, a generous cloud of his breath appearing in front of his pink nose, warming the frozen tip for just a moment.  Sochi was far more south than his home in St. Petersburg, making the winters here much more bearable.  It had stayed above freezing the whole day, which almost made it feel tropical to a man who was used to living in temperatures that frequently dropped below 0.  He wore a light sweatsuit that proudly displayed his country’s colors in nonsensical designs, the sleeves hastily pushed to his elbows when he started heating up from the exercise.

Now that he had stopped, the tension returned to his limbs.  His right thumb tapped the tips of his fingers in quick succession, a habit that showed itself when he was thinking or nervous or… what exactly was this emotion?  His heart felt hollow, its beating slow and meticulous, going through the motions without feeling.  It wasn’t far from what the rest of him had been doing just a moment before.

Victor took his time, eyes on his own reflection but looking far beyond it as his mind worked to identify what he was feeling.  Despondent?  No, too dramatic.  Frustrated?  Too angry.  The emotion was quiet, still, pooled peacefully in his chest.  It was passive, resting as though it had always belonged there.  

He felt… Meaningless.

The word turned around in his skull as he examined it, familiarizing himself with its connotation before letting it sink in to see if it felt right.  It fit like a glove, the impulse reacting to the revelation in a way that made him realize it was true.  Was he that dissatisfied with his success?  No… that wasn’t it.  It was more the tediousness of winning.  There were no more goals to achieve--he had broken the world record several times, and won nearly every show he participated in for the last decade.  He considered himself a happy person and was grateful that he was able to pursue what he loved with his entire being, but as it stood, if he continued down this path, he had nothing left to work towards that he hadn’t already done.  Four times.

Victor tucked the thought into the back of his mind, making a note to come back to it later.  A sudden fatigue crept into his shoulders, tense from his practice.  His eyes darted around the area, tinted an icy blue from the bulbs that diligently burned beneath the surface of the water in the pool.  Despite the weight in his heart, a secret smile spread across his lips as he slipped his tongue between his teeth in concentration, and he began to bend over backwards into a bridge pose.  Thighs and core burning as they carefully controlled his descent, Victor reached over his head, delicately caressing the ground beneath him with his fingers as he touched down.  His palms and feet soaked up the cold from the concrete, chest and belly pulled tightly towards the sky in a graceful arch.  Taking a deep breath, uninhibited from the normal tension in his body, Victor pulled his head back through his shoulders, eyes glancing up to see his heels.  This felt good .

Victor had not practiced yoga for very long or even very consistently, but he loved doing it.  It was probably the only thing he felt self-conscious about, which was why he liked to do it only when alone or with an instructor.  But he enjoyed forcing his body to think outside of its normal routine, and it was a way for him to physically express himself with no expectations.  He lifted one of his legs into the air, feeling the pressure from the added weight press down into his wrists.  Flexing and pointing his toes with little thought, Victor looked out at the view of Sochi hiding behind the steel fence that wrapped around the rooftop.  The lights from the city now twinkled dutifully in the sky as they pretended to be stars in his new perspective.  A laugh escaped through his nose as he lifted the opposing hand from the ground, reaching it out in front of him, pinching the brightest light between his thumb and forefinger as he struggled to keep his balance with only two limbs allowing him to stay in this precarious position.

He had been so preoccupied that he had missed the quiet click of the door as it opened and shut, allowing an intruder to silently enter Victor’s momentary sanctum.  Victor remained blissfully unaware of the new arrival until his vision was framed with a pair of shapely, muscular legs.  Heart stopping for just a moment, Victor tumbled to the ground.  The newcomer laughed.

“I can’t believe it.  You actually fell.”

Victor looked towards the voice as he pushed himself onto his knees, finding a familiar face waiting to greet him.

“Chris,” Victor greeted, putting a hand on his chest to calm his fluttering heart.  

 "I didn’t think anyone else would be brave enough to be here,” Chris said, champagne bottle and a single glass dangling from his fingers.  A short, black robe was all he wore to keep out the chill, the sleeves reaching down to his wrists, but the bottom hem stopping just below where his legs met.  It was inappropriate, and yet Victor couldn’t help but feel as though it suited him perfectly.  He wondered how long Chris had looked himself in the mirror before coming, weighing the pros and cons of being cold versus looking his best in the event of a late-night rendezvous.  Chris was most likely overjoyed that his bet had paid off.

“No better place to be alone,” Victor smiled, adjusting to thinking and responding in English.  Folding his legs in front of him, he rested his arms on his inner thighs.  “What brings you here?”

“I have champagne the night before every competition for good luck,” Chris explained, lowering himself to the ground as he dipped his feet in the pool.  “And coming here usually means I’ll be by myself, but I should have known that you of all people wouldn’t be put off by the cold.”  He winked.

Victor smiled at the teasing, looking at the bottle.  It was a no-name bubbly, something that only sold when someone was looking to get a lot of people drunk for cheap.  With surprise, he commented, “I’ve never heard of that brand before.”  Chris laughed once, picking up on the subtext.

“I just like the bubbles,” he said, picking it up to look at the label.  “The cheaper they are, the harder they bite.”  The phrase dripped with innuendo; Victor fought to roll his eyes, but the smile on his lips was genuine.  With a flick of his thumb, the cork popped, mist emerging from behind it as the bubbles hissed in greeting.  Chris brought amber eyes to meet the others’, blond hair tousled generously enough to imply that he had a difficult time sleeping as well.  Pouring the liquid gold into the only glass be brought, the Swiss took a hearty sip before extending it to his new companion.  “Want to share?”

Victor gazed at the drink as it fizzed excitedly, eager to be exposed to the night air.  After a moment, he accepted the flute, bringing it to his lips and feeling it bite at his tongue.  He wrinkled his brows at the kick; it was extra dry.  Chris laughed as Victor returned the glass, mumbling before he took another sip, “Told you.”

Despite their years on the ice together, Chris and Victor were not very close, but that could be said for just about anyone in Victor’s life.  The demands from his career were large, leaving little time for anything more than work between training, rehearsal, travel and developing new routines.  He had been skating for the majority of his life, and it was difficult to imagine it being any other way.  Ah--there was that feeling again.  Victor took a moment to inventory the people in his life that he considered close as he accepted the champagne once again, the taste agreeing with him much more easily this time.  There was Yuri, he supposed, but he wouldn’t consider the kid a friend , per se.  That was more because it was difficult imagining Plisetsky having any friends in the first place.  His skills made him hostile, and the lack of any worthy competitors in his division had made him cocky.  He liked Victor because Victor was better than him.

Another sip.

There was Mila, 9 years his junior.  She was mature for her age and fun to be around, but still had the problems only someone fresh out of school could relate to.  Georgi, while a good guy, was easily swept up in his own emotions, particularly when it came to girls.  Victor had never met someone more painfully or desperately heterosexual in his life.  There was Yakov as well, but… while Yakov was someone that Victor trusted implicitly, their relationship was more dysfunctional and purpose-driven than friendly.  That was fine.

The champagne bit him again.

“Mind if I cut in?” Chris’s voice melted into his thoughts, the rumbling baritone warm against the cold.  As he gently took the glass from Victor, the Russian realized it was empty.  It was hard to hide the pink in his cheeks as Victor laughed sheepishly.

“Sorry about that.”

“If you need it more than I do, by all means,” the Swiss said obligingly, refilling the flute.  “What’s on your mind?”

Victor paused, realizing that Chris was the only skater he’d kept in regular contact with, though that mostly just extended to likes on social media and the occasional text message.  It was more than he did with most, opting to keep to himself when he was at home and leaving most of his socializing for events like these.  He was never particularly lonely, but if he were to step away from this, what would he have left?

“What’s next?” The question was vague, mostly because he didn’t quite know how to vocalize it.  Victor wasn’t the type to share his feelings often.  Chris raised his eyebrows in surprise.

“The World Championships, you mean?” he asked in turn, and Victor glanced over at him with hesitation.

“No.”

There was a pause that stood between them, awkwardly reminding them that they were not intimate enough to have this conversation easily.  Victor waited a few moments, reminding himself that he had started this train of thought, and it was his responsibility to finish it.  Chris graciously picked up the slack before the other needed to find a way to arrange his words.

“You really are thinking about retiring,” he said, unable to hide the shock in his voice.  Victor kept his eyes ahead, looking out at the city as reflections from the water danced around them.  He looked unusually pale in this light, the blue mixing with the white of his skin in a way that made him look like a corpse.  The word said aloud made him feel old.

“It’s something I’ve thought about,” the Russian said carefully, not wanting to confirm or deny the idea.  Chris was a competitor, after all, and while Victor felt comfortable enough with him now, he didn’t want to present the other man with any advantages.  “Ending on a high note.  There are plenty of people still skating at my age, but…”

“‘At your age,’” the other scoffed as he repeated the phrase.  “For my own reference, when do you become an old person?  Is it at 26?  Or 27?”  Victor smiled, glancing at Chris as he leaned back on his palms, slowly kicking his legs in the water.

“Each gold medal adds 10 years to your life, you know,” he teased, though he second-guessed the jest when the other skater’s eyes darkened.  Chris had never managed to overtake Victor in a competition.  Really, no one had in a very long time.

“Look,” Chris said, graciously letting the humblebrag pass him by.  “We all have moments where we don’t feel confident about what we’re doing.”  He paused.  “Well, I don’t, but I’m sure others do.”  Air rushed out of Victor’s nose as he chuckled silently in response.  

“I appreciate your honesty.”  He couldn’t hide the hint of sarcasm, and didn’t want to.

“I appreciate yours.”  Chris’s response was more earnest than his own, thick lashes framing eyes that were filled with sincerity for just a moment.  “I would be lying if I said part of me didn’t want you to retire… But things wouldn’t be as interesting.  If you’re that determined to leave, there’s always coaching, I suppose.”

“Hm.” Victor hadn’t considered that before.  Chris had finished his glass of champagne and poured another before offering it to Victor, who graciously accepted.  Was he the teaching type?  The only teacher he’d ever known was Yakov, whose style of educating could be referred to in some circles as “professional asshole”.  Victor could count on both hands the amount of times Yakov had given him legitimate praise, but then again, Victor was the type of person who reacted well to negative criticism--there was always something to learn, no matter how the feedback was phrased.  In a way, he almost preferred Yakov’s hostility, because it meant he was honest.  There was no possible way Victor could hope to mirror that, though.  

“Listen, don’t worry about it now,” Chris said, waving his hand in front of Victor’s face to bring him back into the real world.  “Let’s enjoy this moment, then head back to bed.”  The Swiss raised the bottle to the glass in Victor’s hand, clinking them lightly together before taking a swig.

“Together, or separately?” Victor asked, a wicked grin spreading across his face.  There was a hint of a blush in Chris’ cheeks as he quickly pulled the bottle away from his lips, and the Russian celebrated quietly in his head.  He relished in attempting to embarrass the other man (mostly because Chris was the only other competitor he knew who openly liked men), who seemed to have no shame whatsoever.

“Don’t play with my heart, Victor,” Chris said, and Victor took a long sip from his own glass to hide his smug expression.

The glass empty, Victor rose to his feet as his fellow skater finished the bottle.  Extending a hand, he helped Chris up before they made their way to the door, the cold nipping at their dampened ankles.  As they strolled to the elevator, Chris casually draped an arm over Victor’s shoulders, pink cheeks betraying the fact that he was just a tiny bit tipsy.  Victor seemed to carry a permanent blush at the tip of his nose, disguising the fact that the drink had not left him entirely unaffected, either.  At least now he’d most likely be able to get some sleep.

Mind wandering, Victor tried to think of the last time he’d had a conversation like the one they’d shared, his recent history coming up empty.  The realization made his heart feel a bit heavier--he never considered himself lonely or unhappy, but his notoriety made it easy for him to meet and socialize with people without making actual connections.  Did he really not have friends anymore?


The two separated in the hall, going to their separate rooms after bidding each other good night.  Chris laid one kiss on each of Victor’s cheeks, hands resting lightly on his shoulders.  Awkwardly, quickly, quietly, he murmured “Good luck” to the Russian before waving the keycard in front of the handle on his door and disappearing inside.  Whether he meant it for tomorrow or beyond was anyone’s guess.