Chris didn’t even have to look; he could practically feel the wince of sympathy from Viktor, who was sitting on the floor at Chris’ side, both of them stretching to stay limber while they awaited their turns in the Grand Prix Final free skate. The hallway television monitor in front of them displayed Katsuki Yuuri, just barely in fifth place over Michele Crispino after the short program, falling at the end of his opening jump combination. He was back upright and moving into his next element without missing a beat, but his frown made it clear that falling so early in the program had hurt his confidence. It was going to be a very long four minutes and thirty seconds for Yuuri and his audience.
Yuuri had a triple Salchow coming up next. He picked up speed, bent his left leg, and… he was down after two sloppy rotations. This time he was off the music for a few beats while he found the rhythm again.
“Come on, Katsuki,” Viktor whispered at the monitor. “Use the flying camel to calm down. The triple Axel is your best jump. Either you get it together here or the whole program’s gone.”
That was the only thing that could have drawn Chris’ attention away from the train wreck happening in front of him.
“You know his program?” he asked, incredulous. As if Viktor needed to study his competitors. He was going into the evening a comfortable 12 points ahead of the second-place skater, Jean-Jacques Leroy of Canada. Earlier in the day Viktor had blinked and asked, “Is that one of the juniors?” when a reporter mentioned JJ. How did he have Yuuri’s free skate memorized when he couldn’t remember the name of the nearest threat to his fifth consecutive GPF gold medal?
“Of course I do. I watch all the final qualifiers’ programs every year, I’d be a fool not to.”
“What about JJ Leroy?”
“Who?” Viktor hadn’t taken his eyes off the screen. Yuuri singled the Axel. “Fuck. There’s no coming back from that. Well, anyway, Katsuki normally has a great Axel, but it’s his step and choreo sequences that are really something else. Have you met him at all?”
“I have, actually. We were in juniors together for a bit, and I've seen him around since then. He’s a big fan of yours.”
“Yes, I can tell. Ooh, like there! Look at the arm movement! That is so Nikiforov circa 2009. I told you he was good at this part.”
Chris chuckled. “Only you could say that sincerely and not sound like a total narcissist. Maybe half a narcissist. Besides, name a current skater who doesn’t steal your moves.”
“You,” Viktor answered simply. “Not these days, anyway.”
“Sure, but I don’t count. It’s hard to steal inspiration from a guy once he sticks his tongue up your ass in enough hotel rooms around the world.”
“Does your husband know you still talk dirty to me like this, Christophe Giacometti?” Viktor picked up their usual banter, but his heart didn’t seem to be in it. He cringed as Yuuri two-footed his quad toe just after the 2:15 mark and then cut his planned three-jump combination short by one, although he'd apparently felt it coming and managed to replace his half loop with a double in compensation.
“Mathieu knows about our past dalliances and accepts us for the flawed, sexual beings we are. Plus, I’m not interested anymore, even if I weren’t a married man. You, sweetheart, are simply too much work in bed.”
“Hm.” Viktor was playing with a loose thread on his Olympic team jacket.
Yuuri fell. Downgraded his Lutz. And fell again. His last jumping pass was over and he’d landed only half of them, with none of the others executed cleanly. This was the home stretch, at least.
“That’s the thing, though,” Viktor said. “Almost everybody steals my style, but that’s not what he’s doing here. He really learned it and made it his own. It’s not copying so much as it’s an homage, you know what I mean? Like this sit spin position. I’m not that flexible, haven’t been since I was like eighteen, but you can still see he based it on my short program from last season. He doesn’t let my limitations impede his own skills.”
“This is so wrong,” Viktor muttered as Yuuri came out of his change-foot sit spin and began his choreographic sequence in preparation for the combination spin to end the program. “We weight jumps too heavily in scoring, I’ve always thought so, but look at him, Chris!”
His voice was raised by the end of the sentence and he gestured helplessly at the screen. Despite all the falls, Yuuri was gorgeous in this moment, weaving the music around himself as he moved.
“I know.” This wasn’t the first time Chris had witnessed the beauty of Yuuri’s spins and sequences. It also wasn’t the first time he’d seen Yuuri fall apart in the free skate, but this was by far the worst example yet.
“He doesn’t deserve what the judges are about to do to him. Not with sequences like that. I don’t have that kind of musicality.”
“It’s true, Yuuri’d be threatening your ridiculous lead if only he had your quads and your modesty,” Chris agreed with nary a hint of sarcasm, none whatsoever.
“Oh my god, would you listen to me without acting the motherfucking comedian for once?”
“Only if you tell your coach you swear like this in front of the juniors.” Chris shot a meaningful glance at little Yuri Plisetsky, who was glaring at the monitor as if it had insulted his family.
“He doesn’t speak French,” Viktor responded with an eye-roll. “And he can out-swear the pair of us combined in English and Russian.”
“Shut the fuck up!” Yuri growled in English, right on cue. “I’m trying to enjoy the worst GPF performance in history, and you assholes are ruining it for me!”
On the monitor, Yuuri finished his combination spin and took his final pose. He held it for a fraction of a second before his shoulders slumped and he trudged—Chris hadn't even realized one could trudge on blades—off the ice in tears.
“Yura,” Viktor snapped before letting out a string of Russian invective that Chris couldn’t begin to follow. Yuri turned bright red and stomped several meters away before throwing himself down and turning his attention back to the monitor, where Yuuri was seated miserably next to Coach Cialdini in the kiss and cry. His score wouldn’t be up for another couple of minutes or so, but everyone in the arena already knew to expect numbers well below the usual Grand Prix caliber.
“What’d you say to him?” Chris asked.
“Only that he doesn’t get to criticize Katsuki until he’s got edge technique like Katsuki.”
“He looks a little too angry for that to be all you said.”
“He’s always angry,” Viktor responded airily. “And maybe I said it in a way that implied he’ll be worse than this when he goes senior next year. Oh, goddamn it.”
The numbers were up. Yuuri had fallen short of 150 points for a combined score of 232.59. He would be in second place for the next four-and-a-half minutes, and then he’d be knocked a rank lower with every performance until he ended in sixth.
“I should go talk to him while I have time. He’s got to hear how good those sequences were before the rest of the program kills it for him.”
Viktor was on his feet and getting ready to intercept Yuuri on his way back from the rinkside. Chris sprang up and spun Viktor around by the shoulders. That way lay disaster even greater than what had just happened on the ice.
“Viktor Nikiforov, listen to me carefully because I’m only going to say this once. That man is terrified of you. If you show up with no warning, even to praise him, he is going to keel over and die at your feet. If you’re worried about how he’s feeling after that performance, think of a different approach and Do. Not. Ambush. Him. Did you get that?”
“Don’t scare Japanese Nationals silver medalist Katsuki Yuuri, for he is a small and fragile baby bird, got it. Any suggestions on what I should do instead?”
Chris thought for a moment. “Give it time. Let him come to you. Just, you know, place yourself somewhere he’ll stumble across you naturally, then act like it’s such a coincidence you ran into each other. But don’t start talking about the program first. Be casual.”
“Like… ask for a selfie with him?” Viktor still looked confused, but he’d never met Yuuri or Yuuri’s reserved to the point of awkwardness personality. These extra steps were absolutely necessary.
“Perfect! Ease him into the interaction, ask his permission to Instagram it, consult him on filters, whatever. Then and only then may you mention you like his step sequences. He might still die of shock anyway, but at least you tried.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so. You should have seen how he freaked out when I offered to introduce you two at practice. Now I’d better get my skates on before they call me out there. My fault for ending the short in third, I suppose. At least JJ will be easier to catch than you. Wish me luck?”
“Merde, Chris.” Viktor gave him a quick peck on each check, in accordance with their long-standing tradition. Following the same tradition, Chris grabbed a handful of Viktor’s ass.
“Same to you, sweetheart. See you on the podium later?”
“I never miss it.”
Chris sighed. “You had to say it like that, didn’t you?”
Two days later, Chris found himself interrupted from his morning coffee in the airport by a very irritated Viktor Nikiforov.
“‘Don’t ambush Yuuri, Viktor, or he’ll shrivel up and die like a delicate flower,’” Viktor sneered in a sing-song voice. “Don’t ambush him? What about him ambushing me, you utter bastard? First he rejects my selfie request, then he strips off in the middle of the goddamn banquet hall! Why didn’t you tell me he was like this?”
“How the hell did you even find me?”
“Your dear husband is very helpful and, apparently, enjoys seeing you put in your place,” Viktor replied, all poisonous sweetness.
Mathieu, sitting across the café table from them, had the good sense to look ashamed of himself. Viktor blew him a kiss before snapping his attention back to Chris.
“Now, I’ll be nice and not tell you what I think that implies about your current sex life. Answer the question, Chris, or so help me—”
“Look, I don’t know what his deal was, okay? It’s not like he asked my advice before he jumped you last night. To be fair, ‘get on the pole with your shirt off, then lead him in the best tango of his life before begging him to take you back to your room’ is about what I would have told him, although humping your leg in the middle of it was a bit gauche. Is this really how you thank your best friend for helping you get laid for the first time in years?”
“I didn’t get laid, asshole. He was too drunk to use his keycard properly, let alone make that kind of decision. Also, he barely got to the toilet before he threw up for like ten minutes. So I rubbed his back, made him drink some water, and put him to bed. Then I left and slept in my own room, like a fucking gentleman.”
“Yeah, ‘oh.’ Excellent last words before I strangle you.”
“I thought he had sobered up and just kept playing drunk so you’d have an excuse to get out of there. I mean, he drank a lot, but it had been over an hour! He was really still too wasted?”
“Somehow I doubt narrowly missing my €800 shoes when he puked was his idea of foreplay. I went back to check on him first thing this morning, but he was already gone. Which brings me to my next question: Do you have his number or private Twitter or whatever so I can make sure he didn’t die of alcohol poisoning?”
Chris stared. Viktor glared back at him.
“You want his contact info.”
“Viktor, honey… Did you catch feelings last night?”
Viktor seemed to deflate right in front of Chris. He slumped forward and put his head in his hands, groaning. Mathieu reached across the table to pat his shoulder.
“Am I that obvious?” Viktor asked. It may have been more of a whimper.
“Just to people who’ve been around long enough to see you with a crush. You always get so prissy about it.”
“Ugh. So that’s you, Yakov, Stéphane… Oh no, Georgi.” Viktor’s head snapped up. “Chris, you’ve gotta help me run damage control. Georgi cannot find out about me falling for a drunk guy over one evening of dancing. It’s so much worse than any of the romantic melodrama he’s ever pulled, he’ll never let me live it down.”
“No worries. After you two left, our ISU minders sent a very clear message that none of those pictures are going on social media. I can send you copies, though, if you like?”
“…Fine. I got a few of my own from the dance-off with Yura, but I’ll take anything you have of the paso doble and tango.”
“Your wish is my command, dearest.”
“And the pole?” If Viktor were capable of true shyness, this would be what shy Viktor sounded like.
“I’m screwed, aren’t I?”
“So very screwed,” Mathieu agreed.
Chris bought Viktor a coffee, and they spent the next hour transferring dozens of photos to Viktor’s phone. He saved the folder in with the several hundred pictures of his poodle. It was like he was a teenager hiding porn from his parents. Maybe, Chris reflected, being Viktor’s only regular hook-up through his early 20s had stunted his social growth.
“Do you still want his contact info?” Chris asked when his camera roll was exhausted.
“You’re assuming I won’t be too big of a coward to text him.”
“Jesus Christ, are you a grown-ass man or a schoolboy passing love notes in class? He trains in America and you’re not going to see him in competition until Worlds. Four months of silence is not a foundation for a relationship.”
“What do I even say? ‘Hi Yuuri, I’m the guy you apparently idolize who took care of you while you hurled up three bottles of champagne. Also you sort of asked me to be your coach and I sort of wanted to drop my whole career to say yes because you’re beautiful and I’m bored. Wanna sext each other awkwardly until Worlds?’ …What?”
He’d caught Chris exchanging significant looks with Mathieu.
“Look, Viktor,” said Mathieu. “How long has it been since you asked somebody out?”
“Years, obviously,” Viktor snapped.
“Remember the delicate baby bird thing?” Chris reminded him. “It still applies. He may have pole-danced for you, but he was also too embarrassed about it to say good-bye this morning. He probably needs space. How about you get in touch to congratulate him after his Nationals? That’s like two weeks away, not awkwardly long but enough time for you to both calm down and figure out what you want to happen next.”
Viktor took a long sip of his coffee. “Okay.”
“And promise me you will not use the word ‘sext’ in any way, shape, or form.”
“Shut up, Giacometti.”
“Make me, Nikiforov.”
Later that month, Chris’ afternoon workout was interrupted by a text from Viktor. Its contents were a screenshot of Yuuri’s terrible Japanese Nationals score and the words “NOW WHAT????” followed by a line of weeping emoji.
Chris ignored it. Viktor wouldn’t speak to him at Euros.
By the time Worlds came around, there was something wrong with Viktor. Nothing bad enough to impact his skating and leave anybody else a shot at gold for once, of course. He was still Viktor fucking Nikiforov. He didn’t seem angry at Chris anymore, at least, but he was a bit standoffish around everybody. He barely cracked a smile when Chris pinched his ass on the podium.
“So what are the big plans for next season that you can’t even hint at?” Chris asked a few hours after the medal ceremony and press conference. They had two bottles of excellent champagne and the hotel hot tub to themselves. Mathieu had joined them earlier but went to bed after one glass. He had some kind of morning meeting with the other Swiss skating officials, all of it completely boring to Chris.
“Who says I have plans, Christophe? Maybe I’m going to improvise my programs.” Viktor’s smirk didn’t seem to quite reach his eyes.
“You do realize that sounds like something you’d actually do, right? After five consecutive undefeated seasons, what’s left for the great Viktor Nikiforov, Living Legend of Russia, except just making it up off the top of his head and still kicking all our asses?”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Which bit? Undefeated, living legend, your full name?”
“Any of it, Chris. Please.”
They worked through two more glasses of champagne in silence.
“You really don’t know what you’re doing next season, do you?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m trying to decide between two short programs right now, even. It’s just… I don’t know, neither one really seems like it’s my program. Does that make sense?”
It didn’t, but Chris nodded anyway. Viktor had spent the last decade showing the skating world he could get perfection out of everything from ballet to swing to pop. His more serious work tended to score better, but that was true for everyone in the sport. Unless those short program options were set to Swedish death metal, Chris didn’t understand how they could pose Viktor any trouble at all.
They let the conversation fall again. The champagne ran out.
“Did you hear Katsuki Yuuri’s retiring?” Chris was just the right level of tipsy to bring it up.
Viktor frowned. “I thought he was just switching coaches.”
“From Cialdini to…?”
“How should I know?”
“Do you mean to tell me you still haven’t contacted him?”
“No, Chris, I haven’t contacted him. I’ve been a little short on free time.”
“Viktor…” This was too much. Chris remembered calling Viktor a schoolboy over his crush on Yuuri back in Sochi, but he hadn’t thought it would prove quite so apt all this time later. The repeat failure at Yuuri’s Nationals aside, Chris had expected blurry cellphone make-out photos and endless gossip threads on Golden Skate at this point, provided Viktor could keep himself from making an official statement about his new, adorable boyfriend, Katsuki Yuuri. They hadn’t even talked yet? Whatever was going on in Viktor’s head, it must have been more serious than Chris had imagined.
“Look, I don’t think he’s interested, okay? I know you said he’s shy, but he hasn’t reached out to me in four months. Nothing to my social media, my email, the rink, my publicist, I even watched for his name on my fan mail! It’s not like he was busy with competitions!”
“Did you really not catch how that sounded? Do you think maybe he feels bad about not making it here? Jesus, honey, you need lessons in tact before you even think about dating anybody.” Chris had to smile at the idea of Viktor learning not to bluntly comment on people's personal flaws in private. All that media training made him a different person in front of a microphone, but Chris had spent his senior skating career getting to know the real Viktor under the coy answers and movie-star poise. He was a good person, intelligent and generous, but he also had a tendency to rip people to shreds without realizing he was doing it. That attitude was not going to get him far with Yuuri.
“You never minded,” Viktor retorted archly.
“We were not dating, and you know it.”
“I’d drink to that, but… Well.” Viktor gestured to the empty bottles and shrugged. There was another of those fake smiles.
Chris let his own grin fall abruptly. “Viktor, sweetheart, whatever’s going on with you, I’m here, okay? We’re supposed to be friends.”
Viktor held Chris' gaze for a long time. Sizing him up, maybe. Finally, he averted his eyes and sighed.
“I’m all right, really. It was a weird season, that’s all, and I— Chris, what if he really isn’t interested?”
“Are you kidding? He danced with you like that and you think he’s not actually into you?”
“I know, but he was just so drunk. Nobody’s ever…” Viktor trailed off and shook his head. “I’d better turn in. Yakov wants me to go running first thing in the morning, since apparently I ‘moved like a damn zombie’ after the four-minute mark.”
That was clearly all Chris was going to get out of Viktor for the night.
“You go on. My coach is not made of pure evil, so I can sleep in until the pairs free skate.”
Viktor climbed—a bit shakily after all that champagne—out of the hot tub, toweled off, and wrapped himself in a hotel robe. He winked at Chris and headed for the pool room exit with a soft “Good night.”
Viktor flipped him off before the door swung shut.
A few days later, Yuuri was a viral sensation on Youtube. He wasn't in competition shape and doubled all the jumps, but his “Stammi Vicino” easily surpassed Viktor’s in interpretation. It was so melancholy that it almost hurt to watch.
“Not interested, huh?” Chris muttered.
He copied the URL into Viktor’s text thread and hit Send.