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Thursday, December 22

When the door buzzer goes, Georgi is soaking his feet in the kitchen and thinking about winning. He sighs and takes a few seconds, just a few more seconds, to keep sitting there. He’s tired and he’s trying to focus on tomorrow’s skate. Rest his body, sharpen his mind. Ignore all distractions.

But the buzzer goes off again like a swarm of angry wasps. How hard would it be to have a silvery chime instead? A soothing gentle voice?

Georgi reaches for a towel that’s not there and curses as he trails wet footprints from the kitchen to the front door. “What do you want?” he says into the intercom. His voice isn’t either soothing or gentle but his knees are aching, more than they should be right before Nationals.

The speaker crackles something unintelligible. A little late in the day but it’s probably a delivery. Flowers, maybe, or the cod liver oil his mother keeps ordering for him. He’s already got too many of the red and blue bottles lined up in his cupboard, even though he takes it every night.

While he waits, he does a few squats and tries not to listen to the crackle of his cartilage. He’s not stiff, just sore. Not past it, just working hard. And even if his knees are not what they used to be, his mind is clear and sharp and ready.

When the knock comes, he springs up, a little bounce off the floor, plenty of energy still. Hopefully, it’s flowers, for luck. He’s owed some luck, after the interruption.

He opens the door. It is flowers. And Christophe is holding them.

“Hi,” Christophe says.

“What are you doing here?” Georgi says, in Russian because he hasn’t been expecting to speak English. His heart rings with a silvery chime and for a moment, he can’t even move. “Christophe, you, come in.”

Christophe hands him the flowers but Georgi wants both hands free so he drops them on the hall table and wraps his arms around Christophe, presses his face into Christophe’s neck. The winter damp is still on Christophe’s overcoat and it chills Georgi through his t-shirt.

Christophe hugs him back, one deep breath pressing against Georgi’s chest. “Just came to get laid,” he says and his hands slide down to Georgi’s ass.

Right now, Georgi doesn’t even care if that’s true, he’s so glad to have his arms around his lover, he’s so glad his heart is beating fast. “You know you can use your phone for more than dick pics.”

“Stalkers never call first.” Christophe eases back and kisses Georgi, hands on his face, just hello.

“Give me your coat and your bag and go sit down.” Georgi picks up the flowers: roses, red and fragrant. Lucky, very lucky. “Do you want a drink?”

Christophe looks Georgi up and down. His cheeks are still pink from the winter air and it makes him look wholesome instead of sultry. “I want everything.”

“I’ll bring you a drink.” Georgi kisses Christophe’s cheek as he takes his coat. Christophe’s skin is so smooth, with a faint whiff of cologne. He must have shaved at the airport after his flight. Georgi’s heart thumps and he wants everything too, right now: the satin of Christophe’s cheek, the rasp of his beard, climbing the inside of Georgi’s thighs. He kisses Christophe again, his mouth lingering, hello, hello.

Christophe pulls him close and Georgi loses his grasp on the coat and the roses too. “I could use a drink of water,” Christophe says against Georgi’s throat. He kisses along Georgi’s neck, hands moving over Georgi’s back.

“Come on then.” Georgi moves back a step, onto his own damp footprints. Hand on the back of Christophe’s head, keeping him there, mouth on Georgi’s skin.

Christophe follows him up, then turns around so he’s the one pulling at Georgi. “Fuck, I missed this.”

This. But Georgi missed it too, nearly misses it now, he wants it so much. He stumbles against Christophe, bumping him against the wall, pressing so his whole body is against Christophe, like they can occupy the same space. “I missed you.” He leans his forehead against Christophe’s. “It felt like a year.”

“Then you’re ready for it.” Christophe grinds in with his hips, he’s ready for it too. Then he pushes Georgi back, gets his hands under Georgi’s ass, and heaves.

Georgi doesn’t figure it out until a moment too late: Christophe is lifting him off the ground. But it’s too late for Georgi to jump with it so he’s left with Christophe hauling on his buttocks. “Are you trying to carry me?”

“Aren’t your feet sore?” Christophe squeezes Georgi’s ass, licks the corner of his mouth.

“I’m not a princess,” Georgi says. “What if you dropped me?”

“No lifts until after Nationals, got it.” Christophe drops his hands. “Are you still allowed to come? Or are you abstaining?”

“Don’t fucking ask me that right now.” Georgi takes Christophe’s arm and pulls him the rest of the way to the kitchen. He pours a glass of water and holds it out. “Drink this. Flights are dehydrating.”

Christophe takes the glass and looks at Georgi over the rim for a moment but he doesn’t speak before he drains it.

Georgi refills the glass. “One more, then I’ll get you a real drink.”

Christophe takes the glass and sets it down on the counter. He pulls his shirt over his head and drapes it over the back of a chair. “I like your kitchen,” he says and unzips his trousers. “Last time I was here, you cooked me dinner and we got drunk at the table afterwards but we haven’t had sex in here yet.”

“You haven’t even been here ten minutes,” Georgi says. He’s never prepared for what Christophe is going to do: he’s at right angles to everyone else in Georgi’s life. “I’ll make you dinner again.”

But Christophe is already down to his socks and underwear. He might as well not be wearing the underwear because his dick is half out of it. And then it’s moot because the underwear is gone too and he’s standing there naked. Like he and Georgi have one set of clothes between them and Christophe only got the socks.

“Don’t put your bare ass on my chairs.” Georgi twists the tap harder, it drips if he doesn’t. But he’s looking at Christophe because he can’t look anywhere else.

Even in Georgi’s chilly kitchen, Christophe looks warm and relaxed, beautiful and golden, dominating the cramped space. His dick moves as he shifts his weight to one hip.

Georgi gets wanting Christophe, he gets wanting men, but he still doesn’t really get dicks. He likes the feel of Christophe’s. How it moves in his hand, in his mouth, between his thighs. How it’s ready for him, because he’s the one Christophe wants.

But it looks weird. They all do, even his own. That whole area, dick, balls, that they tuck away into their dance belts. Is this how his girlfriends felt? Did any of them actually like the way his looked? Does Christophe?

Christophe wraps his hand around his own cock, still looking right at Georgi, and maybe Georgi doesn’t get dicks, but he gets this: Christophe’s aggressive desire. His body gets it. His sore knees get it and he leans against the counter.

“You’re so fussy.” Christophe steps close. He takes Georgi by the waist and spins him around. Puts him in the chair that’s still turned away from the small table, by the full basin and the splashes on the floor.

“Come here.” Georgi reaches up for Christophe’s bare shoulders. “Kiss me, I want you to kiss me.”

Christophe stoops and they kiss, Georgi’s arm around Christophe’s neck, his tongue sliding into Christophe’s mouth. Georgi is starved for this, for Christophe in his arms, naked in the kitchen or the shower or the bedroom.

Then Christophe pulls away and crouches in front of Georgi, hands on Georgi’s hips and those long eyelashes blinking slowly. “The way your face flushes for me is beautiful, you want it so much. You want me to suck your cock until you can’t even speak. Don’t you?”

Georgi’s heart flashes on beautiful and the rest of him on suck your cock. “Yes,” he says. And because he knows Christophe likes to hear it: “Suck me, please.”

“You work so hard,” Christophe says. He pulls up the hem of Georgi’s t-shirt and starts by kissing his abdomen, stroking his sides, not even brushing Georgi’s dick.

And Georgi is back where he was before the buzzer went and this whirlwind caught him up. But instead of visualizing his short program, he’s looking at the back of Christophe’s neck where the hair is cut close. Instead of playing the music in his head, he’s listening to the sound of Christophe’s mouth on his body and the hum of the refrigerator.

Christophe’s mouth reaches Georgi’s waistband and he hooks his thumbs inside the elastic — sweats, briefs — and pulls. “Give me some help here,” Christophe murmurs.

This time Georgi is ready and he lifts his hips for Christophe so that he’s the one bare-ass on the kitchen chair, pants around one ankle and cock jutting free.

“You have a great dick, by the way,” Christophe says. “Very suckable.”

“I don’t want to hear where I rank in your catalogue of dicks,” Georgi says. Even though he does, he really wants to know.

“Every dick has a special place in my heart,” Christophe says. “But I think there was somewhere else you wanted yours to be.” He gives Georgi that exaggerated grin, the one that makes Georgi melt and roll his eyes at the same time, and bends down.

Georgi puts his hand on Christophe’s head, not to guide him, just to touch him. He slides his fingers around the curve of Christophe’s ear, rests his hand on Christophe’s shoulder. Christophe is really here, in Georgi’s kitchen. This is really happening.

Christophe noses at Georgi’s balls. “Christ, I love the way you smell.” He sucks one testicle into his mouth, cradling it on his tongue a moment before he lets it go. “Do you ever grow your hair out here? Not that I don’t appreciate it but…”

“In the summer,” Georgi says. One finicky girlfriend talked him into waxing before she would go down on him and he liked the way it felt. Now in the competition season, he keeps it up: pubic hair, underarms, chest. “Come on, don’t tease me now.”

Christophe sits back on his heels, one long look into Georgi’s eyes, and Georgi braces for the next smart remark. Instead Christophe drops to his knees, bending over Georgi’s lap, and takes Georgi’s cock down, all the way down, so deep Georgi can hardly believe Christophe isn’t choking.

“Fuck,” Georgi says. “Fuck.” He puts both hands on Christophe’s shoulders and kneads at the muscle there, he can’t help his hands clenching. He can feel the back of Christophe’s throat against the head of his cock. Christophe isn’t moving, just holding Georgi there like he’s daring Georgi to raise his hips and fuck him, one more goddamn tease. “Do whatever you want, just do it.”

Christophe pinches Georgi’s hip, eyes turning up, and he finally starts to move. Warm and wet around Georgi’s cock, hands on Georgi’s thighs. Where fifteen minutes ago, Georgi was soaking his feet and thinking about his skating, too tired to stand up to open the door.

Georgi wants to savour this but he might not be able to, not when he’s this keyed up. He puts his hands on top of Christophe’s and strokes with his fingers, just lightly, while Christophe’s mouth slides over his cock. “I missed you,” he says. “I missed you so much.”

Christophe’s hands tighten over Georgi’s thighs. Saliva strings from the corner of his mouth and he frees one hand to swipe it away.

If he could, Georgi would pull Christophe into an embrace, press him tightly, wrap himself around Christophe’s whole body. Instead, he just gets his toes against the side of Christophe’s calf because he doesn’t want to shift and make it difficult for him.

“It’s good,” Georgi says. “You’re good.” He never feels like he can talk dirty enough for Christophe but he gives what he can. “The best. You feel so good.” So good that Georgi can hardly find the words any more and he trails off into Russian, “So good, so beautiful, jewel of my heart,” and soon enough that goes as well and he’s only gasping.

Christophe looks up, his eyes gleaming, and he turns one hand so that their fingers are crooked together, squeezing tight. The other he wraps around the base of Georgi’s cock, following his mouth up and down. He blinks rapidly, a signal that Georgi can’t remember, maybe, or just Christophe showing off his eyelashes.

Georgi strains to keep his eyes open, fixed on Christophe, but he’s losing focus, he’s nearly there. He tries to gasp out a warning but there’s no time and he starts to come, a crash of pleasure and of happiness that goes on until tears leak from his eyes and his face is sore from twisting.

Just as it begins, Christophe’s mouth slips away and he strokes Georgi’s cock lightly while he spasms. And when Georgi’s eyes slide open again, he sees the glistening chain of semen around Christophe’s neck, perfectly executed and almost beautiful. Like Christophe is an artist and ejaculation is his medium.

It’s also ridiculous and when Georgi catches Christophe’s face in his hands for a tender post-blowjob kiss, he laughs into Christophe’s mouth instead.

“That face,” Christophe says. “Show me that face every day.” He brushes Georgi’s cheek with the back of his hand.

Georgi leans into Christophe’s touch, closing his eyes for a moment while his pulse slows and his heart fills. But he’s making Christophe wait. He turns his head and kisses Christophe’s hand. “Now you.”

“Yes, now me. But let me see you first.” Christophe pulls up the hem of Georgi’s t-shirt and Georgi raises his arms to let it go. Christophe runs his fingers down Georgi’s chest. “Video chat just doesn’t provide me enough detail. Maybe you should get a high def camera.”

“Not VR?” Georgi reaches out to touch Christophe too but Christophe’s pearl necklace is running, matting the hair on his chest. “You’re dripping.”

“Shit!” Christophe swipes at the mess with Georgi’s t-shirt.

“That’s going to stain,” Georgi says. It’s an old shirt, just to wear at home, but still.

“Sorry,” Christophe says and he does look it. “I’m distracted by lust, so please let me come. I’ll buy you a new shirt. A new old shirt. You can have one of mine. Just touch my dick now, please.”

Georgi stands up and pulls Christophe up too, wraps his arms around Christophe so they’re pressed together, Christophe’s dick hard against Georgi’s hip. “Do you want to go into the bedroom?”

“Do me here,” Christophe says into Georgi’s ear, his tongue sliding around the lobe. “So you’ll think about me coming for you every time you cook.”

Better not to kneel on the floor tonight, not when he has to skate tomorrow. Georgi backs Christophe into the counter and kisses him: his mouth, his face, his neck. “Do not,” he says against Christophe’s throat. “Do not, do not put your ass on my countertop.”

Christophe leans in with his hips, rubbing his cock against Georgi’s hipbone. “Or what? You won’t let me come?” He squeezes Georgi’s ass, pulling him closer. “Nobody’s ever edged me before, could be hot.”

“There’s no ‘or what’.” Georgi digs his fingertips into Christophe’s back, pulling him closer for a moment. “Just don’t.” Then he makes some room and takes Christophe’s cock into his hand. “Just let me make you happy.”

Christophe’s face changes, that grin slipping away, and Georgi wonders if he’s broken the mood somehow. But Christophe presses his cheek against Georgi’s, slides his fingers up into Georgi’s hair. “Please do.”

Those silvery chimes ring in Georgi’s heart again and he jacks Christophe at the kitchen counter, kissing him again and again.

“I missed your hands on me,” Christophe says. “I missed your kitchen.” He puts his hands on Georgi’s face, stroking Georgi’s mouth with his thumbs. His breath is speeding up now, puffing onto Georgi’s face.

“You’re here now.” Georgi takes another kiss, circles his thumb around the head of Christophe’s cock. “In my kitchen, in my arms.”

“So domestic,” Christophe says. “Next time I’ll bring my apron.” His hands tighten. “Fuck, I’m close.”

Georgi can tell, he knows the signs by now. He catches Christophe’s mouth again and Christophe groans into it while his cock jerks in Georgi’s hand and he comes hard between them. No fancy art, just the full-body shudder that Georgi loves and Christophe’s semen over his own belly.

Christophe leans back against the counter, eyes closed and skin flushed. A film of sweat on his forehead. One hand limp on Georgi’s shoulder. He opens his mouth but no words come for a few seconds.

This is the moment Georgi loves best: Christophe unsmiling and satisfied. Speechless because Georgi shut him up. He takes Christophe’s hand from his shoulder and kisses the palm with a long press of his lips so he doesn’t spill his entire heart at once.

Christophe opens his eyes and his smile returns. “That was worth travelling all day for.” He stretches out and grabs the glass of water, tipping his head back and drinking it all in three long swallows.

“I’m glad you did.” Georgi looks at the roll of paper towels on the counter but pulls his poor t-shirt over instead and wipes them both off. “Now go sit down. I’ll bring you a drink.”

Christophe pushes himself upright and catches Georgi in a hug. “Is the throw still behind the couch?”

“You actually remembered.” Georgi hugs back. He’s feeling the chill in the room now, and Christophe is warm. Warm and here. “Will you get a robe for me? You know where the spares are.”

“Hint, hint, I get it,” Christophe says. “No lifts in the hallway, no asses on the countertops, robes preferred.” He moves his hands to Georgi’s waist. “No dancing in the kitchen?” He rocks his hips and spins Georgi around. Once, halfway to twice, then he kicks over the basin.

Water splashes out, pooling over the floor and wetting their feet.

“No dancing in the kitchen,” Georgi says.

“Fuck, sorry!” Christophe lets go and rights the empty basin. He starts sopping up the water with Georgi’s t-shirt, bare ass in the air.

“I’ll get the mop.” All the fatigue comes back at once and Georgi leans against the counter. The tiring week of practice, too much practice. The ache in his knees and his hips. The after-effects of surprise and joy and orgasm.

How much extra food does he have? He’s already prepped and labelled all his own meals for the weekend: the nutrition that he needs, no cooking, no decisions to distract him. He’ll have to go shopping early tomorrow. Pick up that rye bread that Christophe liked so much. Fresh coffee beans. A special wine for Saturday night.

Saturday night, after he wins gold.

“I’ll clean it up,” Christophe says. “Do you want me to fill the basin again for you?”

“You’re my guest—” Georgi starts but Christophe cuts him off.

“And you’ve been very hospitable to me and my dick but you should go get your fancy robe and then sit down and rest. I won’t tell anyone you were a fake Russian.” Christophe opens the broom closet and looks inside. “Mop in here?”

Georgi is too tired to argue so he just picks up the wet t-shirt and the rest of his clothes and leaves Christophe to it. He cleans up a little in the bathroom, himself and the fixtures. Gets out fresh robes. Turns up the heat.

In the living room, he gets the blanket from behind the couch and spreads it over the cushions. He sits down heavily and leans his head back. The couch feels so good, his mood is so good, everything is good. Christophe coming here is an omen. Georgi’s luck.

Christophe comes in with glasses but no bottle. “Black robe for me?”

“If you want. Or just sit on the blanket.” Georgi takes the glass Christophe offers him. A swallow of vodka in the bottom, from the bottle Georgi keeps in the back of his fridge for when he needs it. An old man’s drink. The same brand Georgi always saw on his grandfather’s kitchen table back home.

“I’ll get you more if you want it. Or open some wine.” Christophe sits, naked, and holds up his own glass. “I put a blanket on my couch for my cat to sit on when she’s shedding.”

“To us,” Georgi says and they drink.

“Let me check your feet.” Christophe pulls them up into his lap. He looks seriously for a few moments, then just strokes Georgi’s ankles with his fingertips. “They’re fine, you’ll be fine.” He lifts one foot and kisses Georgi’s instep.

Georgi’s heart turns over and he reaches out to brush Christophe’s shoulder with his fingertips. “You’ll be lucky for me.”

“Georgi,” Christophe says, and it’s the first time he’s used Georgi’s name. “I’m here to cheer for you and suck your dick, not to fuck up your skating. If you want, I’ll go to a hotel until Saturday night, stay out of your way.”

“You can’t stay in a hotel.” How can Christophe even suggest it? “How could you spoil my skating?” And yet. Already, Georgi is behind schedule, the burn of cheap vodka in the back of his throat instead of an electrolyte drink. Thinking about his lover instead of the ice. Lounging instead of stretching. Smiling instead of focussing.

“Or Victor said I could stay with him.”

“Victor–” Georgi says but his phone rings, his mother’s ringtone. If he lets it go to voicemail, she’ll just call back. “Sorry,” he says and picks up the call.

“Gosha,” she says before he can even say hello. “Why aren’t you sleeping?”

“It’s still early, mama,” he says. “How’s your back?” He looks over at Christophe. When has he been talking to Victor?

“You shouldn’t worry about my back,” she says. “You have enough to worry about.”

Christophe keeps stroking Georgi’s ankles, just lightly, fingers circling the anklebone and rubbing the tops of his feet. He picks up his own phone and swipes at it one-handed.

“What did the doctor say?” Georgi knows what the doctor said, always the same things: take it easier, do these exercises, use the painkillers for once. He looks over at Christophe smiling over his messages and thumbing out a reply. More invitations from Victor?

“Nothing worth hearing.” She sighs. “You should be resting. You need someone to take care of you.”

”I’m resting now.” When Georgi was younger, he always rolled his eyes at his mother’s groans, the theatrical way she pressed one hand to her back, such a big fuss over a little pain. But now when his knees ache and his hips don’t want to flex, he has more sympathy.

“So you say but you’ll be up half the night reading.” A childhood transgression she always accuses him with, he’s learned not to protest.

Christophe runs his hand further up Georgi’s calf but he’s still engrossed in his phone.

Georgi reaches down and slides their fingers half together. “I’m going to win,” he says. “Be sure to watch.”

“It’s bad luck to say so,” his mother says. “Take your cod liver oil and go to bed.”

When Georgi puts down the phone, Christophe taps at his a few moments longer, then drops it on the coffee table. “Do you want to come again? Or I could rub your feet.” He squeezes Georgi’s hand. “Or should I call a car for Victor’s?”

Georgi takes Christophe by the wrist. “You’re staying here with me.”

Chapter Text

Friday, December 23

Georgi is alone in the bed when he wakes up, twenty minutes after his alarm should have gone. No Christophe reaching under the covers to grab his morning hard-on, telling him to come back for a handie after his piss.

He stretches and does a few squats. His knees are better this morning, only a few popping sounds. He’s loose, focussed, ready. And if Christophe hasn’t taken off to a hotel, or, worse, Victor’s already…

But when Georgi opens the bedroom door, he can hear Christophe in the kitchen, the soft sounds of water running, cabinet doors closing. And Georgi basks like the summer sun is warming his face even though outside the rain is coming down.

Christophe turns when Georgi comes in. He’s wearing Georgi’s black robe and it’s even tied closed. He grabs Georgi for a hug, close and warm.

Georgi presses his lips against Christophe’s cheek. It’s not so smooth any more, but he turns and rubs his own cheek against it, that morning after boyfriend rasp. “Good morning, my luck.”

Christophe swipes his tongue along Georgi’s lower lip and slides his hands down to Georgi’s hips. “You want?” he says.

A shiver runs through Georgi and, yes, thank you, he does want. But he has a public practice this morning and if he doesn’t get his caffeine on time nothing will go well.

“A cup of tea,” he says. Even though he should be the one making tea for both of them. He should take last night’s dose of cod liver oil too but then his mouth wouldn’t be sweet for Christophe.

“Too much to hope that’s Russian slang for morning sex.” Christophe gives his hips a roll before he lets go. “Tea is brewing now, another minute.”

“You’re wonderful.” Georgi turns to sit down. And there on the table is the bouquet, in a jar his aunt gave him home-made pickles in. The roses are wilted, because he left them by the front door overnight. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I spoiled your gift.”

“I searched for some tricks on how to revive them. If they don’t perk up, I’ll buy you some more.” Christophe leans against the counter, half a body width from where Georgi jacked him last night.

“Did you find anything for breakfast? You can have one of mine. Or a protein shake. I’ll go out to the corner market as soon as it opens.”

Christophe pours out a cup and sets it on the table, then another for himself. “If you’re going to keep fussing over me, I will definitely stay somewhere else.” He sits down, his knee bumping Georgi’s under the table. “You just eat your way too meticulously labelled meals and do your practice and skate your program. I’ll take care of myself.”

“You’re very frustrating,” Georgi says. He adds sugar, then sips the tea. It’s good, not over-steeped. “I’ll get you the spare keys.”

Christophe gulps down his tea, no respect for the fragrance. “Anyway, I have to put in some work while I’m here. Victor got me ice time at your rink. I’ll get something to eat on the way.” He pushes his chair back again and sets his empty cup on the counter.

“Is Victor your concierge?” Georgi says and he hears the edge in his voice. “Your tour guide?”

Christophe glances over, frowning. “My friend,” he says. “Whose ass you’re going to kick, so don’t worry.” He stoops and kisses Georgi’s cheek, ruffles up the hair Georgi spent too much time smoothing in the bedroom, and leaves Georgi to eat his labelled breakfast and pour another cup of tea.

The flowers do look better by the time Georgi’s finished, less parched, although some blooms are brown at the tips and a few petals have fallen around the jar.

He’s putting his dishes in the sink when Christophe comes in, dressed and smelling faintly of Georgi’s shower gel.

“I have the keys, I’ll buy food, don’t even think about me. If you can help it. I’ll see you at the venue.” Christophe grins. “I’ll be the hot one.”

“Kiss me for luck.” Georgi holds out his arms and Christophe steps into them.

“You don’t need luck.” Christophe kisses Georgi, three soft touches of his lips. “You’re just that good.” His hands move downward again. “And I don’t just mean your ass.”

“Be serious.” Georgi leans his head on Christophe’s shoulder for a moment.

“Always.” Christophe lets go. “I’ll meet you after you skate. Text me if you want me before that, lunch or anything else.”

When Christophe is gone, Georgi stands by the apartment door for a few moments. Then he looks at his scruffed-up hair in the mirror and goes to take a shower.

On his way out, he takes one rose from the pickle jar and trims the stem. He presses the soft petals to his lips. “My luck,” he whispers and tucks the rose away inside his bag.

+

The stands are quite full for a public practice. It’s a good sign. The ice moves easily under Georgi’s blades, so smoothly there’s hardly any sound.

The competition is strong this year and Georgi fields a few looks from skaters he can tell are here to take his place, edge him out. But he’s not going to relinquish his hold until he’s ready.

A jump lands right next to him and Georgi swerves out of the way, heart-rate bumping up. He turns to glare.

It’s Yuri Plisetsky, calling, “Watch out, old man!” over his shoulder as he skates away.

Georgi takes a deep breath. In, out, keep focussed. No poorly disciplined child is going to defeat him either, even this one. He lays his hand over his heart for a moment, just where the rose is tucked inside his shirt.

He starts to go through the visualization he didn’t finish last night. His practice, his warm-up, his program. How he’ll move through the elements, how he’ll express his passion and artistry.

The elements and artistry are fine. He’s honed this program and it shows. But the passion is a problem.

He can’t seem to hook into the feelings he needs any more: the betrayal, the anger, the remorse. The desperation. He’s tried thinking of Anya but that well has dried, no more tears to draw out of it.

There are still hurts from other women — old girlfriends, rejected crushes — and he tries to find them on his heart. If he remembers their stories he can open those wounds again.

It’s not a lot but when he’s competing it will be better. It has to be better. The pain will flow and fill him when he needs it.

The crowd murmurs and there’s a spatter of applause. Someone landed a difficult jump? But in the corner of Georgi’s eye, he sees the reason: it’s Victor. Georgi didn’t even think he’d show up.

Georgi doesn’t have to turn his head to see Victor on the ice. He’s been catching Victor in his peripheral vision for years, nearly decade and a half. That flash of silver, those graceful movements.

But Georgi is the one with all the silver. And the bronze.

He drifts over to the boards and lets himself watch Victor for a few moments. He’s been watching Victor for the last few weeks when they’re sharing ice time. And it’s fine, Victor isn’t there yet. He’s still warming up for this season, eight months of indolence around his waist.

Georgi takes a breath and does his count in, stills his thoughts. He’s the only one here, the only one that matters.

But before he can push off, Victor skates up to him. “How often have we been here together, Gosha? It’s like old times.”

“We’re not here together. And when was the last time it was here?” Georgi makes to skate away but Victor claps his shoulder. Has that ever happened before? “Is this being filmed? Am I in your documentary right now?”

“We were so fresh-faced once,” Victor says. “Our eyes full of hope.”

“You sound like a maudlin old man,” Georgi says. “Go to the banya, if you want to cry about the old days.”

“Don’t you have any sense of nostalgia?” Victor still has his hand on Georgi’s shoulder, the prince condescending.

The weight of it comes down on Georgi: that long, long tale where Prince Victor danced his way through every quest, every battle, every dragon, while Georgi ran behind to keep up. His whole career, one step behind.

That story ends today. “I’m not the second son.”

“Maybe this is why we don’t talk more.” Victor takes his hand away but he doesn’t leave. “Why are you keeping Chris all to yourself?”

“Fuck off, Vitya,” Georgi says and skates away.

+

The venue hallways are buzzing with people, everyone leaking excitement and anxiety. Georgi looks for a place to be alone and finds a small office that probably shouldn’t be unlocked.

He sits behind the untidy desk and eats his lunch from its numbered container, drinks down his measured bottle of water. Pushes Victor out of his mind while he prepares himself.

This weekend, Georgi is telling a new story: the Tale of the Younger Son. Neglected, looked down on, denied the chance to prove his worth. But when the hour is darkest, he’ll be the one to shine. The one to rise up and be the hero that the kingdom needs.

He’s just arriving at the changing room when Victor rounds the corner. With Christophe. Victor’s hand is on Christophe’s shoulder. Christophe laughs and Victor responds in French, too quick for Georgi to work out the meaning.

It stings, Victor’s easy way with Christophe, and Georgi frowns before he can remember he’s a gracious prince. A gracious prince who needs to focus on his skating.

Christophe steps out from under Victor’s hand and takes Georgi by the shoulders. “Can’t wait to see you skate.”

Warmth sparks inside Georgi and his frown eases. He puts his free hand on Christophe’s arm. “Save your luck for only me.”

“Just my luck?” Christophe grins and rubs a thumb along Georgi’s shoulder. There’s wine on his breath. While Georgi was eating alone, working hard, Victor must have been laughing with Christophe in a café. “You should have been at lunch,” Christophe says. “Victor wouldn’t shut up.”

“I have to get ready.” Georgi lets his hand fall away and, after a second, so does Christophe.

“See you, Chris,” Victor says and pushes past them through the door.

Georgi turns to go after him, one last look at Victor’s back because after today he won’t be behind him any more.

“Good luck, Georgi,” Christophe says as the door swings closed.

+

As he takes his place on the ice, Yakov’s bark still ringing in his ears, Georgi searches in his heart for all of those old wounds. The break-ups, the endings, the rejections. But they’ve all scarred over. He can sense the places where they were, but it’s not the pain he needs. He touches the rose he’s tucked inside his costume; he should have left some thorns.

But as he bows his head in the chilly quiet before the music, he remembers: Victor’s arm around Christophe’s shoulders, head close and laughing in words Georgi can’t understand. A scratch across Georgi’s heart. He tears it open, deep and raw, and the music begins.

His body takes him through the motions, this program he’s skated to exhaustion so many times already. And his heart takes him through the story, all the passion that grows until he’s filled, the audience is filled, the ice and air are filled with his pain and his vengeance.

There is Christophe, sweet and loving. He smiles over the flowers Georgi presses on him, he melts under Georgi’s kiss, whispering his love in the moonlight. Yes, forever, Georgi, forever.

Then Victor, shining like the sun, holds out his hand.

And Christophe turns to him, puts his hand in Victor’s, dropping Georgi’s gifts at his feet. Christophe’s heart is weak, unable to resist Victor’s light.

Georgi clutches but Christophe slips out of his hands without even a backward glance at the one who loves him, who has given him everything.

Betrayal cuts at Georgi’s heart, fury surges through him. He rises, dark and terrible, to lay a doom upon his lover. His false one, who spurned true love just for a prince’s fleeting favour.

He speaks the curse: if Christophe’s love cannot be eternal, then his slumber will be, alone and waiting for forgiveness that can never come.

And then it’s over. Georgi is standing on the ice, sweat on his forehead, tears on his cheeks. And with the bone-deep satisfaction that he’s skated very well. The applause hits and nearly staggers him. He heaves in breath and bows, magnificently, to the judges, to the crowd, to his mother watching at home. To Christophe, wherever he’s sitting.

When the score comes in, he almost cries again: only a point away from the best he’s ever done.

And when the last skate is finished, he’s still in the lead.

+

When Georgi comes out to meet his fans, Christophe is waiting just beyond them, fielding a couple fans of his own. When their eyes meet, Georgi’s heart gives a twist and for a moment everything is wrong.

Then Christophe winks, broad and ridiculous, and the shadow of the story fades away. And as Georgi signs programs and poses for selfies, he’s glad, so very glad, that Christophe was here to see him skate so beautifully.

“I told you you didn’t need luck.” Christophe comes over finally, like he’s the last diehard fan, and pulls Georgi into a hug, crushing the flowers Georgi is holding. “You were great.” He lets go, catches some of the bouquets. “I told everyone around me I’m hitting that.”

“What—” Georgi starts but Christophe laughs and Georgi knows it’s not true. Probably. “But I had luck, you’re my luck.”

“Here, maybe,” Christophe says. “I won’t be so lucky for you when we’re both competing.”

“Even then.” The way Georgi feels now, alive down to his finger tips, so light he’s going to float away, nobody is ever going to beat him again, not Christophe and not Victor.

Christophe leans in, not touching Georgi, but close and intimate. “Wear that lipstick for me some time, it’s a good colour for you.”

Georgi imagines it, the dark prints of his mouth all over Christophe’s naked skin, blurred onto Christophe’s lips, smeared around the head of his cock, and his mouth dries so that it’s hard to speak. “After I–”

“Hi!” Victor butts in between them, one arm around each of them. “What are we doing now? Supper?” He looks at Christophe, then Georgi. “La Marée?”

Georgi sighs, a bit louder than he means to. Christophe looks at him, questioning. But Georgi can’t read him, can’t tell what he wants to do. They’re not at the wordless communication stage. And why is Victor here anyhow? “Their food’s too rich for the middle of a competition,” Georgi says.

“You pick the restaurant then.” Victor turns to Christophe. “Did you like my new costume?”

“Very sparkly,” Christophe says. “Georgi, I bought food, we don’t have to go out. Or did you want to stay for the pairs?”

“It’s a bit out of my way,” Victor says, “but I could come over for dinner.”

“Do you even know where I live?” Georgi steps out from under Victor’s arm. And mingled with his annoyance is a thread of satisfaction: look at the elder son, threatened and resentful, exactly as be should be.

“I thought we’d share a car,” Victor says. “Or we could all go to my place. Open some wine, order in.”

“No,” Georgi says. “I will see you on the ice tomorrow, Vitya, not before.” He picks up a stray bouquet from the floor and turns to go. He should stalk away now, but he hesitates.

“Go call your boyfriend, Victor,” Christophe says and puts his hand on Georgi’s shoulder.

Georgi’s chest relaxes and he turns to Christophe. “Let’s go home.”

+

After supper, Georgi pours them both a glass of wine at the kitchen table. Just one, to loosen up, to mark the day without losing focus for tomorrow.

He looks deep into Christophe’s eyes for a few moments before he raises his glass. “To you,” he says. “My luck, my prize.”

Christophe’s eyes flick away for a moment but he brings them back and looks at Georgi as they drink. “I am a prize, it’s true.” Under the table, he runs his foot up the inside of Georgi’s calf. “Which you can claim at any time.”

Georgi leans across the corner of the table and kisses Christophe softly. But Christophe catches the back of Georgi’s head and keeps him there for more, slow kisses that warm Georgi more than wine.

Georgi closes his eyes and tries to fix the moment: the kitchen crowding around them, Christophe’s knee pressing against his thigh, his tongue pushing at Christophe’s lips. The exhilaration of the day. The silvery chime of happiness in his heart. He’s going to remember it all forever.

“Do you want to come?” Christophe strokes Georgi’s neck. “You relax, I’ll take care of it. You don’t have get me off.”

“Not in the kitchen again.” Georgi keeps kissing Christophe, his mouth, his cheek, leans in to move along Christophe’s neck.

“No?” Christophe slips his hand up Georgi’s thigh. “No sex in the kitchen? Better post a list of all these rules. No lifts during Nationals, no asses on the furniture, no sex in the kitchen, please limit noise after eleven, here’s the WiFi password.”

“I’ll put the dishes away.” Georgi takes one more kiss before he lets Christophe go.

“Then come to the bedroom,” Christophe says. “And boss me around in there instead.”

+

When Georgi gets to the bedroom, Christophe is already naked. The small TV is on and he’s sharing his phone display.

Georgi stops. “We’re not watching one of your…” Sex videos. He can’t quite say it. And he doesn’t want to think about it. But he can see it now in his head, more vivid than on Christophe’s phone screen back in Paris: Christophe and another man, fucking for the camera. Is the file still on his phone? How many others does he have?

“No and not even porn.” Christophe pulls the duvet back and stacks the pillows against the headboard. “Clothes off, come here.”

“This is me bossing you around,” Georgi says but he does what he’s told.

Christophe sits up against the pillows and positions Georgi between his legs, Georgi’s back to his chest. “Just relax.” He puts one arm around Georgi’s shoulders and nuzzles his temple.

It takes a moment before Georgi can let his tension go and settle himself against Christophe. He’s still not all the way used to how it feels to be in bed with another man. To sometimes be the leaner instead of the leaned-upon. And Christophe makes it so difficult at times, with his explicit talk and way he’s always pushing, pushing at Georgi’s boundaries.

But even if it’s difficult, it’s also sweet to lie back against Christophe’s chest, turn his head for Christophe’s mouth, feel his own dick rise in anticipation of Christophe’s hand or mouth or thighs.

“Then what are we watching?” Georgi runs his hands up and down Christophe’s legs, presses back against Christophe’s chest and his hard cock between them.

“You,” Christophe says and turns on the video.

And there’s Georgi on the ice, poised in that hush before the music begins, the chill of the air and the whisper of the crowd all around him. The percussion hits, he skates off, and Christophe wraps his fingers around Georgi’s cock.

Georgi’s heart lurches. “Christophe, what—“ He leans forward. He hasn’t seen today’s skate yet and for a second even Christophe’s hands on him fade away as he watches himself.

“Don’t analyse,” Christophe says. “Just feel it.” He’s stroking Georgi’s dick in time to the music, but slowly, like a long double bass line underneath the frantic strings. “Look at you, at the power in your body.”

It’s harder to let go now than it is on the ice, to keep from judging every movement, but Georgi tries to sink into it, at least part way. Back into the warmth of Christophe’s embrace. Into the arousal building in him while the tension builds in his performance.

“Look at your skills,” Christophe murmurs, his mouth against Georgi’s ear. “So polished, so well-honed. Look at the way you carry yourself, like everything belongs to you, you’re so far above everyone.” He runs his other hand up and down Georgi’s chest, a light touch, skimming over Georgi’s skin.

Georgi shivers and closes his hands over Christophe’s thighs, not moving, just holding on. Does Christophe really believe the things he’s saying about Georgi’s skating? Is it just sex chat, to get him off?

But it’s working, either way, it’s working. Georgi’s performance is flowing through him, that pleasure of a good skate, of carrying the audience along with him. And Christophe is carrying him along, each stroke of his hands twining the skating and the sex together, two strands twisting tight and tighter.

The program takes forever while Georgi is skating it but now it ticks swiftly away. He kneels on the ice, applause crashing over him, and now he can close his eyes so that it’s just a normal hand job.

“You watch yourself like this,” he says.

“When it’s a good skate,” Christophe says. And the music starts again.

Georgi can’t keep his eyes closed, he’s got to keep looking. He watches himself disappear into those movements again.

“You’re an artist,” Christophe says. “So beautiful, so expressive.”

Christophe’s words slide through Georgi’s ear and tease him so he’s tingling with pride and with desire. He’s rising lighter and lighter, like he’s seeing his score for the first time, like he’s losing himself to the music.

“Think about how that felt,” Christophe says. “What did you feel? How did you captivate the audience?” His hand is still slow but firmer, sliding up like he’s trying to pull Georgi’s emotions out of his dick.

The applause dies away. Georgi closes his eyes again. But the music drags them open and this time he falls into it, does what Christophe says, and feels the program as he’s skating it. The story.

Their love, Georgi and Christophe. So bright, so beautiful, like a starry night. And then, betrayal. It’s a blow to his face, a hook in his guts. Christophe is still warm behind him, whispering in his ear and jacking his dick. But he’s also leaving, turning away, spurning Georgi so he can join his shining prince.

Georgi’s chest tightens and he digs his fingers into Christophe’s thighs. How dare he, after Georgi has given him his heart? That traitor, faithless, fickle, wanton. But Georgi is still responding to Christophe’s hand, Christophe’s words of praise, still getting closer. Closer.

“Once more through,” Christophe says. He switches hands on Georgi’s cock and shakes his arm out before he wraps it around Georgi’s shoulders. “Look at yourself, so beautiful on the ice, so beautiful in bed. I’m going to get you there by the end.”

When Christophe says it, Georgi sees himself: beautiful and terrible, too beautiful for a weak-hearted man. And he soars with the fury, with the power of his curse. And with the arousal that’s there, nearly there. Christophe’s hand is faster, the music is faster, the darkness is crushing him, crushing them both.

“Now,” Christophe says. “Come now.”

And Georgi does, gasping as the applause rains down and his orgasm shakes him. Then he lies there, eyes closed, while Christophe kisses his temple and rubs the semen into Georgi’s belly.

“And that’s how it’s done,” Christophe says. “Want to watch me?”

Georgi keeps his eyes closed a few moments longer, until he’s breathing again. Until the fury and the heartbreak have faded and all he feels is Christophe solid behind him.

Then he sits up and turns around, cross-legged on the bed. He touches his face but it’s not wet.

Christophe is still propped up on the pillows, glowing in the warm light of the bedside lamp. Not the brilliant glow of a shining prince: he’s tawny as a lion and smug as a house cat, lounging back in Georgi’s bed, thumb circling the head of his own cock.

“Give me your phone,” Georgi says.

“If you want to take a video, I’ll wait while you get yours.”

“I have enough video of you jacking it.”

“Is that even possible?” Christophe passes over the phone. “At least wait until I’m in the shower to go through my messages.”

“Look at me,” Georgi says. He holds up the phone and takes a picture, then sends it to himself. His finger hovers over Christophe’s message thread with Victor but he doesn’t tap in. “Sometimes still images are better.”

“Well, tag me if you put it up anywhere. Hashtag my hot bf.” Christophe grins. “Ready for my short program?”

Georgi drops the phone on the bed and watches Christophe jack it for him. Christophe does it so well, he’s so practiced. He knows how good he looks. He’s done this a hundred times before, for who knows how many other men.

A shadow passes over Georgi’s heart. But right now it’s Georgi’s eyes Christophe is looking into, Georgi’s bed he’s in. Georgi’s heart he’s filling, whether it’s noon or twilight.

So Georgi stops watching and slides in beside Christophe, hands on his body, kissing his face. “My prize,” he says. “So lovely, my luck, my heart.”

Christophe’s eyes drop closed and he turns into Georgi’s kiss, hand on his back, and lets Georgi reach down and finish him off as his face flushes down to his shoulders.

Georgi holds him while he shakes, smiling down at Christophe’s lashes fluttering against his cheek, exulting in the way Christophe grabs at him, fingers tight around Georgi’s arm, until he’s done.

“Audience participation,” Christophe says, still a little breathless. “I’m into it.” He grabs a wipe from the bedside table and cleans them both up.

“I’ll remember it better that way,” Georgi says. He rubs his fingers in the short hair at Christophe’s nape, where the product won’t catch his fingertips. “Want to–” Lie here together forever, if only they could, if Georgi could keep them both here. “–watch a movie?”

“Whatever you like.” Christophe bites at Georgi’s lip, then lets go of him and swings off the bed. His phone chimes and he picks it up.

Victor’s face on the message notification. Georgi turns away, pulls on his robe.

“Victor wants to meet for drinks,” Christophe says. “Which I assume you…”

“No,” Georgi says. “No more of his head games.”

“You think?” Christophe says. “Okay, what’s the Russian for ‘stop trying to cockblock me’?”

“Go out with him if you want.” Georgi looks into the mirror and watches Christophe thumbing his reply, the corners of his mouth turning up.

Christophe drops his phone and hugs Georgi from behind. “Hey, did you two ever hook up?”

Georgi freezes for a moment, then laughs, not that the idea is even funny. “No. Never. No.”

“Then that’s one thing I have that he didn’t.” Christophe kisses Georgi’s cheek. “Okay, you pick your favourite movie, watch here or on the couch? We can put on sheet masks, have another drink.”

They settle on the couch and Georgi puts on a movie that’s far from his favourite, just loud and amusing and forgettable. He pulls Christophe’s head into his lap.

And while Christophe complains about the plot holes and the lead’s haircut and the difficulty of reading subtitles sideways, Georgi scratches the back of Christophe’s neck and wonders if he’s ever going to be able to skate that short program again without thinking about Christophe’s hand on his dick.

“I should go to bed,” he says in the middle of a car chase. “It’s early but…”

Christophe turns so he’s looking up at Georgi. “Big day tomorrow. Should I go out and give you some space?”

“With Victor?” Georgi can hear the tone in his voice, the petulance he thought he’d left behind in juniors.

If Christophe hears it too, he doesn’t let on. “It’s a big day for him too. I don’t want either of you blaming me for keeping you up too late. I’ll just walk out and go to that café a few blocks over.”

“It’s raining,” Georgi says. He brushes Christophe’s forehead with his thumb, just along the hairline. He remembers Christophe the last time he was here: raindrops on his face, clinging to his eyelashes, running down his cheeks like tears while they walked home from dinner because Georgi forgot his umbrella. “Probably. It’s usually raining. Stay here.”

He leaves Christophe on the couch and goes to the kitchen for his dose of cod liver oil. It’s raining, a few drops on the dark windowpane. He takes an extra spoonful because he missed last night.

In bed, Georgi picks up his phone and looks at the photo he took before: Christophe is hot, sexy, photogenic. But that glow is missing. Georgi tries some filters but none of them capture what he saw.

He turns off the light and does a relaxation exercise. But he doesn’t fall asleep until Christophe crawls in beside him.

Chapter Text

Saturday, December 24

Georgi wakes before his alarm. He lies there a moment, feeling the ache in his knees and hips, Christophe’s warmth and weight beside him in the bed. It’s tempting to roll over in the dark, throw his arm around Christophe, and match their breaths until Georgi falls back into a dream.

But the day pulls at him: hours left until he skates, until he proves himself. Anticipation runs through him and he’s fully awake, ready to face anything.

He eases out of bed and picks his way out of the bedroom by the light of his phone. In the kitchen, he looks out into the rain-slick streets, the streetlights throwing their candle glow into the dark.

He puts his speaker on the table and loops his free skate music. He moves along with it: pouring water into his teapot, raising his arms and turning through the first moments of his program, cutting the stems on the drooping roses so they’ll live another day. Preparing for his battle, waiting for the sun to rise.

And underneath the music and the morning kitchen sounds, he can still hear Christophe’s voice from last night, murmuring in his ear, telling him he’s so graceful, so strong, he skates so beautifully.

When Christophe stumbles in, rubbing his eyes under his glasses, Georgi goes and kisses him, one long sweet press, to take in all Christophe’s luck, all his favour, so it’s Georgi’s alone. Like Christophe is seeing him off on this campaign, this quest. Georgi’s quest today, not Victor’s.

“Mmm,” Christophe says, when Georgi lets him go. “Is there something you want from me?”

Georgi pours a cup of coffee for him, beautifully, heroically. “I have everything I need.”

+

The wall is cool under Georgi’s palms as he stretches out his arms and back, waiting for his turn to skate. There’s movement all around him — skaters, coaches, trainers — and he closes his eyes to block it all out. Stay loose, stay warm, stay focussed.

His phone vibrates in his jacket pocket. He should have turned it off before this but he pulls it out anyway.

Have a good skate, beautiful, Christophe’s message says. There’s a selfie too: head cocked, chin up, half a smile and winking at the camera. The same pose he uses on his social media a little too often.

Georgi’s heart chimes. He touches his lips and then the screen, pressing his kiss on Christophe’s mouth. Thank you, my luck.

Then he hears the room gasp behind him and he turns to the monitors to see Yuri Plisetsky picking himself up off the ice. Yuri falls again, then again, his face contorted and body failing, burning what energy he has left with his rage.

It’s not surprising: Yuri used himself up during the Grand Prix and he’s still recovering from the damage, like a boxer after a championship bout. But it’s painful to watch and Georgi is sad for the boy, what emotion he can spare for now, while he’s still preparing.

Then it’s just Victor left before Georgi. Georgi moves down the hall to get ready, to raise his adrenaline and calm his heart. He turns up the music in his headphones so that Victor isn’t there at all.

Skate well, Vitya, he sends through the aether. So you’re worthy of being overtaken, a worthy prologue to my story.

When Georgi skates out to centre ice, the crowd is still settling. There should be an overture as they all make ready and the tension rises before this final, championship act. He takes a few extra seconds to loop around before he positions himself, waiting, body and soul.

Then he begins. He opens his heart and lets it break with the swell of the music. Why are you leaving me? He holds out his hand to his lover, to Christophe, but no warm fingers touch his own, no loving eyes look back into his.

He pictures Christophe’s selfie on his phone, but with a shadow falling over Christophe’s face. It’s Victor, laughing just outside the frame. The false prince stealing away Georgi’s only love. Tearing away half of Georgi’s heart.

Then Christophe, cursed and sleeping, cold and still. Remorse fills Georgi. How could he treat his beloved so cruelly, even if he was false?

One kiss, and Georgi will bring Christophe back to him, bind him forever. One kiss to save him. I will save you, let me save you! Georgi soars with love, with power. His body is tiring but his heart grows stronger with every sweep of his blades on the ice.

Don’t leave me! I’ll take you back from him, I’ll wake you up to me alone! Georgi rises, greater than his rival. The moon eclipsing the sun. The younger son inheriting the kingdom. He feels it in his centre of gravity, so sure and so balanced.

He stops, head bowed and hands on his heart. The applause buffets him and he knows he’s done it. There’s no mistaking that certainty he feels.

He salutes the judges, the audience, his chest heaving with exhaustion and excitement. Bouquets hit the ice but he slips his fingers inside his costume to touch the fading rose tucked there.

At the kiss-and-cry, Yakov lectures him, but perfunctorily, and Georgi takes that for the praise it is. Well done, welcome home.

But in the centre of all his certainty, his exultation, his expectation, there’s a needle-prick of anxiety. He can’t really know until he knows. His fingers tighten on his knees and he tries to look calm for the cameras, even though his heart is still crashing against his ribs.

The score goes up. Georgi looks twice to be sure, even after Yakov’s pleased snort. But it’s true: a personal best. At twenty-seven and here, at home, for all of Russia to see.

Joy bursts inside him, pulling him to his feet, a shout gathering in his throat, tears stinging his eyes.

And then he sees. Second place. Second. He thumps back down onto his ass. No joy. Just disbelief.

The best skate of his career, his life, and this is all that he can do. Half a point away but it might as well be fifty, a hundred. Might as well be Georgi climbing up a rock face, fingertips straining for that last handhold, but only scraping against the stone. Watching Victor plant the flag: one more mountaintop scaled, one more dragon defeated, who can keep track any more?

“Why are you still sitting there?” Yakov snaps.

Georgi’s knees won’t work. He pushes himself up with his hands, and sways for a moment before he can go to take a victory lap, trailing behind Victor with a cracked heart. If only the ice would crack as well and swallow him.

Then Victor’s arm around his shoulders for the cameras and Georgi’s frozen face, frozen body. He doesn’t have to think to get through these moments. He’s been here all too often before, it’s muscle memory by now.

And how can Georgi save his beloved when he can’t even save himself? He’s the one who’s cursed: to always rise but never crest, to always fight but never win.

He accepts congratulations gravely. He keeps from spitting on the floor. But in the changing room his face twists and his gut lurches. He yells out loud and bangs his fist against the wall.

People stare and he turns away. He presses his warmup jacket to his mouth and screams into it, frustration tearing at his throat, throbbing in his temples.

His hands shake and he can hardly peel himself out of his costume. The rose, crumpled and brown, falls into his hand and he crushes it in his fist. But he drops it into his bag, instead of on the floor. A memento of failure.

And when there’s no more left to keep him here, Georgi dries his face, squares his shoulders, and goes to face a world where nothing has changed.

+

Georgi drifts through more photos, more fans, the press. Rote phrases fall from his mouth, the familiar lies: I’m pleased, a good result, looking forward to the rest of the season. The triumphant speech he’ll never get to give sticks in his throat and he can’t swallow it back down.

When Georgi sees Christophe coming towards him through the hall, he blinks. It’s like a scene from another life and even when Christophe’s arms squeeze them chest to chest, it’s strange and unfamiliar at first.

“Amazing,” Christophe says. “You were so good. That quad Sal–” His voice doesn’t even have that purring boyfriend tone in it right now. It’s all skater, telling Georgi about his program, all the details Georgi already knows. “That’s the best I’ve seen you skate.” His hand lingers on Georgi’s shoulder, warm and solid. “I’m fired up for Europeans now.”

“I lost,” Georgi says and his heart crumples inside him. He’s hollow, a thin layer of foil shaped around nothing at all. Silver foil. He gave everything he had and now there’s nothing left.

“You…wasn’t that a personal best?” Christophe pulls out his phone and taps at the screen. “Yeah, by nearly a point.”

“I needed a point and a half.” Georgi shrugs. “I didn’t make it.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Christophe reaches for Georgi’s shoulder again.

But Victor ducks between them like a pale snake, all smiles. “What a night!” He takes Georgi’s shoulder instead and slides his other arm around Christophe.

Georgi jerks back. “What do you want?” Victor’s had his win, does he need to bite Georgi now too?

“I don’t know why everyone says you’re so soulful, Gosha, you’re just cranky,” Victor says. “Time to celebrate! I already called La Marée and they’re holding a table.” He turns to Christophe. “You’ll love the sturgeon. And I’ll buy the first bottle.”

“What do you think?” Christophe says to Georgi. “We have to toast your score.” He turns to Victor. “Did you see him? He’s got me worried for the rest of the season now.”

“Worried for what?” Georgi says. “To be associated with a failure?”

“What the hell?” Christophe reaches for Georgi again. “You’re emotional, I get it, but—“

A photographer stops in front of them and they all swing, instinctively, into a pose. Georgi’s body is rigid between Christophe and Victor, Christophe’s hand hot on his back, Victor’s chilly shoulder pressed against him.

He’s caught between the fire and the ice, he’ll drown in the rising water. “It wasn’t enough, it will never be enough.”

“That’s a little extreme,” Christophe says.

Georgi wants to sag against him, burn up in his flame, but he’s freezing instead. And Christophe is wrong: Georgi isn’t emotional, he’s empty. Calm because there’s nothing in him to churn. “It’s the truth.”

“You really need a drink,” Victor says.

Georgi looks at Victor. He won, as usual, he’ll have everything, as usual. Tribute to the prince, useless to deny him. Georgi steps away from Christophe, away from them both. “Christophe, you go with him.”

Christophe frowns. “If you don’t want to go out, I’ll make you dinner.” Then he gives Georgi one of his looks. “Maybe get you drunk.”

“I can get drunk on my own,” Georgi says. Time to stop reaching. “Go.”

He turns on his heel and leaves, for real, no lingering, no looking back, and Christophe doesn’t follow him.

+

Georgi is just outside his apartment when his mother calls. He juggles his keys, his bag through the door while his mother gushes in his ear.

“You skated so beautifully, Gosha, like a dancer. Everyone says so.”

“Yes, mama,” he says, because it’s true. He did skate beautifully, better than he ever has. He did tell a story full of exquisite passion and sorrow. He did enthral the audience with his artistry. It just wasn’t enough. It’s just never enough.

“And your best score, too, I put it on the calendar.” To be remembered with the other excitements of the month: a sale on oranges, daily rainfall, his niece’s violin recital. “You’ll bring your medal down to show us at New Year’s.”

“Of course,” he says. “And caviar from the shop you like.”

“Now that you can relax, why don’t you go out and meet someone? I worry about you, it’s time you were settled.”

“I’m already seeing–” he starts and wishes he hadn’t. He doesn’t know how to explain Christophe to her, how to explain himself.

Not just that he’s with a man now; even if he’d been bringing home boys since he was thirteen, he’s not sure they’d be ready for Christophe. Wouldn’t you rather date a nice boy, Goshenka? The family who have the restaurant two streets over, their son is home to help run the business. He’s very handsome and polite.

Scandalous, that’s what she called Christophe once, watching skating on TV. Five years ago when Georgi hadn’t made the cut for Worlds. Back when Christophe was just another rival. Scandalous. That program, that costume. Overt, revealing, raw. Georgi agreed with her then. Still does, really. And so did the judges: they’d scored Christophe low. He’d probably just escaped a costume deduction.

“Who is she?” Her voice is animated, even more than when she praised his skating, but Georgi is used to that. “You’ll bring her down with you.”

“That might not work,” he says. “We might not…” I might not save him, bring him back.

“You need to try harder,” she says. “They have books about that now, you should read one. Now, tell me about her.”

“Not tonight,” he says, “I’m tired, mama, I need to sleep.” And he is. So tired, it hits him like a hammer blow and staggers him.

She fusses over him a few minutes more and he closes his eyes and leans against the wall to wait it out. “Take your cod liver oil,” she says at last and lets him go.

He unpacks his bag, checking his skates, hanging his costume, like it matters. Maybe it’s time to retire. Not at the end of the season, but right now, while he’s still clinging to that cliff face, before he falls.

In the kitchen, he draws a glass of water and drinks it slowly, like it will fill up all that hollow space inside. He looks at the roses in the pickle jar, dull and fading, just like him.

He touches his phone in his pocket. He wants to message Christophe, give him an ultimatum, maybe, or just say hi. Have that unexplainable, scandalous man wrapped around him one more time, warm and challenging.

But Georgi can’t save Christophe. He can’t even save himself. He goes to take the vodka from the refrigerator, one shot to sleep on, but his hand closes around the cod liver oil bottle instead.

He pours out a spoonful and swallows it: the pungent flavour of his childhood, of his whole life, in the livers of those poor fish who couldn’t save themselves either.

“Fuck,” he says and drops the spoon into the sink. Inside his belly, the oil transmutes into sudden anger and he’s glad to feel it, something real inside of him, even if it hurts.

He grabs for the bottle and over it goes, cod liver oil pooling over the counter, dripping onto the floor, filling the room with its fishy smell.

“Fuck!” he yells. He crashes his fist on the counter so all the cupboards rattle. Then he snatches up the bottle and throws it into the sink, hard as he can. The smash as the glass splinters doesn’t relieve his feelings at all. “Fuck me!”

He can’t be here right now, with the spilled oil and the drooping roses and his broken life so he leaves the mess there and slams the apartment door behind him.