It was not supposed to be like this.
Thirty minutes prior to this moment, Victor Nikiforov had executed the literal best skate of his career, maybe even his entire life, on Olympic ice in his home country of Russia. Ever since the Olympics had been announced for Sochi, he'd played this moment over and over in his mind and was pretty certain it had been exactly as he'd pictured it. Every element pristine, every jump with a positive GOE. He'd worked on his presentation, the one thing some critics had said he'd been lacking in, his tendency to be all business on the ice and focus on technical perfection having led to accusations of being “another wooden Russian skater”. He'd set a new World Record with his score in the free skate, and had performed three quads, two in combination for higher points. He had done absolutely everything he possibly could have, short of opening up his chest and dropping his heart on the ice like a microphone after he hit his ending pose.
But now, as he stood on the 2014 Olympic podium he was one step down from the top staring down at the silver medal hanging around his neck, and it still wasn't sinking in. At age 25, he had already been to three Olympics: his first in 2006, where he'd won an astonishing bronze in his first senior season; second in 2010, where he'd come very close but ended up winning silver, and now the most important one. He was already considered “old” by the standards of his sport, and he'd already planned, after winning gold, to retire from competition and skate in professional show tours to his heart's content. Every single plan, every single hope, every single hour of hard work... and it had all slipped away in the four minutes and twenty seconds that the final skater that came after him had been on the ice.
Victor looked up and over at the just-barely-21-year-old Japanese skater. He cracks at the most important times, everyone had said. He's brilliant but can't put two clean programs together when it counts, Victor's own coach, the legendary Yakov Feltsman, had assured him. So he won the short program, it was a fluke, you'll kick his ass in the long, Victor's own rinkmate Georgi had said, laughing off the pristine, flawless short program the enigmatic, graceful skater had thrown down after Victor's. The only difference between them had been the quad they'd done in their combinations: Victor's was a toe loop, but the Japanese skater had gone for broke – something he wasn't known for doing – and had landed a quad Salchow/triple toe loop, a jump he'd only ever been seen landing in practice that one no one ever thought he'd try on a regular day, let alone Olympic ice.
Victor watched as the three flags – Japan at the top, Russia slightly below, and Switzerland – the home of Victor's dearest friend, Christophe Giacometti, who had won bronze (and was nonetheless ecstatic about it) – rose slowly as the Japanese National Anthem played. In his peripheral vision he could see the Japanese skater seeming unmoved, just barely mouthing along with the words. As the music ended Victor switched into the usual podium routine (though not quite because there was never usually anyone to look up at). The skaters waved, and then as the official photographers grouped on the carpeted space laid on the ice for the presentation, Victor and Christophe were urged to step up onto the top of the podium. Victor mused bitterly it was the only way he'd know what it was like to stand at the top of an Olympic podium on his home ice.
Christophe was mildly acquainted with the Japanese skater, and smiled brightly at him with a nod as he climbed up to the top step in congratulations. The other's face flushed pink and he dipped his head in the typical Japanese bow of gratitude, but seemed almost emotionless somehow – which Victor found caused some anger to well up within him. How the hell did he not even seem to care?
Victor's thoughts were broken into by Chris calling over the loudly playing, fanfare-ish music and the cheers of the crowd (which Victor knew would have been even louder for him), telling him to get up on top for the photographers. He stepped up and the Japanese skater turned his head, dipped it in what seemed like an almost compulsive response, then quickly focused back to the media line as they began calling his name, not even giving Victor time to say anything to him even if he'd felt like it at that moment. Of course it was more likely that Victor's taking his time was making things hurried, but at this particular moment Victor felt even more slighted and even a bit disrespected.
After the flurry of flashbulbs the officials called them down to do a victory lap, with the three men stopping on the ice along the way at points marked off with another piece of carpet for more photo calls. The Japanese skater seemed more than happy to take the opportunity to skate ahead, accepting a huge Japanese flag from someone in the crowd to wear as a cape and pausing to take photos with fans. Victor watched as he skated over to what appeared to be family, and it was the first time he'd seemed to show any real emotion. Once the victory lap ended the trio headed toward the exit to the backstage area to prepare for the press conference, but not without one last, unintentional insult to Victor's injury from the announcer as the three of them turned to wave to the crowd one last time before stepping off the ice.
“One more time, please congratulate our 2014 Olympic medalists: Bronze medalist Christophe Giacometti, silver medalist Victor Nikiforov, and gold medalist Yuri Katsuki!”
The press conference was the first time Victor had ever heard Yuri Katsuki speak. His English was quite good, but he'd opted to have an interpreter stand by to consult if he hadn't heard or understood something clearly when asked in English. He spoke softly, almost too calmly, seeming to measure his words carefully so as not to offend with a misstep. But Victor did not miss the flush that played over Katsuki's face when one Russian reporter asked what, in Victor's mind, the entire world was thinking right now.
“You have always been known as someone who missed important things when it counted. How did you manage to beat the reigning World Champion for the Olympic gold on Russian ice?”
Victor watched Katsuki's coach, two-time Olympic silver medalist turned renowned coach Celestino Cialdini, frown and step forward a pace from where he stood next to the table the skaters were seated at, an air of protectiveness about him.
Katsuki leaned into his microphone and said softly, “I did not expect to win, so I skated as if I had nothing to lose. I learned today that it is what I always should be doing, because then I skate well. I did not think about winning. I just wanted to do well for Japan.”
Katsuki's words struck something in Victor. Yakov had lectured him countless times about trying too hard, wanting it too much...
Victor was startled when he felt a sharp poke on his shoulder; Yakov bringing him back to focus, as he was being addressed.
“I'm sorry, I'm a bit tired,” Victor said into his microphone with an apologetic smile. “Can you repeat that please?”
“Everyone expected you to win the gold in your home country. Did you skate to win today?” the reporter asked, bouncing off of Katsuki's answer. Victor could see Christophe's frown on the other side of the table; the question was harsh all things considered, especially since it was being asked by a Russian journalist. It's already starting...
“I skated with everything I had in me. But any skater on any day can have either the best or worst performance of their life. And sometimes your best is just eight-tenths of a point less than it needs to be,” Victor replied, referring to the margin between himself and Katsuki with a grin that he knew would be read as throwing shade. Don't go down that road, it's not what you do, no matter how disappointed you are...
The press conference ended with yet another round of photos, after which Celestino immediately ushered Katsuki away, a protective arm around his shoulders punctuated by a squeeze of encouragement as they left the room. Victor turned toward Yakov to find his normal, unreadable scowl in place as they took their leave.
“So are you going to do what they asked you about?” Victor asked him as he found them momentarily not flanked by people in the hallway. “Are you contesting the final standings?”
“The Federation wants to, or at least have the judges responsible for what they feel is overmarking Katsuki questioned,” Yakov answered. “That gold should be yours.”
“And you think I want it that way?” Victor snapped. “That gold would never be mine even if they did reverse the decision. In fact no one but Russia would think I deserved it. He landed a quad Sal/triple toe combination in both his short and long, which is harder than anything I did. That alone puts the base value of his programs above mine. He gambled and it paid off. He won fairly. Tell the Federation to drop it, or I will.”
Yakov was about to reply until Victor's attention was diverted to the heads of a pair of journalists poking out of the doorway, who had heard the dispute from the conference room and had gone to see what the commotion was. Thankfully, Victor recognized both as non-Russian speakers; at least they wouldn't have heard what they'd been arguing about. Instead he turned and made his way toward the locker rooms, the weight of the very long day and its outcome finally beginning to settle upon him.
The next several weeks had been a whirlwind of constant media scrutiny of the outcome of the Sochi men's singles event. The fans of both skaters were at war online and for the most part, it was easy to tell the casual fans who only watched once every four years from the more knowledgeable followers of the sport. Victor had always had a practice of secretly checking into places like Twitter, Facebook and the old-school message boards, a couple of which had existed since the early 2000s, to see what fans were saying.
The more removed from that day he'd been, the more he realized that despite his anger and disappointment, those who understood the sport were right, just as he'd already known. Katsuki's base value as submitted to the ISU had been lower than Victor's for both programs, but there was no rule that said one couldn't change what they were doing while on the ice. Katsuki had gone for broke, even if it was inexplicably. He'd never been known for taking chances before; in fact it was usually the reverse. He'd been known for blowing the easiest of jumps, especially when he was on top after the short and even in competitions as “lower level” as the Grand Prix Series events. He'd always been the skater who “would be hard to beat if he could just jump consistently”. Those who didn't follow Katsuki closely were angry; those that did were unsurprised, having known he'd been practicing the quad Sal for more than two years.
Victor found himself fascinated not only with Katsuki's story, but that of his coach. Cialdini had represented the United States at two Olympics, in 1994 and 1998. His unorthodox, “rock and roll” type of skating that focused more on technical merit than artistry had made him a polarizing figure in the sport. With three World Championships and two Olympic silver medals – both times, ironically, he'd lost to Russian skaters that Victor had idolized, and both competitions were hotly debated by fans in some circles even to the present day – Cialdini had been known as one of the first men to land a quadruple jump, the toe loop, in competition, and was the first man to land one in combination at Worlds. He'd parlayed his skating career into a coaching career that had been low-key – that is, until he'd taken on Yuri Katsuki.
Victor had found that Katsuki's story wasn't all that different from his own. Victor had just been one of a hundred young skaters at his rink, though he'd been pronounced “talented” and as a result his parents had been talked into getting him skating lessons. But it had been when Yakov Feltsman had come to the small, run-down rink on the far side of St. Petersburg where Victor skated to look for potential stars that Victor's life had changed forever.
Katsuki had hit a dead-end with his former Japanese coach, and the woman that Victor had thought was Yuri's mother at the Olympics that turned out to be his longtime dance coach and choreographer had contacted Celestino to take him on. When Katsuki had finished high school, he moved to Detroit to train under Celestino and the pairing had been magical from day one.
The more Victor read about Yuri Katsuki, the more he realized he couldn't begrudge his success. Katsuki seemed to work quite hard, but were it not for the reports of fans or fellow rinkmates who had seen him practicing, no one would have known. He rarely if ever gave interviews, and was basically the antithesis of Victor: Loathe to be in the limelight, quiet, even elusive. Celestino seemed to shield his charge well, keeping any media correspondence about his newly-forged Olympic Champion to talk of his skating and training regimens, declining to speak much of his personal life other than that he was from a quiet town in the south of Japan called Hasetsu, where his family ran a hot-springs resort.
Victor himself had taken to declining interviews, staying mum about whether or not he would compete at Worlds. The standard procedure for top-level skaters that went to the Olympics was to skip that season's Worlds, and Victor was heavily considering it even though he hadn't in all of his other Olympic years. This year though was already being pumped up in the media as “the rematch” between himself and Katsuki, and as appealing as it was on the surface to at least beat Katsuki for his third World title, something within Victor made him not want to put that much pressure on the skating world's newly-anointed king. Aside from a single international gold medal at NHK Trophy amongst the silver and bronzes Katsuki had won in his Grand Prix Series events since moving to Celestino and his first Japanese National Championship gold two months earlier, the Olympic gold was the biggest thing he'd ever won.
Victor remembered what that pressure was like after he'd won his first major gold medal at Worlds. He'd hidden it well – Yakov expected nothing less, because showing any sign of weakness makes you beatable – but it had been difficult. He could relate to why Katsuki was likely so withdrawn, as over the years he'd become so as well. And the more he thought about it, he really wasn't sure he wanted to add to Katsuki's plate a rivalry that would probably be built up just as much in the new season as it currently already was.
Best to give him a respite now, before the entire world crushes him without my even putting a blade on the ice.
“We're being called lazy, you know. But quite honestly, I don't care. Everyone skips Worlds in an Olympic year.”
Victor and Chris had just returned to Chris' apartment in Lausanne with the fixings for dinner, with Chris hurriedly closing the door so his new kitten didn't escape. Upon Victor's announcement that he'd withdrawn from Worlds Chris had done the same, finding the thought of competing without Victor to push him as he always had not to his liking. Victor had felt the need to get out of Russia for a bit and away from the prying eyes of the media, and Chris' apartment had become his sanctuary of choice within the last few years.
“The only reason they're saying that is because all the young upstarts that went to the Olympics are still competing,” Victor replied with a smirk.
“It's because Yuri still went. It's all right, you can say it,” Chris teased him. He then affected a sassy tone meant to imitate a reporter. “If the Olympic Gold Medalist can still go to Worlds, so can two seasoned veterans like Giacometti and Nikiforov!!” he squealed, prompting Victor to break into laughter in response.
“Well, yes. But he's also younger. We old men need our rest,” Victor replied. “Anyway, when does the stream for the short program start?”
“You actually want to watch?” Chris asked bemusedly.
“Just the last group. I want to see how Katsuki holds up to the pressure. I feel like he's going to crumble pretty easily. He can't even look you in the eye, so I honestly don't know how he's going to handle the title of Olympic Champion and being expected to be flawless.”
“You don't have to be the Olympic Champion for them to expect that,” Chris reminded him, causing Victor's face to pull into a scowl.
“Well of course not,” he snapped in reply.
“Ooooh, touchy touchy,” Chris said. “Is that why you were planning on retiring after you won gold? So you didn't have to worry about it?”
Victor scowled again. “Shut up.”
“You can still retire, you know. No one says you can't.”
“Are you going to?”
Chris considered his answer for a few moments as he made a show of putting away the last of the groceries. “I don't think I am. I think I've still got at least one more Olympics in the tank, as long as I stay healthy and avoid injury. Which shouldn't be too difficult.”
“Not if you keep pushing on learning the quad Sal. That's rough on the takeoff leg. You should try for the flip. At least it's a toe jump, it won't be as hard on the body.”
“Victor. If Katsuki's quad Salchow stays consistent, everyone is going to be needing it. I've been working on the Sal for a few years now. I've just never been consistent enough with it to put it in a program. So I've relied on my charm and elegance to squeak by with my quad toe and my presentation. If anyone else is going to learn the Sal and flip, it's you. If you get both, you'll be one up on everyone, including Katsuki. The flip is your secret weapon.”
“True. And I think I'm just about ready to add it into the short program this coming season. It's not as tough as the Sal, but from what I've seen Katsuki isn't consistent with the Sal. I still think it will be hit or miss from here on out with him.”
“You think, or you hope?” Chris winked.
“Look. I've always known there would be a new crop of young guns coming for both of us. I just didn't think one would peak at the fucking Olympics, on my ice.”
“If I didn't know better, I'd say you were out for blood darling. I'm honestly surprised you didn't go to Worlds just to decimate him with your legendary Russian artistry.”
Victor stopped at that, then heaved a deep sigh. “I'm... I'm not begrudging him. I just... fuck, Chris. That was my only chance to win an Olympic gold medal in Russia. Even if I do make it to one more Olympics, it... it won't be the same.”
“Sometimes wanting something too much causes us to lose it just as fast,” Chris replied pointedly.
“That's what Yakov said too. He said I was tight in both the short and long. Even told me I should take a page from Katsuki's book and skate like I have nothing to lose. And I did, for a long time, because I knew no one could beat me. But maybe I'm not as infallible as I thought I was. Maybe I got too comfortable...”
“And when Katsuki skated before you in the short and threw down the gauntlet, you didn't know what to do with it.”
Victor sighed heavily. “Yeah. I guess not. Anyway... when does the stream start?”
“Oh. Let me check,” Chris said, calling up the schedule on his phone. “Looks like we'll need to get up early. 6 am our time, since Worlds are in Japan.” Chris smirked over his phone at Victor. “You really should have gone, it would have been sweet revenge to beat him on his home ice.”
“That was exactly why I didn't want to go,” Victor said.
“Does the steelhearted Russian Victor Nikiforov have a soft spot for this adorable little Japanese boy?” Chris teased.
Victor blinked, taken aback for a moment by the internal response Chris' words evoked. “No! I mean... I know what it's like to be under that kind of pressure. I highly doubt he'll survive another season of it. Let him have a chance to breathe before the wolves close in.”
Celestino Cialdini felt like he was floating out of his body at the present moment.
Yuri Katsuki had just landed the final jump in his long program flawlessly, and the home crowd was so deafening Celestino hoped Yuri could hear his music through his final spin sequence. Somehow, for the second time in as many major competitions, Yuri had thrown down two clean programs in both the short the day before and the long now, and the quad Salchow he'd been working on since he'd come to the Detroit Skating Club had finally found its literal edge. But Celestino had always known the potential was there. His method of coaxing it out gently, with the intent of peaking at the right time to earn a trip to the Olympics and Worlds had paid off, but far more than anyone had ever expected.
Yuri came flying over to Celestino's waiting arms, accepting the hug without reservation, smiling unabashedly.
“No fluke this time,” Yuri grinned as they walked over to the kiss and cry.
“Last time wasn't either,” Celestino reminded him. “You're right on schedule, buddy.”
The pair sat down to watch the replays of Yuri's flawless elements, with Yuri leaning forward to squint at the monitor before them, having difficulty seeing without the blue-rimmed glasses that were ever-present off the ice. He found himself grinning at the cleanly-landed quad Salchows, one a stand-alone and one in combination, as well as the quad toe loop near the end of the program.
“Like buttah,” Celestino smiled, patting Yuri's back as he watched.
“I can feel it now, I know just how to land it,” Yuri replied excitedly. “I finally can feel it!”
“I told you it would happen. It just takes about 562 thousand flops first,” Celestino laughed.
They both sat upright then as the announcer began to speak; a moment later both had flown up to standing as Yuri's marks crowned him as the new World Champion – with a score that broke Victor Nikiforov's World Record for the long program, set at Worlds the year before.
“Well that's a way to end the season!” Celestino grinned, hugging Yuri before he stepped forward to bow and wave to the crowd which was going ballistic. “Congratulations buddy.”
Yuri gathered the few stuffed animals he'd picked up, more to add to the pile of rust colored poodle plushies that were thrown to him at every competition once the fans had learned of his affinity for the breed. He always picked one or two to save, the rest being donated to children's hospitals in whatever city they were in. There was no way he could keep them all, especially now when what appeared to be at least two hundred had littered the ice at the end of his performance.
As they headed backstage Yuri paused at the manic squeal he heard coming from his left, the thump of skates in blade guards coming closer as his best friend and training partner, Phichit Chulanont of Thailand, careened over to hug him with a scream. Phichit had lain down two solid programs on his way to a top ten finish of his own, his best result to date.
“We did it Yuri!! We said we were going to kick butt at Worlds and we did!” Phichit cried.
“We did. You made it to the final group, I'm so proud of you!” Yuri grinned.
“Next year I'm gonna knock you off the podium!” Phichit winked.
“You're gonna need a quad first!” Yuri shot back with a grin before Celestino called him away for the media line.
“Just keep it short, they're gonna ask all the same questions at the press conference,” Celestino said. “Give yourself some time to breathe.”
“I know. I'm glad this will be the last time for now. Is it always going to be this crazy?” Yuri asked him as they waited for the silver medalist to finish his sound bites before the medal ceremony began.
“They'll be watching you, for sure. We're going to work on the whole social media thing. I didn't have to deal with that between my two Olympics, and we're gonna get a handle on that and the press. Don't worry, we'll keep things sane for you. I might not have come up in the technology age but that doesn't mean the media goes any easier on you. I got your back, buddy.”
Yuri smiled at him as he was called to the press line. “I'm glad.”
“See? I told you he was totally different at the Olympics.”
Chris and Victor had gotten up early once again to watch the long program and the backstage interviews that followed as they were streamed live, and Victor was stunned by the very different Yuri Katsuki he was seeing on the screen. Smiling, hugging his best friend backstage, cordial yet still reserved but definitely more prepared this time, the newly-crowned World Champion seemed remarkably relaxed after proving his Olympic win was anything but a fluke.
“Sucks that the season is over, his momentum might take a hit,” Chris said. “Unless he does one of the Japanese tours to keep busy.”
“Every time I've done a Japanese tour at the end of a season, they all show up two months after Worlds with the first draft of their new competitive programs for the next season to skate in front of audiences,” Victor said. “They don't quit, they're always ready to go. I honestly don't see him doing any less, the Japanese Federation will be pushing him hard now.”
“All the better for a very interesting season to come,” Chris said. “My old bones ache just thinking about keeping up with him.”
Victor snorted at that. “We both still have a lot left in the tank. We'll just have to see what next season brings.” He watched as Yuri gave a short interview to the Swiss broadcast team. “Why was he so rude in Sochi, I wonder?”
“Well you were staring daggers at the poor thing, he was probably terrified between that and being in a room full of Russians,” Chris noted, causing Victor's face to turn aghast.
“I was not!” he shot back.
“You were. You stared him down when he shook your hand before he got on the podium and then again when we got on the top step for photos. You looked like you wanted to slit his throat with your skate blade. I'd be surprised if he comes within a mile of you if you're ever in the same venue again.”
Victor sighed heavily. “I... was just upset. At myself, mostly. And maybe felt like he was being... disrespectful? I don't know. Did he talk to you at all?”
“Just to say congratulations. I think the poor dear was shell shocked. Clearly he's gotten some media training since. And remember, his coach was the king of putting a good spin on things.”
“Lost at the 1994 Olympics because he doubled the quad toe, and at the 1998 Olympics because he skated injured but didn't tell anyone but the USFSA rep and his team until it was over. His groin had been giving him trouble from trying to be the first to land the quad Sal, and it tore in the middle of his long program. It was so bad the injury ended his career totally, he couldn't even skate professionally. So he started coaching once he recovered,” Victor noted.
“Ohhh, you've been studying, good boy!” Chris chided. “And why do you know so much about Yuri Katsuki's coach?”
“It's not like it isn't all part of skating history. He was one of the first members of the Quad Squad from back then.”
“Mhm. I think someone's a bit obsessed. Anything else you want to know about the new World and Olympic champion? I mean, I ran into him a lot in juniors.”
“And you didn't say anything?”
“Why would I? We were never friends per se. He could never beat me though. In fact, the Olympics was the first time he'd managed it, ironically. We hadn't been in any of the same Grand Prix events since he went into seniors. I honestly thought he'd fade into the deep pool coming out of Japan, because there's a lot of talent and Katsuki was always inconsistent. Gorgeous lines, lovely dancerlike quality to his presentation, but he could fall apart if you sneezed his way before he went out. A bit of a mousey, nervous fellow when he was younger. But Celestino seems to have worked some kind of magic that has fixed at least the on-ice part.”
“Sounds like Celestino's got his work cut out for him. All that pressure can either fuel you or crush you. He'll be under a magnifying glass next season... time will tell if he goes up in flames when the spotlight shines through it and hits him,” Victor said.
“So philosophical. I think the mimosas are hitting you,” Chris teased. “Anyway, we should nap before our spa appointments later. Curse Japan for their time zones not cooperating with ours.”
The duo retreated to their rooms then, with Victor lying down in the guest bedroom. He'd only had his eyes shut a few minutes before he gave up and pulled his phone out again, scanning the skating media sites for more about Katsuki. After seeing several interviews that used the same sound bites he finally found video of the press conference, which hadn't been shown on the stream. Katsuki was still reserved, but more poised this time, and more talkative. Without the pressure of sitting between the two veterans that had been heavily touted as the top favorites to win the Olympic gold, the Japanese skater was much more at ease, if still frustratingly brief and almost evasive with some of his responses... until one question in particular, once again asked by a Russian journalist, the accent giving him away.
“Do you think you would still have won if the top skaters were here? Nikiforov, Giacometti, Popovich?” the journalist asked.
Katsuki looked back over his shoulder to where Celestino stood by, the pair sharing what appeared to be a knowing smile before the skater turned back toward the press group.
“I did it once with the same programs, the same TES and PCS. If they skated the same programs they did last time, then yes. It all depends on what you bring to the table each time. If you know you have to bring the main course, you don't show up with a side dish,” Katsuki replied with a soft smile; behind him Celestino broke into a grin. Victor recognized the quote; it was one that Celestino himself had used upon winning his first World Championship against a similar level of competition.
So that's how it's going to be, Victor thought to himself as he turned off his phone, setting it down and pulling the blankets up to his chin, the early morning and mimosas finally catching up to him. We shall see who sets the table next season, and who partakes of the feast.