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i'm taking back the crown

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‘This is too difficult,’ Lilia tells him when she hears his free skate music for the first time. ‘The rhythm — it is too fast, Vitya. You will tire yourself out and likely fall on the ice.’

‘I can do it,’ Viktor says. He’s seventeen. ‘I’ll choreograph it myself.’

He does, of course. His heart hammers and the wind shrieks past him as he jumps and it is extravagantly ambitious. Yakov screams at him for nearly injuring himself twice in practice — holds Viktor’s hair back as he throws up after a few too many drinks the night before. Viktor is grateful to Yakov, and he says so. Then he ignores Yakov’s advice and repeats the routine for hours and hours till his feet crack and bleed, changing and perfecting it, and limps home with his coat collar turned up and his head blankly content.

Before he was Viktor Nikiforov, seventeen-year-old European champion, he was Viktor Nikiforov, rising star: the Russian skater with the fair hair and high cheekbones. The camera loves him; he’s striking. He’s always been tall but there’s a slenderness to his bones that makes people look at him and think of words like girlish and delicate and strong. Viktor is good enough that the commentators dare not laugh at him. Even at fifteen, competing in the senior division for the first time, he did not like the word flamboyant. His programs were beautiful and his technical scores were perfect and, at Skate America, one or two disparaging remarks were thrown his way and Viktor smiled with all teeth. He won.

It’s set the pattern.

He goes home to his apartment, which, at this point in time, is in Moscow. Moscow is a lot bigger than his hometown. Moscow’s a lot bigger than a lot of things. He ties back his hair. Looks in the mirror. Examines his feet, the toenails blackened and splintering, the blisters quickly forming. Opens the medicine cabinet to reach for the first-aid kit — bracing himself for a scare when he closes the mirrored door, the possibility that someone, something will have appeared behind him by the time he catches sight of his reflection again. Viktor has never broken this childish habit.

In this old apartment block, built — most likely — before the fall of the Soviet Union, the pipes rattle and whisper at night. Startle him from his sleep at ungodly hours, picturing imaginary footsteps in the hallway.

He should get a dog.

Yakov catches him in a bathroom with the Canadian representative skater the day before the World Championships. Yakov never mentions it again. Viktor takes the championship title by an acceptable margin of — about thirty points, he thinks, ahead of the Czech and Chinese skaters who come in second and third place. He doesn’t remember how many points the Canadian boy scores. He is nearly eighteen years old.

The free skate doesn’t all go smoothly. He messes up a triple toe loop and is so angry at himself that he changes his next two jumps to a quadruple salchow and a quadruple flip, to the roars of the crowd. The air scrapes painfully in his lungs as he drags himself off the rink, and every part of him is on fire. He doesn’t even register the audience flinging flowers onto the ice behind him, the enthusiasm of the two commentators. He has broken a world record and surprised everyone except himself.

Yakov doles out gruff affection in doses. It’s enough to keep Viktor going. Yakov hugs Viktor’s head briefly to his shoulder and Viktor makes eye contact with Georgi, eyebrows arched, sitting next to Yakov with his red-and-white RUSSIA jacket zipped up almost to his chin.

Viktor breathes. The sweat’s dripping down his temples. Yakov opens his mouth, clearly torn between scolding Viktor for his mistake, scolding Viktor for needlessly altering the choreography, and praising Viktor for his good work. At last he settles on the relatively toothless ‘We’ll improve that program before next year’s Grand Prix —’

‘Give me a break, Yakov,’ Viktor snaps. He’s exhausted. Soon, very soon, he will grow out of this — learn to keep his temper and paint on a smile. When he meets Yuri Plisetsky, who has even less patience than Viktor and drives Yakov to gibbering frustration, Viktor spends half his time slow-clapping in the background.

More than anything, Viktor observes. He keeps his head down on days he senses tension between Yakov and Lilia, takes care to be more pliant than his usual self. He gives himself migraines translating articles from English into Russian, putting together the jigsaw pieces of what his older competitors have done and shouldn’t do. He builds a following of thousands on social media. At events, coming down the winding stairs of the hotel with his hair (still wet from the shower) falling into his eyes, he learns his opponents’ names and their favourite foods. He watches the other boys with their thrilled greetings in the hotel lobby. If he looks hard enough, he can tell which of them text and Skype each other throughout the year, which ones are best friends and which ones secretly dislike one another.

Viktor doesn’t have that kind of dynamic with the rest of them. When he climbs out of a taxi in Shanghai or Bordeaux or New York, jet-lagged and short-tempered, the other skaters’ reactions are: excitement, awe, requests to take a photo with him. Viktor’s not very good at taking selfies. He doesn’t know the best angle; he lets other people hold the phone, most of the time. He doesn’t have anyone to send random pictures of Makkachin to throughout the day. He clears his text messages after replying to them.

He sleeps with the American and French competitors at the World Championships and he enjoys it but they don’t talk to him much the next morning.

After his second Grand Prix Final win, he smiles at the interviewer. Pastes on that empty-headed charm he’s practised long enough to feel. Says: ‘I’m working on improving my English.’

Ludmila Babicheva, an auburn-haired girl who has rapidly become inseparable from Yuri, trips and falls when she spots Viktor casually watching her practise, his arms folded. Viktor is surprised — his body language wasn’t all that negative, was it? It’s heady. It’s more than a little frightening. He smiles at her, gives her pointers in what he hopes is a kind enough tone when she asks, and tries to seem more certain than he feels.

He’s never idolised anyone. He doesn’t know what it’s like. He is an expert at seducing the public, now: his perfect smile on the podium, his sparkling delight over good food, how graciously he treats the junior skaters who look up to him. The flashes of keen, cold calculation he allows other people to see only endear him further to the figure skating world. Russia likes a champion who can think. He makes friends and all the while he’s thinking how can I make you stay.

Later, at twenty-five, he will search for regrets and find that he can’t come up with any; it’s all a blur. He’s had his hair cut short and he’s swapped the delicate, swanlike costumes he used to love for jackets and trousers with a decidedly masculine cut. Viktor glories in the fan and press reactions when they see this drastic overhaul of his image, his reinvention so complete — but he misses his long hair. He’s not going to lie.

He’s mentored nearly a dozen younger skaters over the years, in that flighty yet uplifting way only Viktor can manage. They come and go. Injuries, family deaths, dropping out to pursue a less taxing career in university. The fierce joy on their faces, whenever they catch him looking impressed, more than makes up for all the broken promises. At least, that’s what Viktor likes to think. He hopes it’s true. He wakes up at dawn even on his free days, unable to adjust his body clock, and Lilia shouts, ‘Where is the emotion?’ as he practises in her ballet studio. He’s been competing for ten years.

Viktor dates people because it helps improve his skating. He breaks up with them because they’re getting predictable. Mostly he seeks out people who share the same outlook — skaters, ice dancers, ballet dancers with the same burning need in their stomachs and an itch under their skins. They have more in common with Viktor; they’ll understand. It’s kinder. The difference between Viktor and Georgi is that Georgi is invariably torn up about his failed relationships. Viktor’s relationships fail because he makes them. He doesn’t know what he’d do if he were on the receiving end of the clean, gentle breakup speech he’s honed to a fine art. How he’d feel. He’s never letting anyone get that close. Viktor is sometimes cruel but he is not a cruel person. This is what he tries to believe.

‘See, this is what I like about you,’ Yuri tells Viktor after training, sitting on the ground with his back against the lockers. ‘You’re manipulative, but you’re always so honest about being manipulative.’

Across the room, Viktor stops with his water bottle halfway to his mouth. ‘Come again?’

‘It’s just. It’s, you know.’ Yuri raises and lowers one shoulder. ‘It’s just another one of your talents.’

Yuri Plisetsky is thirteen years old and has a better read on Viktor than most of the world’s journalists. He thinks: help. Help. I don’t know how humans work.

But now — now, he’s eighteen, and Yakov grumbles that he’s developing high blood pressure because of how often Viktor switches around his program content without any warning. Viktor is very nearly sorry. Sometimes the whistling and applause begins with his first spectacular jump, the moment he breaks into fluid improvisation in the step sequence, and doesn’t stop until he’s done. Viktor has always had the taste of a choreographer. People are already praising the clean ballet elegance, Lilia-trained, of his precisely chosen footwork. This is what makes Viktor special, this is why he’s won and he’ll keep winning — the ability to communicate feeling. To create music with his body. To translate sound into movement without the pesky barrier of language in between. This is what his rinkmates don’t have. Combining sheer brute power with grace. He is so sure that he’ll never lose this.

The short program is playful and seductive and Viktor’s blood is humming in his ears. It’s not… it’s not just the beauty of skating on its own, you see. Viktor is not the type of person to skate alone for skating’s sake. He does do that, of course, wild and exhilarating and free — but he’s always planning while he’s doing it. Creating. Memorising. Considering the question of when he’ll show this to an audience. Some programs are to be saved for later seasons; others must be performed at once because Viktor is so excited about them. This program belongs in the second category. He’s never known anything except skating, skating and other people, these two halves of his world, these two halves of Viktor tangled up in each other.

He doesn’t have as much stamina as some, but here’s the distinction: Viktor is a born dancer. The purity of his motions, tango music flushing through his veins. It’s not about skating. No. The roll of his shoulders; the quick sweep of his tongue darting out to flick over his lips. It’s the shocked pleasure on the spectators’ faces. The judges’ eyes on him. He winks at a section of the audience as he skates past them and drives them wild; their cheers follow him on the ice, a comet’s tail. It’s dangerously thrilling. This is an adrenaline high as primal as food or sex or sleep — the audience clapping along to the beat, the world on his tongue. He’s having fun. He’ll do this forever.

Afterwards, Team Russia erupts into glad exclamations as his component scores appear on the screen. Viktor clutches his flowers and blows a kiss to the camera. He never forgets how Christophe’s cheeks heat and his eyes light up when he sees Viktor by the side of the rink after Christophe’s free skate, mouth half-open, clapping like he means it. This is how Viktor learns: he has the power to make or break somebody’s confidence.

Viktor is not afraid. He’s not afraid of anything.