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16 Glasses

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When Victor was very very young, still finding his wobbly way on the ice skating rink, he watched the figure skaters competing in the 1994 Olympics.

The voices over the men's ice skating said the favorites were Viktor Petrenko, Brian Boitano, and Kurt Browning. But all Victor's cheering, his support, even prayers, were for Alexei Urmanov, and he felt triumphant when Alexei won the gold, as if he'd won something himself, as if he'd known.

Victor watched the women's skating too. The announcers kept babbling about a terrible scandal. The boyfriend of one female skater from the USA had attacked another US skater.

Because of this, the wounded skater was everyone's favorite. Victor found that unfair. To correct the injustice in his own young mind, he made an effort to memorize the names of the other skaters: Katarina Witt, Surya Bonaly, Chen Lu, Yuka Sato, Tanja Szewczenko, and 16-year-old Oksana Baiul.

In the free skate, Oksana neared the end of a nearly perfect program; Victor was already feeling indignant, because the judges would probably mark her down on presentation so they could give the gold to the American with the hurt knee.

Only then, Oksana broke from her choreography. She suddenly built up speed early, and added a triple toe loop before her last jump combination.

The voices were shouting in shock and excitement, and as she came off the ice, Baiul burst into frantic tearful sobbing, as if she'd shocked herself, too.

Watching at home, Victor had to jump up and down as the scores were announced. This was even more exciting than Alexei's win, and later, Victor thought about why.

Alexei had won because he was the best, but he was the best partly because the favorites made mistakes. Oksana had won because she saw the other skaters excel, saw the sympathies running toward the American; she knew she had to do better to win, and she risked everything to exceed them all.

That was what Victor wanted to do. That was how he wanted to win. He didn't just want to make fewer mistakes, or even skate perfectly; he wanted to surprise and amaze.

Victor never forgets other lessons from that Olympic season, too. The favorites could always fall. And the less-favored skaters could always surprise.

He decides early on that during competitions, as much as possible, he'll only focus on his own programs. But of course it's important to be aware of what the others are doing. So he watches their performances from other competitions he's not part of, to get a sense of what he's up against.

In the run-up to the Grand Prix Final at Sochi, he mostly knows what to expect from the other five skaters. He's intimately familiar with Christophe's work, and considers him the one to beat. Jay-whatsit-the-Canadian is athletically nearly perfect, but a dull skater artistically; better choreography would make him more of a threat, but with his current program, Victor isn't terribly worried. Cao Bin tends to overreach and make small mistakes that cost points. Michele Crispino usually flags in the second half.

The only one approaching a wild card is Japan's Yuuri Katsuki. Victor's reviewed several of Katsuki's performances. He sort of had to, because Katsuki is wildly uneven in competition.

His presentation is graceful, his footwork intricate and immaculate, and he has the athleticism to pull off difficult spins and jumps. But his programs don't feel integrated. There's too much time leading into the jumps, more than what's required just to build up the necessary speed. It's like his choreographer isn't confident that Katsuki can make the jumps without extra moments to prepare. Maybe that's true, but Katsuki still flubs jumps regularly, and the wasted seconds use up precious time in his routines and throw off the rhythm.

Still, maybe there are other reasons. The extra time could allow Katsuki to turn some of his scheduled jumps into combinations. That's what Victor would do. Katsuki's combinations are often stronger, Victor thinks, than his single jumps; coming out of the first jump, Katsuki goes right into the next and the next fluidly, with no sign of difficulty or fatigue.

When he nails his jumps, he makes them look effortless, or else he takes a fall, almost never in between. He hasn't landed every jump in his free skate since the first time he unveiled the program in competition, but he did manage it that once, so it's always possible he could do it again. It would be unlikely, given how uneven Katsuki is, but Alexei Urmanov and Oksana Baiul were unlikely winners, too. Anything can happen on the ice.

If Katsuki lands all his planned jumps at the Grand Prix Final, he'll be hard to beat. If he turns any of those jumps into combinations, his technical scores could top Victor's, and his presentation scores consistently rank very high.

That puts Victor in what he privately thinks of as an Alexei position: he's counting on someone else to make mistakes in order to win. It's not a position he likes to be in, but at this level of skating, he's come to accept that it's inevitable.

He's in the same position relative to Chris and that Canadian, Jay whatever. If they nail all their jumps and footwork, only Victor's superior showmanship will put him over the top.

With that in mind, Victor stops practicing the full routine of his free skate. He works on it piece by piece. To keep his endurance high, he does his short program and then without pause goes into two minutes of the free skate routine.

But no matter how Yakov complains, Victor only performs the whole free skate program in its entirety in competition. He can't let himself get too accustomed to it; this program has to feel fresh every time he skates it through to completion. That's the only way he can see to keep his presentation scores high enough to exceed the other skaters this season.

Victor's strategy works at the Grand Prix Final, and he has some Alexei-style luck on his side, too.

Chris lands a triple axel on two feet and wobbles out of a quad in an otherwise flawless pair of programs. The Canadian guy hits all his jumps, but his spins and footwork are so-so and everything but the jumps is boring, so the judges mark him down on presentation. Cao Bin falls to a similar fate, though in his case, it's the spin transitions that ding his presentation points, and two-footing out of a quad hurts his technicals.

Michele Crispino falls on a quad flip and turns the rest of his quads into triples to get through. And Katsuki has some kind of meltdown and flubs three jumps in a row, though Victor feels a little vindicated when Katsuki uses the little cushion of extra time built into the routine to turn his last jump into an elegant combination, just like Victor imagined he might.

That combination and his footwork are the only things that keep his scores from flatlining completely, and even so, he's in last place by nearly thirty points. A few commentators speculate that he'll retire, which seems premature. Anyone can have an off night, and Japan hasn't even held their Nationals. There's still a lot of season left.

On the podium, Victor plays to the cameras, with Chris goading him on. He kisses his gold medal, tosses his hair, winks in all directions. It doesn't really matter how he comes off at photo ops, anymore.

His persona started out precocious and innocent; then he had a 'surprisingly mature' season (that is, he skated to classical music and wore black); then a rebellious season (torn costumes, angry rock tunes). A flirty, sexy season. A season of choral music, religious imagery and enigmatic looks. A colorful, fun season with pop music and bright costumes. Another more mature sexy season of slinky costumes and torch songs.

A romantic season. A somber season. A theme of nature, a theme of loss, a theme of renewal. What hasn't he done, at this point.

This year the theme's a sort of heartbreak-yearning-loneliness thing, but he can't be bothered to maintain it off the ice. Everyone knows who he is by now, they know he picks up moods and drops them again like he's changing tracksuits. No one buys into it as something he's really feeling. No one's surprised.

Victor sticks around for the Juniors' medal ceremony too, since Yuri Plisetsky won the Junior gold. Not that his baby rinkmate is likely to appreciate it. And predictably, as he comes out with his medal, he sneers at Victor, and barely manages to tone his expression down to merely surly for Yakov as he offloads the gold. (Everyone wants them, but those things are so clunky and big for photo purposes that they're no fun to wear.)

Despite the scowls and attitude, Victor knows the photographers will manage to catch a frame or two of Yuri looking waifish, and those are the shots they'll use. It takes more than pulling faces to shape an image.

And it takes more than aggressive jumps to be a champion. As they leave the Junior ceremony, Victor advises, "Yuri, about your free performance, the step sequence could use more--"

"I won, so who cares? Quit nagging, Victor."

"--finesse," Victor finishes, unfazed.

He's drowned out, though, by Yakov. "Hey! Yuri! You can't talk that way forever!"

Victor knows this rant by heart, so when his eye is caught by someone close by, he's quick to turn. A cute Asian guy with nerdy glasses stands watching him, his expression complex and unreadable.

Over the years, Victor's seen every kind of approach, and he prides himself on reaching out to fans who seem shy or frozen. "A commemorative photo?" he offers. "Sure!"

Instead of stepping in for a selfie, though, the guy looks stricken. It's only then Victor registers the suitcase the guy is rolling alongside him. Hardly anyone at the venue brings a suitcase, except the competitors, hauling their costumes and skates.

It's Katsuki. Victor didn't recognize him in glasses. Well, even so, Victor smiles at him; he offers photos with fellow skaters too, and most anyone, really. People often seem to want selfies with him even if they don't know where they recognize him from, just like tourists want their photo with the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, even when they have no idea what it is.

Katsuki, though, turns and walks away without another glance.

Victor watches him go, and winces as he turns back to Yakov and Yuri. "That was the other Yuuri, the one from Japan. I might have offended him."

"Who cares what that loser thinks?" Yuri dismisses.

Victor's opening his mouth to point out that even with all his slips, Katsuki had a better step sequence than Yuri's, but Yuri's already adding with a smirk,

"Wait, did you offer him a photo like he's just another fan?" He laughs. "Not everyone wants a picture with you, you egomaniac!"

"I suppose not," Victor says mildly.

As usual, the lack of pushback gives Yuri nothing to rail against, and he leaves off with a sulky eyeroll and a muttered, "Idiot."

"Let's get you both back to the suite," Yakov gruffly shepherds them out of the lobby. "You're going to want to rest before the banquet."