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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."

Chapter Text

The formal gathering after a skating event is always an anticlimax. But figure skating is an expensive enterprise and younger skaters depend on local funding to subsidize rinks and venues. The least the older skaters can do once they're successful is take some time to rub shoulders, to see and be seen with the people responsible for supporting the sport.

And it is nice to spend a little time socializing with other skaters once the pressure of the competition is off.

"Are you taking that free skate costume all the way to Worlds? You look like a tin soldier in that thing," Chris teases. "Bring back that see-through outfit with all the white!"

"I'm a bit bigger now than when I was seventeen." Victor demonstrates with a roll of his shoulders.

"I know! Don't let it out, either, just wear it nice and tight."

"There's nice and tight, and then there's popping seams. That's not sexy."

"Depends on the seam."

Yakov stops by, face florid with liquor, and tells Victor in the closest thing he has to a quiet tone, "Don't just talk to your friends, mingle more."

"Point me," Victor says, and follows Yakov's gesture toward another part of the ballroom.

"You're much more obedient off the ice," Chris says, following along.

"If Yakov's willing to keep track of who all these people are and which ones we need to talk to, I'll let him steer me toward them."

They walk through a broad passageway from one side of the ballroom to the other, the separation marked with two marble pillars and three widely spaced brass poles. Chris reaches out as they pass to grab the nearest brass upright, swinging himself once around it and raising an eyebrow at Victor.

"Don't you dare!" Victor laughs, elbowing him, as if that'll make a difference. He knew from the moment he saw the layout of the ballroom that Chris would end up on one of those things tonight. The only question will be how many clothes they can keep on him.

Yakov has him talk to local supporters; he really does keep track of which ones are important to flatter, and which ones genuinely know and care about skating. Not that it makes a difference to Yuri, who fidgets and stares at anything but the people Yakov and Victor are talking to. Victor's tried to teach him how to feign interest, but so far it falls on deaf ears.

Yuri's typical scowl deepens and finds a target. Victor can't help glancing back to see who earned that look, but the only new arrival is Katsuki, being bodily guided into the ballroom by his coach.

"You look glum," says the coach, in what must be the understatement of the century. Katsuki looks like his coach's arm around his shoulders is the only thing keeping him from sinking straight through the floor.

Victor catches Chris's eye and jerks his chin at Katsuki, but Chris just frowns and shakes his head, not getting what Victor's trying to indicate. In fairness, what Victor wants to get across is complicated, something like: please go greet Katsuki and either cheer him up or sideline him; the supporters here probably shouldn't see a losing skater dragging around the party like a wet shoelace.

Occasionally Victor feels as if he should step up at moments like this. For a lot of people, he's the face of male figure skating-- well, "a lot" relatively. Victor's perfectly aware that female figure skaters dominate most peoples' awareness of the sport, and maybe one person in a hundred might know any figure skaters by name or by sight. Still, he's been winning major competitions for thirteen years. He's won at Worlds four times running. At 27, he's practically an elder statesman. He should probably take some responsibility for how the sport is represented.

On the other hand, Katsuki turned his back on him earlier, so if Victor tries to stick his oar in, he might just make things worse. Anyway, he's busy.

"Can I get a picture?" one of the donors is asking. "My daughter will never forgive me if I don't."

"No problem," Victor smiles. "Come on, Yurochka, let's have the junior and senior gold medalists both in it, eh?"

"Don't call me that," Yuri snaps, but he moves in for the photo.

Schmoozing mostly accomplished, Victor rejoins Christophe, now with Michele and his sister Sara. Almost immediately Yuri joins them, arms crossed and head turned away as if he's sick of them all; as if there aren't a thousand other places he could stand in this room besides right here.

"How bored are you?" Chris asks Victor with a familiar sparkle.

"Not bored enough to let you pole dance with those brass stanchions." The shock on the partygoers' faces would be something to see, but to Victor, nothing could be more predictable than a provocative display from Christophe.

"You need to drink more."

"Champagne is never going to get me drunk enough to think pole dancing at a championship banquet is a good idea."

"You never know." Chris points. "It worked for him."

Victor turns; it's Katsuki, cha-cha-ing his way out onto the dance floor. There's an absolute forest of empty glasses on the table he's walking away from, and one still in his hand, which goes from full to empty in a single quick toss of Katsuki's head.

That sense of responsibility stirs in Victor again, and this time he follows it, making his way to Katsuki. The other skaters move with him as if he has a plan beyond rescuing the empty glass.

Katsuki brightens when he spots them, and pirouettes in place. All figure skaters take at least some dance training, but Katsuki moves like he was a dancer first.

"Anyone want to dance?" Katsuki's accent is a little heavier, but despite all those empty glasses, he's not slurring much.

"Gross," says Yuri. "Your dancing is as lousy as your skating!"

They all go dead silent for a moment, the older skaters glaring swords and daggers at Yuri.

Katsuki sniggers. He takes off his glasses. "You. Punk. You want to be the only Yuri in seniors?" He pokes his spectacles in Yuri's general direction. "If you can out-dance me, I'll retire tonight."

Yuri snorts. "Oh, you're just looking for an excuse to quit, aren't you? Fine, I'll give you one," and he joins Katsuki on the dance floor. It's not likely to go well for him; Yuri begrudges his dance lessons, he's foremost an athlete, not an artist.

"I'll judge!" says Chris, game as always; he takes Katsuki's glasses for safekeeping and queues up dance music on his phone. Victor's busy taking photos and cursing the low lighting.

"Winner gets to be called Yuri," Victor says as he switches to video. "Runner-up has to settle for being Yuuri K. or Yuri P. It's a party! No one's retiring tonight."

"He said retire!" Yuri shouts, trying to get in Katsuki's face. Katsuki just laughs, drops, and does a handstand, leaving Yuri scowling at his ankles. "How is that dancing?"

Katsuki shows him. It's breakdancing, probably, mostly, and maybe what looks like capoeira: Katsuki supports himself on his hands while his legs flail up in rhythmic kicks. On the beat he pops up, undulates through a series of hip-intensive moves, and then he's down again, spinning on his head.

Yuri P. tries to imitate Katsuki's splits and handstands, but soon he's so outclassed, it's like he's just throwing himself around the floor hoping a dance move will happen to him by accident.

"Is he skanking?" Sara asks incredulously as Yuri P. does some kind of angular jerky motion.

"I don't know what that means," says Victor, "but the word sounds awful, which does match how bad that looks."

Sara nods. "He's definitely skanking."

Chris cups his hands around his mouth. "And we have a verdict! Yuuri Katsuki wins the right to be called Yuuri! Yuri Plisetsky will now be known as Yuri P."

"I'm not answering to that!" Yuri P. yells back as he stomps off the floor.

"Hold this," Victor says, pressing his phone into Yurochka's hands. "Shoot video," and he moves away before Yurochka can squall at him about it.

"Anyone else want to dance?" Katsuki-- no, he won, he earned it, he's Yuuri now-- Yuuri calls out, spinning himself around the floor, steps quick and light.

"How's anyone else supposed to get out there? You're all over the place!" Michele answers.

They must be rattled, to miss something so obvious, the consistent circles Katsuki's making. "He's not all over the place," Victor says, "he's skating," and he joins in just as he would on the ice: a safe distance away, moving when Yuuri moves to keep space constant between them, but following the same basic steps to the same beat til they're in sync.

When Yuuri catches sight of him, he bounces on his toes without breaking his rhythm, and he starts adding sillier moves, apparently just to see if Victor will follow. They end up doing ridiculous kicks and leaps and twirls, getting closer on each pass until Yuuri approaches Victor with the opening steps of the paso doble.

Victor whips off his suit jacket to brandish it matador-style, and something in his stomach just shivers when Yuuri dives for it, tugging it out of Victor's hands, rolling across the floor and springing up to his feet.

He flaps out the fabric theatrically, and approaches Victor from behind with the jacket held out. Victor extends his arms behind him, and Yuuri slides his jacket back onto him, turning that, too, into a dance move, his hands sliding down Victor's chest too briefly before he seizes a shoulder and spins Victor to face him, smirking up at him as he backs off, taking up the paso doble steps again.

Victor follows his lead, too much of it at a distance-- why does the paso doble have so many steps apart?-- until Yuuri swoops closer and hooks his arm around Victor's waist, pulling him into something that's not really paso doble anymore. Closer to a tango, but they're both facing the same way.

Once Victor falls into step with him, Yuuri makes the motions more dramatic, moving them both in broad circles across the floor. He looks different up close, straight dark brows and wide bright eyes, graceful cheekbones, a beautiful open smile. Actually, maybe it's the smile that makes such a difference.

"Have you ever skated pairs?" Yuuri asks.

"Not yet," Victor says, and leans into him.

Just like that, the arm around his waist might as well be a steel band, and Victor half believes that even without skating momentum, he could lean back into that embrace and pick up his feet and Yuuri would have him.

He tests it out, kicking one leg back, and Yuuri glides them across the floor just like they're on ice. He extends his free arm gracefully before them when Victor does, hand flat to cut through the air, and then his fingers wrap around Victor's wrist and Victor nearly loses his feet altogether.

He was right, though, Yuuri has him: he just holds Victor up with the arm around his waist and takes most of his weight until Victor can move under his own power again, his legs steadying, even though his heart still feels as if it's going to explode and he's smiling so hard his cheeks hurt.

Once Victor's back on his feet, Yuuri directs him with that hand around his wrist, furling him out and back in again so that Yuuri can loop him into something like a pair spin and then bend him back in a dip, one hand supporting Victor's knee and the other firm at the back of his neck, and Victor can't stop laughing. He doesn't ever want to come up.

Yuuri beams back at him, breathless and just as giggly, and his head darts down for just a moment to-- it's so fast it takes a moment for Victor to catch up and realize Yuuri's just kissed the tip of his nose.

"You're fun, Victor!" Yuuri says as he brings them upright again, his tone all shocked delight-- the exact reaction Victor's always been chasing.

The grin just won't leave Victor's face. "Did you think I wouldn't be?"

"I never thought about it!" Yuuri pushes his hair back out of his eyes and suddenly hiccups. It's unbelievably cute. There's a Japanese word for that, isn't there? For tremendous cuteness? Victor racks his mind.

"Kawaii," he remembers, beaming at Yuuri.

Yuuri goes scarlet so fast that Victor's surprised the rush of blood doesn't make his eyes pop right out of his head. And then, face red and eyes huge, he hiccups again.

Victor draws him away from the dance floor. "Can you hold your breath? You probably need water," he realizes, as Yuuri slaps a hand over his mouth and spasms with another hiccup. "Is there water over here?" The tables are full of nothing but champagne flutes and bottles of Brut. "Isn't there anything besides champagne at this party?"

"What are you babbling about?" Yurochka growls.

"Where's Chris?"

"I don't know." Yurochka tosses Victor's phone in the air and catches it carelessly.

"Wait here, okay?" Victor tells Yuuri, who nods between hiccups. "I'll be right back with some water." To Yurochka, he says, "Keep an eye on him. And stop throwing my phone around. Take pictures!"

"Of what?" Yurochka demands.

"Whatever," says Victor. "I don't want to miss anything."

Chapter Text

Victor returns with sweating water bottles in both hands to find he's definitely missed something.

Yuuri and Yurochka aren't where he left them, and people are thronging in the passageway between the two sides of the ballroom, near the center brass pole. Christophe must be making good on his threats.

Only when Victor goes over, he discovers Chris and Yuuri trying out the pole to some tinny club music coming from Chris's phone. Both are trouser-free. Yuuri has great legs-- of course all figure skaters have to have strong legs, but it doesn't look as good on everyone as it looks on him.

It's almost enough to distract Victor from finding Yurochka and tearing him in half, but not quite. "I told you to keep an eye on him!"

"I am! Why do you think I'm over here? I don't want to watch this!" Yurochka presses Victor's phone into his hands. "See for yourself."

Victor interrupts his staring with quick glances down at his phone, scrolling through the camera roll. Yurochka caught a series of shots of Yuuri practically upending another bottle of champagne into his mouth, and getting up close to the lens with the bottle, looking belligerent.

"He drank more?" Over at the pole, Chris is doing some kind of complicated spiral from five feet up all the way down to the ground, and then more or less humping the floor.

"It cured his hiccups," says Yurochka.

Victor switches the camera to video, and moves closer to the pole. He's lost any faint urge to be responsible and interrupt this, and as Yuuri clamps his thighs around the pole and extends one arm in a Superman pose, Victor's ready to fight anyone else who tries.

Yuuri squints in his direction, casually hooks his knee around the pole to support himself and extends the other leg to poke Christophe with his toe. "Is that him? Is he back? Are we starting?"

"He's back!" says Chris, rocketing to his feet. "Victor! We're having another dance-off! You judge. Go ahead, Yuuri!"

Yurochka starts, realizes they're talking to the other Yuuri, makes a disgusted noise, and tromps off.

Victor barely takes note, because Yuuri's moves are unreal. Strong and sure and flexible, he winds himself around the pole and stretches into a vertical splits, then holds himself completely upside-down, then swings himself out almost horizontally for a few beats: it's so purely athletic and beautiful, you could almost forget that pole dancing is supposed to be sexy.

Only then, Yuuri brings himself in and wraps his thighs around the pole, and works his hips like he's riding it all the way down.

Chris starts whistling and whooping, and a few of the other guests who've come in close are joining in. At a particularly loud cheer, Yuuri grins and waves, but he doesn't stop what he's doing, twining himself around the pole like it's the best thing he's ever felt.

By the time he licks two fingers and draws them up his thigh to the hem of his boxer-briefs in the middle of another spin down the pole, Victor just resigns himself to the fact that his personal notion of sexiness has been completely rewritten. Nothing has ever been as hot to him as this man, right now, pole-dancing in his shirt and tie, underwear and socks.

With the possible exception of this man holding his wrist and literally sweeping him off his feet, a few minutes ago.

Yuuri finally peels himself off the brass pole and stumbles over; Victor catches him and ends up with a double armful, and now he can't let Yuuri move away or Victor's going to break about a dozen local obscenity laws himself without even removing a stitch. He's really wishing he hadn't worn such closely tailored slacks.

Of course, no one's ever going to out-obscene Chris, who strips completely down to his tight shorts and begins a routine just as athletic and sensual as Yuuri's. Victor's seen him do this before, though, and he doubts Chris will be surprised that no matter what Chris does, Victor is going to judge Yuuri the clear winner by approximately infinite points.

"I found water," he tells Yuuri, offering a bottle.

"Thank you!" Yuuri throws his head back, guzzling it down. Victor watches his lips purse and his throat work and-- it's wrong to sleep with drunk people, Victor knows that, but he's flying out tomorrow at nine, his schedule is packed and they won't have another competition together for weeks and there'll be hardly any downtime then. There's really only tonight. He crosses his fingers that the water starts to sober Yuuri up. And then maybe they can find some coffee. And who needs sleep?

But if anything, Yuuri seems to get less steady, leaning heavily against Victor, his eyes hazy as he puts his glasses back on. Sara laughs as she comes closer, Michele in her wake.

"What are you trying to do, Victor!" says Sara. "Sparkling water makes you more drunk, don't you know that?"

If he had a hand free, he'd slap his palm to his face.

"You can get more drunk than that?" asks Yurochka, who must have gotten over himself and come back. "Scary."

The braver spectators cheer Chris on again, and Victor glances over-- Chris is all but fellating a champagne bottle while he slowly revolves around the pole. He shakes it up and lets the foam spray all over himself as he does a vertical splits for his last move, and dismounts with a bow.

"No fair lobbying the judge, Yuuri," he says as he rejoins them. "How was that?"

Rather snidely, Michele says, "It's good to have a skill to fall back on. After you quit skating, you could always be a stripper."

"I know," Chris smiles prettily, batting his lashes at him. Sara giggles. "But I'm not sure Victor's got much of a career ahead of him as a judge. He barely watched me compete and now he's accepting bribes."

Victor looks down to find Yuuri is, with the determination of the truly plastered, trying to tuck his empty water bottle into the gap between Victor's vest and his shirt. He succeeds in pushing it down, then gasps and prods it, saying something in Japanese.

"Sorry?" Victor asks, proud his voice doesn't break.

"Oh!" Yuuri switches back to English, "I said, Victor, look, you got fat!" He prods the bottle again. "Kobutachan! Um-- piggy! That's what-- what I said. No, it's cute!"

Chris is about to snicker himself hoarse. "What are you going to do now that you're old and fat, Victor?"

"Maybe I'll switch to hockey," Victor quips automatically-- it's what he's been telling reporters lately when they won't stop asking him about his plans for next year.

It gets a laugh, even from some of the bystanders who still look scandalized over the way the party's gone off the rails. Victor feels his posture straighten a little under the attention. He could play off this whole episode if he just charms the crowd now, and it'd be easy to lapse back into his public persona and reassure them. But he can't really assume that role while he has Yuuri holding onto him, and nothing could convince him to move away.

"Can you imagine Victor after a couple of hockey games?" Sara laughs. "Two black eyes, teeth knocked out-- his fans would riot."

"His fans would rip him to bits," says Chris. "You remember how angry they were when he cut his hair. They won't ever let him change again or quit now, at this point they'll only be happy if he wins forever and ascends into heaven."

"I'm sure they'll wish me well no matter what I do," says Victor, another line straight from his interview script. "Anyway, you know I won't go far. Maybe not judging, but there's always coaching."

To his dismay, that gets nearly as many giggles as the hockey joke.

"You'd be a terrible coach, Victor!" Chris says. "What would you say to a student? 'No, do it again, but this time do it perfect, like me!'"

"Victor would be a good coach," Yuuri says unexpectedly. "He's inspiring, and he even brought us water, see?"

"If all your coach does is bring you water, that explains your free skate score," says Yurochka.

Yuuri pulls the empty water bottle out of Victor's waistcoat and waves it at Yurochka severely. "Why are you talking, punk? You're not even a Yuri anymore." There's more, but it sounds like Japanese again, or else it's the most slurred and stuttered English that Victor's ever heard.

"Oh my God, clear out before Plisetsky explodes," Sara draws Michele back. But Victor knows Yurochka, and he's way past exploding: he's furious beyond words, just shaking.

Yuuri drops the water bottle, his attention leaving Yurochka so completely it seems to empty out the air between them.

His focus returns wholly to Victor, the clinch between them growing closer. He's a complete mess and he's moving his hips in a way that's going to have Victor embarrassing himself in about ten seconds.

He says something exuberant in Japanese-- Victor doesn't know much, but he recognizes "kudasai," that's "please." Yuuri's eyes get bigger and brighter behind his glasses as he speaks, and then suddenly he breaks into English with, "Be my coach, Victor!" and he throws his arms around Victor in a tremendous hug.

Victor's so stunned he doesn't even manage to hug him back before Yuuri steps away, determined now. "I beat the punk. I'll win again. Chris, dance-off! Come with me!" and he drags Chris back to the pole.

When he finally finds his voice, Victor says in as light a tone as he can manage, "I don't suppose anyone here speaks Japanese?"

"I know a bit," one of the spectators pipes up. It's the woman they took a photo with earlier. "I think he said something about an onsen. That's like a hot spring sauna."

Another partygoer adds, "In his bio it said his parents run a spa resort."

"Thank you," Victor says, more confused than before. Maybe they misheard him.

Anyway, it hardly matters when somehow the "dance-off" has turned into both Yuuri and Chris on the pole at the same time.

"Wait! Same, same, we have to be the same," says Yuuri, and he shrugs out of his shirt. He's not just fit, he's gorgeous. He doesn't have those fake sculpted abs everyone seems to go for, just the kind of shapely muscled torso that comes from daily skating and dancing, and those legs, those shoulders, the strength of his arms... he's beautiful. It's a shame and a waste that he ever wears clothes.

It only gets better when he shimmies up the pole, like a live demonstration of why pole dancing is supposed to be a great workout: everything's flexing.

Chris follows him, and Yuuri helps him up, Chris arching over Yuuri's bent and upraised knee. They're both nearly naked, in just underwear, though Yuuri still has socks for some reason. They're both wearing their ties over bare chests, too, and that's... it's quite a look.

Putting the same trust in Yuuri that Victor did, earlier, Chris lets go of the pole, bending back, balancing only on Yuuri's knee and supporting arm.

"How much do you wish you'd studied pole dancing right now?" Sara murmurs.

"So much," Victor admits, transfixed. "But no, we're Russian, we learn ballet and more ballet."

Yuuri and Chris seem to have worked out the terms of the competition between them: they do a series of pairs moves and poses that are considerably harder on one of them than the other, trading off who's doing more of the work.

But even when Chris is contorted in an upside-down splits, Victor can only look at Yuuri, who scoops up the half-empty bottle Chris used earlier, steps up to stand on Chris's spread legs, and pours out the rest of the champagne with a flourish.

By the time Yuuri holds them both up horizontally with Chris draped over his back, just one foot hooked under Yuuri's leg to balance out some of their weight, Victor is determined to spend every moment until his flight tomorrow with Yuuri, feeding him coffee until he sobers up.

But Chris and Yuuri come back thirsty, and the only thing for them to drink is the other bottle of stupid sparkling water Victor found. They split it between them, and Yuuri's eyes glaze. He fumbles through putting his clothes back on with clumsy hands, the same hands that were just gripping the pole with enough confidence to hold up the weight of two men.

Victor's not sure how to behave here. Yuuri was practically grinding on him earlier, that means Victor's in the clear to help him dress, right? Or at least put an arm around his shoulders once his clothes are back on-- that seems better, he does that, and guides Yuuri to the chairs bordering the dance floor.

"Who won?" Yuuri asks as they sink down side-by-side.

"Hm? Oh, you did," Victor assures him. Wriggling back into his suit nearby, Chris sticks his tongue out at him, but he's obviously not surprised.

"Good," says Yuuri. "Then you'll come. Soak in the hot spring. I pictured you there so many times."

"Naked?" Victor can't help asking.

Even drunk as he is, Yuuri gives Victor an eyeroll. "It's a bath. You don't wear clothes in a bath. It's steamy, like a sauna, it's not..." he trails off.

"It sounds great," Victor says sincerely. So his helpful translators were right, Yuuri was talking about his parents' resort. Victor's not sure how he earned an invitation, but he's happy he did.

"And you could coach me. You'd be so good at it." Yuuri sounds wistful. "You always inspire me."

It feels as though Victor's ears are burning, his face heating up. He's heard that a thousand times, that his skating is inspiring, his success is inspiring... but never from anyone who sees it as something Victor could do, a skill he could pursue.

"I'm glad," he says, rubbing Yuuri's shoulder. "Your skating is beautiful."

"Not this time."

"Anyone can have an off night." It feels good to have a chance to tell Yuuri directly, "No matter what the scores were, there was a lot to admire in your programs."

Yuuri yawns and pats Victor's hand, which, just by sheer coincidence, has landed on Yuuri's knee. "This is a very self-indulgent dream."

Victor gladly takes that cue. "Let me take you out for coffee. It'll help you wake up."

"Why would I want to wake up?"

Victor squeezes his shoulders. "I can't be very inspiring after all, if I can't even inspire you to drink some coffee."

Yuuri sighs and gives Victor a quiet smile. "Okay. Take me to coffee."

Victor can't help doing a little fist-pump with his free hand, and then they're up and heading for the exit.

Yurochka falls into step alongside them, casting a disgruntled look at Victor's arm around Yuuri.

"Tell Yakov I had to duck out. I'll meet you at the airport." Though he might let it slip his mind. He could always book a later flight. Cancel a few things. Cancel a lot of things.

"Call him and tell him yourself, you have a phone." Yurochka glowers.

"I'm not going to borrow trouble."

Yuuri giggles. "Give that trouble back! It's not your trouble, you just borrowed it." He peers around owlishly through his glasses. At first Victor thought he looked better without them, but they're growing on him. They're cute. Yuuri is cute and hot. What do those images that people pass around on Twitter say? 'Get you a man who can do both.'

"Um. Where's the men's room?" Yuuri asks. He even looks a little bashful about it, never mind that he was just pole-dancing like a champ ten minutes ago.

"There's one over here..." The closest toilet is one of those all-gender singles for people with disabilities and babies and things like that. Yuuri disappears inside.

"I'm surprised you didn't offer to go with him and hold his dick while he takes a piss," says Yurochka, which is impressively rude, even for him.

"He needs to sober up first," is all Victor replies.

"Gross. Ugh, you're disgusting!"

"You're the one who suggested it."

"Just don't answer! Idiot."

"Do you remember where the closest cafe is? They gave us a map but I didn't really look. I wonder if they'd even still be open..." His plan seemed foolproof when he came up with it, but now Victor has to admit, there probably isn't enough coffee in Sochi to sober Yuuri up from all that champagne before they both have to fly out. Victor would be willing to shuffle his travel arrangements and cancel things to make this happen, but he has no idea if Yuuri would, or if that's even possible for him.

New plan, then. Get Yuuri hydrated and as sober as possible. Find out if he's really into this, once he's not buzzed and stripping. Get his number.

Leave Sochi on schedule, fulfill post-GPF commitments, stay in touch with Yuuri, and arrange something a little more respectable than an after-party hookup. With any luck, visit a hot spring resort where a cute, hot guy will be waiting to meet him again.

This new plan is a lot longer and more complicated, but he likes where it's headed.

And then it all goes wrong.

Chapter Text

Celestino appears, Yuuri's coach, looking harried and disheveled and waving his phone. "I had to step out, but I was just next door... why didn't anyone call me about all this?"

A stiff-looking man in a suit follows, gesturing toward the bathroom. "They said he's in there. About the damages--"

"I'll take responsibility for any damage we did," Victor quickly interrupts. Celestino looks at him with confusion, the stiff man with skepticism. It takes Victor a moment to realize why. He spends so much time thinking of his late twenties as a ticking clock, sometimes he forgets that normal people think twenty-seven is young. "I can cover it out of the prize money, it's fine."

"Is it, now." Fantastic. Now Yakov is here, with another couple of men in suits whose lanyards and badges identify them as GPF event staff. "Yuri, go up to the suite." As Yurochka makes his grumbling departure, Yakov points at Victor. "This prize is already spoken for, Vitya, unless you're breaking your word."

"Then I'll cover it out of my pocket, it can't be much," Victor says. "We just spilled some champagne."

"And left it there without telling the staff so they could clean it up in time," says the stiff man severely. "It damaged the parquet."

That can't be right, can it? Champagne isn't acid. It hasn't been that long.

"You were part of this, Nikiforov?" Celestino frowns deeply and pounds on the door. "Yuuri! Time to go!"

"We had plans," Victor tries to say, but Yakov is building up a head of steam and considerable volume, shouting about their flight and how irresponsible this is and how poorly it reflects on the whole studio and he's not going to let Victor become some hotel-wrecking wannabe rock star at the peak of his career--

"This is my last year," Victor says, completely on impulse, and also because he knows it will instantly shut Yakov up.

"This is my last year," he repeats in the sudden silence. "So I don't think you need to worry so much about my reputation, Yakov. It won't matter much longer."

"You tell me this now?"

Yuuri finally emerges from the bathroom, looking flushed and confused and-- tearful, why--

"What's going on here? What took so long?" Celestino asks.

"I'm sorry. I feel sick. Sorry," says Yuuri. He looks miserable, and Victor experiences an entirely unfamiliar urge to wrap someone up in blankets and sit on them til they get better. --With him. Sit with him. "Do we have ibuprofen? Can I take that? Or aspirin?"

"I'm gone not two hours and my top skater drinks himself half to death!"

Yuuri looks around bewildered, as if Celestino might have some other drunk skater in mind. The stiff hotel man teams up with the two event organizers who arrived with Yakov, all three telling the coaches how bad this could look for the International Skating Union, skaters "running wild," terrible publicity-- they're completely exaggerating all of it, Victor realizes indignantly, because they see a chance for a payout.

He interrupts with, "It's too late to worry about that, people have been taking pictures all night."

"We can have them taken down," one of the organizers tells Yakov. "We partner with a very good social media team. This doesn't have to hurt anyone's career."

"Victor, what were you thinking? Yurochka is fifteen! You said you'd look out for him!"

"This is the last thing we need right now," Celestino says grimly. Yuuri looks a little green.

That gives Victor pause. People were already running their mouths about whether Yuuri should leave the sport. Photos of the dancing wouldn't reflect poorly the rest of them. Even the pole dancing would only benefit Chris's sex-soaked image. But Victor really doesn't know enough about Japan to know whether the photos could hurt Yuuri there.

"Okay, enough," he breaks into the doom-saying between the coaches and the officials. "We'll--" Yakov crosses his arms. "--I'll hire your social media team."

"There's also repairing the floor--"

"Yes, and that."

"It will not be cheap," says the stiff man, eyeing him doubtfully.

Then it's a good thing I've been clearing around ninety thousand euros every skating season for the past ten years, Victor very carefully does not say. That would be stupid in a lot of ways. He plasters on a smile. "We can work something out."

"Yakov," Celestino says to Victor's coach, "we need to go, our flight is early. I'll be in touch-- tell me how this goes and we'll contribute Yuuri's share."

Victor stretches his smile a little wider for Celestino. "Please don't concern yourself. I take full responsibility."

Celestino doesn't look convinced. Victor politely refrains from screaming in frustration, and steps past him to touch Yuuri's shoulder.

"Yuuri--" This is awful. Yuuri looks so uncomfortable now, and all these hostile functionaries crowd around them, eager to stick their expectant hands out. What can he even say? "Yuuri, I-- I'll see you at Worlds."

"For God's sake, Nikiforov," Celestino says in exasperation, and he leads Yuuri swiftly away.

Victor runs his fingers through his hair, forcing himself not to just grab handfuls and yank. "What was that?"

Yakov shakes his head. "After the way he fell apart here, you can't think Katsuki's going to make it to Worlds."

"He'll be there," Victor says stubbornly, and resigns himself to dealing with the event coordinators and hotel representatives for the rest of the night.



Though he's obviously still furious, Yakov doesn't abandon Victor. He brings his killer instincts to bear and haggles brutally with the event officials and the hotel.

His first step is to divide and conquer, sending the event officials to contact their social media team and get in touch with someone at the ISU whose name, Victor suspects, Yakov made up on the spot.

They take on the hotel together. The stiff man is joined by four more people, but they don't seem all that certain what they're doing there, besides nodding at everything he says.

Victor does his part by smiling beautifully at everyone and feigning empty-headed celebrity while Yakov makes a series of quick muttered phone calls. "I'm so sorry about the beautiful ballroom floor! Please show me the damage, I feel so terrible about spilling that champagne," Victor insistently apologizes and apologetically insists, until they have no choice but to show him a few scuffs around the pole.

"That's awful! I had no idea a little champagne could just ruin a waxed and polished wooden floor like that, when it holds up to people walking on it all the time," Victor smiles and smiles. "How are you ever going to fix all this horrible damage?"

Everyone else looks down at the tiny scuffs with some embarrassment, but the stiff man keeps trying. "It will need to be resurfaced, and the room will be closed for the repairs, so I'm afraid that's another--"

"You'll call this number," Yakov cuts in, handing him a slip of paper, the fruit of his sotto voce phone calls. "They will take care of the floor and bill Victor directly."

"We have our own trusted contractors for that."

"Then we can call this number instead," Yakov produces a card, "and you can work this out with the lawyers from the International Skating Union. I'm sure that once they examine the terms of the contract they took out to lease the space, they'll agree to cover any remaining costs that they're liable for, after you process your insurance claim."

The ISU will, of course, do no such thing, and as the ISU is beyond reach and Victor is right here, the stiff man agrees to have the floor resurfaced by Yakov's recommended company at Victor's expense.

Knowing Yakov, the floorers will come and buff out the marks in twenty minutes and bill for the entire day, but they'll charge Victor a merely ridiculous amount for it, rather than an extortionate one.

The event coordinators are next. With similar tactics, Victor and Yakov cut down the payment demanded by the social media team to half the original quote.

Then Victor runs it up again by requesting copies of whatever photos they take down. But unlike the rest of this nonsense, that, at least, is worth paying for.

They finally finish negotiating and head back to the suite in the small hours of the morning. Hotels have an abandoned feeling between midnight and dawn, even if every room is packed. Victor's always found it lonely.

In the elevator, he breaks the chilly silence first. "Thank you."

Yakov grunts in response. "Tell me you only said it was your last year to make me listen."

"I'm twenty-seven."

"You're skating as well now as you ever have."

"What should I do? Keep going until I crack a knee badly enough that they can't put me back together again?" He rarely has bad dreams, but when he does, it always seems to be that one: landing a jump and feeling his leg give out, and knowing right away that it's gone for good.

"Don't be so dramatic. You're scoring ten and twenty points ahead of second place in every competition. You could compose routines with easier jumps and still win for another two years at least, Vitya. I know you know that."

"I can stop after this season, when people still think of me as a winner and my name has value. Or I can keep going until I sink in the standings and the world loses interest in Victor Nikiforov."

Yakov snorts. "And then you'll hire a new publicist and change your hair again, and you'll be back on magazine covers, if that's what you want."

"That's not what I want."

"What, then? If you have other plans, don't I deserve to know about them? And if you don't have other plans, why would you threaten to quit?"

Victor composes a smile. "It's not a threat. I just want you to be prepared if I decide to take a break."

"Now it's a break."

"I don't know what it is yet," Victor says. "Maybe I'll find some new composer whose music I just have to skate to, and I'll go another year after all. That's what happened this year with Stammi Vicino."

"And now it's a maybe. You nearly give me a heart attack over a maybe."

Victor smiles, smiles. "When have I ever been easy to deal with? You wouldn't know what to do with me if I didn't keep you on your toes. Call it a maybe. We'll focus on this season for now. Then we'll see."



Before he even leaves the plane at Pulkovo International, Victor contacts his publicist's office, asks for the social media associate who deals with his various accounts, and whitelists Yuuri Katsuki's name. "He's a fellow skater, we talked at the Grand Prix. Forward anything you get from him, please, and if he asks for my contact information, share it with him."

But nothing happens there. And Yuuri has no personal online presence to speak of; there's no way to just tweet at him or DM him.

Victor breaks down and pesters Yakov for Celestino's number, and leaves voicemail asking for Yuuri's contact information. No response.

Soon after, Yuri Plisetsky throws such a fit about Victor calling him Yurochka all the time that Victor agrees to call him Yuri again. Which only keeps the other Yuuri even more present in Victor's mind.

After some Google Translated searching on fan boards, Victor finds the site for the Katsuki family's hot spring resort in Hasetsu. But the fan boards also tell him Yuuri isn't there. He's at university in Detroit.

Victor considers using the email given on the site for the Katsukis' resort, and asking them to pass his number on to Yuuri. But now that he's glimpsed from the boards how intense some of Yuuri's fans are, Victor's sure people have tried that before. The Katsukis probably throw out those sorts of inquiries without reading them. And if he puts his name on it, that's only more likely to make it look fake.

He's appearing in a charity exhibition when Japan's Nationals are going on, so Victor doesn't find out til afterward that Yuuri Katsuki wiped out on his jumps again, even worse than at the GPF, and placed 11th. He won't be at Four Continents, let alone Worlds.

Victor remembers Yuuri saying quietly, "Not this time," when Victor complimented his skating, and he decides not to watch the Nationals footage. If he'd been the one to lose badly, he wouldn't want Yuuri to watch it.

That's an unfamiliar sensation. He risks failure in front of thousands every time he performs, and he's never shied away from anyone's gaze. There's just as much honor in trying and failing as there is in succeeding. (All right, maybe that's easy for him to say when ultimately he's succeeded more often than he's failed, but it's what he tells himself.) Anyway, Yuuri doesn't seem the type to be unkind about others' mistakes.

But it's a normal feeling, probably, isn't it? When you're interested in someone, you want to put your best foot forward. And then at some point all the feet come out and... people stay together anyway?

Victor's not really clear on that part.



At the European Championships, Victor asks around, and none of the other skaters or their coaches know how to get in touch with Yuuri, except through Celestino.

It's infuriating, intolerable, this sense that he may have missed his only chance for a year or more. But there's a reason Victor has been climbing to the center of the podium for years. He takes all those feelings to the ice and puts them into his programs.

By this time in the season, it's hard to keep finding inspiration in songs and choreography that they've all drilled a thousand times, but Victor's performances have a new urgency, fresh emotion. By the end of his free program, his throat aches as if he lived every moment of "Stammi Vicino, Non Te Ne Andare" instead of skating to it.

Chris nails everything perfectly in both his programs this time, so they're close on technicals, but Victor wins on performance.

"So," Chris says as they prepare for the medal ceremony, "Yuuri Katsuki."

Victor smiles blandly at him.

"Hard man to get ahold of, I guess." When Victor doesn't respond, Chris adds, "Seems like you're going to a lot of trouble to get in touch with a drunk guy you chatted up at one party."

"I haven't gone to a lot of trouble. I made a few phone calls and asked a few people."

"Oh? I hear it's your fault all my pictures from the Sochi banquet got pulled from Instagram."

"That was just smoothing things over with the Grand Prix organizers. The hotel complained to them and it snowballed."

"Nothing to do with Katsuki." Chris nudges him.

Victor smiles again, and then it's time to go out. He carries that smile to the podium, stretched and fixed, and wears it til he's safely out of sight.

Chapter Text

After a couple of days back in St. Petersburg, Victor regrets that he was defensive with Chris. They've known each other for so many years, and Chris always asks about everyone's love lives. There was no need to freeze him out like that.

He checks Instagram and leaves compliments on Chris's recent photos; Chris has a very cute cat.

"Not as cute as you, of course, Makkachin," he tells his dog, and gets nothing but a yawn and a huff of dog breath in reply.

Makkachin sleeps so much more now than she used to. Her fur is thinner, the texture of her curls more rough, and she needs pills every day for her joints and digestion. She's fifteen, and vets have warned him that she's already outlasted the average lifespan of most standard poodles.

Victor can't imagine life without her. When she was six she needed stomach surgery, and he felt like the world was ending til she recovered.

He scratches her fuzzy head and goes to make them both dinner. After eating, he checks his phone again. Chris has left cheerful responses to his Instagram comments, so Victor sends a text: [How was the trip home?]

Within a minute, his ringtone for Chris sings out, and Victor answers, "That bad?"

"The worst!" Chris proclaims dramatically, and regales him with a story of lost luggage, which, after a series of mishaps, has ended up in Barcelona.

"Isn't that where they're having the GPF next year?" asks Victor. "Just tell them to hold on to it for eleven months and you'll pick it up when you're in town."

"You're so sure we'll make it to the Final next season," says Chris. "What about all those fresh young things coming up from Juniors?"

"Younger skaters come up from Juniors every year, and every year, there you are at the Final. You'll be in Barcelona next year."

"Don't you mean we'll be there next year?"

Victor hesitates. The silence drags on, but he can't bring himself to answer.

"No. No, no, no. You cannot retire, Victor. I refuse. Jetz isch färtig luschtig!"

"Don't put words in my mouth. Especially in German! You know I don't know what that means."

"The fun is gone if you leave! How would I ever get through a season without you? What's the point, without my shining star to reach for?"

"Personal best? Gold medals? Cash prizes?"

"Be serious. That's no motivation."

"Thousands of fans screaming your name and fainting at your sexy choreography?"

"All right, maybe that. But why would you stop? You're still winning, despite my best efforts. If you'd been injured in training, I would have heard, since Russian Twitter goes into fits any time you so much as sneeze."

Victor shrugs with studied carelessness, even though no one can see him. "Five seems like a good number to go out on."

"You know what number's even better than five? Six." Chris waits out a pause and finally asks, "Still there?"

"Stunned speechless," Victor tells him. "I'm just so surprised that you didn't say sixty-nine."

Chris hangs up on him.

He calls right back, though.

"Fine, don't tell me about this so-called retirement. You'll change your mind anyway," he says. "Tell me about Katsuki."

"What about him? Like you said, hard man to get ahold of."

"Not for lack of trying."

This time he doesn't deny it. "He's a great dancer. I thought we had a spark."

"He was throwing off a lot of sparks that night."

"I know." Victor presses his thumb to his lip and finally confides, "We talked a little. He's adorable. He invited me to his family's resort in Japan."

"He was awfully drunk, Victor." Chris actually sounds like he's trying to be gentle.

"I know, but it seemed-- specific, to suggest meeting there. He's not living there, he's at school in the States somewhere." He stretches, puts his shoulders back, keeps his voice light. "But I haven't heard anything since then, so I guess that's that."

"If he's at school, maybe he's busy with that?" Chris gives a skeptical huff. "No, even then... well, it could be anything. He's normally kind of shy. Or maybe he thinks you're too famous for him."

"Why would that matter? We all perform in public," he says, thinking of those Japanese fan forums he found for Yuuri. There was a whole thread devoted to body pillows with life-size images of Yuuri printed on them... a thread that Yuuri's fans were keeping very busy. Not that Victor blames them, exactly, but wow. "We're all televised, we all give interviews."

"Yes, but only one of us was in a Taylor Swift video."

"For fifteen seconds."

"You realize that's because they only had to show you for fifteen seconds for people to recognize you?"

"She was pushing me out of a limo. Not exactly glamorous." She apologized after a few takes, which was sweet. Victor assured her that he knew how to take a fall on ice, so he could definitely handle the soft crash pad they laid out for him just beneath the limo door. After that she pushed him even harder. It's one of the most fun things he's done at his publicist's bidding.

"TMZ said you were dating her."

"They'll say that about any two people who get within a mile of each other. I issued a correction." It didn't mention names, just firmly pointed out that Victor has never dated a woman, and that isn't likely to change in this lifetime.

"You know that's not the point. People thought you could have dated Taylor Swift. That kind of thing puts you on a different level. You made that fifty most beautiful people list twice."

He did. His publicist is very good. "I'm not any more famous now than I was at the banquet."

"He was obviously too drunk to think straight that night. But when he woke up, maybe he remembered you're out of his league."

"I'm not, though." Frustrated, Victor looks around the quiet, empty living room, and down at himself in his t-shirt and track pants and sock feet.

If this is his league, where he is now, alone, then he wants out of it.

He just wanted what everyone wants: to do his best at the thing he most loved to do. When it became clear how far his best might take him, he devoted himself to becoming the best. Wouldn't anyone?

He agreed to all the endorsements and modeling and ads and appearances to make sure he'd have enough for later, banked against some horrible future date when he couldn't make a career out of skating any longer. Of course it felt good to have money and nice things, and it was fun to be recognized, but none of it was supposed to scare people off. He never meant to put himself out of reach.

Chris says, "Maybe you should send a card. 'Dear Yuuri, I'm not as cool as you think I am. Call me. Sincerely, Victor.'"

"If I had his address, I might try it."

"You know, if you're just looking for a cute pole dancer who knows how to party, I can give you some phone numbers. Or are you into this hard-to-get thing? How long has it been since you couldn't have something you wanted?"

Victor's not sure how to explain that it's been a while since he wanted much of anything at all.

It seems like an insulting thing to say to a rival, to imply that Victor doesn't even want the gold that Chris is working so hard to reach ahead of him. Victor does still want to win. Or at least, he definitely doesn't want to lose.

He's not sure when things changed. It used to be a euphoric feeling, completing a performance, knowing he'd succeeded, even before the applause and accolades rained down afterward. The rush of competition has always brought out Victor's best, better than his best. Years ago, he landed his first clean quad Salchow in competition before he ever managed it in practice.

Back then, he couldn't wait to get a program in front of judges and an audience, feeling like he was finding out, along with them, just what feats and miracles he could do. For so long, competing was his favorite part of his favorite thing.

Now he ends a performance and thinks, was that enough? He used to know. But now even if it's technically perfect, even if it's emotional and cathartic, even if people are crying and the crowd gives a standing ovation and Yakov is satisfied and the judges are awed and the score sets a new world record... it still doesn't feel like he's done enough.

Skating itself still feels good. He doesn't know what he'll do if he loses that.

None of it seems like anything he could easily put into words, and even if he could, he's not sure he should say it to Christophe.

"Just how many pole dancers' phone numbers do you have?" Victor asks instead, making sure there's a smile audible in his voice, a flirty lilt in his tone.

"Sixty-nine, obviously," says Chris, kindly letting Victor change the subject.

Skating itself still feels good, so Victor skates.

He's still determined to keep his free skate fresh for himself, and he's starting to feel a little wary of overdoing his short program, too. But he's switched two jumps and changed some transitional elements in his SP, so he does need to run through it. As a compromise with himself, he does his entire short once each day late during practice, making sure he can nail it when every muscle is aching. It's going to feel so easy, next time he does it rested.

The rest of practice is honing Stammi Vicino in bits and pieces, and trying out some new choreography. After years of Victor commissioning music for his programs, composers send him songs all the time now, and two instrumentals caught his ear. A paired set: "On Love: Eros" and "On Love: Agape," the same tune with two radically different arrangements.

He doesn't even know if he'll be skating next season, and the choral innocence of Agape doesn't express anything he wants to perform for an audience. But if he just thinks of it as an exploration of the music, not a performance he plans to give, he has some ideas.

Victor sketches out a few moves, feels the shape it should take on the ice. It'd be just the kind of program judges love to hand out high scores to: soaring, ethereal, pretty. A sure thing. No wonder Victor's not that interested.

Not for himself. But he promised to choreograph for Yuri Plisetsky's senior debut, and his young rinkmate is still establishing himself. Expectations haven't solidified around him yet, he can surprise people. An angelic program for an angelic-looking blond teenager may not seem surprising at first; the shock will come when Yuri steps off the ice and opens his mouth to reveal he's no angel.

With that in mind, Victor sets the difficulty for Agape at the threshold of his own ability, missing only the more difficult quads. Yuri Plisetsky would spit fire if Victor gave him anything less than the highest base score of the season.

Even with all that, it's still something of a struggle to make Agape more than just one challenging program component after another. But maybe when the season is over, Victor can work on it with Yuri and give it more life by shaping it around him.

Eros, on the other hand, is hard to work with only because he can't decide between twenty different moves he'd like to put in at any given moment of the song. There's so much he wants to pack into it, but at the same time, he feels like this one, like Agape, has to be a short program.

The composer thoughtfully sent long and short versions of the songs. The short version of Eros feels exactly right to Victor, like a storm of passion that passes as quickly as it came. Like being swept off your feet one moment, and left wondering what the hell happened, the next.

He wants the program to end in a clinch with an imagined lover, and never mind that Stammi Vicino ends the same way. But the more he works with the music, the less right that feels for Eros. It builds dramatically to a soaring climax and then marches beyond that point for several bars, ending on a note that feels suspenseful, somehow-- expectant.

The sustained high note of the climax has to be a spin to represent the lovers' embrace, that's obvious enough, but the notes after that call for a few last steps, crisp and final, as the dancer turns away from his partner, casting passion aside, ending with...

Nothing feels quite right for the ending. Nothing feels quite right for the middle either. He has so many ideas, and yet he scraps everything he tries out. The first half is there, complex step sequence, spins, footwork, but it has no jumps: they'll all come in the last half. That's better for points, and more importantly, it suits the music, the way it steadily builds in intensity and wild abandon.

Victor knows he's being a little ridiculous. Anyone at the banquet would recognize the moves from that night, and from there, they'll probably make the connection that the intricate footwork in the first half is a pastiche of Yuuri's distinctive style.

Normally Victor wouldn't care; he'll take inspiration wherever it comes. But is he really going to try to stretch out his competitive career for one more season for this? If it's a choice between leaving the sport, or coming back for another year just to perform a program that amounts to an indignant huff on skates...

...he will absolutely come back with an indignant huff on skates.

He doesn't have any better ideas.

Worlds is in Japan this year, and Victor can't help getting his hopes up. Disappointing as it is that Yuuri didn't qualify to compete, it's possible that he'll attend. He could combine the trip with a jaunt home for a visit. He could show up because Victor said "See you at Worlds" when they were pulled away from each other at the GPF.

Victor knows it's unlikely, but he wants it to be true anyway, enough that he half convinces himself it'll happen, gazing around at the crowds more keenly than he has in years.

It livens things up a bit, anyway. Worlds is a madhouse, but it's a madhouse Victor knows very well by now, and he navigates it with ease.

He greets friends and rivals, affable at arm's length. After the competition, they'll be able to have something like normal conversation, but for now it's just nods and well-wishing that they both mean and don't mean. They all want to see the other skaters do their best. But all of them also want to do better than everyone else's best.

Victor's used to that, and this year he has other things on his mind. Worlds means three days surrounded by cameras, all of them broadcasting clips worldwide to television, and real-time streams live to sports websites.

If Victor were to drop Yuuri's name in front of the cameras here, Yuuri would have to hear about it. If he's here, he'll be paying attention. Even if he's not, surely someone would tell him about it. Victor's been tempted to try that on Twitter, but Yakov forbids his skaters from mentioning competitors on social media. Victor's defied his coach before over bigger infractions, but it's not the only factor holding him back. He can't figure out how to do it casually, for one thing. And a tweet would have a longer shelf life than an interview: screenshots are forever and easier to pass around than video clips.

In the run-up to Worlds, Victor hasn't had time or energy to come up with any better ideas about ways to contact Yuuri, and for the past few weeks, he's mostly let it go. He doesn't mind feeling foolish and over-invested and jilted, working his lingering feelings into Eros, moping a bit over the photos and videos from the banquet. He has so many: all the images the ISU's social media partners had taken down from the internet, safely stored on a mini SD card.

He was so happy that night, and he recalls in every cell the delicious shock that passed through him when Yuuri moved him on the dance floor, taking the lead with ease. That kind of connection has to go both ways, doesn't it? Yuuri had to feel it too. He asked Victor to meet him.

What leaves Victor cold and a little sick is the possibility that Yuuri's so hard to reach because he changed his mind.

It's awful to feel that way, but it's better than feeling nothing. He can handle disappointment. What's hardest on him is the frustration that there's nothing he can do about any of it.

Here at the competition, though, he's back in his element, and the possibilities feel open again. Victor decides to give it one more try. He'll take advantage of the cameras, casually namedrop Yuuri and see what happens.

But it turns out, it's hard to work in a complimentary mention of a skater who just suffered the kind of setback Yuuri did at Japan's nationals. Even though Victor sincerely thinks Yuuri is talented and his skating is beautiful, no one ever asks him about who skates beautifully: they ask him about who's likely to win.

When he's asked yet again about his plans for next year, Victor has a bright idea and ducks the question with, "After the season ends, I'd like to visit Hasetsu, here in Japan."

"Why Hasetsu?" the interviewer asks in confusion.

"I've heard good things about the hot springs."

He's very smug about that stroke of genius, until he checks the archive of the live feed that night and discovers they switched away from him right at that exact moment to report on a rink collision.

"Okay, now you're just fucking with me," he says to the universe in general, which declines to answer.

There's no time to try again. Victor has to get his head in order the next day, clear away the distractions and skate his short program. To freshen it up, he's switched the toe loop and flip to put the flip a little later in the program, which meant changing the flow leading into each jump, after practicing it the other way for most of the season. But he's done this new version at the end of practice so many times, skating it fresh feels like a breeze in comparison.

It feels easy, but as he strikes the final pose, he knows the program suffered for it.

And yet, to no one's surprise, at the end of the short programs, Victor is in first place. Sometimes Victor wonders how badly he'd have to blow it to not wind up in first after the SP, at this point: he knows there must be pressure for the judges. The event organizers want him to go last in the free skate for the ratings.

Competing in the Olympics put Victor on the international stage, raised his profile and earned him a healthy following. When he cut off his signature long hair, it made headlines all over the world, and not just on the sports pages. Much to his surprise and not-so-secret glee, at the time.

But it was after he won his third World Championship when things went a little crazy. Victor's publicist booked him for so many interviews and appearances during the off-season that Victor lost sleep trying to keep up with it all and still produce his new programs for the next year. He was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and Esquire and Cosmopolitan, Sportweek and L'Officiel. He appeared on The Daily Show and Graham Norton and Le Grand Journal and Quotidien. Modeled for Gosha Rubchinskiy and Gloria Jeans and Adidas, Omega and Burberry and Gucci. Appeared in that Taylor Swift video.

"We're making you into figure skating's Baryshnikov," his agent told him with satisfaction. "Even people who don't know anything else about figure skating will know that it's what you do. They'll know you."

And that did sound good.

The opportunities were exciting until his PR team tried to keep scheduling these things during the figure skating season, and Victor found himself explaining more than once that competitive figure skating was not a part-time pursuit and he couldn't just dash off and win medals between photo shoots and phone conferences.

But if they didn't understand the sport, they finally understood Victor's absolute refusal to do any major appearances during the season. The team is good at their jobs; they hyped up his dedication and turned his inaccessibility during those months into a sort of mystique.

Victor spent that season determined to prove that the latest surge of attention hadn't gone to his head or affected his skating, and he won his fourth Grand Prix Final and World Championship.

Now he's racked up his fifth GPF and has his sights set on a fifth win at Worlds, and this time, he's not sure what he's trying to prove.

He's not sure he truly earned the score he just received for his short, either. Practicing his SP only when he was tired for these past weeks was a mistake, camouflaging issues with the new arrangement. Moving the jumps made the flow feel off in the middle, and he didn't achieve the kind of grace he expects of himself in his footwork.

Yakov makes sure Victor hears all about it in the kiss and cry, vindicated-- he's disagreed for weeks with how Victor's handled his rehearsals for the short. But Victor's PCS scores are high anyway, and now his free program will be the last of the event, just the way the organizers want it.

After all that publicity, a significant number of people now tune in for "figure skating's Baryshnikov," and turn off a competition as soon as Victor's performance ends. Casual fans don't care much about points or medals, they just want to see him fly across the ice and wink at the cameras. As recently as last year, he found that idea freeing.

This year, not so much. Even if casual fans don't expect a win out of him, they expect a surprise. Even if they don't always know why the arena crowd is gasping, they expect to hear the astonished cheers. And Victor doesn't have any surprises left for them.

He can, at least, show them something beautiful. Since the Grand Prix Final, since the party, Victor's watched Yuuri's best performances over and over. It's left him determined to imbue his free skate with some of that fluency, the silky way Yuuri moves across the ice when he's at his best, the feeling that he's not just expressing the music, but embodying it, creating it through every movement: every spin, every jump, every flash of his blades and flick of his fingertips.

It feels like no time til the next day, when Victor skates out for his free program, ready to live this song one more time, throwing himself across the ice and putting everything he has into this performance, these few minutes when he gets to live. It's all there, all his technique, all his artistry, all the music in his bones and in his blood, while the singer laments:

Questa storia che senso non ha
Svanirà questa notte assieme alle stelle
Se potessi vederti
Dalla speranza nascerà

Victor unwinds into his final pose, eyes cast upward, and he can feel how right that was, every jump, every spin, every step. It almost, almost feels like enough. He's breathless and burning up, but his stomach's shivering as if he's freezing, tremors running all through him; muscles taxed, lungs aching, all over sweat.

That's it. That was it. What might be the very last performance of his competitive skating career.

Flower retrievers prepare to gather the stuffed animals and bouquets from the ice, and Victor finally lets the moment go, taking his bows and gliding off to the kiss and cry.

His score comes in shy of his free skate world record by a 0.3 fraction. It might as well be a mile. Just another reason why this season should be his last. If it didn't happen this year, he's never going to reach that score again.

He earned that world record the first time he landed the quad flip in competition-- the first time anyone landed a quad flip in competition cleanly, on one foot, the correct edge, no slips, no touchdowns. And then he did another, in combination with a double toe loop. No one had truly landed the flip even once before Victor did it, and Victor did it twice. That feat earned him surprise and delight-- from the crowd, from the commentators, from fans all over the world... it was addictive.

Of course he's never going to touch that score again. Where is the surprise? His Stammi Vicino program has four different quads. It's the hardest program he's ever set for himself. But it's four different quads he's landed before. It's just what they expect from him, now. He'll never be able to recapture that moment, finally proving himself, paying off all the high expectations and speculation about his skills with a shocking burst of success.

God, it's only just now hitting him, that was so long ago. He's so old.

Victor accepts his fifth World Championship medal. Receiving the gold, his heart is full as it ever was, but he isn't thrilled to win; he's grateful he didn't lose. He held on. He made it another year.

He smiles smiles smiles his way through the award ceremony, the interviews, autographs and photos with fans, because that is his job.

By now, he can eye a crowd and estimate how long he can spend on each person and still give his attention to as many of them as possible in the time he has. At Worlds, it's impossible, but he tries. He gives out hundreds of hugs, dozens of kisses on the cheek. So many autographs the gold marker runs dry. He can't count how many fans eagerly hold out fresh new gold markers to replace it.

Victor treasures his reputation as someone who treats his fans well, and at times like this, it reaps rewards: his fans are considerate too, helping guide the youngest to the front so they can go first, negotiating among themselves so that people who have to leave early can step in ahead of the people who have the leisure to stay as long as it takes.

"You'll be back next year, won't you?" he hears, over and over.

"That would be telling," he smiles, or, "Let's not spoil the surprise!"

One fan wants his autograph on her arm. That's a perilous path to tread, but when he peddles his usual excuse-- the permanent gold ink is bad for skin-- she hands him a skin-safe marker she brought especially for this. He obliges, signing her arm, and she tells him she intends to have it tattooed and made permanent.

Well, when the medals tarnish, the ribbons fray, and the magazine covers are pulped for recycling, somebody somewhere will still carry his name on her skin. Unless she has it lasered off or covered up with another tattoo.

Every time Victor flags, he reminds himself this might be the last competition, that next year these fans might clamor for a new champion-- and he smiles for another selfie, signs another program, gives another hug. When he really can't go on anymore, tired and thirsty enough to drink a lake, he calls over Yakov's assistant, who helps him pass out a stack of Worlds programs that he signed on the plane. Even with that, he's not sure that everyone gets something, but the rest seem content with photos taken on their phones, and several people back off to make a path, urging him to go have dinner before he drops.

"I have the best fans," Victor says, meaning it, and he makes sure to at least clasp the hands of each of the people who make space to let him leave. "Thank you for your support!"

When he finally makes it back to his hotel room, he calls his publicist, asking her to come up with a statement for him: he won't be competing next season.

"Are you leaving competition for good?" she asks. "Or is it just a break?"

He wants to say it's for good. It's over. But he can't do it. Because then they'll want to know what happens next, and he has no idea.

"It's a break," Victor says. "Once it's written up, run it by me. We'll hold onto it for now. I just want to have it ready when it's time."

"Of course."

The second he hangs up, he feels nauseated. He can't take a break, he can't retire, what the hell is he going to do with himself? He's already got half a short program put together for next year. So what if he's not excited about performing? He's a spoiled jackass. People all over the world break their backs at jobs they hate. He gets to do what he loves, but he's going to drop out of competitive skating just because he's not inspired?

He's never wanted to be that kind of diva. Inspiration is only the spark. He got where he is through hard work.

But it's different now. For years he never wondered whether skating was worth all his effort, all his devotion, all his time, all poured into this one thing. It was never in question. He knew.

He doesn't know, anymore.

Victor takes a bath, treats his bruises, wraps his knees, massages his ankles. He eats something from room service and immediately forgets what it was. Poached this and steamed that. It was probably fine. There's a lemon wedge left over on the plate, and he eats that for dessert, just to feel his mouth cringe and his face scrunch up.

He's thinking vaguely about salt and tequila, not nearly motivated enough to break into the minibar for anything, when Chris knocks.

"I was just thinking of body shots, did that summon you?" Victor greets him, waving him in.

"Was it my body?"

"I don't drink and tell," says Victor.

Chris holds up a bottle. "As long as you drink."

Victor fetches glasses. By the time he returns, the bottle has magically birthed four other, smaller bottles. At Victor's puzzled look, Chris says, "They were in with your plushes," nodding at the corner of the room heaped with the stuffed animals and flowers and gifts thrown onto the ice or delivered to his room.

Chris shows him the hollow plushes with zippered, cushioned compartments inside that hold fleece throw blankets. Within the rolls of the blankets, fans have concealed small plastic bottles of vodka, mostly of Stolichnaya, the one he advertises internationally.

Victor thought he was too tired to do anything but sit and sip Chris's aquavit and gossip, but this is new and harmless and silly and he finds a little energy to wade into the pile with Chris and heft and shake all the plushes, hunting for zippers and treasures. Victor finds a bottle of Chumchurum Soonhari, a citrusy soju that he once said that he liked in a single interview in Korea, when he mostly just wanted to show off that he remembered the name and could say it.

There's a little Żubrówka bottle, too, and so many other odds and ends. Erasers shaped like foods he's mentioned that he likes. Charms with hand-drawn artwork of him in this year's costumes. Two little homemade dolls of him, one with long yarn hair dressed in his free skate costume from his last year in Juniors, the other with short hair in this year's free skate costume, with carefully stitched little lapels and epaulets.

A playing card, beautifully illustrated and printed, of himself in his free skate costume from the last Olympics, standing by a table decked with trophies and medals, his skates prominently displayed. He's surrounded by a thicket of blue roses, and he has one arm raised, his skate guards in his uplifted hand.

He shows it to Chris, who nods, "I've seen some of those online. It's a Tarot card. The artist is doing a whole figure skating Tarot deck. You're the Magician."

"Is that good?" Victor asks.

"It represents skill and success," Chris says.


"It's also the first card in the deck."

"Oh! Okay." Now that he looks closely, it says "1 - The Magician" in a small banner at the bottom. "But aren't some Tarot cards bad? Are they doing them all? It seems a little mean to draw someone as Death, or the Devil."

"Death isn't actually a bad card, you know," Chris tells him. "It just represents change. And the Devil card stands for seduction and pleasure. So obviously, they drew me as the Devil."

Victor takes a photo of the Magician card, the erasers, the charms and dolls, and posts it to Instagram with a dozen hearts.

"Speaking of devils. I got six dildos this year," says Chris. "New record!"

"Best record," Victor answers, coming back to clink glasses with him.

Chris knocks back the last swallow from his glass, pours another, and proceeds to shit-talk absolutely everyone they know.

It's all good-natured, of course. Chris is one of the nicest people in skating, endlessly friendly and sympathetic. People who're put off by the forthright sexuality of his choreography don't deserve him, Victor thinks. They miss out on a gentle soul and a faithful friend.

Victor is possibly getting sentimental, having drained a number of the little Stoli bottles by now. The aquavit is also running low enough to make Chris a little maudlin.

"I thought this would be my year," Chris says ruefully. "You stopped practicing your free skate all the way through. Trying to keep it new for yourself, yes? You never had to do that before. You never needed tricks and gimmicks like the rest of us. And the performances. Beautiful, always, but you were holding back. I thought, this is it. Victor chose a song that cuts too close, he won't be able to throw himself into this one. And once we get to the big competitions, the tougher judges, they're going to see it. I thought for once you wouldn't have those astronomical PCS scores, and the rest of us might have a chance."

Victor smooths an impulsive hand over Chris's hair. "You weren't wrong. It was hard this year."

"But then the Final, and the party," says Chris. "You're such a perfect competitor, Victor. You even got your heart broken with just the right timing to make your programs come alive again. I don't know how the free skate didn't break your old record. It's the hardest thing you've ever done, and it couldn't have been better."

Victor thought the same, so there's little he can do but shrug. "Thank you."

"Still no luck?"

He tells Chris about his clever plan to mention Yuuri's hometown on camera, and how he was thwarted. Chris snickers, patting his hand apologetically even as he's laughing.

"You really are star-crossed," he says. "You know, after we talked last time, I felt a little bad, so I called his coach."

Victor straightens suddenly. "You did? He wouldn't return my messages!"

"He answered mine, but don't get your hopes up. He told me Yuuri broke it off with him right after the GPF. Celestino wasn't even with him for nationals."

"That... might explain a few things."

"Like why he wanted you to coach him?" Chris asks.

Victor bolts another shot from a little Stoli bottle, letting the alcohol take the blame for his flush. He's not ashamed that he's still a little stuck on a man he met at a party three months ago; he doesn't feel the slightest hint of chagrin, remembering how Yuuri was grinding on his hip, and how obvious it must have been to everyone that Victor was thirty seconds from letting Yuuri take him on the floor right there if he wanted to. He'd challenge any man in his position not to feel the same.

But how much it meant to him when Yuuri claimed Victor would make a good coach, when Yuuri asked Victor to coach him... that embarrasses him. That cuts too close to his heart.

"Anyway, Celestino doesn't even have a number for him," Chris says. "He told me Yuuri changed phones when he came back to Japan."

"He's here?"

"Not at Worlds, as far as I know. His hometown, wherever that is. I suppose you looked it up, since you were so keen to go there."

"Yes. It's south..." Victor fumbles with his phone til he gets the map app to show him. "Oh... it's a two hour flight. I could be there tonight."

"You couldn't. There's less than ten minutes left of tonight," Chris waves his drink toward the clock. He's right, it's late. "Also you have an exhibition tomorrow. Also he hasn't said a word to you since then."

"But maybe he's just embarrassed about getting so drunk and taking his clothes off," Victor argues, "and he just needs me to tell him that it's fine and it's okay and then..."

"And then?"

Victor's mouth folds into a frown without his permission, suddenly irritable. "And then-- good things happen, I don't know."

"I know that grumpy face," Chris teases. "Time to pour all good little Russian drunks into bed before they get fussy."

"I'm not little. Or good."

"You're littler than me," says Chris, who unreasonably treasures the inch he stands taller than Victor. "And you won gold over me again tonight, so you'd better be good."

"I must have been," Victor says, pique fading. "You were amazing."

"Ah, my sweet friend." Chris caresses his cheek. "For that, come on, get up; I'll make sure you drink water before I go."

A fifth win means another flood of publicity; Victor's agent was optimistic, and already scheduled half a dozen commitments in four cities for him in the last days of March after Worlds. He flies from Tokyo to Moscow, Moscow to Novosibirsk, Novosibirsk to Paris, and his agent hustles to book more appearances in Europe.

He's in high demand, she reports happily. She could keep him booked solid for the next six months.

"Have you given any more thought to an autobiography?" she asks. "I could set up interviews with ghostwriters starting next week. It would be perfect to get it out for Christmas. Elizabeth Arden wants to license your name for a cologne, and we can negotiate an even better deal there if we can offer them cross-promotion with a book."

"Congratulations, Mr. Nikiforov," a new voicemail says, "Your current representation has done well for you, but let's face it: you're bigger than them now. With five World Championship wins and a name like yours? Why are they booking you on chat shows? By now, you should have a show. Victor Nikiforov should be on TV, in bookstores, movies, your own line of sportswear. You should be saturating media markets all over the world. CSR can do so much more for you. We can make you a global lifestyle brand. It's the natural next step for an athlete with your reach. Get in touch."

It's only the most forward of the many new offers he's received. Victor doesn't mention the other offers to his current agent, but she seems to feel some pressure: she brings a film producer into their next phone conference.

"A book, sure, but you want to make real money, let's make a movie," he says. "Five years of wins and you've done, what, string of modeling gigs? Couple of music videos? Where's your biopic? Where's your Invincible? Where's your 8 Mile? Asa Butterfield should be growing his hair out to play young Victor Nikiforov right now. We're ready to start pre-production the second the signatures dry. If you don't want to play yourself, pick a star. I'd cast Ansel Elgort-- terrible name, good-looking kid though, just had a hit with that cancer patient movie. Or if you want a Russian actor, we can make that happen."

"A biopic, now? I'm not so sure my story is over," Victor says.

"That doesn't have anything to do with the timing," the producer says. "It needs to go into production soon so it'll come out during the next Winter Olympics. Interest in figure skating always spikes during the Olympics, it wouldn't make sense to release it any other time."

Victor promises to consider it, and ends the call. He tries to think it over, but in the end, all he considers is the hotel room wall. Another blank white wall in another hotel, the sixth one since he left Tokyo; he barely remembers what city he's in.

As an ambitious teenager, sometimes he used to practice until his legs could hardly hold him and his chest prickled with pain and he gagged and retched from exhaustion. Eventually Yakov caught him at it and put a stop to it.

Victor knows what it is to be completely spent, no physical reserves left. The weariness he feels now, tired down to his core... this is something else, something much harder to shake.

After the whirlwind of travel and interviews and appearances, walking into his apartment building feels like a hallucination. It doesn't seem real until his dog is barking and bounding into his arms.

"Makkachin!" Victor laughs as his poodle butts her head against him nearly hard enough to knock him off his feet. "I missed you, too, girl. You're my real gold medal."

His neighbor assures him that Makkachin was a very good girl, the best girl, and Victor thanks her and follows Makkachin's excited run to Victor's own door.

His glorious reunion with Makkachin is full of face-licking and tug-of-war and ball chasing. But eventually they both grow hungry, and once he's fed Makkachin, Victor eagerly opens the cupboard and climbs onto the counter to reach the highest shelf, where a package of Tula gingerbread awaits.

"You're my other real gold medal," he says, kissing the gaudy plastic package and then unceremoniously ripping it apart. He tears off enough gingerbread to fill his entire mouth and does just that, groaning at the sweet taste. It's been months since he had anything this sugary.

"You're my other, other real gold medal," he tells his sofa as he collapses onto it and wallows in the cushions.

Eventually he needs something to wash down the sticky cake-- he's certainly not going to stop eating it, maybe not ever again. Victor peers into his fridge. There's milk in there. It's unopened, the seal isn't even broken. That means it's probably still good, right? It's only been a couple of weeks and change since he was here last, when he must have bought it.

He tries asking his phone how long sealed milk stays good, but it bleeps a low battery warning at him and rudely shuts down. Victor tosses it aside, cracks open the seal and pours some milk into a coffee mug. It looks fine, and you can tell by the smell, right? He takes a sniff. Smells like milk. He shrugs and takes a swallow.

Bad milk usually goes sour, he thought. But this doesn't taste sour, it tastes like poison. Victor gags, spits and spits into the sink and slurps water straight from the faucet and spits some more, and hangs his head over the drain. His famous fringe has droplets of spoiled milk in it, and the front of his shirt is dark with dribbles of water from the tap.

"Five-time world champion Victor Nikiforov," he says into the sink.

His dog flops over with a curious whine. "Makkachin," he tells her, "do you realize, I'm twenty-seven and I don't know how milk works."

She takes this to mean he has no scraps for her, and chides him with a short bark before returning to her rawhide chew.

He pours the milk down the sink and drinks water with the rest of his gingerbread.

"Water," he tells the cup, "you're not my other, other, other real gold medal. But you are pretty good."

The next day Victor rises and makes his cursing, jet-lagged way through a scandalously short fitness routine of merely two hours, capped off with a run with Makkachin and a stop at a cafe. He goes back home and sleeps away the rest of the morning on the sofa, wakes up, checks his phone, and has no idea what to do with himself.

He texts Chris, [What do people do with free time]

Chris sends back a link; Victor clicks on it and watches the action film scene that follows, trying to figure out how it's relevant. It takes him much too long to realize that Chris has tricked him into watching Skyfall.

Next time he complains to Chris, he gets a link to a zombie movie. It's not as absorbing as the Bond film, and Victor's mind wanders.

At the moment, Victor is the best male figure skater in the world, with a double fistful of gold medals to prove it. He's the very best at something that has basically no practical application, and no use at all outside an ice rink.

Other athletes consider figure skating too artsy and subjective to be a real sport. Other artists consider competitive figure skating too athletic and score-oriented to be a serious mode of expression.

Privately, of course, Victor thinks figure skating is the ultimate sport and art: movements as expressive and physically demanding as ballet, performed on narrow blades at high speed with the cold and unforgiving ice ready to punish every fall. It's the most challenging and totally involving thing he's ever done. He couldn't devote himself to it this completely and to such heights if he didn't truly feel that way.

On the other hand, if zombies came, despite being in peak physical condition, Victor would be practically useless. He supposes he could swing his skates by the laces to cut up zombies with the blades, but that's not exactly making use of all those honed skills, is it? He'd have to run for the rink, skate out to the center, and hope he could take out all the zombies with spins.

In past years, those sorts of thoughts might spark some inspiration: he wouldn't literally do a program about fighting zombies, of course, but he might use that seed to try something martial and urgent, with spins like flying kicks.

Now... the ideas still come, but he doesn't feel any eagerness to develop them into a coherent physical narrative. He doesn't feel it like music. How bored would the audience be if he came back for yet another year and this was all he had to offer, a chase around the ice with jumps and kicks?

How bored will they be with him regardless? Even the Eros and Agape programs he's been working on lately... he likes what he has so far. He loves the music, and he thinks his choreography is a match for it. But when he thinks of performing it for an audience, he just imagines the disinterest. He's done a spiritual theme before, so he's still planning to give Agape to Yuri Plisetsky. He could keep Eros for himself, but he's done two seasons themed around romance and sensuality. He's been an international champion for twelve years; he can't avoid repeating himself.

In his career, he's changed up his programs at the last minute, added moves that weren't announced, upgraded jumps, turned single jumps into combinations. A spin where the audience expected a jump, a jump where they expected footwork, faster footwork to fit in more steps, an unprogrammed skid on his knee that almost looked accidental until he popped up in time with the surging music and into a step sequence.

And this year, he surprised the audience by having no surprises. He announced his programs and skated them as planned. For the most part, it was received as a mature, graceful way to give other skaters a shot at the gold, by keeping no hidden point-harvesting moves in his back pocket, for a change.

It wasn't that. Victor just doesn't have any surprises left.

Victor wakes up with a kink in his neck and a stiff shoulder, coughing on the awful taste of his own mouth. He fell asleep on the couch amid all his woolgathering; it's been a long time since he woke up in yesterday's clothes, and it used to be for much more interesting reasons than this.

He stands up and stretches, and his back produces an arpeggio of pops. He's been a competitive athlete for sixteen years, give or take, and 'on a break' for just four days. Can he really be deconditioning that fast? Is he already falling apart?

A quick rinse and spit and a cup of tea, that's all he needs. And his phone. Victor pats around til he finds it and takes it into the kitchen. The phone is half dead and still on Chris's Instagram; Victor considers commenting to say Chris's photos put him to sleep, but it's too likely to seem rude instead of teasing. He puts a Like on the latest photo instead.

It isn't a minute later when the phone rings. Victor puts Chris on speaker. "What's going on? It's early here."

"Oh, I know. Some of your fans on Twitter have been checking what time it is in St. Petersburg and debating about how early you wake up and when you'll see it and what you'll say. How many thousands of people have sent you the link?"

Victor checks his email app and clicks over to the unfiltered view. "--Uh. A lot. What is it? Did you call to warn me off it, should I not watch?"

"If I said that, you'd probably never forgive me. I'll let you go. You can ring me back when you've gotten the manly shrieking out of your system." And just like that, click.

Two seconds later Chris texts a link: WATCH THIS ONE: STAY CLOSE TO ME. It can wait til after tea, Victor decides, and starts the kettle. Then he clicks anyway.

「Katsuki Yuuri」Tried to Skate Victor’s FS Program 「Stay Close to Me」

If there do happen to be any manly shrieks, the kettle's whistle covers them nicely.

It's almost hard to look. It's the "Tried to Skate" that worries him. If this is some mocking thing at Yuuri's expense-- but Chris would've warned him if it were. No matter how prickly they get with each other sometimes, Victor knows Chris wouldn't spring that on him without warning.

He should use the function that shows his phone picture on his big TV screen, but he spends so little leisure time in his apartment that he always forgets how it works and has to look it up and figure it out all over again every time, so never mind, he's already clicked, it's loading.

It's very informal, obviously shot with a phone or tablet. Yuuri skates into position, wearing sweats, hair unstyled and ruffled. He assumes the opening pose and begins to move, as the music starts-- only it isn't starting, that's just Victor knowing this song and this program by heart. The music isn't playing in the video.

But the music is there, in Yuuri's body, his expressions. Yuuri doesn't perform the program as dramatically as Victor does himself, the arm movements more subdued, everything less exaggerated. The change suits it. At first every move is held closer to his body, like something precious he's unwilling to risk; and as the program flows on, the gestures become more expansive, a brave stretch past the vulnerability still carried in his posture. He conveys so much with just the set of his shoulders.

Even after the banquet, when Victor was able to put more feeling into this choreography, he still performed it in a broader style than this, taking his cue from the operatic swell of the aria. But he wonders if audiences saw anything but sadness giving way to determination. Yuuri's rendition conveys the sense of loss in the opening verses, and the courage of striving to connect again afterward.

And Victor did his best to make it look effortless, same as he always does. Somehow Yuuri's skate conveys the difficulty without losing the grace, and he makes the effort of the program feel like the effort of the singer, fighting past isolation to reach out.

It feels so much more earnest this way. More intimate. Moving. Beautiful.

The moment it ends, Victor restarts it and watches it again. And then again. This time he waits long enough before replaying that the app puts up an autoplay notice for the next recommended video: STAMMI VICINO Yuuri Katsuki MUSIC ADDED - Re:「Katsuki Yuuri」Tried to Skate Victor’s FS Program 「Stay Close to Me」

Victor plays that one, and finds that Yuuri stayed almost perfectly in time with every note of Stammi Vicino for the entire program, even though the music didn't seem to be playing at the rink. He knows it that well.

After the fifth or sixth viewing, Victor can finally look past the performance to take a more critical view of the technique. The spins and steps are flawless, of course, Katsuki always excels there. The quad Lutz and the quad flip are downgraded to triples. He lands a respectable quad Salchow with four full rotations, though that one looks a little less sure.

But Yuuri nails the other jumps. His triple axel shines, and the quad toe loop-triple toe loop combination near the very end is gorgeous: soaring, landing and leading naturally into the steps that come after.

Never mind how the judges score rotations and height and distance-- Victor believes that is the greatest challenge in figure skating: creating an engaging flow that runs throughout the program so the audience isn't just waiting for the jumps-- and making the jumps feel organic, necessary to the movement and the music.

Of course, there's no telling how many times Yuuri recorded the routine to get this nearly flawless run-through, but he did get a nearly flawless run-through. Maybe five skaters in the world could manage that under any circumstances. The idea that this talent only placed 11th in Japan's national championship is obscene.

It would be one thing if Yuuri always collapsed in competitions. Some people just aren't meant for that kind of high-pressure environment.

But Yuuri was consistently winning higher and higher honors for years leading up to the Sochi GPF, and even though he scored poorly overall there, he performed his short program well. Near the end he touched down on a quad toe loop and turned the subsequent triple Salchow into a double, so he was in fifth after the short programs, but it was a very tight pack; Yuuri was within two points of Chris's fourth place score, and they were only two and three points behind Cao Bin and the Canadian guy. It was the free skate that wiped Yuuri out.

On a hunch, Victor revisits Yuuri's recent skating programs, now with a more exacting eye. After some internal debate, he even watches that 11th place performance in Japan's nationals.

And he sees a pattern. When Yuuri missed jumps, someone-- coach, choreographer, Yuuri himself-- adjusted to allow for an easier entry or more time leading into the jump. And after that, Yuuri wiped out on that jump more often.

Yuuri needs tighter, more difficult choreography. Victor's "Stay Close to Me" program has a minimum of lead time to build up speed before each jump. And Yuuri skated that challenging program with some of the best jumps that Victor has seen him achieve.

Victor tries to imagine what it would've been like for him at his first Grand Prix series, if he'd fallen on a jump and changed the routine to make it easier in subsequent performances-- the idea is anathema. Victor's answer to a troublesome jump has always been to try to improve the flow going into it, which usually means changing his moves in the field, not taking anything out.

Yuuri needs more difficult programs. Playing it safe doesn't work for him. He needs more of a challenge to perform to his full potential. He needs choreography to showcase his strengths: his expressive artistry and clean complex footwork, his strength and endurance. The On Love short programs that Victor's been working on, either of those would suit Yuuri better, Victor's sure of it. He can see it.

He really could see it. He could go to Hasetsu and teach Yuuri his new choreography. Yuuri asked Victor to be his coach.

He never followed through, but maybe Yuuri had as much trouble getting back in touch with Victor as Victor's had getting back in touch with Yuuri. Victor whitelisted his name, but if Yuuri's online usernames don't have his real name attached, or if there was a translation error, or if he didn't say who he was in so many words... it's possible he might have sent messages that just didn't get through.

This message certainly got through.

How romantic would that be, if all this time when Victor was choreographing programs about the way that night made him feel, at the same time, Yuuri was learning Victor's free skate, knowing if he shared it like this, it would reach Victor and remind him of that same night?

Victor finally pauses long enough to figure out how to watch the video on his TV screen, and then he watches again, and again.

It looks like Yuuri is carrying a little more weight than he was the last time Victor saw him. If Victor's really going to coach him, he'll have to make it clear that his feelings for Yuuri won't interfere with his coaching priorities. Even if Victor personally thinks Yuuri's softer face and rounded cheeks are cute, Victor as a coach will have to be strict about diet. Yuuri can still skate beautifully at this weight, but it's more strain on his joints, and Yakov always says that every extra kilo on an athlete costs them a full minute of peak performance time.

That seems oddly specific, now that Victor thinks about it. He asks his phone, and a search reveals that stat is nowhere on the internet.

With growing wonder, he realizes that Yakov must have pulled that equation directly out of his ass. He made that up! And the more Victor thinks about it, the more sure he is that Yakov made lots of things up.

With this new insight, coaching is going to be easier than he thought.

It's amazing how quickly things can change once a decision is made. Victor has his plane ticket within twenty minutes, and an hour later, he's hired movers to pack his things the next day and ship them to Japan.

Makkachin has all her vaccinations up to date and a clean bill of health from a recent vet visit, so she should pass the import inspection easily enough. According to the Japanese Animal Quarantine Service's website, as long as the inspection goes smoothly, the quarantine hold will only be twelve hours.

Victor doesn't take any chances, calling the Russian embassy in Japan to double-check. When he gives his name, they seem skeptical at first, so he posts a mirror selfie showing the active phone call captioned with a greeting to the embassy on Instagram, Twitter and VK. After that, he's handed off to someone with more authority who is very, very helpful. They assure him that there will be absolutely no problem entering the country with Makkachin.

The selfie also creates a bit of buzz as his fans look up the number and begin speculating about what it means and if it has anything to do with Yuuri's video. With any luck, Yuuri follows Victor on at least one of his social media platforms and sees it too-- well, surely after posting that video, he must be watching for Victor's reaction.

Packing everything he'll immediately need into his luggage, Victor checks and checks the comments and mentions. Any of these screen names could be Yuuri, but if Yuuri doesn't say it's him, how could Victor know?

He'll just have to ask Yuuri in person.

Yakov calls. So does Chris. Victor decides filling his last suitcase takes precedence over explaining himself or letting them try to talk him out of this. He lets the calls go to voicemail.

He regrets that later, lying in bed, too stirred up to sleep. If he had argued with them, it would have solidified his resolve; if he isn't willing to talk to anyone about his decision, maybe he isn't as sure as he should be.

When he finally does fall asleep, though, Victor has that dream again... landing a jump and feeling his leg give out, and knowing right away that it's gone for good.

But this time, it's not a nightmare. Now he can stop and no one will ask why or try to change his mind. He still feels panic and grief, he doesn't want to lose this, it's the one thing he's indisputably good at, it's all he knows. But part of him is grateful. He feels glad. He feels free.

Victor wakes up, and pets Makkachin, thinking. Chris told him that the tarot card of Death represents change. The dream is like that, maybe: it seems ominous, but it just confirms what he already knows. He needs to do this. He needs this change. It's time.

He's ready.