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marginal gains

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"I can't believe you've never done this before."

"I never would have dared before I met you." A pause. "Will... will it hurt?"

"Not if I do it right. I always do it right. Just stay still."

"And you've been tested, haven't you? I mean, of course you have, how stupid of me..."

"All the time. And I've never once tested positive. Not for anything."

***

"Of course you ought to be taking something to keep your weight down."

It came out of the blue, as Victor's conversational sallies often did, one morning halfway across the bridge to Hasetsu Ice Castle. They had stopped to let Yuuri catch his breath and to admire the dawn that was spreading across the eastern sky.

"Wh-what are you talking about?"

Victor continued in his usual light tones, as if they were discussing the weather and nothing whatsoever was out of the ordinary. "Being an athlete is about suffering, yes. But there's no point suffering when the solution is right in front of you. You'd have much less to fear from pork cutlet bowls. No more early morning runs."

Yuuri looked around hurriedly, as if the ISU testers might step out from behind the nearest lamppost and drag them both away in handcuffs. But there was silence, nothing but the cries of seagulls wheeling high overhead. Mr Asakawa was in his usual place, fishing off the bridge, but he was a hundred metres away and didn't speak a word of English.

A few weeks ago Yuuri might have started running again at the very suggestion. Now he felt rooted in place.

"But you haven't - have you taken...?" he ventured finally.

"Diuretics? Amphetamines?" Victor gave a disdainful toss of the head, his light hair following the movement. "No, never. I didn't need to."

Yuuri let out a breath of relief. He looked off to his left, towards the Ice Castle. The lights were already burning in its big windows, yellow against the blue of the dawn. They should be going now. It was chilly. The rough wooden railing of the bridge was beaded with big drops of dew. It had already started soaking through the wool of his gloves.

But Victor always went at his own pace. He put an arm around Yuuri's shoulders, leaned against him. Yuuri could feel the warmth of his body even through his tracksuit and warm-up jacket. It was welcome; he had begun to shiver.

Ridiculously, he hoped this was the prelude to another one of Victor's clumsy, inexplicable attempts to discuss former lovers. But it wasn't. He knew it wasn't.

"Other things I've taken, naturally. Testosterone, EPO, meldonium. I think that's all. Who knows half of the things they give you."

What could a person say to that? Yuuri had spent uncountable hours gazing at the posters of Victor on his walls. Over the years he'd wondered many things about his mysterious, unattainable idol. But 'which performance enhancing drugs is he taking?' had never figured on the list.

He wasn't so naive as to think that these things never happened in figure skating. He'd dutifully gone through all the anti-doping controls, and understood that it was for a reason, but he'd also assumed that all the enforcement was working. Doping suspensions were few and far between, so he'd always assumed it was confined to a few bad apples. This wasn't weightlifting, after all. Or cycling.

"That doesn't surprise you, does it?" asked Victor.

He wanted to protest, to reaffim his faith in Victor, but how could he do that when his idol was demolishing himself before his very eyes?

"Human growth hormone," Victor added. "That was the other one. I knew I'd forgotten something."

"You don't need to tell me," said Yuuri. "Please stop! I'd rather not know."

"I wouldn't be a good coach if I didn't. What was Celestino thinking? No wonder you lack confidence, Yuuri. You're trying to win gold at the Grand Prix Final and no one has told you what you need to do to compete at that level. It's like you've been sent out onto the ice with rented skates."

Yuuri could not have been more surprised if Victor had picked him up and thrown him off the bridge. In his mind's eye he saw his arms flailing for purchase, the final slide into the water below. The thin skim of river ice cracking instantly beneath him, too thin to hold his weight.

"But it's not as if everyone else is doping! Surely that can't be true. I know Phichit isn't..."

Victor made a derisive noise. "Ciao Ciao again. Doesn't count."

"What about Yurio? He's only fifteen, he..."

"He's a senior now, isn't he? By the time I was his age, they had certainly started me on something. To start off with they tell you it's vitamins. I knew it wasn't, but you don't say anything about it."

A brief image of a teenage Victor with his flower crown and his long hair. How strange to think that it had been happening even back then, a world away from Yuuri.

"What about Chris?"

"Oh, I know he is."

Yuuri did not ask how Victor knew that Christophe Giacometti was doping. There were some things best not contemplated.

"J.J.?"

Victor gave Yuuri a look of amused disdain. Perhaps that one wasn't too difficult to believe.

"And I'm surprised Otabek isn't glowing," Victor added, unprompted. "Only eighteen, and with muscles like that."

"They're all doping," said Yuuri dully. "And no one bothered to tell me."

It was like standing at the door of a restaurant and seeing his competitors and rivals gathered around a giant bowl of hot pot, dipping in. He was the only one left out.

"Well now you know. You build it into a big thing in your mind, but you'll see, it's nothing so serious. No injections, no transfusions. Just a few pills or an inhaler for your breathing. I'll take care of everything. You won't have to worry."

"Of course I'd worry! How could I not worry?" He could feel his chest getting tight just thinking about it. Maybe he needed an inhaler after all. "They test us all the time, you know."

"I know." Victor nodded understandingly. "But the tests are really not as good as they say."

Yuuri felt himself flushing. Of course, no one had been tested more often than Victor Nikiforov, the five-time winner of the World Championships. Who would know better?

He stammered onwards. "And even if I weren't tested, I would still worry. You know me! I worry. They would know just by looking at me! I would walk into press conferences feeling like I had hello, I'm cheating written across my face."

"Anxiety," said Victor. "Beta blockers would help with that."

"No!"

Victor's smile was gentle, sympathetic.

"It's not cheating. Everyone understands there are things you have to do. And you do them." He paused. "But, Yuuri, what am I meant to do? I'm your coach, how should I advise you? Yakov never asked me, you see, whether I liked the idea or not. There was no question about it, not in St. Petersburg. So there was no need for advice. But you – here you can make up your own mind."

Having been pushed so far by Victor's insistence, and having resisted it every step of the way, Yuuri was left drifting by the sudden release of pressure.

"You can't say that!" he objected.

"Can't I?"

"You've told me all this, that everyone's taking something, that I can't compete without it, that I'll be a hopeless embarrassment if I don't... and now you say that I have a choice?" His voice glanced shamefully upwards on the last word. "What sort of choice is that?"

"The same one we all have," said Victor. By comparison his voice was low, almost husky. "For me, maybe not when I was fifteen, but eventually I knew perfectly well what they were giving me. And I kept taking it – because I wanted to win. Because I wanted to keep skating. In my life there has been nothing but winning. That was my choice."

"I want to win," objected Yuuri.

Victor's eyes were very blue as he studied Yuuri. "Do you? More than anything else?"

There's you, he could have said. I want you. But Victor was his coach. Without Victor, there was no winning; without winning, there was no Victor in his life. The two were inseparable. Did Victor really understand what he was asking Yuuri to say? I want you, whatever it takes.

Yuuri floundered. "Yes! But not – I mean, I don't, I don't know. To win like that..."

"It's good enough for many of us," said Victor solemnly, gazing out to sea. "But perhaps that isn't saying much."

"It's not like that! I didn't mean – look, I'll think about it. Is that all right?"

"Of course," said Victor, all of a sudden as brisk and casual if he had been asking Yuuri his opinion of a new step sequence. He stepped away from Yuuri, back to his bike. As he threw his leg effortlessly over it, an unconscious, instinctive point of the toe lent a grace note to his words. "Do that. That's all I want."

Is it? thought Yuuri miserably. Is it really?

"And let me know what you decide!" Victor shouted over his shoulder, as he started to ride away.