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A Coach's Lot

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It was about this time of year that Yakov would customarily find himself wondering why he hadn't taken up biathlon. Or dressage. Or clay pigeon shooting. Or any sport in which the average top level competitive debut was made at an age considerably greater than sixteen. But it was skating that had caught him all those years ago and skating that he still loved, and most of the year he would have admitted freely to himself if no-one else that he would rather be responsible for even the least promising of his awkward, exasperating, gangly and emotional charges than the most self-possessed and disciplined thirty year-old in Russia.

Victor Nikiforov was certainly not the least of them. Victor was brilliant, serious, and undoubtedly the most technically gifted young skater Yakov had ever had the pleasure of coaching, and at this particular moment he was sixteen years old without a pimple in sight and far from gangly. On the contrary, he appeared to be lending adolescence his own peculiar grace, a fact that made the present day's duty all the more necessary. Victor had been given had firm instructions to report to Yakov's office after his gym session, and for all that he was inclined to rebellion when it came to his programmes Yakov would at least credit him with the good sense to understand that his coach existed for a purpose. He would be there, or at least he would if he didn't meet Georgi Popovich on his way out and learn what Yakov wanted him for. A coward part of him almost hoped for it, but he had done this before, he would do it again, and then it would be over until the next season and he could cease to think for another year about the reason he knew it was necessary.

A familiarly exuberant knock on the door announced Victor who made his way to his usual chair in a cloud of long fine hair, hastily scrubbed dry so that it stood out from his head like a halo, his unblemished cheeks pink from exertion and the sauna. Yes, it was high time for this particular conversation. Only the injury - or what Victor persisted in calling Yakov's pathetic over-caution - that had kept him out of competition had saved them from this the previous year. But now the Junior World Championships were coming up and it most definitely could no longer be put off. The bright green eyes looked at him quizzically, the face serious. He didn't know why he was here. Evidently he had not met Georgi.

'Are you packed?'

'Of course.'

'Any space in your bags?'

'A bit, I promised Masha a souvenir from Bulgaria.'

Ah yes, the changing room's elderly cleaner.

'Good , then you'll have room for this.' He tossed the paper bag into the boy's lap. 'Open it.'

Georgi had tentatively opened the top and peered inside. Victor simply tipped it upside-down, scattering a score of condoms over his lap and onto the floor.

'What - Yakov!'

Yakov noticed with some satisfaction that Victor was blushing from his toes to his hair. Evidently he was not too late.

'You'd better pick them up. Make sure you get them all.

'I don't enjoy this conversation,' he continued, as Victor scrabbled under the armchair, 'and I'm sure you'd rather talk about anything else - '

'Can't we?'

'No. I know your friends have told you about the Junior World Championships. That we can't keep as much of an eye on you as usual, that there are parties, drink, sex, extremely ill-advised behaviour, and unfortunately most of it is completely true. So sit down again and listen to me, because everyone thinks it won't happen to them and I don't want it to happen to you.'

Victor sat, the bag clutched in his lap with appalled hands. He looked as if he would rather have been anywhere else, though at least he appeared to be listening. Victor knew when to listen.

It was straightforward enough in summary: don't be stupid, and don't be seen being stupid. You will not get drunk in public. You will not disgrace yourself anywhere there might be a camera, and you will assume there are cameras everywhere. Never use foul language and always be polite to journalists. You will not damage your hotel room. You will not vomit anywhere other than in a toilet, and if you do you will see it is cleaned up. Don't believe a girl who says she's on the pill or a man who claims to have a clean sheet. Never go back to anyone else's hotel or accept a drink when you don't know where it comes from. Don't get in a car with someone who's drunk or high. Don't even think of accepting if you're offered cocaine.

'Yakov!' He looked genuinely shocked.

'It's extraordinarily stupid and you've no idea what else might be in it. Don't sleep with fans or journalists. If you must sleep with the waiters or your competitors or, God forbid, your team mates, always use those - ' he gestured towards the bag ' - and stick to your own age. I expect you'll break enough hearts by accident, so don't do it deliberately. If you get into trouble, for goodness sake phone me. And if you insist on wearing nail varnish, learn to apply it properly and choose a colour that matches your costume. Eau de nil might do, or a dull silver. '

That one always worked, though he wondered whether Victor might prove the exception. It wouldn't be too bad if he did, the costume could take it. The blush had faded to a line of scarlet across his nose and cheeks.

'I'm not an idiot, Yakov. I wouldn't do anything to jeopardise my career.'

'Of course you're an idiot, you're a sixteen year old skater. But I'd like to think I can trust you not to behave like one.'

Victor grinned. 'Out of interest, are you warning me from personal experience?'

'We were all young fools once. Are you nervous about the competition?'

'I don't think so.' It wasn't said with any particular pride, just a statement of fact.

'I expect that you will be, on the day. Don't worry about it, if it happens. You know that you're good enough to win.' He felt his face soften, he couldn't help it. 'You have a brilliant career ahead of you, Vitya, I'd hate to see you mess it up.'

'I won't.'

'Go on, go home and finish your packing. I know you haven't really done it. And don't forget -' He nodded at the bag of condoms.

'I hate you.'

'I must be doing my job right. Now be off with you.'

Victor pulled his coat on, shoved the bag hastily in his pocket and turned to the door. He'd almost reached if before turning back and seizing his coach in a hug.

'I'll do you proud, I promise.'

He ruffled the shining hair. 'I don't have any doubt of it.'