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never stop until the grave

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"What worries me though, is that after all those victories people don't see me as a human being anymore. I am not a machine. I have a heart beating in my chest, not an engine. There's blood in my veins, not oil. I know pain and fatigue. I can lose but I will strive to win everything."

– Evgeni Plushenko

***

"It's gorgeous," Yuuri said, looking around the sleek, Scandinavian interior of Victor's small apartment, still holding the handle of his suitcase. "I've seen it in magazines, of course, but I never–"

Victor shrugged. He had bought the place when he was eighteen, back when property prices had been a lot lower, on the winnings from two seasons as a senior and the first of his endorsements. He'd bought it outright and been thoroughly impressed with himself for months afterwards.

Now he could afford much better, of course. A modern penthouse in the Central District, a summer dacha on the coast which he would never have time to visit. People – models, the sons and daughters of oligarchs, the sort of people one picked up in nightclubs – asked him why he didn't move somewhere more fashionable than Vasilyevsky Island. But he hadn't chosen so badly, for a teenager who knew nothing except skating. He liked the big windows, the view of the Neva. He liked being able to walk to his home rink. Once upon a time he'd liked the fact that he could see the sports complex from his apartment, rebuking him from across the river if he ever found himself tempted to shirk his training.

"I had it redecorated a few years ago. Denis Krasikov. He did a good job." He glanced around, though he hardly needed to remind himself. "Though I was thinking it's overdue for a new colour scheme. It's rather bleak."

Expanses of white and silver and pale blue, all the appliances in gunmetal grey. It had echoed the style of his skating season and at the time he had thought it rather sophisticated. Last winter, after the Grand Prix Final, in the depths of the St Petersburg winter, it had come close to sapping his will to live. To be fair, even then, he had realised that this was not really the fault of the decor. Installing a few more lights had helped. A little.

"I don't think it's bleak at all," Yuuri insisted. "It's very – like you."

"It's not now," he said. "Not anymore. Here, it's already midnight. Let me show you the bedroom."

***

A month would not have been too long to show Yuuri around St Petersburg. All of the clichéd tourist spots – the Hermitage, the Peter and Paul Fortress, Peterhof, the Church on Spilled Blood. A day trip to Kronstadt to admire the sailors. Even in the depths of a Russian winter, with eighteen hours of darkness a day, there would have been things to see. All of Victor's favourite restaurants and cafés could have occupied them for a week at least.

A month would not have been too long to settle in together at home with his new fiancé. After so long away, Victor's apartment seemed strange and sterile to him, merely a hotel more familiar than others. He had never lived with another person; his lovers had rarely stayed beyond the morning.

Jetlagged, Yuuri slept into the afternoon. Then Victor showed him the things that he would have showed any other lover: where to find the towels; how to use the espresso machine; the fact that there was nothing in the refrigerator, and that therefore they would have to go out in search of food.

After a late lunch, the sun was already sinking down over the city. They went back to the apartment and watched a couple of episodes of something forgettable on Netflix. Yuuri's head sagged towards Victor's shoulder; Victor tucked a blanket around him.

Welcome home, he wanted to say. This is your home now, too. Our home together.

He would say it when he believed it.

Tomorrow they would both be back on the ice.

***

Crossing the Tuchkov bridge hours before dawn, still half asleep, sports bag slung over one shoulder. Fighting the buffeting wind, leaping from one foot to the other to test his balance. Fumbling for his key card at the door and waiting for the temperamental lock to go green. All of this was familiar. Only now he had Yuuri by his side.

"I always hoped that someday I would get the chance to skate here," Yuuri said, following him into the darkened hallway.

Victor fumbled for the lights. "Here? The ice used to be terrible, you have no idea."

"You trained here," said Yuuri simply.

"You are a flatterer," said Victor, and kissed him behind the ear.

In the locker rooms Victor took a deep breath, taking into his lungs the mingled scent of bleach, musty tiles and old skate liners. A universal cocktail, one might think, but even with his eyes closed he would have known Yubileyny Sports Palace. Something expanded in his chest, a tightness of which he had not even been aware.

Victor spread his arms wide. "Welcome home, Yuuri!"

***

Returning to Yubileyny Sport Club was rather like a walrus swim in the Neva: a sudden dive into the icy waters of elite Russian athletics. Victor's first morning back was filled with a round of appointments: the sports doctor, the physiotherapist, the nutritionist. All of them gave him the bored, unimpressed Soviet functionary routine – twenty-five years out of date – but he could tell that deep down they were pleased to have him back in St Petersburg. The conclusion: no aggravation of old injuries, a small but unacceptable decrease in VO2 max, a generally clean bill of health.

Studying the list of blood tests to be run, Victor wondered whether Yakov required a regular STD panel for all his athletes, or whether it was just him. Perhaps he would ask Georgi. Perhaps not; it would only spark another woeful tirade about 'that slut Anya.'

The physio noted a distinct decrease in flexibility. She – clearly a sadist, and not the sort of sadist that Victor got on with – had frowned at him disapprovingly as she asked him to contort him into a series of increasingly outrageous stretches that had probably come out of a manual of sex positions. (Had it hurt so much last time? Surely it always hurt.)

Finally: he was nearly five kilos above his competition weight. Well, it hardly required a top sports doctor to tell him that. He had been perfectly aware. It was not so much of an issue; he wasn't Yagudin. It was just that time was rather short.

"I would ban you from the ice for two weeks," grumbled Yakov, watching Victor taking off his skate guards, "if it weren't for the fact that Nationals are in two weeks. What were you thinking?"

Victor favoured Yakov with the airheaded smile that he saved for serious discussions with his coach. "Clearly I wasn't. I was enjoying myself."

Both of them knew that the correct answer was I fell in love, but this was neither the time nor the place for that conversation. He suspected that Yakov found it simpler to think of him as a sex-obsessed playboy with no impulse control. Which was fine.

Yakov grunted. "And don't you dare to claim that you've been training. I know what you call training: ice dancing. You chose to risk your back doing lifts, without any coaching, for an exhibition skate? When you weren't even competing? Are you fifteen, Victor? Yura has more sense than that."

Again: I fell in love. Or perhaps, I was planning to retire permanently, so it seemed like a good idea when I thought it up. Still not the time though.

"Just promise me," Yakov continued, "that you won't do anything stupid and injure yourself."

Victor fluttered his eyelashes at Yakov. "Have I ever?"

Another grunt. The broken collarbone at fourteen, the torn meniscus at twenty, the back surgery only two years ago. But none of those had been the result of doing anything stupid, so they hardly counted.

"Get skating. Warm up. But no jumps until I tell you. I'll be watching you, Vitya."

Victor pushed back from the wall, letting his momentum carry him onwards. Then he aimed a gesture at Yakov, the opening flourish of Stammi Vicino, and skated off.

He's glad I came back. He's forgiven me. He still loves me best.

The thought made him so happy that he forgot himself and did a triple toe loop a few minutes later. The resulting irate shouting from the sidelines warmed his heart.

***

Despite his gruff exterior, Yakov clearly was a romantic soul at heart, for he sent Victor and Yuuri home a full two hours early. Together they walked back across the bridge by the light of an early twilight. The sky to the southwest, over Vasilyevsky Island, was shaded from the palest yellow through to sea green, into the deep blue of a winter night sequined with stars. It would, thought Victor, make the most beautiful costume.

He linked arms with Yuuri. Through his wool coat he could sense the faintest suggestion of body heat. He pressed closer, soaking it in. "So, Yuuri, what do you think of the Russian training?"

Yuuri turned to look at him, his head silhouetted in the dim light. "Very good!"

"Very rigorous, very firm... very Russian. Different than Detroit?"

"It's – it's only been a day. I don't think I can say yet – "

Victor wondered what on earth he had been expecting, whether he ought to apologise for trying to tempt Yuuri into disloyalty. Celestino, for all his failure to manage Yuuri's anxiety, was a good coach and a good man. Nonetheless Victor could not help but feel a certain pride in the system in which he had been trained. No doubt whatever they did in America, whatever that might be, was perfectly good; but in Russia things were done without compromise.

The fruit of their first day at Yubileyny Sport Club was a heavy folder of papers for each of them to take home. Medical results, nutrition plan, weekly schedule. Swimming, weightlifting, bodyweight exercises, ballet, physiotherapy, massage... ice time. One would think that the ice time was an afterthought; it was not so easy to come by as it had been in Hasetsu. But then it was only one part of a thorough, scientifically managed training plan.

It wasn't the way I organised things in Hasetsu, thought Victor with a nagging sense of guilt. But then I gave him all my time, all my attention. Perhaps that was enough.

He drew Yuuri even closer, kissed him on the cheek. Headlights of passing cars slid by, gold spotlights against the dark blue. A car horn honked; nothing to do with them, no doubt, someone trying to merge.

"I only want you to be happy here," said Victor.

Yuuri's warm breath made a cloud of fog around them. "I would be happy wherever you are."

***

"We forgot to get anything to cook for dinner," said Yuuri, taking a seat on the sofa and extracting his training schedule from his bag.

I got apples yesterday, thought Victor, who rarely bothered keeping anything in the refrigerator during the training season. He doubted that this would make any sense to Yuuri.

Victor stood in the doorway, slowly brushing the snow off the shoulders of his coat while he gazed at his fiancé. Yuuri was bent over his papers, studying them as if there would be a test in the morning. His dark hair, now grown out over his ears, was flattened into messy strands by the hat he had worn. He still wore his Japan warm-up jacket, unzipped, slightly oversized. He was beautiful, breathtaking, incongruously real amidst the sterile lines of Victor's apartment. Victor rubbed the balls of his hands into his eyes, and saw stars. He opened his eyes again, and saw Yuuri. It was the same thing.

Finally Yuuri looked up, clearly feeling the weight of Victor's scrutiny. Light glinted off his still-fogged glasses. "Am I in your way? Is it all right if I sit here?"

"Sit wherever you like, this is your home now."

His expansive gesture of welcome, with perfect accompanying pique turn, were lost on Yuuri, who had returned to studying his training plan. Although it was printed in Cyrillic, some kind soul had written out an English translation in pen. Now Yuuri was annotating it with additional kanji.

"Oh, don't take those too seriously," said Victor impatiently. "They give you a new one every month. Otherwise we would begin to wonder why we pay them."

He sat down beside Yuuri and plucked the offending papers out of his hand. He disliked the thought of someone else planning Yuuri's day for him. He wondered how much their schedules overlapped, whether anyone had bothered to think about that. He would have to have a word.

"Yakov seems to think that he's my coach now," said Yuuri. "I mean, his English isn't very good, but he's acting like he is..."

Yakov Feltsman was many things, but a presumptuous man he was not. Victor had sat down with him in Barcelona after the Grand Prix Final and signed two different coaching contracts. Viktor Vasilievich Nikiforov, Katsuki Yuuri. Both effective from the beginning of the current competition season, with full fees payable immediately.

It was Victor's peace offering to Yakov. He had rung his bank the following morning to have them wire the money, begrudging Yakov nothing. A few more ice shows in the summer ought to cover it, although he had long ago stopped noticing or caring exactly how much they paid.

All that worried him now was whether Yuuri would understand all this. And when and how, exactly, he should explain it.

"Only to keep you from being neglected while I'm preparing for Nationals," he said, kissing Yuuri's ear in explanation.

And Europeans, and then Worlds... continued an unhelpful voice in his head.

Glancing at his own training schedule, he had only noted the omissions: no coaching Yuuri, no choreographing Yuuri's routines, no commissioning Yuuri's costumes, no washing Yuuri's feet. Certainly no styling Yuuri's hair before competitions even though Yuuri is perfectly capable with a comb. Nothing mentioning Yuuri's name at all.

They would share ice time, naturally – most of Yakov's students did, although Victor occasionally rated his own private sessions – but Victor would be practicing his own routines, hardly be able to spare the time to spot someone else.

In the afterglow of the Grand Prix Final, the idea of coaching and competing simultaneously had seemed... not easy, precisely, but doable with hard work. Anything worth doing took hard work, and Victor was an optimist by nature. Kneeling on the floor rinkside, with Yuuri straddling his lap, he had been certain that he could make it work. Only now he could not remember exactly how he had intended to do it.

Sighing, Victor lay down on the sofa, putting his head in Yuuri's lap.

"Are you worried?" asked Yuuri, ruffling a hand absentmindedly through Victor's hair.

"About nationals?" said Victor, choosing the simplest possible interpretation of Yuuri's words. "Of course not. I don't even have to be good. I only have to be – not terrible. There is such a thing as loyalty. They wouldn't dare to pass me over for the Euros. And by then I will be ready."

Yuuri blushed, biting his lip, as if he were ashamed to have even asked the question. As if he had suddenly remembered that a living legend's cheek was pressed against his thigh, or that he was the one who, for eight long months, had succeded in taking Victor from the world.

"And you're ready now," added Victor. "You'll be stunning. Minami won't know what's hit him."

"Please don't say that," said Yuuri, but his objection lacked its usual terror. It sounded, thought Victor with pleasure, almost pro forma, as Yuuri thought he would probably win.

"And then, when you come home, I'll kiss it."

If he had turned his head to his left, leaned forward a few inches, he could have mouthed Yuuri's cock through the heavy cotton of his tracksuit bottoms. Instead he turned to the right and kissed Yuuri's knee, wringing a gasp and a little jump from him.

"My knee?" said Yuuri, a tone of trembling delight.

Victor lay back and looked up at his lover. "It has more to do with success on the ice than your cock, I think. Though who knows."

Together they broke down into helpless laughter.

"I wondered," Yuuri began, his eyes shining a little. "You said there was a Japanese restaurant near here that you wanted me to try. Would you like to go tonight? In honor of being here in St Petersburg."

For a moment Victor said nothing.

"Not – not katsudon," said Yuuri hurriedly. "I wouldn't! But sushi? I'm allowed fish, I think, maybe even rice..."

He leaned over to rummage on the floor for the pages of his discarded nutritional plan. Briefly, gloriously, Victor was trapped against Yuuri's chest, smelling damp wool and shower gel and a hint of cologne. But the moment ended too quickly.

"I'm not," said Victor finally. "Not for dinner."

It was, strictly speaking, a lie. But Yuuri could not read Russian, so the truth would hardly out. Victor followed his own counsel, whatever his nutritionist might say.

"Oh – you have a meal plan too! Of course you do! What was I thinking?"

It was difficult, thought Victor, to live with a man while remaining his idol as well. Perhaps impossible. Eventually one revealed the work that went into being a god.

He smiled, as broadly as he could manage. "Only an apple for dinner until nationals. Just to get back into training. It's the simplest way."

"Is this a Russian thing?" asked Yuuri, baffled.

No wonder he has such trouble keeping his weight down, thought Victor. He has no sense of self-denial.

"Yes, we're a very peculiar people," he said, deadpan. "In particular we have a belief in apples."

He gestured towards the wooden bowl on the counter, piled high with green Antonovkas. Yuuri must have thought that they were there for decoration.

That night his stomach grumbled so loudly that he thought it must be keeping Yuuri awake. It certainly was keeping him awake. But he was a realist, and an athlete – and in a choice between his knees and his stomach, he would choose his knees every time.

***

"There's no room on this schedule," said Victor, "for me to coach Yuuri. It's a problem."

Taking a seat on the corner of Yakov's desk, he swung his legs to see how it looked.

Yakov looked up from a thick pile of paperwork. For a moment he studied Victor from beneath his heavy eyebrows, then huffed out an annoyed sigh and returned to his papers. Victor studied the top sheet from upside down: Therapeutic Use Exemption... Georgi Popovich...

"That's because it's impossible for you to coach Yuuri," he said curtly, refusing to meet Victor's gaze again. Clearly he was hoping that Victor would get bored and go away. "There aren't enough hours in the day."

"They said it was impossible to win five World Championships in a row."

A glance, but only to shake his head dismissively. "That act became old a long time ago."

"I'll just have to make it six," said Victor, for the sake of something to say. Even he knew that it was a weak rejoinder.

Yakov raised his voice. "How do you expect to do that when you're not fully committed to your own success? When you're competing against the man you've promised to help to victory? Do you want to win gold or not?"

Rooting around in his overstuffed drawers, Yakov produced a piece of paper and waved it in Victor's face. "This is the contract engaging me to coach Katsuki Yuuri. You signed it yourself. I am his coach now. Who are you?" He shook the paper, his face growing redder by the minute. "Do you have a contract with him? Victor, have you ever had a contract with him?"

"I swore to him that I would stay on as his coach. He needs me. We have an understanding."

"You have sex. Sex is not an understanding, as I learned the hard way from Lilia Baranovskaya. Not even a marriage license binds you forever."

There was nothing one could say to that. It was true.

"Victor Vasilievich Nikiforov, listen to me. A good coach, a coach who puts the well being of his athletes above his own carnal desires, a coach with even the most tenuous grasp of professional ethics... does not... fuck... his athletes!"

"Ouch," said Victor quietly. "Is that what you think of me, Yakov?"

It was not as if he hadn't asked himself whether he was doing the wrong thing, those early weeks in Hasetsu when Yuuri had recoiled from his every touch as if Victor's fingertips could burn him. He had lain on his futon, alone in an expanse of tatami, surrounded by the silent reproach of his still-boxed possessions, wondering why on earth he had come, wondering whether Yuuri even wanted him there.

He had tried to discipline himself. He had told himself that he was willing to be whatever Yuuri needed him to be, whether father, friend or lover. For a long while it had seemed that even Yuuri himself was not sure what that meant. And then it had felt so natural, so right, that he had ceased to ask himself whether it was.

"No. I forgive you, Vitenka, in spite of all of that, because you never have been his coach. Not really. From the start I said that you were playing at coaching. Somehow you hypnotised the man into believing that you could fuck talent into him. And the maddest thing is that it worked!" He threw his hands disbelievingly in the air. "But, Victor Vasilievich, that is not coaching. You are the Rasputin of figure skating."

It was almost a compliment. And yet it was so wrong.

"Actually it was the other way around," said Victor. "He already had talent. I was hoping that he could fuck motivation into me. And he succeeded."

"Yes, very good. Very touching. And now you're back. So be back."

"I can't choose. You'll kill me if you ask me to choose. It will tear me apart."

Yakov scoffed, uncomfortable. "You're stronger than that."

"No," said Victor Nikiforov, the living legend. Something caught in his throat. "I'm not."

Unwillingly his mind returned him to a hotel room in Barcelona. The implacable chill of the plate glass window against his back. The dampness of his hair, straight from the shower. And the tentative, curious way that Yuuri had touched him, as if until that moment he had not truly believed that Victor Nikiforov could feel pain.

They had agreed to make their decisions after the final. Victor had lain awake for most of the night, alone in his bed, weeping silently. And then, afterwards, by the rink, caught up with sudden joy, he had pledged Yuuri both his body and his soul. Skating and coaching together.

Gold rings and an engagement meant nothing compared to this. Not even the cruelest of lovers could have demanded a more severe act of service. No discipline could be more demanding than that of skating. No wonder that Victor, in the end, was always drawn back. To Yuuri and to skating both.

Tears rolling down his cheeks, Victor leaned forwards and wordlessly threw his arms around his coach.

"Vitya," said Yakov, that gruff tone that meant he was truly moved. "Vitenka, stop this, my foolish boy. You're worse than Georgi. How do you get yourself into these messes?"

He thumped Victor awkwardly on the back, but for a long time he did not pull away.

"Here," he said finally, pushing Victor upright. He rummaged in his pockets and found a handkerchief. "Dry your eyes. And be certain to drink some water afterwards, I don't want you dehydrated."

Victor sniffed, tossed his hair out of his eyes, and dabbed at his nose with one of the cleaner corners of the handkerchief.

Yakov sighed. "What time is your first workout?"

"Nine a.m. Both of us."

"If you both come in at seven..."

"Yuuri is not so good in the mornings."

Yakov sighed even more loudly. "If you come to me at seven, then, you can have an hour and a half to coach him in the afternoon. Whatever that may involve."

"Thank you, Yakov." Victor hugged him again. "I knew you would think of something. You always do."

"Another sex tape would have been simpler than this. You'll be the death of me yet. Go, clean yourself up. You'll be keeping the physio waiting."

As Victor made his way to the door, he could hear Yakov muttering to himself: "I've never even been tempted to fuck one of my athletes because all of my athletes are idiots."

"I love you too, Yakov," said Victor, and made his exit.