Crying tires Tessa out – she puts so much effort into holding her emotions back that the tears end almost as quickly as they’ve begun. Scott, on the other hand, seems to possess a veritable Fountain of Youth. It’s like someone forgot to shut off a valve at the waterworks; he looks at her for longer than a few seconds and she can already see the emotion building in his eyes.
It seems unfair, then, that he’s the one passed out against his fluorescent green travel pillow, while she’s stuck with only her thoughts for company on the flight back to Montreal.
There’s a lot to process. Today they were officially named as flag-bearers for the Olympic Games, the first man and woman in Canadian history to carry the flag together. There’d been crying, and laughing, and hugging while cry-laughing. Scott’s already brainstorming lifts for the ceremony, to which she carefully reminds him that their insurance does not cover taking someone’s eye out with the Canadian flag.
It has always been a delicate balancing act, their partnership.
People love to tell her how natural and right she and Scott look together, like they were put on the earth as two perfectly formed halves, destined to slot exactly into place. She wishes she could tell them about the years it took them to get there: the edges that had to be rounded, the hands that were taught how to hold, and to feel, and to cherish.
She’s fiercely and immeasurably proud of what they have together. Their partnership is her life’s greatest work – and to pretend it was anything other than a great deal of work is a disservice.
They’re always asked to talk about their relationship, to distill twenty years of memories into a single soundbite. Scott never fails to surprise her with the emotional honesty of his answers, but she finds it difficult to summarise exactly what they have together, not in a way that anyone else would understand. It would take days to cover the ups and downs of their relationship to a point where she was satisfied that someone really understood, didn’t just box them in as friends, or lovers, or co-workers, or partners – and who has time for that?
But if she could sit down with someone, explain to them the moments she remembers and the ones she wishes she could forget, she supposes it would go a little something like this.
Tessa is eight and Scott is ten, and they kiss for the first time just before she takes the ice at the Ilderton Skating Carnival.
Well, he kisses her on the cheek, and presents her with a handful of flowers that she needed for the performance anyway, but it feels important.
Even more, in front of all their friends at the club, it feels official.
She misses most of the program cues and finishes the choreography a full three seconds after the music ends, but the goofy smile never leaves her face. Thinking back, she should probably have taken it as a sign that their romantic prospects would never correlate with on-ice performance.
Chattering away in the ride home after the Carnival, she tells Jordan about that one time Scott saved up all his allowance to buy her a bracelet, and she wears it every single day even though – and here her voice drops to a whisper – she doesn’t really like pink and she thinks the glittery ‘T’ is a bit much, but she likes the warm feeling she gets when she looks down and sees it on her wrist, remembers his face when he gave it to her, all full of pride and nervous affection.
Everyone she meets gets a detailed introduction to Scott Moir, Tessa’s other half and committed life partner. She turns down the National Ballet to continue skating with Scott, and everyone applauds her for her conviction. At eight years old, she’s sacrificed more for this relationship than people three times her age.
When her mother calls her downstairs one evening and holds the phone out with a smile, she doesn’t question why Scott is calling her. This is just the next step – she’s sure they’ll be talking every night from now on.
“Uh, hi? Tessa?” he begins.
Over the next five minutes, she listens as Scott stumbles his way through a break-up, accompanied by intermittent and immediately hushed laughter on his end of the line. Under her breath, she counts every tick of the kitchen clock, every twist in the phone cord, every rhinestone in the bracelet on her wrist, and waits.
“So…yeah. Still partners though!” he finishes.
She can imagine his triumphant smile on the other end of the phone, buddies patting him on the back for a job well done. Her small hand clenches around the phone, so tight she can hear the plastic creaking beneath her fingers, but he hangs up before she can say a word.
Her mother shoots her a concerned look after half a minute of motionless silence.
“Honey? Everything ok?”
“Fine,” she says, but when she appears downstairs the next morning, her wrist is noticeably bare.
It’s the first time Tessa learns that there are some questions that only have one correct answer. For example, if someone asks you about your absent boyfriend, you reply that you’re “exploring other options right now”. Simple as can be.
‘Exploring other options’ is certainly a way of describing what occurs years later, when they find themselves sat face-to-face in a cupboard under the stairs, heavy bass music thumping through the floorboards. Scott’s knee is pressed into hers at an uncomfortable angle, and her red hair is caught in a button somewhere in a heavy bundle of fabric she assumes is a coat rack.
Thin shafts of light filter through the gap in the cupboard door, illuminating the room in a strange assortment of parts. She follows the slanted line across Scott’s jawbone, finds the curve of his lip, the hollow at his neck, the quick rise and fall of his chest as she drags her gaze back upwards and realises he’s watching her too.
“This is stupid,” she breathes.
“Remind me to leave the room next time Truth or Dare comes out.”
“Sure,” he replies, but in that dreamy tone of voice that means he’s not really paying attention to the conversation.
This half-light, half-dark is unsettling. She knows, knows instinctively what every part of him looks like. She knows that just underneath his lip, there’s a scar where he refused to use acne cream because it tasted disgusting whenever he accidentally got it in his mouth. She knows that on his left hand, fifth finger, there’s a fine silvery line where he had to get twelve stitches because he reached for her skate too early in a spin. She knows that the person sat in front of her is Scott, her partner of so many years, and she’s not a little girl with a schoolyard crush anymore. But the light does strange things as it scatters across his face, and she reaches forward and brushes her fingers across his cheek.
“Tess…” he says, in a strained voice, and she’s certain she’s not imagining the way he leans into her hand.
“Just – let me,” she whispers, continuing to trace the beam of light across his features. Was his skin ever this soft? Surely she would have noticed, but everything feels different away from the rink. On the ice, they perform out love and devotion for a captive audience, again and again until the movements become automatic. Here, it’s just the two of them and Tessa isn’t sure of anything.
She feels his voice in a breath across her skin, realises she’s unconsciously closed the gap between them. His eyes are closed in something like reverence, fists balled in his lap. His fingers clench and unclench in perfect rhythm with his breathing.
She studies him slowly, deliberately, and leans forward an inch to press her lips to his cheek, one hand curling against his neck as his whole body shivers.
“We’re not doing anything,” she breathes against his skin, pressing her lips again to his neck, his collarbone, his jaw.
“T-Tess,” he stutters, fingers clenching in his lap with increasing urgency. He’s trying so hard to keep his composure, and she hates it – none of this counts, not in this strange liminal space between light and dark.
So she drags her lips up to his, presses herself into him, and finally she feels him respond, clutching at her hip with a fierceness that leaves her breathless, triumphant, his body surging against hers.
His mouth is everywhere; whispering into her hair, trailing down the side of her neck, muffling her surprised gasp when he slips an arm around her waist and pulls her into his lap. Her hair is still caught in that damn button, tugging her head back, but he takes advantage of the opportunity to work his tongue against the soft skin just below her ear while she unhooks herself. His mouth feels better than she’d ever imagined against her, and she shudders, caught between a laugh and a gasp.
“Fuck, you don’t know how long I’ve wanted to do this,” he sighs, and pauses for a moment, presses his forehead to hers. His eyes are so dark she can barely see them, but she can feel his heartbeat thumping through his shirt, his fingers strong and secure at her waist, mussing the ruffles on her skirt.
“A little over eight years?” she replies with a euphoric grin, looping her arms around his neck and pulling herself further into his lap.
She rolls her hips experimentally, and immediately stops when he gives a choked gasp.
“Don’t - that’s – ah, gonna kill me, T.”
“Sorry,” she whispers, giggling quiet and wide-eyed into his neck. Everywhere she touches, she watches goosebumps raise along his skin. It's almost hypnotic, the ease with which his body responds to hers; makes her feel light-headed and powerful.
When he finally gets his breath back, he levels her with a half-accusing stare that’s tempered slightly by the hand that’s currently smoothing her hair back from her face.
“If you wanted to jump me in a cupboard so bad, you could have just said so. Would have been happy to save you the trouble of conspiring with our friend upstairs.”
She gives a small gasp, pressing a hand to her chest in feigned drama.
“As if I would stoop so low,” she says, but fixes him with a genuine smile. “I guess we just got lucky. And you caught me on an impulsive day.”
“You, impulsive? Sure you’re feeling okay?” he says with a laugh, pressing a hand to her forehead. “Maybe we should get you checked out, just in case…”
He leans over her, hands slipping under her shirt, and she feels her stomach twist as she arches eagerly against him.
“Guys! Time’s up!”
The look of utter despair on Scott’s face is one she thinks she’ll remember for the rest of her life. With all the reluctance of a man drawing his last breath, he stills his hands on their journey up the bare skin of her waist.
“We could just say we didn’t hear them,” he offers.
She pats his cheek sympathetically, gives him a quick kiss before extricating herself from their precariously balanced situation.
“Maybe next time, Romeo,” she says primly, adjusting her skirt.
“I bet Romeo never had to wait eight years to get to first base,” he grumbles, but she giggles at him, and then his smile splits into a grin, and they’re both shaking with laughter, bumping shoulders as they step out into the stark light of the hallway.
At training the next day, she meets his gaze, smiles sweetly at him, and he begins to think he imagined the whole thing in some crazy fever dream.
That is, until they get to the end of the session and go to head their separate ways in the changing rooms, and he definitely isn’t imagining it when she tugs him into the women’s changing room, pushes him up against the wall and kisses him. It’s totally something he would imagine. He even pinches himself, twice – and then her for good measure. But nope, it’s definitely Tessa batting his hand away, and sliding her own behind his neck to pull him closer. Definitely Tessa slipping her fingers over his belt buckle and, uh, fuck – licking into his mouth with an earnestness that makes his head spin. He’s still trying to form coherent words when she pulls away with a smirk and heads into the showers, leaving him unbelievably confused and turned on in the middle of the women’s changing room.
Life giveth, and life taketh away.
They flirt with the possibility that this budding romance can coexist with their on-ice partnership.
In a lot of ways, nothing changes. Marina still yells “more feel, more feel" every time they step on the ice. Meryl and Charlie still watch them from the rink perimeter like vultures circling a dying animal. Tessa still has the wherewithal to look bashful when Scott’s hand skirts down her back as they sit next to each other in the crowded cafeteria.
But then he’ll lean in close, whisper “storage cupboard by the reception", and she’ll feel her chest tighten with anticipation. Sometimes he lingers for a moment longer, lips hovering so close to her neck she’s sure he’ll give up on trying to keep all of this under wraps and just kiss her in the middle of the cafeteria. He never does, of course – but without fail, his hand will find hers under the table, interlace their fingers together at his knee before he throws himself back into the group conversation with a cheery smile.
Tessa’s concentration has never been so tested in her entire life. The training sessions between lunch and the end of the day have become exercises in self-control, Scott’s words playing on repeat in her head. She’s started to classify the arena into places they’ve kissed, and places they have yet to conquer. Changing rooms? Been there, done that – both of them. Maintenance closet? An uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding experience. Showers – that’s an opportunity they have yet to explore, but she’s not sure she’s quite ready to contemplate that level of public indecency.
She still has fading bruises on the backs of her thighs from the time Charlie popped his head into the men’s changing room after practice, and Scott pushed her up so hard against the dividing wall she thought her chest would burst from the tension. It had taken Scott a full minute of strangled conversation to convince Charlie that yeah, everything’s fine, just taking care of something here, nope, no, you really don’t need to get Igor, NO, it’ll just be a moment – punctuated by choked gasps as Tessa discovered a new inch of bare skin to sneak her fingers across. She wasn’t sure how comforted Charlie sounded when he finally sloped away, but she knew the look Scott gave her when he exhaled and relaxed his grip on her thighs meant payback, in all the best ways. He had grumbled something about his reputation and “now everybody’s gonna think I jack off in the men’s changing room”, and she had smiled sweetly and told him not to get ahead of himself.
So they sneak around after practice most evenings, and if their host families notice that they’re both half an hour later to dinner, they don’t bring anything up. Tessa begins to believe that this could actually work – the boyfriend both on-ice and off. They even call it good practice for the Olympics and the billion distractions therein.
Every day she finds more excuses to touch him. When she passes him at the gym, she trails a hand across his hip and marvels at the way he swallows, hard. She helps him out of his jacket as they warm up, and her fingers linger at his collar, dip briefly into the enticing hollow at his throat. Sometimes, just for the thrill of it, she’ll twirl them round on the ice, press her forehead against his chest, and see how long they can stay there. Usually it’s Scott who maintains their decorum, reluctantly steps away after a moment. Now he just stands there with her, pulls her close and dips his head to rest on hers until the rink stops spinning around them.
The problem is that none of it is ever enough.
She’s never been a greedy person, always far more generous with others than with herself, but with him she is allowed to want – and she does, wants all of him, all the time. It’s like an electric current racing underneath her skin, makes her flushed and distracted. He turns to her while they’re running through their free dance, smile crinkling at the corners of his brown eyes, and she completely forgets that the hand trailing down the side of her leg means that she needs to flip up and into a lift, and not stand there staring at him like an idiot.
Later, when they’re both standing at the boards and awaiting Marina’s inevitable avalanche of criticism, she can’t meet his gaze.
“S’ok,” he shrugs when she begins to apologise, his smile as warm and soft as the hand on her back. “I’d get lost in my eyes too.”
She scoffs at that, shoving his arm away with a grin that’s only half-faked.
Except it happens again, and again until they can’t get through a single runthrough without one of them stumbling, or losing focus, or forgetting steps.
Igor and Marina leave them for US Nationals with strict (and colourfully expletive-ridden) instructions to sort out their issues, so they decide to grab an early start and drill technical elements in an empty rink. Tessa prepares herself by chugging two days’ worth of her recommended caffeine intake in the space of five minutes. From his perch on the boards next to her, Scott looks suitably concerned.
“Scott,” she cuts him off, before he can begin. “You ask me to get up at five in the morning. Please accept my process of dealing with this loss.”
His mouth curves into amusement as he reaches over to flick the empty cup in her hands, but he stays dutifully quiet as she closes her eyes and exhales slowly. For a moment, the only thing she hears is the steady hum of the fluorescent lights above them and the drumming of Scott’s fingers on the boards next to her.
“Alright,” she says, eyes snapping open as she hops off the boards. “Let’s sort out our shit.”
Over the next hour, they drill everything; steps, turns, twizzles, elements so simple they could do them in their sleep. Nothing gives them pause.
“Damn Tess, maybe you should drink that stuff more often,” he jokes at the half-hour mark, as she twirls past him in an elegant blur. She sticks out her tongue, watching him duck out of the way of her ponytail.
In hour two, they move on to lifts. They’d usually break for a few minutes between sessions, but she feels practically weightless on the ice today, sliding in and out of his hold with an effortless grace. Everything just clicks. The euphoria is written across her face, and she knows he feels it too; she can see it in the way his eyes keep sliding across to hers in disbelieving joy, the way his hands flutter at her shoulder and hip as if he’s afraid he’ll break the spell.
She’d almost forgotten what this felt like. Kissing Scott is nice – it’s fun, and it makes her feel good, and nervous and silly and young. It’s nice to be able to redo the part of her childhood she never got; the one where your fickle pre-pubescent sweetheart doesn’t break your heart, and you don’t spend the next ten years swallowing your feelings for the sake of a professional relationship. It’s nice to feel normal, just kids being kids.
But it’s infinitely better when they’re flying across the ice together. On the ice with him, she feels untouchable.
Emboldened by their success, they start to experiment with lift entrances. There’s one rotational lift that gives them particular trouble; they’ve tried a dozen different permutations but she can never lift her foot to her head in time.
She stands in front of him and examines him carefully, hands on her hips. This is one of the things she loves most about their work; the times she can look at him and envision the ways their bodies will move together, the technicalities that will allow them to become extensions of one another.
“Maybe if I just held further up here,” she says, pointing to his upper arm.
“Any excuse,” he replies, grinning as he takes her hand and gets into position. “Ready when you are.”
They build up momentum in a few quick strokes, and then with a nod, he lifts her easily into the air and up onto his shoulder. She grips his arm for a moment, catches her blade with the other hand and brings it to her head.
“Got it!” she calls, and she hears him let out a strained cheer, wind rushing past her ears as he spins them round. She’s grinning ear-to-ear, absurdly proud of herself as they finish the rotation and begin the exit. She goes to take his arm again, except it’s not there anymore, of course – it’s above his head, held skyward just like they’d choreographed – but she’s already pushed herself off balance and she feels her weight shift over his shoulder in a way that makes her stomach lurch. His arms come down immediately, body tensing as he grabs at her but she’s tumbling past his head, and he clutches empty air.
Briefly, in the moment before she hits the ice, she thinks that they probably should have told someone they were going to be at the rink this early in the morning.
Scott shouts something – her name? Then she crashes onto her side, skidding a few feet before coming to a halt.
There’s a terrifying, indeterminable period of time where she can’t hear or see anything.
She tries opening her eyes, but it’s like someone’s blindfolded her; everything is dark and blurred, and the more she tries to focus, the more the light starts to slip away. Her ears are ringing so loudly she can’t hear anything except her own breathing, panicked and shallow. She wishes she didn’t feel anything. The pain is almost overwhelming in its intensity and sourcelessness.
There’s a slight pressure at her back, and she feels cold hands hovering over her, running across her side, smoothing back her hair – Scott. He’s patting her down like she’s going through airport security; the sensation isn’t pleasant but it gives her something to focus on besides the pain.
“Stop it,” she groans, as she rolls onto her back. The haze clouding her brain is starting to give way to a reluctant consciousness, and she can at least hear her own voice, even if it sounds like she’s yelling down a tin-can telephone.
“Oh shit, Tess,” she hears Scott reply, sounding far more horrified than he has any right to be considering she’s the one curled on the floor at the moment. “Are you ok?”
“What do you think?” she replies, still contemplating fast-forwarding this entire situation by simply passing out. But he’s pressed himself close to her, and she can feel him trembling, and it probably wouldn’t be courteous to leave him to deal with this all by himself.
She cracks one eye open when she feels a sudden wetness on her arm.
“Are you – are you crying on me?” she asks, somewhat incredulously.
“Oh, uh. No, that’s just blood.”
She sits bolt upright. The world spins in a whir of colour and light, and she reaches out to grab onto him, swaying unsteadily as she wills him into focus. She squints at the Scott-shaped blob so hard that her ears begin to ring again, but he comes blurrily into view with a sheepish smile and a deep, thin cut running from the top of his right cheekbone to his jaw.
“Oh my god, your face,” she murmurs, reaching out a hand.
“Always such a charmer,” he replies lightly, but he shares her look of concern when her fingers come back wet with blood.
Tessa scrambles to her knees, ignoring the protests of pain from her body. “We should really get you to the hospital, that doesn’t look great,” she volunteers in what she hopes is a peppy tone of voice. “I think–“, she starts as she attempts to put weight on her leg, and it immediately buckles beneath her. “I think I can walk, just give me a moment.”
He fixes her with a look that broaches no argument. “Nope. No way.”
“Scott, you’re bleeding profusely from a hole in your face. Unless you have some kind of-“
She gasps in a mixture of surprise and pain as he gathers her in his arms and gets to his feet. They do a lot of lifting on the ice – some more successful than others, evidently, but she’s never been cradled by anyone before. It feels kind of nice, once she grits her teeth and pushes past the throbbing pain. Every step he takes jostles her a little bit, even though she can tell he’s trying his hardest not to.
“Tess, could you just–“
He reaches down and puts her sleeve against his cut. She’s so out of it, she hasn’t even realised he’s been bleeding on her for the past thirty seconds.
“My pleasure,” she mutters, sleepily. This whole cradling thing is really quite nice – soothing, even, now that the pain is dulling to a fuzzy haze. He’s drawn her as close to his chest as possible, and she can lean her head against his shoulder and watch his brow furrow in concentration as he walks them along the hallway. His footsteps tap out against the tiles, and they sway with every step, and she concludes that it’s a bit like dancing with a very noncommittal partner.
“I want you to know that normally, I would not stand for this kind of treatment. Today, I am allowing it,” she continues.
“We’re so stupid.”
In the reception, they explain to the horrified young man at the desk that they could really use a taxi to the hospital, and that it’s probably better than it looks, but it might not be. Also Scott would appreciate a bandage for his cheek, because as hard as Tessa tries, she keeps falling asleep and dropping her arm, and then he bleeds awkwardly over her until she wakes up again.
Sitting in the examination room at the hospital, Scott explains to a bemused doctor that they didn’t mean to make a dramatic entrance, he just didn’t want to disturb Tessa while she was sleeping so it seemed logical to stumble in through the front doors of the emergency department with a blood-stained bandage wrapped around his head and an unconscious girl cradled in his arms.
Over the phone, they explain to two sets of worried parents that yes, they were practicing at the rink without supervision, and yes, they understood exactly how much worse things could have been, and no, they wouldn’t ever consider doing it again, and no, they haven’t texted Marina and Igor because they can’t face interrupting Meryl and Charlie’s inevitably winning stint at Nationals with a text explaining that Tessa and Scott fucked up so badly they both ended up in hospital.
They’re discharged by the end of the day, once the doctors are confident that Tessa hasn’t sustained a concussion. Technically Scott is discharged within half an hour of arriving, but he sits himself by Tessa’s bed and watches her so intently that no one has the heart to tell him to leave - not even her mother, who takes the seat adjacent to his with a look of surprise. Tessa knows this because she peeked her eyes open once during the eight hours she pretended to be asleep, and Scott almost jumped out of his skin.
It’s not that she doesn’t appreciate his vigilant watch; she actually thinks it’s kind of gallant in a way that her eight-year old self would have swooned over. She just has a lot to think about, and a lot of thoughts that he probably doesn’t want to be privy to. So she 'sleeps', and he sits with her mother and waits, and the hours tick by.
Her mother is blessedly understanding when she asks to bring Scott back home with them. A bed is made up on the living room sofa, a towel and clean pyjamas are provided, and no further questions are asked. It’s late enough that the house is asleep by the time she and Scott finish dinner, but she leans down to him before she heads upstairs for the night, whispers “skip the third step, it’s creaky”, and disappears up the staircase.
To Scott’s credit, he manages to last an entire ten minutes before she hears a tentative tapping at her door.
The old wooden floorboards complain loudly under her weight as she pads across to let him in. All Tessa can do is cross her fingers and hope that everyone is as exhausted from the drama of today as she is; her mother was gracious enough to let Scott sleep on the sofa, but that graciousness probably doesn't extend to him sneaking into Tessa's room at the dead of night.
“Hi,” he whispers, with a goofy grin.
“Quiet,” she shushes him immediately. Her gaze darts along the hallway – her mother's bedroom door is still closed, but she's not about to give him the opportunity to change that, and tugs him inside her room.
She doesn’t know what she was expecting to happen once the door closed safely behind him, but the silence surprises her. He doesn’t say a word for the longest time, just leans against the door and looks around. It’s a bit of a tip, but if he’d given her longer than ten minutes maybe she could have done more than shove her laundry under the bed.
“What happened to that poster you had?” he says finally. “You know, that one of the National Ballet?”
Her brow furrows. He looks genuinely concerned, like the decoration process for her bedroom was any more than thirty minutes of attempting and failing to pin a string of fairy lights around her wardrobe.
“It’s back in London,” she says, watching in bemusement as he walks over to her chest of drawers and picks up, one by one, the small china animals arranged on top. “Is that a problem?”
“No.” He twirls a tiny lion between his thumb and forefinger. “I dunno. I guess I just thought this place would feel more like you. I mean-” he says, holding up the lion.
She shrugs. “Mom decorated it for me. I had to leave a lot of stuff behind.”
“You couldn’t buy more?”
“I didn’t want to, Scott. This isn’t home. I don’t want to try and make it into some second-rate imitation of the real thing,” she snaps at him, too exhausted to hide the irritation in her voice.
Scott falls silent, and she looks down at her hands.
Nothing about this house feels permanent. She tried, back in Waterloo, to make an effort – dutifully pasted photographs and newspaper clippings to her walls, crowded her bedside table with farewell cards from school. It didn’t make much of a difference to her, but it seemed to put everyone else at ease. Back then, it’d been Scott who staunchly refused to engage with his host family. She’d been drafted in one night when they were at their wits' end; had burst into his empty room, shoved a Leafs scarf into his arms and told him to get to work. Two hours of decorating (accompanied by a stern talking-to) later, and Scott had emerged from his little cocoon, a social butterfly once more. Somehow she can’t see that tactic working on her now.
“Hey, look at this little thing! I didn’t think you’d kept it, T.”
She glances up; there’s something looped around his finger, glittering dimly as he turns it over in his hand. His voice is teasing as he moves towards her, holding it out for her to see.
“Not exactly your style, eh?”
Her lips twist in a grimace – it’s a familiar pink bracelet, missing only a few rhinestones from the bedazzled ‘T’.
“Ugh, give me that,” she groans, swiping her arm at him as he gets closer, but he pulls it out of her reach with a grin, teeth glinting in the moonlight.
“Nu-uh,” he says with a shake of his head, sliding the bracelet onto his wrist. “Finders keepers.”
He glances over to her, smiling; expects to find a matching grin on her face. She just stares down at her hands, lost in a world of her own.
“Hey, uh…everything alright in there?” he says. His tone is light and breezy, but his leg trembles as he takes a seat on the bed next to her, springs creaking under his weight.
She takes a breath.
“I think we should break up.”
He looks stunned for a moment, then breaks into a laugh, holds his hands up in surrender.
“Woah, alright, I apologise for saying your bracelet was uncool.“
“Scott, I’m serious.”
The hurt in his eyes tugs at her worse than a physical wound.
“Is it because I dropped you?” he says. In the moonlight streaming through her bedroom window, he looks unbearably young. “Because I can work on that, and-“
“No, god, no,” she rushes. “It’s nothing to do with today, I promise. Well, it is a bit, but today is only part of it. It’s just…nothing’s been going right since we started-“. She gestures between them with both hands. “Whatever this is.”
He opens his mouth like he’s about to protest, but she barrels on.
“Nothing’s been going right! We’re making stupid mistakes, and we’re distracted, and sooner or later it’s going to be in competition and we’ll still be screwing up, and then we’ll start to hate each other and - and everything will fall apart. I love skating with you, and I love being with you, but we can’t do both at the same time.”
There’s a long silence as he looks at her. The intensity of his gaze is almost overwhelming; she can’t hold his eyes for longer than a few seconds but she can feel them on her, burning with emotions that she can’t begin to name. Scott’s eyes are always open – taking in as much of the world as possible, wide with honesty and enthusiasm. Now she’s afraid of what she’ll find if she looks up.
“Is this easy for you?” he says finally, voice low and quiet.
“Pretending like you believe any of it, is it easy?”
His voice gathers energy as he continues, words spilling out like he can’t speak them fast enough.
“You know that this is the quick way out. Things are getting difficult and it might not go so well, so let’s flick the switch and everything can go back to how it used to be. Problem solved.”
He shakes his head fiercely.
“That’s bullshit. We’re great together, Tess. In every way.”
She allows herself one last moment of indulgence as he sits there, waiting for her to respond, and she slides her hand into his. She’ll never be able to take his hand like this again – interlace their fingers together and feel that wave of security and belonging wash over her. They’ll never have those moments when she’s laughing at some ridiculous joke, and he’s not even part of the conversation but her laugh makes him glance over, and their eyes meet across the room, and they share a look of absolute contentment. But they’ll have their stories on the ice, and they’ll have the results they’ve worked their entire lives for, and that will be enough, she’s desperately certain.
“I don’t want you more than I want to win,” she says.
Such a short, simple sentence, like it’s not the hardest thing she’s ever had to do in her life.
She can only watch as Scott’s expression turns cold and his hand falls limply to the bed.
It reminds her of a runaway train, she thinks, how she can see a part of him getting smaller and smaller, pulling further and further away. She feels like she's floating above her body; she breathes, blinks, sits in silence next to him while the conscious part of her screams at her to take it all back, say she's sorry and she doesn't mean any of it, and she's never been more in love and more terrified. But she's being sensible, and she's taking one for the team, so she draws in a deep breath, collects her emotions, then shoves them out of her mind to deal with later. Just like that little pink bracelet still around Scott’s wrist, pushed to the back of her closet and forgotten until she can look at it without wanting to cry.
They don’t say anything more that entire night, just curl up on the bed with their backs to each other. She can feel him breathing beside her. The sensation usually brings her comfort, but tonight she crosses her arms over her chest, tucks her knees up to her chin and tries desperately to memorise every detail of what it feels like to have him lying next to her.
If he sleeps at all, she doesn’t notice.
Maybe, like her, he stayed awake the entire night imagining a hundred scenarios where they’re not Virtue and Moir, Olympic ice dance contenders, but just Tessa and Scott, high-school sweethearts who go on actual dates, and visit each other’s families, and spend birthdays and Christmas together, and don’t settle for hurried moments in freezing rinks.
Maybe he fell asleep within five minutes of curling up next to her.
It doesn’t feel like her business to know any more.
To say that their partnership is strained would be incorrect. Strained implies they’re working towards a larger goal, perhaps pulling each other across a finish line. If the situation was merely strained, Scott might try and fill the silence when they step off the ice after a dismal practice session, she might even laugh at his attempt at a joke. Instead, he says nothing, and she comes to expect nothing. He barely looks at her these days, seems content to settle his gaze on some magical point five inches to the left of her head. She hopes whatever he finds there makes him happy, but his smiles are as absent as the rest of him.
So, no, they’re not strained. It’s difficult to strain against someone who has long abandoned the fight.
Oh – and the burning pain in her legs every time she tries to exert herself for longer than thirty seconds? That doesn’t make life any easier. There’s a certain dramatic irony to her body giving out at the same time as her partner – she supposes after ten years, they’d both just had enough of her.
A year and a half ago, in her bedroom full of moonlight, she was so sure she knew what she was sacrificing. Now she wonders if she’s damaged them beyond repair, sent them spinning off-axis into a world where they operate as antagonistic muscles.
On the ice, she curls herself into his hold, covers his hand with hers, tries an encouraging smile. She shoves two swatches of fabric underneath his nose, asks which colour palette he prefers for her new bedroom decorations, tells him that graduation is soon and she’s yet to find a plus one, if he fancies it. She smiles nervously as she brushes crumbs off his jacket collar, waits for a response.
He gives her an embarrassed look, mumbles “you’re not my mother,” and rolls his eyes as he turns back to his friends. He drops her hand as soon as the music ends, casts his eyes away as he pats her on the back at the end of practice. He packs his schedule with gym sessions and off-ice work, shrugs as he tells her that he barely has time to attend his own graduation, let alone come to hers.
He hovers over her as she sits by the boards and squeezes life back into her numb legs. He offers to get her water, get her jacket, get her mother, drive her to physio, carry her skates, carry her. He asks her if she’s ok before they take the ice, asks her if she’s ok when she grits her teeth and hauls herself up into a lift, asks her if she wants to take a break after she botches the entry and they have to abandon the move.
She asks him politely – always politely – to leave her alone for a little while, rests her forehead against the wall and closes her eyes to the way his shoulders droop as he obediently heads into the changing rooms. She brushes off his worried questions when he finds her doubled over by the ladies’ toilets; insists she’s fine, it doesn’t hurt all that much. She walls herself off from the pain, and from him.
They cancel out each other’s efforts with all the precision of a mathematical problem. If Scott pushes and Tessa pulls, simultaneously and with equal force, does anything ever change? Or are they resigned to this strange limbo between closeness and isolation?
Somehow, they make it through the season. They even cap off the year with a second-place finish at Worlds; their highest yet. Standing in the Kiss and Cry as they receive their scores, Scott is so thrilled that he forgets they’re on strictly professional terms, and wraps her up in a hug. Tessa is so thrilled that she forgets that she’s not supposed to fall into his arms like nothing ever changed between them. The crowd roars its approval when they’re announced as winners of the silver medal, and Scott’s arms tighten around her, and if she breathes deeply she can smell the salt and sweat on his skin and imagine a reality where they’re allowed this.
But then he realises what he’s doing, and drops his hands to his sides like he’s been burned.
They push, and they pull, and they never bring up the increasing desperation in Tessa’s eyes every time they take the ice and that elusive feeling of freedom slips further out of her reach. She thought they had hit rock-bottom back in 2006 - it turned out they had only just stepped over the cliff edge.
Tessa has been reliably informed that recovering from surgery is one of the hardest things her body will ever go through. She expects the muscle wastage, the fog of pain medication that makes her feel like she’s wading through sludge, the infuriating slowness of her limbs as she retrains the simplest of tasks.
None of it compares to the unyielding sense of wrongness that accompanies Scott’s absence.
He had seen her off to the airport with a cheery smile and a pat on the back, told her to “take it easy,” and run her parents ragged the whole time she was home. It was the most he’d said to her in four months. She remembers laughing him off, too out of practice to slip back into their familiar banter, but she’d smiled the entire car journey to the airport.
Now she looks at the phone on her bedside table, with the string of unanswered texts and missed calls, and wonders if he was giving her something to remember him by.
Scott used to love teasing her about their “special connection,” as she would put it during press days. He liked to parrot certain phrases back to her as they danced and the cameras rolled, see how long she could keep a straight face while he whispered sweet nothings into her ear.
The press loved the fairytale of it all; the ballerina and the hockey player, the city girl and the small-town boy. Tessa is not a hopeless romantic. She has no illusions about precisely how different they are, expects them to go their separate ways once all this is done – but she likes to imagine a future, twenty years down the line, where they meet in a tiny rink in a nameless city and still remember the steps to every dance.
Perhaps she still has a few delusions to shake. It took a lifetime of work to learn how to exist in harmony with Scott, but none of it seems to count for anything as they lapse into separation.
He exists in her life only through his absence, a phantom limb of a partner.
Every morning there’s a moment between sleep and full consciousness when she expects to open her eyes and see him sitting by her bed – she blames it on the painkillers, and ignores the way her chest tightens when the doorbell rings and it’s just another doctor. It feels as though some karmic force is punishing her for those eight hours she spent in hospital with him waiting at her bedside; except now it’s not eight hours, it’s days that melt into weeks that melt into months.
People have always referred to them in the same breath; her name and his are practically tied together. Scott and Tessa are off to Worlds, Scott and Tessa are busy training, Scott and Tessa are touring the country. She used to be privy to every single detail of his life - now they communicate through proxy. Her mother offers her updates on Scott’s progress every so often. Tessa learns that, contrary to what his radio silence might indicate, he’s alive, and he’s training. He’s refused offers of other partners, asks after her health. He still doesn’t reply to her texts.
She distracts herself with the things in life that she can control. Her morning routine consists of stretching exercises in every room of the house; all equally homely and equally empty. She stands on one leg and closes her eyes, focuses on the stillness of her breathing and only opens her eyes again when her heartbeat has stopped pounding in her ears. She stretches forward in a lunge, trails her fingers across the macaroni art still stuck on the pinboard of her brother’s old room. Sometimes she can’t resist wallowing in the bitterness that everyone else is moving on with their lives, and here she is, back at the very start. But for eight hours a day, every day, she occupies herself with relearning what it’s like to have a body that doesn’t betray her at every turn.
One afternoon in late November, she walks out of a doctor’s appointment with the all-clear.
She sits alone and silent in her car, watches the sky darken as the sun sets, deep orange fading across the horizon. Her phone is a leaden weight in her hand. As the last rays of sunlight slip from view, she opens the text thread to Scott and composes a new message.
‘Hiya, hope you didn’t miss me too much!’
Nope, way too desperate. She deletes it and starts over.
‘Hey! Just saw the physio, she thinks I should be fine to come back to Michigan and start training again. Can’t wait to get started!’
She signs off the message with a thumbs-up emoji, hits send and immediately throws the phone down on the seat next to her. In the rumble of the engine as she starts the car, she almost misses the ping notification of a new message. Her eyes widen, and she scrambles for the phone.
‘That’s great news, I missed you!’ she reads.
In the darkness of the parking lot, the harsh light from her phone screen illuminates her stony expression. There’s another ping.
‘How’re you feeling?’
He doesn’t want to hear about the fact that she almost fell down the stairs yesterday when her leg cramped on the third step, or that there are days after training at the gym when she can barely pull herself out of bed. He wants to hear that the surgery worked like a charm, that she’s completely fit and healthy and ready to win the Olympics in a year’s time.
‘Really hopeful’ she replies.
There’s a moment’s pause, and then another notification.
‘That’s good. It’s gonna be so great to see you again. Talk to you later!’
Tessa wonders if any part of his message is true – or if, like her, he says only what she expects to hear. She wouldn’t blame him for it, it’s much safer that way. People are always asking them for more; more feeling, more energy, more enthusiasm. If she gives everything to her work, and leaves nothing for herself, at least nobody can say she didn’t do her job. She and Scott can sit behind walls of polite conversation and never say a meaningful word to each other, but they’ll have their Olympic gold, and she can tie up the whole sorry mess with a nice bow, and they’ll be done.
It’s just one more year.
It takes a minor miracle, but they manage to get through all three segments of the competition and stay on top at Nationals. In one of his spontaneous swings towards friendship, Scott declares that they’re both going out to celebrate the fact that they didn’t fail spectacularly on live television – one of their sponsors has rented out a bar for the entire Canadian team, and her devoted fanclub of junior skaters will be crushed if he turns up without her, he insists. The look in his eyes is more hopeful than she’s seen in a long time, and she doesn’t think she could bear disappointing him again, so she begrudgingly tags along, nods her head politely in the taxi as he tells her about some terrible bet he made with Patrick about who can win the most consecutive national titles.
She doesn’t feel like there’s much worth celebrating. Standing on top of the podium earlier that day was less a product of confidence and skill, more a matter of crossing her fingers and hoping that their mere month of training would be enough. There’s nothing she wants less right now than a stream of smiling faces clapping her on the shoulder, congratulating her on defending a title that she barely deserves.
Happily for her, the party is already in full swing by the time they arrive. The crowded interior of the bar is emblazoned in red and white, the Canadian flag draped over every available surface, and a pleasant buzz of tipsy conversation rises above the music. Scott is immediately pulled aside by a gaggle of young skaters, so she makes the usual rounds of hand-shaking and congratulations alone, while mentally debating how early she can leave without seeming ungrateful. It takes about an hour to make her way through all the necessary small talk, at which point she hopes everyone is too wrapped up in their present company (or drinks) to take much notice of her when she slips outside.
The winter air is crisp and cold. She can see her breath puff before her, feels the tips of her ears begin to numb as she sits on the low stone wall outside the bar. She’d pulled her hair up into a loose bun for the party; minimal effort, but now she regrets the loss of insulation as the cold creeps across her neck.
“Bailing on me so soon, Virtch?”
Her head whips round at the sound of a familiar voice. Scott has poked an inquisitive head out of the bar; she can hear the swell of music and conversation leaking out into the night from where he holds the door open.
“No…” she protests, trying her best not to look guilty. He doesn’t look convinced. “Okay, maybe.”
“I’m just tired,” she heads him off, with a weak smile. “You know how it is.”
A flicker of concern passes across his face, and she watches his eyes narrow, mouth open as if he’s about to speak.
“Oi, Scott! You wanna go canoodle with your girlfriend or are you gonna stand there letting the cold air in all day?”
Scott’s face turns a shade of pink that she hasn’t seen since he was nine years old and refused to hold her hand in front of all the other kids at skate camp.
“Alright, alright,” he yells back, ignoring the drunken whoop of response as he steps outside and kicks the door closed behind him. The noise of the party dims once more, subsumed by the stillness of the night air and the occasional hoot of a car horn.
“Savages,” he grumbles, as he joins her on the wall. His hands are jammed into his jean pockets, feet swinging in an unconscious rhythm as they sit and watch the traffic file past. Or at least, Tessa does – out of the corner of her eye, she can see Scott glance over to her, then look away, glance again, look away.
They sit in silence for a few minutes, before he clears his throat with a short cough.
“Are you – uh, you cold?”
She raises her eyebrows at him, holds up an arm swamped in an oversized puffer jacket.
“Nice and toasty, thanks. Patrick lent me his coat.”
Scott goes back to kicking his feet against the stone wall.
“My neck is kind of chilly though,” she volunteers.
He looks up at her with bewilderment, as if he’s astonished she actually continued the conversation. She is equally surprised, barely even registered the words before they were out of her mouth.
“Yeah? We should probably huddle for warmth, just in case,” he says, with a carefully nonchalant shrug.
Tessa is acutely aware that behind them is likely a hundred pairs of eyes – but the front window of the bar is fogged up with condensation, and it’s not like they haven’t done worse in front of an audience, and she’s so tired of tiptoeing around Scott.
“Can’t hurt,” she says, as she shuffles along the wall and leans her head against his shoulder. She hears a sharp intake of breath over the top of her head, feels his body stiffen at the unexpected contact; but it’s only a moment, and then he brings his arm up to rest around her shoulder. Her body acts on instinct, nestling closer into his side as his fingers curl securely around her bicep – his freezing cold fingers, she realises.
She breaks away from his hold, and he looks momentarily confused as he watches her fumble with the zipper on her borrowed coat.
“Jeez, I know my animal magnetism is overwhelming sometimes, but-“
“Just put half of this round you,” she orders, shrugging out of the coat and handing it to him. “Then put the other half round me.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he says, eyebrows raised as he throws the coat over them both, and she huddles back into his side.
“Someone has to protect you from your self-sacrificing instincts.”
She can feel the vibration rumbling through his chest as he chuckles. His fingers begin to brush lightly against her arm, tracing tiny patterns across her skin; she glances up at him, but he’s staring off into space, a distant look in his eyes. Conscious or not, his touch is soothingly familiar, and she finds her breathing begin to slow, chest rising and falling in time with his. It’s been so long since she’s felt this sense of security with him; she doesn’t want to utter a word, doesn’t want to shatter whatever fragile peace they’ve been granted.
“We really fucked this up, huh.”
He doesn’t pose it as a question, keeps staring into space as his fingers move up and down her arm. She swallows and pushes her nose into his neck, doesn’t reply. She can feel his pulse jumping at his throat, wonders if this terrifies him as much as it terrifies her.
“Do you want to keep going?” he carries on. “Because most days I look at you, and you seem miserable.”
“We have to,” she mumbles into his skin.
“We don’t have to do anything. Never mind what Igor and Marina want, or what the federation wants, or what our parents want.”
His gaze is unflinching as he turns to look at her.
“You say the word, right now, and we could stop.”
“I would never do that to you,” she replies.
“What if I wanted to stop?”
Her heart skips a beat, and she pulls back to meet his gaze.
“Do you want to stop?”
“Sometimes,” he says, unapologetic.
There it is.
“So do I. Sometimes,” she replies, after a moment.
The hand on her arm stills. He pauses for a long while, stares at her with an expression that she can’t read. She can almost see the gears turning in his head as he tries to figure out how to respond to this sudden and tenuous lifeline she’s extending.
“When did you start hating it, the training?” he asks. “For me, it was the year after we broke up – when I figured out that you let me touch you as much as I wanted on the ice, but never off. Like some kind of consolation prize.”
He says the words lightly, but her guilty conscience must show on her face because he rushes to clarify.
“No, I understand. I sure as hell didn’t understand then, but I understand now. We were both working through some stuff.” His lips quirk at a sour angle. “I just want you to know how it was for me.”
She sits up straight, swings a leg over the wall to sit face-to-face with him. If he’s surprised by her attention, he doesn’t show it. He watches her steadily, patiently, like he hasn’t already waited years to be let back into her thoughts, like he would wait an eternity longer if she asked. If this is the tipping point, she decides suddenly, she wants it to be over. She misses him too much.
“Last year,” she says. “After Worlds, when we hugged in the Kiss and Cry, and then didn’t say a word to each other for weeks. That’s when I started hating it.”
And all of a sudden, the floodgates open.
Scott tells her about the hopelessness; the months he spent training with sandbags, with a broom, with a mop – working harder than ever before and knowing that none of it would be enough to carry them through competition. He tells her about the anger; at himself, at the world, at their competitors, at her. He tells her about the disappointment of continual setbacks, the guilt of unanswered messages buried at the bottom of his inbox, the selfishness of being fit and healthy while she suffered. He details three years of regrets – and after he is finished, she does the same.
She tells him about the pain; continual and unyielding, pushed down deep so that he would find no reason to worry, robbing her of the joy she used to feel flying across the ice with him. She tells him about the loneliness; the isolation of her months at home, the constant fear of being forgotten – paling next to the even more crushing loneliness of standing next to a partner who refused to recognise her. She tells him about the frustration of her inability to communicate, the guilt of holding him back, of feeling as though the whole world were laughing at them, at her, falling woefully short of her partner’s potential.
They apologise, again and again, without saying so much as a word. It’s his stricken look as she speaks, the way his gaze shifts and burns with intensity when she confesses her inadequacies, the way he keeps reaching out to touch her as if reminding himself that this is real.
At the end of it all, they sit and stare at each other.
Somewhere along the way, she’s interlaced her fingers with his. She looks down at their joined hands, rubs her thumb over his; by the time she looks up again, he’s got that goofy smile on his face, the soft one that crinkles at the corners of his eyes, warm and kind and open.
“I missed this,” he says.
He leans forward, presses his forehead to hers. The warm light spilling from the front window of the bar makes him look like he’s glowing, lit from within. He feels like home.
“I missed you, T.”
“Missed you too,” she murmurs, and closes her eyes.
There’s a short, sharp cough behind them.
Scott pulls away from her reluctantly, and her eyes flutter open – Patrick is standing outside the door, shuffling from foot to foot like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
“Sorry to interrupt, but I kind of need my coat back,” he stammers. “It’s getting late, and we’ve got gala practice tomorrow so…you guys should probably get going soon too. Got to leave time for beauty sleep – not that you need any, Tessa, but Scott could probably do with-“
The coat comes flying towards him with surprising speed.
“What? The man insulted my honour.”
“You are looking a little pale.”
“Whose fault is that, Miss ‘give me the heat of your body to warm my neck’?”
Patrick stares at them with wide eyes, coat clutched to his chest.
“Uh, guys? I’m just gonna go…”
They both turn to look at him in surprise, like they’d forgotten he was even there.
“Bye, Patrick – thanks for the coat!” Tessa says, with a sweet smile.
As Patrick heads off down the street, she scoots back along the wall into Scott’s chest.
“It is really cold,” she admits. Removed from the warmth of Patrick’s coat, she’s left with only a thin jacket and a dress to keep out the wind chill – and as brilliant a space heater as Scott usually is, he’s also not outfitted for the cold in a button-down shirt and jeans.
“Come on then, let’s get back to the hotel before you drain all the warmth from my bones.”
She tilts her head up to give him an accusing glare, but it’s difficult to look imposing as he drops a spontaneous kiss to the top of her head.
“Tess, for you I would give up all the heat in my body,” he declares with a dramatic sigh. “But if there’s an option B that involves my continued existence, I wouldn’t mind that.”
“Not unreasonable,” she acquiesces, and hops off the wall. “Ready to go?”
She’s about to turn to head indoors, but he catches her wrist before she can move.
“One minute,” he says, and brings both hands up to her face. His fingers brush back her hair, cup the sides of her face as he studies her with a small smile, eyes impossibly gentle. She doesn’t resist, just gives him a fond look and waits patiently. He has always been the sentimental one in their partnership, but the longer he stares at her, the more she begins to recognise a hint of something in his smile – sadness? Whatever it is, it doesn’t belong in this moment.
“Uh-oh, definitely time to sleep,” she teases, tugging him towards the door. “Up bright and early for practice tomorrow, don’t forget.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he mumbles, but seems to shake off whatever was bothering him. “Priority number one for tomorrow is getting you up to speed on the secret handshake.”
“You made a secret handshake without me?”
He smirks as he holds open the door to the bar.
“Times have changed, T.”
For an event that was supposed to be the most momentous occasion of her entire life, Tessa remembers surprisingly little of the Vancouver Olympics. Her memories are jumbled like a badly-edited movie, one moment running into the next. Most of it feels like some deep and distant dream, a fantasy that she wished into existence – but then there are tiny, inconsequential things, nonsensical details she latches onto among the whirlwind of emotion and noise.
Details like how Scott’s knee doesn’t stop jiggling the entire four hours of their flight from Michigan to Vancouver. It drives her mad the entire time, but she can feel the nerves clattering in the pit of her stomach too. Scott has never been able to sit still. His emotions find their way out through movement – through fingers drumming on an armrest, or eyes darting from side to side. She folds her emotions so tightly within herself they’re practically unrecognisable from the outside. Unrecognisable to anyone except Scott, that is – who offers her his hand, and doesn’t complain when she grasps it so tightly that his knuckles turn bone-white.
Details like the unyielding patience in Scott’s voice when she’s freaking out because she can’t find her lucky safety pin, the one from her grandmother, and it’s ten minutes before they have to be on the ice for their compulsory dance, and they’re going to lose the Olympics because she couldn’t get over her silly superstitions, and – he places his hands on either side of her face, forces her to look at him, tells her to “breathe, Tess – in, out, in, out, that’s it,” and waits with her until she can breathe through the tightness in her chest. She anchors herself to the sound of his voice as he says “hold on one second,” and clomps away in his skate guards, and the announcer is introducing the team before them, and she really hopes she doesn’t throw up on Olympic ice. Except he returns a few minutes later with a triumphant grin, and fixes something to the back of her costume, and if she reaches an arm back, she can feel her fingers brush over his hand where it lingers at her waist; but then beneath, the coolness of metal and the familiar shape of a safety pin.
Details like the bright splodge of ketchup on Scott’s upper lip as he perches on the wall outside Canada House, wolfing down an illicit portion of french fries. He waggles his eyebrows when she points it out, asks if she wants to lick it off for him. She whacks his shoulder so hard he almost topples off the wall.
Details like the number of tiles on the ceiling of the physiotherapy room – 56. She counts them all as she lies on her back under the harsh fluorescent lights. All the tiles are identical; perfectly square and white, obstinately unimaginative. There are no swirling patterns to distract herself with, no shapes to pick out as though she were looking at the clouds or the stars. She has nothing to do but grit her teeth as the scar tissue around her calves is poked and prodded into life, take a deep breath, and count again.
Details like the brown smear of her makeup on Scott’s trouser leg as they step off the ice after their original dance. He’s thrumming with energy beside her, hopping from foot to foot, feeding off the exhilaration of the crowd. She floats in a daze between embraces; first Scott, then Igor and Marina, then Scott again when they receive their scores in the Kiss and Cry, and he picks her up and spins her around and around. She feels like a spinning top wobbling on its axis, teetering between disaster and greatness.
Details like the sleepy huskiness of Scott’s voice when he stumbles to the door of his hotel room at eleven p.m the night before their free dance and finds her standing in the hallway. He rubs a hand across his bleary eyes, but holds back a yawn as she confesses that she can’t sleep, she’s too keyed up and too nervous and her roommate got sick of her pacing up and down and threw her out, and would it be too much for her to crash on the sofa? He gives her a sympathetic pat on the shoulder, tells her that they accept all waifs and strays, and that he wouldn’t dream of making her sleep on the couch. Patrick knows well enough not to ask any questions when he wakes the following morning to an additional person in Scott’s bed.
Details like the softness of Scott’s fingers on her neck as he comes up behind her during practice that morning. His fingertips press into her skin with familiar ease, and she feels the tension in her shoulders unwind, relaxes back into his embrace with a slow exhale. He doesn’t say anything to her, but his hands slide down to her waist, and he presses his nose into the crook of her neck. She can feel his breath tickling her skin, his body warm as he presses against the length of her. Before, this might have made her nervous. Now she feels nothing but a sense of security and peace, and an overwhelming gratitude that these things have returned to her when she had all but given up on them.
Details like the tiny flecks of amber in Scott’s eyes, and the way they reflect the light as he swings her out onto centre ice after their free dance, tells her to take it all in. The crowd had been on its feet before their music had even ended - now she can barely hear his voice over the roaring wave of applause. She hardly notices the twenty thousand people packing the stadium. What she does remember is this: the way Scott’s white dress shirt billows around his waist as he turns to look at her, and his fingers squeeze hers, and her breath catches in her throat as she meets his gaze. His eyes glitter with intensity, and he’s never looked more euphoric as he sweeps her up into a hug, and the rest of the competition melts away.
Details like the way Scott clasps her hand so tightly on the podium, she forgets about the ache in her legs and the fluttering in her chest, and the dryness of her throat. She forgets that she’s supposed to be nervous about shaking hands with the Olympic officials as they file past, that the sea of Canadian flags in the audience usually overwhelms her with responsibility. She just beams at him, and he gives her a tiny wink as they lean down to accept their medals, and he never lets go of her hand.
Once upon a time, she told Scott that the gold medal was worth ruining their partnership. Now she looks at the solid metal disc around her neck, and then she looks at him, trembling with excitement next to her, and she knows which one overwhelms her with a rush of gratitude and affection and so many emotions that she can’t begin to name.
So, yes, it’s wonderful to return from her first Olympic Games with a gold medal - but coming away with a partner and a best friend, and a hand to cling onto for the next four years? No medal compares to that.
this took so long (who could possibly have guessed that the olympics were going to be distracting) and is STILL not finished i apologise. the next chapter is almost certainly the last one, thanks for reading thus far!
Navigating what life looks like once you’ve achieved your childhood dream is a challenge that Tessa never expected to deal with quite so soon.
Once the dizzying whirlwind of post-Olympic press and congratulatory tours dies down, she has a moment to actually consider her answers to the questions everyone keeps asking (they get “are you dating?” and “will you be at Sochi?” in equal measure). They could retire as the youngest ice dance champions in history, and nobody would think any less of them. She could go back to school, get her degree, try on a normal life for size and see how it suited her. Maybe Scott would be there with her, maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe she would grow tired of the luxury of free time, maybe she would find her classmates intolerable and her days purposeless.
Retiring means opening her life to a million possibilities, all equally terrifying and uncertain. Competing is nothing if not constant.
So she says yes, next Olympics, next question, and that’s sorted. The steady path reappears back in front of her, outlines the next four years of her life like the landing strip on a runway. Sochi, 2014.
Scott commits as soon as she does, without hesitation – but they outline a few ground rules.
Firstly, he’ll stop asking if she’s ok every two minutes so long as she tells him when she isn’t. For the most part, this rule works out. The second surgery in the summer after their Olympics doesn’t produce the breakthrough that they’re both hoping so desperately for, but he’s there when she comes out of hospital. He almost manages to sit through the entire Audrey Hepburn filmography she digs out from some forgotten corner of the internet one night, when the pain won’t let her sleep. It’s only his snoring as the credits roll on Funny Face that gives him away.
Secondly, they’ll try acting like this is a functional business partnership and not the strange pseudo-relationship that it’s turned into. They make a point of seeing other people. She goes out and fulfils her end of the bargain, finds herself a nice boyfriend who is interested in what she has to say, one with good prospects and pleasant conversation, who refers to her mother as ‘Ma’am’ and always foots the bill on their dates.
Sometimes it feels as though she lives two entirely separate lives; one in the rink with Scott, and one with her boyfriend. Their third rule – the most frequently muddled – is that neither of these lives ever touch. It’s an agreement they came to early on in this new phase of their partnership, after a particularly disastrous double date (the pitying gaze of the waiter serving their table is burned into Tessa’s memory).
The problem is that Scott’s relationships (and his breakups, and his hook-ups) are harder for Tessa to avoid than she’d like. From the outset, she’d made it perfectly clear to her boyfriend that the rink was off limits – she needed to be able to work without any distractions, she’d said. Scott’s girlfriends obviously don’t get the same memo. Scott never gives her any advance warning of their visits; the buzz of nervous energy as he greets her outside the changing room is signal enough. He’ll grasp her hand with an unusually tentative smile, fingers slipping through hers, give her a nod when they step out onto the ice, and she’ll know.
Michigan, June 2012
The first time Marina suggested Carmen for their free dance, Tessa wasn’t convinced.
She’s coming around to the idea now.
It’s not like she’s doing anything more than the program requires. The choreography demands that he slide his hand across her waist, down her hip, brush his fingers along her inner thigh. The character demands the fluttering gasp she gives in response, so quiet that she’s sure it reaches nobody’s ears but his. His hand falters, and he looks up at her with a start, but she’s already pulling him into the next move, the one where he presses his lips to her neck as a smirk curls across her face. Just like they choreographed.
She harnesses the ugly twist of jealousy in her stomach when his gaze flicks up and away from her, uses it to grip tighter, push harder, curve around his hold like liquid.
Mine, she thinks, with a ferocity that surprises her as she steps into his space, sets her hips against his and keeps them there. Mine, as she arches backwards over his arm, feels his eyes travel the length of her body. Mine, as she presses her palm over his chest, feels the coiling tension of his muscles through his shirt. Mine, as she curls her hand around the back of his neck, tugs his head closer as they spin and his eyes lock onto hers. All she hears is his breathing, quick and feverish, and the rasping synchronicity of their blades cutting through ice. Mine, she tells him, and his answer is yours, yours, always yours.
She never looks up into the stands. Scott’s mood the next day will tell her the outcome. More often than not, he slopes into the rink looking sorry for himself. She’ll meet his eyes, give him a tiny conciliatory smile, and that will be that. Sometimes, though, he strolls in with a beaming grin and spends their entire lunch break tapping away on his phone. It doesn’t bother her either way – really, it doesn’t. She prides herself on being the litmus test for his relationships.
So, ok. Maybe she gets a little performative and a little possessive when Scott’s girlfriends come knocking, but she thinks they deserve to know what they’re getting themselves into.
Out on the ice, she and Scott belong to nobody but each other.
Off the ice, things inevitably begin to get more complicated.
Tessa has always had a contentious relationship with the early morning wake-up calls required for life as a competitive athlete. The first few hours at training after she pulls herself out of bed are no-go zones; Scott is fully aware that she’s not available for conversation until he provides her with coffee, and even then, preferably not until noon. Personally, she’s of the opinion that being made to get out of bed any time before six is a crime against humanity.
All this to say, Tessa is not best pleased to be woken at three in the morning by insistent hammering at her front door.
At first, she groans and shoves a pillow over her head.
Five minutes on, it becomes apparent that someone really wants to see her. Pulling herself out of bed with gritted teeth, she shuffles towards the door, tugs her dressing gown down from her bedroom door and wraps it around her as she goes. At this point, she will accept fire, flood or possibly murder as an excuse for her rude awakening. She’s fully prepared to tell anyone else where to shove it.
Including, as she peers through the spyhole of her front door – Scott.
She flings the door open.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she hisses, haze of sleep quickly melting away with the shock of his presence. The hallway outside her apartment appears empty, but she darts her glance up and down just to be sure.
“Just – just wanted to see you, Tess,” he mumbles, looking up at her with a bleary-eyed smile. He’s a wreck; hair tousled and unkempt, eyes half-closed, the unmistakeable smell of alcohol on him. He keeps trying to focus on her face, but his gaze slides off to the side no matter how hard he furrows his brow.
Her lips narrow into a tight line. It’s clear that he’s not going anywhere without her help, so she crouches down, slings his arm around her shoulders and heaves him to his feet. His weight almost knocks the breath out of her, but gritting her teeth, she manages to escort him into the living room of her apartment.
The leather cushions creak underneath his weight as she dumps him unceremoniously onto the sofa. She can barely see his face; in her hurry to answer the door she didn’t bother to flick any of the lights on. The street lamps outside her apartment are the only source of light, casting the room in a dull amber glow.
“What are you doing here?” she repeats, as she turns away and busies herself in the kitchen, fixing him a glass of water.
“I wanted to see—“
“Scott,” she interrupts, before he can finish.
She leans against the kitchen counter and folds her arms across her chest. If he wants to be coy about the reason he’s turned up wasted on her doorstep at three in the morning, more power to him. She doesn’t have the energy to coax it out of him.
After a moment of silence, Scott pokes his head over the top of the couch, peers into the darkness.
“T?” he says, in a sing-song tone of voice. “Kiddo? Tutu?” he reels off, like he’s reciting a nursery rhyme.
“Knock it off,” she snaps, as she emerges from the shadows of the kitchen to thunk a glass of water down on the table next to him. “I thought we agreed, no more lying to each other.”
There’s a brief flicker of fragility that passes across his face as he looks up at her. If sober Scott is uninhibited, drunk Scott is like an exposed wire, holds his emotions so close to the surface that she can see every single thought written across his face. She could pull anything out of him with nothing but a word, or a glance, or a touch. The rawness of emotion makes her shift uncomfortably from foot to foot, and she drops her eyes to the floor.
“We had a fight, me and Jess,” he says.
Well, there goes rule number three.
“Oh,” she responds, a little simply. She perches carefully on the edge of the sofa as he continues.
“It was bad, Tess, really bad. Not like usual. Usually we both say all the stuff that no one really means, yell a bit, don’t talk for a bit, and then one of us apologises and it’s all fine. It’s not, really, it’s a mess, but we make it work. Except…”
He trails off. She thinks he’s about to go for a sip of water, but he doesn’t move. His eyes slide over to hers with something like reluctance.
“Then she started talking about you. About how you look at me,” he says, rubbing a hand across the back of his neck, “and how I look at you, and how our whole partnership is messed up, and god, it pissed me off the way she was talking.”
Tessa sits ramrod-straight on the sofa, unmoving.
“She has no idea about any of it, but she thinks she does,” Scott mumbles, as he sinks further into the sofa cushions. “Everyone thinks they do. You know my own cousins started a betting pool about when we’re finally gonna get together? I find that disrespectful, personally.”
“Scott, the point?” she interjects, through gritted teeth.
“Right, right. Jessica. Anyway, she kept going on about how we’re hurting everyone around us because we’re too cowardly to deal with each other like normal human beings, and that I should stop defending the honour of someone who dangles me on a string, and—“
He cuts himself off, sounding abashed. There’s a redness in his cheeks that Tessa swears isn’t just the flush of alcohol.
“She said a lot of things about you.”
“I’m flattered,” Tessa mutters.
“Then she told me that I had to sort out my issues with you or she’d break up with me. So, uh,” and here his voice cracks. “I did both.”
“Both?” she asks.
“Yeah, we broke up. And now I’m here to talk to you,” he confirms, with a tentative smile.
Tessa is not a religious person, but she sends a brief prayer of thanks to whoever’s listening that she chose to sit down for this conversation. She doesn’t know if her legs would have held out against the simultaneous rush as her eyebrows shoot up and her heart drops out of her stomach.
“You broke up?” she repeats, vaguely aware that she’s beginning to sound like a stuck record.
“Y-es?” he says, parroting her inquisitive tone with a look of concern. “It’s not a big deal, we’ve been rocky for ages.”
“Which is why you got wasted,” she points out.
He looks taken aback for a moment. Then he shrugs and lets out a long breath.
“Right,” he concedes.
“Before coming to talk to me at three in the morning,” she continues.
Scott coughs, glances away as he says “I’m still working on that ‘normal human being’ thing.”
They sit in silence as Scott steadily drains the entire glass of water.
Tessa crosses her legs, uncrosses them, crosses them again, and tries very hard not to notice the shine of his mouth when he sets the glass back down, the way the wetness collects in the soft bow of his upper lip. The amber beams of light that filter through her blinds are generous, smooth and soften his features into broad strokes of golden skin and dark hair and shadowed eyes. She can almost imagine leaning down to brush away that drop of water from his lip, imagine his warm breath in a sigh against her fingertips.
“So…” Scott says, and she stiffens, “…where do we start?”
Tessa draws the silk of her dressing gown tighter around her, folds her hands into her lap.
“We don’t,” she tells him. “We’re not having this conversation – not tonight,” she qualifies, before he can break out that devastating look of disappointment that always has her scrambling to undo whatever she said before.
His eyebrows pull together into a confused frown.
“Scott, this is not something we talk about only when you’re so drunk that you won’t remember any of it tomorrow morning,” she says, tersely.
“I’m not—” he begins.
“Acceptance is the first step to recovery,” she cuts him off. “Trust me, our issues aren’t going to magically vanish overnight. Just sleep.”
He grumbles something unintelligible as she gets to her feet.
“You can crash on the sofa for now. I’ll get you a blanket,” she says, turning to leave.
“It’s fine, Tess, wait – it’s fine,” he repeats, louder and with an intensity that makes her pause. The smile on his face is pained as he pats the space on the sofa next to him. “Just keep me company for a little bit. Please?”
She rubs a hand over her bleary eyes and sighs. He’s looking at her with those puppy-dog eyes, and her bedroom is so far away, and maybe it’s three in the morning so she doesn’t have the strength to argue, or maybe it’s three in the morning and she doesn’t have to pretend not to want this too.
“Fine,” she huffs, as she takes a seat next to him. His arms open for her immediately, just like they’ve always done.
Downing that glass of water has done him wonders, though he still smells faintly of stale alcohol. Under any other circumstances she’d make him take a shower before she went anywhere near him. Tonight, as Scott’s head comes slowly to rest against her shoulder, she gets the sense he needs reassurance that he hasn’t fucked up every single relationship in his life.
When she slides her hand up to the back of his neck, he almost jumps out of his skin.
“Just relax,” she tells him, with fond exasperation.
For all the liquid confidence in his system he’s surprisingly tense, but as she begins to thread her fingers through his hair she can feel him unwind against her. The steady rise and fall of his chest becomes slower, and his eyes droop shut. Her kitchen clock ticks away in the background, a metronome keeping time with the rhythm of his breathing as he sinks into sleep.
There’s something about the solid warmth of him, slumped against her, that takes her back to the years they spent squashed together in the back of his parents’ car. Things were simple for Scott Moir, aged ten. Fell over in practice? Sleep it off. Tired? Sleep. Hungry? Sleep and it’ll be even closer to lunchtime. Scott always fell asleep within minutes of tumbling into the back seat; Tessa had far too many important thoughts that had to pass through her brain, a million buzzing questions that wouldn’t let her sleep until she had considered every single one. But if she closed her eyes and leaned her head against his, she could mirror his breathing, deep and even and barely audible, and slowly the buzz of her thoughts would subside.
She has always matched herself to him; even then, when she was scarcely aware of his importance in her life.
Scott’s voice is low and hoarse, and behind the scratchiness of sleep and alcohol, there’s that familiar earnestness of the ten-year old who kissed her in the corridor of the Ilderton Arena.
“Thank you,” he says, simply, but it’s enough to make Tessa’s breath catch in her throat.
She used to think that the most terrifying thing in the world would be to compete alone. Now she wonders if it isn’t more terrifying to be so dependent on another person, to feel their failures and successes as your own. Their relationship is a prized museum exhibit, walled behind a glass case and pedestal; to disturb it is to court disaster.
What if it ends just like the last time, she reminds herself – not in raised voices and arguments, but the infinitely worse indifference of silence and professional detachment? What if they screw things up beyond repair, what if they drive their partnership into the ground, what if they have to suffer through losing each other a second time?
But then, she considers, wouldn’t the alternative be worse? To spend a lifetime missing each other by inches, with him under her fingertips yet just beyond reach? To marry other people, settle down at opposite ends of the country, and always wonder what life might have been like if they hadn’t been so scared of failure?
Sleep, when it finally comes to Tessa, is not easy.
Michigan, September 2012
Tessa has been late to practice only three times in her entire life. Once, she came down with flu and spent an hour throwing up in the toilets at the rink before being sent home for her own safety. Once, she ran herself off the road trying to avoid a sunbathing cat and still only arrived half an hour behind schedule. Somehow she can’t see their coaches being quite so accepting of “sorry we’re late, we were busy having mind-blowing sex”.
Then again, Marina only has herself to blame for this whole situation. She’s the one who keeps telling them to “dig deeper” to find their characters for Carmen, like they’re not already halfway to performing an act of civil disobedience on ice.
“Tessa is a woman, not lump of cheese,” Marina says, arms folded as she stands behind the boards.
“Groundbreaking,” Scott mutters darkly, and Tessa sucks in a breath – glances over to Marina, but she’s still looking expectantly at them.
“Scott. Look at your partner,” Marina orders, exasperation beginning to creep into her voice. “She is pretty, yes? Attractive?”
“Sure, I guess,” Scott says, tight and controlled.
Tessa’s cheeks flame.
“And Tessa, how about Scott? Handsome, lots of muscles, yes?”
The “yes,” that comes out of Tessa’s mouth is more of a squeak than a word. Scott won’t meet her eyes, won’t even shrug off the situation with a joke – the familiarity of his dismissal catches in her gut, cold and uncertain.
Marina stares at them with the impassivity of a mountain.
“Tch,” she scoffs, shaking her head. “Tell me how you expect the judges to believe you? Hm? How, when you cannot be truthful even to your own selves?”
Tessa doesn’t have an answer for her. Part and parcel of the years that she and Scott spent trying to squash down the inconvenience of their attraction is the unspoken agreement that certain things are best forgotten. They wallpaper over the cracks in their partnership; a strategy that’s kept them afloat until now, when suddenly Marina wants to peel back every layer of their shoddily-constructed solution.
It’s a little strange to have your coach hounding you to experiment with your ice-dancing partner/sort-of ex-boyfriend, but yesterday it was Meryl and Charlie getting shit for not looking into each other’s eyes with the prerequisite level of soul-destroying angst, so it’s not like they’re the only ones in this weird situation. Except then Marina arranges for them to take evening classes with an acting coach, and Tessa is convinced that she knows exactly what she’s doing.
Adalene (or ‘Ada’, as she insists on being known) is an imposing Frenchwoman of towering height and perfectly arched eyebrows, who greets them every Thursday evening with “my darlings, my darlings”. The first time they step into the studio, she orders them to take off their shoes and sit back-to-back in the middle of the floor. Ada floats around them, instructs them in her clipped English to “connect with the Earth” and “let their energies become one”.
“To embody Carmen, you must find a physical connection,” she tells them. “This passion, this seduction against your better judgement, this is the key. This is a forbidden love that will only lead to downfall. Like fire, it consumes all, but while it burns it is glorious.”
Tessa finds the whole thing faintly ridiculous, but if they need some tenuous metaphysical justification for the time dedicated at the end of every session to “deepening their connection”, she’s all for it. Ada has them run through a checklist of exercises, which Tessa is certain have proper scientific names and purpose and aren’t just for the express purpose of allowing them to discreetly feel each other up.
She’s almost certain.
They always start with a simple breathing exercise. She presses her forehead against Scott’s, brings her awareness to that single point of contact between them. It takes but a few moments for them to slip into the deep, meditative rhythm of their matched breathing. They’ve been doing this one since they were kids, so if Tessa allows her mind to wander a little, it’s not so terrible. It’s easy for her thoughts to turn to the proximity of Scott’s lips, and how simple it would be to close the distance between them. Scott, on the other hand, is a pushover. She peeks her tongue out to wet her lips just once, and his entire body stiffens, breath hitching in his chest.
One-nil to Tessa.
She’s much better at most of these than he is – especially the second exercise, where they’re told to mirror one another’s movements. Tessa’s pretty sure that most normal people settle for miming and don’t turn the exercise into an elaborate game of ‘how suggestively can I touch my partner before it becomes uncomfortable to watch’, but, well, they’re consummate professionals. Plus she just enjoys slipping a hand under Scott’s shirt, feeling the muscles at his stomach clench as she trails her fingers across them; even more so when she knows that the skintight leotards she picks for these sessions make it impossible for him to do the same in return.
Two-nil. She’s in danger of running away with the victory, but Scott always manages to get his own back in the last exercise.
They start in the middle of the studio, arms by their sides.
Scott stands a few paces behind her – she can see him reflected in the floor-to-ceiling mirror in front of her. In the mirror, his eyes meet hers, alight with anticipation in a way that makes her mouth dry.
“Begin,” Ada’s voice rings out.
The last thing Tessa sees before she closes her eyes is the lazy smirk that curls across Scott’s lips as he steps towards her.
The moments of anticipation before Scott reaches her feel like an eternity. Every nerve ending in her body sparks with the thrill of possibility, in the indeterminable wait as her senses narrow to the sound of his bare feet brushing against the floor, and the rustle of his shirt as he moves closer.
There is only a single rule to this exercise: she must not open her eyes.
The first time he touches her, feather-light as he traces a finger across the back of her neck, it feels like a brand across her skin. He teases a hand along the side of her jaw, the hollow of her throat, the jut of her collarbone above the scallop neck of her leotard; his touch is all too brief and nowhere she needs. His palms follow the curve of her hips, splay broadly across her stomach. His hands are soft and delicate, worshipful in a way that would usually be sweet but today, here, all she wants is for him to press her into the mirror and kiss her senseless.
She fights to keep herself from reacting – won’t give him the satisfaction of it – but she can hear the huff of his breathing as he laughs quietly, half-exhilaration, half-disbelief, and knows that he’s fully aware of how maddening he’s being.
“Just relax,” he whispers. His breath tickles the hairs on the back of her neck, and she stiffens, every line of her body strung with tension.
“You’re not help–“ she starts, before cutting herself off with a gasp as he winds his arms around her waist and pulls her back into him. “Helping,” she finishes, breathlessly.
Tessa would claim that everything remains within the realms of decency, but decency has a flexible definition in the studio.
Scott’s mouth is inches from her throat when he asks her if she wants to come back to his place.
“The cab fare is a rip-off,” he whispers, as she leans her head back to give him better access to her neck.
“And the roads are icy,” he continues, one hand pressing into her hip.
“And it’d be crazy for you to walk all that way,” he says, body moulding to every curve of hers.
“Sure,” Tessa breathes. She doesn’t tell him that she worked out the logistics five minutes into tonight’s session. Scott and Jess are off (she thinks), and no one’s parents are around, and she ignores the small matter of her boyfriend and focuses on the friction of Scott’s palms grazing against the side of her ribcage. His hands are too warm, too gentle, not enough, as they slide across the satin of her leotard; she remembers what those hands felt like on her bare skin, wants them clutching at her with bruising need.
She doesn’t have to wait long to be reminded.
Scott barely has time to lock the front door to his apartment behind them before she pushes him up against the wall and kisses him, hard. He makes a soft sound of surprise; she doesn’t know why, when he has intimate first-hand experience with how she kisses. But she takes advantage of the moment to lick into his mouth, press herself harder into his open-palmed grasp.
“Shit,” he stutters, against her lips, and there’s a sudden jangling of metal as his keys fall out of his grip and onto the floor.
“Leave it,” she says.
There’s a hint of uncertainty in his eyes when he looks at her, so she brings a hand up to cover his. His fingers are trembling at her hip – whether with nerves or with anticipation, she can’t say.
“It’s fine,” she whispers, gently, and she presses a kiss to their joined hands.
“We’re fine,” she says, as she guides his hand underneath her shirt.
The look in Scott’s eyes as the doubt turns to iron-willed determination makes her pulse race. He dips his head to kiss her neck, and his hand begins to move against her stomach, dragging back and forth against the tight muscle of her abdomen. She can feel him smile into her neck as her head drops back, and his hand moves steadily higher.
“Finally,” she whispers, in a shaky exhale of breath.
“Didn’t know I’d been keeping you waiting,” he says – but there’s a shit-eating grin on his face as he pulls back to look at her. He’s known full well what she’s been after for the entire summer of training, what her pride and her rules would never let her ask.
She wraps her hand around the back of his neck.
“Less talking,” she tells him, in a brisk tone of voice. “More work.”
For once, he doesn’t argue.
His hand creeps higher and higher up her torso, and he’s pressing kisses to her neck with increasing determination, and Tessa is incredibly thankful that they didn’t massively fuck up and do this in the studio, because the high-pitched, breathy noises she keeps making would be very difficult to cover up. Besides, it would have robbed her of discovering the pleasing effect the sound has on Scott, who shudders and rolls his hips into hers as if on cue.
Suddenly, he stops.
“Tess,” he says, in a slightly strangled tone of voice.
“Hm?” she responds. His breath tickles the wet mark he’s left on her neck in a way that’s pleasantly distracting, but she does her best to pay attention, and – oh.
“I thought I’d save us the time,” she explains, as he drags his gaze up to meet her eyes. His pupils are blown wide in what she hopes is a mixture of surprise and arousal but might also be a little bit of fear, and really she thinks this is an overreaction because it’s not like she wears a bra to competition either.
“Right,” he chokes out. “Sorry, yeah. Makes sense. Just unexpected, I guess.”
“I mean, I can put it back on if you want?” she replies, trying her hardest to look only somewhat disgusted by the idea. “It might take some digging around in my bag, th–“
“No, no, it’s fine,” he rushes, before she can even finish her sentence. His eyes keep darting down to her shirt, as if she’s hiding some hideous monster.
“Thanks for the glowing compliment,” she says, raising her eyebrows.
The uncertainty is written plain across his face as he returns his gaze to her, and for a disquieting second she wonders whether she’s going to have to give Scott a pep talk on how to fuck her – but then he straightens, and his brown eyes set intently on her.
It reminds her of the moments before they take the ice at competition, when she can feel the nerves jangling under his skin, through their linked hands. As soon as they step out onto the ice, Scott’s gaze locks onto hers, and the nerves ripple into the thrill of adrenaline, and it’s just them, in their own little world. She sees the same intensity in the way he looks at her now.
Slowly, she lets him walk her backwards into the shadow of the hallway, until she thuds into the wall. In the darkness, she can barely see his face as he leans over her. His hands are strong and purposeful as they slip back under her shirt, earlier hesitancy forgotten, and her stomach twists in anticipation.
“How’s this?” he murmurs.
Finally, finally, his fingers brush over her breasts. She makes a noise somewhere between a laugh and a moan; it seems to be the answer he’s looking for. He grins, all glinting teeth and glinting eyes as he dips his head to her neck and parts her thighs with his knee, lets her rock shamelessly against him.
“Too – too many layers,” she gasps, breathless with need.
If she wasn’t so turned on right now, she might have the hindsight to be a little embarrassed by her lack of coherency – but as Scott grinds his knee into her, she can’t bring herself to care. She’s much more concerned with the way his mouth parts as he watches her hips circle to meet his movements, the quiet groan that he makes when she drags her fingers down his back, presses her nails in through his shirt.
“Off,” she reminds him.
Fifteen years of partnership carries him through interpreting her demands and he quickly divests himself of his shirt. As he straightens back up to face her, she eyes him with undisguised appreciation. She’s seen Scott shirtless so many times she’s lost count, but here, everything is different. The lack of boundaries makes her dizzy; she can run her hands over the bare skin of his chest, can feel his heart hammering against his ribs, can trace along the ridges of his hipbones and watch how the muscles twitch underneath her fingers. His body has carried them to the top of the world, to Olympic gold and beyond, but she’s never been privy to this.
“See something you like?” he says with a smug grin, does a little shimmy.
Tessa rolls her eyes.
“Nope, no, you ruined it,” she says. “We had a good thing going…“
The words die in her throat as he leans in and brings his hips up to meet hers. She can feel the hardness of him through their layers, can’t help the fluttering moan that escapes her as he grinds against her, oh so slowly. His gaze is focused intently on her, every movement careful and deliberate and maddeningly controlled.
“Good?” he says, like he even has to ask.
She doesn’t trust herself to speak as he continues, just nods her assent and lets her head fall back against the wall. The feeling as he moves is exquisite, sends chills running across her skin. She feels feverish from the heat of him. She can’t believe it took them fifteen years to get to this point, can’t believe they’ve spent at least a third of those not doing this. How much time have they wasted having sex with other people?
“Tessa,” he says. “Tess,” and she realises that while she’s been busy having an epiphany, he’s been trying to speak to her.
“Mhm?” she manages to get out, struggling to bring her attention back to his face.
“I said, do you want yours off too?”
He nods towards where his fingers have curled under the edge of her shirt.
If Tessa were more inclined towards eloquent speech, she would tell him something about how right now, in this precise moment, she would happily give up her Olympic medal if it meant he would get rid of her damn shirt, along with the rest of her clothes.
In reality, she hisses something that’s more like “yes, hurry up,” and tries to shrug out of her shirt as soon as he’s undone the first button. It’s an awkward state of affairs that takes them a lot longer to deal with than if she’d just waited for him to undo all the buttons in the first place, but together they manage to pull the shirt over her head and onto the floor.
Scott looks dumbstruck when she meets his eyes again. He steps back, almost imperceptibly, as though he needs space to take it all in, but she matches him, step for step, until he stops in the middle of the hallway. To the left of his head, there’s a large framed photo of his family, all dark hair and beaming smiles. She tries not to make eye contact with his mother.
“Are we really doing this, T?” he asks.
“You invited me here for one reason, right?” she says, with a small shrug.
“I know, I just…I don’t want to fuck this up,” he replies. His brow furrows, the corners of his eyes crinkling with concern. “You’re too important.”
Tessa studies him for a long moment.
“Listen,” she says, and concentrates on keeping her hands steady at his chest. It’s clear he’s becoming a little overwhelmed by the situation. “This doesn’t have to mean anything more than sex. You keep seeing who you’re seeing, and I’ll keep seeing who I’m seeing, and we can have…this, on the side. No strings. If it stops working for one of us, we’ll call it off.”
He looks at her with a measured expression.
She wasn’t exactly planning on laying all her cards on the table before they’d even had sex once, but oh well. At least Scott hasn’t immediately recoiled in disgust at the prospect; this bodes well, she thinks, indicates that he’s not too bothered by the moral deficiency of her offer. Is there a standard protocol for how to react when your skating partner suggests engaging in a no-strings-attached affair? Nothing about their relationship has ever been remotely casual or discreet, but in this moment, Tessa thinks she would say just about anything if it means he’ll keep touching her.
“Alright,” he says finally. “Deal.”
“Deal?” she repeats back.
“What, you want to shake hands?”
“Scott,” she says, drawing herself up on her tiptoes to level her gaze with his. “What I want is for you to stop talking and fuck me.”
She half-expects him to enter a mild state of shock. Instead, he flashes her a grin, hooks his arms under her legs and sweeps her up off her feet. The off-key refrain of the Bridal March that he hums as he carries her into his bedroom is a bit much; she lets it go only because his hand keeps sliding between her thighs in a way that’s unfairly distracting.
Tessa would love to say that she remembers every detail about Scott’s room. She would love to tease him endlessly about the colour of his bedsheets, the photos on his wall, the inevitable disarray of his cupboards. In truth, she forgets pretty much everything about the outside world the moment he drops to his knees in front of her.
Okay, everything except the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles poster on the back of his door – that one gives her serious grounds to reconsider their arrangement.
If Ada notices any difference in the session the week after, she’s tactful enough not to say anything, but Tessa definitely catches a wry smile or two out of the corner of her eye. Thursday nights become a fixture in the calendar, accompanied by curiously good moods in Friday morning practice.
Not that they limit themselves to Thursday nights – it turns out there are a lot of excuses for sex.
There’s celebratory sex when they win, conciliatory sex when they lose (the latter happens more often these days, but the sex almost makes up for it). There are times at competition when she can barely wait until they’re alone in the hotel room, spends the whole evening at the banquet finding excuses to palm his ass and draw close enough to whisper her plans for the night into the shell of his ear. The night they win Nationals, her boyfriend shows up unannounced and whisks her away to dinner. The marks Scott leaves on her skin later that evening take an entire tube of concealer to cover up; he sits and watches her apply her makeup the following morning with a smirk that’s entirely too self-satisfied.
They skate like shit the entire year, further proving Tessa’s point about the inverse correlation between their love life and competitive performance – not that there’s any motivation for them to do otherwise. The judges throw their weight against their program choices from the very beginning of the season. All they get in feedback is half-answers about how “daring” and “risqué” their choreography is, as though the judges, sat in their little line at the side of the rink, are not the very same people who were praising them for their “tantalising chemistry” only a season ago.
At what point does their program become indecent?
When she flips up onto Scott’s shoulders, hooks her legs around his head and a hand around his wrist to keep herself there? Can people tell that they’re no stranger to this, that he knows exactly where to place his mouth, between the seam of her thighs, to make her shudder and grasp at his hair?
In their finishing pose at the very end of their program, there’s a moment where the music dies into the swell of cheers, and Scott heaves for breath against her stomach, and she blazes with triumph, with an energy that prickles like electricity under her skin. She always makes sure to look out at the judges. Sometimes she catches one of them swallowing and avoiding her gaze.
Look at us, she wants to tell them, tell the world. See how his body moves for mine, and mine for his.
They lose Worlds, despite their best efforts, despite a hometown crowd, despite pushing so hard that she feels like she’ll throw up when they step off the ice after the free. One mistake in the short seals their fate.
They both know this cannot last. Sochi looms around the corner, and they need to have their priorities in order by then – can’t keep fucking and fucking up like they’ve done all season. Winning requires clear focus, one thing she certainly does not have when she spends half of every practice session brainstorming excuses to invite him over afterwards.
So they set themselves one last week, one week of summer between the end of competition and the beginning of the Olympic season. The last time, Tessa tells herself, until the Olympics are done and dusted, and they can begin to consider what life looks like in the aftermath.
Michigan, June 2013
They don’t go out for coffee shop dates, or take long, rambling walks in the park. They don’t dress up for romantic dinners in fancy restaurants that Tessa loves and Scott tolerates on her behalf. There’s an invisible line, somewhere between ‘just sex’ and ‘soulmates’ that they’re scrabbling to stay on the safe side of.
For the first two days, they don’t even leave Tessa’s apartment.
On the third day, Scott gently suggests that maybe having sex for seven days straight is not the best idea.
“Not to rock the boat or anything,” he tells her, as they sit in the living room. “But I think most human beings need certain things to survive. Like food, and sunlight.”
In a move that is one hundred percent designed for the sole purpose of distracting Scott as much as possible, Tessa has taken to wandering around the house in nothing but her underwear and a rotating assortment of Scott’s oversized shirts. Currently sporting a faded Leafs jersey, she’s stretched out to occupy the entire length of the sofa, relegating Scott to a single cushion at the end.
“You’re describing a plant,” Tessa says, digging her bare feet absent-mindedly into the side of his thigh. “Besides, if anyone could do it for a week straight, it’d be us. We’re Olympic champions.”
“Someone’s confident in her ability.”
“I don’t hear you complaining.”
Scott shoves at her legs with a grin.
“No, but seriously, Tess. Your fridge is terrifying. There’s like, a single carrot in there.”
“You know I don’t cook,” she says, with a shrug, and burrows her toes further underneath him.
“Wanna try?” Scott asks, a hopeful lilt to his voice.
“Come on,” he wheedles. His fingers dance along the bare skin of her leg. “I can think of a few ways of making it worth your while.”
“Uh-huh,” Tessa says, narrowing her eyes. Scott’s hand creeps higher, slips between her thighs. “Convince me.”
It turns out that Scott’s version of cooking is much more interesting than anything her mother tried to teach her.
For example, there are myriad non-traditional uses for a kitchen countertop. Sure, the kitchen tap digs into her back, and her (Scott’s) Leafs jersey rucks up around her waist, and it’s not exactly the most comfortable she’s ever been, but Scott’s fingers are clenched so tightly around her hips as he works between her legs that she doesn’t think she could move even if she wanted to. Which she doesn't, definitely, definitely, doesn't.
“Shit, shit, shit, Tessa,” Scott mumbles into her thigh, as he pulls his mouth away from her and scrabbles on the counter for his watch.
Tessa whines – actually whines, at the loss of contact, and curls her fingers tighter into his hair.
“Tessa,” Scott groans, and the exhale of his breath is warm against her. She doesn’t think she could ever get tired of hearing her name on his lips like that – like a prayer.
“I don’t care about the fucking lasagne,” she sighs.
“I do, I worked hard on that,” he says.
Tessa grumbles, tells him “you were working on something equally as important,”, but reluctantly her grip loosens, and she lets him up.
At least she can take pride in the dazed look on his face. He wipes at his mouth with the back of a hand; she can still see the shine on his lips, and the sight sends a hum of tension through her.
In abandoning her for his precious lasagne, he’s left her uncomfortably close to satisfaction. She’s half-inclined to finish the job off herself, but she also worries that if she tried to touch herself now, Scott might actually keel over and die, and she quite likes what he’s been providing so far. They’ve been doing this for almost a year, and she’s still surprised by how much she wants him, constantly. The house could burn down around them, and she probably wouldn’t care so long as Scott’s head remained between her legs.
“Oh, fuck,” Scott whispers, and for a moment Tessa wonders if she accidentally said all of that aloud – but no, he’s looking at his watch with a horrified expression.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he chants, scrambling to wrench open the oven door.
Three things occur in quick succession.
A plume of black smoke erupts into Tessa’s pristine kitchen.
The fire alarm trips immediately.
Tessa collapses into helpless laughter.
“Tessa!” Scott exclaims, with a scandalised look on his face as he slams the oven shut. “It’s not funny, c’mon,” he says, flapping his arms around like a headless chicken to try and clear the smoke.
Tessa clutches her sides and tries really hard not to roll off the kitchen counter while the fire alarm wails above them.
“Tess,” he tries again, looking more and more bemused by the entire situation.
Usually she would be the one worrying about the mess and the fire alarm and the neighbours and the dangers of smoke inhalation, but there’s a giddiness in her that seems at odds with the usual Tessa.
“God, you are useless,” he says, but his shoulders are beginning to shake too as he turns away from her.
It’s hardly the picture of domestic bliss she’s always envisioned, watching Scott hop around the flat with a broom, wafting smoke out of open windows. He hums tunelessly as he goes, strikes impressively balletic poses mid-waft. The sight of it all - the comfortable familiarity of Scott in her apartment, dancing with her cleaning supplies, smiling to himself as he sings - tugs at something in her chest. Maybe she’s inhaled too much smoke.
When the apartment is finally cleared, and the fire alarm has stopped wailing, and Tessa has managed to stop laughing long enough to pull on some pants and make the round of sheepish apologies to her neighbours, she and Scott sit side-by-side at the breakfast bar and observe their doomed creation.
The lasagne smokes quietly on a heatproof mat in front of them.
“I’m sorry we turned your lasagne into charcoal,” Tessa says. “You tried really hard.”
“It was just too beautiful to live,” Scott muses, with a morose look on his face.
She gives him a soft pat on the cheek.
“We still have half the week left. That’s plenty of time to get the hang of it,” she says.
“I dunno, T,” Scott replies gloomily. “I think you might be the fire hazard.”
Tessa quirks an eyebrow at him.
“I think,” she hums, as she slips her legs over his. His eyes follow her movements with a guarded look.
“If you can’t stand the heat,” she continues, sliding herself fully into his lap. His fist clenches at the soft material of her jersey, pulls it tight against her skin.
“You should–“ she starts, but his hands wrap suddenly around her hips, and he jerks her forwards to straddle him.
“Shut up,” he grumbles, and there’s a victorious smile on Tessa’s lips as he kisses her.
Scott doesn’t try to cook dinner again.
Instead, they take to lounging around the house and throwing out program ideas at each other.
“Beauty and the Beast!” Tessa calls, as she strolls past the living room with an armful of laundry.
Scott chucks a pillow at her.
“Pride and Prejudice?”
“No way in hell, T,” his voice drifts lazily through the hallway, over the buzz of the television.
“One day I’ll get you in that white shirt,” she tells him. “Besides, you know Marina wants us to go lyrical for Sochi.”
Scott makes a non-committal noise that she doesn’t even try to decipher as she leans down to shove her bundle into the washing machine. The clothes are mostly hers, but a few items of Scott’s have crept into the mix; one or two sweatshirts that have featured in some particularly fond memories over the course of the week.
“What about Moulin Rouge?” he says, when she returns to join him on the sofa. “That was the first movie we saw together, remember?”
“No,” she says, settling into him with a small smile. “You made me cover my eyes for most of the film.”
“Yeah, well, you were only twelve,” Scott says, hotly. “Someone had to look out for you.”
Tessa hums in amusement as she presses a kiss to his neck, turns the idea over in her head. They couldn’t skate to it this season, of course, and who knows what they’ll be doing after that, but it’s a thought.
“Think you could pull off the jealous lover?” she teases.
“I’ve been practicing for the past six years, haven’t I?” he replies.
His words are light and carefully chosen, and if she didn’t have a lifetime of experience to back her up she might miss the way his body stiffens fractionally against her as he speaks, the flicker of discontent that passes across his face. But this is Scott, and she’s known him, his moods, his body, his thoughts, for as long as she can remember.
“Sorry,” she whispers, with all the softness she can muster. “For all of it.”
He shakes his head as he turns to look at her, brushes a thumb across her cheek.
“Nothing to be sorry for,” he says, and his voice is rough with emotion.
He kisses her that night with the desperation of a drowning man, skin slick with sweat as he moves underneath her.
“Scott,” she gasps out, strained and high-pitched, rolls her hips into him, to where they join, again and again, until she’s shaking for breath against his chest. It’s not enough – she can’t get herself there, but Scott knows, instinctively, as she bites her lip in frustration, brings his hands to her hips and thrusts up into her at an angle that makes her shudder and grasp at his hands.
“That’s it, Tess, let go for me,” he groans, as she arches backwards, tightening around him. “Let me see you, only you, always you,” he says, roughly, and she loses herself in the rocking of their joined hips, the press of his fingers into her skin, the huskiness of his voice, the focused intensity of his gaze as he watches her come apart around him.
She’ll never be able to feel this with anyone but him, she knows.
The world is quiet when she wakes on their last morning. Sunlight filters through the gauzy curtains of her bedroom window, pools on her bedsheets, across her bare skin. The windows are still open from Scott’s firefighting escapades, and the curtains flutter gently in a summer breeze.
It may as well be another lifetime, this golden world of theirs – so far removed from fluorescent lights and dark, dingy arenas.
Tessa pulls her arms up above her head with a muffled sigh, stretches languidly. There’s a pleasant ache to her body that tells her the first few days of training next week are going to be hell, but she resolutely pushes the thought of life beyond today out of her head and turns to Scott. He’s awake already, of course, has been watching as she slowly rouses herself from sleep.
“Hi,” he says, softly.
She blinks away the bleariness from her eyes.
“Hmm,” she murmurs, as she takes in the sight of him lying next to her, traces her gaze over the familiar lines of his body. “Hi.”
“Sleep well?” he says, smile crinkling at the corner of his eyes.
“Wonderfully,” Tessa replies, returning his smile.
They bask in companionable silence – and then, because it seems as though he can’t bear to be in the same room as her and not touch her, he begins to trail his fingers along the side of her neck.
“What do you want to do today?” she asks, tilting her head to give him better access.
“Nothing,” he says, as his fingertips dance across her collarbones.
He shakes his head.
“Just want to stay here, with you,” he says, with a tiny smile.
“Fine by me,” Tessa replies, closing her eyes.
Scott is insistent on continuing his thorough exploration of her body, nudges her onto her side so he can run his hands across her back. His hands are warm as the sun washes over them, chasing the heat of his touch, and Tessa thinks that she’s beginning to understand the kind of worship that Carmen died for.
“You have these three freckles,” he tells her, splaying out a hand across her shoulder blade.
“Right–” and he touches a fingertip to each one, “here.”
“And two more here,” he continues, fingers skirting across her back.
“And one just here,” and this time his lips follow the press of his fingers.
His voice as he catalogues the details of her body is so wondrously gentle and small that it makes her want to cry, to gather him into her and kiss every inch of his skin.
Ending things this time will break her heart, but she’s becoming used to that.
For the moment - for these last, beautiful days of summer, she hangs on to their sun-drenched tangle of sheets, and the lightness in her chest, and the golden warmth of Scott’s smile as he kisses her.
firstly, apologies that this took so incredibly long - turns out that post-olympic blues is a real thing even if you're not actually an olympian.
in case it wasn't obvious, there will be another chapter after this one. i can say with 90% certainty that the fourth chapter WILL be the last, if only because i'm running out of years on the timeline. and (whisper it under your breath) it should be up quicker than this chapter given that i'll be on break from uni over the next few weeks.
lastly, thank you so, so much for all your wonderful comments. they've been the best motivation in some trying times, and i really can't tell you how much it means to receive every single one of them. you rock.
They received their fairytale end in Vancouver. It turns out that a second happy ending is not nearly as forthcoming.
Tessa has never held any expectations about what she does or doesn’t deserve, but really, does the happy ending count if they were too young to understand the magnitude of the story they’d written for themselves? The kid she was four years ago could barely comprehend the weight of a gold medal around her neck. This time, she knows what standing atop the podium is worth – this time, it’d be great if the universe could just do her a solid and let them have their fade-out into the sunset.
She sees it in her dreams – the crowd, the cheers, the maple leaf flag fluttering in prime position. Sometimes, her nightmares are golden too. She wakes, heaving for breath, mind filled with visions of looking out upon a faceless sea of people, gold medal around her neck, blank and empty and devoid of any sense of triumph. Perhaps she’s built these Games up to far too much. A second gold is all she can allow herself to think about; for Canada, for her family, for validation of the four years she and Scott have struggled through since Vancouver.
It's just a single competition out of the hundreds that have come before. It’s only seven minutes on the ice that will determine the course of the rest of their lives.
The preferred narrative becomes evident after the first day of the team event, when they’re marked three points below Meryl and Charlie. In any other discipline, the difference would be laughable. In ice dance, it’s a message received loud and clear: we do not give second chances.
“How does she do it?” Tessa explodes, back at Scott’s room (and Patrick’s, although he’s graciously vacated the premises) in the Athletes’ Village. “How can she stand at the boards and wave us off with a smile on her face – like she doesn’t know there’s nothing at all we can do to change anything?”
Scott looks at her, and the resignation on his face makes her want to scream. She saw it in the Kiss and Cry earlier today – not shock or disappointment or disbelief, just quiet contemplation. His anger has melted into exhaustion; hers still simmers under her skin.
“Tess,” he sighs.
“It’s not fair. It doesn’t matter what we do! They could go out there and cheat their edges on every single turn and the judges would still turn a blind eye. It doesn’t make any difference.”
She wrenches the zipper on her Team Canada jacket down, throws it onto Scott’s bed. The red and white is beginning to suffocate her; everywhere she looks, a reminder of the crushing weight on their shoulders, the great golden hope of the country.
Scott watches her with a wary expression from the edge of the room, leaning against the wall. He’s being so gentle – the space he’s affording her, the softness in his voice, the way he looks at her, like he wants to understand so badly. She doesn’t want his sympathy, she wants him to be as furious as she is. She wants him to go down fighting.
“We’re gonna skate programs that we can be proud of,” he insists. “That’s our job.”
“I don’t need you to patronise me, Scott,” she snaps, steel in her voice, and immediately regrets it.
She’s mad at almost everyone; mad at the judges, mad at the federations, mad at the corrupt, ageing system that set them on the path to ruin, mad at Marina and her placating smiles, lying through her teeth. But not him, she reminds herself. They’re done being mad at each other.
Scott fixes her with a disquietingly even look.
“I’ll give you a minute,” he says, quietly, and he’s being ridiculous, this is his room, but he turns towards the door.
For a moment, she is eighteen again, facing down the end of her career in a single surgery, and Scott is just a figure in the rear-view mirror of her taxi, getting smaller and smaller and smaller. He was waving when she set off, she remembers, but then he stopped and turned away. She wonders what his face looked like, with the protection of his back to her – whether he was planning to leave her in the dust even then, whether it looks anything like today, as he heads towards the door of his hotel room.
“No – wait,” she rushes, and the desperation in her own voice almost makes her cringe.
Scott pauses. The hand reaching towards the door handle retracts.
She’s trying to speak, to say something, anything, but she keeps swallowing her own words. Her eyes well up with tears, hot and unwanted, reappearing as fast as she can blink them away, and she’s caught between embarrassment and frustration. She doesn’t think she’s allowed herself to cry in front of Scott since she was in high school.
Scott turns to her, his eyes widening as he registers her expression – “Oh, no, shit Tess, don’t cry.”
She wipes a hand roughly across her face, turns her head to the side so he can’t see. Her shoulders still shake silently. If she knew why she was crying, maybe she’d be able to do something more productive than stand here and snivel into the back of her hand.
“Hey, hey, c’mon now,” Scott tries again, his footfalls heavy on the carpeted floor as he moves towards her.
He places a hand on her shoulder, warm and friendly and impersonal. She can feel his thumb rubbing absent-mindedly across the thin strap of her top. Sometimes she wishes Scott wasn’t so much of a gentleman.
“It’s gonna be fine,” he says, and wraps his arms around her. It won’t be, but the way he says it, his lips gentle against her forehead, she can almost believe him.
Scott’s heartbeat thuds against her ear, steady and slow and soothing. If she closes her eyes and leans into his chest, it becomes all she can hear. If she brings her hands up, fists the material of his shirt to pull him closer, he is all she can see, feel, think – and then it’s only her and Scott, in their little bubble, and nobody can touch them.
He holds her quietly until her shoulders stop shaking and her breathing becomes even, until the sun filters in amber streaks of sunset through the large windows at the side of the room. It’s so easy to lose track of time when she’s with him, she finds. The hours slip by like sand through her fingertips.
“Forget about everything else, T,” he says, his voice low and quiet. “Tomorrow it’s just you and me out there, and some horribly sentimental classical music.”
“It’s not horrible, it’s romantic,” Tessa mumbles into his chest.
There’s a grin tugging at the corners of Scott’s lips as he looks down at her. “One and the same, depending on your point of view.”
The noise she makes as she snivels into his shirt is decidedly unattractive, but Scott has been with her through much, much worse. He wasn’t fazed that one time in Milan, when she got food poisoning and he held her hair back as she threw up her guts into the toilet bowl of the most glamorous hotel they’d ever stayed at. She thinks he can probably deal with some ugly crying.
“Right,” he says, patting her on the top of the head. “Moping time is over for today. We have three very important things left to do before tomorrow. First we’re gonna order room service, then we’re gonna figure out how to get the TV to talk to us in English and then – then, Tessa, we’re gonna argue about something useless and distracting, like how you’d wipe the floor with me on Jeopardy.”
The smile that creeps its way onto Tessa’s face is tiny, but it’s there nonetheless.
“Okay,” she says, voice thick with gratitude, and then, quieter: “It’s true, I would crush you.”
It turns out that not only does room service not exist in the Athletes’ Village, but Russian TV is tragically bereft of Jeopardy. Scott manages to dig out a bag of carrot sticks and a single protein bar from his luggage, and they settle back against the headboard of his twin bed, yelling out answers to a terribly dubbed version of ‘Who Wants to be a Millionaire’.
Slipping back into familiarity with Scott is as easy as breathing; too easy, in fact. Tessa keeps catching herself about to slide a hand around the back of his neck, or under his shirt, or across his thigh in a way that’s decidedly not in the best interests of maintaining this strictly platonic version of their partnership. Eventually she concludes that her hands are safest folded into her lap, where they can’t act on any of the thoughts that keep crossing her mind about how unfairly tight Scott’s fitted shirt is, or how the hair at nape of his neck is beginning to curl just long enough for her to thread her fingers through.
They’re focusing on competition, she reminds herself, and resolutely ignores the dangerous voice in the back of her head that says if they’re not going to win the competition, does it even matter?
Tessa wakes hours later to the sound of a door creaking open.
The room is dark, lit by the faint yellow glow of a hooded lamp on the opposite wall. Someone’s turned the TV turned off and drawn the curtains across the large bay windows. Scott’s head is pressed against her stomach, she realises, his arms wound around her waist. Did they go to sleep like that? She doesn’t remember much past the fifth question, when Scott got so enthusiastic in his attempt to convince her of the origins of Emmental cheese that he cracked his head against the back of the bed. He’d ventured out to the kitchen to retrieve an ice pack – she must have closed her eyes for a second and drifted off while he was gone.
Anyway, she got the question right. She should remember to tell him when he wakes up.
There’s a sudden shuffling noise in the hallway, followed by a thud and a hissed “Shit”. She jolts, glancing up, and locks eyes with a familiar figure hunched over and clutching his toe at the entrance to the room.
“Oh. Hi, Patrick.”
Patrick slowly straightens up with a sheepish, apologetic smile.
“Hey, Tessa,” he says, as he jams his hands into the pockets of his Team Canada jacket. “I tried not to wake you, sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it, we sort of stole your room.”
“Well, yeah. That is true,” he agrees. “It seemed like an emergency though. Did you, uh…” and his eyes trail to where Scott has attached himself, limpet-like, to her body. “Did you sort things out?”
“Mhmm,” Tessa says, and doesn’t elaborate.
Patrick pauses. When he speaks again, his voice is noticeably higher.
“Ok, great. I’ll just hop into bed then, and be out of your way.”
There’s a rustle of sheets as Patrick fairly dives into the bed across the room, and then silence.
Tessa leans down to grab the duvet from where Scott kicked it off the bed earlier and throws it over the both of them. Fair’s fair, she decides – Scott capitalised on the pretence of sleep to cuddle up to her, so it’s completely harmless when her thumb happens to brush across the back of his neck, her fingers happen to thread through his hair as her hand falls to rest. Scott doesn’t wake – he’s the deepest sleeper she’s ever come across – but his arms tighten around her and he yawns, muffled against her skin. It’s becoming a habit, this ‘bed-sharing before the most important free dance of their lives’ routine. She can’t say she minds.
Patrick’s voice, low and quiet, floats across the gap between their beds.
“If I don’t see you tomorrow, I just want to say good luck,” he says. “You two deserve it.”
Right now, she’s pretty sure that Patrick knows the taste of bitter disappointment better than anyone else – she was there in the stands when he won his silver medal.
“Thanks, Patrick,” she whispers, and she can only hope he knows how much she means it.
It’s the memory of that evening that sees her through the medal ceremony after the free dance; those ten minutes that seem to stretch on for a lifetime.
The silver medal hangs like a millstone around her neck.
If she keeps her gaze fixed straight ahead of her, Scott’s head blocks her view of the top spot of the podium. She doesn’t have to see Meryl and Charlie to know exactly what they look like. She’s sure they’re smiling; they’re always smiling, always picture-perfect. She pushed a smile onto her face before she and Scott took the ice at the beginning of the ceremony, and she’s not sure whether her mouth has moved since. Perhaps rigor mortis is setting in.
As the American national anthem rings in her ears, Scott catches her fingers between his, squeezes them once, twice – I’m here.
“You and me, kiddo,” he whispers, leaning in to her, and she’s surprised that when she finally allows herself to look at him, he’s not upset. His smile is as wide and genuine as she’s ever seen it, like his happiness can barely be conveyed by the limitations of physical expression. He must notice her staring, because he stops searching the crowd and brings his eyes to meet hers.
He looks at her just like he did four years ago, when they were champions in their home country, like he did eight years ago, when she kissed him in the backseat of his car after practice, laughing against his lips, like he did ten, twelve, fifteen years ago, so many times that the memories blur into one. He looks at her like he’s discovering her face for the first time, moves his eyes across her features so carefully and deliberately, a sense of wonder in his smile. She’s beginning to realise that he’d look at her like that no matter what was happening around them, even if the whole world was falling away.
This smile is reserved only for her, as he offers up his heart on his sleeve, again and again and again.
“Together,” she says, the word tearing from her lips like a reflexive response.
They’ve built up an extensive vocabulary of keywords over their seventeen years, but it’s that one they always return to, the one that encompasses so much in a single breath.
“Together,” quick and brisk and nodding at each other before they take the ice at competition – We can do this.
“Together,” whispered against her lips as they mime an embrace during their free – be calm, be with me, be present.
“Together,” clutching Scott’s hand in the Kiss and Cry – I’m with you, no matter what.
“Together,” so quickly it’s barely even a word, heart pounding in her chest, silver medal around her neck – I love you. I’m in love with you.
The last time she and Scott faced down the void of post-Olympic possibilities, they’d jumped at the chance to throw themselves back into competition. After Sochi they’re both so bone-tired that it’s not even a question: they need a break. Not just for a few weeks, not just for a summer – a proper, indefinite break. She wants to go home so badly, misses her mother and her sister and her brothers and the little bedroom in her house in London that remains made up for her no matter how long she’s been away.
“I just need some time to figure shit out, Tess,” Scott tells her on the plane ride back from Sochi, and she understands.
For the better part of her lifetime, they haven’t been apart for longer than a couple of weeks. Maybe that’s why their attempts to be together have always ended in failure – they’ve hardly had a chance to work out who they are outside of their partnership.
So she agrees that they should take a step back, that this tentative ‘retirement’ (that they’re refusing to call a retirement) is for exploring different paths beyond the world of skating. When Scott brought it up, she was thinking along the lines of sports broadcasting, public speaking engagements, going back to school, maybe dipping a toe into business.
‘Different’, as it turns out, is blonde and five foot two and wears a beaming smile.
She tries to like Kaitlyn, she really does. Kaitlyn is sweet, Kaitlyn is lovely, Kaitlyn is funny and gentle and unassuming and fits into Scott’s life like she’s always belonged there. Kaitlyn plies Tessa for embarrassing stories about their teenage years, Kaitlyn doesn’t ask too many questions or dig too deep, Kaitlyn doesn’t say anything when Scott rubs a hand across the back of his neck and finishes, lamely, “It’s complicated.”
Tessa wishes she could do more than offer up restrained civility and a wide, overcompensating smile. She’s so sick of pitting herself against Scott’s girlfriends all the time. What Scott has with Kaitlyn is simple and uncomplicated and it makes him happy. This means, following the simple logic that Scott is her friend, and friends support the happiness of other friends, that she should be happy for them too.
Presumably the chokehold of jealousy that strangles any goodwill she tries to muster for Scott’s new situation means she’s either not a good friend, or not a good person. Or perhaps it’s just that she’s never been so fortunate as to apply logic to whatever she and Scott have.
In a way, she learns more in the two years they spend trying to separate their existence post-Sochi than the entire fifteen years of partnership that came before.
The first Christmas after they win the silver medal, she receives her usual invitation to the annual Moir family gathering. There’s never a doubt in her mind that she’ll be there, regardless of her complicated relationship with their golden boy. She’s known Scott’s family almost as long as he has, loves his mother like her own flesh and blood.
So she puts on her best dress, spends far too long curling her hair in the morning, and heads over to the Moir house with as much festive cheer as she can summon.
The very first thing she notices, as she squeezes her car into the packed driveway, is how little everything has changed. The Moirs have always been fond of tradition, even stuck in their ways at times, but this is like someone pulled the scene directly from the memories of her seven-year old self. There’s the garlands of pine wrapped around the white pillars of the front porch, the string of lights twinkling in the balcony above, the rich, faded russet of the house and the great blue mountain of the Ilderton Arena rising in the background.
It’s nice to know that no matter how much she messes up every other aspect of her life, some things will always remain the same.
“Last chance to save yourself from the madness, T.”
Scott stands in the doorway of his childhood home, outlined in a warm glow of light spilling from the hallway behind him. He’s dressed for the occasion, in a pair of dark fitted jeans and a hideous Christmas jumper with a red-nosed reindeer that lights up every time he moves. His hair is getting long again – she wonders idly if he grew it out because he remembered that she likes it, or if that would be a ridiculous conclusion to come to. There’s an easy smile on his face as she meets his eyes, but she can tell by the way he’s leaning heavily against the doorframe, arms tucked behind his back, that he’s feigning nonchalance to cover up his nerves.
“Please, it’s never too late,” she says, as she picks her way carefully up the gravel of the driveway.
He wraps her up into a hug before she can even set foot on the first step up to the porch.
“I think I might be overdressed,” she confesses, into his ear.
“You look beautiful,” Scott says warmly, and presses a kiss to her cheek as he pulls away.
He’s probably only saying it to be polite, but even so, his words pool into a little bead of contentment that settles in her chest.
“You look very festive,” she tries.
Scott rolls his eyes good-naturedly at her and slings an arm around her shoulders.
“Don’t try and tell me you wouldn’t be caught dead in one of these,” he says.
“No, well, I’d maybe make some alterations,” she concedes.
It’s not even funny, but Scott laughs anyway, free and clear in the brisk morning air.
“Mum’s in the kitchen,” he tells her, grinning as he leads her inside the house. “She’s already roped Danny and Charlie into it – I only got a free pass to come and greet you.”
And sure enough, there’s Alma, already busy in the kitchen, but calling “Good morning, love,” as Tessa passes by. There’s Scott’s brothers, hard at work preparing vegetables, greeting her with a cheery wave (peeler in hand) and a “Hey, Tess! You made it!”. There’s Joe supervising the extended family in the living room; aunts and uncles and wives and an assortment of small children that Tessa vaguely recognises but would never be able to name.
And then, when she turns back from hanging up her coat – there’s Kaitlyn.
“Merry Christmas, Tessa!” Kaitlyn says, and the smile on her face is almost as bright as the lights on her tacky Christmas jumper.
It only takes Tessa a moment to snap her press conference smile into place and return the enthused greeting, but the way Scott’s eyes flicker rapidly between the two of them, she knows he notices.
So, Kaitlyn is officially invited to the Moir family gatherings. Interesting.
She finds herself a comfy chair in the living room next to one of Scott’s cousins; one who will make polite conversation and chatter on inconsequentially while she can try to ignore the way Kaitlyn giggles as she whispers in Scott’s ear, the way they’re sitting so close together on the sofa across the room that they may as well be in each other’s laps. Scott keeps glancing in her direction, his leg jiggling restlessly under Kaitlyn’s hand – but then Kaitlyn leans down and presses a kiss to his cheek, and Tessa watches as the tension fades from his muscles.
For as long as she’s known Scott, he’s flown from one messy relationship to the next. Sitting opposite Kaitlyn and Scott, she realises, with a sinking feeling, that they might actually be good for one another. Where does that leave her?
“Tessa, sweetheart, would you give me a hand in the kitchen?” Alma calls, mercifully, and Tessa grabs the lifeline she’s being thrown with both hands.
The kitchen is all but empty when she enters. Danny and Charlie’s battle stations at the counter lie abandoned in front of a mountain of freshly peeled vegetables. Scott’s mother is the only one who remains; stands with her back to Tessa, stirring a pot on the stove slowly with a wooden spoon.
“It smells wonderful in here,” Tessa says as she steps into the kitchen.
“Why, thank you,” Alma says warmly, the lines on her face creasing into a smile as she turns. “It’s an old family recipe that – oh! Don’t you look beautiful,” she starts, and there’s a slight waver to her voice. “Just beautiful.”
Tessa looks down at her feet with what she hopes is more of a smile and less of a grimace, tugs at the delicate fabric of her skirt as she mumbles a “Thank you”. She wishes she’d just found herself a nice, ugly, nonspecific Christmas jumper; maybe then she’d feel less like an intruder.
“Here, put this on,” Alma says, rummaging through a drawer and pulling out an apron. “Can’t have your pretty dress getting messy.”
Tessa doesn’t say a word as she slips the apron over her head and fastens the ties around her waist.
“The vegetables need dicing,” Alma continues, turning back to the stove. “There’s a knife over by the chopping board. I need them in small cubes, nice and even.”
Without complaint, Tessa takes up her position at the counter and sets to work. She’d be the last person to volunteer herself for culinary duties, but chopping vegetables is easy enough. Besides, it gives her something to occupy her hands with, so they’re not clenched into her palms so tightly that they leave fingernail marks. At least here she can’t see the two of them, huddled up together on the sofa in the very same room that’s decorated with a hundred photos of her and Scott throughout the decades of their career.
“I don’t know why I came, Alma,” she finds herself saying, before she realises it.
“I think you do, love,” comes the soft response, over the bubbling of the stove.
Tessa sets her jaw, focuses intently on the rhythm of her knife on the chopping board.
“He’s happy,” Alma’s voice drifts gently over her shoulder.
I’m not, Tessa wants to say, but even in her head the words sound petulant and childish. Instead, she settles for throwing the chopped vegetables into the bowl with extra vigour.
“There’s no one else?” Alma tries.
“No,” she says flatly, and sets the knife down. “No one.”
Thankfully for Tessa, the rest of the day passes in a blur. Alma manages to keep her busy in the kitchen for most of it – she’s actually getting quite proficient at navigating her way around a set of culinary equipment – and the rest of the time there are enough Moirs and co. running around the house to distract her from the one Moir she’s resolutely avoiding.
“You look dead on your feet, sweetheart,” Alma tells her with an admonishing tone, when they’ve finished clearing away the dishes from dinner. “Go tuck yourself up in the corner of the lounge – I’ll make sure the boys are quiet.”
Tessa just nods, grateful for the instruction. It’s a little early to leave – she can’t look like she’s admitting defeat – so she curls herself into the armchair in the corner of the room, closes her eyes tight. It’s easy to tune out the low chatter from across the room and drift off to sleep.
When she wakes, the house is dark and silent.
There’s a blanket over her; it falls away as she uncurls her legs from the chair and stretches with a small yawn. She can barely see anything out of the windows that overlook the back garden - it must be far past time to her to be getting back. She’ll slip away quietly, she thinks, thank Alma and the rest of the family for their hospitality later.
Her bare feet make no sound as she tiptoes across the living room, avoids that one creaky floorboard that always used to give her away whenever she was sneaking down from Scott’s room. She’s almost made it to the hallway, reaching to unhook her coat from its peg, when she hears it.
Music – faint and quiet, but achingly familiar as it floats from the kitchen.
Behind the closed door, she can see the dim glow of light.
It’s a mistake, she knows already, as she reaches for the doorknob – but it’s their music.
The gentle, rolling rhythm of the Tennessee Waltz washes over her as she opens the door. Scott is leaning against the kitchen counter, his hand resting on the radio from which the music emanates. He looks lost in thought, doesn’t even notice as she stands there. He’s shucked off the Rudolph jumper, thank god, has opted for a simple grey button-down instead.
“I’m leaving now,” she announces, and he jumps.
“Jesus, Tess,” he says, under his breath. “Don’t do that.”
The first refrain of the song begins to play, low and plaintive and just as sweetly melancholy as Tessa remembers. She remembers other things too: her coral dress, Scott’s stupid straw hat, her brief flirtation with red hair, the flush on her face as Scott leant down to whisper into her ear, high on the feeling of wanting and being wanted.
Silence stretches between them like an invisible thread as Tessa hesitates in the doorway. Today, they are perfect opposites; Scott in his greys and browns and muted blues, Tessa with the emerald sheen of her dress twisting in the light, the ivory of her skin, red slick of her lips.
“I’m leaving,” she says again, finally, but neither of them move.
His eyes find hers, across the dimness of the kitchen. The look in them is dangerous, hungry, alive with possibility in a way that makes Tessa nervous.
“You don’t have to,” Scott says, and his voice is low.
“Where’s Kaitlyn?” she asks.
Scott doesn’t break eye contact as he says “Asleep.”
Asleep, she thinks. None the wiser. Safe.
Tessa never really understood the point of the program they used to perform to this song. The waltz that Marina choreographed for them was far too happy for a song about losing your childhood love.
“One dance,” Tessa says. “For old times. Then I’ll go.”
“One dance,” Scott repeats after her, nodding.
Still, she doesn’t move. She doesn’t move, doesn’t even know if she breathes until Scott takes her hand and pulls her gently into the kitchen, closes the door behind them.
The tiled floor is cold against her bare feet, but Scott’s hand in hers is warm and soft.
“I think I remember,” he says as he brings their joined hands up to his chest, slides his other hand round to rest at the small of her back. “Like this?”
“Mm,” Tessa says, placing her hand on his shoulder. The green silk of her dress rustles at her knees.
The music and choreography may be the same as it was eight years ago, but everything else certainly isn’t. The differences extend down to the tiny details that she picks out now, as they sway in place; the thick sweep of Scott’s eyelashes as he closes his eyes, the fine muscles pulled taut and tense at his jaw. His breath is hot against her neck in a way that makes her head spin. He used to hum along to the music, she remembers – he’s not doing that now, as he buries his head against her. He doesn’t say a word, his fingers clenched firm at her back.
They dance slowly across the floor of Scott’s kitchen; them and the music, and the soft brush of Tessa’s feet across the tiles, the flutter of her dress in the wake of their movement.
The world has always made more sense to Tessa when she dances. Without the halting awkwardness of words, there’s only the purity of emotion – truthful in a way that she can never bring herself to be when the music fades. They have always claimed refuge in their characters on the ice, retreating behind the excuse of choreography, selling the story, doing their job. Privately, Tessa thinks Scott has it the wrong way around – she is never more herself than when she is dancing.
All these things run through her head as she leans forward and presses her lips delicately, deliberately, to Scott’s neck. He stiffens against her immediately, breath catching in his throat. His fingertips press into her skin, so hard she can feel them through the silk of her dress.
“Tessa,” he sighs, as she glides her tongue across his pulse.
“Tess, you gotta stop,” he tries, with decreasing conviction as her free hand falls from his shoulders, moves to twine through his hair.
She ignores him completely.
They’re not kissing, she reasons, so it’s just like any other program they could choreograph. When she presses him back against the wall, snakes a hand behind his hips, that’s fine. When she moves their joined hands to rest at the deep V of her dress, arches into his touch, that’s fine. When his fingers begin to slide under the green silk at her sternum, that’s fine too.
It’s all fine until she presses her palm against the front of his jeans and finds him hard.
“Tessa,” he chokes, and his voice is like iron as he snaps his hands around her wrists. “Stop it.”
She wonders what he sees as he stands there, holding her wrists against his chest, her entire body trembling like a cornered animal.
“We can’t do this again,” he says, and she doesn’t know whether ‘this’ is a dance, or a kiss, or an entire career. “I have a girlfriend.”
“Start acting like it then,” she snaps, tearing her wrists from his grasp. “Pick a side. One or the other, not both, Scott.”
“Why does there have to be sides?”
She shakes her head at him, hisses “Don’t be an idiot.”
The radio crackles into life on the countertop, moving to the next song, and Scott swings a hand around to slam the off button. His shoulders heave with every breath, his face inches from hers.
“I’m leaving now,” Tessa says, and her eyes flash with defiance. You could make me stay.
But he doesn’t – doesn’t move, doesn’t even say a word as she throws the door open and shrugs on her coat and shoes, doesn’t appear on the porch as she starts up her car and pulls out of the driveway.
He makes his position clear.
London, March 2015
She is in love with Scott.
She’s known since Sochi, maybe even before that, but it becomes unavoidable one day at her mother’s house. They’re sat around the table in the breakfast nook – Tessa, her mother, and Jordan.
Tessa is trying very hard to form a life without the strict routine of competition. She wakes at eight (or, when she’s affording herself a luxury at the weekend, nine), does her morning stretches before showering. She puts on a face mask, pulls her hair back into a bun and emerges for breakfast with her mother at nine-thirty. At breakfast, she eats what she pleases and refuses to feel guilty about any of it. It’s all terribly tedious, but it makes her feel like she’s a successfully functioning human being, which is a rare occasion to come by lately.
“So, Alma tells me that Scott’s been looking for a house in Winnipeg,” her mother says, and Tessa almost chokes on her grapefruit. “Isn’t that where Kaitlyn’s from?”
One near-death experience later:
“Maybe,” Tessa croaks, her eyes watering.
“Winnipeg’s a long way,” Jordan says, carefully.
“I don’t know what goes through that boy’s head sometimes,” her mother sighs, as she pours orange juice into three glass tumblers. “He’s running off with a girl he barely even knows.”
Tessa butters another piece of bread, forces herself to sit through the conversation as her family discusses the pros and cons of Scott’s real-estate ventures in Winnipeg. If he’s serious about Kaitlyn – and he certainly seems to be, she’s going to have to make peace with it at some point. And making peace starts with training herself not to flinch whenever their combined names come up in conversation.
Of course, Tessa knows exactly what’s going on with Scott – why he’s buying a house in Kaitlyn’s hometown twelve months after meeting her. Scott has always wanted his house in the country, his white picket fence with 2.5 children and a dog. Scott saw his chance, and he leapt at it.
Tessa tries not to think about it too much – she’s focusing on her full-time job of working out how to weave the disparate pieces of her life together around the large, competition-shaped hole in the middle. She’s slowly coming to some sort of identity, she thinks, between all the schoolwork and the touring and the photoshoots and the design meetings and the charity dinners. Some days now Scott barely even crosses her mind. Other days end like today, with Jordan sliding a freshly packaged cookie from the nearby bakery under her door, a scrawled note attached that tells her to ‘Look after yourself, Tess’.
She hasn’t spoken to Scott in weeks, hasn’t seen him in longer. The more time she spends in London, the easier it is for her memories of that night in his kitchen in Ilderton to fade into an embarrassing afterthought. During the few shows they’ve toured with since Christmas, they don’t talk about it. What would they even say to each other? Sorry I accosted you in the kitchen of your childhood home while your girlfriend slept in the bedroom above? Sorry I opened the door, sorry you didn’t stop me sooner? The festive spirit of forgiveness only extends so far.
She works late that night, in the corner of her old bedroom, sketching design ideas for an upcoming project. Her mother keeps her room just as she left it; historically accurate down to the posters of the National Ballet on her walls, the graduation photo on her bedside table. The white varnished desk tucked away next to her bed provides a good base of operations for work, even if the shelves are strewn with photos of kids that she hasn’t spoken to in at least ten years.
It’s well past midnight when her phone buzzes, so violently that it almost vibrates itself off the surface of her desk. She manages to catch it just in time, scattering her papers in the process, and sucks in a breath when she reads the caller ID.
At first, all she hears in the long moments after she accepts the call is the steady crackle of static.
Then: “Tess? You there?”
Scott’s voice is rough with sleep, or maybe it’s distorted by the phone line, but it’s unmistakeably him.
“I’m here,” she says, unable to mask the surprise in her voice. “Is everything okay?”
“Fine, why wouldn’t it be?”
Sure. Calling her in the dead of night when they haven’t spoken in weeks is a completely normal activity for Scott Moir.
“I missed you,” he says, earnestly, before she can say anything else.
It takes everything Tessa has not to end the call there and then. But she’s aiming for mature, adult relationships that involve healthy communication and not shutting out everything that scares her, so she barrels past his sentiment with a cheery “How’s house hunting going?”
There’s a soft thump on Scott’s end of the phone. She wonders where he is, which bed he’s just thrown himself down on.
“Horribly,” he groans. “We’ve seen thirty houses in the past four days and I’m losing the will to live. Remember me fondly.”
In spite of herself, she smiles. She settles into her chair and shifts her phone to rest in the crook of her neck, leaving her hands free to tidy her designs away into a neat stack. So much for a productive evening.
“Only thirty?” she teases, falling into the comfort of their easy back-and-forth. “Up your game, Moir.”
“Hey, I’m just letting the estate agents into it slowly. Wouldn’t want to overwhelm them with the pleasure of my company.”
“Oh, of course. I bet Winnipeg is quaking in its boots.”
“It better be.”
She can hear the smile in his voice as he speaks, holding even as he launches into a detailed dissemination of the thirty houses he’s seen so far, why every single one is not quite right; too big, too small, too empty, too far. She’s only half paying attention – it’s wonderful to talk to Scott again, but there’s one pressing matter that she can’t tear her thoughts away from, one name that flashes in bright bold letters across her mind.
Eventually, she plucks up the courage to ask her next question.
Scott trails off into silence, and Tessa finds herself holding her breath. The pause on the end of the line as she waits for a response is tortuous. It’s as if she’s back in the Kiss and Cry, waiting to learn her fate – except, this time, she has no hand to hold.
“Good,” he says, finally, so softly she barely hears it. “Really good.”
“I’m happy for you,” she mumbles, and the words are thick, like she’s speaking through a mouthful of treacle – but she finds, to her surprise, that she’s not lying. There’s genuinely a small part of her, the part that’s not half-suffocated by jealousy, that warms at the contentment in his voice.
Slowly, he says, “….is Tessa still there?”
He sounds a little stunned. Tessa wishes she could see his face right now, and then remembers that this is the age of enlightenment, and even if Scott refuses to prevent his decline into becoming a technological dinosaur, she doesn’t have to do the same.
“Hold on,” she says, as she removes her phone from where it’s pressed between her shoulder and ear. “I’ve got proof. Be right back.”
“Uh-oh,” he laughs, before she ends the call.
She scans the room quickly for a place to set herself up: not her bed, that would definitely give the wrong impression. Not at her desk, the angle is all wrong. The floor it is, then. She grabs the blanket from the end of her bed, spreads it across the floor and flops on top of it, taps the FaceTime icon next to Scott’s name and waits.
“She lives!” Scott crows as soon as the video link establishes.
His picture is so grainy that it takes her a minute to work out what she’s looking at. He’s lying on his back, on a sofa (she thinks), his phone held aloft above his face at the worst angle, not made any better by the baseball cap he’s jammed on top of his head. So what that she has to tilt her head sideways to orient his face in the right direction? She’s pleasantly surprised he didn’t accidentally reject her call in the first place.
Tessa greets the camera with a wide, tooth-baring grin. “Happy. See?”
“Photoshop’s getting good these days, eh?” Scott says, with a raised eyebrow, but his arch look collapses as she rolls her eyes. His voice is warm, soothing. “Thanks, T. I’m happy too.”
He does look genuinely happy, his smile all crinkled eyes and white teeth - more than happy, he looks relaxed, weightless. Content.
As it turns out, they have a great deal to catch up on. Once they start, they don’t stop - they talk through the night and into the early morning, about everything under the sun; things as inconsequential as what Scott cooked for dinner last night, the one member of Tessa’s pilates class who won’t stop making passive aggressive comments at the end of every session, and how she’s this close to turning up to class one day with three Olympic medals around her neck. They talk about life, at length, how different everything is now they’re unofficially retired – how Tessa worries that she won’t ever find something that she loves as much as the thrill of competition. If things get really bad, they’ll take up something completely new like tennis doubles, Scott assures her; the extra height Tessa gets during The Goose would provide opportunity for excellent volleys.
The conversation drifts onwards, and Tessa edges cautiously around how strange it is to watch her friends grow up and start families, while she’s only just beginning to explore life outside of an all-consuming career. Scott stays quiet for most of that topic, she notes, but throws himself back into the call with gusto when Tessa mentions that she finally got around to watching the first episode of Sons of Anarchy and no, don’t get so excited, she’s not remotely convinced that she’ll be watching the second.
It’s so good to hear his voice again.
Tessa realises, as the sun begins to crest over the lip of the windowsill, that they’ve talked themselves into a new day.
“Ah, shit,” Scott yawns. “I gotta be out in an hour for ‘House Viewings from Hell: Part 5’.”
Tessa sighs. “Yeah, I should go too. I have a meeting at Hillberg and Berk for some new designs.”
“Still conquering the world,” he says, with an odd mixture of pride and wistfulness. “I’m really proud of you, you know? I point it out every time we go past your collection in town, my buddies are sick of it. But I just think, ‘There she is! There’s my girl!’”
“I should hire you for promotional purposes,” she laughs. “Save on the advertising money.”
Scott smiles, but his eyes are serious as he looks to the camera.
“We should do this more often,” he says. “It’s been too long.”
Tessa nods, twists her blanket between her fingers as she murmurs, softly, “Yeah. I’d like that.”
“Well, then,” Scott hesitates. “Take care of yourself, T.”
She nods, again, searching for the right words and coming up short. They’ve struggled through decades of couples counselling and still there are times when she barely knows what to say to him. But then, as she watches him reach towards his phone screen – all he’s ever wanted from her is the truth.
“I’m really glad you called,” she says.
His hand freezes in the air, half-stretched towards his phone. Slowly, gently, his expression splits into a smile – and god, sometimes Scott might be no better than an overgrown teenager, but other times she thinks you could win wars on the strength of that smile alone.
“Me too,” he returns, in a voice as delighted as she’s ever heard it.
She was a fool to think she could want anything for him except happiness.
Vancouver, May 2015
Scott is in love with her.
It’s not so much what he says as what he doesn’t say – or what she won’t let him say.
The seed of suspicion takes root in Vancouver, over celebratory end-of-tour drinks with the rest of the cast of Stars on Ice. It’s a cheap and cheerful affair at a local bar, a cosy-looking joint with a faintly sticky floor, tables bordered by maroon leather booths, and not a potted plant in sight. Scott is in particularly high spirits that night, helped by generous quantities of beer and fresh off a victory at the cast air hockey tournament – a fiercely contested win, if the yells that follow him when he saunters back to her table are anything to go by.
“My reign continues for another year,” he announces with a grin as he squashes himself into the booth next to her. There’s a plastic crown on his head that looks like it was pulled from a child’s dressing-up box. Tessa considers pointing out the small bite marks on the back, but she doesn’t want to ruin his thunder that quickly.
“One of these days someone will knock you down a peg,” she tells him instead. “Just wait.”
“Oh yeah?” Scott jerks his chin upwards to wobble the jauntily-placed crown atop his head.
“Yes. Watch me, I’ll practice in secret for the whole year, show up and steal that crown from under your nose.”
Scott spreads his hands across the table in a gesture of peace.
“What’s mine is yours, T,” he says, whisking the crown from his head and sliding it swiftly onto hers. Tessa would almost call it smooth – except for the fact that the crown is far too big, falls down instantly across her face and jabs her in the eye in the process.
“Ow,” she complains, jerking her head backwards.
“Shit, sorry,” Scott says, at the same time as she mutters “Sabotage…” and shoves the crown back up to her forehead to fix him with a glare. She blames her profusely watering right eye for the failure to achieve her usual level of intimidation.
The look of genuine concern on Scott’s face lasts for approximately five seconds before she sees the corners of his lips begin to twitch. His shoulders start to shake, an answering smile starts to spread across her face, and then all she has to do is slowly, delicately, raise one eyebrow to set both of them doubled over the table in bursts of helpless laughter. By the time the crown is reinstated on the top of her head, they’re breathless and slumped against one another, and thoroughly deserted by the rest of the cast.
“I think I’m about to be kicked out for violent behaviour,” Scott laments. “That bartender keeps giving me the eye.”
Tessa lifts her head from Scott’s shoulder, glances around – and sure enough, they’re receiving a baleful glare from the man standing behind the bar.
“They just want us to hurry up and leave so they can start cleaning up,” Tessa says. “But if you do get thrown out then I’ll keep the crown safe and warm here for you, don’t worry.”
Scott crooks his eyebrows. “What happened to loyalty to your one-and-only partner?”
“It’s called efficiency,” she says, tipping her head back to rest against him. “At least 50% of our team can be saved from catching pneumonia.”
“I think this is all part of your elaborate plan to smuggle the crown to Patrick,” Scott says, with a suspicious glare. “He had that fire in his eyes when I beat him, I could tell.”
Tessa gives him a droll smile. “Uh-oh, you caught me. My master plan, ruined.”
There’s a short, sharp cough from the bar.
“Okay,” Tessa says, pushing herself up from Scott’s side with a final pat to his shoulder. “As entertaining as your paranoia is, it is getting pretty late. Maybe we should call it a night here.”
“I guess,” he says reluctantly. “Gotta get back and pack before the flight - be responsible, you know.”
“Right, don’t you have your little house on the prairie to return to?” she teases.
There’s a quick second where Scott’s smile wavers on his face – so brief that she could have blinked and missed it entirely. It reminds her of the moment when a ballet dancer trips in an otherwise flawless performance, or an actor stumbles over their lines of Shakespeare; the moment when an illusion breaks.
“I gave up looking,” he says, his gaze skirting the ground.
Scott didn’t buy a house in Winnipeg. The knowledge shouldn’t mean nearly as much to her as it does. Maybe he couldn’t find a nice place, maybe he and Kaitlyn decided to live elsewhere, maybe he got cold feet like he always does and decided to take things slower. But she can’t shake the memory of his phone call, three months ago; the happiness in his voice, the pride – and maybe, as she re-examines what she remembers of that conversation, the longing.
Scotland, June 2015
Scotland changes everything.
They couldn’t have found themselves a more perfect pressure cooker of a situation; just her and Scott and Kaitlyn and a crowd of watchful, wealthy sponsors who have paid for the privilege of their company (and the associated luxury holiday), all together for two weeks in a remote castle in the Scottish Highlands.
‘Castle’ turns out to be a generous assessment of their hotel, but it’s certainly impressive; a towering stone establishment complete with parapets and battlements, small flags fluttering from the vaulted rooftop, bounded on the north side by cliffs that drop down to the sea. From the large window of her room on the top floor, Tessa can see the rocky shoreline beyond the cliff edge, the brief stretches of sand and sparse vegetation that persist despite the rolling waves. It’s beautifully foreboding, from horizon to horizon; a patchwork of hardy natural life stretching as far as the eye can see.
Thankfully the castle itself is more homely than its surroundings. Tessa’s room is a cheerful mismatch of patterns and fabrics, awash with the glow of as many lamps as she’s ever seen in a single space. Even the grand, vaulted Great Hall, where they collect for meals and scheduled events, is softened with large rugs and washed oak panelling. The four portraits of austere old men frowning down from the wall are a little more off-putting, but Tessa can grab a champagne flute and throw herself into conversation with someone, and she soon forgets all about it.
It’s the kind of environment that Tessa thrives in – puts on her smiling public persona and gets to work – and Scott half-heartedly tolerates. Usually he gets by standing at her side and deflecting compliments in her direction, but she’s trying to leave him and Kaitlyn to their own devices. That fact that he’s not launching himself off the nearest parapet to escape indicates that her tactic is fairly successful – but there are certain times that make her wonder if there isn’t something more going on.
On occasion, Scott disappears into the castle with Kaitlyn. This by itself is nothing out of the ordinary, but it’s the way he reappears hours later, his jaw clenched as he exchanges pleasantries with guests, his shoulders tight with tension when Tessa slips an arm around him to pose for photographs, that sets her thinking.
Once – just once, she overhears them arguing. It’s not her fault, really – the twisting corridors of the castle mean that it’s possible to hear people long before you catch sight of them. She tells herself that the stunning panorama outside the window is the reason she slows to a halt when she catches the sound of familiar voices.
“– don’t know why you’re so upset, Kait,” she hears.
The reply comes in a hushed whisper, but it’s Kaitlyn’s voice. “This always happens, every single time. You can’t keep expecting me to be here waiting for you when you get back, it’s not fair.”
“I’m sorry,” Scott says, so quiet that Tessa has to strain to catch the words. He sounds bewildered even as he apologises, as if he has no clue what he’s done wrong.
There’s a long, heavy sigh, and Tessa waits with bated breath until:
“This is on you, Scott,” Kaitlyn says, and there’s an air of resigned finality about her voice. “Sort it out.”
Tessa lingers until she hears heels clicking on the cobblestone floor, and hurries back to her room. Her mind whirls with speculation as she goes. She half expects to wake the next morning to find that Kaitlyn has disappeared back home – but no, they’re both there when she drags herself down to breakfast. If anything changes between them after that conversation, Tessa is none the wiser.
The end of their first week in Scotland is marked with a candlelit concert over dinner at a local restaurant.
Tessa squirrels herself away at a corner table, as unobtrusive as she can make herself. It’s not too much of a challenge; all eyes are fixed on the musicians standing on the small stage at the front of the room. Tessa will admit to being slightly distracted – she barely remembers the music, or the faces of the musicians, or the waiter who slips her his number on the back of a napkin after the first course.
Her gaze drifts steadily from the stage, across the assembled crowd of guests, towards Scott and Kaitlyn, sat side-by-side at a high table at the back of the room, where she realises, with a start, that Scott’s staring straight at her. There’s a quiet, focused intensity to him, unfaltering even as she meets his eyes.
He doesn’t say anything, his lips unmoving – but she knows without a shadow of a doubt, as she sits there and stares back at him, that’ll happen later.
Sure enough, he finds her back at the castle come sunset.
She’s sat by the cliffside, on a bench underneath a weathered, leafless tree. It’s her favourite spot, this one – the view of the shoreline and the endless expanse of sea beyond, the feeling of isolation, the way the bench looks as though it’s been part of the scenery for so long that the gnarled boards have started to melt into the tree itself; she can barely tell where one ends and the other begins.
She hears Scott before she sees him, his footsteps crunching across the gravel pathway.
“Had a hunch I’d find you here,” he says, as he rounds the side of the bench and comes to sit at the opposite end to her. His hands are jammed into his jean pockets, and he’s pulled a ratty grey hoodie over the nice shirt he was wearing earlier – she hopes he hasn’t been wandering around in that since they got back.
“Yeah?” she says, quietly, tilting her head towards him.
He grins. “Nah, I just saw you out of the window and thought I should stop you spiralling alone on a cliff edge.”
Tessa raises her eyebrows.
“Okay, okay, I bribed Miku to tell me where you went,” he relents.
He turns to look at her with a gentle smile, and she can’t help but smile back. Her hand worms its way around the sleeve of his hoodie, pulls until he gets the message and scoots himself along to her end of the bench.
“Better,” she says, as she tucks her head against his shoulder. She keeps her arm looped through his, presses her cold fingers into the soft material that gathers at his elbow.
They sit in companionable quiet, Scott’s head bending to rest atop hers as the waves roll into the cliffside and the sky gradually darkens. There’s precious little sunlight left, but with what remains, she watches as his hand slips through hers. She’s not sure Scott has ever been silent this long; he seems hopelessly lost in thought.
“Is everything okay?” she asks.
“Sure,” he says, and his fingers tighten around hers. Then, quieter, as he stares out into space: “No. I don’t know.”
“Would it help to talk about it?” she says, even though she’s never wanted to hear less about his relationship issues with Kaitlyn, but the way he’s acting, his eyes skirting hers – always held just below her gaze, never fully meeting them – makes her think that it’s something else, something to do with her.
“Talking to you always helps,” he says. “I don’t know how you do it, Tess. Things seem to fall into place like they’ve always been there, and I just forgot to look for them.”
“Psych student, remember?” she grins.
“Right. That’ll be it,” Scott mutters, but his words are hollow.
He’s chewing on the bottom of his lip, a habit she thought he broke when he was thirteen years old.
“Tessa,” he starts, and there’s suddenly something about his voice that sounds official, rehearsed in a way that Scott never is, like he’s been mulling it over for months. “Tess, I think–“
She jerks her head backwards from his, so quickly that she almost gives herself whiplash.
“Scott,” she instructs, in as even a voice as she can muster. “Before you say anything, I need you to think about what you’re doing. Don’t ruin things for yourself.”
It’s a curious feeling, to be caught between the thrill of Scott inching towards the words that she hasn’t allowed herself to think about, and the resolute iron-clad surety with which she dreads him saying them; not here, now, on the stuttering outs of his failing relationship.
“It’s all I’ve thought about, Tess,” he says, with conviction. “Ever since I called you, even before then, even since Christmas,“ – and Tessa has to fight to keep her cheeks from colouring as his eyes search hers with a desperate need – “it’s only you. It’s only ever been you.”
“You don’t know what you’re saying,” she protests.
“Are you kidding me?” Scott says, with a breathless laugh. “I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life.”
“I heard you and Kaitlyn,” Tessa says, her voice strained. “How do I know you’re not only saying this because you don’t have a fall-back plan anymore?”
“Because I’m not!” he bursts. “Because I’ve kept Danny and Charlie up every night for the past three weeks talking about how much I miss you, because I feel so proud of you that I don’t even know where to start. I just know that I want to be there with you as you do all the amazing things you’re going to do.”
Tessa shakes her head, mechanically, back and forth.
“But it’s not just that,” Scott lurches onwards. “It’s feeling sick with worry and loneliness and the thought that I’m sat here doing nothing while you get further and further away. Because there’s nothing I regret more than letting you walk out of the door that Christmas, because I stood there in the living room with all the pictures of us on the Olympic podium, and all of it – all of it, Tess, was ash in my mouth knowing that I’d let you go.”
It’s more than she’s ever hoped – too much to hope for, too much to process, too much to accept.
“Tessa,” he pleads, and his hands are so soft as they cup the sides of her face, brush back the strands of hair that curl across her neck. “Tessa. Tess. How do I make this right?”
She wants to wrench his hands away from her. She wants to lean into his touch and never speak again.
“I don’t know what to tell you,” she says, eyes shiny with unshed tears. “I wish I could believe you, but I can’t, not like this.”
Scott is quiet and still as she speaks – she can feel him hanging on her every word.
Slowly, she sucks in a shaky breath. “I need you to give me time.”
Time, like Scott asked her for, and then never came back. Time, which Tessa thought was supposed to heal all wounds but only seems to keep giving her more reasons to fear the words that come out of Scott’s mouth, more sordid history for them to brush under the carpet.
“I’m not saying no,” she adds. “I’m saying that we need to make sure this is what we want. We’ve hurt each other too many times to rush into things again.”
There’s a moment where she thinks he might argue. But then slowly, gently, she places a hand over his, where it’s curled around the side of her face, and as if stolen away by the rush of wind, all the fight leaves his body.
“Okay,” he sighs, and the wind and the crash of the waves almost carries his words away, but she clings onto them. “Okay. You’re right.”
She can feel the weariness in every line of him, can tell he’s aching with the need to convince her – he’s trying, against his nature, to be as careful and considered about this as she wants him to be.
“Thank you,” she murmurs, as she reaches forward to press a kiss to his forehead. Scott leans into the moment with his entire body, his hands falling away from her face. When she pulls away, his eyes are heartbreakingly soft.
“All the time you need, Tess,” he assures her. “I’ll wait.”
Tessa can’t help the small smile that creeps onto her face.
“Careful, any more romance in your cliffside confession and someone might actually accuse you of picking up a novel,” she says. “Very dramatic. Especially the jilted lover.”
Scott gives a lengthy groan as he flops back onto the bench.
“God, Kaitlyn,” he mutters. “What am I going to tell her?”
“That you’re a mess,” Tessa says, firmly. The tangled threads of Scott’s love life that don’t involve her, at least, she knows how to deal with. “But you came here with Kaitlyn, so you’re going to leave with Kaitlyn. What happens after that is up for discussion.”
Scott stays quiet for a minute, contemplating. Then he gives a snort of laughter.
“I love the way you say things,” he says, as she looks at him with a startled expression. “’Up for discussion’. You know your tongue has been in my mouth?”
Tessa rolls her eyes, but she’s grinning as she takes his hand once again, interlaces their fingers on top of the wooden slats of the bench and knows that, for now, the conversation is over.
“I’d like to watch the sunset in peace now,” she says. “You can stay if you promise to be quiet,” – and Scott’s looking at her with a strangely bemused expression on his face – “What? I don’t mind.”
“You’re allowed to say that you want me to stay, Tess,” he says gently.
“I –“ she tries – and she wants to say it, she really does, but she’s spent a lifetime convincing herself of the exact opposite. The strangeness of the words catch in her gut before she can spit them out.
Scott’s lips quirk into a tiny, lost smile.
“We’ll get there,” he says.
His quiet conviction is a reassurance even as he turns away to face the setting sun, his thumb rubbing slowly over hers. The last rays of light shimmer across the water below, streaks of pink and orange painting the land and the sea and the sky. If she tilts her head just slightly, she can see Scott’s profile silhouetted against the sunset; the proud jut of his chin tempered by the soft curve of his lips, the dip at his throat, features as familiar to her as her own.
At times, his thoughts, too, are as familiar as if they came from her own mind. He turns to meet her eyes, with the smallest, most tentative smile – and she knows, just as she knew that he would seek her out tonight, that the gears of change are turning in his head, that he’s making his choice – that this time, he stays.
things i have learned in 2018:
- never settle on your chapter numbers before you finish a fic because it'll be three and then four and then five before you know it
- that's it.
i considered waiting until the fifth (and definitely DEFINITELY final chapter) was done to post this but given the rate i've been writing that would be months away so. here! as always, thank you so much for your support and feel free to come yell at me over @virtueoso on tumblr.
Beijing, July 2015
It seems right that, once again, Tessa is making serious life decisions on the edge of a precipitous drop. Does she need to spend her only day off hiking along the Great Wall of China? No, but it gives her an entire six hours with Scott to try and figure out how she’s going to bring up the fact that she wants to return to competition. Beijing is overwhelming; a stifling, suffocating wave of heat and noise that clings to her like a second skin. Out here, adrift in an ocean of rolling green hills, she can breathe and consider her options.
There’s a part of her that wants to come straight out with it; Scott has hardly been shy with his own bombshells, after all. To give him credit, he hasn’t said another word on the matter since Scotland. He sticks to safer conversation topics as they hike: his nieces and their campaign to terrorise the Canadian school system, the ins and outs of the junior hockey league, whether Tessa would disown him if he tried to grow a moustache (without hesitation, yes).
How does she tell him that she misses competitive life so badly that sometimes she thinks she can feel it in her bones? She misses all of it, even the bits she thought she hated - the old rhythms of early-morning wakeups, downing three cups of coffee before training, pushing so hard that she sees stars at the edge of her vision. Does she include the fact that there’s a not insignificant part of her which wants to return for those forty-hour weeks spent in each other’s company?
She has many reasons for wanting to come back – some of them are allowed to be a little selfish.
“Well. We had good intentions, Tess, but I think the full fifty-mile hike will have to wait until next year,” Scott says, wincing as he pulls himself up yet another step. “Give me a chance to warn my thighs that they’re in for a world of pain. What happened to our relaxing retirement? Don’t most people choose to go off and get a tan in Mexico, or something?”
Tessa’s attempt at a smile comes out as more of a grimace. She tugs her backpack straps free from where they’ve stuck to the sheen of sweat on her skin.
“I thought you Moirs have to return to Ilderton at least once a year or you void the magical contract that keeps hair on your head until the age of fifty.”
“That’s oddly specific of you,” he says, sounding immensely self-satisfied. Feeding his ego like this is a slippery slope. “Wanna elaborate on your particular attention to my luscious locks?”
Legs burning, Tessa heaves herself onto the flat platform that tops this section of the Great Wall. The crowds that accompanied them at the beginning of the hike have thinned out now; there are few people this far along the Wall, and even fewer tourists. Light-headed with exertion, clutching to the low guard wall that stands between her and a thirty-foot drop, Tessa is starting to understand why.
“It’s a strange and mystical power gained through selling your soul to the devil, that’s all,” she says. “That’s why you cut your hair so often – you’d be too powerful otherwise.”
The Wall stretches on further than she can see, snaking into the distance in front of her; she’s suddenly very glad they decided against the full hike. At least Scott is breathing as hard as she is when he comes to join her, reaching out with a strained expression to pluck the water bottle from the side of her rucksack.
“Please,” he pants, between gulps of water. “If I was gonna make a deal with the devil, I’d at least ask him for something cool. Like a signed Leafs jersey.”
Tessa can’t help the burst of incredulous laughter that escapes her.
“What?” Scott says, looking a little indignant.
She shakes her head as she sits down.
“You have a set of priorities I will never understand. Or wait, never mind. I understand them perfectly” - she raises a hand, counts each one on her fingers – “They go family, hockey, friends, ending world poverty.”
Scott pauses in emptying the contents of their only water bottle over his head to flash her a triumphant grin.
“Aha! You forgot one. It goes family, Tessa, hockey, friends, ending world poverty. Very important, that second thing.”
Tessa rolls her eyes. “Alright, you and your smug self can take the water bottle and leave me to my nap.”
He doesn’t pay any attention to her, of course - slides his back down the stones until they’re sat side-by-side.
“Your life would be much too boring without me, Tess. Admit it.”
“Sure,” she mumbles lazily, closing her eyes. “I’d have so much peace and quiet, I’d barely know what to do with it.”
The afternoon sun blazes warmth across her neck and shoulders as she tilts her head up to the sky. Now they’re not dragging themselves up and down fifty flights of steps, it’s actually quite pleasant to be out here.
Scott nudges her shoulder with his.
“You wanna talk about why you were so quiet the whole way up here? We don’t have to, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just because I wouldn’t shut up about hockey.”
“Mm,” Tessa says. “Maybe.”
She can feel him - his shoulder pressed up against hers, his trainers scuffing the ground – knows the sound and the shape of him without even opening her eyes. She should come out and say it. She should ask him now, because if she can’t do it here, sitting on the warm stone steps in a country where nobody knows their names, she won’t be able to do it anywhere. She’s going to do it. She might.
Scott’s voice is full of warmth, relaxed. “I’ll start if you want. My name is Tessa, and I’m thinking that I never want to climb another step in my life ever again-“
“Um, incorrect. My name is Tessa, and I’m thinking that if Scott would give me a minute to soak up the sun, maybe I won’t throttle him before we get back to the hotel.”
She cracks an eye open to peer at him, snorting a laugh next to her. Well, she’s never going to get him in a better mood than this.
“No, it’s true. I’ve been thinking about a lot,” she says – and locks her hands together in her lap, buries the urge to simply shoulder her rucksack and keep trudging along. “About Sochi, mostly, and how we ended things.”
There’s a carefully controlled looseness to the way he sits there, kicking pebbles across the pathway like she’s discussing where they should go for dinner and not the biggest regret of their career – but she knows that every muscle in his body hangs on her words.
Scott chooses his reply wisely. “It wasn’t great.”
Maybe she’s overthinking this. Maybe he’s already decided that he wants to return, maybe he’s waiting for her to say the words and that’ll be it. Or maybe she asks and he says no. Maybe he says no and she never forgives him for it.
He nudges her shoulder again, softer – like he used to do years ago when they were kids sat by the boards at his aunt’s rink, and he was trying to make her laugh. They were so young and unsure of each other back then; all knobbly knees and tentative smiles and halting conversation, stumbling the way around the boundaries of their relationship.
Sometimes Tessa feels as though she’s lived a hundred different lifetimes in the space of twenty-six years. There are those that drag on and on: the long, muddled haze of injury, Sochi and a slow-burning resentment, fumbling through the dark of post-competition. Others blink out in moments: Vancouver and their fairytale victory, a waltz across the kitchen tiles, a single, sunlit week in Michigan with a future like a desert mirage.
There’s only ever been one constant in her life – and that’s all the conviction she needs.
“–I was thinking maybe we should go for Pyeongchang,” she starts.
“–I wanna try for the next Olympics,” Scott blurts out at the exact same time.
Tessa is gearing up to launch into the itemised list of talking points she’s drawn up for this very conversation – and then she stops. They stare, for a long, unblinking moment, at each other.
“For real?” she hears Scott whisper, hoarsely.
All she can do is smile. “Yeah. Let’s do it.”
The water bottle in Scott’s hand clatters to the ground as his arms wrap around her so tightly that for a second she can barely breathe. She tucks her head into his shoulder, clenches her arms around him just as hard – and they’re sweaty and gross and exhausted but exhilaration runs through her veins like a shot of adrenaline. When she pulls back for air, they’re both shaking.
“We’re going back to competition,” she says, breathlessly.
“We are going back to competition,” Scott repeats, grinning, his hands cupped around her waist.
There was a time when the thought of a third Olympics would have terrified her. Sitting next to Scott and hearing the thrill in his voice, his eyes alight – if she wasn’t already giddy with the thought of their new future, the unbridled joy dawning across Scott’s face would do it for her.
Montreal, August 2015
They’re going to be late.
It’s possibly the most important dinner of their entire lives, and they’re going to be late. Tessa can scarcely believe it.
Beads of sweat pool at her back as she hurries down the street, her heels clacking on the paving stones. Stray wisps of hair keep falling out of her bun and across her eyes, and she thinks she can feel her makeup ever so gradually melting off her face. At least in the gathering gloom of the evening, perhaps no one will recognise them.
They hadn’t spent that long at the hotel.
Admittedly, it had taken five minutes to convince Scott that he couldn’t show up to dinner wearing a Team Canada shirt (“Patch would love it, are you kidding me?”).
And okay, they’d spent another five minutes sorting out Scott’s tie. If Tessa’s hands had lingered a little longer than necessary around his collar, if Scott had stood closer than entirely appropriate – close enough to smell the sharpness of his cologne – there was no harm in it. She’d fastened his tie for him a hundred times before; this one had to be perfect.
Then, when she turned to offer her back to Scott, his fingers ghosting across her hips to the small of her back, pulling the zipper of her dress closed, and every second was an eternity with his breath raising hairs on the back of her neck – well, she was hardly going to rip a seam trying to tug the zipper up by herself. Never mind the fact that Scott’s knuckles following the path of the zipper up her back had half-tempted her to call off the dinner entirely.
Downstairs in the hotel lobby, they’d fielded the strangest looks from the concierge behind the desk. Tessa thinks it might have had something to do with the seven full circuits of the room she made before the call came through that the roads were horribly blocked, and there would be no taxi coming to pick them up.
By then, they were already late – and calling another taxi seemed like a waste when the restaurant was only twenty minutes’ walk away, and Tessa’s heels weren’t that high, not really – so they’d shot off an apologetic text to Marie-France and dashed out into the heat of the evening.
All of which leads them to this precise moment in time: jogging down the Rue Saint-Sulpice in formal evening wear, Tessa sincerely regretting her decision not to change into gym shoes.
“Eight-fifty,” she says, tightly, as she glances down at her phone. The glowing white numbers displayed on her lockscreen are almost taunting as they slip by.
“Perfect.” Scott steps neatly over an empty sandwich carton. “We’ll get there just in time for the main course. Nobody goes out to dinner for the starters anyway.”
“Maybe not, but you usually expect your company to be present for the entire meal.”
In the lamplight, Scott’s grin flashes. “Tessa,” he says, rolling the syllables of her name across his tongue in a way that she knows he knows is incredibly distracting. “They’re liberal people. D’you think they care about dinner dates and the conventions of society?”
“I’d like to remind you that we’re talking about ice dancing and not a hippie commune.”
Somehow he manages to keep that shit-eating grin on his face even as they’re barrelling down the paved streets of Montreal at a pace that sends other pedestrians ducking out of their way. It’s one of the many qualities she envies about him, along with the way he seems completely unaffected by the possibility that their dreams of an Olympic comeback may be vanishing into thin air at this very moment. Marie-France and Patrice may well have agreed to take them on after Sochi, but she doubts how professional they’re going to look turning up to dinner sweaty, dishevelled and at least half an hour late.
“There’s more overlap between the two than you might think, you know,” he ventures.
“Hm? Like what?” Tessa says, half-attentive, humouring him. Her phone pings at her as they pass by a shuttered corner shop. “Right down here.”
They round the corner into a dimly lit side street, so narrow there’s barely room for them to walk side-by-side, and Tessa’s heart sinks. Walls of cobblestone and brick reach upwards on either side of the street, windowless and plain. The end of the alleyway is nothing but a small window of lamplight at the edge of Tessa’s vision.
Scott stops, cocks his head at her. “You sure that thing is switched on?”
“It’s never led me wrong before,” she says, frowning down at her phone. “Apparently it’s just the other side of this alley, and then a few streets more. We could take the long way round, I guess, but-“
“What’s life without adventure?” Scott grins.
Tessa shrugs. “Sure. Let’s just get there in one piece.”
Her words come out more dismissive than she intended, and she sees the surprise in his eyes. It’s the heat, or the stress of being late, or maybe the fact that there’s nothing she needs less right now than to be forced into close proximity with Scott.
“Alright,” he says. “Where was I?”
They’re slower as they set off down the alleyway, the tightness of the path forcing Tessa to relinquish their breakneck pace.
“About to present your thesis on the similarities between ice dancing and new-age spiritualism,” she mumbles.
“Right, right. Okay, item one.”
Scott raises a hand in front of his face.
“No respect for personal hygiene. You’re exempt from this one, of course,” he says, glancing over to her with a smile as he folds down a finger. “Although you do get through more strawberry shampoo than I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Tessa raises her eyebrows.
“Not that I’m complaining,” Scott adds hastily. “Just commentating. Anyway, number two.” He tucks another finger into his palm. “Sketchy morals. Plenty of those to go around.”
The sound of the city is muffled by the corridors of stone that surround them; it’s only Scott’s voice, echoing, and their footsteps. Here, everything is dark and quiet, as if they’ve tucked themselves away in a little pocket of time. Scott continues his babbling conversation as they walk; she wonders if he even understands half of the words coming out of his mouth. Is he as acutely aware as she is that her hip jostles against his with every step?
To be clear, the problem is not that she thinks about having sex with Scott – there’s nothing new there. She’s fantasised about Scott since she was fourteen, watching him stick his tongue down the throat of one of the pairs girls at Meryl’s birthday party. The fact that she’s twenty-six years old and fixating on the way Scott’s fingers flex as he folds them into his palm? That’s not a concern.
The problem is that there’s no longer anything to stop her from acting on her impulses. She could corner Scott against the alley wall, right now, kiss him until he forgot his own name, and he would probably thank her for it. If they weren’t already thirty minutes late, she might. Or perhaps, where’s the harm in five more minutes if they’re half an hour gone?
Scott’s brow furrows in blissful obliviousness. “I, uh…I had a third one. Give me a minute.”
As they approach the sliver of lamplight that marks the end of the alley, the image flashes into her mind unbidden – of Scott on his knees in front of her, pushing her dress up her thighs, his eyes dark with desire.
Tessa clears her throat sharply. “Left at the end.”
The alley spits them out into a blessedly wide, paved street. A bustling crowd parts around them as they gather their bearings, and Tessa can breathe a sigh of relief; she’s never been happier to be on the receiving end of so many disgruntled looks. Boy, she really hasn’t had sex in a depressingly long amount of time.
Scott glances towards her. “Hey, don’t worry. Almost there,” he says, and pats her hand with a consoling smile.
It’s not often that Scott gets the wrong end of the stick, but she won’t hold it against him this time.
“Oh, number three. Those weird friendship groups where everyone ends up dating everyone else.” He raises his hand triumphantly, three fingers curled. “There we go.”
Tessa’s voice is dry as bone. “You don’t have to remind me.”
“You know how to pick ‘em, that’s for sure. I’m still convinced Fedor was on some kind of federal watchlist – if he wasn’t, he probably should have been. A guy with facial hair like that cannot be trusted.”
It appears to Tessa, as she watches Scott’s eyebrows knit together into a petulant frown, that his particular vendetta against her ex still holds strong.
She huffs a laugh. “Did I ever tell you that he refused to give me lifts home from the rink because he was afraid I’d get the car seats dirty?”
Scott’s eyes widen. “Tess, that’s the mark of a serial killer. I’m serious.”
“Please, like all your exes have been exemplary human beings,” she says, ducking around a lamppost to avoid colliding with a couple ambling up the street. “Don’t I remember a girl back in third grade who made you burn all your hockey stickers to prove your devotion to her?”
A haunted look passes across Scott’s face. “…Erica.”
“What about the one in high school who convinced everyone that you were going to get married as soon as we won our Olympic gold? I liked her, she told me I could be a bridesmaid if I was really well-behaved.”
“That doesn’t count, we dated for a week.”
“Oh, and then–“
“O-kay,” Scott interjects, swinging to a halt. “I think you’ve made your point. Terrible life choices for Tessa? Check. Terrible life choices for Scott? Double check.”
“I’m just keeping you honest,” Tessa grins. “Never forget your roots.”
It feels dangerous, when she smiles so gently at him, tiptoeing along that line of plausible deniability. They’re not dating, but Scott is in love with her, and Tessa imagines his fingers digging into her thighs in an alleyway, and the way his face scrunches up all soft as he smiles makes her heart conduct a comprehensive floor routine, and the lines are not so much blurred as they are non-existent.
She and Scott never were any good at boundaries.
Montreal, June 2016
The move to Montreal takes months of preparation.
There are houses to be sorted, suitcases to be packed, furniture to be bought and arranged and, less enticingly, reams of paperwork and endless phone calls to the correct officials. Tessa’s a little insulted by the number of people who have tried to convince them both that they’re making a huge mistake – as if the neat vertical scars running the length of both her calves are not proof that she’s only too aware of the sacrifices necessary to stay on top.
They’re not coming back for the medal count, whatever anyone would like to believe. They’re coming back for the love of the sport and the process and each other – and that thought gives Tessa more power than she’s ever had in her career.
Somewhere along the way, Scott ends things with Kaitlyn. It’s more of a formality than anything else; he’d stopped making his trips to Winnipeg about a month after they finished touring in China. Tessa doesn’t know the how or the when or the where of it, but it’s the night before they’re due to leave for Montreal when he tells her. She’s lying in the darkness of her bedroom, willing herself to sleep, and Scott’s name pops up on her phone’s caller ID.
“Good–“ and she squints at the clock on her bedside table as she raises the phone to her ear “–oh, okay, morning. Good morning.”
Scott’s voice is sheepish, suspiciously alert-sounding for the ass-crack of dawn. “Morning. Guess I’m not the only one who can’t sleep, eh?”
“It’s ridiculous,” Tessa exhales, curling onto her side and tucking her chin underneath her duvet. “I feel like a kid on Christmas Eve, except with the added delight of wondering if I’m about to throw up at any moment. Is this how it’s going to be for the next two years?”
“Hey, that’s a pretty standard Christmas Eve for me. Tell you a secret, Tess – everything happens real quick if you get so drunk that you can’t remember any of it.”
“Don’t think that I haven’t considered that.”
Scott’s laugh echoes down the phone line. “You’re really nervous about this, huh?”
“Aren’t you?” Tessa says, as she nestles her phone into the crook of her neck. “We’re making some pretty big life decisions here.”
“I agree, it takes real guts to let you buy a three-piece leather sofa for me without even testing it for back support first. How does it feel knowing that the future of my spine is in your hands?”
In the privacy of her bedroom, Tessa rolls her eyes – so they’re dodging the emotional questions again. “You know, my mother caught me buying furniture for your apartment a few weeks ago and now she’s convinced we’re secretly moving in together.”
“Tell her we are, that’d really make her head spin.”
“Thanks, but I value my continued existence. Can you imagine the outrage if she realised how much I haven’t told her about you?”
“Your mum loves me,” Scott says, sounding defensive.
“That’s exactly the problem. Anyhow, while I appreciate your company in my insomnia, is there any particular reason you decided to call at five in the morning? These conversations are getting later and later, in case you hadn’t noticed. Maybe one day we’ll actually be able to talk in the daylight like normal human beings.”
She expects Scott to laugh at that, but her words are greeted with only silence on his end of the line. Something rustles – bedsheets? Finally, he sighs.
“I guess there’s no easier way to say this,” he starts – and for a moment, heart dropping out of her mouth, Tessa wonders whether he’s got cold feet about the entire comeback.
“I wanted to tell you that I broke up with Kaitlyn…”
This boy is going to give her a heart attack at some point over the next two years, she’s sure.
“…even though you’ve probably known for ever, because it happened ages ago, and you’re psychic and read it in ley lines of the earth, or something.”
“Or I keep in contact with your mother,” Tessa adds, gently, once she’s gathered her wits about her.
“Well, sure, that too. It’s just that after everything…I wanted you to hear it from me. I’m committed to all of this.”
Scott can hardly think his announcement comes as a surprise; Tessa herself is largely responsible for the failure of his relationship, but his voice twists as he speaks, all scratchy with nerves. ‘Committed’, in the way that requires Scott to break up with his long-term girlfriend, sounds an awful lot like three little words she refused to let him say a year ago.
“I know,” she says. “Thanks for telling me.”
Perhaps they still talk circles around things they should have addressed. For now, it’s enough that they’re throwing themselves into this new phase of their life with everything they have.
A strange mixture of trepidation and nervousness churns in Tessa’s stomach in the sleep-deprived hours that follow.
The feeling accompanies her through the six-hour drive from London to Montreal, the seventeen trips she makes from her car to her new apartment, lugging boxes and suitcases up so many flights of stairs that she loses count.
She and Scott have picked out apartments in the same building, all freshly-painted grey walls and exposed brickwork, decorated to her exacting standards. This is exciting, Tessa tells herself – a welcome relief from living out of suitcases in the nearest hotel to the rink they could find. But as she sits in the vacant space of her living room and surveys her towers of cardboard boxes, all crammed full of bits and pieces to help kick-start her new life in Montreal, she finds there’s nothing she wants to do less than open one of them.
Scott can always be counted on to shake her out of a mood, regardless of whether she would much rather prefer to wallow.
“Honey, I’m home!” comes a lilting call from the hallway. Moments later, Scott bursts into the room, his arms laden with so many bags that Tessa wonders how he even fit through the front door.
He stops inches short of crashing into a pile of boxes.
“What’re you doing on the floor? Look at all this mess, Tessa, I’m shocked.”
Tessa sighs and slumps further down onto the wooden floor. “For once, let me avoid my responsibilities.”
“If you say so,” Scott says. “Hey, look!”
It’s just as well Tessa’s practically prone on the floor – the bags swinging violently from his arms as he hops his way across the obstacle course of packing materials in her lounge would probably have knocked her out if she’d been sitting up.
Scott peers out of the large windows at the front of the room. “You can see everything from here! All I can see from mine is some crummy office building. Who decided that you got the third floor and I got the seventh?”
“Mutual agreement,” Tessa reminds him, letting her head fall back against the floor. “You wanted all those stairs to keep you fit.”
He grins. “Oh. Yeah. That was hopeful of me. Anyway, Tess” – and he leaps his way back to her side – “you should come up and see my place. I’ve unpacked way more than you, you’re really falling behind here.”
Her floor is so cold. So quiet. Is there any way she could swap out her partner for a wooden floor?
“Give me a minute,” Tessa mutters.
“I’ll even give you a lift once I’ve put all of these down.”
Oh – that’s right. His strange baggage. Tessa opens one eye. “What are you carrying, anyway?”
“A few things,” Scott says. When he shrugs, all the bags hanging from his arms rustle at once. There’s a look on his face like he’s apologising for backing his car over her cat – it seems completely disproportionate to whatever could be contained within a collection of nondescript plastic bags.
She sits up with a curious glance. “What is it?”
“I tried to tell her not to go overboard, I really did, but she kept saying that she couldn’t forget how difficult you had it when we moved last time, and she wanted to do something for you to make things better this time, and-” Scott sighs. “You know, it’s probably easier to show you.”
Very carefully, he clears space on the floor and slides the bags from his arms before settling down cross-legged next to her. “Go ahead, take a look.”
There are seven, small, white plastic bags sitting on her living room floor.
The first, when she pulls back the handles to peek inside, is stacked high with Tupperware containers full of food; and then the second bag, and the third. Tessa’s getting the message that Scott’s mother has finally understood that she’s completely inept in the kitchen.
The fourth bag is practically bursting at the seams, plastic stretched thin over whatever it’s attempting to constrain. Inside is stuffed a pretty lilac blanket, so big that it takes both her and Scott stretching at arms’ length to hold it out flat.
“This is what happened when she found out Montreal is a whole three degrees colder than London in winter,” Scott says, across a sea of lilac wool. “Between you and me, I think she just wanted to keep busy after she’d finished knitting sweaters for the entire family.”
“It’s wonderful,” Tessa says firmly, and folds the blanket over her knee. “In six months’ time, you’re going to wish you were Alma’s favourite child.”
Scott rolls his eyes as she dives into the next bag. “Please, like there’s ever been any competition.”
The fifth and sixth bags are full of skating memorabilia. One of them is almost empty; Tessa has to root around in the bottom to pull out a large stack of photos, held together with an elastic band. She thumbs through them briefly - a colourful collection of costumes and reluctant smiles and an assortment of siblings – before landing on one in particular; a photo of a small, beaming Scott in a hockey jersey, the brightness of his smile outshone only by the sun glinting off his freshly-shaved head.
Before she can even say anything, Scott throws her newly-gifted blanket over his head.
“Gimme a break,” he groans, muffled, as Tessa giggles and holds the photo up for inspection. “David Beckham had his hair like that for ages, it was cool!”
“You know, I think we could have made the shaved head thing work,” – and Scott buries his head deeper into the blanket – “if we’d got you some colour-coordinated hair extensions to match my costumes. The judges love originality.”
“I’ve made a terrible mistake,” Scott mumbles. “Take me back to Ilderton.”
Tessa grins and whips the blanket off his head. “We’ve only got one more bag to go, come on. No flaking out on me now.”
He makes a half-hearted attempt at a pout, but he’s watching with a strange smile on his face as she lifts the last bag into her lap. It’s lighter than all the others, the plastic crumpling under her touch.
“It’s empty,” she says accusingly, her head snapping up to look at him.
Scott gestures towards the bag, his expression unreadable. “Just open it.”
Suspicious, she narrows her eyes as she peers inside – and makes a soft noise of disbelief. A small bunch of flowers are nestled between layers of tissue paper; a previously-beautiful collection of cream and purple and pink flowers, variously wilted and crushed from what Tessa can only imagine is time spent jostled in the bottom of a plastic bag.
“Alma remembered, did she?” Tessa says, raising her eyebrows.
Scott’s smile splits in strange ways, like he’s not sure whether to be embarrassed or proud. “It might have been a joint effort.”
“I have to say, this distressed look is very in right now,” she says, as she holds the flowers up to the light. “The weathered detailing on the peonies, the ragged ribbon tying the whole aesthetic together – how modern of you.”
“I can’t believe I’m presenting you with an armful of gifts, and you’re still bullying me. Where is the justice in this world, I ask-“
Before Scott can say another word, she launches herself into his arms. He’s only dropped her once in their entire career, and for a second Tessa thinks that they might be about to make that a second time – before his arms come up to hold her steady and prevent them setting off a cardboard armageddon in her living room.
“Woah, mind the flowers! I put a lot of effort into these little guys,” Scott grumbles, but there’s a smile on his face as she buries herself into his chest.
“I missed you,” she says, quietly. “I know it’s only been a few weeks, but I did.”
“Can I record that and play it back to you a month from now, when you’re sick of me banging on your door to wake you up in the morning?”
Tessa removes herself from his embrace long enough to place the flowers safely down on a packing box, before slotting neatly back into his side.
“Be quiet and let me be nice to you.”
“Alright, alright,” he says, as he brushes back a stray tendril of hair from her face, and then, softer: “Missed you too, Virtch.”
Tessa’s journey to Montreal ends much the same way as it began: over dinner with Scott. She makes him swear not to tell anyone, but she prefers this – the two of them eating Chinese takeaway on Tessa’s sofa, cheesy 80s pop blaring from her phone, Scott’s bouquet of flowers jammed into a tall drinking glass between them – to anywhere they’ve been before.
Sapporo, November 2016
Old habits die hard.
There are certain things that Tessa has promised to do away with this time around. No more superstitions: no safety pin in her costume, no shot of espresso in her hot chocolate, no watching the angle of her skate guards on the boards like a hawk. No second-guessing herself; she watches other teams train when their sessions cross at Gadbois, notes the carve of their edges and the speed of their turns and thinks to herself, with surety, there’s nothing there that she and Scott can’t match. Mostly importantly, no late-night coffee when it gets to 1am and she’s still typing out a reply to their agent, who wants to know whether they’d be interested in doing a second season of their short-lived reality show (that’s a hard pass).
Then there are habits that only seem to become more entrenched as they progress through the season.
She finds her way into Scott’s hotel room the night before the short dance at Autumn Classic – their grand return to competition – and then again at Skate Canada, and then eventually, at NHK, Tessa stops making excuses for why she’s turning up on his doorstep as soon as the hallways have cleared enough that she’s not liable to run into a herd of junior skaters.
Sleeping is easier with him next to her. She doesn’t even have to open her eyes to know he’s there – if he’s not under her fingertips already, he’s within reach. It comforts her: the slow rise and fall of his chest under her cheek, his deep, rhythmic breathing, the weight of his hand across her waist.
She gets the feeling, though, that a fruit basket may be in order for Scott’s unfortunate roommate.
Patrick, bless his soul, is sweet and obliging and would never tell them to buck up and ask Skate Canada for their own room like he probably should. He walks into his hotel room backwards and with his eyes firmly closed, yells at them from the door that he’s “coming in, please don’t be having sex”, no matter how many times they try and explain that they’re only sleeping together in the most literal sense. He doesn’t even complain about the slow, creeping advance of Tessa’s makeup collection across the bathroom counter as the weekend progresses. Patrick Chan is quickly ascending from loyal friend to modern-day Saint.
With the one free day before they fly back to Canada, they feel somewhat obliged to take themselves out of Patrick’s hair. Scott’s been talking for weeks about a wild deer park in the middle of the city anyway, so when they decide to kill two birds with one stone and make a day of it, Tessa thinks that they’re being supremely efficient.
Then they spend three freezing cold hours figuring out the Japanese public transport system.
“We couldn’t have just gone to a coffee shop for the day,” Tessa sighs, the second time they end up in a backwater stretch of downtown Sapporo, surrounded by rows of rectangular warehouses with snow-topped roofs. “No, that would be far too simple.”
“It’ll be worth it, Tess,” Scott reassures her, his mittened hand clasped around hers. “Just wait.”
Many garbled sentences of Google-translated Japanese and a few thoroughly confused locals later, they eventually find their way to the park – and then Tessa can’t deny it. Even in the grip of winter, it’s one of the most beautiful things she’s seen in her life. The park is a feat of complex engineering; tiny waterfalls that wind their way through the undergrowth, tree branches coaxed to tangle around the side of stone bridges, all blanketed by a thick carpet of snow.
Scott pays no mind to the botanic marvel at his fingertips. His attention is focused entirely on the four-legged inhabitants of the park, the majority of whom are currently clustered expectantly around him and his packet of deer crackers. He picked up the crackers for 300 yen at the park entrance and has been steadily accumulating a train of followers ever since; all waiting with wide, brown eyes and gently wafting tails.
“Tessa! Hey, Tess, c’mere!”
Tessa looks up from her attempts to snap as many photos of the scenery as her phone can handle.
“Watch what happens when I throw this,” Scott says, grinning, and turns to make sure she’s watching before he lobs a cracker clear across the grass. Immediately, three of the deer break off and make a dash for where the cracker disappears into the snow.
Scott laughs. “Look at the little guys go, wiggling their fluffy butts.”
He does a surprisingly accurate impression, so enthusiastically that the deer around him prance back a few steps.
She can’t help but smile. Scott is unlike so many people she’s come across in life – his happiness is entirely unselfish. She used to imagine that under the best circumstances, they might still be friends twenty years down the line. In the chill of the winter afternoon, with the smile all but frozen in place on her cheeks, she’s beginning to picture a new kind of future for them both.
“Oh – uh, Tess? Don’t look now, but I think I might have some competition.”
Tessa’s head whips around to find a small deer standing behind her, tail wagging as it slowly chews her puffer jacket.
“Oh, gross,” she says, making a face as she tugs the fabric free. A healthy amount of deer saliva coats the bottom of her jacket, thick and viscous. The criminal in question doesn’t look remorseful in the slightest.
Tessa narrows her eyes at the tiny deer. “I’ll remember you.”
Scott grins as he hurls another cracker into the air. “Come on, winter is tough for everyone.”
“Is this your way of telling me that I shouldn’t be worried if I wake up in the middle of the night to find you nibbling on my pyjamas?”
“Maybe,” he says, with a shrug. “All that fibre must be good for me, right?”
Tessa raises her eyebrows. “If you want me to take off my clothes, you could always ask nicely.”
She watches with no small amount of satisfaction as Scott’s remaining deer crackers go scattering across the snow. Just because one particular conversation is on hold doesn’t mean she can’t enjoy herself in the meantime.
Montreal, January 2017
Tessa waits – and waits, and waits, and slowly, the lines begin to blur.
They still live in separate apartments in the same building, and they still shop at separate supermarkets in the same neighbourhood, but a second toothbrush appears in the pot in Tessa’s bathroom, and a few pairs of heels find their way into the shoe rack by Scott’s door, and Marie-France and Patrice are learning that if they call Tessa’s home phone, more often than not Scott picks up.
She and Scott don’t have sex – they don’t even kiss, even if Tessa thinks about it (which she does, a lot) and they allude to it (which they do, a lot).
Scott simply happens to wind up in her bed most nights.
It’s perfectly chaste. He even insists on wearing a shirt. The first time he wanders into her bedroom, clad in the baggiest monstrosity that Tessa has ever seen (and she’s witnessed seventeen years’ worth of questionable practice outfits), all she can do is stare at him.
“Are you suffering from some skin affliction I should know about?” she says, sitting at the head of her bed with her knees tucked up to her chest.
Scott props a hand up on the doorframe and strikes a pose. “You mean seeing me like this isn’t insanely attractive? Not feeling like you wanna ravish me against the bathroom mirror?”
“You’re an idiot,” Tessa tells him, with a disbelieving shake of her head – but when he rolls over into bed a few minutes later, she slots back into her usual place, curled against his chest.
He can wear all the clothing he wants. It doesn’t change the fact that each morning they wake up in a newly incriminating arrangement.
At competition, they’ve always had to make do with huddling together in narrow single beds. Tessa’s bed is a thing of luxury – king-size, crisp white sheets, and so many pillows that it hurts her neck to look at them. For one person, it’s expansive; for one person plus Scott Moir, it’s adequate. Scott has what Tessa likes to call an ‘unconscious sprawl’ – his limbs somehow unfold to fill whatever space he’s given. No matter how far apart she and Scott start off in the bed, they inevitably end up in a small, sweaty tangle come morning.
For the most part, this is fine. Tessa gets used to turning the thermostat down before they go to sleep, and Scott works on trying not to knee her in any vulnerable parts when he extracts himself reluctantly to make breakfast. Weekend mornings are the best – when they can lie there in whatever state they find themselves in. Tessa’s bedroom has large, east-facing windows; with the sunrise streaming in through the blinds, Scott’s fingers can trace across her skin for hours.
There are the occasional mornings where she wakes with her leg slung high over Scott’s hip, barely an inch of space between them – those are the ones where Scott rolls away with a muttered “Be right back,” and disappears into her bathroom. She has to bite her lip and remind herself that no, this time they’re not jumping straight to sex (although is it considered moving too fast if you’ve been in a semi-committed relationship for almost two decades?).
The entirety of Team Canada seems to think they’re finally consummating a long and torrid romance. Even Marie-France and Patrice have started asking questions, though they’re more subtle about it than Tessa is used to. They talk circles around the subject, making allusions but never asking outright. They pick and choose their moments – like over lunch one day, sat in the back corner of a local patisserie; the table in front of them crowded with china teacups, small plates of sandwiches, and the coffee that Tessa smuggled in from Starbucks.
“So, I, ah – how to put this,” Marie-France begins, spoon clinking as she stirs her tea. “Patch and I, we do not wish to pry…”
Scott immediately takes a bite of his sandwich that’s so big Tessa wonders how he doesn’t choke.
“We need to know whether to forward your mail to one apartment or two,” Patrice supplies helpfully.
They’re being polite about it, of course, but Tessa knows what they’re after. Is her smile too wide, too generic? Scott’s not being any help, but at least he’s not talking – that usually puts them at an advantage in this particular situation.
“Scott and I aren’t living together, if that’s what you mean.”
Marie-France exchanges a glance with her husband. “Is that so? Allow me to apologise, then. I simply assumed…you seem to be together whenever we call.”
“Our building has a lot of stairs,” Tessa says, studiously avoiding making eye contact with Marie-France as she takes a swig of her coffee. “It saves time if Scott doesn’t have to trek down eight flights to wake me up.”
Through a mouthful of chicken sandwich, Scott mumbles “Yeah, and Tess gets a fridge that’s not completely empty of nutritional value.”
Marie-France’s eyebrows raise so fractionally that it’s almost invisible. Patrice just stares at them both with a look of disbelief until his wife elbows him in the side.
“Ah,” she says, in a tone of voice which politely implies that their bullshit is not fooling anyone. “I see.”
Honesty is a slow and gradual process.
Helsinki, April 2017
Sometimes Tessa barely knows what she’s waiting for. There are certain things that they’ve established: she and Scott love each other, wholly and completely, and to the exclusion of any other romantic partners. They’re not interested in seeing anyone else. There’s really only one logical conclusion to follow from this situation.
But they won their Grand Prix assignments back in autumn, and then they won the Grand Prix Final for the first time in their lives, and it’s all going so wonderfully and absurdly well. Everything about their competitive process has changed, everything about she and Scott has changed. They may as well be different people: older, wiser, with an appreciation of what they almost lost. But the niggling fear in Tessa’s head won’t leave her alone – that they’re one overstepped boundary away from sending their Olympic dreams up in smoke. So she stays in her bubble of safety, pushing the edges a little further with every evening she goes to bed curled into Scott’s side, but never pushing too hard.
And then they almost lose Worlds.
Scott falls over with a near-daily regularity; Patrice likes to tell him that he spends more time on his ass than on his skates. Scott falls in practice, staggers over his toepick in the simplest of turns. Scott falls during warm-up, skidding along the ice to rest with his back against the boards and a grin on his face. Scott falls during gala performances, turns his mistakes into choreography. Scott never falls in competition – until the one time he does.
Everything about him is off afterwards.
He’s too loud, his smile stretched too wide across his face, pulling her close during interviews as though she can’t feel the nervous tension strung through every line of his body.
“She really saved my ass out there today,” he says, and perhaps most people would read that as relief. Tessa sees shame: his fingers knotted in his lap, his head dipped behind hers, the way he looks at her – finds fascination in the curl of hair escaping her bun, the gloss smudged across her lips, anywhere but her eyes.
She tries to pull him aside after the press scrum, but her name gets drawn for drug testing, and by the time she hurries back to the changing room, he’s gone. There’s a single message on her phone:
Needed some air. See you at dinner.
One of the things they’re really working on this time around is open communication. A two-line text is more than he would ever have given her a few years ago; post-Sochi Scott might have disappeared for days. So she tries to focus on appreciating the intent behind his message, and not the polite dismissal of his words.
Ok, thanks for letting me know. Here if you need anything.
In the meantime, she does her best to give him space. She heads back to the hotel to get changed for dinner and tries to avoid conjuring up worst-case scenarios in her head. It doesn’t help that everyone she meets seems determined to remind her how narrowly they eked out their victory. Tessa hasn’t been in this sport for almost twenty years to conveniently forget how differently things can go with one judge on the panel. She’s almost relieved that Scott took himself off to some remote part of Helsinki. They don’t need this; they need to be back home, back in Montreal, away from the catty remarks and the raised eyebrows and the “haven’t you got so muscular, Tessa”. But they need to show up at the banquet too, if only for appearances, and she can be certain of one thing: he’ll be there.
While she and Scott never had time to attend their own high-school dances, she imagines the past ten years of post-competition banquets have given them a pretty good idea of what they missed out on. When she walks into the dinner hall at quarter past seven, it’s to a familiar sight: skaters clustered into nationalistic herds at the edges of the hall, dance floor in front of the stage completely barren. Except, of course – as she hears a familiar laugh carry across the hall – when you’re Scott Moir, in which case you can’t help but take it upon yourself to build bridges with every single person in attendance.
He’s standing over by a table in the middle of the room, his back to her. She doesn’t recognise the couple he’s talking to – a man and a woman, both dark-haired, sharply-dressed – but as she weaves her way over to them, they recognise her. The woman looks up with a smile.
“Hello there, we were just congratulating-“
“Thank you so much,” Tessa smiles, widely, as she slides a hand over Scott’s arm, presses his fingers into the crook of his elbow possessively. He doesn’t so much as startle at the touch. In her heels she’s almost as tall as he is – it’s an easy thing to lean up to his ear, murmur “I need to talk you.”
Scott’s hesitation is plain across his face, but he nods.
“I’m so sorry,” she says, turning to the couple with an apologetic look. “Would you please excuse us? I’ll bring your company back safe and sound in a few minutes, I promise.”
There’s the barest hint of a knowing smile on the man’s face as he shakes his head, and it makes Tessa’s blood boil. “It’s no trouble at all, go ahead.”
At this point in time, she’s beyond caring how it looks when she leads Scott out of the main hall and into a small function room further along the corridor. The noise from the banquet hall is dimmer here; a muffled hum of conversation, the clattering of cutlery as tables are prepared. The room itself is small and square, freshly vacated after some kind of party – the walls are still draped with sweeping white fabrics and tiny purple streamers.
“You’re wrong,” she tells Scott immediately, as soon as she closes the door behind them.
“I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong.”
It’s a funny kind of relief that comes with watching how quickly Scott’s over-compensating smile melts away when it’s just the two of them, alone in an empty hall. This is the Scott she knows; the one who doesn’t hide behind polite conversation and forced laughter, the one who either spills over with emotion or has none left to give. She’ll take a grumpy, belligerent Scott, so pissed off that he won’t even speak to her, over the strange, rigid angles of the person who sat next to her in the interview box after their win.
“Then please, enlighten me,” he says, and spreads his hands wide. There’s an empty, vacant look in his eyes that she hasn’t seen since before they made their comeback, and the familiarity of it terrifies her.
“You’re thinking that it’s all your fault. That you nearly lost us Worlds, and you nearly ruined a perfect season, and you nearly cost us all the momentum we’ve built. You’re wrong,” she repeats.
Scott's voice is bitter, stinging. "Whose fault would it have been then, Tess? Yours?"
"The only person blaming you here is you. You went out there and did what you could, on the day-"
"Yeah, and we almost lost because of it."
He’s disgusted with himself, not her, she knows – but this is how their fights have always been: Scott offering himself up for punishment, waiting, almost begging her to condemn him. She wouldn’t do it then, and she won’t do it now.
“Win, lose, honestly, what does it matter? We’ve done our time, Scott. There’s no point in what we do now if we’re not enjoying it.”
His eyes flicker across her face, quiet and contemplative. He’s so still, barely breathing.
“We share it together, remember?” she says, and she wants to take his hand but she’s almost afraid to reach out and touch him. “Every second of every day. We enjoy the time we have, and we take whatever happens when the moment arrives and we make it enough.”
He doesn’t flinch as she raises a hand up to him, slowly touches her fingertips to her cheek. His skin is warm to the touch. “Let me do this for you,” she says. “Please.”
There are layers to Scott, she thinks, deep down, where perhaps he’s never quite forgiven her for walking away the very first time. She has always been able to draw things from him that she barely knew existed; if she pushes for it now, would she like what comes to the surface?
She hardly knows what she’s asking as she tries again, even quieter, unsure – “Please?”
Time seems to move strangely. He looks at her, and she sees every emotion under the sun pass across his face, in slow, melting succession. Fear, uncertainty, nervousness, shame, regret – and then so much love that it almost overwhelms her. She hears his heavy sigh, watches him lean into her, feels his head come to rest on her shoulder and his arms wrap tightly around her – almost too tight, she can feel the breath shallow in her chest – like it’s happening all at once.
“Sorry,” is all he says, his words muffled against the curve of her neck.
He clings to her like a man ruined, and she anchors him. This, at least, is something she’s learned how to do: the right words to say to him, the right ways to touch him, until he unfolds against her like she knows he wants to if someone would only show him how.
"You want to know what I remember the most, of our entire career?" she says, around the lump in her throat. "It was our very first international competition, the one in Lake Placid, and the furthest I'd ever been from home."
Her voice is low, soothing, as she rubs a hand across his back.
"We'd arrived right in the middle of a storm - it was typical, Paul forgot to tell us to bring waterproofs, so the hotel room was full of our sodden wet clothes. We could barely move without stepping into tiny puddles of water, and we were exhausted after the flight but we had practice in a few hours. I remember thinking that I'd been so excited to get there, and suddenly all I wanted to do was turn around and go home."
Tessa's fingers curl upwards, comb gently through his hair as she speaks. Second by second, she feels him relax, the tension draining from him until his body is only warm and soft and moulded so exactly to every curve and plane of hers that they may as well be a single person.
"Even after practice, I couldn't sleep. I wouldn't let myself cry in front of Paul and Suz, so I came to you instead - and you took one look at me in my rabbit pyjamas, probably with the biggest, wateriest eyes that you'd ever seen in your life, and you took my hand and led me over to the window.
“There were so many stars in the sky that night. The clouds had cleared up like the storm was nothing but a bad dream. It was like something from another planet - stars so big and bright that I thought I could just reach out and touch them. You laughed when I said that, told me that I'd have a lot more growing to do before I got anywhere close."
Scott's hands are so delicate at her back now, as though he's never held anything more precious.
"We sat on the windowsill, and you closed the curtains around us - and it was only you and me, and an entire universe of stars. The whole world was out there, waiting for us, in that one moment. Whatever we wanted to do or be, I knew. If it was you and me, we could get there.”
She swears she's not crying - but there are tears, hot and wet, falling onto Scott's hair, and her voice is thick with emotion. "Those are the things I carry with me - not the medals or the parades or the scores. It's everything that happens along the way that matters."
There's a curious expression on Scott's face as he looks up, melting into concern when he rubs his thumb gently across her cheek and it comes away wet with tears.
"Hey, don't cry," he says, so softly that she'd barely be able to hear him if his lips weren't inches from hers. "Don't cry."
There's no air left in the room - she can't calm her racing heart, can't stop her trembling fingers from tracing the angles of his jaw, can barely breathe past the tightness in her chest.
Scott's brow furrows. "Tess," he starts, and his words are warm against her skin. "Are you-"
She shakes her head. "Too many things in our lives have nearly happened.”
As she takes his chin in her hand and turns it gently towards her, she thinks that he gets the idea. His eyes widen - his breath hitches, all strange and high and quiet. Waiting.
"We deserve to be happy," she whispers, and watches the point of no return pass them by when she leans in and presses her lips to his.
Thanks for sticking with me through the exam hiatus! Before you throw things at me, the last chapter will be up three days from now, on Saturday evening. It's all finished - it was actually written as part of Chapter Five, but I decided that dropping twenty-thousand words in one go would be too much, even for me and my rambling chapters!
As always, feel free to come chat over @virtueoso on Tumblr or drop a comment below. See you in three days’ time!
Montreal, May 2017
At what point does a holiday between friends become a romantic getaway?
Perhaps when said friends have been denying the existence of their mutual attraction for near-on nineteen years, with the exception of a few hazy years they try (and fail) to forget? Or when one friend partially confesses their love on a Scottish cliffside? Or is it when the other friend kisses them at post-competition banquet in Finland, entirely sober and far too emotional?
Tessa’s just curious.
Nothing much changes after Helsinki – except the kissing. They kiss now, a lot.
She expected the novelty to have worn off – it’s been two months, after all, and they wasted no time making up for what they’ve missed. Scott keeps coming up with the strangest excuses to kiss her: her hair looks especially pretty today, the flowers outside the apartment complex are the exact shade of green of her eyes, he’s wearing his Team Canada shirt which means he’s patriotically obliged to it. He presses her up against the front door when she’s about to leave for pilates with a grin and a “Just one more, one more.”
“It’s only an hour,” she says, smiling against his lips – but her hands wind around his neck, pull him close. “We’ll survive that long.”
Then she heads off to class, and she’s not so sure. She’s about to stow her gym bag away in a locker when her phone buzzes.
Missing your company back here .
Five little words, so innocuous at first. It’s impossible to keep her mind off them during class.
“Feel the pull of those core muscles,” her teacher instructs, as Tessa lies flat on her back on the mat, twisting her hips from side to side, and tries not to imagine what Scott’s currently doing, sitting alone in her apartment. She usually embraces these classes as a semi-meditative way of clearing her mind; the focused silence brings her in tune with things she’s been ignoring in the rush of the day. Today her brain is settled firmly in hormonal fantasies.
It’s all Scott’s fault – that one text message. She can’t stop thinking about it. Would he be tentative? Or would he be all business, dipping his fingers below the waistband of his sweatpants, taking himself in hand, quick, sure strokes? Maybe he’d sit himself down on the living room sofa – maybe it’d be her bedroom, with the smell of them on the sheets, twisting the duvet into his fist. Does he imagine her there with him, moaning around him, her fingers clutching at his back? When he thrusts up into his hand, groaning, hips stuttering, she doesn’t have to wonder – it’s her name on his lips as he comes.
Tessa counts her blessings that she’s managed to develop a solid poker face.
She ducks into the bathroom as soon as the class is over, her hair still damp with sweat. It’s only a few more weeks of this, which is why she doesn’t feel too guilty about her inappropriate use of public facilities to snap a photo that would make her blush if she had more presence of mind.
Scott’s reply is almost instantaneous.
Is it too late to draft a last will and testament? Not sure I’m gonna make it to France.
She grins, fingers flying across the touchscreen of her phone.
The feeling’s mutual.
She and Scott are not renting a villa in the south of France exclusively to have sex, but it’s pretty high up there on the list. The very first time they had sex was the beginning of a downward spiral that culminated in losing the Olympics – is it so wrong to want a do-over?
“We’re doing things right this time,” she’d told him, in the immediate aftermath of Helsinki. “It’s important to take things slowly.”
Scott had deigned not to bring up the very valid point that if two decades of back and forth didn’t qualify as ‘taking things slow’, they’d be waiting until they were sixty.
“Sounds fair,” he’d said, immediately - although she thinks he might have agreed to anything to keep her lips against his for a moment longer.
Back then, she’d had such grand ideas. ‘Doing things right’ quickly morphed into ‘taking a holiday to the middle of the French countryside and making an actual event of it’. Every moment of their time in France was to be idyllic: sipping wine on the veranda with the sun setting over the vineyards, strolling hand-in-hand through fields of corn, fucking Scott against the crisp blue sheets of someone else’s bedroom. Now she’s beginning to wonder if death wouldn’t be preferable to the slow torture of going to bed every night knowing that they could be having sex if they weren’t so stupid as to put a deadline on it.
The closer to the day they leave for France, the worse it gets. She’s so pent up, all the time. Getting herself off does nothing, only makes it worse when she comes out of the bathroom in the morning with her hair mussed and her pyjamas askew, lips red from worrying between her teeth, and Scott gives her that look, like he knows. It’s even slipping over into their skating – not like before, not a distraction. But they’re testing out choreography for their Moulin Rouge free dance, and Scott’s hands are passing low over her stomach, inching down her thigh, ready to pull her into a lift, and the quiet moan that leaves her lips isn’t faked.
“Excellent, yes,” Marie-France calls from the boards. Tessa thinks that if they fucked right there in front of her, she’d name it art.
“D’you think we should invite Marie to Provence too?” Scott whispers as they lean into their final pose, and it takes all Tessa’s years of experience to keep a straight face.
“Be quiet,” she hisses. “I’m supposed to be dead.”
Scott certainly isn’t making her life any easier. At first, she thought the way he keeps leaving the bathroom door open a crack was accidental, slipping his mind in the fog of exhaustion that comes with a full day of training. Then, two nights before they’re due to fly out, she comes home to an empty apartment and the sound of running water from the bathroom.
“Scott?” she says, dumping her gym bag on the living room couch.
His reply is faint, drifting through from the bedroom. “In here.”
She sighs as she pulls her hair free from her ponytail and wanders through to the other room. Her muscles are so tight, pulling with every step she takes.
“Are you going to be long? I really need to take a bath.”
Scott’s clothes are strewn across her bedroom floor, as per usual.
“Is your place locked?” she says. “Or is your bathtub still a biohazard? The last time I checked-“
Oh. The door to the bathroom is wide open. The shower is on full-blast; water spattering off the tiled floor and up to the glass divider. Clouds of steam billow out from within; she almost wishes they did more to hide the exact details of Scott’s body, profiled against the grey tiles of the bathroom walls.
“My keys are on the kitchen counter if you need ‘em,” he says, in an off-hand tone of voice, like he’s not standing there fully naked in front of her. Then he tilts his head back just slightly, glances over to her. “Or you could come join me instead.”
Her throat is suddenly very dry. “No, uh – I think that would be a very bad idea.”
Scott grins. There’s not even a hint of shame, not the faintest blush on his cheeks. Vaguely, she thinks, why should there be? – she’s seen him naked plenty of times before.
“Why?” he says. “We’d only be saving energy. We’ve all got to do our bit for the planet, don’t you agree?”
“You know why.”
She should probably put an end to this conversation. Especially given the fact that with every minute that passes she comes up with more reasons as to why it’d be in everyone’s best interests if she stepped into the shower with him. Her eyes follow the rivulets of water that stream across his skin, almost absent-mindedly, before she catches herself.
Scratch that, she should definitely put an end to this conversation.
“Think of all those flights of stairs you’ll have to climb, Tess,” Scott says, turning to stick his head under the stream of water. She swears the light all but bounces off the sheen of his back – and other areas that she’s resolutely not letting herself think about. “Why go through all that when you could be here, nice and warm with me?”
And when he shifts his head over his shoulder to look back at her, he drags his eyes very deliberately from head to toe. “I’ll make you feel good. You know I would.”
She’s trying desperately to remind herself why it’s worth waiting two more days, when Scott’s standing in front of her, straight-up offering to fulfil the things she’s fantasised about for months. Somewhere in the back of her brain, there’s a tiny Tessa hammering on the ‘let Scott eat you out’ button.
She must be mad.
“Enjoy your shower,” she says, gaze narrowing. “Don’t think that I’ll forget this.”
The bathroom door rattles on its hinges as she slams it closed. They’re either going to make it to France, or she’s going to kill him.
Provence, May 2017
Well, they both survive.
It’s touch and go for about seven hours of the red-eye flight from Montreal to Marseille. If her hand isn’t over Scott’s, it’s on his knee, his shoulder, slipped underneath his shirt – fingers always tracing in slow, restless circles across his skin.
“I bet everyone else is asleep,” Scott says, low and quiet against her ear. “You know, if you wanted to get a head start…”
Tessa used to think she had a sense of public decency, but the way his offer curls at the edges of her thoughts gives her pause. Is it really considered a crime if the whole country has been willing them to get to second base for their entire career? It would be so easy to just throw a blanket over her lap and guide Scott’s hand between her thighs, to let his fingers unwind the aching tension there. Conversely, she’d never be able to look her mother in the eye again.
“No,” she manages to say, clipped and tight. “I don’t.”
She’s waited two months, give or take four years. It will not be beyond her to keep her libido under control for a few more hours. Ignore Scott’s hand under hers. Imagine terrible things: fire, flood, the single, quivering mole on Marina’s upper lip. Do not make eye contact, especially not as he reaches above her to switch on the air-con, and she can see his shirt riding up above his waist out of the corner of her eye, the muscles of his abdomen pulling tight, and all she would have to do is reach out a hand and – nope.
Tessa spends most of the flight with her head turned so solidly away from Scott that she can’t even see the amused look on his face. By the time they arrive at the villa, blinking bleary-eyed in the morning sun, she barely registers the smile of the taxi driver as he deposits them outside the house, or the purple honeysuckle winding around the front door, or the scent of freshly-pressed grapes wafting from across the vineyards.
When the front door closes behind them with a quiet creak, it’s the first time they’ve been alone together for over twelve hours. She hasn’t kissed him since yesterday evening in her apartment. Scott stands with his back to the door, watching her. In the silence, he seems younger somehow; less like the man she’s come to know, more like the boy he used to be – so eager to please, to prove himself.
Can he hear her heartbeat, thundering in her chest? It seems ridiculous, this nervous energy that prickles at her skin. She doesn’t know what to do with her hands; does she keep them by her sides, tuck her hair behind her ears? Does she laugh, smile, launch herself into his arms? Should she have worn makeup for this? Is there any chance that, despite knowing her since she was seven, he’s somehow missing the minor panic that grips her as she crosses the tiles towards him?
Scott’s eyes follow the path of her footsteps. Is he holding his breath, just like her? He barely moves. But then his gaze flickers upwards to meet hers, and the smile that dawns across his face is so steady, sure, not a trace of hesitation – this is Scott, and he’s loved her since they were barely tall enough to reach the top step of the podium.
His fingers wrap around her wrist, pull her close. His breath ruffles her hair.
“Hello,” she says – it’s 2010 and their eyes are meeting for the first time as Scott brings her hands to his lips, the crowd hushed and Mahler playing across the ice, and he says-
When she reaches up to press her lips against his, it feels like a homecoming.
They’ve kissed softly, slowly, sweetly, an arm’s length from anything that could be described as passionate. Now, Scott’s hands are almost frantic in their need as they clutch at her; fist the material of her shirt up her body, wrap firmly around her ass and lift her up to hook her legs around his waist. There’s no such thing as too close; Tessa doesn’t know the meaning of the word.
“Bedroom to the left,” she mumbles, as he kisses his way along her jaw. His lips are so eager, everywhere at once, sharp flashes of heat against her skin.
“How quickly do you reckon I could get you out of this?” he says, his mouth wet on her collarbone, his fingers twisting into the fabric of her top.
Tessa bats his hands away. “Not as quickly as I could get you out of yours.”
He’s grinning as they stumble inside the bedroom, no grace to it whatsoever. His arm hits the wall at a strange angle, pushes them both forward to the bed, tumbling, twisting, Tessa’s foot hitting the bedpost. She doesn’t care; not as Scott settles on top of her and buries his head at her neck. His lips nudge aside the collar of her shirt, trailing down the exposed skin, and his hands are slipping under the bottom of her shirt, inching upwards.
Tessa’s hands curl around his wrists like ivy across stone – not holding, just a warning. Her smile is sharp. “Yours first.”
For a moment, she thinks that Scott might argue. Then he shrugs, and his entire body curves against hers, a slow exhale of breath.
“Alright,” he says, rolling off her and propping himself up against the assortment of pillows at the head of the bed. “Be my guest.”
He’s far too calm and collected - all languid ease as she swings a leg over his to settle herself atop his waist. He barely even moves to help her tug his shirt over his head. In the morning light that streams through the bedroom windows, his skin is burnished gold.
Arms crossed behind his head, he watches her through half-lidded eyes as she lowers her head to his chest – grinning at first, but not for much longer. With her hands, and her teeth, and her tongue, she relearns the shape of him. She licks into the hollow at his throat, the dip of his collarbone, the flat, broad planes of his abdomen, presses down onto him as he begins to shift underneath her. His body is familiar and yet new all at once; angled edges where there used to be soft, scars a little more faded, muscles corded a little tighter under her fingertips.
“Tess,” he breathes, as she passes her lips over his stomach, fingers skirting below the waistband of his jeans.
Her hands pass lower and lower, over the fabric of his boxers. Scott makes a strange sort of noise, his hips stuttering upwards into her touch. “Tessa,” he says, more insistent, and when she raises her head she sees that his cheeks are flushed. “Maybe your turn now, hey?”
Slowly, smiling, she removes her hands from him. Any small amount of relief that blossoms in his eyes is snuffed out immediately as instead she settles herself more firmly into his lap and pulls her hair back behind her shoulders.
“Go ahead,” she says, with a slight raise of her eyebrows. Her top is fastened by a row of small pearlescent buttons; delicate, dainty things. Scott doesn’t even reach the first one before he stops. His hands freeze in mid-air.
Tessa smiles sweetly at him. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re not-” he breathes, in a funny sort of strangled voice. “-not making things easy.”
The butter-wouldn’t-melt look on Tessa’s face is compounded slightly by the ease with which she rolls her hips into his. “Didn’t I tell you I’d remember?”
Scott’s hands jolt so wildly that they practically tear the buttons clean off her shirt. “Fucking hell,” he mutters, under his breath.
She’s in control of this situation, she swears – but a shudder ripples through her as she presses against him, and it must be the sharpness of the words rolling off his tongue, or the way she can feel him growing harder with every pass of her hips. When she moans, small and quiet, his fingers clench tight into her waist. His hips tremble under hers, barely controlled, as she circles down onto his erection.
“Tess, please,” Scott groans, low, warning, and a curl of pleasure licks at her spine. They won’t last long like this, she knows, as she watches him dig his teeth into his lip, knuckles whitening at her waist. Her fingers slip between them, work the last buttons of her shirt open.
“Here,” she breathes, and when she arches her neck to him, he comes up to meet her – his lips at her pulse, biting hard, his hands cupping her breasts over her bra. Even through the lace, she can feel him; circling his thumbs at her nipples, pooling tension into her. His mouth at her neck will bruise later, but they have a week to make themselves respectable again; anyway, he kisses so prettily, swipes his tongue carefully over the sting of his teeth, that she can’t bring herself to worry.
Her shirt is on the floor, and she’s reaching back to unclasp her bra, and he’s pulling the straps down her arms, almost clumsy in his haste, and then there’s nothing more between his chest and hers, and suddenly, everything is still.
She has never been shy in front of Scott; he knows her body almost as surely as his own, has traced his fingers across every inch of her skin – but the way he looks at her now, almost awestruck, sends a shiver of nerves up her spine. She expects words; from Scott, she always expects words, he never shuts up. This reverent silence, the stillness, not a breath of movement in the air between them; this is new.
He doesn’t say a word as he leans in to kiss her. His lips are sweet, soft, the taste of summer blooming across her tongue. Her hand cradles his cheek, his fingers at the bare skin of her back, and the minutes that pass between them could be one or twenty, Tessa wouldn’t know. The sun is warm on her skin, her closed eyes, her face, washing across them both like the tide of some great, unstoppable wave.
Then Scott dips his head to her chest and fastens his mouth around a nipple, and oh. It’s not the sun anymore, it’s flushed, feverish heat, prickling at her skin. His tongue is alternately soft and firm, his fingers gripping tight at her waist as she arches backwards. Her hips rock in short, sharp movements, desperate, pressing herself against where the denim of his jeans bunches in his lap, and he gives a muffled groan, tight and low.
She can feel the weight of him through the denim; how the sight and sound and smell of her is enough to turn him on. She wants to touch him, feel him against her – but he’s there first, smoothing a palm across her thigh, pressing her onto her back, into the bedsheets.
“Patience,” Scott says, as he peels her shorts down her legs, watches her twist in wordless frustration.
She wants to tell him that it’s been four years, he can hurry the fuck up – but then his hand passes low across the ridges of her hip bones and all she can stutter out is his name, breathy and high-pitched. Scott is competitive even when he fucks, holding out to the last, skirting his hands in tiny circles across the silk of her underwear, teasing.
“Scott,” she says again, more insistent, demanding, tugging his head towards her. He smiles at her - “What, you want me here?” – and trails his hand across the juncture of her thigh, feather-light, barely a touch. She bites her lip, twists the bedsheets into her fist; it’s enough to drive a person mad, having him so close and so far all at once.
Scott’s smile sharpens into something feral as his fingers move against her skin. “Here?” He presses the palm of his hand at the apex of her thighs, firm and flush, but she shakes her head – no, he knows.
“Tell me what you want, Tess,” he says, and his lips are so distractingly warm at her neck that she could scream with frustration. His voice continues, smooth, honeyed. “Tell me where to touch you and I’ll do it.”
She won’t say it – she can’t – but she covers her hand with his and slides it down under the silk fabric between her legs. “Here, please,” and there’s victory in the way he smiles then, as his hand begins to move against her.
His fingers are rough where hers are smooth, but so gentle and delicate in the way he touches her, like he’s afraid she’ll break.
“Harder,” she gasps – and he shudders at her side, presses his fingers more firmly on her. His free hand pulls at her chin, tilting her face towards his. His eyes are so wide, so brown, when he leans in to kiss her. It’s an entirely different experience, kissing Scott now, with his fingers moving slickly against her. Everything is heightened; the slow drag of his fingers against her cunt, the firm, wet strokes of his tongue across hers, her small, panting moans, muffled into his mouth, urging him onwards.
She wants to reach out for him, wants to draw him closer to her – his fingers on her aren’t enough, not even with her hips rolling against his hand - needs the weight of him.
“Please,” she breathes, pulling her mouth away from his. His hair is damp with sweat as she brushes it back from the sweeping angles of his cheekbones. He looks down at her with those big trusting eyes, questioning. “Inside.”
In a quick, shifting movement, Scott tugs aside her underwear and sinks two fingers into her, up to the knuckle, and the breath catches in her throat. She clenches around him, tight, sunbursts of heat, lips parting soundlessly. Her hand slides to the back of his neck, body folding, hips pressing up, up, chasing the coil of tension that curls low in her.
“Good quiet?” he says. His eyes have never left her since they started this but she feels the intensity of his gaze now, tracking every detail of her response – her head pillowed against the bedspread, hips canting up to meet his thrusts, blue silk of her underwear shifting as his fingers slide into her.
“Uh-huh,” is all she can breathe, through a slight smile. “Definitely good quiet.”
Scott grins as he presses a palm flat against her knee. “Just making sure.”
All of their bravado and teasing back-and-forth falls away when it’s only the two of them, like this; Scott’s fingers pushing into her, the room silent save for the creaking of the bed underneath them and the steady quickening of Tessa’s breath. They were definitely right not to do this in an airport bathroom, Tessa thinks, vaguely, as Scott eases another finger inside of her, the angle of his thrusts shifting, and she’s shuddering around him, eyes screwing shut, straining upwards against the hand that holds her to the bed.
“Please, Scott,” she says. She doesn’t even know what she’s asking him for – his fingers are firm, strong inside her, curling, the feeling more than she even remembered – but he knows her better than she knows herself.
There’s a sudden feeling of emptiness as he pulls away, and her eyes snap open. He’s yanking at his jeans, the metal buckle clinking as he fumbles with it. She can’t bear the wait – knows she shouldn’t take matters into her own hands, but he’s taking so long. “Hurry,” she whines, pulling her underwear down her legs and replacing his fingers with her own, and God, doing this herself is a pitiful substitute for the real thing.
Scott’s eyes widen as he pulls a small foil square from his back pocket. “Christ, Tessa.”
She doesn’t think she’s ever seen a man kick off his jeans and slide on a condom so quickly. She’s barely touched him, she realises, as he climbs back onto the bed and she lets her fingers fall to her side – is she pushing him too fast? But then she can feel him, hard against her, so close, and she doesn’t have a free thought in her head.
Scott positions himself between her thighs, steadies a hand at her hip. “Ready?”
Tessa could laugh at herself, the way she tenses as though his fingers weren’t buried inside her a few moments ago, but she meets his gaze, nods.
Everything happens so slowly then. She sees him swallow, tighten his grip on her, his attention focusing downwards. The breath shudders through his chest – she can feel it, his skin warm against hers – and he pushes into her, and her stomach twists. It’s been so long, it’s almost too much – too full, too close, too heavy.
“Fuck,” she hisses, the sound all strange and choked.
Scott pauses immediately, concern flickering across his face. “Tess?”
“It’s okay,” she says. “Just give me a second.”
“Are you sure? I can-“
Tessa’s fingers clench at his shoulders, iron-limbed, and Scott bites back a grin. “Don’t you dare move.”
She’s tight around him, shifting – testing out the sensation as it sharpens from discomfort into something more, breathing barely audible. They’ve done this before so many times, but there’s a newness to it now; the way he waits above her, tentative and careful, his body trembling with exertion, and her thoughts narrow to this singular, clarified point of contact. She needs him so badly she can barely speak for wanting. So she doesn’t say anything – simply tucks her legs around his waist and her hands at his back, and in one, assured movement, pushes herself fully onto him.
“Oh, fuck, Tessa,” he groans, the muscles of his back splaying and shifting under her fingertips as he receives her. She’s not sure she’s heard anything more beautiful in her entire life. His hands press her closer and closer still; skin to skin, hips pulled flush against hers, his breath in short, quick gasps of air. She’s looked into his eyes a thousand times, seen entire worlds pass in the depths of his gaze. But here, now, this precise mixture of adoration and desire and patient, unswerving trust – this is hers.
“Scott,” she whispers, clutching a hand to the back of his neck, pulling him close – and she doesn’t have to ask him for anything else.
He’s not soft, not gentle; knows what she needs from him, his hips snapping up to the cradle of hers, driving and forceful. Every breath comes heavier from her chest, as he pulls back and slides forwards into her, again and again, her back arched against the sheets, skin slick with sweat; and all around her, Scott and the feel of him, and the sound of him, groaning tight and quick, bedsprings creaking beneath them.
Sex with Scott before was hurried, furious: jealous and possessive and stolen. The feeling now, as he coaxes her body to life, every muscle tightening under his – there’s no trace of guilt about it.
It’s just her name falling from his lips like pearls on a string – Tessa, sighed deep against her skin; Tess, soft and insistent, one hand tangled in her hair, pulling her head back to expose the curve of her neck; come for me, Tess, surging strong and fast, every line of her body open and trembling, fire, white-hot, running through her veins, nails digging into his back; let go – and she does.
There are certain things that have changed about Scott in the two years they spent apart, and certain things that haven’t.
They’re definitely better at balancing the whole ‘sex and being a functioning human’ this time around. Their evenings (and who is Tessa kidding, the afternoons too) are dedicated to making up for what they’ve missed over the past few years, but they leave the mornings free to explore the surrounding countryside. One such morning is spent out in the vineyards, picking grapes to turn into wine and practicing their awful French.
“Deux cent six,” Scott says, as he twists a grape off the vine and throws it into the basket set on the ground between them. His rolling syllables garble the pronunciation in ways that would horrify Marie-France and Patrice.
Tessa raises her eyebrows. “You mean cent dix – one hundred and ten.”
Scott simply grins – “Nope, I mean two hundred and six,” – and he turns out the pockets of his shorts to reveal handfuls and handfuls of shiny red grapes. When he pops one into his mouth, she can see it there, bright against the pink of his tongue.
If the sex wasn’t enough to remind her that Scott is fiercely competitive in every single aspect of his life, she certainly remembers after that.
He still sleeps like a log. However hard he tries not to fall asleep before her, it’s a futile attempt – she’s long mastered the art of ignoring her own circadian rhythm. Besides, she likes to watch him sleep. Even in his unconscious state, his body recognises hers. She can trail a hand gently across his cheek and watch him turn to push his lips against it, like a flower re-orienting to meet the sun.
Sometimes she wonders what he dreams about. He’s so expressive in his sleep; brow constantly furrowing, mouth twitching, playing out a hundred emotions all at once. It’s only when she slips under the sheets and tucks herself into his arms that he quiets. Waking up with a cricked neck from curling herself so tightly against his body seems a small price to pay for that - especially when he’s always so willing to massage it out for her.
He’s more patient than he used to be – more world-weary, too – but every so often she sees flashes of the cocky twenty-year old who thought he could rule the world. He whizzes past her on the downhill stretch back to the villa, free-wheeling his rental bike with a whooping laugh; he tickles her ankle as she walks by his morning laps of the pool, and a minute later she’s in the water with him, pressed up against the side with her legs wrapped around his waist; he strokes her hair back from her face, lying next to her in the tangle of their sheets, and he says, simply, “We’re gonna win this year. I know it.”
And then, when he laughs, it’s like no time has ever passed – he could be fifteen or twenty-five or fifty, and he’d still laugh the same. She laughs too, the full-bodied kind of helpless laughter that ripples through them both, leaves them gasping for breath, and she thinks that this must be what it feels like to love and be loved in equal measure.
Someone told her once that the rolling hills of the French countryside are like a storybook come to life. If Tessa could capture one moment of their time in Provence, it would be this one.
Late at night, the patio doors creaking as she pushes them open, green paint flaking away under her fingertips. Paving stones smooth under her bare feet. Air full and warm, wind rustling through the leaves of the grape vines. Vineyards an endless expanse of darkness, a wash of watercolour paints. A string of tiny lanterns pinpricked in spots of amber light, marking the way to a hammock strung between two trees.
Scott stirring as she slips into the hammock beside him, muttering her name. Her hand easing under his shirt, finding the curve of his waist. The sigh of Scott’s breathing as he presses his face into her neck, gathers her in, his lips warm on her skin. Her fingers stroking across his waist, her head tilted up to the sky. The stars above them scattered across the blank canvas of the night like gold-dust.
An entire universe waits at her fingertips that night, both above and below.
Montreal, December 2017
Tessa is not drunk.
The buzz of conversation that fills her ears is sort of indistinguishable, and the blush on her cheeks as clasps her hands around the stem of her wine glass is a little bit too red, but she’s not drunk.
She’s enjoying herself. It’s nice to be able to sit here, in a dark little corner of the bar that Marie-France and Patrice rented out for the entire Gadbois team, and not have to worry about picking her words too carefully or overstepping her mark. She doesn’t know half of the Christmas-hatted people flitting about the bar, but they pass by her table with a laugh and a few words of greeting, and in the meantime she indulges in the true draw of the night: watching Zach Donohue get progressively drunker and further into a hole of conversation with Gabi and Madi.
Yes, speculating about the personal relationships of others is a terrible thing to do. Yes, she should know that better than most people. Yes, she will continue to watch the three of them, over the rim of her wine glass.
She’s so busy staring that she doesn’t even notice the person approaching her table until there’s a hand at her waist, and she jumps.
“What’d you do, tell them they’re all overscored and talentless?” Scott has a wide smile on his face as he gestures to the empty tables around her. “Bit early to be frightening away the competition, eh?”
“Ha ha. They all went up for round four” - she holds up her half-full glass of wine with a shrug – “I’m still working on number two.”
“Better get on it then.”
There’s no one looking their way; maybe that’s why she doesn’t hesitate to lean into him as he slides into the empty seat next to her, slings an arm around her.
“Had fun at the kids’ table?” she says, dropping her head to rest on his shoulder.
His hand is warm at her knee, his thumb rubbing absentmindedly over the black sheen of her tights. “Marie came to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to let you sit by yourself all night, and that Patch was subbing in. Just as well, the terrors were about to sabotage my Jenga tower.”
“It comes from a place of love, you know that.”
Scott screws his face into a look of disbelief. “Love? Come on. They kind of respect me. They worship you, Tess. You should have heard them,” he says, and his voice takes on a high-pitched, excitable quality. “’Tessa smiled at me in the changing room yesterday, did you know that?’, ‘Scott, I know you’re both so busy but do you think Tessa would come and watch our practice?’, ‘Hey, Scott, what does Tessa’s hair smell like?’”
Tessa laughs, the sound rich and full. “You could have told them the answer.”
“And invite the usual follow-up? No thanks.”
“I don’t know,” she says. “Maybe it’s time to put the Gadbois betting pool out of its misery. There’s only so much prize money they can afford to throw away on us.”
Scott raises his eyebrows and reaches across to tap her wine glass. “Sure you’ve only had two of these?”
True, there’s a pleasant buzz in the back of head that she knows comes from downing a few glasses of wine after months of abstinence, but mostly it’s the warmth of his arm around her, the familiar way he smiles at her, his eyes crinkling slightly at the corners – and why shouldn’t she be able to kiss him when she wants? Why shouldn’t they be able to do all the things that normal, in love, people do?
“Pretty sure,” she says, and when she tilts her head upwards slightly, her lips brush against his neck. He smells so good; familiar notes of his cologne, bergamot and lavender, and then the sharpness of alcohol. She wonders what his skin would taste like if she placed her mouth at his pulse and licked, hard.
Scott’s hand tightens at her thigh, his voice low and warning at her ear. “We should get out of here, Tess.”
She shakes her head. “No one’s watching. It’s fine.”
“The minute we do anything, everyone will be watching. You know that,” he says, and then amends hastily: “Usually you know that.”
It’s true – at any other moment in time, she’d be the one concerned about people seeing, about the gossip and the rumours, regardless of the truth. But Scott’s pulse jumps at his throat, so close to her lips, and maybe today she’s just tired of having to do everything in the confines of their own home, like what they have is some kind of shameful secret.
Tessa raises her eyebrows. “Are you trying to make me beg?”
“What? No, of course not.”
“Don’t make me beg, Scott,” she says, pressing her mouth into the crook of his neck, her words a breath against his skin. “I just want to kiss you.”
She can feel it in the way his fingers clench and unclench at her thigh, his resistance crumbling away. They can never have a normal relationship; that ship sailed when they were twenty and twenty-two, and performed out the idealisation of love for a global audience of millions. But they can get far too drunk and make out in a dark corner of a bar. Like normal people do.
“God, Tess,” he sighs, and she doesn’t know whether it’s a prayer or a curse or both, but he dips his head to hers anyway, and she has him.
Scott’s lips are warm and soft, opening gratefully to hers despite his reticence. His hand slides up from her arm to tangle into the loose curls at the back of her head, tugging her closer. She can smell the alcohol on his breath, or maybe her own – can taste the wine on his tongue, sharp and tart. It’s messy and graceless and eager, but she thinks it would be quite possible to lose herself entirely in the feeling of Scott’s lips against hers.
There’s a sudden clattering of glass. Tessa jerks her head away, heart hammering in her chest - but when she glances over to the source of the noise, it’s only empty glasses being cleared from the bar. Nothing. Scott looks slightly dazed as she relaxes back against him.
“One of these days I’m gonna need you to explain exactly how public we’re being with this” he says. “But for now-“
“-call it Christmas cheer,” Tessa grins, her eyes bright as she wipes her thumb across his lips, smears off the purple lipstick stain she’s left there.
At a small table in the opposite corner of the room, Patrice raises his eyebrows at his wife.
“I suppose we should forward the mail to one apartment, then.”
Their first Christmas together is more of a happy coincidence than anything they particularly planned on.
She and Scott have ducked around celebrating together for years. Usually they settle for squashing together on the sofa at the Moir Christmas gatherings, a nephew whose name she was definitely told five minutes ago standing in the middle of the room and gesturing wildly at her (she was banned from teaming up with Scott for Charades after their first three consecutive wins). Last year, it was a meal on Christmas Eve at their favourite restaurant in London, just the two of them.
This year, the choice is all but made for them - they’re far too busy making changes to their programs after the Grand Prix Final to even think about going home.
It becomes obvious that their celebration is haphazard at best when they’re still stringing up decorations at five to midnight the night before. Tessa tries her hardest, but she’s running on fumes, bone-tired from practice in a way that she hasn’t been for years. One minute she’s sitting in the middle of the living room, surrounded by reams and reams of silver fairy lights waiting to be hung on the tree, listening to Scott hum carols from the hallway – and the next she’s conked out on the carpet.
When she wakes up on Christmas morning, she’s alone in bed. The covers next to her are pulled up tight,, and there’s a pleasant smell of frying butter wafting through the open door to the living room. Naturally, her partner’s habit of waking up at the crack of dawn persists regardless of whether it’s a public holiday or not. The haze of sleep gives way slowly to pangs of hunger as she pulls herself out of bed and gathers her dressing gown off the chair. Did she eat last night, before she fell asleep? The last thing she remembers is Scott’s tuneless rendition of Silent Night, and the five hundredth coil of fairy lights. The way her stomach is complaining at her suggests not.
“Scott?” she yawns, as she trudges into the living room – and stops, her brow furrowing.
The place is spotless. Gone is the evidence of her shameful decorating effort the night before. Christmas lights blink merrily at her from around the tree, gold ribbons twisted along the curtain pole of the living room windows, the tiny ornamental trees Marie-France and Patrice gifted them arranged on the television stand. Perhaps she’s still dreaming. All the decorations are just slightly skewed – the star on top of the tree looks like it’s had too much to drink, the Christmas cards are crowded so tightly on the mantelpiece that a single touch would set off an avalanche. The smell of frying butter is stronger here – is she having a stroke? Or was that supposed to be the smell of burnt toast?
Pulling her dressing gown tighter around her shoulders, she follows the smell through to the kitchen.
“Oh,” she says, faintly, stopping in the doorway. "Of course."
Scott turns from the kitchen stove, waving a spatula in greeting. “Morning! Merry Christmas, T.”
Merry Christmas indeed, Tessa thinks. It’s entirely unfair to the rest of the human race that he looks so good at eight in the morning, standing in the middle of her kitchen with a spatula clutched in his hand and a tiny apron covering a useless amount of his bare chest, like some modern-day Adonis. But for her own visual appreciation? Couldn’t be better. If she had her phone on her, she’d take a photo for blackmail purposes later – or maybe just to send to Alma.
“You should have woken me up,” she says, as she makes her way around the breakfast bar. “I would have helped.”
The smell from the frying pan is incredible; rich and sweet and definitely not on the list of things she should be eating in preparation for a gold medal at the Olympics, but she thinks she can let this one slide. There are a few ways to her heart, and Scott knows them all.
Scott grins, pulling her arms up to wrap around his chest. "You mean before or after I wiped the drool off the living room carpet?"
Not only is he cooking her chocolate French toast on Christmas Day after decorating her entire apartment, but he also dealt with her exhaustion-induced slobber? Yup, he's a keeper.
"You're such a good house husband," she says, pressing her forehead against his back. His skin is so warm, all the time, like her own personal storage heater. "You didn't want to lie in?"
The muscles of Scott's shoulders pull tight as he shrugs. "Nah, not tired. Anyway, you sleeping in gave me the chance to set something up."
From the countertop, he snatches up a bright red Santa hat and jams it on his head, swivelling in her arms to face her. “Ta-daa!”
Tessa remains motionless. He’s looking at her expectantly, like he’s waiting for some kind of impressive reaction, so she squints purposefully at the hat on top of his head. “Wow. Your hat has a twig in it.”
“This 'twig’', Tessa,” he says, flicking the small sprig of mistletoe pinned to the front, “gives me permission to kiss you whenever I want.”
She raises her eyebrows. “You already have that.”
Scott's hands slide down to her waist, drawing her closer. "Yeah, but now I have a responsibility ."
And the way he leans down to kiss her, she’s convinced that he takes his responsibility quite seriously.
They just about avoid burning the French toast. They even manage to get through cooking Christmas lunch largely unscathed. She chops vegetables, and Scott cooks, and the pan boils over more than a few times while Scott is fulfilling his new hat-granted duties, but it’s as close to perfect as they’ve ever managed. Besides, if they’re going to do Christmas, Tessa decides, they’re going to do it right – eating roast turkey in their pyjamas and taking an obscenely long amount of time in the shower afterwards.
At around three in the afternoon, she and Scott finally get dressed.
One thing they agreed upon, during the small chat that followed the Gadbois Christmas party, was that it was high time to break the news to their parents about their new living (and otherwise) arrangements. Tessa crossed her family off the list yesterday (“Tess, you can’t subtly announce you’re dating the guy that Mum picked out for you when you were seven, and then took twenty years to get around to actually dating”). Things should be simpler with the Moirs.
That doesn’t seem to be much comfort to Scott, who pulls on his jeans with a look on his face like he’s heading to his own execution.
“Listen,” Tessa says, patting his cheek in sympathy. “Whatever happens, it can’t be worse than yesterday.”
Scott grimaces. “Are you sure we can’t just go back to having sex? However near-public you want, it’s cool with me.”
A small smile spreads across her face as she reaches up to tug his Santa hat more firmly onto his head. “Time to have courage. Besides, think how much worse it’s going to be if your mum finds out second-hand through my family.”
By the way Scott blanches, she thinks that prospect might haunt his nightmares for weeks to come.
He sets his laptop up on the kitchen counter, and Tessa curls up on the living room sofa nearby, with a book and the purple knitted blanket that Alma gifted her when she first moved to Montreal. She can’t remember the last time she’s seen Scott this nervous – he potters around the apartment for what seems like an age, fidgets mindlessly with the Christmas cards on the mantelpiece. Then the call connects: there’s a static-y cheer of “Merry Christmas!”, and he rushes back into the kitchen.
Tessa listens carefully at first, waiting for any emergency signal.
After five minutes pass with no incident, she turns to her book, and the voices from the other room fade into the background. There’s a record playing; an old country ballad that Scott must have put on while she wasn’t paying enough attention to protest. The gentle rhythm of the music intertwines with snatches of conversation from behind her – sometimes Scott’s voice, sometimes Alma’s or Joe’s or Charlie’s or Danny’s. Before she knows it, she’s eighty pages in and Scott is standing in front of her, holding out his laptop.
“Hey, Tess,” he says. “Can you take this for a sec? I gotta grab something from the other room.”
“Tessa!” she hears Danny crow as she sets her book down and accepts the laptop from Scott. “How are you doing? Not sick of this one’s company yet? Christmas just isn’t the same without the full Moir package, you know.”
She’s always liked Scott’s older brothers; they were like her own when she was younger, always ready at the boards with a smile or a terrible joke and none of the fraught tension that she and Scott often veered into.
“Hello, Danny,” Tessa grins. “Nice to see you too. How’s your Christmas?”
“Let’s see…Mum’s already threatened twice to throw us out of the house, my wife and I are contemplating escaping to Alaska, and we almost had to call the boys from the fire brigade when Charlie’s kid locked himself into the toilet. We’re missing your calming influence, Tess. Even removing our baby brother from the scene can’t make up for that.”
Tessa giggles. “I tried my best, sorry.”
“Speaking of, how’re you holding up with the golden boy? Blink twice if you need us to come get you.”
“We’re fine,” she says, with a smile. “It’s actually been pretty peaceful up here. Look” – she raises her book in view of the webcam – “I’ve even been able to get through a third of my book today.”
“You managed to shut him up for that long? Truly, Tessa, you are a miracle-worker.”
“Are you flirting with my partner again, Danny?” Scott says loudly, as he strolls back into the room, both hands clasped behind his back.
“Scotty, I said it when you were ten, and I’ll say it again now – if you’re not going to make a move, there’s no hope for you. Let Tessa explore life beyond the great green pastures of Ilderton.”
“Actually,” Tessa says, as Scott moves to stand behind her, slides a hand to the back of her neck. “He wasn’t the one who made the move.”
She tilts her head back to look up at Scott, questioning – quirks her eyebrow upwards just slightly. The grin that she receives tells her everything she needs to know. Before Danny can say anything, Scott bends down to kiss her, the beginnings of a laugh shaking through his body – and a piercing wolf-whistle emanates from the laptop.
“Ha! Mum, that’s twenty bucks you owe me! I told you!” Danny yells, sounding far too excited about this for a father of two.
There’s a sudden swell of noise from Danny’s end of the line; Alma’s voice, confused; excited chattering from off-screen as various family members pick up on the goings on; Charlie’s exuberant cry of “It’s a Christmas miracle!”.
“So sorry,” Scott says quickly, breaking the kiss to roll over the back of the sofa. “Connection’s screwing up on our end, gotta go!”
The connection blinks out in an instant as Scott slams the end call button.
Tessa raises her eyebrows. “That’s not very festive of you.”
“Gotta keep it short and sweet, T. Always leave them wanting more,” he grins, and then his smile shifts to something tighter, almost nervous. “Anyway, I have something for you.”
She frowns. “What? I thought we agreed, no gifts.”
Scott shakes his head. “It’s not a gift, promise. I’m returning something that belongs to you. Just close your eyes,” he says, as she narrows her eyes at him. ”Please?”
“This better not be a voucher for the Moir Skate Shop,” Tessa grumbles, but she does as he asks.
Scott laughs – and then something small and light drops into her palm. At first she’s not even sure if he meant to do it. It barely weighs anything. She feels for it with her other hand – metal, cool against her fingertips; leather, softened with age or with treatment; tiny, ridged facets of stone.
“Is that it?”
“That’s it. You can open your eyes.”
When she does, cupped in her palm is a pink bracelet, glittering in the shifting light of the Christmas tree. Her brow furrows. Something about the design is familiar, striking her – and then she turns the bracelet over to reveal the silver ‘T’ attached to the front, and lump in her throat is the size of a bowling ball. There’s the three pink leather straps binding the metal in place, the silver catch at the back, the rhinestones – she remembers it all. Except where before the stones were faded, missing in places, there are only snugly fitted new ones, polished and gleaming. Old and new, all at once.
Scott watches her quietly, her eyes flickering up from the bracelet in her hand, to her face, back down again.
“How long?” she says.
Of course, she knows – she remembers acutely the last day she saw that bracelet dangling from his wrist, glittering in the moonlight through a bedroom window in Michigan – but it’s like all the breath leaves her at once.
“I didn’t know,” he says, “but I figured if I hung onto it, one day maybe it’d find its way back to you.”
She barely knows what to say. Words seem meaningless. Ten years, he’s kept this safe. Ten years, through her injury, through Sochi, through his trips to Winnipeg – ten years, he refused to let go of that hope. What can she possibly tell him that conveys that same depth of loyalty, trust, love?
“Get rid of this pointless thing,” she whispers, and tugs the mistletoe out of his hat, before pulling his face down to hers.
It’s later – much later, and they’re lying on the carpet of the living room, two hours into a vicious game of Monopoly. Every time she reaches to move her little metal moose along the board, she catches sight of the bracelet around her wrist. Years ago, she thought it was hideous – and granted, it’s not something that she’s ever going to wear in public, but it’s funny how things change, given the virtue of time.
When her eyes fall upon the bracelet now, she’s not thinking about how she hasn’t worn pink since was fifteen, or how the leather straps were obviously made for a wrist of a child. She’s reminded of the fact that there’s a boy who loved her enough to keep that bracelet safe for a decade, with a hope all but a glimmer at the end of the tunnel that he would ever be able to give it back.
It’s the same when she looks at Scott, lying on his side in the ridiculous Ninja Turtles pyjamas she bought for his birthday last year. There are times when she thinks that the two years spent apart were the best thing that could have happened to them; she can touch him now without the weight of seventeen years of missteps hanging over her. There’ll always be regrets, of course, but there’s a new understanding that everything served to bring them to this point: this one evening where Scott is hers, and she is his, and she is warm and content.
“Scott," she says, and he looks up, inquisitive, his Monopoly counter (the hockey player, naturally) hovering in the air. “You know that I love you?”
The corners of Scott’s eyes crinkle as he smiles. “’Course.”
She's trying to keep her smile small and secret, but it keeps twitching at the edges of her lips, threatening to burst across her face with the strength of the sun.
He raises his eyebrows. “Just so we’re clear, love won’t stop me from crushing you on the Monopoly board.”
“Fighting talk from the man without a single hotel in play,” she says, tilting her head towards him. The smile won't leave her face, even as she tries to stare him down, attempts to look somewhat competitive. It's okay, though, because he won't stop smiling at her either.
God, they’re going to be sickening.
There are things that Tessa remembers only in fragments, and things that stick in her mind fully-formed, trapped in amber – every second perfectly preserved. Christmas Day on 2017 is one of the good ones.
Somewhere between Ottawa and Montreal, January 2018
“Tessa. Hey. Hey, Tess. Tessa. I’ve got a new one.”
Tessa’s attention jolts back to consciousness; to the rumble of the plane engine beneath her feet, the fluorescent green travel pillow that’s fallen from around Scott’s neck to lodge between their seats, the steady crawl of clouds past the small window.
“I’ve got a new idea,” Scott says, and as she gives him a blank look: “For the opening ceremony?”
“Oh, of course. Fire away,” she murmurs.
“Alright but I’m warning you now, it’s a real show-stopper. What’s gonna happen is you’ll put your left foot on my back, and then my hand will go up like this, and we’ll hold the flag together like…aaand she’s gone. You’re not even paying attention, are you?” he says, with a curious grin on his face. “What’re you thinking about?”
Tessa smiles, shakes her head. Her hand covers his on the armrest between them. “Everything.”
Minutes rolling into hours rolling into years. A dizzying array of places and names and faces and a lifetime’s worth of heartbreak and disappointment, of giddiness and nerves and excitement, and the one, unwavering constant.
She used to wonder whether she and Scott were friends more out of necessity than anything else – if you cut the thread of competition from their lives, they’d simply drift apart. But it’s not that at all. They share the simple fact of knowing that they have seen love come and go, in all its permutations and possibilities, and stand stronger because of it. In every year of their life together, in whatever small way – even through the years she could barely stand to look at him – they have loved each other.
When they were seven and nine, so small they could hardly see over the boards, blushing as they held hands and skated around the rink.
When they were sixteen and eighteen, and everything was new and exciting, until it fell apart around them.
When they were twenty and twenty-two, on top of the world, belting out the national anthem, shaking with triumph.
When they were twenty-four and twenty-six, made small with bitterness and resentment, fumbling their way back to each other.
And now, twenty-eight and thirty, living with as much relentless enthusiasm as if it’s the very first day they fell in love.
Whatever crosses their path, in the next decade, and the next, and the next, she will still remember this – a quarter of a lifetime and a million moments, an enduring love, and the partner with whom she stood side-by-side for twenty years.
Microsoft Word tells me that I’ve spent a truly frightening number of hours on what was supposed to be a ‘little’ story – more time than anything I’ve written in my entire life (university dissertation included). That’s due in large part to you guys. The support you’ve shown me with this continues to blow me away, and reading your comments is the best kind of motivation when I’m struggling with a scene or feeling like I want to throw the entire thing away. So thank you, from the bottom of my heart!
As for future projects: for now I’m focusing on the Harry Potter AU (co-written with the wonderful @runnyc33), but there are a couple of ideas kicking around in my head for solo projects. If you’ve got any prompts or things you’d like to see, feel free to hit me up – I can’t promise 50k words but I can certainly try a one-shot! Like always, you can find me in the comments below or @virtueoso on Tumblr.
It only remains for me to repeat how grateful I am to everyone who’s supported me in the writing of this; my incredible beta, my group chat for being just the right level of distracting, and everyone who has read and enjoyed. Thank you for coming with me on this ride, and here’s to many more.