"Thereafter, a strange attachment formed between us which we have never been able to explain satisfactorily, and which, in a way, one could describe as a deep affection, or love, especially if one believes that love has many forms and degrees.”
Margot Fonteyn, on Rudolf Nureyev
Scott's childhood was spent in summer.
Before Tessa, before his weeks became enveloped in frigid ice rinks from dawn until dusk, with fingers that never quite thawed despite heat packs shoved down gloves and hands pressed up against portable radiators. Before chattering teeth and shivering, bone-deep cold; before the draughty, creaking old rinks that knew nothing of the comfort of the twenty-first century, let alone a consideration for the warmth of its inhabitants; before the layers and layers of thermal clothing, before mornings were a race to get under the rink showers while there was still hot water in the groaning, sputtering old pipes.
Before all that, he had summer.
Summer was long afternoons on the wooden steps outside his family's house, grazed elbows propped up on the knees of dungarees worn twice-through by older brothers, basking in the heat of the sun. The mornings were for tearing around the backyard with his brothers, or bothering his mother in the kitchen. His energy long since expended, late in the day he would lie there and watch as the sun moved lazily across the sky to slip into dusk. In its wake streamed so many colours that it almost hurt Scott’s eyes to look. There was the violet and indigo of the coming night; candyfloss pink, clouds wisped and ruffled; deepest, fireburst orange, streaked across the horizon like watercolour paint. When Scott stretched out a hand, he could feel the warmth of those colours against his skin.
If he stared long enough, and he stared hard enough, the colours would begin dancing in his vision too, bright little splotches swooping and twisting like birds. Stumbling back into the house, half-blind with the light, he would flop down onto the sofa and stare up at the ceiling, watch the colours of sunset dancing across the plaster, flickering as the slatted arms of the spinning fan passed through them.
For a moment, he held the universe in the palm of his hand.
And then it would leave him.
Girls give you cooties.
Scott knows this because he is nine years old. And now that he has nine whole years of life behind him, he is old enough to know a great deal about a great many things — first and foremost being that girls are not for talking to. Or holding hands with, or standing next to, or any of the things that his mother makes him do when she bribes him along to the rink next to his house with promises of ice cream afterwards.
Girls are weird. He doesn't like any of them. He doesn't think they like him very much either, but that's probably because he skates much too quickly for them to keep up with, and they cry when he drags them around the rink for a few circuits until his mother tells him to stop, and then their mothers look very cross and upset. He doesn’t tend to see many of the girls again after that.
It's not his fault. If they were better, maybe he wouldn't have to drag them around all the time. Then his mother wouldn't make that face at him, the one where her eyebrows pull down at the corners and her lips purse together, and Scott stays as far out in the centre of the rink as he can, pretending that he hasn't seen. One day, his mother could look less disappointed and he could skate properly, not tugging the little girls off their feet every time they try to catch their balance again. But their hands could fit better in his, not the over-sized, scratchy mittens that they all wear, the fabric that itches his bare palms. They could look less afraid, and he could be nicer.
Scott doesn't think any of that is very likely.
When he thinks back, he supposes it was the unlikeliest of all that, aged nine, he would meet a girl who would change the rest of his life forever.
"The crux of the matter is," Tessa says, her hands fluttering about her face like the wings of a captive bird. Scott doesn't have a clue what the word 'crux' means, but if it wasn't coming out of Tessa's mouth, it would sound kind of dirty. "The crux of the matter is, Scott, I don't think Emily even wants to go to skate camp. She's just saying she does because I got in, and now she won't let it go. It's ridiculous, honestly."
Emily is one of Tessa's friends. Possibly enemies. Scott finds it hard to keep track. Tessa has a lot of friends, and they all have names like Emily and Rachel and Morgan, and they all wear their hair in tight little ponytails that bounce up and down when they walk. They only like NSYNC, Tessa tells him, and they can't ever under any circumstances be seen without lipgloss on. It seems like a lot of work to be a little girl.
"How d'you know?" Scott says, kicking the back of the bench in front of them. His skate makes a satisfying thunk when it hits one of the metal legs.
"How do I know what?"
"That she doesn't want to go to skate camp."
He's mostly still wondering what 'crux' means. He wonders whether he could get her to say it again. Tessa's voice does this weird thing where it shapes every single letter in a word like she's reading from a dictionary, prim and proper. He's all relaxed syllables and drawn-out vowels, and words sound wrong coming out of his mouth.
"Of course she doesn't want to go to skate camp," Tessa says, sounding a little heated.
Of course. Of course, Scott. That initial downbeat, the 'f' rounded off and nicely finished. And then higher, with more volume, her voice shapes around the second word like the crest of a hill.
Her lips look funny when she speaks. He's never really noticed before, because she's only eleven years old, and he's nearly thirteen, and although he spends a lot of time looking at Tessa’s face when they’re skating around in hold, he doesn’t really look at her. Today, her lips are shiny and pink, and they catch his eye when she pulls her bottom lip between her teeth, frowning. He wonders how she can make words sound so nice when she chews on her lip all day.
"Okay," he mumbles, with a shrug of his shoulders. "If you say so."
She eyes him with suspicion. "She doesn't. Emily doesn't even have a partner. Mum told me she's been asking for try-outs but nobody wants her. Not after she told her old partner that he skated like a bear coming out of hibernation."
Scott snorts a laugh.
"It's not funny," Tessa says, frowning. "It's mean. I would never say that to you."
"Yeah, but only 'cause Suze would be so disappointed in you that it would break your heart."
"No!" she insists, turning to face him. "I mean, yes. But I wouldn't not say it only because of Suzanne. I wouldn't say it to you anyway. That's not what partners do."
Tessa’s voice is more forceful than usual, and it makes Scott suddenly nervous, even more so when she stops swinging her legs to and fro off the edge of the bench.
“Come on, Tess,” he says, with an unsteady attempt at a grin. “I bet there are things you’ve wanted to yell at me for ages. Y’know, about how I’m late all the time and I always leave my sweaty socks in the car after practice, and… I dunno, I’m sure there’s loads of stuff that annoys you. Don’t you wanna get all that out? It could be kinda fun.”
"No, it doesn't. It sounds awful. I would hate that."
This isn’t going how he hoped it would. She’s got that line between her eyebrows, the one that always means there’s something wrong — except it’s him who’s caused it this time, not her sister or a kid in class or his aunt calling out instructions from across the rink, and the worst thing of all is that, for the life of him, he can’t figure out why she’s upset.
There’s two years between them, and it feels like a lifetime of difference except in times like these, when he wonders if other girls take their partnerships quite as seriously as Tessa takes hers. Because she turned down the National Ballet for him, even when her mother was telling her to go, and her ballet teacher, whom she loves the most out of any teacher she’s ever had, was telling her to go, and her older sister was telling her to go, and the only person asking her not to was Scott.
What has he done for her in return?
He just tells her stupid jokes and tries to make her laugh when she looks upset, and he steals packets of fruit gums out of the vending machine in the hallway to slip into her skate bag.
“I, uh… I know,” he says, haltingly. “I was only joking, Tess. I wouldn’t like that either.”
“Why did you say it, then?”
Her voice is high and reedy, unnatural-sounding, like a stiff breeze could blow straight through it. He wants to stare down at his lap.
"I dunno, I didn't — I didn't mean it. Honestly."
"You shouldn't say things like that," she tells him, and Scott wants to crawl into a hole and curl up and die, because her eyes are glazing over with something that looks suspiciously like tears. Tessa hasn't cried ever, not even on the first day he met her, when she fell over during their try-out and grazed both her knees and palms, left little bloodstains on the ice, and then on Scott's hand when she got up and took it again. "It's not funny. Partners don't say things like that to each other."
He doesn’t understand any of it. He doesn’t know why she’s close to tears, or why it means so much to her to call each other “partners,” and he hasn’t even begun to know all that comes with the weight of the word. But he nods, and mumbles an apology, and they sit in awkward silence for the next ten minutes until they’re called onto the ice for their warm-up.
He touches her for the first time at nine-thirty on a Tuesday morning, when the sky is dark and blustery, spitting out rain like the ground below has done something to spite the heavens above, and they're stuck in a hot dance studio, working through their break to sort out a lift they're having trouble implementing on the ice. The atmosphere is stifling; the windows only open a crack before the mechanism jams, and there's precious little breeze circulating through the narrow sliver. Tessa's hair is slick against her neck, and when Scott looks in the wrong place, he can see the sweat beading at the dip of her collarbone.
It’s such a lie that girls don’t sweat.
In fact, he’s furious that nobody thought to break the news to him earlier; maybe then he could have prepared himself better for times like this, when the fabric of Tessa’s shirt rides up as he places his hands at the curve of her waist to help her up, and against her bare skin he can feel the stickiness of sweat. The kind of girls that his brothers used to tell him about didn’t sweat, and they didn’t poke him in the ribs when he was being an asshole, and they definitely didn’t have the beginnings of the washboard abs that he glimpses occasionally when Tessa tugs her Bluevale Collegiate jumper over her head and tosses it onto the bench before they take the ice.
But he's realising that Tessa's not much like anyone he's ever met, or been told about.
As they push up into the lift again, Tessa cranes her head to peer at their reflection in the full-length mirrors covering the front wall; her ponytail dangles just above Scott’s eyes, forcing him to blink rapidly.
“No, it’s not quite right,” she says, frowning. Her bottom lip pulls between her teeth, gnawing at the soft flesh. “Paul said—“
“I know what Paul said,” Scott retorts, the heat and the obscured vision making him irritable. “Try putting your foot higher up.”
Tessa’s bare foot curls further around his thigh, gripping so tight he can feel her trembling. “Are you sure you can hold me?”
“I’ve got you,” he says, steadying himself against the floorboards. “You’re balanced, I can feel it. Just shift your foot up a bit. It’s easy, Tess, I promise.”
She hangs in the air above him, brow furrowed as she glances down quickly at her feet and begins to shift her heel up his thigh.
Scott concentrates on staying perfectly still. When he was younger, he used to flinch away from the sensation of the hard calluses on the pad of her heel pressing against his skin. Girls’ feet were supposed to be perfectly smooth, soft like velvet. Tessa’s feet are bruised and battered and marked with calluses that afford her the protection she needs for long days in the rink. Her feet are just as ugly as his.
Sweat drips from Tessa’s hair, beading down her jaw to slip across the hollow of her throat, and Scott swallows.
“You need to move your hands, Scott, I can’t—”
“Where?” he snaps, barely biting back his frustration.
“Just up! They’re not helping at the moment. Put them higher up, my back or something.”
With an irritated noise, Scott shifts his hand up from Tessa’s waist to settle around the curve of her ribcage; it’s a little awkward, grasping at places his fingers don’t normally fit, and he sees her cheeks colour as he searches to find a comfortable hold on her.
The third time he loses his grip on her, she clears her throat. “Are you—”
“I’m fine,” he says, tersely.
“I can help, it’s okay. I’ll get down and we can practice with Suze...”
Scott’s seen the older pairs in the rink do this kind of thing: their hands wrapped around their partner’s backs, thumbs tucked just below their sternum, easy as anything. His palms are slick and foolish, and he feels like an idiot pawing at Tessa’s shirt, with her eyes fixed on the back wall of the studio, away from the mirrors and away from him. His cheeks feel like they’re on fire.
“I’m fine, Tess. I’ve almost got it. Quit wriggling.”
There’s sweat trickling down the side of his face now, maybe down his back, the sensation distracting. He clenches his jaw, trying the angle of his hand one way and the other, trying not to dig his fingers in too hard, trying above all to avoid catching her eye as she holds obligingly still for him.
And then — purchase! Something soft and pliant, unlike the muscled planes of Tessa’s body. The feeling is alien, his brow furrowing in the half-second before Tessa yelps, squirming away with such sudden force that he almost drops her. And Scott realises where he’s just touched her.
“Shit, fuck, Tess, I’m — I, sorry, I didn’t — that was—”
His mumbled string of apologies turns to ash in the air between them as he sets her down and stumbles back to safety, the tips of his ears burning. He needs air. He needs space. His embarrassment is white-hot, and he wishes it would swallow him up and incinerate him too, burn away his useless fucking hands hanging limply by his sides. Burn the whole building down, engulf the memory of her body branded against his palms, the places he’s never been allowed to touch before.
“I, uh, fuck — do you need—”
“No,” she says, her voice jumped up two octaves from usual. “No, thank you. I’m fine, I’m just going to, um — I’m going to go to the bathroom. Break will be over soon anyway, so I’ll see you back in the rink?”
He doesn’t look at her, in order to avoid seeing her not looking at him.
“Yeah, yeah, sure.” His voice cracks. “No problem. See you then.”
He’s staring down at the floor, but he hears the shuffling of bare feet on the wooden floorboards. The creaking of the old wood underneath her, the door opening and then the hard click as it closes behind her. He thinks of her in the hallway, bending down to slip her trainers on, not bothering to untie the laces first (she never does). Ponytail slipping over her shoulder. Flushed skin and quickened breath. Her shirt riding up across her bent back, all toned muscle and flatness. Muscle everywhere, hard and unforgiving at the line of her shoulders and rippled at her calves, twitching along her arms when she hooks her thumbs at the heels of her shoes. No softness, except—
He swallows. Turns to the window. Jams his face up against the open gap and prays for a breeze to blow in.
Tessa is too young.
Scott finds himself thinking it time and time again. She affects a maturity beyond her years, likes to talk to him as though she’s a seventy-year old woman wise to the ways of the world, but she’s not. Not really. She’s young. Her eyes are big and wide, like one of those Disney princesses on TV, and her arms and legs are slender, hands small enough that she can barely wrap them around the back of his neck for purchase in their lifts. She talks to him about ballet and her brother’s new puppy, waltzing down the hallway outside the boys changing room on her tiptoes while she waits for him to get ready. Scott’s friends talk to him about bribing their older siblings to buy them cheap alcohol from the liquor store, and the kind of jokes his friends make are ones that would get him a grounding if his mother ever heard.
But Tessa, ray of sunshine, do-gooder Tessa, will make friends with everybody and anybody, including Scott’s much older friends at the rink. In turn, Tessa will be invited to the yearly Halloween party in his friend Matt’s soundproof basement. Tessa, five years out from the legal drinking age, will sit on the floor of said basement with an empty beer bottle spinning on the floor in front of her, and Scott will look around the circle of assembled, half-drunk party-goers and feel sick to his stomach. (And not just because of the beer churning in his stomach, the musty, mildewed taste still thick across his tongue).
Tessa’s too young for this. Far too young.
Her mother would kill him if she knew. Tessa’s too young to be kissing Scott’s friends in the basement of someone’s parents’ house, too young to be watching him try not to gag as he necks back his first bottle of beer. Too young to be sat there in her Little Red Riding Hood costume with the puffy sleeves and ruffles at the waist, red ribbon tied into her straightened chestnut hair, tanned legs encased in clean white socks with bows at the top.
He watches her eyes dart nervously around the circle as the bottle spins, making a whirling, scraping noise as it skitters over the uneven floorboards.
She shouldn’t kiss anyone. He doesn’t want her to. Does she even know how to kiss?
Scott can’t imagine it, Tessa being good at kissing. He’s kissed her once before, but that was years ago at the Ilderton Fair, back when kissing was something only adults did, and the thought of playing at husband and wife made them both giggly and nervous.
He wonders briefly if she’s kissed anyone else since then, but decides it’s a ridiculous thought. Tessa doesn’t kiss people, and tonight certainly shouldn’t be the night she starts.
He’s going to intervene, he decides. The sound of the spinning bottle rings in his ears; he’s going to snatch it up the next time it comes round. He has to, before she’s forced to kiss one of his friends, with their sniggering smiles and the dirty jokes they whisper behind the backs of their hands. It’s a silly, stupid game, and Tessa is none of those things. She’s kind, and she’s thoughtful. Generous too, the kind of generosity that never asks for anything in return. She’s much smarter than he is, could probably do his homework in half the time he takes, but she never says anything unkind when she seems him struggling with his algebra during lunch at the rink. She’s always there with encouragement, or happy to slip her hand into his and drag him onto the ice to distract, and she never complains, or gets upset, or even looks angry, not ever—
A broad hand slaps him on the back, and Scott realises with a jolt that the bottle has stopped.
“Go on, Scotty boy!” Matt crows from beside him.
He looks down, his heart thudding in his mouth, knowing in the pit of his stomach what he’ll see without even needing the confirmation.
The bottle has landed on him.
“Guys, hey, come on—” he tries, but hands are already shoving him forwards into the middle of the circle, where Tessa waits, too close, looking up at him with something like relief. Is she grateful it’s him she has to kiss, and not a complete stranger? The thought turns his stomach.
He should tell her that they don’t have to do this, that she doesn’t have to kiss him. Not now, not here, when he’s dressed up like a zombie pirate, and half an hour ago she was laughing at the detachable stuffed parrot on his shoulder, pretending to talk to it in a high-pitched, funny little voice.
“It’s okay,” she whispers, with a consoling smile, and he feels like a fraud.
He’s thought about kissing her since that first time at the Fair.
“Tess,” he starts, before his throat closes over.
It shouldn’t be here, with the fabric of her ruffled skirt scratching across his knees, fourteen pairs of eyes fixed eagerly on them, his hands settled awkwardly at her waist. But she’s close, too close. He can’t see the freckles smudged across her nose and cheeks, or the little silvery scar where she sliced her jaw open tripping on the back steps of Scott’s house one summer. He can only see the blackness of her wide eyes, feel her breath hot against his cheek.
She closes her eyes. Her pink lips part expectantly.
In the middle of a ring of friends and strangers, he leans in and presses his mouth to hers. And worst of all, she begins to kiss him back.
There are boundaries in the rink, defined by coaches and parents, dictated by their choreography. Under the dim lamplight of the basement, beer churning in Scott’s stomach, his friends cheer the two of them on as Scott clutches at the ruffles at Tessa’s hip, the endless layers of frilly, girly little things flattening under his palm. There are sounds coming from Tessa that he’s never heard from her before, not ever — the hitching of her breath, a quiet gasp when his fingers dig in a little. He catalogues them all, burned into his memory, because it’s Tessa, this is Tessa.
Tessa whose knees bump against his, drawn closer without even realising it. Tessa whose mouth angles messily upwards, her hand on the side of his face, seeking something that Scott scarcely understands. Tessa whose body presses warm along him, even through the dress and his stupid costume, whose cheeks are flushed as red as her ribbon, whose tiny sigh when they pull apart again won’t leave his memory for years to come.
She sits back on her heels and wipes a hand across her mouth. Her nose wrinkles up, but she’s calm, impossibly so. She’s definitely done this before.
“Your mouth tastes like mould,” she says.
Scott, for his part, feels like every single nerve ending in his entire body has been simultaneously dunked into a vat of water and short-circuited. He can barely look at Tessa, least of all her lips: pink and shiny, glazed across from where she’s been kissing him.
“It’s the beer,” he stutters. “Sorry.”
She gives a small shrug. “That’s okay. It was still nice.”
Scott nods, stiffly, barely able to get the words out. “Yeah,” he says. “It was.”
They take their seats in the circle, and the bottle spins again. She kisses a few more people. Scott sits and watches. Nobody else makes her sigh when they stop kissing.
Tessa graduates from high school a year early. Scott won’t graduate until he returns to school at age twenty-seven, but he doesn’t know that at the time. On the day of her graduation, he’s just her plus-one: the high-school drop-out among crowds of kids who did what he never could. He dresses in his best suit, makes sure he’s wearing a baby-blue tie to match her dress. It took three trips to the mall in town that he despises to get the right shade, and it’s worth every one to see her face light up when she catches sight of him across the school hall, standing in line to go up on stage and receive her diploma.
The students file out into the courtyard afterwards, clutching their blue-ribboned diplomas and exchanging hugs and congratulations, some of them wiping at their eyes. Scott hangs back with Tessa’s mother and sister, watching as the crowds ebb and flow across the paving stones of the courtyard.
Even here, at a high school Tessa attended for less than three years after moving to Detroit, people flock around her like moths to a flame. And it’s easy to see why. Surrounded by her classmates, with a black graduation gown draped across her shoulders, starched blue dress peeking out from beneath the folds, glossy hair arranged delicately around her face, she’s not Tessa, skating partner and occasional annoyance, the kid who used to drool on his shoulder when she fell asleep in the car on the way back from practice. She’s Tessa, overachieving star athlete and valedictorian: mysterious Tessa who disappears for weeks at a time and comes back with stories of obscure European cities; sophisticated Tessa who knows how to apply makeup and style her hair nicely; Tessa, the girl that all the guys want to date, and all the girls want to be friends with.
It’s all well and good for Scott to pretend that he feels nothing for Tessa beyond a brotherly sense of responsibility and an appreciation for her easy company. But he kissed her once, and she kissed him back, which makes it all the more dangerous when she seeks him out at the after-party, plausibly wasted off the bottle of celebratory champagne her father gifted her in lieu of his attendance, and a mixture of other spirits that Scott can smell on her breath when she topples into his lap and leans close.
“Hi, Scott,” she giggles, almost slipping off his lap and onto the carpet before he grabs her waist to steady her. “How’re you?”
Her voice has gone all breathy: the tone of voice she only ever uses on guys who aren’t him, and it does funny things to Scott’s insides. He’s glad he rejected the offer of free beer from the guy at the door.
“I’m fine,” he says, ignoring the way she slides her arm around the back of his neck, her fingernails scratching across the ridge of his spine. “You look like you’re enjoying yourself.”
“You,” she says, and raises her other hand to stab at his chest, “look lonely. All alone in the corner, in a sad little chair.” She pouts, and her fingers slip up his neck to card through the lengths of his hair. “You shouldn’t be alone, Scott.”
“It’s your party,” he shrugs. “I don’t know any of these guys. I’m just here to take you home at the end of the night.”
Just like her mother asked. Safe and sound, back home by midnight, and not a scratch on her — regardless of the condition he’ll return home in, which, judging by Tessa’s eager hands at his neck, might be a little worse for wear.
“They want to know you,” she says, her glittery eyeshadow catching the light when she tips her head to one side, flattens her palm out across the chest of his rumpled shirt.
Scott snorts a laugh. Tessa’s classmates have given him nothing but stink-eye from the moment she turned up with him on her arm, assuming him to be a romantic interest arriving on the scene. To be fair, neither of them have been in a particular hurry to correct that misconception. They never are.
“What?” she says, somewhat indignantly. “It’s true. I’ve told them everything about you, they said they couldn’t wait to meet you.”
“Your friends don’t like me,” he corrects her, with a gentle shrug. “That’s fine. I’m not here for them.”
For a moment, she looks as though she might push the point further, and Scott braces himself to be trotted out around the entire house to all of Tessa’s assorted classmates and friends; but then she gives him a curious little smile: something satisfied and private, her hands looping behind his neck.
“You’re here for me,” she surmises.
“Mh-hmm. You got it.”
She inclines her head towards him and presses a kiss to his cheek. “You’re sweet.”
Her lipstick leaves a pink mark on his skin, sticky and smudged, but it’s the feeling of it that buzzes under his skin, makes him feel unsteady and dangerous. She’s drunk out of her mind and he hasn’t touched a beer — so why does he feel like he’s the one rapidly losing control of this situation?
“I’m proud of you, kiddo,” he mumbles, an attempt at deflection. “You flew through it all, didn’t even break a sweat. Always knew you’d get there before me, but you did it with style. Same way you do everything, eh? Flower and stem, and all that. You’re the class, I’m the muscle. Brains and brawn. Beauty and the—”
“Stop it. Don’t say things like that.”
Scott swallows and looks down at his lap; or, he would do if Tessa wasn’t handily planted in it. As it is, he gets an eyeful of the figure-hugging dress she changed into for the party riding up across her thighs, something that he did not need to be aware of at this precise moment in time. He’s grateful he made it past the awkward boner-popping stage in life before Tessa started getting drunk enough to throw herself into his lap.
“Look at me,” Tessa says, somewhat unsteadily. “Scott. Look at me.”
There’s nothing he wants to do less. Tessa knows him well enough at this point to pluck whatever she wants straight out of his head with little more than a glance, and he hers. But he raises his gaze to hers again, holds it for a long, quiet moment, the music of the party thumping in the background like an undertow and gradually, the small furrow between Tessa’s eyebrows smooths out.
Her chest rises and falls with a heaving sigh.
“Okay,” she says softly, patting him on the cheek with the kind of world-weariness that she’s possessed since she was seven years old. “I’m ready to go home now.”
Scott glances around at the room, the party still in full swing around them. Tessa’s friends have long since moved on from ogling the two of them and turned to more interesting pursuits.
“Now?” he echoes, frowning. “Don’t you want to stay? It’s not even eleven, Tess, you’ve got ages—”
“I want to go home,” she says, sliding off his lap to stand on unsteady feet, wobbling a little even with one arm slung across his shoulders. “Now. Please, Scott.”
It’s always “please, Scott”. Always with the wide eyes and the upturned chin and the question in her voice, like there’s anything he could do but agree to her every demand when she asks him like that. Sometimes he thinks that Tessa knows it as well as he does: how she has him wrapped around her little finger, coiled so tightly that she only has to touch him to know what’s going on.
His mind wanders sometimes, when he’s alone in his room with the music turned up just loud enough that his neighbours on the other side of his apartment wall can’t hear.
What those words would sound like in another context. Him on his knees, her back against the wall. A wall like the ones here, pale and colourblind against the darkness of her dress, of her hair, her eyes. Her lips. Her hands tangled at the back of his head. How she would sound, how she might look. What she might say. Her body against his tongue, where his hands have never been. What that would be, what that would mean for the two of them.
But at the end of the day, he’s still Scott, and she’s still Tessa. She’s still his skating partner, and he’s still expected to chaperone her around her high school graduation like she’s a little kid, and not the woman that she’s becoming.
And his fantasies are always tinged with guilt.
“Alright,” he says, his cheeks faintly flushed, and he clears his throat with a quiet sound. “Let’s go home.”
In the backseat of his car, away from the drowning noise of the party, she pushes him against the seats and kisses him, hard.
She won’t remember it the day after.
He tries to forget for years.
It’s one o’clock in the afternoon, and Scott and Tessa are sitting three feet apart from each other, squashed up against opposite ends of a faded blue sofa. Across from them sits a tall, thin man in a pair of belted jeans and a button-down shirt, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. His hands are folded in front of him, thumbs tucked over each other, forearms placed equidistant at a neat triangular angle, veins protruding against the wiry muscle.
Scott has been absent-mindedly sizing up their therapist’s forearm muscles for the past few minutes and concluded that they’ve got nothing on Tessa’s. She’s been hitting the gym harder than usual lately, trying to build up muscle again after the wastage of a week spent in a hospital bed, and further weeks spent hobbling at a snail’s pace around her childhood home in London. He sees her in the mornings when he arrives at the rink, passing by the gym to put his things away in his locker. She’s the only one who’s ever in there at five a.m., dripping sweat, her face red and flushed, frustration and exhaustion warring for dominance.
Tessa doesn’t tell him these things, not any more. Not since her surgery. But Scott knows them anyway.
Across the desk, their therapist spreads his hands and then clasps them together again.
“Thank you for your honesty so far, I think we’ve made a great start here. Now, I’ve got a little game for us to have a go at if you’re up for it. The rules are simple. I read out a statement, you tell me yes or no depending on whether you think the statement describes the relationship between the two of you. If anything comes up that you or I feel needs elaboration, we can discuss. Sound good?”
Scott caught the first ten seconds, and then got distracted watching Tessa’s foot tapping restlessly against the edge of the sofa, but he nods anyway, hoping it’s the correct answer. Out of the corner of his eye, he’s relieved to see Tessa nod her head too.
Their therapist smiles. “Great. Okay, first one. Friends.”
“Yes,” Tessa says.
It takes Scott a little too long to remember what they’re doing, enough that Tessa darts a worried glance towards him.
“What? Oh, sorry, yes. Friends. Yeah.”
She frowns and returns to staring down at her hands, folded atop the arm on her end of the sofa. It’s obvious she thinks he’s not taking any of this seriously enough. This is supposed to be couples’ therapy (which they’re resolutely not calling couples’ therapy, even though the man sat opposite them is the number one marriage counsellor in Michigan, and the pamphlets arranged neatly in the organiser atop the windowsill have titles like Rediscovering the Romance: 5 Easy Steps, and Conflict Resolution for Couples. Somehow Scott doesn’t think that the solution to he and Tessa’s problems will be found within the pages of Sex and the Soul: A Guide to Discovering the Inner You. Still, maybe it’s worth a try.)
“Okay,” their therapist says, evenly. “Good. Next one. Safety.”
They chorus a yes.
“Confusing,” says their therapist.
Scott doesn’t hesitate. “Yes.”
Tessa is silent. It’s a sign of how little they know each other any more that Scott can’t tell what her silence means. Before, he would be able to tell by the cadence of it, the tilt of her head and the stiffness of her posture, could figure his way through based on the map of her body. He would know, even if she didn’t say anything. He used to know.
“Yes,” she says, eventually, with reluctance.
Their therapist looks across to her. “It’s okay. If everything about your relationship made sense to the two of you, you wouldn’t be here. This is good.”
Tessa doesn’t say anything, her lips pressed together so tightly that Scott can see the muscles at her cheek trembling with effort.
They move on.
Scott stares across at her for the next few minutes as their therapist fires off statement after statement: difficult (yes), intense (yes), personal (yes), secretive (yes). Tessa’s expression doesn’t change an inch. She looks down at her hands, her jaw set, her shoulders angled away from him, legs crossed right over left, so still that it’s like she’s sitting for her portrait.
“Intimate,” their therapist says, and the muscles at Tessa’s jaw and cheek twitch.
If nothing else, at least there’s a mutual understanding in the silence that falls across the room, allied in the unspoken agreement that certain things are better left unsaid.
Scott pulls his hands into his lap. Their therapist nods, slowly, scribbles something down on the notepad in front of him in tiny printed letters, too small for Scott to read.
He wonders what it says, wonders what their little mannerisms and words, unspoken and otherwise, are saying to this stranger about the relationship that he and Tessa have. How would someone else define it, this thing that the two of them have never been able to themselves? In the flicker of Tessa’s gaze across to his, the brief moment of nervous eye contact before she returns to staring at her hands, and he swallows and looks out of the window, does that tell everyone else the things they’ve never been able to admit to each other?
He imagines a diagnosis written down along the neat, ruled lines of their therapist’s notebook. Maybe Tessa would like it that way, thirteen years of growing up together ordered and outlined into something that makes sense.
“Possessive,” says their therapist.
“Yes,” Tessa says, firmly, at the same time as Scott shakes his head.
She turns to him with an incredulous look on her face. “What? Scott, you spent years fighting off any guy who so much as blinked at me.”
“It’s called being protective,” he says, hotly. “There are a lot of assholes out there. You could’ve gotten hurt, you didn’t know any better.”
“And that was your decision to make?” Tessa says. “You just decided that you could look after me better than I could look after myself? Better than my parents could?”
Tessa’s voice is beginning to pitch upwards, as raised as it ever gets, and Scott knows they’re edging into dangerous territory but he can’t bring himself to back down. It’s the first time he’s been able to provoke any kind of emotion in her since she came back from her surgery, and he finds himself clinging to it, desperate for more.
He folds his arms over his chest, obstinate. “Yes. If it was for your own good. I had a responsibility.”
“To who? Who asked you to take that on yourself?”
“Does it matter, Tess? My whole job my entire life is to look after you. You’re my partner!”
“Well,” Tessa says coolly, her expression settling into something small and hard. “I should thank you for your service. You took that responsibility incredibly seriously until it involved picking up a phone and calling. Were guys easier to protect me from than an operation, Scott, or was it just more fun for you?”
“Okay, okay,” the voice of their therapist cuts across the room. “I appreciate these are important conversations to have, but we need to think about phrasing our questions in a less hostile way.”
Neither of them pay him any attention. Scott’s eyes remain fixed on Tessa’s, all but unblinking; he can see her chest rising and falling in time with his, breathing shallow. The unwavering intensity of her gaze on him makes him shiver.
There’s no hostility, Scott wants to tell this stranger sitting across from them, this man they’re paying ridiculous amounts of money to uncover things that they’ve worked so painstakingly to hide. There could never be hostility — with Tessa? Never. Frustration, sure, bubbling away under the surface for years and years, the heat turned up a little higher each time he’s told to look after Tessa, protect Tessa, make sure Tessa gets home safe. Make sure she doesn’t do anything stupid (but really, when in her entire life has Tessa ever been the stupid one?). Look out for Tessa, all on her own in Waterloo. Don’t let her fall in with the wrong crowd, keep her away from your friends and the basement parties. Don’t drop her. Don’t let her down. First and foremost, above anything else, your job is to keep her safe.
When you kiss her, feel her body warm and pliant under your touch, there’s nothing safe there.
When her shins split open and the scalpel offers relief that you can’t help her with, that’s your failure too.
Now she sits perched on the end of a battered old sofa, her hands clasped in front of her, legs crossed over one another, and along the ridged muscle of her calves, there are two neat, straight lines puckering her flesh. Hers is a body you don’t recognise, and a person you recognise even less.
“I want to explore this word a little more,” their therapist says. “Possessive. It’s a difficult topic to address, I understand. But I want to emphasise that this shouldn’t be a dirty word for either of you. There’s nothing inherently wrong with being possessive, so long as we control the way we behave because of it. Scott, if we start with you — it seems that your behaviour stems from a desire to look after Tessa, to look out for her. Would you agree with that assessment?”
Scott gives the smallest of shrugs. He’s still looking at Tessa, who is still looking back at him, steadfast. “Sure, I guess.”
“And Tessa, if I may... would you consider yourself possessive of Scott?”
“Yes,” she says, green eyes locked on his. “Very.”
“How would you say this behaviour manifests for you? What circumstances? What happens, what do you do?”
Out of the corner of Scott’s eye, he watches as Tessa rubs her thumb over the top of her hands, back and forth in a soothing motion. It’s odd, seeing her do that. Usually that’d be his job, the same way it always is when they’re standing side by side at the boards and waiting to take to competitive ice, or warming up in a nondescript hallway in the back of a rink, and he catches the sudden thrill of nerves that sets her fingers trembling. But he doesn’t feel like he can reach out and touch her anymore; that possibility shrivelled between them in her months of her recovery, when the guilt kept him locked up with his sandbag and his unsent text messages.
“I don’t really know, I suppose—” Tessa starts, pausing to draw in a shaky breath. “I guess it’s when people approach Scott, new people, and I don’t know who they are or what they want. From him. And I know that they don’t know who I am. They don’t know what our relationship is, or what we do together, and I, um… I guess I want them to know. I want people to know. But I never really do anything, I wouldn’t say anything, I wouldn’t…”
“Girls,” she says, with a nervous look in her eyes. “Mostly.”
“Would it be fair to call this feeling something more than possessiveness? Jealousy, perhaps?”
“I only ask because it’s not uncommon in cases such as yours,” their therapist continues. “You two have spent the vast majority of your lives together. It’s likely that you’ve spent more time together than you have with your family, All of this is compounded by the fact that you stopped living with your parents when you were very young — just thirteen and fifteen, if I’m not wrong. Such situations can force people to grow up much earlier than usual. A relationship can easily become complicated.”
“It’s not like that,” Tessa says, her voice impossibly firm. “We always had boundaries. We both understood that our relationship was too important to sacrifice for — for something else.”
Scott wonders if boundaries were crossed before or after he kissed her in the warm darkness of his best friend’s basement; or was it only when she straddled him in the backseat of his car and tried to undo his shirt with trembling, wine-drunk hands, her mouth sloppy at his collarbone — or do these things not even register at all in Tessa’s head as veering anywhere near their stonewalled boundaries?
“Scott?” their therapist says, turning the attention to him. “Your perspective?”
He’s intensely aware of Tessa’s eyes on him, finding things that he doesn’t want her to see.
“No, um… I agree,” he says, clearing his throat. “We don’t think of each other that way. Tess is like a little sister to me. We look out for each other, that’s all.”
Tessa gives a satisfied nod, her hair bobbing around her shoulders. “Right,” she says, sounding pleased.
There’s a nasty feeling in the pit of Scott’s stomach; he can taste it on his tongue when he swallows, something like bile, sour and acidic, and he looks down at his hands.
“Right,” he echoes, and shoves away the little voice inside him that insists otherwise.
Their therapist is happy. Tessa’s happy.
Two out of three isn’t bad.
Tessa has always been pretty.
Even at nine years old, Scott wasn’t blind. Convention told him that the way her eyes dipped at the corners when she laughed, and the way her nose turned up a little at the end, and her cheeks curved out, flushed and full: all these things made her good-looking to an unbiased observer. Growing up, it was all his friends ever wanted to talk about when it came to the subject of his skating: how he managed to swing getting a partner like that — always with the raised eyebrows and the knowing smile, and sometimes it made Scott want to punch his friends clean in the mouth.
Safe to say, it hasn’t exactly passed him by that his childhood skating partner happened to turn into one of the most beautiful women Scott has ever seen in his life.
But something strange happens when they win the Olympics.
They’re standing there atop the podium, Tessa’s hand clasped in his, trembling underneath his white-knuckled grip, and he doesn’t even hear the crowd. He doesn’t see them, the shadowed faces outshone by the spotlights that bounce off the ice, sheer and clean against his and Tessa’s pale costumes. Earlier, he thought of the moon, stardust spun into silk thread and wrapped around her waist, around his torso, the thread that holds them together when he gets dizzy just to look into her eyes and the starkness of her dark hair against her neck makes him shiver all over.
The moment after the gold medals are hung around their necks, she looks up at him and smiles so brilliantly and brightly that it’s an entirely different memory that floods through him: of the days spent out in front of his childhood home, catching the sun in his eyes so that he could bring it back for himself.
How, as surely as it came, it would leave him alone again.
“I don’t believe in love,” Tessa declares one day, when the afternoon sun is streaming in through Scott’s living room windows, patchwork tiles of rosy golden light strewn across the battered old sofas and hand-me-down armchairs that he’s picked up from relatives and family friends who have been around long enough to remember the days he was toddling around his parents’ backyard with a pair of underpants on his head.
There’s a point, her statement — she hasn’t just declared it apropos of nothing.
She swung by to pick up her copy of The Night Circus, the one that she forced Scott to borrow ten months ago and which has lain untouched on his bedside table ever since, only the conversation meandered along the rambling pathway of what they’ve both been up to in their week off from training (Tessa has been in six separate time zones in the space of a few days. Scott has decided that Molson Old Blue is his favourite of all the whiskeys the liquor store around from his brother’s place has to offer.) They find themselves now in a familiar situation: Tessa with her legs slung over the back of Scott’s sofa, her head pillowed on the squashed beige armrest, Scott sprawled along the length of the sofa next to her.
One of Tessa’s old school friends got married last week, she tells him. A gaudy, ostentatious thing with a five-tier cake and a train on the wedding dress long enough to swaddle an entire nursery of babies. Which, apparently, was the whole point.
“Shotgun wedding?” Scott says, and Tessa nods, picking at the skin around her thumbnail with bland disinterest.
“Jordan says that’s all weddings are now,” she sighs. “People thinking they’ll be happier once it’s legally binding. Nobody gets married just because.”
Still, she makes Scott detail the precise minutiae of his dream wedding to her (a plan that isn’t all that complex, nor has he really thought about it before this moment in time), nodding thoughtfully all the while, before coming out with her thesis statement: “I don’t believe in love.”
Scott can’t help but wonder whether Tessa’s recent nihilism has anything to do with the fact that her boyfriend, a dark-haired Olympic swimmer she met at a charity gala a few months ago, hasn’t replied to her messages for the fourth day running.
He makes a show of poking his head up to glance surreptitiously around the room, holding a finger to his lips. “Shhh, don’t say that too loud,” he whispers, as Tessa levels him with a take-no-prisoners, patented Tessa Virtue look. “Marina has spies everywhere.”
“I don’t mind if Marina hears,” Tessa shrugs. “I can pretend I’m in love when we skate. I just don’t believe in it.”
“Not sure that’s the fluff piece that CBC will be after, considering we just won gold acting out our love for a global audience of millions, Tess.”
“We could say anything and they’d find a way to make a fluff piece out of it,” she says, rolling her eyes. “I could say that you burp in your sleep, or that you pick your fingernails clean with your teeth, and they’d stick some cheesy background music on it and call it proof of our close friendship.”
“‘In my sleep’?” Scott grins, raising his eyebrows in the way that he knows always irks her. “Careful, you’ll start a scandal.”
Tessa huffs a brief exhale of laughter before falling silent, and Scott returns to staring back up at the ceiling.
Settled beside Tessa like this, her body warm with the gentle heat of the sun scattered across the two of them, it’s easy to pass the time. He doesn’t feel like there’s anywhere he needs to be, anything he needs to be doing — not like he does normally, with his brain and his body going a mile a minute, his attention bouncing from one thing to the other. With Tessa, he can just be. The seconds slip by without him even noticing them.
There’s a rustle from the other end of the couch, a slight creaking as Tessa lowers her legs down to slot beside his, denim shorts to mid-thigh, and then bare skin faintly sticky with the heat.
“We should get married,” she says, and Scott almost chokes on his own saliva.
Her eyes dart across to meet his, her pupils dilated with what Scott can only read as surprise, maybe as much at what came out of her own mouth than the way he reacted.
“Not like that,” she amends, hastily. “I just mean that if things don’t work out, you know — if neither of us find anyone worth the effort, and you still want to… if we’re still friends, like we are now. We could get married. We’d be good at it, I think. Being married.”
Scott stares across the sofa at her.
She shifts uncomfortably in her seat, her brows pulling together. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because you just proposed to me.”
“I didn’t propose!” she protests. “I…”
“Proposed. You asked me to marry you. I think that’s a pretty cut and dry definition.”
He hasn’t decided yet whether it’s safer to take her seriously or play it all off as an elaborate joke. For what it’s worth, Tessa looks similarly conflicted. He’s really quite surprised she’s followed through as long as she has; the Tessa of five years ago would have played it off with a coughing fit by now.
“It’s not a — it’s not a proposal,” she says again. Her cheeks are cherry-red, practically glowing in the warm light of the living room. “It’s an… I don’t know, a business arrangement. You know, a fallback plan. In case of emergency.”
“Wow, Tess. Please do tell me more about this hugely romantic business arrangement. Do we exchange rings, or just non-disclosure agreements? Invite our friends and family to the corporate merger event of the season?”
They stare at each other for a long moment, each trying to figure the other out. Tessa’s gaze is steady, her eyes fixed on his — irises pale, almost sea-glass green in the filtered light. But she’s looking at him in that way she does when she’s trying to impress meaning on a situation, and in her head Scott can tell she’s reciting all the tips for effective communication that their therapist taught her (and him, but he never learned them half as well as she did). Maintain eye contact. Keep the expression neutral. Not even a slight tremor at the corners of her lips. She’s still and solid: preparing herself for his response.
And, God help him, he actually thinks about it.
Marriage, with Tessa. He tests out the weight of the word in his head, the shape and sound of it.
It’s absurd to even consider the notion; he feels an immediate wave of guilt, like he’s doing something fundamentally wrong, like he’s giving in somehow. He can’t imagine her in a puffy white dress, hand in hand with him at the altar. She wouldn’t cry when he read his vows, and her hand wouldn’t tremble when he slipped the ring onto her finger. Knowing Tessa, she would probably show him up even then, recite her vows word-perfect and clear while he held up a smudged cue card and read off line after line in a shaking voice.
The more he thinks about it, the deeper the idea burrows into his brain, the less jaw-droppingly ridiculous the whole thing sounds.
Maybe it’s because he hasn’t seen her for a week, and Tessa’s the sort of fixture in his life that he never realises how much he misses until she’s not there. But maybe it’s something else entirely, something that whispers in the back of his head that, as much of what he knows marriage to be — patience and loyalty and unasking support, the presence of a partner to share in your highs and your lows and all variations in-between… well, isn’t that what they have already?
“You know, you usually have to love someone to marry them, Tess,” he says, unsteadily.
“I know,” she says. “I mean… we do, but it’s not — it’s not like that. Is it? It’s just… different.”
Five minutes earlier, she was proclaiming her indifference to the entire institution of romance, but love, in the silly sense that pervades their interactions with other people, the flushes of physical attraction that make Tessa’s voice go all high and giggly when she talks to handsome strangers, and turns Scott’s palms clammy and slick, has nothing to do with the two of them.
Tessa loves him, and he loves her, and it’s both the easiest and the hardest thing in the world.
He knows his answer without even having to think about it.
“So,” he asks later, “in this end-of-the-world scenario, marrying me is a better option than staying single the rest of your life?”
“Mmph,” she mumbles, rather noncommittally for someone who has just pledged to see him through sickness and health, for richer and poorer, for better or worse. “Marginally. Don’t let it go to your head.”
There is one thing he knows about Tessa, above all else, and it is this: Tessa Virtue is constant.
If he is the screwball, bouncing off the walls of the metaphorical ship they’ve set themselves adrift in, she is the captain and the rudder and the anchor all in one, guiding the two of them to solid ground. Tessa does not have flights of fancy. She doesn’t devolve into panic when their protocols come back with an invalidated element. When the surgeon tells her that her only options are a second surgery or retirement, she sits calmly in the passenger seat of Scott’s car afterwards, gathering his affirmations of support around her like impenetrable armour. Then she calls her mother, calls their coaches, walks back inside the clinic, and gives her answer.
She is constant, therefore she is ever-present; therefore she is unchangeable; therefore she is what she is, which is his partner.
Partner, which outlasts girlfriends and boyfriends, outranks friend or acquaintance, occasionally comes second to dates or hazy nights in a stranger’s bedroom, but stays long after the hungover struggles to sneak out of the front door and disappear before the morning light.
His relationships sputter and die like fireflies crushed up against a bug screen: once, twice, in quick succession, each attempt hot on the heels of the one that came before. Hers tend to stick around for longer: men with square jaws and messy hair who only ever appear when she’s in town for longer than a week and disappear just as quickly, a boyfriend on speed dial.
But they make her happy, most of the time, in that constant, safe way that he imagines makes Tessa feel like she’s ticking off all the boxes on her ten-year plan. And it would be bitter of him to say that he didn’t enjoy himself in the haphazard lifespan of his relationships.
He’s long-since learned not to compare the two halves of his life.
There’s Tessa, and everything she is.
And in everything she cannot be, there’s room for everyone else.
They win Worlds in 2012. It’s the first time they beat Meryl and Charlie since the Vancouver Games, and it should feel more like a victory than it does. They’ve been training hard for this, their first full season of competition after Tessa’s second surgery, and everybody tells them they deserve it. That this win comes at just the right time, that it sets them up well for success in Sochi in two years’ time. That they should be proud of what they’ve overcome to get here. That the pendulum is swinging back in their favour after last season’s successive defeats.
Scott stands on the podium, feeling the plywood bow under the blade of his skates, Tessa’s hand limp and still in his. Her smile doesn’t reach her eyes, not even when the medals hang safely around their necks.
On the bus on the way back to the hotel, she doesn’t take up her usual seat a few rows behind Scott, tucked away next to a window by herself, where she can plug her headphones in her ears and shut the world out.
Instead, she slips into the seat next to him and curls herself wordlessly into the embrace he extends. Her small face is pale and cold, cheeks still red with her makeup, probably staining the shoulder of Scott’s t-shirt as she presses her face against it, but he doesn’t care. The darkness rumbles by the window of the coach, the blurred colours of the dusky French countryside keeping them company into the night. Scott never had much patience for seeing the world through a pane of glass, but it’s alright to be here with her.
“You okay?” he says, his words ruffling her hair.
“Still deciding,” she says.
Her hand wraps more securely around his waist, her fingers slipping across the ridges of his abdominal muscles; her touch is cold even through his shirt, and he shivers.
“You’re not sorry. You’d steal the heat from my vital organs if I’d let you.”
“Maybe,” she mumbles drowsily, lifting her legs to slip across his, pressing their bodies closer together. “I have poor circulation. It’s a medical condition.”
“Was the heating on your side of the bus also broken?” he says. “Chiddy’s looking nice and toasty over there, you might want to go turn him into an ice cube too. Spread the burden of being your personal space heater.”
“I don’t think Chiddy would appreciate that very much.”
“What about my appreciation?”
“You don’t get a say in the matter,” she says, tipping her head to the side to eye him up. “You’re stuck with me whether you like it or not.”
Over the years, Scott has gathered sufficient knowledge of his partner to consider himself something of an expert in Tessa Virtue. There are the things she says when she actually means something entirely different, things she does when she doesn’t know how to say them. And then, more infrequently, he gets a Tessa like this: one who hasn’t figured out what she means or wants, one who curls herself into his chest and asks him, without saying anything at all, to help her make sense of it.
She’s funny, this Tessa.
This Tessa needs comforting, but doesn’t know how to ask for it, doesn’t even know how to begin the conversation. Probably wouldn’t even if she could. With a textbook of communication strategies behind her, Scott wonders if she could ever admit to being vulnerable, most of all to him.
Absent-mindedly, he runs his hand along her legs in his lap, letting his palms wander. He likes these leggings on her; they’re sheer and soft, and he can feel the hard shape of her underneath, the way every muscle is corded tight, controlled. He knows it’s a point of pride for her as well, her years of work written in muscle and scar tissue. Tessa’s body is battle-hardened; he hasn’t yet forgiven himself for letting her fight alone for most of it.
“Chiddy said you looked tired in the midline step,” Tessa says. “He told me to tell you to stop slacking off in the double run-throughs.”
Scott raises his eyebrows. “Oh yeah? He did, did he?”
“He said, and I quote: ‘Tell Scott he’s going to have to do better than that to keep up with the youngsters. Getting old might be okay in ice dance but getting slow isn’t.’”
Scott glances across to Patrick, sitting peacefully in the row directly across from them. Patrick startles once when he catches Scott looking at him, then startles again when he realises that he’s staring at the two of them all but sitting in one another’s laps. His head snaps around to stare straight ahead, the expression on his face so mortified that Scott would think he’d just caught them having sex.
“See, he picks a fight but he never stands up to it,” Scott grins, sticking his tongue out at Patrick before settling back into his seat. “All bark and no bite, eh, Chiddy?”
“Don’t bully him.”
“I’m not bullying him! He’s the one calling me old and slow. Jeez, is it too much to hope to get some sympathy from my own partner?”
He’s expecting the usual wiseass response from her, something about how he gets precisely as much as he deserves, or how her sympathy for him dried up ten years into their partnership, but she doesn’t reply. When he looks down at her, she’s staring past him and out the window of the coach, a far-off look in her eyes. She’s been present in their conversation, but she hasn’t really been here — not with him, not fully, just like she wasn’t there with him on the podium when they accepted their gold medals, the smile that wouldn’t reach her eyes.
Tessa does this sometimes, just disappears into herself. She usually shakes it off after a day or two, but to say the process scares him would be putting it lightly.
“Hey,” he says, gently, giving her thigh a squeeze. “You gonna let me in on whatever’s happening in there? I’m not dumb, you know, I can tell when something’s up. You weren’t okay on the podium, and you’re not okay now. Let me help.”
Tessa sighs, wriggling down in her seat so she can tuck her head against his shoulder. Her breath blows out warm against his skin, little blooms of heat.
“I don’t know,” she says, and he feels her palm splay in an entirely distracting manner across his abdomen, knows she’s focusing on where she touches him and not the things she’s struggling to say. “It felt odd. Didn’t it? I mean, of course I’m glad we won. It’s everything we’ve been working for this year, it’s what we wanted. The medal is important.”
Her hand slips up to his chest, stroking across the place the gold medal rested against his costume only a few hours earlier.
“It’s supposed to be about the process,” she says. “But the process drives the results, and this is ours. We won.”
“You don’t sound happy about that,” Scott says, carefully.
“I guess I thought it would feel different.”
He doesn’t really know what to say to that. He has no answer for why things aren’t enough for her, why sometimes he worries that even a gold in Sochi won’t be enough. After seventeen years of sacrifice, he can’t tell her that they’ll stand on the top of that podium, and it’ll make everything worthwhile. Tessa has always wanted so much, and been afraid of her own wanting.
When he doesn’t reply, she gives a quick shrug. “Well. Expectations too high, I guess,” she says, with a weak smile that only breaks his heart a little.
“Tell you what,” he says. “Maybe we should show up to training on Monday with the gold medal around our necks. It’d be worth it to see the look on Meryl’s face, eh?”
Tessa bats a hand harmlessly against his chest, glancing around at the assorted passengers of the quiet bus. “Shush, someone will hear.”
But she’s grinning now — a proper smile, and Scott considers his mission complete.
It’s all part of his job, and he takes no role more seriously than his duties as Tessa’s partner. He knows that she prefers the stories that make narrative sense: the gold medal that brings resolution, tied up with a neat bow. She likes stories of intrigue and mystery, motivations revealed in the third act that bring meaning to everything that has come before. If their story were a three-act play, Scott supposes that the denouement would be that he’s been secretly working with Meryl and Charlie all along, or his mother is a Russian mole planted to turn him into a sleeper agent for the motherland.
Scott prefers the simpler explanation.
The one where it’s nothing more than a boy who falls in love somewhere between the ages of nine and nineteen, and spends the rest of his life trying to make it all make sense.
Their relationship is weird. Scott has come to accept this.
It’s a fucked up kind of thought process that allows him to imagine Tessa as a sexual prospect on the ice and as virginal as freshly fallen snow off of it. In his head, he knows that Tessa’s no saint. He’s seen the text messages, walked in on her once or twice on the phone with a long-distance boyfriend and noticed the way her pupils were blown a little too wide, her breathing too harried. But it’s easier to work with Tessa — whom he has already established he loves, finds attractive, and at one point may have agreed to marry in some failsafe scenario? — when he’s not also contemplating the fact that somebody out there is fucking her sideways, and maybe he once wanted to as well.
It was harder when he was younger, figuring out how to ignore the very attractive young woman who put herself in compromising positions with him on the ice. Now, she’s as close to an extension of his own body as he’s ever known; being near to her is his default state. He’s used to slipping an arm around her when they’re standing close, touching her for no reason other than he can. When she arrives at the rink in the mornings, she never announces her presence: she just trails her fingers across his waist and then a palm up his back, smoothing all the way up to the nape of his neck. It doesn’t feel strange or silly, doesn’t make Scott’s knees go weak in the way that it might if it were someone else. He doesn’t blush at the feel of her body under his hands, and he hasn’t thought about kissing her in a very long time.
Until their physiotherapist ruins it all by suggesting to Scott that, actually, there is something more he can do to help Tessa manage her leg pain — something that will make her feel better and make him feel more involved, less of an abject failure when she’s hunched over the boards, breathing thinly through gritted teeth, and he can only stand there and watch — so of course, their therapist signs off on it too, and then they’re really down the fucking creek without a canoe.
Tessa has problems with her legs. Scott, who turns out to be really quite good at massage, knows how to fix them. It’s not weird if they don’t make it weird. Unfortunately for the two of them, they never learned how to do anything without making it weird.
It’s all to do with his latent guilt for not being there to properly support her during her first surgery. He’s sure of it. The thrill of satisfaction he feels when a tight knot of muscle releases under his thumbs, and she melts back against him, all grateful sweetness and stuttered breath (and occasionally, when he presses deep, a string of curses the likes of which he’s never heard from her before) — it’s all because he’s glad to be useful. He can do something to help when she’s hurting, in a way he’s never been able to previously.
That’s why she turns up at his hotel room most nights at competition, and why their rinkmates have taken to avoiding the dance studio at lunch. It’s also why, on the first day of High Performance Camp, after a day of gruelling training and a couple of weeks where, for one reason or another, they’ve had no excuse to find half an hour alone together at the rink, he’s particularly meticulous in his treatment.
This wouldn’t be a problem if she wasn’t equally responsive.
Tessa lies flat on her stomach on the bed, her head resting on her folded arms, clad in nothing but a flimsy red tank top and a pair of black cotton shorts: her standard sports massage gear. Granted, the shorts might be a little shorter than Scott remembers, because he feels like he would definitely have noticed her ass in them last time. He’s allowed to appreciate Tessa’s ass, because he knows the work she’s put into it; it’s an appreciation of the process of sculpting the ass, not the ass itself.
The day outside is sweltering, and although Scott has cranked up the air con as high as it’ll go, he can still see a faint sheen of sweat glimmering across her body. It must be the heat and the length of time since they last did this that makes her more impatient than usual; she shifts restlessly on the bed, turning her head to peer at him as he kneels next to her.
“Quick question, Scott,” she says. “Are you going to do your job any time soon, or are you just going to sit there and stare at me for half an hour?”
Scott rolls his eyes, and puts his hands on her like she wants.
There’s always a method to their sessions, something he can fall back on when it strikes him that what they’re indulging in here is more than a little strange. Tessa always stays on her stomach, never turns over to expose herself to him. His hands stay firmly below the hemline of her shorts (a boundary that doesn’t really do much when she wears the tiniest pair of shorts in her entire wardrobe). He starts at the bottom of her calves, working his way up through the tight knots of muscle. And he never touches her surgical scars.
She’s restless when he starts, the hard ridge of her calf muscles twitching under his palms when he splays his fingers to squeeze the swell of her calves. The sweat makes her skin slightly sticky, burnished gold in the setting sun that streams through the hotel windows.
“For someone who’s getting all this for free, you’re a demanding customer, Virtch,” he tells her, as he finds the first knot and presses his thumbs against it, massaging the tight muscle like their physio showed him. “You know that?”
“It’s a good—” she stutters, her voice catching on a sharp inhale as he gets the right spot, “—good thing you like me the best, then.”
She’s always like this, giving him grief for the first few minutes, like she can’t let herself admit she enjoys this without first pretending it’s a mammoth chore. There’s a kind of quiet vindication in the way he brings her to silence as he works up her calves, each knot of muscle that he unwinds rewarding him with another tight gasp. But she seems on edge today, more so than usual.
As he kneels over her, he watches her shift restlessly against the bed, turning her head one way and then the next, unable to get comfortable. In the heat of the day, he can see her cheeks are flushed pinker than usual, a few strands of hair beginning to escape the loose bun she’s pulled them into, wisping down the side of her neck.
Usually, he would be able to see her relax with every press of his hands on her. He likes that, being able to take pride in the way he can undo the stress of the day, help her melt back into contentment. Today, she practically jumps out of her skin whenever he so much as touches her; he digs his fingers in to tease out a particularly stubborn knot and swears she all but whines.
“Tess?” he says, his brow furrowing.
Her reply is slightly pitched, muffled against her arms as she turns her head again, looking away from him, out of the window. “I’m fine. Go ahead.”
He obliges, moving his hands further up her legs, over the backs of her knees to the bottom of her thighs. Her scars end just below the knee; Scott doesn’t have to avoid them here, can press his hands against her without fear. She’s never asked him not to touch them, but he feels better when he doesn’t. The rest of her body is made up of the years they shared together; her scars are hers alone.
If Scott were a braver man, he would call this part of their sessions for what they are: a thinly veiled excuse for him to feel Tessa up. Her thighs are, by and large, free from the knots that plague her calf muscles, so there’s little that he actually has to do here beyond make her feel good. Sometimes she’ll direct him, tell him to focus on one leg or the other. Harder, softer. Slower.
He sucks in a breath as he readjusts himself on the bed, and spreads his hands across the back of her thighs, splaying his fingers up just high enough to brush the bottom of her shorts.
It’s an exercise in self-control, a way to remind the two of them that, for as much as they act out romance on the ice, they’re strictly business off of it.
Only, when he leans his weight over her to press down firmly on the backs of her thighs, there’s a definite creak of the bedsprings as Tessa arches her back into it, responding in a way that is far from professional.
He draws his lip between his bottom teeth, focusing his gaze on his hands across her thighs. He’s here with a job to do, he reminds himself. He’s supposed to help her relax, and then they’re both supposed to get a good night’s sleep. In separate rooms. After not having sex, because they’re partners in the strictest sense of the word, business and nothing but.
Scott digs the heel of his palms flush against her skin, dragging up to the hemline of her shorts, and Tessa makes a funny noise, something that he’s not sure isn’t a quiet moan. She shifts, pressing her hips into the bed, and — oh, yeah, she’s definitely getting herself off on this.
“Tess—” he tries again, his cheeks colouring. He can feel himself getting hard, his nether regions reminding him that as much as they try and pass this off as a business arrangement, he’s currently knelt over Tessa on a bed, with his hands about as close to slipping beneath her underwear as is plausibly appropriate between friends.
“Keep going,” she breathes, and his cock twitches.
It’s absurd. It’s a stupid, dangerous idea, but his fingers are currently creeping under the hemline of her shorts and she’s telling him to go higher. He can feel the heat radiating from her, knows it’d be so easy — she’s probably wet already, her underwear soaked through. There’s no difference really; his job is to make her feel good, and isn’t this part of that? He could make her feel so good, slip his fingers inside her. Make her come against his hand without even taking off her shorts. Maybe even use his mouth.
Scott feels like he’s barely breathing as he trails his fingers along the inside of her inner thigh, her legs spreading for him, allowing him access.
“Please, Scott,” she whispers, as she hollows her back, pressing her forehead to the bed, and he can barely breathe, can’t get it past his brain that this is Tessa, this is Tessa, and he’s— they’re—
There’s a sudden clatter of noise from the hallway outside: a group of junior skaters charging down the corridor, hammering on a door to get a friend to come out, and the noise startles Scott back to himself, makes him drop his hands away from Tessa like he’s been burned.
“Shit, sorry, I—” he mumbles, stumbling back from her prone form on the bed. “I should go, I don’t know — I don’t think this is a good idea, Tess, I just — I don’t—”
She turns to look up at him, confusion furrowing her brow as she realises the intensity of his expression. “What? What are you talking about?”
“I don’t — we shouldn’t do this, it’s not supposed to—”
“Hold on, Scott. Slow down. It’s fine,” she says, sitting up on the bed; his eyes are drawn to her chest, her nipples hard and pointed against the thin material of her top, and fuck, he really shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t.
She’s saying something to him, trying to reassure him, but he’s not even listening, not taking it in. Shaking his head, he picks up his bag from the floor by her bed, and backs out of the room with promises to text her later to sort out dinner.
What was he thinking ?
Tessa doesn’t want him. She doesn’t. Scott accepted this a long time ago.
Tessa has her boyfriends, and she has him, and the two never mix. He’s happy with his lot in life, even if he replays the memory of the night in her hotel room more than is strictly healthy, and finds himself wondering what might have happened if things played out a different way. He regretted leaving within minutes, but by dinner the case was closed. Tessa greeted him over their starters like she’d never encouraged him to stick his hand down her pants, and that was that.
He knows it would be different for her anyway, even if they had. The fact of the matter is that she loves him, but not in the way that he wants. Hers is a curiosity, the same inquisitive, sharp-eyed girl who asked him to kiss her in his friend’s musty basement at aged fourteen just to see what it was like. He would give his whole heart away to her, and she wouldn’t have the first idea what to do with it.
And he’s glad, really, he is, that they’ve gotten rid of the whole ridiculous massage thing, told their physio that it wasn’t working out and definitely did not tell their therapist that they almost had sex. He gets to go back to being a partner and not the weird, pseudo-boyfriend that he had become for a few uncertain months. They get to be Tessa and Scott again, watching movies together in Scott’s hotel room and grumbling about blanket-hogging on a sofa that’s too small to fit both of them comfortably. Tessa sticks her cold feet against his cheek, laughing when he knocks her leg away, and they get to return to normal.
Normal is good. Normal is safe. Normal lasts them through Sochi, where they win double silver. (It's a bit like being handed the world's biggest loser award — you know those thirty thousand hours of your life you invested into getting here? It was good, but not quite good enough, sorry — but when Scott thinks of what they learned over their second Olympic cycle, he knows the end result was worth the means. Even if their end isn't quite paved in gold.)
Normal is what he likes best about Tessa, above and beyond the occasional strangeness of their relationship. Being with her is comfortable, like stepping off a cliff edge and never worrying that there'll be a safety net underneath to catch him. He likes the mundanity of their little rituals, the back-and-forth sparring that never really goes anywhere. She swings by his house when she's in town and makes them both hot chocolate with far too much sugar, and she sends him pictures of her house renovations when she takes the plunge doing her place in London up, giving him day-by-day updates just because she knows he likes to feel involved and they're both a little aimless after the loss in Sochi.
They have normal for a couple of years, and it's nice. It's enough. They tour, and they meet up every now and again, and they don't complicate things.
The only problem with Scott trying to follow his partner’s lead and separate his life into Tessa and non-Tessa, is that he’s not nearly as good at it as Tessa is. Tessa knows how to make her boyfriends invisible, understands that the less Scott knows about her love life, the better. She’s with him when they’re together, and that’s all he needs to know.
Scott has tried valiantly to give Tessa the same separation that she gives him, but the two halves of his life have a habit of overlapping in a spectacularly unsuccessful way. His girlfriends surprise him at the rink after training is finished, tag along to international competitions as his own personal cheer squad, try to be sweet and supportive. Tessa is always gracious about the interruption, but Scott can tell the intrusion on what’s considered to be their space annoys her.
This time, “their space” is a meal with the old Sochi team at a local joint in Toronto. Most of the team were in town for an Olympic commemorative event, and Meagan had taken it upon herself to coordinate a dinner somewhere nice, insisting that the occasions they had to get together were few and far between. Romantic partners hadn’t figured into the deal until the very last minute; Patrick needed to drive his girlfriend down to visit family later that evening, so it made sense for both of them to come along — and then it was Meagan’s husband, and Eric’s boyfriend, and Scott could hardly say no when his girlfriend had asked.
Tessa brings nobody.
In the rush of last-minute arrangements, he forgets to tell her that he's bringing Kaitlyn. The first Tessa knows of the situation is when Scott and his girlfriend arrive at the restaurant, fashionably late. It's a chill evening outside, snow piling up at the sides of the roads where it's been driven by the snow plough, and through the frosted windows Scott can see the restaurant is bustling with people looking to escape the winter cold.
"Wait, wait, hold on, I think I forgot something—" Kaitlyn's rummaging through her bag, her pockets, trailing behind him in the slushy snow as he pushes open the door and steps inside, holding it open for her. "Scott, did you see my wallet in the car? Shit, I think I left it..."
"It's fine," he says, waving his hand. "You won't even need it, I'll get this one. I owe you after Saturday."
She makes some vague noises of protest, telling him that they're not supposed to owe each other now, as she scootches in under his arm, ducking inside and stamping her boots off on the doormat, but in all honesty, he's not paying attention. He's found the location of their group: everyone else already arrived, sitting around a large table at the far corner, wine being poured and drinks passed around as they wait for their stragglers. There are only two empty chairs, and they’re directly next to Tessa. There's no doubt as to who the assorted party is waiting on — and who Tessa has not been informed of.
Tessa is sat with her back to the door; the light reflects dully off her long hair, swept behind her shoulders and pinned with a silver inlay grip, neat and elegant. There's a black leather jacket slung across the back of her chair, her legs crossed, a pair of heeled boots poking out from the end of the table. Her shirt is sheer and dark, close-fitting: hopelessly impractical for the weather. And as he stands there, waiting for Kaitlyn to be done shaking the snow off her shoes, Tessa turns and meets his gaze.
She doesn't glower, but she gets as close to it as Scott's ever seen.
Oh, yeah. He's fucked up with this one.
Dinner is an intermittently tense experience. Tessa would never stoop so low as to be rude to anybody, least of all his girlfriend, but there's a definite frostiness coming from her side of the table. She barely says a word to him the entire dinner. Her lack of involvement is almost more distracting than if she had chosen to sit right there in his lap; Scott finds himself paying no attention to his own conversations, caught up in listening to Tessa’s. Eric's telling her some story about the time he accidentally spent six hundred dollars on a bottle of wine in Venice; Tessa laughs, long and loud, and it feels more than a little pointed. Excessive, really.
Kaitlyn has to remind him three times that he’s supposed to be joining in on the conversation, and not sitting in silence nursing his beer next to Tessa who, while she hasn’t exactly turned her back on him, has turned to face the other end of the table as far as can be appropriate without seeming like she’s given up on Scott entirely. It’s a washout of an evening — an awkward dinner, two hours of Kaitlyn enduring having a shitty, silent boyfriend, capped off by an encounter that Scott doesn’t really know what to make of.
He and Tessa are standing outside in the frosty night air, waiting for Tessa’s cab to arrive. She turned down the offer of a lift home — no surprise there, when it was the option of catching a ride with Kaitlyn and him or nothing — but she didn't say no to Scott walking her to the cab while the others settle the bill and keep warm indoors.
This is the last time he’ll see Tessa for a while; she’s got an early flight tomorrow morning, off to Europe. Scott’s not entirely sure where, or for what reason. She probably told him in a text months ago, but the specifics of Tessa’s schedule are far too intricate for him to keep up with. Tessa’s always in progress, always on the way to going somewhere, doing something; she doesn’t like being still.
Scott looks down at his feet, scuffing his shoes against the edge of the pavement, kicking up small sprays of snow into the air. His hands are shoved into his pockets, but they're freezing nonetheless; it's a bitterly cold night, and he doubts Tessa's leather jacket is doing much to keep her warm. Or her shirt, that ridiculous scrap of fabric that clings to every ridge of her toned torso.
"How long did the guy say it'd take?" he says, gruffly. "You shouldn't wait out here for long, you'll freeze to death. Why don't we head back inside?"
Tessa shakes her head, wrapping her arms around herself. "He's just around the corner. I'll be fine." She eyes him up, casting a discerning look down at his trainers, clearly soaking through with melted snow. "You don't have to wait, you know. I can catch a taxi home all by myself."
She shrugs. "If you like. Don't get frostbite on my behalf."
If it were anyone else, Scott would call this an elaborate ploy designed to test his commitment. She's waiting it out with him to get him back for springing a surprise girlfriend visit on her, waiting to see how long he'll suffer through minus temperatures for her sake before calling it quits and heading back indoors. But Tessa doesn't do mind games, silly things like that; she has no patience for it.
They stand in silence for a few moments longer, staring out into the cold. Cars file past, the street full of the sound of horns honking, the Toronto nightlife springing into action around them, and Tessa's taxi still doesn't arrive. It's stupid, the two of them standing here like this, like their relationship is something to be dented by a missed text. She means too much to waste a day stewing over hurt pride.
"Tess—" he starts, using her name because he knows it'll make her look at him, and she does. "Before you go, just quickly, I’m sorry about turning up like that. I should have given you a heads up, I know. I completely forgot until it was too late, but I should've said something. It wasn't fair to bring Kaitlyn in without telling you first."
Tessa's expression tightens, growing cold and closed. "She's your girlfriend, Scott. You're allowed to take her to dinner."
"Yeah, I know, but..." he shifts uncomfortably, searching for the right words, because it's not nothing; he saw her face when he walked in with Kaitlyn in tow, he sat next to her for two hours while she ignored his existence.
"It's none of my business what you and Kaitlyn do," she says.
“But I want to talk about it,” he insists. “You’re always saying we need to set boundaries, Tess — I mean, I think something was overstepped here—”
“Scott, I don’t want to have this conversation.”
He makes a sound of frustration, kicking the pile of snow in front of him; it scatters across the dark tarmac with a soft slush, and Tessa looks up at him in surprise, her eyes wide in the lamplight from the overhead street lights.
“When do we have conversations then, huh?” he says, his voice raising more than he intended. He sees her look around in alarm, checking whether there’s anybody around who could overhear. “When do we talk about things, Tess? ‘Cause all this dancing around shit is getting real tiring, let me tell you. You won’t even look at me when I bring my girlfriend to dinner, but apparently it’s none of your business.”
“Scott,” she hisses, casting a glance back indoors. “Keep your voice down, please .”
He’s a little tipsy off the wine from dinner, and more than a little frustrated by the evening; and sue him, she’s pissing him off, acting like she wants nothing to do with him yet making him suffer all the consequences when he doesn’t behave in a way that suits her. Acting like she’s indifferent — which is worst of all.
“Nobody’s listening, Tess! This is about you and me. Don’t you care?”
“Scott, you’re being ridiculous. For god’s sake.” She glances up and down the road once. “Look, this cab isn’t coming. I’m going to walk.”
“Don’t be an idiot, you can’t walk in this—”
“It’s twenty minutes to my hotel, stop being possessive,” she snaps at him. “I can survive.”
Before she can turn to leave, he catches her wrist; her skin is like ice, the intensity of it almost taking his breath away.
“Christ, Tess, you’re—”
“I’m fine. I’m walking,” she says, her jaw setting in determination.
Scott stares at her for a moment, sizing her up. He knows there’s no talking her out of it: not when she’s like this, with her hackles up, determined to prove somebody wrong. She’s stubborn as a bull, can be a downright pain in the ass with it sometimes, particularly when it’s him she’s railing against. She’s going to walk back to her hotel, and he’s not about to change her mind.
In a quick movement, he’s shucked off his coat and is holding it out to her,
“Come on, then,” he says. “If you’re going to be so goddamn stubborn about it. You’re taking this, and I’m walking you back.”
She glowers at him, and he sees the frustration in her gaze, but it’s mixed with something else. Pride? Vindication? Scott can’t tell, but it warms him from the inside out, makes him forget, briefly, that they’re supposed to be annoyed at each other.
“Fine,” she says, shoving her arms through his coat and wrapping it around herself, setting off down the street without waiting for him. He’ll leave the coat with her later, liking the way it looks on her, dwarfing her smaller frame, secure and snug, and it didn’t cost him that much, not in the grand scheme of things. She never wears the coat again, but she never gives it back either.
It comes as no surprise when Kaitlyn breaks up with him.
Sometimes he can’t tell whether he loves her, or whether he’s simply known her for so long that she’s all he can picture when he closes his eyes at night. If, aged nine, he was paired with a different seven year old, spent nineteen different years with them, would he be as utterly tied to her as he is to Tessa? Is it her, or is it just the fact of their circumstances: time, training, a relationship moulded out of routine?
It’s impossible to split it out. All he knows is that she’s as much a fixture in his life as he is in hers, and there’s an odd sense of pride in their dependency.
She can’t sleep, is what she tells him, the night before their first day of training at Gadbois, the beginning of their pipe-dream comeback, when Scott has set his alarm to five a.m. for the first time in two years, and the bag by his front door is stuffed full of protein bars and there’s a banana ready to go on the counter. She can’t sleep, which is why she turns up at his door in her dressing gown and slippers, having trudged up the four flights of stairs separating her apartment from his. She can’t sleep, but her hair isn’t even slightly tousled, and her eyes are clear and calm, and when she twists her hands together as she stands in the hallway outside his apartment, her dressing gown falls open a little to reveal the kind of silky nightdress that he knows for a fact she doesn’t sleep in unless she’s trying to make a point.
But he invites her in all the same.
It’s just to see what it’s like, just this once. After the years and years of everyone telling them how good they look together, his friends ribbing him about blowing off steam, their coaches all but shoving their bodies together in the sterile confines of a rink or a dance studio — he just wants to know.
There’s one final part of Tessa Virtue that he has no knowledge of.
So he fetches her a glass of water, and they stand awkwardly in his new kitchen together, surrounded by empty packing boxes and emptier cupboards, as the lights wink out from across the canal skyline through his kitchen window. He watches her fingers trace the rim of her glass, the water that she doesn’t drink. And then she sets her glass down, steps towards him, and kisses him.
Her silk nightdress falls from her shoulders to pool at her feet, moon-pale in the darkness as she reaches for his waistband, and before the night is over, he’ll know everything.
The way she looks when he’s on his knees in front of her, pressed up against the bedroom wall; the tightness of her hands fisted into his hair, tugging hard; the sound of her, wet and open against his tongue, slicking down onto his mouth. She’ll push him back onto the bed after she comes for the first time, when his lips are still shiny with her, and she’ll slide over his cock at the exact moment she kisses him, and he’ll feel like he can barely breathe, his senses too full of her, drowning in it, like he never wants to come up for air ever again.
He’ll know how it feels when she moves atop him, riding him against the borrowed sheets on his bed. Her hands will cover his, fastened around her hips, and she’ll make him fuck her the way she wants, dirty and slow, deliberate — and he’ll remember that, too. The way she tightens around him; the little gasps of breath that get higher and quicker when he gets his angle just right.
Clenched around his cock, he watches her as she comes apart, flushed all the way across her breasts and her dusky nipples, belly button ring glinting in the low light, hair damp with sweat and tumbling back behind her shoulders. The stiff, quick jerking of her hips, teeth dug into her bottom lip so tight that it must pain her.
His cock is in her, inside her, slipping wetly between her thighs with each thrust, and his come is inside her too, filling her up so she’s warm and soft, almost too wet, but she makes him fuck her all the way through to a third orgasm.
The morning after, she’ll tell him that he loves her, and he won’t deny it.
They’ll return to training for the first time in two years, and they’ll win Worlds that season, and they’ll win the Olympics the next, and he’ll never stop loving her. It’ll just be incidental to the cause: one part of what she means to him that he can’t have, or she doesn’t want him to have, or he won’t allow himself to have.
Being with Tessa is all-consuming, leaves him breathless and gasping. He couldn’t possibly live in it. His love for her suffocates: too much, too fast, too heavy to allow room for anything else. Loving Tessa leaves no room for the rest of their relationship, doesn’t allow them to be practical with one another, cuts him off from friends and family, sends them down pathways that neither of them can commit to. He can love Tessa; he can’t be in love with her.
But she gives him one night, and it lasts him for the rest of his life.
Every part of his body is shaped by every part of hers. He likes it that way.
His hands, rough and calloused from catching against the rhinestones of her costumes. His arms, tight and corded from years of supporting her weight, forearms that know just where to set around her thighs to keep her spinning about his head. His thighs are creased with fine scars, little silvery lines from where her skate blades have nicked him, like pottery inlay against the rough tan of his skin. His eyes are folded and lined at the corners, creasing in when he smiles, and he hopes he can attribute the laughter lines to her as well.
His body is an instrument for her to use, and she’s left her mark well. He wonders whether she thinks of hers in the same way; whether, catching a moment alone in the shower, she looks down across the planes of muscle and sees him there too.
She’s nestled into the space between his heart and his chest, forced out anything else. There wasn’t space in his body until it came to be hers; it belongs to her, wholly and entirely.
The night after he and Tessa win gold in Pyeongchang, sitting in a dimly lit, ramshackle bar in the north-westerly neighbourhood of the city, it hits Scott that this might be the last time they ever celebrate a victory together.
He doesn’t even know the name of the bar. It’s some divey old place his brothers recommended to him, shoving a few hundred dollars’ worth of Korean won into his hands despite his protesting (a payback for the flights, they insisted), and slapping him on the ass as he headed out with Tessa. Sans their gold medals and their Canadian Olympic gear, no one recognises them. They’re too far out of the city centre, far from the Village and the hotel they rented for the weekend following their win, needing a place to escape from gold medal fever. Here they’re just faces in the crowd, he and Tessa — two foreigners among the influx who have descended en masse upon Pyeongchang for the duration of the Olympics.
They drink soju from shot glasses, shoved up against one another in a booth definitely made for those of a smaller build than a pair of average-height Canadians, and Tessa laughs so hard at the look on Scott’s face when he necks back his shot that she almost chokes on hers. There’s soju, and there’s beer of questionable quality, and a cheery, companionable buzz of conversation and laughter about the whole place, cramped as it may be. And he’s with her, so it’s good.
A couple of hours into their evening, Tessa wobbles unsteadily back from the bar with a grin on her face and a large cocktail glass clutched in her hand.
“Voila!” she says, setting it down on the uneven wooden tabletop with a flourish, nearly slopping half of the liquid over the side of the glass in the process. “Got you something.”
Scott leans forward and sniffs it with suspicion. The mixture is colourless and clearly lethal. The smell of alcohol rising off it would be enough to stop an elephant in its tracks; Scott considers the fact that they’re supposed to be doing interviews at eight tomorrow morning.
“Try it,” Tessa says, crowding herself closer to him, her fingers extending around the stem of the glass to push it slowly across the table to him. “I got it especially for you, Scott.”
The arm that he slips around her is easy, helping her stay upright in her seat as much as anything; she’s had far more to drink than he has, and handles it equally as poorly. “Yeah, I bet you did,” he says, with a slight raise of his eyebrows. “Only thing is, I plan to be still alive in my bed tomorrow morning. I dunno how I feel about taking my chances with that thing.”
She bats her eyelashes at him. “This? This won’t kill you.”
“Uh-huh. You would know, would you?”
“An educated guess,” she says, placing her chin in her hand and tipping her head towards him. Under the dim light of the bar, she’s as pretty as ever. She made an effort tonight, told him he had to as well, told him they deserved to celebrate. He threw on a button down shirt and jeans; she spent half an hour curling her hair only for the wind to blast straight through it as soon as they stepped outside the hotel.
“Come on, I’ll try some if you will. We can both go together. People would like that, it could be so romantic.”
“Oh, sure, passed out together in a pool of our collective vomit. Hallmark, I’m waiting for the call.”
She’s silent for a moment, studying him with her head tilted into the crook of her hand, her eyes roving across him. Then she grabs the cocktail glass and pulls it towards her — takes a long swig of the mixture and grimaces as she sets it down again.
“Fine,” she says, wiping a hand across her lips, her nose wrinkled up. “I’ll make it more fun for you.”
It’s not like he didn’t kind of see it coming — him and Tessa, getting wasted together at a bar where nobody knows who they are — but it doesn’t stop her from taking him by surprise when she slips a knee across his to straddle his lap and leans down to kiss him, hard.
There’s nothing gentle about it, nothing measured. He can taste the alcohol on her lips, burning at his throat, sour-sweet and stripped raw, the cloying sweetness of her mouth and her tongue. His hand slips below the table, finding the dip of her waist where her dress clings to her, feeling the burning heat of her against him, atop him. It’s the memory of the night in his apartment that floods back to him, filling his senses: sweat-slick skin and the electric tension. This was where he held her hips when he fucked her, this was how she moved when she surged against him, all intent and purpose.
He’s not really sure why she’s kissing him now, what the point is beyond getting him to taste the foul alcohol she brought back with her. Around them he can hear a drunken whoop, a smattering of giggles as they’re noticed by a bar patron. But he lets her settle her weight down against his hips and wrap her hand around the back of his neck, lets her kiss him until there couldn’t possibly be anything left for him to taste on her lips, and she slips him off again, boneless.
In the quiet aftermath, they’re both breathing as heavily as each other. Scott raises his hand to his mouth, touches his lips experimentally, still buzzing with the taste of her kiss — his fingers come away dark with Tessa’s purple lipstick.
There’s a not-so-insignificant part of him that is currently working out the quickest way they can get back to the hotel unnoticed, but drunk as he is, he knows it’s a stupid idea.
Kissing Tessa does nothing but burn.
“You gotta stop doing that, Tess,” he sighs. “It’s not fair.”
“I know.” Her voice is small and quiet, hands folded into her lap as she sits beside him, looking down. “I’m sorry, I am, I shouldn’t…”
“S’alright. We won gold. Twice. You’re allowed to get kinda carried away just this once.”
He tilts his head across to grin at her, making sure she knows he’s not angry or upset. He’s only certain of himself, knows now what is good for the both of them and what isn’t. He and Tessa cannot co-exist in all or nothing. She burns, and he burns, and together they have nothing left to breathe.
“We did good, kiddo. We won.”
She gives him a small smile, bends her head down to take her hand in his and trace her fingers across the lines of his palm.
He thinks of the thousands of times she’s taken his hand before, the thousands of things she’s meant to him. What she means to him now, in the full knowledge of what they could have, and what they’ve chosen to have. The things they’ve chosen to preserve.
“Yup,” she says, folding her fingers into his. “We did.”
They meet again at Christmas.
Technically, it’s a few days before Christmas — the only reason they’re both still in Toronto and not off celebrating with their respective significant others. Scott still thinks he might not have turned up to this charity gala if it wasn’t for Tessa’s insistent text messages that he was not to leave her alone to accept their lifetime achievement award under any circumstance, Scott Moir. He’s as much a fan of pageantry as the next guy (that is to say, not at all), and the Canadian Olympic Committee has been known to go somewhat overboard when it comes to commemoration events.
At any rate, he turns up. He gets a little teary-eyed during the video montage of his and Tessa’s career, gives a thank-you speech that’s good enough considering the first time he ran through the whole thing with Tessa was in the wings waiting to go on stage, and makes full use of the free bar offered by one of the Olympic Committee’s corporate sponsors. He doesn’t mean to find Tessa later, when the tables and chairs have been cleared to make way for a dance floor, but that’s never mattered very much. Whether they mean to or not, they always find their way back to each other. It’s fitting, he thinks, that they end the way they began. Dancing. Always dancing. She needs no excuse to slip into his arms at a gala that’s all but hosted in their honour.
They haven’t skated together in over a year, and he still remembers exactly where his hands are supposed to fit around her, one at the upper-middle of her back, one clasping her hand at his side. His fingers splay, and he catches the silk of her dress and the bare skin both. The heat of her skin makes him shiver.
She’s resplendent in a dress of crimson, berry-red, sleek and sure, the fabric cascading in ruffles down from her waist, her dark hair pulled up and twisted into an elegant bun. Her green eyes are outlined and stark against blushed eyeshadow. She looks every inch the woman he fell in love with.
“We match,” she tells him, low under her breath as he twirls them across the dance floor. “How very high school prom.”
The corsage slotted into the breast pocket of his jacket is a sprig of holly. Emerald green and blood red; he pricked himself on it earlier, fumbling with clumsy fingers until his girlfriend came across to save him from himself.
“Not my idea,” he says, “before you get carried away. Luck of the draw. And a Christmas ‘do, so really, it was bound to happen—”
“I’m calling it fate,” Tessa says. “The universe is looking out for us still.”
“Pretty sure the universe has bigger things to deal with, Tess.”
She shrugs, somehow managing to maintain a perfectly upright posture. Around them, Scott is dimly aware of other couples circling, cutting their own path across the dance floor, but he weaves them in and out effortlessly, guiding Tessa without even a word of instruction.
Fate, he considers. Fate is where the guy and the girl meet, and they fall in love, and they live happily ever after. Fate would have had them married by the age of twenty-three, throwing away a competitive career to settle down together and fade into obscurity. They’ve never needed fate; they’ve created their own.
“You asked me to marry you once,” he says, grateful for the years of practice on the ice that allows them to speak without really speaking, the barest of lip movements, unreadable by all but the keenest of observers. “You remember?”
Tessa cocks her head at him. “Of course. Although, if I remember rightly, it was more of a backup plan than a proposal, really…”
“I think you sold it to me as a post-apocalyptic scenario. The only version of the world where we could get married, settle down together with two and a half kids and a Golden Retriever named Barney. Y’know, the ordinary ending.”
Tessa’s mouth curves gently into a smile, her eyebrows lifting in faint amusement. “Hmm. Much too cliché, I think.”
“So boring,” Scott grins back at her. “No demonic Russian coaches setting off firecrackers during practice, no getting shitfaced and scaling lampposts in the Sochi Olympic Village? God, Tess, no ice baths. Imagine that? We’d have gone insane within weeks.”
Tessa gives a soft laugh. She tucks her head against his shoulder, turning to press her nose and cheek into the dip of his neck, so close that he can feel her breath across his skin. It’s plausibly deniable to onlookers, nothing but natural to the two of them. Sometimes he thinks they should have been one person: one heart in one body. Maybe they would have been happier like that.
In the quietness of the moment, the music of the band in the background muted against the gentle inhale and exhale of her breathing against him, the steady rhythm of her body keeping time with his — still, even now, they breathe as one — he contemplates all they’ve had together.
Twenty-three years, and each of them different. Day after day, a life marked out on one another in memory and touch and sound; a living history built with the one person he knows him better than anything else in the world. He knows all there is to know about Tessa Virtue, dedicated his life to the study of her. He knows how she snores when she’s completely spent, undignified and very much unladylike; the colour of green her eyes turn when she’s so angry she can barely speak, but she stands and make polite conversation with a bunch of assholes while Scott contemplates whether he could get away with punching them in the face. Twenty-three years, and they have enough love to fill an ocean.
They’ll have twenty-three more, and another twenty-three after that.
Their story is not one of missed opportunities. It’s a life, rich and full and enjoyed, every day of every year— and above all, they have chosen one another. They have chosen to preserve, to endure.
Let the footnote to their story be never-ending, an open bracket:
And they dance.
“The public was enthralled — I think only because we were enthralled with each other. At the end of Swan Lake, when she left the stage in her great white tutu, I would have followed her to the end of the world.”
Rudolf Nureyev, on Margot Fonteyn