Christen has never been good at taking up space.
It’s something her parents used to say: You need to stand up for yourself more, honey. And her teachers, writing little notes on her report cards: Christen is a delight in class, but she should learn to speak up.
And of course, her coach, Vlatko: Project, Christen! I said, PROJECT! Your aura needs to fill this entire arena, you hear me? I want EVERY person in EVERY seat in this ENTIRE building on the edge of their seat! Breathing only when you breathe!
But after all these years, she’s still bad at taking up space.
And right now, she’s teetering frozen at the edge of the unfamiliar skating rink, being bad at taking up space.
The hockey boys currently roughhousing on the ice—towering over her, petrifying in their confidence and the sheer number of them—are fifteen minutes past the end of their allotted rink time. (She checks her watch—verging on twenty minutes, at this rate.) She’d made a half-hearted attempt to kick them out when she’d first arrived, wide-eyed at the flashy, state-of-the-art skating rink. “Um…” she had said softly to the man who looked like he was in charge. “My name is Christen Press? I have the rink starting at 4 o’clock?”
A paunchy, intimidating man with a permanent sneer, he had looked down his nose at her and shoved past. “We’ll be right off,” he’d said, brusquely.
(Spoiler alert: they were not right off.)
She could swear that the well-coiffed blonde skate moms up at the café tables were looking down at her, snickering under their breath.
She was supposed to have warmed up—supposed to have run through her short program, twice—before Vlatko arrived. And though Vlatko is a great coach, he’s strict as hell, and he can (and definitely will) rake her over the coals for not following his exact instructions.
But what can she do; one tiny girl in earmuffs and ice skates against thirty huge dudes and their terrifying coach?
What a way to start off, she thinks to herself, miserable down to her toes in her battered white skates. Welcome to Willard, am I right?
She’s standing there, gearing up for a second attempt at approaching the coach—when suddenly, to her delight, the side doors to the rink fling open, and the Zamboni trundles out, its engine whirring loudly.
A wave of relief surges through her body at the sight of the enormous, lumbering machine.
Thank god. Saved by the Zamboni.
“Sorry, dudes,” the guy driving the Zamboni hollers down at the players. “Gotta clear out! Resurfacing time.”
Giving the elephantine contraption a wide berth, the boys finally trundle off the ice, taking their goals and pucks and sticks with them.
(Several of them eye her up and down on their way out. One is even bold enough to wink. She just rolls her eyes and turns away, fiddling with her skate laces.)
And then—thankfully, finally—she’s alone in the echoing rink. Leaning against the barrier, Christen rests her chin on her palm and watches the Zamboni at work: after all these years, it’s still zen, and a little magical. The machine glides along the rounded corners of the rink, replacing the dinged-up, cross-hatched ice with sleek, silvery swathes. A pristine surface, just begging her to dance on it—just her and the ice, and nobody else, just the way she likes it. She feels a familiar itch in her toes to get out there.
Maybe this will be a good practice session, after all.
“You know, if you’d kicked them off when their time was up, I wouldn’t have had to come rescue you.”
Christen jumps. She’d nearly forgotten she wasn’t actually alone.
The Zamboni driver has parked the machine in front of her, and when Christen gets a closer look, she realizes it isn’t a guy.
It’s a girl, around her age, with an easy smirk, and bright brown eyes peering out under a slouchy orange beanie.
Apparently taking Christen’s silence as an invitation to continue, the girl talks on. Her voice is low and laid-back. A little gravelly. “According to today’s schedule, Willard High hockey practice is from two to four, and then from four to eight, it’s a private training session for…Vlatko Andonovski? That you?”
“…no.” Do I look like a Vlatko?! “Uh, Vlatko Andonovski is my coach.”
“Gotcha, gotcha, okay,” the girl says, leaning back in her seat. “So, if you’re not Vlatko Andonovski, who are you?”
Christen pauses, pulling awkwardly at the fingers of her black knit gloves. “I’m his student.”
“You know,” the girl leans back casually, even as her voice drops lower, to a confidential register. “I’m not even supposed to be resurfacing right now; it’s not on the schedule. But I was watching you for a while, and I figured if I didn’t drive out, you’d just stand there forever.” The girl grins down at Christen from her high perch, even as Christen glares upwards, indignant. “So, you’re welcome for saving you. The least you could do is tell me your name.”
It’s like a voice from the heavens, answering this strange girl’s question. Except it’s not—it’s just Vlatko, here at last, striding down the awkwardly-spaced steps towards them. “It’s four thirty! Give me one good reason you’re not warming up yet!”
The girl smirks. “So, Christen, huh?” And then louder, so Vlatko can hear, she calls out, breezy and casual, “Sorry, it’s my fault, Vlatko. Got my cleaning schedule wrong, so she’s been waiting for me to finish up.” Vlatko gives her a resigned wave, as if they know each other.
As the Zamboni powers up, she shoots Christen another grin. Christen, caught off guard and mind still whirring, doesn’t return it. Hold up, Christen realizes as the Zamboni moves off with a dull roar. She knew who Vlatko was all along, so why was she even asking me? Was she just messing with me?
But she doesn’t have too much time to dwell on the strange encounter. Vlatko comes up next to her, slings an arm over her shoulder.
“Well, here we are at last! Welcome to Willard,” Vlatko proclaims, gesturing grandly around as if they were at the Olympics. “I’ll give you a pass this time, since it was Tobin’s fault, not yours. Strange that she got the schedule wrong, she’s usually very sharp.”
Tobin. Christen rolls the interesting name around in her mind, staring after the girl’s receding figure as the Zamboni slides through the rink’s double doors and out of sight. The girl doesn’t look like she’s smiling anymore, and she doesn’t look back.
“Well, maybe her mix-up was for the best. Got some fresh ice for your first practice!” Vlatko slaps Christen on the shoulder enthusiastically. “I’m glad you’re finally here. This is the big leagues. Senior nationals, here we come.”
Christen takes the ice, with smooth, sure, practiced strokes. She takes a deep breath. Time to focus. No distractions. The next two years are going to set her up for the rest of her life.
“Mom? Yes, I can hear you. It’s been good. Had my first practice tonight. Yes, I’m feeling okay. Yes, I’m stretching enough.”
Lying on her back on the cramped futon with mismatched sheets, Christen can see every ridge and cranny in the low, dust-stained ceiling. Her suitcases are still by the door. It’s pitch black out, but there’s nothing to draw over the bare windowpane. There’s a single fluorescent bulb in the lamp, with no lampshade, and it casts harsh, jagged shadows on the wall. The sound of a toddler’s wails streams up the stairs and through the large crack under the door. Please, please, let him cry himself out by the time I need to go to bed.
Her mom is clearly feeling a bit of separation anxiety. Natural, perhaps, when your teenage daughter moves away from home to accelerate her figure skating training.
Five hours away from home, from the house where she’s lived her entire life.
In the middle of the schoolyear.
Into a house with strangers.
To enter the most grueling training regimen she’s ever experienced.
(A regimen to be paid for with the second mortgage just taken out on the aforementioned house.)
But if you make these sacrifices now, Vlatko had urged Christen and her anxious parents, Christen Press will be standing atop the podium at the next Winter Olympics.
And how could you say no to a dream like that?
Willard is a town for rich folks. Christen knows this, but a million little things still take her by surprise.
The way you can’t seem to find a cup of coffee anywhere in town for less than seven bucks, which is a crime, given how many 5 AM practices Vlatko likes to schedule.
The way there’s no public transportation to be found.
The way the old-fashioned streetlights in the cobblestoned downtown area are festooned with fat garlands and velvety red bows for the upcoming holidays.
The way that the school bus Christen rides in the morning is nearly empty. Instead, shiny BMWs and Audis crowd the high school parking lot.
Willard is also a skating town. The state-of-the-art rink and skating club attracts coaching talent—Vlatko isn’t the only national level coach in these parts—and coaching talent attracts skating talent.
Some families pick up and move to Willard just so their kids can live near the rink, Vlatko had explained. As Christen watches the Christmas-garlanded mansions pass by one by one through the gritty school bus windows, it’s pretty clear what kind of families those are.
The fact that Willard’s a skating town means that some girls know who Christen is before she even arrives. After all, you don’t place first in the senior division at Pacific Coast Sectionals without making some waves. The first week of school, Christen sees some familiar faces from the competition circuit. She knows their names, their ages, their ranking, their competition history. She knows they know all those things about her, too. From across the cafeteria, they all huddle up at a table in a pool of designer coats and purses, studying her, whispering to each other, giggling. They pointedly ignore her when they walk past to dump their trays.
I guess, in this case, they’ve decided it’s not worth it to keep their enemies closer, Christen thinks with a wry smile.
Maybe it’d be more of an option if I came with a matching Gucci belt.
Christen doesn’t mind being by herself. Such is the nature of competitive figure skating. The loneliest of sports. Christen used to hate it, but by now, she’s used to it.
She keeps an eye out, in the hallways, for Zamboni Girl with the funny name and the odd sense of humor. She had looked like she was just around Christen’s age. But for over a week, Christen doesn’t see her once, at school or around the skating rink.
Until, one day, she does.
She’s sharing the rink today; she and Vlatko are on the far side, near the back wall, working on her layback spin. Three or four other girls are scattered across the ice, working with their respective coaches. They huddle and whisper and giggle, just like they huddle and whisper and giggle at school.
They’re not diligent, Christen notices. They take breaks, too many breaks, perching on the first rows of seats like bleachers in a high-school rom-com while Christen sweats on the ice. Even when they’re on the ice, they’re distracted, calling out to each other and gossiping about names that mean nothing to Christen, earning sharp reprimands from their coaches.
Do you want this or not?! Christen finds herself wondering. Not exasperatedly—she’s not emotionally invested in their success enough to be exasperated—but curiously, nonetheless.
Then she thinks of the sparkling mansions, the designer purses, the BMWs.
Maybe it’s hard to seize the day when you haven’t had to sacrifice anything to get the chance to have a day to begin with.
Unsurprisingly, as soon as the coaches are gone for the night, the other girls pack up too, chattering loudly—probably purposely loudly—about some hang-out that night. As if Christen cares. The ice is all hers, for at least a few minutes; that’s what’s important, and Christen skates a wide, quick lap of the rink, feeling like she can breathe easy again. But she only gets a few jumps in before the lights start their warning flickers.
She packs up her things reluctantly in the empty rink, not looking forward to the long commute home. She finally figured out that Willard has a semblance of a bus system. More of a shuttle, really, for octogenarians and for Christen Press. The route passes two blocks north of the rink and then five blocks south of the house of the young couple hosting Christen, adding up to a total of forty minutes, walking, riding, walking. She’s been trying to do homework on the shuttle to save time, but it’s bumpy and dark, and she always arrives home with a splitting headache.
As she heads up the steps from the now-darkened rink, she’s debating with herself whether she should try again tonight, maybe just her Spanish flashcards so it doesn’t involve as much squinting at tiny letters in low light. She’s debating so hard she walks straight into the commotion without realizing.
“You fucking idiot! It’s all over my coat! Shit!”
It’s one of the other skaters, high-pitched and sharp, her friends clustered around her. Chloe Westover; seventeen years old; fourth at Pacific Coast Sectionals; popped her second triple salchow and fell on her double axel. Currently flapping her coat and wailing obscenities in a dark skating rink lobby.
“You need to watch where you’re fucking going!” One of the other girls chimes in, and the third girl is hurling insults too, fluttering protectively around Chloe. Christen edges close. There’s a puddle on the ground and the smell of coffee in the air. And there’s a figure crouched on the ground in front of them, a paper cup in one hand and napkins in the other, a sheet of honey brown hair obscuring their face.
“I mean, you kind of walked into me—”
“Shut up. This is a brand new Canada Goose coat that my parents bought for me as an early Christmas present,” Chloe snaps, “and if it’s ruined, I’m telling your uncle and it’s coming out of your paycheck.”
The girl looks up, expression fiery, as if to retort. But her eyes focus past the cluster of legs and coat hems and land on Christen, standing frozen ten feet down the hallway. Their eyes meet.
Tobin; the Zamboni driver; took credit for saving me from the Willard High hockey team last week and lied about not knowing who Vlatko is. Rink owner’s niece? Currently kneeling in a puddle on a concrete floor and getting sprayed with coffee drops from Chloe Westover’s coat-flapping.
Chloe’s eyes follow the trail of Tobin’s, and when she sees Christen standing in the dark, staring, she jumps dramatically and throws her hand over her chest. “Jesus fucking Christ, Christen Press!” It’s the first time she’s acknowledged Christen’s name or her existence in Willard. “That’s so creepy.”
Christen is bad at taking up space. Usually. But she takes one step closer, and then another. “Are you okay?” she asks.
Chloe scoffs. “I mean, I totally could’ve gotten burnt, it’s a miracle it all landed on my coat, but my coat’s probably ruined now, it’s going to smell for weeks—”
“Actually, I was talking to Tobin.”
Sometimes she can be pretty good at taking up space. When the need arises.
The collective insulted gasp from the girls is audible. Tobin’s eyes widen, and a laugh twitches around her mouth, but she manages to hold it in as the girls stalk off, muttering amongst themselves. (Christen is pretty sure one of them says, “Bitch,” under her breath.)
But when the front door finally slams behind them, Tobin sits back on her heels, lets out a long, relieved chuckle. “Thanks, Christen.”
“Yeah.” Now that the excitement’s over, Christen feels her spirit sinking back into its usual constraints. She’s not sure whether to step closer.
“You know my name?” Tobin asks, rising from the ground. Her tone isn’t smug—it’s genuine, curious. It’s an invitation, of sorts.
“Vlatko mentioned it, the day we met.” Christen finds herself studying the other girl. Even in the dim light from the parking lot lights outside, the girl is striking—and beautiful. Christen hadn’t realized it that first day on the ice. Her eyes are large and dark, and they dance with good humor. She has a sharp jaw and beachy, wavy hair. Her features are unusual, but mesmerizing—even standing there in a white t-shirt flecked with coffee stains, hands full of dirty napkins, there’s something spellbinding about her.
Christen’s pulled from her reverie by the flash of Chloe’s Audi as it screeches angrily out of the parking lot.
“Here, I’ll help you clean,” she says softly. She drops her duffle bag on the ground, puts her hand out. “Give me some of those napkins.”
“Oh, you don’t have to,” Tobin stammers, angling the napkins behind her back so Christen can’t reach them. “I mean, this is my job—Uncle Ross would kill me if he saw one of the rink clients helping clean anything up— there’s a mop around here somewhere—”
This, Christen sighs, must be another weird rich-town thing. In the run-down rink she started out skating at—with its sagging wooden benches and tiny plastic joke of a ticket booth, god, how she misses that place—the skaters helped clean up all the time. The youth hockey players would restock the water cups and dust the trophy cases; the figure skaters would vacuum the sad, patchy carpets.
The dynamics are different in Willard, she gets it. But she can’t just walk off into the night, leaving this strange, beautiful creature cleaning the floor on her hands and knees alone.
“Just give me the napkins, Tobin.”
“Your uncle’s not here.”
“I know, but—”
“Okay, how about this.” Christen gives the other girl what she hopes is a charming smile. “I’ll help you clean, and you’ll tell me where you got that beautiful cup of coffee, and really, on net, you’ll be the one doing me the favor.”
Tobin laughs, an amused little huff. “Okay, fine. Where was this fighting spirit last week when you couldn’t get your ass on the rink?”
Christen flushes. “That was different.”
“Because there were dudes, lots of them?”
Christen wants to say, because I can’t just walk off into the night, leaving you, you strange, beautiful creature, cleaning the floor on your hands and knees alone, but she doesn’t know how to say it.
They mop up the spill in silence for a few moments.
“Well, it's really nice of you to help me clean.”
“Now where was this normal, nice conversation last week when you pretended you didn’t know who Vlatko Andonovski was?” Christen is surprised to hear herself bantering. She’s not a banterer, usually. “Was it just an extended ploy to get my name?”
She’s not sure, in the dimly lit hallway, but Tobin might be blushing.
“I was just trying to…well, I’m not sure what I was trying. Sorry. I must’ve come off kind of rude—I was just exci—well, trying to get you to talk, I guess. But actually, I already knew your name.”
Christen raises her eyebrows. “…really?”
“First place at Pacific Sectionals? I work in a skating rink, you know. I keep up with the news. I hear the girls talk. When they heard you were moving here to train, they were all freaking out. They’re scared of you.”
“Good,” Christen says absentmindedly as she mops, “they should be.”
Then Christen catches herself—is it off-putting, to be so confident, so sure of herself? But Tobin’s sitting back on her heels, and staring at Christen with naked admiration in her eyes, and she looks exactly the opposite of put-off.
“So you just moved here, right?”
“Yeah, last week.”
“Kind of a weird time, no? End of November, in the middle of the schoolyear?”
“I guess.” Christen shrugs as she rises to her feet, surveying the site of the spill. Looks like new. “Vlatko’s been bugging me for years to move here to join the skating club. Until now I’ve been commuting two and a half hours to get to the rink, with a worse club, and he said it just wasn’t cutting it anymore. This timing gives me exactly two years before the U.S. Nationals to qualify for the winter Olympics. And I’ll be eighteen that year. The timing is perfect.”
“Olympics, huh?” Tobin raises an eyebrow. “I can totally see that.”
They’re walking back through the dark, echoing halls now, Christen trailing Tobin, who seems to know exactly where she’s going. “You’re just saying that. You’ve never even seen me skate.”
Tobin grins. “I’ve seen you skate.”
“Well, I do work in the rink where you practice for hours a day, you know.”
“I know, but it’s just…” Christen doesn’t want to say the words, doesn’t want to admit she’s even noticed, but they’re out before she quite realizes what she’s saying. “…you haven’t been here since that first day, right?”
They’ve reached a set of double doors, and instead of answering, Tobin pushes through with her shoulder to reveal the concessions kitchen, all shiny stainless steel. Tobin flicks the lights on with an elbow, deposits her fistfuls of coffee-stained napkins in the industrial trash can by the door, and heads over to wash her hands. Christen follows suit.
“I mostly try to stay out of the skaters’ way,” Tobin finally answers, over the loud running water splashing into the bottom of the deep, industrial sink. “I mean, you saw that back there. That’s how they normally are. And if I talk back, I get fired. Really encourages a policy of general avoidance, wouldn’t you agree?”
Guilty realization is dawning on Christen. “And after that first day, you thought that was how I normally am, too.”
“Well…” Tobin’s grin is a little teasing, “I admit, you were a little hard to read that first day. But after tonight I know, of course, that you are one of the good ones.”
“Who are the other good ones?”
“Okay, fine—the only good one, if I’m being honest. And that is why…” Tobin flings open a cabinet, revealing a shining silver espresso machine, “I’m letting you in on my little secret.”
“Oh my god.” Christen has never felt such an urge to throw her arms around an inanimate object and sob. She just barely restrains herself.
“It’s for the customers at games and stuff, really, but I use it.”
“It’s fucking beautiful.”
“Geez, are you about to cry?”
“I am not!” Christen protests, before she realizes Tobin’s just teasing. “I mean, there’s just nowhere else in town to buy coffee without bartering your literal firstborn child for it. And honestly, some mornings, I think the firstborn child trade might be worth it.”
“You know,” Tobin says, face all serious, though Christen is starting to realize that the serious expression doesn’t mean much with this girl, “there’s this new invention they’ve got, it’s like, this pot; you put coffee grounds in it; it’s small enough to put on a kitchen counter; it lets you make coffee at home; you could tell your parents to get you one for Christmas…”
“Shut up.” Christen pushes her shoulder against Tobin’s, and Tobin pushes back, and for a second, they’re laughing and shoving like they’ve known each other for far longer than they actually have. But when the movement stills, and they’re just standing, arm tingling lightly against arm, Christen suddenly says, “I don’t really have a home to make coffee in, right now.”
Tobin’s silent, but she presses her arm a little closer to Christen’s, and it’s an inviting silence.
“I mean—sorry, that sounded dramatic. It’s just, I’m not one of those girls whose families move to Willard for their training. Vlatko figured out an arrangement for me to stay with this couple here. They’re renting the poolhouse from some family but needed some extra money to make ends meet, so I’m like, a renter’s renter, and they don’t have a coffee machine, and I’m not about to ask them to buy one just for me, and I can’t really afford anything myself—” She catches herself. Can’t believe I’m whining, unloading on this poor girl I just met. “Anyway.” She forces her voice up into a cheery octave. “That’s my first-world problem story of why I can’t get coffee.”
It’s silent for a beat. Then Tobin says, low, “You’re living away from your family for two years or more?”
“And you’re going to Willard High and training, what, six or seven hours a day on top of that?”
“I mean, yeah, but that’s normal at this level—”
“And you’re what, my age, seventeen?”
“Fifteen right now, actually.” Christen coughs self-consciously. “But sixteen at the end of the month. Anyway, it’s not so bad. I didn’t mean to complain. Just suffering for my art, you know?” She forces a laugh, pushing away the dull ache in her stomach at the thought of spending her sixteenth birthday without her parents and sisters. “The worst part has been the coffee, or the lack thereof, really, and trying to do homework on that fucking shuttle bus, and—shit, the shuttle!”
There’s a huge clock on the wall. A second ago it had been an invisible background fixture, but now it’s all Christen can see, seeming to swell to fill her entire line of sight. It’s 10:17 PM, and she’s missed the last shuttle route.
“The shuttle?” Tobin’s looking confused and worried, and a little adorable in her confusion and worry, with a wrinkle creasing between her eyes, her hand held haltingly out towards Christen. “Wait, you mean the one for old people, that runs from the nursing homes towards downtown?”
“It’s not just for old people, it’s for anyone, and I use it to get home from the rink every day, and…” Christen feels tears pricking in her eyes. She blinks them away desperately. Can’t have Tobin thinking she’s a fifteen-year-old baby. “Sorry, it’s just been a long day, like, really long, and it’s over an hour to walk, and I’ve got 5 AM practice tomorrow, and—”
“I’ll just drive you.”
Christen’s not sure which is more of a shock to the system, Tobin’s words, or the sensation of Tobin’s hand resting, calming and feather-light, for just a fleeting moment, on her arm.
“Yeah, drive, as in, operate a motor vehicle.” Tobin’s doing that thing again, where her eyes are big and mournful and solemn but her mouth is already starting to twitch with laughter at the edges. “How did you think I was getting home tonight? I live the next town over.”
Relief washes over Christen—the thought of not having to trudge alone through dark streets for hours on her aching, overused legs makes the whole world take on a rosy glow. Her relief translates to giddiness. She feels herself doing the bantering thing again. “I don’t know, maybe I thought you just lived here in some basement room at the rink, like the Hunchback of Notre Dame, or the Phantom of the Opera.”
“Whoa there, if you still want that ride, you better quit it with those highly unflattering comparisons.” But still, Tobin’s beaming like they are. “All right then, Esmerelda. Grab your coat. Let’s get you home.”
Yawning and shivering in the 5 AM chill, Christen is going through her stretches by the rink the next morning when something metallic catches her eye. There’s something placed under the front row of seats. Did someone leave it last night? But Christen was the last one out, and she hadn’t recalled seeing anything.
She walks over, crouches down, picks it up. It’s a travel mug, the heavy-duty kind that keeps things warm for days. She unscrews it to find steaming hot coffee. And there’s a yellow sticky note on the side that says, For Esmerelda, with a detailed little sketch underneath.
Christen squints. It’s two girls, each holding something out. And then she realizes, it’s a coffee cup and a baby, and it’s an exchange of coffee for a firstborn, and she’s laughing, the sound echoing off the arena rafters, and she feels lighter than she’s felt in months.
“Thanks for the coffee. And the drawing.”
Christen finds Tobin easily that afternoon before practice. It appears Tobin has re-emerged from hiding. She’s perched conspicuously on a bench just inside the front door, doodling idly on a pack of Post-Its with a ballpoint pen, almost as if she was waiting for Christen.
But that’s ridiculous, Christen tells herself, Because why would she be?
Tobin accepts the travel mug Christen holds out, carefully washed and dried. “You’re welcome, Esmerelda.”
Christen wrinkles her nose. “Are we going to make that a thing?”
“Well, the resemblance is astounding, don’t you agree?”
Christen touches her hair self-consciously. “Well, who does that make you? Hardly fair to call you a hunchback.”
“Well, I’m pretty hunched,” Tobin says cheerfully. She pockets her Post-Its, stands up, stretches. “When’s your next 5 AM practice?”
“Um, Friday. But you don’t have to do the coffee thing again. Though it was really nice of you. But you must have come back here, after dropping me off, and—”
“Christen.” Tobin turns and raises an eyebrow. She’s got that smirk thing going again, like the day they met. “If you can look me in the eyes and tell me that you do not, under any circumstances, want coffee at 5 AM on Friday morning, I will not leave you coffee.”
“Tobin.” Christen squares her shoulders, clears her throat. “Under no circumstances whatsoever…do I…” Tobin’s shaking her head knowingly, and Christen’s cracking already. “…do I want coffee…at 5 AM…shit, fine.” Tobin’s laughing hard now. “Fine, I totally do.”
“It’s not hard. I have the rink schedules, and I always close up anyway,” Tobin reassures her, already starting to walk backwards away from her. “See you around, Esmerelda.”
And from then on, every 5 AM practice, there’s coffee and a little Post-it doodle.
And Christen starts to think that waking up in the frigid, pre-dawn gloom isn’t so bad after all.
Artistry, according to Vlatko, is what’s holding Christen back from being One of the Greats.
He fixates on this one afternoon and won’t let it go. “Christen, when I look at you, it looks like you’re doing algebra in your head.” “Christen, if we wanted to see a jumping robot on the ice, we have the technology by now to build one.” “Beep beep boop boop!”
The problem is, of course, that Christen is not good at taking up space, and artistry is all about taking up space. Revealing all your inner feelings. Indulging yourself in the spotlight. Drawing attention to yourself.
Another problem is that Vlatko rampaging until he’s red in the face and Christen is teary-eyed is not exactly conducive to feeling particularly artistic.
After the rampage, which Christen is very grateful none of the other skaters is around to witness, Vlatko leaves, ordering Christen to work on her artistry alone until closing.
Christen, in a fit of reckless rebellion, works on her triple axel instead, which is the exact opposite of artistry.
Pushing off the outside edge.
Three and a half mid-air rotations in under a second.
Coming down hard on the outside edge of the other skate.
(Wiping out, over and over and over.)
The fifth time she falls, mittens and knees slamming hard against the ice, she just turns over and groans up at the blinding arena lights. Her knees and hips protest in a symphony of aches and pains.
It’s two weeks out from Christmas, she thinks, as the ice chips under her back seep their freeze through her sweatshirt. She had checked train ticket prices that day. Going home might be doable. The time off from practice wouldn’t be great; Vlatko would complain. But she could spend every second on the train studying, to balance it out.
Not that she spent enough time studying, anyway, as her increasingly dismal grades attest. Sometimes she even falls asleep during her afternoon classes, after particularly long practice nights.
She hates those looks on her classmates’ faces when she gets an answer wrong in class. She hates that Willard High teachers think she’s stupid, just another dumb skater who doesn’t care about her academics.
She hates when Vlatko calls her a robot, as if that would be at all effect in forcing her to emote.
She hates when she knows she’s not trying as hard as she can; she hates that the Olympics feel so far away and so abstract; she hates that she knows that her artistry, or lack thereof, is what’s keeping her from her potential.
She dimly registers that her hair is starting to get wet. She should probably get up.
No, please, just thirty more seconds, her body begs.
“Okay, fine, thirty more seconds, but I’m timing you.”
Christen bolts upright. (Her tailbone shrieks a complaint.)
Tobin is leaning on the edge of the rink, smiling down at her, a cup of coffee in each hand.
At the sight of the other girl’s face, a strange concoction of relief and exhilaration fizzles through Christen. All day, Tobin lingers like a phantom at the periphery of Christen’s vision: a figure vanishing through distant doors and hallways, a sighting of an orange beanie up in the AV booth, or through the concession stand windows.
But at night, when Christen’s the only person in the rink—like now—Tobin will suddenly materialize next to her, teasing and charming and sweet. Christen always tries to be teasing and charming and sweet, too. After her practice, Christen will cool down and stretch as Tobin drives the Zamboni in neat, perfect circles around the ice. And then Tobin will drive her home, like it’s nothing, through the quiet, wide avenues lit up with Christmas lights, and she’ll be all charming and sweet in a way that makes Christen’s chest ache.
And that’s how all their interactions have been. Charming and sweet. Not today, though. No faking her way out of her misery today.
“I said that out loud?” Christen mutters, scrambling to her feet. She skates over to the edge, meets Tobin so they’re facing each other across the wall. As usual, Tobin looks all bundled up and cozy and content, wearing a giant sweatshirt and her signature floppy orange beanie and big glasses.
“You’ve been talking out loud to yourself for a while,” Tobin admits. Her brow is wrinkled. She holds out the paper cup of coffee. “Sounds like you could use this.”
Christen rips off her wet mittens and grasps the cup. She flips her hands back and forth, trying to warm the fronts and backs of her fingers at the same time.
“Your hair’s wet,” Tobin notices, frowning.
“Yeah,” Christen responds, teeth chattering a bit. Be charming, be sweet. “Guess that’s what happens when you decide to power nap in the middle of the ice for a sec.”
Tobin pauses, then takes the beanie off of her own head and tugs it onto Christen’s. Christen freezes. Tobin doesn’t seem to notice. With careful fingers, she smooths back strands of Christen’s hair that have loosened from her bun, tucking them up under the beanie with methodical precision. Her fingertips trace the delicate shell of Christen’s ear, entirely by accident, Christen is sure.
And then Tobin softly, hesitantly, curves her hands over Christen’s, holding them against the coffee cup. Tobin’s hands are warm and calloused and firm, and Christen’s fingers tingle with the heat, so much it’s almost painful. But in the best way. She lets out a long groan, letting her eyes flutter shut. “Oh my god, that feels amazing.”
When Christen opens her eyes again, Tobin’s eyes seem to have drifted a bit out of focus. Her mouth has dropped open a little. She blinks, slowly.
Tobin blinks again, faster this time, with a shake of her head that sends all her baby hairs, staticky from the absence of the beanie, dancing. If Christen’s hands hadn’t been pinned between Tobin’s and a coffee cup, she might have been tempted to reach up, stroke those little hairs down into order.
But then, she thinks, she kind of likes them, framing Tobin’s face like a misty halo.
“So, you want to talk about it?” Tobin’s asking, seemingly having recovered from whatever trance she was in.
Christen makes a face. “Geez, how much did I say out loud?”
“I’m just saying, I might be a better listener than the ice.”
“The ice is the best listener!” Christen’s only half kidding.
“Well, let me try for second best.”
Christen huffs. She does want to talk to someone, actually. She’s bursting to. That will mean the end of Tobin thinking she’s teasing and charming and sweet, but Tobin’s eyes are dark and serious, and they’re holding hands, kind of, sort of, and—
“Nationals are only a couple months away.”
“Vlatko thinks I have an artistry problem.”
“Yeah.” A pause. “Well, the important thing is whether you think you have an artistry problem, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Then, begrudgingly: “I do have an artistry problem.”
Tobin just nods, supportive.
“I know, I need to work on it, but…to be that emotional while I’m skating, it feels like I’m giving everyone who sees it a piece of my soul. Just spilling all your feelings out there. You know? And as I do it, it feels forced and inauthentic, and I just know I look like an idiot.” This is usually the point at which Christen buries her face in her hands in frustration and stops talking, but her hands are occupied, and Tobin’s standing there all open-faced and generous and listening and nice, and so she rambles on. “And I watch the videos of the greats, over and over, Michelle and Yuna and everyone, and they emote so well and so naturally, but I know if I tried, I’d just look stupid and people watching are going to be like, What is that girl trying to do with her face?”
Tobin nods, and Christen feels a relief, to have it all out. It feels nice.
“And what about the rest of it? That’s not the only thing you were stressed about, right?”
Christmas with the family—and the money it would take to make that happen—seems like too much to get into right now, so she goes for an easier issue. “School sucks.”
“Yeah!” Tobin’s agreement is emphatic this time, and it makes Christen laugh.
“I wish you went to school here in Willard and not the next town over. All my teachers think I’m stupid, and maybe I am, but there’s just no time at all to study,” Christen laments. “I have this history test in two days, and I’ve barely been keeping up with the reading, and it’s just going to be a nightmare.”
Tobin reaches out to pick up the history textbook lying near Christen’s open backpack. Christen feels the icy chill on her exposed fingers in more ways than one, but already Tobin’s plopping down with her feet propped up on the seats, flipping through Christen’s textbook. “Is it this bit with all the Post-Its, on the Civil War and Reconstruction?”
“Yeah, Chapter 6.”
“You know, it’s almost funny to think of an Olympic level figure skater still having to freak out about history tests and shit.”
“Yeah,” Christen says glumly. “But there’s an expiration date on being a professional skater, and it’s an early one, and according to Vlatko, if I don’t get my artistry in shape, it’ll be even earlier—so my grades can’t be awful. Except they are.”
Tobin’s just sitting there reading Christen’s history textbook now, so Christen takes a few sips of the cooled coffee and skates back to the middle of the ice, determined to focus on landing the triple Axel 9 times out of 10 by the end of the hour. But her mind keeps wandering—to the Civil War, to the thought of failing history and having to explain it to her parents, to that warm feeling of Tobin’s hands cupping over her own, Tobin’s sympathetic brown eyes—
Suddenly, there’s a static crackling, a hum of sound in the background.
It’s Tobin’s voice, amplified and echoing, over the arena loudspeakers. Bewildered, Christen looks left and right until she catches sight of Tobin, up in the AV booth.
With Christen’s history textbook in one hand.
“What are you doing?” Christen calls up at her, hands on her hips, an irrepressible smile breaking over her face.
Tobin just clears her throat and begins reading. “The conflicts that existed before and during the Civil War continued after the war. Republicans in the North wanted to continue the economic progress begun during the war. The freedmen and women hoped to achieve independence and equal rights—”
Christen is doubled over laughing. A warmth is spreading through her body, radiating from her chest, that has nothing to do with coffee or beanies.
Or maybe it has everything to do with coffee and beanies. Coffee and beanies and a listening ear and that soft, warm smile.
“Well, go on, what are you waiting for?” It’s too far to see clearly, but Christen can just picture the teasing, satisfied grin on Tobin’s face. “Keep skating! Ahem, where was I? Constitutional concepts of limited governments and states’ rights discouraged national leaders from taking bold action…”
By the end of the hour, Christen’s got her triple axel down 9 times out of 10, and a pretty good understanding of mid-19th century American history to boot.
And when she opens her history book the next time, she finds the chapter filled with dozens of new Post-Its, with new little sketches. Some of them are of little Civil War soldiers, but most of them are of Christen, skating.
She carefully hangs them up on her wall, next to the spot where she’s hung the coffee Post-Its, and the circle of little yellow sketches fills the room with something like sunshine.
Saturdays are the worst days at the rink. Freestyle sessions in the morning and afternoon mean that the ice is crowded with little kids and amateur skaters. The kids are cute, Christen has to admit. But with Nationals looming, her love of seeing cute kids learning to skate is rapidly overshadowed by the stress of not having room to practice her flying camel spin.
As the crowds pick up, she heads off to do some off-ice training. She’s adjusting her duffel bag on her shoulder, traipsing to the less crowded back area of the rink for advanced skaters, when she hears her own name coming from inside one of the stretching rooms and skids to a stop.
“…Christen Press already has her quad salchow down. I was watching her with her coach last week and she landed it every time, without cheating it.”
“Well, we can’t all be Christen Press.”
“Tell me about it. If we were, we’d all have to wear the same ugly black sweatshirt and leggings every day.”
There’s a cascade of giggles. Christen touches the collar of her black sweatshirt self-consciously.
“For real, though, my mom also told me that she saw Christen hitting her triple axels the other day and making it look easy. Of course, my mom was mad that I’m not there yet. I knew Christen was good when we saw her at sectionals, but…she’s really good. And she’s two years younger than us.”
“Okay. She’s not that good.” Christen recognizes Chloe Westover, assertive and clear, bulldozing the other voices in the room into silence. “Sure, she’s athletic. She can jump. Who gives a shit? We have two more years to work on our jumps. I say she’s toast in the big leagues because she has zero expression. She always looks like a stressed, awkward robot, in real life and on the ice. If you don’t have artistry, you’re dead.”
Christen feels the blood drain out of her face. A stressed, awkward robot?
“It’s too bad she’s hot,” another girl grumbles. “That probably does half the work for her.”
“She’s not that hot. Besides, she probably smells. Wonder if she ever washes that sweatshirt?”
Footsteps sound like they’re approaching the main hallway. Lightning fast, Christen ducks out of sight into the nearest dim corridor. The girls pass without seeing her. She raises her collar to her nose and gives it a miserable sniff.
It doesn’t smell. Right?! I do wash this sweatshirt!
“Hey, excuse me, lady? This area is for staff only.”
Christen jumps. She’s dabbing her eyes with her sweatshirt cuff before she looks up and realizes it’s just Tobin, coming down the hallway with a mop and bucket.
“Hey—Chris, what’s wrong?” In a second, Tobin’s leaning the mop against the wall and coming up to Christen, resting her hands on Christen’s shoulders. “I was just kidding. You can be anywhere you want. You can even, uh, be staff, if you want.”
Christen lets out a wet little chuckle. “No, it’s fine. Sorry.” Then she blurts out, “I don’t smell bad, do I?”
“No!” Tobin exclaims. “No! No, you don’t smell bad. I mean, you smell great, actually—not that I…uh…” She hastily cuts herself off, and as she processes Christen’s question, indignation grows on her face. “Hold the fuck up. Did someone just tell you that you smelled bad?! Who do I have to fight? Was it Chloe Westover? Because, hey, I’ve been waiting for an excuse for years—”
“No, no.” Christen has to laugh at the way Tobin’s hand shoots back towards the mop, as if she’s about to go clobber Chloe Westover over the head with it. “It’s just, uh…” she sighs and tips her head back against the cement block wall, where it lands with a dull thud. “I just overheard the girls talking. They said a bunch of stuff. But mostly they said I’m never going to make it at the senior level because…” What had the words been? “…because I’m a stressed, awkward robot who can’t emote.”
“Don’t listen to them—”
“And don’t tell me I’m not,” Christen finished bitterly. “I know that I am. I just don’t know what I’m going to do about it.”
They stand there in silence for a few moments longer. Tobin comes up beside her, puts a comforting arm around her shoulders. Christen leans into her shoulder with a long sigh, and it feels like coming home to a fireplace, or like a mug of hot chocolate.
Tobin turns and buries her nose in the crook of Christen’s neck and takes a big, cartoonish sniff. “Mmm…strawberries.”
Christen’s laughing again, trying to ignore the tingles shooting down her spine. “It’s my shampoo.”
“Well, it smells very good, I’ll have you know.” Tobin pulls back with a crooked smile. “You going to be around for the rest of the day?”
“Yeah, probably pretty late.” Christen wrinkled her nose. “I try to stay out all weekend. Give my landlords some family time without their random teenage subletter in the house.”
“Good. Stick around until we close, okay? I’ll give you a ride home.”
Christen stays in one of the off-ice training rooms, practicing her spins on harnesses, until she looks out and realizes the hallway lights are off. Her phone says it’s just past 10 PM, the rink’s closing time. Cursing herself for making Tobin wait, she dashes out towards the entrance.
When she passes the rink, though, she realizes that the arena hasn’t cleared out yet. There’s still a skater out on the ice, skating pensive, sweeping figure eights.
Then, with a start, she sees that it’s Tobin.
Slowly, so that Tobin won’t notice her, Christen edges towards the ice. Tobin’s skating is smooth and sure and easy, just like her personality. She’s whistling under her breath. She tries to skate backwards, wobbles wildly, and then laughs at herself, with a childish delight that has Christen clapping her hands over her mouth to hide her wide grin. Could this human being be any more endearing?
She must’ve laughed out loud by accident, because Tobin looks over and waves. Christen gets her skates on and joins her out in the middle of the ice. They skate around in perfect sync for a few minutes, in wide, easy circles. Then Christen’s legs start itching, and she does a flying camel spin or two, then tries a couple jumps, landing them flawlessly.
She doesn’t miss the way Tobin’s eyes trace the long line of her legs.
But Tobin just says, “You look like you’re doing a little better than earlier.”
“Yeah, I am.” The long training session had cleared her mind a little. After all, who cares if the mean girls are out to get her, if Tobin Heath thinks she smells like strawberries? “And thanks for, uh, listening, earlier.” Christen adds softly, as she finally slides to a stop in front of Tobin. “It helped. A lot.”
Tobin chuckles self-consciously. “I mean, it was the least I could do, since you wouldn’t let me fight them.”
“Seriously, Tobin,” Christen says earnestly. “This, and the coffee, and the rides home—and the little drawings—you do so much for me, and I feel like I never do anything for you—”
“Don’t worry about it,” Tobin cuts her off, full-on blushing now, looking shyly up at Christen through her fringe of thick eyelashes. “It’s not a big deal, really. I have a car, and I have access to a coffee machine, and I doodle all the time anyway. And besides, you give me…” Tobin pauses, looking like she’s arranging and rearranging words in her mind. “Besides, not everything you can give me is tangible like that,” she finishes.
“Still, I feel like I should at least pay you for your coffee, or something—”
“Don’t you dare,” Tobin warns. “Anyway, don’t worry. One day I’ll open a coffee shop, and I’ll tell people that the great Olympian Christen Press once drank sub-par teenage coffee I made for her, and people will line up for miles to drink it and I’ll be a millionaire, and that’s how you’ll pay me back.”
Christen’s laughing. Tobin always knows how to make her laugh.
“You know what I want, though? I want to see your long program,” Tobin says. “I don’t think I’ve seen you do it from start to finish before.”
Christen can’t help but roll her eyes a little. “Not sure why you’d want to; apparently, I look like a stressed robot.”
“But a very cute, very talented stressed robot,” Tobin says with a smile, and then seems to catch herself, turns a little pink. She coughs and turns away. “Uh, let’s queue up your music. Ready?”
And normally Christen would’ve complained a little more, gotten a little more self-conscious, but her mind is still stuck on, did Tobin just call me cute? VERY cute? So, without protest, she strikes her pose, and when the music comes on, she skates. There’s something calm and wonderful about skating with just Tobin there, still on the ice, leaning against the wall. It makes it all seem easier, somehow—lighter, freer. She nails every jump, and as she flies by Tobin on her spiral sequence, she can’t help but smile at the look of dazed awe on Tobin’s face.
She finishes to the sound of Tobin’s applause echoing in the empty arena.
“I like your music,” Tobin calls out, as Christen skates around, hands on her hips, replaying the routine in her head. “Scheherazade, right? By Rimsky-Korsakov?”
Christen skids to a stop, raises an eyebrow. “…right.”
It’s impressive that Tobin knows. Even got the pronunciation right. Then again, it’s one of the more common pieces used in figure skating. Maybe she’s just heard it a bunch from all the different skaters practicing here over the years.
“There’s some story behind it, right? What is it?” Tobin asks.
Christen lights up. She loves the story—lovely and ludicrous and magical, all at once. “Yeah, there’s this sultan, he keeps murdering his wives after he marries them,” Christen chuckles. “Men, right? And Scheherazade is the new sultana, and she shows up, and she’s heard the tales—she knows what she’s getting into. So she tells this beautiful, fascinating story every night, and she always ends on a cliffhanger. The sultan always wanted to figure out what happened, so he kept postponing her executions. Until at the end…” Christen shrugs, a grin spreading on her face. “Guess he realized he was in love, and decided to keep her around.”
Tobin nods along, wide-eyed and fascinated. “So, it’s like you’re telling the stories while you’re out there on the ice?”
“Yeah, the music ebbs and flows—it goes from these incredibly intense portions to these sweet—almost painfully sweet—sections. And it’s like you’re experiencing these nights with her, and you can feel just this, this urgent desperation, this storytelling as a way to save her own life. So there’s an edge to it, a sadness, right? But at the same time, there’s a joy. There’s a love of the art, where she can feel the story being told and she can luxuriate in the tale itself. At least, that’s how I imagine it. And then this triumphant, glorious ending—she’s made it, you know, she’s succeeded, they’re in love—” Christen has started gesturing with her hands, her wrists bending and swaying through the now-familiar motions as she glides a little across the ice, bends into a slow spin. “I just love it. The pathos! The drama!”
Tobin’s eyes track Christen’s body, as if in a daze. “I’ve been thinking about something you said the other night,” Tobin says slowly. “You said that you felt vulnerable emoting, right?”
“Yeah,” Christen admits. She turns in a slow circle and stares up into the empty stands and has a sudden vision of every seat filled, every face staring at her judgmentally. “It’s one thing to be judged on which edge you’re skating on, or how many rotations you get into a jump. But getting judged on your artistry just feels so…personal. It’s your feelings, on display, for everyone to mock if they want to. And then I overthink it, and of course, then I get super awkward, and it’s just a downwards spiral.”
“Well…” Tobin says slowly. “Look, I’m no expert. I hate being in front of a crowd. I could never do what you do. But I’ve been thinking…what if it wasn’t so personal? What if being really artistic and emotional is actually the opposite of personal?”
Christen, still spinning, glances backwards over her shoulder at Tobin. “What do you mean?”
“Okay, don’t judge—” Tobin’s already laughing. “But I was watching the Hunchback of Notre Dame the other day.”
“Listen, my brother has Disney Plus and also, geez, that movie is fucking dark! Disney doesn’t make kids’ movies like that anymore. Anyway, there’s this scene where Esmerelda is dancing, and it just hit me, like—she’s putting on this show, but her emotions are not real. The crowds love her, but she’s not theirs at all, you know? They only see this façade, this veneer of a character that she wants them to see—but she’ll never belong to them. They’ll never know her. Even though they’re dying to.” Tobin’s gotten a little more excited, and now she’s the one skating in circles around Christen gesturing with her hands, and Christen’s the one staring after her, wide-eyed, awed.
“So I was watching her, and thinking of you, and I thought, it could be the same with you. Why think of it as opening yourself up to an audience? Instead, think of it as closing yourself off even more—by creating this emotional smoke screen between you and them. This character that they never get to penetrate.”
“Wow.” Christen’s mind is whirring. “Okay. Keep talking.”
“And it’s like the story! In Scheherazade.” Tobin’s eyes are alive and sparkling now, and she skates up to Christen, grabs her hands, twirls them in a wide circle. “She’s telling this emotional story to her captor, to this dude who literally wants to murder her. Making him—or the audience—fall in love is all about survival. It’s not about the audience feeling what you’re feeling—it's about the audience feeling what you are orchestrating them to feel. Sure, she had a thousand and one nights, and you only have four minutes and thirty seconds, but that’s what you’re doing, right? You’re not actually baring your soul to the audience for judgment. You’re not being vulnerable. You’re just telling them a story they want to hear!”
“That is…” Christen squeezes Tobin’s hands, hard, staring at the girl’s face as if she’s seeing it for the first time, as the arena whirls in a dark haze behind them. “Tobin. You’re brilliant. You are a genius.” Tobin’s face is flushing. “Seriously, that is—this is exactly what I needed to hear—this—hold on a second.”
Christen skids to a stop.
“I didn’t tell you that detail.”
Tobin’s suddenly got on an innocent, puppy-dog expression. “Hm?”
“A thousand and one nights. That’s how long Scheherazade told the story for. But I didn’t mention that to you.”
Tobin doesn’t even try to look guilty. She just grins. “Are you sure?”
Christen swats at her arm, chasing her across the ice, laughing. “You already knew the story! Tobin!”
“What?” Tobin defends herself, ducking out of swatting reach, grinning like the Cheshire cat. “Okay, fine, I knew it already. But it’s like the day we met…” Her face takes on a shy look, and she spins away from Christen a bit. “I just wanted to get you talking. It worked, didn’t it?”
“It did. I mean, I think it will. You’re right, I just need to reframe my mental approach to this.” Christen’s buzzing with excitement. “Okay. Play the music again. Let’s test this theory. You can be my fake audience.”
“You got it.” Tobin’s beaming from ear to ear, seemingly pleased that her little coaching session has worked. She skates over to the edge, hops up to sit on the wall, and leans over to cue the music.
Christen takes her place at the center of the rink and waits for the opening chords.
She locks eyes with Tobin, and both girls go still, and there’s something there—something deep and startling and electric and glittering like the night sky.
“You got this, Chris,” Tobin says softly, and somehow, those simple words feel more real, more significant, than any encouragement Christen has ever heard. And then, as the music starts up, she says, softly—almost so softly Christen can’t hear—“Tell me a story for a thousand and one nights. Make me fall in love with you.”
It works, because at Christen’s next practice, thirty seconds into her run-through, Vlatko literally gasps.
Two minutes in, she glances over again, and he’s fist-pumping and running up and down the sidelines like a referee.
As she wraps up, he’s so excited he almost runs onto the ice in his sneakers. Even from the center of the ice, she can see that he’s fighting back tears.
When Christen skates over to the side to meet him, he pulls her into a bone-crushing hug. “You’re doing it!” he shouts. “My god, you’re doing it! that was gorgeous. Heavenly. Christen, you’re a real skater now.”
Christen’s startled, blushing, at his fervor. “Really, Vlatko? I mean—I still feel like I don’t have it quite down, and…I don’t know how good it looks..”
“The point is…” Vlatko grasps her by the shoulders. “The thing is, Chris, that you’re finally trying. You weren’t even letting yourself try before. Today feels different. Keep on doing this, and it’s like I said. You’re going to be the next big thing. You’re going to be on top of that Olympic podium in two years.”
He pulls her into another hug. And over his head, Christen spots Tobin, standing far off and tiny in the last row of seats by the rafters, arms raised in celebration, a huge grin on her face.
“Vlatko has taken full credit for my transformation,” Christen teases Tobin that night as they’re driving home. “Do you think I should set him straight? Tell him that, despite all his years of coaching, he has been bested by a teenage girl?”
Tobin’s beaming, all her white teeth showing in the streaks of streetlights that whip past as they glide through the dark streets. “Nah, I’ll let him have this one. I’ll take credit for his next superstar.”
“Seriously, though,” Christen says. “It really was a breakthrough for me.” She turns in the passenger seat, leaning her shoulder against the seat back, gazing fondly at Tobin. “I think, years from now, down the road, I might look back on this and say, Tobin saved my career.”
Tobin’s blushing now, glancing quickly between the road and Christen’s adoring eyes. “Oh, my god, stop.”
“I’m dead serious! You need to learn how to take a compliment. Honestly, you were incredible. You should coach! Have you considered coaching?”
Tobin takes her time responding, biting her lip, putting her blinker on, taking a left turn. “Nah, I don’t think I’d be qualified. Quite honestly, I really don’t understand figure skating that well…I think I just understand you.”
Christen’s heart is racing, and Tobin’s glancing over at her as if she’s just asked her a question, and Christen breathes out, “Yeah, I think you really do.”
And Tobin lets out a long breath, and smiles, and Christen knows that was the right answer.
She can feel herself smiling too. She’s exhausted, as usual, an exhaustion that runs bone-deep, but tonight it feels good. She feels like she’s finally done something worthy. “Was it really that good?” she asks softly. She thinks it might have been. Vlatko definitely thinks it was. But she wants to hear it from Tobin.
Tobin glances over, once, then again. She opens her mouth as if to respond, and then, as if words fail her, she reaches over and grabs Christen’s hand.
Just for a second, their hands intertwine, and Christen feels the rough pad of Tobin’s thumb drift against the soft underside of her wrist—
And then it’s gone, and Tobin’s clearing her throat, both hands firmly on the steering wheel, and Christen’s sitting there wide-eyed, wondering if she just imagined it.
But then Tobin’s smiling, all soft and shy, and she says, with her voice all hoarse, “Let’s just say, if we were married, I wouldn’t be murdering you.”
It’s not meant to be a compliment.
Christen, waiting in line at the fountain to fill her water bottle, looks over her shoulder to where Chloe Westover and her minions are crowded around a table in the rink’s café area. They’re drinking iced tea that’s so watered down, it’s basically just ice.
“Thanks.” Christen says simply, turning her back to them again.
“It’s Tobin Heath’s hat, isn’t it?”
No point denying it; the bright orange color is conspicuous, and these girls have probably seen Tobin in it for years. “Yeah, it is.” Christen’s been wearing it around for days. It feels protective, like an amulet.
“You guys have been chummy recently. Are you really sure you want to be hanging out with her? She’s like, the help,” Chloe sneers.
Word has spread that Christen has solved her artistry problem, and as a result, Chloe has been treating her with a weird mixture of snide antagonism and desperate boot-licking. Christen’s pretty good at tuning it out, and she normally just ignores her. But now she laughs out loud. You’re just a mean girl straight out of a bad teenage romcom, aren’t you? “Are you fucking kidding me? ‘The help’?!”
“Listen, I’m just trying to look out for you, Christen.” Chloe’s voice is cloying, sanctimonious. “All I’m saying is, you’re going places, and she’s not, and maybe you should just like, take that into consideration.”
Christen finishes filling her water bottle and walks over to the girls’ table. “You know,” she says, leaning in conspiratorially, “I’d just be careful what you say about Tobin while you’re in this building. You know her uncle can hear everything people say through the security cameras.”
Chloe visibly flinches. “No…” she protests. “No, he can’t. Can he?”
“Is that how security cameras work?” her friend whimpers, wide-eyed and nervous.
Snickering, Christen leaves them twisting in their seats, looking for the closest security cameras and arguing about whether the whole building’s mic’d up. (News flash: it’s not.)
When she gets to the rinkside, though, her bubble deflates, and she groans out loud. The hockey team is on the rink again, and once again, they’re running over into her ice time. The coach looks over at her, and then turns back towards his team, and she swears he’s smirking.
Looking around as she tries to figure out her next step, she notices that the double doors leading into the rink from the storage area are open. And Tobin’s standing there, leaning against the doorframe.
Yes! Saved, Christen thinks—until she realizes that Tobin’s been standing there for awhile, looking like she has no intention at all of hopping on the Zamboni. Christen sends Tobin a dramatic, unmistakable “help me” eyebrow-raise. In turn, Tobin very deliberately looks towards the hockey coach, towards Christen, and back towards the hockey coach. Then she gives her an encouraging thumbs up.
No way. Christen’s mouth drops open. She narrows her eyes at Tobin, hoping she comes off intimidating, but it just makes Tobin laugh. While no one else is looking, Tobin starts pointing openly at the coach, mimes straightening up her shoulders, and mouths, “You can do it.”
In response, Christen mimes driving. She points, finger insistent and stiff, to where she knows the Zamboni is parked. Tobin just shakes her head and points towards the coach again, a smirk tugging around the sides of her mouth.
Christen squares up her shoulders. Okay. Fine, Tobin. I suppose I can try this.
The coach even doesn’t turn around when she marches up to him. “Calm down, calm down, we’re going,” he snaps at her, and she flinches.
“It’s past four now. I have the ice at four.” Christen says, in a voice that almost wobbles.
The coach looks right over her head at one of his assistants and openly rolls her eyes. “These little divas,” he says, shaking his head. “Always think they own this place.”
She looks pleadingly at Tobin, who’s scowling viciously at the coach, as if she’s about to charge across the ice and give him a piece of her mind.
Tobin’s anger buoys her up a little, and she takes another breath. She racks her brain for her most convincing argument—he doesn’t respect girls or schedules, clearly, but he might respect something else. Like rink owners. And money.
“Sir,” Christen says, trying to sound calm and authoritative. “My session starts at four, according to the schedule, and according to what we’ve paid for. This is the second time now that you’ve allowed your practice to run over into my ice time. I’d hate to have to go back and let Mr. Heath know about this, and to ask him for a partial refund of my payment.” She levels him with a death glare. “Especially since you’ll have to cover the refund, under the terms and contracts of the rink, because you prevented me from using my ice time.”
At this, the man’s bushy eyebrows shoot up into his pouchy, pockmarked forehead. His face turns redder and redder, and finally, instead of answering her, he turns towards the rink. “BOYS!” he hollers. “Pack it in!”
From across the rink, Tobin’s fist-pumping.
The second the boys are out of sight, Christen skates straight across the rink and flings herself into Tobin’s arms. Tobin steps back in surprise for a second, then surges forward and picks Christen up, spinning her in a little circle.
“Dude, I knew you got this! That was brilliant,” Tobin gasped, grinning from ear to ear. “That coach was such a dick. He was totally gaslighting you.”
“I hate you.” Christen punches Tobin in the arm, but she’s smiling uncontrollably too. “You really couldn’t have saved me this time, too?”
“I knew you could do it,” Tobin says, shrugging a little. “I would’ve come to save you if it’d gone any further. Honestly, I was about to charge over there and punch him in the face myself. But hey, you killed it! I didn’t even know that fact about the terms and conditions.”
Christen smirks as she steps onto the rink and pushes off with long, sure strokes. “That’s because I just made it up.”
An empty rink feels a little sweeter, Christen realizes that day, after you’ve fought for it and won.
Christen’s choreographer, Dawn, is in town the next day. When she walks into the café area at the rink after school, Vlatko and Dawn are already there, talking shop. She can hear Vlatko bragging to Dawn about her artistic breakthrough, and she barely smothers a giggle.
“Hey, Dawn,” Christen says, greeting her with a warm hug. She’s been working with Dawn as a choreographer for almost three years now, and she never hopes to work with any other. They talk through a few issues in her current routines, and do a little brainstorming for the upcoming season. Dawn gives her a list of music, and Christen tucks it away, excited to go through it later. It’s always so fresh, so exhilarating, to listen to new pieces and imagine new routines. (It’s nice while it lasts, before she’s practices the same routines fifteen thousand times and gets so sick of her short and long program pieces that they pervade her nightmares and her ears bleed when she hears them.)
At the end of their session, Dawn pulls out a folder with a flourish. “I don’t know if you’ve been looking already, but I had some costume suggestions for Nationals.”
“Oooh, yes,” Christen exclaims, leaning in close to see the photos. They go through them one by one, until they get to the last one in the pile. Christen can see from the look in Dawn’s eyes that she’s saved the best for last.
“I know it’s been done before, but I can’t see how you don’t go red and gold for Scheherazade,” Dawn holds up a gorgeous red halter-neck dress bedazzled with glittering gold-tinged crystals. It’s backless and daring, floating in chiffon petals of red and gold around Christen’s hips. “I personally think this one is perfect.”
God, yes, it is, Christen thinks.
“Not too many rhinestones, though,” Vlatko jumps in, “They’ll weigh her down on her jumps.” He’s a hundred percent serious.
“When it comes in, we can replace some of them with sequins,” Dawn agrees. “Christen? What do you think?”
“I absolutely love it,” Christen says, already picturing herself sweeping across the ice in it at Nationals. Then she freezes. Shit. “How much is it?”
Dawn’s face is cautious, understanding. “This one is $850. But the rest of these are all in that ballpark as well.”
Oh. Christen takes a deep breath. She thinks of the way her leggings are starting to fray where they chafe against her skates, the way that the cuffs of her sweatshirt are developing holes.
She thinks she should probably start watching YouTube videos on how to mend her clothes.
She glances at Vlatko, her eyes asking if it’s the right choice. His smile is sad, but he knows better than to offer to chip in as he’s tried in the past. “I think it’s fair,” he says gently. “At senior nationals, this is the standard.”
She thinks about train tickets home for Christmas.
She thinks about of Christmas and her birthday, catching up on homework with celery and protein shakes, in her bleak, rented room, by herself.
“Okay,” she hears herself saying. “Let’s go with this one. Thanks so much, Dawn.”
When Vlatko and Dawn leave, she lets out a long breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Eight hundred and fifty dollars. And it only goes up from here.
Forget train tickets home for Christmas. Forget train tickets home forever, honestly, until she starts winning big prizes and big sponsorships.
If she starts winning big prizes and big sponsorships.
She calls her parents. She doesn’t want to make it about the money, doesn’t want to put that pressure on them. So she says it’s about everything else. I need to practice more. The rink will be empty on Christmas. The train ride will take so long, it won’t be worth it. I need to study, I’m getting behind in my classes.
They understand. They tell her to stay.
Sometimes, she thinks as she hangs up, they understand too well. For once, couldn’t they beg her to come home? Couldn’t they say they miss her?
She’s sitting there with her head in her arms when she hears the chair across from her scrape as it’s pulled out. She adjusts her head so her cheek is resting on her arm, and she’s looking up at Tobin. The other girl’s got a candy cane dangling roguishly out of her mouth like a cigarette. At this angle, Christen thinks dazedly, Tobin’s jawline looks especially chiseled. Especially sexy. She imagines running a finger, light and reverent, down the angle of that jawline.
She snaps herself out of her reverie and sits up straight. She coughs. She makes herself look away from Tobin’s jawline. “Yeah. Fine.”
“What’s all this?” Tobin’s reaching across the table at the photos Dawn has left for Chirsten. Her eyes go a little wide. “Whoa.”
“You like them?” Christen asks, almost shy. To distract herself from the way that Tobin’s eyes are boring into the photos, she takes the candy cane dangling from Tobin’s hand, puts it in her own mouth.
“Yeah…I…” Now Tobin’s eyes are flickering from the photos to the candy cane as if she’s experiencing sensory overload. It’s her turn to clear her throat. “They’re, uh, they’re nice. Which one are you thinking?”
“I chose this one.” Christen picks up the red and gold.
“Wow. It’s pretty. It’s, uh…” Tobin’s voice cracks a little. “It’s very short.”
The look that creeps over Tobin’s face, intense and dazed and smoldering all at once, makes Christen think, Maybe it’s worth it to pay $850 just to have Tobin look at me like that.
“Well, it’s more of a leotard than a dress. But it might not be as short in person,” Christen pretends to muse. She drags the wet end of the candy cane over her lower lip. She’s not sure where this sudden wickedness is coming from.
“When it comes in, I’ll try it on for you, and you can help me check.”
“Yes.” Tobin’s voice sounds vaguely like she’s being strangled. “I mean, yeah. Sure. I could uh, I could help you with—uh, anything. How soon will it—I mean, when’s it getting here?”
“Dawn said by next week, probably.”
A pack of loud little girls crowd past their table, and Tobin startles a little, as if suddenly remembering that she’s in public.
“Next week?” Tobin clears her throat, takes the half-eaten candy cane back from Christen. “So, just in time for Christmas?”
And now it’s Christen’s turn to be brought back down to earth.
“Yeah,” she says, stacking up the photos, trying not to look upset. “Any big plans?”
Maybe Tobin will say she has no big plans, and she’ll ask what I’m doing, and I’ll say, what a coincidence, I have no big plans either, and—
“Oh, man, I’m so excited. My family always goes all out,” Tobin’s face lights up, and Christen’s little fantasy bubble pops. “I have a big family, four siblings, and everyone always comes home. We go to church together, and we always watch the same Christmas cartoons, and the food is insane. My dad and sisters love cooking, and they always compete to see who can make the best stuff, and I get to eat everything, so I, of course, am always the real winner.” Tobin leans back in her chair, smiling widely. “What about you? You’re going home for Christmas, right?”
“Um…” Christen shoves the costume photos into her bag and tugs at her sweatshirt sleeves to make sure the holes in the cuffs aren’t visible. She forces a smile on her face that she hopes passes for cheerful. “Yeah. I’m going home for Christmas too.”
She Facetimes her sisters on Christmas Eve, lying on her back in her drab, cramped room. The staticky voices and blurred, glitching swirl of lights as the phone on the other end is passed from hand to hand gives her a migraine and also makes her feel like she’s about to burst into tears.
She wanders, barefoot, through the little house that has never quite felt like home. Her kind but perpetually frazzled landlords have gone off to some relatives for the holidays, leaving her with free rein in the space for the first time ever. She picks up the baby toys scattered across the stained carpets, then flicks mindlessly through a few channels on the TV before calling it quits.
In the end, she finds herself back at work after all. Back in her element, she thinks a little bitterly.
All work and no play makes Christen Press an Olympic champion, or so her parents and Vlatko would say.
After reviewing her pre-calc and biology notes for a few hours, she lies down on the carpet with her foam roller and headphones and listens through all the new music from Dawn, making mental tally of her likes and dislikes. Yes to the Gershwin, maybe to the Debussy (is it exciting enough?), no to the Puccini (so overdone).
From her vantage point from the carpet, she has a great view of the wall of Tobin’s Post-It art, and it makes her chest ache.
She wishes she could talk to Tobin right now. Better yet, she wishes she could curl up into Tobin’s side, rest her cheek on her shoulder, breathe in that familiar Tobin smell, watch her big, bright smile and the way she fiddles nervously with her fingers when she talks.
But she can’t. She doesn’t even have Tobin’s phone number, she realizes.
Besides, even if she did, Tobin thinks Christen took the train to her hometown yesterday morning.
Okay, Christen instructs herself, pushing herself off of her back with her elbows. No more of this pathetic self-pity. Tomorrow morning, you’ll go to the rink and train all day. And one day, all this sacrifice will be worth it. It has to be.
Her alarm goes off at 4:30 AM the next morning, and in the freezing blue-black night, she whispers, “Merry Christmas!” to herself.
The normal shuttle isn’t running; it’s Christmas, after all. So Christen lugs her heavy gear an hour and half to the rink as the sun comes up, plodding over wide sidewalks lined with dead brown grass, past mansions lit up brilliantly outside and inside. Through some windows, she can even see early-riser families gathered around their Christmas trees, and the sight of it makes her insides twist, makes her walk even faster.
When the rink finally comes into view, she’s sweaty and worn out, and she’s sure the fiery spot on her shoulder where her duffel bag strap digs in would be screaming obscenities at her if it could. With a gasp of relief, she drops her duffel bag on the ground, rotates her arm around in a few wide, aching circles, and then goes for the door handle.
Refusing to process this development, she pushes harder.
There’s a loud, low, metallic clank as the bolt lock thuds against the doorframe, once, twice, three times, until she gives up. She tries the two other doors. They’re all locked.
She leans her head on the freezing glass, her eyes tracing hazily over the empty hallway just on the other side of the door, so close, yet so far, and begs herself not to cry.
It doesn’t work. A few tears leak out. She turns, presses her back against the door, and slides down to a sit.
Of course there’s nobody here. Of course the rink is locked. It’s fucking Christmas Day. Everyone—Tobin, Tobin’s uncle, Vlatko, fucking Chloe Westover—everyone’s celebrating with their family. Everyone but me.
She hugs her knees to her chest. She surveys the empty, gray parking lot in front of her. She knows she needs to start the long slog home, eventually, but she just can’t right now, can’t make her legs move, can’t lift that damned duffel bag back on her aching shoulders.
I’ll just rest here for fifteen minutes, she decides, leaning her head back against the door, stretching her legs out in front of her. She tries, with every fiber of her being, to find a bright side. Walking is exercise. You’ll have spent all morning exercising, so that’s productive. Things could be worse. You could have nobody out there who cares about you. You do have people. You have family.
They’re just not here, with you, today, on Christmas. You’re just all alone on Christmas.
Despite her best efforts, one more tear, then two, then a little cascade, go rolling down her cheeks.
God, pull yourself together! You’re pathetic!
From somewhere above her head, there’s a quick, metallic grating sound, and then Christen’s suddenly tumbling backwards as the door opens behind her.
She looks up, back flat on the floor, to see Tobin kneeling there.
“Hey, fancy seeing you here,” Tobin says, gentle and concerned, brushing a strand of hair out of Christen’s face.
And Christen sits up, bewildered, and bursts into tears.
Tobin doesn’t say anything, just settles cross-legged on the linoleum floor next to Christen, and takes her in her arms, and lets her cry herself out.
“What are you doing here?” Christen finally collects herself enough to say, scrubbing at her eyes with her holey sweatshirt cuffs. “I thought you had family stuff all day.”
“I did, but…call it a hunch.” Tobin shrugs, reaching for Christen’s duffel bag, which she slings over her own shoulder as she pulls Christen gently to her feet. “I told my parents I had to go help out a friend with something, and I figured I’d wait here until noon for you, in case you were in town after all and showed up.”
As they make their way into the rink, Christen sniffles. “Sorry for, uh, throwing myself at you. And crying. I just wasn’t expecting anyone…and I’ve been feeling kind of down…” Her voice falters. “I guess I’m a pretty bad liar, huh?”
Tobin reaches out and clasps Christen’s hand in her own. As their fingers thread together, Tobin doesn’t seem to mind at all that Christen’s are still wet with tears. “I think you’ve gotten really good at taking care of yourself and pretending everything’s okay, for a long time,” she says simply. “I was telling myself last night that I was overthinking, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that you might not be going home. And I just wanted to make sure that you had someone to take care of you today if you needed it. It’s Christmas, after all.”
Christen clings to Tobin’s hand. Tobin seems to understand that Christen doesn’t want to get anywhere near the ice yet, and she leads them instead down a back hallway until they reach what must be the staff’s break room, with a microwave and mini-fridge and worn-out sofa. Tobin leads the way to the sofa, pulls Christen down next to her, and tucks a warm, comforting arm over her shoulder.
Christen can feel her heart slowing to a peaceful, steady pound. She curls up into Tobin’s side and lets her eyes flutter shut. She rests her cheek on her shoulder. She breathes in that familiar Tobin smell. She can’t believe she’s lucky enough that this is real. “Thank you,” she whispers.
“All better?” Tobin’s arm tightens around her, pulls her in closer, and Christen nods.
They just sit tangled up like that for a long while, their soft breaths sounding in unison. Christen almost dozes off. Then, beside her, Tobin starts moving around a little, her shoulder jostling Christen’s cheek. Christen cracks her eyes open to see Tobin doodling something on a Post-It.
“What is that?” Christen whispers.
Tobin’s hand stills, and very deliberately, she peels off the Post-It and holds it up for Christen to see. Her eyes are big and earnest and nervous. It looks like a spiky little leaf.
“What is that supposed to be? Is it weed?” Christen is teasing, but in all seriousness, she doesn’t know what it is.
Slowly, Tobin turns and sticks the Post-It on the wall above their heads.
“Shut up,” she murmurs, “I realized after I started drawing that I don’t actually know what mistletoe looks like.”
And then her hand is on Christen’s hip, drawing her in, and they’re kissing.
And it’s soft, and slow, and innocent, and Tobin tastes like coffee and smells like a snowy night, Christen feels it in every part of her body, down to her toes, up the back of her neck.
Tobin pulls back a little, and tips Christen’s chin up with her pointer finger, and whispers breathlessly into her mouth, “Is this okay?”
And Christen takes Tobin’s face in her trembling hands, and kisses her hard, and that’s all that needs to be said.
Several minutes later, or maybe several months, or a several centuries, they finally stop to catch a breath, foreheads still pressed against each other’s, gasping for air, smiling like idiots.
“Wow.” Tobin gasps. Her hands spread across Christen’s back, pulling her in tighter, and she drops a line of soft kisses down the side of Christen’s neck. “Wow,” she repeats again, muffled this time, as she’s now buried her face into the crook of Christen’s neck, nuzzling down into the hood of her sweatshirt. “Okay, wow.”
Christen can’t repress the giggle that floats out of her like iridescent bubbles. “Merry Christmas indeed.”
“Oh, that reminds me—” Tobin lifts her head, looks around. “I got you something.” She looks a little shy as she reaches around behind her and picks up a plastic grocery bag. “Sorry, uh, I’m not much for gift wrapping.”
Christen silences her apology by leaning in and placing a feather-light kiss right at the corner of her lips, just because she can, now—then another, closer to center—and then another, until their lips are moving softly against each other’s, and Tobin’s hands are drifting up to cup Christen’s jawline.
“I cannot believe this is real,” Tobin gasps, raspy and breathless, as if she’s talking to herself, when they finally pull back. And Christen couldn’t have put it better herself.
She reaches into the grocery bag and gasps as she pulls out a brand-new sweatshirt. It’s a pretty, sage-y green, in a baggy fit just like her black one, with a little logo in the center that says “re,” with a backwards E.
“Merry Christmas,” Tobin says, her fingers fiddling the way they do when she gets nervous. “I know it’s just a sweatshirt, but it’s from one of my favorite brands, and I just thought you’d like it—and of course, this is not endorsing, in any way, the view that you should not wear the current sweatshirt you have on, as much as you want to, it’s just that this one reminded me of your eyes, and—”
Christen leans in for another kiss. “I love it,” she murmurs against Tobin’s lips. “Thank you. Thank you, thank you.”
Tobin grins bashfully. “You want to put it on right now?”
“Actually…” Christen bites her lip. “I guess I have something for you, too. Well, it’s not actually for you, because I didn’t know you’d be here. But I think you’ll like it.”
And she reaches behind her into her own bag, and pulls out her new skating costume, which arrived in the mail yesterday.
Tobin’s jaw literally falls open.
“Want me to try this on for you?” Christen asks, teasingly, and Tobin’s nodding hard, and Christen’s giggling at the expression on her face.
“Okay, go out to the ice and wait for me,” Christen commands, and she’s being bossy, but Tobin doesn’t seem to mind at all. If anything, her eyes seem to darken at Christen’s instructions, and she bites down on her lip and gives Christen a silent salute before disappearing down the hall.
As Christen’s walking out to the ice, though, she gets a little nervous. Tobin has never seen her in anything but raggedy sweats. What if her expectations are too high? What if she’s disappointed? She pauses right before the end of the corridor and calls out, “Close your eyes, okay?”
When she emerges, she sees Tobin out on the ice already, hands behind her back, eyes obediently closed. Christen slides her skate guards off with shaking fingers and joins her.
“Okay,” she says, skating in circles around Tobin, trying to get up the nerve. “You ready?”
“Yes, fucking yes,” Tobin says, and her easy grin, and the impatient edge of her voice, makes Christen feel braver.
She slides to a stop in front of Tobin.
“Okay, open them.”
Tobin’s eyes flutter open, slowly at first, and then very wide. The costume is gloriously beautiful, and it fits perfectly, hugging every curve of Christen’s torso in a cloud of sparkling red and gold. The red and gold flounces around the waist could barely be called a skirt, leaving the entire length of Christen’s long legs exposed under the red leotard. She turns in a slow circle so Tobin can see the way the back swoops all the way down to her waist, leaving her whole back open.
“So…what do you think?”
Tobin’s literally going a little red in the face. She clears her throat, and then clears it again. “Uh…” she says, “I don’t think you want me to say the things I’m thinking out loud, in this public place, where little children occasionally come.”
Christen laughs. “I want to try the long program.”
“I’ll cue the music,” Tobin says, though she has a hard time tearing her eyes away from Christen; trips over her skates a little as she backs up towards the edge.
The program goes off like a dream. The costume is glorious: it fits beautifully, bending with her when she bends; the airy flounces rustle luxuriously against her legs. With Tobin there, staring at her with those loving, awestruck eyes, she feels buoyant; invincible. She nails every jump and every spin. She leaves her heart on the ice. When she strikes her ending pose, panting for breath, she knows that was better than anything she’s ever skated.
“So, how was that?” Christen gasps, skating up to Tobin, still trying to catch her breath.
“It was incredible.”
“Excellent.” Christen beams, places her hands on Tobin’s hips, pulls her in closer. “Just call it night one of a thousand and one nights.”
“I’ll let you in on a secret,” Tobin whispers in Christen’s ear as they twirl to a stop. “I’m pretty easy. I think one night is enough for me.”
“Yeah, I have no dignity. You have me already.” Tobin’s hands are on Christen’s waist, and then her hips, tugging and firm and insistent, and Christen lets herself get drawn in. “Fuck…you are literally the most talented…the prettiest…” she’s kissing her way down Christen’s neck again, “…the hottest…the sexiest human I have ever seen in my entire life.”
“Really?” Christen breathes out, her eyes fluttering shut, and she wants to be shy and embarrassed, but all she can think about is the sensation of Tobin’s lips working against her bare collarbone.
“Yeah, really.” Tobin’s nose is tracing its way back up Christen’s neck, slow, sensual, commanding. “I knew the first day I met you that you were going to ruin me.”
And then they’re kissing. Tobin’s fingers are on Christen’s chin, tipping her face up; her other hand traces hot, tantalizing circles over the bare skin of Christen’s back. Her tongue slides languidly into Christen’s mouth, intertwining with Christen’s tongue, licking deeper and deeper until Christen lets out a low moan, her hips rocking up into Tobin’s.
They break apart, laughing breathlessly, faces flushed.
“Aren’t there cameras in here?” Christen whispers.
Tobin glances around mischievously before sneaking another kiss. “Would it bother you if there were?” she replies, mumbling against Christen’s lips.
Christen pulls back, smirks. “Could be kind of hot.”
Tobin chokes a little, and surges forward, and they’re making out again, Tobin’s long, dexterous fingers winding up into Christen’s hair, massaging against her scalp, tugging a little, and—
“Jesus Christ,” Christen gasps, coming up for air again. “On second thought, though, maybe, uh, maybe not so hot if your uncle sees.”
She laughs at the look on Tobin’s face, like she’s just been doused with ice water, and they finally disentangle, breathing hard.
“Come over for dinner tonight,” Tobin says suddenly.
Christen can feel her eyes growing round, and she catches her breath at the glorious thought, but her manners override. “Won’t your parents mind? Christmas is a family thing for you.”
“I guarantee you they’d love to have you,” Tobin says earnestly, taking Christen’s hands in hers. “The more the merrier, honestly. My siblings have brought friends home for Christmas before, so it’s no big deal. There’s going to be so much food, and my mom always goes all out with the decorations, and we can sit in this little nook between the tree and the fireplace and drink hot chocolate, and wear fuzzy socks, and I can kiss you when nobody’s looking. Come on, please.”
Christen can almost see it before her eyes as Tobin’s describes it, and it sounds like everything she’s ever wanted. She nods, and Tobin’s whole face lights up.
“Okay. Okay! I’ll call them and let them know,” Tobin leans in for another quick kiss, and it just feels so easy, so natural.
Christen goes back to get changed as Tobin closes up, this time putting on the new sweatshirt from Tobin. She hasn’t worn color in ages, and it does bring out her eyes, she realizes, as she checks her reflection in the mirror. It makes her look good. Or maybe it’s just the happiness doing that. She traces her fingers over her kiss-swollen lips and can’t contain the smile that spreads across her face.
When she comes back out, the arena lights are turned down low and the Zamboni is humming over the ice. She leans against the rink wall and watches Tobin maneuver in careful lines as she talks on the phone. Christen feels her nerves wash away as she overhears little snippets of Tobin’s phone call—
Mom, is it cool if I bring Christen back for dinner tonight?—
Yes, that Christen—
I’m sure she’ll think the food is just fine, Mom, it doesn’t need to be anything fancier than usual—
Mom!! I don’t talk about her EVERY day, stop exaggerating—
Giggling, Christen settles into one of the seats to wait. She tips her head back and stares around the rink: its high-arching ceilings, its scuffed linoleum floors, its smooth expanses of glimmering ice. It feels familiar and comforting, she realizes—how far she’s come since that first day, standing petrified and voiceless and alone. And as she watches Tobin drive the Zamboni around—a whistle on her lips, her glossy brown hair in that silly half bun—she realizes that it feels like home, and it has everything to do with Tobin.