whatever may come, the world keeps revolving...
All James Buchanan Barnes wanted to do was land that triple axel.
That was easier said than done. His triple axel in the US Nationals short program had been tilted, but he'd pulled it off. He'd singled both triple axel attempts earlier in the warmup. His confidence from the short program was eroding fast. Something was off, but James just couldn't figure out what was wrong.
Landing a triple flip, James forced himself to focus on his jumps. He couldn't afford to let the doubt creep into his mind. His triple axel technique was sound; he just had to keep after it. He didn't have a reliable quad in his arsenal. If he let that jump get away from him, he'd yield ground to the younger skaters. And they were gaining fast.
With the retirement of both Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson, the new guard was charging the podium, led by the former junior champion. Wearing a blue and white soldier's outfit that contrasted sharply with his dark skin tone, nothing seemed to faze Eli Bradley, not even the pressure of competing in his first US championships as a senior. Stamina could become a factor, James reflected. If the kid wasn't careful, he was going to run out of gas halfway through his long program.
The official gave the warning for the warm up session. James could squeeze in one last triple axel attempt before he had to leave the ice. So he set up for the long approach with big powerful crossovers, moving towards the boards in front of the judges' panel. A risky stunt, but he wanted to show the judges he could land the jump when it mattered.
James set up for the takeoff, leaned back and catapulted into the air. He whirled in the air, trying the three and a half revolutions in the air. The jump was bad from the takeoff. James could already feel the jump spinning out of his control. Then James slammed into something very hard. He'd timed the takeoff too close to the boards again. He tried to stand up, but his whole left arm hurt, all the way from his shoulder down to his wrist. The technical specialist started shouting to get a doctor and his coach. James had messed up, big time.
Not the way James had pictured ending his eligible career at all.
Three months later...
Holding Yelena Belova by the hand and the hip, Yuri Bezukov attempted to swing Yelena up into a star lift. The timing was completely off, lacking the proper momentum. To his credit, Yuri didn't try to muscle through the lift. When Yuri realized the lift wouldn't go up successfully, he quickly set Yelena down. The landing was a little rougher than he intended, but at least she wasn't more seriously hurt.
"Can't you do anything right?" Yelena burst out, her anger boiling over. "You were supposed to do a simple star lift. We will never get it right if you keep this up."
"Would you prefer he dropped you on your head, little one?" Natasha Romanoff leaned over the boards. The redheaded skater sounded harsh, but she was losing her patience. The entire practice session had consisted of Yelena berating and discouraging her partner. Natasha could see why Yelena made all the "Red Room" coaches throw up their hands in disgust. "The lift was failing. Your partner was trying to protect you from getting hurt. You should be grateful for his thoughtfulness, rather than cursing him out."
Far from contrite, Yelena put her hands on her hips. "My last partner didn't have this problem."
"Then perhaps you should skate with him instead, if he'll still have you," Natasha suggested. Yelena's last partner had unceremoniously dumped her after the Russian nationals. Then Natasha added with a little more venom than she'd intended, "Or maybe you should try your luck in singles? How is your triple lutz? I've heard the girls in Japan can even do triple axels now."
"Why don't you go steal someone else's partner?" Yelena asked.
"Yelena!" Yuri sounded shocked. "Do not speak that way to Natalia Alainovna."
"Why?" Yelena shot back. "Because she is such an Olympic legend? If she is so good, then why is wasting her time with us?"
Natasha counted to ten slowly. "Your coach asked me to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses," Natasha snapped. "I did this as a favor to him, nothing more." She turned to Yuri. "You're very good at showcasing your partner, Yuri Ivanovich, but you need to communicate better with her, so she knows what is needed." Yuri nodded slowly, understanding his mistakes more clearly.
Then Natasha turned towards Yelena. She didn't immediately say anything, prompting a scowl from the younger skater.
"Well?" Yelena asked. "No words of wisdom from the great champion?"
"If I thought you would listen, I would," Natasha said. "But since you don't care what I have to say, then there's nothing I can teach you." She paused. "Except that if you want to be a real pairs skater someday, Yelena, you will have to learn how to listen -- to your coach, to your partner, to everyone. Communication is the key to our discipline." She locked eyes on the young woman. Staring down her opponents in practice was one thing, but she'd never tried it with a potential student. "Now shall we continue with your training? Or do we waste more time arguing?" Natasha almost thought Yelena would walk off the ice, but she turned to Yuri, shooing him back to work.
The next lift attempt went more successfully. Yelena didn't fight the lift, letting Yuri hoist her up into position, her legs extended and spread apart like the points of a star, her toes elegantly pointed. Natasha nodded with satisfaction. Yelena held beautiful classic positions in the air, her ballet training clearly on display. After a steady progression of other moves together, Natasha could see their potential. If they worked hard, they could challenge the top pairs in the coming years, but they'd have to want it enough.
"Impressive," Ivan Petrovitch Bezukov murmured. He'd been quietly watching from a far corner of the rink. "Do you know how many coaches Yelena has stared down?"
"Still fewer than I have," Natasha said.
Ivan didn't argue that point. "What is your assessment?" he asked. "Were my instincts wrong? Or do they have potential together?"
"They suit each other," Natasha admitted thoughtfully. "He has the patience, she has the fire. They could be a beautiful couple on the ice," she added after some hesitation. "But she will be difficult to reign in. I do not envy you. Yelena has no regard for anyone else." Yelena's words were like a slap in the face. Some of the younger skaters considered her a legend, but others saw her as an old woman unwilling to face reality.
"I recall people saying the same things about a young firebrand in her day," Ivan said. "Did you not refuse to partner with Alexei Alanovich until his skating improved?"
"That was different." Natasha flinched at the mention of her ex-husband Alexei Shostakov. Well matched on the ice, they were hardly the golden couple off the ice. When Alexei walked out on her, they'd both agreed it was for the best. He was now a skating official in Bulgaria. "I would have overshadowed him."
"You overshadow all your partners, Natasha," Ivan said mildly. "You always have," he added. "Still the session could have gone better." He hesitated.
"There was a phone call from that American businessman..."
"Again?" Natasha didn't even have to ask which one. Only Tony Stark had the persistence to continue calling her even in Russia. "What did he want this
time? Another dinner date in Monte Carlo?"
"Nyet, he wanted to talk business." Since Ivan served as her manager, all offers came through his office. "Tony Stark is sponsoring a professional skating competition in America. He is inviting all the Olympic champions." For years, the professional skating world converged in December for the World Pro Championships. The competition had fallen out of favor until wealthy billionaire Tony Stark decided to resurrect the old event. Unlike the other made-for-television events developed after the Olympics, this one had clout.
"What does this have to do with me?" Natasha asked.
"Stark still needs a headliner in the pairs event," Ivan said, "someone that can command respect."
Natasha observed. "He must not have anyone now, if he's so desperate."
"He wanted the best." Ivan commented. "So he called you."
"What did you tell him?" Natasha asked. "Does he know?"
Ivan shook his head, "I convinced Mr. Stark that we needed some time to think it over." At her surprised reaction, he continued. "Tasha, my little ballerina, you are nearly thirty," Ivan reminded her. "Not to begrudge the point, but how much longer can you continue as an eligible skater?" he added thoughtfully. "The Americans have a saying about those who stay too long at the party. You've won how many championships, how many medals? You have already exceeded everyone's expectations for you. Your place in history is more than assured."
Natasha turned on him, filled with fury. "My place in history?" she echoed his words. "Is that all that matters? I'm only allowed to compete if I'm
"That's not what I meant," Ivan protested. "Do not put words into my mouth."
"All of you are like this," Natasha continued. "I don't skate for glory, Ivan, I never have." She shook her head. "I was hoping you'd understand. You skated under the old Soviet system. You saw how much pressure we were under." She turned back towards the ice, watching Yuri and Yelena skating together, their strides matching with each shared moment on the ice. The younger generation was catching up, but she didn't want to leave yet. She felt like she was being shoved out the door.
"I'm sorry, Tasha, I really am," Ivan said. "But the federation has to think about the future."
"So this is what it comes to." Natasha said softly. She should have prepared herself for this. After Europeans and Worlds, when she split with her last partner, Ivan had no pep talks about the next season. She always thought there would be one more season. "Your students need your undivided attention, Ivan Petrovich, not my halfhearted attempts."
"You are correct, of course. I should get back to them," Ivan said. "No doubt they are up to no good," he finished. "Please give Stark's competition some consideration."
"I am a pairs skater, Ivan," Natasha reminded him. "How will I compete without a partner?"
"You will think of something," Ivan said. "I will support your decision, even if it... lies elsewhere."
Ivan Petrovich's words reverberated in her mind. He had been her coach for the bulk of her career. He'd seen her through triumph and heartbreak. But his message was clear – her future wasn't in this rink.
Natasha needed a clean break from her past. If she was no longer an eligible skater, then she was free to find a new coach, someone that understood her style and training methods.
Staying in Russia would only bring additional misery. No matter how much she loved her country, she couldn't skate with this cloud over her. She needed a change of scenery.
With that in mind, Natasha dug a cell phone out of her bag. Her inbox contained several messages from Tony Stark's charming assistant Pepper Potts asking for confirmation. Tony had clearly considering her participation in the event a done deal.
Amongst her other contacts, she found a different phone number, one she'd never had a cause to use until now. An American coach had given her his number at the last Olympics, when her career was floundering. At the time, she'd just added to all her other names. Now she clung to it like a lifeline. At least there wouldn't be a language barrier. She was nearly as comfortable in English as her native Russian.
"This is Nick Fury, leave a message after the beep and I'll get back to you." Natasha smiled, hearing his gruff voice on the voicemail message. Although he sometimes looked more like a soldier than a figure skater, no international coach was more feared in Russian circles than Nicholas Fury. His own skating career wasn't illustrious, but skating with Valentina Allegra de Fontaine garnered him just enough notoriety to jumpstart his coaching career. Russian officials didn't know how to deal with someone that played the game nearly as well as they did.
Taking a deep breath, Natasha answered in perfect English, "This is Natasha Romanoff." She chose her next words carefully. "You asked for me to contact
you if my situation changed. I find myself at liberty. I am interested in hearing more." She could still feel her heart racing when she closed the cell phone. There was no turning back now. Whatever happened next was out of her control.
At the Olympics, Natasha struggled to find her championship form. She'd barely managed a bronze medal with her last partner. Not a bad placement, but not up to her usual standard of excellence. Nick Fury only asked her one question: Why did she want to skate?
Natasha had never considered the question. She'd always skated, ever since she was a child. She spent most of her life in skating rinks. What would she do with herself otherwise?
When she married Alexei, Natasha had considered becoming a simple housewife. But they were unable to have a child together. That friction spilled onto the ice. The marriage ended on a jarringly painful note. So she'd kept skating.
She'd hated coaching Yelena and Yuri. She hated standing on the sidelines only able to watch. Maybe when she was a little older and further removed from her skating days, she would be able to coach. Or maybe she'd be a choreographer. No one seemed to know how to choreograph correctly for pairs.
Skating was more than a job for Natasha. She couldn't imagine not skating.
When Natasha was touring America, she'd watched an old ballet film called the Red Shoes. More than one skater made comparisons between Natasha and Moira Shearer's character. Both women had glorious red hair and both were at the time torn between love of their husband and love of their art. The moment when Victoria Page met Boris Lermontov for the first time still resonated with Natasha deeply.
"Why do you want to dance?"
"Why do you want to live?"
Steady in her resolve, Natasha continued to train for the next week. Without a partner, she worked more as a singles skater. She could still land three triple jumps on a good day, but she would never compete against the little pixie jumping beans, let alone challenge Sharon Carter. Even the older Russian girls had that advantage on her. She'd only competed in pairs, even when she was younger.
Natasha tried not to think about the message she'd left with Nick Fury. Worst case scenario, he never received the message she would skate in little ice shows in Volgograd until she was an old lady. Or she'd be the mistress of some Russian businessman. Maybe she should have just left, packed a bag and disappeared. No one would miss her.
But that wasn't entirely true. The federation still pointed to her as their glittering star, a symbol of the old ways. As Natasha had learned from experience, symbols were very tempting targets.
At the last practice, Natasha shared the ice with Yelena Belova again. The slender blonde skater spent little time on jumps and spins, but focused more on her stroking and crossovers. Yelena seemed more focused in this practice.
Natasha asked, "Where is your partner?"
"Why do you care?" Yelena asked.
Natasha shrugged. "I just assumed you'd be spending all of your time with him."
"He doesn't like my skating," Yelena said. "My left side was weak, my crossovers were poor, so I decided to work on them more today." She turned to Natasha, her posture all defensive and angry. "You probably think I am doing something wrong."
"To care what your partner thinks or want to improve?" Natasha asked. "Neither is a bad thing in and of itself, Yelena. Some people don't need other people's approval. They're pushed by an inner fire. Others crave approval from others. Which are you, little one?"
"Stop calling me that," Yelena snapped. "I am not a child."
"So you say," Natasha said. "Prove me otherwise."
Before Yelena could respond, Ivan motioned Natasha over to the side of the rink. Yelena returned to work on her crossovers.
"I know I should be nicer to her..." Natasha began. She couldn't warm up to the younger skater, no matter how hard she tried.
Ivan held up a hand. "Come to the office, Tasha. We must talk."
Confused, Natasha slipped on her skate guards and followed him out of the rink. Ivan led Natasha to a small office he used sometimes to conduct business. The room included a battered desk, two chairs, and a phone. All of them had seen better days.
"Close the door and sit down." Ivan took the chair behind the desk. Natasha closed the door behind her, heart pounding. "I had a most interesting phone
call. But it wasn't from Mr. Stark or his annoying secretary. I heard from that old American warhorse. You know the one with the eyepatch?"
Natasha nodded slowly. She didn't want to sound too eager.
"Nikolai and I exchanged pleasantries and news," Ivan continued. "Boris and his wife have had another new baby. They teach skating to children at a rink in New Jersey now." Then his mood doured. "We spoke of you in Torino, you know," Ivan continued. "He didn't think you should have placed so low behind the Chinese teams." Ivan frowned, causing his mustache to droop. "He asked about your plans for the future, if you were training for the next season. Of course I couldn't speak for you…"
"Of course not." Natasha smiled. "You only guide me, no?"
Ivan coughed. "When I admitted you were uncertain of your plans, Nikolai suggested a change of scenery. He thought it could shake out the cobwebs,
eliminate any doubt in your mind. I agreed that sounded like a good idea," he finished with a sigh. "He suggested you train at his rink in America. You could train alongside the current Olympic singles champions."
"What do you think?" Natasha kept her tone level and neutral, like she was only asking his advice, not his permission.
"It would be a great honor," Ivan admitted grudgingly. "You have admired the American style for many years. Their rink is a state of the art facility," he added. "You would learn much from Nikolai. His eye for technique is unmatched." Then his expression looked more somber. "One thing does concern me."
"What is that?" Natasha asked.
Ivan shrugged. "You still have no partner. Who will you skate with?"
Natasha shook her head, "I don't know yet." She shrugged. "Perhaps I will find a suitable partner in America." She suggested casually. She didn't require a Russian partner to compete in Stark's event. But all the same, most of the men she knew training in the States had long-time partners. Despite what Yelena thought of her, she didn't go around stealing other women's men, on or off the ice. "Did Nicholas have someone in mind perhaps?"
"If he did, he didn't say," Ivan said. "Not that he would. He's a crafty old wolf." He shrugged. "Bah, I am an old man. I am just concerned for your well-being. You've been my student for many years now, but even I admit the change could do you good. You need to experience new things." Natasha impulsively embraced her old coach. She wasn't sure when she would see him again. Surprised and gratified, Ivan gave her a quick squeeze. "You should pack, before I have time to change my mind."
Natasha left his office and closed the door behind her with a satisfied smile. Leave it to Nick Fury to come up with a way for Ivan to save face and give Natasha her freedom. She could leave all of this behind her.
Now all she had to do was find a partner. She'd accomplished smaller miracles in her career.
Later that month...
The first couple of practices coming back from a major injury were always brutal. That proved no exception for James. The first day James just worked on his edges, trying to get the feel of the ice again.
James had forgotten how much he missed the simple act of skating sometimes. So caught up in the competitive aspects, he'd lost an appreciation for the little things that made up the sport. When he first started skating in Indiana, he loved just doodling around on the ice, trying stupid things. He didn't even realize he'd discovered his edges until his instructor told him.
The first time James tried a single jump he was afraid he'd reinjured his shoulder. Every rotation and every movement ached like blazes. But he slowly built his strength back up.
By the end of the first week, James had most of his easier triple jumps back. By his second, he was up to the triple lutz. The axel still dogged him, though. His favorite jump was now his nemesis. He was almost ready to accept defeat until that practice.
Turning, turning, turning - three and a half revolutions took a split second, but they felt like an eternity whirling around in the air. When the
rotations were complete, James landed squarely on his right outside edge. A broad smile reached his face, making him look boyish. Now James felt like he was really back.
The light applause startled him out of his mood. Embarrassed, James turned to see who was watching his practice session. Tall and blonde, Steve Rogers
leaned against the boards, his broad smile lighting up the rink. The two of them had been friends forever, since they started competing in the junior
ranks together. Training together for the last five years, they'd gone to two Olympics and a half a dozen World championships together. None of it had put a dent in Steve and James' friendship - they still supported and pushed each other.
"I didn't know you were in town," James skated over to greet Steve.
"The tour doesn't start for another week," Steve said, "but I'm supposed to compete in my first pro competition in a month, so I wanted to be ready."
After Torino, the networks and sponsors wanted to capitalize on skating's renewed popularity, luring new and former champions to these newly created
events. Whether they would be successful remained to be seen.
"When have you ever been unprepared for a competition?" James asked.
"Speaking of competitive, you looked pretty good out there," Steve said. "How's the arm?" With all his commitments, Steve hadn't been in Spokane for US Nationals, but he called James the next day in the hospital.
"Stronger than ever," James flexed his arm. "You wouldn't even know I was injured."
Steve frowned. "Pushing it a little hard, aren't you? Or is Stark after you to compete too?"
"He's asked," James admitted, "but I haven't accepted yet." He'd been feeling restless throughout his rehab. He'd been injured before, but there was always the promise of the next season. After Nationals, he hadn't known what he would do next. Stark's invitation couldn't have come at a more opportune time. "I couldn't stay off the ice forever. Don't want to be accused of giving up."
"You're far too stubborn for that," Steve grinned. "While you're making up your mind, how about another round of Barnes and Rogers?" He doffed skate
guards from his black skates.
"I don't know," James waggled a warning hand at his old friend. "You know the rules about being late to a practice session."
"Extra sit spins," Steve groaned. "I'll be doing sit spins in my sleep. I guess that explains why your spins were always so good."
The two friends continued on with their respective training, grateful for a less stressful practice session for a change.
"Is that her?"
"She's taller than I thought she'd be."
"Has she really been to four Olympics?"
"Will she let us watch her practice?"
"Why's she watching the boys? Doesn't she skate pairs?"
"Where's that cute partner of hers?"
Natasha hid her amusement. Was she ever like those giggling girls when she was younger? She remembered meeting some of her idols when she was younger.
Before she'd ever won a title, Natasha had sounded like Yelena, young and brash and confident. She thought her rightful place was on the top of the
podium. That belief had never wavered over the years.
"Already the center of attention and you haven't even laced up your boots yet." Nick Fury leaned against the other side of the wall. "I can't imagine how they'll react when you're out there rather than skulking in the shadows." His attention was nominally on the practice session. "They don't mind if you watch, Tasha. They're pretty much used to it here."
"I know that," Natasha admitted, "but I didn't want to disturb them." She looked thoughtful. "Steve doesn't look like the Olympics changed him much."
"Steve already won it before," Nick reminded her. "He's had four years to get used to the idea."
"James looks as fearless as ever," Natasha couldn't put a finger on what was different about his skating.
"Do you know you're the only person I know who calls him that?" Nick said. "Everyone else, even the commentators, still call him Bucky, the way they did when he first showed up at competitions. He was still skating with his kid sister back then. You're the only one that gets away with James. "
"I didn't know Bucky," Natasha shrugged. "All the Russians called him Yakob, even his coach sometimes." They had other names for him as well, but she didn't mention that.
"Karpov," Nick said with obvious distaste. "If he wasn't already dead, I'd love to slug that bastard. You wouldn't believe how hard it was to drag that kid out of his shell. Karpov's isolation techniques might have done wonders for his technique, but they took a toll on his social side."
Natasha wasn't surprised. James had told her little things about training with Karpov, none of them too pretty. She'd seen some of his coaching methods first hand. But she'd also seen how James had rebelled against the old man. "Karpov wasn't a well man, Nicholas. Old Lyudmila said he was a bitter old bear always gnawing at old injuries." Watching James perform a dizzying spin combination, she gave a bitter laugh. "As for his name, I think I wanted to show him I thought of him as American, not Russian, so I used James." She smiled. "He always called me Natalia. Never Tasha like the others, always the more formal name."
"Because it suited you more." Startled, Natasha looked up to see James and Steve skating to a halt in front of the two of them. His playful smile caught her off-guard. Still the same James she remembered. "Was she who you meant when you mentioned you were expecting a new skater?" At Nick's nod, James asked still confused. "So you're here for the summer?"
"Hopefully a bit longer than that," Natasha smiled.
"I don't see your partner or coach," Steve asked. "Are they looking around? Or joining you later?"
Natasha shook her head, "I'm on my own. Your coach suggested I train here for awhile. At least until I can sort things out."
"Pity I'm not going to be around much," Steve said. "Things are going to be a lot more interesting with you here. Sharon'll be sorry she missed you."
"Give her my regards, too," Natasha smiled. "I was pleased to see a woman winning the Olympics for a change, rather than a little girl." She wasn't alone in that assessment. Sharon Carter had surprised no one with her consistency or her elegance, but everyone feared she'd crumble under the Olympic spotlight. "Someone has to hold up the banner for us old ladies."
"You're younger than both of us," James tried not to laugh.
"Watching the two of you out there, I don't feel like it," Natasha scowled. She was suddenly more conscious than ever of her age. "I was working on the
other triple jumps last week. I wanted to crawl into my bed afterwards."
"I won't push you that hard," Nick promised. "But we can discuss your skating future later." He added. "And you two should go cool down." When the two skaters had waved goodbye, Nick turned towards Natasha. "Will this be a problem? Sharing the ice with him, I mean?"
"With James?" Natasha shook her head. "Of course not, it'll be like old times."
They say the next big thing is here,
that the revolution's near...
"You don't seem to enjoying the practice," Boris Turgenev observed to James Buchanan Barnes. The big Russian had gone out of his way to welcome the
American skater. Older than most of the other athletes, he had embraced the spirit of the exchange. He clearly wanted to show things were different now. His English was better than most, albeit slow and deliberate. Boris offered helpfully. "I can translate."
"That's not really necessary," James wished he was allowed to speak freely. The irony of that thought coming from an American training in a Moscow rink
wasn't lost on him. After years of working with Vasily Karpov, his coach, James' Russian was nearly perfect. But Karpov preferred James to play the
ignorant American, rather than the worldly traveler, so James felt a little isolated. If Boris could sense his frustration, then James wasn't masking it well.
"Let him," Natasha Romanoff waved away his complaints, "Boris enjoys showing off his English." The stunning redhead spoke better English than Boris did, as if she'd been speaking it all her life. Natasha was only a few inches shorter than James was, which he never would have guessed from the way Boris towered over her. They'd skated in the last Olympics; some of the American commentators joked about the "moose and squirrel" team. Karpov hadn’t found the joke even remotely funny.
"I am trying to help, Tasha," Boris said. "You should try it." He added in an aside in Russian. "He's friendlier than the last American that visited
Natasha smiled. "And cuter." She winked playfully at James. Then she switched back to English. "What else are you doing while you're here, James?"
"I'm not sure yet," James hid a smile. So far Natasha was the only Russian to call him by his given name. Most used the Russian equivalent "Yakob", while his friends back home all knew him as "Bucky". Even the commentators had taken to using the nickname. "My coach is having me work with a choreographer while I'm in Russia for next year's programs. Do either of you know a Lyudmila Kudrin?"
"Of course, she is also our choreographer," Natasha said. "She works with many skaters on the Russian team."
"You will enjoy working with her," Boris agreed. He leaned in and whispered, "She is a good choreographer but sometimes she is very... how you say... architectural?" He was struggling for the right word. "She has all these big ideas and themes, but they don't always translate on the ice."
"Conceptual?" James guessed. Boris nodded vigorously. "We have those choreographers too, but they mostly work with the ice dancers." For the last few years, Karpov had choreographed James' competitive programs. Getting a new choreographer had initially excited James, but now he was worried.
"Boris!" One of the coaches called over to them. "We need an extra spotter. Will you help?"
"Of course," Boris nodded. "Will you keep Tasha company, Yakob? Our junior team has trouble with their twist." He referred to the air-defying pairs move where the partner threw her up and she twisted into the air several times before landing safely in his arms.
"I noticed that," James said. "I've only seen them do a double twist. When they've tried a triple, it's usually pretty... crashy." He mimicked the two
skaters colliding together, so Boris understood what he meant. "I was glad when my sister Becky stopped whacking me in the face when she did our twist."
Boris frowned doubtfully. "You skated pairs? Your sister must have been a tiny girl."
"I'm stronger than I look," James said defensively. He was short for a pair skater, but he'd always compensated with extra strength training. Still he
would never manage some of the feats accomplished by the bigger pairs skaters. "Go on and work with them. They look like they'd appreciate the help."
Finally Boris skated over to their coach. The junior Russian team
demonstrated their split twist. The girl nearly banged her partner in the nose on the way down. James winced in sympathy. Nearly every pair team had some horror stories to tell from the twist.
"Do you miss that part of skating pairs?" Natasha asked, seeing his reaction.
"Not even a little," James said. "Do you mind Boris working with them?"
"Nyet, he enjoys teaching," Natasha admitted. "He's always helping the younger skaters with their technique. He'll be a good coach someday." Looking around, she suggested thoughtfully. "Maybe you can help me with my skating, James?"
"I don't see how," James said mildly. "Your only weakness is that axel of yours." He could have kicked himself for saying that. The last thing he wanted to do was antagonize her.
"And what is wrong with my axel?" Natasha turned on him, hands on her hips.
Now he was in trouble. He searched for the right words. "Forgive me, Natalia." James tried to dig himself out of the massive hole he had jumped into. "Your pairs skills are gorgeous, but that axel technique of yours is all over the place." Then something clicked into place. He’d only seen her do double axels a few times. Even in the Olympics, they’d landed harder side-by-side triple toe loops. "Is that why you do triples in your programs instead?"
Natasha looked embarrassed. No one had guessed that was the reason they avoided axels. She didn't even like doing throw double axels. "It's a difficult jump... for me." She didn't like admitting her flaws.
"It's my favorite jump," James grinned. "I could do those in my sleep." He looked thoughtful. "Maybe if you showed me your axel, I can figure out where it's going wrong?"
"Is this a sort of game you play?" Natasha cocked her head playfully. "What is your saying, 'I'll show you mine...?' " James coughed. "If you think it
will help..." Natasha sighed. In the circle, she attempted first a single axel and then a shaky double. Both jumps looked like they were heavily
under-rotated. James was surprised she'd gotten around on the double at all.
"Okay, now watch mine," James demonstrated first with a light airy single axel. Then he ripped off a double axel. "Do you see any difference?"
Natasha shook her head. "Your takeoff is the problem. You're whipping through it, not stepping up into it. Try a waltz jump."
"I feel like I'm a little girl again," Natasha muttered. A waltz jump was a beginner move learned before all the other jumps, so James was really taking her back to basics. Her waltz looked fine. Somewhere between the waltz and axel, her problems had occurred.
James suggested, "Try leaning back more before your takeoff." He demonstrated with his own waltz jump. "Like that. Does that make sense?"
Natasha nodded thoughtfully. "I will try that." But she didn't sound too hopeful. Relearning jump mechanics at this late stage was tricky. James didn’t want to ruin her jumps by changing too much. But she made the game attempt, trying axel after axel. After two falls, she'd finally managed to get one around.
James didn’t understand. How did someone with such solid technique otherwise have difficulty with the axel? Was it the forward takeoff? Was it the extra half rotation on the end? He was almost tempted to skate over to his coach to ask. But Karpov stayed firmly in his spot, watching the practice session. So he’d have to work this out on his own.
"Maybe we should take a break," James suggested. "This is frustrating you too much."
"I will get it," Natasha looked more determined than ever. She took a deep breath and took one last game attempt at a double axel. This time the takeoff was slightly better and the rotations looked more or less right.
"Not bad," James grinned. "After a few million of those, you might start to like the axel again."
James and Natasha watched the other pairs teams on the ice. "You enjoy watching our practices?"
"Very much," James said. "Call me odd, but I've never really warmed up to that style." At center ice, Melina Vostokoff and Artur Khvalko were performing an elaborate pairs spin, using Melina's flexibility as a center piece, her body twisted like an elaborate human pretzel. "I just don't see a pair when I watch them. I just see two people skating together. Does that make any sense?" Natasha nodded. Then he pointed towards a lesser Russian team flying across the ice in their practice session. She'd never noticed them before. The couple usually trained in a different rink. "Now those two really skate together. To me, that's the way a pair should look. What I love about pairs was the unison, seeing two people in perfect synch together. To me, you shouldn't notice two skaters you just see one beautiful line. Two shall skate as one."
The pronouncement had the opposite effect he intended on Natasha. She looked back at Boris, her expression serious. "Would Boris mind you being with me?" James didn't want to have a jealous boyfriend on his case. He had enough problems as it was.
Natasha looked confused. "Why would Boris mind?" She giggled with realization. "He is not my boyfriend. He is... just Boris."
"I thought all you Russians wound up married to your partners," James said.
"And most of the North American teams are really just friends?" Natasha asked.
"I can’t really talk," James shrugged. "I skated with my sister for nearly ten years. But there have been married American teams. The Pyms are the
notorious example. They were so showy and flamboyant. They had some really strange costumes, too." He laughed. "I think that was why I liked those
Canadians better. Heather and Mac Hudson made all the technical stuff look so easy. I always loved how her hair would graze the ice on the death spiral and get all snowy."
"I always loved the death spiral," Natasha smiled. "I don’t know why exactly. It's like having sex on ice." James did a double take. Had she really meant that? "Do you still remember how to do one?"
"Forward death spiral okay?" James asked.
"Of course," Natasha said.
James guided her around in a circle, holding her by the hand and then performing a back outside pivot position. Circling him, Natasha dropped into a beautiful position with her legs together and her toes pointed, her body parallel to the ice. Her head was dropped back, nearly grazing the surface. Then he swung her up to her feet, so they exited the death spiral perfectly.
"Not bad," Natasha smiled. "You need to sit a little lower in your pivot, but you don't skate too bad... for an American." The grudging words of praise were all the encouragement James needed to hear.
"So I should skate like a Russian instead?" James asked with some irritation. Natasha uttered a Russian curse under her breath. James would have to remember that one for future reference. "I used to sit a lot lower, but I'm out of practice. It’s not quite the same motion as a sit-spin."
At a loud throat clearing, James turned to see his coach waiting impatiently. Vasily Karpov did not look happy at all. Quite the contrary; with his arms crossed, he had the stern look of a disappointed parent. Embarrassed, James ducked his head. "I have to go." He smiled cheerfully, "But it was nice skating with you, Natalia," he whispered, so low only she could hear, in perfect Russian. "You're beautiful on the ice." He saw the surprise in her eyes, but she quickly hid her reaction.
"What were you thinking?" Vasily Karpov demanded. James had never seen him look so angry in his life. Even after a bad skate, he still had some
encouraging words. "When I agreed to this trip, I thought you would take this seriously, not like some sort of game."
"I don't get what the big deal is," James said. "It's not like I tried an overhead lift or anything, it was just one death spiral." He didn't know what all the fuss was about. "Nothing happened. We were just fooling around on the ice." That might not have been the best choice of words. Recalling her playful words, he hid a smile. Not that he would have minded spending a little more time around the lovely Natasha.
"No, there will be no fooling around," Karpov said sternly, "especially not with Natalia Romanova. You are not even to look at her, do you understand?"
The tone in his voice made it quite clear his opinion on the subject. "You should be glad it wasn't the old days," Karpov added more kindly. "Your
officials might not have approved of you flirting with a Russian girl." He held up a warning hand before James could protest. "I know flirting when I see it."
"Anyway, you forget the pretty girl, your focus is singles skating now, young man, do not forget that." Karpov had switched to lecture mode. "Lyudmila is eager to work with you. She's never choreographed an American skater before." He had pulled out a notepad where he wrote down his observations on James' skating. "I've arranged for you to skate in an exhibition while you're here. You can use your Rachmaninov program. You skated well in the Goodwill Games, so the Russian audience will already know you. Just feed off of that emotion in the exhibition."
The barrage of criticisms and orders hit James from all sides. All he could grit out was a "Yes, sir" type response. He sounded like one of young
recruits he saw at his father's Army base. The drill sergeant would be up in their face and they'd shout "Yes, sir, No, sir" back. His previous coach had been empathetic and understanding and tried to encourage the best of her young charges. Sometimes James wondered where he went wrong.
Lyudmila's reputation turned out to be well-earned. The footwork sequences were intricate, the jump entrances far different than anything he'd attempted before. Even the music was a little off kilter, not the usual ponderous Russian classical music Karpov preferred. With each successive practice, the new programs became more comfortable, like a pair of shoes he was breaking in.
James had just finished practicing the short program when he noticed Natasha tucked in a corner, reading a book. She was completely oblivious to his performance. How long had she been watching him?
Remembering he had an exhibition to prepare for, James put on the Rachmaninov music. He needed to get in the mindset of a Russian audience, not an American one. He wished he could have picked something fun, but Karpov preferred serious music. So he treated it with the care and respect the Russians would expect.
To his credit, Natasha did look up from her book. Unfortunately she didn't look at all happy. Was it something he did? When he finally finished, Natasha came over to the tape player. "Was that a new program?"
James shook his head, "I used it all last season, why?"
"No reason," Natasha said, "I just... you didn't skate the way I expected you to."
James cocked his head, "That didn't sound like a compliment."
"Take it however you like," Natasha scowled. "You seemed to enjoy skating so much in the practices the other day. I was surprised your programs didn't match that."
James winced. "That bad, huh?" He didn't seem at all surprised. "When I was kid, I loved being out on the ice. I couldn't wait to go to the rink every
"And now?" Natasha asked.
"Now it's harder," James said. "There's more pressure and more demands."
"Because of your coach?" Natasha didn't sound surprised. "I've heard stories about Karpov. Even for a Russian his techniques are questionable. Skaters don't exist in a vacuum, James. You saw how those young skaters responded to the little encouragement Boris gave them."
"So you don't mind giving pointers to your competition?" James asked. "Those kids will be on your heels before you know it."
"And if they do, so be it," Natasha shrugged. "The strong survive in our sport. If Boris and I aren't the future, then maybe they will be."
"Nothing stands in the way of the vaunted Russian pairs dynasty, is that it?" James scowled.
"You think we have it easy here?" Natasha asked sharply. James had hit a nerve. "Look around you. Take a good hard look at our so-called skating empire." She waited a few moments. "Our rinks are crumbling, our best skaters and coaches are fleeing to other countries. You have no idea what sort of pressure all of us are under. With the pros gone, the federation expects us to step up. So the competition here is intense. Everyone could be champions at this rink."
"You think it's any different anywhere else?" James asked. "We're all under some kind of pressure, Natalia. We all deal with different expectations. It's just a question of how we deal with them."
"And you deal with it how?" Natasha asked.
"Kicking back and having fun, if I can help it," James grinned. Then his expression sobered. "But Karpov wants me to stay so razor focused on skating. I sometimes feel like I can't breathe. It's almost a relief to go to a competition where I'm around other skaters."
"Where you don't have to watch what you say all the time?" Natasha countered. "It's been a long time since someone surprised me like that." She looked amused. "Did you understand me earlier? When Boris was commenting on you?" James nodded. She looked a little embarrassed.
"I've only spoken Russian with my coach," James explained. "I learned it just so I could understand him all the time. His English is fine, but I always felt like I was missing something." He hesitated. "I shouldn't have used it with you before."
"But surely he wants you to improve your skills?" Natasha suggested. When James didn’t respond, she smiled. "I just thought it might make things easier for you with the coaches and Lyudmila." Then she switched seamlessly between languages. "So, English then."
James smiled, "You and Boris speak English very well."
"We've both been studying awhile," Natasha admitted. "Boris started before I met him. It's good to have a native speaker here, though. Not all of us
understand it so well."
"And my Russian?" James asked.
"What they don't know won't hurt them," Natasha smiled. "If you really want to connect with a Russian audience, you don't need to speak their language or use their music, James. You need to speak to their soul. Skate from here." She touched his chest. "If you show them your heart, they'll understand." She suggested. "Now try it again."
Turning on the music, James went back to center ice to start his program. The Rachmaninov music always struck him as so sad and melancholy, like how he felt when his father passed away. Closing his eyes, he focused on conveying that feeling. The jumps weren't quite there, but the rest of the choreography finally came alive to him. When he was whirling through the final combination spin, he almost didn't want that moment to end. For the first time in years, he didn't want to leave the ice.
But to me it seems quite clear
that it’s all just a little bit of history repeating.
Leaving the locker room, Steve asked, "Are you surprised to see Romanoff here?"
"Very," James admitted. "Natalia’s always been the holdout of the Russians. Everyone else came to America to train, but she stayed home." Or she was kept home, he was never certain which. Considering her current status, James could only wonder how bad things were in Russia, if Natasha Romanoff was flying solo.
"I can already hear the rumor bees buzzing," Steve said. "Who's going to be her next partner?"
"You make it sound like she's skated with half the skating world," James sounded annoyed. "She's only skated with four men and won Olympic medals with three of them. How many pairs skaters can claim that record?" James said. "Barton has had more partners than Natalia has had." He stopped, considering that explosive possibility. "You don't actually think..."
"Nah, Clint's way too committed to Bobbi now," Steve said.
"Professionally, yes," James admitted. Their roommate Clint Barton's up and down partnership and romance with Bobbi Morse was stormy but successful.
They'd reunited last year for their second try at the Olympics, coming in 5th place, a couple spots above their Salt Lake disaster. But they'd kept their relationship purely professional, although there was a rink betting pool on how long that would last.
Steve shook his head, "Professionally and personally." He continued. "They may not be a couple now, but mark my words, Clint's biding his time. He
wouldn't risk the last two years on a fling. The old party boy has grown up a bit."
"And you know this how?" James asked. "Has our roommate leveled with you?"
"Nothing like that, I just know about waiting for the right moment," Steve admitted.
"Sharon?" James grimaced.
Steve nodded. "We've had rough patches before, but this time feels different."
"The media can't be helping things, pushing you two together all the time," James said.
"Or Aunt Peggy pushing us apart," Steve scowled. Peggy Carter had skated competitively in the late 1940s, always overshadowed by America's golden girls, Madeline Joyce and Elizabeth Ross. So she'd focused on coaching her niece to Olympic glory. Her protectiveness was legendary, rivaling some parents.
"Right now, I'm lucky to get a hello or goodbye out of Sharon."
"Have you tried getting Sharon away from the rink?" James asked. "Neither of you have had a break since the Olympics ended. No one would begrudge you a little downtime, even Fury."
"Convincing Sharon might be next to impossible," Steve sighed, "but it can't hurt to ask, can it? What do I have to lose?"
"I hope it works out for both of you," James said, "It'll make things a little easier around here, even with an added sideshow." The giggling girls were still discussing the famous addition to the rink. Natasha's arrival had opened up a lot of old feelings. Why was she here if she wasn't hunting for a partner? "Although it doesn't sound like Natalia is too focused on her social life, which will disappoint the paparazzi." Natasha's partying habits were equally legendary, although none of the men seemed to stick around for long. She'd stayed with the lawyer the longest, but training in Russia seemed to preclude any relationship from deepening further.
"Not that it matters for you," Steve retorted. "You don't date skaters." Looking suspiciously at his friend, Steve asked. "Tasha defended you in Torino, didn't she?" While Steve hadn't surprised anyone repeating his feat in Salt Lake, James caught everyone off-guard with the performances of his life. But the judges hadn't rewarded him, leaving him just shy of the medal platform, behind Johann Schmidt and Aleksander Lukin. Natasha had braved a firestorm of criticism at home and elsewhere when she suggested that the wrong skater was on the medal podium.
"Natalia took a lot of heat for saying all those things, too," James smiled. "Alek won't let me forget I lost to him again." Aleksander was Karpov's adopted son; the rivalry had been friendly in their early days, but now it looked more like a no-holds barred grudge match. "At least I know I skated my best. Leave everything on the ice, that's what you told me before we went out to the last warm-up. I didn't want to have the same feeling I had in Salt Lake. But that's all my life seems to be -- filled with regrets." He wasn't just thinking about skating then.
"Even her?" Steve asked.
"Especially," James smiled.
The following days kept Natasha too busy to dwell on past mistakes. She spent most of her time adjusting to her new, finding a new apartment and meeting new friends. Reconnecting with old friends was harder, since most were away on tour.
Meeting James for coffee was nerve-wracking. Natasha didn't know why either. They both had changed so much since those days in Moscow. For once, they wouldn't be seeing each other at a competition or an exhibition. No one would see them as anything other than what they were – two old friends meeting again.
"How are you settling in so far?" James finally asked.
"Pretty good," Natasha admitted. "I'm not used to the attention from the younger skaters. At home, I'm just another skater."
"Steve and Sharon are like that," James said. "You'd never know they were Olympic champions here. They're just part of the crowd. Only when they're on the ice can you see why they won."
"I haven't seen you around much," Natasha pointed out. "I'd almost think you were avoiding me." The suggestion was meant playfully, but came out with
more sting than intended.
"You know me better than that," James said. "I haven't been at the rink because of my shoulder. After my last practice, Nick was worried I was pushing myself too hard." He sounded a little irritated.
"You were injured?" Natasha was surprised. When she'd watched his practice session, Natasha had noticed something looked off.
"You didn't hear about Nationals?" Natasha shook her head."I was trying a triple axel in the warm up session and I crashed into the boards and banged up my shoulder pretty badly." James gave a little laugh. "All those years competing and I'll be remembered as the guy that wiped out in the warm up session before the long program." He tried to sound upbeat, but clearly it had taken a toll on his skating psyche.
"I didn't know," Natasha admitted. "When I didn't see you at Worlds, I just assumed..." She shrugged. "Most of the skaters our age have disappeared."
"You just assumed I was the same," James finished.
"Everyone else has left me behind," Natasha said bitterly, "why should you be any different?"
"Do you really think I'd...?" Remembering her earlier comments, James leaned across the table to touch her hand, "What is going on with you? You don't sound anything like the Natalia I know."
"I haven't been that Natalia in a long time, James," Natasha withdrew a little. "There was something I didn't mention earlier, something I've only told
Nick so far. I'm not going back to Russia. There is nothing left for me there."
James was stunned."But you said you'd never..."
"Never say never," Natasha said. "Life was becoming difficult at home."
"How is Ivan taking all this?" James asked. He’d always envied her trusting relationship with Ivan Petrovich. "He's usually the one calling all the
"He encouraged me to look elsewhere," Natasha said. "The federation is keeping him busy teaching other teams. I couldn't ask him to come with me." She shrugged. "Nicholas was kind to me at Torino, so I called him up and asked for his help. He's given me some breathing room, but I'm still not certain what I will do now."
"Stark is after you, isn't he?" James asked.
Natasha nodded. "He wants me to compete." She said thoughtfully. "I never pictured myself as a professional skater. I always thought I'd retire from
competition, get married and have a family, like a normal Russian woman." She sighed. "We saw how that worked out for me." She asked suddenly. "Do you think I stayed around too long?"
"I think I'm the wrong person to ask, Natalia," James pointed out. "I'm the one that stayed in after Steve and Sam retired just on the off-chance I could win a national title. There I was competing against teenagers that could rip off quad-triple combinations like they were barely breathing…"
"At first, I thought it was charming, having the young ones nipping at my heels," Natasha admitted. "Their progress made me want to skate better." She sighed. "Then when we came home from Worlds, my partner told me it wasn't working out. Soon there weren't any questions about next season."
Natasha hadn't spoken of her recent disappointments with anyone. "I tried coaching briefly. I sounded like your old coach, bitter and miserable. I didn't want to be remembered as that woman. And I could see it. I could see me standing at the boards at some championships and people whispering about me. Didn't she use to be someone? Didn't she win a medal once?" She shrugged. "I should have done it a long time ago."
"I knew things looked bad at the Olympics, but I never dreamed…" James couldn't imagine willingly leaving everything behind like that. "You sound like you're accepting it pretty well."
"I've had time to get used to the idea," Natasha said. "The only question is what I will do now."
"Does Stark know you don't have a partner right now?" James asked.
"Oh, probably," Natasha gave a rueful laugh. "He seems to know everything about everyone." She asked. "Has he asked you?"
James nodded. "I still haven't given him an answer."
"Why not?" Natasha asked. "You were always more of a showman than Steve. Even when you were in Russia, you…" Her voice trailed off, knowing what painful memories those words held. "Sorry, I was just remembering that the other day."
"So was I," James admitted. "I was trying to decide whether I still wanted to skate. Part of me can't imagine not skating. Another part of me wonders if I've just been fooling myself. Or maybe Nick’s right and Karpov ruined me forever being his perfect little soldier…"
"His spy, you mean," Natasha said.
"Same thing," James didn't deny the implication. He sometimes thought Karpov picked him as much as for his skill for languages as his skating ability. "I don't know who he enjoyed sticking it to more – the Russians who gave up on him or the Americans who embarrassed him."
Remembering how she’d described Karpov to Nick, Natasha said gently, "You couldn’t have realized. You were so young back then. You could have given up after he died. But you found your way back to skating. Nick didn’t do that, you did. I only wish those idiot judges could have seen that in Torino. Under the old judging system..."
"I would have been penalized for being American," James commented.
"Why didn't you switch back to pairs after Karpov?" Natasha asked.
"The chemistry was never quite right with any of the girls," James said. "I was either too short or too old. Half the time I was trying out with
teenagers. I've had a pretty good run, Natalia. Most skaters would wish for careers like mine. Two Olympics is more than most people get. Two fewer than some people, mind you..."
Natasha asked. "Any regrets?"
"Only one," James admitted. "I wish I could have skated with you."
Blushing, Natasha smiled. "Like that practice?"
"You remembered, too?" James grinned.
"How could I forget?" Natasha asked. "I'd never rebelled against my coaches before I met you. I always wanted to be the model student. But you showed me how much fun skating could be again." Then she looked disappointed. "I didn't even get to try a lift with you. Not many men can do a perfect death
spiral and then leave the girl hanging." She added. "It must have been hard, seeing me year after year."
James asked. "Do you have any regrets?"
"Not being with you," Natasha said simply. "You were right in the end." Their last fight still sounded so loud in her ears. "I was such a patriot when I was younger, James. I gave her everything I had. Now maybe it's time I lived a little for myself." She shrugged. "But maybe it's too late."
"Maybe it's not," James replied. "Maybe it's time we tried rewriting the story."
Natasha peered across at him. "What do you have in mind?"
"Stark wants both of us in his pro competition, right?" James asked.
"He's been leaving me messages all over place," Natasha grimaced. "He's nothing if not persistent."
"Then why don't we give him exactly what he wants?" James grinned. "The two of us – together. You get a partner, I get a fresh start, and it's a win-win for everyone."
Natasha's eyes widened, understanding what James was suggesting, "Do you realize what you're giving up?"
"I don't see it that way," James shook his head. "The way I see it, I've had my try at singles skating. I never had the real chance to see what I could do as a pairs skater. Maybe I was just waiting for the right partner." He smiled. "So what do you say, Natalia? Want to skate with me now?"
Natasha offered a mischievous smile. "Why don't we just see if you can keep up with me first, hmm?"
"You know me," James replied. "I love a challenge."
Six Months Later...
"Are you ready, James?"
James took one last sip of water. "Ready as I'll ever be, Natalia." He forced himself to focus on his partner, rather than think about the butterflies cartwheeling in his stomach. He hadn't skated pairs competitively since he was in juniors. But he didn't want to disappoint Natalia and Nick. He'd worked too hard for this moment. "It's a little late to back out now."
The other teams had already performed. None of them had gone down without a fight. Melina Vostokoff and her partner skated a program inspired by Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" that used her robotic style to their advantage. Clint Barton and Bobbi Morse took a quieter approach; eschewing their usual pairs pyrokinetics by letting Roy Orbison and K.D. Lang's "Crying" speak volumes about their rocky relationship.
Finally the announcer called James and Natasha's names. Their entry had energized the staid World Pro competition. Rather than focusing on the American Olympic champions, everyone was talking about the pairs event. What kind of magic could Romanoff and Barnes make together on the ice? Were they just a novelty team? Or were they about to see something special?
Taking the ice in matching black outfits, James and Natasha took their places at center ice. The strains of Queen's "Who Wants to Live Forever" came over the loudspeaker. The soaring ballad provided the perfect backdrop for their skating, every lift and every trick matched perfectly with the music. What they lacked in time together, they made up with intensity and passion. No one could doubt their feelings for each other or their love of skating. When they spun around in the final pairs spin, Natasha put her head on his shoulders, part relief and part joy.
This was the way they'd wanted it – skating on their terms -- together.