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There’s an expectant hush in the rink as Doug and Kate wait for their marks in the kiss and cry. Jack’s standing behind them, one hand on Kate’s shoulder, Anton to his side. With one hand Doug is clutching a stuffed polar bear given to him by one of the fans sitting at the boards. Kate’s got his other hand in a death hold. Doug is pretty sure that she’s cutting off his circulation, but he can’t bring himself to care. He doesn’t really even feel it, running so high on adrenaline and joy. He’s just had the skate of his life – even the first game of his last Olympics couldn’t compare, and he’d scored four goals against a tough Canadian team for a 5-3 victory.

And Kate loves him back.

The marks go up. Technical merit first, and they’re good. Better than good. Anton is pressing kisses to the tops of their heads excitedly and Doug can feel the weight of gold around his neck. He doesn’t understand the French announcer but he can read the numbers as they go up on the screen.

5.8, 5.9, 5.9, 5.9, 5.8, 6.0, 5.8, 5.9, 5.9.

There’s a roaring his head. Doug can’t tell if it’s the crowd cheering their perfect 6 or just the blood pumping fast in his veins.

Then come their presentation marks.

“We’ve got this,” Doug whispers into Kate’s hair. She grips his hand more tightly in response.

Cinq-sept,” the announcer says.

Doug doesn’t look at the board. He knows by the boos it isn’t good.

“It’s fine,” Kate says, shaking their clasped hands emphatically up and down. “They drop the lowest mark. It’s fine.”

In the meantime, they’ve gathered two cinq-huits. Doug looks up – 5.7, 5.8, 5.8.

Then, another cinq-sept.

By the time all the scores have been read, Kate is white-faced and furious, Jack has walked away, and Anton is stoically holding Doug down in his seat as if he expects some sort of furious outburst.

5.7, 5.8, 5.8, 5.7, 5.8, 5.6, 5.7, 5.7, 5.8. Currently in third place.

He’s angry, but it’s an empty sort of anger, an absence that hollows out his lungs and gut. Anton shouldn’t worry, though. He may be new to the figure skating game, but he’s not new to the media game. He knows what kind of face he has to present while the cameras are around.

“Come on,” Kate says, tugging him up.

Walking back through the halls of the arena, they support each other until they can sink down on one of the benches in the hallway. Doug is vaguely aware that he’s holding that stupid plush bear tightly enough to squeeze the stuffing out of shape.

There’s one team left to skate from Canada.

“At least we’re ahead of Brian,” Kate says. Brian and Lorie had been in third place – they’ve been knocked down to fourth now. “And we might still medal.”

“We should be ahead of everyone. This is bullshit,” he says. He feels worse than he did at Nationals.

“This is message,” Anton says.

“What message?” Doug demands. “Skate as hard as you want but it doesn’t matter? This whole thing is rigged.”

“Yes,” Anton says. “There are politics. There are always politics. But great skating will rise above.”

“That was great skating,” Kate says. “The best skating we’ve ever done.”

Anton nods. Then he says, “Short program.”

Doug grimaces and Kate huffs.

“And you must pay your dues,” Anton says.

“I have paid my dues.” Kate’s voice is dangerously quiet. “I have paid my dues year after year and partner after partner, for you and for Rick and for my father. I’ve skated at Nationals at every level from intermediate up. There hasn’t been a day I haven’t dedicated to skating since before I could read.”

Anton is trying to cut her off but Kate bulldozes over him.

“No, the message isn’t pay your dues. The message - ”

“Enough,” Anton bellows. “You think you have paid your dues, but Douglas has not. And you, the skating world is never sure your heart is in it. They say, Kate is a beautiful skater. If only she would change her attitude!”

“Hey, we’ve both been working,” Doug says. “We couldn’t have worked harder.”

“No,” Anton says. “But you can work longer. Next Olympics, gold could be yours.”

Kate shakes her head and walks away. Doug thinks about calling after her, or continuing the argument with Anton, but his heart isn’t in it anymore.

Instead, Doug and Anton watch the Canadian team push into their final spin on the television screen in the corner.

When they take third, he clenches his hands into fists and tries to rein in his temper. Next Olympics, he tells himself. There’s always the next Olympics.

Then he throws the bear at the wall.

*

Kate’s said she’s retiring, and she meant it at the time. Any joy she’d had on the ice had fled long ago, and then again when she saw Doug with Lorie every time they went for a lift.

Now, though, she’s not so sure.

Doug's been eyeing her the whole way home like a shark scenting blood in the water, so she’s not surprised to hear the knock on her door only a few hours after they’ve returned. She is somewhat surprised that he waits long enough for her to open the door for him. Kate supposes he wouldn’t barge in, though, not anymore. Their relationship is new and they’re still finding their confidence. It’s that period between landing a new jump for the first time and knowing from the beginning edge that the jump is yours.

All they need is practice.

Doug doesn’t even let her greet him before he’s pushing past her into her room.

“I’ve been thinking,” he says. “And I’ve got a plan. The Pamchenko was great. But it was something totally new. Maybe the judges just didn’t know how to react to it – that’s what some of the articles were saying. Next time, we’ll go in with all triples. Maybe a throw quad. It’s stuff they already know. They’ll have to give it to us.”

Kate’s shaking her head even as she feels a familiar spark of competition take hold in her chest. “I told you,” she says. “I’m done.”

“You weren’t serious,” Doug says, waving her off.

Kate grinds her teeth together. There’s little she hates more than someone else deciding for her how she feels. “I was entirely serious.”

“Sure, when you said it,” he says. “But that was before-”

“Before what, Doug?” Kate says. “Before we got together? I hate to break it to you, but not everything is about you. You’re not God’s gift to women.”

“Like I’ve said, I’ve never had any complaints,” Doug says.

Kate raises an eyebrow.

Doug swears and runs a hand through his hair.

“Sorry,” he says. “Reflex. But seriously, Kate, it’s not that we got together. It’s that we had the time of our lives out there. You can’t tell me you didn’t enjoy that skate.”

Kate walks over to the window. She can see the roof of the rink behind the trees.

“I did,” she says. “Until we got our marks. And anyway, it’s not just those four minutes. It’s another two years.”

“Exactly,” Doug says. “Another two years of you and me and the ice.”

Kate doesn’t say anything. When she’d said, a few moments earlier, that quitting had nothing to do with Doug, she hadn’t been entirely truthful. But she hadn’t been lying, either. She’s spent enough of her life on the ice because she loved someone enough to live their dream for them. She’s done with that.

“My whole life,” she finally says, “I’ve been skating because it’s what someone else wanted me to do. It’s never made me happy.”

“Never?” Doug says, challenging her with crossed arms.

“When I was younger, maybe,” Kate says. “I can’t remember anymore.”

“Then come back to the rink for one day. Give me one day to make you remember,” Doug says.

Kate bites her lip.

“I’m asking for one day, not the rest of your life,” Doug says.

“I’m not that kind of girl,” Kate says, attempting a weak smile as she turns to face Doug again. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning. On the ice.”

“Great,” Doug says, grinning so hard the corners of his eyes scrunch adorably. “You might show up tomorrow because you love me, Kate, but you’re going to show up the day after tomorrow because you love skating.”

“We’ll see,” Kate says.

Her first axel felt like flying. She hasn’t felt that freedom since, though kissing Doug came close.

She hopes he’s right.

*

Her alarm goes off at six. Kate’s out of bed with her hair in a ponytail before she’s even woken up, body on autopilot from so many mornings spent trying to beat Doug to the rink.

The building is dark and silent when she arrives. Before she turns on the lights, she takes a moment to breathe. The chilled air with just a hint of Zamboni exhaust burns through her lungs.

Kate puts her skates on and thinks about what to do while she’s waiting for Doug. There’s no program to practice, no jumps she has to land consistently. So she starts her warm-up, the same one she’s used since Rick taught it to her more than a decade ago. Fast stroking into deep swizzles, her arms sweeping up and floating down automatically. Her thighs, still stiff from a day spent in an airplane, complain as she begins her power pulls.

Ten minutes later, she’s done with still no sign of Doug. After another ten minutes, she’s as stretched as she safely can be before a workout and she’s starting to feel irritated. When another twenty minutes has passed and she’s landed one of all her double jumps and run through all her basic spins, she’s verging on full annoyance. Doug had asked her for this day, so where was he? When they were training, neither of them had ever beaten the other by more than fifteen minutes.

She loiters at the side of the rink, taking sips of her water and fiddling with her skate guards. Finally, she stomps her skate with a satisfying thud and decides enough is enough.

She doesn’t need Doug to skate. She skated without him for nearly her entire life.

Backward crossovers take her around the end of the rink. She sets her shoulders and steps into an Ina Bauer, leaning back until the blood rushing to her head makes her dizzy.

On a whim, Kate pulls herself upright and steps straight into a double axel. She hasn’t attempted this in years – none of her partners had the necessary control.

Her hips open in the air and she pops out of the jump early.

But Kate thinks she could have had it. She tries again.

This time, she pulls in tighter and lands the jump, but only with an assist from her hand.

“Come on, Kate,” she whispers, resisting the urge to kick at the ice in frustration. “One more.”

Her hair has escaped her ponytail at the edges and it blows in her face as she works up the speed for a third attempt. She hardly notices.

“Hold on to this one, Kate,” she says. Then she launches herself into the air.

When she lands the jump, she holds the landing for the requisite count of ten drilled into her by Rick. Then she pumps her fist in the air, shouting in triumph.

When Doug arrives half an hour later, Kate’s in the middle of a back inside hydroblade, face and torso inches from the ice with one leg bent underneath her and the other stretched to the side.

She stands up less than gracefully – it’s been years since she’s done these – and says, “It’s about time. Where have you been?”

“Sleeping,” Doug says. “And it’s not even that late.”

“It’s past seven,” Kate says, hands on her hips. He’s standing right at the side of the rink. She judges the distance between them and puts on speed. Right before she would have crashed, she turns into a hockey stop, spraying Doug with snow up to his knees.

He laughs. “What was that you did? It was cool,” he says.

She knows what he means, but it’s more fun to pretend that she doesn’t.

“That was a hockey stop,” she says slowly, like she’s speaking to a particularly unintelligent ex-pairs partner. Maybe Ian.

“Ha ha,” Doug says, sitting on the floor to lace his skates. “Very funny. Seriously, though, what was that?”

“It was an inside hydro,” Kate says, ducking under the railing to sit next to him. She’s breathing a little heavily still and there’s sweat trickling down her spine. “You’ve seen it before. There’s that Canadian dance team that does them.”

“Ice dance?” Doug snorts dismissively. “Like I watch that.”

“You should,” Kate says. “It’ll help you, with your next partner. It was our presentation scores that were low. Learning some ice dancing would fix that.”

“No, sticking around and proving we’re in this for the long haul will fix that,” Doug says, rolling his eyes. “You heard Anton. Those presentation scores are all made up. So we pay our dues and show up with jumps and throws that are out of this world, and all our problems are solved.”

It’s not that simple, and Kate says so.

“Sure,” Doug says, standing and getting on the ice. “But it can be that simple just for today. Remember, you told me you’d give me today.”

“Fine,” Kate says. “Then what are we doing? Throw triple axel? Quad twist? What fits into your little plan?”

“I was thinking you could teach me that hydro,” Doug says.

Kate tilts her head and considers him. He appears to be earnest. “Fine,” she says and explains how it’s done.

Doug skates off to try one while Kate watches from the edge of the rink. He’s not even halfway down before Kate can tell he’s going to fall. His weight is too far back on his blades and his arms are all wrong.

Sure enough, seconds later he’s sprawled across the ice. She skates over and stops neatly in front of his face.

“Don’t you dare,” he says.

“Toepick,” Kate says, lilting over the familiar words.

“It wasn’t even my toepick this time,” Doug complains. “I wasn’t anywhere near my toepicks.”

“And that was your problem,” Kate says. She takes pity on him and offers him a hand up. “Try pressing your weight farther forward.”

Doug tries again and falls again. This time, he never gets low enough with his hips, leaving him awkwardly positioned with his backside in the air until gravity does its work.

“You’ve got the strength,” Kate says, laughing. “You’re just missing the balance.”

“Maybe you should show me if you know so much,” Doug says, looking at her challengingly.

“I do know so much,” Kate says. “And you’re the one who asked me to teach you, buddy.”

“Then prove it,” Doug says.

“Already did,” Kate says. “But it’s clear you’re pining for another chance to behold my superior skills, so I’ll be generous.”

She skates off before he can reply, lowering herself slowly until her whole body is parallel to the ice.

She starts to rise when Doug interrupts her.

“Wait,” he says. “I just need another second to figure out what your hands are doing.”

Kate grits her teeth and holds on. Her muscles are aching, but the bigger problem is that she’s slowing down fast.

“A little longer,” Doug says, skating closer to her and making a show of examining her positioning with a leer.

Kate’s at the point of no return. “You’re done,” she says as she begins to stand up. But she’s left it too long and can no longer get the leverage she needs.

She makes an embarrassing squeak when she hits the ice.

“Now who’s missing the balance?” Doug says, offering her a hand up.

She pulls him down instead. Then they’re laughing together in a heap on the ice. The cold is quickly seeping through Kate’s workout clothes. She doesn’t care.

When they’ve regained control, Doug sits up.

“You’re not still saying you’re quitting, are you?” he asks.

“So what if I am?” Kate says. She’s still lying on the ice. She doesn’t feel much like moving but she sits up anyway.

“I’d call you a liar. Any fool could see you were enjoying yourself just now,” Doug says.

“Even if that’s true – and I’m not saying it is,” Kate says, hastily adding a disclaimer at the smug look on Doug’s face, “what I was doing today is nothing like another two years of training.”

“Training isn’t always all sunshine,” Doug says. “That doesn’t mean it’s not worth it in the end.”

Kate thinks about a still empty box. She doesn’t feel much.

Then she thinks about the look on Rick’s face when they’d beaten Brian and Lorie. She thinks about the lift and fall and lift of the Pamchenko Twist. She thinks about how Doug finally caught her out of the air.

She thinks about landing that double axel.

“Unless you’re scared,” Doug says, standing and offering her a hand.

“Never,” Kate says.

She takes his hand.