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one second and a million miles

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There was supposed to be a line, Scott thinks. Somewhere, at some point, they were supposed to figure out what was the right side of normal in their very non-normal relationship, and they were supposed to stick to it. 

Maybe it was all those years ago with Suzanne, the excruciating talks about respecting personal boundaries. Tessa drank in every single word like a sponge – back then, she would have jumped off a cliff if Suze had asked – and Scott spent the whole time carving his initials into the underside of the table with the edge of his pencap.  

The couples’ therapy, that had tried to stamp some kind of normalcy on their relationship, hadn’t it? (The whole matter of he and Tessa, decidedly un-married, un-shacked up, sitting in a counsellor’s office surrounded by pamphlets about dealing with infertility and infidelity aside.) Tessa had just come back from surgery, and everything had felt hopelessly unfamiliar: a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes any more, the undeniable sense that there was something wrong, something missing, beyond the fact that she walked different, talked different, even felt different underneath his palms when he touched her on the ice.  

Tessa was not, has never been, insubstantial. She has a fire underneath her feet that would burn a lesser person alive, a distinct drive to do something, to be someone, that’s always escaped Scott. But sometimes he can’t help wishing that she would stick to the script. 

They have a word that they’re not supposed to use. 

It’s just one word among the fifty-odd that Marina has been teaching them to use on the ice, little cues to communicate during their programs when they can’t afford to be waxing lyrical about the full spectrum of human emotion during a three second transition between a combination spin and an eye-wateringly quick rotational lift.

They can use all the other words: “together”, and “focus” and “breathe”. Tessa traces her favourites into his open palm when they’re waiting at the boards before competition, make him guess which one she means. 

He thinks of “tight” - keep it together, clean edge, straight back – when they’re halfway through their original dance, and the glance of her green eyes catches him on a turn, almost makes him stumble out of his sequence. 

“Fire” would do just as well: the flames of hell radiating from Marina at the boards, breathing pinched through her nose.

And it’s “get it together, you fucking idiot,” when they step off the ice, and Tessa looks at him, all tight, constrained worry, too kind to say anything, but he knows she can see their Olympic dreams slipping through his grasp.  

The evening after, an uneasy victory lurching in his stomach along with the heavy comfort of cheap beer, he watches Tessa from across the bar as she dances with the rest of the Canadian contingent, and he thinks of the word they’re not supposed to say to each other. 

Under the undulating wash of the lights over the dance floor, she seems hardly real; her dark hair is swept up off her shoulders, teeth catching the light when she throws her head back in a laugh, baring the pale line of her throat. The thumping bass muddles him, makes everything sound distant and underwater, like he's moving a second out of step with reality. He's an outsider, watching from afar as Tessa turns to look over her shoulder, her sharp eyes alighting on someone in the crowd, narrowing focus. His heart skips a beat when he realises with a start that it’s him she’s looking at.  

Tessa crooks a finger towards him, and he feels his mouth go dry. Thinks of that word, and shakes his head. 

He sees her brows pull together into a frown. 

“Later,” he mouths, waving a hand and gesturing towards his glass, hoping that from a distance she can’t see that it’s been empty for the past ten minutes. 

But true to form, she’s exactly where he doesn’t want her to be a moment later: easing her way through the crowd to squeeze onto the barstool next to him. Her legs are crossed one over the other, dress riding up high enough that Scott can see the pale expanse of her thighs squeezing together. He can smell her perfume, for Christ’s sake, can practically taste it on her skin as she leans close to speak into his ear, and he sucks in a sharp breath.

“You’re avoiding me,” she says.

“I’m not avoiding you,” Scott says, avoiding her gaze.  

“Yes, you are. You might think you can hide it if you sit all the way over here in your little corner, but it’s not working.” 

She's drunk, her voice lilting up into a sing-song patter, her body pressed up close to him, made bold by the alcohol and the seductive other-worldliness of this place. It's easy to forget who they are here, what they should and shouldn't be doing. 

“Go back to your friends, Tess,” he says, shrugging off the hand that she presses against his shoulder.

He doesn't want her hands on him, only meant in any kind of way when she's drunk enough to forget it all the day after. She gives him frigid, controlled passion in the rink, and a soul-searing, cruel abandon in the back room of bars and clubs, on the couch in their grotty twin bed hotel room, and they never get an in-between, never anything that lasts.

She tells him that she never remembers anything that happens when she’s drunk. He thinks that’s a damn lie, but it’s easier for the two of them to pretend like nothing ever happened if he goes along with the whole charade. His eyes can linger in places they shouldn’t, and Tessa’s breath on his cheek can be a little warmer, her voice a little higher than she usually lets it get with him, her hands round his neck and her laughter in his ear.  

Later, in the half-formed noise of the early morning, in an unfamiliar bar in an unfamiliar city, she’ll seek him out again, and they’ll have something else to regret.

They have a word, and he whispers it into her open mouth, gasping heat, breathless against her lips. Clenched knuckles against pale skin, the willow-fragile bow of her back as she arches up under him, sweat and slick and a hunger that knows no satiation: their word is this, and theirs, and it continues.