Michael Waldich was irritated.
Of course, all that meant was that Michael was at his job. He spent most of his time at his job being irritated. However, this was a particularly irritating day because he had a tryout for a new partner. He hated tryouts for new partners. He had been through them more times than he cared to remember, and they were always a bitch. They had to be right physically, they had to have his technical skills-which none of them ever did-they had to be compatible emotionally-which none of them ever were-and they had to be as committed as he was-which absolutely none of them ever, ever were.
And that was the problem, wasn't it? That's why he went through partners like they were water. Because none of them could keep their eyes on the prize-an Olympic gold medal. That was all that mattered.
That was all that mattered in Michael's line of work. Michael Waldich was a figure skater-a pairs skater, to be exact. He had won National championships with two different partners. He had won a World Championship, although that was 5 long years ago. He had won lesser medals at other World and National championships, but had never won a medal of any color at an Olympics.
There was a simple reason for that: none of his partners stuck around long enough to do so. And, here he was, less than a year away from another Olympics-possibly his last shot, at age 26-and his last partner had walked out on him. Second at Nationals, fourth in the world, within shouting distance of that coveted gold medal-and out she went. Couldn't work with such an asshole, she said.
Fuck that, he thought now, she just couldn't work. She didn't want to put in the effort. She didn't know what this meant. She thought skating was all fun, all glamour, all pretty costumes and nice music and gliding around the ice. She had no clue. She didn't put in all the work in the weight room that Michael did, so he could lift her up in the air when she put on five pounds.
They were all like that. Nobody knew what that medal meant to him.
He knew very little about this one. Rachel Barrett, age 19. Cute, long red hair, lots of presence on the ice. She had been part of a promising young team up until a year and a half ago when her partner blew his knee out, and decided to retire from skating. She had been partnerless since then, and, when she heard that the best male pairs skater in the USA was looking for a new partner, she just had to call and request a tryout.
She came onto the ice. She was tall for a pairs skater, about 5'2", but that was OK because at six feet he was fairly tall, also. She looked like she was in good shape, considering she hadn't competed in a while.
She was slim, with smallish breasts and hips, but by no means anorexic. She looked like a woman-a small one, but that was OK, since he did have to lift her. And her pale skin, bright red hair, and green eyes would make a striking contrast on the ice next to him, with his olive complexion and dark hair and eyes.
She had skated over and introduced herself to Michael's coach, Yelena Veranikova, and then skated over to Michael.
"You're Michael Waldich. I'm Rachel Barrett," she said with a giggle, and held her hand out.
He took it, and shook, barely. "Nice to meet you. Let's skate. Crossovers, to start with."
She was a little taken aback. She had wanted to tell him how happy she was that he had consented to try her out, but he hadn't given her a chance. She shrugged her shoulders, and started skating.
The crossovers were fine-their rhythm was a very close match. He called out some steps, and they did them. He called for some lifts. He had to adjust to her center of gravity being a bit different than his previous partner, because she was taller-but he did it, and the lifts went fine. As far as Rachel was concerned, they were more than fine. He was a superb lifter, strong and sure, and she felt very safe and secure when he was holding her high above head. Then he called for a throw triple jump-a salchow-and that was fantastic. He gently launched her in the air as easy as you please, and she whipped through the three revolutions and floated back to the ice.
"Jesus Christ, you are good," Rachel enthused. "That's the easiest throw triple sal I've ever done in my life."
His steely composure was cracked, just a bit, by her enthusiasm, and the smallest hint of a smile crossed his face. But he quickly recovered.
"I don't suppose you can do a solo triple flip?" The flip was one of the harder jumps, and pairs skaters almost never did it.
"No, but my triple toe is consistent." The toe is the easiest triple.
"That figures," he grumbled, "I'm the only pairs skater in the fucking world that can do a flip. Ah, well. Side by side triple toes, then." They were perfect.
"All right," he said to her when they were done, "You've got talent. You want to skate with me?"
"Fine. Let me tell you what you're getting yourself into. I will expect you to work your ass off. We have less than one year until the Olympics, and I plan to leave there with a gold medal. Anything less is unacceptable, and we have a lot of work to do. You've been living in Detroit?"
"Yeah." They were in Boston now.
"Fine. You have a week to move yourself out here. Yelena has an apartment, a nice one, that she will rent to you, and it's very reasonable. Then we get to work. See you in one week."
He skated off, leaving her a bit bewildered.
They spent the rest of the spring and the early summer on the ice together, every day, trying to nail down their timing with each other and working up new routines. He had to admit she worked her ass off. Everything he did, she was always there, every step of the way. The first day, she shocked him by joining him in the weight room.
"You lift?" he said incredulously.
"None of my other partners did."
"Well, then they were idiots. I've always trained with weights. You might do the lifting and throwing, but I've got to have the upper body strength to handle that."
On the ice, it kept getting better and better. They were well matched, and her tireless work ethic made it easier for them to adjust to each other. Yelena had told Michael after about a month, "You may really have something there."
But, sometimes, her demeanor on the ice perplexed him. She was always smiling and laughing. At one point, she went down in a heap on a death spiral-a mistake that was his fault, and they both knew it-and came up laughing.
"What is so funny?" he asked her, exasperated.
"Nothing. Just that it was perfect until I went splat on the death spiral."
"I just wish you would take this more seriously."
"How much more seriously do you want me to take it, Michael? I'm working my ass off, and you know it. I just refuse to treat figure skating as a job."
"That's what it is. It's a job."
"Nonsense. I love to skate. A bad day on the ice is tons better than a good day anywhere else. Michael, you really need to loosen up." And, with that, she skated away, giggling.
For her part, she really didn't get him at all. How could someone with his strong, gentle hands be so cold and businesslike? Did he enjoy skating? Did he enjoy anything? She loved skating with him, and loved the way his hands lifted and threw her on the ice. Then she would look up at his face, laughing, and see his same no-nonsense stone face staring back at her.
The first crack in his armor came late in June.
Unbeknownst to Michael, Rachel had been sneaking in extra practice with Yelena to try to learn the triple flip. She had finally started landing it 80% of the time over the past week, which was the benchmark she was looking for.
She beat him onto the ice that day. When he showed up, and stepped onto the ice, she yelled, "Hey, Michael. Got a surprise for you." She stroked, prepared, and launched herself into a picture perfect triple flip.
Michael had to blink twice. "Was that a flip?"
"Yup," laughed Rachel. "I've been working on it on the side."
"You have? Do it again." She did, as perfect as the first. "OK, now side by side." They both did them.
"YEE-HAH!" Michael exulted. "You got the flip!" He grabbed her around the waist and swung her around on the ice. Rachel thought it was wonderful. "We are getting to the point where we are going to be tough to beat, partner-o-mine," he said with a conspiratorial grin on his face. She realized that she had waited two months to see him smile like that. She also realized it was worth the wait.
The next few days of practice were the best they had ever been. He was solicitous and even cracked an occasional smile. His warm, strong, gentle hands were even more so. She started to feel like half of a pair again. She had been good friends with Eric, her previous partner. Nothing romantic-Eric was gay-but an easy, comfortable friendship that made the skating part all that much easier and more fun. Maybe she could get that with Michael.
Friday night, Rachel was bored and decided to go see a movie. While waiting in line, she felt a pair of hands rest on her shoulders. She turned. It was Michael.
"I see my partner's got a flick urge, too," Rachel said.
"A flick urge?"
"Burning desire to go see a movie." She giggled.
"Something like that. What you seeing?" They determined that they were planning to see the same movie, and decided to sit together.
It turned out to be nice. It was a comedy, and they laughed throughout the whole thing, reclined in the seat, sharing a box of popcorn. After the movie ended, and they both walked out still laughing, they decided that the popcorn wasn't enough and went down the street to grab a burger. It was easy and relaxed, as they chatted about other skaters, politics, music, movies, whatever. After they were done eating, he walked her home, enjoying the warm night and the busy streets of Boston.
"Michael, I'm really glad you showed up. You're much better company than me, myself, and I."
He laughed at that. "So are you. See you at the rink, Monday."
Rachel arrived at the rink, happy and relaxed, that Monday morning, looking forward to getting back on the ice. I like Michael, when he isn't being Mister No Nonsense, she realized. He's a nice guy, when he lets himself be. Maybe we can be friends after all.
Her hopes were dashed, when she ran into Michael, and found out that Stoneface was back, only worse. He was positively cold towards her. And it got worse and worse that week. It was like skating with a statue. Where was the guy she had seen a movie with? Where was the guy who had been so excited when she landed the flip?
The week ended with her in tears on Yelena's shoulder.
"Yelena, I don't know if I can do this. What the hell is wrong with him?"
"He took his eyes off the prize," Rachel looked at her blankly. "You guys were getting closer. I saw it last week in practice. And he mentioned Saturday when I talked to him that you had met up at the movies and had a good time. And, Monday, the armor was back in place. Which was predictable. He can't get close."
"Why in hell not?"
"When he was very young, 16, he fell in love with his first partner. Yes, they were young, but it was True Love, or as true as it gets at that age. It lasted a year. When it broke up, the partnership also broke up, which was worse from Michael's point of view. Because that girl was Ellen Coughlin."
Rachel realized right away. "The same Ellen Coughlin who won a gold medal four years ago."
"Right. With another partner. So now Michael refuses to get close to a partner. He still thinks 'that could have been me if I hadn't let my damn emotions get in the way.' I tell him he's crazy, but he doesn't listen to the old Russian lady very well."
"Jesus, Yelena, I don't necessarily want a big huge romance with the guy. I just want to be friends."
"Maybe he doesn't feel the same way. Maybe he realizes that, if he opened himself up to you, he'd never be able to stop at being friends."
Yelena walked away, as the impact of her words sunk in to Rachel.
Rachel stuck it out, because she truly loved skating with Michael. The hands never lost their touch, the sureness never left his step, and, technically, they were as good as any team in the world, and they knew it. But it was like skating with a robot. A robot with magnificent human hands, but a robot nonetheless. July stretched into August-their first competition would be in October, at the New England Regionals-and August didn't get any better.
To make herself feel better, Rachel decided to delve into their choreography. She was a natural, instinctive, choreographer, and had always helped out with that in her previous partnership. Yelena choreographed all their routines-always had, for Michael-but wasn't possessive about it, and told Rachel, "You come up with something better, you use it." She had already had some ideas.
Michael, however, was completely resistant. Anything she suggested was brushed off. Especially anything that might have even hinted at the slightest bit of affection between the two. He wouldn't even discuss it, dismissing anything she suggested with a curt "It's fine how it is."
Rachel simmered. She tried everything. She tried to get Yelena to suggest some of this stuff herself, as her own idea, but Michael saw through that. Nothing worked. And, suddenly, one night when they were working alone late at night, the only two in the building-Rachel, very uncharacteristically, exploded.
She was trying to get him to move his hand a particular way, to accent a particularly passionate part of the music. He demurred, again. And she lost it.
"Dammit, Michael, skate with me like you MEAN it! Except for the fact that you're skillful, you make me feel that you might as well be skating with a sack of potatoes! I'm a woman, Michael. You are on this ice with a woman. We are two people, a man and a woman, creating something with our bodies. Doesn't that mean a DAMN thing to you other than a fucking medal?"
Michael stared at her in shock.
"I have had it. I have tried everything I know how to do. I have tried to be your friend. I have tried to understand you. I don't know if I can do it anymore." She stormed off the ice.
He followed, and caught up with her on the way to the dressing rooms, outside Yelena's empty office.
"Rachel, dammit, don't do this. You know we're good together. You're the best partner I've ever had. Don't you want to win?"
She turned to face him. "Is that all you care about? Is that the only thing that means anything to you? Yes, I want to win, Michael. You know damn well I want to win. It would, however, be nice to find out if there is anything else that you care a single whit about. Don't you have any feelings behind that stone face of yours that don't concern a gold medal?"
"Of course I do," he said quietly.
"Oh yeah? Well I'm not quite sure I believe that. I haven't seen a smidgen of evidence for it."
Michael looked at her, glaring at him in her fury, and suddenly felt himself in the grip of something so powerful he couldn't control it. He did have feelings, dammit. And they had reared their heads. He opened the door to Yelena's office, grabbed Rachel by the arm, pulled her into the office, and, before she could say a word, kissed her. Long, and deep.