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After the Gold by Erin McRae, Racheline Maltese (7)

Chapter 7

AFTER THE SHOW

Portland, OR

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WITH EVERYONE ELSE out at a bar for the evening, Katie was glad for a few hours to herself. She needed time to process everything that had happened over the last couple of days and to regroup. At least she and Brendan had fixed their issues on the ice. But she was furious at him again — furious, and hurt. If he simply hadn’t loved the farm Katie had grown up on, that would be one thing. Farming was hard work and not for everyone. But since she had been nine years old, Katie had been acutely aware of the differences between her and Brendan and the circumstances in which they had each grown up.

Their families lived less than an hour apart from each other, but they’d lived in different worlds. Brendan had been in Minneapolis, where his parents had well-paying office jobs and never had to worry about fitting his skating expenses into their budget. Katie had been out in the country, on a dairy farm owned by her mother, her uncle, and her uncle’s partner. Every lesson and costume and hour of ice time was carefully calculated against her family’s income. They had never begrudged her the money spent, but Katie had also never stopped feeling guilty and acutely conscious of it. It had only gotten worse the older and better she got. Sure, there were eventually sponsors that took some of the pressure off, but that could never make up for her not being another set of hands at home to help get the work done.

That burden was her own, her choice to make peace with in private, but Brendan’s contempt for where she was from was unbearable. Oh, sure, he liked her people well enough, and he was always polite whenever he came over. But who didn’t Brendan like? Who wasn’t he polite to? He never seemed comfortable at the farm, whether he was there for a few minutes dropping Katie off after one of their road trips from Denver, or for a few hours for dinner on a weekend while they were both home. Brendan, who was warm and so kind everywhere else, was stiff and ill-at-ease on the farm — and so damn cruel when he talked about anything that wasn’t a city.

Even if, and it was a big if, they could figure out everything else that was going on between them, Brendan could never love where she was from. Brendan loved her, she was sure of that, but only the her as she was on the rink and on the road: Stylish. Ambitious. Determined. One day, maybe one day soon, that version of her was going to end. What would Brendan do with Katie as she was on her family’s farm, up before dawn and dirty and daydreaming in ratty jeans and muddy boots?

It doesn’t matter, Katie told herself. Because we are light years from that ever being the most pressing issue on the table.

Her knee hurt. She needed an ice bath. And she needed to call her family.

She was extra glad Natalya wasn’t there as she filled the bathtub with cold water and ice from the machine down the hall. Ice baths were just one of many common unpleasantesses among skaters, but she hated to do it in front of anyone other than Brendan. It felt too much like admitting weakness.

Katie changed her pants for a pair of shorts, pulled on a sweatshirt, and zipped a light jacket over that. Ice was cold, whether on the rink or in a tub, and she wasn’t going to be working out to make up for the lost heat. She slid into the freezing water as quickly as she could, holding up her sweatshirt and jacket so they wouldn’t get wet. With her top half bundled up and her legs stretched out in the cold water, Katie scrolled through her contacts to her Uncle Rob and punched the call through.

She watched as he answered and the video call took a moment to settle into focus.

“Katie! How are you, sweetheart?” Rob asked once the connection was stable.

He was her mother’s brother, and Katie had lived on the farm with them and Rob’s partner Jesse for as long as she could remember. Her father had left when she was three and had never even appeared out of nowhere to borrow glory when she and Brendan started winning everything.

Rob was a big man, with graying brown hair and a thick beard. He wore overalls and plaid flannel shirts completely unironically. Now, he sat at the table in the kitchen as they spoke. Over his shoulder Katie could see the beams running across the ceiling and hear the chug and mutter of the ancient refrigerator. Katie felt an immediate lurch of homesickness at the familiar surroundings.

“Is this an okay time?” Katie asked. “I know it’s getting late there.” Farms woke up earlier — and went to bed earlier — than other places.

“For you, it’s always a good time. We’re just working on the books. Your mom’s out at the barn, do you want me to get her?”

Katie shook her head. “No, that’s fine.” She didn’t want to disrupt their evening any further, not when there was so much work to be done. “Is everything okay?”

“One of the cows isn’t feeling well. Nothing serious, she’s just checking on her. Now, I noticed you didn’t answer the first time. How are you? Unless you don’t want to say.”

Katie felt herself smile in spite of her rotten mood and cold legs. Rob had that effect on her; his ease and calm made her feel at ease, too. “I’m sitting in a tub of ice, and I really need a hug.”

“Aww, kiddo. Your knee again?”

“Yeah.”

“You working too hard?”

“Probably. I’m okay, though. How are you all?”

“We’re good. We’re good. Also, where are you? Wait, no, don’t tell me, I have your schedule here somewhere ....” Rob propped his phone against something on the table and started shuffling through the papers spread out on it. From this new angle Katie could see Jesse sitting in the chair next to Rob’s and waved at him.

Jesse was more slightly built than Rob, wiry where his partner was broad. He too was from a farming family, but he’d gotten a degree in agricultural science from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and had brought a more contemporary sensibility to the farm. Thanks to him, in addition to the milk, the family had a growing business in homemade cheeses, jams, and pies. He’d even set up a website for the dairy.

“Hey Jesse. How’s it going?” she asked.

“Good. I’m trying to convince your uncle to set up a microbrewery with me.”

“Oh? That would be so cool!” And so much more work.

Katie felt another tug of homesickness. Her whole life, whether on the farm or with Brendan, had been about a small group of people working hard with a common purpose. The Olympics and her competitive career were over, but the farm, reassuringly, would always be there. She missed it desperately.

“That’s what I’m telling him,” Jesse said enthusiastically. His gray eyes lit up, and he ran a hand back through his sandy hair.

“And I’m telling him he’s welcome to, if he wants to deal with drunk college kids coming in on weekends,” Rob put in.

“The drunk college kids aren’t going to bother driving all the way out from Minneapolis. Right, Katie?”

Katie shrugged. “I dunno.”

She’d never gone to college. She’d dropped out of high school to compete and gotten her GED when she was seventeen; Brendan, a year older than her, had managed to graduate from his high school before their skating schedules made juggling everything impossible. Which was one more thing that felt like a secret gulf between them. “According to my roommate I’m missing some awesome hipster microbrew beer tonight, though.”

“Because you’re in Portland! Of course.” Rob finally pulled the schedule, printed off the tour website, out of the mess of papers on the table. “How is it?”

“It’s a city.” Katie had seen a lot of them at this point in her life. One was very much like another.

“And the tour?”

“It’s had its ups and downs.” Katie admitted. She didn’t want to get into the details, but she was grateful to have a conversation with people who didn’t ask her to feign anything: Not enthusiasm, not excitement, not energy. Of course, all of that was true of Brendan as well, but he took up energy in a different way.

“And how’s Brendan?” Rob asked, after the briefest of hesitation. Katie knew her uncle liked and respected him, as far as their skating partnership went. He’d been less impressed with — and more wary about — the mess of their off-ice relationship.

Katie heaved a sigh and slumped a little. “We’re kind of a mess.”

“Ah. Same mess as usual or a new shiny kind of mess?”

There wasn’t much about her situation with Brendan her family didn’t know. They’d witnessed most of it, after all. “Some of both, and I don’t understand it enough yet to complain to you or ask for advice or anything. You should distract me with farm gossip, though.”

Rob smiled at her, fond and amused. “They’re cows, Katie. They don’t get up to much.”

“I know,” she said. “But I miss them. Fill me in. Also, hang on a second, I need to get out of this tub before I give myself hypothermia.”

Half an hour later, up to date on the business of the farm, and finally warm and dry and tucked in bed, Katie said goodbye and ended the call. The happiness that had surrounded her faded a little. She was alone in a hotel in Portland, and she was miserable.

She glanced at the clock on the nightstand; it was getting late. She knew she should take advantage of a night in a bed instead of on the bus, but the idea of sleep seemed elusive.

Much later, having scrolled through social media on her phone, replied to a few fans, and posted some pictures from backstage, Katie was willing to acknowledge that sleep was not in her near future. Upset at him as she was, she felt restless without Brendan. Maybe she should have gone out, for all that staying in had gotten her mind off him.

She opened her text thread with him, and only then noticed the picture he had sent from the bar. Why on earth was there a shuffleboard thing there? How’s the night out on the town? She texted him. Then she tossed the phone aside and rolled over, her face buried in her pillow. Brendan wouldn’t respond, and she could pretend she hadn’t given in to a moment of weakness.

But less than a minute later there was the chirp of an incoming text. Katie lurched for her phone, glad that no one could see her do it.

I’ve been better, it read. Didn’t even play any shuffleboard. Heading back now. How’s the night in?

All right. Can’t sleep.

I’m sorry about earlier, Brendan sent after a pause. I didn’t mean to be a dick.

I know. You were though. But thank you. Something in Katie’s chest loosened a little. Brendan could be carelessly hurtful, but Katie was tired and missed him and wanted to get back on an even keel. She was perfectly willing to accept his apology, even if it was over an issue he’d probably never stop making mistakes around.

Come over when you get back? she typed out. She bit her lip before she hit send.

Brendan took longer to respond to that one. Katie tried not to read into that. He was out at a bar. Other people were around. There were conversations to be had. He wasn’t ignoring her, and he wasn’t done with her now or once and for all. Any thoughts to the contrary were her anxiety talking.

Finally, her phone chirped again. Sure. What for?

Katie typed and deleted half a dozen replies before she settled on the one she finally sent: We’re a mess, and I miss you. Might as well be honest.

Okay. I can do that. We’re almost there, see you soon.

Katie laughed weakly and dropped the phone on the bed beside her. She closed her eyes and tried to relax, but found it was as impossible as ever. She hated not sharing a room with Brendan; having to plan times and places to meet was like having to make plans to meet her own arm. It was just wrong.

A few minutes later there was a gentle knock. Katie kicked back her covers, padded in bare feet to the door, pulled it open — and stopped short. Brendan was sporting a spectacular black eye. And he wasn’t alone; next to him stood Natalya, holding a bag of ice and looking between him and Katie with an expression of amused anticipation.

Katie had intended to usher him inside, but she stood frozen. “Oh my God, what happened to you?”

“Um,” Brendan said sheepishly. “Got in a fight. Sort of.”

Katie’s concern shifted to suspicion at Brendan’s hedging. He didn’t usually avoid questions. He also never got into fights. What the hell was he thinking?

“Sort of a fight?” She reached out to touch the bruise, but Brendan flinched back.

“Hey, ow!” He lifted his hand to ward off any further attempts at contact.

“He tried to hit Tyler,” Natalya provided helpfully. “He failed. Tyler did not.”

“You did what?!

“He was talking shit about you,” Brendan muttered.

“So you hit him?” Katie asked. Her stomach sank. What had Tyler been saying? But no. That was not the point. Any freakout about what other people thought of her — and how that could impact the rest of this tour or their next one — would have to wait.

“Tried to hit him,” Natalya said again, scornfully insistent on this point. “Here, I got you ice, it will help.” She pushed the bag at Brendan, who took it and pressed it to his face with a wince.

“You’re going to have to cover that,” Katie said with a frown. She’d been lonely and sad and anxious and had wanted ten minutes with Brendan to try to stop feeling all of those things. Instead she’d gotten one more shitty thing to deal with.

“Yes, I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Brendan said, his wounded puppy dog expression shifting towards anger. “Jesus, is that what you’re worried about? How this whole thing reflects on you?”

“That is not what I said, Brendan. You really want to show that shiner off to all of America? And the internet?” Katie was beyond tired. She wanted to cry. But she couldn’t do that and give Brendan the satisfaction of comforting her again. Definitely not with Natalya watching them like this argument was a particularly engaging tennis match.

“Obviously not.”

“I didn’t think so. Now would you listen to what I’m actually saying instead of trying to twist it so you can be mad at me?”

“This? Coming from you? Oh, no no no.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Katie asked. Even with Natalya as an audience, falling into an argument with Brendan was too easy. Like breathing. Or skating. And as necessary as both. But this was so far from them getting back onto an even keel as to be laughable.

“What do you think I mean?” Brendan shot back. “All I’m doing is standing here, and no matter what I do, you get pissed at me. I kiss you back, you get mad. I keep my distance, you get mad. I skate with you at four in the damn morning, you get mad. I go out for one night without you, and here you are, still mad!”

“Because you got into a fistfight!”

“The fistfight is not the problem, Katie. I shouldn’t have done it, and my face hurts like hell, but I’m pretty sure it is not the problem.”

“So you want sympathy now,” she said flatly.

“I ....” Brendan took a breath and looked away from her. “You know what, I don’t need this,” he said bitterly, stepping back into the hallway.

“You didn’t have to come here!” Katie instinctively stepped forward to follow him. Whether she was on or off the ice, if she wasn’t running from the strange intimacy she shared with Brendan, she was chasing it.

The door slammed shut behind her; hopefully Natalya had her key.

“You invited me,” Brendan said over his shoulder as he strode down the hall, his voice rising.

“Because I wanted to get okay with you again!” Katie’s voice rose to match his as she followed him. They probably shouldn’t be doing this so publicly, but they were in it now, and Katie didn’t know how to redirect the conversation.

Brendan spun to face her. “So what’s stopping you?”

“You!”

“Me?” Brendan gave a bitter laugh. “I’m the problem, when you’re the one who believes we’re cursed in some way that prevents us from moving forward together? No. I don’t think so.”

“We don’t work when we’re together —” Katie began.

“I HEARD YOU THE FIRST TIME.” Brendan reached the end of the hallway, glanced around, seemed to realize he’d passed the elevator, and banged through the door into the stairs. “And I don’t mean two days ago on the fucking bus, I mean when you broke up with me after Annecy.”

Katie pushed through the door after him. “Because we sucked.”

“It was our first Olympics!” Brendan yelled. Everything was concrete; his voice and footsteps echoed as he pounded up the stairs. “I was twenty-two! You were twenty-one! You were a non-stop panic attack any time we left the athletes’ village, and I was fucking terrified. In that room, just you and me? We were great and happy and delighted and whole. You have no idea if that’s why we sucked on the ice. You never asked me what I thought, or what I was willing to give up. You just told me what you thought! Which is what always happens!”

Katie ran up the stairs behind him. She didn’t know what would happen at the end of this chase, only that she couldn’t stop. Brendan drew her like a magnet. “That is so unfair, I listen to you —”

Brendan grabbed the railing to pull himself around the turn in the stairs. “And then make all the decisions anyway! Whether we’re allowed to fuck, the music, the goddamn costumes!”

“You don’t care about the costumes.”

“I do, actually, but that’s not the point!”

“What is the point?” Katie yelled at his back.

“The point.” Brendan reached the next landing and whirled around to face her. He was breathing hard and seemed at a loss for words.

Katie stopped on the step below him, inches away. They may have fought nearly constantly, but this, tonight, this was something new and possibly final. Neither of them wanted to be doing this anymore, that much she was sure of.

“The point,” Brendan repeated, his voice angry and close. “Is that all of this, everything, every single moment of my life, has been your idea. You came to me after Stockholm and said we should make a comeback. Exactly like when you skated up to me on that rink when I was ten and told me I was going to be your partner. Except way messier. And so much more terrifying. But you always said we could do this. Together. I said yes, I showed up, and I did the work, every time, all so you could win a gold medal.”

“You wanted to win, too!”

“Sure. And we did! Together! Because we’re a team and that’s what we do. And should have always been doing without interruption. But you treat me like a thing or a prop you need, and I am done with it!”

Before Katie could respond, the door behind Brendan slammed open, and he startled so hard he nearly toppled down the stairs. Without thinking, Katie steadied him with a hand to his chest. Brendan turned to face whoever had come in. Katie peered around his shoulder.

Leo, the tour manager, loomed in the doorway.

Katie wanted to dissolve through the floor. But the step she was standing on, like every rink on which she had ever fallen, did not oblige by swallowing her up.

“I should have known it was you two.” Leo sighed. He wasn’t a tall man, but he was strong and compact, and his presence was substantial. He’d been a skater once himself and knew how to project the most subtle emotion from one end of the stadium to another.

“Leo —  Katie began at the same instant Brendan started stammering apologies.

He shushed them before he spoke. “Would you care to exit the echo chamber of doom before we address this?” Leo held the door open and looked pointedly at them. Brendan went first, his shoulders slumped penitently. Katie swallowed down her nerves and followed, her own back held straight. They were going to get yelled at, and they deserved it.

Once they were in the hallway, Leo shut the door quietly behind them. With his arms folded, he turned to face them, sizing them up.

“Is there something I should know about?” he asked, looking first at Katie and then at Brendan, his gaze lingering on Brendan’s black eye. “Other than what is likely the obvious, that you two are on the outs again and making yourselves into the sort of tour problem I don’t want to deal with?”

Katie bit her lip and tried to blink away the tears stinging her eyes at the unspoken threat. They needed this next tour. No matter what complicated feelings she had about it. If she and Brendan had screwed up their chances ....

Brendan shook his head. “No,” he answered for both of them. “Nothing that’s going to impact anyone other than us.” He gestured at the door they’d just come through. “And we’ve survived worse than shouting matches in a hotel stairwell.”

“Mm. Somehow, I completely believe you. Are you hurt anywhere other than your eye? Either of you?” Leo asked. He unfolded his arms and took a step closer to examine Brendan’s face.

“No,” they said at the same time.

“Is anyone else hurt?”

“No,” Brendan said, alone this time. “So you know, Katie wasn’t there when it happened. I went out with a bunch of the other skaters. She stayed in.”

“Well, at least you two are still slightly less of a mess when you’re together than when you’re apart.” Leo sighed again. “I don’t think your nose is broken. Good thing too, since a quarter of our audience is hoping they can steal you away from Katie once and for all.” He gave them both long, searching looks before seeming to come to a decision. “We’ll talk about this more in the morning. In the meantime, do everyone in earshot a favor and go to sleep before the hotel kicks us out and I fire you on the spot. Are we clear?”

“Yes,” Katie said at the same time as Brendan.

“Good,” Leo said before he left them in the middle of the hallway and went back to his own room, muttering to himself about their histrionics as he went.

“Oh my God.” Katie covered her cheeks with her hands. Whatever anger she had at Brendan paled in comparison to her mortification at what had just happened. Sure, they had a ton of issues, but there had never been less doubt that they were in this mess together.

“Come on,” Brendan said softly. “Let’s finish this now. I don’t think we can risk everyone’s wrath if we don’t.”

Katie didn’t disagree. She went willingly when Brendan grabbed her wrist and led her back into the stairwell and up two flights to his room. He let go of her only to unlock the door and hold it open for her. She stood awkwardly in the little entryway as Brendan let the door shut behind them.

The room was, mercifully, devoid of his roommate. Katie had no idea where Justin was, or when he’d get back. All she knew was that she didn’t want to be interrupted in whatever conversation they were about to have.

“Now what?” she asked.

Brendan shrugged. “You tell me.”

Katie tried not to roll her eyes, but right now, she felt more than justified in her ongoing anger. “You can’t yell at me about making choices for you while also asking me to solve all this myself.”

Brendan took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I am so tired of this.” His voice was low, every syllable clear and sad. He swiped a hand through his hair. “Look, if you’re going to hate me, can you do it from a distance? And keep it off the ice?”

Katie shook her head. How had Brendan gotten to that conclusion? “I don’t hate you. I have never hated you,” she said insistently. “This would all be a lot easier if I did.”

“Would it? Because this is awful.” Brendan stepped closer, as if he wanted comfort from her even when she was the very person causing him pain. Katie knew the feeling. “If making you hate me will make it hurt less, I will absolutely sign up for that.”

“No you won’t,” Katie said simply. She had no idea what was going on in her head about a dozen issues — herself, Brendan, their skating career, touring, the horrible things he sometimes said about places like the one she was from — but she knew they could never hate each other. She reached out to touch his hair, an impulse, ridiculously, from their choreography. It was how they projected tenderness all the way up to the cheap seats. He grabbed her hand to stop her but didn’t let go.

Katie stared at their intertwined fingers. “I wish you hadn’t done that,” she breathed. They were far too close now, and gravity was pulling them together.

“Why?” Brendan’s voice was a whisper. The air had changed around them, and the hair stood up on her  arms.

She looked up at his face, at the perfect bow of his lips and the glint of his green eyes watching her. She couldn’t help herself. She went up on her toes and leaned against him like they were on the ice and kissed him.

Brendan opened his mouth to her as if they were the lovers they portrayed in their programs and not the terrible mess they were everywhere else.

Katie’s stomach swooped as his hands grabbed her hips — so familiar from their routines and so different in these circumstances — and pushed her up against the back of the door. She had never been so glad not to be in the frozen world that was the foundation of everything between them. If they had been in a rink, it would have been time to spin apart by now, but Katie couldn’t go anywhere and in Brendan’s arms she didn’t want to.

The slightest touch of his hand on the back of her thigh was all the cue Katie needed to wrap her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck. He caught her easily, bracing her weight between his body and the door. Katie could feel his heart beating wildly, joyously, against her own.

Brendan pressed his mouth against her neck. “Kate.” His voice was ragged and solemn.

This moment was the only thing outside of the Olympics Katie had ever dreamed of, but it wasn’t something she could have. “Put me down,” she said abruptly.

He stopped kissing her immediately and pulled his head back. “What?”

“This is too perfect and too much and will be absolutely ruinous.” She was starting to panic. Not because she didn’t trust him, but because she didn’t trust herself ... or the universe. “Put me down,” she repeated.

He did, instantly, letting her weight come to rest on the floor again as gently and precisely as he did after any lift. He stepped back, out of reach. Katie had been overwhelmed a moment ago by his proximity, but now she was overwhelmed by his absence.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We can’t do this.” She spun around, pulled the door open, and fled from every bad decision she desperately wanted to make.

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