THE rain pelted down sideways, almost completely soaking through Blake Emmrich’s jacket and T-shirt by the time he reached the front entrance to the aquatic center. Two months ago, a little rain wouldn’t have mattered. A normal day in Blake’s life would have included the short walk to the pool before the sun started to peek over the mountains, and then hours of dives until he was too mentally and physically exhausted to push any longer. Truthfully, he missed the water, but it had been too difficult to come back.
He pulled open the glass doors and walked across the pale linoleum toward the pool deck. Although he hadn’t set foot in this building since before his last competition, his body moved of its own volition. After completing the same routine day after day for the past sixteen years, some habits just couldn’t be broken. The smell of chlorine was barely detectible as he entered the pool area. Wearing shoes on the tiled floor felt foreign, but the echoing splashes sounded like home. When he wasn’t traveling, this building was his home; his apartment was merely a place to sleep.
He walked along the edge of the shallow end before he turned right, toward the bank of coaches’ offices that lined the back of the center. He stopped at the second to last door and pushed it open. Alexandre Moreau hunched forward, staring at his computer screen as though he was attempting to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs.
“Hi,” Blake said, sitting down in the low blue chair across from Alex’s desk. He clamped his hands in his lap and waited for his coach to speak. Things had been strained between them since Blake had announced he would be taking the year off. Alex had tried to convince him otherwise, insisting he needed to keep up with his training if he wanted to have any hopes of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
Blake hadn’t seen much point after the incident at Nationals in March. He shuddered, the memory he’d succeeded in pushing away since it happened now swamping him and making him feel heavy and mildly nauseous.
“Allô, Lou,” Alex said, his nickname for Blake falling softly between them. “I’m happy you came in to meet with me this morning.”
“Why did you ask to see me, Alex?” Blake asked. “I told you on the phone that I haven’t changed my mind about taking some time off. I’m not ready to come back, and even if I was, there’s no point until I have a partner.”
Alex leaned forward in his chair, resting his forearms on the desk. “That is one of the things I wanted to discuss with you, and I want you to hear me out before you say no. There are still two months left until the second Nationals Competition. If you pick up your training, we can have you ready in time for the qualifiers—”
Blake sighed. “With all due respect, we’ve talked about this before. I am not interested in competing individually. I’m a synchro diver. You know that.”
“You’d think you were the one that hit your head, petite loutre. You need to listen,” Alex said, the fluidity of his accent erased by the sternness of his voice.
Blake winced; the blow was softened by the term of endearment, but harsh nonetheless. He fidgeted in his seat but remained quiet, waiting for his coach to continue.
“I found you a diving partner. He is one of the best divers in the country. He’s been an individual competitor until now, but agrees that expanding his events would be a good move career-wise. He’s coming to meet with you today and I want you to try—just try—for a week. If you still say no after that, it’s your decision, and I will stop pushing you. Yes?”
Blake nodded obediently but didn’t say anything else. He knew it was useless to argue with Alex when he was like this. Calling the man stubborn was like referring to Niagara Falls as a puddle.
“Good. Now go get undressed and warmed up. He’ll be here in—” He glanced at the clock on the opposite wall. “—half an hour.” Alex turned back to his computer, making little grunting noises as he checked things off. Blake figured he had been dismissed. He wondered who the diver was, but he supposed he would be finding out shortly.
He rose, crossing the pool deck and entering the dressing room. He opened the combination lock with three quick twists of the knob and pulled open his locker. He hadn’t opened it since before the last competition, but he always kept a couple of extra suits in there in case of unforeseen circumstances. He stripped off his clothes before sliding the tight material up his legs. He stretched out, wiggling everything into place, and then stepped into the shower for a quick rinse off.
Alex was still in his office by the time he’d finished. Blake figured there was no use in putting it off any longer and walked over to the edge of the deepest end of the pool. He curled his toes around the edge, shivering when the water lapped at them. He hadn’t been in the pool since Patrick’s accident. He’d been afraid that his love for the water had been tarnished by what had happened that day, but now that he was this close, he felt the pull as though the water had its own gravitational field that drew him in. He took a deep breath and stepped off the ledge. The cool water surrounded him, pulling him under and then supporting him as he floated to the surface.
He swam a couple of easy laps, just to get used to the feeling of the water sliding past him and to warm up muscles that hadn’t been used in far too long. He did a couple of quick stretches underwater and then propelled himself up and out of the pool. He was anxious to get back on the board, to feel the taut spring of the plank under his toes as he powered himself up and into position.
He climbed to the three-meter board and walked out to the end, the bounce as he walked making the blood in his veins sing just a little bit louder. He stepped right to the end and turned around balancing his body over his toes. He brought his arms up and out to the side, shifting his weight to bounce a little, testing out the resistance and position of the fulcrum beneath him. Blake breathed in deep, feeling the air expand in his chest before bending his knees and pushing down against the board. It gave way, that familiar bend of aluminum, and whipped him up into the air. He lifted his hips and brought his legs into his chest into a perfect pike position before stretching back out and entering the water.
It was a simple dive—one of the first he’d learned—but it felt indescribably good to be flying again. He’d missed it. Maybe Alex was right. Maybe it was time to pick himself back up, dust himself off, and soar.
Blake surfaced and pulled himself back up out of the pool again, more than ready to go for round two when he heard Alex call his name. He turned, watching the last person he expected to see sauntering out across the deck.
Saunter really was the only way to describe it. Dressed in a teeny tiny purple Speedo with a towel draped around his neck, Nick looked like he was expecting to sign autographs from screaming fans rather than practice.
“Lou, I think you know Nick Freeman. Nick, this is Blake.”
There was no need for introductions. They’d met before at competitions but they’d never actually spoken. Nick was a stuck-up prick who thought he walked on water rather than diving into it. He had a reputation for refusing to talk to the other divers at competitions.
Blake tried to keep the disgusted scowl off his face as he stepped forward and offered his hand to shake. Nick smiled his perfect toothpaste-commercial smile, taking Blake’s hand in his and shaking firmly. Blake wanted to rip his hand away, but gathered his willpower instead in an attempt to be polite.
“Alright, now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s get to work. Nick, are you warmed up?”
“Yep. All ready to go,” he declared.
“Good. We’ll start easy. Up to the ten meter and I want to see an inward three and a half somersault with tuck. Lou, you count it off. Got it?”
“Uh, actually, Alex, could I speak to you for a moment?” Blake asked.
Alex appeared to be annoyed but nodded. “Of course. Nick, why don’t you do a couple of test dives to get started, yes? This won’t take a minute.”
“You bet,” Nick replied before walking off towards the tower, his hips swaying a little with each step. Blake resisted the urge to scoff. He turned his attention to his coach, who was watching him intently.
“What is the matter, Lou?” Alex asked.
“You didn’t tell me it was Nick Freeman that you thought I would be partnering with.”
“I told you one of the best divers in the country was coming in. Nick is one of the best. Is that a problem?”
“I… I…,” Blake stuttered. There was no way to tell his coach he didn’t want to work with Nick without sounding completely spoiled and unprofessional. The guy was an asshole but Blake could rise above it. It was only a week. He was doing this for Alex, not Nick. He would be civil for the time that Nick was there, but there was no way he was going to partner with him permanently. He’d rather quit than be forced to spend time with that prick.
“No, sir. I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“Good, now if you think we’ve wasted enough time, let’s get started with the actual diving.”
He turned just in time to see Nick leap from the tower. Blake had seen him dive before, but he’d been in competition himself so he’d never truly taken the time to watch. If you looked past the fact that the guy was a total prick, it was easy to appreciate how beautiful he was when he dived. His muscles moved like fluid beneath his skin, contracting then elongating as he twisted his body and kicked out for his entry. The entire sequence only lasted a couple of seconds, but Blake was in awe at the seamless technique.
He watched Nick surface, wiping the water from his face as he reached the side of the pool and pulled himself out.
“Ready to go?” Nick asked, turning without waiting for Blake’s answer.
The spell that Nick cast in the air had been broken the moment he’d opened his mouth, and now Blake was annoyed once again. He turned and grudgingly climbed the stairs behind Nick, trying very hard not to notice how nicely his ass filled out his Speedo. He was pissed off at himself for even sneaking a look. Now was not the time to be scoping out guys, and Nick Freeman was the last guy he should be looking at. Not that his dick knew the difference.
Nick was standing at the edge of the platform with his hands resting on his slim hips when Blake walked up behind him. He turned, cocking one eyebrow. “Ready for this, Lou?” he asked, his tone bursting with arrogance.
“Don’t call me that,” Blake said through gritted teeth. No one but Alex called him that. He knew his words would likely have no effect. Nick was too conceited to be concerned about anyone but himself. He didn’t care about the sport, the discipline, or good sportsmanship; all he cared about was fame and winning. It was a well-known fact.
“Why not?” Nick said, badgering him. “What’s it short for, Lucy? Because you dive like a girl?”
“Fuck you, Freeman,” Blake spat. “I could out-dive you at any competition anywhere. You’re a shitty diver with no technique and a bad attitude.” It wasn’t true. Well, the technique part wasn’t true anyways. That was the most infuriating thing; that for all the posturing and bragging Nick did, he had the skills to back it up. Blake wasn’t lying about the attitude though.
“Let’s go then,” Nick said. “Let’s see what you can do.”
Blake nodded and stepped forward until he was even with Nick on the platform. He looked Nick up and down, noting the slight difference in their heights. “Have you done synchro dives before?” Blake asked.
“Nope, but how hard can it be, right? One, two, three and then I jump. I got this.”
Blake snorted quietly but reserved comment. He turned around, balancing himself backwards on the balls of his feet. He glanced over at Nick to make sure he was prepared and ready to go before he counted them off. “One, two, three….”
He jumped, pitching himself forward and curling himself into the tuck position. He counted the rotations and straightened out, stretching his arms above his head and flexing his hands to break the water for the rip entry. He knew they were off. He could feel Nick enter the water behind him. Alex wouldn’t be happy. If he and Patrick had performed a dive like that, they’d have gotten an earful from their coach.
He surfaced and swam the few strokes over to the side of the pool and waited. He knew Alex would have something to say before he instructed them to try again. Nick swam up beside him, shaking his head but keeping quiet.
“Not too bad,” Alex said. Blake’s eyebrows shot up. That was the easiest dive in his program and they’d been way off. He expected much worse than “not too bad.”
“There were some issues with timing, but you both have good technique and that’s the biggest hurdle.” Nick glared at Blake, an I-told-ya-so expression on his face at Alex’s praise. “Now you just need to learn each other’s movements. It’s not called ‘synchronized’ for nothing. You need to be complètement ensemble—totally together—and not only once your feet leave the platform. It takes time, but you’ll get it. Go again,” Alex commanded.
They climbed back up to the ten-meter platform, Blake making sure he went first this time. He was becoming more infuriated by the minute with having to work with this asshole. The less time he had to spend looking at him, the easier it would be to get through the rest of practice. Surely by the end of it Alex would see that they were as incompatible as cats and water.
He waited for Nick to get to the top of the tower before positioning himself at the edge of the platform. “Are you ready?” Blake asked.
“I was born ready. Try not to fuck it up this time.”
“Me fuck it up? You’ve got to be shitting me. You were all over the place the last time.”
“Not my fault that you jump like a nine-year-old girl, Lucy. Try to get some height on your takeoff and maybe you won’t hit the water too soon.”
Blake just stared at him with his mouth hanging open. He couldn’t believe this guy.
“What?” Nick asked, as if what he had just said was not the most insulting thing Blake had ever heard aimed at him. “Do I need to tiptoe around your sensitive girly feelings? Is it your time of the month? You are looking a little bloated. Just around the midsection though,” Nick said, dragging his index finger from Blake’s belly button to the line of his Speedo.
Blake could feel the heat suffusing in his cheeks. He hoped Nick interpreted the change in color as rage. The last thing he needed was for Nick to think he had a crush on him. He took a step forward, making the most of the two inches in height he had on the guy. “You are such a fucking asshole, Freeman. I can’t believe Alex thought this would work. Nothing is worth having to deal with a prick like you every day. I don’t have to put up with this.”
“Then don’t,” Nick retorted, shoving Blake hard in the chest. Blake stepped backwards, his foot hitting the edge of the platform, causing his body to pitch backwards. His brain barely registered the rush of air past his ears as he fell before his muscles were compensating, moving his body without conscious thought and tucking him in to roll and twist to enter the water safely. He knew better than most people that falling from that height could do permanent damage if something went wrong.
The adrenaline surged through him as he came up for air. The first thing he saw was Alex, who had rushed over to the water’s edge, his face contorted into a mask of anger. Blake crossed his arms along the ledge and tried to catch his breath. Alex turned his attention to Nick, who was peering over the platform to watch what had happened.
“You!” Alex bellowed, pointing at Nick. “Get down here now!”
Nick paused for a moment, then rather than climbing back down the stairs, he walked to the end of the platform, positioned himself backwards, and proceeded to do two and a half twists with a pike and one and a half somersaults into the water with less splash than Blake had ever seen. It was impressive, but Blake didn’t have the capacity to be impressed. Pure hatred and anger had consumed him.
Blake pushed himself out of the water and walked as calmly as he could towards the hot tub. Alex could deal with Nick. He was going to warm up and go home.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Alex’s deep voice roared after him, the sound reverberating off the walls, amplifying the sound in Blake’s ears. He turned on his heels to see his coach staring at him, his face three shades redder than it had been a moment before.
“Get back here. Both of you,” he said, pointing to a spot on the tile right in front of him. Blake scampered back compliantly while Nick strolled his way over slowly. He stood in that spot, cold creeping in against damp skin, for what felt like hours before Alex spoke. “Go get dressed and then get back here sur-le-champ!” he ordered and stalked off towards his office.
Blake glared at Nick, attempting to telepathically stab switchblades in through his eye sockets. It didn’t work. Nick just stood there, one hip cocked and a crooked smile plastered to his face that made Blake want to smash his perfectly straight teeth in that much more.
They did as they were told, walking into the locker room and getting dressed as quickly as possible. Blake was dreading the lecture he knew he was about to get but was looking forward to watching Alex bring Nick down a few notches. He pulled his T-shirt on over his head and hung his wet swimsuit in his locker before going back out onto the pool deck.
Alex and Nick were both waiting for him by the time he got back, Alex holding a cardboard box that looked like someone had stashed it in a closet for the last eighty years. The dented and frayed corners were barely noticeable under the layer of thick dust.
“I expect more from the two of you than fighting and bickering. Mon Dieu. You are men, not little girls squabbling.”
Blake clenched his hands into fists as Nick snorted at the mention of little girls.
Alex knocked the lid of the box off, letting it fall with a quiet thud onto the damp floor. He pulled a mass of leather and metal from inside, stretching it out in front of him.
“Desperate times, gentlemen. You are going to wear these for the next week. The only time you will be permitted to remove them will be while you dive.”
“But—” Blake protested, realizing what Alex held in his hands was a set of restraints. Two leather straps with buckles connected by a short chain that hung between them. Blake was sure Alex had lost his mind.
“No. You gave me your promise that you would try this for a week, so a week it is. You two will give it everything you’ve got for seven days, and at the end of it, if we all can’t make it work, then I can walk away knowing I did everything I could to get you to Brazil.”
He began to pace in front of them like a schoolmaster scolding his students. The chain between the cuffs clanked with each step he took.
“You will wear these for a week. Nick, you will stay with Blake, and I will see you here at five sharp each morning. You will be on time, you will be ready to work, and I will not hear any fighting. Am I clear?”
The boys nodded reluctantly. Alex held out the first buckle for Blake. He lifted his left arm and allowed Alex to fasten the leather around his wrist. He buckled it shut and closed a miniature padlock around the loop.
“You two have the most talent in a pair I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been doing this. If you could only get your heads into it, you could really do something with the talent you’ve got. By securing you as one, you’ll be forced to work as a team rather than fighting one another. Once you figure that out, you’ll be unstoppable in the air.” Alex paused, an amused expression crossing his face. “Besides, at least this way if you end up killing each other, it’ll be over quickly and you won’t waste any more of my time.”
He moved to stand in front of Nick, gesturing for him to lift his right arm. “You’re left-side dominant, correct?” Alex asked.
Nick gave a terse nod and did as Alex asked, offering his wrist for the same treatment Blake had undergone.
“Alright you two. You can take the rest of the day off. I’ll see you in the morning.”