"Welcome to the 2007 Swimming and Diving World Championships," came a booming voice out of the speakers above the pool deck. David was bouncing on his heels at Thomas's side, energetic in a way that only emerged with the lure of an audience cheering from the stands. Today was only the semifinals, designed to narrow the forty-eight partner teams to a field of just sixteen. The crowd would be nearly doubled in size come tomorrow, and David would be a tangled mass of nerves. Thomas placed a hand on his shoulder, rubbing against the thick material of David's warm-up suit. David smiled gratefully at him.
"We are undefeated this season," Thomas reminded him, under his breath. "You should try to stop looking like you're going to throw up every time we enter a water cube."
"I know," David said, leaning in to where only Thomas could hear him. "I really want to win though. We're the best there is. Everyone needs to know it."
They came in sight of the pool, which gleamed bright blue, lapping with gentle waves from practice swims. The light of the sun was streaming in through the glass panels of the ceiling. Every time, the sight touched him: he loved seeing the white fiberglass boards sparkle in the sunlight, he loved the water, and he loved everything else about the sport too.
Thomas paused to admire the view and his mother stepped past him, cradling a clipboard in the crook of her elbow.
"Good luck," she said. "Pick a quiet room to stretch in. We're going to go try to find seats in the stands near the platform. Don't talk to anyone besides David or Coach Strauss until you've finished diving.
Thomas laughed. "I know mom."
He could probably recite the speech back to her; she had given him the exact same one every meet since he was ten.
In the locker room, he pulled off his sweats and reached up to turn the dial of the locker assigned to him. David waltzed over, the tip of a towel dangling from his closed fist.
"You ready to go, Tommy boy?" he asked.
At the flick of David's wrist, the towel stung, whipping into his bare thigh.
"Anytime Davy," Thomas replied, grinning back at him.
Their introduction to the crowd was familiar, giving them momentum as they climbed the ladder up to the 10 meter platform. Thomas recognized the female announcer's voice; she had spoken at so many of their meets.
"In 1976, their mothers took home the gold on the three meter springboard in Montreal. A year later, they quit the sport forever to begin families. Now,their sons Thomas Finchum and David Boudia are poised to carry on the tradition, coming in as favorites in this year's competition."
Thomas and David moved up the ladder at the same speed, both pausing on the eighth rung to wave to the crowd. At the top, David tilted his head, silently asking Good to go?It was always terrifying the first time—having to plummet two stories, while twisting and contorting his body—but the rush of adrenaline when he sliced through the air, hundreds of cameras flashing around him, was addictive.
Another voice blared, "There will be six dives total. Millions are watching around the world as the pressure to advance to finals mounts with each round."
Thomas was already counting off, "Four, three, two…"
On one, they both rose to their toes, taking three strides in perfect sync. Together they jumped, springing high off the platform and spiraling counterclockwise in the air. David swam first to the side of the pool—he always dove off on the right side of the platform—then waited at the end of the short steps, his hand outstretched to pull Thomas out of the water.
In the hot tub, David was plastered to his side. He was always nervous about scores, needing physical comfort to stay calm. This time, he was rubbing his foot up and down Thomas's calf, the movement seemingly unconscious.
The feeling—warm, bare skin on skin, made the muscles in his stomach quiver, but he was a professional. At least he tried to be. It was difficult sometimes though, when David put a hand on the small of his back to guide him to the showers, or started to doze off against Thomas's side during their rough 6 am practice sessions. He was attracted to David in a ratty t-shirt, and faded old jeans; seeing him glistening in a Speedo was another form of torture entirely.
The scores flashed up next to their names on the electronic board.
Russia: 8.5 Italy: 8.5 Germany: 8 Japan: 9, and the scores of the four minor judges all high enough to place them in the top three.
"I love you so much," David exhaled, pulling him into a hug.
"Seriously," he continued, leading them over to the showers. "Never stop being so amazing!"
The air was fluttering in Thomas's lungs and he was fairly certain that he was blushing.
It's all you,he thought, but couldn't manage to say. He felt incredibly lucky. David was his perfect counterpart, his other half.
David came to a dead halt, almost ten yards before the showers. Thomas barely managed to stop without running into him. He didn't need to ask why David was frozen in place. Mathieu Despatie was leaning against the wall at the entrance to the pool deck, his dark eyes burning into David's. His swimsuit hung especially low on his hips. His legs looked tight and strong.
David hadn't come back to their room last night. Now, Thomas knew why.
Standing on the platform for their second dive, he tried to swallow around the lump in his throat. David was his rock, but now he couldn't look at David without feeling hurt. He had given up high school and any chance at a normal life for this sport. The first years had been hard, lonely and exhausting, and he had almost quit entirely, thinking that he had made an enormous mistake. Those years he had been miserable. Diving had been a chore, not a passion.
The day he met David, everything had changed. Thomas had been goofing off, trying to throw enough back-flips on the trampoline in the Baltimore gym he trained in to make himself dizzy. He had stopped, his legs burning and his head spinning, when he glanced out, upside down in the air, to see the most gorgeous guy on earth staring inquisitively at him from the ground.
"Hello?" he had asked, a split second later than was polite, startled by lean muscles and hazel eyes.
Thomas still remembered that David had been wearing a faded Colts shirt and jeans ripped at the knees.
"Our moms used to dive together," David had said. "I think we should continue the tradition."
They had changed in the locker room and Thomas had unlocked the private training pool. After only one dive, Thomas had known, he's the one.Thomas's contract with Ian was supposed to have lasted another year, but they hadn't won a single major competition, and Ian spent more time yelling at him than talking to him.
For David to negotiate with him privately had been risky, illegal enough that Thomas could have reported him for disqualification. Ian had sued Thomas's parents for thousands of dollars and Thomas had been forced out of the circuit for a year. David had been restless, retiring with him, but he constantly told Thomas it was the best idea he'd ever had. In their first meet, they had taken the diving world by storm. The past three years diving with David had made everything worthwhile. He listened to his sister talk about classes and dances and movies, and never once regretted giving it up.
"Four, three, two, one," Thomas counted down, his voice catching a little this time.
They were still perfectly timed to one another, kicking their legs up to make a V with their bodies before straightening out again. Thomas hit the water with too much of a kickback, realizing instinctively that his toes hadn't been pointed. It was a small mistake, one that hopefully wouldn't cost them more than half of a point, but it was one that he hadn't made since his early years of training.
Coach Strauss was waiting, thunderously angry by the hot tub. His fingers dug into Thomas's arm.
"I haven't spent five years training you for you to blow it all on a skill a seven year old could complete," he criticized, almost spitting. "Point your goddamn toes, or I'll have you swimming laps for hours next week."
Thomas ducked his head as he slid into the warmth of the hot tub.
"Sorry," he told David sincerely.
David leaned his head onto Thomas's shoulder for the scores.
"Don't worry," he replied, warm and encouraging. "Everyone forgets sometimes."
Thomas wished he could forget his feelings for David as easily. David's hair ticked, and his voice immediately soothed any aches that straight seven and a half's might bring. He couldn't help but resent that David couldn't tell something besides his mistake was bothering him.
Their third dive, a back 3½ somersault, had always been his worst. He hated plummeting blindly to the water. His fear was magnified on this dive too, because in order to meet the requirements for competition, they led into the dive from a handstand on the edge of the platform. Every pair had to begin at least one dive from this position. This was the only dive in their arsenal that could gain enough force for completion without a lead-in jump. The move showed arm strength and self-control, but it made Thomas feel sick and unstable.
"Three, two one," he counted.
David hesitated for an instant; at the same time Thomas realized he had forgotten the four. They threw their dives a second off count from each other. Thomas was wracked with guilt the entire time he should have been concentrating on form.
Coach Strauss had always warned him against diving with emotion. Thomas immediately realized why when he ended his half somersault too late, hitting the water at the wrong angle. The pain spiked through him. He blacked out long enough to sink a foot deeper below the water.
He surfaced, gasping for air. David was waiting for him on the side.
"Are you alright?" he asked, looking panicked. "You were down too long."
"Yeah," Thomas coughed out around the water in his lungs.
He was going to throw himself into David's arms once he got a solid footing. Then, everything would be fine. Thomas was almost to the rungs, swimming in sharp strokes, when David's Coach, Mr. Jackman, stalked over.
"David," he barked, "Come here."
David made a face.
"Duty calls," he mouthed.
Thomas wrapped his arms around himself in the hot tub, unused to being alone for scores. The numbers were all abysmal, fives and sixes only. David was already frowning, drawn into himself when he slid in next to Thomas, and he grimaced at the sight.
"I can't—" he started, the sounds garbled together. "You need to do better than this."
"What?" Thomas asked.
David was looking everywhere but at him. Thomas needed David to tell him everything would be fine. His stomach still hurt from where he had smacked into the water—he still couldn't draw in breaths all the way—and David was disappointed in him?
The water in the showers ran continuously for the diving pairs as they finished each rotation. The temperature was cool, only slightly warmer than the pool. Even though David was refusing to acknowledge Thomas's existence—keeping his eyes averted and his stance tilted away—they still stepped under the spray simultaneously. Thomas tried to enjoy the feeling of the chlorine washing away. He tried to allow his muscles to relax. It was impossible to enjoy anything; however, with David next to him, quiet and tense. Intending to barely peek and then look away quickly, Thomas glanced over at him.
David's head was back, his throat bared. Droplets of water ran down his chest, drawing Thomas's attention to his perfectly flat stomach, and his tiny skin tight bathing suit. He swallowed, the sound audibly loud, and tore his eyes away. Nothing was more painful than being reminded every day, for six or seven hours a day, what exactly he wasn't allowed to have.
"Let's go," David ordered, sounding frustrated. .
While Thomas stood, feeling unsupported on the deck for the first time in three years, Despatie and his partner threw the same dive, both cutting into the water cleanly. Thomas kind of hated both of them.
Thomas bit his lip, feeling his stomach twist at the top of the platform. He couldn't keep their stage smile; his face kept slipping. When he opened his mouth to begin the countdown, David interrupted harshly: "Four. Three. Two. One."
David never counted off. His timing was too fast. Their flexibility helped make them one of the best diving pairs in the world. Thomas would have been able to adapt to almost anything else, but that. He could handle a sudden change in routine— both of them had faced unexpected adjustments to sets and line-ups before—but not the implication that David didn't trust him anymore. In the air, his form fell apart with his emotions.
Pushing out of the pool, he walked over to the stands, the lights around him blurring together. Please, please, let there not be any cameras trained on me right now, he thought. His mother was already waiting at the bottom of the bleachers. She strode forward and pulled him into her arms.
The scores were the worst they had ever received:
Russia: 4.5 Germany: 5 Italy: 4.5 Japan: 4.5
He buried his nose into her shoulder.
"What happened?" she whispered into his hair.
"David counted off," he mumbled, despondent.
She knew what that meant. After ten years with the same partner, she had to know that there was nothing David could have possibly done to twist the knife deeper into Thomas's gut.
"Listen to me," she said, pulling back to look him in the eye. "That's not your fault. You had nothing to do with that score. I'll talk to Samantha. Just do your best and dive."
He nodded, trying not to sniffle. "I have to go. Thanks mom."
They were in seventeenth place, he realized en route to the showers. Thomas and David weren't even in the bracket to make finals. He almost laughed, a hysterical giggle bubbling in his chest. They had entered as the favorites.Despatie and the French team were in first place.
David was already in the shower, his back to Thomas. His shoulders were so broad.
"Please don't count next time," Thomas choked out. "I can do it, you know I can."
David shoved him into the line behind the ladders.
"Get it together then," he snapped. "You're messing everything up."
In three years, David had never been anything other than supportive and understanding. His comforting nature was part of what had made Thomas's feelings for him so strong in the first place. David never yelled at him. Thomas sucked in a deep breath, trying to steel himself.
Despite, or maybe because of, the venom in David's voice, Thomas hit their fifth dive—a 2½ somersault with an added twist—without a single mistake.
"I can't wait to see our score thistime," David muttered as the crowd roared, and the speakers cracked to life.
Even in the 102 degree water of the hot tub, Thomas started to shake. The water was lapping around him when the numbers were posted.
"Oh thank God," David exclaimed, slapping the concrete under his outstretched arms.
8.5's and nines across the board. That would hopefully be enough to push them back into the finals group.
David didn't speak to him otherwise in the buildup to their final dive. Thomas was feeling wounds that would take months to recover from, if they managed to work through this at all, but he was also growing angry. He had never let David down, not once. There wasn't a single skipped practice to his name. He never drank or smoked. He rarely ever even cheated on his nutrition plan. David wasn't being fair to him. The way he was treating Thomas was almost unforgiveable.
Anger was apparently a powerful motivator. Thomas pulled his body so streamlined in the dive that he felt his joints lock. There was no water displacement in his entry.
"The judges have awarded their first 10's of this competition," shouted the women in the media box.
There was a roaring in Thomas's ears.
"David," he gasped, reaching out to take David's hand, "David, look!"
Perfect scores! Some of the judges had awarded them perfect scores.
David stood. He glanced down at Thomas, his eyes darker than usual, more brown than green.
"Try to dive like that tomorrow at finals, okay," he said, sounding tired.
Thomas cringed, withdrawing deep into the water.
He sat on a bench in a dark corner of locker room with his arms locked around his knees, for a very long time. Water dripped into his eyes from his wet bangs, which were plastered to his forehead. Lockers slammed, and guys shouted and laughed as they took their bags to leave. When the room was finally quiet, he stood. More time passed as he carefully shampooed his hair, and rubbed body wash into his sore muscles.
The stands had emptied in his absence. The bleachers were littered with programs and empty cups. A murmur of voices in the silence snared his attention.
Jason Gibbs, one half of the second seeded American team was famously in the market for a new partner. His former partner—who was ironically Ian—had broken his arm in their first meet of the season. Jason Gibbs was now smirking, standing in a huddle with David, David's personal coach, and David's parents. Thomas watched with mounting horror as Jason shook Mr. Boudia's hand, then patted David on the back, looking cocky and far too proud of himself.
Thomas whimpered. His life was over—diving was over—he was going to lose everything important to him. David might be able to replace him at the wave of a hand, but Thomas knew that diving without David by his side would be impossible.
One slow step at a time, he moved backwards, horribly transfixed by the scene playing out in front of him. Sooner than he expected, he was pressed against the door, the coolness of the metal sinking through his thin cotton tee. Thomas fumbled behind him, searching for the handle. He pushed, hard, hoping to fall out into the hallway, and run far away before any of them realized he had been there.
The door was locked. The sound of the iron bar slamming backwards reverberated across the water and David's head snapped up. They stared at each other, Thomas's hands futilely hanging by his sides, and David's mouth falling open comically wide.
"Thomas," David breathed out.
The word wasn't audible, but Thomas could see it in the curve of David's lips. Their frozen moment shattered. He found the handle on the other side, pushing frantically. With a click he spilled out, his eyes stinging. He was only given a few seconds of peace in the phosphorescent light to will his tears not to fall, before he could hear footsteps pounding against the tile behind him.
"Thomas, please wait," David called after him, violently throwing the door open.
"You didn't have to follow me out here," Thomas lashed out, since he had no other way to cope with the hard blow David had dealt to him. "I'll start looking for a new partner immediately."
"What are you talking about? You're not diving with anyone but me!" David exclaimed, his cheeks flushing a deep red.
Thomas was so tired of being ordered around, so sick of feeling worthless. David's words should've assured him, but the tone infuriated him.
"I'm not stupid," he snapped, whirling around. "I saw you talking to Jason Gibbs, I know you've already replaced me. You're just going to lie to me so I'll dive well tomorrow at finals."
"I'm not lying to you," protested David. "Jason knew I was angry about our scores. He approached me; I had nothing to do with it."
I'm sorry that I messed up today," Thomas said stiffly. "But I'm not sad to see our partnership end if three years together mean so little to you that you'll sell me out the first time I have a bad meet. I'm sure you and Jason will find your careers together much more successful."
"Would you listen to me please?" David demanded desperately. "I'm not leaving you. I told you—I was Jason talked to me, but I didn't agree to be his partner. You're the best I've ever had. I wouldn't just give that up."
"And I told you, I'm not stupid! I saw you shaking his hand, I know you made a deal with him. I won't throw off my dives tomorrow, so you don't have to worry about that. Just stop! I don't want to listen to this now then have it all thrown back in my face when the meet is finished."
The long day had worn down on him heavily. Despite his best efforts to stay calm, an edge of hysteria laced his voice. It wasn't fair. He'd had one bad day, and now he was going to lose one of the only people who mattered to him. He blinked furiously against the tears he hadn't been able to fight off.
"Are you crying?" David asked incredulously.
"No," Thomas lied.
"You are," David accused, peering down at him.
Thomas drew back. "Leave off! You've been at my throat all day and I didn't do anything to deserve this."
In an instant, David's face softened. "I'm sorry; it's been a long day. I haven't been there for you, I know. That last dive you did…it was fantastic."
Thomas couldn't keep the bitterness from his voice. "It was just a little too late huh?"
The breath caught in his throat when David reached forward and wiped his cheek with a calloused thumb.
"Thomas," he said, quiet and serious. "The minute I saw you in the gym, I knew I could never dive with anyone else again. I don't care if I lose points or even tournaments because of it, I'm not leaving. Jason was shaking my hand because my parents gave him permission to train in our gym in Indianapolis, that's all."
The words were almost enough. He needed the assurance that he mattered in their partnership. David meant so much to him; Thomas wanted to believe him. And he did matter. David had always regarded him as a friend. They had established a rapport over the three years they had worked together that few other teams could rival, finishing one another's sentences and thinking so cohesively that sometimes they dove simultaneously without ever counting off.
Yet Thomas had always felt like something was missing. Their parents had been Olympic champion because they had been equals. They had respected each other above everyone else in the world. They had been understanding and supportive of one another no matter what. He loved David. He trusted him. He believed wholeheartedly that together they could win any tournament they entered. David clearly didn't feel the same way.
Thomas knocked the hand away and stepped backwards.
"You don't care if I lose you points." He repeated coolly. "You think I'll cause you to lose tournaments"
Hearing David admit that he thought Thomas was inferior was somehow more crushing than thinking he was being replaced. Thomas had hit the board on a missed dive before. The pain of that alone was unbearable but to fall from the platform meant to fall three stories as well. Hearing David's frank words hurt more than he could ever have imagined, worse than any injury he had ever received.
"That's not what I meant," David stammered. "That came out wrong."
"I think you meant exactly what you said! I might have screwed up today, but we came into this tournament top-seeded, so you can't say that I've ever done anything wrong in the past. I've never even skipped practice."
"I know—," David started.
Thomas cut him off, fueled by his own anger.
"I've especially never slept with someone the night before a competition."
His mouth caught up to him and he stopped, horrified as he realized what it was exactly that he had just admitted.
"What?" David looked bewildered, an expression that Thomas had always found adorable, and his misery doubled. "What does Mathieu have to do with any of this?"
"It has a lot to do with it," Thomas said quickly, racking his brain for possible explanations. "You diverted from routine and lost sleep being with him last night. You could have pulled a muscle."
David snorted. "Pulled a muscle? Thomas, are you serious? That's it?"
"Yes!" Thomas insisted.
He held a rigid posture, acutely aware that David could read his expressions almost perfectly when he found it necessary.
This seemed to be another result of three years of training together. To be truly synchronized you had to match every subtle nuance of your partner's expressions. Thomas could read David just as well. He had memorized the little details—like how David bit his lip when he was concentrating particularly hard, or how the blades of his back aligned when he was frustrated. Even if David hadn't snapped at him today, hadn't been so horrible, Thomas still would have known he was upset.
David stared intently at him, silent for a moment which stretched long and thin.
"You're lying," he observed. "You only bite your lip like that when you don't want to admit something."
Thomas couldn't meet David's burning gaze any longer, so he stared down at the tiles on the floor of the hallway.
"I just want you to respect me," he said glumly.
"I do! You have no idea how much. How can you possibly think that I don't? I wouldn't be half the diver I am today without you."
"You pushed me," Thomas told him. "You yelled at me."
David growled low in the back of his throat. "Coach Jackman pulled me outside after the third dive, you saw that. He was threatening to talk to my parents… he said you were losing your prime. I couldn't handle the idea of being separated from you and I lost it. I was an asshole, I'm sorry."
Thomas took a deep breath.
"Okay," he said. "I can accept that. That's… okay."
What's wrong?" he asked. "You still look upset. You've been like this almost all day. Before your dive even. Did something throw you this morning?
"No," Thomas denied quietly. "Nothing happened. I'm going to go find my parents. They've probably been looking everywhere for me."
Everything was going to be fine. David was warm and solid and there just like always. Thomas could eventually convince himself that was enough.
David's hand slid to his chin, tilting his head up. They were so close now; the green in his eyes overwhelmed any hazel that usually showed through.
"Does it bother you that much that I slept with Mathieu last night?"
Thomas started, surprised to hear a new inflection to the question.
David's grip on his chin was too tight. Thomas couldn't look away, and he couldn't lie. When David's expression shifted, his mouth tilting slightly downward and the lines around his eyes deepening, Thomas knew that he had given himself away.
"We'll never dive together as well as our mom's did," he blurted out, "Because I can't think of you as just a friend. You're too much more than that to me."
"Mathieu was just a one-time thing," David confessed, sounding incredibly sincere. "I slept with him to get an edge of for today but I had to stop myself from thinking of you the whole time."
He moved forward enough that their bodies touched along almost every plane. Thomas felt nervous, slightly lightheaded, but warm and giddy at the same time.
"You can do more than think about me," he whispered.
And then they were kissing, their mouths sliding together, their breaths mingling. David slid his hand down to curve around Thomas's neck, tangling his fingers in Thomas's hair, still damp from the showers. He tugged, gently, and Thomas tilted his head, parting his lips. His own arms were wrapped around David's waist. He was pretty sure he was only holding himself up through the tight grip he had on David's t-shirt, both of his hands fisted in the fabric.
When David pulled back Thomas licked his lips self-consciously, tasting chlorine. David leaned in again, kissing him three more times in quick succession.
"We're probably going to get interrupted at any minute," he explained a wicked smile spreading across his face. "I don't want to anyone to find out about this until I've had you all to myself in a hotel room for the night. Coach Strauss might worry too much about me 'pulling your muscles' the night before finals."
Thomas felt his cheeks grow hot. He couldn't ever remember feeling so happy, delight bubbling through him.
"Of course," David continued. "I would just tell him that since we do have finals tomorrow, tonight we're just going to cuddle, and tomorrow, after we win gold, we'll celebrate properly in the locker room."
"Shut up," Thomas told him, laughing. "You would not."
But he couldn't resist sneaking another kiss before they went to find their parents.